Pause, To Begin
by Ethan Jones and David Wright
Booksmart Studio, 2009
Reviewed by George Slade
“We search endlessly to find what it is that we are looking for. We must realize and accept that this process cannot be forced and instead allow it to happen naturally. Without this patience, what is being sought will not truly be found.” –Co-curator David Wright
Pause, to Begin
Like meditation, or the most minimalist choreography, the title of this ambitious project suffuses the entire effort with an atmosphere of stillness. The oxymoronic, Zen notion that motion and progress are arrived at by waiting applies here. Take a breath before diving in; slow down to speed up. I can only endorse such an attitude toward contemporary photography. With all the expediting tools at our disposal, what we end up with too often is disposable photography, images that can scarcely be seen before they disintegrate, before their lack of substance renders them transparent.
Carrying out the Pause, to Begin project, by driving thousands of miles to spend time with and interview fifteen artists was an anachronistic, highly inefficient pursuit. I mean, it could have all been wrapped up with on-line portfolios and email dialogues. But in an age of instantaneity, taking time like this was the only way to accomplish results that merit stillness on the part of viewers. I recall notes in the blogosphere from participating photographers and the project curators (such a contentious term these days, but David Wright and Ethan Jones have earned the title) while the far-flung studio visits were happening; I remember thinking this was a quixotic pursuit, that such an exorbitant commitment of time and energy would generate a grand launch vehicle, a book and exhibition and multimedia web site with enormous apparatus and super visibility.
This book, the first analog product, in contrast, is a whisper. Whispers, of course, draw an audience closer, are an invitation to approach and gain intimacy. A modest volume, jacket-less, with no bells or whistles, no fancy foldouts or hidden sleeves or GPS locators embedded in the spine. Maybe an economic decision, or maybe an attempt to force attention where it’s due—on the images, and on the efforts to frame them as the inevitable byproducts of creative lives, less ends in themselves than evidence of imagination and engagement with life at hand. In this collection, grand scenes and deep spaces are outnumbered by more intimate views. Mostly the spaces are comprehensible, human-scaled and humanistically rendered, reflecting the visions of the makers.
It’s difficult to say much about the individual photographers in the project on the basis of the book alone. But in pausing to consider the half-dozen pictures by each one, a reader assimilates some of the intentions of the curators. There are photographers here who have achieved some notice, and others whose images connect across portfolios, revealing that the curators, and juror Cig Harvey, may have selected photographers whose styles are distinctive yet somehow interwoven. Ethan Jones writes that despite the presence of so many contemporary photographers, and so much image-making, the medium is not “pushing forward” any quicker or more effectively than in the past. Pause’s mission is to double back on the relentless mania for “the new” to ascertain what is truly unprecedented in contemporary photography.
What links the fifteen portfolios, which “celebrate the photographic intuition and intelligence inherent to each” of the participants, is the cautious, modest proposition that Pause is a viable cross-section of creative photography. What is surprising about the selection is that it all seems so familiar yet uncannily separate. Jones, again, is aptly equivocal; photography, he says, “may not be headed towards what are clearly better grounds, rather it is moving in a direction that coincides with the times.” The clearest thing we can take from this project is (pace Ram Dass) that we are all here, in the image world, now, and that contemplation suffices. The photographs do no more or less than what they ask of readers, which is to pay attention and resist closing the circle with pointed narratives or definitive statements.
GEORGE SLADE is a photography writer, curator, historian, and consultant based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/.