Some young friends of mine were talking about how social networking has negatively affected their live interactions with friends. One complained that when she has friends over to hang out or watch a movie they spend all of their time on laptops, iPads and phones messaging and texting friends who are hanging out with other people at other places. My young friend complained that when she tries to have a conversation with someone who is simultaneously socializing in cyber space, she has to constantly repeat herself and feel that she isn’t being listened to. She’s attempting to engage and deepen her relationship with a friend who is engaged in a simulated relationship to the detriment of the real one sitting right next to her. Are internet social networking sites that are supposed to enhance connectivity actually impeding communication in the real world? Is this behavior damaging live friendships and the development of social skills? This technology has overtaken us so quickly that we haven’t been able to evolve the coping skills (time-management and etiquette?) that might enable a smooth transition to occupying social lives on the internet and in our homes.
Yesterday I spent the day skiing with my family at a small mountain in upstate New York. There was no cell service. We spent an entire day in a place where we didn’t see one person on a cell phone or an iPad. It took a few hours to realize what was missing here but it was very refreshing. The comfortable sounds of clomping ski boots, conversation and meal clatter were never once interrupted by ringtones, vintage or otherwise.
Since I’m completely snowed in and because the snow is moving sideways at about 40 knots, I’m not out shooting this evening. Instead, I’m sharing some photographs I took during a similar storm two years ago, on City Island. I’m missing my home on the island today after taking a brief trip out to the house this morning to pick up my snow shoes in anticipation of this storm. The plan is to get outside tomorrow and take some pics of the aftermath. Hopefully everything will be sugar coated like these sweet little bungalows on City Island.
I captured these images last summer while traveling near Chicago. The images of urban sprawl outside of Gary, Indiana represent former hot-spots and businesses being reclaimed by nature as our centers of commerce move from the exurbs to the internet and beyond. Michael Jackson’s childhood home and a memorial to aborted children signify a cultural shift in the landscape.
I lived near Asbury Park when I was 15-17, the perfect age to live on the Jersey Shore in its heyday with the boardwalk, the amusement park, the bars that let us in even though we were under 18, the music. Oh, the music: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band playing at the Stone Pony so close you could sit there with your boots propped up on the stage and it was like he was singing right to you. And then the next day you’d see him walking down the boardwalk and he’d tip his cap and smile and say hey. Southside Johnny and Beaver Brown. All the lone singers out on the boardwalk strumming and singing to the sweet night air, the surf softly pounding a few feet away. I saw things on that boardwalk I’d never seen before and will never see again. It’s a hard to get a place like that out of your blood, even though it’s long gone and far away.
Some bad news painted the day in muted gray tones and stalled the progress of academia. Students gravitated to the studio at all hours to paint, glaze and chat. We made collages about everything and nothing. We listened to quiet music and talked a little and honored the silence by being comfortable with it.
I have synesthesia. I discovered this in 1995 while in grad school when a particularly intuitive guest artist asked me what color the word “photography” is to me. When I said, “swirling pink and brown” he informed me that not everybody sees words in color. This surprised me. But it explained why, in a critique a few days earlier I received 12 blank stares when I described Tuesday as orange. Cody suggested I read The Man Who Tasted Shapes, and this changed my world.
I thought everybody saw words, letters, days of the week, months and years in color. I thought everybody tasted color. I thought everybody “heard” color in music. Some music color is so “loud” it fills a room. Smashing Pumpkins create an orange-red-yellow swirling, creamy fog when turned up loud. Nirvana’s music looks more like a gradient from pale, diode-green to a deep sea-indigo. These colors are not associative; they represent as part of the experience of listening to the music.
I have never used a date book. Oh, I’ve tried. But the blank white pages confuse the natural calender in my head that is neatly divided into blocks of time defined by color. Friday has always been red. 2:00 has always been pale green. So when I have a party to attend (like today) my brain searches for something blue floating in an orange field – the image that appeared when I read the invitation – and there it is.
So that’s my synesthesia. It’s fairly mild compared to many accounts I’ve read over the past 15 years, but it works for me. I think the synesthesia explains why, as much as I love a beautiful black and white silver print, I’m always drawn to color. I especially love a rich, inky Epson print. The viscosity of the inks are the closest in texture to the colors in my head that flow into my life and my art
“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” Robert Frank, LIFE (26 November 1951), p. 21
Robert Frank is on my mind because I was looking through The Americans and thinking about the exhibition I saw at the Met last year. The book was the second monograph I bought when I became interested in photography in high school. I hit the streets shooting my own versions of his grainy, crusty black and white subjects: a doll in a store window, a hippie handing out free-press papers in Georgetown, a young couple entwined on a bench in front of The White House.
Reading his contact sheets in the show at the Met I was astounded to see how sloppy they are: underexposed, out of order, some strips exposed upside down and backwards. This was comforting to me. I have spent the last 13 years as a photography teacher advising my students to make readable contact sheets in an attempt to make up for all the mistakes I made with mine. Knowing now that Frank was as sloppy in the darkroom as I and yet managed to get enough good prints to make a ground-breaking monograph that would change the course of photographic history made me feel a little better about my own process.
So, back to the quote: Photographs have a lot in common with Haiku. And lately my Blackberry is my camera of choice. The pared down technology and instantaneous networking possibilities remind me of the SX-70. And you don’t have to take them too seriously, just as momentary observations, fleeting thoughts.
Something I wrote in the previous blog, nearly a year ago, and I still bring it up in my classes:
I wasn’t feeling well this morning so I stayed in bed a little longer than usual, indulging in The Today Show. Though we are at war with two nations, are wrestling with health-care reform and facing environmental catastrophe, the BIG STORY is Tiger Wood’s “half-naked body” on the cover of Vanity Fair. Okay, so it’s pretty transparent why the editors chose to put this photograph on the cover now, though Annie Leibovitz shot Woods in 2006. We get that. What is remarkable to me as a photographer is the abject surprise by the talking heads on NBC that Tiger has a body under the Polo shirts everyone has become accustomed to.
Comment after vapid comment revolved around Tiger’s demeanor (he isn’t smiling in the photo). His bare-chestedness (“we’re used to seeing him in a Polo Shirt!”) The Today Show hosts seemed dumb-founded that Tiger has “another side – a dark side“) and that he had kept it “hidden”. The newscasters were similarly perplexed and offered snippets which rendered Tiger as somebody other than the “hero we have come to know through the media”. One of them said, in his defense, “He is, after all an athlete”.
Leibovitz offered an explanation: “I wanted to show his focus”. Too bad she had to defend herself.
As people we know that everybody is multi-faceted. We have many dimensions to our personalities. A good portrait photographer will mine for the hidden aspects of a subject’s personality. One of the things that makes Leibovitz’s portraits so strong is that she shows us a side of her subjects that is new to us. This makes them more intriguing, and it offers us a sense of intimacy with her celebrity portraits that we may wish we had with the celebrities themselves. It is often stated about portraiture that each portrait is really a self-portrait. That a photographer will often put so much of herself into the shoot by directing the subject to appear a specific way which conforms to the photographers pre-conceived notions of who that person is that it is more mirrored self-expression than descriptive portraiture. This is a common concept in photography and should be factored in when viewing any portrait.
Tiger Woods is not a 2-dimensional character. That this is disturbing to many is disturbing to me. But the most interesting aspect of this story, and the most comforting is that it proves the enduring power of the still image.