In November, Daniel Shea published the first offerings of his Baltimore series. As subjects go, the people and objects within America’s industrial-urban cities are common, but Shea’s edit had enough variance that I took note.
By studying people writ large and small in their environments, photographers such as Mark Steinmetz and Paul Graham have produced monographs in the past year that tread this familiar territory without repeating past sentiment.
Shea has prevailed in a tough domain; the two most common elements of photography being people and the street, it is difficult to create something that is novel to the viewer AND faithful to the subject.
My problem with much contemporary American photography is that it is rarely geographically anchored. Of course the monotony of elements within the great American conurbation is an identified problem many photographers have paid particular attention to – mainly through the adoption of typology.
Shea was thinking differently. He thought of his subject in terms of the tableaux and when you see the bent telegraph pole you can’t help but think of Hogarth’s upturned chiars.
Despite Shea’s uncertainty. I think he has created something unique, whether it is something Baltimore is yours to debate.
Q & A
Outside of its own region, Baltimore is one of the least well-known and least-recognised American cities … and now it is the least well-known American city to feature in The Wire. My first question, why Baltimore?
I lived in Baltimore for five years, four years going to school, and one year teaching. A few months before I moved to Chicago, it occurred to me that I had never done an extensive photography project about Baltimore.
This project started with a very simple premise. I wanted to apply the loose narrative style I was developing in other bodies of work to Baltimore. However, originally I was interested in removing all overt political undertones and topical-driven readings to create images that clearly demonstrated the process. The process was also simple, walk around, talk to strangers, find objects and situations that presented themselves as interesting and/or sublime, etc. In other words, one of the most basic ways photography is used.
Why is the project ongoing?
Before moving, I worked on this for about three months. At that point I had an edit that felt too rushed and too simple. I realized Baltimore had many interesting elements that needed to be considered more carefully. In the summer of 2009, I revisited the city, this time shooting large format and considering the landscape as a tableaux. Additionally, I was shooting on the fly, continuing to interact with people and following my instincts. With a new edit after that trip, I feel like I’m finally comfortable with the narrative that I’m developing. In the next month (March, 2010) I’m headed back to photograph again.
What sort of reactions did you get from your subjects?
The interaction normally begins with my quick line – what I’m working on and why I’m interested in photographing people. Sometimes I just talk to people about the same everyday shit we all talk about. When I feel it’s appropriate, I’ll simply take someone’s photograph without asking. People are overwhelmingly willing to participate. I end up talking to a lot of people about their history in Baltimore.
How do you hope your narrative of Baltimore will crystallize over time?
I don’t have strict political intentions. There are people much more suited for delivering a guided narrative of Baltimore to the public, like David Simon and the writers of The Wire.
That being said, I am interested in saying something specific, and I’m on the verge of figuring out what that is exactly. It feels much more philosophical than political.
Could you be taking photos like these in any American urban area?
This is a great question and something I ask myself every time I’m out shooting or editing these photographs. I strongly believe in the responsibility of authorship, especially when people are paying attention to what you are doing.
Here’s the problem with this series: the photographs feel place-specific to me, and I don’t know if these details are effectively rendered. Baltimore subtly expresses its character in ways that I hope to capture in the images, but I don’t know if that will translate to a larger audience.
Lately I’ve been photographing impoverished, underserved, etc areas of Chicago for a much more politically driven project about food, and when I was showing some of my friends the images, they jokingly suggested that I slipped some of them in the Baltimore series.
By focusing wholly on the decaying element of an urban environment (which, as a side note, caters so nicely to my misanthropy), it’s easy to see the work as commentary on the social infrastructure of inner city America. That’s why the people are important in this series. The people in the series are nurtured by Baltimore. And some of the landscapes have really conflicting elements, and that too feels very specific. People who look at a lot of photography will understand that this is about Baltimore because I made it, but I still have to account for a larger audience.
Is this a project about poverty?
By default, of course. I think about poverty constantly. I’ve worked in several inner city schools, and as an outsider, I understand the perverse effects of living in poverty. It’s profound stuff. In terms of fixating causes to oppressions, we can quantify poverty as the most crippling and baseline element. Baltimore is at large a city affected by poverty, and it would be impossible for me to avoid taking pictures that reference poverty’s long-standing determination.
The other side to this is of course the fact that poverty doesn’t need to be the defining element in a project about inner-city America, a pitfall that sometimes feels hard to avoid.