Thursday, March 22, 2007


As I've worked my way back into photography over the last few months, I've been doing a lot of reading about photographers, and spending a lot of time looking at pictures on flickr, and trying to clarify for myself what my photographic aesthetic is: what I'm after, what I'm trying to do. A lot of the time I'm just walking around with a camera in my hand and waiting for something that looks like it might be interesting to show up: a scene, a certain kind of light, a dramatic situation, an interesting composition. But I also sense that there are certain kinds of pictures I keep coming back to, compositional patterns and thematic ideas that keep recurring. Some of them are conscious, some of them feel more like hunches, like I'm groping my way toward something I can't identify yet, a pattern that lies behind the other patterns.

I've found myself thinking a lot, the last few days, about Hesse's Glass Bead Game in Magister Ludi, the point of which has obscurely to do with the search for archetypal patterns in music and literature and history and art. It's been forty years since I read that book, but I remember being taken with the concept of the idea of the search for the underlying patterns behind seemingly disparate phenomena. It's an idea that is also the driving force behind Lawrence Wechsler's recent book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, which I first read about in Scott Esposito's blog Conversational Reading a few months ago, and which recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. In it, Wechsler gives himself permission to "essay", to root around, to chase loose ends and abandon them to chase others, to observe and reflect on artwork and photographs events that mirror one another in surprising ways. It's an uneven, somewhat disorganized, beautiful and fascinating book.

And then there's Carl Larsson, whom I've written about before, an artist who centered his art firmly around the world he inhabited: his home, his family, his community. Part of what I sense I am after when I am taking pictures is documentation, enumeration: this is the world around me, different from anyone else's in its pure incidentals, perhaps the same as anyone else's in its essences. But there's also in Larsson a subjectivity: he's not painting everything. He's selecting, he's shaping, he's telling a version of a story that is unique to his angle of vision and to what it is given to him to see. So there's that as well.

So, anyway, in the spirit of reflection and experimentation, I'd like to do a series of riffs on a snapshot I took on Wednesday while I was at the Ward Center in the area of Honolulu known as Kaka'ako. Here is the picture:

It's not the kind of picture I usually take. There's a looseness about it. It's not that I just took the picture at random, I had been sitting at the table with my camera in front of me looking out over the parking lot thinking about what picture I might want to take and how I might frame it, and when the woman with the cell phone started walking toward me, I thought, well, let's have her in there, as well, and I raised the camera to my eye and snapped the picture off. Loose and random as the picture may seem, the separate elements all have resonances for me, and convergences (Wechsler's word, stolen, of course, from Flannery O'Connor) abound.

The yellow canopy jutting out from the upper left hand corner is part of the highly elaborate color-coordinated design scheme of Jamba Juice. Jamba Juice is a national chain of stores that has turned the making of fruit smoothies into a sort of science. You can go in a Jamba Juice store anywhere in the nation and order, say, a Peach Pleasure 16 with an immunity boost, which is my current juice drink of choice, and be fairly certain both of what you are getting and what you are going to pay. This particular Jamba Juice location is about a quarter mile from the store which use to be just down the street, but was closed down when the building it was in was torn down to make room for yet another residential high-rise (and adjoining shops) in Kaka'ako. Like the one rising into the sky in as you look in this picture toward the clouds in the background. Construction has been going gangbusters on Oahu for five years now. It ought to be apparent to anyone with a brain in their head that a) Oahu is an island and b) there's only so much construction, so many highrises, so much energy consumption, so much fluid and solid waste, that we deal with on an island. And that at some point, in the interests of sustainabilty, and of the health and welfare of everyone on the island, we need to put the brakes on. But that moment has not yet come, not at this date, not in this picture.

Anyway, the Jamba Juice that was torn down had the distinction of being the highest grossing Jamba Juice store in the nation. That place was cranking out Jamba Juices to tourists and kama'ainas alike from dawn to dusk every day. The new store is further removed from Ward Center, and the parking is not as easy to find, and they inexplicably chose to make it a smaller store anyway, so business seems to be slower there. The two cars closest to the camera are parked behind a yellow line with white lettering indicating that the area is zoned for "15 Minute Parking." In other words, get your drink and then get out of here so someone else can park.

Next to Jamba Juice, not in the picture itself but lending its shadowy presence from behind the lens, is Jamba Juice's partner company, the omnipresent Starbucks. I'm not a coffee drinker, and even if I were I might have misgivings about buying my coffee from Starbucks (expensive, overcaffeinated, responsible for the demise of many a local-owned coffee shop), but unfortunately for my ethical principles someone in the Starbucks labs has discovered a formula for a particular kind of chocolate-chip cookie which is excellent all on its own but all but crippling when combined with the aforementioned Peach Pleasure 16. Especially when the cookie has been allowed to bake for a few minutes on top of the wrought iron tables in front of the store (see lower left of picture) in the benevolently intense heat of the Hawaiian sunshine. I suppose that under the right circumstances, with the right guilt trip run on me, I might be convinced to stand outside Jamba Juice and Starbucks holding a sign objecting to the immanence of the apocalypse as manifested by the omnipresence of standardized corporate retail stores co-opting the national character, and so on and so forth. But I haven't heard that argument in a convincing enough form yet, and in the meantime, the Peach Pleasure/chocolate chip cookie is as close to gustatory nirvana as I have found in my short sojourn on this planet. Which is why I was there on the day it was given to me to take this picture. I don't know who the kid with the Pepsi can is. He, like me, was taking a break, and his choice of oral stimulation, high-fructose corn syrup and carbonated, was a just a tad more mainstream than mine

The parking lot itself is unexceptional. Unless you back up one step and say, wait, where did you say you were? Hawaii? What do we see in this picture which identifies it as being Hawaii? Well, if you look really carefully in the middle of the picture to the left, you'll see mountains (hills, actually, but as close to mountains as you're going to get on Oahu), and a few palm trees in front of the office buildings up by Kapiolani Boulevard. But there's not much of the aina on display. Joni Mitchell didn't get it very far wrong when she said "They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot." On Oahu in particular you're going to see a lot of the latter and not very much of the former. The most predominant force of nature in the picture is the immense billowing bank of clouds up along the ridges of the mountains. Those clouds are pretty much always there, shaping and reshaping themselves over the cool mountains, and dissipating in wisps along the edges as they blow down toward the reflected heat of the flatlands below. The weather report in Hawaii is pretty much the same every day of the year: Partly sunny, highs in the mid-eighties, showers windward and mauka (toward the mountains). One could do worse.

The building behind the parking lot is called "Pictures Plus." You can't really see the name in the dinky little version of the picture I can fit in the display on this page, but it's pretty clear in the (30 inch) original, which is one of the. That kind of resolution is one of the nice features of the Sony A100K DSLR I'm using, a birthday gift from my three sons. Pictures Plus. I liked that, that visual joke, and was turning it over in my mind even before I took the shot. But alas, the hope-induding name notwithstanding, Pictures Plus is a basically a frame shop, with a wide variety of frames and a depressingly narrow range of standard-issue schlock art pictures of the sparkling-moonlight-and flourescent-waves school. (If we're looking for deep archetypal patterns here, there's something both predictable and discouraging going on across economics (Gresham's Law) and real estate development ("They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum, and charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em") and art (dolphins frolicking under rainbows). Maybe a better name for the place would be Frames, Minus. At least they haven't screwed up the weather. Yet.)

Which brings us to the heart of the picture, which is the woman the center of the picture, more or less by accident, frozen in this shot for her .15 seconds of fame. She seems, well, intent. She's got a pocketbook on her back and a binder under her left arm and she strikes me as being all business. She's well-dressed, she's focussed, she's got the phone in her ear and a serious look on her face and her index finger is pointed like she's ready to jab somebody with it. She's the one thing in this picture in motion. She wasn't there a moment before, and in another moment, she's gone. One difference between her and me: I almost never carry a cell phone with me. And when I do, I almost never use it. Another difference between her and me: she's working, and I'm on spring break. Another: she doesn't see me. She doesn't know I exist. And probably never will, unless one of her relatives happens on this blog and says, hey, you're on the internet. At which point she will either be interested, or not. Or happy, or not. I certainly mean her no disrespect. She is the surprise guest at this party. She walked into my line of vision and I pushed the button. And then I got to thinking, and kept at it, as I am doing now.

But her presence does bring up a whole series of long-debated issues about public photography and Native American beliefs about not wanting to get their pictures taken because they thought it was having their soul stolen and other questions of propriety. Wechsler on page 33 of his book discusses a photograph by Helen Levitt, and notes, citing Joel Meyerowitz, that "one of the methods by which she accomplished such uncanny capture was through the use of a winkelsucher, a right-angle viewfinder of the sort Ben Shahn was given to deploying at around the same time, an attachment which 'allowed the street photographer to sight along the camera body while standing sideways to his subject, who consequently fails to realize that he is the subject."

One more thing: the poor little tree that seems to be sprouting more or less out of her head, like an idea balloon in a comic strip. That tree, apparently a concession on the part of the parking lot builders to the Joni Mitchells of the world, is having a hard time making it in Hawaii-nei, nice weather notwithstanding. It would probably be happier if it could spend part of the day sitting, like me and the boy with the Pepsi, in the shade, instead of having to withstand the punishing gaze of the Hawaiian sun all day every day.

So there it is: Mission Accomplished. (Topic for a Post at Another Time: Overtones, Undertones, and what you cannot say, or perhaps are just better off not saying, in a blog, in polite conversation, and elsewhere.) A set of reflections, a set of convergences. A reading of one photograph, a slice of time, barely measurable, in my life and the life of the island. Aloha.

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