Wide or Deep
Colin Jago’s post on Getting to the end of the block, about the merits of ‘going wide’ and ‘going deep’, has had me thinking. Like Colin, I’ve recently had another photographer comment that I’m very fortunate to live in a wonderfully photogenic place. And yet, just recently I had an artist look over the work I’ve done in the past year, and comment “I never see the valley looking like this. I mean, I know it looks like this. But I don’t see it looking like this.” His house is about 2.5 miles from mine; his drive to get into the valley is shorter than mine.
The different approaches of ‘go wide’ and ‘go deep’ aren’t a new idea to me; I wrote about this in Hunter-Gatherer or Farmer? years ago. And I certainly agree with Colin that time constraints make it so that we can’t go really wide AND go really deep. But when Colin posits that those who go deep don’t get more out of it than those who go wide, I think he’s on thin ice.
I don’t think it’s so much that folks who go wide (the ‘hunter/gatherers’) don’t get as much out of it as the folks who go deep. I think it’s that they get different things. And I think the difference shows in the photos they make.
I think this might be at the core of some confusion I’ve had recently, caused by two books of photographs. The first book is Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. The second book, which couldn’t possibly be more dissimilar, is David Plowden’s Small Town America.
In the introduction to American Surfaces, Bob Nikas writes
Who took these pictures? The drifter in the bathroom of the bus station in Oklahoma city; one of the hippie boys watching thesun go down at the Grand Canyon; a tourist visiting cape Kennedy for the launch of the Skylab space station? From one desolate motel bed to another, from one unmemorable meal to the next, from town to town, east to west, they can clearly be seen as a visual diary recounting the path of someone passing through the world, recording nearly everything he sees and does, and almost everyone he meets along the way. Together, the pictures fo a portrait, and even though we never actually see the man behind the camera, he’s there, present and anonymous. He could be almost anyone. But these pictures weren’t shot at random by someone on vacation or simply adrift; we know they were made by Stephen Shore.
What I find confusing about the book is that Shore traveled across America in 1972 (a period I remember clearly) taking photos like mad, and somehow he came away with not so much a depiction of the places he’d been as much as photographs that highlight the superficiality of his interaction with these places. We’re treated to six photographs of toilets, two dozen photographs of food. I don’t think the title American Surfaces is an accident – I think this book is just that – a view of things that never gets deeper than the surface. Sure, Shore went broad, and saw a lot of stuff. And his life consisted of seedy motel rooms, greasy unappetizing meals, and toilets.
In contrast, Plowden’s Small Town America, although spread wide geographically, presents photographs taken across the spread of two decades. No toilets, no greasy meals, although surely in the traveling needed to make these photographs Plowden encountered plenty of both. This book is not about Plowden’s summer trip experience, it’s a ‘go deep’ look at the aspects of rural town life that Plowden feels are vanishing before his eyes. What we can read of Plowden’s life from these photos is that much of his time was spent looking closely, not at his own experience but at the places he visited. Unlike Shore, he didn’t go to these places to experience (and photograph) nothing more than surface appearance. He visited these places to go deep, to get at the underlying essence of the places. And I suspect strongly that his experience reflects that.