Most of my childhood I spent imagining I was someone else, living somewhere else, doing something else.
I was born into an unfortunate triumvirate: one part poverty, one part religious fanaticism, one part abuse. I suppose there has to be a story like that. After all, if someone can be born to great parents, who are successful and even-tempered, then there must be a another side to that coin, under which people like myself and my five siblings grew.
So, I chose to live in my head, imagining much better things were happening to me than the things that actually were happening. The real world held little attraction. It held only powerlessness, resignation, and discomfort.
I was uncomfortable because my living situation often lacked very basic things. Things such as plumbing and electricity. Things like heat in the winter, or air conditioning in the summer. Things like adequate nutrition, access to healthcare, reliable transportation, or any number of things most people take for granted. So I was uncomfortable because I was usually dirty, hungry, and sick.
Unseen dark forces were at work as well.
As my childhood progressed, the amount of vehicles Satan could use to gain influence over my young mind grew exponentially. His evil traveled through highways of backward-masking in music lyrics, designed to affect us subconsciously. There were stories about the effects of this trespass that were told in church frequently - about how subliminal messages had coerced some children into killing their parents, killing themselves, or worse: turning gay. The lucky ones were only tricked into worshipping satan, or were perhaps possessed by demons, so at least they could be cured or deprogrammed.
Communists were also of particular importance to Satan, and I was told at age eleven I was lucky to not live in Russia. There, the government routinely searches people's homes. If they find a bible, they will burn the skin off your entire body, or kill your children while you watch.
I secretly wondered why God didn't save the children from being killed by the communists. I'd been told stories about how God sent a flaming chariot to pick up Elijah and take him to heaven. God also delivered manna to the Isrealites so they wouldn't starve to death in the desert. Jesus walked on water - and came back from the dead. If God could do anything, why not save those poor kids in Russia?
Each year predictions were made: the rapture would most likely be this year. There were stories that government had already begun forcing people to wear the 'number of the beast' in some way. Everyone at church agreed one could see the prophecies in the book of Revelation coming true, and that it would not be long until the four horsemen of the apocalypse showed up and brought blood, fire, disease and destruction upon us all.
Yet humanity's (and thus my own) impending destruction bothered me less and less each year. Everyday life already seemed miserable, painful, and degrading, so what could a little more really hurt? Besides, when you have nothing, the threat of someone coming and taking it all away is a pointless act. Sure - if you're rich, handsome, and well-heeled, you've got some things to lose. But I was a bruised kid with dirty clothes sitting in the dirt outside of a decrepid yellow trailer in rural Arkansas. From my vantage point it looked as if the four horsemen of the apocalyse had already been there.
Then something lucky happened. A loophole appeared right when I needed it.
While most things were not accessable because of God, Satan, and poverty, books were allowed. Many easier methods of escape or diversion weren't around. There was no television, no videogames, and most of the time there was no phone. My only connection to something outside my own surroundings were books.
I didn't have anything better to do than read anyway. It wasn't like I was socializing.
The other teens at school in rural Arkansas seemed foreign to me. They all seemed to share the same things with each other, and their differences or disagreements seemed to only be over trivial things, such as - which is better, Ford or Chevy? They agreed on the larger things. They spent their free time hunting and fishing. They drank beer, but still had a relationship with Christ (something that was absolutely impossible, according to my mother). They seemed happy, comfortable in their own skin, and comfortable with the way things are.
But I was not happy, and I darn sure wasn't comfortable. I had questions. But based on where I was and the culture I was living in, questions were not received or answered with warmth, openness, or intellectual honesty. Questions were most likely regarded as (at best) a sign of disrespect, or (at worst) an attempt to subvert core values on the part of the person being questioned. Lets say, for instance, you foolishly voiced a question about why God didn't save the Christian children from being killed by the communists. In your own mind you might be sincerely wondering. But in the mind of the person you've asked, this question can be seen as either questioning God's motives, or questioning God's power. Either way, punishment would be severe enough that one would learn to not ask such questions.
At fourteen I got lucky. At the county fair, I randomly bought two boxes of books the library was getting rid of. The cost was ten cents per box. Ten cents a box! To this day it is the best two dimes I have ever spent. The boxes contained these books: Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller), The Collected Works of Flannery O'conner, Slaughterhouse Five (by Kurt Vonnegutt), The Stranger and The Fall (by Albert Camus), Without Feathers (by Woody Allen), and several art history books, complete with color pictures.
The books seemed to suggest there were other people like me. They just didn't live around me.
Suddenly I was flying bombing missions in World War II with Yossarian and Joseph Heller. Then I was a travelling saleman, seducing a one-legged athiest with Flannery O'Connor. After that I was on trial with Camus, struggling to explain to a judge what I'd done on that beach, and why I'd done it. Then I wandered through hallways of Kandinsky paintings, or the photos of Weegee.
But, there were questions. Weegee's photos presented a real world full of danger and suffering. Kandinsky's color palettes and complex arrangements far exceeded the compositional structure and intellectual grandeur of any of the 'art' I'd seen before. Camus' writing focused on the struggle of existence, Heller's on the absurdity of war (and life), and O'Connor with the dirty, petty, and solipsistic lives of small people - people who were convinced of their own greatness standing in the world. The characters she wrote about felt less like fiction, and more like people I knew. They were people I went to school with. They were people I sat next to during the Pentecostal sermons we attended three times a week.
The world no longer felt simple, easily explained, and running according to God's plan. It was a complicated world, filled with deluded people, who were simultaneously dangerous and laughable. And rather than present answers, these works presented questions, situations, scenarios. It was up to you to come up with an answer, if you were so inclined.
So that's what I do. I think about complicated things and try to be as succinct as possible about them. I think when it comes to the art I make, being succinct is important. I tend to boil complex things down to core visual symbols that are as interrelated as the notions they represent. I do this in the Serial Monogamy series. I do it in Airshow. I do it in the skeleton series as related to an afterlife or before-life. I take issues or feelings that I'm thinking about and provide a visual reference for those ideas.
And above all I try not to be boring. The worst sin the Devil corrupts us with is being boring.
-Ian Lemmonds, March 2013
This photo by Arthur Fellig, also known as Weegee encapsulates the simple desperation of children looking for a small amount of comfort in the blazing summer in New York City. They are crowded together and sleeping on a fire escape.
This photo resounds with me, not just because it records certain unfortunate conditions, but because I shared an eight foot by eight foot room with two brothers throughout my teen years. Like the children in this phtograph, I was often crowded, sweaty, and uncomfortable.
Like myself, Weegee was a self taught photographer with no formal training in the medium.
The people who populate the world of Diane Arbus' photos seem more like fiction than reality. That's because her subjects don't fit neatly and plainly into established norms and cultural stereotypes.
For whatever reason (by choice or by nature) the people living in these photographs seemingly stand apart from the rest of us, although I get the feeling that Arbus perhaps thought that they didn't stand as far apart as we may think. I think she may have meant that these people are a part of us, and that there is no 'norm' - there is only what we choose to pay attention to, and what we choose to ignore. The people Arbus chose to pay attention to are well represented in her stellar body of work.
Sandy Skoglund's work resonates because of its mysterious, imprecise narrative combined with a limited color palette. While one cannot be precisely sure what event is happening here, one thing is certain: whatever is happening is monumental and amazing. Foxes jump from table to table playfully, while a couple eats dinner - oblivious to the foxes precociousness.