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Reflections on Nostalgia from Members of Observe Collective

TOM YOUNG Half a lifetime from now, what will we remember of our lives today? If we travelled back in time, would we even recognize ourselves? The waves of photos that inundate our world now are more instantaneous, but potentially less meaningful, than those of previous generations. Every aspect of human life is documented daily, shared and consumed by others. But once the social media clock ticks over, how often are these images, so prized in the moment, revisited again? “There, under the mirror, the child still sits alone. From there he can see the inside of the tavern—the green island of the billiard table, the ivory ball he is forbidden to touch, the metallic gloss of the bar, a pair of fat truckers at one table, and the two of us at another. He has long since grown used to this scene and is not dismayed by its proximity. Yet there is one thing I know. Whatever happens to him in life, he will always remember the picture he saw every day of his childhood from the little room where he was fed his soup. He will remember the billiard table and the coatless evening visitor who

used to draw back his sharp white elbow and hit the ball with his cue, and the blue-grey cigar smoke, and the din of voices, and my empty right sleeve and scarred face, and his father behind the bar, filling a mug for me from the tap. ‘I can’t understand what you see down there,’ says my friend, turning back toward me. What indeed! How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?” —Vladimir Nabokov, A Guide to Berlin I am curious to see what people find worthy of memorializing. But in observing people photographing their moments of apparent significance, I have no idea whether they will last. These photos of holidays on beaches, of smiling families, will they catch in memory? Will they bring nostalgic warmth long after the sun has set, like Nabokov’s boy remembering the bar of his childhood? Or are they just ephemera, snapshots of satisfaction that rise briefly then sink meaninglessly beneath the waves?


MONTY MAY Looking back, things come into being Being a photographer, I am practising one of the greatest professions imaginable to me. While I am paid mainly for documenting contemporary events, I still glimpse scenes of everyday life on the street on a regular basis. To me, there is no distinct way of separating documentary and street photography. I have been trying to fathom images for more than 37 years, trying to figure out why and how they work, and what kinds of stories they are telling me. Are they original or, speaking in terms of style, mere copies of known artists? How deep are they and might they even give us insight into the very soul of their creators? I enjoy such personal, often autobiographic qualities of photographs. However, I have also experienced situations in which I thought I had seen through an artist’s personality quite clearly, but when I was lucky enough to actually meet them, they turned out to be quite different. And that’s just as exciting to me. Coming back to photography, I believe that there also is a subconscious level to it. It happens from time to time that, right at the

moment of taking a shot, I already get the vague sensation of having created something meaningful. Of course, I cannot know if this is true for everybody, but I feel that there are pictures we get more spot on than we had planned. Images which tell the story better than we had anticipated. In this respect, getting lucky might well be a factor, but more often I’d say our brains give us a little push in the right direction. A few years ago in Normandy, I took a photo of an empty, narrow street that led up a hill in Granville. It featured a very formal composition and I thought it nice to look at, but insignificant. It vanished in the depths of my archive, biding its time until it would return. Years later, in a Michael Kenna exhibition, I chanced upon a photo quite like my own. Kenna’s image, in turn, was a (nighttime) replica of Bill Brandt’s Snicket of Halifax from 1937. Kenna was so kind to share with me that Brandt had been a major influence on his early career and, as it turned out, mine as well (to some extent). I am convinced that, on said day in France, some part of me remembered Brandt’s little photo from that sublime volume I had borrowed from my university’s library as a student.


Now I’d like to share seven photos with you. None of them fail to evoke nostalgic feelings inside of me and I can always use them to hitchhike back in time. To the time when we constantly felt at the brink of open war, while the actual cold one dragged on and spat its grey, inhumane, deadly nature into the faces of everyone who had walked but a mere moment along the Berlin Wall. To the time the Ruhr area had to reinvent itself after centuries of being Germany’s industrial heart. To the time German democracy went through puberty and on to the times of teenage angst. Having turned 61 this year, I find comfort in the serene knowledge that I am carrying more past than future with me. Thus, I cannot deny a personal shift towards the past. Studying the old masters and making the occasional dive for pearls inside my own archives are always worthwhile. Looking back, things come into being.

GUILLE IBANEZ It happens mostly at night. I suffer from mild insomnia, so I often wake in the small hours—too early to get up, too late to fall asleep. The only hours of the day when I’m completely alone, when time expands and contracts with the soothing sound of Joanna’s breath or the urgent thrum of a passing police helicopter. This is the time when monsters lurk, past regrets surface, and my own mortality comes into ever sharper focus. Memories flit by. How do I catch them? Long summers; a swimming pool, blue and vast as the reflected sky. Splash! Bikes and dirt and days that last forever. Salty skin, fizzy drinks and grubby plasters on skinned knees. Old hands with veins like pipes pumping blood to hearts that love. It hits me with a twinge of melancholia. My childhood, my children’s childhood and the last days of my elders slipping softly through my fingers. Still in bed, still dark, still the noisy silence of Mancunian night. The sound of one of the kids hurrying to the toilet and back to bed. They needed me for that not so long ago. They crawl, they play, they laugh, they cry, they grow, they go. Time is ruthless. First light is starting to show outside. I’m exhausted and I finally close my eyes and drift to sleep, twenty minutes before the alarm.




Back to the Future Cars are so last year. I don’t care much for them anymore. Perhaps never did. The car I once had was my father’s car. He had gotten too old to drive. Cars get old too, and break down and are turned into pieces of nostalgia. The first car. The family’s car. The brand new car. The car you’ve never had. The car you’ve dreamed of having one day. The unattainable car. The last car. I’ve heard the youth of today don’t care much for cars. Good for them. Cars are so last year.



Let’s just state the obvious up front: “keep/ditch” photography groups are terrible. An insular den of beginners hacking away at the outsized egos of other beginners while expecting immediate validation of their own indisputable genius. A place rife with the laziest of tropes, the most egregious trolling, the nastiest ad hominem attacks, the most ill-informed and misguided critique. There’s one group in particular that was all of these things, but also had an undeniable energy and chutzpah with an accompanying cast of oddball and engaging characters that kept the entertainment value high. It was maddening and addictive at the same time. For better or worse, this group ended up being my intensive early education in street photography. I say group, but really it was a series of groups, because every few years conflicts and controversy would burn it to the ground, only to be replaced soon thereafter by a nearly identical version that promised to have learned its lessons, yadda yadda. Thus Grit & Grain eventually became Street Crit (and, before my time, The Gutter begat Grit & Grain). I’ll collectively call these groups G&G. These days, it seems the keep/ditch format has run its course, with only the faintest embers remaining. { If you’re not familiar with how keep/ditch groups work, they’re simple: any schmo can submit their photo to the group’s pool for critique once they’ve gone through all existing photos in the pool and offered critique as well, crystallized at the end into a binary judgment: KEEP or DITCH. When a shot gets ten keeps, it goes to some digital trophy room to be admired by, well… probably not many people. Ten ditches and it gets unceremoniously dumped from the pool. }

I first encountered the keep/ditch format in the course of being a “good contact” on Flickr a decade ago, back when Instagram was called Flickr. Being a good contact meant that you would regularly visit the photostreams of your contacts, fave a bunch of photos and say “Nice capture!” or similar. And say “Thanks for visiting!” when others faved or left “Nice capture!” comments on your photos. This would lead to having more and more contacts, because everyone of course wanted to acquire more good contacts so that they in turn could collect their share of faves and “Nice captures!” And, if the Gods of Popularity were so inclined, a photo of yours might someday even be featured by Flickr’s Explore algorithm, which meant an exponential leap in the number of faves and contacts and comments and favesandcommentsandsoforth. Photography itself was beside the point. You know the drill. Before burning out completely on this voracious cycle, I noticed that the photos of a contact named “I Shot Baltimore “ (Larry Cohen) sometimes got comments that were unlike ones I had seen before. Harsh. Direct. Often funny as hell, even when peppered with inside jokes. Each comment capped off with a final and unforgiving judgment RENDERED IN ALL CAPS. It seemed like the “Nice capture!” crowd knew not to intervene. I started seeing similar comments on David Horton’s photos too. My interest was piqued. Here was an unlikely subculture amidst the sea of vapid niceness of Flickr writ large. Most groups in Flickr were just broad themes that people would submit their photos according to (which would often seem to bend towards leering pictures of pretty girls). There was nothing in most groups themselves but the photos. Some group photo pools were well curated, most were not.

The group page for G&G was different. Even though the actual critique took place elsewhere, on the photo page of the individual photographers, discussion threads popped up with the frequency, fervor, and scope of a late-night dorm room bull session after a shared bottle of off-brand whiskey. Manic every day. In addition to free-ranging discussions about all manner of things unrelated to photography, there was a lot of passionate discussion about things like the ethics of street photography or what street photography was or wasn’t, which I can scarcely imagine now as being interesting, but hey, everything seems interesting the first time you go through it. And there was talk of gear… So much gear. Though it was at least snarked on mercilessly. I didn’t really know what street photography was in 2010. I was in my, ahem, soulful-urbanscapes-without-people phase that may or may not have been a direct result of my living in Brooklyn. Sliders in Lightroom were my expressive tool and I was expressive to the extreme. While lurking in G&G for a while at first and getting to know some of the members individually, I had gotten the itch to try shooting street photography myself. It quickly became an all-consuming passion. Eventually, and way too soon, I thought I had some potential gems to share. See Exhibit A, the first turd I dropped into the G&G pool. One of the commenters noted that the pale yellow tinge was best understood as an homage to Serrano’s “Piss Christ”… touché. In the tradition of countless other would-be photographers lacking critical distance, I of course was defensive about it. But not long after, I started losing the heavy-handed processing. That’s how it was for me: I would progress haltingly, I would rationalize away


details of other people’s shots and give them a lot of thought in an effort to give them appropriate criticism. I ultimately learned more from that than from most criticism on my shots, which I tended to lump into an overall good/bad framework and just use as motivation unless it was critique from someone whose work I really dug, in which case I’d hang on every word, positive or negative. Looking back, a lot of us were better writers than photographers. The audacious floridity of some of the posts stands out. I remember an epic narcocorrido penned as an ode to a mysterious member from Mexico. The group’s eventual epitaph, written in the form of a soldier’s letter home to Grandma from the front (though studded with apposite YouTube links). The “DisgustingFool” troll account (which took me way too long to figure out was really any one of the admins in disguise), who would make keyboard-mash like: “HlIPZTERZ GRANNYES HAZ NO ICECREAMPIE FOR MY SVETLANA!!!!! FOTOZ IS INCOMPLETES! DIIIITCH!!!!.” I remember personally investing way too much time coming up with what must have been 20 pages of specific jazz recommendations for people who don’t know the music well (e.g. “If you hate modern jazz because the songs are too long, try…“). And the form in which most members truly excelled was the operatic argument, something that could be conducted over the course of full days with sustained righteous fury, with a rotating cast of partners. The level of intensity was really a signal of commitment—a thin line between love and hate, as they say. Many of the founding members of Observe came up through one of the iterations of G&G or other obsessive-leaning Flickr groups. As we all learned more and shared our interests, an awareness of


my mistakes too often, I would die on all the wrong hills arguing with others, but most importantly, I was out shooting a lot. I was motivated to show those fuckers, and myself, that I could do it. The ironic thing is that, for all the emotional investment in whether your photo was kept or ditched, most of the photos submitted were not what you could call good by any objective measure. A certain admin from Hardcore Street Photography (the granddaddy group that was invaluable for learning about street photography but often felt impenetrable to the noob) would regularly drop by to remind us all of that fact. He wasn’t wrong. If I look now, the gallery of keepers is closer in quality (with a few notable exceptions) to what was ditched than to the work of even a modestly curated group. See Exhibit B, my first keeper, a grainy converted b/w (cringe!) early iPhone shot. But it meant something at the time that I got closer to my subjects than I had been getting: progress. I found myself quickly schooled in the offensiveness of watermarks, cutesy titles, view-whoring, crappy processing, shooting the homeless or performers, cropping, unnatural aspect ratios, b/w conversions, and more. I was also made aware of the importance of “triangles,” “not cutting the feet,” “taking a step to the right” and the dreaded “empty LHS (left-hand side)” (or, more evocatively, “empty LHS—NEEDS HUMPING DOGS”). We were the blind leading the blind, but it was fun to stumble forward alongside others. I was usually more stressed about giving critique than getting it. Like many people, it’s hard for me to say things that might hurt someone’s feelings. It’s easier behind an alias/persona, for sure, but still tough. At least this meant that I would really pore over the

street photography history and fluency with its forms bloomed and the conversation got deeper, as did our individual friendships. At some point in each of our development, the keep/ditch format became tedious and limiting; each of us inevitably moved on in our own time. Once that keep/ditch bar has been internalized for individual images, there’s so much more to grapple with in terms of why we make photos, what projects we choose to engage in, how we sequence and edit our work, etc. I fell under the raw, mad spell of G&G and its ethereal denizens of the Internet before I was captivated by street photography itself. But street photography makes for a far better life partner.

KRISTIN VAN DEN EEDE you’ve always thought of the green as something blind and yet watching. when others were playing around in the park, making water balloons and chasing treasure, you sat quietly near a tree drawing empty faces, branches stretching out into the sky like arms waiting for an answer. and as you grew older, you taught yourself to forget it staring back at you, old and unyielding and always there. when you go back to that place it’s still there, waiting behind the reeds this time. you still don’t have an answer but it does. and as you lean in closely to hear, it rustles and shakes and softly takes your hand. here. now. then.


These images were taken in the park behind the house where I grew up, and in the nature reserve near my home. Both places are meaningful for me, in an undefined yet nostalgic way. Nostalgia is often lost on me, but not in these places. It’s where all rational thought gives way to a stream of consciousness, like a warm blanket I can’t—and won’t—get the stains out.

DAVID HORTON Photographs are by their very nature nostalgic. They’re souvenirs of what was, yet will never be. Moments reveal themselves then disappear forever; only memories and images remain. The light appears, the light fades.




Some words are best left to poets, so allow me to just bathe in the ocean of memories, days of light and dark, a life still travelled. somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond any experience, your eyes have their silence: in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, or which i cannot touch because they are too near your slightest look easily will unclose me though i have closed myself as fingers, you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens (touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose or if your wish be to close me, i and my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, as when the heart of this flower imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending —E.E. cummings (excerpt)

ILYA SHTUTSA Let me begin with two little observations. Firstly, when someone is going to praise a photograph, they often say that it’s like Hopper’s famous painting. It actually happens so often, that it has become a cliché. And usually it’s hard to explain to such a person that it isn’t a compliment. This is the first. The second is that, right now, while I write this, I see on Facebook a sudden splash of interest in the work of another painter, Jeffrey Smart. It seems that every photographer now loves his paintings—a lot of posts, reposts, likes, rhapsodic comments. I don’t like Smart and less and less do I like Hopper (I hope you forgive me this sin). Of course it’s a matter of taste, but for me it’s important what unites them. I think it boils down to the nostalgic feeling. It’s a feeling that invites you to look back and love what you already know well, to look for something familiar again and again, to not make an effort. It’s so easy to give up to its somnolent murmuring and follow its beauty. It’s so obvious. So I don’t like nostalgia, it’s clear. I like to look forward, to find the new and to change. Or, it’s better to say, my conscious mind, or my ego, likes this. But to be a human means to have a complex psy-

che. One part of me certainly is nostalgic, too. It reveals itself in an attitude to my own old work, and especially to the pictures I made at the very beginning of my interest in photography. Pictures which now remain only in small printed copies due to a hard drive failure. So they are only copies, without any original. The nostalgic feeling I took issue with above refers easily to the three pictures at right. But the one below is a very special one, it’s yet more nostalgic. I found it by chance in my home in Khabarovsk last September and was immediately struck by it. This picture was taken in 2001 in London during my hitchhiking trip around England. I didn’t imagined myself a photographer then, but I had a small film camera and made some pictures. This one is the only that was restored and I definitely could call it a street photograph, though I had no idea about street photography then. The negative is lost as well, so it too is only a copy without an original. For me, the fact that I made this picture years before developing a real interest in street photography is amazing. Unbeknownst to me, this image was a seed of my future.


DANIELLE HOUGHTON I was working in a small Irish country town when the news emerged, a group of Canadian tourists beside me, silently frozen by the unfolding tragedy as we watched in the only hotel in town. Grief and historical bonds united Ireland and the US on 11th September 2001. A day of national mourning was announced to show our support on Friday 14th—bittersweet, as it was also my brother’s wedding day. The hairdresser and venue opened specially to not spoil their big day. I was invited to another wedding a week later—not in Ireland, but in New York. A dilemma ensued: was it wise to fly, was it safe to fly, were there going to be more attacks or other ramifications? In the end, my friend and I decided to show our respect and support to people and a country we both loved by not hesitating to travel. We moved through a subdued, almost-empty airport, usually one of the busiest in the world. Staying in Brooklyn, we heard stories of how everyone watched as the tragedy unfolded, we saw US flags expressing everybody’s grief, we saw pages of books, singed at the edges and blown all the way from across the river. We asked people whether we should visit the site, whether it was the right thing to do. We were told yes, that’s what people were doing, to go ahead and stand with the others there.

The first thing that hit us was the smell. We emerged from the subway to an odor that words can never explain but the brain and heart can never forget. Then there was the dust. Shops and goods covered, shaken. Then there was the atmosphere, people just standing with tears, united in grief. Then there was the site, still smouldering, still being attended to, still in ruins. Posters and notes searching in hope for missing people covered walls and railings. Not yet a street photographer, I was surprised at the number of people taking pictures. I took a few, but just a few. Moving away in search of normal New York, the final thing that hit us was the quiet. New York to me was always full of horns blowing, people talking, sassiness, attitude. But no horns blew, nobody yelled. The streets were quiet and polite. People were kinder, shellshocked, quiet. Very quiet.


GREG ALLIKAS “All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia, those recent yesterdays when tomorrow seemed the answer to everything a human might ever want.” —The Overstory, Richard Powers I don’t miss the “good ol’ days.” I am here now and I want to make the most of it. You won’t find me in the audience at a Boz Skaggs concert this summer, swaying back and forth, eyes closed, lost in thought trying to remember the name of the girl I was with in the back of my van so many years ago. We each find nostalgia according to our own time, places, events. Life. For an old fart like me, Norman Rockwell and, for my prurient side, Alberto Vargas pretty much sum it up. But don’t judge me by that. We had all the great bands. In a photograph we should define nostalgia as being more than simply looking “retro.” A good photograph should say something about the time in which it was made. A great photograph continues to speak to us years, decades, even centuries later. I began photography just at the end of the time when men wore hats. Not beanies or baseball caps, hats. Once the fedora disappeared, hair grew long and everywhere on men’s heads, women’s hemlines went up and eventually, their bras were burned. I think of

that time as the beginning of the end of formality. Business was still a proper place, but society itself became far more casual. Cigarettes were cool and people smoked them everywhere. Like sailors watching an atomic bomb test on the Bikini Atoll, we hadn’t yet learned of the danger. T-shirts went from being something you wore under a tailored shirt with buttons to a blank canvas for expression, acceptable dress in all but the most formal settings. Culture changed dramatically in the few short years between Mary Quant introducing the miniskirt and the Summer of Love. War can do that. I started photographing in public places as a way to record human behavior that struck me as odd, or sublimely human. It became a way for me to collect my fascination for people watching. My pictures please and amuse me and that is why I continue to make them. One of my great pleasures has been seeing how my photo archive has acquired the patina of time. Not every photo is great or even good. Maybe none are. But they all say something about the time in which they were made and who I am as a photographer and as a person. Certain subjects draw us over and over again to create currents throughout our body of work. What we choose to photograph says as much about us as it does the subject of the photograph.




Photographs, like embers burning: on hard drives, in social media, in musical rhythm, at gathering places, on sidewalks, on corners, wherever, whenever energy has flowed. My eyes fanning the flame of past experiences, magic moments now fleshed out in feeling, a gift given, something shared. An Ode to T, my photographer friend.

FADI BOUKARAM I lived in San Francisco from 2005 to 2009, and every summer during those years, I came back home to Lebanon for a short visit. For the first few days during those visits, the jet lag would have me wake up before dawn and I’d take the opportunity to drive to the Corniche. The Corniche is one of the few remaining public places by the sea in Beirut. It’s a long boardwalk that could get uncomfortably crowded on sunny days and warm evenings. But in the early hours of the day, the rolling of the waves is pretty much the only sound one hears. It was there I encountered a small community of swimmers—mostly senior men—who come to the beach each day and swim for an hour or so before the sun comes up. After I moved back to Lebanon in 2009, I started going back to the Corniche as often as my insomnia would keep me up at night. It wasn’t a rare occurrence. At first, the swimmers were predictably aloof to this stranger who came to the water with his camera and no intention of swimming. Except for Abu Khodr, a man in his seventies who didn’t miss a day coming for his morning dip, rain or shine. He loved posing for the camera, flexing his muscles, or showing up in

his white suit on Sundays for more formal portraits. Abu Khodr is a legendary figure in the area and, with us becoming friends, the others softened. But not before I was mercilessly teased for not wanting to swim with the jellyfish in the water. “You’re worried about this?” Reda said, lifting a jellyfish by its head and putting it in front of my face. “This is nothing. Come on. Get in the water.” I did, but I’m not sure if it was worth the week-long rash I got on my neck, most likely from one of the stingers. Or maybe it was. Last month I moved from Lebanon to Dublin, Ireland. I don’t miss the jet lag or the insomnia, but I already miss the Corniche. I realize it hasn’t been long, but perhaps it’s the feeling that this move is going to be relatively long-term that’s making me pre-emptively nostalgic for home. Dublin has “Forty Foot” though, a spot right by where I live and where the last photo was taken, where year-round swimmers also gather. I understand that it will take me some time to get to know them when I start showing up with my camera, but maybe when this happens it’ll start to feel more like home again.




Profile for Observe Collective

Observations V4 N1  

Reflections on nostalgia from members of Observe Collective

Observations V4 N1  

Reflections on nostalgia from members of Observe Collective