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The Practice of Attention
Can looking at pictures be an act of resistance?
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver
Sometimes life gets in the way.
That’s what’s been happening over here. Or maybe my super-productive end of the year resulted in an unexpected slump in personal productivity in January and February. Either way, I have been out of touch lately, and I’m sorry about that. I hope that each of you is well and staying happy and healthy. Thanks in advance for understanding.
That’s not to say my radio silence means I haven’t been enjoying myself. Quite the contrary — I’ve been recharging my batteries by reading and relaxing. We spent two weekends in the countryside and then a week with friends in New Orleans celebrating Mardi Gras. It’s been a nice start to the year. Yet I haven’t brought myself to write one of these posts for various reasons. I feel bad about that because some of you pay for this newsletter, and I want to make sure you get your money’s worth. But the break has given me time to reflect, and I woke up today ready to connect some of the dots swirling around in my head.
One of the books I read last month was Syntax of the River: The Pattern Which Connects, an extended conversation between Barry Lopez and Julia Martin. I’m a longtime Lopez fan, and I’m sure many of you know his work. He writes about the natural world, ecological issues, and, frequently, photography. The book opens with a discussion about writing as a kind of presence, awareness, and attention. That made me think about my relationship to photography because I often use imagemaking to sustain my focus on a place or experience.
At the same time, I’ve been reading novels since the winter break, and I keep noticing how quickly my mind wanders away from the text on the page and the story I’m reading. So it is with pictures onscreen so much of the time — they’re fleeting, flickering images that I sometimes forget as quickly as they appear before me. Does that sound familiar? It’s a bad way to engage with the world.
Back to the book — At one point, Martin asks Lopez if he thinks that the practice of attention is a kind of act of resistance. Lopez replies:
I sometimes think of myself as a sort of control group. There’s very little distraction around me. I’m not running from one place to another, answering the phone, and multitasking. I don’t have anything to multitask. Oh, I do when I clean the kitchen and do the laundry and do all of that at once and get it all done, but I spend a lot of time not doing much of anything except participating in what’s going on around me.
Just standing out there, watching the wind. Standing at the windows of the house, watching light break up in the trees. Or coming down at night and opening the front door and standing on the porch and just listening, listening for what’s going on in the dark. And leaving the windows open in the bedroom so I can hear what’s going on at night. I guess I would become afraid if I weren’t anchored in a place where I feel…I feel I’m always learning a more refined way of looking, listening, and touching.
A more refined way of looking, listening and touching.
That sentiment resonates because I tend to live my life in the exact opposite way Lopez describes. I’m working and writing, checking email and Twitter, listening to music, reading news headlines, scrolling Instagram, peeking at my phone while watching TV, and mindlessly doing any number of things that distract me all day, every day, all of the time. Much of what I do with my free time involves looking at and thinking about photography. But that buzzy headspace is not ideal for connecting with and making meaningful sense of photographs — especially when they whiz by at breakneck speed in the palm of my hand.
I enjoy reading your comments, your opinions, and many of the photographers you have presented. But I disagree with your statement:
“I want to show pictures on a big screen the way they were meant to be seen.”
Photography is a print medium. Social media is a wonderfully convenient way to share images and ideas about photography. But it will never surpass the aesthetic experience of standing in the presence of a finely crafted photographic print.
Don’s right. I love digital imagery, but printed photography is hard to beat. It’s magical, and it packs a psychic punch that’s usually lacking on our mobile phone screens. Now, I know many of you are print photographers, so I don’t need to elaborate on why print is special — critical even. But I sometimes lose sight of it because I spend so much time working with non-physical images online. And In light of the Lopez conversation, printed photography takes on a new kind of power.
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Digital media is the default mode for viewing photography for many of us. I’ve been a longtime champion of web-based photo experiences for obvious reasons. Digital images are beautiful, brightly backlit, and undoubtedly meaningful. Still, with so much of our contemporary photoland experience happening on Instagram, they scroll by far too quickly, which means we give them short shrift too much of the time. Printed photography doesn’t just last longer; it affords a different kind of attentional experience that changes our relationship with the pictures and the people who make them. That kind of sustained attention is continually under assault on social media, and it’s essential to comprehend someone’s photography fully.
It's incredible how much I've acclimated to the crushing flow of imagery on Instagram. I’m a blogger and don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And I’m convinced there are still meaningful ways to engage with photography online — even on Instagram. So I’m trying to carve some new attentional grooves by imposing some constraints on my Instagram experience.
Back in the day, before the social media news feed was invented, I published a photo a day on the old FlakPhoto blog. I’m going back to basics and doing that in my Instagram Stories. Limiting myself to showing one photographer a day will be a good practice in restraint. I hope it helps deepen my appreciation of the photography I show on IG. I would love to see your work — Please drop me a line if you'd like to show something of yours in my Stories. You can do that by replying to this email.
I’m still processing these ideas. I know they’re not entirely original, but they seem more pertinent than they have in a while, especially as digital platforms continue to devour our attention. Let me know what you think. I love hearing from you.
Speaking of print shows
Every now and again, I get the urge to stage an exhibition in the real world. That’s a rare thing for me, and given these latest reflections, it’s a timely exercise in reacquainting myself with the physical qualities of the photographic experience. I never intended for this newsletter to be a promotional vehicle, so I hope you’ll bear with me, but I want to tell you about a new project and a photographer I want you to know about.
I discovered Sarah Stellino on Instagram. Small world! When I realized she lived in Madison, I invited her to meet for coffee and asked if I could curate a show of her work. I was glad when she agreed, and we spent last fall working together to organize a small exhibition of her handmade darkroom prints. The show is on view at the Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison through March 4, 2023. Swing by if you can.
Our local paper published a great story about Sarah and her process — Read 'Queering Rural Spaces' at the Arts + Literature Laboratory celebrates a resurgence of analog photography. If you use Instagram, you can follow her there @sarahstellinophoto. Thanks for looking! 😊
One more thing…
If this kind of thinking appeals to you, I highly recommend Sophie Howarth’s latest book, The Mindful Photographer. I read it earlier this summer, and it's still resonating. I suspect that some of you practice mindfulness or meditation, and if you do, you'll appreciate the connections that Sophie makes between Eastern philosophy and photography. This is one that I'll come back to repeatedly. Check it out!