Sometimes at night, as I am waiting to fall asleep, my brain engages in a form of time travel. I suppose a more prosaic way of saying it would be to call it “memory,” but this doesn’t capture the experience. Nor does the word “hallucination,” though that gets closer. In the dark, with my eyes closed, no sound in my ears but my own breathing, I am in a different bed. One that doesn’t exist anymore.
Last night after I came to bed, I lay there for a while and looked at my wife, at the way she looked blue in the dim glow from her phone, at the softness of the light and how it matched the softness of her skin, and I smiled a little, though she didn’t see it. When I closed my eyes, the image of her face stayed in my mind for a moment, but then, as it does, my mind wandered. And after no more than a few seconds, I found that my sense of the room around me and the bed beneath me had changed.
Often when I go somewhere else, it’s back to my high-school bedroom, a room I called mine from the ninth grade through college. I haven’t seen the inside of that house in 13 years, since my mom and stepdad moved east to care for his elderly parents. But I still go there at night. The room is nine feet by ten feet and built like a ship’s cabin, with all of the furniture built onto the walls. If I were to open my eyes, I’d see that every horizontal surface apart from the bed on which I lie is covered with books, magazines, papers, and the other detritus of a teenaged introvert. My toes just hang over the edge of the mattress, and if I roll just a bit to the right, the plaster on the wall will be cold against my back. Of course, if I were actually to move or open my eyes, the spell would be broken and I’d be back to the present day.
Last night, though, I went back much further. Instead of the short twin mattress of my 14-year-old self, I found myself lying on a cot against the east wall of a small, one-room cabin. Just a few inches from my feet are several large windows that look out onto an unfinished redwood deck, past the railing of which the Bixby Creek trickled by. There are crayfish in the creek, and trout, hiding in the shadows under the little footbridge. We lived here when I was six, with my mom’s boyfriend—a man I haven’t seen in decades, who died four years ago, and whose memory will probably always haunt me.
My waking intellect, the part of me which is writing these words right now, knows that this experience is just a combination of memory and imagination. But when I am drowsy, I begin to wonder: is this mere fantasy, or does my consciousness perhaps drift back to my younger body in these moments? If I remain still enough, silent enough to hold onto this magic through the night, or if I fall asleep while I’m there, where might I be when I awake?
Most of the time when I am transported through time in this place between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a sense of longing, a melancholy born of the recognition of lost time. Yet I also feel a certain wonder, and perhaps a certain safety—which makes little sense to me now that I consider how often I felt frightened as a child and lost and lonely as an adolescent.
Finding myself back in that cabin, though, was more than I could bear. The weight of my memories, the thickness, the viscosity of my emotions—I felt like I couldn’t draw a breath. I jerked my eyes open and, needing an anchor to something present and real, I reached out and put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. She turned and looked at me, lowering her phone for a moment and asked “What’s up?”
I explained. I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but she simply asked “What do you need right now?”
“I’m doing it,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder gently. She smiled and went back to her phone. A few minutes later I was asleep. Here. And now.
This Is Not the Life I Wanted
This is not the life I wanted.
I suppose if I'm being honest, I should say: this is not the life I was promised.
The other evening I was in my living room doing something I can no longer remember—perhaps playing a game on my phone or wading through news updates—when I heard my wife say "You look terrible."
"What?" I said.
She pointed to the video she was watching, one I'd recorded earlier in the day, asking people to call their representatives about one crisis or another. "You look tired," she said. "Haggard. You need to take better care of yourself."
I hadn't really watched the video before, just recorded it and posted it, and then moved on. But she was right. The face in the video looked back at me with bloodshot eyes, heavy-lidded with exhaustion. Somehow, I was surprised. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know it showed so much.
Lately thoughts of exhaustion tumble in my head, crashing and rasping against each other as they turn, but never becoming round or smooth or comfortable. John Lennon's voice drones on, lamenting not having slept a wink—and my mind, too, feels on the blink. And I think again and again, like an old hobbit, "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."
I'm being dramatic. I know. But I can feel myself burning out, and I don't know how to stop, or even how to slow down.
It strikes me as unseemly to spend my time (and now yours) on thoughts like these, on simple exhaustion, when I know that other people are suffering more, even dying. That, yes, I am tired, but protesters are being beaten and graves are being desecrated and families are being separated by deportation and somewhere right now, right this instant, someone is trying to make the impossible choice between buying food and paying for cancer treatments. I know this. I know what feels like an ordeal to me does not compare to what other people are going through.
Though, perhaps this, too, is something this Congress, this President, this year is taking from us: the right to even admit that our struggles are struggles. Is that too much? Maybe. I don't know.
When I was young, I had no greater concerns placed on me than to get good grades and be polite, to eventually be "successful" and reflect well on my family. I expected nothing more than to raise my children, save for retirement, and read some good books along the way.
What has it cost me, then, this year? I think about the words not written, the art not created, the hours spent researching and organizing and not playing with my children. I think about the pile of unread books on my nightstand, the months of unedited photographs sitting on memory cards, waiting for a spare moment. I think about the late nights and early mornings. I think about the look on my son's face as I head out the door to another protest instead of sitting down for a family dinner. In one sense, these sacrifices are small. In another, they are pieces of my life being stolen.
I read something once, long enough ago that I cannot remember when or where or by whom, something to the effect that both the magic and tragedy of life is that each of us are going through it for the first time. It means that we each get the opportunity for discovery, and thus the ability to experience wonder. But it means also that time and life are resources which are finite, and unrecoverable.
This isn't the life that I wanted. I never wanted to have to know about legislative calendars and executive appointments. I never wanted to know how lobbying differs from political activity, and what the financial rules are for each. I never thought about which kinds of protests need a permit and which don't, and I didn't want to. But now I do. And having put the time in, I am more aware than ever how much more work is still left to be done, and how few people—still—are available to help. Or even willing to do so. Or, rather, how many would help, how many want to help, but need someone else to show them what to do.
I tell the people who attend our meetings, "Self-care is important. No one person can do everything, and you don't have to. Take care of yourself when you need to. Rest, so that you can come back refreshed." Like a lot of people, of course, I find it easier to say that to others than to live that way. There's simply too much to do, and not enough time to do it, and more piling on every day.
In the end, though, when I am done crying for myself and the life I expected, I come back—as I always have—to the stories of my youth. Perhaps I say to myself, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." But I remember, too, that "so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I read those words to my son for the first time last summer, not knowing then what they would mean now. I want to have the opportunity to read them to my daughters, too. Am I willing to do what's necessary to give them a chance at a simpler life? I think so. I hope so.
This is not the life that I wanted, but this is the life that I have.
Here we are.
Here we go.
I can hear the little bear in the kitchen, the feet of the step-stool scraping on the tile floor as she climbs on top of it. “I WANT A SNACK,” she announces. The space of a heartbeat passes, maybe two. “I WANT A SNACK,” she repeats, stretching the last word into something like a musical phrase, complete with a crescendo and a fermata.
“Could you ask me that more politely, please?” I say, standing up and putting my book down.
“Please can I have a snack?” she asks, her voice quieting and rising in pitch.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking nicely.” She rejects my first four offerings—applesauce, a graham cracker, a cup of yogurt, a tangerine—before finally settling on Goldfish crackers as acceptable. “Sank you,” she says as I place the bowl before her, then turns away. I have been dismissed.
“Little Bear, can I have a hug?” I ask.
She laughs. “No!” I am, of course, being ridiculous.
When my youngest was an infant, I called her a berry when she was sweet, and a bear when she was surly. Given her name, these endearments were low-hanging fruit, to be sure. But by the time one is up in the night with his third child, the impressiveness of wit or ingenuity has lost a bit of its urgency; one takes the fruit that is at hand. As tends to happen, one name stuck and the other didn’t, so now at the ripe old age of two years, she is our Little Bear.
Unlike her brother—currently experiencing a growth spurt that makes him devour his meals quickly and then go in search of more—Little Bear likes to linger over her food, picking at it as she plays or sings or watches a video on my tablet. She will nibble until it’s gone, or until something else catches her attention. With two older siblings and a dog, the latter is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve only managed to get two or three pages further in my book before I hear the slap of her tiny feet as she races down the hallway. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouts. “EXCUSE ME!” She opens her brother’s bedroom door. “EXCUSE ME! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!”
“No,” he says.
She turns to her sister, who is lying on the floor beside their brother’s bed, apparently staging some sort of battle between some Lego Star Wars characters and some Pokémon figurines. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?” Little Bear asks.
“No,” says her sister.
I hear the door close, and the quick pip-pip-pip-pip-pip of her feet as she runs back toward the living room, where I am setting my book down again. “THEY SAID NO!” she reports. I brace myself. She glares at me for a few seconds, then abruptly turns and goes back to her crackers and the video which has continued playing during her absence.
When you are the smallest person in a house full of opinionated people, you must find ways to assert yourself, and Little Bear does this with aplomb. From her very first day, two things have been clear: she is aware, and she has opinions. It is a cliché to say that a person is “a force to be reckoned with,” and yet this is what she does. In every interaction, she demands that you consider her. I tell myself—and everyone else, really—that I’m heartened by this, that I hope she never loses this insistence, that it will serve her well when she’s grown. I also often (usually) add a rueful grin and the caveat, “I wish she’d take it a little easier on me and her mom sometimes.” But when I’ve put her to bed at night (singing one song to her and one to the stuffed animal by her side, laying the blankets over her in exactly the order she requires) what I find myself turning over and over in my head are all the ways that the world tells little girls to make themselves small and soft and pliant. I can’t protect her from this fate; all I can do is try to prepare her for it, and a strong self-regard and confident assertiveness seem a good armor. Or so I hope.
Perhaps twenty minutes have passed—long enough for me to become engrossed again in the story I’m reading—when I feel a touch at my knee and then Little Bear is pushing the book out of her way and climbing over my lap and onto the chair beside me.
“Hello, Little Bear” I say.
“Oh!” she says, and giggles. “Hello!” She stretches her legs up, crossing one ankle over the other and setting them on my lap. “I’m not touching you!” she says.
“Oh really? Are those your feet?” I ask.
“And is that my leg?”
“No! That’s my leg!” She laughs uproariously; that the thigh serving as her footrest belongs to her should be obvious, but she has decided not to hold it against me. She throws her arms around me. “Snuggle time!” she declares. “Snuggles are good!”
Yes. They are.
Photographs, Memory, Moments
It was too early when I went in to wake my five-year-old daughter for school this morning. It is always too early when I wake her, even more so for me than for her. There is, nevertheless, something comforting about the familiar mundanity of being tired on a weekday morning, as unpleasant as it usually feels.
When I stepped through her bedroom door she was sitting in the middle of her bed, blinking heavily against the light from the lamp I’d turned on a few minutes before as I stumbled down the hall. She was frowning, her brows bunched in consternation, perhaps even resentment for a moment before she brushed her hair from her eyes and looked up at me, and smiled. Something about this scene brought an image to my mind, a picture from her even-younger days, but it took me a second or two to realize that I was remembering a photograph.
Photographers are often drawn to obsessing about time and memory—though, in that I suppose we are not so terribly different from other artists. From other people in general, really. It makes sense, of course. Photography is something most of us understand as a form of documentation, a way of physicalizing memory, of stretching the infinitesimal into something like permanence. Does it actually do this? Well, no, but it feels like it does, and in some ways that feeling may be more important and true than the literal facts.
Still, seeing some hint of complexity in the interaction between memory and photos, we can’t help ourselves; we just have to wrestle with it. There’s a chapter in Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, in which she laments that her clearest memory of how her father looks comes not from life, but rather from a photograph. She recalls every details of the image, from the gesture of his hands to the color of his belt, but finds herself unable to move beyond the stillness of the picture to the full sensory detail of life experience. There’s no real arguing with this—once you make a photograph, or even spend any appreciable amount of time looking at one, that is what your brain will latch onto.
Nevertheless, I find myself resistant to the now-commonplace cry, “Put down your camera and live!” Perhaps this is merely another expression of the contrarian streak that so aggravated my parents when I was a child. When I poke at the edges of my capacity to remember, though, I find myself dismayed by the brain’s fallibility.
When I was young—fourth grade, perhaps? third?—one of the people I loved most in life was a young man who worked at the day care center where I went after school. I remember that love, the admiration I felt for his creativity, the joy I felt when he would invent stories on the spot. I remember looking up to him, and looking forward to every afternoon I got to spend in his presence. And I remember the deep sadness I felt, the pain and confusion we all felt the day we found out he’d killed himself. His wasn’t the first funeral I’d attended, but it was the first I cried at.
I have no photographs of that boy, and I find that now, some thirty years later, when I search my memory for an image of him, I find only a few indistinct impressions. Dark, curly hair, long in the back in the way so many boys’ hair was in the late 80’s. A bulging Adam’s apple, a cracking voice, a wispy shadow of a moustache that he never got old enough to see become proper stubble. But the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose or chin, his posture or the way he held his hands—all of that is gone now, and it will never return. What would I give to be able to remember even a facsimile, a reflection, a ghost of his smile?
After my friend died, we planted a tree to remember him, beside the fence that separated the school playground from the day care’s yard. Many years later, when I came back to my home town to shoot a photographic series about nostalgia, I stopped to visit the tree, finding that I couldn’t remember exactly which tree it was anymore. I made my best guess, and stood there trying to fix the moment in my mind. I remember now the coolness of the air, the sound of some young mothers talking while their kids ran through the play structure, the roughness of the new bark that showed through where the outer layer peeled off. But mostly I remember the photograph I took.
This morning when I carried my daughter from her bed to the living room, she wrapped her arms around my neck, and I squeezed her gently back. I gave her a little kiss on the top of her head, and her hair tickled my lips, and I thought about the photograph I’d remembered a few moments before. As I so often find myself doing, I found myself paying close attention to the sensations of the moment, the feel of the grooves in the wood floor beneath my feet, the dimness of the house in that moment before the sun was fully up, the weight of my daughter’s small body in my arms. “Remember this,” I silently told myself. “Remember exactly this.” But even as the thought finished, I felt the moment starting to slip away. It’s seven hours later as I write this. I can’t even remember which picture I thought of when I woke her up.
Goals for 2017
A year ago, when I was setting my goals for 2016, I had no idea what the year was going to bring. Looking back over the year with all its losses and turmoil, it's easy to lose sight of the smaller things. But, as is my tradition, I want to check in with how I did with last year's goals, and then set some new ones for the coming year.
Goal: Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
Result: I finished the year having read 30 books, of which 23 were written by women and 13 were written by people of color. This included 23 novels (15 SFF), 6 books of poetry, and 1 self-help book.
Goal: Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
Result: I did not submit any proposals for solo exhibitions in 2016. Nevertheless, I did have my second feature on Lenscratch, I had images included in an online group exhibition, and I participated in the portfolio reviews at the Medium Festival of Photography, where my work was well-received and garnered some interest from several museum and gallery curators.
Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I spent 2 days shooting for “It Forgets You,” completing the project and turning it into a handmade book.
Goal: Run 400 miles.
Result: I ran 137.5 miles.
Goal: Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
Result: I only wrote 6 real essays for the blog, but I also wrote 5 book reviews that I think qualify. Additionally, one of my essays was republished on PetaPixel.
Goal: Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
Result: I did this, self-publishing an edition of 100 via Edition One Books. I also got them included in the Fraction Media Shop, and sold several.
Goal: Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
Result: I recorded 32 interviews with artists, writers, and curators last year, and so far 29 of them have been released on the podcast I started. This is probably the accomplishment of mine of which I'm most proud.
Goal: Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
Result: I actually designed 2 new handmade books, making a final version of one and a prototype of the second. Both got excellent reviews at this year's Medium Festival of Photography.
So, in the end, I met six of my nine goals, and came close on a seventh. I'm satisfied with what I was able to achieve last year.
As for next year, here are my goals:
- Read at least 26 books, of which at least 13 must be written by women and 13 must be written by people of color.
- Run 400 miles and at least 1 race of 5K or longer.
- Set a new personal record for a 1-mile run. (Current record: 7:53)
- Lose at least 13 pounds and keep my weight at or below 190 pounds through December 31.
- Start an email newsletter and use it to send out at least 12 essays.
- Start a Patreon for my podcast.
- Get at least 4 essays, poems, or stories published in paying markets.
- Record at least 8 conversations for my podcast with people I don't know well.
This seems like a good start.
At the beginning of the summer, when you graduated from pre-school, Mommy and I told you that you would be starting TK in the fall. But now it's fall, and even though you're just today turning five, you've already been in real kindergarten for three weeks, and you've been doing great with it. Every morning you have been getting up just like your brother, and you've had such a great attitude about going to school, even though it's early. And even though you are the youngest one in your class, you're still one of the smartest and hardest-working. You've gotten points from your teacher every day for things like staying on task, participating, and using whole body listening, and I'm so proud that you are being a good citizen in your class.
Right now as I'm writing this, you're in your bed all tired out from spending a whole weekend at Disneyland. I'm so glad to get to spend time with you, whether it's when we're away or at home, and I can't wait to see what the future brings us.
Happy birthday, Eva. I love you so much!
Soundtrack: "It'll Only Get Better (Instrumental)" by Tayler Buono. Used with permission.
Three days ago we celebrated your brother’s birthday, and today it is your birthday. Birthdays being what they are, this is how it’s always going to be, and sometimes your mom and I worry about letting your day turn into an afterthought. I don’t think you’re going to let that happen, though.
Because you are a force.
You may be the youngest member of our family and—for now—the smallest in stature, but in will and determination and sheer size of personality you are a giant. You are mighty. You know what you want, and you go for it, every time. I think of all the times I’ve lifted you over my head and listened to you cackle, your gleeful shouts of “Again! One more time!” I think of the way you will just climb into my lap and push your smiling face right into my line of sight; you are playful, but you demand to be seen.
And even though sometimes that means your mom and I—and your sister and brother—have to reckon with your displeasure, I hope that you hold onto that spirit, that ability to stand up for yourself, never taking a drop of disrespect from anyone. Because if you can do that, nothing is going to stand in your way. You’re smart, you’re strong, you’re funny, and you’re fierce. You will go far.
Today is your day, my girl. I love you. Happy birthday!
Soundtrack: "Nightglow (Instrumental)" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.
For the past few nights you’ve been having trouble sleeping because you’re so excited about your birthday. This is really one of my favorite things about you, that you get excited about things. Just in the past few days you have been excited about your birthday, about Pokemon, about getting a new pair of flip-flops just like the ones I have, about eating hamburgers, and a bunch of other things that I can’t remember. I know that you’ve heard me say this before, but I hope that as you keep growing and getting older, you will hang on to that excitement.
What can I say to you that I haven’t said already so many times? I tell you all the time that I love you, because I do. I tell you that I am proud of you, because I am. I tell you that I am lucky to be your dad, because it’s true. I tell you these things almost every day, it seems like, and when I was your age I probably would have rolled my eyes and said “You already told me that.” But you take it a lot more gracefully than I would have.
You really are a great kid, my boy, and I hope that you have a great day today. Happy birthday, buddy. I love you.
Soundtrack: "The Atmosphere (Instrumental)" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.
A Predictable Trend in Photography Criticism
There’s an article from PetaPixel that’s currently making the rounds on social media, called “A Disturbing Trend in Photography.” In it, long-time photographer and photo educator Neal Rantoul makes the argument that the art photography of today is heavy on words and light on quality. He says:
Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer’s aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self-absorption, even making work with blinders on.
Rantoul lays the blame for this trend on the ubiquity of contemporary MFA programs and the increasing ease with which modern camera technology allows us to produce “stunning results” without any real mastery of the craft.
In the five days since the article went live on PetaPixel, I’ve seen a great number of my peers sharing it on their various social media feeds, talking about how great it is, how well written, how spot on the argument and observation. The thing is, there is nothing unique or even particularly unusual about Rantoul’s piece—I’ve literally been seeing pieces like this shared about once a month for as long as I’ve been following photography.
If there’s anything that artists and art critics love besides the art they favor, it’s complaining about the current state of the art world. This is a long and storied tradition going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, so there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the fact that it’s still happening now. And, really, I don’t need to pick on Mr. Rantoul too much—even if he’s not advancing any new ideas in his piece, it’s by no means the worst or most strident of the bunch.
Generally speaking, thinkpieces decrying the state of contemporary photography make some combination of three basic arguments:
- Art used to be much better than it is now (e.g. in the 80’s, in the Modernist period, in the Renaissance, etc.) and the current trend is dangerous or disturbing.
- The art establishment has suckered the critical or art-making populace into believing that the new style is important, but it is ultimately empty. (I call this the “Emperor Has No Clothes” argument.)
- Artistic practices no longer pay proper respect to traditional constraints, and they should. (e.g. “If a photograph requires words or explanation, then it is a failure,” or “Photoshop is ruining photography.”)
Now, I can understand the appeal of arguments like this, particularly if one feels his or her own interests are not reflected in the tastes of the art establishment. My main problem with them, though, is how ahistorical they are.
The tendency to look backwards with warmth may well be innate. Certainly people have been doing that about art as long as there has been art. But go back to any historical period, and you will find people talking about how the current trend is garbage. Back in the 1980’s, Robert Hughes told everyone he could about how stupid and shallow Andy Warhol and his art were. In the 1960’s, John Canaday regularly took to the pages of the New York Times and alleged that the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists was only due to the art world having brainwashed the public. And from the 1890’s until his death in 1948, Royal Cortissoz used his position as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune to loudly denounce the egotism of the anti-traditionalists—he particularly hated the Modernists, claiming that they were “ruining the younger generation.” And so it goes, throughout history.
Even were we to limit ourselves to viewing art’s past with modern sensibilities, it’s extremely unlikely that any previous period was any better, considered as a whole. We must bear in mind that history is always written with an agenda, that we are only ever presented with the parts of the story that are considered worthwhile. In the context of art, time acts like a sieve in which only the great or important work remains in the narrative; the landfill of history is full of art that no one cared about. It’s not at all a matter of apples-to-apples when comparing the greats of yesteryear with any random student of today. Rantoul does this explicitly: he names Frank, Friedlander, Callahan, Sommer, Baltz, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams as his exemplars of photography’s golden past while holding up a hypothetical “graduate thesis show” as the opposing side. But, honestly, how many people at any point in history were doing great work in their early 20’s? I somehow doubt that “20 or 30 years ago” college kids were regularly making revolutionary art, and even the ones who were making interesting work were likely not widely accepted by traditionalists. It’s also worth noting that most of the work we know best by the men he listed in the context of “20 or 30 years ago” was really made 50 or more years ago. This, too, speaks directly to the idea about the curation of history. We may notice a surplus of bad art today, but wait fifty years and people will only remember the good.
But what do “good” and “bad” even mean? If artistic quality were in any way objective then you would expect opinions about it to remain relatively static. Yet though, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier was hailed in his own time as one of America’s most important poets, he’s seldom read today. And Van Gogh, on the other hand, famously died penniless and obscure, and is now considered one of the most important figures in Western art history. Tastes change, the avant-garde becomes tradition, and perhaps the only constant is the grumbling about how far standards have declined.
It does appear to be true that art photography today is largely concept-driven. I would also agree that the favored visual aesthetics of the present are different from what they were two decades ago—though in that respect I think you’d be hard pressed to find any time since the Renaissance when that wasn’t the case. Many photographers who came up in the film era now find their preferred methodologies to be out of favor, and I can understand why that would be frustrating. But any explanation of a major art trend that relies on blaming art-school groupthink or assumes that the new generation is simply vapid and narcissistic—both of which, not coincidentally, function to prop up the traditionalist viewpoint—is ultimately an exercise in self-soothing, not intellectual rigor.
What, then, does explain the new currents in the artistic ocean that so discomfit Rantoul and so many other people who write about photography? Questions about art movements often prove difficult to answer conclusively without the benefit of hindsight, but I have a theory, which in many of the details is not too different from Rantoul’s. As he points out, modern tools have, indeed, taken much of the technical challenge out of producing a traditionally beautiful photograph. But when neither long experience nor virtuosity is required to produce technically perfect work, the result is that technique tends not to remain very impressive or even interesting, and the generation of artists following a wave of technological upheaval tend to start looking for other things to do with their medium. There’s a certain irony here that photographers are now finding so much to complain about in the digital age, because it was the invention of photography, itself, that spurred exactly the same sort of innovation in painting.
It’s fairly well-accepted by art historians that the advent of photography directly led to the increasing use of abstraction in painting. Once painting was no longer the quickest, easiest, or most cost-effective way of producing an accurate representation, representation quickly lost its preeminence as the determiner of quality in art painting. Photography was invented in the early 1800’s, and by the middle of that century it had largely replaced painting in the realm of portraiture. And it’s by no means a coincidence that at exactly that time, the dominant Romanticism of Western painting began to give way to Impressionism, which in turn led to Post-Impressionism, Modernism, and so on. Nor is it surprising that as the painting aesthetic changed, the traditionalists pushed back—critic Louis Leroy famously said of Monet’s Impression, soleil levant:
Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.
That line was written in 1874, but you see the same sentiments about egotism and shoddy technique in Rantoul’s piece from last week.
To me, this suggests not that photography is in some sort of decline, but rather that we are in the first stages of a new artistic revolution. It may well be that what’s to come in the next few decades will leave even the bright-eyed idealists of today behind, but not only is there nothing we can do about the inevitability of change, it’s not actually a bad thing. After all, as revolutionary as Monet and his Impressionist friends were, it’s still hard to imagine them immediately embracing the work of, say, Jackson Pollock. We somehow manage to have room for both in the canon, though.
Extended artist statements and conceptual series may fall out of vogue at some point, but when and if that happens it will be because another new trend has replaced it. I don’t know what that will look like, but what the future thinkpieces will say about it is not in any doubt.
Not For Me
I bought Beyoncé’s Lemonade album eight days ago. That I have listened to it a mere seven times through is only a reflection of the amount of time I have to listen to music, and not at all of my feelings about the music. Because this album is a masterpiece, and I love it. I love how musically adventurous it is. I love the naked emotion, both the roar in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the sigh in “Pray You Catch Me.” I love the confidence and the vulnerability, both. I love how it makes me feel. As much as I understand about Lemonade, though, I know too that there are parts I do not understand, that I may never fully understand. I love it, but it wasn’t made for me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: art that isn’t for me. I thought about it when Prince died, of course, because on some level music so brilliant and so explicitly about freedom and limitlessness is for everyone. But, of course, there are parts of Prince’s music that I can’t access, which the life I’ve lived simply hasn’t given me the experiences to be able to know.
Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t appropriative? That isn’t trying to make it about me? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The question that stays in my mind isn’t so much what I’m allowed to love or what I can say I relate to. Rather, I wonder about participation, and about how my presence affects the rest of the audience.
Years ago I saw a feature on Lenscratch of photographs from a young artist named Natalie Krick; I was drawn in by the wit and intellect apparent in the images. She had something to say about femininity, about feminism, about youth and age, about parents and children, about our image-saturated culture. Much later I discovered she was on Instagram, and I loved the way that even her casual studio and process snaps had both a boldness and a sense of play, and an assuredness that I have certainly never felt about either my art or my body. But it’s clear, too, that that play is with and for the young women who are her peers and friends, and not at all for some dude out in the suburbs who has three kids and is pushing forty. I love her work and I think it deserves to be celebrated, but I wonder sometimes whether I am intruding.
Back in March, Jenny Zhang—whose poetry and essays I adore—tweeted a link to an interview between her and fellow writer Charlotte Shane, titled “There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.” I had just recently read Zhang’s essay “On Blonde Girls in Cheongsams” and had been thinking a lot about how erased I have felt at times in my life, how I have not felt entitled to access the Asian culture into which I was supposedly born. And I loved her for putting that feeling into words and then again for putting those words into the world. I felt seen. At the same time, I knew that much of what she wrote in that essay was something I’d only really understand if I’d grown up as a girl. In the interview with Charlotte Shane, she asked
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a womanís brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
It’s a thing I’ve wondered, too, because Zhang’s writing is so often about her sexuality, her body, and it must attract all manner of creepers. And, indeed, both she and Shane talked about that. I can imagine how frustrating, how infuriating it must be to get that kind of reaction from men who you were not talking to, who you were never thinking about when you were writing your own truths, but who still feel allowed to do whatever they want with your writing. I can imagine it, but I can’t really know how it feels because it’s not something that has happened to me.
And this is the crux of it: this work represents a phenomenon which I have never and probably will never experience, but which millions of women live every day. It is speaking to them, not to me. And if I go into this space, no matter how much I love the work, nor what my intention may be, it is true that my presence may make one of these women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Here some dude will pound the table and shout “Not All Men!” but this is entirely missing the point. (Also, he is an asshole.) The point is that the work is by a woman, speaking to other women, and if my being there makes one of these women—who may connect more deeply with the work than I ever will—unable to enjoy and connect with the art or the artist, then that is me interfering with the purpose of the art.
I know that if art is put out into the world for the public to view, it is not wrong for me to view it. I know that if I see some part of myself reflected in someone else’s art, I can experience that connection and feel good about it. But what the boundaries of participation and engagement with a piece or with the artist are—or should be—I don’t know. I’m sure it varies from piece to piece and artist to artist, from situation to situation. I want to be respectful. I want not to cause harm. I don’t know if there’s an answer and I know there isn’t a rulebook, but I hope that there could be a conversation.