From the mailbag:
[Several compliments on the Staccato series removed due to possibly-misplaced modesty] I would love to know what inspired you to create these images. What was the motivation for the multiple layers? How did you find this technique? Thanks.
Almost all of my successful photographic ideas stem from making other images. Maybe some people can think of a great photographic project that’s unrelated to any previous work, but I sure can’t. Many of my good ideas are the result of trying to solve some esthetic, technical, or logistic problem in previous work. I’ve written about this here.
In the case of Staccato, I know exactly when I got the idea. I had been working on the Nighthawks series for about three years, and I was running out of places to make the images. I needed fairly large cities with enough areas with good photographic possibility that I didn’t have to return over and over to the same places, causing my subjects to notice me and making me bored and restless. I’d run through what I thought were the best US cities, and was thinking about Mexico and Japan. I’d actually booked a trip to Guadalajara, only to back out when a spate of violence erupted. The big European cities are mostly darker at night than the ones in the US, and the storefronts typically less open to the street. Tokyo seemed like a good possibility, but the time zone shift is in the wrong direction, and I’d be going out to take pictures at midnight or one AM by body time.
Then there was some of the reaction I was getting to the semi-blurry, long-exposure pictures of the Nighthawks series. Many people really liked them, but I was running into more and more of the photo cognoscenti who had decided that they’d seen enough motion blur for a lifetime and the use of the technique was a disqualifying condition, regardless of any possible merits of the image. When I started working on motion blur from moving vehicles, it was an unusual technique (but not unique; my interest had been piqued by a Ron James image from the late 1980s or early 90s). Almost fifteen years later, it had been thoroughly discovered, and was turning into a minor photographic fad. The fad had gone on long enough to have a backlash movement; quite a few reviewers at the 2009 Photolucida put “no blurry photographs” in the notes passed out to the reviewees.
I’m not proud of the other-directedness of the preceding paragraph. I’d like to think that I march to my own beat and go where my inner drummer takes me. To some extent that’s true, but I crave an audience like most artists. Having some segment of the photographic community think my images were modern-day equivalents of cracked mud photographs wouldn’t be enough to turn me away from that kind of work in isolation, but, as you can see, I was having other problems with Nighthawks.
One morning I was lying in the bathtub ruminating about all of the above when an idea popped into my brain. The thing I liked so well about This Green, Growing Land and Nighthawks was the ability to direct the viewer’s attention by judicious panning. I realized that there was another way to do that. Rather than making one semi-blurry picture, I could make a series of sharp pictures and composite them, achieving the same esthetic effect, but with a different look and a whole host of new possibilities. I thought immediately of Nude Descending a Staircase.
Often – nearly always, in my experience – photographic inspirations don’t survive the attempt to put them into practice, but this idea was different. The first images turned out almost exactly the way I’d imagined them. Over time, the images changed as I learned more about the process and that taught me more about the esthetic possibilities, but the very first images were satisfying, and I still show some of them.
We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. I wouldn’t have started on This Green Growing Land if it hadn’t been for Ron James. I wouldn’t have done Nighthawks the way I did it if it weren’t for Edward Hopper. And I probably wouldn’t even have tried to do the Staccato series if not for Marcel Duchamp. Each of those artists was influenced by earlier ones: I find it fascinating that one of Duchamp’s influences loops back to photography: Eadweard Muybridge’s Woman Walking Downstairs.
Photography is a technology-based art, and I couldn’t have done Staccato if I’d started the project two or three years earlier. It would have been impractical with film; I’d only get two or three sequences per roll, and I’d spend more time changing film than making exposures. It would have been marginal with any camera before the Nikon D3, which was a breakthrough tool for low-light photography. I wouldn’t have thought about the compositing if I hadn’t been using the technique for other projects.
Just as with the invention of the calculus, the time was right and the stars were in place. The obvious question raised by that comparison is: where are the other people doing this? I don’t know, but I bet they’re out there.