How many words do you think you can run through your head in a day?
It depends on how many words you have in you, am I right?
Images, though, they're something else; they represent a bigger, more universal language. All you need to do is look around and keep your eyes open. Yet I could pretty much guarantee you that there are people all over this country who are all but visually illiterate, people whose visual vocabulary is as impoverished as their command of the English language. They don't really look at anything. Show them a photograph of a nook or cranny in their own house and they wouldn't even recognize it. They've done all sorts of studies and experiments on this phenomenon, of course, asked people to identify their neighbors or co-workers from photographs, or to describe the cars their neighbors drive. You'd be surprised by how many people can't do this, can't even come close.
I once went to an exhibition of Irving Penn's photographs, which I find occasionally astonishing but more often than not overly cool and stylized. At any rate, there were all these beautiful images of very common objects --frozen food, for instance, or a scrap of litter from the street-- and people were lined up gaping at these photos as if they were looking upon something wholly exotic or unfamiliar. Which, of course, they were.
It's what you look at that's important, my father always told me. What you choose to see. He was a photo nut, and he was always pointing stuff out. Do you realize, he'd say, how much compelling drama and pain and boredom and joy goes entirely unseen in this world?
That was the way he talked. Look around you, he'd say. Take in the details. His one great dream had been to be a photographer, but he'd never been able, he felt, to come close to capturing what he thought he saw and what he felt was truly there. One day he dug a hole in the backyard and buried his cameras alongside the graves of our two dogs, which was exactly the sort of thing he'd have loved to see someone else do.
Look, he'd say, calling my attention at a stoplight to a stray hand protruding from the shadows of another car and drumming with long, thin fingers on a bright yellow patch of the driver's-side door. Look, he'd say, isn't that beautiful? That's an Eggleston photo, right there.
I remember a few of his photos, and whether they were successful or not I couldn't say. But I do remember a photo of a fiddle underneath a bed, nestled amid the dusty sprawl of shoes, books, and magazines. There was another of a plump strawberry sitting next to a burning cigarette in an ashtray. These things were what he was looking at, he would say, but not what he was looking for. That was one of his favorite questions: What are you looking for?
People, he said, didn't see the trees for the forest; they couldn't see the beautiful moments all around them, lost in the stream and bustle of life. That was the wonder of photography, of seeing the world concentrated through one lens, one eye closed, the other pressed tight to the camera, focused. Those were the pictures my father remembered, those moments when he'd zeroed in on something with his camera, or seen something he'd never before realized was there, never mind if it somehow mysteriously vanished in the developing tray or at the photo lab. He knew what he had seen, even if he had not quite captured it.
He used to drag me down to the public library, where he would build big stacks of photography monographs on one of the long white tables upstairs. We would sit there for hours while he slowly turned the shiny pages of those books, pausing over each photo to say, Look, look at that, or, just as frequently, I don't see it. I can't tell what she was looking for.
He liked the periphery, photographers who found things in the margins and shadows. The frame isn't always what or where you think it is, he'd say. Get outside the frame and you get away from the self-consciousness that photography has instilled in so many people. If people think they're being looked at or watched, even if by a camera --or perhaps especially if by a camera-- they become actors, actors hiding in their own skin.
He would open the pages of a book of portrait photography --by August Sander, perhaps, or Mike Disfarmer-- to illustrate his points. You see, he would say, portraits can be fascinating for what they reveal, but also for what they disclose, and on entirely different levels. They work when the subjects have either fierce delusions or no illusions at all; the best and most fascinating portraits of all --and you will notice this often in these works of Sander and Disfarmer-- are of these last types, people who are comfortable in their own skin, or who are not yet truly conscious of the power of the camera. You could look through thousands of contemporary portraits and never stumble across a single such photograph. The camera has made a pet of the average American. Point a camera at someone and they retreat into the dreams and archetypes of childhood; they become mugging clowns or vamping starlets. I love it when people recoil from the camera, my father said. These are the people I give my heart to, the people with the fascinating peripheries.
It's a gift to look away, my father also told me. Few people even know how to look around, but the really special people learn to look away. Think about what I am saying: in any situation --in every situation-- there is always something that commands attention: the focus. The people in power and the people who manipulate desire know this; the mythmakers understand this as well. It is hard to look away from that focus of attention, whether it is a beautiful woman walking down the sidewalk, a movie screen, or the batter in a baseball game. Yet if you can teach yourself to look away you will see all sorts of startling and wholly unfamiliar things; you will see not just reactions and response, but indifference and an infinite variety of furtive behaviors that are absolutely human. You will see things that no one ever looks at or sees closely.
A great photographer, my father said, can find desolation in even the brightest colors, romance in squalor, heartbreak and loneliness amid jubilation, and beauty in even the most ordinary objects--maybe beauty is not even the correct word. Grace, that's perhaps more accurate.
Look at this, he would say, absorbed in a photo of a rack of candy bars or the inside of a freezer. Look how mysterious this world is. Isn't that the message of every one of these photographs: Can you even begin to imagine?
Photography was my father's obsession, but he had plenty of other strange habits. I suppose, really, that you could define him as a constellation of strange habits. Among his many peculiarities was the fact that he never ate anything much beyond breakfast cereal and cottage cheese. He couldn't keep a job, and would go so far as to admit, It's awfully hard to hold down a job when you don't have a work ethic. It didn't seem to bother him in the least that he bagged groceries or worked as a night clerk at a local motel. He'd claim that he couldn't afford to invest any of his available pride in anything the "real world" would consider a job. His real work was looking at photographs, and finding --but not taking-- photographs in the world around him. Certainly no one was going to pay him to do either of those things in a little river town of fewer than 5,000 people.
Movies, he said, were a poor substitute for photographs, and television was even worse. Yet even when he watched a film my father would be studying the margins and the backgrounds, looking for his own stills, the things no one else would ever notice. I want to stop time, he would say. There’s too much movement in this world, and too many fantasies that are the stuff of nothing but pathetic dreams. I just need the instants, and they tell me everything I need to know about the world we’re living in.
My father hated America, or at least he hated what America was becoming and what it had allowed itself to become. This was 20 years ago; I can only imagine what he would make of the place now. He seemed to have an almost foreign perspective on America; he saw the country from some great and distorted distance, and condemned as imperialism all laissez faire capitalism. The biggest victims of America's cultural imperialism, he would tell anyone who would listen, were Americans themselves. I can't afford to be an American, he would say. It takes more energy than any civilized human being should ever possess.
Yet for all his contempt of America, my father never went anywhere else. He never even visited New York except in photographs. I think he actually thought of himself as European, or at least he saw the country primarily through the eyes of European intellectuals, artists, and, especially, photographers. Foreign photographers took the best pictures of America, he said, because they saw things differently. That was another of his pet phrases: I guess I just see things differently, he'd say whenever somebody in our little town bothered to disagree with him, which was less and less often the older he got.
My father certainly didn't have an easy life, and I know his frustrations were compounded by the fact that he had so little access to the images he craved. He never had any money, and there wasn't even a bookstore in our town, so he was left with the limited resources of the local public library. He always used to say that the only American institution he supported without reservation was the public library. I'm sure my father drove the librarians crazy with his requests for inter-library loans; most of the monographs he was interested in had to be borrowed from the collections of larger libraries. There are an infinite number of things to see in this miserable town, he would say, but they’re still not enough. For the missing things you have to look elsewhere.
The only camera he kept after he gave up on himself as a photographer was a cheap 35-millimeter that he hung onto so that he could make personal photocopies of his favorite images from the collections he pored over in the library. When he was dying he burned even these, and when I expressed my dismay he told me that the photos did not belong to him, and they certainly didn’t belong to me.
The world is the only gallery of photographs that matters, he said. Looking isn’t hard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look hard all the same and hold on tight to every startling thing that catches your eye.