Thoughts on the State of Photography

by Peter Brown

What is the State of Photography? This is a question that is often posed to me – usually by non-photographers or people at parties who really want to know whether of not to buy an auto-winder. Just the same, it’s an interesting question and one that deserves an answer.
We can safely say that the State of Photography is not California. Neither is it New Mexico, Texas, or even an informed state of being. In fact, it’s becoming more amorphous every day, for, at present, unless the descriptions we give 1) photography and 2) its state, are so restrictive as to render the whole discussion simplistic and boring, we will quickly find ourselves out on another limb with thoughts and definitions so broad that they will threaten to vaporize. The middle ground these days is almost non-existent. So in order to speed things along I’ll simply say three things 1) The State of Photography has always embraced both extremes, 2) The State of Photography takes on many guises, 3)The State of Photography is good.
It was born in the mid-west – in Dekalb, Illinois to be exact. It votes there and spends its holidays there at the family home. Its parents are insurance agents; it has a brother who went to Princeton and a sister who went South and went bad. Grandparents, uncles, cousins, and aunts proliferate and the Dekalb area is littered with friends and relations. But, as I say, it moves around and it changes.
In fact I saw it just yesterday in Palo Alto, California, on University Avenue. I knew him on sight: shabby, shuffling yet still self-contained, possessed and in deep thought. I passed him by and pretended to recognize him as a painter I know. “Dave?” I said, “Sorry, I thought you were a friend.” “My name’s not David,” he said. “I know, I mistook you for someone else.” “I’m the State of Photography,” he said. “What do you want?” He suddenly had a regal bearing and tone. I didn’t know what to say so I said, “In Palo Alto, huh?” He stared at me with great critical disappointment, cleared his throat and resumed his shuffle down the street. My advice is: keep your eyes open and be prepared. I was surprised. Finding the State of Photography in downtown Palo Alto is like finding Jesus in the manger. It’s unexpected. You might want to put together a list of questions to ask him.
I Once met a dog who was the State of Photography. All photographic ideas resides in his tiny canine brain: the past and future of photography were all up there. He, being at that moment the present, was looking intently at a wooly worm caterpillar. A very intense and self-involved dog. But he knew all about Atget to Evans to Frank (a double play combo of major league photo-critical wisdom if there was one) as well as all the various referent meanings of wooly worm body language. He had one of those miniature cameras that used to be advertised on the backs of comic books hooked up o his dog collar, but seemed to have forgotten it, so engrossed was he in the black and red wooly worm. As I watched, the State of Photography pawed at the caterpillar and then rushed to a corner of the yard where a squirrel was climbing down a trumpet cine.
Of all its guises, the State of Photography is perhaps most interesting in its vaporized form. It then comes into its own most forcefully. It’s a maelstrom of anger, peace, pure energy and great spectral beauty. It is earthy and sublime all at once – an aesthetic steam bat that sweat out all our mistakes, misgivings and tangents, leaving the bare bones of form. If a photographer is around after a vaporized State of Photography has been in a vicinity, he or she will find it surprisingly easy to flesh out these skeletons with content. Not hard at all because everything is so pure and simple. The least addition will do. To be a bit clearer, however, and to add a note of caution: a vaporized State of Photography really just eats anything in its path. If you see one coming, get out of the way. If you have the opportunity to follow one around, however, it can be a rewarding experience. Post vapor photos are highly sought after and more than one minor regional artist has hit big time by trailing a cloud through a house or a neighborhood. Be on the lookout, but be careful. There is a clicking, whirring sound that you may come to identify and use to your advantage.
I had lunch a few weeks ago with a woman who was the State of Photography although she initially claimed not to be. A very good Californian lunch, we had pasta and salmon and talked about the State of Photography. “I’m not it,” she said, but as we talked it became apparent that she was. She spoke at great length about water skiing at Lake Tahoe (a cold Sierra lake) and about the dangers of falling down. She had a fine sense for her looks, her posture and her situation and I though ‘A pleasant lunch,’ until she said, “I don’t know about this photography business. It’s all so ingrown. What I want is the clarity I had when I was eleven. Then I knew what to ignore.” She added with a shrug: “I’m not only the State of Photography, I’m its history and aesthetics as well.” I said, “You’re kidding.” And she said, “No.” And I said, “Do you want some coffee?” and she disappeared. That was that. One of the stranger States of Photography.
I knew a State of Photography when I was a kid in New York. He was a tennis pro who approached my friend Johnnie Bachman and me one afternoon and taught us how to serve. We thought he was teaching us simple because he recognized great potential and wanted to be in on the future action, but when he had us serving like little Pancho Gonzalez’s he handed us his card. It said, “The State of Photography. For lessons in recognition, editing and visual history.” There was a New York phone number. We were a little shocked at the way the State of Photography seemed to be drumming up business. At that time – around 1960 – the State of Photography must have been at low ebb. I think it was having a hard time recognizing Polaroid. (I Told Johnnie this but he couldn’t understand – and I couldn’t really either.) The State of Photography had never seemed particularly reticent or conservative before. But I’ve always kept a weather eye out since then. While seeming to be generous, the State of Photography is often self-serving. He shuffled off the court when we told him we couldn’t afford lessons. If any trait quickly identifies the State of Photography, it is shuffling – an aimless gait. It never seems to be looking at anything in particular, and then, unexpectedly, it pounces.
Teenage years were filled with the State of Photography. David Hemmings in Blow Up was what we wanted the State of Photography to be, but he wasn’t. He was the state of London and the state of the times. My high school year book photographer and the man who did passport photos were closer to the State of Photography, but they weren’t it, either. The most complete State of Photography I knew then was Melissa Loveless who was beautiful but had been sold a bill of anti-sexual goods by her mother from Indiana. She was all dress up with nowhere to go. She was a repository of good and bad and vibrated with the tensions of American History. I once caught her on a conference call with Lewis Carroll and Timothy O’Sullivan. They were exchanging recipes for sourdough biscuits. And Melissa was asking O’Sullivan about Indian bread made from acorns when Lewis Carroll said he had a call coming in from the east and would phone back next Thursday. Melissa said good-bye and O’Sullivan told her to hang in there, that answers would be forthcoming. Melissa said she was sure that he was right and said good-bye again. She noticed me watching and said “I’m the State of Photography today.” “I Know,” I said, “I’m the State of the National League.” Melissa looked embarrassed. She was the only person we knew who regularly went to the school social worker for help with her thoughts. But the State of Photography resided in her for six years. She got married, divorced, married again, went to Law School, Medical School and now lives in Reno with her husband who drives a Porsche and is also a doctor. There seems to be a vestal virgin quality to the States of Photography I’ve known: an innocence of one sort or another is necessary and she lost hers sometime during her second graduate degree.
The final State of Photography I’ll tell you about is my grandfather. And he was the State of Photography for his entire life. He was chased by a water buffalo in China in 1930 and lost an eye, but still saw things with clear, open compassion. So did my grandmother for that matter. But Paw Paw kept at it for years. He’s the only State of Photography I’ve known who was also a photographer. We are proud of him. The State of Photography existing in family precludes it existing in blood relations for the next three generations so I can recognize it but never be it, which is just as well. I’ve felt it near a few times but have always shied away from giving myself over for more than a few moments at a time. They don’t count. It takes a week and a half of possession for a State of Photography to become permanent. States of Photography can be declined of course and shed like old personalities or working situations.
And there are, of course, the places and things: Elko, Nevada is one State of Photography. So is the Smoke Creek Desert with the Fox Range and Kind Lear Peak. So for example are the cities of New Orleans and Hannibal, Missouri, the Blarney Stone and the Appalachian Trail. The State of Photography may also appear in the details of one’s life: for a while I had a magenta filter in my enlarger that was the State of Photography and my nephew Aki has a State of Photography in a push toy that pops. This is not to say that the State of Photography is everywhere, for it’s not. It usually is open, however, and if not that, is at least interesting. As the Sheriff of Inyo County told me a few days ago, the State of Photography is not flib of tongue, and the answers you get from it will depend on what you want to know. So, as I say, you might want to make a list. It is often a heavy state of grace with full hands and a busy schedule. There is enough for us all, but access at times can be a problem.
If you encounter one, don’t tr to photograph it. I took a picture of the State of Photography hang gliding last week and it fell out of the sky like a rock, crashing into the side of a mountain in the Eastern Sierra. It’s recovering but it was in bad shape for a while, and so was I. Be careful and considerate. While the State of Photography is not exactly an endangered species, like all of us, it is headstrong, complex and fragile.

Assistant Professor of Art at Rice University, Peter Brown has exhibited widely in this country and in Europe. In 1983 he received the prestigious Imogen Cunningham Award.