My maternal grandfather passed away in the fall of 2012. It was only a few months after I’d met my girlfriend, now wife, Liz. He had cancer, had refused treatment, and had outlived all prognoses - and so we were not surprised at the end. In fact he probably lived longer than he would have had he elected treatment. I've heard that cancer treatments later in life are a huge gamble regardless - they might kill you before the disease does. I think it’s fair to say that my grandfather was a pretty stubborn man, but in this sense it served him well. The end of his life was on his terms and by his own reports (which may have been understated - he was a product of his generation in many ways) his pain was minimal.
Upon learning that he had been moved to hospice care, I drove to Ohio to see him for one last visit. I can’t remember the exact details, but I know that I saw him during his last days, I think his last week of life. At this time I was more diligent about documenting my family, and even my extended family. This was the beginning of the time where my personal life felt increasingly exciting, unpredictable, unstable, and ultimately difficult to understand. I remember vividly photographing the woods in Michigan while traveling with Liz, and soon after, and possibly on the same roll of film (though I can’t totally recall) making pictures of my dying grandfather in hospice.
As I finally begin to organize a studio space in Ann Arbor, in 2022, almost ten years later, only now does it feel like some of the dust is settling from this chapter - this time when I simultaneously fell in love, joined my life to another person’s and experienced a closing of sorts in my family.
It seems only fitting that as I unearth boxes of prints, half finished projects, ideas, sketches, notes and ephemera that has been boxed up and shifted from one “home” to another - gathering moss as an archive of sorts - that I stumble upon some of the pictures from this time. Many of the pictures I take instinctively are relatively pastoral or calming - many prints I make are done only to see what the print looks like and with no intention of sharing - the stream of paper that the archive consists of is mostly, upon review, worthy of the dumpster.
But there is an orange glow peeking out behind the trees that stopped me - I immediately knew what it was. The hospice room, my dying grandfather with his wife beside him.
I can’t continue to organize the studio now. The present has been ripped out from under me. All I can think about is why I took these pictures, and if I would do that again. Ten years later I am still just as uncomfortable with some forms of documentary as I’ve always been, but I remember that back then I had reasoned that if I were to fairly photograph others at difficult points in their lives, I would have to know what it was to go through it myself, to some extent. This in addition to the inherent value of documenting what matters to you in life, which ostensibly would include the loved ones for most people.
I have many other pictures of my grandfather, but I probably took more in the remaining years after I had learned about his prognosis - as if only when time is explicitly running out do things become vitally important - a truly misguided notion if there ever was one. There were usually a lot of people around, the conversation tended to be flittering and light - he leaves a legacy of 16 grandchildren. I suppose I felt that in some moments making the pictures was the best way to be present - quite the opposite of how I often feel.
The other question that arises is not of the photographing of this moment, but of deciding to print it - and to print it larger than my typical 5x7 work prints that I make. I still can’t answer that. Perhaps it was because I had a sense it would be more likely to rise to the top of a disorganized archival pile than it would a hard drive, and that it would rupture the present and force me to reflect. I wish I could remember.
When my son was born, I heard a similar refrain from a lot of people. Something along the lines that I would surely make an endless stream of photographs of him - out of love, out of a desire to hold on to his rapidly changing developmental phases, out of, well, habit. I wasn't sure though. While I didn't doubt I would have the same motivations, of all of the reasons I was ecstatic to welcome him into the world, the idea of making pictures of him hardly registered.
I would hazard a guess that over a year into his life, I have photographed him less than an average parent - (especially an average stay-at-home parent) might. Perhaps considerably so. This isn't to say that I haven't photographed him for all of the above reasons - I have, but only occasionally, and with no prescribed framework. The reasons are multiple, but they can be distilled down to the fact that I believe that a camera, under many circumstances, is an impediment to direct experience - if only even for a few seconds at a time. I have tried to overcome this notion on several occasions, only to realize that I remember my pictures of a situation more than I remember being there, and sometimes with pangs of regret. I dobelieve that in certain exceptional instances the camera can actually be an aid to direct experience, but those instances are not what I am discussing.
Sustained direct experience might be the most precious commodity we have (even terming it as a commodity demonstrates perhaps one pathology of modernism). It is something I have had to try to intentionally cultivate through attempting consistent meditation, social media abstinence and prolonged periods of creative work even when I feel like I can't. I say attempting because my attention falls prey to all of the above more often than I'd like to admit. Outside actors in the world are constantly trying to eat away at our sustained direct experience (often, as I experience it with shallow but accessible content like advertisements or sensational or hyperpartisan journalism or commentary), and this awareness induces in me a drive to fight back where I can.
I thought about citing some research that elaborates on the decline of the human attention span as we have more and more content to parse through, but even an in-text link to a recent study (in the journal Nature Communications) would provide another distraction. Professor Sune Lehmann of Technical University of Denmark who worked on said study of collective attention said that “It seems that the allocated attention time in our collective minds has a certain size but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.” Or take Philipp Lorenz-Spreen of Max Planck Institute for Human Development when he says “Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly.” Or take Microsoft's recent findings that our attention span has dropped a collective 25% over the last 8 years, prompting headlines about how people are now losing to goldfish when it comes to the ability to focus.
So what then is the cost of making pictures now? When I first started photographing we were already in an image saturated world, and yet making a picture with a camera was still a relatively intentional and more expensive act. It isn’t a stretch to say that making a picture was a much more involved process, and that because of this it felt like it necessarily demanded an attention that pulling one’s phone out of their pocket simply almost never could, and this is by design of course. It is perhaps for this reason that while I view a phone as a perfectly capable photographic tool (and others have proven this point repeatedly), I still usually cannot summon the separation necessary to attempt a “real” or a “serious” picture with it myself. The phone is too sly, too informal, too slight - it forces distraction but because it is the object of almost all sources of current distraction, it registers as something of a light, fuzzy, hazy or minor distraction. I don’t think this to be so, but it is all too often a socially acceptable way to disengage - and in the spectrum of methods of disengagement offered by this technology, the act of photographing is perhaps preferable to most.
I have documented my family and loved ones on and off (more recently more off) for the last 12 years or so. This has generally been separate from my practice of more thematically and conceptually cohesive projects that look outwards towards the world, but no less important to me personally. Still, to take out a camera in the middle of a lived experience is to disrupt the experience of camaraderie and to introduce a new locus of attention into the situation - the well constructed photograph. The experience becomes the making of a picture. It is not only something that demands my attention but all too often will command the attention of others, as the awareness of being photographed tends to result in performative behavior, even from a toddler. I do not inherently view this as a negative, although admittedly I think it often is. However easy technology has made the act of photographing now, the practice still involves placing this physical impediment, a barrier (usually in the form of a smartphone), between yourself and the subject. While I'd often like to, I struggle to disregard this fact when I spend time with my son, or any of my loved ones for that matter for the simple reason that I would prefer to be with them rather than to chronicle them being in my presence.
Of course, when I receive that advice that I should take a lot of pictures, it usually comes from a loving parent remembering the phases of their children's growth, which is often marked explicitly by specific pictures they have made. I do not dismiss this impetus and I do make pictures. When I do this, that is exactly what I am doing - and I allow, even encourage myself to be fully present in the act of photographing. I am not so much spending time with my son as I am looking at him from a sense of remove, and I know that he feels this. Of course the act of the photography may look suspiciously like multitasking, and to some extent a degree of expertise and familiarity of process does indeed let people conscientiously acknowledge a greater degree of their surrounding, but still - the difference between my being on the floor with him versus watching him through my camera is visceral for him, and he tells me with his behavior.
It is this that I try to keep in mind every time something happens that begs for a photograph - can I live with not fully living this moment with him? This is a difficult thing to reconcile, since I still do believe that to photograph someone is an act of love, and and act of affirmation.
The morning is a muted affair until the blinds are drawn. If we're fortunate, at least during much of the year, with this action the warm sunlight will spill in to aid in the task of shaking off remnants of sleep still dripping from our minds and bodies. For me, this is a small, but important part of beginning the day. I'm not one for darkness, really, unless the sun is down. Maybe it's more accurate to say that I'm not one for artificial light when the real thing is available. When the sun is out, it must be appreciated, and its light must be let in to every corner possible. This might be related to growing up in the relatively cloudy Midwest, and having recently returned here. During my half a decade living in the South there were days - seasons even - when the sun was smothering, inescapable and brutal. Even still when this was the case - it wasn't so much the light, but the heat that and humidity that made it feel that way.
The last place we lived had massive windows, probably ten feet high by fourteen feet wide. We had two of them and they faced east. Even though these windows were largely shielded by trees, drawing the blinds in the morning was almost mystical on some days. But there were no other windows in the apartment and sunsets went by everyday unseen and unnoticed. The ambient, diffuse light simply dissipated in the living space from about noon onward throughout the rest of the day. This had the strange effect of making days feel simultaneously elongated and truncated - especially during the lockdown periods. The only way to orient yourself as to how the day was proceeding would be to go on a walk and to get out from the shadow of the large warehouse - and so often, we did. The lack of windows on three of the four sides of our living space, as grand as those two windows we had were, was at times disorienting. Alienating even. After living there for awhile I thought sometimes that I would live in a house entirely of windows if I could...the lack of privacy might be made up for by the ability to see trees (if lucky enough to live amongst them), sunlight and moonlight at every angle.
But there is one problem. There's no getting used to the sound of a sudden and otherworldly thud emanating from the window - seemingly out of nowhere. It's happened in nearly every place I've lived - at least on occasion - and whenever I hear it I fear the worst. Lately, I've heard it a bit more than usual - a distressing circumstance. It's the birds. They can't see it. If they're lucky, they will fly away, but often they're not lucky.
On its own, this situation brings up several issues worth considering, especially if one is specifically attuned to the plight of birds. Even still, I can't help but extrapolate something larger here. What I'm thinking about is that this little event is something that crystallizes what so many people have been trying to tell us all as we face changes in global weather patterns due to human induced climate change. The idea is that it is a logical fallacy to consider our society as being separate from nature. A fallacy that we entertain at our own eventual peril. The idea that we can manipulate nature in one place and then return home to somewhere else, where we try to preserve it (often for largely aesthetic reasons), and that this is a sustainable way of living or thinking is severely mistaken. Alternatively there is the notion that what happens in nature far away isn't relevant to us in our own community where we are - which is continuously disproven as we see an enduring global pandemic, but has also been relevant as early as the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, when early telegraphs were used to explain bizarre oceanic, meteorological and other natural phenomenon occurring all over the world that had originated from the blast. I've mentioned before that I dislike bifurcations - but the people;nature bifurcation might be the most pernicious, and most foolish of them all.
A digression: There are loads of books and white papers written on this problem. If you've heard of the now maybe worn out term Anthropocene, it tries to embody this notion that such a boundary does not exist by positing the theory that we are now in the first geological epoch in which human activity has been the defining factor on the natural patterns occurring in our planet. Other terms attempt to shift blame a bit. Capitalocene tries to say that climate change is strictly borne from capitalism run amok - and indeed there are many plausible arguments that paint capitalism specifically as the culprit, for people have coexisted with nature for millenia without the luxuries (and distance) that technological advances and extraction industries have given us in our comfortable contemporary ways of living. Homogenocene shifts emphasis to the current state of biodiversity - or rather lackthereof - as agricultural industrialization increasingly limits the palette of species across all sectors and crops are selectively bred for a limited subset of "useful" traits.
Still, old habits are hard to break. It turns out that, in a very concrete way as the birds discover, the window does function as a barrier between their space (the outside, nature) and our specific shelter. And I love my windows. And the supposed solution to the problem - one which involves sticking decals close together all over the window surface - effectively eliminates the core purpose of it all - which is to offer an unobstructed, transparent view to what is outside our specific shelter. Well, that, and to help maintain the illusion - that when we are inside, and nature is outside - out there, that we can separately coexist. The illusion is shattered not with the broken window but with the thud.
Many nights during the week I find myself stopping in front of the mirror while holding my son. He's just finished a bath and his soaked head pops up through a the oversized bath towel that serves as a body wrap two or three times over. There is the way he brings his shoulders forward and clenches his eight teeth as he navigates the cooler, dry air outside of the tub. It's a sight I find hard to walk away from.
Usually, I catch a glimpse of him first, then only after I register his reflection do I see the two of us there. My eyes lock with my reflection, my arms wrapped around his still brand new body. I've never been involved in something as meaningful in my life and right now I can just stop and watch him for a second. His eyes, however, dart around everywhere but the mirror - usually transfixed on his mom but sometimes studying the toilet paper, his toy airplane or the empty towel rack. Maybe the skylight above. But he doesn't see me, and moreso he doesn't see himself. In a way, this relieves me greatly.
In many cases, most cases probably...the mirror doesn't engender warm feelings from me. It reminds me of what I'm not that I wish I were, and it brings to mind what a better version of that might look like as embodied by people trying to sell such things. It reminds me that other people tell me I could be a little closer to whatever ideal if I only worked harder in one respect or purchased something in another respect. As if such materialism (and that's how I see it) actually results in any more fulfillment. All of this provides me with an intellectual reason to dismiss the mirror. Who would want to actively participate in such a game? But it also - counter to reason - heightens my awareness of myself, my body, and how I could and should make these things better - all pushing one to feel like they should require validation or admiration based on how they present physically.
To a degree, narcissism is learned. So I need to remind myself not to pause for too long in front the mirror. This thing, it is not a lesson I want to teach him, though I am sure if I manage to avoid it, someone will find a way to him. There are too many powerful forces waiting to exploit what can be gained by his seeing himself, studying himself, and eventually, possibly, feeling like what is there is not enough for one reason or another. To reject this outcome he will need to stand anchored, firmly, as a cultural tsunami crashes onto and over him, not once, but repeatedly. Most likely though, I won't manage to avoid teaching him a little bit of narcissism myself. I am, perhaps, a little too proud of us. Aside from this pride, all too often I buckle under the weight of the wave. Maybe the best I can hope for is to teach him to stand up again after he is knocked down and to once again - avoid and reject the mirror. Look outward to the world for answers - and to look inward only once you can see past your face and your body.
Still, after the baths, the mirror is different. I love it, the togetherness it shows. And yet every time I stop in front of it I fear his eyes will stop darting around, he will lock on his own reflection and become interested in it.
I first stumbled on It All Turns on Affection some years ago during a spell of research about place, landscape and environmental issues - which is usually at the crux of my inquiry as a photographer. These are breathtakingly sprawling topics that I can never seem to fully grasp and that even the best writers will never fully explain. These topics are much like the photograph itself - the fundamentally inexplicable nature of them is why words could never be a satisfactory replacement.
The thesis of It All Turns on Affection divides historical Americans into two groups that he calls "Boomers" (not the generation) and "Stickers." What ultimately separates these people is their outlook and attitude towards a physical place...you could say the landscape. Berry essentially approves of the Stickers and proposes that many social dilemmas would be solved if people developed a deeper, more appreciative relationship with their environment. While I dislike bifurcations such as this because they map a clean theory onto a messy world, I find his observation useful enough with no shortage of relatable, specific and concrete examples to match his hypothesis.
(The fascinating thing about a proposition like this is that it obliterates maybe the most evident bifurcation in current discourse - our traditional American political boundaries. Instead of a political affiliation I see this divide as having parallels with the reconfigured 'attractors' that philosopher Bruno Latour names "Out-of-This-World" and "The Terrestrial.")
In this instance Berry's essay was able to put into words some ideas that I'd been struggling to clarify - especially while living a life that would be considered much more akin to the Boomer (again, not the generation) and feeling spiritually and locationally unmoored. It took me years to realize, but I find it difficult to make photographs of places that I don't feel some sort of connection to. This is quite different from a place I might consider beautiful, striking or any other descriptor that might cause someone to want to photograph. To the contrary, I often feel compelled to photograph a landscape that strikes me as unsettling, troubled or any other such connotations if I feel I have some understanding of it, or some connection to it personally.
I've certainly not come close to exploring all of his works, but I am not sure there are any writers out there that evoke such a strong feeling of ambivalence from me. Sometimes, I view him as hopelessly saccharine, romantic or frustratingly paradoxical. I am a bit reluctant to get on board when he speaks admirably of tobacco farming (in part because of those who he is close to), while vigorously critiquing the tobacco industry, for example. He elegantly tries to wrestle out of a hypocritical standpoint by weighing environmental impacts, addressing communal aspect of the harvest etc. but it can still read as a traditionalist defending a tradition because it's a tradition.
Then there is something essential in his work that I want to relate to more than perhaps I do (I did, after all, include a passage of his in my wife's and my wedding vows). Therein lies a tension - there is the world Berry describes and the values he espouses - which are perhaps more aligned with the world I want to inhabit - versus the world I generally perceive. But perception means a lot, and I've found reading and writing to be in the running for the strongest ways to alter my own perception of the world, if only through the act of careful study and reconsideration of what is already readily observable.
Berry has previously been labeled as having "radically conservative views (in the good senses of both words)" in 1993 - when those words together - to many at least - meant something quite different than what it would likely evoke in 2021. But what that means to me is that the sense of ambivalence he evokes is rooted in my wanting to make photographs and art from a place of love and appreciation - an affection as he calls it - all while grappling with what implications that may have spun out into the world beyond whatever feels like a home. Implications, I might add, that I believe we ignore at the peril of the global community.
Many photographers respond visually (as would make sense) to what is in front of them - and it's mostly that simple. I think this is a completely justified way of working, but it doesn't work for me. My visual response is secondary to my emotional response to a place, and because of this I am typically uninterested in making an image of something incredible in a place that is too new to me to have more than a surface level impression of.
Let's take the example of a brilliant sunset over Highway 1 in California, overlooking the Pacific, augmented by the dramatic and striking cliffs of Big Sur. To begin with, I would likely rather just witness this sunset with my own eyes and be present to truly appreciate it - at most making a snapshot for purposes of augmenting my memory. For another, there's very likely another photograph of said thing already existing that is better, by someone who did have that emotional response I speak of - someone who perhaps has driven this road a thousand times and is able to understand why this sunset is strikingly unique and knows just how to frame it to show this. It's not really my picture to make, then. By this I don't mean I shouldn't be allowed to - it just means that I don't see it as something I understand enough to try and visually reproduce it (to the extent that it even could be reproduced, we will ignore the failures inherent in the photographic medium writ large for the moment). Take a similar situation, however, on the shores of Western Michigan, an admittedly much more subdued landscape - but still striking in its own right - that I have come to know and appreciate as a life giving place in the context of my family. That emotional response I need to make a picture is something I take to mean Berry's version of affection. For me, making a photograph (even a pedestrian one) turns on Affection.
With these writings I hope to come closer to articulating a personal philosophy of not just making photographs - but of seeing the world more generally - including outside of the act of photography. This philosophy, like a landscape or a photograph, couldn't ever be fully explained. I will constantly challenge my own intuitions and impetuses. If I am fortunate enough to remain persistent in this effort I will, eventually, inevitably contradict myself as well - but at this point I've come to the conclusion that I simply feel a bit better about the process of working if I try to figure out what is behind it through an articulated paragraph or two (or seven...).
In the past I've often admired photographers who refuse to put words to their images - there is much to be gained by keeping quiet, after all. If you're lucky enough to have viewers of your work, then without words the space for their projection into it is wide open. Your mystique is intact, and your motivations and lines of inquiry could be much more brilliant in the eyes of the flummoxed observers than they actually are. But it is entirely possible to retain all of these potential benefits even if you're someone who has left a trail of literate thoughts behind you, revealing and spoiling all of your lines of inquiry, exposing you a bit more accurately for whatever it is you've always been. If you're an artist who is lucky enough to have viewers of your work, you're even luckier if someone decides to spend the time with any sort of text that may go with it. Given this (nearly) invisible corner of the internet, I'm not too worried here.
Then of course the opposite is possible too. One might make entirely unremarkable artwork that comes to life when paired with the right words. I'm not sure that's what I'm after here, but it's one reason that the book is still my favorite way to look at photography. The possibility exists that both words and images grow exponentially in meaning and significance when paired with care.
It might seem a bit controversial as the photograph has come under fire for all sorts of reasons as of late, but I still believe the act of photographing is an affirmative one. From behind a camera I see this place, this person, this object - to have some significance. It is an attempt at understanding something, which doesn't happen without some love directed somewhere, even if it's not for the subject in the frame. It is an attempt at keeping something I know is impossibly slipping by from the very second I separate my gaze from what in front of me to what is in a viewfinder. To subsequently write in conjunction with the image is an extension of this pursuit - maybe we can understand just a little bit more, or love a little bit more, or freeze time for just a little longer.