Many thanks to Cowboys and Indians Magazine for featuring my Rodeo portraits in their latest issue (Feb/March 2016). These portraits were made all over the great state of Georgia from Perry up to Ringgold and many points between. It’s so gratifying to finally see some of this work in print, and writer Ellise Pierce certainly made me sound more thoughtful than is actually the case. Now, I need to get busy printing and scanning and updating the gallery with more images!
Being a Gemini, identical twins are a subject of constant fascination for me. If you ever want to see the reality of “Nature vs. Nurture” simply find a set of identical twins, and notice how two humans that are genetically identical can have wildly different personalities and temperaments. Almost every set of twins I have photographed looks like a set of Comedy/Tragedy Masks. I found these sisters at an apple orchard in North Georgia. Compare their faces and the position of their hands as they hold the apples. This isn’t Photoshop, this is REALITY, which is far more fascinating than anything I or anyone else could concoct on a computer!
A recent portrait inspired by the work of Julia Margaret Cameron.
Back in the days of my youth, I was a bit of a music freak, and I’d beg my mom and dad to take me to the “record store” so I could buy 45s. (Those were the small ones with the big hole, not the big ones with the small hole.) One of my favorite songs was Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” which was a top 10 smash back in the era just before FM radio came along and squashed AM like a cockroach. My dad was also a bit of a music bug, so he had the 45 and I just wore that thing out, playing it over and over on my little Fisher Price record player that had one speaker and a clamshell case. If the following tragedy had not transpired, my dad must surely have been contemplating a “disappearance.” I can hear the conversation: “Sorry, son. You must have lost it somewhere. Use this as a lesson to keep an eye on your belongings.” Well, one day, I took my record player and some discs over to a friend’s house.
Looking at photos @jacksonfineart and in walks the great Emmet Gowin, his lovely wife Edith and their darling grandson Sage. #valentinesday — Parker Smith (@ParkerSmithFoto) February 14, 2013 So, seriously, I went to Jackson Fine Art to see the Bruce Davidson show, and I’m standing there, and in walks Emmet Gowin, who (if you don’t know) is one of the greatest photographers in the 190 years since the invention of the medium. He was there on business for an upcoming show, so I struck up a conversation with his wife Edith (the subject of so many of Emmet’s most famous and intense photographs) who was carrying her adorable grandson Sage. He had turned five this very day! Edith and I ended up talking for about 20 minutes on everything from Angry Birds to contemporary photography, the overwhelming multitude of images being produced today, Emmet’s new work, his old work and how an artist struggles to become more than just a greatest hits collection. Eventually she took me over to Emmet and I had a chance to reintroduce myself (we had spoken after an event at the High Museum two years ago) and talk with him about his work.
How things were is not necessarily how they are. And how things are is not how they will be. So much of life is caught up in the now, what we want this instant, food, a drink, to read a book, to watch a show, a new movie, to see how the Supreme Court ruled, or will Europe finally implode, or, what did my friend’s cat cough up on Facebook? Photographers are all obsessed with the now. We spend our time looking for moments where the world all seems to align in a strange perfection of nowness, so we can be there to witness it, capture it, pin it like a butterfly and ask others “look… see!” It’s so difficult to remember that the photographs we create today, in all their multitudes, aren’t really for today, or even tomorrow or next week, or next year. They ferment over decades, and a transfiguration occurs. Even the most pedestrian snapshot carries within it not only the specific description of a time and a physical reality that no longer exists, but also the accumulated historical knowledge of all that has passed since that brief moment. You can look at an Instagram of your children made yesterday or last week or even a few months ago, and it has a certain, although mild, psychological impact on you. Now, imagine opening a box of snapshots of those same children that are five or ten years old. The impact is considerably more dramatic, and can often bring one to tears. So, does “art photography” exist in some space outside of the psychological impact of time? Yes and no. I think the finest of photography has a quality of timelessness — of being of indeterminate age and origin — that deepens its mystery. Photographers are also obsessed with meaning, and this is really my point. Most spend tremendous amounts of time — and some engage in elaborate psychological contortions — in an attempt to assign values and interpretations to their photographs and those of other photographers. But value and meaning is welded to time and human experience. At one time, people valued salt and gave it great commercial significance. Then people realized that it exists in practically unlimited quantities. There was a time when no one valued the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and he died in despair. Obviously, people now assign great value to his art! We as photographers think “is this art?” and most of us rightly consider if our work could possibly add anything at all to the incredibly rich history of the medium. But it’s not for us to decide, is it? It seems to me you have to do the work you are called to do, move forward slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, and let time work its magic. You may die and the estate sale people dump your entire life’s work into the 1-800-Got-Junk? bin. Or, your work could end up on the wall at The Met. The photographs aren’t for you, they are for others. We too often forget that.
One of my lifelong heroes, the great American writer Ray Bradbury, has died. He is generally pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, but any reader of his work will quickly understand that whether he was telling stories about the colonization of Mars, firefighters who burn books, or some strange, fleshy object floating in a jar somewhere in Arkansas, his subject was always human nature: our weirdness, our heroicism, our ability to be simultaneously many different, often contradictory beings in one shell. Over the decades he explored how we behave in groups (“The Crowd”) and how we behave when there is nothing but the stillness of the night. He wrote about utopias and dystopias, all of them worlds we create for ourselves. Bradbury is the favorite son of Waukegan, Illinois. Being the place of his birth is perhaps the greatest claim to fame of this small, mid-Western town perched on the edge of Lake Michigan just a few miles from Wisconsin, and just a few too many miles from Chicago to qualify as suburb. My lifelong love for Ray Bradbury began when I was a young boy growing up in that very same Waukegan. (My father had taken a job at a local engineering firm, and we were firmly settled into a classic two story brick home perfectly situated within walking distance of the school, an enormous park, railroad tracks and Lake Michigan; quite the ideal arrangement for childhood.) At some point, I gathered his books from the library at Greenwood Elementary and the book mobile and immersed myself in their worlds. Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine takes place in Greentown, Illinois, his literary double for Waukegan. In this book and his many other novels and short stories, he creates a mythology of boyhood, of love and devotion for his hometown, describing summer days playing in the mysterious ravine (“And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys traveling, always traveling, to be men.”), drinking an elixir of dandelion greens (“summer caught and stoppered…like a sudden patch of sunlight in the dark”), of fall days full of thrills and dangers, of traveling carnivals with electric men (“Live forever!”), the elderly who were never young, the wonders of new tennis shoes (“somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and could springs in the soles…”), the deaths of Fall and the resurrections of Spring, and so much more. Looking back, I now realize that I was literally living in Bradbury’s childhood, walking in his footsteps. Time had, of course, moved on, but nothing much changes in a town like Waukegan. The ravine will always be filled with bugs and birds and Poplar trees, as beautiful in the sunshine as it was terrifying at night. You could tumble down the steep sides and never hit the bottom. You could take the little flowers off the Dutchman’s Breeches and laugh and pretend they were fake teeth. You could stand with your bike and your friends at the top of a frighteningly steep hill and goad each other into going first (“man, I was booking!”), or smash pennies on the train tracks, perhaps fear the dark corners of the basement as the radiator belches and grinds. Or dig in the water and find salamanders with frilly gills, maybe sneak onto the driving range and snitch golf balls. One day after school, you get punched in the face and feel blood pour out of your nose; or, alternatively, smash a bully upside his head with your Evel Knievel lunch box and watch him crumple …
Yesterday, R.E.M. announced that they have called it quits after three decades together. Having lived in Athens and seen them live on several occasions, I’d like to share some thoughts on a career that maybe outlived its legend. Back in December 1990, Drivin and Cryin’s Kevin Kinney was doing a show with Robyn Hitchcock at the old 40 Watt on West Clayton Street. I called my sister and bro-law and told them they might want to come down from NC, as conditions were ripe for an REM show. The old 40 Watt was the size of a shoebox, and because it was Christmas break, there couldn’t have been more than about fifty people there. As expected, out walked REM. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that R.E.M. was only about 10 years past their stellar debut “Murmur,” still one of the great indie rock albums of all time. They were hot, having signed with Warner Brothers for something like $50 Million, released their terrific WB debut “Green,” and now looking like they would challenge U2 for the title of Biggest Rock Band in the World. And here they were on the tiny stage at the dingy 40 Watt! The room was ecstatic. Stipe informed us that we were to hear the first single off the new album, and they launched into “Losing My Religion,” which was the first time it was ever performed live. Not a bad Athens moment to be a part of! See the set list here. That next year “Out of Time” was everywhere you went, every club, every party, every restaurant, everywhere. (Athens loves a winner.) Even my painting teacher Mr. Bill — a cross between a Southern Gentleman and The Mad Hatter — was walking around singing “LowLowLow.” That summer, Stipe came into the Taco Stand as I was rocking the register and ordered a grilled chicken quesadilla with hot sauce (recipe available upon request). I told him how much I loved the new record and he said, simply, “Thank You.” To their credit, the R.E.M. guys never seemed to get comfortable with the rock star identity, even though they had the #1 record on the Billboard charts. They were always hanging at The Globe or the Uptown Lounge or just wandering around. To see them you would never suspect that they were worth millions. They looked like they still shopped at The Potter’s House. Critics gave “Out of Time” some middling reviews (my buddy Rob rewrote “Shiny Happy People” as “Slappy Happy People trading blows”) but it was the sound of the moment. It still stands as one of their finest records, perhaps their peak. In Jan 1992, I caught R.E.M. again at the new 40 Watt Club on Washington St. They did 8 songs, including an excruciatingly tense version of “Country Feedback,” and a cover of The Troggs “I Can Only Give You Everything” (See the setlist). And again that November at the 40 Watt for a Greenpeace Benefit show! (That was the deal: if there was a benefit show, you could almost guarantee R.E.M. would play.) Hog Heaven, ya’ll! It was a very good year. For a long time, R.E.M. said they would play their last show on New Year’s Eve of 1999, and then break up. Looking back, I’m wondering if R.E.M. shouldn’t have kept that promise, as everything after “Automatic for the People” felt like they were moving uphill, losing steam. After the so-so “Monster” (caught the tour at the OMNI) and Bill Berry’s 1995 aneurysm, they croaked out “New Adventures in HiFi,” before Berry left the band. They soldiered on until yesterday, but …
I’ve had a long, sad history with squirrels, mostly of the squashing them with my car variety. In fact — if you don’t count the time one of my Savannah buddys trained a squirrel to sit on your shoulder and eat grapes, or the time I ripped a hole in my wall to save a baby squirrel that was trapped behind my fireplace (he later died) — it’s all of the squashing them with my car variety. Yes, when it comes to me and squirrels, the story almost always ends poorly. Yesterday morning, for instance. I’m driving Tillman to school and two squirrels dart out under the van. Despite the fact that I was going about five miles an hour, one of them manages to insert himself under the rear tire and I feel the familiar thunk that reminds me once again, I have just killed a squirrel, only this time I get to look into the rear view mirror and see him flipping and flopping in the road. By the time I passed him again about ten minutes later he was good and dead, and I wondered if someone took pity on him and, uh, put him out of his misery, or if he lasted a full 9 minutes and 59 seconds before I got back to him. That started a long day of bumbling frustration that ended around 9PM with me dropping my iPhone, which landed flat on the screen, dead as the proverbial doornail/squirrel. As I’ve said before, this is probably the tenth squirrel I’ve run over in my life. If you take that as the average, then multiply by the number of drivers on the road, it’s a miracle there are any squirrels left. You’d think natural selection would have bred the suicidal instinct out of the squirrel population by now. But no… More fun squirrel photos here