RIPPED ME A NEW ONE

Way back when (2001) I took my portfolio down to Toronto to show it to some of the folks there who have their thumb on the pulse of photography.

Last meeting of the trip was with Clare Vander Meersch. She looked through my portfolio and more or less ripped me a new one.

What Clare told me was (and my memory might not be totally accurate here), the photos were swell but were missing something. They seemed old-fashioned (or, maybe, already dated) and formulaic. Of course she said more, fleshed out the reasons for her reactions. It was a well-measured, though quite critical, response.

As I departed the meeting I mumbled to myself that she didn’t know shit. After all, I was having some success, right? And what the fuck does she know, anyway? Stuff like that.

(I should mention that I was having some success as an editorial and commercial photographer at that point. I was known for shooting classic-type B&W portraits. Lots of people dug them.)

Got in my car and began the 5 hour trip home, turning her comments over in my head the whole time.

Halfway home I wondered to myself, I wondered, what if she’s right? Could that be possible?

As I drove into my driveway in Kapital City I knew she was. Right.

That set off two years of struggle, soul-searching and exploration. I wanted to change my approach, change how my photos looked and felt and, mostly, change what they meant to me.

I won’t bore you with the rest of this story except to say that I finally, in a desert outside Los Angeles, figured out a new approach, a new (for me) way of working. It felt more modern and, somehow, true to me.

(I should mention that the changes in my work, from pre-2001 to now, are not radical. More, they are subtle shifts. Evolution, not revolution. This, in part it seems to me, is why the changes seem right.)

You see, I’m not the kind of guy who can think to himself, hmmm, my work needs to look more modern, and then just mimic someone else’s work I’d seen that struck me as modern (or trendy). Yes, there are certainly other photographers whose images have a similar look and feel to those I make (tell me a photographer’s name who has come up with something completely new in the last 30 or 40 years). But I had put in the work and the self-reflection, the trial and the error (so many errors), to arrive at this new point of departure and it just felt right. I was now at a location (in my brain) where I could set off down a new, different, path and look for new meanings.

I have always held that fateful meeting with Clare close to my heart. I thank her for her honesty and I thank myself for getting past my (bruised) ego. It changed my life.

WORKSHOPS

Speaking of critique, opinion, change and progress . . .  I want to mention that I’ll be teaching two Master Classes this summer.

One is about portraiture. It’s not a technical class (though there will be bits of that). It’s more about teaching an approach to portraiture that explores the space between you and the person you are photographing. The aim being to not just end up with a likeness of your “subject”, but rather to show you a way to work that allows for a fuller experience.

Click this link for more details.


The other deals with sequencing, or, rather, it will introduce you to a philosophy, strategies and approaches to photography that will add nuance, depth and complexity to the work you produce.

Click this link for more details.


The time and location of each Master Class is yet to be determined, but they will each probably happen one morning or afternoon a week, for four weeks. The location will be The National Gallery of Canada or SPAO.

GOOD GODDAMN

 

People sometimes ask me why my projects don’t all look the same.

I take it they mean they are a bit perplexed when my projects go from (for example) drug addicts to federal infrastructure to the suburbs.

Well, I only photograph what I’m interested in learning about and I believe that you don’t learn that much by just plugging some preordained approach or style into what you’re photographing. That’d be called consistency. And while certain consistencies are important in photography, other consistencies are just a way of going through the motions without really thinking (too much). The world is so complex, so multifaceted, that looking at it from just one angle really doesn’t do it justice.

Of course it goes without saying that the stress of our years since birth boxes us in, creates our biases and informs how we see and understand the world. But within that box (which is always reinforced by the powers that be) there is a lot (or, maybe, some) wiggle room.

I bring this up because I’ve been looking at Bryan Schutmaat’s new book, Good Goddamn.

GOOD GODDAMN

Bryan’s first book, Grays the Mountain Sends, is a classic. One of those rare beasts that is easy to like, popular and worthwhile. A beautiful collection of Western landscapes, interiors and portraits of men (except for the very last image, a photograph of a woman), all shot in atmospheric light. It’s impossible not to sense the feelings accrued in this book: lonesome, desolate, lovelorn, melancholy.

His subsequent book, Good Goddamn, is different in a few ways:
• The images here were shot “in Leon County, Texas, over the course of a few unseasonably warm days in February, 2017”.
• Those images show us one thing: a slowly (but not too slowly) unrolling event (or what many, especially those not connected to it, might consider to be a non-event).
• The photos are black and white and not always entirely sharp.

But Good Goddamn only looks different from Grays the Mountain Sends. The underlying feelings remain the same: mystery and melancholy, lonesomeness and desolation. They (those feelings) are just rendered in a different way, using a different approach. And in Good Goddamn the approach feels right and honest.

It’s great to come across photographers who don’t always fall back on the tried and true. Because so often what is tried and true for one thing, for one subject, for one time of your life, will not be true for another. It’s only by trying (present tense, as opposed to “tried”, past tense) that you have a chance of approaching some truth.  When you try instead of settling, that’s when honesty has a chance.

Bryan Schutmaat
A couple of actual reviews of Good Goddamn:
1000 Words
PhotoBook Store

“‘Comparisons are odious . . . . It don’t make a damn frigging difference whether you’re in The Place or hiking up the Matterhorn, it’s all the same old void, boy.'” ~Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

EDIT (INTERLUDE)

Finally back to the edit/sequence of my project. There was some delay because my printer broke. Had to drag my sorry ass down to the store to get a new one. (P800, in case you’re interested.)

But enough about that . . . what about the edit?

I spent the last year and a half shooting this project. It began with a broad conception and I photographed all sorts of things that felt like they might work, fit. Now, seven weeks into the edit/sequence, I’m beginning to hone it, to zero in. And, as I thought, as I wanted, it seems to be about (for lack of a better word) some dark shit: the potential (maybe even the propensity) of homo sapiens to fuck things up. (Or something like that. I don’t know. In the end it’ll be up to you to decide, if you see it.)

In the meantime . . .

One of the things I’ve been thinking about, as I look at what I’ve done, study these photos and try to shape them, is, what if things get better? What if the First World isn’t as broken as it seems, what if the premise of this project is wrong?

But if you look at, study, history, if you consider the long view, it’s kind of obvious that the “prosperity” and “progress” of the last half of the 2oth Century (the era we’re familiar with and, so, think of as normal) was an aberration. Planet Earth has always been a tough place. Yes, homo sapiens have mostly progressed, but that progression always comes with, is situated within, a background of violence and repression. And often that background becomes foreground.

So I suppose I needn’t worry too much that things will get better in the short run. And, man, how perverted does that sound? Worrying that things will get better because it might fuck up my project, my projection? That’s just weird, right?

I mean, of course I hope things get better. But, to quote Robert Frank: “Look out for hope”. The beauty of that sentence being that it cuts both ways.

And, anyway, hoping ain’t worth shit. Kinda like thoughts and prayers.

So here I am, in the dark place this work is taking me. Not that I don’t find joy in the small things: walking the dog, cooking dinner, working and learning, trying. But I’ll leave changing the world, and hoping, to someone else.

Finally, here are some words I found when I was well into the shooting for this project. They seem to sum up what I’m working towards . . .

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.”
-Bertolt Brecht