One man’s junk…

TheLifeGiver copy

I’ve been asked why it is that I prefer to photograph old things, junk to some people. This has caused me to spend quite  bit of time thinking about this subject and why it is I am so often drawn to it.

One reason for my attraction to the subject, but not necessarily the most important, is the pure connection to history. I enjoy history, learning about significant events, and trying to put myself in that time and place. I live in southern California and travel back to North Dakota in the summer and I am struck by the differences between the two with regard to their history. In California the population has increased dramatically in recent decades and the continuous construction and redevelopment is associated with this increase has hidden this history or removed it from its context. Urban redevelopment places new retail centers where quaint seaside villages once were and  homes cover the rolling hills of what used to be vast ranchos so much so that it is difficult to see the place as connected in any way to an earlier time. A good example is Rancho Buena Vista Adobe, an historical rancho in the city of Vista. Some of the original buildings have been preserved and some converted into museums complete with relics and photographs but it is set so deep into urban sprawl, development, and the daily activity that accompanies such things that it has taken on a Disney Land-like quality. I am not trying to belittle the effort that so many have put into preserving a place like this but I am suggesting that a thing loses some of its historical significance when the context changes so radically as it has in Southern California. By changing the surrounding area some of the connection to history has been lost. The same is true for museums: In a museum historical artifacts are cleaned up and shown in such a way that they are hopelessly removed from from their context leaving the visitor’s experience altered from an actual encounter with history to viewing a show or commercial display. I am not alone in recognizing this as you can frequently see museums trying to change a visitor’s experience in an effort to reconnect it with the original human experience. It is a difficult task for sure to try to put a visitor into a point in time. In North Dakota, as in much of the Midwest,  the places I visit and the things I photograph are not removed from context at all. In fact they reflect the very history of which they are a part. Time is evident in their very condition. Rust freezes machinery in the place they were left after their last day of work, wood erodes as it confronts the relentless wind of the prairie just has it has always done. A person can experience the history of that place as is happening. In these places time has not stopped and the history of the place is laid bare. The are no obstacles between the visitor and the place, no filters, no Disney Land. Because of this, the experience is somehow more real.

Wounded Knee

I am currently finishing up a couple of paintings on memory and how much circumstance plays a role in the recording of “facts.” I am using the raven metaphorically to suggest the difference between two paintings on a visit my sister and I made to Wounded Knee in 2004.

In the painting I use text to recall the events as they unfolded that evening and how they have played a role in my appreciation for that place and the resistance of those that live on the reservation there. Many people might say that Wounded Knee has two histories, one in 1890 when the band of Lakota following Sitting Bull’s brother, Big Foot, were massacred by soldiers under the command of Colonel James W. Forsyth. Another happened when members of the American Indian Movement held off federal forces for 71 days in 1973 . I say the history of that place is a continuous one that runs uninterrupted through the present day; an embarrassing one of religion, culture, government, and money. My experience there is one of a drive through desperate poverty in the middle of the American heartland overlooked and unnoticed by many.

Of particular notice for me was the graffiti on the gate to the small chapel on the hill where someone expressed their loss and remembrance of those held dear to them. A subtle but poignant note from a person searching for a voice that will carry in the winds of South Dakota.

The place stood in sharp contrast for me to the Little Bighorn memorial in Montana, which I visited earlier that summer on my way to the studio in North Dakota. Although the “the Custer Battlefield” shared the raw history and timelessness of the prairie the headstones, sidewalks, gift shops, and visitors were quite different from that faded blue-green sign that insufficiently tells the tale of Wounded Knee.