Friday, December 13, 2013

The Photographer's Magnificat


In the age of "disenchantment," as Max Weber termed it, when technological rationality prevails and attempts to bring all external and internal nature under the power of the human subject, the ethic or aesthetic of street photography is a modest act of rebellion, at least as I practice it, because the photographer must be willing to surrender control to some extent and submit to the imperious flow of reality, while dancing attendance on that moment of grace when a good image comes your way.  The old gods are dead but grace abounds, and the secret lies in recognizing that there are powers greater than the self.  Know thyself, said the Greeks.  Which is to say, Know your Limits.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

La ciudad colonial


vestida de noche . . .                                     

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Happy Accident


C’est tout le temps de la chance, il n’y a que ça. Il n’y a que le chance qui compte, il faut être disponible, c’est tout. . . . Quand on veut, on n’obtient rien, il ne faut pas vouloir. Il faut être disponible, puis là ça vient. (Henri Cartier Bresson)


Photography, like life, is a matter of faith – and percipience.


“The sense of sight enjoys being surprised. . . . It’s the same law which governs humor. Only the unexpected sally makes you laugh.”

“In my opinion to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the pocketbook that fortune put in his path. The one who finds something . . . even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity, if not our admiration. . . .
When I paint, my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for.”
(Picasso)

Which gives the lie to the idea that mere hard work will find its reward and that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Like it or not, inspiration is a matter of grace, a happy accident, an unlooked-for gift. He who hath eyes, let him see.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Democracy or Monopoly Capitalism?

 
There has been a spate of articles about Hipstamatic and Instagram technology and the democratization and its putative ruin of photography, as in this piece by Mathew Ingram on Gigaom, entitled "What the Instagram Backlash Says About the Future of Media."  But little has yet been published about the underlying economic aspects of digital technology.


Techno-aesthetic changes have nothing to do with "ruining" photography, and the so called "democratization" of the medium, insofar as it entails more people taking pictures, is not a threat to anyone who wishes to devote him or herself to a serious exploration of the medium. 

Look at this from a different perspective.  Writing is a technology that has been available for centuries (though not always) to anyone who can afford a pen and paper (or nowadays a cheap computer), but the democratic evolution of the Word did not result in the ruin of the language or deterioration of its various artistic forms.  (The democratization of the Word, however, did have enormous cultural consequences, as for example in the translation of Scripture from Latin into common speech.)  Anyone can write, but not everyone can be a "writer" and that category is not merely a matter of "professional" status.  There are "amateurs" (in the strict sense – Montaigne was an amateur, for example) who also qualify as writers.  There is a huge difference between, say, scribblers and writers, and it does not lie merely in aesthetic superiority or the fact that one earns one's livelihood by writing.  The creation of a literary tradition in which certain works disappear and others endure or speak to contemporary as well as past cultures, is a complex matter which involves, in part, a recognition of certain values that provide not just profound thought but also profound pleasure in accordance with tropes and techniques that have abided from the very beginning.  There is no new thing under the sun.

The argument over the direction that Photography is taking (and the other arts) is being formulated in misleading ways.  The real issue is that which is mentioned at the end of the article: “the ‘democratization of distribution’ . . .  not to mention the explosion of self-publishing that Amazon’s Kindle has helped to create” -- in other words, it is the economy or marketing structure that is developing around the production and distribution of content that poses the real problems (and opportunities).  

Amazon is the perfect example.  It is part and parcel of what Jaron Lanier has called "aggregation."  Sure, Amazon "democratizes" distribution in the sense that anyone can publish their content via their distribution machinery and charge readers an unremunerative price for their labors.  But this is not really democratization, which in order to merit the term would have to include not only equal distribution of content, but also equal and fair distribution of the proceeds from that trade, and control of the system by all those involved.  Amazon is a monopoly that threatens to control the monetary value of all cultural production (and artificially depress prices), the means whereby these materials are distributed, the types of content that will be distributed  (yes, ironically the system will not be as open as we all suppose), their formats, and the devices by which they can be viewed. 

There are subtle consequences of this control that many people are not yet aware of.  For example, the current system of publication, despite its flaws, does protect and enable the cultural production of books like Blood Meridian or Mason and Dixon or Dispatches or a thousand other books that are unlikely to survive Amazon’s scheme because they are unpopular, unorthodox, unflattering or intellectually demanding. You see, the current system subsidizes the cultural production of unpopular works through the profits generated by the sale of popular genres such as self help books, and thus it helps authors to make a living and devote themselves full time to their work.  This is also true of the news business.  Newspapers generated enormous profits and subsidized investigative journalism and foreign correspondence not through the sale of the news but through the sale of all types of other information (want ads, crossword puzzles, comics, etc).  This in turn guaranteed mass distribution on an unprecedented scale and allowed for countless important stories to have a huge impact while allowing the reporters to live and work fully as reporters.

The system that is now taking its place is largely modeled on patronage, whether it be the patronage of foundations to fund independent work, or the patronage of consumers, who buy an app or a subscription fee to a website or an ebook.  I have quoted Susan Meiselas a couple times on this point; she argues that we need to find ways to get consumers to contribute toward the work we do by defining their interests (and presumably satisfying them).  But this system depends on the good will and tastes of the consumer, which is not a very good way to conduct business when it comes to marketing types of information that depend to a significant extent on bearing bad news and telling people what they don’t want to hear.  In a market society all culture can be commodified, but not all cultural commodities command a fair price or can survive on the basis of mere demand.  (This is true of traditional commodities as well. The production of corn, which is the basis of the Big Food industry, is heavily subsidized.)  If you think you can command a fair share of the market for your photos or your writings on the basis of your appeal to consumers, think again. But that is the entire MO behind the publishing scheme of Amazon.

I tried to explain some of this in the piece I wrote about the “Hipstamatic Journalist,” which was NOT about the aesthetics of phoneography but the commodification of that aesthetic. I think that essay was largely misunderstood as an attack on the use of iPhones. If you look at digital technology from the perspective of individual creative freedom and editorial control, it certainly looks like a good deal; but if you look at it in terms of the collective effects, and the market forces that are shaping up to profit from it, then the bargain is at best Faustian. On the one hand, you have greater independence, but on the other there is increasing fragmentation of information sources which bewilders the consumers instead of enlightening them, and forces the independent producer more and more into an information ghetto that is deprived of cultural heft.  You achieve minority status and at the same time you relinquish your bargaining power.  You’ve got no money and no credibility.

If you really want to explore these issues in a deeper way, since Ingram's article is cursory at best, I recommend Ken Auletta’s article in the New Yorker, "The Annals of Communication: Paper Trail" ( 25 June 2012), which, while it deals solely with Amazon’s effects on publishing, bears lessons for all of us who provide “content.”

Friday, July 13, 2012

An Excerpt from 9/11: Then and Now


On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was back in the States, waking up in my apartment on Claremont Avenue.  In those days I was traveling frequently between the Dominican Republic and the US.  As I prepared my coffee I listened in puzzlement to the news coming over 1010 WINS radio.  A plane had struck one of the Twin Towers at 8:46.  As my mind became more alert and I began to absorb the news, another plane hit the other tower.  It was immediately clear that this was no accident.  I jumped into my jeans, grabbed my camera bag, and ran to my car.  I raced down the Henry Hudson until I was stopped at Forty Second Street by a blockade composed of UPS trucks commandeered by the police, so I parked carelessly nearby and ran the rest of the way down 10th avenue.  Crowds of panicked people ran toward and past me, but I continued against the tide.  It was a considerable distance but I arrived just after the second tower collapsed, enveloping the entire neighborhood in a poisonous heavy dust.  I took some time to catch my breath and survey the surroundings.  The police had cordoned off the area and scores of photographers and journalists milled about snapping photographs and interviewing passersby.  Undeterred by the police barricades and the officers who turned back all comers, with or without a press pass, I snuck around the edge and continued down to the complex of apartment buildings across the street from the western edge of the World Trade Center complex.  The scene was frantic, people were running everywhere, firemen were rushing to the site of the towers, and fire boats were anchored nearby in order to evacuate people and ferry supplies to the site. Their hoses were at the ready in case the fire should spread to the west.

Paper was floating everywhere in the air.  Reams and reams of legal forms and business letters rained upon the lawns.  It resembled a mad ticker tape parade with unruly throngs of directionless people instead of orderly marching bands.  People were shouting, police were blocking off the site, and firemen ran back and forth.  In the midst of this madness, I spotted a woman reclining in her bathing suit on a lawn chair.  She seemed utterly unconcerned except insofar as the commotion was spoiling her ability to tan herself.  I looked at her in stunned amazement.  Was she so self absorbed that she dismissed the whole affair as irrelevant?  Was she oblivious?  Was she in some perversely heroic manner asserting the value of daily routine over the gross inhumanity of this enormous disruptive event?  Was she simply a mad bourgeoise like those in a Buñuel film?  I never could decide and I never knew what became of her.  A cop came along and tried to arrest me, and the need to evade him diverted my attention.  To this day I regret that I did not photograph that woman, but of all the mad things that had happened to me prior to that moment, this was what temporarily deranged me and caused me to forget myself and my reason for being there.

I photographed the ruins from various angles, getting as close as I could, and trying with difficulty to contact my agency, which was not at all cooperative.  I vowed to ignore every impediment and simply get those pictures.  I photographed all the busted cars with their windows blown out, the frenetic firemen, the shafts of water showering onto the pile, the ubiquitous litter and detritus of modern construction, but I didn’t get anything that managed to sum up or even halfway explain or capture the feeling of this event.  That would come much later in the evening of that first day.

I wasted time evading the police who were aggressively clearing people out of the zone, even the reporters who had a right to be there.  A press pass is an illusory thing.  It permits you to enter areas otherwise off limits to the public, but since it is issued by the police, they in turn may deny access.  It always stuck me as odd that the police rather than a civic body should be in charge of controlling journalistic access.  During that day and all the next week they worked hard to ensure that no one crossed the line.  I played cat and mouse with them the whole time.  At one point that morning another cop made it quite clear that he was going to arrest me, and as I didn’t want to interrupt my coverage I made a quick getaway.  Once back outside the cordon on West Street I took a break to recollect myself and chat with some other photographers I knew and some I didn’t.  Everyone pretty much had the same sort of images.  In those days most of them were already using digital cameras so we could review the pictures immediately.  I was shooting Tri X.

One of the photographers there had arrived before the attack on an unrelated assignment and had been trapped in an underground subway station.  After being rescued, he shook off his fear and immediately went to work, though there was little he could do behind the barricade.  I hooked up with another guy who was not a professional photographer but had real energy, which revived mine.  We went along the line testing it for points of penetration, but it was practically impervious.  In the late afternoon at 5:20 while we were standing only a couple blocks away, Building #7 collapsed so suddenly that we were all shocked.

My sidekick and I eventually came to rest a little to the east around Church Street.  The police were using that corner as a staging ground and we watched as patrol after patrol were swallowed by fluid brown fog beyond.  It was getting late and I was getting restless.  I started looking hawkeyed down Church street, waiting for my opportunity to escape the police cordon.  We had been chatting up the cops, making friends, asking whether they might let us pass.  Then I noticed that the ambulance crews were also camped there and occasionally one would enter the zone headed for ground zero.  So I made friends with them instead and one of the crews offered me a ride.  My fellow photographer and I snuck aboard and hid in the back while they revved the engine, called in, and drove down Broadway – circuitously it seemed for some reason I could not fathom from my hiding spot – turning finally toward Church Street near the Millenium Hotel.  We had to get out fast and run because the cops were everywhere and indeed after I took a few photographs, one of them spied me and set off in pursuit.  I eluded him by ducking down a ramp off Cortland Street.  I emerged soon thereafter because the cop was really too busy to bother with me and had given up. 

The rest of the night the cops paid me no heed, and I mingled freely among the firemen.   I learned later that week that many policemen milling about then and afterward had no business being there.  They had not been assigned, they had merely taken advantage of their privileged access in order to see what was going on.  They were tourists just like the rest of the people who came everyday to the barricades to catch a glimpse of something memorable.  For the most part the police and firemen acted with admirable restraint and a sense of purpose.  But the emotions stirred up by the destruction and disorder, along with intense fatigue and disorientation, caused some of them to lose control and become violent.  On a subsequent night, while I was trying to photograph the scene from a distance, in order to capture the eerie mix of light and darkness, a fire chief screamed obscenities at me and assaulted me physically.  I protested, showed him my pass, but he would have none of it.  He had to be restrained by others with him, and I had to leave.


Church Street was an unbelievable mess.    I knew the area well because I had worked in offices near there.  I couldn’t square what I was seeing with what I had known – sunlight glittering off the bits of mica in the sidewalks, throngs of suited workers disgorged from the subway exits, the salty bite in the morning air from off the Hudson, an occasional whiff of eggs on a roll and coffee.  All of that was blotted out.  I felt that I had been dropped onto the streets of some firebombed city during World War II.  Night had fallen quickly on this part of the city.  The world had become black and white.

The area was filled with debris and water.  Shadowy figures moved in and out of the isolated lights in operation.  There were shells of cars and fire engines that had been destroyed by falling debris.  The pile of smoldering metal and plastic and concrete that was once Tower 2 and Building 4 was now only a few stories high and over it the rescuers scrambled like ants looking for people trapped under the rubble. Across the street the Brooks Brothers store at 1 Liberty Plaza had been turned into a makeshift triage center and morgue where masked doctors waited for bodies.   Very few if any turned up; the stupendous weight of floor upon floor had obliterated the offices.  Though people who were on the scene early, while the towers burned and no one could guess what was about to happen, spoke later with horror about the bodies that fell into the street around them, at this late point I saw few signs of the dead, which in a way made it all seem more apocalyptic.  The dead had left no trace; they had been absorbed into the overwhelming destruction.  The only witnesses to their once having been there at all were the families and friends waiting at home who would later testify that their loved ones had never come back.  The fine ash in the air was there to remind us that we were attending a macabre funeral.



The most frightening and disorienting aspect of the scene was its scale.  We have seen buildings collapsed by bombs, embassy buildings, Oklahoma City – but none was as titanic in its scope.  Broad thoroughfares had disappeared; barely passable lanes traversed the rubble.  The vast expanse of the World Trade Center’s plaza had become a wasteland of smoking shattered detritus, like a dumpsite that had long ago overflowed its boundaries and grown out of control.  Shards of the original walls still stood here and there like the ghostly fingers of some ancient behemoth that had tried to claw out of the grave.  Garbage was strewn everywhere.  Firemen scanned the pile with flashlights in hand or search lights mounted on Hook and Ladder trucks, but they could illuminate only little patches of the destruction, the darkness was so thick.  Others were busy with acetylene torches, large jaw-cutters or buzz saws cutting through metal, trying to get down to the people who may have been trapped below. 



I passed a fire engine where a fatigued fireman sat on the bumper, the doctors looking on from their perch in Brooks Brothers.   They seemed stunned by the inert weight of an event that defied the powers of the mind to comprehend it.  Throughout the night these were the typical reactions:  some staggered by the enormity of what they were seeing, forced by fatigue and bewilderment to step away from the scene and try to get a perspective on it; others who sought to forget their fear in frantic activity, so caught up in what they were doing that their minds remained clear for being focused on small comprehensible tasks.  What I took to be a command center was on the corner of Church and Liberty.  I watched the frazzled men struggle to organize and supply all the different outposts of frantic search and rescue.  A tangle of firehoses and electric lines powering the lights and torches and saws covered the surface, making it hard to walk without stumbling.  In spite of all the confusion and the lack of resources, their concentration and efficiency were remarkable.  Watching them work, one could almost believe that the situation could be brought under control.

Further west on Liberty Street another post had been set up giving the teams of rescuers a base from which they could scale the remains of the South Tower.  An EMT truck stood at the ready to receive any victim that would need rushing to a hospital.  For most of the night no body was recovered and the EMT van didn’t budge.  A thick mass of rescuers streamed over the pile, the bulk concentrated on the more level ground nearest the path that had been cleared through what was once Liberty Street.  Toward the north the ground rose higher and higher, and it became more difficult to keep one’s footing.  As each column of rescuers climbed the plateau of detritus, it became smaller and smaller, the line twisting through swaths of light and blotches of inky blackness, gradually obscured by the enfolding gloom until all one could see was the glint of the reflective bands across the backs of their black turn-out coats, and then each point of light snuffed out as the dwarfed column crossed the far rim of steel shards and disappeared into the sink beyond our ken, erasing their existence from our minds, which were called back to life by the commotion of the teeming throng at the base.  The powerful klieg lights pierced a gloom that was more than just darkness. It had a plastic quality, like a cloudy substance.  It was not an absence of light; it was a gaseous soup.  The lights fixed on the pile were like outstretched hands clearing away cobwebs.  Some of the rescuers wore gauze masks, but most of us there were exposed without protection to the poisons swirling in the air.  A couple nights later I met a Con Edison worker emerging from one of the buildings across West Street.  He was dressed in a biohazard suit, the sort that one sees in movies about viral outbreaks.  I asked him why he was suited up like that, and he told me point blank, “man, you have no idea the kind of poison that is out here.”  I knew then that we were all at risk, and that the government had lied when it told us there were no contaminants in the area.



That first night as the rescuers worked frantically to get at the trapped people, no one thought much about the risk.  Everyone was fixed on one sole idea: save whom they could.  As the hours slipped by the firemen tirelessly cut the steel, excavated the concrete, cleared the amalgamated alloy of noxious construction material, fighting against time so that the people trapped below, if any were still to be found whole and hale, might not slip away into the void presaged by the darkness.  The rubble they cleared was like the jagged grains of an hourglass sifting through their hands as they clawed at the bits and pieces they managed to dislodge from the pile, and all the while the sifted jetsam slipped and ran through their hands and meted out the diminishing hours that they could not arrest in their flight.  The search involved more than just saving lives, that prospect now becoming less and less hopeful; it was driven by a desire to retrieve the remains of the dead so that their existence might not be wholly lost to that uncanny gulf into which the workaday world and the daily routines that cleave us to a familiar reality had so abruptly disappeared.  The enemy then was not terrorism; it was oblivion. 

At one point late into the night, the monotony of turning over stone after stone was interrupted by the tremendous good luck of finding a survivor, which sent a ripple of excitement through the crowd.  A column of rescuers extricated the individual and relayed him down the line to the base, where he was quickly stretchered and hauled off in the ambulance.  It appeared that he was indeed alive, and this renewed everyone’s hopes.  They kept at it with admirable determination, even though during the couple hours that I remained there no other bodies were found.  As the end of the night approached I began to feel the kind of fatigue that one experiences only after working long hours at a feverish pitch; the adrenalin I had been feeding on was giving out.  I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything the entire time I was there.  The noxious air was causing my eyes to burn and my nose to run.  My throat was scratchy.  The fine dust had penetrated my lungs and even my lens.  It is still there in both places ten years later.  After shooting my last frame, I realized I should leave, but I lingered a while, unwilling to let go.  



I walked out of there proceeding north along Church Street.  The city by then had acquired an eerie calm.  Except for the streetlamps there was no sign of energy or life.  Such emptiness in a big city is almost entirely unknown and when it occurs, it induces a disagreeable sense of solipsism and extreme loneliness.  I headed over to Chinatown hoping to find an open store where I could maybe buy a drink or something to restore my flagging energy.  I had a long walk home ahead of me.  Nothing was open, but somewhere around Delancey street I heard a ruckus issuing from a sort of storefront underneath the stairs leading up to the main floor of a tenement.  It turned out to be a brothel, and I settled in for a beer and some diversion.  I was just too tired either to continue on my way or to participate, but I slowly revived as I watched a very different kind of scene from the one I had left behind.  Despite a vague mood of cynicism and disaffection, the heat of human desire and the singleminded pursuit of illicit pleasure heartened me somewhat.  When I left there after the beer, I was strong enough to walk the 50 odd blocks to my abandoned car, which thankfully was not ticketed.  I don’t remember seeing anyone along the way, which was punctuated by storefronts with TV sets broadcasting video of the planes hitting the Towers.  A live television in dead space is an uncanny thing.  The image was repeated endlessly up and down the avenues, no one to receive, no one to transmit, a news flash for the end of the world.  I drove up the West Side without encountering any other cars, and when I parked on Claremont I saw no one up and about.  By then the sun had begun to turn the dark into a soft grey, and the first notes of birdsong floated in the air.

The next day I woke up to a very different world, but I had as yet no inkling of the coming changes.  They announced themselves later that winter when I experienced the first of several subsequent respiratory crises and, on returning to the Dominican Republic, I was harassed by airport security.  From then on I would never be at home again either in my own body or the country of my birth.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Hipstamatic Journalist


A recent installment of New York Times' Lensblog features Benjamin Lowy's use of Hipstamatic as a journalistic tool.  On his Tumblr page he states that "To 'point and shoot' has been a liberating experience. It has allowed me to rediscover the excitement of seeing imperfections and happy accidents rendered through the lens of my handheld device."  Imperfections and accidents are indeed wonderful, and I think Lowy is absolutely right to emphasize the liberating power of this tool and its happy results.   It seems obvious to me that the cell phone would be a useful journalistic tool as well as boon to street photographers because it is discrete, small and light, and can transmit images instantly.  So what's not to like?

It's the apps and the manipulations that provoke mistrust, but as Lowy argues there is not much difference really between applying a certain filter and choosing a Holga format over another.  And Lowy is not the only one to point this out; Teru Kuwayama is another cogent defender of the app and he and his crew have used it to great effect for his Basetrack project, images from which were featured in a spread in Foreign Policy magazine. 

But I disagree with the emphasis that Lowy places on the drive to make images look "different enough, peculiar enough" so as to grab the reader's attention.  In an interview he gave at the New York Photo Festival he stated, “So much work is out there . . . you have to stop them in their tracks  [through creating] interesting visual narratives. . . . If you can attract someone because it looks different enough, I think that’s our job, as visual communicators.”

Certainly anyone involved in an aesthetic practice -- anything tied to perception and communication -- is looking to innovate, to experiment with the form.  That is a given.  But this emphasis on the need to look different in order to attract attention and somehow correct the effects of so called image fatigue begs questions about the nature of image-based reportage, its status within the news industry, and the qualities that make it meaningful, which are not solely a matter of achieving a "different look." 
 

One has to ask, would Foreign Policy have published the work of the Basetrack photographers had it not been for the fact that they used Hipstamatic, and by framing the article in terms of the novelty of the form, does the spread exist to inform us about the realities of Afghanistan and help us to understand it better?  Or is that merely a side effect?  It’s a little odd and disheartening to think that such an extensive spread, a rare thing these days, was made possible because the use of Hipstamatic was deemed newsworthy enough to merit this treatment, while reportage on Afghanistan (or any other crisis) would never in and of itself be given so many pages.  The title says it all: "The War in Hipstamatic: A rare and beautiful look at Afghanistan, through an iPhone."  The emphasis is on rare beauty, not war, not the Afghans, not American policy.  Imagine a similar spread in Life during WWII, “Leica Cameras Bring You War in the European Theater”; or in the 60s, "Young Turks Shoot Khe Sanh in Color!”  It would appear that Lowy was right, that “different imagery” will, at least, compel the editors to pay attention.  And the readers appear to have been moved – to comment on the “nice pics,” that is.  One reader commented, “Great pics. It's pics like these that capture the essence of the environment. I can't seem to get good pics like these with my iPhone especially when it's dark.”  Is this Foreign Policy magazine or Popular Photography?  The novelty of the approach trumped the gravity of the war.  But it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory after all.

It's the emphasis on style that makes me hesitate, as if it were all about finding some visual quirk that lends distinction to the photograph.  Dashiell Hammett once said, "I stopped writing because I was repeating myself.  It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style."  Rather than style, I would emphasize the need for "vision," which is a very different thing and not entirely visual.  A photographer with vision may not have a radically "peculiar" style, but there will be plenty of  force and meaning and weight because the images are grounded in an original point of view, a narrative that is more than just a neat way to tell a story, because the themes provide a more substantial way of thinking about the world and any particular issue.

I personally think that viewer apathy is less of a problem than the current structure of the media and its relegation of imagery to the status of illustration.  The more inventive the image, the more it conforms to the canon of artistic illustration, so much so that in news magazines illustrations are often used interchangeably with photos.  It is not just that the  photojournalist today has to contend with the fact that "there is so much work out there," it's that the work has lost its status and has to compete with a sea of photoshopped illustrative material.  And the reason for this lies in the shift in the economy of the magazine and newspaper business as far back as the 70s and 80s.  The average news consumer no longer relies on photo essays to obtain information about the world, as they once did when Gene Smith was publishing essays in Life. Slideshows are sideshows.

As a result photojournalists have reacted by cultivating novel perspectives and advocating what is variously called experiential or subjective documentary, as a means of distinguishing their work and their perspective from the run of ordinary imagery based on older concepts of objectivity and what is felt to be a prosaic grasp of reality.  Great work has been done in this vein, but the insistence on "subjectivity" is a kind of gloss over an essential anxiety about the value of the photographic image.

It's not about "challenging old perspectives," as Lensblog states in a paraphrase of Kathy Ryan's defense of Hipstamatic imagery.  In fact Ryan argued that the editors were trying to decide between two sets of images provided by Lowy, one set from a DSLR and one Hipstamatic set, the latter of which was believed to be "more exciting and dynamic; the rich palette and high contrast brought clarity and texture and even poetry to the scenes."  The choice between these specific sets of images does not imply a larger challenge to old perspectives, or that other such perspectives are now passé.  That way lies pure formalism, which is the same thing that has bedeviled Modern Art in the 20th century -- an insistence on formal revolution degrades art to a mere craving for novelty.  It's about having something to say that is worth hearing (or seeing).  To some extent this involves formal innovation, but that is just part of endeavor and if we overemphasize its role and frantically churn out visually different imagery for the mere sake of difference, we lose sight of other aesthetic virtues that are not purely formal or technical.

Besides, it's a battle you cannot win.  Already we are deluged by little green-shifted squares of light with funky borders because everyone is a photographer these days and everyone is gleefully filtering their Kodak moments.  One of the things I found so compelling about Lowy's book Iraq Perspectives (published by Duke University, the oracle of Academic Hip) is that the perspective arose from the specific circumstances of being in Iraq -- he conveys what it is like to live in a world that must be seen from inside a Humvee because normal human relationships are impossible during war.  Instead of connection there is alienation and misunderstanding.  It is a brilliant idea.  This is very different from the arbitrary application of any number of filters and it is not a mere stylistic choice.  This kind of vision comes only from a grasp of immediate and specific circumstances, an engagement not with your tools and filters but with the world in a unique and momentary guise.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Vanishings


© Lorenzo Armendáriz

"The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues, are as fugitive, alas, as the years." (Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past)

The force of this statement was brought home to me a few years ago when I suffered a brief bout of amnesia while bedridden with a nasty illness -- I allowed myself to become dehydrated and as a result my brain apparently short circuited. In the middle of cooking some red sauce (inspired by watching The Godfather) I simply forgot where I was and what I was doing. I lay back down in bed and the crisis eventually passed, but that very night I took out all the family albums, with pictures going back to the 19th century, and forced myself to name every person and every place in each photo. My long-term memory was intact, but bits and pieces of my recent history continued to elude my grasp for some time after. What I once thought was so secure, so sure, the keystone of my entire existence -- that is, my very self -- I now realize is entirely tangential, a gift that I receive anew every time I open my eyes -- and every time I close them I say a little prayer to ward off the worrisome thought that I might not again enjoy that grace.

I now religiously drink eight glasses of water a day.

Of course this was an unsettling experience, because it struck at the heart of one's very identity and brought home as almost nothing else can the fragility of experience and the structures that make us who we are. And yet it was also, if viewed with some detachment, a very instructive and interesting experience because it compelled me to reflect on the nature of identity, of memory, of time, and ultimately of photography itself. We tend to think of our past as a place we can visit at will, either by reflection or by physically revisiting a particular locale, but the truth is that our past is past, it is lost somewhere in the drift of time, and its presence is as fugitive and contingent as the synaptic sparks that leap from neuron to neuron in the fatty tissue we call our brains. Science tells us that we are ninety percent water; we are just water flowing in a river that is never really ever the same at any given point. You can never go home again, and if you do what you are really visiting is not an unchanging and permanently defined place, but a series of associations evoked by the physical experience of being there.

If it is true that we are essentially what we tell ourselves, that we know ourselves and our world through the collection of stories we grew up with and which are continually reinforced or adumbrated by the master narratives of our society, then it is just as certain that each individual story is a mere chain of images and we are all of us photographers clutching with perhaps an unwitting desperation the album containing the Kodak moments that collectively make up our identities. Our other senses collude in this conspiracy of delusion and reality -- the taste of a madeleine carried Marcel with convincing presence to the Sunday mornings spent in the house of his aunt in Combray; the sense of smell was for Roland Barthes the most seductive of the gang -- but ultimately what we find at the end of the nostalgic journey is an image, a visual reality, its colors tinged by the longing or repulsion we feel for its content. And we all know just how real such images can appear to be. I once woke from a dream in which I owned a beautiful Triumph TR6 -- I got out of bed and, still in the grip of this illusion, went to the garage, cursing softly while I searched for the keys that I would never find.

Which brings us to the essence of what we do as photographers. In the words of that greatest of essayists, Michel de Montaigne, we "do not portray being; (we) portray passing. . . . If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial." That last word is a pointed pun on the underlying meaning of "essay": to try. Essays are nothing more than trials, tests, that assay the value and meaning of life. Life is so tenuous, our understanding of it inherently provisional, that we can do no more than test its contradictory propositions and accept their transience. We live today by one credo and tomorrow by another. We are, by virtue of this cold war with reality, double agents, unwitting traitors to our own virtually unshakeable belief that things are fixed and solid, while even the granite of this flying ball we call earth is melting away before our eyes.

But every once in a while we catch ourselves in the midst of the pitch along whose trajectory we have been hurled by the ineffable forces to which we ingenuously ascribe some anthropomorphic purpose, and we are astonished by the enormity of the processes by which we are buffeted as well as by our pathethic inconsequentiality. Inevitably such wisdom costs us dearly. Like Oedipus we purchase it with some horrible mutilation, with a pound of flesh, or worse a few ounces of that precious animating spirit that buoyed us with an optimistic belief in our immortality and the providence of our journey through time. It is at once terrifying and supremely comical. God's own Absurdist theater.

It would seem that as photographers we cannot help but be elegists, creating dirges for what once was and will never be again. So many photographic projects overtly allude to this passing of time -- Milton Rogovin's triptychs from Buffalo are a notable example, but even sociologically oriented work such as August Sander's can be said to be as much about time and history as about social types, because after all the baker that Sander shot is not at all like the baker that Harvey Wang captures in his book of New York portraits. This paradox of change and fixity that photography embodies, perhaps better than any other aesthetic medium, is what gives it its unique character and poignancy. The banal family album achieves some measure of distinction when one considers the drama of evanescence and stubborn presence that is recorded there.

But it is not all about arresting moments from the flow of forgetfulness -- there is a contrary impulse of discovery and wonder. Each new moment carries with it the possibility of revelation and surprise -- The BBC reported that a Pole woke up from a coma that had lasted 19 years: his awakening was miraculous -- the drab communist regime disappeared in a flash for this man, and in its place he found a brave new world of consumerism and astonishing wealth. "What amazes me today is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning," said Mr Grzebski. "I've got nothing to complain about." Maybe it is only when we are deprived of things we take for granted that we appreciate their value and our good fortune -- and maybe we must have each moment torn from us in order to be alerted to what each new moment has to offer.

Eduardo Galeano recounts an episode from a Louise Erdrich novel in which a senile grandmother, who has lost her memory, smiles down at her great granddaughter, recently born, who smiles back at her because as yet she has no memory. “La felicidad perfecta. Yo no la quiero.” Nor does Mr Grzebski, I wager. Nor do I. So I keep shooting, piling up the memories as a dam against time, etching a very sketchy history.