Monday, May 17, 2010

Thoughts of a Self-Absorbed Photographer

I am pleased when one of my photographs strikes a nerve in others. I have conditioned myself not to be displeased when they don’t. Affirmation is always good but for some reason I am always leery of praise, maybe it is because I never really have sought praise and I am just not sure how to handle it. I have never had what I considered an acceptable reply when someone comments favorably on a photograph or on my photography . I always feel like if I say more than a simple thank you that I come across as a totally self absorbed SOB—there of course is a reason for that, I am. I do desire acknowledgement—why else would I post photographs to the Internet—but I am more comfortable when acknowledgement stops short of praise. Truthfully I am terribly egotistical about my photography, not all of it but a lot of it. I would just as soon that no one actually knew that therefore I prefer not advertise it every time someone comments favorably on my work and believe me the last thing I need is enablement and ego aggrandizement.

Am I that great of a photographer? Absolutely not. Sometimes I am more than adequate because I do, like a blind pig, occasionally find an acorn. Occasionally I do produce a photograph or a series of photographs that even I believe are worthy of acknowledgement, my acorn.

I have always promoted the idea of photographing what is inside of the photographer rather and what is in front of the lens—just a part of being self absorbed. Do I disparage sunsets, kids and flowers (or any of the plethora of the pictorially permissible subjects)? No. But I am saddened by them especially when they are taken by photographers that I know have so much more to offer. I know the photographers that took these photographs are happy, contented with their effort and so unaware of how little they are giving to the world of photography or to themselves. My contention is, has always been and always will be that the only photographs of value—and maybe that value is limited to simply one person, the photographer—are the ones that come only from inside the photographer. Will that contention change the world? No. It like any addiction can only be corrected/cured/changed by the addicted. Needless to say I still sit out to enlighten the addicted as hundreds have done before me—all to the same underwhelming degree of success. Much more intelligent, better versed, more articulate writers have laid out the case so much better than my meager abilities allow.

Do I photograph these same pictorially permissible subjects? Yes. But I seldom photograph them well because I always have the nagging suspicion that without the depth of emotional attachment I am not doing the best that I can do as a photographer, that somehow I am cheating.

I also do a lot of photographs that float somewhere between. These are photographs of objects that do not necessarily have a commonly associated emotional reference but buried somewhere in that object simply by the fact that I chose to photograph it is something of me. Granted it is often a stretch to find it. It is like using a mixed light shot of a hospital cafeteria to touch on my reclusiveness and display the warmth of secure places with the coolness of the exterior world, something that has been a reoccurring theme in my photography for the past few years. Do I expect others to see that? No. Maybe that emotion, that meaning is there only for me—but it is there. Why do I see totems in light poles, an autobiography in a bunch of dusty containers in an ill kept garage or a crucifix in an oil slick on a church parking lot? I don’t know. I just know sometimes that in these cases what is in front of the camera is talking about what is behind the camera and I am very happy when I am aware that is happening—another indication of my self absorption.

My photography occasionally is done for the nefarious reason of attracting the attention of others, but not all that often. It really is for me. As I have said in the past, I feel that I stumble onto what I photograph. It is seldom planned, or at least the best of my photography is seldom planned. I like it when my photography, when my life, floats—moved by forces outside of myself like a leaf or a feather in the wind. That sounds really silly, really lacking in direction or ambition, but it’s true. Sometimes the wind is a gentle breeze and sometimes it has the force of a hurricane. Much to the chagrin of friends and family much of my life has been that way. I am a firm believer that you live the life you were supposed to live so why fight it, why try to be what you are not nor really want to be? To me it just seems so simple, just be.

This triad of self confession is all leading up to photographs that I have taken recently of my wife, Janet. Although I have always photographed both the happier and the sadder sides of Janet’s life. For a very long time I only posted photographs of the happier side. It would be okay with me if that were the only side but it isn’t. Recently her life has become considerably more difficult and many more of my photographs of her have become darker. On a recent trip to ER the consensus was that Janet was not likely to be going home with me. That is a wind of hurricane proportions, emotionally I was devastated. Yes, I have always known the possibilities but I always assumed the wind would blow from my favored direction. I simply was not ready to turn loose and thankfully I did not have to. During her four day stay in the hospital I did a large number of photographs and some of them I think are extremely good. I do believe that all the emotion that had not been drained was manifested in the photographs. Remember, I see these objects as photographs, new entities, not as the objects photographed.

Even though that particular hospital has a no-photography policy there was no way they would be able to keep me from taking photographs of Janet. I did a number in ER and then later when she was transferred to a room.

Even now, after these photographs have been posted to various places on the web I have some concern about doing that. I question if it is a violation of Janet to share such difficult times. I don’t really know the answer to that question and I feel that there is more than one answer and that it might even depend upon the viewer. To me these photographs are extremely raw and seen as photographs rather than as the object photographed, some are extremely good. That may sound a little overly self impressed but if I do not think my photographs are good why should I hope that anyone else will?

This particular photograph through its composition, depth of field, color, darkness touches me very deeply. There is enough detail to set the location as a hospital, the resignation of her position, but what moves this photograph beyond simply documentation of the situation is the fading away of the focus until the instruments behind her are only suggestion. It is a photograph of what I was anticipating at the time—losing her,

watching her life fade away from me and frankly at the time I was not sure how I was going to live with that. Her entire four day stay was gut wrenching as I just knew each day that I was going to lose her.

While on a coffee break the first day we were there I purchased a couple of brightly colored scarves for her to wear. I would alternate the scarves during the day but I was never really sure that she was aware of them.

A few days after we got home I shot a few photographs of her in the scarves. I was very tired and somewhat reluctant to get out the background and lights but I did. I am very happy that I did because a couple of days later she was back in the hospital from a fall. This time the injuries were not as life threatening but she had done something she had never done in a previous falls—she struck the left side of her face. Always in the past she had hit the right side so I always had the unmarked left side to photograph. So the photographs done that night will be the last that do not show scars from her falls.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how you find the time and wherewithall to put together a post of such magintude. What is amazing is that this triad us the same as you have posed time and time again in our other world. But I doubt if we got it. So I ask you now: don't you think that only few are capable of admitting what is within thier heart let alone submit it to the medium of photography. So we hide behind half completed work and behind the guise of "I never saw that" when in realty we are hide behind our fear of rejection. You see when I am in the photo and you say two thumbs down your pitting me down not it. Big step !!!!

    Hope all is well. Keep in touch.

  2. 01

    "It never ceases to amaze me how you find the time and wherewithall to put together a post of such magnitude. What is amazing is that this triad us the same as you have posed time and time again in our other world. But I doubt if we got it."

    Paul, yes, it is THE triad, the same triad. It is the same lecture that I have given myself thousands of times. Yet I have no idea if even I get it.

    "So I ask you now:

    don't you think that only few are capable of admitting what is within thier heart let alone submit it to the medium of photography."

    This question is much too deep for me. You are, of course, right. We fool no one as easily as we fool ourselves. We lie to no one as blatantly as we lie to ourselves. I think we know what it “within” it is just that we are not sure that we want anyone else to know—from the earliest age we are programmed to fit in, not to stand out, not to be different—herd mentality is not innate, it is learned and we all do a great job of learning it. It has taken me the best part of seventy years to publically uncover a even a shovel full. There are still things there that I ain’t going to tell about.

    Many years ago I read somewhere that the greatest gift that we could give another person was the truth about our own humanity, including our warts. God knows we all what to be perfect, magnanimous, intelligent, giving, concerned—all those good things that good humans are supposed to be. “Want to be” is the key phrase. We’re not. Of course we are, but we are also so much more, the more that isn’t quite so self flattering. Maybe it wasn’t stated exactly that same way but the essence was to let others know that we are human with human frailties so that they would feel better about being human and having human frailties. To let them know that they are really not different. That is all that I am trying to do—one, make others feel better about themselves, less disturbed about the things they see inside themselves because they are the same things that we all possess and two, cleanse myself by confessing my humanity and letting it hang out in my photography—boy or boy, if it really ever all hung out—aint’ gona happen.

  3. 02

    So we hide behind half completed work and behind the guise of "I never saw that" when in realty we are hide behind our fear of rejection.

    Yes, you are right—we all fear rejections, some more than others. But we can learn to live with rejection. The sin is letting it control the important things in our lives—like photography. What is more common is that we hide behind SAFE work. Why do you think flowers and sunsets are so popular? We hide and at the same time by hiding reveal. Is this for everyone? No. For a very long time it was a tremendous impediment to my photography because I knew that by hiding I was revealing and I was not sure that I wanted to be revealed. For a very, very long time I did not photograph anything that I suspected would reveal the things I did not want to reveal and by so doing I really pretty much laid it all out there. Why do you think that it is so difficult for men to take attractive photographs of their wives? Why do they enlarge to 16x20 the most ugly, unflattering photographs of their wives (you can also substitute children here) and call it art? It is all the petty animosities that we build up toward people that have considerable sayso in our lives, all the minutia just below the surface that we are programmed to bury, to endure, put up with without complaint because it is unflattering of us to mention it. That is why I always feel a degree of reservation about posting photographs of Janet that show the darker side of her life—am I documenting or am I hitting back at her for so totally screwing up my existence by being ill. I know it could be either but most likely both. I don’t want anyone to know that I could possibly have those thoughts about Janet so I always feel some degree of guilt—but I also know that I am sharing a part of my humanity at the same time, so is it good or is it bad? I really don’t know. Why do we make ugly photographs and then call it art? Why do we post photographs that are poorly processed? Why do we choose what we choose to photograph? They are all revelations if we are willing to address them. Are we hiding from ourselves when we don’t? Absolutely. And that is revealing.

  4. 03

    “You see when I am in the photo and you say two thumbs down your pitting me down not it.”

    Paul, I am not entirely sure I understand this statement. I hope that I am not putting either you are your work down. I am simply assessing your work which, as you have gleaned, is an assessment of you. That assessment is based only on my personal experience. There are many things in the photography of others, yours included, that I am unable to assess, or to assess accurately, because they are well beyond my experience. That is one of the reasons that we used to talk so much about Judaism and your Buddhist beliefs—that is foreign to me and the only way I could understand some of your work was by understanding the experiences in your life that I had not experienced. I really miss those conversations.

    Big step !!!!

    Better believe it, brother.

    Speaking of brother and of experiences, let me relate a strange one. In 1959, Stanley Kramer did a movie of Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel, On the Beach. It is still among my all time favorite movies. To this day I can still see the Salvation Army band playing and singing the song There’s Still Time Brother. I love the song and would love to find the complete words but as I recall it went, There’s still time brother to love one another, there’s still time brother for you to make amends…” Some forty plus years later I purchased On the Beach on DVD and was greatly surprised to find that they did not sing the song in the movie, they only played the music and then at the end showed a banner with the words There Is Still Time Brother. I also remember seeing Gone with the Wind for the first time at about six or seven years of age. I vividly remember watching the surgeon saw off a man’s leg with what looked like a tree saw. Some ten years later I was surprised to learn, when I saw the film the second time, that the surgical procedure is not actually photographed. The action takes place in another room and you only hear what is happening. The saw is never pictured. Why do I remember the words to a song that was not in the movie and how do I know what the saw looked like. You simply have to continually question reality and what is real.

  5. 04

    I had made a correction to this third post but with all the cut and paste to get it to fit the correction was lost so let me amend that.

    I said, “…as you have gleaned, is an assessment of you.” The correction should read, “…as you have gleaned is an assessment of your—but it is also an assessment of me.”

    When critiquing a photograph you, or maybe I should I say I, am only partially talking about the photograph. I am mostly talking about me. Same is true of any critic. What I say about your photograph is more revealing of me than it may be of you.