Wow it’s been way too long since I’ve written one of these. Which sucks, because I think they’re going to be beyond valuable to me as an artist later on. Or maybe not. I don’t think my writings from four years ago are really anything but funny at this point. Maybe that’s enough for something to be useful.
I’m coming home from crit on my senior thesis work, which wasn’t emotional so much as it was intense. It was the culmination to what had somehow been once again the most productive and intense period of artistic growth I had had in a semester. I always think it’s going to taper off, that I may have “peaked” in an academic sense with that last semester, not knowing how I’m going to push through, but it keeps coming. And yes, it was emotional because it was my last in class crit with one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and my second to last semester of art school, and school in general. Which is the only thing I’ve known to give life a yearly cycle other than the seasons for the past 16 years.
That and all the sleep I had missed, I was generally feeling some kind of way. There will be plenty of writing to come about that work, but I don’t feel far enough away from it to write about it yet.
Then I saw this cantankerous stick.
From the vantage point of my bike in the road, the stick was perfectly framed against my dark house as a beautiful little wandering line of light. At first I wanted to ‘gram it, but that turned into wanting to make a nice photo of it. I realized that I had my camera in my backpack, and I parked my bike and got to photographing.
It’s a stupid thing of art school, I guess, that everything has to be a serious thing. And even though I was interested in photographing this stick, I was way preoccupied with what it means or how it could fit into something else. Which I guess is good in one sense, but it can be tiring to always want to operate like that.
I’m in the post-semester momentum mode of things at the moment, feeling like I still need to be making things. Like I can’t slow down. It feels less bad than it does before, and I actually do have tangible things to work on right now, but school makes it feel so so urgent. So I decided to mix leisure and work and go out to shoot for the rest of what was actually a really gloriously beautiful day.
I started by warming up, I guess. I made some images that I knew weren’t really stellar and was fine with that. It feels weird to stretch the brain in that sort of way. But as I got to shooting I felt like I was starting the next leg of my thesis project.
My friend John, in a presentation about Jeff Wall, mentioned that Wall’s process starts by not photographing but just looking for moments that can be recreated in photographs. I thought this was an interesting way of working, and tried to think about this process as looking and reacting and sketching out images- refusing to let myself think of these off the cuff photos taken while wandering as finished things in and of themselves, but merely artifacts of aimless looking and reacting and image making.
It’s funny, looking at the image that was the centerpiece of my final critique of Thesis I, it was very similar to this, but I think that this is a much better vantage to take in what I was trying to photograph, trying to convey. I guess that’s the good thing about going out to sketch imagery- I can get a better feel for what may work and what doesn’t before investing about $8 in film material cost, 30 hours of developing, scanning, and editing an image, 4 hours of printing, and $60 in print costs to produce a 44 x 60″ print. I guess it’s good to be “in love” with the image you made, and that love of choosing also may involve some exclusion. Though it is fun to be swept off your feet as I was when I made the image of the Federal Reserve Bank that was the centerpiece of the work at the end of this semester.
The work I’ve been making makes me feel uncomfortable, or unsafe. It’s tied up in a lot of stuff, again, I’ll be untangling this more so later, but in one way, it feels like I’m looking at these things that have immense power over our lives, and that looking is a prodding of a thing that can reach and smush me. I was explaining what I was doing, making these photographs, to a friend of mine that was in the marines, saying that I was taking a photo very near to the reserve building and how quickly one of its guards showed up. He said that of course they did, because photographs can be used as recon, as trying to assess a building for any sort of wrongdoing. I thought about mass surveillance and the fact that these buildings and systems look back at me. And I wondered how much shifting of the ecosystem (or if the conditions are already such) that my seemingly benign and detached examining of these things that are, in one sense, just “there”, could be mistaken as a cause for the deployment of some force to turn me away from my looking.
49% of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond is underground. It was also designed by the same architect that designed the World Trade Center, which is amazing to me that I wasn’t aware of that until now. The buildings deploy the same visual motif of course, and I think I was always subconsciously drawn to its form for that reason, but they were in fact designed by the same man.
But yeah, it makes me feel uncomfortable to have that fascination with 9/11 and also be so intent on taking photos of a building. It absolutely feels like something that can be misconstrued, like a thoughtcrime.
Maybe it’s a weird sort of vanity that says that these systems would take notice of me or that I should fear for my safety because of the words I write, the things I think, and how that could all be connected and interpreted. Even without any agenda- I’m not a political radical, and this work doesn’t even have a motive that I’m attempting to conceal. If anything, it is just trying to convey the feeling of putting my hand against the side of a system and feeling it hum. Without seeing a thing move, just hearing and feeling the power that must lie under the surface that churns out wealth, power, and everything that goes with it.
Maybe I’ll go back to primarily making photos of the forest. It doesn’t feel cowardly to shy away from these things. I could be taking photos of military bases for the same reason, but I don’t because that would be a dang foolish thing to try to do. It’s almost like this weird exercise of how much emotive potential can be accessed from a public sidewalk with a 4×5 camera? Because we’re looking at these buildings that are the organs of these undertakings effected upon the landscape. That’s pretty cool; it’s interesting, right?
Maybe I’ll try to donate the work to the FED. Perhaps they’ll let me keep working making colorful pictures from outside the halls of power. But I also kinda don’t want to see inside, ya know? The mystery is far more interesting than trying to do a book report on what I learned on my school trip to the Federal Reserve, so to speak. Then again, I could actually try to dig into the dirt. Like every family has secrets of course the government, or our financial institutions have secrets. Like within a family there is violence and deceit and mystery and pain, I have no doubt that exists subcutaneously and profusely even within our most powerful systems. Perhaps even more so. But I don’t want to concern myself, I don’t think, with the dirty laundry. I am content for now to try to convey the magnitude of these things.
The first time I made an image with the reflection of something framed in a puddle I thought I was a photo Picasso. Then when I saw it for the first, second, and third time I thought people were somehow copying me. The tenth time I saw it I realized I wasn’t so slick as a junior in high school.
I took a few incarnations of this photograph and I think it’s one I’m going to work on a bit more still. The building in the foreground is part of a historical site marking a slave jail and execution site. The background is the James Monroe building, which as far as I can tell is an office building relating to state functions of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The outside only says “James Monroe building” and wikipedia only talks about its name, how tall it is, and some other tidbits about the building, nothing about what goes on inside it.
It is, regardless, a nice image, and the building is an interesting signifier of state power and prevalence.
Only taken this bike out a few times to photograph. I like this one for digital photography, but the Surly is nice to take out for longer rides, or for 4×5 stuff, because it has the saddle bags.
Oh wow, look, a photo (like, a photo photo) taken in landscape. How interesting for me, I almost never do that. I’m considering trying to do an entire series in landscape orientation just as a means of stretching my art muscles and trying something new.
I’m very hesitant to make work about race because I don’t know what position to take, what ends to advocate for, or how my voice as a white man can really add to the conversation in a helpful way. There are many pitfalls, a lot of ways to do it wrong, and I don’t fear people disparaging me so much as I fear having a negative impact or crowding other voices more important than mine. Nevertheless, this area of the city here, a walk under the Broad St. overpass which takes you up into downtown, a walk that takes you to one of Richmond’s many slave memorials, has always been a harrowing ground for me to walk upon.
I think that the history of racial violence, oppression, just, outright horribleness that white supremacy has unleashed upon so many people in this country is still evident in the landscape of this city and this country. I think that the stories of so many people are undertold and underappreciated. I think that people take for granted the extent to which racism is still a heavy issue in our country today. I know I’m not saying anything new, but these thoughts are bouncing around my head in a serious way recently. I’m wary of the extent to which is is valid for me to make work on this, however. Because there are so many ways that I could try to just hitch myself to this as a topic that is being talked about, and just try to ride it for my own benefit. I am so much wanting to avoid this that it has stopped me from moving forward with any thought of doing a project focusing on issues of black representation, even though it is something that troubles and interests me.
And yet I go back into the city and see these great monuments to white men in history, these manicured celebrations of one line of history. And one other side, some aspect, is still there in the landscape. You can still find monuments to other stories, but who are they being told by, why, (what makes them “the other”) and for whom are they told? It is not an easy thing to unravel.
I come back to the studio and repair the wall I did up for critique. Now, a couple days after coating it with two coats of white paint + primer, the black rectangle has mostly healed. Although, the white paint has fractured ever so slightly revealing a sort of web where the black can be seen through if you get very very close. The effect from farther away is barely more than the effect of a faint shadow.
I had a sort of fun painting the wall. I got play Franz Kline and fantasize about a time when all I had to do was stretch some room size canvas and throw house paint until the picture made sense. It was revolutionary for the time and so on and so forth yes. I still like ab-ex painting, but it certainly has been complicated, hasn’t it?
That’s all for now. It’s 1:00am and I have to ween myself off of very late nights working. Crit / project write-up coming soon.