Monthly Archives: March 2018

Photographing Babel

At the end of each year, I print up a coffee table photo book, a “best-of” summary of my year in photography. I do it mostly for my own satisfaction, a way to verify that, in spite of frustrations and setbacks, I still now and then make a good photo. I do it incidentally as a portfolio to show prospective purchasers in need of wall art. The problem with a collection like this is that it tends to be a mishmash of images without a sense of coherence or an organizing principle. The only thing that unifies such a collection is the fact that all the photographs have been made by single person. To remedy this, I have chosen to assemble the images as answers to a question: what is the purpose of photography? 100 Images. 100 Answers. To give the book some heft, I open it with a reflection—a state-of-the-union address—introducing my question in light of current trends in the world of photography. Be forewarned: it’s a longish reflection, approximately 2,500 words.

Opening Reflection

By one of those innumerable coincidences that seem to shape my life, I started reading Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, by Jorge Luis Borges, on the same day that I photographed Robarts Library alongside its distorted image reflected in one of those convex parking garage mirrors. One of the stories, “The Library of Babel”, opens in this way: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors.” One wonders if perhaps the architects of Robarts Library had read this story before they set to work designing their brutalist monstrosity. There is speculation that the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose took its inspiration from Robarts Library given that Eco wrote most of the novel while in Toronto. I think it more likely that he was inspired by Borges, or that his inspiration was a mashup of both sources.

Robarts Library

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The Billboard Angel

Is there a difference between the dirt-smudged smile
pasted to a seven-foot face on a billboard
and a Netflix scientist riffing on the stardust
that lives and moves and shapes our being?
The teeth survive the body; our dentists have seen
to that. But they’re no match for the stars which wheel
through our dreams even as they snuff us out.
Heed the billboard angel versed in her native
hymnody. Hear her praise to gods no more dead
than those our ancestors flung to the stars.
Logistics unseats reason as reason undid faith.
And catacombs once filled with saintly skulls
now store merchandise waiting on pent demand,
order-picked by priestly bots at our command.

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