Aerial Photography and My Creative Ailment

I took these photos somewhere between Salt Lake City, Utah and Carmel, California

For as long I can remember, my creative life has been victim to a very specific strain of malady. It's the kind of ailment that has made me feel special, but in a bad way. 

What I'm talking about is a disposition that some of you may relate to, so I will attempt to transcribe it in a way that makes the most sense to the most people: Have you ever created something 'unique,' whether it be a scribbled sentence in a notebook, a well-thought-out-and-worked-on-drawing, or a series of photographs and really, truthfully thought that you'd made something important? That you'd hit some ancient and universal undertone to the human condition that had, up until that time, gone unnoticed? That you'd, at the very least, done something that hadn't been done before, only to stumble upon the same technique, concept, or aesthetic days later in someone else's work? Only to find that your once 'unique' creation has, overnight, been reduced to an appropriation, to a mere rowboat that has been capsized by the wake of some cosmic vessel?

Well, I have.  And I've dealt with the unshakable, incredulous embarrassment that comes afterward. I've dealt with it over, and over, and over again. Most recently, I dealt with it in Carmel, California after believing that I had invented aerial photography on an Alaskan Airlines flight somewhere over Utah.

I won't tire either of us with a lengthy description of how I 'invented' aerial photography, for it should be clear to both of us that I didn't. All I really did was drink two beers while looking out of the airplane's window, realize that my camera was in the carry-on bag between my legs, and start taking photographs of the landscapes below.  I brought out the camera pretty early into the flight, which allowed me to capture the transition between the snow-capped and desolate mountains of Utah and the concrete labyrinth of civilization-driven roads of California. The problem was this: I hadn’t ever seen anything like the photos I was taking and truly believed I was doing groundbreaking work, that I was discovering an unfound truth while flying at 35,000 feet.

But something happened to me when I landed in Carmel that would seriously hinder my supposed ‘originality,’ as has happened so many times before.  

The day after the flight, I was walking around the beautiful town of Carmel, rather aimlessly, when I stumbled into a photography shop. Now, up until this point, I had been entirely unaware of Carmel’s photographic history; unaware of the fact that Ansel Adams had lived there during the height of the f/64 group’s popularity.  I spoke with the shop owner for a while, and she introduced me to the beautiful black & white nudes of Ruth Bernhard, whose first published book of photography was financed and printed by the shop owner’s mother.  Taking me into a back room, she showed me several original Ansel Adams prints and told beautiful stories of his time in Carmel.

While we were talking about her shop’s historical importance, I was still riding high on the wave of aerial photographs I took the day before, imagining myself as one of these famous and well-respected photographers she had on her wall. I was even thinking about showing her a few photographs of my own, thinking maybe she would be blown away by my aerial abstractions.  Then, however, she took me into another room and crushed my soul.

It was in this room that my creative ailment came back in full force, manifesting itself in the aerial photography of William Garnett.  They were, and still are, much better than mine.  Here’s an example of one of my favorite William Garnett photographs:  

  Marilyn Bridges. Cattle Feeding, Parker Ranch, Hawaii, 1990. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Steven Soter. ©Marilyn Bridges 1990 [2011 .51.14 – AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART]

Marilyn Bridges. Cattle Feeding, Parker Ranch, Hawaii, 1990. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Steven Soter. ©Marilyn Bridges 1990 [2011 .51.14 – AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART]

Now, it would have been enough to see these photos and feel shitty, to go home deflated and abased, but the woman went on to tell truly incredible stories about William Garnett.  She told me that in every aerial photograph she owned, Garnett had been piloting the fucking airplane while hanging out of the goddamn window to take his magnificent 35mm shots. 

Think about the contrast between me in Garnett now: Garnett was piloting a fucking airplane while hanging out of the fucking window and shooting with fucking film, while I was sitting in a cozy chair, listening to a podcast, and drinking beer while taking photographs of anything that happened to pass by my six-inch-thick plexiglass window.

I’m not devaluing the quality of the photographs I took that day, for I still think they’re pretty ‘good,’ in that they triggered an intense response within me while I was taking them and still do when I view them now. But goddamnit, it is embarrassing to think back to the life I had before being exposed to Garnett, walking around Carmel with some irrational pride and sense of importance, of artistry and originality.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that in today’s technological age, anything we do is most likely an appropriation of someone else’s work, whether we are conscious of it or not. Whether or not I had actually seen a William Garnett photo prior to my time in Carmel is, I suppose, up for debate. It is definitely possible that his images and aesthetic snuck into my subconscious somehow without my consent.  But even if I hadn’t seen any aerial photography before taking those shots, it wouldn’t matter. My search for truth, for originality, is always stifled by the work of someone before me, and I guess it is time to come to terms with that. But should I really let these things stop me? 

We’ll always be redoing the work of someone else, but I don’t necessarily think that this devalues a creative act.  Just because I often do things that have been done before doesn't make what I do any less important, right? I am going to start viewing this 'ailment' in a different light, because, if anything, this phenomenon has connected me to prior generations, has linked me to the creative processes of the artists before my time.  Maybe it means that I'm onto something, that I have to trudge through the cacophony of the things-that-have-already-been-done before I can find my own artistic 'voice,' my originality.  On the other hand, who knows. Maybe I'll just keep reinventing the wheel every time I pick up a pen or camera.  I guess we'll see.