Whoa

THIS ESSAY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PHOTOGRAPHER TIM BARBER’S BOOK UNTITLED PHOTOGRAPHS, WHICH WAS PUBLISHED BY OHWOW IN 2012.

I have a stringent and professional criterion for judging whether a photograph is worthwhile. It goes like this: When I look at any given picture while I’m stoned, does it make me say—in the exact manner that Keanu Reeves did in The Matrix when Laurence Fishburne jumped from the roof of one building to another roof that was far away—“Whoa.” I call it the Whoa Test.

Let me put this another way.

The poet W.H. Auden, writing about surrealism in a 1955 letter to the younger poet Frank O’Hara, warned against “confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.” What he meant, I think, in part, is that metaphor is an instinct. You can’t truly identify it before it’s born, but once it’s out there you sure do know what it is. Fake or forced metaphor always stinks and will deteriorate under scrutiny. The reader will become resentful. True metaphor, arrived at via unconscious communion with the ether, will ripen. It will reward deep examination and will make the reader thankful. I believe it’s the same with a photograph. Just replace “metaphor” with “imagery” and “reader” with “viewer.” You can probably apply this to all art ever, but we are here today to think about photos.

Do I need to further say that we’re thinking here about so-called art photography and not about photojournalism? If I do, then consider it said. And, under the strange blanket of so-called art photography, I include anything that isn’t straight reportage. Documentary work that walks the line between a representation of the real world and the intrusion of the authorial voice? That counts. Which is good because Tim Barber, the specific photographer whose work we’re thinking about right now, puts a little bit of each of a lot of different things into his so-called art photography. There is the basking in beauty for its own sake thing. There is the obscured commentary on culture—commentary that Tim might not have even intended—thing. There is also the work that at first seems to simply portray the lives of his peers but which really also creates a fantasy that’s contingent on the scene being recorded by Tim’s particular eye and filtered through Tim’s particular choices thing. There are other things in Tim’s work too, but I think the things I’ve just mentioned are the most important things.

I’m going to come back to marijuana now. Do you know the feeling that you get once the initial high has crested and you’re kind of returning to your body? You’re definitely still high and you wouldn’t want to deal with something like a cop or a mom, but you could probably drive a car or operate a simple tool. If this time, this phase, were a place, like a country, it would be the country in which Tim’s photos are made. There’s a pervasive feeling in his work of—oxymoron ahead—hazy clarity. It’s an earthy, epiphanic feeling. It’s that post-peak time when the edges are soft and the colors are wet and the sense of the cosmic significance of things and people is still amplified. So Tim’s photos almost always pass the Whoa Test. But even more than that, they seem to let me access the stoned part of my brain even when I’m not stoned. What I’m saying here is that Tim’s photos are mind-altering drugs. Maybe that’s too much. What I’m saying here is that Tim’s photos (when they are at their best) have a moody, sensual, and perceptual impact that is akin to the effects of certain mind-altering drugs, if you’ve done enough of said drugs to be really, always, familiar with and conscious of how they feel. You need to be able to flick that internal switch and be stoned while sober.

Now, finally, let’s complicate this whole deal with these two last things that are important to remember about Tim, the person, as you look at his photographs: He is funny and also he is attuned to pathos. On a gut level, he understands the comedy-tragedy connection. He is the kind of friend to whom I can say any vicious, awful, misanthropic thing that I want to and he will nine out of ten times not only get it, but will then up the ante with something even more nihilistic. What I am saying is don’t mistake Tim Barber for a hippy or a peacenik. Yes he has lived in the institutionalized countercultural epicenters of Amherst, MA and Vancouver, BC, and yes his parents were drop-out-of-society types. But he’s a human, not a hippy. Please therefore try to feel in Tim’s photos the marriage of “this is funny” and “the world is sad.” Both are there.