An Unintentional Side Effect On Nature Stemming From Our Ego

How’s that for the longest title ever?!? Last month I blogged briefly about a current collaborative project I am working with a cohort of mine involving landscapes of civil war battle fields and other historical places we photographed in the deep south, namely Virginia, a few years ago. Well, in the few spare moments I have had in the last few weeks, I have thrown myself into researching and some abstract ideas have really started to form. Sometimes I have to photograph something, put it away for a while, and then revisit the project to really understand why I photographed something in the first place.

The main epiphany I had over the last few weeks is really the structural skeleton of the project that I have tried to put into words for the last few months. In the end, this project in not about civil war battles, or preserving historical events, but rather the unintentional side effect of creating spaces that are being largely untouched by the human hand and can start to regrow.

It remains a little thought about fact that the deep south’s natural resources have been cleared time and again in the last 300 years, and current forests are in their 2nd or 3rd regrowth stage (more about this is later), and the national parks created to educate and preserve historical cultural events (Jamestown, Civil War battlefields, etc) have created spaces where nature, for the first time in the area in centuries, is largely left to its own devices.

This is most visible in sites where smaller happenings occurred (i.e. The Battle of the Wilderness) where visitors are largely left to their own devices and trails make up a very small percentage of the actual parks, but even in larger destinations like Gettysburg and Jamestown, the visitor trails and attractions make up a fairly small part of the parks themselves, and much of the land is allowed to regrow from centuries of pillage. As I read on and hypothesis, I’ll have more to say on the subject, but for now I’ll let these thoughts stand.

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Tied to Memory

What do you see in the below photograph?

Viretta Park Bench #1

Scribbles and scrawls; part of a bench, and maybe a tree. But this photograph isn’t about the tree in the background, or the bench, or even the scribbles and scrawls or the mementos left on the bench. I believe no photograph is about what the photograph shows, but about what the photograph does not show. for me, it is the story behind what a photograph shows that offers the intrigue.

Susan Sontag once wrote “A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings become unstuck.” If this is the case, these image will last only as long as the memory of Kurt Cobain resides in pop culture, and will become irrelevant as a cultural shared grief fades. I cannot say how long that will be, but in the 17 years since the lead singer of Nirvana committed suicide, this shared grief lives strong, and can be seen in the letters and flowers left on the graffiti bench that sits in the park behind the house the angst-ridden star lived and died in. So, is this really a photograph of just a bench?

Viretta Park bench #2

100 Years: Happy Birthday, Grandma!

100 years ago today, my Grandmother Grace was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. The picture below is probably the earliest recording of her: it was taken at her grandparents house in SLC. It is also the oldest negative I have in my collection of family photographs. The portrait was taken on sized 132 film, and was likely one of the first photographs taken on my great-grandmothers Kodak Folding Pocket camera that took postcard sized photographs. I now have what few remaining negatives my great-grandmother shot with this camera, as well as the camera itself, which we think is still in working order (but I will know when I actually finish my test roll of film. More importantly though, I still have my grandmother.

My grandmother Grace, as a baby, in Salt Lake City, UT

As I pack my bags to head over the mountain range and see my extended family for a weekend of birthday festivities, the realization of how lucky I am strikes me again. I can still ask her to tell me stories of growing up on the pains in Alberta, Canada. Or about when the Columbia Basin Irrigation project started and her and her husband placed the irrigation system in their once dry farm in Quincy, Washington. I can ask her about what it was like to be a press photographer in the 1960’s, when the “old boys club” had barely begun to be questioned. I can ask her these things and have more answers I would ever had just by looking at old photographs and making educated guesses. So happy birthday, Grandma Grace! And here’s too many more.

The Golden Rules

I wasn’t ever going to write a post about practical advice on taking photographs, but, like all rules I set up for myself, I’m breaking it. There are a few golden rules in photography that I have learned over the years…the rule of thirds, flat lighting in studio portraits can sometimes be more effective than dramatic lighting, the sharper the pin = the sharper the image, match your equipment to your subject (ie- a pinhole camera at a sporting event may not be the best choice…) and “look at something differently” (ie- flip the camera vertical, get on eye level with your subject, climb a tree and see what something looks like from above, etc), are just a few I have rattled off to myself and anyone else that would listen through the years. Yes, rules are meant to be broken, and I have broken every single photography rule I have ever learned, at one point or another, sometimes to find a little magic, and sometime to encounter a disaster. But there are a few tips… errr… I mean “rules” that I should probably just have tattooed on my arm so I don’t forget them, as every time I ignore them I am never satisfied with my shots. Here they are:

If it’s Not Good Enough, You’re not Close Enough!

This is actually a lot harder than one might think, but it’s also a universal truth of “good” photography. Often, the subject we want to show in a photograph is so small and surrounded by unnecessary visual information that what we, as the photographer, wanted to show, just ends up getting lost. But in order to get close to a subject, you have to break down your barriers and step outside your comfort zone. Diane Arbus never got a compelling portrait of a circus performer from the sidelines, and you probably won’t either. Sometimes it takes getting to know people you may not have otherwise talked t, and sometimes it might take jumping a fence, but the results are usually worth it. Oh, also, I do not mean slap a telephoto lens on your camera and get close that way, especially if you are photographing a person. If you are uncomfortable with your subject, the viewer most likely will be as well. If your subject isn’t even aware you are taking their picture, well, the audience will know that as well and the voyeurism will shine through. But don’t take my word for it...

Don’t Shoot! (…unless you have a reason)

In the era of digital cameras, everyone has gone trigger happy. Why not? I mean, it’s not like it costs anything more if you shoot one frame or one thousand. There’s nothing wrong with shooting this way, but you still gotta remember to pay attention to what you are shooting and have a reason for snapping the shutter in the first place, otherwise you’ll probably just end up deleting the photo from the card and sending it into cyber oblivion anyway. For those of us stuck in the analog era, unless we feel like spending gobs of cash getting shitty pictures developed (and yes, I am speaking from experience) we’d do right to only shoot when we have a reason. P.S., while “it was pretty” and “I had to use up the roll of film because I really wanted to see those first few frames I shot” are reasons in themselves, they are reason’s that most of the time won’t provide a decent picture. So slow down, breathe, meditate on the subject, the perspective, and the reason you want to photograph something. I tell myself this all the time and still forget, but the best results come when I slow down enough to practice my own advice.

This photo intrigues me and engages me. It makes me question the story of what is happening, but also engages my eye to move about the frame. I was close to the subject, and cared about what was happening in the scene at the time. I find it much more compelling than the other shot shown here.

This photo, while not the worst image, certainly isn't the best. The subject is far away, in the middle of the frame, and altogether not very interesting. I was testing my camera and not passionate about the subject at the time, and I believe that shows in the carelessness of composition and subject matter

Oh yeah, and one last thing, if you like your photograph (or writing, or painting, or what ever else it is that you do) I promise someone else out there will too. There’s too many people on this planet for no one to have the same taste as you.

How Hereditics Started

My grandmother, around age 3 in about 1914

I have spent all day immersed in pictures and names. Sorting and organizing almost one hundred years of photos and mementos in some sort of chronological order, labeling photos long forgotten with the names of those frozen in the frame, and retouching photographs that have lost their battle with the years and elements and bear scars of creases and fading. My eyeballs may fall out of my head at any given moment, and I have lost all hope that sanity will find me again today.

You see, I am in the throes of the project that is the precursor to what I have affectionately dubbed my “Hereditics” work. Next month marks my grandmothers one hundredth birthday, and as some sort of gift to her and others in the family, I have spent the last 3 weeks or so digging through boxes, sorting and scanning long stored photographs, negatives, slides, and other memorabilia my grandmother clung to through her life. Out of the thousands of photographs I have looked through, I am placing roughly one hundred in a book for her for her birthday. There are photographs her mother took from infancy to childhood, pictures my grandmother took of her family and adventures as a farmer and journalist and press photographer, and mementos spanning almost the entire twentieth century. The scope of the project overwhelms me, and the prospect of successfully showing one’s life condensed into 40 pages is daunting.

The facts are that the process is exhausting, and I feel like a jack hammer that is just starting to break through layer upon layer of concrete. I have also learned more about my family than I imagined I ever would. I am beginning to understand the complex relationships of the immensely strong women that make up my heritage. I am beginning to understand pathologies that run like rivers through generations and maladies that hold hands with extreme intelligence. I am beginning to understand how cycles are patterned and broken. My mental Rolodex has expanded to the point where I can name my great-aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and great-cousins and family friends and so-on and so-forth at any age, at just one glance. And I realize the information I have unearthed thus far I a droplet of water in a very large pond.

Somehow, I feel this book is only the beginning, and as I continue to scratch the surface in this anthropological journey, it may take me places I never could have dreamed of going. Before I can take off on the journey completely, I need to turn up The Pixies, tune out the outside word and finish this preemptive mini adventure by finishing this book!