It’s been a strange few years. Since the start of 2020, I’ve lived in Charlottesville, Bangkok, Sydney, and New York. Three continents in as many years. Then, in March, I moved back home to New Orleans. I’ve felt uprooted and unbalanced for a while now, but things are starting to settle in. I’m starting to settle in.
I mention all of this because I think my photography has suffered for it. I’ve been preoccupied and distracted and I’ve lacked focus. I’ve been lazy as well, and I’ve used the past few years as an excuse for that laziness. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. It’s much more difficult to dig your way out of it.
So I’ve been trying to change the way I see things, to relearn some things about seeing, and to recapture some of the wonder I felt when I first picked up a camera. I’ve been photographing clichés. Reflections in puddles. Landscapes out of plane windows. Temples and riots of wires above old shophouses.
As artists, we’re often told to kill our darlings, to not fall in love with a thing because of our experience with it. But I’ve always found those platitudes disingenuous. All art is personal. Some clichés are really beautiful. Show what you love and hope that it resonates with even one person.
I didn’t set out to make these photographs anything more than what they are–a document of the past nine months. I tried to pay particular attention to things I would normally walk past. I tried to point the camera at anything even remotely interesting. I tried to see in layers and to simultaneously embrace the obvious and move past it. I took a lot of bad and boring photographs. I love them all.
There’s no narrative here, no through line or connecting thread. Just a small collection of small pictures. Personal, but also maybe more than that.
Not really, but I’ve been watching a lot of How To with John Wilson on HBO, and in the spirit of digression and the way these posts kind of meander and waltz their way through things, the nod feels very apropos. Why teach a thing directly, when the diversions are just as important?
This is the first mural I’ve ever painted, so I’m not here to teach anything. I didn’t even know I could do it until three days in, after the first coat of paint was down and the stencils were on the wall. From there it built up slowly, one brush stroke at a time. The entire thing–four walls in a great friend’s yoga studio in Providence, RI–is based on photographs I’ve taken over the past decade or so. The project took two weeks to complete and pushed me to the limits of my artistic abilities.
I should have taken more pictures of the process, not just the finished product. It’s nice to see how things are made, to see how someone builds their craft from the ground up. I think a part of me never records those details because they would lay bare the mental chaos that comes with creation and because I’d just be showing how little I know, how circumspect and subjective art really is. Maybe that’s a worry a lot of us have. Maybe we’re all imposters here. Anyway.
I started with a simple base layer of three different colors–blue, green, and yellow–randomly thrown on the wall. From there I sketched the mural in charcoal. Then I painted the hot pink undertones that would bleed and burn through the final piece. Then I painted the rest.
The man looking up into the trees is from an image I took during my time in photography school, nearly 15 years ago. A self-portrait in a snow-covered forest outside of Boston. It was also the first section I painted on the mural.
Throughout the process, different shades and subtleties became noticeable the longer I looked at my reference images. It’s incredible, everything we fail to see at first. Photography schools should teach a semester of painting. The benefits of seeing things progress and unfold slowly are immeasurable. It’s a nice balance to the often brunt force of photography.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a comics artist. Or maybe just any kind of artist. Or maybe I’m not really sure what I wanted. In my mind there was a job where I could just sit on the floor and eat cucumbers and draw whatever I felt like with an old yellow pencil and that was the job I wanted. As training, I would try to draw everything I saw as perfectly as possible. I threw away every mistake, so I threw away almost everything I drew. I would get frustrated at my inability to show things as they were. My dreams faded before my young eyes. I was a slow learner. It took a long time to learn art isn’t about showing things as they are.
I still don’t know what art is about–I just know it isn’t about that. Or it is about that if you want it to be about that, but you don’t have to want it to be about that. Or something. Who knows. Google it.
It took 16 days to finish the mural. While I was painting, I slept above the studio. I would work all day with little else on my mind. At the time, I knew I was in the middle of a very special moment–I had no other responsibilities, nowhere else to be. I was with friends. It wasn’t cucumbers and an old yellow pencil, but it was something just as good.
There’s very little that’s perfect about the final piece. Maybe a small section here or there on the wall with the bamboo forest. An errant brushstroke or two elsewhere. But also, maybe not. Perfection is fleeting and it moves in tandem with the rest of life, ebbing and flowing. So there’s no How To here. There’s no right or wrong way to go about any artistic pursuit. You just feel your way through it in the dark and hope it says one small thing to one person somewhere, at some time.
I take a lot of walks in Sydney, mostly around the many beaches. It’s nice being in a city so close to the ocean, like living on the edge of a calming abyss. Here are some simple photographs from last weekend, nice and contemplative, around Bondi and Manly. Surfers waiting in the waves and all.
I’ll be spending the next 3-4 months living in Sydney, working with clients and enjoying the milder climate and fresh air of the country’s east coast. It was sad to leave Bangkok again, so soon after my long-awaited return at the end of last year, but we’re all borne on this great wave of uncertainty, cresting and falling, trying to land on solid ground. And so I find myself here, far from home again, but with some great friends and colleagues to help see me through.
The above picture is an old tree somewhere a few hours north of Perth, on the west coast. I’d take a photograph from my current quarantine room here in Sydney, but I doubt anyone is excited to see the Commonwealth Bank facade or the highway peaking through the trees in the parking lot. One more week until I’m released. Apparently yesterday someone tried to escape after slugging back a few beers in his room. Luckily they caught him before he got too far, but what an idiotic legend. I can almost feel the fresh air seeping through the window panes.