In retrospect, this is another of my projects that doesn't really do well as a photo series. The thing we're photographing is beyond pictures, it's the silence, the awkwardness of portraits.
Oh dear, another vaguely sociological study critical of technology. But I followed it along its course and did the thing some kind of justice.
The key component was time. To allow a person to slip away and into themselves. We wanted them to forget about the cameras. We also needed them to be without distractions, as time itself is no longer an issue when you can waste it. We deal with time all day every day, and notice it about as much as we notice the pressure of the air at sea level, though it is there. So we removed everyone’s cellphones, watches, reading material etc. They sat on a chair in a small room and waited until the picture was taken and then they could stand up. We gave them one order: sit up straight, you’re having your picture taken.
Deciding on 45 minutes didn’t come without a fight. Some thought it was way too long, but we believed that it was the length of time necessary to erase the presence of cameras and photographer. Everyone who has gone to the eye doctor and submitted to the dark-room test of light bouncing from a crystal remembers the shock of seeing the blood vessels of the eye, clearly visible, like tree branches against winter sky. This test reminds us that the mind learns to forget all the stimuli that is constant: the sound of your breathing, the feeling of clothes on skin. And so, after 45 minutes, we hoped the unchanging environment and unvarying situation would more or less cease to exist, and that when the picture was taken at 45 minutes never a second longer we’d be photographing a person who had forgotten that they were going to have their picture taken. And this was mostly true.
In tests, arms on the chairs allowed us to put our head in our hands and nod off a bit. A comfortable chair brought on sleepiness almost immediately. A stool was so uncomfortable that a large percentage of time and effort was spent dealing with the chair itself. The thought foremost in the mind while sitting on a stool was the stool the stool the stool. The chair we eventually picked (Bertil, Ikea: $39.99) struck a good balance, neither uncomfortable nor comfortable. It was also bright orange-red, a good color for black and white.
To maintain a consistent quality of light, we used a single octabank, and another ‘dummy’ light with a modeling light. The look of the room behind these two lights varied with the time of day, natural light falling through two windows behind a bookcase, lighting on a bicycle and a small set of shelves. Everything else we covered with seamless paper or hid behind sheets, aiming for sterility. But, but even when there was nothing (gray paper over a bookcase), the subjects looked at the lights or the lenses of the cameras themselves. A blanket with a woven lion head covering the center bookshelf became an obvious focal point, as did the passage of feet beneath the door exiting the room. When we covered the door, people thought about other things. We wanted them to lose themselves in thought, but found that an object or a surface to stare at helped, just as hikers orient themselves to single trees on far hillsides. We kept the room warm: 68 degrees. The studio was formerly a stable, in a building now filled with other little offices. We shot on the weekend to avoid the clatter and footsteps that travel so easily through the walls. Still, with silence too, pin drops in silence are disturbing because of the weight of silence. The spell of the 45 minutes silence was broken as soon as the camera was triggered and the flash went off, so we used some technology to gather more than just one photograph for evidence. Three cameras were used, in a wireless relay: one with a wide lens from the front, one closeup and frontal, and the third in a variable length from one of two sides. The wireless units themselves sit in each camera’s hot shoe, and when they were switched on show a steadily blinking red light. The rate of the blinking differs slightly from one unit to the next. Most people watched the lights, and some thought that the blinking indicated that we were taking photographs extremely quietly from some other site. We were not. This surprised a few people. We triggered the flash from outside the building, right before opening the front door. All three cameras took a picture, and a few seconds later we strode in to conduct the interview.
Immediately following the 45 minute session, we asked the subject about their experience. We also did this to determine whether or not they stood up or moved around the room no one did, apparently. We also did this to talk about the jarring phenomenon of forty five minutes without external stimuli. As we shot more people than we could print photographs, not all of the interviews below refer to people whose portraits appear in this edition. The interviews are often heavily exerpted. You can, however, follow the initials printed below each portrait, and read how they got on.
for me the 45M was a gift. for someone to tell me you have permission to just sit here for 45M. so, i can go relax for 45M at home, with tv or a paper, but you still have your life bothering you in your mind. but when someone says here's this space, just sit here for 45M i was actually able to just relax and think wherever for 45M. of course i do think about my real life, but it doesn't bother me. for me i found it incredibly sort of grounded and really set in the weight of my body. i don't let myself do that when i'm going through my daily life. you know what i mean.did you go through phases?
tons. i went through the gamut. like holy shit. i went from oh god 45M? to very quickly wow this is amazing, i love just sitting here, i get to just think. then those thoughts went into me actually experiencing things that i'm going through, to me just sitting there actually crying for a minute, because i have a lot of things going on in my life. actually kind of overwhelmed and then i wandered off into another distraction, like a girl i want to sleep with and then, from there, to back like, don't be distracted by this fantasy, get back to being yourself.where were you? in the room? traveling in your mind?
both. in and out. i would say probably very little time in the room. and when i was in the room i was like looking around at the space at the pipes, trying to get a sense of it, and then very quickly i would go back in my mind. and uh there were layers to it. i would be in the room, and then i would like go into some acting thing, i would be writing that, i would be talking like that, and then i would be gone. it grew. i would come back to my room for a couple of minutes, and then be right back. in the last stretch i think i spent like ten fifteen minutes just gone. it reminds me of meisner, back in the day, would go on long car rides. he had a new friend that he didn't know that well and he said 'let's go take a drive' and they took a four hour drive to somewhere and back, and meisner sat next to this man and for the entire time didn't say a word, just lost. and when they got back he said 'next time i'll drive'. he just used it as a way to get literally lost in his thoughts. for him it was a meditation probably. if you would allow yourself to do this, if someone would give themselves an experience like this every once in a while... i actually got sick of feeling so much, so like the halfway, i was like oh christ, that's my reaction to not being connected, but once i got over that i was like, you know...were you aware of the cameras?
no, they were just sitting there. you know i ve never looked at a camera as if it s just an object. where it s like the bicycle that s right there. because you re not there. if you were there, with the camera, i d feel like the camera was living somehow. but because you re gone... but who knows. how i feel, perhaps subconsciously i behave differently i don t know. i always get very conscious that there s a camera around. but this time i did not feel that at all. you caught someone thinking, someone who doesn't know they re being photographed. (regarding the picture) i look serene, you know. i started to feel tha'way at the beginning, 't like i was fidgeting, it takes the time to like to truly just relax in. i already felt great, like this is fucking great,i used to say that whenever i was late, i used to say i'm giving you the gift of unplanned time.
that's the thing. that's what it was. i spend a lot of time doing nothing, not a lot, but like being an actor, working from home, like i have a lot of ' m just sitting there for a time. but i don't do that when i m alone by myself, i distract myself by like getting on the internet or... if i m waiting for a train i ll be fucking around with my phone, playing a game, i ll upload an article before i go down there, and re, it.'ever just alone with yourself, which, is, yeah. it was cool. i... uh, we... i think it s importt to do that more. to remind yourself to do that more. everywhere we go it s signs or. i can t remember who said that they moved to the czech republic and she didn t speak the language. and she was there for a year or something and because she didn t understand the language, by the end of it, her thoughts became so clear because she was just thinking. her brain wasn t bombarded, she wasn t processing. even when you see a sign even on a subconscious level that you re not aware of. your mind is still doing something with it, if you don t understand it, i feel like it doesn't enter your space so much. she said it was extraordinary.conscious level that you re not aware of. your mind is still doing something with it, if you do' t understand it, i feel li' it doesn't enter your space so much. she said it was extraordinary.why is the quality of thought different from when you're on a long run?
you can actually sit down and think without obstruction. the thoughts are a bit.. the way they come is not linked to adrenalin. when i run my thoughts connect to how i m connecting to myself differently. it's a subtle difference. linked to how i m just sitting down, um, the thoughts came more in a way, uh, they were more intimate. somehow they feel more personal. when i m running, my 'oughts feel more grandiose. i feel like they re larger than life. inspired in a different way. this is in, rin'too, but perhaps it is connected to adrenalin.what hpened when the flash went off?
i was already in such a good mood by that point that i was like, alright. no, by that point i was so ok with it, that i was like what's next. which is... basically, essentially going into meditation. but meditation is much more focused while this is more free-form. fifteen minutes earlier you would have had me crying. you know.is 45M just enough?
the last 10 i was like really calm. i was ok the whole time, i would go out of being relaxed and then... i sat there the whole time. i looked around. i tried to see if the red dots were going at the same time. i looked at the paper, how you taped it. but not long. i never thought, here i am sitting, i better busy myself. it s a natural way for your mind being comfortable. more curious than like oh shit. i one point i wondered if there was like another camera somewhere. i would have seen it. at one point, i wonder... you know 45 minutes is like twenty seven hundred seconds. i wondered if i could count to twenty seven hundred. i started tapping my foot and counting, like one, but then i couldn t do it. i was curious. like what is time? i thought about what time is a lot. i wanted to know what time was. i was tapping my foot to it like it was music, and then kept going, i counted like twenty, but my mind, while this ticker was going on, already started to go somewhere else. crazy, like it was like hypnotising me and by the time i got to twentyfiiiiiii i already forgot that i was counting. i wasn't trying to measure it. what would it do to someone to like count to twenty seven hundred? it felt short to me.
here's the thing. a day is only a day if you remember it. in the middle there i got uncomfortable, i was like it was forever. but then at the end of it i was like it seemed so short. so my perception of it, of how long it took, is directly resultant on how i felt about it after having gone through it. so... i think it says something about a natural state that we are born into, that we are trained by stimulation and social norms and right and wrong that when you're in there, that time goes by super quick and you're at peace, but that the mind doesn't want to be there, so when you're out of there in time and body and space again, your thoughts link to that. your mind and body don't want to be there. your body wants to not be there. who knows man.
pretty tortuous. i mean, for a new yorker, it's very tortuous.anything that surprised you?
yeah, it reminded me of when you were caught being naughty at school and you had to stand in the corner with your nose against the wall. it took me back to those days. saying that, i have progressed a little bit. i did actually clean my mind a little bit.what did you say to me when i left the room right at the beginning, i didn't quite get it...
probably an offensive word.you're one of the two people i felt bad about asking to do this... but.
we got through it. did it. done.were you bored?
not too much.
(picture is of LW with eyes closed)
i was rocking back and forth in the chair, and i was thinking about the movement. i was going on and off the balls of my feet.did you think you had a bit longer?
maybe ten minutes. the timing’s a little oppressive. because it’s only one photograph coming and you’re never quite sure when it’s going to come. and so you almost want to prepare for it... then of course....but you know exactly when it’s going to come, it’s going to come at 45M.
yes, but there’s no clock in here. but you’re thinking about it.
LOST RECORDING: HE TALKS ABOUT ATTENDING QUAKER SCHOOL. A WEEKLY HOUR OF SILENCE. IN THE MEETINGS OF UN-PROGRAMMED QUAKERS, THEY SPEND AN HOUR OF SILENCE OPEN TO THE VOICE OF GOD, WHO SPEAKS TO THEM INDIVIDUALLY.
it went well. i think as you said people are drawing on a range of experiences, in college i was sort of a bad buddhist, studied religion, and did a lot of meditation, various kinds... i was drawing on that, i don't listen to music on the subway. i guess i like the quiet. it came faster than i thought, i guessed i would have had five or ten minutes more. i started thinking about other people in the same situation.
i don't know, like, i guess, just aware of what was happening. being watched for 45M. not by you, but the cameras were there. when you're on the subway you kind of assume that everyone's gaze shifts your way, but here, (with the cameras) just knowing that there was this active gaze. even if the camera is just there, essentially dead? yeah. i think maybe certain lines of thoughts, as if i was just at home or on the subway, would have continued on their way, but here i was sort of turning back to: uh, i'm actually sitting in a room and there are cameras on me.your face is very relaxed in the picture.
i think that's from meditation, in meditation you're supposed to relax your face muscles. you have to focus. i was really bad at meditation, at least group meditation because i was always distracted by... well, i don't like western meditation very much, but what worked for me was a kind where you, instead of focusing on a sutra prayer passage, you just really focus on your experience, so, if you have an itch, you acknowledge the itch and move on. so... it's about being completely aware. so, here, it was like if i had a twinge in my shoulder i was like: ok, i'm just sitting here. and in 45m i'll get up.
my resolution for the next year is to work on my posture.
it was actually. it wasn't jarring or unnerving. i didn't feel like i had to get up, i was like: cool.what would you think if we did this project, but in a room without cameras, and there was no picture taken. i just came and talked to you at the end? so there were no lights and cameras, only the solitude and then the interview.
hmm. i guess, because i enjoy the pictures, i guess it meant a little more. to me this is more... that would be an experiment, a science project. but this is a little more.
i'd be more interested now, in knowing what other people's experiences were.where do you do your deep thinking?
like, on my bed. when i was kid i was just stare at the ceiling for hours. and i guess here i sometimes revert to that. you know, sometimes i just need to stop. sometimes there's something about white, about blank.
45m + 5m30s
the first five minutes i stared at everything on the walls. the last fifteen minutes i went between the lion and the lights up there, and thinking this reminds me of an eggleston photo. the lion... i thought of coming to america. i was looking at what you've done with your space. you had all this stuff covered up. like why is the shelf covered with this lion? and the chairs? and then after that i went into, like: oh, to do list. i feel like it's what, hilary says when she runs, she loves it because that's where she gets all her thinking done. and i felt like i was sitting there thinking, ah, this is what she means.
i closed my eyes twice, and it's funny that that's when the picture was taken. i kept trying to keep my posture straight.45m of no stimulation...
well, there were noises. and lights. and the lights were very large. people going to the bathroom (bathroom door is outside studio door).
good. interesting. i went into a trance, and then, like, i came out.
the lion head... is that, did you put that there on pur- pose? sometimes i would just stare at it, and all sorts of different shapes would start happening in the mane, in the face, and i would stare at the chairs. the lion’s face, well the nose, you know, obviously, looks like an alien, and then i saw an elf rubbing his eye, in the mane, ...and the little bit of light that was coming through the window, and i was looking where the light was hitting, it was hitting the hub of the bicycle, and then i was star- ing at the hub of the bicycle, and then other thoughts started coming into my head.what other thoughts?
i was thinking about when i was a kid i had a day at the beach with my father and this bandana I had around my neck. randomly.what made you think of that?
i don’t know. i just rediscovered it in my memory. it just popped in my head. a picture i have of myself around that age popped in first. completely unrelated, i wasn’t at the beach. i was standing in a closet.because you were thinking about being photographed?
no, not at all. they were just random thoughts.how long were your trances?
the longest i was in was probably... uh. the 45m went by really fast. so the longest would have been like 10 minutes. and that was mostly staring at the shapes going around in the mane.and you were lost in memory?
not so much memory, but, the elf, with the cone head rubbing his eye, i was just... he’s just a sad look- ing elf rubbing his eye. don’t know why that popped in my head at all. and actually, if you stare at that long enough, if you keep your eyes open, if you keep your eyes open long enough and just stare straight ahead, you actually see nothing. eventually. nothing, nothing doesn’t...
you just see nothing (laughs).did you have any anxiety at the beginning?
5 minutes. maybe 5 minutes. i thought maybe this is not as easy as i thought it was going to be. seriously. before i was like, sure, I can sit with myself for 45 min- utes no problem.what did you want to do in those 5 minutes?
(breathes out)... stand up. i felt, like, a bit of a panic, a flutter of panic. i felt my heart racing a little bit. and then, i just decided to start noticing things in the room. and then i went into a trance for a couple of minutes and then something like the bandana would pop me out of that trance, and then... but... it was comfortable, and i wanted to go back into it, so i would stare at something else.did you move around?
i just remembered you said ‘sit up straight, you’re having your picture taken’, so a couple of times i felt like i might nod off, but...how much time (in normal life) do you spend not doing anything, and not sleeping?
never. you never do that. maybe if you were in a home, or something like that.when you’re working, can you enter that state of trance?
yeah, if i’m on my own.
you know, my brain works, i like the way my brain works. i like the way my brain works in situations like that, like i said, i wanted to go back in the trance, be- cause i liked the way i was experiencing the thing, so...did you look at the cameras?
in the beginning, once or twice, but then no.