T.O.P. has conquered great swaths of new territory overnight, although it does seem sort of unwarranted to paint all of Russia our imperial robin's egg blue just by virtue of one reader in St. Petersburg. Still, I'm humbled and pleased to have readers in so many places—from the United States to the United Arab Emirates, Slovenia to South Africa, Iceland to Israel, Tallinn, Estonia to Tasmania. All of us naturally hear of strife and disasters in the world, and my own country is not approved of in some places, so maybe it's helpful in some small way that we can all unite in a friendly way in pursuit of this relatively harmless hobby.
I've also been pleased in the past couple of weeks to hear from various quarters that people like the daily nature of T.O.P. as well as its variety. I like both those things myself—one of my motivations is that I want people to reliably find something new on "checking in" each day, and I have always had more of a taste for variety than is commonly countenanced. Curiously, this was one of the original missions of "magazines"—to present a "hotch-potch," as the mystery writer P. D. James spells it. I don't see why not. Nowadays there aren't too many magazines left where general-interest items of all sorts are storehoused together. You can buy magazines about pets or parenting, but not pets and
parenting, and a company I worked for several years ago has separate magazines for model trains, toy trains, real trains, and outdoor garden trains, although whether the latter are models or toys or a bit of both is beyond my expertise. Along with that specialization comes a certain dead seriousness. For instance, there is a fierce controversy in the model train world as to whether one's "layout" may be whimsical and humorous or must hew to strict standards of representational accuracy. In the latter case, there is an endless argument over whether historically and regionally accurate model trains should have grafitti on them. The real ones do, of course, but some train buffs do not like
the fact that the real ones do, and will not add grafitti to their models despite the fact that they will take infinite pains to make the lettering on each car accurate, and carefully add streaks of dust and dirt with airbrushes.
By comparison, photography is spontaneous and piecemeal, and maybe that's one of the things I like about it. It is at once relentlessly specific in what it shows, subversive of overly regimented mental categories or purposes, and yet it's applicable to all sorts of things. (There are photographers that specialize in gemstones, racehorses, or new cars—or, for that matter, model trains.) But one thing I like about it is that it is not generally moral
. That is, there aren't right and wrong ways of participating in this hobby. There are ways, of course, of putting photography to immoral uses. But it doesn't lend itself to the sort of uncompromising ideological purism that fractures so many human enterprises, even trivial ones. The fact is, short of documenting actual crimes (or, in the case of some forms of pornography, committing crimes to produce photographs of them), whatever you
decide you want to do with your
photography is pretty much okay. We advocate for certain approaches, and we admire those who accomplish relatively more than less, but there is nothing wrong with snapshots of the grandkids, majestic high-resolution mountain vistas, vacation pictures, "nice" nudes, zippy colors, celebrities on the hoof—even, if I want to be extreme, pictures of cats. You might be focused, ambitious, and disciplined, or maybe you want to dither around and follow wherever your fancies lead. Your interest might run to making sure you own the latest and best high technology, or to collecting antique cameras of one brand, or to studying photography's history, or to keeping up with still pictures of the news. You might want to know a little bit about everything, or everything about one thing (the person who pops to my mind here is Maxim Muir, the world's foremost expert on paper developers. I haven't heard from Max in years.) It's all good, is the point. You should do with photography whatever you
want to do—and if you do, then you are "one of us."
One of the hardest things to do, it seems to me, is to photograph home through the eyes of a stranger. I'm just not motivated to photograph Waukesha, Wisconsin, where I live. It's not much of a town, it seems to me. And yet I know there are stories here, and great pictures everywhere. I get glimpses of their promise all the time. It's just a question of getting out into the town and really looking around. I've never been to Nebraska or Hawaii, much less Tallinn or Bangkok or Perth. But I'm sure if were privileged to travel to any of those places—or any of the hundreds of other places T.O.P. readers read from—I would look upon it as an absolutely golden opportunity to photograph. And I would be right.Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTONFeatured Comment
by Adam McAnaney:
You had me going with your most recent post, up until you wrote "One of the hardest things to do, it seems to me, is to photograph home through the eyes of a stranger. I'm just not motivated to photograph Waukesha, Wisconsin, where I live. It's not much of a town, it seems to me." It's not that I don't agree with you about it being difficult to photograph home. I fight against this all the time. I was just shocked to hear you say it. Or maybe I was just shocked to hear you imply that you want to see Waukesha through the eyes of a stranger. What has attracted me to your photography so far has been your ability to see the beautiful in the everyday, your pictures of your family, your dog, your home. You recently wrote that "pictures don't say things, they show things." Well, you have shown us your home, and your words have given us a sense of how you feel about the people and events in it. Clearly, you aren't doing this as a stranger, and much the better for it. Whether it is the pictures themselves, or the words that accompany them, your style (at least as I have come to see it based on the pictures you have posted here and on the Luminous Landscape) is immediately distinguishable from that of a stranger, of an observer, and you have inspired me to take more pictures of the little world around me (not too many people find Frankfurt all that exciting, either). BTW, as an example of the kind of picture of yours that I'm talking about, check this one
, posted May 24, 2006. The background couldn't be more mundane, but the picture couldn't be more personal. That picture, and your choice to post it as your favorite at the time, made an immediate impression on me. I hope I'm not laying too much of a trip on you, but I wanted to let you know that you're doing a wonderful job of looking around for those stories and great pictures in Waukesha. At least that's the way it seems from roughly 4,500 miles away.
BTW, I've done a fair amount of traveling, and I love taking pictures when I do. Everything is new and exciting and since people don't generally travel to ugly places on purpose, beautiful. I take hundreds of pictures when traveling. But if I'm honest, I have found that the pictures I take of home are subjectively better, on both an artistic and an emotional level. The trick (for me, at least, given my hopefully developing style) is to realize that, embrace it and make sure I have my camera with me when I catch a glimpse of promise.Mike Replies: Adam, this is a wonderful comment, and I don't mean to argue with you—your points are valid—I do try to photograph my actual life—but that picture you referenced was taken in Chicago. The lake pictures I sometimes show are taken in the countryside near a town called Mukwonago, southwest of Waukesha. I'm sure I've posted a picture or two taken in my yard, but aside from that—and the hot rod show pictures I posted a few days ago—I don't think I've ever posted a picture taken in Waukesha. It's not that there aren't pictures here; just that it's mundane to me.My point was simply that we all can "engage" with the places where we live, if we try. If we don't, it's just a choice. The opportunities are there.