What’s being worked on

I’m going to start this post with this poor image of Roland Barthes. I feel like he may appreciate it in the digital age he never got to see. I’ve only read one page of his writing, but I think he might at least be able to write a book about seeing his own image like this. Of course he’s dead, but here he is, looking at me, and looking at you.

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And alas, if you look at this post in three years, perhaps the link will be broken and you’ll see an empty frame. Or maybe no one will be reading this and the digital decay will have reached my thoughts as I reach out with speculative thought- a blank faced audience.

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I’m not going to pretend here, actually, that I don’t know who my audience is. My audience is myself in the future, but I will allow literally anyone who cares to read this to be privy to my stream of conscious. I had crit today for senior thesis and I kind of need to unload my thoughts on everything at once, because of course everything all at once is what goes into the work.

I also want to read this in four years or five years or so and reflect on my time in undergrad. I want to distill my thoughts and my experiences potently and remember them vividly. I sat in the Compass today and looked at all the people walking on a cool Autumn afternoon and reflected on how insanely lucky I am to be right here right now with so many ideas competing for sway and attention.

It’s a very strange thing living presently in moments I’m almost positive I’ll look on fondly for the rest of my life. I’ve just past the first month of a lovely relationship, my school work is challenging and thrilling, I’ve got two jobs that are solid and quite enjoyable. I’m in my senior year of college and it’s my absolute favorite season. My laptop was stolen on Monday and it hasn’t even broke my sway- its inconvenient, sure, but I’ve got far too much to be grateful for in spite of that.

And yet I know these moments pass, and I know tenuous times come. But for now I make work and enjoy these times, and praise God for these days.

Onto the artwork.

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I flipped through my old Facebook account this evening, which was a very bizarre experience after reading so much about the “slipperyness” of the image. Photography is a bizarre thing- the dead, the past stares at us through these windows that trick us. These tiny windows that we still trust as true accounts of what was. Looking through the images of our past is a means of maintaining and solidifying identity- or perhaps challenging it? Maybe I’ll force myself to not look at pictures of myself and see what happens.

My point is that we (photo senior class) are learning every endless theory of art and reading images and it’s kind of been like an intersection of my mind and a meat tenderizer. I keep telling myself my brain will reform a bit stronger than it was before, a bit more acute, a bit more cunning. I am extremely skeptical of the extent to which I must believe my professors to learn from them. I am also extremely skeptical of the extent to which I have bought into the belief that I (“man”, “the observer”, “the reader”) am the order-forming center of the universe, and the only beliefs and meaning that are important are the ones that are formed in my head.

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I have been frustrated recently with thinking that feels better than my artwork. This is to say, I put work up on the wall that I think is clearly illustrating what I am trying to say and the communication is not efficacious- at least this time my peers, my friends and my classmates said “I think it has meaning, but I have no idea what other than the process”. Last time my work was relegated solely to the status of material study.

I told my professor that there wasn’t a single print I put on the wall that didn’t relate to the concept I was trying to convey- I’m not sure if I believe that. At least, I qualified the statement, there was no print I put on the wall that I put up solely for how it looked regardless of the meaning it carried. Which is, perhaps, a self-defeating statement. I was told almost literally on day one of photo that “even work that claims to have no meaning becomes meaningful in that gesture”. So I’m not so sure that it’s possible to put up meaningless work.

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I have made this work, and what I am speaking to is how our identities are lived out in the world. Identity not in the sense of the political characteristics that are waged against one another, I do not want to tie myself to the identity conversation that is happening now. I want to speak to a more base level of identity as something that is the comfort we try to create for ourselves. The tenuous security we look for by manipulating our environment, ourselves, and the material around us.

It is an unsustainable framework. I am not a humanist.

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I was once asked by a photographer that seemed too smart and ambitious for his own good why I enjoy photography. I said that there is something ridiculous to me, something that I enjoy, about trying to transform this thing that is so ubiquitous that it becomes transparent. I have spent a lot of time thinking about photographs, and they do some weird things. Believe me.

He said that this must be somewhat of a sadistic thing, then, for me. Enjoying the pain of subjecting myself to a medium wherein most people’s first question, when not showing it to the “art crowd” is “what kind of camera did you use?” Even the other fine artists kind of look down on us. It’s a lonely position, I suppose. The history of photography as a fine art is like a hundred years old and written by so few people. That guy Roland Barthes I mentioned may have thought the hardest about it, but if you become good enough at photography you get to graduate to being categorized as something else (Stieglietz was an art promoter, Barthes was a literary theorist, any fine art photographer is an “artist using photographic processes”).

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The color separation is a representation of the idea that although an image, a belief, may be a composite and a synthesis of a variety of different views, or that perception may be imperfect, that ultimately there is a tangible reality that is being reference and must be reckoned with. The world is there- it is real and not relative. On these white walls we play relativistic games. We convince ourselves that perception is all that matters and that our states of mind are the end all, be all. There is a climate of self-exultation. Look out for number one, so on and so forth.

I am banging my head against the wall on how to engage this, and I am genuinely interested in what people believe. I want to talk about what I believe. I think there is right and wrong, truth and untruths.

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It is a good thing that what is objectively true exists outside of my ability to reason and reckon with it, to argue for it. I think the milieu of cultural relativism can cloud perception, endlessly, but I like to think of myself as humble enough to recognize that even when I feel utterly confused, that does not mean what is in the world is confused. I’m just some guy taking photographs.

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This is the only image that I’ll post not as a documentation of what was printed and installed but as its original image, because I think it’s worth doing on for a moment.

I have been attracted to emergency exits and “DO NOT ENTER” signs and the likes because it’s the places in society wherein contingencies for disaster are expected in the built landscape. And yet, disasters strip away pretenses in so many instances. I have been fortunate to be involved in almost nothing I would consider a disaster, but it’s amazing how quickly a facade of relativism, of “anything goes”, drops away in face of clear and present danger.

On a smaller scale, we accept this with road signs. We are physically directed and controlled and encouraged along, it is the document of a functioning society. And then we have these set of plans for when things go awry, and sometimes these cover our bases. Other times things kind of fall apart. These are the exceptions to the rule and not my primary line of interest. I am more so interested in the tenuousness of the comfort we construct that can be shattered so easily- how carefully we build our lives, sometimes out of sticks and tape, and that’s more or less what I’m trying to get across.

That hasn’t come out in the work yet. I still don’t know exactly what I am trying to accomplish with making work, what successful work may look like, and I take immense solace in the fact that in five years, or better yet ten, I will look back on this and groan as “naive undergraduate work”. Not that my beliefs will have changed, but I do hope I will have at least calmed down.

Goodnight.

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2 Comments

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  1. Nick very interesting in an interesting sort of way. A question if you don;t mind. When looking at the second photo from the top and contemplating, its meaning does not simply jump from image, so thinking about how we arrange our environment to our satisfaction, my eyes were drawn to more than the image, but also to the hand smudge mark on the wall above. Then the trash pile image my eyes beheld the black magnate in center about as quickly. So how does one find the fullest meaning in images which suggest our comfortable arraignment of environment yet limit the meaning to only the images and not consider the environment in which they are found?

    • Uncle Phil,
      if I’m understanding your question correctly, you’re asking if the treatment of the prints, the paper on the wall, is undermined by the handling/context of the presentation? While the images I made were presentations of the means by which we try to arrange our environment and contexts to provide comfort and security, I think that it is an inherently unsustainable pursuit, in a way. That we seek rest and cannot find it, I think, is a testament to the nature of a fallen humanity, and while I air on the side of being critical of the endless pursuit of the ends in comfort and technology, I intend the work to exist with some levity, a testament to the fact that there is rest in Christ.

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