10,000/365 Update

I seem to have fallen a bit behind, both with the writing and the photography. I hope to be getting both back up to speed over the weekend. Thanks for your patience!

The Personal Is Historical (Some Thoughts on 9/11 and the Still Image)

Roger Mark Rasweiler (Image reproduced by kind permission of Shelly Castellano)

Every year around this time, for the last decade or so, I think about writing about 9/11, and I always tend to come up short. It’s not that there’s any shortage of memory or feeling there; like nearly anyone else old enough to remember that day — especially if, like me, you live in the shadow of NYC — I can recall where I was that day in more detail than I remember nearly any other day of my life, nearly down to the minute. The problem is moreso one of volume. So much has been spoken, written, filmed, and repeated that it feels like anything I’d have to say would be but a drop in the ocean. And yet, I can’t quite shake that day, and can’t quite shake the image that made the whole thing immediately and terribly real for me.

The photo that accompanies this post wasn’t chosen at random. The first time I saw Roger Mark Rasweiler (or his photo, at any rate) would’ve been some time around ten thirty on September 12, 2001. I was just getting on the train back home from work, and I saw a flyer just like this one in several of the train cars. I stopped to study the face, said a small prayer, and hoped against hope that this kindly-looking gentleman had just been detoured to Queens, or maybe a hospital somewhere in Manhattan or Hoboken. 36 hours after the towers fell, that wish didn’t yet seem as futile as it would in the days ahead, or as it did when I visited Union Square a week later, only to find the faces of the missing staring back at me by the thousands from subway cars, PATH trains, fences, and storefronts.

What does any of this have to do with photography? Maybe nothing at all. On the other hand, maybe everything. Those initial hours, after all, were a flood of words and images. The sheer volume alone would’ve rendered the lot of them overwhelming, but when you add the emotional heft — all the grief, confusion, anger and sadness with which every page and every frame was weighted — you’re left with something nearly staggering. It might just be me, but there was, and there sometimes remains, something in all of it that defies our attempts to cut it down to size, much less to make sense of it. Of course, it’s hardly the first or last time that would happen; we’ve had other catastrophes visited upon us before and since, and each time the end result is much the same: we’re practically struck dumb by the  weight of history and documentation behind it all.

Time and time again, we hear the numbers of casualties thrown out when we discuss catastrophic events, be they the six million of the Holocaust, the three thousand of 9/11, the hundreds of thousands in the Boxing Day tsunami. Those numbers, by themselves, don’t illuminate much of the larger story; they reduce the victims to a single, faceless mass. How do we wrap our heads and hearts around something so enormous?

Something of the answer — for me, at least — is in that photo of Mark Rasweiler. Those single, still images invite us to step away from the whorl of emotion and motion; they provide a stillness, a point of reflection, in which we can pause and begin to attempt to understand. Just as importantly — perhaps even more importantly — they give us a sense of the human scale of inhuman events. Those three thousand weren’t a monolithic, homogeneous mass; they were three thousand individuals.

We were reminded again this year, as we’ll be in the years ahead, to never forget those three thousand. I don’t disagree. But as I enter my twelfth year with the memory of Mark Rasweiler, and the others who died with him, might I suggest we remember them one frame, one person, at a time?

Postscript:

This article appeared a month after the attacks, and is one author’s take on the Missing posters and spontaneous memorials that sprung up in New York:

http://www2.facinghistory.org/campus/memorials.nsf/0/79960486B7BD852385256FAB00664696

Image of Roger Mark Rasweiler reproduced by kind permission of Shelly Castellano, whose work appears here: http://scpix.photoshelter.com/image/I0000D8VJdzXCD4M

Rule 51: Know When To Break The Rules

Rules can be a good and useful thing, within limits. They’re helpful aids to composition (think of the Rule of Thirds), exposure (Sunny 16), and even lighting (how often have we been told to always shoot with the sun at our backs?). Similar to writing, the rules of photography help to set forth a visual grammar that helps the viewer to make sense of the photo even as it aids the photographer in composing a better shot.

But then, we’ve all heard the old expression… “Rules are made to be broken.” In his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell writes: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Trying to shoehorn a photo into a rule that doesn’t quite fit it makes it less a photo or an exercise in creativity than an exercise in form that’ll be less about the subject than about the formal constraints you’ve imposed on it.

Sometimes there are practical reasons for this. For instance, the easiest way to eliminate distortion on a fisheye lens is to keep the horizon dead-center in the photo, which is a supposed compositional no-no. Or maybe the only way to get your shot is by shooting directly into the sun… you don’t want to pass up a shot just because it might not conform to some rule or other. At other times, artistic considerations come into play. If, to your eyes, the photo “works” even if it’s not technically perfect, trust your instincts and your own vision.

I’ll include two caveats to all of the above. If you’re a photographer of a certain temperment, it can be tempting to say — sometimes to yourself, sometimes to anyone who’ll listen — that you’re bound and determined to break all the rules. Nothing wrong with that; make sure, however, that you’ve bothered to learn the rules first, since not knowing the rules doesn’t lead to breaking them as much as it leads to sloppy photography.

The other thing is, you’ll want to keep in mind not only what rule(s) you’re breaking, but also why you’re breaking them. There’s a certain pleasure to be taken in breaking rules just for the sake of it (Screw it, I’m eating breakfast for dinner. But first, let’s have dessert.), but sometimes all that rule-breaking just means we’re trading one set of constraints for another. Think about it: if you decide you will never again use the rule of thirds/will only use plastic cameras with plastic lenses and severe light leaks/are extremely enamored with lens flare, you’re not avoiding cliches, you’re embracing them (or becoming one). Rule breaking, like the rules themselves, should be something that gives you more options, rather than limiting them.