Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stepping into the Abyss

Last night I listened at Lúz Gallery to an artist talk by photographer Dan Milnor, that was very personal, very insightful and very thought provoking. It was as much about his journey as an artist as it was about the art that he’s made, a journey that has caused him to question everything he thought he knew about being a photographer.

Milnor had a successful career as a commercial and fine art photographer, when around fifteen years ago he became tired of the demands of commercial photography and took a job with Kodak. The job required him to sign a non-competition agreement, and in return as a Kodak employee Milnor had access to as much film and processing as he wanted to pursue his personal photographic projects outside of work. Released from client demands, his personal photography took off and he had the freedom to plan specific long-term projects that sometimes took years to complete. The talk began with a slide show of work from a project on the Easter pageants in remote villages in Sicily. Paired with haunting music, the images had power and strength. This project, and others he undertook in the same time period were very focused and planned, with the intention of generating images for exhibitions and potentially books. At the end of his fifth year of working for Kodak, Milnor had amassed several bodies of work that impressed other accomplished photographers. At this point Dan had an epiphany, equating the freedom he had from working for clients with the ability to focus on and produce excellent personal work. Having had that epiphany, Milnor left Kodak and once again became a commercial photographer.

Ten years later, Milnor sensed something missing. The first hint was a decision to visit a friend in Panama and to take some pictures, but to just take “snapshots” rather than doing a specific, focused and well planned project. He found the experience somewhat surreal, in the sense that he was more aware of all that was around him, and he made images of whatever attracted his attention. It went against the grain of how he’d worked before, and how he’d been trained to work and to think about making photographs. After the trip, Milnor edited his images and created a book using the print-on-demand service Blurb. Another part of the puzzle to his growing unease with his commercial photography career came one day while he was at home, watching planes take off from John Wayne Airport. He was thinking how he should be on one of those planes, going somewhere else to make photographs, when he realized that a decent photographer should be able to make good images wherever they are, including at home. Thus began the project “Homework”, defined only by restrictions on locale and how many exposures on film he would make at any given time. The resulting images are abstract, raw and very engaging and again he self-published them as a book for his own reference, considering the images as something of meaning only to himself. It was during a visit to a local art broker to deliver work from another series that he learned to his surprise that the Homework images were ones that the broker felt would be easy to place with clients.

So these two personal projects developed more organically, with virtually no planning compared to his previous personal projects. Dan had really not planned a specific outcome for the work, nor did he necessarily see it as having the wider artistic appeal of his more focused work like the images from the Sicily project. I think one might be able to describe these last two projects, and how they worked out, as a second epiphany of sorts as Milnor continued to consider the impact of being a commercial photographer. It was at this point that the offer of a full-time position as Photographer at Large with Blurb dovetailed with a decision to once again stop being a commercial photographer.

Dan turned his attention to his abiding interest in the “wild west”. He grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, and has been fascinated with the remaining vestiges of the past history of the frontier ethos that exists today in states like New Mexico. His current working project is “The New Mexico Project”, and it started out as a planned, focused project in two parts, the first being “Wildness”. After working on the project for awhile, Milnor was driving from LA to New Mexico, his mind filled with ideas and thoughts about how the project was developing, how to pull images together for an exhibition or book, when he realized that he had been passing through an interesting landscape that he was completely ignoring. He reflected on the fact that the Panama and Homework projects, lacking such specific focus, had allowed him to be much more aware of everything around him at any given moment. This realization lead to the third and final of his epiphanies, and it was the one that caused Milnor to turn his back on the concerns of the photographic establishment with respect to what defines a project and what are the desired outcomes of a project. It also completed a long, slow process by which Milnor unlearned the patterns of thinking that go along with those concerns.

This was the point where I felt that I was no longer listening to a great, articulate artist’s talk, I was listening to something unique and very special. Because Dan Milnor, after years of being a successful photographer by just about anyone’s standards, threw out everything he knew about being a successful photographer and asked himself the critical question “What does photography really mean to me personally?” It was at this key point that the lessons learned from the Panama and Homework projects came together to change the direction of the New Mexico project.

Milnor found himself in northern New Mexico where he slowly worked at being accepted in a small town that didn’t see many gringos. He began photographing the farmers and then other members of the town, some who have never been photographed, and have never held a photographic print in their hands. He wasn’t sure what the outcome of the project would be, but he realized that the people the project was arguably most important to would be the least likely to see the finished work – that is, those he was photographing. His sole concern about the outcome of this project is how he can engage the subjects of this project with the work itself. Dan would like them to be able to see and interact with the work, and to contribute their thoughts and impressions on what it being photographed means to them. This is a project outcome that lies well outside the understanding of the current photography world.

Dan described how he’d photographed a farmer who had never had his photograph taken before, who had never used a computer. The farmer’s wife showed him his photograph by lifting the lid of the laptop, where the first thing he ever saw on a computer was a photograph of himself. In this day and age of “Photography 2.0 on the Web” etc, it’s almost unimaginable. It’s not difficult to see a parallel between a subject seeing an image of himself for the very first time, and a photographer who has walked away from one understanding of what photography means to search for a different understanding.

I sense that Milnor’s desire to hear from his subjects about their experiences of being photographed and how having prints of their images has brought that experience into their lives, is tied into his own query about what photography, and being a photographer, means to him. It’s a shared journey between photographer and subject, a way to deepen further the engagement between the two. By approaching this project in a completely unstructured way, with no particular destination in mind, Milnor has taken the proverbial leap of faith, and stepped off into the abyss.

In one of those odd quirks of synchronicity, this morning I started reading a book that’s been on my nightstand for a while. It’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit. In the very first essay, Solnit writes “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” She goes on to recount an experience she had while giving a workshop, when a student came to her with a quote from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Solnit goes on to write that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from…”

It’s not easy to leave the comfort zone, to stop turning the crank making work that is on the surface successful, but which has perhaps lost significance or meaning for the maker. Yet as Solnit writes, that is exactly what the job of the artist is, and it was a singular privilege to hear Dan Milnor talk so honestly about how that journey has transpired for him.


shuber1 said...

Hi Paul, tahnks you very much-- is like very much like I appraoch things...things that happen to me and I go out and do them ....Dan's homework reminds me of my land ,my home..I made it personal and it is still an ongoing you know it is hell to get off my island and devote time to I do most here...I would love to travel a lot but really am happy to stick around these areas to open my weenie mind and go forth...PS I love Rebecca Solnit... thank you for a beautiful essay... you are a really nice person to do this.I am happy to know you and really , we must get together on some saturday before Darkness descends...always, susie

J. M. Golding said...

Thank you for posting this - it sounds as if it was a wonderful talk to experience, and I feel as if I have a virtual experience of it from having read your post. And I'm always encouraged and inspired to learn of an artist who does their best work when they follow what is personally meaningful, allowing it to unfold without planning the outcome. It feels supportive of my own process.

Paul said...

Susie & Jackie - thank you for the kind words, it was a very inspiring talk and I'm glad that I managed to capture that to at least some degree.

Mark John Gibney said...

Give me a break Paul, and a Kit Kat,and a sweet frothy cappuccino,and I'll fly onto your Island and visit you in your magical cabin and tell you the truth... no myths, no fables, and that is..... Jesus Christ loves you with an everlasting love !
Thank you for your blog, I too share a love for Frankenthaler and Diebenkorn,
Mark John.

Paul said...

Mark John,

Thanks for reading and commenting, your participation is very much appreciated!