One of the great joys of traveling is discovering the unknown. I think that's why I became a photographer; it allows me to travel to places I have never been. Not only physical places, but places within the imagination. My love for travel was sparked at a young age but thwarted by circumstances out of my control, so I began to read, draw, and construct installations in my parents basement inspired by the solar system, the landing on the moon, the election of John F. Kennedy, the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. Really I was daydreaming. I wanted to exist in a world other than the one I knew. So as soon as I was able to, I moved away. Actually, even before then I would sneak away from my coal-mining hometown in Pennsylvania to New York City to explore. It was the age of Aquarius and the possibilities were endless. When looking at a photograph, the possibilities are endless. Did photography capture my imagination because of this?
Last summer, I traveled up and down the east and west coasts photographing for a new project, 'How America Thanked Me' here, I was entering into people's homes that I did not know except for a brief meeting a few months before at a Lobby Day in Washington, D.C. for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or through chatting on Facebook and other social networking media, or talking on the phone and email. Not only was I uncovering stories of injustice but I was delving into people's personal histories. People entrusted me with intimate details. My responsibility as a documentary photographer became even more powerful, more humbling, and I was penetrating a new direction in my work. I could write for hours on this - and I will in time - but this is not why I came here today. I came here in much the same way that I came to uncovering one story in the photograph of the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Training Center of Great Lakes, IL in 1962, above.
My partner and I had just left West Virginia a few days earlier interviewing and photographing a gay Navy veteran who had been discharged from the military because of homosexuality. (Again, details at a later date.) We were driving through Georgia on Route 75 to Florida and pulled off the highway to stop at the Big Peach Antique Mall in Byron. After walking through aisles and aisles of collectible items, discarded memories and detritus, I saw the photograph of the Naval Training Center peeking out from behind some magazines. It cost $10.00. I paid the lady and excitedly got back into the car, speeding to our next destination to email Jerry, the gay Navy veteran, to ask if this was his class photo, because he had graduated from the same Training Center around the same time. In the back of my mind, I wondered why I didn't call him, because I had met him at Lobby Day a couple months earlier, but up to the point of interviewing him while having some beers with his partner and mine, we had spoken only via email after that. Was it something about the discovery and the anonymity of the internet that made it more mysterious to me?
I emailed him and received his answer back the next day. "No," he had graduated in 1964, not 1962. So, I began looking at the photograph even closer. Now that I knew that there was no one in the picture that I could identify and attach myself to, the photograph existed as many other photographs that one finds in flea markets or antique shops do. But this one resonated more with me than others did up to this time, save for a few hundred that I have in my collection. What was important though was that I was free to look at the other recruits in the photograph and wonder who they were and where were they today? Did they fight in Vietnam? Were they alive? Where did they end up? Were they married? Did they have children? Were any of them gay? Was anyone discharged because they were? I became obsessed with wanting to know who they were.
I began to ponder what their faces were telling me. Some had confident expressions, some had gentle expressions, some were smiling, some were stern, some seemed inquisitive and unsure, some looked afraid, and some looked ready. Seven recruits wore glasses, four were black, the rest were frame-less and white, and a few had their eyes closed. Ethnicity began to reveal itself more clearly. I was looking closer, possibly making more assumptions? Who was the guy with dark circles under his eyes holding the flag, the only one kneeling? Who was the little guy in the front? Who were the shorter guys flanking the taller one in the middle of the top row? And the guy almost right in the middle with his chin up and smiling? I kept going back to the photograph to look at it. Isn't this supposed to be what a photograph does? Photographs of this sort have a greater connection to reality, to people lives. Most photographs exist now only as a fleeting image in a stream of images that appear for a millisecond on a computer screen. It's the object-quality that emphasizes the former's impact. I find most images that take my breath away are ones that I can hold in my hand or see on a wall.
It's a beautifully designed photograph as well and reminds me of the wedding pictures taken by the photographer with a large format press camera of my parent's wedding in 1950. Attention to detail as well as the image quality caused one to stop and rest on the photograph's subjects. The recruits here are lined up perfectly in rows, shoulder to shoulder, arms touching - almost intertwined - hanging straight down, body and face forward, except for one who stands off slightly to the side as if posing for a more informal photograph. White sailor hats, their curves mimicking the curve of the "U.S. Naval Training Center" sign above them, speckle the sea of dark uniforms. The horizontal lines are imperfect because of the differences in height, but the diagonal lines formed by the staggering of the recruits on the stepped platform is perfect in its orderliness, save for a few: the little guy in the front row, and one that caused the most fracture for me: the recruit hiding his face behind another recruit. Who was he? Why did he not want to be seen? I became obsessed with him. I wanted to know who he was.
The power of this photograph comes from its ability to capture my imagination, to make discoveries that I was unaware of, to enter into people's lives that I do not know. It calls to mind a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken in the 1950s, of a group of people in the stands at a horse race somewhere in the United States. I spent hours looking at what people were doing in this photograph. This is what group photographs do, they allow us to see how people are democratized because we want to see a reason or a purpose for consciously coming together as a group. But so many different things are going on: a couple is kissing, some people are eating, someone is clenching their fist in anticipation of a large wager, someone is studying the program, someone is leaning over, etc. Everyone is doing something different; the possibilities of human expression are endless.
Some months after I found this Naval Academy photograph, I was in Chicago photographing more people for the project. One Navy veteran I interviewed graduated from the same Naval Academy around the same time. I stopped the interview when he told me about it and told him the story of finding this picture and my obsession with the person who hid behind another. He said......well, this is the realm of the unknown, the sense of discovery that brought me to this photograph. We all have our secrets, we all daydream, even the recruit who is hiding behind another recruit. At least we have our imagination!
August Sander, Peasant Children, Westerwald, circa 1926-1931
Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967
When I first saw the photograph, Peasant Children, Westerwald by August Sander, I couldn't peel my eyes away; it was compelling because of Sanders' unique depiction of a sister and a brother. On the one hand, it was somewhat typical of Sanders work, most notably in their formal frontal gaze, similar to the images he made cataloging the German people in his opus, Faces of a Nation. But Peasant Children was unusual in its portrayal of the sister and brother, the former holding a flowered ball in her hand and the latter posing next to a burly dog, somewhat indicative of their gender rather than their physiognomy. They looked like specimens floating in darkness in an archeological museum or an illustration in a book on phrenology.
It reminded me of a photograph I had seen years before by Diane Arbus. Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ. Both pictures ask us to recognize the similarities of the siblings, particularly in their faces, indicating the familial relationship. But like Arbus, Sander also calls attention to the way in which they are photographed, emphasizing their differences and their individuality despite their relationship. He accomplishes this by placing each of the siblings on either side of the shallow wall the resides between them, at once placing them in their own realm, and at the same time connecting them in an inherent diptych.
The wall between the brother and sister functions in a similar manner as the arms of the twins in the Arbus photograph, connecting them but separating them. When I first viewed the Arbus image I was taken by their seemingly identical visages, but on closer inspection, recognized how they different they were. Their separateness and their singularity revealed itself to me - through the shape of their heads, their hair, the down-turned mouth and sad eyes of the twin on the left and the smiling mouth and eyes of the twin on the right, as well as through the very small details that are different in their clothing - the collars of the dresses, the stockings, etc..
Sander employed physical closeness in his photographs of family, siblings, close friends and similar subjects. No other picture, however, exhibits such an intentional fracture in the relationship of the subjects and in the singularity of the image - this really is two photographs combined. Was it that their eyes and other features were so nearly identical that the wall was necessary for the viewer to consider them separately? Or was this really how they existed in the world within their family?
This photograph of the brother and sister seems to place them in a void - a blackness that causes tension in contemplating their situation in life. Why are they not posed in front of an idyllic landscape or a building or in a town or street that would cause them to be grounded in the world. They truly seem to float out of darkness and their cautious and apprehensive gazes only draws attention to their uneasiness. But is this uneasiness about being photographed by someone unfamiliar, a stranger? Their eyes don't look at the photographer - and therefore at us - they are turned slightly to their right as if they are being directed/controlled by another. This causes us, the viewer, to become slightly concerned and undoubtedly incapable of becoming involved in them or their situation. We do not consider their lives, but only as they exist in the photograph.
The Arbus photograph, on the other hand, allows us to become engaged in the identical twins' personalities and character - we feel and empathize with the sadness of the twin on the left and the coyness of the twin on the right. Does this say as much about us as it does about the photographer? Consider also the rigidness in the poses of the Sander siblings and the relaxed familiarity of the Arbus twins. Does it say even more about those who cared for the children?