THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT :: Installment 8

28 Nov

NOVEMBER 28, 2009 :: A LIFE NOT WORTH PHOTOGRAPHING

Forecast: mostly cloudy, a 90% chance of indirect sunlight

::


1. PHOTO-

Tami was asking me about pictures. Something about deleting them.

I told her I didn’t understand pictures.

Since its invention, the photograph has been a force of self-realization, blindly capturing our every detail, distorting our funhouse-mirror self-perceptions. It became the cornerstone of journalism’s most revered tenet: objectivity. Words may be swayed by the hand that writes them, but a photograph is wickedly unbiased. It took captive in its impartiality the ovens of northeast Europe, the salacious melodrama of the South, history’s gleeful and verdant triumphs, its catastrophes and secret coitus.

From its profound role in the creation and preservation of “the moment”—historic and personal—the photograph has also branched off into a number of smaller, faster-flowing channels: it is an art form, the imagery of sentiment, a personal memory device, a social rubric.

It’s this last stream that is the most curious.

I wrote a poem about a year ago. It’s one of maybe seven pieces I can read and re-read and recommend. It tells the story of a person who doubts life’s ability to inspire or astound, doubts imagination entirely, all because of a lack of photos in his life.

As a result I became one who believes his life is not worth photographing / his friends those who find him not quite funny enough to capture / a fascinating fish / underfed immigrants propped upon one another / like jokes in a bad stand-up routine

He is essentially jealous of the lives of his friends, whose walls maintain a certain adventurous assumption. As a result he envisions himself as an eclectic cast of nondescripts: “the background swatch of a still life in an amateur’s studio,” “the grapefruit picked for factory canning in Mexico,” “autism without the serious defects.”

2. –SYN-

It’s something of a sob story—probably because the poem stemmed from real feelings. I said I don’t understand photos, and I told the truth. I have few pictures of me in recent years; the ones that exist are all taken by someone else, someone whose hands have been trained to sense the kinetic eternality of a moment. I have friends whose walls make that “adventurous assumption,” and with this social rubric then, I score myself lower and lower.

But I love photography. But my love seems fitted to only certain veins, the kinds that content themselves with capturing fleeting scenes of curious spectacle, like the succumbing of a dandelion to sun and wind and feet. I won 1st Honorable Mention in a magazine for a photo I took of a computer monitor floating in a canal. But I haven’t taken a single photo for the last six months. Of anything.

I’ve made efforts. About a month ago, we were participating in general weekend festivities. I told Allison I was bringing the camera.

It’s become a joke between us that we don’t take pictures.

So I took the camera that weekend to every gathering, intent on finally forever capturing the moments that without film linger only until the morning. Each time, the camera stayed on the floor, on the table, by the door, in its case and forgotten, unable to serve any purpose without willful attention.

Am I missing something?

When Allison’s uncle Randy points his camera up at the loft above the living room to trap the image of his grandsons peeking over the banister, their hands holding tiny toy cars and their grins gleaming like the dark streaks in their hair, he adds to the register something invaluable, a glittering little icon that will become immovable in those boys’ memories. They will distantly remember the cabin above the San Joaquin Valley, will barely recall how old they were, and will have no idea what they thought or dreamt about for those five days in 2009.

But that image will embody some small, important feeling of childhood. Over the years, it will go from appreciated, to loved, to adored, to remembered, to idealized. Until it is an image of childhood more like a mirage than an objective portrait of the way things really were.


3. –THESIS

Self-portraiture is different. Usually.

A painter plumbs his deepest corridors when painting himself. A writer does the same, ironing herself out in wrinkled words.

But with photography a self-portrait can be the click of a button. As mindless as a mouse-click. No afore- or afterthought.

Certainly, there have been true photographic portraits, formed out of countless hours of design, which till the innermost soil. But in general, when we hold out a hand, aiming back at a face, the picture taken becomes not an intimate reflection of self, but a physical fact sheet:

Light skin, dark hair, beard, long, thin nose, bud-like mouth, brown eyes.

But take David Berman’s “Self Portrait at 28.” It’s one of his longest poems, as if it took enormous effort to trap even a few thoughts on the subject of himself.


I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don’t know why I keep staring at it.

What type of photograph could be taken that would translate such a longing? They say a picture is worth 1,000 of these little squiggles, but Berman’s poem outdoes it by a few hundred of them, like he’s purposefully mocking the photo on the book’s back cover. Proving he’s more transparent through language’s veil than through even a camera’s candor.

A photograph, a wall of them, holding and upholding your closest friends and loveliest moments, do not replace the words that tell your story, but add a spark that tells of its potential, and of its past reality.


I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don’t disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.

The photos I take, of myself or of the world, will at some point merge with my words and the words others say about me until something like a portrait can be seen every once in a while. By those really looking. At that time just before the sun glints green.

::

Read: “Self Portrait at 28,” David Berman.

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