I’ve been thinking a lot lately about places (and perspectives on them). I don’t think that I approach place in the same way as a lot of people, perhaps because of where I grew up. Coming of age in the 1970s, the tradition in photography (especially in California) was dominated by Ansel Adams and his descendants. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But those photographs did not describe my world, my home. When I looked out the window I saw something completely different. But it would be myopic to suggest that place is simply a matter of geography/time. People are mobile creatures, and perhaps always have been. It shocked me how far many photographers of the nineteenth century were able to travel, aided by technology or not. But perhaps it’s communication media that have had the greatest effect on leveling things, creating uniformity when there wasn’t any uniformity before.
I remember taking linguistics classes that explored the subtleties of inflection/pronunciation and meaning vs. places of origin (i.e. home). California is fairly nondescript linguistically, but I didn’t even test positive for California idioms. My speech patterns contained artifacts of most of the regions in the US. Talking to my mom, she told me that I learned most of my language and pronunciation from the TV. I watched a lot of TV growing up. The dissonance between the images I saw on television (those people didn’t look like anyone I knew, though the places seemed oddly familiar) and the images I saw in real life was pretty jarring. Just the same, I learned a lot from the box.
No one I knew ever confused TV with real life; “reality TV” is the ultimate absurdity. I think that what TV homogenized is not our lives, but rather our dreams. It sets a horizon that most of my generation never strayed far from. What has this to do with the places we live? Not much, I suppose, other than to promote a disconnect between ideal places and actual places: since we don’t live in pristine nature we make pilgrimages to it and some even fantasize about living there. Sometime around age 18, I turned the box off; I didn’t own one for a while, until they decided to put music on it (but that’s a different story).
I’ve mentioned before that I started collecting and sorting images when I was a teen. Again, these were idealized images and I was always trying to figure out just what made them ideal. Then, for lack of anything else to do I suppose, I went to Bakersfield College (the high school on the hill) and met Harry Wilson. Harry was a firm believer in the “garbage in, garbage out” school of picture viewing. Looking at crap images all the time drove you to imitate and produce more crap advertising images. This sort of penchant for imitation over innovation seems like a given now. The cornerstone of a liberal arts education is to view/read only the best and brightest so that you can converse with the best and the brightest. I dropped out of college then, but I developed more refined viewing habits when I was there (1976-77).
It was during those years that I was first introduced to conceptual art, and really became fond of the practice of landscape photography. When I first saw Friedlander and Winogrand it was like an icepick in the forehead, but what made me fall right over was interaction with my high school photography teacher who had taken a sabbatical in those years to complete his MFA at Cal State Bakersfield. It was Chris Burnett that introduced me to the idea of conceptual landscapes. I started following formulas of a sort, plotting coordinates on a road map of Bakersfield and Kern County to drive to random locations and take photographs. This odd procedural move helped take the idealization out of the process. While it was hard to stop idealizing the locations, being confronted with decidedly non-ideal subject matter constantly forces you to come up with more interesting ways to represent the world.
The problem with this maneuver, is that it forces your thinking into a sort of grid. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (it works fine for Chuck Close). This just didn’t satisfy me totally, so I would head out to the Kern River. I was always torn between a gridded, systemic approach to things and an more organic and loose approach. But there has always been one constant:
I think that the best place to be is where you are.
Going back trying to tag my ramblings, I encountered an entry from 2001 where I mentioned taking a findyourspot survey (remember surveys? How 2000!) that suggested that the best places for me to live were all in the South. I took the survey again (it still exists!) to find that the best places for me to live are all in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Give it another year, and I’ll bet it’s saying that my preference is for Central New York. Our ideal expectations are always inflected by what we are viewing/hearing at any given moment.