How do I know that enjoying life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death we are not like people who got lost in early childhood and do not know the way home? Lady Li was the child of a border guard in Ai. When first captured by the state of Jin, she wept so much her clothes were soaked. But after she entered the palace, shared the king’s bed, and dined on the finest meats, she regretted her tears. How do I know that the dead do not regret their previous longing for life? One who dreams of drinking wine may in the morning weep; one who dreams weeping may in the morning go out to hunt. During our dreams we do not know we are dreaming. We may even dream of interpreting a dream. Only on waking do we know it was a dream. Only after the great awakening will we realize that this is the great dream. And yet fools think they are awake, presuming to know that they are rulers or herdsmen. How dense! You and Confucius are both dreaming, and I who say you are a dream am also a dream. Such is my tale. It will probably be called preposterous, but after ten thousand generations there may be a great sage who will be able to explain it, a trivial interval equivalent to the passage from morning to night.
There were times when I was a ghost, a shambling shell of remorse and regret, a shirking shadow of recitation and recrimination, a shabby shrouded shoeless shrimp of resignation and reparation. Times when I spurned my yearnings and turned on my earnings. Times when playing forlorn was no act and times when scorn was a pimply pleasurable fact. There were times when all small things became big things and all those big things were courted and counted and coddled. There were times so bad not even the near and dear would notice me. Indeed, there have been times, grim and dim times, when I was nothing, when I was nothing much at all.
There are other times too, good times, when the temperature is right, when money isn’t tight or when the light isn’t too bright. Times when every one is a friend and when every friend stays to the very end. Times when deeds have nothing to do with needs and when everything as far as the eye can see looks fine from the top of every steep incline. There are times when the air tastes sweet and the clothes are always folded neat. Times when time is short and times when every second counts. It’s true, there have been better times, happier times, when I don’t remember much of anything, when I needn’t remember anything at all.
In periods of social crisis, photography as art can seem an inhuman escape. It is so often apparently distant from the specific catastrophes in the day’s news. Think of Stieglitz making, during the worst years of the Depression, his coldly beautiful views of New York City from the heights of the Sheraton Hotel — or of Ansel Adams photographing in the Sierras as the worst of World War II was being fought in Europe.
In response to juxtapositions like these there are critics who have asked for “concerned photography,” by which they mean photography that deals directly with social ills. Few photographers themselves have, however, supported the use of the adjective “concerned” as a way of distinguishing one artist from another; they know firsthand that all art is the product of concern. They believe as a consequence that it has social utility — it is designed to give us courage. Society is endangered to the extent that any of us loses faith in meaning, in consequence. Art that can convincingly speak through form for significance bears upon the problem of nihilism and is socially constructive. Restated, photography as art does address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to convince us of life’s value; the darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended. Which is to say that art addresses an inner struggle whereas journalism more often reports on the outward consequences of it. Perhaps this is what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” We have all had the sad opportunity to watch that. And though poems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone — only people who care for each other face to face have a chance to do that — they can strengthen our resolve to agree to life.
- Robert Adams, from Photographing Evil collected In Defense of Traditional Values
Where did the storm come from? No warning
on the forecast and no warning wind.
We’d put off putting the storm windows on
and insulating the attic when
bang, rain on glass, and no we can’t name
the brown form cringing under the cutbank.
Trees go wild in protest and dogs crawl
sullen into the past. All plans are off.
One cloud covers the world pole to pole.
In these moments, each to his life and each
alone in himself. I ride rough water
under dark skies more than forty years back.
My cousin is rowing. I am going to die.
I am alone on a prairie
waving hello to bison miles off and blind.
Men work hard in a barn. Because I’m open
and warm they disdain me. Women
disdain me because I warp in their glare.
The storm is over. The brown form under
the cutbank’s a badger. What hope’s open
to him? He makes us sick
the way he near slithers, his hair wet
and flat like a villain’s, his every motion
faintly intestine. We say wherever
he lives it’s not fit for others.
Sun fills our kitchen. Tamaracks ask
for this dance and dogs beg food at our door.
The trouble with weather, what’s happening now
we think will go on forever.
Moments are slower than days.
Between storms, we believe our weather ideal,
our home safe from those we can’t stand.
Better we plan our kitchen to trap
whatever light arrives, and whatever creature
huddles in the blue, a storm’s a good time
to remember home is where he says hello.
- Richard Hugo
The map is not the territory.- Alfred Korzybski
I grew up with this picture above the television. It’s safe to say I’ve looked at this painting more than any other image. My mother bought it in Stuttgart the year I was born in the city I was born. Whenever I’ve asked her what she sees in it she’d square her eyes, furrow her brow and shake her head. I don’t know is what she says.
This past year helping her sort the house I was surprised when she no longer wanted it. I don’t know why was all she’d say. I hate to let it go, but I have to, I can’t do it any longer. Lips pursed, she said I just can’t. Head shaking she said I won’t.
Forty-one years and it felt fine to pull it free from the frame, it felt good to crumple it into my carry-on. It’s uncanny how quickly things can change. It’s mine now and I can do with it what I like. I can make this beautiful print for example. And then I can give it to you. And then I can just give that to you.
are no longer cloud
Fruits and leaves
are not tree
Petals are not rose
Tears are not calm sea
Everything that comes off
teaches us to fall
Gotas de agua
ya no son nube
Frutos y hojas
no son árbol
Pétalos no son rosa
Lágrimas no son mar sereno
Todo lo que se desprende
nos enseña a caer
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Higgs Boson Blues
Can’t remember anything at all
Flamed trees lie in the streets
Can’t remember anything at all
But I’m driving my car down to Geneva
Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed
I don’t remember where or when I first read that aphorism – a search on the internet reveals a multitude of sources and derivations – yet it’s a sentiment that continues to compel me. My upbringing, my childhood, was not the most ideal. My family is more insular, strange, and mad than most. Even today I’ve a keen access to feelings of loneliness, failure, fear, deprivation, and heartache. Our life then, my life then, was guarded and secret, the timbre was depressed, and what’s more we were poor. There wasn’t a lot except what could be found, held onto, and kept from others.
It wasn’t until high school, when I discovered photography, that I reckoned a way out, if not physically, then at least emotionally. I used the camera to reconnoiter my landscape and I used the darkroom to remake it. In that way I could control it, analyze it’s angles, and make plain the consequences. I’ve always done what I could to make the prints as beautiful as I can, a pleasure I’m reticent to resist, and yet the images, the subjects, the things my photographs show, are not always our best. They are small moments: forgotten, misplaced, unnoticed, rejected, repressed, and haunted. Poetic perhaps, but minor for sure.
Thankfully, I no longer live in that world and yet my art does. Photography is the practice of transmutation; a simple act to make myself better, to recreate a whole. Where I’ve been and what I’ve seen hasn’t always been pretty. To deflect it’s full impact requires constant contemplation, replication, and representation. Too, I’ve learned that secrets don’t help anybody. Indeed, there are those comforted by the pictures I make. These days I share whatever I find with whomever I can.
A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.
- George Bataille, from Documents 1, 1929
Write down as much as you can. Write everything down. That means everything. It doesn’t need to make sense. And that thing you don’t know how to say? Just write it down. There’s always words, even for what you think you don’t know. Any words on paper are a start and a start is halfway there. The more material you have to work with the easier it will be to edit.
Alright then: go through your first draft and rewrite using the principles below. Then rewrite again.
1] Never begin with “My Work”. Also avoid any use of “my work” anywhere within the statement. It’s also a good idea to never use the word “work” anywhere at all, ever.
2] You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal. Nobody cares about the minutiae and what you want is to make people care. Tell them a good story.
3] Often, what you wrote at the beginning should go at the end, or the end should be the beginning.
4] Don’t try to sound smart. You aren’t. The world is full of people whose job is to be smart. An artist isn’t held to the same ideals; count yourself among the lucky. Make your statement personal – it’s what you’ve got that nobody else has. What you believe you alone know is why we’re looking.
5] Begin with a bang. Which is better? “My work is about airports and longing . . . ” or “The first time I saw an airport was the last time I saw my father . . .”
6] Cut all excess words.
7] Be wary of repetition. Should you repeat a word more than twice, then it’s something you’re not adequately describing. Write more about that. What you’re missing will be found there.
8] Never apologize or prevaricate. Never use a tone of uncertainty. Write as though you know what you’re doing. State the personal as if it were universal.
9] Vary your sentence lengths – long then short, short then long.
10] Match your words to what you’ve made. Use adjectives and adverbs that feel like what you’ve done.
11] Use a thesaurus to expand your meaning. Always use precise words rather than general words. Construct is better than make. Elegant, symmetrical, graceful, or overwhelming will take you further than beautiful. Roget’s Thesaurus is best and the best Roget is the online 1911 version. Use it to not just to find better words, but as a way to riff and expand on your ideas. Travel beyond what only you can think up.
[download the pdf - use as you see fit]
It doesn’t help. Something’s got to be done. His jaw dropped, his forehead wrinkled, he gasped, and then went into a paroxysm of coughing. He coughed and weezed in a manner almost sickening to behold. You know how sensitive I am — there is no limit to the number of symptoms that can be called forth under those circumstances — even to satisfy a doctor’s curiosity. Secrete, secrete: saliva gushes, your mouth waters, salivary glands go to work. Your brain is only aware of printed words — that is your conditioned reflex — traces of printer’s ink. He got that way in childhood. From learning to spit whenever he was angry or crossed or worried. He decided to forget entirely. In fact he had completely forgotten what makes you go to work, punch the clock, lunch at noon, dine heavily at night, and wish you hadn’t by bedtime. He did not like to admit these things, even to himself. He knew it was silly to feel as he does, but he cannot help it. His intestines, his glands, his heart — you could see this for yourself if you had an x-ray machine — the salivary responses, the fear responses, including spams of the stomach, cowering, tension of the muscles, the cramping of his intestines, and the dryness of his mouth. His whole body substituted. He was no longer human. He was highly irritable, snapped at everyone.
It shouldn’t happen, he never knows where he stands. We feel our glands, our stomachs, intestines, blood vessels. All we know is that in a chance encounter predestination wins this external conflict between fear, love and hate — and he hasn’t looked far beneath the surface of things. This too is being overdone. All this is common knowledge. Whether he is accepted or rejected, each determined by the angle of approach, each of which is appropriate, that it’s often difficult to reconcile one with another. But he knows he isn’t a martyr. Emotional habit is at once so complex, so diverse, and so closely knitted together; coaxing the sleep that does not come there arises a sense of strain, a lack of fulfillment.
Perhaps you had a trade skill that has been replaced by an automatic machine. This lopping off of an activity is a common thing in life. You haven’t anything else to do, nothing to do except to plan another futile, empty day. They gave him a farewell dinner and a gold watch. You can instruct the blood vessels of your face to dilate, but they won’t listen.
skip reading of the first chapter of Release from Nervous Tension by Dr. Fink, published 1943
When true love broke my heart in half,
I took the whiskey from the shelf,
And told my neighbors when to laugh.
I keep a dog, and bark myself.
Ghost cries out to ghost–
But whose afraid of that?
I feel those shadows most
That start from my own feet.
- Theodore Roethke
Whatness is concerned with content.
In the solemnity of every hour life returns.
- Frederick Sommer
I know dead birds are a cliche but I was late and I’d forgotten something, turned around and there he was. What was I to do? I quickly wrapped it up and carried him with me.
My therapist isn’t concerned with meaning or interpretations or possabilities. She never asks why. She says, what does the bird want? She says, what do you need?
I don’t have a lot of words this summer; trouble enough to put down this much. The studio is a mess and I no longer know what I’m working towards. I unfolded the paper and it looked like this. I made the exposure; I buried him with the irises.
Between teaching and working and everything else there isn’t always a lot left for consideration. Just, I don’t think it wanted to be left there on the sidewalk. I mean, I don’t think he wanted to be left there like that.
made for a recent exchange for The Postcard Collective
i want a
just a thing
have no meaning
The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks like, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the things seen and that makes a composition.
- Gertrude Stein, from Composition as Explanation
Is it then so surprising that a change of place should contribute so much to making us forget what we don’t like to think of as real, as though it were a dream?
- Karl Philipp Moritz, from Anton Reiser
The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues, are as fugitive, alas as the years.
- Marcel Proust