Sunday, August 22, 2010

13 Ways of Looking Without a Blackbird in Sight

After being in South Dakota with all its open, open space and shooting a lot, I simply can't bring myself to lift my camera and make any new photographs now that I am back in New Jersey.  The images I shot recently of the moon are still in the camera. Even the the idea of a quick trip across the bridge to Manhattan, a normal haunt for me, has me uninspired and unmoving.
Has not having the desire to make photographs happened to anyone? And if so, is there a cure? I post that on Facebook and Gail from Vegas, a friend I have never met, but have shared art with for 2 years online, tells me that there's something here I need to learn.  Okay, but what?
I wait all day for God or something to show up and explain. I'm big on explanation. Nothing happens that I can see but I know there is a story here.  Is God a story? Is South Dakota a story? Or perhaps the man in Winner, the one who cut through the alley, is a story. I can't seem to forget him.
What felled you is important, I think as I watch him cut through that alley. The hard sun. The hard ground. The long shadows, the bleached white walls, and the absolute certainty that he will not live long follows him like a dog at his heels.
What Felled You Is Important. Winner, South Dakota, July 2010
The day I see him. The day I point my camera and really see him, Rob and Dev and I are traveling west and we stop late-day at a gas station in Winner, South Dakota: 98 degrees, full sun, and long shadows. There's a hardness here that wealth and privilege back home in the East seems to camouflage with its fancy cars and gourmet shops and busy busy busy.  Like the Native American man who stops in at the Gus Stop II where we are gassing up, the one I see through the lens of my camera and shoot.  He walks into the shop through to the 10' x 12' room with slot machines hanging on the walls. Goes in for a quick one and comes out empty handed. Even the ground is hard, I think, kicking a stone as I watch him slip out and up the alley.
"All photographs are memento mori," writes Susan Sontag. "To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability" (1977,p.15). What responsibility runs alongside participation, I wonder.
Calvary. South Dakota, July 2010.
"I'm going to call it grasshopper genocide," Rob says aloud, thinking about a possible book as we drive out of town back to a route that winds through Indian reservations.  The grasshoppers are no longer flying as they had been back by the Missouri River. Now they are dying and dead. Literally thousands of them on the road. Not moving. On the hill out of Winner, a man stands alone, bottle in hand.  There alongside, three crosses. Calvary again. I raise my camera and shoot. The noise of the shutter opening and closing is loud. We are nearing the Badlands.
Shadow and Light. Badlands, South Dakota. July 2010.
I hear that the Badlands look like some type of moonscape and have not dulled my sight by trying to see images before going.  When I get there, I don't think, as it is simply so dramatic. Later, I try to categorize it and think: No not a moonscape. It's the absence that is most profound, that I want to capture. All that was there that is now gone: the volcanic rock, the sea, the wind, the ghosts.  
Later the car breaks down, we get a jump, and just make it to Rapid City before it dies a certain death, where Amber, the waitress at the Holiday Inn, the one who easily asks me for help spelling Pinot Grigio so she can write it just right on her pad, tell us, "Someday, I want to leave South Dakota. You know, go somewhere else and maybe find a job and stuff."
Rising. South Dakota. July 2010.
Like the phoenix, the car rises once again and we head East, cutting across South Dakota. The distance between New Jersey and South Dakota is longer than I imagine.
Back home  I realize I am so tired from all the seeing I have done. Non-stop seeing for four weeks and I want to rest.  I worry though if I stop making photographs does that mean I am no longer a photographer?  
Dorothea Lange remarked: It's no accident a photographer becomes a photographer any more than the lion tamer becomes a lion tamer.
On the road to work I think how I am always watching. Even without a camera in my hand, I am sighting, but am I seeing?


  1. I'm big on explanation.

    Maybe, but reading your words, seeing your photos and art, hearing your voice, I'm not so sure.

    Or maybe I misunderstand what "I'm big on" means there.

    You nakedly plunge into stories larger than any of us, frighteningly huge stories none of us can hope to comprehend--and your photos take us to the edge. I cannot always find the words your images create, because, I think, they go beyond the words. Maybe they get closer to the "explanation" you seek, but the closer any of us get, the less sense it could possibly make.

    South Dakota frightens me now, because of your post, in vague mortal ways I cannot explain.

    But it's enough to hear your stories, just for that reason.

    Because you remind me that it's OK not to grasp explanations.

  2. There's always a bit of dishonesty in what I write--truths I don't want to know or perhaps can't bear. When you take a line, I'm big on explanation, out of the text it makes me look at it--to wonder what is it that makes me hedge there.

    Explanation from an authority (like God) is something I have played with for years. Not having to be responsible for what I see, who I am, is what explanation carries, excuses--but only partially as art has a way of showing me what I hadn't known I was thinking.


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