The Photo Issue 2010: Still Lifes
THE PHOTO ISSUE 2010
Cover photo by Roe Ethridge
ny occasion where I get to use bad English makes me glad. “Still Lifes” should be wrong but it’s not. Wouldn’t “Still Lives” sound very Lifetime channel. And rather than rereading Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes who have written great books about photography I just want you to know that I know about those books, I own them and they are someplace. But I have definitely read a great many essays and articles about photography or some and I know a couple of things. Basically that photography started with pictures of naked bodies and pictures of dead bodies. Isn’t that interesting. I think film started with a sneeze so the apple doesn’t ever fall very far from the tree. I’m disappointed in general that no one offered Vice a photograph of puke on the sidewalk which for me would be a very fine still life. It was hard to resist offering my own photographs here. Tea balls with tiny bears hanging off their chains—dangling over the edge of an overdecorated cup. Actually not a bunch of such bears and cups but one. I have a photograph of exactly that. Face it, everyone’s crazy about their own stuff. I’m seated here in the mausoleum of Eileen and I am filled with love for things everywhere I look. Red sheets, the big painting, the funny little card of Shirley Temple smoking. A home is certainly a crappy little museum and when I look at these still lifes (the photographs here) I think about all the dead bodies these photographers have offered us—I guess I’m thinking each picture is sort of a corpse—but sort of a tomb too.
Supposedly some of the first still lifes were painted or mosaics on the walls of tombs and those little pictures were intended to magically transport the object to the afterlife for the departed. I don’t know if they would be sent ahead or you know come after you got there but either way it would be pretty nice. Imagine sitting on a hill in wherever and along comes a bottle of wine and a gun, or a lute. Hopefully you set your own terms, otherwise people would probably make assumptions about your desires and perhaps the things you had only pretended to like in your life would now be your playthings for eternity. So I guess the moral is you should always be honest about what you like. Politicians of course deserve the shit they will be posing with forever. I mean if you are in a lying profession like politics or what else is a lying profession—banking, what else… oil executives… naturally you would probably prefer not to die at all. But that’s not an available choice on this screen. People like to place skulls in still lifes because of course a skull is supposed to keep you honest. What is a skinned animal supposed to mean. A dead fish. Everything was meaningful in early still lifes and all the meaningful things were dancing behind god because all the paintings were religious. So at first the pictures were a means of transporting shit and later the things were a warning.
Over and over it seems Christianity was a big mistake. Still is. Wouldn’t a man on a cross be a still life. What’s the message there? People seem to know. It’s time for the air conditioner to wind back on. Does yours have a mind of its own like mine does. It seems it’s cool in here so it stops. But it’s hot. Things are good for things. Nothing in my apartment seems to mind but me. Supposedly the still life came to the fore when religion and the state became replaced by the middle class. Do you know when that was. The world began to be run by people who just wanted a lot of shit. And would go anywhere to get it. The Dutch who invented our own dear New York and this is why it is this way—full of people who want stuff—they were the stars of this moment, collecting shit from around the world and putting big piles of it on shelves, in boats, taking it somewhere else. And making paintings of it. And really this moment never ended. They would paint marketplaces, and the thing that’s funny is that if you were a painter and you weren’t being paid to paint someone rich you would just probably paint some stuff and sell it in the market and so the place where all this was happening of course got painted too—it’s dizzying. It’s all an early home movie, so much less stupid than the people I saw with camcorders at Yellowstone waiting patiently for a geyser to go off and then standing there patiently filming it.
What does it mean when someone takes a photograph of their own beloved pile of shit, or a remarkable thing in the world. See, I think the trick to capitalism and all that it entails, like the dog running round and round after itself, is that ultimately what you’re loving and owning becomes a form of worship. I love David Armstrong’s big naked man statue holding a little naked fella. That is some kind of god. That is David’s church. That a snowman is doomed, that a chewed pile of gum looks like a brain, that a gaping hole in an old tree is lopsided and looks like a talking tree in a fairy tale or a cunt, that the worst kind of fake diorama with tiny trees and doleful instructions or directions, that this pile of things was at one time someone’s ambition, now moved or left to rot in the right or wrong place and someone else saw it… it’s interesting that a picture of a person, usually a woman, is generally a thing—distorted, turned on her edge. And presidents quickly become cardboard figures or masks. Presidents like women can be things.
Actually I was thinking today—this is completely unrelated but I’ll share it—if the web was initially part of some weapon system for defending this country and the idea was that there couldn’t be a top to that system (like the Pentagon or the White House) because then it would become a target so this system, the web, was designed for information to travel on in all directions so that “our leadership” couldn’t be located exactly… so the presidency is evolving into a kind of reverse monarchy where we elect someone to “sit” in a position of power that is untrue because of course for example the corporations rule the world, not the government, so we have no way of knowing what BP is doing, and certainly the president doesn’t either so like a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan was perfect, whereas a guy like Barack Obama is flawed, antique because he thinks he’s someone and we want him to be someone but instead he’s in a spot where he’s just a pile of things like a copy of himself. The presidency is not a hard job. It’s not even a job.
The position of the artist will only get better when the possibility of saying anything true, of doing good for the world in a grand way, has been at last put away for good, and the small local efforts of private religionists, artists, will come to be known as the only thing left, that is, to continuously erect something new and place it in the position of the dead, like a little tiny altar or a shrine so maybe each of these still lifes is actually alive in the best possible way. Each one of them lives though nothing moves. I’m thinking the artist, here the photographer, moves toward it and arranges it. And it’s not that I’m so crazy about puke. It’s just what it means is so true. For so many people who come here, who come anywhere and run madly around, it tends to be their message to the world. It’s a kind of speech. It’s their sophisticated way to make something, to leave something here for everyone even if it’s only a pile of half-digested food and booze. It’s what they’ve got. At least they didn’t die.
BY EILEEN MYLES
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