Friday, 13 February 2015

Talking About Talking in Seeing 

The Quiet Man Pub (aka The Cop Shop) Midtown Manhattan 1985

In a recent correspondence with a fellow Brodovitch student from the early 60’s, talking about applying one’s opinion and personality in one’s imagery, I was quickly reminded by him of what Dorothea Lange had tacked to her darkroom door: “To contemplate things as they are without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention".

I can only suppose he felt that my kind of approach was an intervention that tampered with reality. In response to that, I can only say that what I know, think and feel is no less important than what I see, so I work to reveal something of that in the moments I take from time’s stream. Some might think that projecting my own voice in my visual responses is simply swapping the truth for my truth, and that imposing something of my visual vocabulary is nothing more than imitating. I openly admit to borrowing from a multitude of talents from this glorious history, being that it enhances my understanding and appreciation of the past, while working in the present for the future. It also reminds me and the viewer that visual communication began with man’s earliest scratchings on the walls of caves, so I feel free, even compelled, to allow something of that to work its additional magic on my imagination and the public's.   

My intention here is to articulate and show something of this outlook and its outcomes, as when more than just the eye is open to experience, an abundance of new possibilities become available to explore and capture. Dorothea's reminder to herself “to contemplate” is to think about what you're trying to say and to whom. In my case, it helps me to make the necessary adjustments in terms of inclusions, exclusions, distance, angle of view and timing. It has also helped me to expand my input and output while speeding up my reflexes.

This kind of manoeuvring around the subject clarifies not only my message but hopefully the reading enjoyment of others, while getting me closer to the truth as I see it. This is not tampering with reality. It's clarifying personal meaning while guaranteeing viewer attention and response. My overall goal is to show something of how mindedness and borrowings on my part helped aid me in ways that continue to surprise and inspire me. The first two images, from my ongoing investigation of St Patrick's People, started in March of 1978, were partly triggered by Dorothea Lange - see “Migrant Mother (4)" Nipomo California 1936 and “White Angel Bread Line”, San Francisco 1933. These images of mine were from this large and still ongoing project.

Papal Mass - LimerickIreland - Sept 1979

 “Something for the Boys" Dublin Ireland - 17 March 1979

The first of the second two images have to do with looking at the starting points of this great annual Irish parade. The first of them came about while I was in the process of searching New York's midtown side streets looking to see where my father’s county were forming up to join the march up 5th Avenue. I found them outside the Roosevelt Hotel, a few city blocks east of 5th. What I discovered immediately dictated both the composition and timing of this amazing moment, starting with the significance I gave the crosswalk in the forefront of this image. To my mind's eye, it was also the crossroad between Irish-America and Ireland, and the damaged stripes which I read as my shadow between those worlds. The father holding the hands of his two children (who represented both Irelands) was also a dead ringer for Eamon de Valera, an early president of Ireland, but more mind blowing than that was the portrait on my father’s county banner - to my amazement it was the spitting image of my father when he himself arrived in America from the Old Country in 1931.

The second of these images was taken at the start of the Denver, Colorado parade in 2001. Now although I was half prepared for the absurdity of this moment being that I’m always on the look out, to capture interesting images of people in the process of pointing at this greenest event on the Irish calendar. However I never imagined that a pointing man would descend into the centre of my picture frame (in a bucket) into a group of Parade Marshals involved discussing the parade route. Surely, St Patrick himself had to have a hand in this small miracle.      

My imagery is, admittedly, about me but only very indirectly. Firstly, they are all about my knowledge, understanding, and in this case the influence of my family and extended family history. But most importantly they are about the story I choose to tell, and the reaction I am working towards from the public - they should be astonished, entertained and informed. This would not be possible if this or any other book I choose to do was simply all about me. 

County Leitrim Contingent - New York March 1991

 Starting Point. St Patrick's Day - Denver Colorado - March 2001

This is what is mostly missing from books that attempt to converse with images without a subject and story plan, and/or because the photographer is willing to surrender authorship to an editor. What brought these last two images into being was a very personal reaction to a voice behind me in the first instance and a response to what was before me in the second. This first image came about as I turned around to respond to what sounded like my father’s voice saying, "OK boys, it's time to march up the avenue."

This was the way my father would push my friends out of our family’s living space in the South Bronx at the end of the day. He would say,"OK boys it’s time to hit the hay, tomorrow's another day and another dollar". It’s a saying that I always found remarkably funny since I was only one of a dozen kids in our family and a dollar a day would never cover it. But editors believe, like fathers, that they know best, possibly because Robert Delpire managed to salvage Robert Frank’s view of “The Americans” from oblivion by lending it something of his personal angst. It gave Robert's view a greater degree of lucidity, but really the truth in this kind of personal insightful story telling is that the photographer’s voice is king.

Naturally I remain at the forefront of this communication process, which may explain my modest celebrity. It’s my understanding, intellect, opinion, and attitude and experience that powers my motor and delivers this kind of achievement. Only the informed author is able to recognise the significant pieces of life’s puzzle when they are revealed, and is able to put them in an appropriate alignment to lucidly enhance meaning.  Here then is the second in this pairing that I was so excited to capture. It was to my mind, heart and eye as if "The King of the Green Himself" was garnishing this Dubliner with shamrocks. 

"OK Boys, its time to march up the avenue" NYC 2000
Being garnished with shamrocks by The King of the Green Himself NYC 2002

Since I started out reminiscing with another Brodovitch Boy from my past, I'm kind of surprised that "The Brod" liked me, since I gave him more of a hard time than he gave me. When I gate-crashed his class looking for some really tough criticism, he mostly had only nice things to say about my seeing by stating on that first contact and as next in the queue to show my work: "Now he understood the assignment".

Brodovitch himself admitted that he could not say what good photojournalistic photography is, partly because he actually believed that what is regarded to be good today may very well be considered a cliché tomorrow. This is not all that surprising being he was first and foremost a graphic designer primarily in the commercial packaging business. I remember he would simply apply two pieces of L-shaped black cardboard to a photographer’s finished prints to guide him to what he found to be the most interesting composition. However, I've always understood that the minded photographer uses the desired message and the camera viewfinder as a guide to reflect and capture the relevant moment.

For the first 28 years of this investigation I thought the Irish were colourful enough without resorting to additional colouring, but in 2006 I decided to add yet another dimension to this unique exploration. So over the last 8 years I've starting applying rainbow that everyone knows emanates form the Leprechaun's pot of gold at it's end, and applying it to telling of this quest for understanding on both sides of the Atlantic divide.   

Mother and Child - Long Beach, Long Island, New York - 3 October 2009
Giant Leprechaun being measured by a Small Pirate Woman - Seattle Washington -15 March 2013
Irish Ballerina - Trafalgar SquareLondon - 16 March 2014

"John Patrick Gerald Aloysious Benton-Harris himself"
Pearl River, NY 19 March 2006