- No Photo Essay
The cadre of pictures on the cover of this issue of Fourth Genre brings together my two principal interests: the photograph as composition and the photograph as conversation. Taken together, they pose the challenge of my work as a photographer. These two purposes have often been set against each other in the annals of American noncommercial photography. A serious photograph is either a work of art or a social commentary, according to this line of argument. It is an interpretive expression on the part of the photographer—what the artist/photographer Alfred Stieglitz called "camera work." Or it is a commentary on some (usually awful) social fact; consider, for example, the "social work" of great documentary photographers like Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange.
I don't see why a good, thoughtful photograph can't do both. Indeed, it seems to me that the challenge of contemporary photography is to cross-fertilize camera work and social work. That's what "No" photos set out to do.
I consider a viewfinder just as much a portal into finding shape in the world as it is a narrative instrument or a sight-line into our culture. Whenever I look through my camera lens (or sometimes later when I crop a print), I try to seek out shapes and lines that give coherence and balance to what I see. Like a compelling poem or an engaging essay, a good photograph makes fragmentary, transient, accidental details of our everyday lives meaningful, ordered, resonant. Each of these "No" photos carries its own visual line, axis, balance of forms, and symmetry of shapes. Each joins sun, shadow, and geometric planes into a kind of visual choreography.
Once you get beyond the form, the surface humor, and the kitsch of "No" photos, I hope they can also start a conversation about how much public spaces, as well as our private lives, are circumscribed by prohibitions, rules, and even, as Freud reminded us, subliminal taboos. [End Page 173]
Three of these "No" photos stake overt claims on fixed boundaries separating public and private property: the entrance to a commercial abalone farm on Highway 1 just north of Cayucos, California (lower left), a rural fence line separating a sparsely traveled road and a grazing pasture off San Simeon Creek near Cambria, California (upper right), and another fence protecting a ladder from a parking lot at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan (upper left). The "No" photo in the lower right is all irony. It is a crop of the famous sign arching over Virginia Avenue welcoming tourists to "RENO THE BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD." For me, the picture captures a paradox of our culture of proscription, conformity, and constraint. While posing as a seductive palace of inhibition, a casino betrays one of the most tightly controlled, rule-bound, and highly surveilled environments on the planet. In this ironic sense, Reno is a "NO CITY IN THE WORLD."
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I tried to juxtapose these four "No" photos into the crosshairs of an overall composition that begs the same question Robert Frost puzzled over in his famous poem "Mending Wall." "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was likely to give offense."
Ralph Menendez is a photographer/carpenter from Paso Robles, California.