It’s interesting how visual artists gravitate toward certain subjects and how that attraction and subject matter can change over the years. This is why original work is more than just pictures on a wall or a computer screen. Once you follow a photographer or painter for a while their works become more of a dynamic connection between artist, viewer and story. You begin to see much more than what meets the eye. That’s also why I’ve always thought it to be a bit off-putting to group all artists as unsocial introverts. Those who have an honest commitment to their work are actually quite the opposite. They’re constantly reaching out to connect.
Nature subjects and landscapes represent the foundation from which I’ve built my love of photography. I always return to that foundation even while pursuing other subjects such as commercial assignments, product, portraits, etc.
However, over the last three years or so there’s been a certain subject area that is more and more represented in my stock library of images – man-made subjects found in rural locations that are weathered and worn, particularly abandoned homes, signs, cars and other items often overlooked as eye sores and “junk.” With each of these finds are multifaceted stories – stories of a life or a family; of personal history that seeps into the very ground the dramas played out upon. The echoes in shadows and dimming light at sunset that retain witness to the trials and tales of generations.
There’s a certain beauty to all that rust and peeling paint. Objects exposed to years and seasons, the elements revealing an aged “essence.” Character evident in the bare brokenness.
Recently I came upon a wealth of these subjects during a road trip from Dallas to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Southwest Oklahoma, near Vernon, Texas and in Snyder, Oklahoma. I had traveled up that way to photograph wildlife and landscapes in the Refuge, which I was able to accomplish. However (as is often the case) it was what I didn’t have in mind that became the primary focus of my trip.
Mostly flat and rural, the landscape in that area is subject to dramatic shifts in the weather and almost constant wind. There’s a subtle feeling of being almost lost in time – of being left behind – to the old farms and homesteads, of people who stopped for a while and then passed on to other more populous places further west. It’s as if the 1930’s made an indelible impression up and down every rural route that crisscrosses this section of Oklahoma.
Old, weathered cars and buildings are often used as props and backdrops for outdoor portraits, especially high school seniors. It’s the contrast of youth with the aged objects that makes so many of these portraits work so well.
Why these subjects hold more appeal for me today than perhaps say 20 or even 10 years ago isn’t due so much to me feeling old. I like to think it has more to do with going through certain experiences in life, maybe being slightly broken and exposed to the elements. A peeling away to an essence, a truth that’s more lasting. Maybe not as fast and shiny but a wisdom of character that prevails.
It was just last night that I had a conversation with a good friend from high school. We talked about brokenness and the building of character and courage. It’s one of those universal laws that applies to nature, life and faith. He mentioned how it also applies to sports teams too, particularly how the big name college football teams that go undefeated for more than a season or two eventually are much more likely to fold and collapse once they face serious opposition. They go too long without being humbled.
You’ve got to put yourself out there to be broken, weathered and worn. Maybe to be initially pushed aside and overlooked. But with patience and hope something so much more begins to shine through. That’s what I look for. That’s what catches my eye.