Two years ago, I fell into a rather serious depression. At the time, it felt like my pursuit of photography was done. I experienced a deep crisis of faith. In an attempt to reconnect with myself, and to rebuild my thinking about and my conviction for photography, I began a series of short essays. All of these essays looked at some of my earliest photographic experiences, as an attempt to secure the foundation of my beliefs. I eventually compiled all of these essays into a small artist book called The Dreamer That Remains, as part of Kumquat Editions, my ongoing project in self-publishing (please see http://www.brianarnoldphotography.com).
I’m flirting with the idea of posting a PDF of The Dreamer That Remains of my website. Until then, I might continue to post a few of these essays. This one is called “A Note on Necessity:”
Why do I photograph? I want to see if I can answer this question. I’ve faced so much disappointment as a photographer and artist – rejections, failures, and other professional traumas. Why do I keep coming back for me? What do I find in photography?
To begin this meditation, I’d like to reflect back to the first photographs I took and printed myself. It must have been my second or third year of college. I went off to school knowing I was an artist (though had no idea what this might mean). All my friends at the time were musicians, so that is what I thought I was too. I took a bunch of music classes, and had some success as such. After studying a little classical piano and jazz drumming, I started a found object percussion project. I spent my days walking or riding my bike down the train tracks behind the city of Colorado Springs, the industrial wastelands at the backbone of all big cities. I picked up spikes and cans and rails and glass and brought them back to my room to beat and tap. While running the tracks, I met some of the people down there – homeless, vagrants, and the left behind.
It was quite an experience being in these places. In a sense, I was in the bowels of the city. I saw its greatest strengths, and many of its weaknesses. I traveled the landscapes behind some of the most important, productive, and richest factories of the city. I talked with the people who lived there, recorded as many of their stories as possible in my journal, and tried to voice these things in my music. My music at the time was very primitive, almost tribal, and was an attempt to bring a sort of beauty to the chaos of these landscapes I explored. I used found objects so that the people and places I saw could speak for themselves; I hoped that by beating and drumming these objects, I could coax out some of the history they personified, and to show the real primitivism at the core of modern society.
It was about this time that my grandfather died. I was just 18 or 19 years old when he passed away. He was an amateur photographer of sorts. He traveled extensively for his job, and avidly took pictures wherever he went. When my mom went out to clean up his house with her brother, she kept his camera equipment. Everyone else in the family had a camera, so I ended up with it. I first started photographing by taking my grandfather’s camera with me as I combed the tracks for new objects to play. (Even today, I like to think the spirit of my grandfather, found in his camera, became apart of my pursuit of photography.)
I started simply, photographing landscapes and graffiti: “Blessed be the tramp whose god is Jesus.” Quickly, I grew to love the pictures, and thus they become more ambitious. One afternoon, I bought some dolls at a thrift store, and then went to a local Christian bookstore and purchased a cheap necklace, a wooden crucifix on a thin rope. Armed with these things, I went to the tracks with my camera and made some assemblages with other things found in the landscape. Here I made my first real picture, I suppose, a picture I know call Switching Limits. For this image, I found a sign beneath a bridge broken from one of the poles along the train tracks. It had these words, “Switching Limit,” seemingly as some directional indication for the conductors. I took the sign into the sunlight, placed the crucifix around the neck of one of the dolls, then placed the doll on the ground with the sign, and snapped my photographs. I did this a number of times, mixing the dolls and the things I brought down with me, together with objects and signs I found down on the tracks. These were also the first photographs I printed myself.
Making these photographs I knew that I finally accessed something, an experience I wanted to explain with my found object music, and voiced it a way that felt new, empowering. It was as if to say, “I see this, and I know that it is real. I experience this, I recognize it, this suffering, and I know that I can voice it.” The pictures, I felt, spoke with an authentic power, and yet came to me so effortlessly.
Perhaps I can conclude at this point that the physical manifestation of an experience in the photograph authenticates the experience itself. If I see this, and can show that it is real, therefore my experience of it must be real too.
After some of early experiments, my study of photography became more disciplined. I learned to print, use different cameras, the same hurdles all photographers go through. This first experience with photography has to lie at the core, has to be the thing that keeps me coming for more. It was an urgent attempt to illustrate some specific, powerful experiences, and to prove that how I see them is real.
This first experience with photography has come to define all of my experiences. Ultimately, my need to make pictures comes from a desperate attempt to authenticate who I am, and where I come from. Urgency – to be, to know, to feel real – is always the drive.