Night Walk

Night Walk

I recently got a new phone which has a much greater capacity for taking photos at night. A few days after getting it, I went for a walk at night and was kind of shocked by how much it let me capture. I posted a few of those and the response was very encouraging. So, over the next week, I ended up going on some long walks near my home at night. These turned into bike rides, and soon I had covered a good deal of territory. As I walked, I thought about why I didn’t just use my Canon 5D camera to make higher quality images. It’s the same question I struggled with when I was making work with my phone in the meadow behind my house.

upside down image

I don’t have a simple answer. The immediacy, simplicity, and ease-of-use of the phone appeals to me. It’s also partly a rejection of tools and expectations. In the same way that photographers in the ’80’s liked to work with crappy plastic Helga cameras, I like the challenge of working with what I have and trying to push it to do what I want. There’s almost something that is unintentionally – or semi-intentionally – self-undermining about it, though. One part of me is so suspect of the undue influence of systems that I often inhibit my own ability to have my work be a part of a system. Conversely though, I do want that system to understand what my intentions are, and what my work is about, which is why I’m bothering to think about these ideas and write this. There’s something particularly torturous about trying to be a part of a system while also rejecting it- ibid Kurt Cobain.

From the Night Walk Series

As an artist, I rarely seek out projects, but instead kind of stumble into them. I’ll shoot something, or read something, that sparks a feeling or an idea, and that can quickly tumble into something that borders on a short-term obsession. With this “Night Walk” work, the first images I made were definitely reminiscent of images that a couple of friends, Lindsay Metivier and Jimmy Fountain, have also been making – but also of Gregory Crewsdon. Like most artists, I am influenced by the work of others. I try not to copy it, but instead fold that awareness into my own impulses and ideas.

I took three photography classes in college, but I have remained at the very outer edges of that system. Like Groucho Marx, I have never wanted to be a part of any club that would have me. In all seriousness, I have always struggled with how work that is made within a system ends up being both consciously and unconsciously confined by the rules of that system. While I can be moved and overwhelmed by the power of well-executed craft, I have equal appreciation for the rejection of craft. So, I get stuck in the middle somewhere. In general, this is true for all aspects of my work; it tends to be in between in regards to both aesthetic and idea.

Our first documentary was called “Horns and Halos” because the characters all had both good and bad aspects. This made the film confounding to people who wanted to know who the good guys were. It was about an underground publisher who worked to re-publish a discredited book about GW Bush. Both the author and the publisher were complicated characters, and the film focuses on them rather than Bush. When we showed the film in DC, the audience was equally divided among those who were mad that we hadn’t been harder on GW and those who thought we hadn’t been hard enough. Often, in order to get attention, work has to narrow itself to a kind of binary position that makes the audience comfortable that they understand where the work stands. In the world of art, where there is a collective understanding of what is historically important, there is a sense of shared insider knowledge that leads to one’s perceived relevance within a system, rather than pure connection to what is being seen. Those who challenge the idea of what is important have a hard row to hoe, but this can sometimes work to their advantage. However, this requires having bought into the idea of the import of the system to begin with- or at least the import of challenging it directly.

a photo I shot in Italy when I was a freshman at NYU

When I started making photographs, I was most drawn to very observant, yet loose, street photography like the work done by Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and Robert Frank. I appreciated a lot of the more technically-focused work like Mary Ellen Mark, but I like the freedom and exuberance of the aforementioned photographers. Their work was the stuff that made it through the filters of the system and reached people like myself who were outside of it. Later, when I was in NY and I could go to A Photographer’s Place, a photo book store, I found so many more amazing books to look through which expanded both my understanding of photographs, but also of how work reached people. I also had a few good teachers.

For my first 10 years of making photos, I mostly shot black and white (except for my mall project which had to be in color partly because it was started in a color photo printing class). Much of that work was about the music scene that I was a part of. In the mid ’90’s, that work had kind of run it’s course. I got a Yashica T4 point-and-shoot camera and started to shoot a lot of color print film with it. I would get it developed at the Hallmark store where I got double prints for about 8 bucks. I would pull out ones I liked and started to make letter books with them (i.e. little books I would send to friends as letters). I also started to build them into collages. This was work that was both observant of the world around me, but also somewhat personal, with a lot of documentation of friends. The character from the aforementioned film Horns and Halos had a book store with a small gallery and he offered me the opportunity to have a show. I made a wall sized book of the collages (poster size black foam core that one could turn on the wall). I had a little gallery book there and in the comments one person wrote “make your own work!”, implying that what I had shot, which was largely personal and observant, was so derivative as to be infuriating. It’s amazing how much our own indoctrination into certain systems can make us so livid about how other people choose to live.

from the mall series

At the time I was doing more film work, and I didn’t make a lot of photos over the next decade. Then, while scanning images for a film, I stumbled on slides from my first project, shooting in malls across America. I put some of that work online and it went viral. Eventually it got published by the most important photo book company. However, since I was not really part of their system, they did not communicate with me at all. The disconnect with how powerfully the work connected with people versus how it connected with the expectations of the system was profound. Despite the book selling out before it hit stores, no gallery was interested in showing it. Eventually, an excellent local museum included some of my images in a group show of NC artists. Last year at this time, I used Kickstarter to self-publish a second book of those mall photos, and it sold out very quickly. Still, I have had no other interaction with the photo system about the work. Since then, I have started to scan a lot of my follow-up project from the early ’90’s, and it too is resonating with people, and I will make that book as well. What I have learned through this process is that sometimes, if work isn’t made as a part of a system, it takes a lot more time for it to reach the world. The Internet changed the nature of the equation, democratizing it to a degree. So, I keep on making work, knowing that at some point it will find it’s audience.

This is the first image I shot as part of this series. This is about 20 yards up the road from the house that I grew up in. I have walked this road thousands of times, but on this night the long shutter speed on the camera gave me a new way to see a very well worn path.

I live in Chapel Hill, where I grew up. I went to college in NY, and stayed there for 27 years. It’s hard for me to believe, but it was seven years ago that I moved back into the house that I grew up in. This night-shooting started out with making images in the neighborhood that I spent my early years exploring. I expanded to a much larger loop towards the university campus. Then I rode through downtown Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Later, I went up Laurel Hill road.

This one is from “Southern Village”. a neighborhood built in a wooded area behind my junior high school. My biology teacher would take us back there to look for bugs and when he told us that one day it would all be bulldozed, we just laughed at him.

In general, the images are focused on buildings; and the light emanating from them in dusk or early evening. So, they become about light, lines, and feelings related to home. For me there are also a lot of subtle personal connections. For example, without really thinking about it, I shot at the intersection where my father died, where my parents worked, and the roads I used to travel as a kid. Last night, I ended up at my old junior high school.

I was a little disappointed when I imported the images to my computer so that I could make this post. They look better on the phone, and I don’t think they will print as well as I’d hoped. Photography is an odd tool for artists. As discussed above – when we think about craft, we often focus on technique, materials, and a sense of mastery. I like to think about immediacy, and letting go of control. For me, images are about a feeling: what does the picture make me think of, or relate to? Pictures are usually less singular than part of a narrative. This here is a work in progress – some of the images and some of the thoughts. For now, I will post the images and share this work. I’ll start to fill this in with thoughts. (edit… I did some of that thinking above)

This is the exit from the parking lot of my junior high school, which ended up being the middle school for both of my daughters.
This tunnel was built as part of a walking trail. While I was growing up, there was a cow pasture behind my family home. Now it is part of a public green space. When we first moved here, there was no access to the public green space. Eventually, they built a parking lot and long trail that this tunnel is part of.
This is my neighbor’s house. We knew all of these houses by the names of the original owners. This was the Gooch house, I believe.
I grew up in Kings Mill/Morgan Creek. This one is on Sourwood Circle. It’s about a mile from my house, but we had friends who lived around here and we would ride our bikes all over. This was also part of our long halloween loop.
The storage building at the middle school track.
Part of the Morgan Creek trail
The next few images are from a long night walk I took that went from my house up to the hospital and down around to the 15-501 highway, which was two lanes when I was a kid.
My third shoot started out by my friend’s house on Foxwood Drive, across town.
The next night, I rode my bike up to the downtowns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
The short street house where my girlfriend and several friends lived. Local bands practiced in the attic.
This building was the second location of the School of Social Work at UNC. When my brother and I were very little, we often were brought to my mom’s office after daycare, so I have some visceral memories of the staircase that circled the interior like a mansion -and her space in the front left corner of the building. My mom always fixated on having a good space to be in, with windows and a view. When we went to a hotel, the family often had to sit in the lobby for upwards of an hour while she surveyed various rooms that she requested to see. My strongest memory of this building is probably one of my earliest memories. It was a chilly fall morning when she trundled us into the big red station wagon for a ride to daycare. My twin brother and I climbed over the backseat and laid down in the back of the wagon. Maybe we dozed, but we were definitely nice and quiet, and we weren’t fighting, which was rare. My mom pulled into the parking lot of this building and went inside. We were either three or four years old, and after a while, we started to wonder why she hadn’t come back. Eventually, we worked up the courage to open the door of the car and walk around to the front of the building. I can’t remember how we got inside, because those doors were clearly too big for us to open, but once inside, we asked the secretary where our mommy was. She got on the phone and called up my mom who came running down the stairs to drive us to daycare. Maybe she went to grab something and got caught up. She was a deep thinker and often got so involved in her thoughts that she lost track of time and place. As someone who spent her career fighting for justice, she had a particularly difficult time as a woman, in what was at the time a very male-dominated School of Social Work. She had to fight to become the first tenured female professor in the school. That focus often led to profoundly important work, yet it was a weight for the family.
These photos were made a couple of days after the campus had been largely shut down due to an explosion of CoVid cases. Much of the blame fell to frats for having parties where the disease presumably spread.
Laurel Hill Road is a fairly steep mile-long route up from 15-501 to the campus. When I was in high school, I ran cross country and ran this hill hundreds of times. Now that I live here again, it is part of my running route.
I shot this image because the arrows drew me in. A few minutes later I realized it’s also the intersection where my father was hit and killed.
After stopping here to shoot the way the headlights lit up the guard rail, I realized that this is probably right around the spot that the car that hit my father stopped after colliding with him at the intersection of 15-501 and Manning Drive. To clarify, I have no ill will towards the driver. We met with him a couple of days after the incident to tell him that we did not blame him. I ran into him at the voting booth during the last election. The polling place was at St Thomas More- accessed by the intersection seen in the above image.
A wider view of the intersection- This one was about light and lines.
The work started to get a little bit stale so I started to experiment with movement
I was focused more on feeling than beauty. I’m not judging the houses or the way people live, but instead creating a space to imagine what that life is like.

I might keep adding more images. Maybe I’ll do a separate post. This work is very much about quarantine/covid. This period is isolating, and melancholy and fraught. This work is about that feeling- remembering what it feels like right now- how isolating it really is. I’m lucky. We feel safe, but also lost. Thanks.

No Comments

Post A Comment