Friends, I have done my stress-cooking for the night — and consumed the goods much too quickly for there to be photographic evidence. I have moved on, in my nocturnal navigations, to completing my House of Cardsmini-bender whilst delaying my return to the more perfunctory tasks that await me. The hour, once again, is quite late. My eyes threaten to fuse shut if I don’t remove my contact lenses, which I will do just as soon as I introduce you to a gorgeously confounding collection of photographs I found over on Slate — as part of my equally perfunctory practice of procrastination — published under the heading “Narratives of Unknowability.” And I wondered, as my eyes flitted between and across images, whether that is perhaps the best descriptor of modern art: a quality of unknowability, rendering the art critic (nascent and knowing) essentially disempowered from the discomfort that comes from not knowing what to make of something. It is perhaps less an exercise in explication* and more an endeavor of experience — specifically, an attempt to create experiences for audiences, both known and unknown.
Eyes near-crying now… so without further ado, the photo essay.
(and below, two from the collection that I especially adore)
*much of what is maddening about maneuvers in minutia is steeped in an ardent pursuit of explication as both the preferred mode of communication and redress. first to go is any sense that there may be more than one way to see something, to pursue something, to consider action or not. too eager are the explicators to explicate, to offer the answer. or, as a student noted, the all-too-common practice of seeing singularly without recognizing the harm done by adopting a stance toward difference as inferior. put simply, ranciere was on to something; thanks to d for reminding me of it.
Rather than attempt any written response to the events and aftermath unfolding from the dark day in Connecticut, I’m choosing instead to share a few new finds on the order of the art in children’s books and the worlds they open up — it is where I’m choosing to dwell for a spell.
This week, teaching meant being a student — returning to joyfulness, to receiving without the expectation of giving (in the familiar and staid ways), to sharing vulnerabilities through silence and observation, to giving oneself over to the unexpected shapes or sounds that occurred, to being free from expectations of replicability — I return to some favorite words from a favorite theorist:
“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre
Learning printmaking (with paints and “stamps” or plates that we made) under the guidance of the incomparable O.
Delighting in the nervous giddiness of graduate students’ verbal and embodied articulations when given the invitation to make movies in class using Animoto.
Becoming transfixed by the vocal tenderness of Nina Simone.
Oh, and the bliss of sharing Sebald with someone for the first time (highlighting is mine) and thus being made, in the process, to revisit his poetry again, anew.
My office should be declared an archaeological dig site.
I have spent the better part of two hours doing nothing but excavating, occasionally — ok, frequently dusting off folders, books, questionable objects that have not been used or moved in over a year, despite the use of my office by people who were holding together the many loose ends I left when I walked away from campus last summer. Midway through the year I learned that my bookshelves were being used as the backdrop for faculty and student video profiles that were filmed in my office, which explains why there was a large white umbrella in taking up residence in here when I popped in last spring.
Finally, the over-eighteen-inch high pile of papers has been sorted through. Most of it is filling the newly emptied green, plastic, recyclables receptacle in our office suite — and most of it was packaging: envelopes, filler advertisements, plastic wrapping for journal issues, bubble wrap, and more envelopes. I heard forests cringing all around me, their cries cutting through the crooning tunes courtesy of my Carole King & James Taylor Pandora station.
What stayed: copies of research participant permissions that were not filed before I left; copies of grant reports and related materials; journal issues that I have not yet looked through and the ones that contain pieces I have authored or co-authored;
Among the very special finds was a 2009 calendar that features the paintings of life in small town Norway, Maine, all painted by the then-90+ year old Duncan E. Slade. I had spent a week in Maine with my in-laws the previous summer that had included a visit to Slade’s studio, where I first learned about underpaintings, and about the artist’s life, including his decision to pursue a career in teaching at the age of 51. The four of us — Slade, my in-laws, and I — spent the better part of an hour talking about these and a range of other topics, including the strange symbiosis that exists between Philadelphia and Maine. At some point, my in-laws must have gone back into town and had the artist sign the calendar for me, which they presented to me the following Christmas. Gems, all of them. So I let myself take a few minutes to look through the calendar that included this painting for October that speaks to me loudly any time of year.
And then, quite unexpectedly, a piece of notebook paper fell onto the wobbly table top below me. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The rounded letters written in black ball point stood out and coaxed their neighbors to bend slightly, too. Capital letters mixed with lower case throughout this note that was written by one of the secretaries in a different program, whom I had gotten to know when I first arrived at my university. She was a sharer of stories, a sister, a grandmother, ready with a warm embrace, an infectious smile and sweet voice that belied her wicked wit. Walking past and seeing her in the doorway was always a highlight, an excuse to exchange laughter, momentary and agenda-free respites from what can feel like intractable mania. The last time I saw her, the familiar sturdy gait with which she would amble slowly and deliberately through the school halls, had been stripped away in a manner that only life-stripping diseases can do. Her carefully coifed salt and pepper hair was replaced by a closely cropped head of small curls. Thick glasses were a permanent fixture on her face, and they allowed me to recognize her when I attended the farewell luncheon being given in her honor last summer. She was surrounded by people and chatter and food and others who, like me, also hadn’t known the full extent of her illness.
In the letter, she references a conversation in which we discussed her grandson, about whom she was concerned and spoke of often. Hers is a letter of thanks, and she concludes her thoughts in this way:
“I (we, my [dept] coworkers) respect you so much. … Don’t let anything or anyone change you — It’s important to your students and to those with whom you interact. Respectfully, I—–“
Oh, but dear I… you changed me. With your beauty, your grace, your persistence, and caring. And I am ever thankful for that.
If photography is about seeing and showing, then could photo editing have something to do with the possibility of showing and what is seen? I’m not talking about the endless scandals of hazardous photoshopping in which a model’s ribs, hips, or appendages have been eliminated for the sake of preserving some strange ideal of “beauty” or, quite simply, to market and thus sell things. No, I’m referring to the art of photo editing in which a digital image taken of the world is made to look somehow celestial, even as it maintains a representation of this reality.
In short, I have been captivated recently by the work of Leanne Cole, a photographer whose blog is full of such artful photographic treatments. What first brought me to this blog escapes me, but I know that I keep revisiting it and at first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing — only that I was full of questions about how and what. Only later did it become clear that what I was seeing were artistic renderings of photographs.
Here’s an image of Leanne‘s that I absolutely love, in large part because of its Hopper-inspired quality:
The red face of the counter corner is, of course intriguing, but with each look — and there have been many — the street, the back of the road sign, the lampposts and trees become increasingly interesting. And the wooden floor, weathered and reminiscent of the surface being meticulously attended to by Caillebotte’s scrapers: (image courtesy of Musee d’Orsay website)
But Leanne Cole does not keep her secrets secret. She has shared some of the photoshop techniques she uses, including posts that offer excellent tutorials full information about sliders, layers, masks, and more. I haven’t tried it yet, but, inspired by her technique of seeing and then seeing again I present a respectfully doctored image of a stone staircase near the beach in Cromer (manipulated using the basic exposure, contrast, and saturation functionality allowed by iPhoto).
How to explain the strange fact that the first image is what I recall seeing when I first decided to take this photo? Has a camera yet been invented to do what the eye seems to do effortlessly? That is, processing color and shape and shadow and scope, all while triggering memories, intertextual connections, and adjusting for light exposure.
Hung on the walls of the cafe from where I write are paintings, several of them by the same painter, most of which depict people in naturalistic settings — next to foliage or biological life of some sort. The painter’s brush and palette of paints here work in the same way that the mouse and video editing software does in the images above. An entity exists in the world, and instruments are used to render a version of it — never can a painting or photograph or film or even exact replica be the thing, itself. So, if all representations are, at most, approximations of the truth, why not dabble in the practice of creating entirely new worlds with their own truths? That is, to conceive of photographs as paintings, as not merely captured or clicked, but composed long after the shot is taken.
What kind of photography is this? In a world of instagram filters and readymade schemes anyone can apply to enhance a photo, what is this practice of carefully manipulating an image to create an altogether different artifact? Are we all just auto-tuning our pictures?
What does one do with a manipulated photograph? How do we read an image that has been stripped of color? Whose shadows have been augmented or minimized? Haven’t photographers always dabbled in photo making? In deciding how long to let an image burn onto the photo paper or how quickly to take it out of the developing liquids — no image is free from mediation, yet the chase for some unreal sense of purity persists (though not among photographers, I suspect).
For the inspiration, for the provocation, and for the beautiful work, my thanks to Leanne.
“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” — Emerson