Part 2: Mythogeography & Photography
Part 1: Disrupting the status-quo of place
THE ARCHITECT-WALKER: A Mis-Guide, Wrights & Sites, Triarchy Press, Axminster, England, June 2018. ISBN: 978-1-911193-10-4; Paperbound, 119p, including references, $25/£20
RETHINKING MYTHOGEOGRAPHY in Northfield, Minnesota,John Schott & Phil Smith, Triarchy Press, Axminster, England, March, 2018. Introduction/Photography: John Schott. ISBN: 978-1-911193-38-8; Paperbound, 51p, $20/£15
Part 1, is essentially a review of both books. In “Disrupting the status quo of place,” I wrote about how mythogeography (Rethinking Mythogeography, Phil Smith) can be used to rupture an entrophic myth of place and to reverse the false connections brought about by that myth. The architect-walker (The Architect-Walker, Wrights & Sites) is the one who disrupts the invasive myth through playful intervention.
Part 2, Mythogeography & Photography is about a specific application of mythogeography and the playful dramaturgy of Wrights & Sites to photography. It also touches on the philosophy of photography. It is much more personal. It is going to be about how mythogeography and the role of the architect-walker has influenced both my thinking about photography and my actual photographic work.
It has been said that the camera is the great leveler: It puts everything within the photo on equal terms. It has also been said that it is the image that raises, and questions, expectations. This seemingly paradoxical conundrum can only be resolved if we differentiate between “photo” and “image.” A “photo” (or “photograph”) simply put, is a picture of what the camera sees. An “image” on the other-hand is a visual representation, a likeness, of what the photographer saw. An “image” then is the “photo” tweaked to visually represent what the photographer saw in his mind. This is not the same as enhancing a photo to make it “look better.”
In terms of mythogeography, the photo is what we “expect to see,” i.e., the common understanding, the understood “myth of place,” while the image is what we observe if we look beyond what is the expected. Depression Era photographer, Walker Evans, called this sort of photography, lyrical documentary. For the photographer, lyrical documentary, is what Wrights & Sites calls, dramaturgy.
Whether we call it “lyrical documentary (photography)” or “photographic dramaturgy,” it is a skill that must be cultivated. A “good photo” is a technically a correct one. A “good image” is a photo that has been developed and refined to meet the expectation in the eye of the photographer’s vision. In other words, an “image” represents what the photographer saw in his mind, his vision. A “good image” conveys all, or some, of the photographer’s vision to the viewer. Technical prowess does not produce such an image, although it can help. The actual ability to arrive at a “good image” must be cultivated, developed, and refined.
I’ve been a mythographic walker, or architect-walker if you prefer, for many years now. Well, actually I’ve always been one, although it has only been since the late, late, mid-90s that I’ve known how to describe it Up 'til then I was just simple flâneur on a dérive (experiential walk). It has been an integral part of my work as an urban consultant, as a university professor, a writer, and as a photographer. While I’ve realized for some time now how mythogeography influenced my view of the everyday, I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of my philosophy of photography until just recently.
That thinking began with a message from Phil Smith letting me know that he had a new work on mythogeography about to be released. In the past I have reviewed several of Phil’s works, and have used a couple as textbooks or recommended reading in my Urban Paradoxes course. I jumped at the chance to grab a review copy. I also discovered about the same time, that Wrights & Sites (whom I’ve also reviewed in the past), of which Phil is a part, have a new work coming out in June.
Since discovering mythogeography, the works of both Phil and Wrights & Sites have become a source of inspiration for my wanderings and urban projects. Anyway, not to belabor the point, I strongly recommend both of these books to everyone who is “searching for the magic in the everyday.”
When I thought about writing the review I decided to write it in two parts, the first part as a review of the two books
and the second part as an exploration of what these two works offer to me as a photographer.
This brings us to our two books: THE ARCHITECT-WALKER (Wrights & Sites) and RETHINKING MYTHOGEOGRAPHY (Phil Smith). And here is where it becomes personal.
Many photographers call themselves “wandering photographer.” I have done the same. I have often referred to myself as a wandersmänner (wanderer), and to some extent, a flâneur. However, a “wandering photographer” is not necessarily a mythogeographic walker (Phil Smith’s term) or an architect-walker (Wrights & Sites term). Merely wandering doesn’t cut it. Becoming a mythogeographic-walker, an architect-walker is something that is intentionally practiced, something that is developed and refined over time. I am working on becoming a mythogeographic photographer.
The mythogeographic work of Phil Smith and the dramaturgy of Wrights & Sites has long influenced how I see my environment, built and otherwise. I’ve used it in my urban consulting as well as the basis for my “Urban Paradox” course. What I have discovered as I revisit my photography is that both have influenced how I look through the camera’s “eye” and what I see, as well as how I transform the photo into an image. Nevertheless, I am still working on becoming a mythogeographic photographer, a photographer-architect-walker.
In a way it is ironic. I have tried hard in some of my photographic work to emulate Depression Era photographers, without realizing that they too were mythogeographic photographers and photographer-architect-walkers. Even if those terms were unknown to them.
Walker Evans developed a photographic style – “lyrical documentary,” he called it – that is more poetic, more fictional, than a photo-journalistic document or a snapshot. According to Evans, it is a photography that is more personal and perhaps even more honest than traditional photography. A photography that captures “both the ethos and pathos” of a thing or place. Walker spoke of a photography that captured that ineffable sense that differentiates one place from another, one person from another.1
Another Depression Era photographer, Dorothea Lange, who described herself as a “solitary,” believed that “seeing” is more than a physiological phenomenon. “We see,” Lange said, “not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is.”2
As with both Evans and Lange, the mythogeographic photographer is a “see-er,” a “seer” if you will. Not a fortune teller, but rather a seer in the original meaning of the word, “a person who see something specified” within what they are seeing. In other words, meaning. But not just meaning—a seer sees meaning that is disruptive to the expected, to the status-quo, or what Phil Smith calls the “accepted myth.” A seer sees, as Phil would say, with a “fidelity to the indecipherable.” That, of course, raises the question how can I as a photographer see with a “fidelity to the indecipherable”? How can I create an image that is faithful rendition of the indecipherable?
Honestly, I wish I had an easy answer to that. I know it can be done. I have on occasion done so. Both Rethinking Mythogeography (Phil Smith) and The Architect-Walker (Wrights & Sites) provides some clues to help us along the path.
The mythogeographic photographer sees what is disruptive to the common mythos of the observed scene. The photographer-architect-walker uses the image, i.e., the “developed” idea of what the photographer saw, to disrupt what others expect to see when they view the image.
To put it mythogeographical terms: Lyrical photography, the photography of both Evans and Lange, is photography that causes the viewer to see beyond the “established myth” of place. Photography that allows people to re-imagine – re-image, if you will – new stories, stories that porously meld together what is seen with the eyes and what is seen with the heart. Lyrical photography then, is that photography, like architect-walking, that challenges the established myth, the status-quo.
Still begs the question, “Does my photography do that?”
Before I go any further, I must clarify something: Lyrical photography – mythogeographic photography – is not professional photography, if by that term you mean the photography one earns a living by. Both Evans and Lange were also studio photographers, and both actively sought commissions. It is interesting to note that the images remembered today are not those which were commissioned studio works.
To be honest, people prefer not to have their preconceived, and often cherished, ideas disrupted. Thus, most people, when it comes to purchasing photos will gravitate to those photos that convey the world, and their place in it, as they perceive to be.
Mythogeographic photography is a must if the world is to change. Phil Smith writes in Rethinking Mythogeography with a sense of urgency. He writes that the “magic of the ordinary” needs to be realized, and that the “network of connections crying out (p.6)” needs to be heard. Mythogeographic photography brings to life “magic of the ordinary” and causes the “networks of connections crying out,” to be heard with the heart’s eye.
But back to that personal question, “Is my photography mythogeographic photography? Do my images cause the viewer to re-imagine his or her perceptions? Are they disruptive enough to make the re-imagining something other than fleeting?
I want for the answer to always be a loud, “YES!” Hopefully, that will come in time.
There is another question I also ask myself, “Is there a way to make even my ‘professional photography’ mythogeographic photography?” I think there is, but to do so is going to require that I need to help those commissioning me, or purchasing my work, to see the world a bit differently.
Borrowing from “The Architect-Walker: Manifesto & Manifestations,”3 I have adapted some of Wrights & Sites ideas into my functioning as a photographer-architect-walker, using them here and there to make me re-see what I think I am seeing. Last week while on a photo-jaunt, I realized that I often use one or another without realizing I am doing so. Even better, while showing a shop-keeper my work she got it, and asked to sell some of the images in her shop.
I haven’t quite become a mythogeographic photographer, but I am on my way.
Here, in no particular order, are some of those I’ve adapted to help me become more of a mythogeographic photographer. Some are simple exercises, camera in hand; others are ones that help me refocus my eye-mind-heart sight. There are those that help me see more deeply, to see that which goes unobserved in the midst of the observed, to see with a “fidelity to the indecipherable."4 There is one premise that underlies each exercise: All space is living space, as such there are emotions to be felt.
• When I wander I often employ “disruptive wandering strategies” to create potential for surprise. I will wander down an alley, peak into a back yard or through a door.
• Often I will stand in a vacant lot and have a conversation with the lot, wondering what the vacant lot and buildings on either side saying to each other. I wonder what they have going on?
• Sometimes when wandering, a song or a phrase will come into my mind. I let that song or phrase interact with what’s around me.
• I talk, but mostly listen. I talk with myself about what I see, what I am doing. I listen to what I say. I listen to what my surroundings are saying. I talk with my surroundings. I talk to passer-bys.
• There is in me some sort of empathy for the decaying and dead zones. I can’t explain it, but it does cause me to search out the decaying zones and the dead zones. I try to feel their pulse (or lack of pulse) and their emotions. I try to hear what they are saying. But to understand, I must also search out the thriving zones for they also speak and in so doing often illuminate what the decaying and dead zones are saying.
• I try to take time to feel the space beneath. I try to let both my heart and mind, as well as my eyes, guide me. [I sometimes just start shooting away, often I find that in doing so I have allowed my mind-heart-eye combination to click the shutter.]
• Time effects both the Present and our observation of the Present. Thus, I vary the times that I shoot as a photographer-architect-walker. For the photographer-architect-walker the only “Golden Hour” is that A-Ha moment.
• “Hazards” are something I consciously add to my wandering. Rather than taking the simple, the obvious path, I will choose the more difficult one. I find that this not only changes what I see, it often challenges how I see.
• I let my imagination wander along with my feet. I wonder about what was once there. Why it is no longer there. Why what is there is there. Even, what might be there in the future. I often try to layer these images on top of each other to create a multi-layered image and then seek to create it as the end product of the photo-image.
• Reflections, I love reflections, the stories they tell. I shoot through windows. I savor dirty windows. I seek imaginary ghosts. Frequently when I shoot through a window, “ghosts” appear in the image. Not how did they get there, but why (in a meta sense) are they there? What are they saying?
• I see signs as signs of what was and might be, seeking to explore the “was” and “might be” through my images.
• Shooting sitting down, laying down, shooting through my legs, from a wheelchair or out a dirty window changes both how I see and what I see. Likewise, I often shoot from positions and angles that I would not normally shoot from.
• Sometimes I try to put my mind in an imaginary liminal space that is not here nor there, one thing or another, and then shoot from that space. For me, this is a hard space to place myself in. I find that it comes easier when I have no agenda about what I want to shoot.
• Sometimes I need to “reconfigure” my perspective. To do so, I might stand in one spot and turn, clicking the shutter every couple seconds with no regard to what I am actually capturing. I hold the camera high and low, at angles, and sometimes even behind me. I might even shoot “through me.” Or I might lay out a shape that approximates my bodily dimensions, and then walk it, shooting as I move around in it. Sometime I just wander about, shooting away with no thought to subject matter or composition. This is when I most often come the closest to that liminal space.
• This is a fun one for me. It always makes me see differently. I take someone with me and shoot through there eyes at what they see from the space they point out. What makes it fun is that more times than not we each see something different in the image, and we each learn through the other’s eyes.
• I am still working on: The carrying of an imaginary photo image in my mind and taking shots that conform to that imaginary image.
• Have no agenda, other than an agenda to make images. I find that when I predetermine what shots I want to take, I rarely get anything that speaks to the photographer-architect-walker in me. It is those fortuitous shots that I come upon that do so.
• Sometimes I will see objects within other objects. I speculate about the relationship between those objects Which object enhances the other? What would be loss if one or the other object was not there? Is there a way to capture this as an image? (Sometimes I have been know to place one object within another to create an entirely totality.)
• I love photographing shadows. I will often play with linear shadows in post-production. The result always makes me see the subject differently, and in so-doing I learn something (or makes me want to learn something) that I didn’t know about the subject.
• Form follows function, or so they say. I try to make play the function as I click the shutter. I find this to be an especially good axiom to follow when I shot a portrait. For me, play is the opposite of posing. It also has the potential of making the photo into an image. (Perfect for lifting “professional photography” into the realm of mythogeographic photography.
• Along these same lines, as I look through the viewfinder I often imagine how I might wiggle what I see into something else, whether it be a different shot, or multiple renditions of the same image. Sometimes I will create dozens of the same photo differently. Each makes me see the subject a bit differently. I recently did this with some photos of people at a soda fountain. They liked the images better than the photos (See first paragraph under “Application.”)
• I like to create my own disruptive photo-ops, such as drawing in sand or creating beach architecture out of driftwood. They disrupt the flow for a while, but eventually the flow disrupts them. To capture that disruption in the image is the goal.
• Since a kid, I have loved fantasy. For me, creating fantasy from a series of photos changes how I see. What I have started with becomes something else. This then makes me speculate, what was it that I actually started with? How does that enter into the fantasy? For example, I have two ongoing series that uses store mannequins to tell two different stories. One is, “Shopping with Mani Kin and Friends.” Here the mannequins are photographically manipulated to create a story (with text). The second is “Millinery.” In this series, mannequin heads wearing hats become “people” modeling hats. Now, when I walk into a shop, I see that shop differently. I am looking for mannequins, but the context is also important. My vision has changed.
• I tend not to take too many notes. If I forget why I took a photo, I am forced to see the photo in a different way.
• I love messing with my photos as I refine them. I will use photo-manipulation software, and other software, as much as I need to get the image I saw in my mind when I took the shot. And to be honest, as I refine the photo I often discover all sorts of things I didn’t even realize where there when I took the shot. Many time these are the very “things” that make the image a disruptive one.
• Use software, as much as I want to is for me not a “no-no.” I use software to alter the photo into an image, an image that recreates what I felt, or disrupts my thinking.
• It has been hard for me, but I am becoming better at saying, “Dang the rules! “
Photography is literally written by light, or “light-writing.” Lyrical photography – mytheographic photography – is about feeling that light. Lyrical photography – mythographic photography –is about memories and mysteries. About enlarging our own personal human myth, filling the voids that we have left with our narrow, acculturated, unconnected memories. It can be justly questioned if the final image does not mean more to the photographer than to the subject. This is mytheographic photography. This is being a photographer-architect-walker.
1. Walker Evans: Lyric Documentary, John T. Hill, Steidl, 2006.
2. When Dorothea Lange calls herself a “solitary,” she is an “architect-walker.” Lange says that she came to the idea that “seeing” is more than a physiological phenomenon during her years as a seventh and eighth grader when she aimlessly dawdled around New York City’s Lower East Side between the time school let out and the time she arrived at the library where her mother worked that she formed her idea of what was beauty and how it might be conveyed. For Lang beauty was found in the multifaceted faces of poverty. Yet as someone from the solid middle-class she was ambivalent, and that too affected her way of see. It is during these solitary walks that she began to understand that “seeing” is more than a physiological phenomenon. Certainly if we explore Lange‘s images we can see that.
Linda Goodman in her extensive biography of Lange says it is during this period that Lange developed her persona as a “Walker in the City.” (Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Linda Gordon, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2009.)
3. “The Architect-Walker: Manifesto and Manifestations, “ Wrights & Sites Link to Manifesto
4. In the listing of exercises I often use the words, “talk,” and “hear.” I try to hear with my eye, my mind, and my heart. I frequently talk out loud, but I try to let my mind and heart form the words. Maybe a better way of saying this is that I try to feel, and hold a conversation with, the emotion of the space.