I started this project towards the end of 1990. The build up to Gulf War One provoked it. I‘d been working out some of my ideas about documentary photography for a while and that all coincided with this substantial shift in US foreign policy. Not being a professional photojournalist I didn’t have access to places and personalities at the centre of events so I simply lived the day-to-day life of a civilian and photographed the things I saw around me. The process was largely intuitive. I’d go to events or to particular parts of the city where I’d be likely to find something that would make an interesting photograph but beyond that the process was one of reflex and discovery.
What fascinates me about photography is its ability to extract and organise apparent meaning out of the chaos of the world around us. This feature is particularly striking when out and about on the city streets. It’s an intense environment. Your mind and body are bombarded by sensations, much more than you could possibly absorb and process, so your brain is always automatically deciding what to pay attention to and what to ignore. This is a biological adaptation from the earliest days of our species and is essential to our survival. Without this ability we’d be distracted to death. It’s a system for tailoring the world to the limits of your comprehension. Its primary function, in this case, is to assist you in navigating physically down the street but what is also going on is more complicated.
Because of the way our minds work, situations and things have meanings for us and we tend to notice what we are predisposed to see. Some days you’ll notice people with bandages on some part of their body, other days you’ll keep noticing people carrying guitars. There’s no more than the usual number of such things on any given day but somewhere in your mind you are thinking about it and so you notice. When you photograph on the street this mechanism becomes the basis for building a collection of images.
You go out without any specific intentions; you photograph whatever crosses your path; you exercise no control over the subject except where you choose to stand and when to trip the shutter, and after months of shooting you end up with a coherent body of work. It seems to me that the camera provides you with a way of externalising your thoughts, your brain’s highly selective focus provokes your impulse to press the shutter. You notice the things that feed into what you are thinking about, whether you are aware of it or not.
I had been using this approach to for a number of years and had become fairly good at it but in the end I found that the images lacked the emphatic communication with the viewer that I was after. The images were too diffuse and there were too many irrelevant distractions in the frame. In other words, they looked too much like the world. I felt that I needed to break them free from that constraint so I decided to work on a series of images from which I would present only small portions of the scenes I photographed.
This idea had come to me from some books I had been looking at which featured details from important paintings. The authors would focus in on a small section; a gesture, something hanging on the wall, or in the distant landscape, and explain what it meant. This way of reading images was very compelling to me. It suggested that a rhetorical system could be developed to create a form of open-ended story telling. When I began working on the street I focused on the specific small details that I felt had the most potential for meaning when separated from their context. I hoped that this would allow them to operate freely in the mind of the viewer as a provocation to their own internal storyteller. These images could then be arranged and sequenced in such a way that a new context could be created by their interrelationship. This would allow me a certain amount of narrative control while still allowing the audience the experience of deciphering the meaning.
These photographs are all, technically, documentary photographs. I didn’t pose or arrange anything. I went out, I looked around and I photographed what I thought were interesting subjects without any intervention. When it came time to make prints I selected all the images that I thought worked well as compositions. It was all very straightforward and fairly neutral but in the end the results were very idiosyncratic. Originally I considered displaying the images in random sequences, or allowing the viewers to rearrange them on a gallery wall but then I decided that they needed to be presented in a book. I had faith that no matter how vigorously I sequenced them there was still plenty of space available for the audience to work out their own ideas.
The subversion of the objective report of the photograph is an important aspect of my work. This series is basically a project of fragmentation and reconstitution. The formal aspects of the images reinforce this. I shot it all on 35mm film with an ASA of 3200 and then I used only a 1/8 - 1/4 inch portion of the negative for the final image. The resulting graininess emphasises the surface of the film and breaks down the transparency of the representation. The image is not a direct seamless report of the subject, it is overtly mediated.
This grainy look is also intended to suggest a state where the world of appearances is reduced to an articulated surface, animated from behind by a field of energy. It’s as if what we see is really just a scrim onto which natural forces are projected from behind and that scrim keeps you from getting too close to the origins of those forces. The world (as depicted at the film plane) is (metaphorically) the interface between your mind and the energies beneath that grainy surface.
TEXT BY JERRY SPAGNOLI
©pictures Jerry Spagnoli
American Dreaming, published by Steidl