My parents were gone for the night. Henry and I decided to explore the dark woods behind the barn. We reached the end of the forest near the lake when the flashlight went dead. Total dark. The path was immediately lost. Our only choice was to take each others hand and venture into the dense web of the woods. By the end we were on our hands and knees. Our arms were bloody from thorns, but we still held onto each other. This is a picture of what we looked like (or maybe a picture of the woods, or our Great Danes):
Don’t you wish you could see this picture? Whether it is a 3-D digital holograph or an images burned onto a piece of wood, the thing that makes you want to see the picture is the story. In the end, what’s next is what always was: the story.
Sorry for the quiet blog of late. I’ve been on the road since the holidays. After some lonely nights in Kansas, I worked on a fantastic assignment in Rockford, Illinois for the New York Times Magazine. (Read about the making of this work here). Now I’m in Italy preparing for a workshop and lecture at Cesuralab. Meanwhile, the LBM team has been busy mailing out copies of Broken Manual and preparing new publications. Forgive our silence during this mushroom spawning season.
Finally got around to checking out this latest NYT piece by Alec Soth, and it is pretty wonderful. Something about hearing the voices of the people in these portraits adds a sense of simultaneous warmth and gravitas, and lifts the piece above the standard ‘here’s a bunch of regular people’ photo-essay. Soth, and the rest of the team at NYT, continues to inspire.
Last week, after my post about the similarities between my Empty Messages project and Brian Kaplan’s Blank Billboards work, I kept coming back to the same thoughts; are we doomed to repeat the work of others, even that of which we are unaware? Does work produced in isolation still have value, once it is discovered to be similar to someone else’s work? Is it all about ‘coming first’? Are we all just fooling ourselves into thinking it is even possible to produce truly original work in a culture so infused with imagery, art and advertising?
In an attempt to come to some conclusions I emailed Brian, who was kind enough to respond. He also gave me permission to excerpt his email here. In relation to the billboard project itself, Brian said:
I was first drawn to blank billboards because I find them visually striking, especially when they’re lit up at night. But I only started photographing them after I spent some time thinking about them and what they mean to me. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with consumption. It’s what drives our economy, the desire to buy more and more stuff. But the endless need to consume is also poison — it’s killing the environment, and for the most part it’s an empty and unfulfilling pursuit. (By the way, I’m probably about as guilty of this as the average American.) Advertising is part of this, of course, because the whole purpose of an advertisement is to convince us to buy more and more stuff. And a billboard is just an extreme example, an advertisement on steroids, shouting its message: buy a Big Mac! Buy a razor with five blades! Buy a new SUV! But a blank billboard, if read literally, delivers an ironic and unintended message: “Don’t Buy Anything. Live Simply.” That’s what I came to see in them, and that’s what moved me to make the project. After I started the series, the economy started to crumble and they also became a symbol of the economic decline. I think that’s what most people take from the photos, and I think they’re a good representation of that issue, too.
This is pretty much in line with my own take on the phenomena, and I think it ultimately comes down to the idea of subversion. The altering of any information-carrying media, be it TV, newspapers, billboards or whatever, can only be seen as information in itself. Even the absence of a message becomes a message - the subversion becoming a commentary on the vehicle, rather than the cargo.
The sheer white noise of modern advertising is often so overwhelming that the rare space created by it’s absence becomes a deafening silence, and I certainly get a sense of that from Brian’s work.
Brian also had some interesting thoughts on the wider issue raised by my post; the originality problem:
The other thing about your post that resonated with me is the part about the desire to make art that’s fresh and new and different from what anybody else is doing — and how that seems almost impossible. I’ve had that feeling a number of times, as I started a project that I thought was different only to later discover that someone else was doing something extremely similar. It’s disappointing, in a way. But, I’ve come to see that (as you put it) there’s very little (if anything) that’s truly new. We’re all building on one another whether we’re aware of it or not. And, it can be comforting, too — because if there’s someone else out there who’s taking pictures of blank billboards, then maybe that means I’m not crazy after all. (Or, maybe it just means we’re both crazy. I’m not sure.)
I suspect we all deal with these thoughts, from time to time, and I guess we simply need to come to some level of acceptance of the issue; to find an equilibrium amid the clamour for ‘newness’, and simply do the work. Brian’s point about finding comfort in the knowledge that other people are pursuing similar avenues is a nice way to deal with it; take heart in the fact that you are not completely losing your way, then turn back to your own path and push forward. Do the work.
(Thanks to Brian Kaplan for allowing me to post these email excerpts).