Beach with Snooze

The other day (the day before my window got smashed and my laptop stolen at a funeral I was working!) I walked on the beach with Snooze. We walked on the rocks. I gave him my camera. He gave it back.

And while Snooze performed his water ritual (enacted on each visit to any body of water), I looked around. I have thousands of photographs of this beach. So I looked to the ground and saw a piece of a lobster shell among the plastic bottles and assorted garbage marking the high-tide line. The lobster shell caught the golden light. And I did not take a picture, because it looked like trash. So I walked toward the water, where Snooze performed his ritual, and thought of the scene that I’d photographed thousands of times. The ocean scene was photogenic, and I referenced a Caspar David Friedrich scene to compare it to. Yet, the shell held its own sense of displacement, its own sort-of place and uniqueness on the beach, but, as an object that does not look like a “scene,” or does not draw attention to itself against the scale of the ocean, it looks like trash (Mary Douglas: trash is “matter out of place”). So, like a mundane shred of ocean debris, its ordinariness is not really photogenic (without strange and kitschy techniques to make it into an icon, imaging it backlit with bokeh or those techniques that make anything pretty). An object not worth a photo. And I think, as I approach Snooze who is backdropped with an expansive horizon and warm light, that it is these everyday, barely-noticed things that are worth photographing the most. Those objects escaping image-based representation, not by their awe or their ineffability. Objects escaping representation by being so boring or familiar. Objects escaping attention, really. One of my professors talks about photography as a medium that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and I wonder what it means to keep the ordinary ordinary.

It is here that I think of one of my classmate’s photography projects of grafitti. He took nine images, all grafitti, seven railroad tracks, two gates, and positioned them so that Kathy, my classmate, said that it was stupid and bad. My professor said that if the project was about grafitti (because all the photos contained grafitti), that the shadows in the work “obliterated” the project as a whole. Kathy interrupted, saying that the shadows overshadow the work. And I thought of how literal it was that a project displaying grafitti was only about grafitti. It seemed to be a half-baked project, to me. 

This is the difficulty with the shell: that if I went back and took a picture of the shell, then it would be a photo about what it displays. It would be a boring photo about a commonplace shell; and any attempts, by using photography’s tricks of light and representation, to make the photo of a boring object less boring would speak to photography’s weird ability to transform an object, speaking to the ‘semantics’ of the medium rather than its ability, beyond its techniques, to create meaning. How, without a sort of contextualization that reduces the singularity of that shell, that risks raising it beyond the ordinary (already: my thinking transforms this object into something else), would you make an image of an anti-image, calling attention to the way a medium shapes our attention? I do not know, except by making one giant image of a shell (raising it again to this extraordinary status). I guess it’s a problem of our attention towards the “photogenic” that no photo itself can really address.