Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why We Still Need Recess

“It’s the uphill struggle against the laws of thermodynamics.” We were sitting at the kitchen table, discussing why we never went to an art showing, when I posited the theory that, left to itself, one’s life becomes a thing of drudgery and toil and heartless monotony.

You have to purposely make room for the things of creativity, even if you’re just a consumer of art, rather than a creator. “Where did the string go,” my Grandson asks, continuing his seemingly never-ending quest to fashion the plethora of post-consumer detritus into imaginative constructs that we, his proud Grandparents, would like to call art.

I can see a pattern in my life where many of the things I enjoy the most were initiated or inspired by events in my childhood. This I believe to be universally true, both for the good and the bad in people’s lives. For this reason we have been careful to be as supportive as possible of our Grandson’s creative adventures, which has resulted in him beginning to develop a real style all his own. I am realistic enough to know that this may just be a passing fancy of childhood; something one outgrows once puberty commences. But there is also the real possibility that this creative urge in him has been nourished and fostered enough such that there will be from henceforth an endless, ceaseless urge to create. That is my hope.

The urge to create is pandemic to the species, the evidence of which is strewn across millennia and miles, from the cave walls of France to the tranquil lava fields of the lunar highlands. Indeed, it is no mere exaggeration to speculate that the urge to create may be genetically determined by the long-chain proteins within the human cell. Ironically, our culture seems to be in mass-denial of such a possibility, the evidence of which can be seen by the ceaseless process of dumbing-down and conformity at all levels of society, transforming the limitless potential of the human imagination into the drudgery of the wage slave. We must not forget that in the struggle for survival that was the life of early man there was sufficient time and energy to carve and paint and create. Surely we can find the time now.

I have found the activities of photography and writing to be a constant source of pleasure and fulfillment in my existence. Not that there is a qualitative measure of excellence in what I do, but more in the sense of some inner need being satiated. Specific to photography, I find myself a mediator in the process of exposing a light-sensitive surface or device to a scene or setting. I do not see myself as the creator of such images, any more that I can take credit for the light-sensitive nature of certain silver salts, or the specific properties of electromagnetic radiation that permit an image to be formed through diffraction or projection. As mediator I bring together disparate elements possessing specific properties that, combined in certain orientations, produce some desired effect.

Actually, it’s a lot less scientific or predictable in actual practice than it sounds. That, too, is in the nature of the mediator. There remains a permanent sense of mystery about the materials and process one chooses to work with, regardless of one’s time, talent or experience thrown into the mélange. The unexpected is always to be expected. Otherwise it is an experiment in duplication, not discovery. I find this to be especially relevant to photography, whose recent explosive dissemination, due to technological advances, has given rise to much speculation as to the health and status of the medium.

The essential question of photography that has captured my recent interest is in the realm of genre versus morphology as it applies to the photograph as an essentially abstract image. We have been trained, through experience and indoctrination, that photographs represent some direct analogy to the objective world – what we would call “reality.” The convenience of this concept is essential to the bipolar relationship between commercialism and culture that pervades our modern life. The proscription of reality upon the photograph is essential for it to function as the principle medium of information, transformation and propaganda that is required in order for global capitalism to succeed. Nevertheless, those of us who have studied the photograph know that it is anything but an objective representation of reality. Its power lies in its deft ability to mimic objectivity while simultaneously remaining an entirely abstract medium. The fact that fields of line, tone, shading and color can be mapped, with some degree of precision, in correspondence to objective reality belies the fact of its essential abstraction. Photographs pretend to depict, this pretension being essential to their power to deceive.

One essential outgrowth from the pretension of objectivity is the idea of genre, which implies that the depiction of reality can further be subdivided into scientifically organized subunits, such as fashion, sport, documentary, journalism, landscape, street, snapshot and portraiture. Conversely, it can be directly posited that to deny photography’s objectivity we must therefore question the very concept of genre.

One genre that has captured my interest is that peculiar type of public document known as the street photograph. This genre supposes to represent the candid, spontaneous public activities of the common man on the street, interacting in visually interesting configurations that wait to be frozen in an instant of time. This is a most precarious type of photography, poised between the requirement to capture a fleeting glimpse of the private lives of people in public, and the ever-widening fears of surveillance and terrorism on the part of the individual and the Security State. As a genre it is also the most precarious because of the high degree of ambiguity found in the frozen image of people interacting in public. The poise, posture and expression of people caught in mid-sentence or mid-stride is the most ambiguous of images. Is their conversation one of jovial comradeship or guarded tension; is his stride fleeing in avoidance or seeking in earnest; is her expression one of casual interest or heightened awareness? One becomes aware of the need to read into the resulting image what one finds most interesting or compelling. This raises the implication of the theatrical aspect of the street photograph, as if those individuals isolated in the frame of the camera were in fact on some virtual stage, playing a role of which they were entirely unaware.

The ambiguity of the street photograph mirrors that of photography in general. In an attempt to explore these areas I have begun to collect images taken with less than purposeful intent and more or less at random, holding the camera in hand at waist level, pointing it merely in the general direction of some suggestively interesting scene, with little or no concern as to the rules of composition and the geometrics of the photographic frame. I am suspicious of the Established Rules of Good Photographs, just as I am about the Ordered Hierarchy of Genres. My desire to produce a free-form image is a result of some inner cogitation over the theoretical set of all possible photographs, which seems to be limited only by the established rules of composition and acceptable visual order. This purposeful exploration of the random image is only now practically possible with the ready availability of the point-and-shoot digital camera and large-capacity memory card. The product of this work I hope to be able to sort on strictly visual terms into categories based on morphology of the image, rather than into genre-based assumptions.

“I haven’t had chocolate milk in a long time,” my Grandson announces between bites of salad. He has just come inside from rolling down the street atop his handmade cardboard car, a contraption of old box cartons, tape and string, poised precariously on an old, weathered skateboard. The table is strewn with the product of last night’s and this morning’s art work, along with the implements of my typewriting. We discuss the attributes of Honey Crisp apples, and the lack of genetic diversity of those found at the market. We discuss an old school chum, now living out of state. We discuss wisdom and smarts and listening in school and enjoying learning.

We discuss the problem that the older you get, the less recess. We agree that everyone, adults included, should get recess. That would give us time to walk, to play, to draw and paint and take pictures. That would be so cool.


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