The Company We Keep
We’ve all heard the old adage that so much depends on the company we keep, as if we were all chameleons ready to change our colors to suit whatever landscape we happened to occupy or group we found ourselves among. As if boldly declaring our true colors and shape were tantamount to an invitation to be shunned – or eaten. I would hope that we are made of stronger stuff than a flying insect or a small lizard using variations in skin tone as a form of camouflage or social signaling and bonding, but the fact is, we aren’t as far up the evolutionary scale as we think.
Invitation to be Eaten
But I’m not here to discuss human frailties or my admitted admiration and envy of creatures with wings or tails. This blog and its author are all about art, so it’s art I’m about to discuss. Follow me back to an afternoon some 20 years ago when, thanks to the influence of a painter friend, I found myself in a place I had never visited nor felt any urgency to remedy my neglect – the modern art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in particular that most impenetrable of sanctuaries, the rooms dedicated to Abstract Expressionism.
I’ve always been a Representational kind of girl. I like clarity and a classic sense of structure and proportion in all my artistic expressions, be they made of words, stone, paint, physical movement or sound. There was always enough chaos and abstraction going on inside my head and heart, enough questions and confusions, enough consequences following upon the mistaking of a man for a nest of snakes, or a swimming hole for a sea of knives. I liked my scenes familiar and their inhabitants unbroken, whatever their character or intent.
Beyond my Reach
My reaction to abstract art was always that of tolerant appreciation for the effort of the artist and even the importance of the piece in the context of art history, but in general, being left cold and not a little annoyed by the experience, like an uninvited guest standing outside a window through which seemingly intelligent and likable persons were visible having seemingly meaningful heartfelt conversations I could not decide whether to envy, resent or discount as nonsense. Whatever was going on behind the frame, I was not welcome. It became easier to declare that there was indeed nothing worthwhile there than to find a way inside.
I had seen the likes of Pollock, Kline and Rothko in books. As I walked through the Met galleries, their paintings definitely made a bigger impression in person, but not necessarily a deeper one. Then I walked into a room full of large canvases by Clyfford Still and took advantage of a small centrally located bench to rest my tired feet and frustrated sensibilities. The painting I faced was simple enough, consisting of jagged splashes of a few basic colors with no discernible subject matter or theme. But for some reason, I could not stop looking at it. It was one of those rare afternoons in the museum when everyone is somewhere else and I had the room entirely to myself. Suddenly I felt as if I were sitting in a vast cathedral with walls of stained glass pierced and illuminated by shafts of sunlight. One minute I was looking at a painting, and the next I was looking through a window, and the next I was inside the window looking out. Then I was the sunlit window.
Still Room with the recent misguided addition of a sculpture where my bench used to be
I gasped audibly and said to the empty room “now I understand!” as I realized I was not looking at a painting of a thing, but a portrait of a feeling, and it was more than a human emotion evoked, it was the emotional life of paint itself. I spent the next hour confronting each side of that square room and the artworks hanging before me. Each one had its own feelings to share with and to stir in me. I began to notice that Still only used a small selection of colors and did very little blending and mixing. He achieved his effects by placing colors next to each other in certain ways and bringing out different qualities by adjacency alone. I said out loud to no one “red with blue along its back is nothing like the red that lies alongside black.” It became clear to me that these colors were literally taking on character before my eyes depending on what colors they were next to, depending quite literally on the company they were keeping.
Side by Side (with thanks to Fiona D)
When I began making the selections for my photography book, I followed a tradition of book-building I learned when I was collecting poems into a full-length manuscript. A collection of works should never be random in its structure; there must be an organizing principle, whether it be as simple as date of creation, or batched more thoughtfully by subject matter or form. But it should not be as superficial as matching your shoes to your handbag. Within that ordering, a good writer will also attempt to construct adjacencies that run deeper, placing poems together that may seem unrelated in every way, but side by side bring things out of each other that no other nearby poem can. An attempt at this kind of matching informed my choices for my photography book, and I assumed I was building a book of images the way a poet would build a collection of verse, in which every poem belonged and none could occupy any other place, a larger version of the microcosm of one poem in which every word was where it needed and had to be.
Untitled 1946-H by Clyfford Still
Then I realized I was actually putting photos together the way Still put paint on a canvas, sensing that a certain image would feel entirely different depending on what image lay next to it. I was amazed to discover how unique and distinct these pairings were, as if I were entrusted with a delicious plate of food and charged with finding the right wine to complement and in fact enrich its flavors. It was hard to find combinations of images that worked subtly and interactively, only bringing out the best in each other. To my mind, they are all more or less successful pairings, and I hope that at least some of them will be to any one person’s individual taste.
Hide and Seek
Which brings us to matters of taste. Five weeks ago, on the very last day before the submission deadline, I created and entered my book into the Photography Book Now contest featured on the Blurb site. I knew about this contest for three months, and had plans to make a book of my images as far back as autumn of last year, but for some reason the concept and the content were not coming together harmoniously and I kept setting the project aside, recognizing that any time creativity feels forced, for best results it is wise to wait until such time and circumstances in which it flows smoothly, the way you entice a photogenic butterfly to land on a branch nearby by pretending not to be there.
Safe to Come Out
As the deadline came closer, I felt even more forced to create something, even more concerned with the kind of book I felt would be to the taste of the judges, and even more frustrated as the project failed to come together. Then something wonderful happened – on the day before the deadline, I decided not to submit a book after all, and freed myself from the arbitrary pressure of the contest and its specifications. Then I began playing around with my images and downloaded the Blurb bookmaking program, and within an hour the book I had imagined simply emerged, like a cat you thought was lost but was simply hiding behind the curtain. And it was exactly the book I had been carrying inside my head for months. I told myself that the contest had already served its purpose in prompting this act of creation, that I now had a collection I could share with others in book form, and that no other reward or recognition was necessary or to be expected. After all, there is no accounting for taste.
Out in the Open
I wrote this post yesterday knowing that today the Finalists for the PBN would be announced on the Blurb site and leaving this final paragraph to be written at that time. It still remained to be seen whether the judges would respond to the survivalist chameleons taking on the surrounding colors of what is currently considered the proper look of fine art photography, or the solitary butterfly out in the open, unprotected and daring to be different. The results are in.
Reader, I am not a Finalist. I am not surprised. And I am not changing my true colors for anyone.