For the past 25 years, much of my photographic work has been a study of motion and its representation in a still image. The techniques that I’ve used have evolved from simple and classical (take a look at Alone in a Crowd) to esoteric and peculiar. Over the last 10 years, as I’ve shown the work, I’ve noticed that the questions that I’m asked have evolved more and more in the direction of, “How do you do that?”
Over time, instead of reaching a state of clarity, I’ve become more conflicted in how to respond. There are fairly simple organizing principles for the techniques that I use in each body of work. I can explain those principles, but the more I talk about them, the more my audience seems to fixate on them.
Take my current project, whose working title, Staccato, is showing dangerous tendencies to jell into the actual name of the series (suggestions are welcome). I don’t have an artist’s statement yet – it’s still early days – but if I did it would include, I hope with greater eloquence, the following.
Staccato is an outgrowth of the Nighthawks series, using a different photographic technique to achieve a similar result: a stimulus for viewers to create interesting stories for themselves. This works best if the images are in some sense nonspecific and ambiguous. In the Nighthawks series I used motion blur to allow me to blur some parts of the image while leaving others at least moderately sharp. In Staccato I make a series of sharp images from a moving vantage point and overlay them in the computer, aligning the parts of the scene that I want sharp, and letting the rest fall where it may. You could consider it a one- or two-second movie with the frames all stacked on top of each other.
That’s about as far as I want to go into the technical aspects of this series in my initial conversations with viewers. Rather than peel back the technical onion, I’d much rather talk about the aesthetics of the images and the stories that come to mind. I can get there sometimes, but often I have to deflect or give curt answers to questions like, “What camera/lens/f-stop/shutter/speed/ISO/printer/paper do you use?”, “How fast is the car going?”, and “How many exposures did it take to make this one?”
Part of the problem may be my audience, which at this point in the evolution of the series, is largely photographers. I’m sure good deal of it is that it requires less mental and emotional energy to talk about f-stops and paper weight than loneliness and grace. Part of it has to be the novelty of the technique. I’ve not seen anyone else use it, and I find it quite powerful. But it’s a two-edged sword; it’s easy for my audience to become fixated on the technique, and not get past that point.
I take comfort in the fact that this, like having a lot of taxes to pay or a lot of prints to ship, is a nice problem to have. It’s much better to have a curious audience, even if they’re curious about things that are way down on my priority list, then to have the reaction that I’ve had with some of my black-and-white landscapes, with viewers spending a few seconds looking at the image, and, having quickly absorbed the gestalt and how the image relates to the thousands of other black-and-white landscapes they’ve seen, moving right along to whatever is next on the wall.