Seven in the morning, Cindy and I are at a gas station outside Hemet, California. We’re leaning on the hood of our rental car, eating breakfast burritos and drinking coffee. Across the parking lot, on the other side of a chainlink fence, a group of men has congregated, looking for work, waiting.
Some kind of commotion begins and one of the men from the group comes running over to us. He says, there’s something wrong with that guy, I think he’s dying.
Somewhere in the background I hear someone call an ambulance. People are gathering and doing what they can to help the dying man until the medics arrive. There’s nothing we can do, so we stand there, in the parking lot.
While we’re waiting, watching, the guy who has come over tells us, I’m Johnny Slaughter Junior. Junior. My father’s Johnny Slaughter. Senior. He was a soldier in Vietnam, my mom’s Vietnamese. I grew up in Vietnam with her, I never knew my dad. He wasn’t there. When I got older I came here to look for him. I found him but he told me he don’t want to know me. So here I am.
In the distance a train goes by, its whistle blowing. The medics arrive but the man is already dead.
A first for drool.: a review. Or, maybe review isn’t the correct word. It might just be an opinion (which wouldn’t be a first for drool.). I don’t know. You tell me.
If reviews (or whatever) aren’t your cup of tea scroll down to the next item, Three hundred and thirteen, a short thing on process.
And if that doesn’t interest you, go for a walk and think about it . . .
Three new exhibitions opened last week at the Scotiabank Canadian Photography Institute, at the National Gallery of Canada. I had a close look at two of them: Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush and Frontera: Views of the U.S.-Mexico Border.
Gold Rush shows us historical photographs (and illustrations and adverts) shot during the gold rush that happened in the last part of the 19th Century. Frontera shows us contemporary views of the U.S.-Mexican border.
The gems, in the sparkly sense of the word, in Gold and Silver are the daguerrotypes. Presented in a darkened room and lit to accentuate their otherness . . . drama upon drama.
The following room has a whole bunch of images showing landscapes and portraits (and adverts) from the Klondike, Alaska and other sites of the migration that was spurred by the gold rush of the second half of the 1880’s. Less spectacular than the daguerrotypes and because of that, more telling. If only a tighter edit had been applied.
According to the gallery’s messaging Gold and Silver and Frontera, while being about “borders, territory and migration”, also serve to bring forward the technical and social evolution that happened in photography.
Judging from the images in Frontera you’d think that the only real evolution in photography was the advent of colour, the disappearance of people and the invention of the drone.
From Geoffery James’ beautiful ground-level views of one of the earliest bits of the border fence (1997), to Pablo Lopez Luz’ trenchant aerial photos of the border, from Daniel Schwarz’ accordion books of stitched satellite images that show the entire border, to Adrien Missika’s typology of cacti (plus a video, shot from a drone), we see the border abstracted. It rests with Mark Ruwedel and Alejandro Cartagena to bring a human/political perspective to the show. These two photographers are represented here by a total of 4 images.
Ruwedel shows us the remnants of passage, debris left behind by migrants making their way to the promised land. We can only imagine what came before and after. Cartagena’s large image of the fence with a silhouette, really just a ghost, brings home the human cost of walls.
Now, I understand that it might not be the purview of the Canadian Photography Institute to put politics in front of, or beside, aesthetics (not that those two things are mutually exclusive). I also know it’s kind of bogus to point out a perceived shortcoming of something when what you see as a shortcoming was never really the intention of the project.
And, to be clear: the images in Frontera are all well realized, and, with a couple of exceptions, interesting and worthwhile, some are even important. Go have a look and you’ll see.
But in this day and age, to mount an exhibition about the border between the USA and Mexico (or any border, for that matter) and not include more than a token amount of human-scale politics is a curious curatorial choice. The almost complete absence in Frontera of the struggle and strife that these days defines borders is striking.
Couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I’m not ready to look at the pile of images so far shot for my new project. Still true, but I’m thinking about it.
Thought I might mention here the process that has led to that folder of images on my hard drive . . .
Go out into the world with a thought in my head. Look for bits and pieces (after all, what else is a photograph?) that might be right. Be open. Go home. Look at what I’ve done. Look for what I’ve seen. Pull out the frames that work. Pull out the frames that might work. Pull out the frames that just plain intrigue me. Be open to “bad” photos. Do some preliminary post production. Put them into a folder titled FINALS. Repeat as required.
So far there are 313 photos in that folder. Here they are . . .
I’m seeing themes evolve. Repetitions. Questionable choices. Some confusion. A feeling.
Here are three of the 313. One from the very beginning, one from the middle, one from last week. I’m interested to see where it goes. I want to find out what it becomes.
The other day I posted this image on my Instagram account . . .
. . . just a shot I dashed off after noticing those two plates with their corresponding tomatoes on our kitchen table. I’m pretty sure I shot and posted it to show off our beautiful tomatoes.
I titled the thing Picture without meaning (tomatoes) and pretty much forgot about it.
Then a comment appeared under the photo. The commenter wondered why such a deliberately arranged, carefully composed, still life would be without meaning. And while the image may not mean much to me, there will be others who see meaning in it. Finally, the commenter went on to say it is very difficult to make a picture without meaning since there is always a maker, a viewer and some form of subject.
All-in-all an excellent comment, I must say. It set in motion a cascade of thoughts, appreciations and questions in my head.* After dinner I sat with Cindy and we discussed. (Always great, when you are mulling, to have someone to mull with.)
The first thing I wondered about was why I titled the thing Picture with no meaning. Upon reflection I realize I called it that to push some buttons (something I seem to do unconsciously). I guess the title kind of insinuates my thoughts about what kind of imagery I think is important and, yes, what kind of imagery has meaning to me. If one were desperate one might make reference here to René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images, where the title makes the work, um, work. Funnily enough, the title of that tomato picture makes it, um, mean something. I think.
As to the idea that because I took some time to craft the image it must have some meaning . . . for me that’s a false equivalency. Just because you work at something, arrange it, is no guarantee that the thing you make has much, or any, meaning. Conversely, there are things, like photographs, that have obviously been created in an instant and, for me at least, have lots of meaning.
I have always thought that it is the intelligence of the operator that instills worth into expression. And that that intelligence can be manifested by any number of working methods, from tight and controlled to free-wheeling and spontaneous. It’s the brain behind the machine that interests me.
Of course an image that means nothing to me might well mean something to another, we have a tendency to project the meaning we seek onto anything that seems to suit that purpose. Not to mention that, if you are tuned in enough, and looking for it, everything means something, or, at least, we can construct meaning from anything. So the commenter must be correct, it is difficult to take a picture with no meaning.
But we are always sorting things, putting them, consciously and unconsciously, into some kind of hierarchy. And this is what photography is (can be) about. You frame a tiny portion of the world, a slice of time and space that seems like it might be somehow important. Later, you look at what you’ve done and try to figure out what it might mean to you, if it means anything at all. Its all a stab in the dark.
The job of a photographer (or artist) must be to wonder about meaning, to make work that states their case, and then stand back.