A friend said, when will you know you’re done, and I said, I guess it’ll just come to me. I’ll just know.
But his question lingered and remained evermore in the back of my mind, resurfacing at odd moments with a gravity altogether unwarranted considering the raw newness of my project. It injected itself unwanted during a late-night dinner engagement and while wandering through a windswept graveyard near Oketo, even once during a nightmare where I huddled behind a mangled trashcan in a dark alley, the menacing shuffle of approaching footsteps and a sweaty, half-empty .357 magnum revolver in hand. Best to attempt an answer at year’s end with a body of work behind me, I thought, and passing it off moved on with my project and my life.
And it would not pass. Again it materialized while standing beside the Blue Rapids grain elevator, clouds scudding low overhead but a bright sun haloing the upper whitewashed columns. An electrician had been wiring a new fan into the side of an elevator and was scheduled to return, and I mentally composed a shot that probably wouldn’t materialize but might, a wide view but not so wide to create distortion. Or maybe a fifty would work better. My camera was back at the car and I was too lazy to walk back to get it, content for the moment just to stand there in indecision, a sort of temporal refuge where I could exist or not depending upon the whim of the moment. It was cold in the shade, and I thought that if I were going to turn myself into a pillar I ought at least to do so where the sun would warm me, an idea interrupted by a hawk coasting off the ridge on a direct northbound flight.
It was a Swainson’s hawk, earlier than I’d ever seen the species by several months. My eyes raked the skies for more but came up empty except for the clouds and the fathomless blue spaces between before flickering back to linger on the elevator. I’d have to adjust my exposure for the shade, but not too much or highlights would get blown out. Probably, in fact, an impossible shot.
When will you know, a voice whispered.
I cursed and walked off.
Nights lately have been long and restless, my usual gritty urbanscapes and forbidding alleys replaced by endless iPad portfolios and imaginary compositional concepts. In my dreams I’m shooting black and white (when I’m not shooting revolvers or riot shotguns), Tri-X instead of pixels, 36-exposure rolls rather than 16-gigabyte CF cards, also a return to a past I thought dead and gone. And returned now to haunt my nocturnal peregrinations, often driving me from bed to an early pot of coffee and a day stretching out like infinity itself.
Triggering this edginess is an immersion into the classic images of early American labor with a hefty dollop of worldwide street photography thrown in for good measure. After delving into Robert Frank’s The Americans, Lewis Hine’s works on child labor, Margaret Bourke-White’s collections on industrial design and factory workers, Dorothea Lange on the Dust Bowl years, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and others, I’ve reconsidered and reworked many of my initial compositions in an attempt to mimic some of their distinctive styles. It’s an imposing and indeed impossible task, one almost guaranteed to assure defeat. When I discussed this with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, he shook his head and said, “Can’t be done. Were those pictures iconic when they were taken or are they iconic because of what they represent to us now?”
Still, for the documentary photographer setting out to record a historical record of a certain sliver of time, it’s impossible to escape or ignore the body of work which we now consider classical or iconic. We start with a preconceived notion tinged, perhaps fatally, with ideas of becoming a modern day master whose photographs would not only enhance a vision of America as portrayed by Frank, Evans and Lange, not only continue their tradition, but to compete with their bodies of work. And when, as I’m discovering, we photograph the humdrum and mundane—a man sitting at a desk studying a computer monitor, hardly the stuff of miners painfully dragging an overloaded cart from the gaping maw of a coal mine—there’s a momentary disconnect where the futility of the endeavor and my own talents and skills become resoundingly evident. It’s all so depressing.
Sartore offered several bits of advice, one of the best being “Go big or go home.” But the most incisive, and the one I’m printing out to paste on my monitor, aligned the project’s direction in the truest, most linear fashion. “Every picture,” he said, “must advance the story.”
Considering that his expeditions for National Geographic involve an average of 100,000 photographs of which 10 or so are published, his statement is now branded into my consciousness as the primary measurement for inclusion.
Sartore offered other suggestions garnered from a lifetime of working under the most demanding environments: watch your background, ask your subject what the most interesting thing they do is and then photograph it, study the scene before hitting the shutter, find the right perspective. And while I would have liked nothing more than to pick his brain for hours on end, our time together was too short, valuable beyond reckoning, and lacking the one question which I hesitated, and ultimately failed, to ask: When do you know you’re done?
Tryon’s Pour House on a Friday night. Pickin’ and grinnin’ going on in back, a gaggle of customers lined up at the bar, families and children and music and dance and the smell of hot grease and fried foods. The pool table is heaped with empty guitar cases and beer bottles, Lori’s foot is keeping tempo, I’m roaming the place with the 70-200 trying to be Robert Frank and Margaret Bourke-White and succeeding not in the least when I realize that this isn’t the steel mills of Cincinnati or the mean streets of the Deep South but Blue Rapids, a little prairie town on the Big Blue River, spring in the air and the night falling like a cloak, and I’m no Frank, no Bourke-White, no Sartore, either, just me, and this is just us, going big and not going home, telling our story the only way we know how.