So I bought a book of tour photographs taken by Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police. I did it because (a) I’m a Police fan and (b) I think they’re one of the cutest, most adorable bands ever. But then something really weird happened: I started to appreciate it as, like, an actual photobook.
Of all the gifts my father has given me, which are considerable indeed, the greatest may be that of close, direct attentiveness (the “natural prayer of the soul,” according to Benjamin), at least on a few rare and wonderful occasions.
Here's what trainwatching in central Illinois with Dad has taught me about attentiveness and boredom and luck, with the help of regional literary heroes William Maxwell, David Foster Wallace, and Langston Hughes.
Verse chorus verse
“Most artists make art precisely because they feel some sort of absence or incoherence in their lives. It seems not simply inevitable but necessary that the art they produce in some way seek to contain or heal whatever is missing or wounded or wrongful in them,” writes Christian Wiman in an essay called “An Idea of Order.” Wiman explores often and beautifully this absence and containment in relation to form in poetry, but this particular essay has been on my mind lately because of Wiman’s focus on familiar or classic forms – the sonnet, for example – and my enduring interest in the standard pop song.
Natur vs Nurtur
Michael Schmidt always looked at the world uncompromisingly, painfully, even brutally. In his final book, a restless mind finds some measure of peace, confident in its status as a mind, as a unique self in the world. As such, it is not only a photographic, but also a literary, achievement.
Mysteries of the unexplained
Interesting photographs typically raise more questions than they answer. And sometimes those questions are utterly unanswerable – not because they are murky issues of opinion or interpretation, but rather because they point to some sort of historical “fact.” As in: “What happened here?” and, much more beguilingly, “Why?”
So let’s take a trip down the wormhole of the photographic puzzlement.
When I first saw some pictures from Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” – probably almost 20 years ago – I dismissed the collective as a gimmick. I thought just about anyone could come up with that idea: photographing the same set of friends or relatives, arranged in the same way, on a regular basis. But boy did I ever get “The Brown Sisters” wrong. All wrong. The recent MoMA show and book of the entire 40-year set finally sealed the deal.
I had to wonder why my opinion changed so drastically. It pretty simply comes down to the devastatingly obvious: 1) the Brown sisters are getting older, and 2) so am I.
The heart is attached
The photographer John Myers once said: “The world is not beautiful – it is there.” The part of me that took a Zen Buddhism class back in college – and learned of non-attachment – couldn’t agree more. Yet the photographer part of me is so often overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. How to reconcile? Or at least exist happily in the contradiction? Keats to the rescue?
Artifacts and moments
Last summer, a concert by The National totally recontextualized the songs on the band's latest record, and made me hear the music in a new way. I got to wondering if photobooks are photographers’ versions of LPs (the artifact) and exhibitions or installations are our equivalents of live shows (the moment). And that perhaps our independent experiences of the artifact and the moment can modify each other and lead to a new conception of the work.
The World Cup is boring. Novels are boring. Baseball is mostly boring. Anything that's not a constant highlight reel is boring.
So let us now praise these and many other things uneventful. It's when nothing very much "happens" that some really interesting stuff is given the chance to actually happen. On those occasions when the source of our attention doesn't offer up easy surface pleasures, the viewer must actively participate in the making of meaning. And when that occurs, it’s no longer “about” the thing experienced; rather, it’s about the viewer. It’s all interior. Which is a weird and thrilling place to be.
Victoria Williams, photographer
“Whitman has the photographer’s eye, but no camera,” says Wright Morris in his essay “In Our Image.” The (vastly vastly underappreciated, in my humble opinion) singer-songwriter Victoria Williams has the photographer’s eye, too, and in spades, but even better I think she has the photographer’s heart.