On the Nature of Being Serpentine

by mkriegh

I recently submitted photographs for consideration in a Photo District News competition. According to the rules of submission for most categories, sets of photographs that are related are required. I am learning that this is pretty standard in the world of fine art photography. I am also learning that there needs to be an expressible idea behind them as well if you want them to be considered seriously.

I don’t really photograph out of ideas so much as I photograph out of attraction. When I see something that compels me to want to capture it as an image, I shoot it. Even my 9W series, which is as close as I have come to a theme driven series of photographs, came into being from a strip of 9W that we drive through on our way to the vet. There is a forlornness that compelled me and I see numerous images in my mind that begin to capture that. The idea of extending my photographic quest up and down the length of route 9W is a search for scenes that compel me to shoot that are unified by the road and possibly it’s story.

So I am left with the fact that, as I have always maintained, I shoot what passes before my eyes. I shoot driven by compulsion which is a product of fear and desire.

I have been reading about the human brain lately and about whether we have free will. I have learned that we have a myriad of internal processing units in our brains that have been steadily honed by natural selection to confer some kind of advantage to our genetic essence that ensures its propagation into the future. It turns out that these processing units do all the deciding of what we will do and that they engage in this decision making without our conscious input. Researchers have observed that activity in areas of the brain that are not directly accessible to the conscious part of our brain can precede the conscious expression of an act by as much as ten seconds. Researchers have also discovered that animals remain sensitive to certain predator shapes and actions many generations after the predator has disappeared from their environment.

As with predators, so with all kinds of visual stimulus that register as either more or less threatening (fearsome) or beneficial (desirable). Of course, there are many nuances of fear and desire and in the end it is a complex interaction of experience and response that makes one possible setting more attention getting than another.

And so, my presumption is that I take photographs of things that evoke an unconscious reaction in me, either fear or desire or some subtle intermingling of the two.

As an example consider this photograph of tree trunk with vine twisted around it:

Serpentine Tree

Bittersweet vine and tree trunks. Such vines will eventually kill trees, though this one has been severed.

I have taken many pictures of trees with vines around the trunks. It is a subject matter that attracts me wherever I see it. It has a life and death metaphorical power to me. It turns out that we are probably pre-programmed in our subconscious brain to be wary of serpentine forms for obvious survival reasons. My initial reaction, what brings my human body and brain to attention, is the serpentine form of the vine. It is a fear reaction. The fear effect is ephemeral, however, and probably dissipates so quickly that I can only recognize it as the possible driving force for my attraction well after the fact. From there, my rationalizing and symbolizing mind begins to attribute a metaphorical power to the scene. Serpents kill people, vines kill trees, a metaphor is born. From here it is a short leap to a tree of knowledge, forbidden fruit and serpentine form as primal animal force threatening the rise of rationality.

I suspect that there will be a myriad of threads in my photographs that are underpinned by the fear/desire complex of subliminal assessment and reaction that are at once peculiar to me and universal, and that I will be able to assemble collections of photographs taken at different times and places into coherent sets with a metaphorical story to tell.

Thanks to David and Edy Sargert for helping me be sure this post made sense.