Category Archives: Excursions

Night Photography Lexicon IV: Excursion On A Wobbly Rail

Recently a night photographer friend emailed me a draft of his new artist statement for feedback. Unlike most run-of-the-mill artist statements, this fellow cut deeply and directly into some delicate issues about night photography. He mentioned the 2007 Night Photography Lexicon series as being helpful in his writing [Part I, Part II, Part III]. The crux of our conversation about his statement was how many night photographers share certain traits. I hope we can pull the curtain back just a little bit, and start to explore some discussion topics. My goal here isn’t to make this excursion into Night Photography with the DSM IV, but I have noticed a few interesting patterns in the world of abandoned places night photography.

Danger, Risk, and Location Access Methodologies

How much danger do you face in your daily life? Crossing the street? Eating FD&C Yellow #5? Gaining access to abandoned places can sometimes require an above average tolerance for danger. Why do people climb Mt. Everest? Why do we sneak into abandoned buildings in the middle of the night to take pictures? This is the “why” question of an artist statement. The hard part.

But let’s ask some different, related questions right now — do you get off on danger, and what is your risk tolerance? Are danger and risk major elements of how you tell the story of your photography? I’ve certainly indulged in my share of storytelling with other photographers over a few pints, but I’ve grown more careful about mixing personal stories when showing prints. A small amount of information about the location is enough, let the work do the rest.

While not directly related to night work or abandonments, Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is a stunning example of photographs made even more powerful through well balanced information in the captions. From a location access standpoint alone, this book is an amazing achievement. While some of the locations certainly involved a degree of danger (e.g., nuclear waste, hibernating bears), her approach to access has given me ample food for thought. If you’re pondering the “why” of your photography, seek this book out. Taryn Simon gained access to unique locations, and brought back images that speak on many different levels.

A General Outline of Risk Tolerance Variations by Decade

Let’s talk a bit more about risk [insert Parker Brothers joke here]. Risk tolerance when you’re in your teens and 20′s can be extreme. When I was in my late teens, a friend had an encouraging one-liner for dangerous situations — he’d say: “Dude….we CAN’T die!” Sometimes I believed him. This type of youthful confidence can certainly cross the line into arrogance that leads to trouble. And adventure. Your 20′s can be a time when boundaries are pushed and defined.

By the time you’re into your 30′s, there’s work. And more work. Depending on the path you’ve chosen, work may still leave you energy for occasional adventures. Or you may have that glimmer in your eye that craves more frequent adventure. What may be seen as youthful bravado in some explorers, does not dissipate for others in their 30′s and 40′s. What kills this fire? What fans the flames?

As I approach 40, I’m trying to be healthier. Eat right, drink less, exercise more — those older and wiser than I have told me these are normal considerations. But perhaps curbing any traces of the self-destructive behavior of youth is bad for my night photography? As I’ve gained more experience negotiating legitimate access to interesting locations, the thrill of trespass has started to fade just a bit. But the thrill of photographing has not. Pass the tofu.

Misanthropic Threads

Many night photographers I know have a rather dark sense of humor and world view. Goes with the territory. If Brazil or Children of Men are on your list of favorite films, you know what I mean. Let’s go to Wikipedia now for an illuminating quote:

Misanthropy can often be characterized as disillusionment with what is perceived to be man or human nature. The misanthrope, having grown to expect man to assume a romantic and simplistic ideal, is consistently confronted with conflicting evidence. On the other hand, the object of a misanthrope’s dislike may be a pervasive culture which is perceived as denying human nature. In both cases, the misanthrope may view himself as somehow distinct from a majority of the human species.

Are we getting at the difference between a beautiful sunset over a golden meadow, and a crusty decaying building in the middle of the desert in the dead of night? Happy people take happy pictures. Night photography of abandoned places is for the mad ones.

Sad and Beautiful

So let’s run down the list so far — love of ruins, a healthy appetite for adventure, above average risk tolerance, smooth negotiation skills, and a misanthropic world view. This whole night photography thing sounds like quite a party! Did I leave anything off the list? I went back to Camilo Jose Vergara’s essential book American Ruins for some answers — the mystery seems to boil down to how a photograph can be so sad and beautiful at the same time. Cue up the Karen Dalton video at the top of the post. When was the last time an experience made you feel the feeling of being alive so strongly that you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or both? The Thunder Moon is waxing. Be safe, and have fun out there singin’ the blues.

Update: It finally struck me that the “sad and beautiful” phrase had been bouncing around in my head from somewhere. Roberto Benigni’s character says “It’s a sad and beautiful world” in Jim Jarmusch’s classic film, Down By Law, and then Tom Waits starts singing the phrase:

God spare me from the desire for love, approval, and appreciation. Amen.

“God spare me from the desire for love, approval, and appreciation. Amen.” — Byron Katie

A kitty cat epiphany that explains everything in two words

A year ago I didn’t feel like blogging very much. Further photo blog methodology analysis followed. I was happy with my photos, but needed a break from the online photography world. Then more digging into the why blog question. I wrote a post that generated a lot of reactions. Then I gave myself permission to shoot more and write less. The existential questions didn’t stop, but I felt better.

On December 10th, 2008 a kitty cat epiphany occurred that explains everything about posting content to the Internet in two words: DATS ME!!!!

Dats Me!!!!

This has nothing to do with Lacan’s mirror phase. Or maybe everything. I’m not sure. Previously I thought this quote from Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet was a succinct explanation of the why blog question: “”I want what we all want,” said Carl. “To move certain parts of the interior of myself into the exterior world, to see if they can be embraced.”" But really, the cat said it best.

Cultivating what’s bubbling underneath, and a Fall trip to nowhere in particular

The world of online photography keeps churning out more content than I can absorb. I’ve been in a space lately where the extra food for my brain is not often necessary. This seems to be helping my picture making. Thinking less. When you get to a certain point with an instrument, there are times when you can pick it up and play and the music comes out of some deep subconscious place and you instinctively know that all things are simple and good and pure. No songs, no scales, no rules, no patterns, just the fingers and body moving almost on auto-pilot from the mysterious inner workings. I’ve been touching the edges of this place again after not being able to find my way there for awhile. The more I let go of both online and offline distractions, let go of judging, pressure, and rules, the more I can cultivate a headspace that nurtures a picture making zone without pretensions. Just a strange sort of joy bubbling underneath the surface somewhere. Trying to talk about this place can make it disappear. Forget I said anything. I’m going out into the crisp Fall day to wander around and photograph now.

What is the purpose of the drive?

“Anyway I wrote the book because we’re all going to die.”
– Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on the Steve Allen Show.

I listened to Craig Tanner’s podcast on Finding the Heart of Your Work. I’m impressed that Craig saw the original article as a challenge, and was able to see this dark time of questioning as a smaller phase in a larger creative process. I’ve had a lot of teachers in many different disciplines throughout my life, but nobody has been able to succinctly communicate the idea that we can acknowledge the darkness, find some learning there, and proceed with a plan to move on. I’m working on it.

I like Craig’s idea of a “purpose statement” rather than an artist statement for photography. The world doesn’t need any more “I’ve always loved to photograph. My father gave me an Instamatic when I was 5 years old….” clich├ęs. But a purpose statement — that sounds useful.

Craig talks about acknowledging our frustration with the gap between how our pictures look now and how we’d like them to be, and using a purpose statement to stay on track. I want to clarify that I’m not worried about making better photographs. That’s not the gap for me right now.

Craig’s discussion of pushing your limits, shooting beyond comprehension, kicking the fear of failure to the curb — this is what I was talking about in my original post. Ninety miles an hour in the dark with no hands on the wheel until you catch the glimmer of the next stop out of the corner of your eye, grab the wheel, push it up to a hundred and head towards the light.

Tuning in to these glimmers, writing them down, and creating the time and space to explore them is what will keep fueling the engine. I’m doing that with gusto. I’m also pouring a lot of stimulating music, film, and art into the tank. The car is running great. The gap is existential. The question is “what is the purpose of the drive?”

And yes, sometimes we need to spit shine the car and take it to the show and hope that people think it’s pretty. There is certainly some learning we can do at the show, but that’s really just a pit stop on a much bigger trip.

So back to the idea of a purpose statement. How many of you can clearly and concisely explain the purpose of your photographs? Two sentences maximum. No biographical information. This is not an artist statement. What do you want to communicate with your photographs and to whom? It’s a tough question. I’d love to hear your answers.