Lights! Camera! Action! Edit! Curate! Pt. 2: “Separation”
In lieu of the usual bibliography, I'll be providing some links to the relevant source material and further reading here.
To understand why the information in this post is important to my process, the reader needs to know that I categorize work in a style that combines early American photographic structures such as those of the “New Topographics” movement, in particular the goal of creating a narrative built from consistent content across a series of images with varying subjects, with the stark informational typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher. I even model my titling system after the German duo, by titling my works with a numerical date only. This is the way we all worked in the university program I attended when I got my BFA, and can be differentiated from the methodologies of an artist who works on pieces with little or no contextual narrative, such as a commercial or product photographer. Folded into that is an acknowledgment of the influence that contemporary film and digital media culture has on me as an individual and an artist. As I mentioned in the previous post, I occasionally take photos I don't intend to show, but typically when I'm shooting I have a long-term project in mind, usually based on a viewpoint or opinion I want to promote, and rarely limited by subject. An aside for any non-artist readers, when discussing photographic theory; subject is the object in the photo, content is what that object symbolizes, and the narrative is what two or more images combined mean when their content is considered in sequence. In this post, I'll be “re-curating” one of my projects in relation to new work, and deciding if I should modify it.
Since Separation has the most specific and defined criteria of all my projects, we'll start there. I've been accumulating photos for this project since around 2009, and at it's most bloated it featured over 100 images with a vast, foggy narrative. Since I decided each project in my portfolio should have an artist statement, I began thinking and writing more articulately about the images, and that process brought clarity to my curating decisions, resulting in an edit of 25. I've shot several images in the last months that I think would augment the narrative in a positive way, so I have to decide whether to add or replace a current image. Keeping the count at 25 is arbitrary, it just represents a comfortable number of images to keep in mind at once as a viewer while still allowing the artist a full range of articulation in presentation.
While working on the artist statement, I hit upon the idea of presenting this set of photographs as “artifacts”, or “evidence”, enabling me to draw upon the long history of documentation and fabrication that reaches back to the first “portrait” ever taken, in which the photographer pretended to be dead as a protest against the government ignoring his invention which was competing with Daguerre and Talbot for commercial success. This presentation also allows me to slightly offset the discomfort I feel at recognizing that this project (compared to my others) is generated by an emotional climate that I don't acknowledge in public. In order to illuminate the project through an artist statement, some expression of this emotion is crucial. Being otherwise unfulfilled by emotionally-driven photo projects both as a viewer and a practitioner, I prefer to ground the narrative in a factually satisfying way, and presenting the images as artifacts rather than immediately personal expressions allows me to do so. However they are presented, these photographs serve as a replacement for human interaction. They are intended to function like Stieglitz's Equivalent series, simultaneously a substitution for expressing emotion. Basically, I look for physical manifestations of the environmental impacts of typical human behaviors, and photograph them as if viewed from an outsider perspective. The impact can be subtle or blunt, although I tend to lean towards a subtle expression of large impacts when possible, as in the softly glowing clouds that are indicative of huge power consumption and light pollution that has irreversibly changed the way humans view the night sky, just since the 19th century.
With that and the latest artist statement (I've written four so far, each less effective than the last) in mind, lets look at the current crop of images. Of these, three in particular stand out as different. One and 17 are a little too transparent for this project – the point is made, but clumsily. Number 25 is one of my favorite images I've ever taken, but is visually too frantic for this project. There is a serenity, a calmness to being alone that is comfortably represented in the others, and that tranquility would be ruined, jarringly, by the inclusion of this last image. After consideration, I've removed number 20 for failing to adequately fulfill the “evidence” aspect of the project.
Moving on to replacing some of the void left by those four images, let's look at what I've shot since then that contains those qualifying elements. I've identified six new images, with subjects that could be considered artifacts, and retain the over-arching mood of viewer isolation. I immediately eliminate #2, for having a voyeuristic overtone that isn't my intent. While some aspects of my project Highway Parks utilize this effect to demonstrate geographic distance from active sites, one point of Separation is that there isn't life at the other end of the lens, as this photograph seems to suggest. #1 feels very New Topographics, but lacks the choice light and cinematic quality I like. Those qualities are important to this project to convince viewers to spend more than a glance with the images, like sugar coating for an otherwise gross pill. Numbers 4, 5, and 6 fulfill all my requirements of immediate interest, content as evidence, and a solid basis of strange content to reward extended viewing and consideration. #3 also fits those requirements, but doesn't match the project visually – the “artifact” is simply too hidden, and this image is more in line with the visual aesthetic of Highway Parks.
So that's the basic process. Building a project out of disparate images can be as simple as grouping visual similarities or content matter. I like the challenge of not only constructing a further narrative with the group, but fitting that narrative in with all the other things I'm interested in, from photo history to film to psychology to environmental awareness. These are the deeper connections that allow photos to speak on their own terms as meaningful objects, and reward viewers for putting in time to digest and understand what they see. Hopefully, the depth of subject matter involved in projects like this and those of artists I admire will be able to fundamentally change some small opinion or viewpoint of a viewer, and thus act as a catalyst for change.
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