PhotoNotes — April 10, 2021
Recent events and comments on contemporary photography, photo books and interviews with people making meaningful work.
In the mid 1970s (’76 to be accurate) mastodon bones were found buried in the mud at the Christensen property in Hancock County, Indiana. This was literally miles away from where I currently live. Just over the hills, and through the woods mastodons were living here, wandering about, and lying down to sleep each night; right here in the countryside.
Every spring, ornamental pear trees split in half. A big wind storm comes along, or an ice storm perfectly timed for late March tears the poor beauties in half. If spared from such storms, they bloom and produce dainty white flowers that cover the entire crown of the tree. These ornamental trees are planted by the thousands in this area. They are beautiful. It’s wondrous to see them lit up with early morning light or the waning glow of sunlight before dusk. But it’s always a shame to see them split every spring. For me, it’s a reminder of rebirth, renewal, and the cycle of the seasons. This is oddly comforting to me.
We are destined to repeat the same patterns over and over and over.
The grand concept of time plays out in these types of examples. You’re reminded of beasts which roamed the land tens of thousands of years ago, got stuck somewhere, and died. They got buried under layers of sediment and water and mud and then because someone wanted to dig a pond — the past is revealed. In a very similar fashion, we discover over and over again, that pear trees will split straight down the middle, and we watch it happen over and over. We stand and wonder each time it happens; as if it’s the first time ever.
It feels like I’m thinking often lately about time. Time with a ‘capital T’, in the big sense. Long-term. Epochs. So many of the problems we face have been something we as a species have tried to tackle over and over again.
How does one describe joy? How does one express sorrow? How does one express the wonderment of where we are in the universe, in a big picture sense? Do we take pictures of the world we live in? Why do we take pictures of ourselves? Why do we try to express what it means in the grand scheme of things, to be human? It’s what we are driven to do; of course we do it. We express, we survive, we overcome, we try to address the grand questions that face all of us. I learned a lot about the Chinese dynasties and history and inventions and philosophies, while doing research for textbooks earlier in my career. It dawned on me that seemingly since the beginning of time (not really), we have been struggling with the same questions. How do we track time? Invent a clock. How do we record spoken words or thoughts? Invent paper and a system to capture and record these things. We have been striving to answer and solve the great unknown unknowns for millennia.
So when I reflect that just a few miles away from where I go to sleep every night, a mastodon was unearthed when someone was digging around — it makes me wonder what that creature doing or thinking when it finally laid down to rest thousands of years ago? Did it think of the future or have dreams, or merely exist?
Here is a picture of the mastodon that lived thousands of years ago just down the road from where I sleep every night. It now resides at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
Creatively speaking, we need to explore these ideas. Whether these ideas are captured in words or images, we should feel the need to talk about and explore what we face each and every day, year, decade, century. Ask big questions. Poke and prod and challenge others to rise above mere existence and be something more.
Roughly 200 years ago, it was discovered that light can impact a surface and render it self semi-permanently when treated with the correct chemicals. Great. So we started making photographs. So what do we do with it, and why? Why do we capture images of the world around us, when we can just as easily capture words and sentences and paragraphs that capture the big Why of why we exist? I say do both — because the role of an artist is to respond. Artists are not tasked with the duty to solve, rather they should absorb, reflect, and respond. This can take all manner of routes, but the goal is to continue to show how our purpose matters. Show and prove that even the events in life which will always repeat and reveal themselves over time are worth a meaningful response.
Root around in the boggy areas of your life and see what is revealed. Pick up whatever you find and turn it over and over in your hands or in your mind. Record it, talk about it, tell others. Pause, reflect, and respond. It just might be the most meaningful work of your life.
I’ll close with a field recording I made in January 2021 on a short walk around our property. Farm machinery can be heard in the distance, footsteps, wind, faint sound of wind chimes, and a passing car.
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