Why We Do What We Do
I was doing some photographic work in Elm Park, in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts earlier this week in spite of the heat. While in pursuit of a particular shot, a couple walked by, disgruntled apparently, and began to complain about the cost of renovating the Park. I wasn’t quite sure what I did to deserve that, but the experience gave me pause. As I’ve described in this blog before, the Park, one of America’s oldest, was getting to be quite shabby. In spite of my love for the shabby, clearly an update was in order. Updates do cost money. Addressing that issue first, as a business school professor, I would also add that a major American city without a nice park downtown is going to take a severe commercial hit. Parks are good for business, believe it or not. Elm Park is no exception. But I understand that money is tight for many people and certainly they’re free to question this particular investment.
I’ve been trying to make the case with images like this one that the Park has a value beyond the commercial. This common ground, open to everyone who cares to go there, represents an experience that matters.
At the same time, I’ve been reading a book by Lenswork Editor, Brooks Jenson. In The Creative Life in Photography, he raises a number of good questions about the connection between art and experience. As he points out, useful art often asks more questions than it answers. Why did I choose to present the Park in this way? Why did I choose to use an infrared camera to capture the image instead of doing a typical color shot? I think one has to choose a media that somehow captures the experience in question and hopefully communicates it to others, but that process is fraught with ambiguity. Infrared and more generally monochrome, what we used to call black and white, has a particular strength when it comes to capturing design. It’s good at capturing shape. The design of a Park, if you will the lines and shapes of the shore, the bridges, the paths, the trees and the few buildings are laid out in fashion that is visually powerful, regardless of the season. This is not lost on those who design parks, artists themselves. None of this is done by accident or on a whim. Compare this scene to an open flat field. An open flat field may be relatively inexpensive to create and maintain, indeed. Those are good places for ball games, to be sure. Of course, the north end of Elm Park includes a playground, but that’s a bit different from the purely open field. Most of the Park is laid out for something else. I believe that purpose is in part to help us collect our thoughts. In a park such as this you’re in the city and not at the same time. It is a different world, if only for a brief moment. Is it worth it? It is to me. Of course, your mileage may vary. Stay cool.