Over the years, I’ve lived in a number of places. When I grew up, I never imagined that there would be any other location I could call home. But then I went to university in a city that at first felt far away. I realised that both my idea of home and what a city might mean to me were changing. While the city I grew up in suddenly didn’t feel like home any longer, I grew to appreciate life in a place where there was actually something going on. Still, most cities I lived in I eventually was happy to leave. The feeling was strongest in Munich and Pittsburgh, two locations that in principle couldn’t be any different but that were united in their cultural climates’ petty small-mindedness.
I started photographing only after I had moved to the US, so I have no record of the German cities I lived in. I don’t even have a record of most US cities I lived in. I was photographing in Boston and Pittsburgh, but somehow I didn’t feel as if I needed to create a record. I try not to regret these kinds of things. But I do feel bad that I don’t have that record of Boston, which is the only city I lived in so far that I would happily move back to (obviously, it’s completely unaffordable).
At some stage earlier this year, I realised that my time in the little town I’m currently living in has come to an end. It hasn’t literally come to an end – unfortunately, I don’t have a job prospect anywhere. But mentally, I’ve already left. In fact, I don’t even know whether I ever truly arrived here. Life is pleasant enough in Northampton, out in Western Massachusetts. But this place has very little to offer that I actually enjoy doing or seeing. I used to joke to people that any city I live in has to have an international airport nerby. It’s true: the best thing about Northampton is that the next very convenient airport is a little less than an hour down the road.
Once I had realized that mentally, I have already left this town, I thought that this time, I should take pictures to have some sort of record. This was a convenient realisation, given that my own photographic work has been mostly on hold since the pandemic started. Consequently, I would be able to do two things at the same time: work on making pictures, ideally with some new types of pictures, and have some pictures that I could look at later, with whatever mindset I might have in, let’s say, ten years.
Of portraits, Richard Avedon wrote that they’re opinions – instead of someone’s likeness (you can find this in his introduction to In the American West). Surely, whatever is in front of one’s camera is, or maybe I need to say: should be more than a faithful depiction of someone or something. If I take a picture of someone, I try to take a picture of how I feel about them, or how I feel in that particular moment. The same is true for pictures I take of buildings or whatever else I’ve been photographing.
This idea has helped me these past few weeks as I’ve been driving and walking all over Northampton to take pictures. I haven’t just been looking for pictures, I have also channeled some (many) of my frustrations with this place into the work. As odd as this might sound, this has been enjoyable. I think that it has enabled me to make some good pictures (good in my book – your mileage might vary).
Over these past few weeks, I’ve walked along more routes than I would have ordinarily. I can’t say that I discovered all that much. Occasionally, I ran into something that had me stop, such as the bench in the picture above. There’s something incredibly sad about the whole display. It’s not uncommon to find a bench with someone’s name on it. I’ve always thought that that was a strange way to honour someone. I suppose it’s better than nothing. But still, if someone asked me whether I’d prefer a bench or simply nothing to remember me by, I’d happily pick nothing.
There are so many details that make this bench even sadder. Robert E. Burke died aged 37. That’s so young. He was a “valued employee, treasured friend”. But they put the sentiment in quotation marks, and the job status (“employee”) comes first. So you just know the sentiment behind “friend”. The bench is located at the back of a judicial building downtown, which is just some anymous architecture composed of rough concrete bricks. There’s a tiny patch of grass in front of the bench, and right next to it there’s some fence. I didn’t sit down on the bench, because I thought that would just intensify the overall awfulness of the whole display too much: the fence would be uncomfortably close, the patch of grass would look even smaller, given I’d be facing the street…
In some ways, I hated taking the picture because it felt too easy. When I took it, though, I thought I could amplify the overall awfulness even further. That’s what I set out to do. Obviously, what you could think of as my current photographic style – the leaden greys – seems tailor-made for something like this. And with these new pictures, I was finally connecting to some of what had been driving my work for Vaterland: a tuning into the general awfulness of the world, to amplify it even further. That in itself is not the end point. If it were, that would be just terrible. Instead, beyond this and my other pictures, I’m hoping that there will be a jolt for a viewer, where they’re so being made so uncomfortable that they might start thinking about the root causes of the awfulness.
One can hope.
As always, thank you for reading!