Monday, March 17, 2014

Photos, Perception, Memory and Jeff Wall

It seems timely as I write this post , that I am listening to a CBC Ideas radio program, The Crooked Path about the artist Jeff Wall. He had been one of my painting instructors and one of my Art History teachers, when I attended at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. At the time, I was not interested in his work, as then he was quite involved with conceptual art. Though I was attending an art school primarily involved in conceptual art, I wasn't much interested.  Jeff Wall struck me then, as very serious, rather aloof and highly intelligent.

Today I feel differently about Jeff Wall. I greatly respect his ideas and concepts, which I find very compelling. and the way he expresses how he views seeing and photography is, I believe, complex and deep. I so appreciate his direct affinity and connection with, and love of literature. He is a philosopher I think, and uses photography as his vehicle, to impart he's ideas to others in a powerful  and profound way.

 I absolutely love photography, especially old sepia, black and white photographs. There is really something magical and metaphysically powerful about it. The photograph lets us see out of a window, or into a window  to a world as we might perceive it to be, whether it is based on truth or imagination.

The other day I received a photograph from my cousin. It was of my grandmother, my father's mother, whom I'd never met, and sadly died the year I was born at the age of 59. I am her namesake,and never knew what she'd looked like, up until now. This was a result of family break-up and estrangement. It was a deeply moving, and emotional experience for me, seeing her photograph. I was mesmerized and entranced, finding myself starring at her face, and meticulously studying for familial facial features. I was longing to talk to her almost telepathically.

Photographs are a wonderful thing. Without them, we'd often have no trace of the past, very little, to no sense of our identity, and memory. Photography captures a moment in time, remembrances of past days, that sometimes can be paradoxically and simultaneously, feel both positive and negative. Photographs are in some ways to me, a regeneration of sorts. The photographs of the people we love, may be dead or alive. If they are dead, the photography somehow makes them come alive in our hearts, when we gaze into the photograph of them.

“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.” - Nan Goldin

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”   - Walker Evans

Looking at the photograph of my grandmother, was a bitter sweet experience. I think photography can help us to see, not just in a physical manner but in a metaphysical way. We wish we could recreate and hold on to these memories that the camera has captured in fleeting time. Photography or art is a reflection of ourselves, our lives, and what it means to be human.

 I have been over the years, always seeking and searching for members of my family that I never knew, including my own father. I have now concluded that what I have been doing is trying to grasp hold of something elusive, that I can never really hold on to or have. And so today, I was a little saddened to think I have been doing this, but at the same time, I am glad I now understand this about myself a little more. This is what art I believe, helps us to do, to understand ourselves, and maybe, one of it's primary purposes.

Today perhaps, I have come to terms, and to the realization, after finally seeing my grand mother's face that   I cannot, nor will I ever, really know my grandmother, and what I have is this physical photograph. I can conjecture, imagine and even relate to certain things about her that I do know. It is a combination, based on truth and partly on my imagination, none the less, still real to me, like her love and talent for fine crafted needle work, that she was a kind, and loving mother, who tragically left this earth too young. Her heart was broken, living a life full of hardship, difficulty and struggle. I am certain, in spite of her burdens, she lived her life with faith and grace.

 “The paradox is that some of the most artistically valuable contemporary photographs are content with being photographs, are not under the same compulsion to pass themselves off - or pimp themselves out - as art. The simple truth is that the best exponents of the art of contemporary photography continue to produce work that fits broadly within the tradition of what Evans termed 'documentary style'.”

Geoff Dyer, Working the Room: Essays and Reviews: 1999-2010


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