Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Finding the Words

Considering I've taught college writing and literature classes for over 15 years, it's not surprising that I find myself fascinated with language. Switching my focus to photography hasn't lessened that interest, so it shouldn't come as a shock that the second photographic series I'd like to talk about is something I'll call "Finding the Words." One of my favorite photographic subjects is the written word, whether that word be printed on a business sign or scrawled hurriedly on an alley wall. In the following entry I'll provide examples of both these types of found words and discuss the photographic relevance of these instances of visible language.

Looking for Signs
First I'd like to tackle the example of what I'll call official words, words that are printed up and serve an official, socially sanctioned, function, usually for businesses.

Here are some examples:

Onan Motors

Moving Prosthetics

Law and Order

Christian Porn

First, let me explain why I felt compelled to capture these words with my camera. In the first image, I felt an admittedly juvenile pleasure in seeing Onan--the biblical figure best know for spilling his seed and thereby associating his name to masturbation--selling engines. At least he doesn't have to worry about his idle hands any more.

The second photo was similarly motivated by a childish sense of humor. If you look carefully at the two signs on the building, one labels it as the home of Carolina Orthotics and Prosthetics. The other sign indicates that it is actually the *former* home of the company as they have moved. I found this an odd juxtaposition, a symbol of limited mobility being on the move.

The third image was taken on a Manhattan tour boat. The axe implies how serious they are about being orderly. They will enforce that rule, but it might not be clean or painless seems to be the implicit message.

The last photo was taken in Jefferson, WV, infamous for it's adult industries. I couldn't pass up the chance to capture the odd pairing of adult bookstore and evangelical church. I suppose it could provide convenience for those wanting to sin and then be forgiven immediately.

Obviously what ties all of these images together is the humor that arises from the words and their surroundings, text and context if you will. The level and quality of the irony that arises from these juxtapositions is certainly of different values in these photos. The simple, adolescent humor of the first two images for example isn't nearly as complex or interesting as the ironic pairings of the second two images that require a little more work on the viewer's/reader's part to work out. Ultimately, though, wherever these images fall on that continuum, it is this type of juxtaposition, this ironic misconnect, that draws my interest both linquistically and photographically.

The Writing on the Wall
The second type of found-word image I like to capture is graffiti. This is a much more subversive form of visible language that is usually left by the lone individual, perhaps an artist in his or her own right, without official sanction of any sort.

Here are some examples:

Corporate Biatch

Muff Graffiti

The Tombs Have Eyes

Now, these pictures don't have the same type of subversive irony that the official signs did since they are subversive on their surface, written furtively in places not originally intended for these words. Instead, an individual felt moved to make a public statement in written form. Therefore, the content of these found words carry more weight than their context for the most part.

What drew me to the first image--taken at a bus stop in Geneva, Switzerland--was perhaps another burst of adolescent immaturity. I liked the implicitely serious questioning of a very fundamental social institution, one that undergirds modern, Western capitalism--a very weighty topic--combined with the playful street slang of Biatch. Certainly this is another form of ironic conjoinment, but in this case, it is one that the author him/herself did, whether deliberately or by accident.

In the second image found in Youngstown, OH, I'm intrigued by the hastily scrawled warning to keep our hands off that boy's muff. Reading through the possible definitions for that term provided by the link, I will let you make up your own mind as to the writer's intentions. It seemed like such a random warning and yet implying such immediacy, earnestness, and specificity--not just any boy, but *that* boy--that there was another disconnect in my experience of these found words.

In the final photograph, found at a cemetery in Paris, France, are words painted on the back of a sign which translate into English as "The tombs have eyes." Now I know that the French have a fascination with and acceptance of death that we in the United States do not. When I was visiting the graveyard, for example, there were many Parisian families having picnics, enjoying the green space. Even by this standard though, this phrase was very eerie. It recontextualized the tombs for me and indeed I felt the subject of their gaze as much as they were the subject of mine. I wanted to photograph this moment of insight someone had taken the time to leave behind.

Yeah, but is it art?
Now, I have described my fascination with the found word, both official and subversive, and why I feel compelled to capture these images. However, the question remains, if I am to set about making a series of these photos, is this visible language photo worthy? If I claim to be a fine arts photography, are these images worthy of the name fine art? Needless to say, this is a very prickly question that deserves much more attention than I am prepared to give it now, but I think it ultimately boils down to the question of whether these photos have the visual aesthetics to stand as art or instead is their true impact primarily verbal. And if that is the case, does it mean that they cannot stand on their own as visual artifacts. In other words, could these photos still have value as photographs without the viewer being able to understand their verbal messages. If someone didn't read English, would they still be worth viewing, would they still "mean"? And if the answer to that is no, does that necessitate that the images aren't valuable as fine arts photography?

I think that the picture I've presented in this entry show that actually there is a spectrum from one of these extremes to another. For instance, the Moving Prosthetics image doesn't really have any visual interest other than the signs. Without that, the picture doesn't hold up on a purely visual level. However, the Muff Graffiti picture I think does work on a visual level with the dynamic movement of the hastily scrawled warning. To state it simply, some of these images are more aesthetically pleasing than others.

Obviously, this entry has gone on far too long already, so I'll leave related questions for my next entry. I am curious for now though what you think about these images. Are they worth pursuing as a series, or is their impact limited and just good for a laugh. Thanks for your interest. Take care.