THE SECRET LIFE OF CHAIRS: THE INSIDE STORY
Later, all she could get was seedy assignations in cheap motels
We were in Florida for the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) Convention, covering it for Shutterbug magazine, which is now a shadow of its former self. There's no longer a PMA Convention, either: it merged with a consumer electronics show. We had been staying at a motel owned by the publisher of the magazine. After the show, when he stopped paying, we moved on to somewhere even cheaper. When you're paying your own motel bills as freelances, economy looms large.
Regardless of all this, the second cheap motel in question was the genesis of The Secret Life of Chairs. Specifically, it was the very chair above. It was a snapshot taken (I think) with a Minox 8111 digital camera. There was something simultaneously glorious and pitiful about that golden anodizing, blue plastic webbing and red carpet. It was brave and cowardly; brilliant and stupid; over-confident and under-confident; up to the minute and sadly old-fashioned.
I was already working on a series called 1000 Motels. I've never really been happy with it. You can see a version on our other site. If you can be bothered to look, you will probably understand why I am not happy. Then I saw this chair...
Banality had already begun to interest me (1000 Motels again) but The Secret Life of Chairs was more than this: I began to move more and more to the primacy of content over the idea of Photography with a capital P, otherwise known as artistic and technical virtuosity, or alternatively, as making pictures out of nothing. I still did (and do) a fair amount of the latter, which is often very dependent on equipment (medium and large format) and presentation (darkroom prints of a certain size), but content matters more and more to me.
This is true even with (even semi-) abstracts, which all too easily deteriorate into "What is it?" pictures. I greatly admire someone who can make a brilliant still life out of a spool of cotton and a needle, but I'm a lot more likely to be engaged by someone who can tell me about the human condition, even if it's via taking pictures of chairs. I also have a weakness for humour, pathos and even bathos: too many Fine Art and just plain Amateur photographers take themselves too seriously for my taste.
As you can probably guess from the galleries, The Secret Life of Chairs is not overly reliant on either equipment or technique. I think I've used every single digital camera I've ever possessed, from that original Minox via Nikon D70, Leica M8, M8.2 and M9, and Nikon Df. With any camera that didn't have a zoom (only the Minox and D70 did), I've used either a standard (50mm) or wide standard (35mm) lens. It doesn't matter. There's no need for the prints to be very big, either. The emotional impact is the thing, and this depends a lot on the captions. When I exhibited these in Arles in 2015, it was as postcard-sized prints, hung a dozen wide and three deep.
If there is an underlying lesson in The Secret Life of Chairs (and I am not sure that there is), it is this: Put not thy faith in others' opinions, especially if they be camera club judges who understand only single pictures. Often a series can tell you far more about a subject than a single picture, as described in Body of Work on our other site. And besides, it's your vision, not theirs. Keep practising, and you'll probably get closer to your own vision. Keep listening to other people, and you'll probably only get closer to what they think you ought to do.
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