Monday, February 21, 2005

ironing out the stop-start life

The book I was reading (House of Leaves, Mark Z Danielewski) to get myself psyched up for househunting turned out to have a photographer as a protagonist/object of study. One of the faux-critiques in the book suggested his motivation for becoming a photographer may have its roots in "a discontinuous lifestyle marked by constant threats of abandonment and the lack of emotional stability."

shadow homeWhich struck me as unconvincing as motivation for taking photos but seemed about right for a blog -- a way of organising and re-editing raw experience (confused, self-contradictory, discontinuous) into a narrative of self which can both protect against losing experience (through forgetting) and sort experience into something more consistent through chosing which experiences to reinforce through re-writing.

So, the journal, the blog becomes a stress response, something used to counteract panic, a non-aggressive action used to smooth out the stop-start stutter of a life characterised by long periods of waiting and reflection alternated with times of intense activity and periods of blank time (time which does not contain chosen experiences but ones which have been visited on an individual by the demands of family, job etc.)

haunted wastelandBut the action of smoothing, editing, selecting is inevitably introducing errors; and whether you embrace your partiality* or try to fight back against it, there's still that anxiety that all this selecting, rewriting and re-editing is leading to a progressive narrowing of narrative opportunitities.

Perhaps that's why so many (livejournallers, especially) participate in quizzes, memes, or informal interviews, in which the content of a post is determined by random or external rules; an attempt to break out of your own selection habits.

Returning to the concept of "blank time" -- rewriting may attempt to reclaim parts of the stolen time as personal experience; the person blogging about an annoying roommate, new insights gained at a training course, or an awkward family funeral may be taking actions and events felt in some way to be owned by someone else, and through the act of writing, creating a version of the experience liberated from other peoples' expectations and ownership and placed instead within a completely personal (literally, selfish) context.

domestic sceneAnd right there, I do see the photograph -- in fact, some of the earliest photographs I took, odd blurred moments discreetly stolen from awkward experiences (a family outing to a beach, illicit parties at school) and made my own through the Truprint ritual of postage and money. A narrow slice of experience, lifted too fast for anyone else to notice or mind.

Which takes me back to the photographer in House of Leaves, who filled his life with pictures because the narcissism of others made him "identify with absence". But there's where it falls down for this character (a dynamic, successful documentary photographer).

Because surely, drawing motivation (inspiration) from absence would drive you to seek out vacant subjects. Or perhaps something even less active than that.

* "(life is too short for) willful triviality" - Dickon Edwards


Groc said...

You’ve got me wondering how all this parallels the history of photography itself - from an exclusive and expensive hobby in the Victorian era - to later being a lot less expensive hobby but still being restricted to special occasions like holidays or weddings etc. but now with the digital age where after the initial costs of buying a camera there are a lot less restraints on picture taking - there’s a massive rise in people taking pictures of quite banal things usually as a form of diary taking.

(I don't know where I'm going with this - I'm still pondering.)

kc said...

I like your thinking G. Photography wasn't so much about commemorating special occasions in the first half of the 20th as it was an event in itself, independent of holidays or weddings or etc. Thus, studio portraits were hugely popular, and not just among the rich--I think it was the 1880's when cameras became cheap and popular and Kodak got involved. But landscape photography was also a big deal, tied up with a burgeoning physical culture movement which had men (mostly) hiking way out into the woods on weekends to counteract the noxious influences of the city and, increasingly, to snap some photos, which was seen as an edifying aesethetic experience for the common man. You're right G that later in the century, photography became more and more identified with special occasions, until photography went digital. But one of the most important changes, to me, with digital photography and the internet, is how public people's images can be now, regardless of what those photographs depict. Although, what photographs depict has been influenced by the increasingly publicity of photographs. Which is where Jeremy's original post enters the picture, I think. -kris

Jeremy Dennis said...

Interesting comments both -- calling to mind two very different kinds of elite:

Firstly the upwardly mobile world of the man in search of his edifying aesthetic, membership signified by an expensive camera and a serious interest in landscapes; secondly, the hard anti-aesthetic of the modern artist, where the camera is an artist's frame, lifing the banal out of experience and making it something extraordinary. Both bring with them a sort of snobbishness (I remember how my friend cym disliked being asked to use her camera for commemorative purposes -- for her, it was an artist's tool, not something to idly use for holiday reasons) and certain values (perhaps barriers) also.

What I see in many of Flickr's photoblogs is more the experience of the camera as toy -- a game to play with living.

kc said...

"Snobbish" and "elite" both sort of require that photographer and photograph stay stitched together, either by the strength of our notions of authorship (copyright, etc.), or our ideas about where meaning comes from. One thing I like about tags on flickr is how they give the photograph a very lively, promiscuous life outside of their maker, without ever quite making the photographer irrelevant (you can always get back to the original poster/photographer). This effect is part of what I hear in the comment that "flickr gives digital photographs something to do." The internet tends to foster this effect in general; flickr seems to do it quite concertedly. Whereas before, the material life of a photograph tended to keep most photographs tied to paper, to albums, to the homes where their photographer lives. A fact emphasised by all the "found photo" sites on flickr and elsewhere; these are interesting precisely because they have escaped that material intertia, somehow found a way to leave home. -kris