Friday, March 2, 2007     « BOWERY »


While in Portland, we spent at least an hour one evening pouring over photo books in the art section at Powells. Photo books are notoriously expensive to buy but I came away with one book I had to have as soon as I saw it, a documentary project called "Flophouse: Life on the Bowery" that chronicles the lives of flophouse residents on New York City's Bowery. The book features portraits by Harvey Wang alongside stories told through the mouths of the men depicted. I can't tell you how struck I am by this book. The photos are beautiful, compelling, emotional, sometimes quiet and contemplative, and sometimes really intense. The stories are heartbreaking but the thing that stands out the most to me is how many of the men talk about running away: some running from other people, and most running away from themselves.

Amidst an assortment of different types of photos the one that stands out most to me is a contrasty black and white image of a man shot from behind as he decends a staircase to a bright doorway below. I can't say why it moves me so much. But that's the thing about photos, the way an image effects individual people is so personal and subjective it's often hard to pinpoint why one image stands out more than another even when there doesn't seem to be a logical or educated reason. If I can't do this for myself looking at other people's photos, and often even looking at my own, how will I ever articulate what it is that I'm trying to do when I take pictures? I used to be able to write this kind of art world wankery so easily as a student but now that art of bullshittery is completely lost. I don't have the words. Can't make the sentences.

There is a photo of a man who died in his cubicle (the rooms don't really pass for "rooms" since they are literally big enough to fit a twin-sized bed and nothing more) in the book. We've already had a few discussions about it, as I imagine the people involved in the project must have as well. Sometimes I wonder what it means to make ugliness beautiful by the way a picture is framed, the way light is captured, by all the tricks one deploys to take a beautiful photo. I wonder if it's okay to do that or if we should focus on depicting the awful side of life in as brutally honest a way as possible? Is it a lie to depict ugliness with grace and beauty? Is it okay to feel good about taking a beautiful picture of a horrible subject? In the end I always seem to come around to the conclusion that that doesn't seem very honest either. I've had so many conversations, thoughts, and feelings about morality topics like this a lot over the last few months -- there have been countless guilty feelings and thoughts I have wanted to bring up here but never know how to articulate. The arguments are often very circular and come back time and time again to context and motive. Does what is in my heart come across in the images or is that subjectivity always going to get in the way of interpretation? And how do I live with that?