I See and I Remember
I was born and raised in New York City. I grew up amongst the skyscraper valleys and the grimy streets and the rushing crowds. The noise. The crowds. The
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve noticed the light in the city. There are times when the light totally transforms the city into something ethereal. Sunny days in the autumn and winter make for long sharp shadows and light bounces around and reflects off of anything made of glass. Weird reflections and slivers of sun cut through the streets, illuminated shafts of brightness surrounded by intense shadows. During the summer, the hazy light tricks eyes into thinking the buildings are farther away and much larger than they really are. When thunderstorms roll in, the soft incidental light bouncing off the tall storm clouds give an ethereal, almost other-worldly look to everything on the street. I grew up marveling at the city of light.
It’s possible because of where and how I grew up, I was destined to become some kind of visual artist. As a kid, my Mom used to take me to the many museums and galleries New York is so well known for. Going to photography shows with her was a common outing; W. Eugene Smith, Irving Penn, Duane Michals, Gordon Parks, Bernice Abbott, Robert Mapplethorpe, just to name a few.
Growing up without the Internet meant the only way I could see a photographer’s work was in books, museums, or galleries. I was able to spend a lot of time with a small number of very good photographers. On the other hand, if a photographer didn’t have a published book or a story in a magazine or a show somewhere, I didn’t easily get to see their work. I was particularly drawn to photographers who shot New York City. Why? Because it was my home, of course. I loved to go to some of the same locations where these artists set up their cameras and see for myself how much the city had changed and how much it stayed the same. I would walk around and say to myself, oh, Eugene Smith shot this street or Berenice Abbott stood here and shot that building.
I was so steeped in these photographers’ work, their images became part of what I like to call my “Photo DNA.” Because I’ve seen their images over and over again, I often evoke their work when I spot something I want to photograph. This doesn’t mean I copy their work but I try to ask myself is this what they might have been thinking about? Is this the feeling they were trying to capture? Photo DNA works in the background. It’s a jumble of imagery that floats around in the back of my head and when everything is aligned right, it manifests itself when I want to take a photograph and even when I process a photograph. It’s not something I’m aware of when it’s happening. Having this library of images in my head certainly influenced what and how I photograph. How could it not?
We’re flooded with imagery today.
Photo DNA builds up in us over the years. All those images you’re bombarded with daily, you know what happens to them? Stored away and mashed up into your visual subconscious. They talk to you when you put the camera to your eye. I know they talk to me, whispering just quietly enough to guide me towards the images I make. It might sound like I’m saying there’s nothing original in what we create. No, it’s not like that at all. Everything we make is a unique creation because we make it.
Am I influenced by all of the imagery I’ve seen over the years? Absolutely. Smith, Penn, Abbott, Instagram, Flickr, Nike ads. They’ve all had some part in my creative process. For some, the barrage of visual stimuli can be an annoyance. To me, it’s a valuable part of building my unique visual voice. With camera to my eye, I remember and I see.
That was a fantastic read A. Coming to photography later in life I don’t yet have that store of photo DNA but I feel it building. One particular street shooter who forces me to see differently is working in my hometown http://www.philljenkins.com – truly one of the most unique eyes I’ve encountered and worth a few minutes of everyone’s time
Hey Gary. Sorry for the delayed reply (it’s summer, you know :).
Thanks so much for reading and leaving this comment. Yeah, the DNA builds over time and is a combo, for me at least, of diving into the work of others, having it permeate into my visual memory and constantly shooting. And I don’t limit myself to just one style of shooting. Investigating other forms of photography just makes me feel like a well-rounded visual creator.
Thanks again for taking the time to hang out with us for a bit. Again, excuse the delay.
Listened to episode 100. So much of what you all discussed and expressed individually seems to converge on just a very few themes.
1. Friendship: (as in “ people I trust” and “who will have my back”)
2. Intimacy: being able to expose yourself to each other through your work even when you are vulnerable professionally or in your personal lives.
Of course there’s more than this in over an hour of podcast.
Good luck to the Collective. I grew up in Brooklyn (but now live in Arizona) and love the NYC photos the best, but all the work by all the photographers is really great.
Thanks J.S. Really appreciate you taking the time to comment. You’re the first to give a comment on our new site and that’s really cool. Where in Brooklyn did you grow up?