Recently, while attempting to track down a picture of a specific cat, I came across some photographs of a mall. I made them when I was a portfolio reviewer at 20/20 Vision: the 57th Annual SPE National Conference, organized by The Society for Photographic Education. This was early March 2020, during the first, little, naïve American phase of covid, before I or anyone I knew had any idea of what was going on, before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. The site of the conference was the Westin Galleria, a businessperson’s hotel nestled in the side of an upscale Houston shopping center. A petri dish.
Rediscovering the pictures sent me spiraling back over the madness of the past two years. This, in turn, made me wonder what other lost photographs I could unearth from the depths of our first quarantine. I decided I’d make a serialized, retrospective photo essay about it for Glasstire. After all, I spent the whole damn mess in Texas. I could even give the column a silly name. How about, Exposure Therapy? To the hard drives!
But now I am struggling to write my mall pictures into the big covid timeline. My arms feel as if they are going to turn inside out like gloves as I type. First I thought I was daunted because the virus was such a heavy topic: the pictures mark the anxious, uncommonly bustling moments right before things shut down. But then I realized that I was piling a lot of weighty melancholy upon some silly pictures of a silly building. It was ookily navel-gazey and devoid of joy, so I scrapped it. It’s fine. To share the pictures properly, I just have to start talking in a different direction.
A major deciding factor for my initial move to Texas was my love for David Byrne’s 1986 musical film True Stories. I don’t know if it’s a good movie, but it’s great art. Byrne plays an unnamed visitor to the fictional town of Virgil (portrayed by a collage of North Texas municipalities) as it prepares for a “celebration of specialness.” Several extended sequences were shot inside Dallas’ NorthPark Mall, including one introduced by a title card that reads, “SHOPPING IS A FEELING.” Byrne is a space alien with an infectious affect. To this day, I cannot step foot in a mall, especially not one in Texas, without thinking, yes, shopping is indeed a feeling.
Virgil’s mall is full of strange people who guffaw over tabloids or are played by John Goodman in space-age Adidas. Byrne, both the filmmaker and the narrator, lingers with his characters, giving their personalities room to radiate without judgment. The result is goofy, yet exceptionally soft. That is why I like it so much. One might expect fancy New York art rock man Byrne to scoff at folksy types, or even turn darkly anthropological. But instead, at least in True Stories, he just gives them room.
I do not mean to place my stuff on the same shelf as Byrne’s masterful Texas mall-work; William Eggleston was his set photographer, for crying out loud. I was a man with anxiety and a Google Pixel. But I have probably watched True Stories more than any other movie, and I think these pictures might be dancing around a tribute. Originally, they were intended to exist on Instagram and vanish. I made a story for my friends called SPE IS IN A MALL and wandered around with my phone out. The game of creating the pictures was an easy escape from regular SPE drudgeries, such as hearing men declare how little they use Photoshop; hearing men declare much they use Photoshop; reading signs made by men that declare they do not use Photoshop; and crossing one’s arms in front of a lanyard.
SPE National happens — in non-pandemic times — every year in a different U.S. city. Photography students from all over, encouraged by their schools, spend a weekend bumping into one another, entering raffles, and exchanging business cards that they can later misplace. (I recall once, as an undergraduate attendee, seeing a particularly ambitious classmate’s business card in the green apron of a lobby Starbucks barista.) Artists and historians lecture on their research. From what I’ve seen, these talks range from invigorating (LaToya Ruby-Frazier, Michael Max McLeod), to drab (the “archive”), to stupefying (a Shark Tank parody about photobook publishing). One specific person who I will not name but who doubtlessly is The Worst Photographer in the World invariably attends. The faculty, meanwhile, cluster in hotel bars. My assumption is that they are there to ask one another for better jobs or shows at university galleries, but I have never found out for certain. Being pathologically afraid of professional advancement, my approach to the conference usually revolves around old friends, petty theft, and impatience — snickering retrograde bad kid stuff with my semi-retired former professor in the backs of crowded lecture halls. At the Orlando conference I played a lot of solo basketball, and the gathering in Chicago saw me fixate on a bust of Conrad Hilton in a stairwell. Mostly the conference is an excuse to travel towards people who make me want to think about pictures, albeit in varyingly masochistic ways.
San Francisco was hopelessly romantic, New Orleans sleepless, and in Orlando I went to Denny’s. Houston was the only time where the host hotel was inside a mall. Good. To gain access, one pulled off the freeway into acres of parking, drove past the freestanding empty purple barn that once housed — and still boasted housing — Zone d’Erotica (the building now, comically, houses a Velvet Taco), descended into the garage, parked, entered the mall on a subterranean level, and walked past shops, pretzels, and a full-on ice rink until arriving at one of the portals that led into the Westin. I used the door by the Gap, whose pants I like for the price but only ever buy online.
I lived nearby, and the conference organizers kindly asked me to come review student portfolios. This surprised me. Usually reviewers are curators or academics; living nearby was more or less the only thing that qualified me to be there. I said yes and soon found myself as one in an army of reviewers at small folding tables in a cavernous and wildly carpeted room; the space only aided my realization that one day I would like to visit a hotel carpet factory. Pre-selected photography students from distant schools took turns sitting across from me to share their work. I flipped through their pictures and we talked for fifteen minutes apiece. This was all happening at a time when nobody knew how to act. “Are you shaking hands,” they asked. The procession continued until lunch, and began again after. The work was of quality. I hoped I was helpful*, though I heard myself exhausting the same dated references that I’d relied upon since college. Though photography sometimes appears tethered to the bleeding edge of technology, direct engagement with The Medium — especially at SPE — often feels lashed to its recent past.
In 1962, Nathan Lyons founded the Society for Photographic Education. He was working at the George Eastman House then. You know, like Eastman Kodak. Photography. In his career as an artist, Lyons took a lot of black and white photos of signs and stuff and strung them together in compact and witty books that eschewed narrative sense. Later in life, he penned an essay titled “Display as Discourse” about what he called “combinatory play” between pictures in sequence. It goes:
The correlations between the camera and the functions of the eye have been repeatedly alluded to, but primarily in terms of their optical functions. There is however, another area for consideration and that is, that the eye and the camera see more than the mind knows. Also to be born in mind is the theory propounded by Sir Herbert Read in Icon and Idea, according to which every creation in the Visual Arts — and in fact every pattern is a form of thought and therefore corresponds to an intelligible mental concept. This leads us towards an intuition of the world as a vast repertoire of signs that await being “read.”
A sequence is structured by allowing one image to follow another by an order of succession or arrangement, which is not apparently thematic or systematic…
Another thing that made me want to move to Texas was the footage of the large cowboy Big Tex ablaze at the 2012 State Fair. The photographs of the event depict a horror show. But a video, titled “Big Tex on Fire” and uploaded to YouTube on October 19, 2012 by user JRO DT Channel, portrays things more gently. For five minutes and fifty two seconds, the documentarian keeps a camera phone trained on the slowly immolating Tex. People stop and look, including a cop and a guy with a walkie-talkie whose windbreaker matches his motorized scooter, but nobody seems particularly upset or alarmed. At about the 2:50 mark, as the effigy’s head is consumed by flames, a pink-cased iPhone emerges from a dome of blond hair in the foreground, takes a picture, and quickly descends out of frame. I’d love to know how that photo looks. Bill Davenport posted a shorter video of the event to Glasstire back when it happened. That clip mostly shows a smoldering metal skeleton and a distant fairground blimp. A man offscreen comments in a cartoonishly calm Texan drawl, “well, looks like ol’ Beg Tex had a rough day today, at the State Fair of Texas.” In both accounts, the debacle ends up looking a lot like something out of True Stories: it’s big, loud, and strange as hell, but zoom out and it’s just a tiny blip in the infinite rippling of Texas. “This whole area was once underwater,” muses Byrne at the beginning of True Stories, “almost still looks like it.”
Big Tex came back later, but he’s different now. On the last morning of the SPE conference, I sat in the Westin lobby with a disorienting grab bag of acquaintances from different parts of my past. We made plans so vague, we’d never even have to cancel them.
One week after SPE 57, the pandemic became official. On that day I used my Pixel’s portrait mode incorrectly. The photograph shows the reverse side of a stop sign that is being swallowed by plants in a well-kept residential neighborhood. My phone, bless it, did its best to locate a person in the frame. Perhaps it tried too hard. Finding no face, the computer panicked and disregarded what it knew of traditional camera mechanics. The world shifts in and out of focus in seemingly random splotches. It is jokey, obvious, and a little haunted in the way that only artificial intelligence can muster. Since I made the picture with my phone, I put it — along with a caption that used clapping hand emojis between all the words — directly on Instagram, where it was surprisingly well received. Or at least the reception was strong by my standards, with over 200 legitimately-earned likes. Friends commented; Rosa offered, “Portrait of a man saying stop,” and Jessi asked, “R u fancy?” I was. I am. And I am shamelessly indulgent; It makes me feel good when people engage with the jokes I put on social media. Even so, to publicly dissect one of my own photographs like this makes me feel funny. But I am here now searching for clues.
*I have doubts about the efficacy of the photography portfolio review industry as it exists, and even worry that some of the high-ticket “professional” reviews are little more than predatory cash grabs. But it is probably helpful for students to get their work in front of artists who have been at it for longer than they have. Here is a list of the photographers whose work I reviewed at SPE 57, with links to their portfolios, when I could find them. Apologies to the few I could not track down. Hopefully a reader will find something to enjoy, and I will have done my job: