In the mid-19th century caravans of mormon soldiers set out across the American southwest in search of their promised land of Deseret. Between them and the ripe coast of California stood the great Mojave desert. It is said that when they came upon the dreadful and desolate land they witnessed Joshua, leader of the Israelites, beckoning them forward, his arms raised up towards God. Upon investigation they found that their vision of Joshua was nothing more than the odd silhouette of Yucca Brevifolia. “The Joshua”, they called it, and today “Joshua Trees”.
It is telling that in speaking of the Joshua Tree one usually begins with this story, a telling of its name and of its human history. Encounter any living thing and our first instinct is usually to determine what it’s called. Names help us to navigate the natural world. They convey relationships and otherwise categorize that which is out there. Even something as alien to us as a Joshua Tree is made tame through recognition. Names always imply that which is human about their subjects first and foremost.
But Joshua Trees, apart from their name, are remarkable in their own right. Native to the arid Southwestern United States, confined mostly to the Mojave, Joshua Trees thrive where few other plants persist. Individuals, though difficult to age, average 150 years, with the oldest of them surviving over a thousand years of droughts, floods, frosts, and fires. They are as resilient as they are odd and, above all, they are particular.
Imagine, for a moment, a desert that does not see proper rainfall more than once every three years. Imagine, perhaps, a desert that does not frost in winter at just the right time. Imagine a desert too hot for the yucca moths which pollinate Joshua Trees, or perhaps imagine a desert inundated with yucca-boring weevils. These imagined deserts are incapable of sustaining Joshua Trees. They are also visions of what the Mojave is likely soon to become.
Joshua Trees are at the heart of Pablo Lerma’s A Place to Disappear (though they are hardly it's only subject). They are cast alongside dramatic palm trees, algaes, seaweeds, mosses and small desert shrubs surviving and thriving within a utopic wilderness landscape. Humans are conspicuously absent from the world that Lerma offers. In their place we have only the primeval forces of the holocene; sky, water, and rock.
Published through Kris Graves Projects in 2017, A Place to Disappear imagines an Earth of the near future in which humans, perhaps out of an impulse toward benevolent stewardship, have removed themselves from the planet, returning centuries later to observe the now alien world. The land that they encounter is dramatic, stunning, and ripe with life and energy. Here, Joshua Trees till the desert in our absence, and here the world continues on, delicately balanced without us.
© Photo by Pablo Lerma
Take a moment to survey the world of Lerma’s photographs and you may be delighted by the drama, beauty, serenity, and resiliency of the land. We see tides shifting cliff faces, clouds transforming mountains and water running through rock. The color of this space is ripe and bucolic. The form of trees and waterfalls are like something out of a Bierstadt painting. Interspersed within the sequence are archival images, likely taken during early expeditions into the ‘untamed’ wilderness’ of the mid to late 19th century. In them we are reminded of what once seemed wild, and what wilderness (in the form of Lerma’s own juxtaposed images) can still be discovered today. Do not be distracted by the nature however. “Wilderness” is not the focus of Lerma’s investigation.
Consider the word, ‘wilderness’. What are its implications? Look into its history and you will find it hitched to a series of events that undermine everything it represents. Observe it closely enough and you will see that ‘wilderness’ (like the name ‘Joshua Tree’) has everything to do with people. The Mojave, Yosemite, Alaska, great wilderness’ of the turn of the century, are regarded as virgin land. But no land is virgin in a world where humans have become a dominant geological force. (This isn’t even to mention the native peoples that this narrative of ‘wilderness’ erases). We live in the Anthropocene, the age of humanity, and this fact colors ‘wilderness’ for human eyes.
As we can imagine it now, our vision of the future includes the disappearance of the iconic Joshua Tree. This vision of the future does not come our way from Joshua, leader of the Israelites, nor does it come from any other biblical prophet. It comes to us from a report by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change which suggests the likelihood of catastrophic global warming as early as 2040 unless drastic measures to mitigate carbon emissions are taken immediately. While Lerma makes no direct connection to climate change, it is hard to ignore the potential impact it could have on these places; it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we will soon see them disappear.
A Place to Disappear seems to offer us two solutions to the recession of wild places. First and most overtly would be the removal of all humans from the planet. This solution suggests a high degree of impossibility. It would be a monumental task unlike anything we have ever undertaken. It echoes the very real task at hand, mirroring the apparent impossibility of reducing all carbon emissions drastically enough to prevent disaster. This solution, however, is a Macguffin, meant to draw us toward the real subject of the work.
Lerma is not interested in wilderness so much as he is interested in ‘vision’, in photography and what it means to make a photograph. Like names, photographs always imply a human presence. All photographs were taken by someone for some purpose. Lerma’s clouds have something to tell us.
As an artist, Pablo Lerma is preoccupied with the function of image making. He often combines his own photographs with archival images, maps, drawings and illustrations in order to explore the ways in which these things interact to construct reality. Here too we see him playing with these tools. Included within the book is a smaller booklet that features art-historical paintings of dramatic landscapes, snippets of text from Paradise Lost, webster dictionary definitions of words like ‘disappear’, and examples of his own writing. The cryptic Guide for Disappeared Places, lets us in on the constructed reality of everything else contained within the larger body of work. It’s here to reminds us that, like Deseret, the “Place to disappear” is imagined, and that also like Deseret, it carries tremendous power.
So what is Lerma’s real solution to the issue of vanishing wilderness? How do we save the Joshua Tree from ourselves if not by removing every single human from the biome today? Our hint is contained within the very last image, on the final page of the larger book. An archival image, it is also the only one to feature a human. Look closely and you will see two legs, black and white, lost within a fuzz of silver grain. It is a deeply pessimistic comment on the whole idea of ‘saving the world’. In giving us this ghost of a person, Lerma is reminding us that people were always present. Even on this planet without people, people are impossible to remove.
© Photo by Pablo Lerma
The ghost reminds us that Lerma’s initial task was always contrived. All photographs are necessarily anthropocentric. There is always a person in the picture. It is impossible to relate to the Joshua Tree without relating to its name and to it’s humanity by extension. It is impossible to imagine nature without first being human.
Faced with the impossibility of removing the photographer from the photograph (and from the planet by extension), perhaps we can look to the mediums other significant quality. Photographs preserve, if only in shadows. We might not be able to save the world itself, but we may be able to photograph it before it’s gone.
Thoreau said “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, but in entering the Anthropocene it is clear that nothing can escape the influence of a species which actively shapes the Earth. In this age can anything be wild? Can anything be preserved? Perhaps in the absence of ‘wildness’ only the camera can save the Joshua Tree, freezing it like desert frost within Lerma’s dye and silver salt. Sadly, it may be that only photographs of this world can survive us. At least they are beautiful.
“All Cretans are liars”, so proclaimed the Cretan Epimenides. In this statement, a paradox of self reference arises. If all Cretans are liars, and Epimenides is a Cretan then Epimenides must be a liar. If Epimenides is a liar then surely his proclamation must be false, Cretans must be honest people, and Epimenides must be telling the truth. But if he is telling the truth, then we know that all Cretans are liars.
So goes the liar's paradox. Or rather, so goes some veneer of the liar’s paradox. In truth Epimenides’ paradox is easy to resolve. First, it is likely that the irony of his statement was lost on him to begin with. Second, we can easily break this vicious cycle of logic by suggesting that not all Cretans are liars. It may only be Epimenides who lies about all Cretans being liars.
Veneer is something to consider closely when discussing photographic theory. Sometimes thought of as being windows to the world around us, photographs are usually more closely related to illustrations. Think back to the classic phrase “The camera cannot lie” and we find ourselves at the opposite end of the Cretan spectrum.
I won’t dwell on the long history of people pointing out the simple fact that cameras can indeed be made to lie, but I want to suggest that even today, in an era of subjectivity and prolific literacy in Photoshop, cameras still act as mediators between us as individuals and the honest truths of the world that surrounds us. A photograph, properly presented, still holds weight as some kind of proof, evidence, echo, or reflection. Photographs are the veneer with which we decorate and document our world.
In his book Liars Paradox Dane Manary offers us his particular vision of reality. On city streets, in public parks, on subways and beaches and store fronts, we are confronted again and again by apparent paradoxes.
Here, a man sitting on the subway with a bag on his lap stares awkwardly at another man hunched forward. On the his nametag “The church of Jesus Christ”, behind him an advertisement for the Museum of Sex. Only the word SEX remains unobscured, leaving us, the viewers, to infer that sex is on this Christians mind.
In another photograph, a boy sits on a street-side pole while another boy in a matching t-shirt sits beneath him against a hydrant. With stunning composition, one looks down at the other through his phone as the boy against the hydrant looks down at nothing through his. On the t-shirt they’re sharing we see written “Transform your mind” and we see the camera doing its good work. Transform your mind, into what?
What strikes me about Dane’s work is the way in which these images directly confront some of realities darker truths so brazenly. Divorce, misogyny, religious bigotry, racially motivated police brutality, toxic masculinity, obesity, sexuality, consumerist culture, and violence are all pervasive throughout the landscape, and yet humor, too, is ever present as visual puns clash with ironically twisted advertisements present organically throughout the photos.
It is a broad survey which could be misread as irreverent and snarky if not for the photographers careful and compassionate eye. Indeed, in all of this mess, what is most clear is the beauty of light, of color and of people hustling to live and to come to terms with living.
In the very last picture we see a brightly lit sign that reads “Dead end”; on the cheek of a man who seems to be reading it, lipstick from a kiss. I don’t want to call these photographs a dead-end kiss, but they are just as sweet and just as indicting.
I want to end this review by taking a closer look at my favorite spread. Here, as two photographs taken moments apart, we see a streetside performer in torn jeans controlling a marionette. Its face, orange and grotesque, is the thing of nightmares. Here, I begin to feel like a puppet myself, emotionally manipulated by the sequence and its absurdity.
It’s really an existentially terrifying view of the world, but it is also not all we are given. Here too stands a little girl, delighted by the marionette, smiling wildly with contentment. In her smile the viewer is invited to take delight for ourselves, and thus a paradox arises. Would this moment be so lovely if the marionette was not so grotesque and the child not so delighted?
Lynne Tillman observes photography's trouble best by way of her proxy narrator and protagonist in the novel Men and Apparitions:
“All pictorial depth is illusory, and it may be that all depth is fictional, the mother of all simulacra. We’re living behind closed doors, metaphorically, and photographs are not windows; also, whatever an inner thought is considered to be it is carried by language, which is social, and therefore not ‘inner’ at all.”
I have doubts about the potential of photography to express the inner, but it is in this space of photographic nihilism that Dane’s project offers some comfort. As manipulative as a photographic document of the worlds terrible truths can be, there is redemption to be had in the process of looking, some paradox in the joy we take at finding such honesty, clarity, and beauty. The marionette is terrifying, but it is also hilarious.
In ways we are all puppets and proud Cretans. We look to photography for comfort and condemnation. Perhaps photographs can bridge the gaps between, or perhaps they can only cleave us apart, but we have to live with this reality as photographers; to come to terms with the mediums potential. In fact we are all honest people and we are all living the liar's paradox.
I have taken on the impossible task of describing a zine about the limits of language, self-expression and human behavior. In only sixteen pages of newsprint Dominic Till is able to skillfully engage with and critique the concepts of language, art, and meaning. Six lines of text, five black and white photographs and one illustrated cover construct a space as enigmatic as the world around us. From them we are reminded that language, and art by extension, are limited vehicles for the transmission and alteration of reality.
It’s not a secret that language is often absurd. Take for example Till’s nonsensical statement “we could play with pennies and make them drop”. Sit with it on your tongue and it starts to taste funny. Decontextualized, sterilized, and atomized, it doesn’t hold much weight. We can analyze it, try to pick it apart, dissect it for meaning, but the dadaic world that these words create actively resists our probing. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and we start to wonder if anybody is even there.
Set this line against a close up photograph of an eye, the photographers hands glistening within its pupil, and the spread becomes even more enigmatic. We are reminded of the body, of the eye and of vision, but this is only a hint. We may begin to fall back on the idea that this work is completely esoteric; tell ourselves that the words are meant for somebody else, but at the moment of dismissal the title echoes back, a haunting promise:
Even Looking At This Will Make A Difference.
We look at art because we want it to make a difference. There is, of course, the prospect that art can change the world, but there is also the more subtle, selfish and personal hope that art can change us. Till reminds us that words and photographs are merely imitations, self-expression can be fraught with miscommunication, and that humans often behave irrationally. Art, in this realm, sheds itself of our projected desire to make a difference. We finish flipping through the zine only to look up and find that we are the same. We look around to see that the world is too.
I finish flipping through the zine when I look up to see the popular comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on television. In this episode Frank Reynolds, played by Danny Devito, is intent on infiltrating and eviscerating the art world. Disguised as eccentric art collector Ongo Gablogian, he proceeds to critique the work at a gallery opening. He points to one piece “Bullshit!”, to another “Bullshit!”, and to another “Derivative”, before settling his gaze upon an air conditioner. “I love. I absolutely love.” The timid gallerist reminds him that it is just an air conditioner.
“I mean, look at us. We’re just air conditioners”, he responds frivolously.
I find Gablogians explanation to be oddly satisfying. I even catch myself falling for it a bit. Though he parodies the art world he does succeed in making an important conceptual point. That a perceived authority can claim meaning from the meaningless, and that others will yield to that authority, suggests that maybe sometimes we take art too seriously. In Gablogian the Dadaists are alive and well.
Art has its limitations, and when we take it too seriously by subscribing to the idea that art must necessarily make a difference, that it is always sacred and meaningful, then we are only limiting it further. Through a playful use of familiar phrases, algorithmically warped via the addition of ‘we could’ at the start of each line, Till suggests the same sentiment. “We could play with pennies and let them drop", "we could turn the tides”, “we could die on our feet, yet we choose our knees.” Words suggest action, but they are no substitute for praxis. Sometimes art is bullshit, and that’s ok.
I wonder to myself if Till's zine keeps its titles promise. Am I changed for having read it? Is the world the same today? I’ve been trying to figure it out, recognizing this opaqueness as a real strength. We can put words to these ideas, describe the photographs and the material, and really get at what we mean when we say that language is limited, but, of course, what difference would any of that make?
Photographs demand so much of us. They ask that we mortar the cracks between them, stitch meaning into untethered moments, research, interrogate, and understand. But what do we ask of photographs? For some, the weight of the world rests in the silver salt of old family albums or historical documentations. Indeed, the history of the world since the discovery of photographic fixer has largely been a history of image and image making. We invest great meaning into photographs because photographs offer us what existence alone cannot; stability, eternity, and proof of being. But to relegate the role of the camera to that of proof-maker would be to do the medium a great disservice, for as much as photographs are about the act of holding, so too are they about the act of looking. Winogrand put it best when he said, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
In his latest monograph, Acts of Looking, Joseph Podlesnik puts photographic vision at the forefront. Created in the harsh desert light of Phoenix and in the subdued suburbs of Milwaukee, Acts of looking is an attentive meditation on form, tone and aesthetics. On the flat surface of his book, Podlesnik translates the three-dimensional space around him into flat and often abstract compositions. These compositions, though rooted in their aesthetics, are ripe with familiar imagery. American flags, storefront displays, stucco buildings, piles of garbage, traffic and trees all compete for the viewer’s attention. The space, overwhelming, is best viewed from a step back. Take it in holistically and you may be delighted to see one of the freshest takes on the mundanity of American surfaces since Stephen Shore.
Speaking of Shore, it useful to note that while the work fits firmly into a tradition of documentary style photographers (think of Robert Adams) it was also created by someone whose own artistic origins fall outside of that tradition. Podlesnik was formally educated in painting and drawing, receiving his MFA from Cornell University. Perhaps this education was advantageous to him, as his images are clearly made with photography’s visual particularities in mind.
Notably embedded within the series are images that repeat a specific typological format. As reflection upon some surface, or as disjointed shadows upon the landscape, the viewer is offered a ghostly vision of the artist himself. His presence, subdued into those flattened compositions, acts to remind the viewer of the photographer’s hand. They are testaments to the presence of the image maker, like fingerprints upon the canvas of a painting. Here, Podlesnik’s presence is projected to remind us that we are perhaps not seeing so much as we are looking. Like a ghost he fades in and out.
Pointed at the world the camera offers us the illusion of looking outward, as though its mirrors are all one way. But of course, this isn’t true. Many lenses go both ways, and all of them project. The question naturally arises ‘what is being projected here?’
I disagree with Podlesnik’s assertion that “any social element in the work, if there is such, is secondary to formal and pictorial concerns.” Or, to clarify, I disagree with the idea that we should not dwell on what exists within Acts of Looking beyond pure aesthetics. The photographer/ghost we are offered is distant, lonely, and anonymous. Often disjointed by surfaces of varied depths, we see someone at once alienated from his surroundings and deeply embedded with them. I would make the claim that this loneliness and alienation is very particular to the social structure of the American landscape that Podlesnik uses to create his compositions, and that ignoring this aspect of the work would be to sell it short.
The act of looking necessarily entails the act of projecting, a reality at the forefront of all of Podlesnik’s compositions. The act of looking is dynamic, sometimes made static by the presence of the camera. The world becomes flat on paper, but these images, in dialogue with each other, with the artist and with the audience, express incredible depth. If you have a chance to get your hands on Acts of Looking be mindful of the works varied dimensions. You may see paintings, carefully crafted compositions, the classic American landscape, or the artist’s powerful hand. If you are lucky you may also catch a glimpse of yourself looking.
I'm excited to say I'll be joining ITI this summer to begin my graduate studies! Check out this list of students with my name on it!
Music is the art form that photography aspires to be. Here's a little video I made with my good friend Nessa that I think really combines the best of both worlds.
I'm excited to have had work featured by the fine folks at Free Ass Mag, an anti-architecture architecture magazine run by some of the folks I met along my roadtrip. Issue #3, Nomads, features some brand-new images from across the country. This is your first chance to check out my next project!
Take a look here: http://freeassmag.com/ISSUE-3-NOMAD-1
There are moments in life when the reality of the world punctures the delicate façade of those things which we thought we knew; when truths surface to remind us of the absurd nature of that which we call ‘living’ and of the holes in our understanding which then scream out from the soul.
Last night the people voted to elect Donald J Trump as president of the United States of America and the truth comes pouring out. It is unavoidable, like fists which would clench the throat, so now we are held in the hands of inescapable reality.
The truth is that there are men that would hurt you, men that hate you and would see to it that you are punished for living. Men who despise you because of who you love, who hate you for the color of your skin, who would see fit to toss you aside because of your chromosomes or otherwise seek to destroy that which you hope to become. The truth is that living for many, so many, has just become more difficult and it is impossible to say that we will all be ok.
I hesitate to fall back onto messages of hope, to console the grieving hearts with a call towards compassion and solidarity, or to pick out from the cloud a silver lining of any kind. I hesitate because now is not the time for resolution, now more than ever is the time for struggle. Greater were the number of people who voted to support progress than hate and yet hate has still won.
For today it may only be appropriate to grieve, than tomorrow perhaps to gear up for a fight.
Behind the wheel it is easy to get lost. Through the black hills, the great plains or the farms of Wisconsin the mind is left to wander as the road stretches ahead. On the horizon ancient hills and lakes and structures, all of them new to me, catch the eye. I would like to photograph them but stopping at every curiosity would only serve to distract from moving forward. It seems best to move forward and so I try not to focus. I get lost, not in place but in thought.
I find myself considering the more absurd aspects of reality. The way the subjective experience interweaves with the world and details stand out in amazing ways. From them I begin to recognize the narratives stitched into the fabric of things. I see the red gravel revealed on roads in Minnesota, the same sort of red which occasionally breaks the monotonous tempo of yellow lines with a spattering of deer blood. Seventy-Six dead deer now, between Long Island and Montana; I’m not sure if that’s a lot.
In the sandstone of South Dakota’s Badlands you can see that red, revealed again, in layers of Earth sandwiched between the grays and yellows of other eons. On snapchat my lovers red hair calls out to those stones. They both seem timeless and are, I think, kin. On Facebook another kind of red floats around. It is the red of crimson “C”s adorning the caps of the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians with their smiling caricature seem a far cry from those resistant faces of the Standing Rock Sioux, their skin more red with blood today than with melanin. It is hard to forget them in South Dakota, their struggle to protest and protect a sacred land. In a bar in a town which owes its name to them we debate a detour to join the struggle. We decide that it may not be our place.
On the face of America as on the face of the universe one might begin to read these narratives; histories of love, as with my darling back home, and of geology in the sandstones as pink as her hair. There are also stories of neglect, as with the wearing roads of Minnesota, and stories of accidents as with the Seventy-six deer we have passed dead on I-90. Still there are far darker narratives, histories etched with the blood of men prosecuted and persecuted again and again only to have their racist visage cheered on at the World Series.
Thinking is like this. On the road you begin to see things come together.
A friend and I are tramping around the country, musing on and photographing the American landscape. Follow us at his blog Humans for Humans and follow me on instagram for regular updates!
See you around~
As you may well know the summer is winding down and so I thought it might be an appropriate time to share an update on current projects!
To begin I've been working hard to scan and edit a body of photographs I've been producing since graduating earlier this year. "Before I Go" will feature photographs with a personal angle and musings about life after college. Watch for it when I'm featured on the Photo Alum: Purchase College on Instagram. Those images will also be making their way here to my website.
The Brick Collective is gaining traction as we continue to organize and grow. A Tumblr page featuring all of our work is in progress and will be premiering soon!
Finally and importantly please support the GoFundMe a friend and I have created to raise funds to cross the country. We will be writing and photographing the whole trip, looking for something new to say about the contemporary American landscape.
Thank you for the support,
To many the revelation comes as a surprise but before I began to consider a career as an artist I spent much of my time marching in formation as a member of a high school NJROTC program. The program, designed to instill in its cadets a sense of patriotism and mutual comradery, promised a smooth entry into the armed services where I hoped to gain new experiences and to see the world. Towards the end of my career in the program I had attained the rank of cadet ensign and commanded an entire platoon of my fellow cadets, but as I began better to understand myself and to embrace the Buddhism which influences me so now I realized that a career as an artist//photographer could offer me similar opportunities to gain new experiences and to see the country I had been programed to love. On a whim in my senior year I was convinced by my photography instructor to apply to a BFA program at SUNY Purchase. To my surprise I was accepted and so the course of my life shifted dramatically from the prospect of a career spent in the Navy to a career spent as an artist.
Four years later I was still thinking about my fellow cadets, about the dramatic turns our lives made both into and out of the armed services. In a project I began just this spring I sought to reconnect with them and see where their lives had gone. I learned that many had joined the military and were still away but that those which remained continued to pursue a life in service to their community.
I met with Nick who saves lives everyday as an overworked and under-payed EMT who is grateful for the opportunity to serve; I met with Richie whose brother (a former cadet I know well) will be returning soon from four years of service to the United States Marine Corp and who himself has maneuvered around the last block to his own eventual career in the Army; I met with Alexis who works hard every day to provide for her son; I met with Jackie who trained at the Citadel but found her time there cut short by circumstance; I scoured through my oldest photographs from early high school, images of cadets marching in the veterans day parade taken by myself when I was most one of them; and finally I visited the last resting place of a friend who was lost to us suddenly in an accident at camp Lejeune a few years back.
In connecting to these people and in discovering where they had found themselves so many years later I found myself more open to the circumstances which had once led me to consider a career in the Navy. The project, which I consider something of a recovery or recollection, brought to life for me the utter humanness of people I had loved before the course of my own life had shifted. I present them to you humbly with the hopes of promoting connection and understanding in times as divisive as these. This one is for them, my fellow cadets. Fare winds, and following seas…
Following seas is an ongoing project…
"...if love belongs to the poet, and fear to the novelist, then loneliness belongs to the photographer. To be a photographer is to willingly enter the world of the lonely, because it is an artistic exercise in invisibility." - Hanya Yanagihara, Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer, The New Yorker
In my experience with photography, photographers and photographs I have found it most often best to avoid broad and romantic statements about the nature of the medium. Photography is a tremendously complicated dialect within the even more complicated language of art which always seeks to avoid easy interpretation and categorization. Art is absurd. Photographs are absurd. They take the form of Polaroids and Jpegs, slideshows and coffee-table books, film photographs and scanned compositions written and rewritten by means of the darkroom, photoshop and the print. Some are meant to be taken at face value, others questioned and dissected for understanding and so it is naturally impossible to box them in with one broad quote.
Still there were always photographs which called to me subconsciously for their significance and perfection, photographs which reek with what Roland Barthes called "Punctum". Katey Grannan, Kristine Potter, An-My Le, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Joel Sternfeld to name a sum-what disparate group of image makers are all people who have created images which call to me through a punctum I have long sought to understand. After reading the words of Hanya Yanagihara I am prepared to make broad statements conservatively about that punctum, that is to speak about the loneliness of a photograph and the photographer.
The claim Yanagihara makes is that photography inherently involves or invokes a degree of loneliness. That the placement of the camera and the observation of the world necessitates the negation of the photographer as an entity in favor of them as a conduit. "The photographer moves through the world, our world, hoping for anonymity, hoping she is able to humble herself enough to see and record what the rest of us- in our noisy perambulations, our requests to be heard- are too present to our own selves to ever see. To practice this art requires first a commitment to self-erasure."
As a Buddhist and as an artist I have coupled with the difficulty inherent to dealing with the ego. 'Self-erasure' has been the natural way of working around this. I think that too often artists get caught up in artistic identity. This is all fine of course for the muti-media or performance artist whose entire life may become like an art piece but certainly frivolous when it comes to photographers and photographs. I would say, rather narrow-mindedly I admit, that I do not care for photographic artists whose biographies exceeds the level of interest invoked in the actual images. In this sense I am both biased towards and cautious of traditionally aesthetic bodies of work. I would say that I do love a good documentary project or even photo journalistic body of work but that I also take care to understand and appreciate the stuff I find myself initially drawn to reject. That being said those things aforementioned are usually my priority in creating work. I would like to create images which are both aesthetically interesting and intellectually stimulating rather than to create long webs of interconnecting complexity understandable only when the viewer understands me.
To put it in shorter terms, I seek in my work to think of myself last and even to allow myself to disappear. Yanagihara might point to this as an act of martyrdom for the photographers art but to myself and most photographers this is the natural state of being. We seek to vanish, if not from the actual world than certainly from the eyes of our audience. We would like most for our audience to forget that we are separate entities and instead allow them to slip into our frame and see the world as we once did. This may be an act of destruction but I think also it is an act of creation in the Buddhist sense. This line of thought slips into my work often.
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There is, of course, another dimension to Yanagirhara's argument which lays namely in the longing to connect with the subject of a photograph. It is like the experience of looking into a photograph of a loved one who has passed in the hopes of finding comfort in memory. Of course anyone who has had this experience might understand what I mean when I say it is a painful one. We seek the comfort of memory and instead stumble upon the longing of distance. Photographs underscore our distance by simultaneously showing us the thing, the person or place, of desire and preventing us from actually seeing them, from touching them and being with them. They are like one-way mirrors in that no matter how long we stare into them we cannot actually convince the subject to budge not because they wouldn't want to but because they cannot look back and see us.
I have had the experience of wanting to meet many strangers locked within the photographs of Katey Grannan or Irina Rozovsky and I can say for myself that that experience is usually met with a sad and lonely longing. Knowing that I may never have such an opportunity can be crushing both in the moment and in the existential scheme. I think that sometimes photographers photograph as an excuse to talk to strangers and to bridge the lonely gap we have constructed for ourselves. This can, unfortunately, also have the sad effect of isolating the image maker in space when the photograph is being taken as well as in time when it is being viewed later on.
This argument may seem ultimately melancholy but I finish with a quote from the book Gift From the Sea that has me inspired this week.
“I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.”
― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
Read the article that had me inspired here:
In the twilight of the morning of May 17th, 2016, we were the first in the continental United States to witness the sun rise. I made a point to Google May 17th 2016 before writing and found that nothing remarkable had otherwise occurred. I think of our time gathered atop Cadillac Mountain and of the apparent significance of May 17th and I find myself at a loss for understanding; the day before I had turned twenty-two, less than a week before I had graduated from an art program in which I had spent the last four years developing a sense of clarity and purpose. When you stand at the peak of something so great as a mountain or on the shore of something so vast as the sea you can easily find yourself feeling as though you are standing within the court of God. Before these things one’s life can seem insignificant, one can find themselves lost.
Four years in an art program had left me jaded and stagnant and so this trip was meant to spur my spirit into welcoming the next phase of life. A great journey north, ten days on the road with my mother and my lover, two people with whom I feel most comfortable and most refreshed; but even here breathing in the cool mountain air and witnessing the spectacle of May 17th I didn’t feel refreshed. Truthfully I felt exhausted and a little let down.
We are told in our histories that life changes abruptly through conflicts and revolutions. Moments come which suddenly change the course of world events spurring historic figures and civilizations down paths for which they might be forever memorialized in our stories. Life rarely happens this way; its course is often more gradual and subtle. We follow paths carved for us by our forebears, previous generations, governments, parents through the course of childhood. There is always a degree of predestination in our lives, from graduations to parenthood, even those things which seem abrupt in life, set in motion long before they came to fruition. Certain things are inevitable.
We watched as the morning light swept through the coast of Mt. Desert Island. I imagined a wildfire sweeping through the canopy below, the trees buckling and falling to the blaze, their children reveling in the ash, a great new forest rising in its place. When I fell out of this fantasy I could only see the same forest which had stood before. Spectacular surely, sublimely lit by the morning sun, but the same as it had been when we arrived and not tremendously different from what it had been even a century before. May 17th 2016 was not a day for forest fires or revolutions. It was a day for contemplation demarcated by an arbitrary moment of apparent significance.
As the sun split the sky the glorious pink and red light of morning had fallen to its usual colors, bold yellows and blues. We, of course, were not the only ones atop Cadillac Mountain that morning and by now everyone else was turning away. I looked around at faces wrapped in blankets and in scarves and I found myself wondering. For the most part this morning light seemed to be a novelty, special if only to say that we were the first to witness it, but as folks turned away I could see them lingering on a sky which had become unremarkable. I could see them desperately grasping to a moment which now seemed more sacred than novel. I wondered what they had sought in ascending Cadillac Mountain that morning and I wondered if they had found it.
Years before our trek to Maine I had renounced my belief in God, a moment of rebellion but a moment which, like graduation, was inevitable. Because of this it had become strange to feel his presence here, shaping the world subtly from my perspective but drastically from his own. I cannot say if the others who stood here were Christians or Jews or Muslims or Pagans or Buddhists or Atheists but atop Cadillac Mountain we had all become theists. Emerson might have recognized this as a moment of transcendence but I could only call it ‘important’ and I couldn’t really tell you why.
As the sun set later that evening I was sad to see the day pass and sad to see such a tremendous phase in my life pass; but such passage was inevitable. More than anything though I was sad to see everyone leave, to see cars descend the mountain after the end of the morning, to see everyone continue on with their days unconcerned with the passage of time, even grateful for it. God impresses me not in the obvious ways. It is not his glory or his power which gives me awe, but his patience and his willingness to let go. Every day the sun rises over Cadillac Mountain and he paints a marvelous picture. Every day sun worshippers come to bask in his glory and witness his work. Every day those sun worshippers die, or forget, or cease to care. Every day God is lost to someone, myself included; and yet everyday he allows the sun to set, content to be forgotten, to have his sky-cast masterpiece forgotten.
I do not believe in God but on May 17th 2016 I took a cue from his patience. As the sun descended upon the western United States for the rest of the nation to witness I thought that I might let it set too. To my mother and my lover and all of those sun worshippers gathered on Cadillac Mountain, May 17th 2016 was moderately significant. As it passed I resolved to let it stay that way, to let life pass gradually and to forgive it for lacking its revolutions and its wildfires. At least for that day I would sleep content to see it go.
Another video piece from a few hours spent at Rye Beach, NY. An experiment in stillness and motion.