Essay and Photographs
By K.B. DIXON
The images of Portland included in my latest book of photographs were excerpted from a larger ongoing project—from what is basically a photographic journal, a personalized and idiosyncratic survey of the world around me, an archive that serves in its own special way as a species of memoir. My hope was, as always, to document—to capture and to preserve for myself and others a transient moment of aesthetic pleasure, a strong sense of the subject, a resonating mix of common and individual experience. A storehouse of meanings and mysteries, it is an archive that shares in many ways the characteristics of a written work.
Stars & Stripes, 2014
Joan Didion—the novelist, essayist, and screenwriter—wrote a piece many years ago on the subject of keeping a journal. Wandering aimlessly through a set of her cryptic notes from years before, she found herself periodically perplexed by various entries. She found herself wondering why she had chosen to write this or that particular thing down—just as I, wandering aimlessly through my photographic archive, find myself periodically wondering why I decided to take this or that photograph. The keepers of notebooks are, Didion says, “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” So too are many photographers. “The impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art,” wrote the poet Philip Larkin. It certainly lies at the heart of the documentary impulse.
Umbrella Man, 2013
“The point of keeping a notebook has never been…to have an accurate factual record.” Didion writes. This is where our paths diverge as “journalists.” The photographic urge as opposed to the calligraphic is born of what Didion calls an “instinct for reality”—an instinct she sometimes honors, but as a card-carrying Romantic usually disparages. “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters,” she said. For the photographer’s purposes the distinction matters a great deal. For Didion it is the unfettered imagination vs. a cretinous literalism—a gross and self-aggrandizing simplification. Good old everyday rise-and-shine “reality” is the fundamental subject of photography. It may seem mundane, but it is essentially miraculous. If nothing else, it possesses what James Agee once called “the cruel radiance of what is.”
Annex Bar, 2014
For Didion it is the embroidered bit of fiction that brings a past event to life—for the photographer it is the simple (if inevitably inflected) statement of fact. Facts are food for the imagination. “How it felt to me:” Didion says, “that is…the truth about a notebook.” How it was to be: that is the truth about a photographic journal. The powers of imagination work one way, the powers of observation another. Working in tandem, you get an artist.
Piano Player, 2016
Smoke Break, 2017
Guitar Player, 2017
Our paths converge again—Ms. Didion’s and mine—when you look at the uses we have made of our respective journals. The products of an “inexplicable compulsion,” they are aides to memory and sources of inspiration. Individual entries—a note, a photograph—may puzzle from time to time, but carefully studied, they almost always reveal their meanings.
Dan & Louis, 2017
Mother & Child, 2013
There is no greater instrument for the exploration of experience (both real and imagined) than the written word, but the language we use is not the only one available to us. Photography is another language—like music. Each has its own rhetoric, its own eloquence—one silver-tongued, the other silver-gelatin tongued. One is weighted with subjective truths, the other with objective, but each is invariably a complex mixture of both. Each type of journal—the written and photographic—is an arcane accumulation of experience. Each is accessed and processed differently, but both are the progeny of magic.
Dog Show, 2015
These journals—written and photographic—are warehouses of information, and embedded in that information like raisins in an oatmeal cookie are clues to the people behind them, clues to who he or she was in both the near and distant past. Keeping in touch with that person—the person one was—”is what a notebook is all about,” Didion writes. It might not be quite what a photographic journal is all about, but it is certainly part of it. Keeping in touch with who you were is the first step to understanding both who you are and who you may one day want to be.
In the written journal “the common denominator…is always…the implacable ‘I’,” Didion says. Its focus is almost always on one’s own life. In all but the most solipsistic of photographic journals the focus tends to be on life in a more general sense. Each sort of journal is, in the end, a unique form of communion with the world, a singular and distinctive effort to know.
Face Painting, 2016
K.B. Dixon is a Portland photographer and the author of seven novels. See his literary work at kbdixonbooks.com and his photography at kbdixonimages.com. The images in this essay are from his most recent photographic book, Portland Journal III.