Ugly Made Beautiful
The Worst Subjects Can Make the Best Photos.
What’s worth photographing? Where can you find beauty, or meaning? Just about anywhere — even in the trash bin. Here are three different visions of how refuse can be embraced.
Chris Jordan (www.chrisjordan.com), found his future in a pile of garbage.
Jordan, now 44 and living in Seattle, is a former attorney who’s loved photography since early in law school. But he didn’t work up the courage to pursue it full-time until he faced the prospect of marking a major birthday sitting in a corporate law office.
“As I approached 40, a new fear surfaced — the fear of not having lived my life,” he says.
So he quit his job and set out as a photographer, bringing with him a nest egg he hoped would last two years to get established as an artist. He was interested in beautiful images, working with an 8×10 view camera and developing his own theory of color aesthetics.
Then one day Jordan photographed a garbage heap. He was attracted to the colors, finding them an unlikely demonstration of his theories. He made a huge print, hung it in his studio and invited a couple of photographer friends over to see it. The friends “started talking about consumerism,” he recalls. “It was annoying to me because I wanted to talk about my color theory.”
Eventually, though, the idea of the waste of consumer society — the glut of trash, electronics, packaging and the rest discarded daily — broke through. Jordan was fascinated, and horrified. The discovery “was like waking up from The Matrix. I discovered this really important issue. It’s just this shock.”
And his future course of photography was set.
Jordan still strived for beauty, but now it was as a means, not an end. He studied photographers such as Richard Misrach, whose beautiful photos depict the often-ugly effects of humans on the landscape, showing the impact of practice-bombing in the desert or waste dumped into the Mississippi River. Jordan thought the same concept would apply to consumer waste. “Beauty can be a very important tool for drawing the viewer into the conversation,” he says.
Shooting on location (in later photos, in the studio), Jordan would create a pretty image of, say, vast numbers of discarded cell phones, giving them a pretty swirl to evoke a galaxy.
But, concerned that his photos were so attractive that people would ignore the message, Jordan set out to create “the ugliest photo I could ever make.” His subject? Exactly 125,000 cigarette butts, the number discarded around the world every second. He made the image by photographing 5,000 cigarettes over and over again, combining the digital images and printing the result at a huge 5×10 feet. Viewed up close, the fine detail can be disgusting, says Jordan. “You can see the lipstick on a butt.”
Still, when these less-pretty images were first shown in New York and elsewhere, “it turns out that they were by far the most popular images in the series,” he adds.
For Jordan that was a revelation. He plans to keep working along similar lines, shooting the discards of the consumer world and bringing life to statistics — for example, the 426,000 cell phones discarded in the U.S. daily — that might otherwise be too dry to have an impact.
While these images may be beautiful, they won’t be pretty, he says. “My idea of what is beauty has changed a lot.”
Charles Rushton (www.crushton.com), 65, remembers that as a kid in Rochester, MN, in the 1950s, a friend told him something he’d just read in Popular Photography: “‘This guy said there’re enough photographs within a mile of your house to last you a lifetime. What do you think of that?’ I said something like, ‘I don’t think he lives in Rochester.'”
But the idea stuck with him. Now enjoying a second career as an adjunct instructor of digital photography in Norman, OK, Rushton takes his Nikon D80 and an 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 Nikkor lens out on walks, often around the lake near his home.
Sometimes he has a goal when he sets out, but that’s not really important. “I photograph anything that catches my eye — I don’t plan things. Usually I end up photographing something other than what I went out to photograph,” he says. “You need some reason to get out, but once you get out there, you need to remain open to whatever comes your way.”
One day by the lake, Rushton noticed submerged trash, some of it waste from nearby home construction. He took some photos and thought about them. “The little light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, I’m going to do my own personal recycling program by photographing trash and turning it into beauty.”
Waste is a surprising subject for someone who once studied with Arnold Newman and who recently had a book of black-and-white portraits published by a museum.
Rushton once shot a flattened juice can in the snow, thinking it would look great. But later, working with the image on his computer, he found it less interesting. Better results came from an empty roof-shingles bag he saw in the lake. Its watery twists and turns provided striking photos on two successive days. “One day it was a nightmare head, and on another day it was an interesting little man.”
For him, water and ice yield the best effects. “I particularly like the effect of water on trash,” he says. “I’m not that interested in trash itself — I’m interested in how nature transforms it. It’s the action of the water twisting it and shaping it, and the sun fading things. These are the things that make the pictures interesting, I think.”
Once he captures the image, Rushton makes his own contribution to transforming the materials. He shoots in RAW so that he can make dramatic changes to the white balance, contrast, and color saturation.
Where does he find his subjects? In addition to the lake, he likes “the ditch near my house” and “my favorite ditch,” near a mobile-home park. He also recalls the long-ago comment in Popular Photography about there being so much to shoot so close to home.
“I’ve thought about that my whole life, on and off,” Rushton says. “I realized eventually that what it spoke to is the concept of what’s a legitimate subject of a photograph. Once you’ve got over the stereotyped notions of what’s worthy of being photographed, all of a sudden this whole world of images opens up to you.”
Carin Ingalsbe (www.cariningalsbe.com) scours the world’s opera, theater, and ballet companies — for dirty laundry. Specifically, old costumes that are torn and stained. Some are centuries old, even royal hand-me-downs. Others have seen decades of use, since a new tutu can cost $10,000. She photographs them, creating large and stunning prints.
When Ingalsbe, 47, arranges to visit a costume archive, she explains what she wants, but it never sinks in. “When I get there, they always have all the perfect dresses out, and I can never work with them,” she says.
So she looks around until she sees an old garment in a plastic bag or dusty box, then asks to shoot it, often to the horror of the wardrobe staff. “The patina and the grunge is a singular road that can only be traveled once,” she says. It records “every pair of hands that has ever touched it. That is a really priceless thing.”
Five years ago, Ingalsbe had no interest in ballet, theater, or costumes. But she had a big car and junk-dealer friends who needed help hauling 200 gowns owned by a retired cabaret singer. She documented them and was surprised by the beauty of her photos.
Shortly after, she read that the New York City Ballet had problems maintaining its costume collection. So she offered to shoot the archive and sell prints, with a portion of the proceeds going to the ballet. The gambit worked: She was even allowed to take two pieces designed by painter Marc Chagall to her studio in Lexington, MA, and her prints were shown in New York’s Lincoln Center.
Since then, she has traveled to Paris, where she found costumes stored in a large stone building “that looks like a barn.” In Stockholm, where she had to fight off pigeons coming through the window she was using as her main light source, garments were arranged in large, acid-free boxes in a way that reminded her of human bodies.
Ingalsbe often stitches together multiple macro shots in Adobe Photoshop to create her big prints. She also uses the software to remove what she calls the “biomatter” in old costumes. But she’s no photo technician — she couldn’t name the camera she used without looking. (It’s a Nikon D80, with which she shoots JPEGs.) She explains she doesn’t want “to get so enamored with the technical stuff that I forget what I’m looking at.”
Her new subject? Gloves. Often made for heavy use (such as boxing or gardening), they get worn out in a way she finds compelling. But buying on eBay presents a typical problem, with a twist: She can’t see the item in detail until it arrives by mail. “A lot of times what I get is not beat up enough, so I can’t use it,” she says. “I actually threw away a bunch of baby shoes yesterday. They weren’t mucked up enough.”