Tag Archives: American Photography
I shoot a ton when I go out. At times I am making an exposure, seeing the scene and I just know that I have something that will make a fine photograph. And sometimes I’m actually right. Then there are the times when the exposure is almost an afterthought. I see something and make the exposure with no expectation. I put the file away and it remains essentially unseen until I go back later (sometimes waaay later) and go through my work.
The truth is that sometimes we don’t know what we have when we are making the camera go click. Here’s one that I wasn’t in love with until just this morning and I made the exposure last summer.
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is flat, mostly farmland, although developers are moving in. This part of the state is more southern politically and culturally than the suburbs around DC and Baltimore. Stop and talk to the people in very Southern Maryland down below Pocomoke and you’d swear you were in Georgia. US Highway 301 runs 1099 miles from Glasgow, Delaware to Sarasota, Florida and cuts through the upper third of Eastern Maryland. Part of the highway takes you through disappearing Maryland farmland, and from time to time the highway ghosts appear in the hills and valleys. Houses long abandoned, active farmland all around but no life in the structures, no animals in the barn, no food on the stove. These houses stand as a measure of time. If we look closely we can see what was once here. Look again and we can see what will be here soon. America is built and rebuilt over and over, and for a time all we can see are the ghosts along the highway.
There is always something that causes me to look twice; some aspect of the potential subject that draws me closer. Sometimes it’s a sign, a building facade, maybe the way the light strikes in a particular way.
I was walking around Wheeling, West Virginia at Sundown last October and I came across this:
The building was tucked in a corner of the city right up against and nearly under the interstate. I hadn’t planned on stopping in Wheeling, but from the highway I could see lots of potential. The sun was coming down bathing the city in some very inviting light. I found an exit and doubled back. I drove through a very old office-park sort of section of Wheeling. There was no one around. I parked, got out and took a look around. Here was Kennedy Hardware. I made several exposures of the front of the building. Was there more? I walked up the street to see and found this:
The sun was at a different angle, the sky was more interesting, I was able to incorporate more of the various signs. In short, my initial interest in the building led me to search for more of what was interesting, to find a better photograph, to work the scene in a more complete way. Besides, I enjoy wandering around new places, to see beyond the main avenue. You never know what you will find.
The challenge is to convey to the viewer the thing that I see that drew me to the scene in the first place, and I want to be as specific as I can. That usually means removing (reframing) any unnecessary elements and finding a way to feature the most interesting aspects of the scene.
The first substantial snowfall of the winter occurred here last week and I took advantage of the altered landscape. I started in Chester County, and on the way home decided to head over to Southern New Jersey. The snowfall increased a bit as I crossed the river. I knew exactly where I was going, an area I have photographed for many years. I was not disappointed. Snow changes everything.
I have photographed this barn a lot over the years. The snow gave me a chance to see it new:
I spent brief (it was cold) moments making as many exposures as I could and then headed for home.
Except I saw, out of the corner of my eye, this snow covered wheat:
I had to stop.
I made several exposures, the last few featuring the reason I stopped in the first place:
There is always time for one more perspective, one more exposure, one more look around.
Ansel Adams has an unmatched photographic legacy. No serious photographer, or viewer of photography, can ignore his vast body of work.
I know, because I tried.
Many years ago, after becoming acquainted with his most well-known prints, I reached the ridiculous conclusion that I knew what there was to know about him and moved on to photographers who, in my narrow view, had more to say: Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus. I was interested in photographers that were trying to say something about the human condition. This was worthwhile, certainly, except that I had it backwards: I have come to realize that the work of any photographer reveals…
Looking at Ansel Adams: The Photographs and the Man by Andrea Stillman was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2012. Stillman is a former assistant to Adams. She covers in detail the stories behind 20 of his most iconic photographs, providing details and insight that give us a greater understanding of the work. Chapter 10 covers Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico. This is perhaps Adams greatest photograph. The book includes several different versions of the print, including a print of the negative and a print without any manipulation. We are able to see very clearly the changes that Adams made in the darkroom to realize his vision. A vision that changed over the years, by the way. Early prints of Moonrise made in the 40’s are very different from prints made later on in the 60’s and 70’s. Adams was constantly reevaluating his work.
So, keep an open mind youngsters, we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Stand here on the side of the road and listen carefully. Maybe you can hear Reverend James Cleveland singing to The Lord on a bright Sunday morning, the congregation jumping and shouting in anticipation of salvation. Of course, salvation is hard to come by these days, especially down here on the side of a lonely Georgia highway. Might be hard for Reverend Cleveland to find a space to preach, come to think of it.
The road is quiet this morning, few cars pass by. The little church sits and waits for sinners looking for shelter. We stand quietly, Jason and I, respecting the moment, and in short order we drive away heading deeper into the Georgia countryside.
There are places I return to again and again to make photographs. There is a deserted abandoned house not far from me that I have photographed countless times over the last 25 years. I go at different times of the day. The light is always different. I try different angles. The house and the ground are always different as well. The trees grow, the grass grows, sometimes I go in the winter with the snow. I know that one day I will go out to photograph this house and it will be gone, torn down to make way for something else.
“I don’t want my work thought about in terms of nostalgia. It is about place and sense of place. I am not looking back longing for the past, but at the beauty of time and the passage of time.”
Our field of view is narrow. We don’t see much, even when we are trying, and since we are rarely trying we see even less. Susan Sontag wrote of the heroic vision of photographers. I believe she was kidding around, in her way, but certainly photographers (some photographers at least) take pride in seeing. And I suppose it’s true. The whole thing is entirely too big, so breaking it into pieces makes perfect sense. I guess the next question is that in breaking it into pieces are we able to understand it better? The world that is. In breaking down the world into these bit sized pieces are we gaining insight into the whole? There is no natural composition to what we see. We supply that. We arrange the elements in the frame, we select the lens, we make every decision that results in the piece of the world that is taken from life and placed into the huge archive of images that make up our visual history. Stephen Shore wrote in great mundane detail of the nature of photographs. Was he writing of the nature of the world? Or of the ways that we break the world down into photographs. And is it the same?
No it isn’t.
Avedon famously said that all photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.
Truth is hard to come by and often depends on where you are standing. Is any photographer finding truth? In the end for me trying to find the world by breaking it into pieces works pretty well. Is it true? Or just a pretty picture?
On September 20, 1982 Columbia Records released Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Everything about this record is a departure. The black and white photo on the cover by David Michael Kennedy doesn’t feature Springsteen, but a bleak cold landscape and highway going nowhere. The songs are about beaten crooked men. The music is spare and haunting. Every song is dire, the characters on edge waiting for death, or urging death to come. The opening song Nebraska is from the perspective of Charlie Starkweather, a spree-killing mass murderer. Johnny 99 is about a desperate man who loses his job, gets drunk, kills a man and ultimately begs a judge to sentence him to die. Open All Night is the only song with any semblance of positive feeling, telling the tale of a man racing down the New Jersey Turnpike in the dead of night to reach his girl. Reason to Believe is the real killer though, each verse recounting some bad thing happening: a dead dog on the highway, a lover left at the altar. But that chorus urging that at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.
Perhaps Nebraska was Springsteen’s attempt to steer away from mega-success. He was well on the way after The River and his first hit: Hungry Heart. With Nebraska he took a commercial step back, delaying the inevitable leap to the stratosphere that was Born in The USA.