Earlier this past year, I did a podcast with the good folks over at Filmwasters.com. I have done a couple of these recorded sessions actually, but will gloss over my debut appearance, because in my ignominious first podcast, I drank a couple of tumblers of Bushmills during the ninety minute episode and by the end of the broadcast it was all I could do not to belt out sea shanties. Anyway, during the second podcast, I referenced something that I still think about a lot… Mary Ellen Mark’s work photographing various Senior Proms. I saw this work last summer at the LOOK Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. There were a number of featured exhibitions in the festival and some great photography in various venues in town.
James Nachtwey’s exhibition was the most compelling to me as a human. Nachtwey is a photojournalist and war photographer and his website will do more to explain the power of his work than I can ever get across in a quickly crafted internet treatment… his work encompasses the larger issues facing this world: Afganistan, Kosovo, Aids, addiction, life in american prisons, Rwanda and that is all that I can remember off the top of my head of what was a essentially a survey of his work over the years. So, to spin this the right way, let me say that this work blew me away. Choked me up. The images are beautiful and saddening and frightening and worth checking out if you are somehow as yet unfamiliar with his work.
Joel Peter Witken’s exhibition at 2nd Street Gallery was also very compelling in its own right. I must say that I have seen better collections of his work but as a craftsman and as a conceptual artist, Witken is also an amazing personality. The work in here was significant in that there were some digital creations alongside his earlier style of in-camera compositions. Which is really neither here nor there w/r/t what I want to think out loud about, but I thought it interesting to see what Witken was doing with contemporary tools. And the inner cynical adolescent in me was pretty amused by his digital work.
But the work that was most affecting for me was a bit of a dark horse really. I have enjoyed many of Mary Ellen Mark's books and essays over the years. I have a great respect for her as a photographer. And like Nachtwey, she is a renowned photojournalist that has explored very challenging subjects and given us indelible images from all over the world. But what the Prom Portraits did for me was to renew some tired aspect of my own dedication to photography. Because these images came from such a ‘normal’ place… a high school dance… I could imagine myself or any number of my photographer friends being given a similar assignment to photograph. Namely, to make images at some random institutional function. And I can further imagine that prospect , at bottom dollar, would sound about as appealing as a mason jar full of monkey urine. I am not always so jaded but I find that I don’t always approach commercial work with the same enthusiasm as I do personal artwork. And that is my problem. And a problem that this show of prom images is actually helping me with.
The images were not incredibly innovative by most measures… very large prints, probably from 4x5 polaroid pos/neg film, very sharp, studio lighting, simple backdrop… BUT the kids are amazing. There is a modicum of editorial manipulation going on by the artist in that the kids seem a little more toward the margins of ‘average’, what with the gay couple, the mixed race couple, the physically mismatched couple, the dateless kids, etc. And there were other stereotypes that also played nicely, the good looking kids with questionable skin, the oddly fitting clothes like the kids have been stuffed into misshapen adult suits, the awkwardness of standing next to one’s date and forever being associated with that person even though you hardly know them, its all in there… nervousness, lust, tough shit brio, bored indulgence of a photographer that these kids must probably have assumed was a hack straight out ofWalmart. There is a lot going on in these photographs. And so, even though Mark’s photography feels a bit like a humble sequel to Richard Avedon’s In The American West, damn if I didn’t get all excited by the work. These photos make me actually excited to shoot the next boring ass event that comes my way... Can you say weddings! Or maybe bar mitzvahs or kids’ portraits or pet portraits or insurance claim documentation. It just doesn’t fucking matter! It is not what you shoot but how you shoot. It matters what you bring to any given subject. It matters who you are as a photographer. It matters where you are. And it matters that you pay attention. In the moment.
So, to Ms. Mark, thanks for that. I am somewhat renewed even just thinking about it.
A friend once gave me a whole CD of musical covers of Over the Rainbow. And that, too, was really sort of a lesson for me about interpretation. Originality is so often inside the voice and not so much in the concept. Freshness can be tone, color, inflection, cadence, tempo, attitude, character… Traditionals. Covers. There is, of course, no shortage of uninspired interpretations of old standards. If I never hear Mustang Sally played by a bar band ever again, it will be too soon. But with a little insight into how we approach our life and work, we might be able to avoid the tired and commonplace and embrace the crystalline brilliance of the close at hand.
Write what you know.
Photograph what you know.
There is saftey in numbers but it is hard to dance that way without looking like the cast from Thriller.
Charles Traub wrote in a series of maxims on photography:
"Do something new in an old way.
Do something old in a new way.
Do something new in a new way
Whatever works… works."