Truth

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“Truth.” The word floats high on the side of a building where Market Street adjoins the Civic Center. Crowds pass under it. Political demonstrations are held opposite it. The homeless camp beneath it. It dominates the square but is barely noticed by the people below.

An artist named Rigo 23 painted it in 2002 as part of a series of large signs on the sides of buildings in San Francisco. A man of few words, he also did a piece which features a traffic arrow pointing to a single tree in an industrial area. But instead of saying “one way”, the arrow says “one tree”. Another such work is an arrow pointing skyward which reads “birds”.

But it is his “Truth” piece that really struck me. Truth is not only central to our moral development, but here it radiates upon the street below. I’ve chatted with various folks who spend time there, and they were quite surprised when I pointed it out. Like so many of us, they’d never looked up.

In this project, I tried to capture the street in its various permutations using “truth” as a fulcrum. The series is a meditation both upon the concept and fungibility of photographic truth. As Richard Avedon said “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” For instance, they can depict an atypical moment. I once saw an exhibit of the outtakes of Robert Frank’s The Americans. The book includes that famous image of the alienated elevator operator. But in the outtakes, she’s smiling. Which is the atypical moment? Maybe all our moments are atypical… Furthermore, photos can be set up. I think of those wonderful Curtis images of the American Indian, supposedly of anthropological interest. They’re still wonderful, but only many years later did historians discover that he carried a wagon full of costumes to clothe his subjects.

We photographers claim total responsibility for the image, for our version of reality. But the camera–any camera–has its own notion of what it wants to do. It’s always a struggle and often the camera wins. I’ve produced so many images that bore little relation to what I had planned. (Diane Arbus said “I’ve never taken a picture I’ve intended. They’re always better or worse.”) But sometimes it’s better, so whose complaining? Besides, you don’t have to give the camera credit.

Related to photographic truth is the question of how original any piece of art may be. How to separate out the influence of earlier or contemporary artists is one of the threads running through art criticism. I mean this not in the sense of work being derivative or the concept of appropriated art, but in the sense of any photographer rubbing intellectual shoulders with the surrounding artistic community. I consider the images in this project original, yet they contain a non-original central element: Rigo 23’s painting. Does the inclusion of his “Truth” in my image make it a collaboration or a documentary about the painting–or is truth just a word about which it is pretentious to claim ownership?

We’re just beginning to develop an aesthetic for still photography. Photography is perceived as conceptually different from the other artistic media in that, uniquely, it is considered primarily a carrier of information. As soon as we grasp that information (usually quickly, even in a strong image) we move on. Thus we can’t help thinking that an altered photograph has strayed from virtue, from the documentary truth. This will probably continue until another medium takes over this function (God knows what it will be, but I suppose it will arise from the digital world) freeing photography’s aesthetics as still photography freed painting.

Still, in most of these images (as well as in much of my other recent work) I’m trying to add layers of complexity of detail & color that will produce something akin to a painting in the sense that it demands that the viewer spend some time with the image. Perhaps I’m unduly influenced by the layers of complexity, detail, color and the emotional intensity of Abstract Expressionism, which is the art I grew up on. Although Abstract Expressionism is many years past being the central movement of painting, it is, of course, still practiced, and its vitality still resonates. But whatever complexity I’m able to bring to my images does not arise from painterly techniques. I use double exposures which demand a careful balancing of found light and color, or long exposures employing a neutral density filter or other photographic mechanisms to approach the real world in a manner that owes little, at least technically, to painting.

So as I write this I realize that, except for inspiration, perhaps the connection between my images and painting is tenuous. The word “truth” lies at the center of my series but there are so many ways to approach it. I’m not trying to create a narrative or provide context. I just try different visual approaches to the subject. It’s my exploration of photographic truth.

All images are shot on film without digital manipulation.