In this life, the single most valuable asset we have (as we’re told over and over again by everyone) is our time. It’s the one thing we can’t buy more of. And because of that, how we spend it is pretty much the most important decision we make.
So why would I spend time looking at one series of photographs over another? Or return to a series of photographs to look again when I could be finding a new collection to look at? And why, certainly why, would I spend my precious time writing about a series of photographs I’ve looked at several times already?
Somehow the answer to this points out how we each, individually, elevate photographic work within our own hierarchy of value. After all, there is plenty of excruciatingly competent photography out there in the world. There are gorgeous images, stellar edits, refined sequences, and beautifully executed exhibitions. But a lot of it, I find, does not pass the test of what I pay attention to versus what I set aside and eventually forget.
Not surprisingly, much of the most “successful” photographic work, as heralded by the awards, the press, and gallerists, ends up into that latter category.
The work I’m writing about today keeps me coming back to it, and not just because the photographer is a friend. Let’s face it, that’s not enough. That only gets the work an initial look.
I’m talking about With Whom Do I Have The Pleasure? by Charlie Simokaitis, which I’ve seen in digital dummy form, but which has yet to be published in book form. Recently, the work won second place Editor’s Choice from the Center Award, and a selection of it was just published in Fraction Magazine.
As Charlie says, it’s “a literary account of the psychological and physical state(s) of one rapidly losing the ability to see.” And that state–his daughter’s growing blindness–was the impetus for the work. It’s what Charlie did with that impetus that makes the work something I keep returning to. It helped Charlie find his own idiomatic way of seeing that, while it has its roots and antecedents (as does all art), ends up creating a visual language that I find unfamiliar and deeply engaging.
I think that’s the biggest problem with so much excruciatingly well-executed work–it’s familiar. It doesn’t make me puzzle and wonder, “What is going on here? What is this?" If I were looking at it in a gallery or in a book, and someone were to say to me, "Come on, let’s go,” I would never replay, “No, wait…I can’t leave right now.” Much of the popular work doesn’t make me feel like understanding it is somehow crucial to my very existence.
The Surrealists placed great importance on “defamiliarizing” language and imagery, yet it’s pretty easy to say that all great art has that quality to it, whether it’s surreal or not. That’s the strength of books like Katy Grannan’s The Ninety Nine, or Michael Schmidt’s Ein-heit, or Ron Jude’s Lick Creek Line. You look at the work and say “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?”
And Charlie’s work keeps that question coming, while, at the same time, planting images in my head that I have a hard time forgetting. And when I return to them, I feel the same curiosity and displacement I originally felt, but with a new layer of having digested the work a bit more, and having grasped a few more connections within this quirky syntax, this personal language, which circles around a real event that, like a black hole, invisibly exerts its influence.