A MEANDERING ESSAY ON THE YEAR THAT WAS CLUTCH

To begin at the beginning.

Most things I do can be explained by two facts about me.

1: I am irrepressibly sentimental.
2: I have a terrible memory.

The combination of these personality traits mean that I long to capture experiences, people, and emotions – a longing that is crystallised from want to need by the fact that I’m terrified that I’ll forget them. That I’ll lose them. That when I get to the end of my paltry little time on this strange little planet, I’ll have nothing to remember. For that reason, I’ve always documented. Journals, drawings, notes on scraps of paper. I’m a bowerbird for memories.

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When I was in year 12, I bought an unlined, spiral bound, a5 sketchbook, and started writing things in it that struck me. Quotes from television (‘Don’t you dare use the word party as a verb in this shop!’), books (‘Let me be who I was / Unrhymed fool / That’s lost but living’), lecturers (‘Assignments due today. Of course. Because ten minutes before a party is the best time to learn how to dance’) and friends (‘I don’t like you looking at me in that tone of voice’). I noticed something interesting along the way: people really wanted to be quoted in the book. And when they said something beautiful or profound or witty and didn’t get noted down, they got a bit upset. This, mind you, was something never intended for wider sharing. But people took pleasure from having uttered something memorable.

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When I moved out of home and into a sharehouse, where I lived in a state described by my revolted mother as ‘actual squalor’ (she was right), we had The Drunk Book. The rules were pretty simple – 1: be drunk, 2: write in the book. I took it upon myself to be party scribe, which essentially entailed walking around parties, noting down what people were talking about (‘Steve: ‘He made a Scrooge McDuffload of cash.’ (Steve, Tom and Ian talking about Dan Brown)’’), which regularly degenerated into nonsensical scrawled capitals (‘WE NEED TO LUBRICATE RELATIONS!’; ‘IT’S NOT REALLY A MAGICAL HALLWAY’).

In 2008, I picked up a camera in earnest, joined Flickr and noted that there was this photo project that quite a few people were attempting, called ‘The 365 Project.’ There was only one rule: take a self portrait, every day, for a year. Given that I didn’t really know how to use my camera, I felt that this would be a helpful way to improve my skill set, without having to bother other people as models to tolerate my incompetence.

It was. I credit that project with being my single biggest learning curve as a photographer. It forced me to be creative, every single day, even when I hadn’t slept, even when I couldn’t think of one interesting idea, even when I was drunk, or delirious, or too busy to think. The full series is here. A lot of them are total rubbish, and the first third suffer from my discovery of the Photoshop Curves tool and the rudiments of digital cross-processing. But there are some good things in there, and as time went by, I realised that apart from the practical outcomes of the project, there was something else that I had from that year: preserved memories. Memories of moments that were safe from the caprices of my brain and it’s willingness to discard information with alarming regularity. Even now, when I can’t remember when something happened, or where I was at a point, or how I felt, I have three hundred and sixty-six photos (it was a leap year) to tell me.

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At the end of 2009, I became particularly aware of the impact of that documentation, because I felt as though I hadn’t achieved anything at all that year. After fretting about it for a while, I realised that it was just because I didn’t have a big collection of stuff telling me what I’d been doing. So in 2010, I started another daily project. I allowed myself to broaden my subject matter to portraits generally, and decided that each time I featured someone new, I’d write a little paragraph on how I’d met them, what I loved about them, what they meant to me. That project is here. I’d meant for it to go for a year, but I only got up to 160 photos before I quit it. I’d done some work that I really, really loved (and I’d discovered the joys of iPhone lighting, which has gone a long way towards defining my aesthetic), but I was feeling more and more lazy about the whole thing – I was using images that I’d been shooting anyway (headshot sessions, for example), rather than making the effort to make new work. I’d intended for the project to push me to organise more concept shoots, but the actual effect was that I spent less time shooting for pleasure. The moment that I realised that I could just quit the project was amazingly liberating.

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At the end of 2011, having had my biannual sabbatical from ridiculous projects, I bought a Canon 5D and started putting together quarterly videos of my friends being hipsters, accompanied by hipster music. They’re all in here. The response to these was extremely positive, and several people noted that it made them nostalgic for events that had happened quite recently.

I realised then that one of the things I seem to be attempting to do in the work that I produce is to compress the timeframe between event and nostalgia as much as possible. Forcing a natural process whereby in the months or years after an incident, we shave off the boring bits, gloss the whole thing with time and love and remember the original occurrence as something golden and beautiful and better than now. ‘Remember when we…? Remember how?’ By documenting, and writing down, and photographing, and videoing and adding text or music or – literally – an amber glow, I have been trying, consciously or not, to make that process more efficient. ‘Remember that thing that happened yesterday? An hour ago? Just now? Wasn’t it beautiful?’

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2012 rolled around, and I got itchy feet again. The video editing hadn’t been as incessant as the photos always had been, so the biannual sabbatical hadn’t been necessary. Over the preceding years, several artists and events had been stewing away in the back of my brain, and they were starting to coalesce into the beginnings of an idea.

In April 2008, I shot this self portrait as part of the 365 project:

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I’d just broken someone’s heart for the first time, and I felt like total shit. I posted it to Flickr, and a photographer who I’d interacted a bit with there, Tommy Ga-Ken Wan, posted the following comment:

‘Hope the bath relaxed you, and that things get better. I recently read something quite incredible the other day, let me share it with you:

“We are not mad, we are human,
we want to love, and someone must
forgive us for the paths that we take to love
for the paths are many and dark,
and we are ardent and cruel
in our journey.” – Leonard Cohen’

The perfection of the marriage between that quote and my photo struck me. I loved that someone else’s words could do such an elegant job of expressing what I was trying to convey with the photo. Tommy regularly incorporates quotes, thoughts and little mini-essays below his images on Flickr to give them context and resonance. Check out his work,he’s outrageously talented (and also shoots theatre in the UK, so I feel a sort of art-bond with him).

Years later, I met Matto Lucas, another revoltingly talented, hard working and fiercely creative photographer and digital artist. Every now and then, he’d post a photo with a few words of text on it – sometimes as simple as the name of the subject of the photo, or the date, other times ironic witticisms, or blunt, uncomfortable musings.

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I really liked the elegance of the text layout, the way that it suddenly made everything look like a magazine spread. And this all fed into a broader discussion I’d been having with myself about the limitations of photography. I’d recently seen this blogpost, on ‘The Most Powerful Photographs Ever Taken’, and one of the photos that I found most extraordinary was this one:

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It’s a boy called Harold Whittles, at the moment that his hearing aid was switched on for the first time. It’s an incredible photograph. But the thing that makes it an incredible photograph is the knowledge of the subject matter. Without that, it’s just a kid looking surprised. With that, it is joyous and celebratory and moving.

This reminded me of reading Roland Barthes’ remarkable ‘Camera Lucida’, which was the book that made me have an existential crisis in the middle of a lecture theatre, trying to figure out why I take photographs [a crisis which is, admittedly, ongoing]. It’s worth reading not only for the incisive deconstruction of photography and why it impacts on us, but also for the entertainment provided by the slightly awkward obsession he has with his mother.

Barthes talks a lot about the concept of the studium in the photograph – that is, the thing the photographer intended to capture; and the punctum – the element, often accidental, that makes the photograph reach out and grab us, the personal, individual resonance we find in certain images.

One of the photos that he uses to discuss these terms is this one. It’s by Alexander Gardner, and is entitled ‘Portrait of Lewis Payne, 1865.’

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Barthes says of it: ‘In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake…In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.’ He later describes this experience as ‘vertigo of time defeated’, which I think is particularly elegant. (I told you that he talks about his mother a lot. Also, ‘handsome’ could probably be replaced in this instance with ‘TOTALLY BANGIN’.’) Anyway. The point is, the punctum, the violent impact that this photograph has on Barthes, is not actually in the photo. It’s around it. It’s the context. The power of this photograph is in knowing its outcome. It’s knowing that this man, with his extraordinary gaze, is doomed. Without that, it’s just a babe in irons. We might wonder what he’s looking at. With the context, we know what he’s looking at. He is staring into death itself.

Long story short: sometimes, I thought, a photograph is not enough. Context is power, and so I decided to start putting words on photos.

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Last April, while on a train stuck between Richmond and Flinders Street station, I opened my notebook and wrote the following:

‘A new photo project.
Every day, once again.
Can’t be a shot from something I’m shooting anyway – can be an outtake, or an alternative.
No show shots, it’s lazy.
Plus a quote, or a thought – song lyrics, conversation snippets.
Succinct, well laid out.
When to start?’

As I frowned at these words, and tried to figure out an appropriately meaningful date – my birthday was past, it was too long until the New Year, too long even until June 1, which seemed an acceptable substitute. So I decided to start right then. I was shooting a rehearsal at Dance House that afternoon, and liked the light in the toilet, so I fired off a few self portraits before I left. I got home, added quotes and felt an odd sort of thrill about the whole thing.

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The name – ‘Clutch’ – came quite quickly. The meaning is twofold – partly, it’s about clutching onto moments, clawing desperately at them, saving them from oblivion. It’s also about having a little store of memories – like a clutch of eggs. The whole project is about theft of time. If there was to be a slogan for Clutch, I’d probably steal it from the road safety motto: ‘Stop, look, listen.’ This year was to be about being observant, about noticing the light, the words – the strange and extraordinary little collections of syllables that convey such varieties of meaning. It was to be about forcing myself to take a second to appreciate moments, and, by posting the series online, forcing others to do the same. I read once that the average amount of time a web user takes to look at an image is less than a second. We’re so inundated with information and images, and so I wanted to create something that forced people to look again. To find more meaning in the interplay between image and text.

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One of the rules I’d set myself – the ‘no using things you’re shooting anyway’ rule – quickly lost relevance. The project existed to tell me what I’d done (and with whom), and what affected me each day, so it seemed nonsensical to decline to include production or promotional photographs, because they are a pretty huge part of my life, and theatre is one of the major sources of meaning and inspiration for me.

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I learned several things early on. Firstly, and rather to my delight, I learned that people were interested in this project in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. People now and then express the desire to me photographed by me, but once they have, they usually calm down. My friends put up with me photographing them all the time, everywhere. But people really wanted to be in Clutch, and they really wanted to keep being in Clutch. Friends actually got a bit competitive about who’d been in it more often, who’d been quoted more. People started getting a bit upset if I hung out with them and didn’t take a photo, didn’t note down what they’d said. The phrase ‘That’s a Clutch quote’ became part of the vocabulary of my friends within weeks, but to my surprise and delight, people I hardly knew were saying to me, ‘I heard a great Clutch quote the other day.’ The phrase ‘Clutch quote’ suddenly became exchangeable for ‘memorable utterance’, which I found totally overwhelming and very exciting. I’d expected the project to force me to take more notice of the world. I never dreamed it would do the same to others. James Deeth said to me, a few months in, ‘You realise that Clutch is totally a thing. Like, a Thing.’ I’m still blown away by how warmly received it has been, by people I love, by people I hardly know, by people I’ve never even met. It’s quite extraordinary. I’ve also been hired for a few gigs on the strength of Clutch, which is a pretty awesome bonus.

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The other thing that I realised quite early on was that being a good artist and a good person are not necessarily the same thing. When I first conceived the project, I had these grand intentions that I would capture everything that happened that year. Not just the good bits. Not just the happy smiling faces. The shit bits. The parts with people crying and curled up in balls and unable to get out of bed and in hospital. I actually had a perverse sort of hope that someone I knew would be hospitalised during the project (not with anything bad, just, you know, enough to get them in a gown and fluorescent-lit room). Turns out that making those sort of wishes makes you feel kind of paranoid about the universe after the fourth friend hits the gurney, and then you end up there, too. I was still determined to be Nan Goldin until I photographed a friend at a particularly vulnerable point, and then they asked me not to post the photo, because they didn’t really want the whole world to see them like that. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was. When I’m in photo-mode, my brain kind of turns off and I lose my capacity to feel empathy. I once emptied a jar full of marbles on an actor’s head for a photo, and it wasn’t until I’d put the camera down that I realised that marbles are made of glass, and what the fuck was I thinking, emptying a kilogram of glass on a person’s skull? Clutch went some way towards re-re-re-reminding me that the line between honest artistic practise and being a caring human being can be a careful line to tread. To those people who I photographed in moments of weakness, of embarrassment, of foolishness and of exhaustion: thank you, truly.

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People asked me a few times if I ever thought of giving up the project. I never did. I had days when I was tired, and I hadn’t shot anything else, and it was 5am and I really didn’t feel like taking a photo, but not for a second did I want to give it up. Partly because I knew a lot of people were following it, but mainly because I’ve really, really enjoyed it. The silliness and the inanity and the surprisingly profound – it really has been the greatest of pleasures.

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Number of photos uploaded: 526.
Number of photos edited, but not uploaded: 4.
Self portraits: 36.
Photos without people: 36.
Nudes: 13.
Photos taken in hospitals: 9.
Photos I dislike and wish I’d re-shot: 3.
Photos that my computer ate and thus don’t exist: 3. (Fun fact: the backgrounds for the missing photos are sections of shots from previous shoots with the same file name as the missing ones).

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Most photographed: Roderick Cairns, with 31.

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Most quoted: Roderick Cairns, with 16, closely followed by James Deeth, with 13.

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Most quotable: Chrissie Robinson. I can’t even express how much I love the way this woman’s mind works. She thinks in metaphors and haikus and synaesthetic nonsense that somehow makes perfect sense, in easily little packaged phrases. She’s like an absurdist vending machine.

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Quotes that didn’t make it into the project:

‘Basically, guys, just be less good at fucking.’ – John Kachoyan, directing the cast of Red Stitch’s ‘Midsummer.’

‘I don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with this situation. I just want to go home, go to sleep and wet the bed.’ – Ash Flanders, exhausted in Sydney for ‘Psycho Beach Party.’

‘Do you want a Hasselblad? It’s free. There’s a small catch. It’s on the moon.’ – Chris Walker.

‘I’m going to collect all the dog shit in Abbotsford and leave it in a huge bag outside Three Bags Full, with a sign saying ‘This is what happens when you gentrify the textile industry.’ – Oliver Coleman.

‘Pants are too gendered and I can’t wear leggings all the time, so I’m gonna make some sweet tunics, so I can be all Roman. Or Link.’ – Overheard from a young man at Theatre Works.

‘It’s fucked up. And it makes for gripping television.’ – Tom Doman re: Sex, Sand and Suspicious Parents.

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‘Have you ever listened to the lyrics of My Sharona? Filth!’ – Eve Gilbert.

Penny Harpham: ‘Calling someone a mover and shaker is kind of pointless. If you’re shaking, you’re already moving. I’m a shaker.’
Carl Nilson-Polias: ‘Oh, do you make good furniture and have really strange Christian beliefs?’

‘Farce is about desperate decisions.’ – Van Badham.

‘But make no mistake: Change is a motherfucker when you run from it.’ – David Simon, ‘Barack Obama and the Death of Normal.’

‘I appreciate that the second thing your dad ever said to me, after ‘Hello’, was ‘This place looks like a brothel after five cent night.” – Lucy Welsh.

‘You look like trespassing, like disturbing the peace, like all fuckable mischief.’ – Sandy Nicholson, ‘What makes you beautiful.’

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‘I pick my ring tones based on which would be least annoying if it went off in a theatre.’ – James Deeth.

‘Hi, I’m James Deeth. Buy a table. Become attracted to me because of my deep baritone voice.’ – Dan Koop, imagining Jimmy at work.

‘I CAN SMELL MY EYES.’ – Eve Gilbert.

Fleur Kilpatrick: ‘That’s what happens when you violate my non-existent cock!’
Mark Wilson: ‘I’m not smothering it, so it’s able to attain some form of self-actualisation.’

‘You know, the Shining was actually a workout tape.’ – James Deeth.

‘Remember how many boners I got in Thyestes? HEAPS!’ – Oliver Coleman.

‘He’s the Ryan Gosling of Melbourne theatre.’ – Patrick McCarthy re: Kevin Kiernan-Molloy.

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‘If you want to see something bright and brilliant and dark and awesome, go look at a bushfire.’ – Michael Leunig.

‘I pride myself on being so easy to shop for, because I’m a consumerist and I like everything.’ – Celeste Cody, on the phone to her mother.

‘Sucking cocks in a nightdress while having schizophrenia: Joanne Sutton’s acting career!.’ – Joanne Sutton.

‘The rapper face is like you got home and you know you’ve been robbed, but you’re not sure what’s gone yet.’ – Nate Troisi.

‘Don’t text or twitter during the show. Just live your life, don’t keep telling people what you’re doing’. – Louis CK.

Eleanor Howlett: ‘Have you ever stabbed anyone?’
James Deeth: ‘Yeah, with my pork sword!’

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‘I woke up in cold sweats from nightmares about the BFG.’ – James Deeth.

‘I really want to use the word ‘cooch’ in a review. I love the word cooch.’ – Eleanor Howlett.

‘You can be certain that the better your carpark is, the better your day will be.’ – Smooth FM.

‘Do you think Jedis could control touch screens without touching them?’ – Jem Splitter.

‘Why don’t you do both? Have a philosophical porn video slaughtering thing?’ – Chris Walker, re: Attic Erratic’s ‘Domino.’

‘Clutch? More like Crutch!’ – Brigid Gallacher (Every time I see Brigid, she expresses how offended she is that this ‘genius’ quote never made it in).

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There’s something kind of ironic about the fact that I’ve just written a manifesto about a project which forced me into brevity with text, but there you have it. To sign off, I would like to sincerely and warmly thank every person who let me point a camera into their faces, to everyone who put up with me scribing the words that fell out of their mouths before their brains had time to edit them, to every person who followed the project, to every person who took the time to tell me that they were enjoying it, to my poor close friends and housemates, who had a grumpy photographer demanding that they stand next to a lamp and look interesting at stupid o’clock in the morning when I hadn’t shot anything, to the excellent sunsets, to the hospital staff at St Vincent’s, to the light, to the words, and now, to bed.

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