I suppose by most metrics, this is a bad photograph. It’s dark, except for where it’s maybe a tad overexposed. There’s nothing special about it, it’s not terribly attractive. It’s just a blue plaid shirt hanging on a stairway post. But I was drawn by the narrow band of December light and the way it slid through the transom over the doorway and sidled up against the shirt.
I saw it originally from another angle, and was captivated enough to go fetch a camera. An actual camera, not my phone. I moved to this angle, squatted down to get the perspective right, shifted over just enough so that the windows in the neighboring house seen through the kitchen window were balanced, and made the shot.
It probably didn’t take more than 15-20 seconds. It’s a semi-casual shot of an utterly ordinary moment. Eggleston might call it a ‘democratic’ moment, though I didn’t photograph it in a democratically Eggleston way. I probably took 14-19 seconds longer than Eggleston would have. You can jam a lot of pretentious formality into 15-20 seconds. He was all about the unpretentious impermanence of everything, after all, and the revolutionary notion that art existed everywhere and anything was worthy of being photographed. I believe in that approach, but haven’t liberated myself from the tyranny of composition. There’s always, always, some level of thoughtfulness in anything I photograph.
After I shot the photo, I chimped it just long enough to see if I got what I was after. What was I after? The light, obviously. But also the darkness–the nothingness of the stairway in the center. There’s really not much to see in the photo; there’s the shirt, the window, the handrail, part of a closet door. What’s not there is as important as what is. I was pleased with the photo.
Then I put the camera down and basically forgot about the photo until yesterday. Yesterday I bought a new card reader and uploaded the half dozen images from the camera. Most of the images were crap and immediately deleted, but this one sparked the memory of the moment I’d shot it.
I don’t often spend time looking at the photos I shoot. I shoot them, review them at some point, process a few, delete most of them, then I post some of the few I’ve processed. That’s it. I’m not very interested in seeing the photo after I’ve finished it. But I looked at this one for a bit, thinking about Eggleston and the democratic eye and the way the light fell and the enigmatic darkness…and I realized I was being a pretentious dick. It was just a murky photograph of a blue plaid shirt.
I’ve had that blue plaid shirt since 2001. I didn’t buy it; I sort of inherited it. It belonged to one of the guys who worked for the moving company that shifted my stuff from a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an old farm house in rural Pennsylvania. The shirt got left behind. I probably should have returned it, but the movers also walked away with my antique shepherd’s crook and a walking stick topped with a hand-carved morel mushroom made by my brother — so I figure they got the better end of the deal.
I’ve been wearing that guy’s shirt for two decades now. It’s a comfortable shirt. It’s a sort of utility shirt–a useful shirt, a practical shirt for knocking around in. I wear it around the house, I wear it when I go mushrooming in the Spring, I wear it like a light jacket when it’s chilly or breezy, I wear it to do yard work. It’s a shirt I don’t have to worry about; I don’t care if it gets snagged by thorns, I don’t care if it gets dirty, I don’t care if it gets stained. I don’t care because I didn’t buy it and even after two decades I tell myself it’s not really MY shirt.
But clearly, it is my shirt. After looking at that photo, I realized I’d taken other photographs that included that shirt. Of me wearing that shirt. Other folks had photographed me in that shirt. I realized how much time I’ve spent in that shirt. I realized I’ve grown fond of it. I realized I have a relationship with that shirt. I didn’t really know that; not until I stopped being a pretentious dick, thinking about that photograph as a photograph.
Which brings me back full circle to being a pretentious dick again. Howard Nemerov, the poet (and brother to photographer Diane Arbus) once wrote, “The camera wants to know.” I can’t really agree with that. I’m more inclined to agree with the Eggleston approach; the camera just wants to see. But sometimes the act of seeing helps the viewer to know.
This is what I know: I have a blue plaid shirt. It’s my shirt. I didn’t buy it, but I own that shirt. It belongs to me. Now that I know that, I’m going to try to forget it. Because if I think about it, it might change the way I wear the shirt, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a lived-in shirt, and it deserves to be lived in. I want to wear that shirt the way Eggleston shoots photographs.
See? Full circle.