Sunday, August 18, 2013

Frame 10

Remembrance of Things Past

Do you have a photograph that resurrects memories of a time and place?
I have one, well, really two pictures that have that effect on me. One of them I took, and the other is a postcard taken before I was born; yet they are related by my memory of different aspects of my relationship with my father.
The one I took is of my dad, Dell, and his wife, Gladys. It was taken at their home at Eagle Lake in California. As you can see, they were standing on the balcony of their house (built by him) that looked out on the lake. Behind them are the hills on the opposite side of the lake, hazy dark lines in the distance. The water to their right is shimmering, a boat dock partially seen on the lower left. It was/is a warm summer day; I always visited them in the summer. My dad has his left arm around Gladys, the other casually extended and resting on the railing. They are both smiling different smiles.
I don’t remember the day, or even year that I took the picture. It was shot with my Yashica Mat. I know this because it’s square. I know too that I wasn’t a very good photographer because my parents are a bit dark and the background is a bit washed-out. This small casual souvenir of a picture brings me a heavy sense of loss and regret. My father died young, at 67, and there were too many things that I left unsaid, too absorbed growing into my adult self, and too eager to cut myself free from his apron strings (he was a great cook). This photograph reminds me of that time, that distance I created.
The other photograph is a postcard of the Golden Pagoda in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, that I found at a swap meet. When I saw it the image made me smile. My dad loved all things Chinese, I’m not sure why. When he lived in L.A. and even after he moved, during those visits we would go to that pagoda-shaped restaurant. He knew the manager, a friend, and he enjoyed the food. This postcard reminds me of the wonderful things that I knew and loved about my dad—his generosity, his gregarious nature, the way he embraced life. Both images, ephemeral apparitions of remembrance, are as fragile and vaporous as the paper image they inhabit.
It is strange to me that the photograph that I’m connected with, the one I took, the one that showed me how close (proximity) I was to my dad is the one that is a rueful reminder. I’m ashamed to say that I was there, but really wasn’t there. The other photo, taken by another person, was of a place filled for me with sounds, smells, tastes and conversations related to dad. That place is still there. I can go to it and walk inside, but it has become an empty shell without his presence. They are two pictures of the way things were, existing now only in feelings—of regret and happiness.

Tell me what you think

Frame 10A
“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, a photograph—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.” Susan Sontag, On Photography

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Frame 9

Being There

When should you just enjoy the moment as opposed to taking a picture of it? We have all become Isherwood’s human camera—passively recording everything we see, saving the images to be looked at later. I wonder if we shoot pictures for enjoyment, to remember what we’ve done and where we’ve been, or as a compulsion, a way to own the experience, or conversely, perhaps a way to evade it.
At family gatherings, tourist destinations, graduations or just about anyplace or time that’s significant, people pull out a picture-taking device and record what they see. (For fun, when I go on vacation, I often take pictures of people taking pictures of their experience.) As some writers on photography have noted, it may be a way to show ownership of the experience. You take a picture in order to share with others what you did and what you saw; it is a type of proof of an ownership of that time and place.

But as I learned from hauling around all my camera equipment during vacations, I am taken out of the experiential moment when I mitigate it by photographing it. Even in those seconds when I put camera to eye I am removing myself from the experience of just seeing, of just being there. When I photograph something my mind is engaged with manipulating the camera, with getting the right shot. I am in the process of constructing a time and a place that I want to remember. All the activities involved in taking a picture removes me from participating in what originally brought me to that spot: its beauty, its transcendence, its serenity, its ability to relax me. Those intangible things that I may gain by just looking and enjoying are exchanged for the ability to document my visual perception of that place.
This is true too of those events we attend as a matter of social interaction. When I photograph events either as a favor or as part of my living, I find that the camera I carry activates a kind of force field. It helps me limit interacting at the event I’m there to document. I become involved with taking the picture and manipulating the camera. The event itself, with all that goes on, is the subject, to be sure, but I am uninvolved with what goes on except to the extent that I’m recording it. Having a camera and taking pictures makes you an outsider, an observer, not a participant. I am there to get the best pictures of the people, the space, the interactions, the theater of it, and so I have to be in a different psychological space from those who are there to partake.
So, what do you get out of taking pictures at a family gathering or during a vacation you’ve been looking forward to? What do you bring home: proof of ownership, or firsthand memories of a life lived?

Tell me what you think

Frame 9A

Friday, June 28, 2013

Frame 8

The Photograph—Fact, Facsimile or Remnant?

When you take a photograph, how do you use it? Once we aim the camera, push the button and look at the screen to see if we are satisfied with the image, how do we engage with it? I’m interested not in a premeditated image, but in one that is taken on an impulse, or one that records a moment at an ongoing event (wedding or party or the like).

What meaning does the image hold for us? Is it a fact of our life, a memento that jogs a memory of a happy time or amazing circumstance, or a souvenir of our need to record? In our momentary desire to capture that, which is before us, does the activity of picture taking remove us (emotionally if not intellectually) from the very thing that we are attempting to record?
This leads us to a thought that Roland Barthes put so eloquently concerning the nature of the photograph as mere facsimile. The representation on the surface of the paper is not the event, the person or place. The photo can only function as a reminder. Hence, the photograph lacks the electricity of the experience that made us want to take it. It becomes a translation of that moment, whether of the object photographed, or the feeling that we experienced at the time we took it. It occupies a type of phantom zone in our life—a thing, but not the thing.
If this is so, then is a photograph only a remnant of memory? Whose memory? What is your relationship to the object seen on that piece of paper or on that digital screen? If the image doesn’t relate to your life, do you care about what you see?

I’ve looked at many images shown to me via a cell phone camera, flitting from one tiny picture to the next with the flick of a thumb. It’s a new technologies version of the interminable slide show of a friend’s vacation. Roman villas, Adriatic sunsets and Greek columns that are meaningful in some way to the picture taker, but are so tedious to us, their captive audience. We can understand what we see as the images scroll by, but we have no real relationship to them. They are bereft of importance and meaning, because they aren’t our memory.
We come around, full circle, to that vexing question about what the photographs recorded on all those memory cards mean. How do they relate to the experience that made us want to memorialize them? What do they mean to the people we show them too? And ultimately, what do they record—a fact, a facsimile or a remnant?

Tell me what you think

Frame 8A
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes, Hill and Wang publishers, New York, 1981.

One by Ken Ohara reprinted in 1997 by Taschen press and is unfortunately out of print, but find a copy if you can. Ohara's work is about identity and the cover of One is the picture opposite the picture of the camera. Ohara's work is great and you should take a look at it on the web. Unfortunately, it appears that at this time he doesn't have a web site, but there are a lot of images and information on him.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Frame 7

Who is This, Anyway?

What goes on in your imagination when you look at an anonymous photograph? Neither you nor I know who is in this picture, but because it’s an image of a woman placed in an interesting background we may begin to conjure up a story about her.

What does this photograph say to us? Although we obviously have no connection to her, the story behind why and where it was taken may pique our curiosity. We may flip the picture over, hoping for a note or name on the back. We know she existed. She was at this place, but why and with whom? This is one of photography’s great gifts—the image on a photograph is or was a representation of reality. (I’m talking about un-manipulated photography in this instance.)

Other forms of artistic representation, paintings, for example, are a reconstruction of the real. A painting results from an interpretive process that deals with the interaction of mind, hand, paint and canvas that is beyond the casual act of recording a person or place. When we look at a painting we also look at technique, at surface.

But a photograph’s only requirement is for us to point a camera and push a button. What is left to the viewer is to recognize what is in the picture. The narrative of a photograph overwhelms technique and surface. Photos invite us to make up our own story. We think of them fundamentally as a documentary, recording device/activity. The photograph encourages us to surmise.

This is true even if we have taken the image ourselves. A photograph is a representation of an occurrence; it is by its nature an artifact of the past. We may or may not remember the circumstances of a particular image: who was outside the frame of this picture; when precisely the button was pressed; we may not know some of the people in the photograph; what was going on at the time; why that person had a specific expression.

Our false memories of that moment may fill in some of the answers, making us unsure if what we remember is right. Time is erosive. All that we may know is that we took the photo, or did we give the camera to someone else to take a few pictures at the party, hmmm…? 

Yet we can still construct a satisfying story that suits our vague memory of the why, how and when, can’t we? We have the evidence, this photo. We know we were there. We know we took some of the photos. Though which ones (a pertinent question, especially if we had been drinking) did we take? The story we think we remember becomes our representation of the “facts,” which is a representation of the image in the photograph, which itself is a representation of a moment in time—which are all cut loose from the moorings of reality. But, we have this photo. What does it mean? What story can we concoct? Is it true? In the end, does it matter?

Tell me what you think

Frame 7A
Scan and place anonymous photos of people, events. Concoct a story about the image.