Thursday, 24 December 2015
I got interested in photography in the 8th grade. I remember exactly where I was when I first looked through a slr camera. I felt a surge of something; something I’m still unable to fully explain. My photography teacher was lecherous and ‘touchy’ and made me feel very uncomfortable. Even today, when I smell darkroom chemicals I think of him, his cologne, his breath, his unwanted nearness. Any boy who liked photography in my school was called a ‘photo-fag’ but, somehow, this wasn’t enough to put me off. I already felt like an outsider because of my stutter and, fortunately, had enough real friends who didn’t care whether I had a camera around my neck or not so the whispered insults never bothered me.
When my parents realised I was serious about photography, they let me use my father’s ‘den’ as a temporary darkroom. Although they called it a ‘den’, it was a dead zone that served no real purpose apart from having a pull-out sofa for occasional guests and being a place to store magazines and junk -- notably my father’s Playboys hidden in the back of a cupboard beside my mother’s medical journals. Some days I’d look at naked women. Other days I’d look at rashes and wounds. As I was getting into photography, I was also getting into girls and remember thinking a lot about a particular girl who lived down the road while I was developing prints. The first portrait I printed in that room was of my dog. The second portrait was of her, in the woods, in the snow, with her dog.
My father was impossible to please, on any level, about anything. I could rake acres of lawn and be made to feel like a failure because a stray leaf had blown back on the grass. He was a perfectionist: the grass had to be cut both ways, criss-cross fashion. No wonder then that when I showed him my photographs, I was very conscious of dust specks and stippled drying marks on the surface of the prints. I was surprised that he didn’t seem to notice them and actually called me a perfectionist. It never occurred to me that someone could look at a print with dust specks on it and not be completely distracted by this glaring and obvious mistake. Even when I spotted them so carefully with ink, I’d put them up to the light, see those little dark dots and just tear up the damn thing in frustration. I had a bright table lamp in my room, right by my turtles because it kept them warm, and I’d study my prints under that light, searching for defects like stray hairs and dust. Paper was expensive and it hurt to throw them away but any print with the slightest flaw got destroyed. I never worried much about composition or contrast (all my prints were low contrast due to the curtain in the den not being quite light-tight) but the dust, the surface marks became a real obsession, marks of my failure, my impatience and incompetence.
When I got my first car, I lost interest in photography for a while. I also didn’t win the photography prize at my high school graduation which I took as a coded message to forget about taking pictures. So, instead of cameras, I got into cars, worked in a gas station, played guitar, drank a lot of beer, passed out on friends’ floors ... the usual things. I only began taking pictures again much later, to make some money as a fashion photographer first in America and then Italy. I was an assistant to a relatively well-known fashion photographer for a while and, as technically fine as his work was, I realised I needed to go in completely the opposite direction. His lighting, his make-up, his printing was so perfect; the floors of his studio so clean, his telephone and desk so polished ... maybe he reminded me of my father. I just knew, then and there, that I was never going to take these sorts of pictures and waste so much time cleaning and preparing for such anodyne results. Making pretty women look pretty was no challenge. The artifice of lighting, the make-up tricks, it just seemed so contrived. All the head-shots looked the same. The girls on the runway all the same. Everybody was shooting the same film, from the same angles, copying the style of whomever happened to be ‘big’ that month. Fashion photography was just the worst. The photographers, the models, the bookers, the art directors, the smarmy superficial chit-chat ... all just the worst.
When I left Milan for London, I saw a show at the old Saatchi Gallery. Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ and some stuff by the Starn Twins. This was what I wanted to do. Looking at these pictures I felt that stirring in my gut I felt when I first held a camera or while printing in my father’s den. Something hungry and sexual and urgent. Like being on the edge of something. It was like being a drunk high-schooler at an Aerosmith concert. Or dreaming of a girlfriend, wondering if she knew you even existed. Or being high in the backseat of a friends car with the window open and cold night air numbing your face. All of those teenage feelings came back looking at these contemporary ‘art’ photographers with their big ‘imperfect’ pictures staring back at me. The first thing I did when I got back to my little rented room was tear up my fashion portfolio into raggedy postcards, put stamps on the back of them, and mail them back to myself, hoping they’d return even more battered and creased which they duly did. After that, I probably threw them away anyway but it was good to see them in sections, mangled, scribbled over. I stopped doing fashion photography that day and started aiming much higher, aiming inside myself, letting all the rules go and all the flaws and mistakes show. And still today, when I look at the dust and hairs and ‘mistakes’ everywhere in my work, I think of my father, the den, his Playboys, my turtle, raking the lawn, the girl down the road. It’s all there, in every picture. When I don’t feel that nagging, confusing soup of memories when making photographs, I’ll stop.