The impulse for me to create these photographs fired from a strange place in my brain that does not often move me to photograph: the desire to hang onto a moment that I felt was too quickly passing from my conscious appreciation. I thought I had pushed out the desire to create photographs that try to fully capture an experience; I thought I had rid myself of the belief that photography could transport you to a memory. Yet, I started photographing my classmates and myself in the days prior to our senior show opening with an earnest and naive desire to “capture a moment”.
The artist statement “I want to use photography to freeze a specific moment in time” or any variation thereof is the cheapest photographic impulse there is. It is coded language for “I want this experience to be stretched, I want to use this as a touch-stone to travel back in time” It is not possible. It is not interesting to try, because for all the things photography does, it does not allow us to step back into our past. No matter how richly our experiences are tied to what we see, their accurate reproduction is a far cry from actually experiencing them over again.
But photographs surely do something, or else I would not have spent four years studying them. These photographs will always surely transport me back in some way to these memories, insofar as they serve as illustrations of what would otherwise only exist as electrical firings. They re-stimulate vision, open up the same pathways, and perhaps flood the same emotional channels. Yet they are also a biased thing, a one sided telling. If they serve to confirm a memory, they are also surely enhancing a narrative in some way.
I took these photographs of my friends because I thought that I was too mentally frayed to really appreciate what was happening in those moments. We were running on stress, we were tiredly molding our materials and doting over our prints in one last shared ritual of collective order-making as an educational exercise. I think even then I recognized that there was something special about that. What’s more, we were in a strange and beautiful place. We were doing it one last time. I knew these people so well, and this was our last late night work session. It was a passing and fleeting thing, and if we returned to it, it would not be with this exact group of people ever again.
We were all really a mess. Like the dust kicked up in the construction and deconstruction of the space, there was an air of tired stress that you could only breathe in and keep working. We were all running out of money, we were all working on short hours of sleep. We were all having a strange sort of fun, or at least riding off of a certain collective energy. The thought of working til 2am on an art project is unthinkable to me at this moment, but it was unthinkable to not to for three weeks. We were ensconced in it; I think we loved it.
So I photographed to try to write that story of our own stress and fear and feelings of inadequacy and egos and money and parental hopes and everything else that was on the line. I could tell you the stories of not finishing the space prep until literally right as the show was opening. We had heard these stories the year before, and the year before that. It was exciting then, I think. It was also hard. I cried at some point, I had a break down, but I can’t remember over what. It also did not seem worth it. Yet I photographed through the entire thing because it almost felt like what I ought to be doing after all this time.
I try to put the story up, I think. I try to write it down, and the writing may be trying to bridge the gap of what the photos do not provide. It is the same impulse as the antiquated family photo slide talk, where a room full of people would click through and those there would reminisce, and those who weren’t would try to suck vicarious enjoyment. That or a voyeuristic pleasure of looking into the past if it was long enough ago.
But I perhaps took these photos in anticipation of writing their story. Indeed, the first impulse of my writing was to go picture by picture, slide by slide, click click click and tell you that amazing totally unique moment I was capturing right there and why that picture was amazing. I was trying to narrate my experience into something it perhaps wasn’t. Or at least wasn’t exactly.
Because it was something. We put something together, and the craft glue that held us together, held us in a social contract to talk about “our work”, was about to necessarily fall apart, and we were to go out and make our own way in the world.
I don’t like openings.
Even more so, I really don’t like my own openings, and the moment became so unreal for me that I really resolved to have as much of the wine as our fundraising dollars bought us as quickly as possible.
Above is a photograph of my father looking at my artwork.
I was a little drunk about midway through the show.
This is my girlfriend, she made the very large and beautiful frames in this photo. I made the photos in this photo. I think my dad made the photo of me and my girlfriend and the photos in this photo, the frames that frame the photos (made by me) being made by my girlfriend. I don’t know where the building we’re in came from or why the bricks are black.
One of my best friends from Harrisonburg was there. This is a picture proving that. It’s not a very fine photograph, but it is a sort of proof. I’m not sure that I would remember that he came if I didn’t have this photo.
This is my then roommate (left) and a friend who I had not seen in maybe three years.
I took no good photograph that can even begin to explain what I was feeling when this happened. I will recall a conversation I had with one of my classmates after the fact. They said that this moment, the award ceremony at the end of the year (and the last ones that we as seniors would see), was always the culmination of the year for the whole department. They said that it always seemed like such an amazing and sentimental moment to look on to watch the other seniors do: the hand off of the flowers to the professors, the heartfelt thank yous from the class leaders, the last round of awards. However, they said that even as they participated in this as part of the ceremony, it rang completely empty for them.
I sipped my not really free wine (if you consider all the donations and tuition and time that got me there) and honestly felt a huge check to my ego that I was not recognized with any sort of award. I was also happy for my classmates, I cheered and was excited. But I was also hurt on a selfish and ugly level that I did not have one more fleeting moment of an academic ego stroke. Weeks after this moment, I realized how little it matters, but it felt like a grave affront to me personally in that moment.
I looked around at my professors. I felt great gratitude to them but also realized how quickly these relationships will fall away from my mind. I resolved to stay in touch with them, yet knew it may be hard, and how thin the apparent bonds are between teacher can be in a university. The department just cycles up another year of egos and hard workers and hard thinkers and teaches them with the same professionalism. I appreciate it immensely, and yet I could also see things moving on before my very eyes.
I went home. Friends from school came over and we gossipped and pontificated and drank. I somehow managed to get drunker and then fell asleep, hard.
I spoke with my brother about how the last few weeks of college felt like a series of final bosses. It felt like too easy of a metaphor, but my brother and I buried our heads in video games as much as any other form of fiction. Clearly, the experience of entering a formerly unknown space to confront a culminating challenge of great difficulty and importance has stuck in my head as a pattern of life. Here we found ourselves in the final boss fight of all crits, the fabled last moment to look at each other’s work, to tie all together, to give the final poignant words of wisdom that people will take forth into their art practices, words that they will weave into their very lives.
It was anything but, I think. There were two or three critiques that I felt like began to scratch at the substance of a person, that actually addressed the vital investment of struggle and passion and sacrifice (seemingly) necessary to create what we have come to call “good” art. Without allowing myself to breathe in the subjective fog that is art school and believing that everything is just a matter of opinion and that there are no categories for excellence or travesties let alone “good art” or “bad art”, the best answer I could come up with what makes art good is when someone had to give something up, to put a little something of themselves on the line to make it. Otherwise it was just a hobby. Critiquing that can be hard, because at what point do you start to critique the person? I’ve heard it answered both ways- you’re never critiquing the person, and yet there have been subtler suggestions that you’re always critiquing the person.
In thinking about the value of formal and collegiate art education over the years I was schooled in it, I frequently considered the value of feedback of my peers. It was vital at first; it got me out of my arrogant head. However, as the years went on it felt as though we developed and overly efficient shorthand, or else deference that eventually veered away from substance. We criticized each other first with two affirmations. By the time we settled into ruts of communication and repetitious phrases for our classmates, we lost the ability to see each others’ work with fresh eyes, and our ears couldn’t take in what we were trying to say to each other.
In breaking down the mechanics of communication, we seemed to forget that the urgency of communication springs forth from the message that necessitates communicating. I think it became, for some, an absurd pageant. We would bring our pieces of artwork in, and I think for some of us towards the end of four years of learning to say something, we had things to say. Yet in the critique space we did not evaluate each other on what was being communicated, only how. We critiqued work that said that life is ridiculous and meaningless with the same straight face and structural response that we would give to an artist trying to find new ways of imparting beauty, serenity, and peace through art.
This led to many of my classmates making work that is in some ways a very logical response to this kind of environment: reflexive self-examination and critique (some might call it navel-gazing, but I wouldn’t). Being told to question everything, they tried to- the space, the reason they’re doing this, the reason anyone does anything.
And we gave critiques to each other that I think were frequently unhelpful towards the ends of creating meaningful artwork. I think that any artist must buck up against a trend in some way to make good art (remember how I said that they must have some “skin in the game”?) If the ivory towers say there is only one meaning to life, then the artist says that there must be another. If the ivory towers say that there is surely no meaning to life, the artist may posit that there must be some. That flair, that spark that creates art which is worth considering as “art” within the space of cultural discourse, it comes from contact: the static flint of expectation and the steel of an artist’s will dragging across it, not without great friction.
I was especially put off by my final critique. Despite being told repeatedly by many people that this was not really the end, not really a culmination, how can I help but think of it as such? It was the last body of work I produced while in undergrad; the culmination of two semesters’ of specific work towards an end goal, and four years of general work to improve as an artist. It was my last chance in that space to demonstrate what I learned and how I have been thinking and reflecting on the world.
It was 30 minutes of critique. Below are the notes I took:
This critique was not so dissimilar from many other critiques I’ve gotten throughout school. There were general responses to the specific decisions I made throughout the piece (e.g., including a pile of dirt, a road sign, framing decisions, lighting decisions, etc.) things that were quite obvious. Some people would like them, others not, people listed their reasons and associations. A professor spoke at length about my decision to nail the prints onto the mounting board because I could not manage to mount them professionally and flawlessly. He honed in on this mistake and shortcoming out of a need to highlight it as what separated this work from something professional. I believe this was out of a sincere desire to help me improve as an artist. However, a discussion about eight nails took up nearly half the time allotted to critique my final body of work in undergrad; one where I sought to explore my skepticism of the ultimate power of the state, yet holding that in tension with the immense power over our lives that the state and our financial institutions hold.
I received a critique from a friend of mine who is also versed in the arts and a Christian as well. He broke down one of my photographs in terms of its formal elements, and went farther to postulate what meaning the actual visual treatment of identifiable symbols in my work suggested. In one way, he “read” the work- beyond being able to identify what the component letters and words were and make a statement about his impression of words and letters in general, he started reading the sentences I effectually and instinctively wrote in my photos.
We also spoke about his philosophy of art as a Christian.
Wherein, he said that since God has created the world and everything in it, and works all things ultimately for His purpose and narrative, there can only be so many possible meanings or interpretations of the world that are ultimately in line with reality. However, because He has also created a material world that is good and that we can manipulate and use to represent not only physical things but notions and ideas, the impetus of a Christian artist is the create artwork that is skillfully made and attests to God’s glory and purpose in the world. This can take on many forms, but ultimately, he said that materials communicate, and arrangements of material (be it pigment, or sculpture, or words, or anything) have meaning that is identifiable and readable, and it is worthwhile to discuss these things. However, as two Christians speaking, it felt useful to have the clarity and reminder that there is one ultimate Truth, and it is fruitful to work from that and explore the world with that as a lens first. Beyond that, it is quite futile, even to the point of self destructive, to try to construct meaning outside of that framework.
In my junior year, I studied the book of Ecclesiastes as I made artwork. Chapter 1, verse 9 is the source of an often repeated phrase:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun. (ESV)
I believe that the quest for originality is a futile one, and that we are given a fixed amount of material within set parameters of meaning and existence to manipulate them. I believe that art is one of many venues in which a human being can drive themselves mad on a quest for distinction and originality. Photography shares many of the strange impulses of art, and is within a specific realm of society where we place value on these struggles for elusive originality and ever fleeting perfect self expression. We seek to hold onto moments just as we think we can structure materials and words and our lives to have perfect and coherent meaning.
When I used to think of Heaven as a child I would try to consider what would be there. Would dogs and cats be there? Would we walk around in bodies or fly like angels? Would we get to play board games? Since growing up and maturing in my faith, I have come to realize that in Heaven we will be before the face of God by the grace afforded to us by Jesus Christ, and that nothing is more beautiful or desirable than that. Over time I began to realize that there would likely not be photography in Heaven- what would be the need for it? (I am paraphrasing a friend’s paraphrase of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters here) In Heaven, Lewis postulated that there would be no practicing artists; that if someone from hell were to come and say “that is the most beautiful flower I have ever seen… why is no one painting it?” one in Heaven would say “that flower is a reflection of the beauty of God, who is here with us, what need to we have to create an image of it?”
Yet in the meantime, I have no higher calling as an artist than to try to convey the truth and the beauty of Jesus Christ and His supremacy and worth over all things through my artwork and how I speak about my work. I was called as a photographer, so with photos I shall do my best.
In the days before graduation, I had to clear out of the Pollak building. I morosely shuffled about the building, collecting my bits and collecting my pieces. I idly photographed the classrooms that I had left so many hours of my life in, that were once filled with discussion and emotion and passions and work. I recalled the first time I saw this darkroom, on a tour with my father almost five years ago. I recalled how amazed I was with it, how much I yearned to spend my time there.
There was startling flattening of time for me looking at the darkroom, and what’s worse, standing there felt exactly the same as looking at this photograph. I walked out of this room that I remember walking into years ago, walking in as if there was a legacy to respect. I walked in and found a space that met my expectations for the story I was trying to tell about myself. Walking out, so many years later, I was quite disillusioned of this story of myself; I had just left a room
Yet, the years literally flashed. They had not flashed on the streets, they had not flashed through the buildings that were ripped out of the ground with new ones groaning their way towards the sky. They had not flashed through the relationships that took years to build up and understand. They had flashed through my hopes of creating for myself something of an enduring and self fulfilled prophecy. My hopes of making these halls laugh with the memory of me were surely dead- this place gets cleaned of those sorts of dreams often. It is like the crust that accumulates around the drains without regular mopping.
I caved and asked my parents for money to buy my grad robes. I was feeling pretty tapped out on spending money. I was looking really hard for someone who could lend me robes, but I caved. Rachel helped steam them for me, and after a very uncomfortable hour of my family sitting in my house that had been so filthy over the last several busy weeks, we were off.
We took a lot of photos together, different groups of people with me. It was nice. I recalled so many photos in family photo albums of members of my family graduating college, and felt some tingle to know I would be joining the family archive. I think I will appreciate the reverse shot also to a certain extent. I wish I had a photo with my mother- I am sure my dad took this picture at some point on his phone, but it was the day before Mother’s day and I wished I had a photo with this woman that taught me first and taught me best as I reached a culminating moment of my formal education.
It is such a strange thing, graduation. It is very self aware that it is marking a passage of one stage to the next, and that such a moment requires reflection. But I was replete with reflection; I had done far too much reflection on the passage of time, even. By the time graduation actually happened I was just ready for it all to be done- get on with the show! We said hi to our friends in our silly robes. VCU gave us cookies. It was fun seeing everyone from my year gathered in one room- I could see acquaintances from the random gen ed or elective here and there, I chatted with friends I hadn’t seen in a few years. Then we all got lined up and did the walk up into the auditorium.
Since by this point I was very set in my desire to photograph all the way through, I took my camera with me into the auditorium. I know so many photos were made by cell phones, but I was the only grad carrying an actual camera. I wonder, thinking back on it, if people would have carried even a disposable camera with them to take photos as a student in the ceremony, or if relatives and the official photographers of the event supplied the photo. I am sure that the compulsion to photograph and document has only grown more severe with the ease of the media; I am sure I have seen only a handful of my father at my age now, but I know that there are scores if not hundreds of photos of me personally all throughout high school and college. Whether or not they survive and are archived in any format accessible to me, though, is of course another detail.
I digress. I was set on taking photos through the event, and I remember holding up the line to take the above photo. It was worth it. I debated through the whole ceremony whether or not to take my camera up on stage with me, to photograph the hundreds (thousands? thousand?) as I walked across that proverbial stage. I could not bring myself to do it, for I could not envision how the whole handshake/hug/diploma grad with my department chair would go down. I left my camera, and two photographers snapped these photos of me, a dazed and confused man.
I am not sure if it is OK that I screen-grabbed the proofs. They didn’t tell me not to. I am shaking hands with the interim dean of the school of the arts on the left. I knew we had an interim dean, but I did not realize who it was until that day. It may have been a more impactful photo if I knew who it was.
Also that piece of paper they gave me was a very plain sheet of printer paper explaining how and when we could get our diplomas. I actually picked mine up a few days ago, and I felt like I was handling the most precious piece of paper I had ever held. It was as if four years of education could be voided quite accidentally if I smudged ink or left some hand grime on the paper. Nevertheless, I think I’ll frame it (though I’m certainly not going to pay for the book store’s frame- I learned how to do framing myself in college, daggone it).
On this topic, I do not have too many words left, so I will conclude with this photo that started the post. That’s a little more than half of my class, including me who took the picture. It is certainly a strange thing, I will say, especially holding this picture in contrast with the photo two above of my family looking down from the balcony. To have spent three years getting to know these people, and what they struggle with, and what they want to say is something that does not happen too often. Yet they are also strangers in one way; they worked alongside me and I benefitted tremendously from their feedback, their friendship. Some of them I know fairly well by now, others I would be happy yet surprised to see again. Yet we were brought together only for a short time in this space that was vulnerable yet insular, raw yet planned. We made many photographs and learned much about each other and ourselves. Beyond that, I think it would be quite hard to try to add to the relationships established (and some that have continued post grad) with any of my photos or words.
Looking at this photo is a reminder that a photograph is a projection from the present to an anticipated desire in the future; the act of looking at a photograph later is completing the exchange. The exchange can also change over time, the value may shift or increase or diminish depending on the paths people take through life and how that changes the meaning of the photograph. Yet I am sure that no photograph, no writing, no story spinning or narration can ever match the sweetness of knowing and being face to face with the one whose images graces the frame of a photograph. Be it a mother, a friend, a teacher, or even sometimes a stranger. Photography may always be a sad thing when it is made with the desire to hold on tightly to something. Yet these moments are surely worth savoring then reflecting on- but they too must pass.