The Nature of the Last Project
If there's a place to start, this is it.
I have written many bios over the years, Curriculum Vitae, Resumes, short things for introductions, but at this point life comes down to just a few dates:
Date 1: Mid July, 1964, I bought a simple Yashica twin lens reflex camera in a San Francisco pawn shop.
Date 2: Friday, Sept. 12, 2014, I was told that there was an “abnormality” with my chest X-ray and I had to come in for a CT scan on Monday. A very long weekend.
Date 3: Monday, the 15th, my regular doctor refused to say the baseball size thing in my upper right lobe was cancer since there had yet to be a biopsy, but he had no other realistic option to offer. I walked fast around and around the hospital-sized parking lot trying and failing to think in a straight line, and then Dora* came to pick me up and saw me almost jogging on the other side of the lot. Jogging is not normal behavior.
Within a week I had had a biopsy, so no one was kidding any one any more; had coughed up quite a bit of fresh, arterial blood, which is quite beautiful and massively scary, had 5 radiation treatments to cauterize the bleeding and back the tumor off of some nerve.
Date 4: Friday the 26th, I met with an oncologist. After "Hello" he told me, "This is the tumor that will kill you". Which I guess I already knew, but still hadn’t heard it said causally, and right out loud.
In the intervening 50 years I had spent most of my time in and around photography and its offshoots. I studied photography as art and as science from electron to image; made, enjoyed, learned from and abandoned many hundreds of photographs; designed digital-to-analog cameras; taught photography to students from 14 to 85; did professional and amateur photography at low and high levels; read and thought about photography; looked hard at thousands of images and talked about nearly as many.
Back when I was immortal, and no one wanted my pictures, and no one saw much of them anyway, they were bonfired, or torn to pieces as they became pointless — about every five years; a catharsis. Reducing the bag to its essentials. It took a long time to verbalize, but I've always known that, at least for me, for my learning and my practice, a photograph wasn't a photograph until it was on paper, and once it was on paper, and I had had time to suck its energy right out, it collapsed and became again just a piece of paper. I think that for the maker the magic of a photograph happens twice. First, when the rectangle comes together just as the button is pushed. At that instant the photographer who is present rivets upon the structure and content at the first, lowermost level, when and where the bones of the photo are more obvious. This is a ratification moment, with all the self-righteousness a maker expects but always finds slightly surprising, slightly unearned. A photographer who has been looking long enough learns to recognize it in an instant, at a very high level of abstraction.
Then the photograph gets to gestate quietly for a while. Until you develop, enlarge and print, you are looking at a small negative or screen-limited image, often just small sections at a time, fleetingly and without an open mind. You are doing something or thinking about doing something to that image, not yet opening focus to it as a thing alone. Then it gets finalized and printed, and there is time to let it speak. The four dimensional distance — place and time — from that intense act of capture loosens its original, structural ties, and lets you engage with the actual picture, the stuff you noticed right away — the reason you took the picture — plus the deeper, hidden stuff, that Friedlander's "generous medium" (see the full quote in 3-1, Intersections: Photography and Digital, Photography and Computers) also gives you at no charge; the stuff that pulls the picture together, or doesn't; that pushes on the meaning, or doesn't; that furthers the intent, or doesn't; that makes a photograph last, or doesn't. It’s when you see that you really have a photograph, or you don't.
Now is when the photograph, the active photograph imbued with the energy of fresh creation, can talk to you, can talk with other photographs nearby or in your mind's eye, and, individually and together, they can teach you
About what it is you've done. And when you've learned what you can learn from that image, when it is done talking, it ceases to be a 'live photograph' for you, ceases to have that original power of teaching, returns to being a piece of paper in an ouroboros of pieces of paper. Comes the shredder. Comes the bonfire.
But within a month or two of my quick, no side trips, journey from immortal through mortal and nearly to extinct, I decided that I liked a lot of my more recent work and changed my mind about the bonfire. I decided on about 75 images from five groups that I would print in two portfolios, one for Maine Media, where I spent nearly 20 years teaching, and one for Dora.
In July, 2015, when I reluctantly stepped away from the last of my students to devote the time left to making work, Elizabeth Greenberg and Meg Weston gently but firmly pushed me towards something more as a legacy — something that would leave a record of how I thought about photography and teaching and anything else that I might want to leave behind.
And I agreed, without a clue as to structure or content. Just that I would leave something with them that they would keep alive for a while.
That's this, the Last Project. It took almost a year to get it to this stage. I wrote the first draft in ink, in a large notebook bought for the purpose. Then, once in a while, I typed it into my computer for later editing, organizing, and blending with the pictures into something. So, Welcome.
If the time before college is learning how to be alive, and after college is living, I have lived a life in photography, looking for the light in every sense of the word. I have sacrificed for this walk, journey, pilgrimage; loved it, and recommend it if your heart is there.
Now I am learning how to die, and gathering my life into a small package of words and photographs is a big part of that. Life gave me two gifts, photography and Dora. I give my photography back to you. Dora I’ll try to keep for myself, in her memory.
* One reader of a first draft asked me to give more information on who Dora is. But I won't. If you don't know her by time you finish reading the accompanying emails, you should sell your cameras. There's not much hope for your soul.