I tend to think of myself as pretty self-critical, at least in generally having a lower opinion of my work than most people around me seem to – assuming the feedback I get is honest and not just a brush-off. However, there were a few series of pictures I’d done in the past that I thought were pretty decent. So it was with some pleasure that I came across a box of prints from one of those in my Mom’s attic a few weeks ago. However, this turned out more than a simple stroll down memory lane; I’ve had to rethink some things as a result.
After the initial elation wore off, I discovered that many of these pictures have not held up very well, and I’m not really sure why I remembered the whole set as so much more vibrant and engaging than it seems to me now.
These pictures were made for an advanced color class I took at Columbia College back in the 1990s. Having come on the back of one of my first conceptual dry spells, it was probably one of the most thought-out projects I’d done up to that time. On the technical side, it was my first project using medium-format film, which generally gives wonderful definition and increased tonal separation.
The series was called “Signs of Life”, and concentrated on traces of everyday activity that created little touches of poetry in our otherwise mundane surroundings. This could be a good example:
But looking through the box, I see a lot more misses than hits, like this one:
While compositionally it has a certain dynamic balance I enjoy, content-wise it’s pretty much a one-liner. There’s nothing of the unintended artistry of the scrape in the one above about it. Technically it’s also nothing special – it certainly wouldn’t be any worse if I hadn’t sprung for the medium format film.
I keep looking back at Aaron Siskind’s paint-and-glue wall detail images in the hope that I can find the thing that doesn’t work for me (those who know his work I’m sure can tell I steal from the man greedy armfuls of ideas, if not successful executions):
Obviously, aside from the hubris of comparing my work to his, Siskind didn’t necessarily ace every shot, and didn’t show all of his failures, either, and I have no real way of knowing how he saw his work a few years after he’d made it. The question is more about why thirty years ago I thought I had something, when today it’s pretty clear to me that I didn’t. I can’t really put it down to just having more experience and having seen more things over the intervening years, since I was pretty familiar with Siskind, Eggleston, later Callahan, and many others. I think the main problem is I simply wasn’t nearly as critical of my own work as I like to think. I was still excited about photography (I’m still very engaged in it, though today it’s more of a long-standing obsession, not so much excitement). Maybe today I’m just seeing these with a grown-up’s eyes, and naturally I find them wanting – as I do with almost everything else.
But in the end, whatever it is, this series has certainly shaped my later photography, from a fascination with color to the predilection for square images. And if you look even through the mostly casual snaps on my Instagram stream, it’s clear that I didn’t just leave this series behind when I put it away in the box.