Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Enjoy Every Title

"Men might think about sex every seven seconds, but I think about project titles. There is no greater pleasure than lying on the couch, closing my eyes, and daydreaming about the perfect title."

Let's begin with a cliché.  When I was a child, I had a friend who shared my obsession with all things Black Stallion.  We mauled and mulled over the Walter Farley books at a fiercely equal pace.  We also liked to draw.  We were, we were told, "talented."  Besides discussing the books to a point of nauseum near the levels of "and this one time, at band camp," we liked to pass our time engaging in a curious pass-time: at a turn each, we would come up with a potential book title, and then we would furiously sketch the ergo book's front cover.  Alex would invariably "win" on the creative side, but I found a greater pleasure in the most banal part of the game, the naming of the fictitious book.  I would throw the match on occasion, if it was my turn to conjure up the next title.  We must have drawn hundreds, thousands, of book covers over the years, but sadly I don't know of any that survived.  What I do remember is the thrill, the pleasure, of putting together words, quick sentences, really, that evoked an immediate mental image of the plot, the story, the life of the non-existent book.

Photography is a two-dimensional story-line, really.  We've already heard that other cliché, the one about the worth of one photograph, but let's not beat a dead horse.  I've spoken before about my mistrust of easy images, those that don't offer the viewer a layered experience.  Photographs that lie dead on the table, flat, unbending, and easy.  As a photographer drawn to the vernacular, it gets old trying to explain to others what the importance is of an empty billboard, a telephone pole, a shadow, a street lamp or whatever particular piece of banality happens to catch my fancy.  People insist on the why.  The job of the photographer is not necessarily to provide an answer to their own questions on the "why," (although that is always a nice killing of two birds with one stone), but rather to provide the viewer with the tools necessary to answer the questions for themselves.  

I look at a lot of art, I read a lot of books, and a I listen to a lot of music.  We artists are all the same, really, just trying to put together some sort of cohesive collection of work that resonates with the ever-elusive "personal aesthetic."  There are writers/painters/photographers/singer-songwriters out there who are easily recognizable by the most minute sample of their work.  There are those who are prolific at it, some of them genius-like: Elmore Leonard, in writing, for example; Ralph Steadman in drawing.  Then there are a very few whose particular talent is in coming up with titles.  The king, in my book, is singer-songwriter Warren Zevon.  He is know for "Werewolves in London," in terms of titles one of his weaker attempts, but one which nonetheless still reaches at you with a quirky attraction.  You just can't distrust a song titled "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money," or "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." He named his second album "Excitable Boy."  His posthumous compilation of songs is named after one of his most famous quotes, "Enjoy Every Sandwich." Zevon called it as he saw it, didn't mull over the words.  Of "Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money," he once said, "back in the late Seventies I was working on the album 'Excitable Boy,' and I decided I needed a vacation, so I went to Kuaui, in the Hawaiian Islands.  I wrote this song late on night on wet cocktail napkins after a long day of improbable and grotesque mischief, obviously I survived all that.  But I learned something from the experience.  I never take vacations."  There is no obvious correlation between this experience and the ensuing song, of course.  It doesn't matter that he was far from Cuba and Honduras, where the song takes place, when he wrote it.  What matters is the line of thought that conjures the idea.  Wet cocktail napkins = running for your life in Latin America.  What Zevon understood is that titles evoke the emotion of the artist at the point of creation.  I don't think that you would be surprised to discover that he counted other champions of the vernacular such as Stephen King, Hunter S. Thompson, and Billy Bob Thornton as some of his closest friends.  Go ahead, Google him.  He's awesome.  

The point is, artistic projects, themes, are like the story ideas of a book.  We don't "come up with them."  Any successful photographer will tell you what happens when you force it.  Think Mary Ellen Mark and "Twins."  The light turns itself on, out of nowhere.  You never know when it's going to happen.  It's like playing Sudoku.  One number reveals the other, but not the whole picture, just little windows.  You have to be patient.  And you have to be honest.  Tell it like it is, no matter the train of thought.  You never know where it's going to take you.  At least it'll give your work enough layers to last through one more viewing.

"Washington's Birthplace"
Somewhere near Hague, VA,
January 19, 2011

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