I am all too often overwhelmed by things. Not to the point of incapacity, thank goodness; it's just that their ubiquitous presence feels obtrusive when I become conscious of it.
Sometimes my life feels like it's about nothing more than tending to things, too many things; that things colonize my time, rule my life. I buy things, I touch things, I look at things, I listen to things, I sit on things, I walk on things wearing things; I trip over things, bump into things, push and pull and yank and lift and drop things; I eat things. I can't get away from them. I'll even spend hours, even days, looking for things that aren't there. Things can feel good; things can feel bad. Things can kill me — especially if I stop paying attention to them. (That's one of the ways things trap me.)
Things surround me, everywhere and always. I myself am a thing amongst every-thing else.
And it's not so much their existence per se that gets to me so much as the mere fact of their prosaic, ubiquitous corporeality.
My photography is a way for me to understand this feeling of being overwhelmed by "thingness".
When in nature I still feel this sense of being overwhelmed, but it's tempered by a feeling of awe at the beauty in which I find myself. (A feeling I also get, though necessarily existentially modulated, when in diametrically opposite settings such as large industrial ruins.) And unlike the claustrophic, disembodied feel that I get when around commodities -- especially in malls and department stores, and sometimes even my own home -- when I'm in nature this claustrophic feel becomes more of an embrace. It's an embrace that could easily tighten into a fearsome clench -- it never does, but the threat is ever present.
I have a name for this feeling: Rank Animism.
Animism, because I believe that everything around me has a presence, a "soul" even, beyond the merely visible and corporeal. I can't bear to see things in pain or suffering or unwanted, whether human or animal -- even trees and rocks -- because everything that exists didn't ask to exist, and existence necessarily includes painful vicissitudes, regardless of an awareness of them or not. So while something exists I believe it should be seen and treated with respect, the moreso as it has a self-awareness of pain.
Rank, because this aspect of the feeling uses both connotations of the word: a sense of completeness; and as an intensive to express something gross (in both senses) and conspicuous.
So, putting these notions together I come up with these (admittedly tortured) metaphors for this experience: the vigorous conspicuousness of mere existence taken too far; a kind of robust existential fetidness; an overwhelming, overripe numinous plena.
The awe I feel when confronted with this is the awe as etymologically defined: a feeling of dread and terror intertwined with an elation at the sublime. Yet no matter how accurately I may come to describing this feeling in words, it remains ineffable. Only photography seems capable of expressing this feeling I get.
And this is what my photography is about: an attempt to express the ineffable, to express the mystery of "thingness", and, by extension, to explore the phenomenological experience behind Heidegger's question of why there is "somethingness" instead of nothingness.
Geometry and Nature
Which leads to another aspect of my work: to explore the relationship between the man-made and the natural. Hardly an original theme, but an important one to me.
Our presence in the natural environment is ubiquitous, and my work is a comment on that, specifically: the ways in which man "enframes" nature (another Heideggerian notion) to render it, and eventually himself, as merely an "object-for-use", thus denuding it (and eventually himself) of its essence, of its "soul".
But there is also an aesthetic component in my inclusion of the man-made in most of my nature photos: the hard, man-made geometrical lines serve as vital compositional elements in my pictures. Even though I have always disliked the unnecessary intrusion of man into the wilderness, I can't help but have an aesthetic fascination with the interplay between the geometric, focused discipline of man's productions against the unfocused, sprawling clutter of the natural world.
For instance, while I may resent what power lines traversing a sylvan hillside signifies, I can't help but admire their presence as they cut a majestic, geometric, silver, savage swath through the rolling green carpet of trees, like some terrific, blasphemous surgical gash into something pristine and holy, demanding our reluctant awe. It gives me an insight into how the ancients must have felt after some terrible natural upheavel, inspiring them with a dread respect of some capricious god. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a simple path in the woods, or a wire fence traversing a meadow, is an unnatural, linear intrusion into a primeval chaotic purity: it imposes a linear system over and into a lateral system, one that ultimately renders nature an "object-for-use".
This is what excites me about it: it is the metaphysically violent, yet aesthetically beautiful encounter between two opposed, self-contained yet simultaneously interpenetrating, systems of perfection: the impenetrable object of human-based mathematical purity and hard symmetry versus the unstoppable force of nature's organic, yielding, soft symmetry. Yet even though the unstoppable force will ultimately prevail -- as some philosopher once determined -- the contest is nonetheless epic.
I choose not to hide the medium in my photographs. Indeed sometimes I'll consciously push it. My photos often contain artifacts of the process. I like this. Comparable to Brecht's theories regarding the estrangement effect in theatre, I believe being made aware that a photo isn't just a verisimilar simulacrum of the world but a representation of it through a subjective and technical process paradoxically draws the viewer further into the picture by pushing them out of it, creating an enticing and new awareness of the world as if through a telescope or magnifying glass. Thus I'm not interested in just making pretty pictures; I seek, like so many other artists, to alter the way we perceive the world through the artist's perceptual filters.
B & W or Color?
After a few years of experimenting with different combinations of lenses, filters, film, chemicals, and paper I had finally found the combination that achieved the look I was going for... just as digital cameras made their appearance. That's ok, I didn't think I'd ever go digital.
Then I moved to Canada. I lost my darkroom. My camera was packed away. Years later, I had to start photographing again, my soul cried out for it. Though I greatly resisted going digital, I had little choice. But after experimenting for a while I found the way to create the images I wanted, and I rejoiced that I could capture my Rank Animism in color! I love color, and though I loved working in black and white, achieving the same goal in color was more than I had hoped for.