The entire history of human expression, slightly abridged
I knew when I started this assignment that I wanted to go for diversity. Multiple settings, a mix of color and black and white and filtered photographs, photos where the people were a relatively minor element (such as in “HAPPY BDAY”) and even photos where no people were in the frame at all (as in “Backstage @ The Ark” and “Post-it”). I wanted to have the photos feel alternately fun, thoughtful, poignant, strange, bright, dark, dramatic, quiet. Some are dramatic (the dancer in “@ Elks Lodge” and the scattered chaos of “Backstage @ The Ark” and the refiltered bars of “Out front @ The Ark”) and those photos are juxtaposed with photos about work (“In the lab” and “In the garage”) and more sedate photos about family (“Blowing Bubbles” and “HAPPY BDAY”).
Making the photos in the series vary as much as possible from each other forced me to try out new things (more on composition in a minute) but it also gave me leeway to go ahead and try to create a sense of the diversity that I feel in my life. There is a very strong autobiographical element in this—as there probably needs to be, in an essay titled “My People”—but it isn’t simply the content of the pictures or the identity of the people in the portraits. These photographs contain family, friends, and many, many strangers. The autobiographical element, to me, is the sense that all of these moments occur in the same life. Shows, dance parties, dressing rooms, computer labs (with beige pillars and office-style tile-and-fluorescent ceilings), garages (planks covered in sawdust, tools piled thoughtlessly), movie theaters, grassy fields where kids are playing, lakeside stones marked with graffiti.
I teach writing and digital storytelling, produce shows in Ann Arbor, and write fiction and essays and book reviews, but I also live my life, love my family, go out at night, hang out with friends, cause trouble. Many days I go to sleep disbelieving that everything that happened to me that day—all of the interactions and relationships that I participated in, all of the art that I saw or read, loved or hated, watched or made—could have possibly been squeezed into sixteen waking hours. It seems unbelievable that all of these moments—all of these aesthetics—can coexist. And yet it rarely feels like a riot. The moments don’t feel out of control. Not all of these photos would hang out with each other, but they would certainly be interested in talking to each other at, say, a workplace holiday party.
In terms of composition: I feel like, when I started composing these photos, that I wanted them to feel more like the photographs that we are discussing in class, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams and Duane Michals, all those giants. I don’t know if it’s because photography is so alien to writing (where writing is methodical, photography is immediate; just one example), but I often feel as if the process of composing a photograph is almost too subtle to accomplish well. If the framing feels too deliberate and doesn’t have amazing content and composition (punctum), then a photograph often looks worse, I think, than when it is simply capturing a scene simply. It’s like SNL from the late 90s, great production levels, no laughs. The danger, I think, is sentimentality. If the frame looks too polished, the whole thing starts to feel like a bank ad.
After I finished taking the photos, I noticed that I tended to not follow a lot of rules. I don’t bother getting feet into the frame, don’t mind cutting people off at the waist (or above, or below). Photographs wind up getting sliced into fifths as often as thirds. The boundaries are chosen instinctively in the moment, and only later, looking at them, do I begin to re-think, to critique my decisions.
Some of the photographs have been altered. For “@ Ann Arbor Film Festival” I used a vibrancy filter on Camera+ (an iPhone app). For “@ The Moth” and “@ Elks Lodge,” I used Photoshop to alter the colors; in the first, I lightened the shot, in the second, I brought out the reds and purples (look at that purple sign! Awesome!). Used Photoshop also to make “Blowing Bubbles” black and white, and used PS filters to make the three versions of the crowd photo in “Out front @ The Ark.” Used PS to put in some blurry spots in “In the lab” to sharpen Ryan and the photo on the two screens (sorry everybody else). Only “HAPPY BDAY,” “Backstage @ The Ark,” “Post-it,” and “In the garage” are the exact same as when I took them.
I like what the photographs represent more than I like all of the photos, but that’s alright, I’ll take it.