Through The Past, Maybe a Little Darkly
On a bright spring day in the mid-1960s, my mother, along with a couple of neighbors, rounded up all us kids and made an outing en masse to Steinbach’s Department Store in Downtown Asbury Park. I remember traveling down the Garden State Parkway; and then the distinct memory of walking up to that entrance…and into an interior that has been lost to my memory and the ocean of Time ever since. Why is that experience burned so strongly into my imagination and subconscious? Why do our minds remember certain experiences and not others? Those are questions for another discussion, but when I think of that day it looks a lot like the picture below, maybe not as dark, but the bright sunlight is the primary element of the memory. The dark shadows and reflected nature of the image are important and fortuitous additions, as well, as they accentuate the daydream-like rendering of a long-ago memory deepened by my imagination.
Over all, that was my intent in attempting to visualize the memory of that day through my pictures. So, for my professional purposes it is a successful picture…and I simply “like” it, besides. A lot of work goes into it—I made several photographs of that entrance over the course of a year and while I would exhibit any one of them this one represents the expression of that memory best.
The photograph depicts the scene of that childhood memory so well along with others that I was compelled to photograph the building specifically for its own sub-series. It has always been a fascinating historic landmark and it makes for an engaging subject; so I’ve been working on photographing it over the long term. Last January (2016), having worked in the downtown area for the past several years on my Reflections on The American Small Town project, and increasingly focusing my picture-making there, I realized that a dedicated sequence on the building was needed.
Since these pictures are of a building in Asbury Park you might think the title of this post should be Reflections of Asbury Park. But the title aligns with my concept for the project as a whole: the thoughts, memories and reveries—my reflections—on the town and the building. And that is exactly what this series is about—memories effected and processed by the imagination, transforming them into something more. So, this mini-series is centered around a single childhood memory that has somehow managed to stay intact across the years.
…the real images we have seen in the past are engraved in memory by the imagination…
In his critically acclaimed book, “The Poetics of Space,” French philosopher Gaston Bachelard elucidates on how the mind creates poetic images, which are essentially what these pictures are. (A photographer friend has called them “visual poetry,” which I think is both a flattering and appropriate description.) Bachelard’s book is a rather thick read, but what he says essentially is that the real images we have seen in the past are engraved in memory by the imagination. The engravings replace the originals and deepen them, so that they become imagined recollections. So what we’re seeing are really reveries or daydreams, wisps of fantastical visions and yearnings. Some are not unlike scenes from a fantasy movie…that’s what my Reflections pictures are like to me.
The Modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler had a similar explanation for imagined recollections. In a statement describing his acclaimed paintings of textile mills in New England, Sheeler said his pictures were the result of “images of the present layered with overtones of the past.” He remembered these factories from years earlier, and the memories heavily influenced his work later in the 1940s, when he and photographer Paul Strand undertook a photographic study of the New England mills and towns. The photographs, using an overlay of multiple negatives, then became the studies for his paintings. Amoskeag Mills #2 is a very notable example, and one of Sheeler’s archetypal Precisionist abstract works.
My Reflections photographs are a bit different, in that I use reflection to render everything—all the layered and fractured effects—and compose the image right in the viewfinder; there is no layering done in Photoshop or with negatives. When I started my the series I wasn’t sure where the pictures were coming from, but I felt a deep emotional connection to the work. In the course of several years of making the photographs, my research brought me across Bachelard’s and Sheeler’s concepts. These insights brought my work to its own resolution, as I realized that the same process was producing these dream-like images in my own mind and pictures.