On Studio – Photographing with Rules: October 2012
While thinking back across my own history with photography, it dawned on me recently that my earliest photographic series was a rule-driven conceptual project. I find this a bit intriguing, as it was not until grad school – over fifteen years later – that I would return to this method of exploring the world and my interactions with it. When I was around twelve years old, I inherited a Polaroid camera that had belonged to my great uncle. Aunt Vi did not know how to use the camera, and so remembering that I was interested in photography, she gave it to me along with a stack of unused instant film. While I shot here and there with the camera, I remember being cognizant of the cost of instant film and careful not to burn through the whole stash at once. At some point, I developed a rule: whenever I had a friend over, we would take a photo. We would sit on the couch in my parents’ living room and I would place the camera on a stack of books on the coffee table. Once everything was in place, I would set the ten-second timer and run over to the couch. In a matter of minutes we had our image and would then go about our afternoon.

I am fairly certain that these photos still exist; stuck in a photo album or buried in boxes somewhere at my parents’ house. While I hope to find them one day, I can also still just barely visualize them in my mind. At first glance, one would easily think of them as casual portraits (which they certainly are). But at some point, due continuous repetition of the same elements, the living room couch and the two pre-teen girls become irrelevant. When that happens, the image becomes more about the spatial encounter. Any chronological photo series can do this and I’m reminded slightly of Nicholas Nixon’s series The Brown Sisters where once a year for over thirty years Nixon photographed his wife and her three sisters. There is no doubt that his series is far more eloquent than my after-school photo shoots, but they serve as an example of how portraits can really be about interpersonal space. In viewing The Brown Sisters, after a few photographs, I stop looking at the individual faces, and instead began to focus on the body language, the closeness of the figures, and the space that is represented. For the Brown sisters, the space seems to be one of love, comfort, and sisterhood. At times I cannot help but wonder what events over the past year had brought them closer together or what conflicts had pulled them slightly apart. I do not know what space is represented in my Polaroid snapshots. I am sure the need to document a friend’s visit speaks to the insecurity of most young adults. Similarly, the fact that my friends would agree to participate probably speaks to strength of our friendship.

In recent years, I have used rules to consider the ways in which people use, arrange, view, and understand space. While people are rarely present physically in this recent work, their presence is always noted.  Thinking back to the photos I made in 1992, perhaps my next project should use rules to explore how people create space.  I might even photograph a person.