This essay is a part of the exhibition catalogue for the 2021 show PLEASERE TURNCART SHERE featuring the photographic works of Nicholas Seitz.
“It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
– G.K. Chesterton
Why eight hundred and forty images? Fair enough. The cheeky answer is that one hundred didn’t seem like enough, and the next highest number I could think of was 840.
Sometime between 1893 and 1894, French composer Erik Satie wrote a piece of music titled Vexations with the inscription “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities”.
The piece was never performed or published in his lifetime. He never explained the title, the circumstances of its composition, or mentioned it in any way.
It was first published in the 1940s and performed in the mid 1960s by John Cage, American avant-garde composer. He assembled a retinue of pianists to exchange the responsibility of playing the jarring, dissonant, searching chord progression over some period of time. Cage guessed it would take a significant amount of time, but he underestimated. The performance took over 18 hours.
Ever since learning about the piece, I have been fascinated with the additional meaning that becomes layered into a piece through repetition. There is a dual mechanism. On one hand, a new layer of meaning is added by a performer as a new performance is started. However, there is also an unfolding or uncovering, a deeper understanding of the subject matter reached by the person perceiving the work (both performer and receiver).
A more contemporary undertaking in a similar vein was the National performing their song “Sorrow” back-to-back over a six-hour period in May of 2013. The performance was captured in a multi-camera, high production manner that feels like a slick and perfectly edited concert video.
But the true piece of art here is the physical and emotional stamina needed for the musicians and crooning front man Matt Berninger to enact the ballad for six hours continuously. The men sweat. Their neat suits become wrinkled and stained. Food containers and empty water bottles accumulate on the stage. The arrangement becomes more paired back, like a runner who must slow the pace in order to continue moving forward: the marks of endurance taking its toll.
I saw the video installation of this piece “A Lot of Sorrow” in a gallery in Montreal in fall of 2019. I was traveling with my wife, and a couple friends who were sympathetic to art but not necessarily disposed to spend an entire afternoon watching a video that consisted of the same thing, over and over (just different). Truth be told, I don’t think I would’ve chosen, then or now, to spend an afternoon of my vacation doing that. But the twenty minutes or so I spent in that dark, secluded room staring at a projection about 20 feet high, watching and hearing the strain bend the musicians’ muscles and minds farther and farther was time well spent.
I think if Cage were able to see Sorrow performed for six hours straight at MoMA PS1 (the location of its original performance), he may have chuckled that what was once esoteric as an 18-hour atonal piano piece (with a crowd that dwindled as low as six souls) could gain a hearing and a sizable, engaged audience as a six-hour rock ballad. He may have felt a strange satisfaction that I suspect few avant-garde artists get to experience: seeing the ideas they grasped at, awkward in their context and responded to with either indifference or ridicule, be vindicated in the long run of culture.
And what of Satie? No one knows why he wrote Vexations. He died in 1925, when John Cage was 13 years old, growing up in Los Angeles, an entire world away from Satie. Varying theories have been given as to what the piece of music “meant”, but I have always been content to let it remain an enigma to me. An enigma first regarding the purpose for its creation, and an enigma second for why it persisted rather than being forgotten, and so crept into a minor canon of avant-garde work long after its author had passed from this Earth.
Repetition is built into the fabric of music. Before recording techniques were created in the mid 19th century, music existed almost only in a state of either repetition or spontaneity. There was either the composed and practiced piece performed for an audience, or a spontaneous solo, a playful, joyful song, clapping and singing with friends. The skill of the musician, however, could only be built up with repetition and practice: the unfolding potentiality at the confluence of soul and musculature.
Even with the advent of recorded music, music continues to find its meaning in repetition. The listener lets a newfound song they love wash over them repeatedly until it grows stale. They leave it for months or years and find it again, and all the emotional and memory synapses that had not fired since are re-fired. A wave that isn’t really nostalgia washes over you- it’s the echo of an emotional resonance that only exists because a song was repeated enough times to be a part of you in the first place. A later hearing may be tinged with nostalgia for an earlier time- but it is still a chord being strummed again which was only there to be played due to the establishment through repetition. The recorded song, played once in the past, is the same song being played again.
But what of photography?
Photography seems to reach at nearly opposite impulses. Music exists in the momentary vibration of air rushing to your brain via the ears, which is then gone as quickly as it came and only persists due to the amazing cognitive facilities which can perceive the harmony and rhythm over time. A fixed photographic image is a stark and always-available record of a moment which once was but is never coming back. To be sure, people grope at photography as if they could re-fire the moment again. But there is no re-firing a moment through photography. Time does not flow backwards. A recorded song will be the same song you heard twenty years ago. The photographic print is the same, too, but the moment it depicts is as far removed from the photograph as one end of eternity is from the other.
In other words, people almost never look at photographs, the ink on the page or the pixels on a screen. They look through the photograph to the referent, and the photograph becomes the vehicle for looking. A photograph may be the same, but the thing we try to look through the photograph at is never coming back in exactly the same state as when it was photographed.
This photographic series is not, at the bottom, repetitive. Yes, it is true that I returned 15 times to the same parking lot to create photographs featuring, in some way, the same shopping cart corral. But I was not striving after the mundane experience of creating an identical photograph 840 times. The clear directive I gave myself was to create as original of a photo as possible for each iteration of the set. Baked into those parameters is a structure of repetition, and indeed, some photos end up feeling quite repetitive. Some for lack of creativity, and some to draw out another distinctive by fixing an element like camera position- e.g., the motion of the sun or moon. But throughout the project, the repetition became an avenue for drawing out the distinctiveness of every narrow slice of time and space which the camera carved out.
What happened throughout the course of the project should hardly have been surprising. The outcome is familiar to a designer who works through ideas and variations iteratively, painters who return to the same subject, or musicians who practice the same song repeatedly: you reach new depths of the subject and undertaking by refusing to allow yourself to move on too easily. Perhaps it’s an insight too that’s too obvious to spend much time on, but if it is, please permit me to indulge in a bit of redundancy: you learn more about something by coming back to it. In this case, though, it was not the corral I learned more about, but everything else beside it.
With one fixed point, one radius from which to orbit and see the immediate vicinity, I was able to see a landscape around that point in a way that I literally would have never been able to see prior to spending scores of hours there.
It’s simple geometry- a straight line can be drawn between any two points on a plane. It is simple enough to take a picture of a thing from any given point: camera and subject. But what became far more interesting to me was the joyful coincidence of bringing three or more points together on a line: camera, subject, tree. Camera, subject, bird. Camera, subject, moon. Camera, subject, all of the stars.
The effect of 840 lines drawn from the camera, through some reference to the corral, and on to a third thing was an explosive prism of observation. I stuck the end of my lens against one pole of the corral to photograph something across the street, leaving only a shadow of the corral. I went as far away from the corral as possible while still being able to distinguish part of its metal poles. I sat silently, straining my eyes and ears for the high and distant rumble of a jet, hoping to photograph a plane with reference to a portion of the corral.
One evening when there was a heavy mist in the air and I was photographing with a direct flash, I realized that I was quite literally able to see the air in a way that I had never quite experienced before when photographing. There was another time in a narrow rental window for a 600mm telephoto lens with a 2x extender (which produced a 1200mm effective focal length, which is equivalent to a decent hobby telescope) when I was anxiously watching the weather forecast, desperately hoping to have an opportunity to photograph the moon. I had to restrain myself from taking too many photos of the moon once I finally got a clear sky. It felt like such a rare and wonderful chance to be able to see the moon at dusk, and still photograph the corral. Three points on a line, two only a few feet apart on the surface of this planet and the other a quarter million miles away, bouncing light from the sun which took eight minutes to get to the surface of the moon into the camera lens.
Let me make something quite clear here, though: it was a very boring sort of space. The corollary to sustained and intentional looking (which begets insight) through repetition is passive looking, which begets numbness. The repetitive suburban commercial landscape of the U.S. has been a frequent subject of photographers, precisely because so many really are numb to it, including me. To create aesthetically rich photos of a mundane space is to reawaken the senses to a space that has become unseeable due to familiarity.
The exhibition New Topographics from 1975 – 1976 and the many catalogs and critiques printed since have paid extensive attention and thoroughly examined the architectural landscape of the United States throughout 70s. The show was so seminal to American landscape photograph and has been so thoroughly examined and written about that I have little to add here other than to comment on its study of repetition in the landscape. There was an implicit critique, I think, of the American landscape and consumerist society that had built it up, but there also an attempt to draw some sort of poetic understanding out of it. Stephen Shore’s beautiful color photographs render these banal landscapes in stunning photographic beauty. Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph archetypes of industrial structures in terms of a taxonomic study, saying “look, look at what we are building. We are building it again, and again, and again.”
It is now 45 years after the show concluded, though. An entire generation of architects, civil engineers, retailers, and others responsible for creating these spaces have had the opportunity to pause and reflect on the insights the photographers in the exhibition were trying to draw out of the text of the landscape through photography. It does not seem like there was any soul searching. In fact, in the age of COVID we are as eager as ever for drive through, curbside pickup, sealed environments within a short drive or uber ride away.
But that doesn’t mean that the landscape has been emptied out of all testimony that nature is still beautiful. I have labored under the false pretense that I had to drive farther and farther, find grander visions to create new work which touched on the beauty of the natural world, when all that was really needed was more careful looking and contemplation.
One of my favorite graphic novels is a work titled Here by Richard McGuire. Its setting is fixed in space and completely unstuck in time. In most panels, the view is a simple American living room, page after page. But as the story unfolds, there are panels inset containing imagined scenes from millions of years in the past, or thousands of years in the future. One family’s life is traced from the mid 20th century up until the present day (2015, when the book was published). A scene of Benjamin Franklin arguing with his son takes place in a house across the street, and a girl muses two hundred years later that she thinks Franklin once lived in the house across the street “or something”.
The book is appealing to anyone like me who has mused what has happened on the soil under one’s feet, or what the stretched out an imaginative future that could be seen if only one sat where they were for a hundred years. I think this photography body was a gesture at an understanding of how even a mundane space might change, and the variegated environmental experiences one can have even in a single, boring, non-space. But this omnipresent vision could never really be accomplished exhaustively in real life. We do not get the luxury of seeing into the future, nor do we get the ability to see and extract perfectly from the past. We get the linear experience of life with a transitory present in which to consider, to reflect, to see beauty, to act.
Even as I set in front of myself the ludicrous goal of 840 photographs of one space, I had the desire to rush through their making. The first 210 felt fresh and invigorating. The second 210 felt workmanlike: I would go to the space to work and make original looking photos, but there was a task to do, and I went there to do it. The third 210 felt discouraging, interminable. Surely this project must end soon, but making new photographs was difficult, and on occasion I lapsed into rather mundane photography as I attempted to rid myself of a few more pictures.
But the final 210 just felt a little sad. There was a moment when I saw a piece of heavy machinery parked in the lot and felt something like terror, thinking that the whole parking lot would be ripped up before I could finish the project. But it was gone the next day. I took fewer and fewer photos on each trip as it got close to the end. I thought I would never truly photograph in this space again once the project was over, and I was thankful for the time I got to spend there.
I think the last 210 were the most interesting- at peace with the space, familiar and yet still able to see new things every time I went. By the time I finished, I felt like I could have photographed there indefinitely, with the parking lot as a sort of playground and the shopping cart corral a rallying point, the thing which was the impetus for going there in the first place.
Yet, there is a kind of “dark side” if you will, to all of this: obsession. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that a shopping cart corral could become a theology unto itself. The form may be endowed with a peculiar sort of beauty, and the world around it is undoubtedly beautiful, ordered, and endlessly ripe for investigation. But it would be a mistake to expect transcendental values or understanding to come out of the forms alone. To try to spend eternity photographing a shopping cart corral would be madness. There is no cogent worldview to cobbled together out of a shopping cart corral, right?