Nudes, Suckling Pigs, Goeff Dyer & Order In The Photo FilesThursday, December 31, 2009
A byproduct of old age is the accumulation of stuff. For too many years against the advice of my wife I have been buying books that are now stacked on the floor as the many bookcases in the house are all full. I finally got the message (if a bit late) and I will no longer buy books. I will depend on the excellent stacks of our Vancouver Public Library. But, what if I should want to read the latest by José Saramago in Spanish? His novels are translated from the Portuguese to Spanish at least a year before they become available in English. If I want to read in Spanish I cannot depend on the VPL’s stacks. I will have to buy.
The biggest worry in my mind these days as I toss and turn in bed the waning days of the year has been what to do with 13, four-drawer metal filing cabinets full of my life’s work in the form of negatives, slides, transparencies and prints. I can be objective enough about my own output to know that they are worth money. But to whom and when? Probably when I am dead someone will have a peak and realize what I know now, and that is that I have a diverse treasure of Vancouver’s everyday life since I arrived in 1975.
Every once in a while I have the impulse to phone my friend Celia Duthie who now lives on Salt Spring Island. It would be evident to most that Duthie knows her books and that like many who have been booksellers she is a bit of highbrow! She always points me in the direction of new authors. This time around she mentioned Geoff Dyer who in her opinion is the best young British writer around. His output goes in avery direction. One of the books that Duthie recommended is The Ongoing Moment. It is a book about photography written by a man who confesses that in his travels he does not take pictures and that he does not own a camera. Yet this book is an unusual book about the history of photography.
It is a great book at many levels. Consider that it begins with Jorge Luis Borges’ classification of animals as seen
In The Analytical Language of John Wilkins 1942, Borges describes 'a certain Chinese Encyclopedia,' the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that animals are divided into:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11 those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
13 those that have just broken a flower vase,
14 those that from a long way off look like flies.
This classification has been used by many writers. It "shattered all the familiar landmarks of his thought" for Michel Foucault. Anthropologists and ethnographers, German teachers, postmodern feminists, Australian museum curators, and artists quote it. The list of people influenced by the list has the same heterogeneous character as the list itself.
From mentioning Borges’ list Dyer goes on to explain how other photographers filed their own negatives such as Walker Evans and Lewis Hine.
This all made me think of my own personal classification which is not really cross-referenced and installed into some sort of computer program. My filing system is alphabetical and depends on my memory alone. If I forget a person’s name I cannot find the file. I usually call someone with a better memory and ask. Such a person is Charles Campbell who in his term as the Georgia Straight editor assigned me to shoot a lot of people and lots of esoteric stuff that I had never done before like architecture at UBC, architecture on South Cambie or photographs of people who collected toasters. If I were to be asked if I had pictures of people with toasters I would have to call up Campbell to see if he remembers their names!
But short of minor problems I can find just about anything. I have some sublists and they are contained in either separate filing cabinets (I have one for authors) or occupy a large chunk of a particular letter. Letter D has dance and many pictures of dancers. My classification is divided into cars, dance, authors, travel, architecture, family, gardens (including lots of pictures of our own garden since 1986) and finally a whole filing cabinet (four drawers) called nudes. I have one more drawer full of 11/14 inch prints, b+w and colour that I have made through the years and never bothered to throw away. Looking at them now I am glad I didn’t as many are printed on premium photographic paper.
I have not finished Dyer’s book, but thanks to Celia Duthie, below, I think that I will be better prepared this coming year to sort through my stuff and put further order into it before I make my final exit.
For those who might wonder why I post, every now and then a picture taken in a cheap hotel room (the Marble Arch in most cases) I would like to point out that around 1977I was influenced by a couple of slim books called Petersen's Masters of Contemporary Photography. One was called Photo Illustration - Bert Stern - How To Turn Ideas Into Images. The other was Photographing Sensuality - One Man's View of Fantasy and Realism In the Female Form J. Frederick Smith. This latter photographer started his career as a noted magazine illustrator and he then shifted his interests into photography. His b+w phtographs of beautiful women (looking like they had just woken up) in hotel room beds with rumpled sheets and coffee cups on the floor inspired me to one day try it. This I have many times to my satisfaction and that of my models.
J. Frederick Smith