I’ve been taking pictures for about 20 years, but I never took a class in photography. I lie when people ask me what shutter speed I’m using. I only pretend to know what an F-stop is. And I never learned what a darkroom is or what all those chemicals do. In my imagination, darkrooms are where you discover the identity of John F. Kennedy’s actual assassin under a little bit of red stage lighting. Then that “this looks familiar” face comes over you, and you look through negatives of other presidential events you’ve covered for your local newspaper, and – oh no – this guy’s been at all of them. You narrow down his location to a trailer in West Texas, and you call the sheriff, only to find the guy is gone. He went on a vacation. Ohio, says the sheriff. You look up what’s happening in Ohio. President’s flying out for a fundraising dinner. You rip the photo off the wooden clothes pin and you drive as fast as you can.
That’s what darkrooms are for. They’re for piecing together a big story under cover of night. They’re for covert epiphanies. I’m not in that business.
When I started taking pictures, it was Polaroids. I found some of them awhile back and refer to them constantly for Jungian inspiration. They cover the same ground I cover now, and they’re simple, uncluttered, spontaneous.
My technique never got more sophisticated. There was no branching out. The idea of staged pictures or technically robust pictures never appealed to me. I almost never upgraded my rig. I just went out shooting. That’s still all I do. Usually it means pulling off to the side of the road and trying to find what it felt like I just saw, which is a long process, full of illegal U-turns.
I go through my old shots all the time to figure out what the hell I’ve been doing. To figure out my own MO. Because it’s an old routine for me, something I don’t have much of a choice in doing, but it’s a problem for others. Bystanders get deeply suspicious when they see me taking pictures. They suggest the presence of their weapons or actively brandish them even though I break no laws and almost never photograph people. People get as angry at me as they can legally get. Some of my quietest shots were the most dangerous. Maybe it’s my face, but there’s nothing I can do about that in my tax bracket.
I suspect most people would reconfigure their craft to minimize the threat of confrontation. But I’ve never learned my lesson. I keep doing exactly what I was always doing. Something pulls me toward this. It’s not even fun. The sense of isolation is huge. I’ll go out to fields or forests or little old declining towns and I usually start visualizing what those places were like before we got there. I’ll just be on the sidewalk and it all feels so temporary I can’t even think.
Looking through my shots from 2015, my favorites of which you’ll see here, I think an MO has presented itself, or at least an alibi. I was trying to capture things you can’t quite capture. A sense of space and eternity. Something that throws you off your orbit and makes you wonder where and when you are.
It’s like this. Every so often I have this dream. In the dream I’ve gone out walking, and I come across a wooden stage, and Mississippi John Hurt is on the stage, playing guitar and singing for no one. I’m the only person there. He was playing before I arrived and he’ll go on playing after I leave. It doesn’t register as a concert. There’s no microphone, no car that sends him back to the hotel.
He’s not like he was in any pictures. He’s older. He didn’t die. I watch for awhile and make sure this is really him, and I’m really here, then I steel up the nerve to approach him and find out why he’s sitting here and playing all these lonely songs with no one to listen. And he says “well, I just do this. I go from place to place with my guitar, and the rest doesn’t bother me.” Then I ask if I can take a picture. He nods his head. I frame the shot, and I know exactly how it will look. His hands are playing the guitar, his eyes are closed, the sun is in front of him, the hills are behind him. The image is so clear. Everything is in perfect focus. Then I wake up distraught that I can’t take what I saw in that dream back to real life. And the only thing I can think to do is go shooting again. Because that picture can’t exist, but the feeling in it might. And I want to get as close as I can to that dream, to go and look for all the things I’ll never find.