Archives For photo-based art

Don’t revise too much or it turns into patchwork.

— W.G. Sebald, paraphrased by Richard Skinner from notes taken during a workshop with the great writer.

About five years ago I worked on this picture, as usual using Photoshop. I thought it was going well. So I kept working on it for quite a while—anybody who knows me also knows it takes me a long time to complete an image. In fact, I wound up spending months on it. I still have the image—as a psd file tucked away somewhere on a hard drive—but you’ll never see it and no one else will either. That’s because, at some indiscernible and undramatic point, I managed to fuck it up.

How did I go wrong? As the existentialists say, a big part of the problem was freedom. Or, put another way: choices, choices, choices. When it comes to photography, another name for limitless possibilities is Photoshop. You can do practically anything with the digital juggernaut.

And I came close to doing just that. I took the image (for clarity, let’s call it ScrewedUpPicture no. 1, though it’s hardly my first) which had some promise, and I poked it, tweaked it, cajoled it, added to it, cleaned up this thing and that, removed something I thought defective, made it a little more complex here and there and elsewhere too—all to the point that somewhere, somehow, it reached an invisible tipping point where the image no longer worked. Through my well-intentioned efforts (the road to hell being paved with these), ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 had become a hodge podge of stuff, the sum of which was mysteriously yet mightily less than they were individually. ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 had lost something fundamental, including the indefinable energy that attracted me to it in the early stages. Whatever promise the image had for saying something that interested me deeply—that was gone too. I didn’t care about the picture anymore. So I ditched it, which was the probably the first good decision I’d made in at least a month.

On one level I could blame Photoshop. All those tools. A candy shop with Baby Ruths, Pop Rocks, Toblerones, Jawbreakers, Twizzlers, and Tootsie Rolls, and that’s just the first shelf: what kid wouldn’t eat himself comatose with those temptations?  So many ways to improve the image. So many ways to add layers, literally and metaphorically, to a picture. In the stone age of darkrooms, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, have tried to do what I did; the limited and infuriating (and wonderful) magic of chemicals, paper, tray tilting, water variance, humidity, and the bazillion other variables that perpetually reconfigured themselves in combinations and permutations, (sometimes leaving me in a fetal tuck of despair, other times astonishing me with their beauty) wouldn’t have allowed it. That’s no guarantee that ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 would’ve become SublimePicture no. 1 but the path would have been different, that’s for sure.

(I am not lauding the good old days of the darkroom. Traditional photography had its pluses as well as its many minuses and drawbacks. Photoshop photography can do the hitherto undreamed, but ultimately it’s a different medium despite sharing some superficially descriptive language.)

Of course, the real problem was me. I forgot to respect the power of ones’s tools—reminder # 1 being: nobody’s making you use them all. I didn’t use the power of time and distance—looking back, I was excited and in such a rush to make a great picture that I didn’t pull myself back from the hunt, meaning: put the thing away, wait a while and look again with fresh, less invested, eyes. Instead of paying attention to the process, I let my ego get invested in the result. And, dutifully following the work ethic I was brought up with, I thought working more and more on ScrewedUpPicture no. 1 would make it better and better, when what I was really doing was burying it a few spoonfuls of dirt at a time. To really mix my metaphors, I did what my friend Dimitri calls “overcook the image.” (To this day, when I show Dimitri works-in-progress, he’ll sometimes end his feedback, which I cherish, by saying “And don’t overcook it, Frank.” Bless his heart—may you have such good friends with keen eyes.)

So, here are a few takeaways from the saga of ScrewedUpPicture no. 1. Some might seem pretty basic and they certainly overlap but they’re here as reminders for me that I happily share with you.

  • Don’t think that adding/subtracting/changing is necessarily an improvement.
  • Beware the perils of perfectionism. Not only is that often the road to ruin but some so-called “imperfections” are decidedly beautiful if we take the time and effort to look at them.
  • Make every decision an aesthetic decision. That means you don’t do something simply because you can. Watch that you don’t shift into automaton mode, which can be easier with Photoshop because it’s a whole lot quicker and more repeatable than what we did in the darkroom age. (Conversely, making every decision an aesthetic decision also means  you don’t avoid doing because you haven’t adequately mastered your medium—in that case, you need to do what we all must, which is go back and work on craft.)
  • Pain and effort, including near-death experiences, in creating your work do not count in its final value. This is not grade school where a kindly teacher may goose your grade for Herculean effort. You can grind and slave and spit blood on the carpet and your work can still turn out like shite, though your Trickster Ego will try convincing you that such a cosmic injustice cannot be. And beware the Trickster Ego— he (it feels right to make him masculine) is no match in the long run for the Universe’s indifference to our pain.
  • Keep many versions of your images-in-progress. Photoshop is perfect for this and hard drive space is cheap. Version #3 may turn out to be a whole lot better than Version #34 and you’ll be glad you can go back easily and work from there.
  • Label (intelligibly) your versions as well as your layers so you’ll have some idea what the heck it was that you were doing in case you want to do it again sometime. Make notes directly in the file if it helps.
  • Limits, including those self-imposed, can be great things. If you’re stuck, think about that.
  • Let your work sit. Put it away for a while and come back to it. It’s amazing how a picture that looked like it might place you in the company of Michelangelo looks kind of, well, bleh after a few days or weeks. Conversely, it’s a good sign when an image retains or gains power in your eyes after a cooling off period.
  • Find yourself a cadre of people you trust and who have good eyes—people whose opinion you value and who are honest enough to tell you that, no, your sweat does not smell like honey. Show them your works-in-progress and don’t just ask for feedback, listen to it. If they tell you that, no, this image doesn’t work, ask them why, listening quietly, taking notes perhaps, and resisting the all-too-human temptation to insult their shoes or tell them their new baby is ugly.
  • And remember—don’t overcook it, Frank.

97532: Memento Mori

April 30, 2015 — 2 Comments

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida begins with a poignant memorialization of his mother, as remembered through her photograph…. And Jacques Derrida’s posthumous Athens, Still Remains, a travel memoir accompanied by the photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, begins with the mystical phrase “We owe ourselves to death.” For Barthes and Derrida, photography was a medium of suspended mortality—every photograph a memento mori.

— Josh Jones, “The Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein”

Here’s what I remember. I was standing in line, waiting to board the Porter Airlines plane headed for Montreal. My mother lived in that lovely city, as she had for 91 years. Three hours earlier I’d received a phone call: a female voice from the nursing home told me she was dying and wouldn’t survive the night. I remember feeling at a loss, but not for the reasons you might expect. My mother – her name was Frances – had lived years longer than we ever expected despite severe illness and disability. How could anyone be that certain she wouldn’t survive the next twelve hours?

I was naïve—these people know their business. I shuffled forward in line, my phone buzzed, and I heard another female voice: it said she was dead. It was a few minutes past 9 pm, June 15th, 2010.

Two hours later, after a short flight and a taxi ride, I climbed the steps to Maimonides Geriatric Centre. Late nights in hospitals are different from visiting hours. Things are still, except for the odd uniformed figure moving with purpose. Once in a while you hear elevator doors open and close, but you can also hear the white noise swishing alongside the thoughts in your head.

A nurse took me to my mother’s room. Her small body lay on the bed under a thin white covering, every thing bathed in a fluorescent glow reflecting off pastel green walls. A garbage bag lay in a heap next to the bed, with my mother’s belongings inside: some clothes, a tiny pair of tennis shoes. My mother’s head was bound with a piece of fabric that ran under her jaw and over the top of her head. They do that, I’m told, to keep the jaw from slacking open. When my father died six years before, they didn’t and his mouth gaped open like he’d expelled his soul in one last act. Still, the photographs would show that even with the fabric, my mother’s lips, once so full but now thinned by time, were slightly parted. You could see a few skewed teeth, yellowed and worn down.

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97532, no. 1
© Frank Rodick, 2011

I waited a long time for my mother to die. That sounds harsh, but it doesn’t matter anymore. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease, which is common enough these days. But that doesn’t make it less awful. Frances had Alzheimer’s for more than fifteen years, a long time for that illness to do its all its dirt. She hadn’t recognized me in six years. She’d asked me once if she’d ever had a child. She’d forgotten years ago whether she’d had a husband, which she did, for 58 years. The parts of her brain that gave her speech were gone, and the closest she came to communicating was opening her eyelids and, looking down, slowly moving those dull, watery eyes from side to side.

As well as Alzheimer’s, my mother had Parkinson’s disease. Sometimes she shook so hare that the nurses were afraid her tinto splintery bones would break. She hadn’t taken a step in seven years, lifted by the hands of strangers from bed to wheelchair, and then wheeled to a common room where a TV murmured at low volume and others like her didn’t watch. Then back to bed.

And yes, she shit herself regularly. A few years back—at one of those hellish family/staff meetings where the topic of discussion is the purgatory of someone’s  charge—a nurse told me, with a cheerfulness I can’t fathom to this day, that my mother would play with her feces. Measures had been taken to stop that kind of thing. That might have explained one of those 7 a.m. phone calls I’d receive, like the one asking my permission to place her in a special diaper, a contraption that somehow fell legally under the classification of a restraint. I said yes.

・・・・・

About the photographs: That night of June 15th, I carried with me a little Canon camera, which at the time was all I used for digital photography. It’s what I used to take the photographs that a year later became the images I titled 97532, no. 1 and 97532, no. 2.

Something came up recently at one of my exhibitions overseas where a number of public figures declared that my photographs were disrespectful (I may be putting their disdain mildly), that I had, as they say, gone too far. Here’s what I think. I don’t think these images are reverential but I don’t think they’re derisive either. They’re pictures I made of my mother’s body when she was dead. I knew when I walked into that hospital room that I’d never have another opportunity to take the pictures I’d snap off in the next ten minutes of my life. I did the same when my father died in 2004.

I read once that the problem with being an artist is that everything is material. Whether it’s a problem or not, I don’t know. But the death of a parent is usually a big thing to someone. And, yes, big things are material.

・・・・・

A year before my mother died, I read this, by Julian Barnes:

. . . the death of a parent you love is in many ways simpler than the death of a parent you hate or to who you are indifferent. Love, loss, mourning, remembering — we all know the scheme. But what is the scheme when this is not the case, when the parent is not loved? A tranquil forgetting? I think not. Imagine the situation of someone . . . who realizes that for all his life as an adult, and for many years before that as well, he has lived without knowing what it is like to love a parent. You will reply that this is not so extraordinary, not so uncommon, and I will reply that this does not make it more easy.

Rereading what Barnes said helped me. (Art’s most generous gift: the feeling that you’re not alone, even when you really are.) Whatever life my mother and I shared, we mostly wasted. There were moments when a few of our serrated feelings for each other alined to include something you might call love. (What an impoverished word for something so nebulous and strange and indefinable. And difficult.) But if I resist embellishing, I’d say that rarely happened. And even now I feel sadder than I expected saying this –  this years later, and at an age when I’m ashamed to have that feeling. If I read Barnes’ words with a certain frame of mind, I can even feel teary. I’m ashamed of that too.

Did this deficiency of love make it easier for me to make these pictures? Yes, it did.

The complicated entanglement of feelings finds its way into this picture and also the others I made about my mother’s life and death. I’m not going to say much more about that because I don’t feel like it right now and because I’ve spoken of it elsewhere. And because I feel like the pictures might not only say things better than I can—they might even, somehow, know things I don’t.

・・・・・

The “97532” in the title comes from the reference number on my mother’s death certificate. It’s not the entire number but a truncated version, shortened because I thought it made the title less unwieldy. As it turns out, the number isn’t only truncated. It’s wrong. A couple of months after I finished the image, I fould her death certificate again and saw that I’d incorrectly remembered the real numbers. I was so sure I’d committed the whole number to memory – how does one forget something like that, especially when you’re obsessive about details like I am? But I did get it wrong.

I left the title, 97532, as it is. Because it reminded me—and reminds me still—that memory is a devious storyteller. It reminds me of all the other things I’ve probably got wrong. And it stands as a small memento—a memento of how our great stumbling between the immensities is just a brief trip through fog and mirrors.

www.frankrodick.com

 

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Parade in Petticoat Lane (my mother holds her basket)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

 

Nancy Brokaw is an independent critic and writer living in Philadelphia. She is currently a senior lecturer at the University of the Arts, where she teaches Critical Issues in Contemporary Photography, and is a senior contributing editor of The Photo Review.The following dialogue was originally posted on her blog Image World and is posted with her kind permission. If you don’t yet know Image World, give it a visit.

Nancy Brokaw: I always ask photographers of a certain age about the switch from analog to digital. You started with analog—although you were never working straight—and have made the switch, quite elegantly, to digital. How do you experience that now? Given my interest in the march of modernity, I’m particularly curious to understand what’s lost—the price that all this technology exacts.

Frank Rodick: Digital allows for a measure of flexibility and precision that was impossible with analog. Burning and dodging in the darkroom, for example, was a crude affair compared to what you can do with Photoshop.

Of course, the traditional darkroom was more hands-on—literally. But darkroom work still involved plenty of mediating elements, factors that existed between what my hands did and the printed image. It’s just that these mediating elements were based mainly on chemistry rather than digital code. For example, anyone who’s worked in the darkroom with stuff like iron toner knows how seemingly capricious a compound like that can be, how it interacts with things like water quality, for example, and what that can mean for the resultant print.

But, to your question, what have we lost?

Speed and tempo are big issues. The darkroom forced you to move slower, to consider the images for longer. With digital, you’re tempted to bounce back and forth, make rapid changes, and you’re not forced to live with particular images for a longer period of time. You don’t have to be as patient and there’s a lot to be gained with patience, a lot you can discover.

And there is an issue with digital’s power—all that nuance and flexibility and choice. But more choice isn’t always good. The darkroom imposed limitations that made you hone in on what you were looking for, instead of futzing about looking for something perfect or better. I’ve seen students get overwhelmed and lose their way with all the choices digital gives them. It’s one of the reasons that, for example, I’ll usually make a set of choices beforehand about, say, the colour palette I’ll be using. And then try to use those hues to the max. I’m not religious about it—I’ll deviate from the original plan when I think it’s called for—but it helps me keep focused on moving towards what’s most important. I think most working artists know that limitations—self-imposed or not—can really work to your ultimate advantage.

Then there’s luck. Traditional photography was full of luck and that could be beautiful. It’s not only that luck can give you beautiful things, but also that it can bring you something that really connects to a part of you that didn’t even know was there. And then you can build on that. Our conscious minds can be, well, so unimaginative. In digital work you can become painfully deliberate. “That doesn’t look quite right; I’ll change it.” But maybe that funky weird way it looked in the first place was better—and maybe you would have realized that if you’d been forced to live with it a little longer.

And on maybe a more pedestrian note, I personally found it very exciting to work in the dark. It gave the whole enterprise a kind of mystical, adventurous feel. It didn’t hurt to have Philip Glass playing in the background either.

I do think that there are ways of re-integrating these elements back into digital photography, so it’s not like they’re necessarily lost irrevocably. But I have to be a lot more conscious of process, a lot more deliberate about that to make it happen.

Brokaw: Let me put my cards on the table. I think a lot about what I call the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon. If we’re to believe the Home section of the New York Times, every other Brooklyn household has a chicken coop out back. A restaurant just opened here in Philadelphia, in one of our hipster precincts, where diners have a full view of the butcher who preps their meat. My neighbors—professional women all—have a sewing circle, and me? I want to learn how to make cheese. That’s by the Artisanal Pickle Phenomenon—all those homemade gherkins! And I’m oddly touched by this phenomenon, oddly because it’s very clearly a choice reserved for very privileged people. Still, it moves me because it seems like a pale attempt to reclaim something that we think we’ve lost, but may never have had. It suggests an alienation, but not from our labor. From our very lives.

And I can’t help but see this sense of alienation as the by-product of the hyper-connected, virtual world that pulls us into its vortex and, in turn, all that pickle-making as a yearning for the tactile. In the photography world, this response manifests in the revival of once-revolutionary techniques (daguerreotypes, tintypes, etc.)—that now look pre-modern. I do fret about what it means that we’re all tethered to these devices that stand between us and experience.

Rodick: What you’re saying makes sense. And like I said, analog photography is more hands-on, so it fits into what you’re saying. You’re literally handling your materials more, smelling them even, than when you’re working digitally.

But on the other hand I’m starting to see how my own experience might contrast with yours. Because when I work digitally I do feel that I’m still working with things that have physicality—as though I’m “painting with pixels,” although painting might not be a very good term. Moving pixels around anyway, changing their properties. I know that’s not the same stuff as oils or acrylics and that Continue Reading…

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Portrait, FR (Persona, no. 1)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

A few years ago, I found these old pictures of my mother, Frances Rodick. They were taken in 1942 and, over the past three years, I used them to build images that would say something about her life, and her death. Not just because she was my mother, but because she was the most powerful person in my life—even when she had no power at all. She died in 2010, after a difficult life filled with grief and rage and fear. She spent the last fifteen years of that life being ground down by the violent rot of dementia, until what was left of her was barely anything at all.

The images I made said as much, or more, about me as they said about her. Elsewhere I’ve written, “Maybe these pictures of Frances are a kind of biography—of her, of me, of her and me stitched together in that sad and harrowing way we never stopped being.”

But I’d never made what might formally be called a self-portrait. I’d thought of it, taken a few stabs even, but nothing came of it. Then, a couple of years after finding the photos of my mother, I found more old photographs—small beaten up prints. They show me as a child, maybe four years old, standing naked in a bathtub. My father—it must have been my father—had taken them over half a century ago.

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Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 1.1)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

I was interested if not fascinated. Contrary to the drama that popular culture would have us expect, nothing about these pictures hit me immediately. No big emotional reaction. At first I wanted to say that they made me think of how vulnerable children are (how vulnerable I was?) but that was just me being lazy and reaching for cliché, even if that impression did cross my mind.

No, what these pictures first got me thinking about was time. And, particularly as I enter what’s euphemistically called late middle age, I thought of how much of it goes by so astonishingly fast. It’s a banal observation and, yes, another cliché as well. But at least it’s more honest than the one about vulnerability.

Nevertheless, that thinking started prodding me further, into other territories, the ones that scatter through the fog of time and memory. I tried to remember what happened in the early days of that long span of time, of those jagged things that sometimes happen in the secret life of families. I remember those things as occasional explosions, but mostly, as things that just, well, happened…first over minutes and, then, over years. But what seems more important is that they, those things, came to stay. They stayed in the form of deep and long shadows, unremitting whispers, occasional but almost always silent cries from voices I can barely tell apart.

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Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 2.1)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

Looking at those photographs carried me to a place that should have been intolerable but like almost all such places, wasn’t. Not then, and not now. I realized—again—what I knew all along: that travelling to that place—which, in its past and present incarnations, exists inside me—is finally inescapable and necessary. It’s what I’m left with.

That place was, and is, a world of riddles never answered, derangements never cured, and wrongs never made right. Vengeances never slaked. A place of ravaged time, yawning and ominous futures, and, what I know is death, both incipient and final. That boy in the picture will be a corpse, far longer than not, even after such a long life. Like his mother. Exactly like, and precisely unlike, everyone.

Those small photographs helped me see and feel the world where everything will be forgotten.

So, the images I made are to give a voice to that place, that world that was planted, that grew, and that came to stay. As I changed, it changed. Or so I suppose. But enough of it feels constant and unyielding, that I can see it dawning—emergent and full of dark promise—in those pictures of a naked boy in the bath.

Frank Rodick, June 2014.

To see the Everything Will Be Forgotten images along with print details, go here. To see the complete set of Frances Rodick images along with print details, click here. A selection of these works will be on display in the exhibition Everything Will Be Forgotten, in August at the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires, as part of the biennial Festival of Light.

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Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 1.2) © Frank Rodick, 2014

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Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 1.3)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

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Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 2.2)
© Frank Rodick, 2014