Progress, NJ

Photographing your hometown is something like photographing yourself. You must consider how much you are willing to show, and you must be aware of the truth you are concealing by doing this. And in both, you must accept that you will never capture an accurate portrayal, and that even if you did, would the audience see it the same way you do?

Progress, NJ is an attempt to figure out where I am from, at a time when I am preparing to leave. Progress, the idea of change, an ironic original name for my hometown, which now exists as a has or could have been. But even this progression to a shadow is indicative of a town’s ability to change it’s identity, to defy an attempt at overly narrow definition.

Change is a natural state of life, so perhaps Riverside is not doing as poorly as people in town think, only going through its latest iteration.

Perhaps I’m wrongfully imposing personality on a town, and by doing so misleading my audience or myself into accepting that presentation of the town.

Progress, NJ, is the story of a town as told by someone there, through what is and isn’t there.

Thinking of Photography as a Rhetorical Device

In order to highlight the ideas of illusory truth and the kindly haze of nostalgia, I decided on using a disposable camera to photograph Riverside, with the lens covered in Vaseline. I did this after talking with the professor about the soft focus that Vaseline creates in photographs and after seeing the hazy, haunting photographs made by Susan Burstine. The goal was to create a sense of dreaminess, something that would suggest a warm hominess.

As I recognized early on through class discussions, the truth is something that doesn’t come out in photographs. Despite this, truth is often looked for in photographs, especially in a series of photos about a town.

Even in my attempt at a random sampling, there is a statement about truth. I am still selecting what to be photographed, from what angle, and what pictures to choose to present to the public as representative of Riverside.

Errol Morris’ writes in Believing is Seeing “the minute you take one picture as opposed to another, or the minute you select one photograph from a group of photographs, you are doing something very, very similar to manipulating reality.”

This is where I thought the benefit of the soft focus in my photographs was. By reducing the images to outlines, warm colors and vague shapes, I could avoid appearing to establish my pictures as the true representation of Riverside by instead presenting the town as I see it, in a forgiving nostalgic glow. The blurry, warm haze is a rhetorical framing of the images, placing them in my memory rather than as an attempt to present a straight, factual view of the town. The disposable camera was meant to enforce the idea of rhetorical presentation. It was my hope that the perception of the disposable camera being sort of out-dated and simplistic-as opposed to the professional, polished, and perhaps calculated feel sometimes given by sophisticated equipment-would lend itself to my goal of attempting to present these images as how I see Riverside.

I mentioned earlier a random sampling. My original goal was to simply take pictures of the many abandoned buildings and vacant lots, but as I discussed my project with the professor, I realized that isn’t all that Riverside is, not even to me. So my focus widened: to photographs of train tracks, small backyard gardens, informal auto repair, flags outside of apartment windows, letter carriers. Old ball fields.

These I hoped would work together as a parts-for-whole semiotic device (individual parts presented as representative for the whole town). I was aware that I was still perhaps limiting Riverside to these things, but I felt it also the town to be more than how I originally planned on displaying it. By not photographing one aspect of town, I am showing that nostalgia blurs an understanding of what a place really is, while also hinting at an awareness that any of my subjects could define Riverside for other people.

I photographed from ten to eleven in the morning over the course of a weekend in order to make use of the very bright sun and the vibrant highlights on grass, brick, etc that I was highlighting. The Vaselined photos I altered in Picasa after scanning them onto my computer. This was both to emphasize color contrast and to highlight building outlines.  These changes were designed enhance the “warmth” of the colors, which I thought would again move them, again, from the exactitude of the real world to the way nostalgia adjusts and glosses over the bad parts.

I made minimal crops to my photographs. Cropping, as we discussed in class, further removes the image from the reality it existed in. Overall, I avoided cropping because I didn’t want to dissociating the images from Riverside. I felt that by framing the pictures as the Riverside in my memory was dissociative enough from the reality of Riverside, so I only made some few edits to bring an object into the foreground.

As pointed out by mapmaker Denis Woods, all visual presentations present a myth, or point of view, a message, about what they display. It would be remiss of me to acknowledge that my selection of subjects was designed with stereotype in mind. These subjects were picked because I felt them most representative of a post-industrial small town. My subjects were things I thought I’d seen in other photo essays about quiet towns; the idea of perseverance or carrying on despite setbacks seems to be a common theme in similar work. By photographing subjects I’d seen in other similar photo essays, I am acknowledging the genre expectations I am working with (and in), and the blurriness is then a visual signal of the sense of nostalgia I am trying to capture.

Former Zurbrugg Hospital

In her discussion of photographs as meaning-making devices, Annete Khun writes that “the photograph is a prompt, a pre-text, it sets the scene for recollection.” Theorist Susan Sontag adds that “the photograph may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is “like” what’s in the pictures.”

What’s in the pictures, as discussed in class, is often less important than what’s left out of the picture, and that absence is something I was trying to highlight.

Despite photographing an empty lot, despite the knowledge that the image would be distorted by the Vaseline I’d wiped across the lens, I approached shooting this site as if it were any other landscape. Indeed, in composing the shot I sought out opportunities to incorporate landscape photography rules into my  pictures.

Facing a relatively empty shot, I repositioned myself to take advantage of the nearby watchcase building. This was to build a sense of depth. The layering of visual levels is beneficial to solidifying and centering the main topic of my photo. Now stacked between a rough shaped building (old Riverside, the past) in the background, and a chain link fence in the fore, the tree in the middle (new Riverside, the potential) becomes centered (semiotic prominence), and serves to focus the viewer to the largely empty middle ground.

The tree is also framed by the chain link fence. The fence, with its recurring shapes and  strong diagonal lines help to draw the eye towards the enter of the image, which is bare.

If, as Sontag writes, photographs are appropriation of the thing photographed, and that these photographs taken and selected are imbued with the values of the photographer, then what stance am I assuming with this picture? Why did I choose this image, what do I intend for it to reflect?

Martin Lister, in writing about the intertextuality of photographs, notes that no picture is isolated, rather, it is located within a network of photographs on a similar topic. The audience, having been exposed to these other photographs before, will then able to understand what the picture is about. This associative thinking is why I incorporated the chain link into this photograph, it was a device meant to connect to help connect my image with other photographs of fenced-off lots. By making this association, I am trying to, as Khun writes, use my photograph as a prompt.

In showing an empty lot, I hoped that the audience would wonder about the lot’s past and it’s future, and why I am choosing this place as indicative of Riverside.

These questions, the statement about Riverside is continued by the irony (vitality amongst the barren) and juxtaposition (tree represents potential for new growth out of wreckage it stands in) of the tree‘s location. As I mentioned before, the tree (newness/ future growth) is juxtaposed against the outline of the watchcase building (old Riverside, lack or end of growth).

Over the course of class discussions, I learned that the biggest question we must ask when considering a photograph is what statement it is making. Through framing, juxtaposition, and centering, I am reevaluating my opinions of what Riverside is and what it could be, and asking the audience to reconsider theirs.

One comment

  1. It’d be interesting if you could come back in a few years and take the photos again to see the change. I’ve been all over the place-sometimes away from home for years at a time. The first time I went away and came home–an entire plaza popped up. Through the years, varying business have closed or opened, and people who have been in my home town since–well–forever–moved…or died… Every time I came home-something else was gone.

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