“You may bury my body down by the highway side
so my old evil spirit can catch a Grevhound and ride
~ Robert Johnson, from Me and the Devil Blues 1937
Robert Johnson, considered by many to be the king of the bluesmen, sang those words. A black man in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930’s, he died young at age 27. Most believe he was poisoned by a jealous husband while playing at his last gig; others think it was syphilis that got him. Either way, it wasn’t pretty, but the music he made sure was. Based on the events in my own life, I learned early on that life can be hard, but it is so much more than that. Despite some patches of rough air in my life, thus far I have been able to retain a sense of awe. I believe that awe about the world is the reason Robert Johnson made music (and based on the above lyrics, loved to travel), and it is why I take photographs (and love highways—more to follow on that topic).
My photography at this point in my life has been shaped by years of learning to draw and paint in oils. While the rules of composition seemed relatively straightforward, other concepts were much more complex. These included the use of value (the gradation from light to dark) to create a path for the eyes as it travels into an image. Then there is the rich, mysterious experience of our senses that we call color. The complex variables of color are like notes on a musical scale, to be adjusted at will in a painting by the artist to produce the desired psychological effect. I think color is sexy. As a result, I generally prefer digital to film-based photography in my work. Within the relatively narrower confines of a photograph by comparison to a painting, this technology allows a degree of control over color not even remotely matched by film-based color processes. I acknowledge that there are those who do not believe that digital prints are art in the same way as prints produced by more traditional methods. For the purposes of my own work, however, my hope is that the experience of the moment captured in an image is the transcendent experience for the viewer, not the object that is the print itself (although that doesn’t hurt, either).
I was recently asked what I photograph. Fair question. I don’t know the answer, other than to say that I know it (I hope) when I see it. Goeff Dyer in his book The Ongoing Moment quoted Dorothea Lange as saying it was “just fine” if a photographer took pictures of “that which he instinctively responds,” and to be “open to anything.” Equipped with a camera, I am like a starving hunter, searching for prey, except that unlike most hunters, if I am lucky I will find what I have never seen before.
Although this may seem terribly vague, in looking back at the work I have produced, I can identify recurring themes. I am drawn to extremes, as this is where I often sense an “edge.” An edge is a place where one thing ends and another begins. It is often the way that we best understand either puzzle piece that makes up the edge. Night and day. Male and female. Melancholy and euphoria — none of these can be completely understood without the experience of the other. It is Louisiana. Where life in both the wild and the people who live there is exuberant and in your face, supercharged by the stifling heat and humidity. Or the desert, where the earth is laid bare-naked beneath the pitiless sun. Other than the wind, there is silence. These are the exposed bones of the earth. New York, however, is NEVER silent… even at 4:00 a.m. It is as if Manhattan is where the Big Bang got its start, being frozen mere nanoseconds into the whole thing — a dense vortex of concrete, steel, and humans. Lots and lots of humans! And then there is the poignant old world sweetness of Paris, where I imagine ancient Romans walking on this very spot; or the hard scrabble reality of a trailer park….
I am drawn to the people in these places. They are survivors, just like you and I. In my work as a physician, I have often heard the line that “I don’t have the courage to kill myself.” It takes guts to live, not to die. I do not mean that in a self-pitying way for any of us (remember the sense of “awe”), but each person who puts their feet on the floor to get out of bed in the morning is heroic in some way, and therefore potentially fascinating to me. We are all so different from each other — a worn cliché, to be sure, but again, there is that “edge” thing.
It is about scale. All of my images have evidence of man in them. Sometimes it’s somebody right up in your face so close that you can count their nose hairs, and at other times the handiwork of our species is quite small. I believe all of us are fascinated by the tension between our inner experience that we are the center of the universe (will it all go on after our death?) and the nagging awareness of our insignificance. This is why highways fascinate me (with a nod here to Robert Johnson once again). The highway is often invoked as a symbol of freedom. For me, it is something even more addictive. It is the path to everywhere I am not. It is about the promise of the horizon, that no matter how long or furiously I drive toward it, always eludes me, even as it surrounds me.
Having found an edge, one seeks that magic moment. It is that split-second in time when all of the visual elements collide, and a punched-out sample of reality that I choose to frame with a camera creates a kind of graphic magic (if I am successful). The photographs I love most are those taken from the everyday moments in life, events that are for the most part neglected. None of this is ordinary, if only one can be present enough to be aware of the extraordinary. This is the great wisdom of our own mortality, that it is all fleeting. It is why I envy small children, before they become hardened by the illusion of familiarity, as it is all so wondrous to them. In their presence, I feel like an old vampire, hovering about them to draw psychic sustenance.
If it all works, the images function as a log of sorts. I paddle about in my dinghy on the surface of the sea — the black, fathomless depths beneath me, in which creatures, both benign and nightmarish, swim. The Tewa people believe in the existence of ‘navels’ through which spirits may pass back and forth from this world to the underworld, where all those who have been born or are yet to be born, reside. For me, the camera is such a navel, a device capable of identifying those spirits when they move among us. With the aid of a camera, I hook them and yank them into my boat. They flop about and gasp for air until they are made whole in a final print.
But understand this is not some ecstatic, candy-ass vision of the world. Given my life as a physician, I am only too aware that tragedy sulks (? stalks) in the background, biding its time until it too, chooses its own opportunity to pounce. I do not know how much longer I will be alive (nor do you). That is the magic; photography is the medium I choose. So this is my method: place oneself on the edge, then press the shutter in that one instant that will never happen in just that way again for all of eternity.
It is about putting fireflies in a bottle.