Survival. Every carbon-based organism enters this world with a fundamental will to survive — either as an individual or as a species. Every life form adapts, evolves, fights and maneuvers for a single purpose — to survive another day. Survival is the meaning of each and every life. But what is the meaning of all life? What is the ultimate purpose of all this surviving? What are we surviving for?
Usually, I avoid such bouts of existential pondering. But a couple weeks ago, I had one of those birthdays — the type where the leading digit clicks forward a notch and thus, in a single day, hurls you an entire decade closer to oblivion. These birthdays are life’s milestones — checkpoints at which we assess our path to date, and our road ahead. But what, exactly, do we need to assess? If we’re having cognitive thought, then we must be alive — which means we continue to survive. If survival is the meaning of life, then there should be nothing left to evaluate. But each of us, in order to give purpose to our life, creates our own individual artificial definition of “survival.” It is this definition that we assess at these milestones.
The majority of people define survival not by whether they’re still breathing, but by how comfortably their life functions are being sustained. Spiritualism and capitalism are two sides to this same coin — both provide a level of comfort, whether emotional or physical. For those most concerned with self-preservation, survival is seen as either a qualitative or quantitative measure, rather than an absolute.
The more nurturing members of humanity view survival on a Darwinian level. They see survival in terms of their children, and their children’s children. Consciously or not, they view survival on a macro level, and they assess their lives based on the health and welfare of their offspring.
Then there are the artists. And the writers. And the mad scientists. Like the nurturers, this group views survival as a species-wide quest. But these people — my people — see survival as an intellectual continuance rather than a physical one. We view survival as the propagation of our thoughts, ideas and intellect, and not our DNA. We have little regard for ostentatious personal comforts and, in general, are rather poor practitioners of self-survival. To us, it’s the thought that must survive.
Photography is now my third attempt at intellectual survival. The first was music. Music has always had a profound effect on me. Its patterns, poetry, and cadences had the power to control emotion, and I soon learned that much of the music I heard came not from the radio, but from within me. I felt compelled to realize those inner sounds, and I became a musician, composer, sound designer, and recording artist. To say I had a modicum of success would be disrespectful to the word “modicum.” I had a few releases. A few fans. Perhaps I impacted a few lives. Even today, 20 years after making these recordings, I get an occasional fan email. But my music won’t survive the test of time and, when I die, so will those musical thoughts.
Curiously, it was the need to record what I heard in my head that launched my second attempt at intellectual survival — invention. My music career coincided with the birth of the personal computer and a nascent software industry. I discovered I could use this new technology as a means to help extract and realize the music within me. This launched a 20 year career in which I designed computer music software and techniques. My goal was noble — to provide mankind with a new set of tools that would help them better-communicate their musical ideas. At this, I was a success. Many of my innovations are now common to all music software, and musicians the world over are making music with techniques that I developed and tools that I designed. For these efforts, I achieved almost no financial reward — those who define survival by the size of their bank accounts saw to that. But, for me, financial success was secondary to making the world a better place.
Except the world didn’t become a better place. It became worse. Far worse. Technology didn’t just become an enabler for the musically gifted. It became a crutch upon which people with no musical gifts could now generate musical output. Lowering the barriers to musical creation diluted the talent pool to such an extent that any musical cream would simply drown before it ever rose to the surface. Before the advent of music technology, people had to learn to play an instrument — and it was through this instrument that their own unique personality, quirks, and nuances could flow. Before music technology, people created rhythm, melody, and harmony from within their own minds. Today, they purchase pre-packaged, pre-recorded musical phrases and combine them into a soulless collage. If your collage sounds a whole lot like everyone else’s collage, you have a ‘hit.’ Making music became about as soulful as heating up a frozen dinner in a microwave oven — convenient, but ultimately unsatisfying. Music has suffered as a result. And the world has suffered with it.
The more music technology I created, the less I enjoyed the music created by that technology until, ultimately, I loved neither the technology nor the music. If I’m going to leave a legacy, I certainly don’t want it to be as “the destroyer of the very thing I loved.” So, with the lessons I learned from my first two attempts at survival, I began to pour all my efforts into my other love — photography. Here, at last, is where I’ll create my legacy — a photographic legacy! If only I knew what that meant…
21st century photography has seen a demise commensurate with the music industry’s. Auto-everything digital cameras, Photoshop plugins and web publishing have, as with music, lowered the entry point and diluted the talent pool. I have no doubt there are as many (if not more) talented photographers working today as in 1955 — the problem is we can no longer find them. They’ve become the needles in the haystack. How do you find one or two subtly magnificent images within a billion over-amped and tedious HDR shots? How do you find the one unique vision within a sea of sameness?
I once believed I could make a difference by creating a single iconic image. Something like W. Eugene Smith’s Walk to Paradise Garden would be nice. Timeless. Powerful. Universal. I felt, if I created just one iconic image, then I would secure my intellectual survival. But my style is subtle and my images are quiet. I read that there are 30 billion photographs uploaded to Facebook each year. That’s a lot of competition — particularly when you consider that I, personally, don’t even post images on Facebook. Besides, even if I did miraculously have a “hit” photo, I’m not the one who will determine which of my photos is the “hit” — the general public decides that. What if my one “hit” photo wasn’t the equivalent of, say, ? and the Mysterians’ 96 Tears or Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida? What if it turned out to be the photo synonym of Tony Basil’s Hey Mickey! or Right Said Fred’s I’m Too Sexy? Then what? My photographic legacy would be every bit as damaging to mankind as my inventing legacy!
Fortunately, I learned rather early in my photographic explorations that I wasn’t a “singles” photographer. I was an “album oriented” photographer. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to document life. And, most importantly, I wanted to find some kind of meaning to it all. In this, I’m not alone. Besides the previously mentioned W. Eugene Smith, there’s Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. There’s Elliott Erwitt, Sebastiao Salgado and Philip Jones Griffiths. Martin Munkacsi and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Dorothea Lange and Larry Towell. And I’ve only scratched the surface.
The images these photographers capture create a portrait of mankind. When you view them as a whole, you feel as if the answer to all our questions lies somewhere within — like a puzzle box yet to be unlocked. The world needs more of this: more introspection, more compassion, more awareness. What it doesn’t need, in my opinion, is another HDR photo of a rusted truck against an overwrought sky.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with making pretty pictures. Pretty pictures make money, and money makes a whole lot of survivalists happy with the way they’re surviving. But I’m looking for something deeper, something meaningful. I know, full well, that I will not find this meaning in my own lifetime. But if I can take photographs that, together with those of the aforementioned photographers, help future generations unlock the mystery of life, then I will have survived. My will, my soul, and my beliefs will have survived.
At least, that’s the plan. In ten years, I’ll reassess — that’s when I’ll have another one of those birthdays.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Fresh Fruit” was shot with a Lecia M6 TTL and a Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide Heliar lens, using Tri-X film exposed at ISO 1250 and processed in Diafine. “Pipeless Pied Piping” and “What Johnny Said” were shot with a digital Leica M9 and a 28mm f/2 Summicron lens. “A Withering Scrutiny”, “Spirit in the Sky” and “Derby Girl” were taken with a Leica M6 TTL and a Voigtlander 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide Heliar lens, using Delta 400 film exposed at ISO 400 and processed in Ifotec DD-X.
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