When I was fooling around with my first digital camera several years ago, I tried auto focusing on my hand, then snapped the picture. The photo somehow refused to go away, and kept popping up in my files. Unlike others in the book I was preparing in 2009, it would not fit in that sequence, but like an unruly child still demanded attention, until I hit on using as a soft pattern across both “end papers” – the sheets just inside the hard covers. What could be more implicit in ones destiny?
“The Palm of My Hand,” photograph © William Carter 2001-2010, as used in Causes and Spirits, 2011
A young friend of mine served with distinction as a U.S. Marine Corps officer in both Afghanistan and Iraq, working closely with the local tribal fighters. He told me that in those areas, “loyalty is loaned.” That was a couple of years ago. I’ve thought about his observation ever since, as the press reports roll in about the ever-shifting sands of the Middle East.
Another well-known quote haunts me: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” [see for example The Kurdish Project http://thekurdishproject.org and the fine book by David L. Phillips, The Kurdish Spring (2015).]
Take a look at this 1835 map of autonomous Kurdish areas alone. Perhaps not coincidentally, those were the days of European-based colonialism. In its wake the West continues to try replacing tribal affinity with “nation building,” while increasing numbers of those directly involved have given up on the chaos and are risking their lives heading for Europe.
Sometimes, in our wanderings across the landscape of ancient Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, my wife Ulla and I would stumble into a silent, ancient amphitheater. Persuaded to try my clarinet in that dry air, I’d soon be assured that even the softest tones carried well into the high rows.
Ulla and I treasure such sweet memories. But now they are jarred with bitter undertones — endless war, brutal destruction at such magnificent sites as Palmyra.
Below, our sentimental snaps of twenty years ago have an implicit simplicity, a clarity of tone hard to recall today.
I am as addicted to digits as the next person. But my caring comes from elsewhere.
Culture wars, like other wars, take their toll. Unexpected outcomes flow into our sinews and, welcome or not, affect our feelings and expressions.
I grew up in a town dedicated to change — in an era summed up in the famous motto of a leading corporation, “Progress is our most important product.” Postwar LA, powered by newborn defense industries, famous for its movies, a thinly peopled, dry basin lacking deep cultural roots, facing the vast Pacific, was perfectly placed for the unfettered growth and change that was soon underway.
My own personal model was the opposite. I sought permanent values, humaneness, the depths not the surfaces. Spiritual affirmation — particularly in the arts. So, physically and mentally, I went the other way from LA. The older tradition of great West Coast photographers had inspired me, but by the 1960s I needed to move on from there to places like New York, London, the Middle East and India – where close-up tenderness and long-term values still seemed alive and honored.
In California there were plenty of photographers of the old school to inspire me. But their dynamic was gradually being eclipsed. Although not particularly “outgoing,” I did go out. I developed the unfashionable notion that the role of the artist was not to stand off and snipe at the ugly aspects of world, but to offer a positive alternative: in that most unfashionable of words — beauty. In an era beset by counter-cultural attack modes, I remain a counter-revolutionary.
The two photographs below, by Struth and Cunningham, are well-known offerings of contrasting states of soul. Which would you rather hold close?
Musings on Permanence/Impermanence
In a nation often characterized by its frontier past, the zest for the Now has always contended with its opposite: the urge to constellate older, permanent values. Centuries of the wide open West brought us the enduring myth of cowboy who roamed freely across open spaces but whose assignment was often to save a threatened town. Trappers, miners and farmers kept moving on to the next big thing. Less romanticized, other farmers and their town-dwelling cousins put down roots, planting for permanence.
Today the theme lives on in other forms, such as in the struggle between development and preservation. Or between the risks of global thinking and the reassurances of old-time religion. Universally, man struggles for immortality against his evident mortality.
My first two books – Ghost Towns of the West and Middle West Country – probed America’s frontier tensions in detail. My most recent one, Causes and Spirits, is a photographic art book of worldwide scope; yet it, too, explores the contest between “dust to dust” on the one hand, and surpassing vision on the other. Threaded through the book in varying dimensions, the underlying polarity can be summed up here in two images involving the widespread deployment of Greek classical architecture. References to a shared European ancestry and taste, such structures served as emblems of a hoped-for permanence as America unfurled its banner westward.
Some dreams were broken. Some dreams survived.