Reality is Relative

For those interested I have two new reviews at the New York Photo Review website. I enjoyed Jessica Backhaus’ retrospective at Lawrence Miller Gallery. She is one of the few contemporary photographers that has my admiration for her vision and her output. She has published 4 books in the last ten years and each is worthy of owning. This is more than I can say for the likes of Wolfgang Tillmans who maybe talented but his images leave me cold.

Besides writing I have been working on my Broadway series. Saturday found me in the upper part of Manhattan as I photographed from 207th Street all the way down to 125th Street. That is a lot of walking. It is quite a bit of talking as well, as I have been trying to chat up people and trying to be more open and friendly with the subjects I am photographing. There was one person in particular, a large (both in height and girth) black man wearing a  black jacket and holding a stack of newspapers of some sort.  He wore a T-Shirt that read Juneteenth. Juneteenth is the holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in America and it is also the title to Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published, spliced together novel. Attracted by the shirt and the man’s slightly suspicious stare I told him (mustering as much charm as I could) that I liked his shirt and would he tell me a little more about what he was doing. He began speaking, a gruff New York growl but with an ample hint of polish that led me to believe he had made this speech many times before. But the more he went on the more his grasp of reality appeared slight at best and when he said the first President was a Muslim I stopped him gently and asked, “first President of what?”

“These United States”, he replied.

“I didn’t know that I said” as quietly and simply as I could.

After a few more minutes of exposition by the man I asked if I could take his photograph. I explained I was working on a project to photograph in my own way all of Broadway and that he could appear in the book I was hoping to publish and that it might help spread the word about Juneteenth. He agreed and in less than five minutes I had three frames of him on film.

After leaving William, who also furnished me with a local newspaper celebrating Juneteenth on the top of which he wrote his name and phone number in neat block letters, it occurred to me if this isn’t the problem with Democracy as practiced here in America. William  was a nice enough guy and I actually enjoyed my brief time with him but he had a version of reality in his head that was radically different from mine. Now I am not saying that right-wing Republicans and those Johnny come lately Tea Partiers are mad (although they come quite close to it in some instances), but they do have a version of reality that radically departs from mine. That’s okay. Everyone has their own personal reality, but when you try to forcefully convert my reality to yours well then we have a problem.  My biggest complaint is that I don’t believe any of these people employ any sort of critical thinking when arriving at their world views. They believe whatever pundits on TV or conniving politician or commercial Madison Avenue throws at them.

But this is a photography blog and not a place where I usually espouse my political views. Circling back to photography and my work on the Broadway series I started employing Photoshop a little bit more creatively than usual. Seeking to communicate the idea that “Madison Avenue” to some extent influences our reality, making it seem more rosy,or at least telling us that if you just try a little harder or (more likely) spend a little more money you will achieve a wonderful and colorful lifestyle, I have taken to photographing billboards and advertisements and making them a little more colorful and eye catching, while at the same time making the immediate environment a little less colorful and flat. See example above. Just pushing my art along a little bit at a time. Can’t wait to see how it all turns out!



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