I’m fascinated by photographers and filmmakers who shoot film but don’t develop large quantities of it, whether by choice or through circumstances beyond their control. Work that lies dormant and unseen is like the art we create in our dreams, so perfectly full of potential and possibility. Especially when the images we know from the artist are like glimpses into the memories of others and the collective memory of all of us.
Several times a week for decades, Mark Cohen would shoot three rolls of film over a two-hour walk, develop the rolls directly, have dinner, then go back to the darkroom, develop eight to nine prints directly from the negatives, and cast aside the rest. He estimates he has 600,000-800,000 images that he’s never seen or developed, not even on contact sheets. He’s a street photographer who shoots images from his hip, without looking through the viewfinder. He doesn’t carry a camera with him all the time, he goes on specific walks just to take photographs. This used to be in his home town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, but he’s recently moved to Philadelphia, and now he takes trolley rides, “I get on a trolley and go to a specific intersection. I like to go to the same one 10 times, so I understand the texture of the neighborhood.”
His photographs, not surprisingly, are unusually framed, they’re askew and disorienting–not focussed on face and shoulders, but on whatever part of the body he happened to catch. There’s something beautiful in this discombobulation. The photos of people feel more intimate and specific to one person, because they capture some part of that person nobody would notice, but they also feel like a document of people everywhere at this particular moment in time. They look familiar, like family snap-shots, like people you knew, and in their abstraction they become surprising and new…you see the human form in a different light, as a collection of angles and light and shadows, vulnerable and beautiful.
I love the eccentric ordinariness of this whole process. I love the way it’s described as part of his routine, as natural as making a meal. In describing his career trajectory, from gallery shows in New York in the seventies to relative obscurity, he seems more than resigned. As his career waned, he remained as productive as ever, perhaps even more so. He says that removing himself from the New York scene gave him a “purity” because he didn’t need to have “a personality so involved in the dissemination of work.” He describes himself having “dropped out” in the late 80s. “Gallerists couldn’t sell my stuff. My work’s not the most optimistic. It’s not like Yosemite.”‘
In all of these things: his subject matter, his seeming need to take photographs, the fact that he hasn’t developed many of his negatives, or even looked at them, he reminds me of Vivian Maier, another brilliant photographer who had a unique view of the world all around us. She worked as a nanny for forty years, and many of her negatives were never developed. Both Maier and Cohen capture time as it passes, they save moments in the lives of strangers and make them into something remarkable–something worth noticing, something worth saving. There’s a feeling almost of melancholy in the works of both photographers, something almost lonely in a glimpse into the life of somebody else. But there’s tenderness and compassion, too: we feel a connection.
Vivian Maier’s work was “discovered” during an auction of the contents of a storage locker that proved to contain a massive hoard of negatives. She had lived in New York and Chicago, and she originally developed film in a bathroom that doubled as a darkroom. But as she moved from place to place for various caregiver jobs, she lacked the money and space to develop photographs, and she created a remarkable collection of gorgeous street photographs that she never developed. Her images are strikingly beautiful…the focus is uncanny, the blacks are rich and dark, the subjects are full of humor and sadness. She has beautiful images of children on the streets and looking through windows, images of lovers and workers and parents and elderly people going about their day. Maier was a nanny but she didn’t have a family of her own, and it’s strange to think about her capturing the passage of time in other peoples’ lives, the progress from childhood to old age. She was never a celebrity, never recognized or acclaimed in her lifetime. She became poor and, I imagine, lonely.
We recently re-watched Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film directed by elusive British street artist Bansky, about Thierry Guetta, who may or may not be a real person and who may or may not also be an artist named Mr. Brainwash. Is the whole film a mischievous hoax? A straight documentary? A mix of fact and fiction? I believe it is, of course, the last one, as are all films. (It’s clearly not, as Banksy claims, a re-edit of hundreds of hours of Guetta’s footage of street artists at work, because Guetta is in at least 90% of the shots.)
Whatever else it is, I think Exit Through the Gift Shop is a sneakily beautiful film. It’s clever and amusing, certainly, but underneath all this lies a warm and beating human heart. The film asks questions–literally–the characters are always asking questions, and then contradicting themselves in ways that raise more questions. It makes us think about anonymity and celebrity, about the commercialization of art, about whether or not art has any meaning, or needs to have meaning. Guetta’s art, which is dangerously similar to Bansky’s own, is seen as meaningless, but it sells for lots of money, and Guetta, like Bansky, becomes a celebrity, which, as the film shows it, seems like a depressingly empty pursuit.
The film questions whether or not there are rules, if we should play by them or make up our own, and if any of it really matters. “I don’t know how to play chess, but to me, life is like a game of chess.” Guetta supposedly took up the video camera because he didn’t want to miss anything. As a child he was away from home for the death of his own mother, and now he obsessively videotapes everything in his life so that he won’t miss it. He starts to follow street artists all over the world, amassing a prodigious amount of footage, and entirely missing the lives of his own children, and all the ways they are growing and changing all the time. He doesn’t watch any of the video, he packs it all away in boxes, for him capturing it is enough.
Maier and Cohen’s street photography lies in stark contrast to Guetta’s manically hyped shallow “works” and even to Banksy’s street art. But the character of Guetta, if he is a character, seems designed to explore similar questions and concerns to those raised by their photography. It seems as though they’re all asking the same questions and all deciding that there are no answers but it doesn’t mean that they can or should should stop asking, or that we should stop trying to capture moments as they fly by, though we can never catch time as it passes. The attempt may be futile, but that doesn’t mean it lacks value.