Matt and his girlfriend were kissing on the couch. They were in their third evolution. Maybe their third? It was hard to keep track.
One day Matt would do his brotherly duty of driving me to elementary school while blaring some rap song about how he doesn’t need her. And then the next day he would slam my bedroom door shut and tell me to not go into the living room under any circumstances.
But the landline rang. Picking up a call in the kitchen wouldn’t count. After all, what if it was mom off work early and in the McDonald’s drive-through? Or what if some overseas prince needed our financial help?
“Yeah, can I speak to Matt?”
I was the obedient type. What can I say?
I took off running… with the phone still in my hand. As I turned the corner to the living room, the phone box ripped from the wall. The loud crash interrupted their fervent make-out session, and we all shared what felt like an eternity’s worth of eye contact.
We never got another landline.
Robert Adams photographed with intention. He said “Beauty for me is a word for wholeness. So as a photographer, I am looking for the places where all the pieces fit together.”
But what about those phone lines? Sure, they are graphically pleasing. Neatly maintained and terminating behind the Frontier sign. But they are firmly out of Adams’ authority as the photographer.
He controls the shutter. Maybe at the time of the shutter snap, a piece of audio was frozen into the wire of a young Colorado Springs high school student recounting his day to his girlfriend across time. Had he waited a few more seconds before clicking the shutter, possibly we would catch her reply. Different pieces of the puzzle are both connected and separated by time — the tool of Adams’ authority.
I don’t think Adams would mind the charge. He was a leader of the New Topographics movement, which was a crew of photographers who hoped to photograph formally without the earmarks and baggage of “style.”
So what voice gives a work authenticity? And what can the power of a voice mean to a photographer who aims to be devoid of style?
Some things seem certain, at least under the supposition that Adams wasn’t a photo-realistic painter, didn’t have access to a computer with 3D graphics, and abided by his own pledge of photographic honesty. We know from the caption that this photo was taken at Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1969. We can presume it is a Frontie gas station due to the large sign.
Our presumption would be wrong. Frontie gas stations didn’t exist. Of course, a grasp of English could have led you to the final “r,” which is beyond the edge of the frame, to complete the brand name Frontier. The authenticity and truth of the image remain firm due to lived experience and knowledge. But to a non-American viewer, authenticity could quickly shift to deception, and Adams’ choice to not take ten steps back becomes not only a matter of style but a conflict of story and motive. Perhaps authenticity isn’t only rooted in the decisions of the documentarian but also in the knowledge and predisposition of the viewer.
My brother? He never heard the phone ring. He thought the whole incident was my failed attempt at meddling in his business. In the end, both were true. But whose responsibility is the truth?
Adams felt a responsibility to the natural land we occupy. He aimed to be a stenographer of its demise as a cost of humanity’s progress.
The photograph begs for silence. It begs for care. If we drive by quietly, the gas station will stay there. The phone lines won’t move. The people won’t get back in their cars, press the gas pedal, and spray more exhaust into our air.
Adams puts it like this: “What will America be? Will it accord with the stillness of sunlight?”
Adams gives his documentary work the responsibility of asking the question. Who answers? In this case, progress.
That gas station isn’t there anymore from what I can find, and my cell phone takes my voice to space.
Our guest posts are submitted by amazing photographers and writers all over the world.
Today’s Guest Post was submitted by…
Lukas Flippo is a first-generation low-income student at Yale University from rural Mississippi. Lukas is a photojournalist, with work appearing in the New York Times, TIME, IndyStar, and the Sun Herald. Lukas’ work, including a series on found photos, can be seen at Lukas’ website.
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one more great contribution