A Small Sense of Community

December 30th, 2010 § 0 comments

Most artists are trespassers at heart, and most of us want to explore the places we are unable to see, to go inside, or to photograph at all. If I could somehow break into strange houses and apartments to photograph the interiors without going to jail afterward, I would. Having spent a great deal of my childhood in the backseat of various cars, watching images pass by the car window almost like I was inside the camera frame of Lee Friedlander, I dream of one day being able to shut down portions of the Los Angeles freeway system in order to capture those fleeting images. I’ve tried to use the camera as a means of time travel, and I’ve tried to photograph ways of life that no longer exist, or that might never have existed at all. It seems photographs can be about our denied fantasies as much as they can be a documentation of our immediate reality.

Needless to say, artist or pedestrian, we don’t get to visit our denied places or spaces, what or wherever they are, very often. The rules of traffic, streets, and pedestrians alter as rarely as the rules delineating public and private space. The daily routine of any place rarely changes more than it would to accommodate a holiday, but when it does, be it because of a natural disaster or a holiday blizzard with record snowfall, it offers us a rare chance to explore the same places we always inhabit but with different rules. Following last night’s howling blizzard, New Yorker’s awoke this morning to feet of uncleared snow, a sunny sky, and a transportation nightmare. I think almost everyone, schoolchildren and office workers alike, had the day off.

Very little slows this city down, and I could hardly sleep in this morning without feeling like I was missing a precious opportunity to explore. Walking out the front door into a foot of snow on the stoop around ten this morning, I noticed a difference in the people outside, in their manners and habits, almost before I noticed myself slipping and sliding around in deep, clean snow. Children were not being marched off to school by tired looking parents, the work force was not trudging towards the subway, and there were no angry drivers impatiently waiting at stop lights. Instead, the streets were completely free of cars, if not of knee-deep snow, and no one seemed to have anywhere to go.

When I reached my coffee shop at the end of my first snowy wander, I overheard a conversation I had already had with myself. “Everyone has a smile on their face today,” a charming hipster barista commented to a father leaning casually against the counter, and for once there was no line or rush for drinks. This overall happy mood might not have applied to people digging out their buried cars, or to the men and boys trying to clear small portions of sidewalk, or to the city workers dispatched to de-snow the city, but it was certainly true of everyone else. New Yorker’s are not generally rude but they are busy, and with no need to rush today it was like living south of the Mason–Dixon again. Everyone wanted to say hello and stopped to chat, and everyone was walking down the empty streets and avenues with a small amount of childish glee. Not many things make Americans communal, but a good snowfall is apparently one of them. Carroll Gardens became the setting of a modern day Grover’s Corners, where we all nodded to each other as we passed, like the neighbors we in fact are, and exchanged that knowing smile of “isn’t this wonderful?”

I like not having to work, I like being able to wander Brooklyn like it’s a European city filled with pedestrian streets, I even like the sense of community that springs up as suddenly as the snow came down, but what I really love about snow is the way it looks—I like it’s aesthetic. Honestly it’s not the snow I love, but how it distorts, covers, and hides everything else. Sidewalks covered with feet of snow become a novelty even though they are the same ugly walkways we disregard everyday. The snow gives me an excuse to enjoy what I look for even when there is no snow at all: those idiosyncratic objects and moments I witness daily. I was outside last night in the blizzard itself, and people were even more distant and wary than usual, more impatient and annoyed by someone photographing. It was the aftermath that produced the change, the aftermath that allowed for a needed break in social suspicion. It’s not the snow I want to photograph, but all the ordinary objects, the benches, buildings, trash piles, and activities that make up our neighborhood, and our neighborhoods life.

It’s definitely the subtle changes in the obvious that I enjoy so much in my artwork, and I’m pretty sure I’m doomed to an aesthetic that is the antithesis of the current art market’s look. I’m also coming to realize that my conceptual leanings are not quick and clever enough for most people looking at art today, though I still see my interests reflected in the cameras of much older photographers and a few filmmakers, and hope that timeless questions and concerns might become timely once again. When I am excited and shooting, however, it’s hard to care about any of this. I can snuggle back into my pre-New York rut and simply enjoy the act of translating objects into images. It’s fun, difficult, and in this case numbing, but I miss the struggle. I work with words, thoughts, and abstract concepts now more than I wrestle with capturing ideas visually. Thinking is hard work, but making is much harder.

Yesterday’s images of the blizzard itself look different from today’s images of the aftermath, and the remainder of the week will show what happens to all this snow as the city comes back to life. Today’s novelties will vanish as certainly as all this whiteness will turn into slushy, brown puddles in the days to come.

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