The odd stories here and there - they now seem to be following me around the house. In fact, a friendly haunting. They go to the grocery store with me, they sit and have tea with me as the sun comes up, and they find their way into a small glass of wine or mezcal or gin or bourbon or rum (no vodka) (some vodka, but not much) - in moderation of course. But still - the stories are always close by, and each continues to bump along in pieces until it finds a focused voice. I love that. In spite of quarantine, sometimes it’s nice to have company like these guys show up out of nowhere. It’s a party. The last little story/post for me on Facebook involved photography. Oddly, another photo-related story arrived in the email just today. Rolling Stone’s version of the best photos of 2020.
“The best photos of ………..”, or “The year in review,” or “A perspective on……….”. Around this time every year, I see these kinds of tag lines attached to collections of images, and the subject matters can go all over the place, from photojournalism, and landscapes, to sports or cat photos. There is no single collection that defines everything, so they all end up being a vertical niche of one sort or another. I don’t know how many of these kinds of collections I’ve looked at over the decades. A lot. A bunch. A crap-load actually. They are a great way to look at what just happened from 30,000 feet. Not entirely a bad perspective, after a year spent buried in the weeds.
So, I got this email from Rolling Stone today announcing their version of the best of 2020. For me, too often, year-end collections include too many views of the bad. Bad is part of our life and we need to stay aware of the bad and try to help stop the bad. But bad is a bad way to start the new year. Because this is Rolling Stone, the collection is different. It revolves around music and other stuff. For me, the collection just pushed a button that apparently enjoyed being pushed today. At least today. Tomorrow is something different.
The photos in the collection pushed my “Old School” photographer button. I’m so “Old School” about my approach, it can be embarrassing. “Old School” can be dangerous, because it can easily ignore the potential good in what’s new and different and it can judge - judging is tough work for someone who isn’t a judge. But fair enough, “Old School” can be glorious as well, but the dangerous facets of being “Old School” make me cautious when I see new things. I want to try to understand, what I can’t relate to. As an older photographer, it’s hard sometimes to look at these collections and put the judge in the box and not let the judge out no matter what. I have to try to put the judge away for a while. Looking at things from the “old” perspective can be a very short leash on a very long walk, so, you try to be fair.
In that regard, I looked at these images and it’s safe to say there are only a few of them I can relate back to my own experience. There’s maybe 7 out of the bunch, but not much more. However, those 7 just blew me out of the chair with their strength of character and simplicity of vision. Apps come and go, and tricks come and go, and techniques come and go. Since we are all photographers these days (all of us), when we create our images, it would help if we could try to keep in mind character and pure simple vision are two of the most powerful forces we can personally muster up. For me, these 7 shots reflect that kind of inner strength.
The other photos in this collection I had to put to one side for a moment because they aren’t part of my view of the world. The collection is a narrow view of a certain part of the human experience. But once I had some time to spend (and the judge got locked in the box), I looked at those other shots a second time, and it became real obvious real quickly there is an entirely different way of looking at the world, and it’s clearly not mine, and I can’t think of a more healthy situation. There is so much good work being done these days all over the world, and the world will go where the world goes, and my opinion of it or my view of it is only mine, and that’s fine. Just leave it all alone and everything will be alright. A whole lot of people see the world differently than you and I can even imagine. That’s a good thing. That’s a real good thing.
But If I were forced to pick only one favorite image out of the images I was drawn to in the collection, and if I were forced to use that single image to start the new year with, my one choice would be the photo by Nolis Anderson of Mavis Staples on the beach. This is a great example of how of much you can get rid of visually and still tell a multi-layered story.
I love the back-stories behind images. The stuff you don’t see in the finished photos. This is just one example, I’m making this next part up for sure, but there’s a chance I’m close enough for a story about this single image. You think about this poor schmuck - he got assigned by Rolling Stone to shoot a photo of a musical icon for the ages - Mavis Staples at 82, and most likely, she only had a short amount of time and energy available for him, and then the weather turned bad. Soooo, he had to figure something out, cause he had nothing, so maybe he grabbed a very soft light, or not, and out of desperation, they went to the beach and just sort of “let's go see what happens”, and he let it happen. As a pro photographer, that’s the key. You gotta produce it, but you gotta let it happen as well, and you gotta have a clear understanding of what’s happening right in front of you, and then you gotta be able to recognize opportunity when it presents itself and gently take advantage of it. And at the end of all this nonsense, you gotta come back home with the image. True that, we may all be photographers these days, but few of us on earth can turn sour cream into butter. You can feel the Mavis spirit, and you can almost sense the seas about to part behind her. The Exodus from 2020 is about to begin children, and who the hell picked out that exact scarf she’s wearing? Damn. You have to love it when it works, and you’re there to help make it happen, and then you witness it. I just shake my head at this kind of stuff. Maybe I'm wrong about how this got produced, but God, I love to see great work. This is my photo choice to begin 2020. Well done sir.
So, have a look at the link, along with all the other images as well, and put the judge in the box for a minute. I don’t relate to all these images, and neither do you, but when you start a new year, it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us. This collection reminded me there’s a lot of us doing a lot of things a lot of different ways. Happy New Year folks. We have a chance to try to get it right one more time. Let’s keep the judge in the box, and let's follow Mavis, and God bless us one and all.