Year-End Reflections

The end of the year inspires reflections, much like birthdays, wedding anniversaries and (the dreaded) PDP reviews. The reflections on my work in this blog post are ideas I’ve been thinking about for a while. The year’s end simply seemed a convenient time to pull them together. The images that accompany the post are some of my favorites for the year, at least what seem my favorites at the moment. Some of them also connect with my reflections.

The two images below, from November, don’t obviously connect to any of my themes. I like them for their blunt force. They are iconic, perhaps, for the city of Grand Rapids–a church that has been important in progressive politics in the city for a century; and a work of public art that represents the urban renewal efforts of the 60s and 70s that led to some lovely old buildings torn down to make space for bureaucratic hulks. (No commentary there, right!)

Like many photographers, I’ve wondered time and again what characterizes my work. Three things that I’ve noticed over the years are context, narrative, and images that use reflections and windows to mix-up inside and outside and layers in images.

By context, I mean that typically I frame images in ways that give you at least hints (and often more than hints) of the circumstances and surroundings in which the image was captured. I’m a historian by training, and for historians context is everything. You make sense of parts and wholes in relation to each other. That seems to come out in my photography.

One of the projects that I’m thinking about for 2021 is photographing Lowell, MI. The image below, from early May, would be a great context image. I also love it for the early morning light captured by my Mavic Pro drone.

By narrative I mean that I have a tendency to present images in sequences that tells stories. One or more of the images may be suitable to stand on their own. But often I frame them in a series that suggests a narrative, if only that of my photographic journey that day or week. Again, I’m a historian, and I seem to bring a narrative ethos to my photography.

The two images below are from blog posts in May, part of an on-and-off effort to show the experience of COVID-19. In these cases, an East Grand Rapids park with warnings to stay off the equipment and the Calvin University library shut down at midday during the school year.

If context and narrative are tendencies in my photography, reflections and windows and my mixing of inside and outside and layers might seem like subject matter. And they are. I love shooting windows, water, and other reflective surfaces, and I often wait for people or vehicles to come into the scene and give it movement. Those people can be subject or audience in the image. Sometimes, they are watching something while I am watching them. Airports are great for these images. Glass and steel everywhere, and people endlessly waiting and wandering.

Part of my fascination with reflections, inside and outside, and layers is visual. Part of it is philosophical or psychological inclination–the insides and outsides and layers of people and life and subjectivity. We can hide these things from each other and ourselves. Photographers learn how to isolate things and give images order and direction. I love images where you catch glimpses or order and direction amid a chaos of lines, details, tones, and hues.

The images below, from November, are three of my favorites from the past year. All three seem to tell a story with the reflections–the old city still visible in contemporary GR; a grisly murder at a wedding in a 1930s-style film noir private eye story; and an alien abduction–and there are layers of details.

Window and reflection images are more than subject matter for me, however. They also reveal tendencies. Friends and readers have helped me see this better in my work this year. In addition to context and narrative, I often play order and chaos against each other or play with permanence and evanescence. These characteristic tensions in my images are, once again, similar to how I think and write as a historian and probably reflect something larger about the way I see and experience the world.

Any giving moment is filled with a plenitude of material–much more than you can fit into a story or shoehorn into a context. The world is vastly bigger than our ability to comprehend it. The creative work of a narrator or photographer is to decide what to cut out of a narrative or image, what to include, what to make central, what to leave on the margins, and how to shape a direction, whether for eyes or readers to follow.

In this image, from December the direction is literal, set by the path and creek amid the chaos of trees, shrubs, branches, and leaves.

In my view, the best history and photography does not hide the creative act, does not smooth over the chaos and evanescence. We can shape narratives or images to hide disorder. Playing tensions off against each other shows viewers or readers that we can make direction and order, even meaning and purpose, and reminds them that direction and order are not simply there waiting for us to find. We don’t find the direction, order, image, or narrative. We make it, amid chaos and despite our ability to fit it altogether coherently. That’s not a bad thing, and not done in bad faith. It’s how we make our way in life. And it leaves room for endless image making and storytelling.

The reality that we manufacture order and direction, rather than discover it out there, does not mean that there is no difference between fiction and history or journalism or between fine art or CGI photography and documentary work. It does mean that there is no such thing as “finding” an image. That’s why, as pretentious as it might sound, we find stuff but “make” photographs, rather than “take” them.

In one sense, with the above image from early December, I did “find” something. While climbing the stairs in a parking garage I glimpsed something out of the corner of my eye. Buildings. That something became this image. But to get to this image, I spent time thinking and framing a scene. I decided to use a telephoto lens to compress the space between the buildings rather than use a wide-angle to create space. On the computer, I worked the tones and tweaked the frame to draw the viewer’s eye to the first place I wanted it to go. Etc.

The image documents empirical aspects of reality, to be sure; but it also inclines you to see what you’re looking at in a certain way. It’s easy to forget than you’re not looking at the city of GR, but a two dimensional image on a computer. You only seem to see through the image on the screen to the city itself.

Literary critic Hans Kellner, playing with the cliché, tells historians to “get the story crooked.” By “crooked” he means never forget to notice what the writing is doing. Never lose sight of the writing and get swept up into the feeling that you’ve been brought back into the past itself. If you’re the reader, notice what the writer is doing and how. As a writer, don’t forget what you’re doing in telling a story. Stories create “reality effects.” They don’t simply describe.

The same is true of photography. It creates reality effects. The reality, we might say, is that “reality “does not exist until we state that “the reality is . . . ” or make an image that “shows” it.

The above image is not from 2020. But it illustrates what I’ve been trying to say. The man in the chair seems to be outside. He’s inside. But inside and outside are mixed up. I worked to make it look like he was sitting on an outdoor stairwell, rather than in the terminal. Amid all the chaos and confusion in the image, he is the anchor. Watching and being watched.

2020 was a wretched year in most ways. But, looking back, I think I’ve learned a lot about my photography. A silver lining.

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