The phenomenon that is HONY has inspired numerous photographic spinoffs — among them, (the occasionally quirky captions of) Humans of Paris, (the close-up portraits of) Souls of San Francisco, (the “still finding its groove”) Humans of London, and several more — even as its own viewer base continues to skyrocket, from fewer than two thousand “likes” on facebook when I first learned of it, to near 177K at last count. A few months before stumbling onto this project, the act of taking photos had started to wiggle its way back into my daily practice after slowly leaving some years back, save for the photography and video work that is central to certain parts of my work. But living photographically involves more than fulfilling the impetus to document or capture. The work of photographers that slips into my subconscious, taking root in often inexplicable ways, reflects a way of being that is fueled by an incurable fervor for story, taking in the world as it is, as it could be, as it might be, as it was, as it wasn’t, as it isn’t… and creating artworks as offerings of humanity back to humans. These are not the musings of someone who has “studied” photography, who has majored/minored/or otherwise degreed in arts, art history, fine arts, or the like. No, these are just the the observations of someone who is continually moved by the work in the world that photographs can sometimes do, sublimating cliched boundaries of allegiance and affiliation in the process.
Take for example the following few photographs, some that come from photographers I’ve long loved, others from recent discoveries — all that fall within a loose categorization of “street photographer.”
1. From a recently published collection of photographs by Gordon Parks in the NYTimes Lens section that depicts everyday life in during the 1950s and 60s in the segregated South. His quotidian narrative is enchanting, educative, and occasionally startling. Sparks, who died in 2006, would have turned 100 this year; the same would have been true of my paternal grandfather who only lived until the age of sixty-four, the same age that my father is now. The world has a strange way of grabbing our attention, much like the intersection of color, beauty, and disbelief that collide in Parks’ photos.
2. Photographs of children also enchant me. Specifically photographs from another time that seem to recognize the hidden world of children (long before they become overexposed due to the ubiquity of image making means) continue to weave stories long after first glance. Consider these four images together:
The first two photographs were made by Diane Arbus and the second two by Roy DeCarava. In both of their bodies of photographic work, I find a resonance toward empathy for “people who have been sidelined in one way or another.”* They hold a sympathetic eye toward the people about whose lives they produce stories of images. It may be appropriate to note at this point that while I came to Arbus somewhat recently or late, depending on your point of view, Roy DeCarava has been a treasured name to me for nearly two decades, which coincidentally is how long I have known my spouse, the very one who gifted me with The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaboration between DeCarava and Langston Hughes that features the former’s photographs of life and people in Harlem accompanied by the latter’s poetic prose.
Until then — that is, before I held in my hand the square-shaped book that would become the text to which I would return time and time again to remember, to learn, to practice seeing with curiosity and with humility — I had taken pictures with the enthusiasm of a child who was allowed to ride her bike around the block unsupervised. The experience remained new with each venture, limited by my own abilities, and threatened to take me to unfamiliar places; and because of this, my eagerness only grew. I had made good use of the dented and damaged Leica that was said to belong to my uncle but that had taken up permanent residence, at first, in the hallway closest of my childhood home, and then, mysteriously, onto the desk in my bedroom. This hunk of leather casing and mechanical functionality is what I used in my first photography course, before upgrading (or was it a lateral move?) to a Minolta x700, the starter of all starter SLRs. All the while, as I tinkered with buttons and learned to process film, I realize now in retrospect that I wasn’t practicing seeing. I still wasn’t looking. The best photographs I took during those relatively early years of my practice seemed to happen by accident. I never mastered composition or framing, and paid little attention to exposure and depth of field — although, of the latter I took copious notes. But the accidental shots were taken, well, quite by accident: the light catching a friend’s hair in a way that just missed making her look like a well lit and haloed angel; shadows and reflections of a lake underneath a bridge in Boston Common; and portrait of a woman named Janie who was a member of the administrative staff in the organization where I worked right after graduating from college. All were shot in black and white, with knowing subjects, and without hesitation.
3. There are the photographic creations that can seem otherworldly, palpable in their ethereality, haunting even. Some of my favorites come from photographer and educator Mary Ann Reilly who brings the affordances of digital media tool together with photographic images in an effort to say something else, something other than what the image or the enhancements could say on their own. Two examples:
4. And another before sharing a few snaps that fulfill the promise of the title of this post. I have mentioned here before the writings of the author Teju Cole — both his book, Open City, and his twitter stream where he composes small fates about news items, largely about the lives of those who have been somehow wounded, occasionally fatally, in another place, in another time. (He explains it better here and here.) Some time last fall, I think, Cole started a second twitter feed from where his photographically inclined self speaks, shares, probes and renders true Thoreau’s assertion that “The world is but canvas to our imaginations.” His travels take him to far flung corners of this earth, yet with his image makers, both digital and analog, he produces visual artifacts that demand second, third, and fourth viewings. An early favorite of mine was of a young woman sitting at a counter facing the floor to ceiling windows; what I first saw, however, was a ball gown, a regal air, the beauty of solitude. The light and shadows crafted reality out of illusion, and what I recall of it now are hues of red and black and, for some reason, the presence of blue. The actual image seems to no longer be online on the flickr page, so you’ll have to trust me and hope that the image appears in an upcoming exhibit somewhere… Meanwhile, I’ll share another favorite that needs no explanation:
And a link to a recent snap from Brazil that, like several others in a collection he has labeled “Spectral Tendency,” a set (in flickr terms) that seems to be creating a full bodied experience with each photo. There is much that coaxes your gaze further into the image, inviting you to lean in, breathe deeply, see the relations between the on screen players in new ways. Another image in the same set was taken just steps from the Tate Modern, and as with the boys from Brazil, the spectrum is wide as well as deep; the layers are playfully endless. These photographs, as with some of those above and the work of others who take to the proverbial pavement (I’m thinking here of the work of Zun Lee and the roving Underground NY Public Library photographer, for instance), are artifacts redolent of photo making that strives to banish the fourth wall; in these images, photography feels less like something “to look at” and more so as both portal and realm through and into which enters, temporarily shedding the immediate present for the possible present. Photographers — those who live photographically — have been, have become, and continue to be my strongest teachers, for they deal in the currency of seeing.
For the past few weeks, with each upload of a new batch of photos to my laptop — itself a version of Christmas morning that foretells of gifts and secret wonders that will soon be revealed — my eyes keep traveling back to the India folder that contains the photos I took during my trip to Kerala earlier this year. They feel different, somehow apart from the other thousands I’ve taken in the past twelve months. Sure, the landscape is unlike that of my other travels, but so is the perspective, the angles, the subject matter. The people. In some of the villages we visited, I was not just photographing daily life, but I became a part of the story. In taking photos, I was also implicitly agreeing to share the photos with the people who were photographed. My last Kerala travelogue will be posted soon, and yes, it will be six months late — so for that reason, I share these photos here, unvarnished, without commentary or further context, save to say that in these images, I feel as if I finally started to see. Each photo suggests a plurality of stories, that is true. But it is the stories that brought them into existence that play on the tiny screen in my mind’s eye when I look at them.
*Sebald once said in an interview: “I like to listen to people who have been sidelined in one way or another,” referring to the cone of silence following World War 2. He seemed to understand at an embodied level that stories were lurking everywhere, some that needed little prodding and others that were more reticent to emerge. What has been profoundly humbling has been consistent encounters with the lives of people — in their homes, their places of worship and work, sharing the streets and modes of transportation, sharing a meal. Sebald, too, placed himself in these spaces, listening as he did with both heart and ear; that’s not meant to over sentimentalize the man, but rather to call attention to his studied practice of attending, particular to wounds that may have been heavily scarred over, barely noticeable in some cases, utterly raw in others. He was, as Cole has described, a poet of the disregarded.