2.04.2010

Thinking about thought in a media rich environment.

Revolving doors on West Sixth street, Austin, Texas.  
Camera:  Olympus EP2

There are a lot of thoughts that I think I've generated in the vacuum of my own mind which I'm pretty sure are just the manifestation of years and years of immersion in a media rich culture.  I think my subconscious spends a lot of time stealing and borrowing fun snippets of concepts and visions that I catch and snatch across time and experience.  And that makes me sad because I wonder if our culture mediates against the chance of having an original thought.  Just as people say they were "standing on the shoulders of giants"  when they accomplish something profound; I wonder if we as a creative class are just the culmination and revolving door synthesis of all the "Leave it to Beaver" and "24" and "Gilligan's Island" shows we've watched, mixed with a dose of Dr. Suess, a little Susan Sontag and stirred around by some "Blade Runner" and "The Sound of Music".  I know the accompanying sound track is a raucous mix of Beethoven, The Beatles, Mozart, The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell and disco.

With six billion people in the world are there still original thoughts?  Or are we destined to sample and mix?

I came up with an idea for a new book recently.  I thought it was pretty cool and pretty sexy.  When I pitched it to a publisher they said, in effect:  "You seem to be on to a very important trend.  But we've already signed a writer for that project."  When I go out to photograph I struggle with a saturated awareness of the history of photography and the work that's happening everywhere around me.  Am I referencing previous work by artists?  Am I using a "melody line" in reference or is it a visual cliche that we're all destined to rework until the next swirl hits?

Photographers tend to be of two minds.  In the first category are compulsive researchers like me who look and look and look.  And the research is promiscuous;  I can probably tell you what camera and lens were used as well as who took the picture and where it first appeared.   So I am paralyzed by over consuming information.  I curse the web for that.  But the other extreme is the photographers who curmudgeonly refuse to know what's going on in their field  and who resist the computer at all costs.  They consider their vision unsullied until someone points out to them that the opus they've struggled with for decades has already been done, many times, and usually much better. Because few are truly resistant to the persistence "the messages". Paralysis or re-invention of the wheel?  There has to be a better choice.

At this point I'm sure the cliche minded have already jumped to the story about the patent clerk who, well over a hundred years ago, suggested closing the patent office because he was certain that all the good and original ideas had already been considered.  But that's not quite where I'm headed here.

I think we make so much work to please our audiences.  We shoot what we shoot because we want to be perceived as creative and cool.  Our map for coolness is the compilation of greatest hits that serially litter our attention.  We reference and tweak and bend them like Stephen Fairey with his poster of Obama, which started life as someone else's photograph.  And the problem is that we sometimes, unintentionally, step over the line into pure plagiarism.

Most of us started careers as artists or commercial photographers because we had a sense of our own visual sensibility but over time we've subjugated that clear vision for one we think will serve us better among our peers and our clients.  Little by little, we've hidden away the things that makes the art uniquely our own and that renders it  as just a souvenir of our culture.

To understand what I really mean it's enlightening to study the best known work of the writer, Vladimir Nabokov;  the novel, Lolita.  There's very little in this book that is really prurient or shocking by most standards and yet, when the book was first published in 1955   it was banned in the United States for a time.  It was regarded as so unpublishable that Nabokov was only able to sell it to a European publisher with a shaky, porny reputation.  It may be the best novel of the 20th century.  And not because of the subject matter but because of the writing.  And the unique point of view.  And the wonderful storytelling.

Now the book is celebrated by scholars.  Kubrick did the movie and it is astoundingly good. (It should be, Nabokov wrote the screenplay).  The book gets better and better, and over 54 years later still has relevance and power.  It was a set of "giant shoulders" to stand on for the next generation of authors who could now write in a more revealing and intimate manner.  But the "take away" is that Nabokov had the courage to create art that was in sync with his own nature while being profoundly out of sync with the prevailing culture. 

Of the books written in 1955 the vast majority have been consigned to the dusty card catalog of history. Lolita grows in power and influence.  If we are to create work that is meaningful to ourselves (and we can have no idea of the work's intrinsic value to anyone else) then we have to be as fearless as Nabokov and shoot from the heart.  Show uncomfortable work that has real meaning to us, and use a visual language that isn't a mirrored reflection of our social construct's greatest hits.

A clear vision may be influenced by the immersive media culture that swirls around us but the courage to shoot differently is the power that could make work that matters.  Even if it only matters to an audience of one.  That's the true nature of art.

commercial message:  If you are in Austin, Texas on the 13th of February I will be teaching a unique portrait workshop at Zachary Scott Theater, sponsored by Precision Camera. We'll discuss lighting and aesthetics, have a guest appearance and demo by the amazing photographer,  Will Van Overbeek (see:  www.willvano.com), a make-up demo by famed MUA, Patricia de la Garza and hands on sessions in the afternoon.  Yes, there will be donuts...


Without a doubt, the perfect Valentine's Day present.

Thanks, Kirk