Evidence Of Life

Old habits die hard. One of mine is driving country roads early in the morning before most people are outside. Sunday morning was my preferred time for solo motorcycle rides. Unfortunately I didn’t own a camera in those days so I have thirty years of memories but no pictures. Memories are probably better anyway.

Here in Texas the rural landscape is dotted with old buildings and machines. These days it is fashionable to photograph abandoned structures. Some are quite beautiful as ruins. My interest in abandoned places is not about the structures themselves but the people who inhabited them. Except for monuments, buildings generally serve a fundamental human purpose for shelter or common gatherings. People have always defined buildings through use.

There are lots of interesting places to explore on the Texas back roads. Many are on private property and inaccessible but a few are visible from public areas. They draw my attention immediately. This old post office and general store is just off the side of a county road. Judging by the construction it was probably built in the early twentieth century. From the artifacts and signage around the buildings it was still being used up until the nineteen sixties or even seventies.

The simple false front mercantile building with attached residence was constructed of rough sawn lumber from a nearby sawmill. It would not have been out of place on the frontier of the nineteenth century. The handmade wrought iron work was almost certainly done by a local blacksmith. All this is evidence of a community improving life for itself. This place was part of a world of personal relationships where friends were people you looked in the eye when you spoke.

Today many people commute twenty five miles every day without a second thought. A hundred years ago that may have been something families did once a week if they owned an automobile or maybe once a month by wagon. Places like a local post office were very important. They provided a portal to the world for rural families.

Artifacts around the building provide a sense of another era far from our daily lives. I doubt many people today ever see cigarette advertising stickers such as those on the doors. For that matter you won’t find swinging screen doors on most grocery stores. I doubt if people still use general delivery mail service outside of wilderness areas. They are just the small things of daily life that are swept away and forgotten.

Folk Dancer

I have long been fascinated with Mexican photographers, muralist and filmmakers. They seem to share a certain perspective on the world that is unique to their country. Maybe it is an expression of deep cultural roots or possibly a reaction to traumas suffered over the last few hundred years. There is nothing like the destruction of multiple civilizations to change the way you perceive the world. Whatever it is I am drawn to the imagery of Mexico.

At various times I have obsessed about what sort of photographic ‘style’ I should adopt. What constitutes proper technique and the constraints of craft? The answer for me is to stop thinking in terms of limits. Everyone has unique vision. That is literally true because our visual perception is based in DNA and life experience. I can learn from others but I can only express what I see and feel. The same is true for the image makers of Mexico. Still there is something shared in their work.

For many years I have lived in multi-cultural Texas and New Mexico. There are rich experiences to be found in places where people of different backgrounds choose to live together. My roots are shallow in the new world unlike my wife’s family. They have lived in the place now known as Texas for hundreds of years while the flags changed over them. I am influenced by the cultures around me.

I can never see photographically in the way anyone else sees. Let alone the photographers of Mexico. My work may be informed by the work of others but it is unique to me. There is no other way.

Digital Mask

This work is a composite made using a ten year old self portrait. It is radically different from ‘The Kiss’ published a few days ago which uses the same base image. Both fit well with my ideas for the original photograph, which was about exploring differences between public persona and private self. We all present a public face which may be very different from how they see ourselves when outside of public view. In this latest work the image is composited with repeating patterns of dots to suggest, at least in my mind, that we also have a digital persona.

Our online persona is not directly within our control. Moving through digital space, we leave traces that can be accumulated into a profile that is more real in a sense than any other public or private persona. It is a fingerprint that defines who we are for commercial purposes and increasingly to government agencies. The idea that we are being profiled using buying patterns and online remarks may be distasteful but it is a fact of life.

Those of us who lived in the pre-digital era often have a sense that privacy is being lost in the ‘new’ digital era. That may be true. It may be equally true that we could always be profiled by anyone who was willing to put forth sufficient effort. Interestingly, there is now a thriving market for individuals who possess skills to custom tailor online information. As digital profiles are increasing used to target us, we are finding ways to obfuscate our online presence.

The slapstick of Spy vs Spy is an amusing analogy for the digital game of privacy. It is the black hats and white hats endlessly dancing in a dark comedy. We live in a highly amplified technological world. There is a price to be paid for all those wonderful services and conveniences.

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