You might already be thinking, “Yes, of course it can”, but before you rush to answer, let’s consider for a moment a couple of different ways one photograph can influence a life, and you might come away with a new and unexpected understanding of my question.
First, if, like me, you really appreciate photography as an expressive medium, you’ve probably come across particular photographs that have significantly affected you. These photos inspire such emotion, and communicate complex themes so efficiently, that just gazing at them can transform your interior landscape. It can impact who you are and alter your view of the world as well as your understanding of your place within it. For example, I can still vividly remember my reaction to photographs I viewed in a Life magazine volume of photos owned by my parents in the early 1970s when I was less than seven years old. Seeing Nick Ut’s photo of “Napalm Girl” fleeing screaming down a road in Vietnam certainly transformed my relationship to the world. I think most people attracted to this blog can relate to what I'm saying.
The impact of my photograph, American Dream, on my life could be described partly with reference to this example, but it is not comprehensive enough to encapsulate my entire experience. Rather, for me, the whole process of selecting and photographing a subject, processing the digital image, making a final print, naming the work, and living with it transformed my inner self and illuminated my life. So, you see, the creative process itself was intimately, personally transformative. Why this photograph and why at this time in my life?
If you have read some of the other material on this site, you already know that I lost my home, my pets, and most of my possessions to long term unemployment some years ago. My career and sense of self also went AWOL right at midlife. I think that most people I know only partially understood what this experience did to me. It was not something I talked a lot about, partly because it was too painful and partly because I didn’t want to be seen as weak and told to ‘get over it already’. In a nutshell, I completely lost my sense of who I was, where I was going, and my belief in life's possibilities.
I could tolerate losing my job, my home, and even my pets, but I just seemed unable to recover from losing my sense of self and my faith in life. These are not things a significant other, friends, or family can fix. Much of me had simply left the scene and I withdrew from the world into my own unique experience of emotional crisis, including depression, insecurity, and doubt. Of course, some days were better than others, and I worked to recover as best I could. Finally landing a full time job after 4 years without one certainly helped, but this job only fed my belly, not my soul. My decision to pick up a camera again and to get back into photography was an attempt to bring some meaning, creativity and happiness back into my life. And it worked.
I stopped to photograph the derelict house that is the subject of American Dream on January 20, 2017. I know this without looking at the file metadata, because that date is my sister’s birthday and I was on my way to spend the day with her. She and I had discussed this house previously when I told her that I was interested in doing a series on decay, building on a photograph I had created the previous summer called The Bone Collector (below right). The house is just off of Western Kentucky Parkway, west of Elizabethtown, near Highway 3005.
As usual, when I stopped to photograph, I felt that I had little time to be creative. Typically, these places are just off the road, on someone else’s property, and there’s no safe place to park for any length of time. Plus, I’m almost always traveling with my dog, Dexter, in the car. I felt I had to make do with the lens I had on my camera at the time, the Fuji XF 35 mm F2 (52 mm full frame equivalent). That’s not very wide for a landscape shot. There was also only one vantage point I could use to take the photo, so I didn’t have as much choice as I would have liked with regard to composition. Fortunately, the clouds were interesting that day and the sky was not too bright, as the time of day and light were not ideal.
I was excited as I clicked away, trying to vary my composition to the extent that I could, as well as my exposure. The house was impressively lopsided. I had no idea at the time what had happened to her (to find out, check out my Portfolio). Although derelict houses are an all-to-common sight, it is unusual to encounter one that has shifted off of its foundation so dramatically while remaining almost intact. There was also great texture in the scene, both on the exterior of the dwelling and in the dead, tall weeds and grass surrounding it. I closed down my aperture to f10 to try to ensure that the image would have adequate depth of field and sharpness; I wanted to preserve all of that lovely detail and texture. By the time I left a few minutes later, I had the feeling that I had captured something special that I could process into a unique and compelling photograph.
A few days later, I had the time to transfer the photo files to begin editing them. There was very little color in the scene, but lots of texture, so the decision to use the black and white images I had taken, as opposed to the color ones, was easy. I also raised the exposure a little and applied an HDR effect in Snapseed to increase the drama in the clouds. Eventually, some weeks later, I would use the healing brush to remove some distracting metal fence posts from the foreground, so it did take an extended period of time to settle on the final image. I believe that no photograph is truly finished until it has been printed. The print is the artifact of the artist’s vision of the work. I used pro luster paper and found that I only needed to tweak the tint slightly toward blue to get the cold and compelling final print I had envisioned. The image also had a nice grain and the composition seemed to work, despite breaking a lot of the so-called rules.
I had spent a lot of time with this photograph, but the effects on me of creating it and living with it were not immediately apparent. I just knew that I was feeling better emotionally. Out of the blue, I decided to enter a couple of photo contests; something I had never done before. I included this photograph with my other submissions. The point here is not how my entries performed in these competitions; it’s that I felt compelled to put my work out there at all. When I submitted my photographs to these contests I committed an unexpected act of hope. It was an act based on an assumption about life that I hadn’t made for years: Life might still have something wonderful in store for me.
When I entered the first competition, I decided to entitle this photograph, American Dream. The name came easily. Obviously there was a conscious irony in my decision to associate this particular image with the once sacred notion that working hard in America inevitably results in success and home ownership for everyone. I think the housing crisis ‘burst the bubble’ of the truth of the "American Dream" for many people. I know it did for me. So, yes, I intended this photograph to spark critical thinking in its viewers about one of the key stories Americans collectively tell themselves about who they are as a society. Yet, this is not the root of why this particular photograph has been truly transformative for me. My relationship with it is more specific and personal than social commentary.
After I had created and began to live with this work, I realized I had captured a virtual ‘selfie’ of the ruin of my life. I identified with the old girl. When I gazed at her picture, I saw a place with experiences much like my own. Abandoned and ruined homes are places created by lost hopes and unrealized dreams. Life happens to places just as it happens to people. It is etched into ruins and garden paths. At some point, for whatever reason, someone decided this house wasn’t worth saving. It felt inevitable that my life experiences should be reflected back to me by a photograph of my own creation. It happened naturally when I began to filter my experience of loss through the metaphor of abandoned and derelict places.
You see, one photograph really can transform a life. The act of creativity alone engenders a space inside of us for contemplation and growth. The subject matter simply sparks and guides the growth. This one photograph of a home gone off the rails of life continues to inspire my now on-going series of photographs on the American Dream. Each one is a reflection of myself. Now, every photo shoot of an abandoned place is a virtual therapy session for me. And each act of creation breathes new life into these forsaken places, some of which have been demolished since I photographed them. Creativity combined with introspection is a terrific recipe for getting a taste of happiness.
At the beginning of August, I’m heading down to Greenville, South Carolina with my mom to attend the official opening of the Forsaken Exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Photography. I’m both delighted and proud that my photograph, American Dream, is one of only 39 that the juror, Terri Cappucci, selected for the show from close to 1,000 submissions. I plan to share my experience of Forsaken with you, my readers, so please return for future installments.
Oh, and since you’re already here, please take a look around and then leave a comment. If you like what you see, please help me realize my modest dreams of success; SHARE THIS CONTENT on your social media networks using the Share button below. Thank you and Enjoy!
-- Angela Martin
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