Since we arrived in Amsterdam almost two months ago, I’ve been asking myself a persistent question about my art-making: what’s my urban style? That is, when placed in the environment of the city, what sort of photographs do I make?
It was a question that I felt tugging at myself most strongly in Amsterdam, but it has been on my mind here in Renkum as well. In Montana, my usual method of image making was to go for a walk, and “see what I see.” Sometimes I’d have a specific goal in mind, like heading to a rock slide to photograph pika, but other times I’d just be open to possibilities as they came my way.
In cities, though, I’ve noticed that I have a more difficult time working, or at least working in this same way. Of course, I still see plenty of things, and plenty of things that capture my attention, but I always have this feeling dogging me that I’m photographing someone else’s work. I don’t mean that in the sense of “has someone else already made this picture?”, or “is this more of an Atget image than a Charlie image?”, although those can sometimes be considerations too. No, by “photographing someone else’s work”, I mean that I am surrounded by the artistic labors of hundreds of other people. Every building is the work of an architect, every relief or brick pattern was made deliberately by human hands, and the colors of graffiti were splashed on the wall by another person. I have a persistent feeling that I am not making my own work, but simply documenting someone else’s labors, as though I were simply making a snapshot of a painting hanging in a museum.
Usually what I find myself drawn to in cities are “accidental” compositions, or images that arise in an organic fashion, in a sort of naturalistic way. Of course, this still involves elements that have been crafted by someone else, becoming, I suppose, a little like magnetic poetry, where a set of supplied words made by someone else can be arranged into a unique, personal combination. In photographic terms, the collision of natural elements like light, shadow, reflection, and weather become important tools in making an image “my own”. Perspective also plays a role… a composition feels much more personal to me when it involves several buildings, rather than just one building that could be credited to a single architect.
I’ve noticed I have quite a few “rules” (although they’re really a little more amorphous and soft-edged than that) for what feels like a personal composition, versus photographing someone else’s work. A sculpture by itself doesn’t “count”, but a sculpture transformed does…. imagine it veiled by fog, covered in snow, or has a pigeon sitting on it. Or perhaps there is the added element of context or perspective, where it becomes the sculpture as seen through the trees of the park, or reflected in a café window. Then, of course, there might be the emergent chaotic elements that were not (presumably) part of the sculptor’s original vision– perhaps there is an abandoned shoe hanging from it, or a pattern of moss erupting from a crack.
I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not to keep thinking about. On the one hand, it makes me a more deliberate artist, but on the other hand, it can be a little paralyzing. I suppose it’s a little like the photographic equivalent of “remix culture” that can be seen in so many places. Not that the idea of the remix new– people have been appropriating things and folding them into their own art for centuries. Art historians would be familiar with the “orientalization” of art in what we would think of today as Ancient Greece, where influences from the near and far east showed up in decorative styles and art objects in Mediterranean societies. Continuing with the Ancient Greek theme, what we think of a “Greek Myths,” such as the Hercules legends, predate a unified Greek culture by thousands of years. The Romans then riffed on these motifs, and so on…. until one walks around Washington, DC, a “new” city, and sees what seem to be modern versions of Greek/Roman buildings. And perhaps even the superhero comic book, and many movies, could be interpreted to be fundamental re-tellings of a “Hercules” story.
So, what does all of this have to do with my photography while in a densely urban area? Not really a whole lot, really, except that in addition to striving to be original, I also have to be okay with being un-original. If I let myself get too concerned with doing something that no one has ever done before, then I think the ultimate result is that I won’t make anything.
Have I been able to determine what exactly my “urban style” is while here in the Netherlands? No, not precisely. The important thing, however, is that I keep making work regardless. I’m the one who is probably over-thinking all of this, ultimately, not the viewers of my work. It’s probably for the best anyway– if I knew precisely what my style was, then I’d start to feel like I was just being formulaic, and then I’d have a full set of new concerns about my work.