Depth Charge

Carol McCusker

Photography is art’s most democratic medium. It would seem that anyone can be labeled a good if not great photographer worthy of a show and publication once they master the mechanics of the camera, take enough trips to exotic places or attend a reputable photography graduate program. The fact is, by virtue of seeming to be a democratic, accessible art form, photography is deluged with mediocrity, imitation and instant art stars with no track record. Before embracing these art stars, I want to know, as curator of a photography museum, what else they’ve done or are capable of doing, and if they have staying power. They usually hail from university graduate programs, and open their first show in a highly visible New York gallery complete with a publication and a $12,000 price tag on each image. As with music and sports, the market hypes their imagery, furthering what I see as photography’s trend toward the big, the colorful and the disaffected. This may appropriately (and sadly) reflect our culture’s state-of-mind, but given the current state of the world, I need something more.

Rather than focusing on what is idiosyncratic or isolating about human experience, I want to see what photography does best, namely, engage me in a relevant, palpable experience of the world that expands, connects or affirms life. Some of the most powerful images are those in which the photographer’s intentions meet the viewer halfway, satisfying or exceeding expectations by opening our eyes to something not seen before. Robert Adams’s photographs from his Los Angeles Basinseries come to mind. The L.A. Basin is a place that for many symbolizes the death of nature. Deeply concerned about the environment, however, Adams photographs the basin’s resilience—tenuous but untiring—despite the onslaught of freeways and over-development. His definition of nature is not that it is a wild thing separate from cities but essential to living in one. Eschewing the ironic image (say, a struggling sapling beside a dumpster), Adams gives us instead the sturdy elegance of a bank of trees rising monumentally above a distant ribbon of smoggy freeway. Like the geological nature of his subject, Adams’s pace is slow moving; his projects take years and he walks long distances while photographing. His images feel glacier-like in their symbolic ability to carve depth and to reveal layers of the previously unseen. Nature becomes a hopeful metaphor; it survives. But, he implies, how it endures belongs first in our ability to see it. Adams offers us a second sight, providing what French theorist Roland Barthes valued most in photography, “The power of expansion…I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think.”

Like other art forms, photography can help us make sense of the world. I recently read a passage by author Rebecca Solnit that made me think of the power of photography. Addressing English majors at their graduation ceremony, Solnit asserted that studying English Lit [and here I substitute photography] can “enable you to analyze, to see patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined hand-me-down notions, that enable you not to make a living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian of educations prepares you to make sense of the world and maybe to make meaning…to become a producer of meanings rather than a consumer of them in an age when meaning as advertising and marketing is daily forced down our throats.”

When I can, I like talking to photographers about their process, which inevitably leads to how their photography generates meaning, and what it is exactly that they tap into in order for this to happen. I go through a similar process myself when curating an exhibition or writing an essay such as this. For all of us engaged in the creative process, the degree to which we are committed to finding meaning is more important than any photograph or exhibition we create. The images are the overflow when life is sufficiently challenged or stimulated to the point that all the things that engage our bodies, minds and emotions demand an outlet of expression. Consider the music, movies, conversations, fiction, poetry or news media you consume daily; each shapes what you think and how you act. Therefore, how we live and what we surround ourselves with has everything to do with what we produce. Inseparable from the life of its maker, the act of creating becomes the outward expression of a life lived.

Instead of perpetuating today’s climate where the main photo trends are choked with irony or superficial references to pop culture, photography should better the world, not hinder it. I want to affirm what is inherently valuable in life. I am sticking my neck out here asking that photography be “life-affirming,” opening myself up to accusations of being old-fashioned or close-minded. But, for me, photography (as with all art making) has a moral dimension. It is not a trivial act, and comes with responsibility. It is nothing less than a privilege to make art, and responsibility goes with privilege.

I think of photographer Andrea Modica as I write this. Living the peripatetic life of an academic, Modica has satisfied her desire to belong to a community by befriending certain people within it, mostly children who she then photographs over several years. She is committed to them as a friend or older sister. Her photographs are exceptional by way of the camera she uses. Modica uses an 8″ X 10″ view camera exclusively. This dramatically changes and slows down the picture making process. “The amount of time that elapses between when I ask a person to pose and when I snap the shutter has an effect on their portrait,” Modica says. “Their response to who I am, as well as the camera, becomes a part of the picture.” She then makes her images into sepia-toned platinum photographs printed on tissue paper the weight of skin. Consequently the images have an intimate physical dimension alongside being deeply tender. They come from a need on the part of the artist to find meaning in the commitment to friendships with children and their families, in the emotional connection of photographing, and the shared vulnerability in both.

The camera can also become a teacher as it did for the photographer Sebastio Salgado, who began his career as an economist aiding development in Third World countries. In 1973, at the age of 29, he changed careers and became a freelance photojournalist, a risky business decision at the least. Photography became another, more compelling entry way into the subject he knew through economic forecasts in charts and graphs. In the 30 years since, his photography and name are synonymous with a movement called “socially concerned photography,” a devotion to his subject—labor and the poor. He has put his own comfort and safety at risk, and slowly garnered accolades, awards, exhibitions, publications and has spearheaded grassroots causes that have changed lives.

Salgado’s achievements in the field of photography may feel beyond us. But all that I am addressing here is his level of commitment. Rather than looking at what he has achieved, more to the point is to consider that moment of decision in 1973 when he borrowed his wife’s camera while working for the International Coffee Organization in Africa. There are points in all our lives where we know something has to change regarding our careers, creativity and personal fulfillment; a high stakes gamble that could involve changing one’s life style profoundly. While I’m not advocating that we all become gypsies and take to the road, I am suggesting that Salgado’s involvement with people and issues (he once said, “You must photograph with all your ideology!”) is a source of inspiration to go to the next level of commitment in one’s personal actions and choices. For me, it’s about knowing when my life needs to be challenged in order to better myself, and I hope the world. And then, like opening an irrigation channel, letting in the elements that will allow my aspirations to grow.

Creativity and growth often trigger discomfort. This is perhaps what the poet Stephen Spender meant when he wrote that the act of creation involves “a terrible journey.” “A lonely effort of concentrating the imagination,” wrote photo historian Bill Jay. At the least, creativity demands time alone with your own thought processes and belief systems, which feed and sharpen your imagination. A photographer I have exhibited and written for, James Fee, has spent a lot of time traveling through the United States and in the South Pacific either hunting down evidence of his father’s WW II experiences or recording signs about America’s past that may forecast its future. Fee’s personal philosophy—and how he makes meaning—comes from his experiences, which include family history, memory, travel, American politics and history and personal loss. Each of these surface one way or another in his photographs. His images take the commonplace (a city skyline, the U.S. flag) and make it look uncommon by solarizing his prints, or distressing them with surface scratches and stains, or by the angle at which he shoots. His is a dark view of the human condition. Yet, despite this, his images also feel strangely hopeful and redemptive. The empty factory mills in the Midwest or the WW II detritus reclaimed by the jungle are in a simultaneous state of decay and growth, that is, of transformation by virtue of him photographing them. He is using photography to act on them from a place within himself, tapping into something many of us have felt about our lives or the world. Fee’s fearless self-knowledge and honest confrontation with the things that matter most to him help exorcise the pessimism inside, and generate a measure of acceptance. John Szarkowski once wrote (and it is apropos of Fee) that an original vision “can revise our sense of what in the world is meaningful and our understanding of how the meaningful can be described.”

If the creative process were in the shape of a funnel, at its widest end would be the active internal life of the artist capturing and sifting thoughts and impressions inspired by reading, travel, memory, music. With each successive narrowing of the funnel comes vision, then clarifying one’s subject and, lastly, creation of an image. The same amount of information that goes into its widest end exits at its narrowest. It’s all there, just condensed. Another simile is the VLA (Very Large Array). Located on a remote plain in New Mexico, the VLA consists of 27 radio telescope dishes on railroad tracks spanning 22 miles. Tilted upward toward the sky, its giant ears strain as if it were a sentient being looking and listening for something new out in the great expanse of the universe. I picture its stillness in the high desert, its constant state of searching and receptivity, and I think about leaving myself open, of gathering information and experience, and distilling it into knowledge and creative thinking. In the end, whether I am as creative as I hope is beside the point; the real art is in creating meaning from what surrounds me. I am inspired by Walt Whitman when he wrote, “I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the earth are latent in every iota of the world…no doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, weeds, and rejected refuse than I have supposed.”  © C.M. 2006

McCusker, Carol. “Depth Charge.” Lens Work 85 (2009): 68-71.

~ by crossmd on May 16, 2010.

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