On Photography


Seven or eight years ago I found a box of negatives at a summer yard sale in southeastern Massachusetts. I bought the almost two-hundred medium format negatives with the intention of punching holes in them and stringing them together to make a lampshade. But, as the summer wound down, so did my fervor for the lampshade and I stuffed the box under the bed and promptly forgot about them.


I would occasionally be reminded of the box as I rooted around among dust bunnies looking for 16-gauge wire or a mini-hole punch, the only useful purchases made in the name of what certainly would have been a very sophisticated lampshade.


Despite the negatives long under-the-bed tenure, for some reason they’ve continually made the cut as I’ve moved from Cape Cod to Minneapolis to Chicago and back again. It wasn’t until this year however, with access to a darkroom, that I pulled them out and began to really look at them.


Upon closer examination, I realized that ten or so of them carried captions along the bottom edge. The captions were scrawled in upper-case font and appeared to be part of the negative. The captions ranged from factual, “7/14/1918,” to more nostalgic, “THE VIEW FROM OUR TENT.” or, “OUR HONEYMOON.” I would later find out that this indicated the images were taken on a Kodak Autographic Camera, a sort-of predecessor to the Polaroid, that allowed its users to, after taking a picture, open a small window and scratch away a caption on the film.  Thought the camera itself was relatively popular, the autographic feature did not catch on and ultimately the film was discontinued in 1932.


As an exercise in re-familiarizing myself with the darkroom, I decided that I would begin to print from this trove of images, that I would finally interact with this historical archive that had been doggedly following me around.


Perhaps because some of the images are captioned, perhaps because I have no ancestral reference to the people in these photographs, or perhaps just because of the fumes in the dark room, I began to conjure stories, full biographies on the subjects.


Some of the images are shot in sequence, meaning there will be three or four images from the same moment, an example of which you can see on the hand-out. These sequences animate and add depth to the narratives I’ve been fabricating. In the darkroom, as I watched these anonymous characters move through and between the frames, I began to think of their reality as an amorphous three-dimensional shape with these photographs acting as small slices or transects in that reality (for a picture of my mental image, see the drawing on the hand-out). It was from these small slivers that I composed a truth about this family whose photographs I’d found.


Although photographic proof is seen as the gold standard of evidence, I would argue that photographs really tell us little more than what the subjects and the elements were doing, or appear to have been doing, at any precise moment in time. To reference my handout again, the inferred reality, in this case my narrative about this family, is as likely as it is unlikely to align with actual reality. Thinking about it another way, if you go back to algebra, knowing a handful of points belonging to a function does not give you any indication as to what that function was doing between those points.  


In an effort to divorce implied truth from these photographs, or perhaps to highlight our blind assumptions of truth from photographs, I began to make abstract series of images using photochemicals and light sensitive papers. These images, also on the handout, were made using a cyanotype process that “fixed” in water. The sensitized paper was laid down on the shoreline and as waves came in and out it “fixed” certain portions of the paper while allowing others to continue to be exposed to sunlight.


Identical to the historic photographs I found, these images were also small slices that captured the play between light and the elements during a discrete moment. Unlike the historic photographs however, I did not find myself interpolating a story between frames. Despite the large formal gap between these bodies of images I would argue that they describe the same amount of information. And that it is only our tendency to see something of ourselves in the first set that makes us see the historic photographs as more “real.”


Moving forward, I am hoping to begin to exploit this habit of inferring, or projecting our own stories onto photographs, by staging a series of portraits. The settings of these portraits will be heavily curated and constructed with sparse visual language that will hopefully allow both the subject and the viewer to interact with the image in ways that result in a heightened distance between actual reality of the subjects experience while being photographed and the reality inferred by the view of the story behind the image.


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