I received an email a couple of weeks ago inviting me to participate in a CPA photographic exhibition. The particulars were unusual. Kim Weston curating an exhibition of photographs made or selected in response to a Robinson Jeffers poem. The instructions were to a) pick a Jeffers poem or fragment, b) create or find three of your photographs that resonate with the poem, c) send ‘em in. Kim’s job was to pick one of the images and tell you which one. Then you were to print it, mat it, and send it in to be exhibited and possibly sold.
I’d never thought of matching photographs to poetry, but it sounded like fun. I sent in my acceptance, bought a Jeffers anthology on Amazon, and started to read, thinking this would be easy. The more I read, the most I realized how wrong I was. First off, I don’t like most of Jeffers’ poetry. There’s an acerbic, violent tone to much of the work that doesn’t do anything for me; example: he sometimes illustrates his love for raw nature with post-apocalyptic images of the way things will look in the future, when civilization’s creations are rusting away.
Still, there was lots of material about untrammeled nature. It seemed like a landscape would be appropriate. Regular readers will remember that I’m not much of a landscape photographer. That was strike one. The next problem was that the descriptions were concrete and specific to the California coast and Big Sur. I live near Carmel, and I’ve done a little photography on the coast, but I only like a few of those photographs. I suppose I could have found some unspecific passage and used it against a plain-vanilla seascape, but that seemed to violate the spirit of the exhibition. Besides, I figured that, given the location and the kind of photographers around here, the exhibit would be chock-full of great landscapes, and the thought of one of my mediocre seascapes on walls covered with great ones filled me with anticipatory embarrassment.
So landscapes were out. I thought I’d turn things around. Maybe I could find one of Jeffers’ snarky observations on some aspect of civilization, and use that as a jumping off place for a cityscape, of which I had many. I found a short poem with the following central stanzas:
“We must adjust our economics to the new abundance”.
Of what? Toys: motors, music-boxes,
Paper, fine clothes, leisure, diversion.
I honestly believe (but really an alien here: trust me not)
Blind war, compared to this kind of life,
Has nobility, famine has dignity.
I figured the way to go was to find some examples of “the new abundance”. The abundance that Jeffers was talking about is not so new anymore, so in order to have a chance of triggering in today’s viewers even a shadow of the feelings Jeffers wrote about, I’d have to find some pretty extreme examples. I fired up Lightroom and poked around until I found a picture I really liked in the context of the Jeffers poem (click here). It captures the entrance to a Fifth-Avenue hotel in New York City. A black-and-white-checked covered entryway provides an anchor to the frame. A sleek woman in a black suit occupies the foreground, her blonde hair flaring out a bit as she turns away from the camera. Two children stand in the background, as do two uniformed doormen. The women and the children are white, the doormen black. The elegance of the woman’s hair and the lines of her body resonate with wealth and privilege. The stance and positioning of the doormen provides a counterpoint. There is a low-level racial tension. This is it, I thought.
Now I was in a slight dilemma. I’d found the picture I wanted in the exhibit. But the rules said that Kim was supposed to pick the image from a set of three. What else should I send in? It briefly crossed my mind to game the system and submit two images selected to increase the odds that Kim wouldn’t pick them, thereby ensuring that the image I liked made the cut. I decided against this approach for two reasons. First, I couldn’t be sure that Kim would pick the image I liked, and I might have to live with exhibiting a picture that wasn’t really appropriate. The second, and overriding, reason was that I would feel kind of slimy to attempt to manipulate Kim that way.
So I hunted up two more pictures. The first is an image of a beachfront restaurant in Miami Beach, with people seated at tables on the sidewalk, a scantily-dressed hostess cradling menus in her arm and leaning against the door, with an intense blue glow emanating from inside (click here). It’s not the way I see the image, but if you’re looking through a jaundiced, Jeffers-like eye, you could read the picture as a depiction of debauchery. The second photograph is of a shop window on Hollywood Boulevard. Silhouettes of musical instruments are visible, and a woman is rearranging the signage (click here).
I sent all three pictures in, and crossed my fingers, hoping Kim would pick my favorite.
Normally, I would post what I’ve just written, but, if I did that, Kim might read my blog and be influenced in his decision. That doesn’t seem fair. So I’ll wait.
The wait is over. Kim picked an image. It’s the Miami Beach picture. Not what I had hoped. What are the lessons here? Maybe:
You are perhaps not the best judge of your own work.
Other people see things in your pictures that you don’t.
Other people don’t see things in your pictures that you do.
It’s hard to predict the taste of judges.
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