Not every photographer finds his or her subject through moody introspection. One of the goals of my recent SFAI class (‘Finding Your Subject’) was to show students the possibilities of assignment photography. While I would never say it is right for everyone, editorial work can be useful in exposing photographers to new subjects. I often use the example of Larry Sultan. After he made his brilliant book Pictures From Home, Sultan did an assignment for Maxim Magazine that led to his book, The Valley.
One of the photographers I invited to my SFAI class was Timothy Archibald. Archibald makes his living almost exclusively through commercial and editorial photography. Perhaps because he is removed from academia, Archibald spoke to the class with a rare mix of honesty and enthusiasm.
Archibald explained that a lot of his editorial work focused on middle-class, domestic life. Inspired by one assignment that had him photographing a man in his garage who’d invented a new kind of foosball table, Archibald began looking for other kinds of inventors. This led Archibald to the subject of his book, Sex Machines.
After publishing this provocative book, Archibald’s “sentence” was pretty much carved in stone. This seems to be one of the side effects of photographing something especially juicy. (“He’s the guy who photographed Christ in piss,” etc). Don’t get me wrong. Sex Machines is a remarkable book. I urge you to learn more about it (here, here, here). But this isn’t the only thing you should know about Timothy Archibald.
I’m pretty sure that Archibald agrees. If you go to his website, you won’t find a single reference to Sex Machines. But then, Archibald’s website seems pretty much geared to getting jobs. While the pictures on his site are well produced, it all feels pretty slick. To get the good stuff, I recommend going to Archibald’s blog. In an inversion of Sultan’s trajectory, Archibald’s new work is about his family.
As with his class presentation, Archibald writes about his work with honesty:
So what is with all these weird images of my kid?
I’m not sure myself. I do feel like I’m trying to create, with photographs, a map, a diagram, a sentence that somehow communicates all the stuff that arises when dealing with my 5 year old boy. Wonder, discovery, emotional chaos, and a feral sense of physical randomness are the words I use when trying to describe the project to myself or others. The pictures may be communicating something else…I just don’t know yet.
Archibald is clearly in the early, experimental stages of this work. But he is getting some interesting results:
With this image, Archibald writes: “My eldest son was sick last week for 48 hours. He found a stick and bent it in three places, making a perfect square. Yesterday I found a message I wrote to my wife on a post it note.”
Again, there is something thrilling in this honesty. Archibald isn’t afraid to explore the emotional ambivalence involved in mixing photography and parenting. In a post that I definitely relate to, Archibald recently wrote:
It’s kind of tricky to switch gears from days in which my only obligation is to take photographs and stick a fork with food in my mouth, to these days at home that involve waking up with the kids, getting them what they need emotionally and physically, having a relationship with Cheri, with the kids, and dealing with all the real relationships that exist outside of the bubble of the long, on-the-road photo shoot. Its an adjustment, and I find myself anxious for the simplicity of the photo shoot: someone is there to work out the details, food is always around, the subjects are new and we are all fascinated with each other….we are all in love with each other for the bubble of the shoot, and then it’s time to go. Then home, the adjustment starts. It takes a few days home for the pleasures and satisfactions of all the rich stuff, the complex emotions that are what home is about to really sink in.
The reason I brought Timothy Archibald to my class was to promote the possibilities of assignment work. I believe it can be a good source of inspiration. But Archibald taught me something else. As the cliché goes, genius is 1% inspiration. It really doesn’t matter what you do for a living. Whether you teach, sell furniture or produce commercials, the important part of making art is digging into “all the rich stuff, the complex emotions.”