On the Personal in (my) Art
"It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are."
In the fall of 2018 I was asked to contribute a photograph to a fundraising auction organized by an artist-run gallery in Vancouver. Excited by the opportunity (my first such solicitation), I selected an image of a man at the corner of one of the busiest intersections of the city collecting empties from a street-side trash can, his collection of recyclables slung over his shoulder. After my submission was accepted, I invested time, labour, and money into making an archival quality print that would not only honour the subject but also last for decades as a visual object.
In my artist statement for the gallery, I noted my inspiration, specifically, an essay written by curator Bill Jeffries about Vancouver photography that issued a call to action in hope that “artists would see that there is in fact a tradition of picturing our streets and that the pictures do carry meaning that cannot be found in other ways.” My image is less an exercise in common tropes of street photography, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, than in Jeffries’ notion that the street acts as a symbol of a city’s economic engine and social space.
Yet both approaches to picture-making still play a role in my image. The man with the bags looms over the foreground, while the action in the image collapses into the space behind him, all slammed against the rigidity of the scarred light standard, a captivating collision of textures and geometries with an accidental Winogrand-style frame tilt. But the “moment” works in the service of context, the man highlighting the lengths some residents must go to mitigate their poverty, and the faceless figure with cellphone to ear, full stride accelerating away, showcasing the ambivalence by which some continue to ignore the problem.
About a week before the scheduled auction I received an email asking for new work for the show, stating unnamed staff and volunteers had concerns with my photograph, and even though previously defended by the gallery director/curator prior to approval, the work would not be shown. I was disappointed (to say the least).
Now, I do not wish to vent my outrage or name names; this is not about censorship. The decision of whether or not to hang my art lies exclusively with the gallery and I hold no grudge against the persons involved (though I would decline an offer to work with them in the future). My struggle is to accept the notion that a street portrait of a man juxtaposed against a society that ignores him is in some way controversial, the image photojournalistic to the degree that it would not look out of place on the cover of a newspaper.
I assumed (because they were never explained in much detail) the major concerns leveled at my image come from the direction of those who classify it as appropriation or exploitation. Without permission to take the photograph, I am simply a privileged artist with agency stealing the narrative of someone with less power for use in the service of my own interests. But this contention ignores the entire history of photojournalism and a lineage of humanistic street photography in Vancouver, pictures that capture the beating heart of the city and its people, by such internationally-recognized artists as Fred Herzog and Greg Girard (among many others). These are exactly the kind of photographs Bill Jeffries was referring to when he called artists to renew their desire in “picturing” Vancouver; images which communicate the experience of living in this place at this exact moment in history. The name I had chosen for my picture was a direct reference to one from Girard, my intention to emphasize the temporal, how the photograph can be used document a city as it changes.
The charge of appropriation/exploitation comes also without the context of why I chose to capture the man with bags (I was never asked), assuming it not possible I could have any idea of his life; to the accusers I’m simply trading in another’s pain. But that assumption is wrong. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes “photographs are a means of making ‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” She is referring to war photography and depictions of gruesome death, but the logic can be applied to documentary photographs of all forms of pain.
Sontag wrote against the perception that “something is innately cynical about [the] diffusion” of such images of pain, and addressed “a suspicion about the interest in these images, and the intentions of those who produce them,” that lingers, still. “Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.”
What the critics of my photograph were not aware of is I chose the man because I saw myself in him, where my life could have ended up given only slightly changed circumstances.
I ran away from home a few days after my sixteenth birthday, bouncing from house to house, even living on the street for a short time (thank god it was summer) before a family friend gave me a bedroom to sleep. I was heavily using drugs and escaping an abusive situation no longer tenable. Eventually I went home, quit using, but I have never forgotten just how easy it is to end up with nothing, whether by one’s own making or not. It informs the compassion with which I treat all people in my community. With only an instant to capture the frame of the man with bags as I crossed Georgia Street, I thought of all the ways my life could have been different, of all the ways since my sixteenth year I have been so near poverty I could smell the air beneath the cliff, and I pressed the shutter.
But the image was about the man and the community in which I live, not about me. It was not about identity; it was about the social turmoil and class divisions that are keeping the community increasingly alienated from itself. I do not make confessional art (well sometimes, I guess I am human after all). Like any artist, my life and identity inform my practice, but the work springs most from the palace of ideas and from stories of my society, like portraits of what it’s like to live in this specific time and place. Like my photography, my writing is journalistic, even when not specifically journalism.
the broker was numbers & paper
metrics at his desk in a heat wave
LCD screens tri-colour text
stock ticker translating real time
all day he wiped his forehead
with a handkerchief bet big
the numbers called for it
his office forty-seven stories
a spastic air conditioner & one
fan oscillating hallucination
hot at the top of the heap
looking down a snifter of ice water
no windows that open up there
at noon an assistant on retainer
spritzed his body with water vapour
expensed because it provided
the conditions necessary to print
slips of paper that for some reason
he’d come to believe in
the horizon vibrated behind the city
glass bright skyline feeding
off itself the telephone sparrows
mechanical one note no song
infinite flashing & repeats
losses ramped up in afternoon
trading but by closing he was still
ahead the others not so lucky
streamed out the building bloody
computers lit all night reflected
in the desk glass line graphs risen
from ash finally cool on the ground
the waft of gardenias & dirt & a hint
of spice as he downshifted he drove
the expressway with his shirt
unbuttoned the windows down
Glenn Miller on satellite radio
as if the body wasn’t lost
somewhere over the Channel
exit 177 caught the corner
with chauffeur precision his own
street by memory sign missing
from galvanized position the ladder
the daises stretched above the power
lines into the black sky toward
a fog or a smoke the streetlamps
glowing down through it like umbrellas
of light the engine parked on the lawn
Kentucky blue his neck bent back
it was a gamble he dumped his sweat
on the seat of the Buick
& climbed up into the light
My poem “Blank Generation,” takes its title from a song by Richard Hell and the Voidoids and is inspired by a photograph from the 2001 Gregory Crewdson series, “Twilight.” The poem speaks of a stock trader who discovers a portal on his drive home from the office and is pulled into its powerful gravity. A poem about the dangers of capitalism and the seductive lure of risk, it’s part of a manuscript that has been rejected (or quietly ignored) by nearly every suitable poetry publisher in Canada (or at least the ones who still have open submissions and I believe would be a good fit for the collection). I think I understand why.
The poems move with an omniscient narrator, and even when the speaker slips in to the ‘I,” the voice of self, of the poet, is rejected. My speakers are characters who rarely resemble me. The voice of the poems in the series in which "Blank Generation" appears draws heavily on USAmerican prose poet Russell Edson and his often fantastic narratives. I impart my identity on the poems by the rhythm of their breath. Maybe this is why one editor prized “the imaginative risks…the vigor of purpose and the willingness to keep leaving comfort behind,” and yet rejected the manuscript because it did not provide “wisdom” in the correct places, maybe not even the right wisdom at all, as if a person’s perception of what in fact is wise is not entirely subjective.
I feel contemporary Canadian poetry is struck by a concerning neo-romantic regression manifested as a valuation of personal feeling and autobiography as the one "true" and "correct" poetry. This neo-romanticism was not something that afflicted Vancouver poetry when I began writing in the 1990s. When you picked up books from different publishers you got entirely different kinds of writing. It is a wonderful pleasure to be reading, finally, such diversity in Canadian poetry. What is unfortunate is that so much of the writing published in Canada that is diverse in its identity, follows the same old lyric forms and emotional hegemony. But there is absolutely no possible reason anyone would want to read about the feelings of another white male writer near middle age. I don’t want to write that way, not because I can’t, but because my identity or experiences are not interesting or important to me. What is important to me is the society in which I live, the ideas that enliven it, and the very real people who occupy its spaces.
There is too the possibility both examples of my work here are, simply put, not any good. Maybe I am blind to the flaws in my own creations. But who if not me should believe in what I make? My favourite bookmark (for over twenty years) carries the quote: “If I’m not for myself then who is for me? If I’m only for myself then what am I? And if not now, when?” Maybe as well, as Zadie Smith wrote about “Open Casket,” the controversial painting by Dana Schutz: “The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the [artist]. The truth is that this [artwork] and I are simply not in profound communication.” Such is the danger letting my poems or photographs be wrapped in the community that surrounds them rather than the never-ceasing cloak of the self. It makes the work all the more difficult to connect with for a reader or viewer expecting a vehicle of self-expression. I am not deterred. My eye and ear continue to be trained out on the wider world.
“Of Friendship,” Vivian Gornick. After Montaigne, University of Georgia Press. 2015
Bill Jeffries in Unfinished Business: Photographing Vancouver Streets 1955 to 1985. West Coast Line 47 – Vol. 39 No.2. 2005
Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003
“Getting In and Out: who owns black pain?” Zadie Smith. Harper’s Magazine. July 2017