Chuck Close and Far

near and far.jpg

I was standing by the side of a backroad near Clockville when a cow came up to me (true story). I’ve been struggling with trying to get some sort of perspective on what I want to do next. The majority of my adult life I would have tagged myself as a photographer. It’s sort of a strange thing to do, considering that I have little in common with most photographers and find it hard to talk to most of them. If it’s a club, I always avoided joining because I just didn’t like the members. I do like cows though; My dad raised them pretty much as pets. As barbaric as it may sound, we did indeed eat our pets though. But I digress.

There was this sort of tableau in this field that I found interesting, but it kept changing when I tried to photograph it. I was never quite happy with any of the arrangements that presented themselves. Eventually, I just MMS’d a picture from my phone to my wife and drove on.


It seems like I can only photograph what is close to me. I’m weird that way. I remember that was a major difference between myself and Harry Wilson, one of the few “photographers” I ever really knew and liked. Harry would always travel (usually overseas) to photograph. He never liked what was next to him as subjects for photographs; he required the sort of distance and strangeness that travel brings before he felt creative.

I have become fond of traveling, particularly cross-country, in the last few years. It really helps to clear your head and allows you to think complex issues through. But when it comes to photographing things, I am always drawn to those things that I already know. I feel that if I can just look closer at those mundane things, if I can see them from new perspectives I can learn useful things. So when I travel, rather than looking for the unusual, I tend to be drawn to the usual. Like cows. And blue or yellow flowers. Krista and I came up with that theory travelling across the upper midwest: this country is really composed of cows and blue and yellow flowers.

Then again, I know that I fall prey to one of the central myths of photography. Most everyone of a certain age knows it. In the movie Blow-Up, a photographer just keeps zooming in to find more and more detail in one of his negatives. Eventually, he finds evidence of a murder. Robert Capa famously claimed that if your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. The basic tenet of photorealism is that photographs are seamless, containing endless meaning if we just keep zooming in.

I was shocked to find, searching my blogs, that I never have really written anything about Chuck Close. In the last few years, he has been increasingly thought-provoking to me. He went through a phase of photorealism in his painting, but soon moved to breaking things down into blots and motifs mapped on a grid. I think he has one of the best theories of near and far of any artist I know. Up close, things are personal and idiosyncratic.

You have to step back to really get the sense of Chuck Close’s paintings as “images.” Looking closer doesn’t really tell you something new. It tells you something different.

Cow Cube

My mom kept a little photo cube with pictures of our cows. It dawned on me, reflecting on my time in Clockville, that the problem of near and far (and locating a meaningful perspective) is not simply a matter of space, but also of time. We are never the same from one moment to the next, and even though there seem to be some constants (like cows), meaning is always contingent and fleeting. But the universe isn’t quite as random as it seems, if you can locate the right place to stand.

On that same drive down Oxbow Road, I passed a farm that claimed to be the birthplace of the first registered holstein cow. This place feels more like home all the time.