This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2021 show PLEASERE TURNCART SHERE featuring the photographic works of Nicholas Seitz.
You’ve made it this far into this project, you deserve to know at least one secret: the numbering system.
Every photograph in this series is named following a relatively simple numbering system. The first two digits are the shoot number, counting up from 1 up to 15, corresponding to the number of times I visited the corral. The second set of four digits are hours, the third set minutes, and the fourth set seconds, all corresponding to the elapsed time since the first photo was taken.
But there is a fifth set of numbers, counting from “00” up to “23” and cycling back to “00’.
In any sort of motion picture, and here I just mean a rapidly displayed series of images, twenty-four frames per second is basically considered the lowest frame rate needed to give the illusion of fluid motion. Any lower than that and you basically get a stilted sort of flip-book look. If you get down to 1 or .2 frames per second, then you’re basically in vacation slideshow territory. Going the opposite direction, if we go up to about 60 frames per second, you get a jittery sort of hyper-reality feeling. When watching live sports, it causes the action to look vivid and lifelike. When watching a sitcom, it can look low budget, and feel as if reality itself is wearing too much makeup.
From about 24 to 30 frames per second, though, seems to be a sort of sweet spot. 24 frames are the standard for most film productions and is the quintessential “cinematic” frame rate. Allowing each frame to have more space within a second allows for slower shutter speeds on each frame, the lowest typically being 1/48th of a second- half as long as the second subdivided into 24 equal parts. When film cameras recorded with physical shutters and advancing film stock, the shutter had to have at least as long as the exposure to close and advance the film. However, the 1/48th of a second exposure time still allowed for motion to drag out ever so slightly between frames, resulting in a bit of motion blur which created a more “natural” feel and further increased the illusion of watching actual motion in between the lines of 24 frames in one second.
In this case, though, I’ve used the frame rate counter to accomplish a specific task. Every 24 photos, when the frame rate counter rolls over, one second is added to the true time the photo was taken. Thus, from photo number 24 and onwards in this series, there is at least a one second offset. By photo number 840, the effect has caused a discrepancy of only 35 seconds, but diverging lines only get farther apart.
Perhaps it’s not a very satisfying resolution to a mystery, but it’s the truth. Perhaps the greater mystery still remains as to why a cart corral in Midlothian, Virginia was photographed 840 times. I’m afraid that if you’ve gotten this far with skepticism still remaining as to why these photos ought to have been made, I can give no further hidden answer which might elucidate the matter any further, only an honest accounting of the threads with made this project so fascinating to me.
What happens when we want to look past what seems like an unsatisfying answer to a mystery? What happens when fragmentary evidence is blown out of proportion, when the threads of evidence or theories get tangled and tied in the pursuit of hidden knowledge? Conspiracy theories.
The correlation in my mind between the divergent reality of the time / naming convention of the images, the obsessive looking at the shopping cart corral itself, and the anonymous speculation of 4chan images is this reality that there are truly some dark and twisted conspiracy theories available for consideration on the internet.
When I was younger, I got very absorbed into conspiracy theories. It must have begun around my early teenage years, perhaps as young as 13. I would spend hours on the internet pouring over what seemed like any plausible arguments about everything from 9/11 to JFK’s assassination. As I came of age in a world with well-documented atrocities, I think that I had an obsessive streak which sought to make sense of things, and a rebellious streak which refused to believe the “neatly packaged narrative” that was “fed to us” by “those in power”.
I have renounced the wildest claims that I boldly made as a myopic youth, with eyes that only cared to look as far as the computer screen. But I think some of that obsessive streak must still be in me to have willingly started and completed a project of such magnitude about such a mundane subject. Insofar as I have always appreciated photography as something which I felt let me process and understand the world, the more I photograph, the more I realize that some of that obsessive looking can start to bend and twist the judgment of the viewer even further. There is sight and there is seeing.
In 2020, we were witness to a theater of myopic vision, conspiratorial thinking, and a striving towards salvation in data without a broad understanding of the goodness that is present in the world at large. Facing a pandemic that had precedents in severity, we experienced an unprecedented response and alteration in our normal experience of life towards the end of saving lives. There was an unwillingness on one hand to acknowledge the threat, or at least an unwillingness to be inconvenienced in any minor way to minimize the impact of a deadly disease. However, there were and have been those that are all too eager to retreat into a virtual and contactless world with no horizon of re-engaging in meaningful ways with those around them, even if that meant personal risk. From this high hill of virtually connected seclusion, they are eager to denigrate and vilify the crowds deemed too selfish or too stupid to make the “minimal effort” of abrogating portions of their life protect a collective humanity.
All discourse on the topic has been filtered through a tribal, political lens. All proportionality of discussion has been cudgeled to a battered state by the haughty assertion that I know best, appealing either to a standard of either unlimited, unrestrained, unconcerned individual liberty, or a cold assessment of statistical analysis, filtered through podcast think tanks, Instagram stories, and deployed viciously against anyone that might raise an objection.
One of my favorite anecdotes from the pandemic was a grandmother who wanted her children and grandchildren to visit her for Thanksgiving in 2020. Out of care and concern for the matriarch, the children demurred, saying that she was surely at the most risk of dying, and they did not want to risk the health of the grandmother. The grandmother replied simply that she was 93 years old, and if she didn’t die of COVID-19, she was very likely to die of something within the next year, and she would like to see her children and grandchildren.
Who’s right in that situation? Are you willing to see the merits of both arguments? Are you willing to respect the consciences of the family in the decision they reached? Or would you be more likely to take to social media in defense of or attack against the people from the story, skeptical of the motives of the person that relayed the story?
Give us 2, 5, or 10 years and there will be another issue. In December of 2019, no one could have predicted that a virus discovered in the closing days of the year would kill almost three million within a year and infect over a hundred million. But if I had slipped a piece of paper back in time to say that an event of worldwide significance was going to happen next year, smart money would’ve bet on divisive and bitter divisions in the U.S. resulting from it.
Doing this photography work in the fall of 2020, it certainly was not far from my mind. I don’t think this project was a direct response to the pandemic, but it is worth noting the divisiveness, conspiratorial thinking, hostility towards “the other”, and myopic calculation that has responded to it. Yes, it is what we already were disposed to. But a contagion with worldwide implications can only catalyze (that is, lower the temperature needed for a reaction to take place) the existing conditions of unrest, discontent, and paranoia.
For as many hours as I spent photographing the space, I was by no means able to build a complete picture of the world or even the space immediately around the corral just by seeing what was happening there in narrow photographic slices. In a purely social sense, I almost felt more paranoid and protective of a space I didn’t own the longer that I spent there alone and looking around. That’s not to say that I ought to have been able to construct a coherent worldview out of just a camera and a parking lot, that’s only to say, in isolation my sense of the space became almost more frenetic and impressionistic the more I photographed there. There is sight, and there is seeing.
But there was also a sense in which all the time I was there was a joyfulness and a thankfulness to be able to see an unfolding degree of beauty that was actually there in the space itself. It was an incomplete picture. But I saw several beautiful sunrises and sunsets, rain and the shifting luster of the surfaces around the space. I saw falling leaves and flying birds. I saw planes and helicopters. I saw the shopping center itself be filled with a pop-up rummage market, meaning it was less vacant than I thought. I went for a run in the parking lot one morning as I waited in between exposures 15 minutes apart to trace the shadow the rising sun cast. The camera, in all of this, was a tool to record a narrow slice of impression, to arrange and condense and expand space on a flat plane. The works were completed faster than anyone could sketch, yet the composition was still imbued with my artistic striving towards arranging the elements on a pleasing pictorial plane.
So that is the picture that I have been trying to lay out in all of this- when, under our human strength, human faculties, and human wisdom, we go on looking harder and more fervently, the result is often a confusion that is a worst state than the first. Moments of great scientific discovery, breakthroughs, cultural harmony, peace on earth- they seem to be the gracious exception to the rule. Yet, simultaneously, there is all the good and beautiful stuff to see and interact with in the world. There are really are wonderful advancements in medicine, technology, in food production. There are many things which reduce human suffering. There are beautiful sunsets and sunrises. There are shopping cart corrals, and the people that return shopping carts to them. There may even be grace for those that can’t or don’t return the carts.
How does all this hold together? That’s a story for another day. Those who has eyes to see, let them see.