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A weekly column by Mike Johnston

November 3, 2002

Impressions of the (Particular) Past

For six years I slogged my way up and down Central Avenue in Chicago every day. Potholes, bad weather, and shifting, clogging traffic, all of us jockeying to make our way.

Photography is a beautiful thing. What I like most about it is pretty simple, and takes only a moment to explain.

Consider our lives for a moment. You are you and I am me. Each of us has a life, and each of us only gets one life. We are inhabitants on the skin of the globe for a short space of time — having flowered here for a spell before we wither and die. We will live out most of our lives in the thin film of atmosphere that clings to the ball of the Earth. Our lifespan is short and our time passes quickly (right, except while waiting in the line at the DMV). If you sleepwalk your way through life with your eyes on the ground two steps ahead, your life will flash by in a blur, and you won't recall much at the end but the trudging. Even to those who live their lives in a state of alertness, who've had lots of things happen to them and who've managed, despite those things, to sail through to old age without acquiring too great a baggage of sadness or bigotry, a full lifespan can seem all too short. We're all essentially visitors. We come, we're here, then we're gone.

During our stay, at least one wonderful thing happens: we get to experience life on Earth. Our lives, that is, as ourselves, on the regions of earth we inhabit, in the era we live in.

But just one life. That's the main point I want to make. "This train," as David Letterman says, "is only going one way." And you only get one ride. So the experiences we have, good or bad, are special...or no, that's not quite the right word, because a lot of us don't feel special (and others of us truly aren't). They're particular to us, is what I mean to say. As I am a unique person, so are you; as your experiences during your time on Earth are particular to you, so mine are to me.

This is what can give photographs meaning. A photograph is connected to reality. To paraphrase Rudolf Arnheim's famous analogy, it's an impression of reality like a bearprint is an impression of the bear. It preserves a glimpse from the past, always the past. Maybe half of the exposures I've ever made weren't made in the hopes of creating a pretty or a public picture, but merely as a sort of visual diary, a record of where I was, what I was doing, and who with. (If you think about it, that's what most vernacular photography is for, snapshot chronicles of experience and existence.) The important thing to a photographer about a photograph shouldn't be that it's pretty, that it's important, that it's going to make you famous or sell for money, but that it's connected to you — to your particular life, to your experiences and your feelings, and, of course, to things you saw and understood.

Because photography is not just another means of making a pretty picture, like mezzotint or pastel drawing. A photograph shouldn't be generic. It shouldn't have a style, either, except insofar as you can't help it, and it shouldn't be expressive or offer an "interpretation," whatever the hell that means. It doesn't work by making a vague, warm, squishy feeling well up from inside somebody by invoking some vague association to some fuzzy general feeling, or because it's coded to signify glamour or hipness or the urge to buy something. Good photographs — authentic photographs — prick like a needle and are coded for nothing: they're specific and honest, pungent with the moment they were made, mournful with specificity to some place or person or thing that was. They are connected to reality, and that's most of what makes them interesting. They need to be honest and real, to make them authentic, to allow them to do what photography's suited for and best at.

A lot of people feel differently, of course, and that's fine. But I think that's what makes pictures meaningful for me.

—Mike Johnston

Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.

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