Eagle-eyed readers of my site might have realised that I’m going on a big road trip soon. If you also knew that I have a stockpile of 45 roadside attractions I’ve not yet written about (1) you might ask this:
“Richard, why are you going on another road trip when you already have so much to write about?”
I’ll shuffle awkwardly in my seat, look at the wall, then explain I simply have a thirst to see more. A desperate need to travel. (2)
Sheepishly, I’ll say that I am planning on finishing those 45 posts. (3)
The unwritten posts fall into three groups:
- those with poor photographs (e.g. this post),
- those that mean so much to me that it’s hard to put them down in words (e.g. my trips to the Salton Sea and Bannerman Castle),
- those I just haven’t got around to/indefinitely delay (most fall into this category).
Of these, the most troubling are the ones with poor photographs. Looking at most photos I have taken, it’s interesting to see how unfocused (4) they are. Look at the photos now, it’s as if I didn’t know what I was looking at then. As if I don’t know how to look at what I was looking at.
For instance, when I photographed the “Historic Route 66 Begin” sign in Chicago, I took a couple of extreme close ups (5) and then a couple of distance shots where the sign is lost (6). I took this standing on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute, looking across at the sign. You can’t see the sign for the cacophony of humanity:
Actually, you can’t even see the cacophany of humanity for the arse of the person in the bottom left. I’ve discretely photoshopped a black oval so that person’s modesty may be preserved.
But arse or no, it’s hard to know what I wanted this picture to say about the start of Route 66.
On top of that, I hadn’t even noticed the person’s arse until I got back from my Chicago trip. I wasn’t looking. I’m reminded of a quotation from Brecht’s Life of Galilleo:
Du siehst gar nichts. Du glotzt nur. Glotzen ist nicht sehen.
(“You see absolutely nothing. You’re just looking. Looking isn’t seeing.”)
“Glotzen” is one of my favourite German verbs. I’ve translated it here as “looking”, but that’s crap. It’s better translated as “staring” or “gawking” or (7) “mindlessly looking at something without processing what you’re seeing.” It’s what you do in front of the TV.
Learning to see has been my biggest challenge with photography. I look back at older photographs and can tell I was glotzing, I hope my recent ones are better.
When writing, I face the same challenge (we all do, it’s not specific to me). Just as my camera has automatic point-and-shoot settings, just so I can use point-and-shoot settings when I write. I can write in platitudes, cheap moralising or cliché. These save me from having to see the world around me. From having to connect with it. And if I use them, they represent a failure of art, they are wasted words.
To make any form of art, you must connect with the world. Intimately and definitively. E.M. Forster said it in just two words: “Only connect.” (8)
People tell me I think too much.
And I do.
It’s my Achilles heel.
It makes me second guess what I write and what I photograph. That’s who I am, I probably can’t stop myself doing that. The key is to take what’s useful from it (the awareness that I must always see and connect in new ways) and to discard what’s not (a paralysis of thought which stops me from finishing 45 blog posts).
So, yeah, it’s time to go on a road trip. Route 66 starts here.
1) Yes, I did count them.
2) I’ve never felt like I have a home: I can’t decide if this is a search to find one, or an attempt to embrace my inner rolling stone.
3) As I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest soon, it’s only right this post has footnotes, right?
4) I naturally mean this metaphorically. The focus on all my shots is razor-sharp.
5) See above.
6) See below.
7) Most correctly.
8) Of course, E.M. Forster was talking about love and human relationships, but I’m not sure I see a distinction between that and art/writing.