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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.

Elm Park, Worcester MA

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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very nice post, James. As to those disgruntled folks, there are some people for whom money is the number one concern in all things and, for those people, if they themselves do not receive the direct benefit of an expense, then it is wasteful spending. They are the same people to vote no for education expense once their own kids are out of school.
    Your IR images do certainly capture the beauty, shape, form and being of the park. Hopefully, they will spark a little recognition in the non-believers.

    July 20, 2013
  2. Thanks Steve. It’s always a struggle I think to get people to look at the long term. I can understand their perspective, but the world we get will be the one we create. That’s perhaps where imagination and art can help, I hope.

    July 21, 2013
  3. James,
    Your image is stunning!

    July 28, 2013
    • Thanks Denise. This image came at a punctuation point in a long project on Elm Park, which is a very iconic place in the area. I’m about to put up a portfolio in my new web site, with a series of these, all begun with an IR capture. This is the first time I’ve really left some tone in the images and I like it a great deal. The weekend workshop obviously re-enforced my interest in pushing the boundaries a bit. It’s not so far from reality that the concrete substance of the place is lost, but this image does a better job of capturing the truly marvelous experience of the park, than a straight forward color image could do, at least for me. Thanks again.

      James

      July 29, 2013

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