Writing always seems to be a reconstructive enterprise. My old friend Slim had a song about it: The Story of How It Got That Way. The fun thing about the song is that each time the chorus repeats, key descriptions become their opposites. I think it’s common to construct most messages as stories. Lists make for a boring read. The core problem is the shifting nature of description and emphasis that makes storytelling a constant stream of reinvention. The postmodern mode of thinking casts this as a feature, not a flaw: it’s simply the play of language.
The difficulty comes when you try to imagine a message transcending context. I remember one of the great problems I had when I first started writing in public was my strong tendency to get lost in writing an introduction to whatever message I was composing. At some point, I figured out that I’d been introducing myself – or, more accurately, aspects of myself- for several years. It’s hard to get much done at that rate. Hello- out of time and energy now-I must be going. Approaching writing as a craft, it becomes a core skill to simply throw those introductory “throat-clearing” pages away. Everyone writes them, and it seems cruel to expect others to read them. The real test of the writer as a craftsman is developing the stamina/patience to plow through that part to get to the good stuff.
Ahem. I didn’t start out as a writer. I started as a sorter; much like the early Internet fad “hot or not”, more often than not I found myself sorting things into piles: this is more interesting than that. The curious thing about this practice is that it insists on things to sort. Stories don’t sort easily; they are slippery. Images, at first glance, are much easier. I think that becoming a photographer seemed like the right move for me around the age of thirteen because it made sense to sort out the world. Photography is a curious vocation. The words art and craft tend to come up a lot. I was always a little uncomfortable with the label “artist” because it made the whole affair seem a lot more mystical and impractical than it really was. It was always more pragmatic than that. But craft makes it seem technical and less human somehow. There’s a tension here between unabashed subjectivity (“hot or not”) and genuine investigation. When I began, I was a child of Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to believe that if a photographer did their job well, you could say with some certainty “that’s the way it is” (or at least was).
One of the key things that I took for granted, as I pursued photography as a vocation for the first 25 years or so, was the idea that I was making objects. Photographs were, at least for the first 150 years or so, physical things. As things, they could be invested with a tangible sense of wonder and mystery- I wonder how that was made? Surface character is what always differentiated photographs from printed reproductions, though in a key sense photography is simply a different reproductive process than printing. Melding the two, bringing them together as ink-jet was for me perhaps the beginning of the end of thinking what I did was somehow “special.” The craft of photography, though it became many times more expensive (my current digital camera cost about 15 times as much as my favorite film camera), felt cheaper. The metaphoric shift really cements it though: instead of making photographs I just update my photo stream. Often, it feels as if I might as well pee in it for the difference it makes.
In a decidedly non-digital moment around 1996 in Arkansas, I reached pretty much the same conclusion. When I lived in California, I felt like what I did photographically had worth. People bought prints occasionally, and often asked me to photograph things they felt needed documenting. I had tried to pursue the same sort of documentary work after some major life changes that brought me to Little Rock. I felt privileged to see and photograph a local tribute concert raising funds for a Louis Jordan memorial. Jordan’s widow was there, and I had made a lovely photo of her holding Louis’ high school marching band coronet. It seemed like a beautiful thing on many levels. I printed it 16×20, and mounted it with several other pieces. The owner of the venue had expressed an interest in showing them, and I returned to show him and the promoter. He didn’t show up to see them. Neither did the promoter. In fact, no one there in the microbrewery had the slightest interest. I found myself standing on a street corner in downtown Little Rock holding images in a high wind buffeting around like sails. Even people walking by on the street didn’t glance at them. They were not worthy of even a moment’s interest. I think that’s when I started to identify myself as a retired photographer.
Inevitably, it might have been productive to recognize that I wasn’t special sooner. It took a long time to get that through my skull. One of my final experiences in California was closely documenting Slim, who eventually attempted suicide. My pictures had made no difference in his feelings of self-worth. I documented the scars of the attempt, just as I had so many other moments before, but I just couldn’t admit to myself that what I did was worthless. It took the episode in Little Rock to really drive the point home.
Worthless is of course too strong a word. Ineffectual, perhaps. I picked up my first digital camera a year or so later- a super cheap pen camera with the resolution of a web cam. I had broken my ankle and entertained myself by shooting pictures out the windows of my apartment. Then there was a little Fuji 2mp job. These things were never serious to me. The only things I saved were from a trip to San Antonio with Krista. An internet friend gave me a membership to Flickr a while after that, and I started “streaming” my travel glances. The innocence I once had is long gone, though.
I figured out a few of the problems along the way. My interest in art and craft has less to do with self-importance and more to do with durability. Art, as Walker Evans famously quipped, is useless. Some claim that art endures. On the other hand, craft has utility but is ultimately ephemeral— at least inThomas DeQuincy’s opinion. To me, though, durability seems to be a separate matter entirely. That’s where much of my research has focused these last two or three years. The death of my mother was a more recent catalyst. Death always leads you to question what matters.
I am resistant to identification as either a writer or a photographer these days because I think that both of these pursuits seldom lead to durable goods. I still want to understand the world better, to sort it out— but I harbor no illusions about writing or photographing my way there.