One of the main artistic uses of photography has always involved exploitation of the ability to capture and reproduce three dimensionality. We capture a recognizable reality which is typically as close to our physical reality as possible - think Ansley Adams spectacular photos of Yosemite Valley from the western entrance.
For me, though, I am drawn to the ability to see that same physical reality in two dimensions. My love of art is most nourished by 20th century abstract expressionism- in the pure aesthetics of an image, incorporating color and form, not to try to reproduce what the artist sees - however distorted or realistic - but instead to recognize the simple power of images.
One often hears people musing about, “what does it all mean” when approaching contemporary art. My answer is, whatever you want it to mean. But even that implies a measure of intellectual calisthenics and, while I have no objection to that approach to consuming art, it is not one I share. My consumption of art visually is more visceral. I want to feel it, not understand it.
Which brings me to graffiti - graffiti it truly a pure abstraction for the most part. Although it often has meaning to those who produce it, that meaning is mostly obscure to those who view it so it becomes something else. I maintain it is a pure expression of where we are in the 21st century; young, urban, angry, frustrated by inequality with few “legitimate” outlets to express that frustration and even fewer clear routes to overcome it. So it just comes out as a spectacularly colorful, creative blast onto any flat surface providing a little privacy.
But that isn’t the end of it. Because it remains in place, it is routinely defaced by others, whether competing individuals in an urban setting or just other people expressing some other emotion. The point is, over time it evolves into something other than what it started out to be. In that sense it is - perhaps unintentionally - collaborative and organic. There is no final product - as long as it exists in some space it continues to change until - eventually someone paints it over with flat gray paint and the process starts again.
And that brings us to the prickly notion of attribution. Is it fair for me as an artist to recognize the pure aesthetics of the image at some point in the process of becoming, as described above, and capture it as my own? I am still grappling with this. I was photographing a piece in San Francisco and was lucky enough to be able to talk to two guys who were touching up a piece. I said, “How is it that the building owner doesn’t object - how do you manage for it to be OK for you to do this?” One of them said, “It’s simple; just be true to your art and don’t be an asshole.” Wise words indeed.
Today as I ride a fast train from Budapest to Vienna, listening to Fela Kuti and passing scores of gorgeous examples along railway sidings and fences going by too fast for me to capture, I am struck by the universality of the creative impulse that produces this art that seems to be misunderstood by so many and routinely condemned as vandalism. It isn’t vandalism; far from it. But it could more accurately characterized as collaborative outlaw art. And maybe even that it too high minded. But whatever it is, it is my current obsession.