photography in reverse: day ten

getting personal

Wednesday is our day to critique work and to discuss ideas, or just to sit around and talk, if we like, and today we moved from the studio to what will now be our weekly meeting place: my house. I always request the same housing at Penland, if I can get it, mostly for the large living room on the main floor (though the porch is pretty great, too!) My assistant and I removed a large bookcase from one wall, then rearranged the couches so we could sit around and look at work. I made coffee, set out some snacks, and we were set.

It’s still early days, of course, and people have just started printing their own B&W pics, so the morning was filled more with general discussion than actual critiquing. We did finally get our “One Hour” photos back last night (only 78 hours later!) so we had lots to look at and discuss. It really is fun passing around these glossy four-by-sixes, and we got to talking about the differences between the Personal experience of photography and the Art experience. If, as I believe, Art can be made about anything and, in fact, is especially suited for the emotional, irrational, and meaningful parts of what it means to be human, then can good work be made that even comes close to the experience of passing these little things around? The minute you take one of these images and blow it up (and there are many artists who seem to do just that) something is lost. Yes, I can be made to understand that the artist’s work is about the vernacular use of and personal relationship to family photos, say, but shouldn’t artwork be able to go deeper somehow, to make a complicated and powerful connection to that simple handheld reminder of our lives as they pass?

Almost every photo we looked at this morning was much less about what was held in the frame than as a spur to memory. “Oh yeah, that’s the wall of teacups at the store we were in. That guy was such a weirdo!” “That’s when you were telling us a story about your friend.” “Look how happy I was!” I took one disposable camera and decided to have fun, shooting touristy snapshots around the campus and the woods here, but making sure my thumb or finger was in every frame. Photography may indeed replace memory in the end, but it summons it too, at least for us here. We’re hoping to get our slides FedExed back to us in time for the afternoon. That will be a whole different experience indeed.

Snapshot of the Weaving Cabin, Penland, NC.

Snapshot of the Weaving Cabin, Penland, NC.

After lunch we took some time to talk about everyone’s first negatives and prints, and I’ve begun urging them toward a project idea – anything, really, just a place to start. I asked them to take a few days and see what struck them. We’re going to push our Large Format demo from Friday to Monday, so we can have a day this week just to work. I think they could use it…

The slides did arrive, and my assistant managed to track down one of the only slide projectors left on campus, so they spent some time loading up a few trays while I searched for extra blankets and things to keep out the late afternoon light, now looking right in on us. This would be better in a darker room, but it’s still a wonderfully old-fashioned experience to get the projector whirring, the carousel clacking. Everyone shot at least a few photos of the lovely landscape here, but there were goofy shots of all of us, nighttime experiments, documentation of some of the Mavica moments, explorations in the towns nearby. One of my students drove a couple of hours each way the other day, just to shoot some animals at a zoo. I’m actually surprised that everyone has a memory of their family doing this very thing, and I’m reminded suddenly of the back staircase from my room to the kitchen where my siblings and I would set up slideshows of our own – must have been an old servants’ passage, I guess. Was it at Bourneside Street, in the ’70s?

My brother, my sister, and I on Bourneside Street, ca. 1975

My brother, my sister, and I on Bourneside Street, ca. 1975

After dinner there were slides again, this time by the Resident Artists (minus the two who are teaching this session), who are all awesome. Kind of a shame they only had about 5 minutes each, but they’ll be doing an Open House thing on Friday, so we can see a lot of the work in person. Later a few of us gathered for Art Talk, where a bunch of the staff and residents meet weekly and talk about issues of theory, teaching, studio practice, etc. – whatever gets lost in the day-to-day work and maintenance here at the school. Most of these people are my friends now, and I’m so lucky to be welcomed by them into the fold.

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