“Every photograph I take is a self-portrait.”– Dorthea Lange.
Photographs and essay by Sean Lotman
In the rare instance that people query my godly preferences I’ve discovered the most appropriate designation is ‘humanist.’ It sounds post-modern, or ironic, but really it’s just borrowing from the best of all religions and its improbable imperative– to love humanity, flaws and all. The structure, bigotry and absolutism of organized religion seems to overwhelm its lovelier mysteries and though I was raised in LA, the backyard of hippie spiritualism, New Age vernacular seems overly serious at best, fantastically silly at worst. Nevertheless, a person of the 21st century needs some armor to protect him and herself from the awfulness of modern secular culture. The commercialism of cool and the ubiquity of kitsch can overwhelm the human spirit with its relentless mediocrity. Discovering and celebrating beauty might be one of the great challenges of a leisure society sated with several trillion google images.
My background is not photography but literature, which in our society of texting, 24-hour news cycles, 3-D cinema, has become one of the last refuges of quietude. Requiring of authors the ability to articulate truth and facilitate empathy, it is a natural endeavor for the so-called humanist. But as much as fiction engages time, energy, and dedication, it does not necessarily suffice all qualities integral to a happy life. When he’s not researching, the writer engages his art via his imagination. Writing is a solitary affair and writers, being communicators at heart, are susceptible to loneliness.
Drawn to the fiction that motivated Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, among others, I have gone out into foreign lands, intent on framing the role of America and the American in our contemporary global society. Such an endeavor necessitates the most thrilling kind of research, that of wandering foreign cities and exotic villages, observing. Interacting with a different culture gives one privilege to the universality of humanity. It is a wonderful feeling, yet often difficult to properly articulate. Sometimes neither the sublime nor the ridiculous can be placated with language. They say a picture is worth a thousand words but that is only partly true– a photograph can exist beyond language, which is why I take pictures.
I was born in the 1970s, which means I came of age in a crossover generation straddling both analogue and digital cultures. Many of my peers are now in the vanguard of Internet media, yet many of them, like myself, grew up writing school reports on typewriters and making mixed tapes for the girls we loved. A whole industry of iPhone applications has evolved to cater to the nostalgia of this lo-fi sensibility– that it is an artifice does not matter to many in our ironically inclined generation. I am not altogether Luddite, but I believe that regarding photography at least, authenticity is more valuable than convenience which is why I shoot analogue rather than digital.
I read recently that in a single day more digital photographs might be taken than in the entire history of film. Although I can appreciate the democratization of photography, I’m afraid this has led to some standardization, and worse, a crisis of romantic imagination. Quality, especially within the expedient demands of news media, has fallen. Gatekeepers have been deluged and the organic process of ‘making’ a photograph is being swept away. More important than the moment the photo is snapped has become the hours of post-processing. Those who persist in using medium format or 35mm are not old-fashioned or contrarian for its own sake but are minorities in a popular art form concerned something vital may be lost in commotion and inanity.
It is important that a photograph tell a story. If it suggests, insinuates, or lures into conjecture, it means that a photograph has transformed us into participants. Through anecdote, comes revelation and the possibility that the viewer has shared in the photographer’s personal vision. I have been tempted into this process with my own photographs, composing haiku or senryu poetry to companion images taken with a Diana f+. These varieties of Japanese verse are concerned with physical and human nature, composed in a very taut structure as to suggest a moment, very much in the fashion a photograph does. Ideally, the experience of engaging in the photo and haiku becomes as wistful for the observer as it was for the author. That inspiration might come from this, in essence, is all a humanist can really ask for.
Sean Lotman’s writing and photography have appeared or is forthcoming in Grey Sparrow Press, Fogged Clarity, WOOF Magazine, among others. A native Angelino, he lives in Japan.