Day 179: How does a thing like this happen!?

Editor’s Note: After publication of this photo essay, Times Opinion photo editors were alerted to Tonika Lewis Johnson's work, which also addresses segregation and inequality in Chicago. We encourage readers to learn more about Ms. Johnson’s Folded Map project.

Yesterday, my brilliant friend and I were talking about a certain Midwestern photographer, who, in my opinion, while exceedingly good at the thing he does, does that thing in the most entitled way possible. There’s very little critical reflection apparent in his work, and that allows him to go to places and make photographs that, if one were prone to critical reflection, might give one pause for thought. That’s convoluted. His position in the world as a white American man has, for his whole life, allowed him to go anywhere and photograph anything however he likes without any sort of hesitation. I would even guess that he approaches the logistics of working as a photographer as part of the fun of his work rather than legitimate points of sociopolitical tension in the world we share. That’s less convoluted, no?

While my friend and I were talking, I said, several times, that this man’s work is good, very good, but that he comes across as dick to me. It’s a feeling that I can’t shake. I also said that, because he’s established in a very particular way in a very particular city, that it doesn’t really matter that he’s a dick. If confronted with the possibility of his dickishness (he won’t be; he’s too available and amiable), it wouldn’t even register, so unassailable is the fortress of his solid guy rightness. I ran down a list of photographers working in a similar vein to juxtapose his work. The internet is fantastic when you’re looking to put your finger on a thing that irks you. After considering one of his projects, I said, this is like Diane Arbus without the sex. My friend said, like in Manhattan, “Diane Arbus with none of the wit”. That led us to Woody Allen’s Match Point – the movie that made me realize that Woody Allen, like the photographer in question, is only sophisticated to a very particular kind of American guy and those who would characterize that guy as sophisticated.

My friend and I exchange articles and essays. We rove the internet looking for pieces of ourselves. For me, that means hidden Grenadians and Jamaicans and Canadians, Francophone Caribbeans and Africans, Black people with British New Wave fetishes and strong opinions on Joy Division, unapologetically goth Latinos, artists and designers in turmoil over the point of their work, people at war with the things they “do”. At Howard, it dawned on me that there is a whole universe of history, of thinking that one must work diligently to know. It isn’t lesser, it isn’t slim, it isn’t an “alternative”, you don’t do it to be cutting-edge. When I came to that awareness, I decided I would have to do the proverbial “twice-the-work” to engage with things I’d have to work to know and simultaneously handle information that is widely propagated.

There is humility in this kind of working to know. It is a humbling process. But it isn’t humbling in the way that learning a camera is humbling. It isn’t you and the machine, you and the moment wherein you create the image. It humbles you in the face of your forebearers and the people with whom you share the world today. I think that’s the part that’s missing from this photographer’s work; to my eye, he’s clearly in conversation with the “greats” of photographic history, but he doesn’t really give a shit about the people with whom he currently shares the world.

I’m prone to lectures because I’m a teacher. But before I was a teacher I was a photographer at war with my medium. And, after I became a teacher, I became an artist. I am all of these things at once, and wrestle constantly with how each one exists in community. I hesitate to say it’s a better way to be in the world, but it’s a better way to be in the world. (I have a friend who says I’m an asshole; I don’t know how different that is from being a dick, it might not be too far. I do know I’m self-righteous, but only because I’m right.)

I’d had the article open for three days. I waited until the weekend to read it. I didn’t read it yesterday as my friend and I were having so much fun talking shit about our “betters”. I had no idea it was a photo essay until I opened the article today. And I know exactly how that Editor’s Note happened.

  1. I don’t think it matters anymore that “they” see “us” because we see them;
  2. #1 is why there are suddenly (well, not suddenly if you’ve been paying attention) attacks on the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory;
  3. My wonderful friend made a point about that particular city and its art scene: “So much is at stake in being on top of things; if you’re not on the cutting edge, you’ve already lost.”
  4. Imagine thinking that – even after a tour de force like The Case for Reparations – no one in Chicago, Chicago! had come up with a way to visually interrogate that city’s inequalities. The arrogance! How incurious.
  5. (My mother thinks it’s pure plagiarism.)