accessibility & immediacy

I am a perfectionist procrastinator and I'm not afraid to say it. It's taken me a long time to realize these things about myself- I hesitate to begin a project until I feel like I have absolutely everything that I could possibly need, I don't like to hang or present work until I feel like it's reached a real stopping/finishing point. This is what I've been struggling with a lot lately in regards to my Pacific-American diaspora work- how to put the work out there, accessible, in the world, while still actively making it. 

As a fourth-year undergrad, my Professional Practices course brought in a gallery owner and had her give a talk to us about marketing our work to galleries. She asked the group of 30, "How many of you want to be photographer who hang work in galleries? How many of you want to make a living from making fine art images?" All but two of us raised their hands. Myself and one other student kept ours down. My classmate Chris explained that he was more interested in going into archiving and fabrication, and I talked about how in the balance between teaching and art making, teaching will always win out for me. Being a "gallery photographer" has never appealed to me. Art galleries and the art world are inherently inaccessible to the general public- a topic that I could go in to at length, but maybe I'll save that for another post. 

So when considering how I want to present An Ocean, there's a lot of different elements to take into account:

  • The work is ongoing.
  • It is important to present the work as it happens/continuously.
  • It should be immediately accessible to as many people as possible.
  • People should not be kept from seeing it based on budget/location/time.
  • Participants should have the ability to contribute their own voice to the work. 

Thinking about these elements, several traditional forms of presenting photographs are immediately ruled out. Gallery spaces are only locationally accessible and books or magazines cost money to produce and ship. How else to people experience images? How else to people access photographs?

I made the decision recently to utilize Instagram as the fastest, cheapest, most widely accessible method of making this work as possible.

The Instagram format has already been as immediately accessible, interactive and discoverable as I'd hoped it would be. The ability to tag images means more people have the opportunity to happen upon the images while searching a specific tag, participants can tag themselves or their friends, and people can comment on particular images- which has already proved valuable when Mikhael, pictured at the lower right, added this comment to an image that was part of his story:

The account is still in it's infancy- but it's growth and reach in only the first three weeks of it's existence gives me confidence.

ceci n'est pas une pipe: on the truth of portraiture

Portraiture is arguably the most immediately accessible genre of photography. It's easy to understand a portrait- a photo of a person, usually. A face- something recognizable, something familiar. It's easy to look a photograph of a person and imagine what their life may be like, based on what we can see. 

The images above are selections from Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi. The first time I completed a body of work based in portraiture, the first feedback that I received from a professor was "I'm so glad these images don't look like Alec Soth". That single comment has shaped both the way that I photograph portraits and how I perceive them for the last four years. 

Allow me to rewind, momentarily.

These are selections from work made by Edward Curtis in the early 1900's. Curtis has been viewed as the father of ethnographic portraiture for the better part of the last two centuries, but in my own experience, people in the last ten years finally seem to be copping on to his crap. Curtis' Pictorialist style- softer focus and manipulation of the print color or chemicals in order to elicit a somewhat dreamlike appearance- renders the ethnographic validity of these images immediately null. Pictorialism is often spoken about as the catalyst for photography's exaltation to the realm of fine art in the mid 1900's. Why, then, have Curtis' images, especially those of indigenous North Americans, been viewed for so long as true representations of the people depicted? The idea of manipulation, of both the image and the viewer's emotions, are literally part of the definition of Pictorialism. Curtis' portraits are socio-cultural propaganda at their most basic.

Principal among the commonalities between Curtis' and Soth's photo is the anonymity of their subjects. The generally accepted idea of portraiture is to reveal the identity of a person- and while these two photographers may do that in the most superficial way, we cannot truly identify anything about these people outside of their frames. Seth's images, though most of them include some environmental context, are the height of Anywhere, USA. There are things we can infer based on the settings of some of his subjects- this person is on a bed, that person is outside, the other person is probably in a church. But the only reason we have a more specific geographic clue about his locations is because he gives it to us. Without a title, Sleeping by the Mississippi would become Sleeping Literally Anywhere. And suddenly, this anonymous mish-mash of folks becomes the precedent for what people look like in that part of the world. Likewise, Curtis' images of regalia-ed Natives provide little to no cultural context of the clothing or adornment portrayed. His subjects are depicted often in either ceremonial regalia, traditional clothing with a specific purpose, or, as in the case above, what appears to be an entire bear skin. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pretty much any of the thousands of Native groups in North America should know that none of these things are everyday wear. How did the war bonnet become synonymous with typical Native garb? Curtis.

I'm reminded of another "ethnographic" work of pseudo-non-fiction by our dear friend Robert Flaherty, titled Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, produced in 1922. The silent "documentary" tells the story of an Canadian Inut man, Allakariallak ("Nanook"), of the Itivimuit, his wife Nyla and their child Cunayou. In reality, various accounts from individuals who knew Flaherty and Allakariallak have revealed that this woman and child were not Allakariallak's family at all, but instead Flaherty's. Flaherty encouraged Allakariallak to hunt in the "traditional" way of his people, instead of with the gun that Allakariallak would normally use. Flaherty in fact refused to capture any film in which evidence of European contact was apparent, instead staging scenes capturing what were basically re-enactments of pre-colonial life in the Canadian Arctic.

But I digress. 

The two most important bodies of work that I am currently involved in are, at their most basic, works of portraiture. Not only in the sense that I am making photos that are mostly of faces and people, but in the sense that both bodies as a whole are meant to represent something. Like Stieglitz's Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait, the images I'm producing aren't meant to be viewed one at a time. They're a progression of an experience- one, a portrait of a matriarch with a terminal condition. The other, a portrait of a community grasping to stay rooted in our heritage. Obviously, neither of these works are as simple as what I've tried to boil them down to here, but then neither are my feelings regarding the totalitarian nature of the idea of a portrait. To believe that we can know someone by viewing an image of them is naive. To believe that we can capture even part of an individual's personality in a still frame is naive. To make our life's work out of depicting the faces of the world and to say that those images are a representation of everyone else who looks like that person is naive (cough, Steve McCurry). Making portraits never appealed to me until I realized that all we have to do is recognize that images of people are not the same as the people themselves. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, right? The image is not the object but merely a screen of a representation of the object. I just finished re-reading Jaques Lacan for the third time in four years and he still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that part I understand. 

I want to see aspects of my identity represented in the world so badly- on magazine covers, in movies and television, and in the music industry. I want to see people who look like me, talk like me, have similar experiences to mine out in the world, existing and being recognized. That's the main impetus for both the work I'm doing on my mother and the world that I'm doing with other children of Pacific immigrants. But through both of these works, I have to keep reminding myself that what I'm making will never be the same as what those people are living. My images are not their identities, my photographs are not their experiences. An image of the object is not the object.