Posts in Bookshelf
A Wilderness of Mirrors - Musings on Portraiture

This weekend I finished Neil Gaiman's collection of essays - A View From The Cheap Seats. My favourite of which as a photographer is called "A Wilderness of Mirrors." It is about the National Portrait Gallery (which I visited while in England years and years ago) but I think beyond that it is about portraiture and its ability to tell us a truth.

"Who am I? 

Is the first question. 

The second is harder to answer. It was this: Who are we?

And to answer it I would open the family photo album. The photographs, black and white in the front, color in the later volumes, had been carefully stuck with photo mounts on corners and handwritten notes beneath each photograph. ... This is who we are, the albums said to us, and this is the story we are telling ourselves. 

When we look at a portrait we begin to judge, because human beings are creatures of judgement. The joy and power of portraiture is that it freezes us in time. Before the portrait we were younger, after the portrait we will age and rot. 

Ask the question, Who are we? and the portraits give us an answer of sorts. 

We came from here, the old ones say. We look like this naked and clothed, they tell us. We are here, in this image, because a painter [or photographer] had something to say. Because we are all interesting. Because we cannot gaze into a mirror without being changed. Because we do not know who we are but sometimes there is a light caught in someones eyes that comes close to giving us the tiniest hint of an answer."

I often shy away from pictures, but the more deeply I think about photography the more I believe I should be in at least a few. They tell us a truth about ourselves and where we came from and the people that make us happy. This weekend is one I won't forget, curled up on the couch with dark chocolate that we bought by the pound, I read Gaiman's book, I cooked pizza, hiked, and laughed till my stomach hurt, and maybe I don't need a photograph to remember it, but there is a few, and I like what these ones are saying about who we are.

"Perhaps it isn't a collection of portraits as TS Eliot put it but a wilderness of mirrors."  - Neil Gaiman

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Planet on Display.
But I wasn’t lonely. Loneliness, I think, has very little to do with location. It’s a state of mind. In the center of every big bustling city are some of the loneliest people in the world. I’ve never felt that way in space. If anything, because our whole planet was on display just outside the window, I felt even more aware of and connected to the seven billion other people who call it home.
— Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
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I haven't been to space but I did read Chris Hadfield 's book on my flight yesterday; as close to space as I'll probably ever get. It made me proud to be Canadian, and reminded me how lucky I was to photograph him in concert in February. Afterward the show I asked him about the recent proof of gravitational waves, and my nerding for the day was complete. His book is just as approachable as him, a glimpse into life above our planet, and completely inspiring. I fully recommend it.

Photographs Not Taken, Book Review
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The Photographs Not Taken is a collection of essays by photographers about the times they didn’t use their camera. I have asked the photographers to abandon the conventional tools needed to make a photograph, and, instead, make one using words to describe the memories and experiences that didn’t go through the camera lens. Here, the process of making a photograph has been reversed. Instead of looking out into the world through a camera lens, these essays allow us to look directly into the photographer’s mind and eye and focus on where the photographs come from in their barest and most primitive form. These mental negatives depict the unedited world and the moments of life that do not exist in a single frame.-Will Steacy

It seems too serendipitous that only a few days before I internet surfed right into this book, I was talking to my good friend and photographer Brian about writing the photographs we've missed, all the shots that for one reason or another would have been perfect if only the shutter had closed. It could be a way to document those instances for ourselves in words that may show more than the photographs could have. We both remembered March the year before as we had crossed a border in California with a three other photographers and our car was searched. Five of us were asked to take out all our photo gear and sit on a bench in the desert heat under a sign that said "no photography." It was so ironic, sitting there sweating, weighed down by tripods, film, and more cameras than I can count, both of us just wishing we could take just one photo of the scene. Will Steacy and his book Photographs Not Taken beat us to it.

The essays run a few pages each, and range from hilarious to dire, while the reasons for refraining from taking a photo encompass the sentimental, the ethical, and the mistakes all of us as photographers make.

The stories themselves bring you a little bit closer to understanding the motivation behind the photography, and I've really enjoyed looking up the portfolios of photographers who's essays or ideas I've connected with to see bits of their thought process in the photos they have taken.

Gregory Halpern  asked questions about the portrait. His book project called Harvard Works Because We Do is mostly a portrait series that asks a lot more questions using portraits themselves about the working class there and it is a complex situation he delicately approaches while making his opinion and the truth very visible. My favourite paragraph from his essay is below:

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Matt Salacuse  is no bullshit, and I like that.

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Tim Davis I think says it best, photography it is a way of looking at the world and seeing beyond yourself. I see things differently with a camera, and as I sling it over my shoulder the uniform transforms a lot of the mundanity into scenes worthy of documenting. It really is something I appreciate the longer I do it, and I think Davis articulates it beautifully.

My two favourite essays in their entirety were written by David Maisel and Chris Jordan. Both romanticize the photographs in their own personal lives not taken, and Chris Jordan's in particular brought up an image I have of my Grandmother from an Easter dinner a few years ago. My family sat a her long dining room table with the blue table cloth on. I was in the middle, quiet and listening to her with her party hat on and a little bit of food stuck to her shirt from the meal she'd prepared, waving her arms talking about what a sorry excuse for a Mayor Rob Ford was. It was a photo I wanted to take then but didn't, I couldn't interrupt her speech, I didn't want to, and I'll never forget that mental shot of her commanding the table so seriously, with her party hat all crooked.

I sat outside yesterday on my balcony and read the whole book in the sun in a few hours. It brought me to Uganda, and Pakistan as well as to a backyard BBQ not dissimilar to the one I had attended the day before.

Photographs Not Taken is a short, insightful read in its entirety and give a quick glimpse inside life defining moments not photographed and how they've etch their way into the stories told by photographers who subsequent work to those moments is influenced by them themselves.

Can you think of a photograph you haven't taken?

The Americans - Robert Frank, Jack Kerouac

The Americans - Robert Frank For the last year or two Jack Kerouac's writings, and now the On The Road movie have been intertwined into my wikipedia late night surfing addiction. After a road trip across the country I read On the Road, and then The Dharma Bums - [good reads]. I watched his biography, and then after a little more research I found the work his friends at the same time, photos, writings etc that all depicts the same 1950s intrepid american history.

One thing lead to the next and through a little history of photography self-study this winter I came across Robert Frank's work, which I first found online, and then amazon's single click checkout later his book ended up in my mailbox.

Jack Kerouac opens the introduction to The Americans which is a collection of photos by Robert Frank.

"After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin. That's because he's always taking pictures of jukeboxes and coffins - and intermediary mysteries."

The photographs are haunting, and honest, and the lack of colour and the romanticism of time itself make them all that more appealing.

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The combination essay, and anthology of photos is what I liked most of this book. A set context and interpretation by someone else - closer in time and place to the photos themselves, to echo or question your own interpretation of them.

These are a collection of my favourite photographs:

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I also enjoy really like the sequencing of the next five shots. In putting all of my owntravel work together into something cohesive I've been picking up on these subtleties I might have missed before.

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 I like The Americans because it covers though not all Americans by any means but a sampling enough to get a feel. It is an ethnography in a sense - a comment on culture, of a time period. The captions give enough context without ruining the air of silent mystery from the photos, and of course I enjoyed nomadic nature of the photos themselves.

"To Robert Frank I give this message: You've got eyes." - Jack Kerouac

The Americans On Amazon]

On Photography By Susan Sontag

“Photographs express a feeling both sentimental and implicitly magical.”

-Susan Sontag

I wonder what it would be like to be a formal student of photography. I’ve become enthralled informally. I sit at my laptop ordering the next stack of books from amazon, all loosely to do with photography. Learning about the world, feminism, foreign countries, culture, history, politics, in context of the lens. I don't think being a formal student could possibly be as fun.

My amazon surfing addiction led me to Susan Sontag a week or so ago and I finished her collection of essays On Photography not long after. Since then mostly for fun I've been re-reading, highlighting some her ideas. I've been thinking about the philosophy behind photography, photography culture, and the culture of photography. What I photograph, how I photograph, and what is happening to the photographs as they find their way out into the world via the internet, or in print. Photographs up for interpretation, must like the essays themselves.

“To collect photographs is to collect the world”

-Susan Sontag

Yet a photograph is only a small piece of the world. 1/1000th of a second of a reality that is given distance to in time and in physical space at the moment the shutter is released. A photograph does not explain, only acknowledge, and that is claimed by Sontag as both the tragic flaw, and what constitutes the attraction to the still image.

“only which narrates can be understood. The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can finally never be ethical or political knowledge. The knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist. It will be knowledge at bargain prices - a semblance of knowledge, a semblance of wisdom... the very muteness of what is." -Susan Sontag, On Photography.

The nature of the image is ingrained within society, as well as photography as a social rite; family photos, wedding photography, touristic snapshots, across the world are documented. My job, my work, relies on this knowledge. Taking a photograph can create an event, though it is not necessary to an event itself, it produces a second experience, the view and interpretation of the event. The experience, and the image of the experience. The latter a silent description, and therefore, inherent to the nature of photography, incomplete.

Susan Sontag finally speaks to beauty versus truth, and beauty as truth as the ultimate motivator to the making of a photograph. She talks about realism and the forged realism of photography in recent decades.  How a photo is interpreted as truth, and how photographic seeing is the ability to find beauty within the ordinary, or mundane, or in connections, beauty in relation to other things. This circles back to the camera’s ability, or photographic vision to transform reality into something beautiful, which then consequently weakens a photos ability to tell the truth. If we infer not everything can be beautiful.

“Beau c’est le vrai."

Millet

On Photography challenged a lot of my ideas and my own philosophy and approach to photography. It made be question how I photograph; the precise act of knowing vs the intuitive encounter, (Sontag, 116) and why; a moralized idea of truth telling. (Sontag, 86) It made me entertain ideas that are glossed over in the world of wedding photography; ethics, beauty, the invitation to sentimentality, as well as the instant romanticism of the digital age and how that relates to my own documentary and personal work.

Sontag writes a clear picture of the photographs role in our society from the pre digital era, and still her ideas spark discussion and understanding today. As photographers and as the photographed we live in the age of the image.

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