Stealing Lies and Other Photographic Truths

"Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand." - Picasso

On July 30th, Buck's Rock Work Camp, a Connecticut sleepaway camp for the arts with a working animal and vegetable farm, is hosting a celebration of its 75th Anniversary. The reunion page has welcomed the submission of photographs from the many preceding decades. I seized the opportunity to hunt down old photographs from almost thirty years ago. The experience hit me more emotionally than I expected.

I had two groups of photos: black and whites and color glossies. I shot the black and whites with a 1960s era Pentax Asahi; I had just learned how to do darkroom work, and the Pentax was my Dad's. It was heavy and official. The shots were moody and arty and almost all were closeups. Some had perfect chiaroscuro and were almost sculptural. Even back then, I was obsessed with how light landed on a subject. They were almost all lovely. But they felt a little like lies to me.

The color shots, on the other hand, were probably taken with a disposable. There was little in the way of composition or attention to light. Some shots were so washed out that many details disappeared. Many were muddy, and glossy paper made them difficult to capture digitally (I used my iPhone to capture them, by not using flash or overhead light, but ambient light from windows). Most of these shots seemed to really capture the very essence of memory. They were not so pretty, but they were alive. They were so alive it was as if they were stolen.

I have one shot of my old bunk mate, who sadly passed away in his 30s. I only have one shot, and it's him lying in bed wearing facial cream. And for the life of me, I can't remember anything about him except for this one unremarkable photo I took with a disposable camera. I think he and I and one other bunkmate went out and got our ear pierced in Boston for the hell of it, but I can't really visualize it in my mind, and my memory may be playing tricks on me. I have no more pictures.

I know photographs aren't a substitute for life, but they are a pretty deceptive substitute for memory. My very first tablet was an HP Touchpad, which ran on the WebOS operating system and is still to this day the only tablet that has had a charging stand that turned the tablet into a digital picture frame in screensaver mode. What was cool about this particular screen saver is that it pulled photos from Facebook itself. You never knew what was going to come across the screen, but my whole family would walk into the kitchen and have memories reinforced by often hastily-taken photos uploaded to Facebook. My little kids would remember specific moments that no little kid could possibly without the aid of repeated exposure to photography. And then, one day, HP no longer supported WebOS, and the photos disappeared from the screensaver, and our memories no longer were burnished this way.

I have been thinking about "Boyhood," the near miraculous movie from Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise"). He spent a few days every year shooting footage of a fictional family, with the main character growing from 1st grade to college. His daughter was cast as the older sister. This movie should have been called "Parenthood," because I felt like a parent watching these kids grow up. But the title was already taken by another great movie. As the years went by in the movie, I felt like I was watching the essence of life itself: stolen moments, tricky memories. Mundane changes in technology. Acne. Knicknacks. Not so pretty, but so very alive.

Professional photographers hate what the iPhone has done to photography. Some hate what DSLRs, let alone 4/3 mirrorless cameras, have done to the field. There is just so much visual information out there, and so little of it is art. But, when I think about "Boyhood," I think about how Linklater focused on a boy with great interest in art photography when he was living a life of street photography. And in real life, he had his own daughter appear sparingly in this 3 hour movie, and I can only imagine how he must surely now have regret that he didn't steal more shots of her. Whatever magic he didn't catch on celluloid was lost forever.

So, even though I know that a true artist is careful with his photography, I have decided to shoot way more than I should--I have terabytes to spare. I am going to shoot this life as often as I can trick myself into believing I am saving memory itself. It's gonna be ugly sometimes, it's gonna be rapid fire, it's gonna be HD or 4K or whatever will catch the most detail. And I'm gonna steal some lies that are more alive than truth.