I’m not sure when I first came to realize that the big statistical bell curve of public taste didn’t actually include me.
Maybe it was during my teenage years. My friends would forever argue over who was hotter, Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Tiegs. I remained mute on the subject — quietly confident that the answer was “neither,” and that Carol Kane (from “Annie Hall,” “When a Stranger Calls” and “Taxi”) had them both beaten. Never mind that Carol didn’t have a swimsuit poster to promote her “hotness” — her appeal went beyond something that could be tacked on a wall.
Come to think of it, I might have grasped the situation even earlier — grade school, perhaps. While all my friends were trying to figure out whether they’d grow up to marry Ginger from “Gilligan’s Island” or steal Jeannie away from Major Nelson, I had my sights set on Lily Munster. Now that was a woman worth growing up for.
But it’s not just a female-related phenomenon. It’s an anything and everything phenomenon.
Music? I spent my entire adult life involved with the arts (in general) and electronic music (specifically). So you’d probably never guess that “Cowboy in Sweden” — Lee Hazlewood’s loungey, psychedelically-infused, mawkishly addictive collection of tumbleweed pop — would be my all-time favourite album… but it is.
Movies? With my Top-10 list populated with such titles as Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s “Alucarda,” I doubt it shares many entries with the Top-10 lists of cinephiles residing beneath the bell curve of motion picture appreciation.
And so it goes with everything — fashion, food, travel, design, philosophy. Name most any topic, and I’m so far removed from the bell curve, I’d have to take a taxi just to get to the long tail.
Curiously, it’s photography that once provided the lone exception. Granted, I always had a disinterest in the “pretty” photos that occupy the fat juicy center of the curve — the sort of photos that would land a photographer an assignment with some nation’s tourism board, or a studio gig with Farrah Fawcett or Cheryl Tiegs. My heroes had names like Frank, Friedlander, Koudelka, Erwitt, Smith and Winogrand. Thanks to society’s mid-20th century hunger for photojournalism and John Szarkowski’s influential good taste, there was enough room in photography’s long tail for an assemblage of photos that actually spoke to me. These aforementioned photographers (and many others of their ilk) are the ones who taught me how to see and, more importantly, how to communicate what I saw through photography.
Unfortunately, since the turn of the 21st century, photography’s big bell curve has been shifting steadily away from the metaphorical poetry of the photojournalists and Szarkowski’s “new documentarians,” and toward the pedantic and obvious — images manipulated into idolatry and scrubbed free of character and soulfulness. My position within the fringes of today’s photographic bell curve is really nothing but an anachronistic remnant of photojournalism’s past popularity. As we who continue to appreciate the genre grow old and expire, our numbers decline and our position under the big curve grows more tenuous.
Truth be told, my position within the bell curve was always more tenuous than I let on. While there was (and still is) a part of me that loves traditional photojournalism, I always had another “side” — a side in which I would be inexplicably moved to take photos that John Szarkowski would have detested, and that my photographic heroes would have mercifully denied with a match and some lighter fluid. It’s a side filled with photos that favor innuendo over fact; photos written in coded riddle rather than lucid prose; photos that reward the quixotic and condemn pragmatism.
Unlike the photojournalists, who all feast from the same trough and share a similar vision and passion, there’s no single group of photographers to help me figure out exactly why I’m compelled to take the most fractured of images. Or to figure out exactly what it is I’m hoping to achieve by doing so. There’s not even a single genre or designated nomenclature under which these sorts of photos can be grouped.
There’s an undercurrent of pictorialism, of course. There’s also a smattering of influence from Japan’s “Provoke” era of the early 1970’s. Yutaka Takanashi, Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama — all come close to describing the visual language I seek. But I’m also drawn to early 20th century avant-garde Czech photography. And yet Frantisek Drtikol, Jaromir Funke, Jaroslav Rössler and Josef Sudek often took photos as different from one another as from those taken by the Pictorialists and Provoke practitioners. So what’s the common thread? Where do all these styles intersect? The answer lies buried somewhere in the haze of my own photography.
I must admit, after a lifetime spent on the outside of every bell curve known to man, I enjoyed the little bit of camaraderie I experienced beneath the long tail of the photography curve. I never felt alone, knowing there were at least a few photographers just like me. It’s what enabled me to create this little slice of photo-existentialism known as ULTRAsomething. I can’t lie — it’s nice to be liked. But the problem has always been that, in order to stay snug and warm beneath the ULTRAsomething security blanket, I had to keep downplaying those anti-fidelity tendencies of mine — those tendencies to create photos that are so far outside the bell curve, they don’t even have a stylistic designation. On occasion, I’ve allowed these photos to grace an article — usually sprinkled amongst a far greater number of “typical” images, so as not to draw a lot of attention to themselves. But I’ve always feared that straying too far from my photojournalism leanings (and the current quasi-trendiness of “street” photography) meant certain exile from the bell curve.
Maybe it’s the utter revulsion I have for modern commercial photography. Maybe it’s the fact that I can spend hours perusing magazines at a newsstand, and not see a single compelling photograph. Maybe it’s the demotion of the photojournalist to a class subordinate to “dude with an iPhone and an Instagram account.” Maybe it’s that I just don’t care any more. But, whatever the reason, I’ve finally awakened to the realization that I no longer belong within photography’s bell curve and that, by leaving it, I free myself to experiment, find and define the photos that comprise my “other half” — photos that might be a whole lot like the ones included with this article… or maybe not. I don’t know yet. But then that’s the point — it’s time to find out.
So it’s “¡Adiós!” to the bell curve, and “¡Hola!” to photo obscurity. ULTRAsomething will continue its exploration of so-called “street” photography as long as I continue to explore the streets, but the time has come to give equal attention to exploring my other side — a side that I’m calling, for lack of a better term, “fractured” photography.
I welcome any and all readers who wish to ride shotgun on this journey. And who’s to say? If 4 or 5 of us can find and define this language, we might just create a tiny little bell curve of our very own.
©2014 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: The religious innuendo of “Father Figure”; the Murnau-esque suggestiveness of an obsessive “Vampyr”; the three-martini appreciation of “Elegance”; the clandestine and shadowy “Conversation”; the milky luminescence of “Pulse” — all were shot with a Ricoh GR camera. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether they should have been shot at all…
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