Fizzle or Flame

Grill from Century Theater Projector, Date Unknown

In 1997 I made the difficult decision to leave NYC and a great job at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in favor of a return to the midwest. I decided this because it would allow for more time to make photographs. I loved the experience of New York but it left so little time for pictures. I found myself each weekend making the 75mph 7 hour journey from Manhattan to Ohio.

In the kindest of gestures good friend Tom Gitterman (then director of Gallery 292, now he owns his own gallery), sat for a while after the gallery closed on my last day talked for some time as we looked through books. I remember having a long conversation about the Robert Adams book; ‘What We Bought, the New World‘. I simply couldn’t fathom working on a project that encompassing for 4 years. I kept staring at the title where it noted 1970-1974. That context gave the photographs such tenure and totem. The dates marked something so specific and passing as I leafed through the pages. 23 years later the profundity of what Adams had warned us of hit the heart like a knife.

Ironically here I sit now attempting to come to grips with a decade long project of my own (Adams+6?). I can clearly understand how Eugene Smith at some point simply gave up trying to compile the work in Pittsburgh into cohesion, that much investment in a topic so huge can lead to a manic obsession. There must have been simply too much to photograph.

I’m there too. The photographs from the last 3 years have led to lots of time spending in empty malls and abandoned retail boxes. At some point I started picking up things. Receipts, ribbons, an ancient ad, then a large sign. The sign led to other signs and objects. Some trips began to simply be based on collecting empherma. It dawned on me that the historical trajectory in the project is wonderfully epitomized in this retail junk. Cast offs that were never meant to be considering or intellectualized have garnered a new kind of hunt, for the thing itself. And so the lineage goes Retail begat Thrift, Thrift begat Dark Stores, and Dark Stores begat some kind of ridiculous journey to find any and every meaningless retail artifact and do something with it. On the bright side, it’s nice to simply follow the breadcrumb trail, in contrast I’ve been half-jokingly referring to this forthcoming book as an intervention (insert acoustic guitar music pls.).

Last week in conversation with Joerg Colberg we spoke about the whole and the book. It sparked this post on the idea of production vs. time invested in a certain idea. Some musicians at their prime step into a studio with an idea and after a few experiments record some of the most deep and memorable sounds one could image (I like to remind people that improvisation is best when it comes from experience). Others need that long grueling-budget crunching-drummer quitting experience to produce the manifesto album that pushed musical ideas by leaps and bounds. In either context the idea can fizzle or flame, the deeper question might rely on where ideas come from and what possesses a person to invest so much in them.

If I could add a note to that 1997 version of myself looking at books in the backroom of the gallery I’d say be careful what you wish for.


  1. Posted March 30, 2011 at 1:11 am | Permalink


    The word that comes to mind (to me) to describe Copia is ‘epic.’ And seeing your lecture and knowing the breadth of this work, I have a few thoughts. Ahem…

    The first is that assuming your lecture (2010 @Herron) was representative of the number of pages provided to you by your publisher… it seemed way too condensed. I know, I know that editing the work is the greatest challenge for photographers. But that’s bullshit compared to what needs to be communicated by your subject matter. If the publisher is dictating your number of pages, then revolt IMO.

    This is ten years of your life and some of the best documentary work on any subject that I have ever seen. Contact Bruce Mau and make a fat-ass book that represents this immense body of work… receipts, ribbons, ads etc. all included. You seem to be in a crisis assembling this work for the amazing show and publication to come.

    Joerg’s post about the two-week digital project and subsequent bookwork seems a little irrelavant to me, and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the photobook hype put forth in the of recent years.

    My hope is that the artifacts (the book, the exhibit) of this huge, amazing journey of yours represent the work fully. You deserve that for bringing Copia to us. It’s an eye-opener.

    Best wishes and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

  2. Posted March 30, 2011 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    Ah yes… not sure if I’m game for the Mau version. I promised my wife I would not make one of ‘those’ books that were simply too impossible to handle 😉
    Confident I’m in good hands, the crisis is more growing pains perhaps?

  3. Posted March 31, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    the mention of artifacts reminded me of jim goldberg’s Raised by Wolves, i love that kind of stuff, ephemera is the right word. RBW had a big impact on me but after reading this essay I really started to think more about the implications of this kind of an “anthropological” presentation. obviously your work is very different but i think there are parallels beyond the accumulation of objects relating to a story. i have always collected paper scraps, correspondence, maps, polaroids, handwriting, ticket stubs, etc and wondered how i could integrate it into my work, or if that was appropriate at all. the things i have collected have so much value it is hard to commit to pasting them in a scrap book. i envy the collage aesthetic of people like bill burke but i wonder if my version of that would just be plain contrived.
    i saw your collective speak at PPAC i forget the name of it, but it was great, so thanks. good luck with your book, brian.

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