Re: READING THE GRAPES OF WRATH

I’m re-reading The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. It’s really affecting my thinking.

“Tom said, ‘Prayer never brought in no side-meat. Takes a shoat to bring in pork'”

As most of you probably know, it takes place in the 1930’s and tells the story of the Joad family’s journey from their farm in Oklahoma to California, where they hope to find a better life. They’ve been “tractored off” their land by a combination of the Great Depression, bad weather and the advent of agri-business (one man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families). The banks now own the land and put profit before all else. Sound familiar?

I remembered the broad outlines of the story from the first time I read this book, a long time ago. What I am struck by now, with this reading, is the breadth of detail, the mix of story with document (or, maybe, information).

Page spread

Politics, nature, family dynamics, square dancing, religion, camping in ditches, how to change a connecting rod in an engine, and the list goes on. All the stuff of human existence is mixed in together, given equal weight. And interspersed within the story are short, poetic chapters that flesh out an even broader perspective.

Detail

I’m pretty sure The Grapes of Wrath is not really informing my current project, but it is seeping into me. Its form, its content, its way of seeing life, are all seeping in. And isn’t that why we look and read and think?

And, one other thing: A photograph of Florence Owens Thompson hangs in my kitchen. It’s an alternate frame of the more famous image  known as Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange. When I look at it now I see it in new ways, with a deeper understanding.

Florence Owens Thompson, by Dorothea Lange

GRANT

I’ve just finished writing a grant. And let me tell you . . . trying to succinctly define/describe a project as amorphous as the one I’m working on is a can of worms. It’s not as though I’m shooting a series of portraits of trans people, or landscapes on the edge of town. That stuff , while it can be tricky, is pretty straight-forward, with lots of precedents and a handle (or is that: hook?) that the jury can grab ahold of.

In my head I have a pretty good idea what I’m trying to do. I’m sure you, too, sometimes have a feeling that is deeper than thinking, where, in a split second of clarity you just know something. Except it’s all in your head and almost impossible to verbalize. Problem is, you don’t really know anything until you can say it out loud.

That’s the reason I write my blog. It’s also a reason to apply for a grant: you are forced to make the idea(s) behind your project concrete.

I’m trying to keep my application clear and simple, but I’m also throwing in some highfalutin words to, you know, let the jury know that I know what’s what. Here’s a paragraph from my application . . .

I also had to submit 12 images to support my application. So, for the first time in a long time I had a hard look at what I have so far done. The subject matter is (as I have planned) all over the place, but I think the way the images feel binds them somehow together.

In the end what I did was, I chose 12 images that are the bones of one appendage of the work. And I kind of overstated it, too, brought some obviousness forward. That way, at least, there might be some cohesion for the jury to grasp. I’m not sure how much more plain I can (or want to) make it. Here are three of the 12  images I submitted . . .

Last week I wrote a bit about photo contests. I reckon getting a grant and winning a contest are kind of similar. If the jury is sympathetic to your work (or, maybe, friends with you) you have a chance of being a winner. But it’s still a crap-shoot. The plus side of applying for a grant is that, win or lose, you are forced to think through and write down the aims and ambitions of your project. That, and there is no application fee.

Of course, if you just want to sort out what you’re thinking, you could always start a blog (or a personal journal). That’s free, too.

REVIEW

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 . . .


REACTION

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.

George Mercer Dawson, Rink Rapid, Lewes (Yukon River) August 22, 1887
Installation view. Photo by Ming Wu.

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.

Canadian Photography Institute


THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN

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.

 

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.