I had never been to Somerville. I had never thought to go there. I had no reason to consider a trip to such a place.
"I need to get out of the house, let's take a ride to see the Black History Month billboard they put up in Somerville."
"Where's that? How far do I need to drive?"
"Bring your camera, take some photos."
For those following my posts, the first photo equipment thought I had was to consider which lens I should bring. I decided on two primes. Travel light. The camera, with either lens mounted, can fit in my jacket pocket and seemed to be the right travel kit for purposes of a half-day excursion to an unfamiliar town. Sometimes I find that by eliminating equipment decisions while out on a shoot, I relieve a certain anxiety and focus on the composition of the photo. The ability to take candid photos is a big plus as well.
It should go without saying that I never changed the 25mm (50mm equiv) f1.7 lens on the camera. What else is new? I don't often shoot with a "nifty fifty" so this type of exercise or practice is always beneficial for me. I am not a great 50mm shooter. This time, I tried to fill the entire frame and push subjects to the edges. I'm not sure it was successful, but since my other approaches to shooting 50mm photos haven't been very good, I thought, why not? A college professor once explained that designers should always consider multiple scales when creating something by trying to solve a design problem. That piece of advice translates slightly differently in photography, but still remains useful to me.
But enough about the equipment and corresponding compositional adjustments or strategies.
The display consists of two double sided 70' lengths of canvas, approximately 8' high, which contains photos and text placed within a collage of black, orange, yellow and green colors. All images are black and white, thereby standing out from the color space in which they were floating. As I walked about the display, I couldn't help but ask myself: when will we be able to bask in the accomplishments of "Black" Americans as just "Americans?" Why must we see in terms of color?
The answer that came to me is stifling: because our country's history has been so terrible in this regard; guilty of using difference rather than sameness as a weapon of economic and social inequality, so much so that the African American population continues to suffer from it. It is no accident that all caucasian cultures were able to migrate to the US and eventually become a part of our socio-economic success story even as they kept their distinguishing traditions of cultural difference while the African American population was denied the same opportunities since the first slaves were forced to leave their countries of origin and serve someone else as property. As bizarre a statement as this may be, even a corporation or a business was able to hold property and participate in our nation's legal and economic systems with more human privilege than an African American man and women. That doesn't mean there were no successes among the AA population. It means that they were successful DESPITE the differences constantly rendered through prejudice and racism. The most disturbing thing I found was that it wasn't just a violent racism, it was also one of neglect or indifference to their accomplishments, which were rarely accepted and embraced by the majority of the country for centuries.
I had never known that the residential central gas heating furnace was invented by an African American woman, for example. Being an architect, my wife even asked if I had known about this. I didn't.
What is most apparent about the display is the way in which it described how much of our daily lives have been touched by these great artists, inventors, athletes, authors, performers...Americans.
As you can see above, I took a black and white picture of a picture to give it context. The large scale of this photo is pronounced by the inclusion of a cyclist in the background.
And then I took another... in color, using the building fenestration in the background as a juxtaposition of scale for the image in the foreground.
What about an institutional building constructed during a time of segregation? How would such a building be approached? With intimidation or admiration or both? Can we photograph the building from a vantage point that describes its position in society to a population still experiencing segregation? Head-on? Not in 1905-1910. In that era, I think an approach from an angle, framed between the beautiful branches (and perhaps ominous as well) of the local trees, would be more appropriate. Is it still beautiful if we know it was constructed at a time when as humans, we were not all equal under the law? Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder...each based upon their experiences and exposure to their built environments.
The jail was across the street from the Courthouse. Trying to approach this building head-on was not a possibility. It's geometry slices through itself and aggressively confronts the street. While it is designed to draw such a reaction, do we possess a bias for such a building before we even confront it?
I've been reading the book Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. While being insightful, it is also presents a thesis of human genetic predispositions to choice, behavior, etc..by making the not so loose analogy that our brain is an algorithmic processing machine. Try to keep that in mind while taking photos and admiring a billboard of great accomplishments by a minority that has suffered from racial discrimination. It makes one's head spin. Allow me to make an inflection point here to a new set of questions about intent, free will and meaning somewhat related to my previous musings.
Above, one of the local churches with its imposing Richardsonian/early Gothic revival style sits on Main Street while an adjacent and colorful mural clamors for one's attention. The relevance of one is challenged by the void in the other. Are they not each addressing the same thing?
Does the experience of art and religion provide a context for our world from which we can give meaning to life? Perhaps it is our traditions that provide us with a context from which we can derive meaning? Both? Neither? Is finding meaning just a fool's game? Can meaning be achieved through embracement of our current culture, which privileges humanism and scientific discoveries, rather than being derived from an imposing authority or another long established institution? Is there a higher authority than God, if one doesn't imagine one? Is imagination the source of our greatest discoveries and life's meaning?
Perhaps we lead our lives without the free will we so cherish and believe we possess. Perhaps we control our desirable actions but not the impetus for them? Are those lab experiments exploring the human brain and our behavior leading us down the road of science that will declare humans to be mammals of genetically predisposed automatic responses? Is there any "human" left in humans?
Perhaps the spark of creative imagination allows us to break free from our predictable and genetically pre-programmed selves to offer us true expression of a free will?