Colors and Shapes. Light. Movement.
That’s how it feels to pass through the world in my skin, looking out.
At night, along the highway, Louisiana is a dense green darkness. A black rush of trees behind a field. Headlamps arcing over the grass. One window out in the thicket, burning like an Old Testament prophecy.
The air is quiet. Nearby, a car accelerates roughly onto the I-10 ramp. A woman whistles to herself while she walks down the sidewalk. I can almost hear stories, and I may not want to hear them. A slight uneasiness driving past a decaying motel as a man lurches out from a door to his truck.
That’s how Louisiana feels. Soft and wet, green and black. A continual rustling in the leaves.
I was asked again today if I am an artist. I get that question at least once a week now that I work in the arts. The majority of the people I talk to on any given workday are painters, sculptors, videographers. Inevitably, as we talk, they’ll ask me, “So, are you an artist too?”
And I always hesitate.
Each time, I think of a friend of mine. He keeps telling me that art is a self-diagnosed condition. If you call yourself an artist, you’re an artist. That’s it. The critics can decide whether your art is any good. Your family can argue over whether it’s doing you any favors. But, even if you never show in a single gallery, if you answer “yes” when you’re asked whether or not you’re an artist, that’s it. You are an artist.
I don’t know if I agree, but it helps to think so.
Driving north through New Jersey, I-95 feels like soot and straight lines. Speeding through the middle of a gray, cold January day. Salted pavement. A cloud of tailpipes. The hum of trucks in the next lane.
There is fresh snow in the ditches. It covers everything below the dry, chapped trees. Barbed branches softened by speed, their fingers nearly touching. A smell of woodsmoke. The rooflines of the Jersey suburbs. Parked cars and sludged streets. The last hanging lights from Christmas.
The answers I’ve given when I’ve been asked, “Are you an artist?”:
I guess, in a way.
Oh, I mess around a little.
Not like you are.
Maybe. Or… well, I would like to be.
It took years for me to call myself a “writer” out loud. Actually, not even out loud. Even quietly to myself. But an artist? I don’t know.
I like to take photos. I always have, though I haven’t always put my mind to it like I do now. I’ve been paid a few times to take photos, so technically that makes me a professional photographer. But “technically a professional photographer” is one thing. Art is something else.
If I call my photography art, it means I’m taking it seriously. Taking myself seriously. If it’s art, then it can be Bad art. If it’s art, then it can be Self-Indulgent Bullshit art. Unsuccessful art. It means admitting that I’m not just doing it on a lark. I’m not just aimlessly waving a camera around. I have intent.
I’m reluctant to admit that my photos mean something to me.
But then again, they do.
Putting aside the question for a moment—is it art? Am I an artist? It’s easier to talk about how it feels.
Lately I have taken photos that don’t look like anyone else’s photos to me. And when that happens, as I look at the image, I feel a deep profound satisfaction. A kind of internal soothing. That’s right, I think. That’s what it’s like.
It isn’t about the photo being attractive. I’ve taken other photos that are attractive. Others that remind me of photos taken by better photographers. I could go out into the world and try to shoot more like Brassai, or like Eggleston, or like Lee Friedlander. I could position the camera and take those shots and see what’s in them to love. But they wouldn’t feel like mine.
I’m doing something deliberate now—I’m making choices as I shoot. Altering the shutter speeds, the aperture, the ISO. I’ve released the insistence on reflecting the world like a mirror.
I took the first of this newest series in Louisiana. It was taken by mistake, but then I fell into a swoon when I saw the result. Not only because it was beautiful, but because I had never taken a photo that felt like that before. It felt true to me. That’s how it really feels to pass through the world in my skin, looking out. My shaky hands. My wobbly eyesight. It has always sounded childish to say this, but I take photos because I like colors and shapes. Light. Movement. That’s what the world is, but it’s so difficult to capture.
A night on the road. How does it feel? Like this.
I have spent the past few weeks shooting continuously, chasing the sensation. Adjusting the settings on the camera, adjusting how I move, how I react. When I can successfully bring that feeling out again in the shot, when I can make the camera see what I see, then I do feel like I am an artist.
If this is art, I know the proof is in the doing. It’s a practice. It takes looking. Shooting. Editing. It takes choosing. This isn’t altogether different from writing, when I think about it. It all begins when you surrender to your own perspective.
What does the city feel like?
Bright light reflected onto steel buildings. Reels of windows. Shadowed corners. It feels like the stillness inside a whirlwind.
Or that’s how it feels to me.
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