PICTURE WITHOUT MEANING

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.

The Treachery of Images, by René Magritte.

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.

My studio wall

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.

Accidental iPhone picture

Links:
René Magritte
Bernd and Hilla Becher
Peter van Agtmael
Existentialism

* I tried to contact the commenter to sort out where
and how I may have misinterpreted what he wrote.
He was unavailable. So I attached my own meaning
to his words.

SUCCESS

How do you, as a photographer, define success? And I’m not talking here about getting clear, properly exposes images, nor am I talking about returning from a vacation with pictures that help you remember and relive. No, I’m asking, why are you a photographer? What do you want to get out of it?

For me, success has almost nothing to do with receiving accolades or making sales, having a gallery show or getting a grant. Those are still all okay, make me giggle for a minute or two, but their effect wears off very quickly, somewhat akin to getting a bunch of likes on social media, so fleeting, and, I suggest, a very shallow way to measure your life.

This attitude might have something to do with my near-death experience 10 years ago. It might also have something to do with getting older and giving way less fucks. And, anyway, I don’t think those things (sales, shows, grants, pats on the back, etc.) were ever really that important to me. I am just stupid and stubborn enough to believe that what matters most is being true to yourself, discovering what that might actually mean, and then letting the chips fall where they may.

So these days I define success as applying myself and expanding my understanding through that application.

On the other hand, there are those photographers who define success as the attainment of popularity and profit. Yes, it’s thrilling to build up your biz and your rep, and easy to keep track of your progress: profile and profit. It’s even possible (though mostly improbable), if you are a certain kind of photographer, to produce commercial or personal images for money that have some kind of metaphysical value. But if you mostly want money and profile, if that’s what’s important to you, you’ll probably base your working methods and the look and feel of your photographs on achieving that, whether you know it or not.

Anyway, I understand what makes our world go ’round. And it’s usually not learning. Learning only seems to be good (useful) if it can somehow be monetized. Too often these days getting paid for adding baubles to the status quo seems to define success.

Of course you might wonder, if that’s the case, Tony, if you only do it for yourself, then why do you make any effort at all to distribute your work, why do you hype it, why go to the trouble and expense of mounting an exhibition and/or publishing books? Why not just keep it to yourself?

Good question.

I could give you all kinds of rationalizations here but won’t bother, because that’s all they’d be, rationalizations. Really, there is only one answer to that question: ego. Everyone has one, and it takes a special kind to go out into the world, register your reaction to it and then want to share that reaction. Yes, I have an ego. I admit it.

Seems to me, though, that problems arise when you fall in love with your ego. Once you stop questioning what you do, once you begin to believe it’s-good-because-I-did-it, once that happens you lose perspective. And as a photographer (or artist, or person . . . take your pick) perspective is really all you have to offer.

And here we circle back to definitions of success. And for me the problem with the fame/power/money version of success is that it warps your perspective. And once that happens you become something else. Or maybe, just maybe, you become what you really are.


CONFUSION

Ever since, or maybe because, I changed the working title of my new project my confusion has increased. I see that as a good thing. When you get lost you often end up in a place more interesting than the destination you set out for.

The shooting for this project was always more open-ended than was the case with the last 4 or 5 series I’ve done. The subject matter is way less defined as I comb the world for things and situations that resonate with my premise. I’m still wallowing in the process . . . searching, guessing, wondering. And at this point I’m afraid to look at what I’ve done because the only hope for this project will be through an edit and sequence that somehow makes sense of the sensless. And I’m not ready for that.

This approach reminds me of how I shot way back in the 1980’s (see the B&W pix above). And once again I am getting images that are beyond me.

I see that as a good thing.

THE PHOTOGRAPH AS FETISH

fetish: 1.1 An excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Big article in The Guardian about how photography has become the “hottest new investment choice”. Duckrabbit responds with a review of Jim Motram‘s book Small Town Inertia, a blog post much more measured than the one you are reading now. (In fact, you should probably just spend your precious time reading that, rather than this.)

But I will continue whether there are readers here or not, which is kind of the crux of what I’m about to talk about . . .

I realized a long time ago that no one buys my photos. Well, that’s not entirely true. I occasionally sell one or two to some individual and, more often, to institutions. But I’ve known for a long time that there’s no real future for me (fiscally speaking) in the good-old sell-prints-as-art scheme. And I’m fine with that, it leaves me free to pursue other ways of thinking about why I take photos, what they need to look like, how they are assembled and distributed, and their use and usefulness.

Now you might be a photographer who’s sensibility, interests, aesthetic and skill set makes your work desirable to folks who need a photo or two to flesh out their walls. Maybe gallery representation and selling prints is part of your income flow. And maybe your photos are more than mere decorations. Great. I’ve got no problem with that. But please, if your photographs really are mostly decorative don’t attach some after-the-fact rationale that attributes a socially conscious subtext to them. Have the balls or the ovaries to own what you do.

But, me, I’ve never wanted my photographs to be precious, never thought of a photograph I’ve made (or, as I prefer, taken) as “a piece”, unless you consider piece to mean one small thing that goes with other things to make a more complex whole. I’ve never tried to be an artist, I just want to experience, learn and communicate.

Yes, yes, I know I’m speaking totally categorically here. I know that there are nuances and complications to everything. I know that not everyone wants what I want. I know that what I see as some decorative bobble might move someone else to tears. I know that, as Simon Norfolk says, “beauty can be a tactic”. But I hope you get my point: that markets drive, in subtle and often unconscious ways, content.
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NAOMI HARRIS

Naomi is energetic, to say the least. A gallivanting Canadian, she travels all over, lives in her car a lot of the time and is constantly accompanied by her sidekick, Maggie the dog. She seeks out and photographs, for lack of a better word, characters.

With her latest project, EUSA, you could see the people she photographs as eccentrics, or as folks creating some kind of dream. But the photos also show how caricature can (and does) become an idealized version of a reality that doesn’t really exist. Or does it? Aren’t all our realities manufactured?

Read on as Naomi talks about how she finds projects and subjects, what she does once she’s got them in her sights and what she does for fun . . .

How do you choose your projects? What makes you decide to spend your time and capital on this, rather than that?

To date I typically find one project while working on another. Like when I was shooting my first project Haddon Hall, I used to go to a nude beach and would hear everyone around me talking about these parties that I was never invited to. I discovered that they were talking about swingers parties and when I was invited to go as a “key” so a single, male friend of mine could go I said sure, why not, because I’ll do anything once (the invitation was to come with no strings attached as I am a photographer and he figured I’d be into seeing it). So that led to my project America Swings. Then when shooting the last swingers project for the book I was in the mountains of Georgia and had time to kill so went to a little tourist town called Helen that was all done up in Bavarian. I did some research to see what other places in the US looked European, then looked into American themed places in Europe and voila, EUSA was born.

Tulip Festival, Orange City, Iowa, U.S., from: EUSA 

How do I decide what to spend my time and money on though? I guess I need to feel like I’m gaining something out of the experience, learning something about other people and myself. I usually shoot things that are far far away which is silly as I accrue all sorts of travel expenses when I should shoot something in my own backyard. But guess that’s the wanderlust in me. 

The next few projects I’m working on are a huge departure from my current work habit. I’m leaving the documentary style behind and attempting a more performance art approach. I find it more and more difficult to make interesting photos these days as more and more people are glued to their phones 24/7.

Tell me a little more about EUSA.

It’s a series of photographs, mostly portraiture, that I took over the course of 8 years, but not consistently. Most of these events happened during the summer months and usually many things happened over the same weekend so had to pick which side of the pond to be on when. And after I shot a bunch of places in 2010 I put all the shot film in my freezer until 2013 when a friend who worked in a lab was quitting their job and told me to give them the film so they could process it for free for me! That was a tremendous boost. And when I finally saw the images 3 years later I was like, “Whoa, I like what I’ve got, damn I better finish this project finally!” and got cracking again. 

PonyparkCity, Collendoorn, Netherlands, from: EUSA

But what is EUSA? In a nutshell it’s American themed places in Europe and European themed places in America. It’s my take on how globalization has ruined cultures creating a homogenized universal culture. Did I intend this when I first started shooting the project, no. But the more “the same” I’ve seen us become the more I realize that this is the true underlying current to the work. We are all becoming drones shlocking the wares of global companies like Apple, Adidas, Levis, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, the list goes on and on. That our cultures have become “Disneyfied” if you will…the to be German is to stuff yourself with brats while wearing a lederhosen T-shirt or if you’re American you are either a cowboy, Confederate soldier or Native American…and don’t get me started on Europeans dressing up as Indians.

How do you approach your subjects, how long do you spend with them and how much do they contribute (in the sense of collaborating) to the process? 

Each project is different for me. For example when I photographed Haddon Hall I moved into the hotel itself living there for 2 months and then relocating to Miami and lived there while working on the project. It was very important for me to be ever present and really gain the trust of my subjects. I wouldn’t even necessarily take my camera out, just hang out on the veranda and shoot the breeze as we watched the world go by. Or taking them to doctors appointments or helping with grocery shopping. All this is part of the process. Gaining people’s trust helps grant you permission to photograph in those off moments. But these people also became my surrogate grandparents as I grew up not having any other than my paternal grandmother who died a few years earlier, and for many of them I was like a grandchild. This was a time in my life when I had the luxury of time and had saved up some money to be able to work on this project but that’s not always the case.

Wurst Fest, New Braunfels, Texas, U.S., from: EUSA

When I photographed for EUSA or even the America Swings work I didn’t really get to spend much time with people in the sense that these were events. With the swingers there was the added pressure of needing to connect quickly since everyone there is there with an end goal in mind, and that’s not to get their photo taken if you catch my drift.

Typically I work slow. I always drum up a conversation, try to connect on a certain level and create an interaction with my subject. I want them to be a participant in their portrait, to not only be directed but to be present which I hope comes through at the end. During Trump’s first 100 days I drove around the country meeting people and photographing them in order to get a sense of how Trump was elected president. I talked to many people, not always photographing them. I think that’s important to say, that this photography thing is a process and a tool to connect with people that doesn’t always need to culminate in a photograph. Photography is experiential, the fact that there is a photograph at the end which you can share with others is just a byproduct. 

What do you do for fun?

I go to bed most nights at 9 so that eliminates most social activities. I get up early, hike the dogs, make a smoothie (got to get in those greens!) and then get to work. I don’t remember the last time I’ve taken an actual holiday. But I guess I’m having the most fun and feeling the most “at home” when I’m in my car on a road trip. Sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, figuring out where to go next while Maggie is asleep next to me, this is the greatest source of joy for me.

Here’s a link to Naomi’s Kickstarter where you can buy her book. Here’s a link to Naomi’s website.

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Thank you for your time
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