Note: This piece is a work in progress essay being developed for an upcoming exhibition about how America is seen by photographs of Chinese artists, documentary photographers and non-professionals.
American photographers are often on the road, overcome with disrespectful wonder at what their country offers in the way of surreal surprises. Moralists and conscienceless despoilers, children and foreigners in their own land, they will get something down that is disappearing – and, often, hasten its disappearance by photographing it. -Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977
Photography was invented in France by Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre in the early 1800s, and developed further in England when Henry Fox Talbot figured out a way to make negatives and print multiples of the same image. This allowed photographs to be duplicated endlessly, clearing a path for the concept that images can be everywhere and document every moment. Photography counts on multiplicity and in this way embodies an American sense of comformity, born from the ethic to efficiently manufacture products like cars, machinery, appliances, and now pictures. Now in the digital age, photography has taken on the immateriality of conceptual art. After all, this movement presaged the information age. Photographs now exist as disembodied images, shared and posted within streams of related data and commentary. Otherwise, they are unseen and appropriately occupy the “memory” within smart phones, hard drives, and digital cameras.
Even though it was invented in Europe, photography didn’t find its natural subject until Americans started using it to document their New World. Photography was as raw as the country and their growths mirrored and enhanced each other. As Americans hit the highways in the 1950s, the camera started becoming more portable, cheaper and more available to more people. Driving across America and photographing it became a rite of philosophical maturation – to have driven and seen (photographed) your country is to have truly lived the concept of America. Robert Frank, a Swiss immigrant, did this in the 1950s to profound artistic effect and his book The Americans remains the portrait of America’s subconscious as it struggled to find itself in the aftermath of two World Wars and a Great Depression that left it standing as the young prince in a beaten-down, war-wary world.
Imagine what kind of excitement and awe the invention of photography must have engendered in the mid 19th Century. It was chemical science wrapped in the possibilities of art: mechanical picture-making. A fleeting image emerges from light, silver, iodine and mercury on a piece of metal (then later glass and paper). Life moves ever faster and photography is a way to capture it. That’s why taking pictures goes hand in hand with mobility and travel. And it is why photography is so important to those that permanently dislocate: immigrants. As immigrants from all over the world poured into America after World War II, taking pictures became a primary way that people mediated their expectations of a place relative to its reality. The land of the gold rush, of opportunity, Hollywood, Times Square, Grand Canyon, cowboys – how did blustery descriptions of the promised land match up to those risking it all to come here?
Sontag again: “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism.”
For my purposes, I would substitute “tourism” with “immigration.” For my dad I’m sure that part of the appeal of taking pictures in America was that it proved the value of leisure time that hard work bought. And each picture he took of our lives in America validated the decision he and my mom made to escape China during its cultural revolution. Each picture from a developed roll coming back from the Walgreen’s photo counter was a trophy of this.
9/11/01 felt like one long moment. A moment that seemed to last for days, then weeks, then months, then years. I don’t know when the 9/11 moment ended for me, but eventually the vision from my Brooklyn rooftop of the first tower slipping towards the center of the earth amidst a cloud of dust became a memory.
I was brushing my teeth that morning, getting ready to go to work. “It’s a perfectly clear day, except for that strange lone cloud above the World Trade Center,” I thought to myself then. I had a distant view of Lower Manhattan from my apartment on 25th Street and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. Still groggy from sleep and on auto-pilot, I turned on my TV which poured out loud static on all stations. I stopped on one that I could at least hear. “A small passenger plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” I remember the anchorwoman reporting. She didn’t sound panicked.
I headed over to the window and that’s when I realized why that cloud above the towers looked so surreal. By that time my roommate, Bryant Wang, had woken up and I was explaining the news to him in shocked tones. We winced at the TV, trying to make out an image, trying to follow along on the screen to what would’ve been plainly obvious if we had looked out the window. Moments later, the TV told us that a second plane had struck the other tower.
We rushed over to the window and saw a new cloud billowing over Lower Manhattan. It looked so far away. It didn’t look like a film or a dream. It didn’t feel surreal. It was surreality itself. It was more real than what was inside of me.
I got a call from my boss at Creative Capital Foundation not to come in until further notice, so Bryant and I watched a little more TV to get information. We learned that flights were canceled, that America’s airspace was restricted, that this might be the work of terrorists, that fighter jets could shoot down an airplane if it was deemed an imminent threat, that evacuations were happening in the towers, that people were jumping out of them. We learned that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. The scale of these events and their proximity suddenly became too much think about. We shook our heads at eachother.
Then we went up to our roof where the view of the city was clear, like a perfectly focused photograph. The towers stood there, burning. Fires used to overwhelm and consume major cities like this one and the one I grew up around, San Francisco. Looking at the scene, I was thinking about how to describe it to family and friends back in Bay Area who I knew would be getting in touch as soon as they woke up. “‘Surreal’ just doesn’t begin to describe it,” I thought.
Suddenly the first tower crumbled to the ground. It disappeared and I could faintly hear it go. My knees weakened and I remember thinking that we at least were left with one more tower. I couldn’t imagine the other also succumbing, though it was burning in the same way. And when it did a little later, I felt foolish for being so hopeful.
When the calls came in, I said the same things over and over. “It was surreal. I’m fine. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked. I don’t know.” A dark cloud brought by a wind coming from the West approached us and we could see the ominous shadow it cast as it made its way over. We waited for it like a fast forward night. The darkness brought a rain of paper and a mist of dust. We picked up office documents written in Japanese. The cloud moved on and we later moved back downstairs to watch the news. The reception was a little better.
We watched the news repeat itself for hours, and I was intoxicated by the constancy of it. The news was like a wall. It was there the whole time and I grew to hate it for simply being there.
Tourists run this town during this late part of summer. The city overexposed under their gaze. The whole world is a camera. The whole world is rotten. Susan Sontag was right when she inferred that tourism didn’t really exist until photography was made portable. “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure,” she writes in On Photography, 1977.
Photography has been freed from the chains of glass, metal, copper, silver, and paper. Images have been freed from industrialization, and its production happens out of sight. Hidden like manufacturing is to the American consumer. The loss of manufacturing in the United States has eroded our overall sense of craftsmanship. America has thus become a nation full of quality controllers, inspecting products fresh off the boat. We will become machines, but not the type that Warhol wished upon everyone. Instead of machines of production, we are becoming machines of inspection.
A kind of machine that only looks for problems. Like the gun with a conscience from Nas’ I Gave You Power, 1996: “He squeezed harder / I didn’t budge, sick of the blood / Sick of the thugs, sick of the wrath of the / next man’s grudge”. The camera is like a gun. Antonioni’s Blow Up, 1966, talked about this. We have been so used to seeing through a camera that we’re numb to its power. We’ve become the camera and have digested its mechanisms into our own. Now we wait for the sun to move into perfect position, for the bus to move out of the way, and hope our subject doesn’t blink.
At the Organization of Chinese Americans’ (OCA) annual convention in the Grand Hyatt, which stands awkwardly like a fragile, tall ugly sister next to the robust grace of Grand Central Station. Cobalt blue vinyl table skirts hide only what everyone already knows – that underneath this plastic table is pathetic emptiness. Under the dull bright lights of this hotel’s ballroom, with its architecture of vagueness, enthusiasm is conjured, rehearsed then recycled.
A bronze colored curtain partially, inconsequentially, covers a section of wood veneer wall. A neglected table sits in front with pitchers of ice water and bowls of mints. A woman (Her description escapes me. I only remember that she carried 3 different bags.) drifts towards our table drawn by a weak magnetism. A conversation emerges, one that is expected and satisfactory, and ends with her cramming one of her bags with informational brochures.
New York Life, the insurance company, has the booth next to ours, separated by a low bar on which hangs a vinyl skirt like the one decorating our table, hiding its emptiness – the divider skirt, however, is cadmium red. Staffing their table is a mild-mannered, middle-aged Chinese man who smiles sympathetically towards me sometimes and who, with professional eagerness chatted with the interested about his company’s business either in Cantonese, Mandarin or English.
Inside their booth was a standing banner dominated by a black and white photo illustration of a business-suited man who’s shadow looks like a mideival door key. He looks up at a key hole which is out of reach, but through which a holy light shines at him. Above the illustration is the phrase “You hold the key to your success” and then underneath, the motivational punchline: “Opportunity knocks…but you have to open the door.” Finally, at the bottom, the banner proudly notes that New York Life’s credit ratings are triple A across the board.
This week, America’s credit ratings were downgraded by Standard & Poor’s in an unprecedented stumble for this country’s mighty economy and self-confidence. Towards the end of my time at the convention, as most were downstairs at an awards luncheon, a young Chinese woman walked briskly up to the table and announced herself as Echo. She lives “near the Belt Parkway” in Brooklyn and is here studying finance at NYU, and eventually looking to land a job. I could tell from the way she talked, directly and with an unleashed smile, that she felt the winds at her back and that she knew she couldn’t be stopped. She’s being carried along by the turbulent waves caused by her country which is shaped like a rooster.
Coca-Cola filled to the rim of various glass vessels so that the black soda bulges at the top, seeming to solidify like a water-smoothed rock over time. Time kept by the counting of money – coins and paper – which is a video. A video of a sculpture, made from paper cups and taped to a wall, falling as if by accident. A car accident on Centre Street on a quiet night in a pale yellow Chevrolet El Camino. That same El Camino after a cross country trip being sold to a guy that really wanted it, but who didn’t know that it barely ran. The idea and shape of running.
No need to get more specific. The best paintings these days are elusive, like a roomful of Matisse’s. On a Sunday afternoon at MoMA, his paintings might be next level shit. On a Monday, I wouldn’t want them above my toilet. There is no such thing as good art, bad art, great art, mediocre art, offensive art, political art, beautiful art. There used to be these things.