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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

An Explorer from the Past

Eugene Atgét — Distribution and Luck

I find Atgét's story incredibly inspiring in this regard: my greatest fear as a photographer is that upon my death my daughters will be challenged to dispose of my entire life's work that is stored in the closet— all fastidiously cataloged in light impressions archival boxes. Not knowing what to do with it they will put it on a table in the front yard to be disposed of during the estate sale, for $.50 a box, and it won't sell. I'm not kidding, I wake up nights in a cold sweat worrying about this. I blame Atgét.

I simply cannot avoid the reality that no one will ever be motivated as much as I am to see that my work is distributed out into the world. My primary interest in photography is in making photographs, not in marketing them. Nonetheless, I think there is a certain responsibility that each of us have to ensure that our work— if we believe with conviction that it's important— gets out into the world, so that it lives somewhere outside our own storage cabinets. We have a responsibility to our work, let alone the responsibility we may have to future generations who will enjoy our work, if we ensure its survival. We are lucky that we have Eugene Atgét's wonderful photographs to enjoy and contemplate — a century after he made them. It does give one pause to wonder how many other photographers created equally wonderful bodies of work that are now lost to history because they didn't have the lucky circumstances that preserved Atgét's images of Paris.

And speaking of his images of Paris, therein lies the second great inspiration to be derived from Atgét. His complete work from that one project fills four volumes in a marvelous publication from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Atgét defines the phrase "working a project." I've been so influenced by him that studying his work completely changed the way I approach the world with my camera. For example, let me describe my work in a couple of locations, beginning with Fort Worden on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. This is an old World War I artillery installation, long ago converted to a State Park. It consists of dozens of rooms built underground as cement bunkers for the soldiers and matériel defending Puget Sound. I went there to photograph the doors and walls, the windows and angular light, but quickly became fascinated with the abstract patterns on the walls — both from normal wear and tear, and from the graffiti that had been covered by a myriad of brushstrokes from protective Park Rangers. Once I got the idea of photographing these marks on the wall as abstracts, I thought of Atgét and his work from Paris. Rather than try to decide, in the field, which abstract patterns were the best and focus my energy on making a few of them, I took the Atgét approach of creating images of as many examples as I could find and compose. Like Atgét, the resulting volume of work is substantial, to the point of being unwieldy. But it is from that large selection that I've been able to derive a number of projects through selective editing, and organizing those images into coherent subgroups. I have visions of Atgét walking the streets of Paris photographing every street corner, every shop, every intersection that caught his eye, not pausing to edit in the field, but rather simply gathering, gathering some more, and gathering even more. He worked the streets with such diligence that, seen as a body of work, his images provide an extensive view of the streets and parks of Paris and an unparalleled perspective that is simply breathtaking in its scope and expanse. When I was recently photographing a rock wall in Utah (that extends for a couple of miles) I "worked the project" for two weeks — finding hundreds of compositions that provided the foundation for multiple finished projects. Atgét taught me the value of tirelessly working a subject.

There is, however, a downside that can also be learned from Atgét. Occasionally I find myself in some area that provides so much photographic potential that I reflexively slide into what I call "catalog mode." I can find myself seduced into trying to make every single picture that is possible and, as they say, leaving no stone unturned. If one is not careful, one can easily find a false sense of accomplishment once every picture has been made. Cataloging an area is not the same as creating artwork, and I often find myself, at the end of the cataloging phase, needing to take a little break from the subject before I can begin to view it with fresh eyes — and find the art projects buried in the overwhelming pile of prints. In fact, finding the art project in the overwhelming pile of prints has become a critical and important part of my typical creative process. I owe both the virtues of cataloging, and the precautions of being satisfied with cataloging, to the lessons learned from Eugene Atgét.