The uses of art

You get one warning here: I’m doing mildly heartwarming this week. With only the smallest dose of cynicism. Which is another way of saying that this isn’t about the recent American elections.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Wild Thing and I made a trip to Launceston—our not exactly nearest  town—a few weeks ago, and as long as we were going we thought we’d deliver a photo she’d taken at a local bakery. You need a couple of bits of background here, so let’s start with the bakery. It’s the shorter bit.

The Little Bakehouse makes sourdough bread, and even though I make my own I love theirs. When we’re in Launceston, we often buy a loaf. When we don’t, we look in the window and give ourselves reasons why we shouldn’t. It’s not an easy thing to talk ourselves out of.

The Bread Man

The Bread Man

You know an area’s gentrifying when a sourdough bakery opens, and I know how gentrification kills an area, but the bread’s good anyway. And gentrification isn’t the bakery’s fault. Boycotting them wouldn’t bring rents or house prices down. So sometimes we get a cup of tea and a scone as well.

Enough about the bakery. Except that their scones are better than mine. Not to mention bigger. On to the other bit of background, which is about Wild Thing and photography.

After we moved here, Wild Thing got interested in photography, and even after macular degeneration reduced her eyesight she kept working. Which is worth a post in itself but I’m not the one to write it, so I’ll recommend hers instead.

From the beginning, she was most strongly drawn to street shooting—a kind of guerrilla photography that relies on catching people as they are, unposed and unaware—but she can’t do that anymore because of her eyesight. She can’t be sure who’s seen her and who hasn’t. Instead, she often asks people if they’d mind her taking a picture, and that’s what she did one day at the bakery in Launceston.

The man behind the counter said sure, and he leaned on the counter.

“What I want people to notice,” he said, “is that it’s noon and the shelves are empty.”

When she printed the shot, the clock behind him, which neither of us had noticed, said 12:25. And the shelves were empty, although a few loaves were visible in the window and on the counter. More to the point, from Wild Thing’s point of view, the man was as vivid a presence in the picture as he is in person. Plus the light from the window had picked out one side of his face and the line of his arms and torso was beautiful. You know: It had some of that photographery stuff that makes it more than a snapshot.

If I sound, in spite of myself, like I might possibly know what I’m talking about, that’s because I almost do. Back before cameras went digital I was a semi-competent amateur. My pictures were better than standard vacation shots even if they weren’t anything a serious photographer would admit to. I learned enough to let me throw a bunch of words around if I’m careful to avoid the ones I don’t understand.

I took my photography seriously until the day I shot a picture of two women in the aisle of the old (by which I mean, no longer there) Great Northern Market in downtown Minneapolis. They were talking about green peppers, and when I printed it, it was good, but without the green pepper conversation it didn’t seem to matter as much.

I stopped trying to make art and took pictures only of the kids in our lives. They had a clear use: a gift I could give them when they were older.

Then cameras went digital and I bailed out completely. Now I only take pictures for the blog, and I shoot in what Wild Thing calls drunk mode. You know drunk mode: You set everything on automatic and even if you’re falling over as you press the shutter you’ll get a picture.

But we were talking about the bread man. Wild Thing framed the photo to use in a show at a place in Bude called the Castle, which isn’t a castle, just a building with pretensions.

After the show came down, the photo lived in the attic until for some reason Wild Thing decided it would be nice to bring it to the bakery, since we were going to Launceston anyway.

We delivered it, bought tea and scones, and sat at a table to enjoy them.

Did I mention that their scones are better than mine? And bigger?

The bread man and the two women who also work there—one is the baker, who’s in back and does the important work invisibly, and the other works out front with him—ran around looking for a place to hang it, debating whether to put it where one of the awards was hanging or someplace else.

Eventually, the bread man came over to thank Wild Thing and say that several people had told him they’d seen him at the Castle. Which amazed us, because it’s not a building, or a gallery, you wander into by accident. You have to want to get there. We’d sort of assumed the show was invisible to the larger world.

What I take from all of this is that if you make a piece of art visible, it matters, even if it’s in a small way. If it’s the right piece of art in the right place, someone will talk about it, or think about it, or feel it, and maybe even be changed by it.

“The Bread Man” isn’t a life-changing photo, but even so, people saw it and felt it was worth talking about. And the bread man saw himself and, I think, felt recognized. It’s a small thing art can do, but it matters.

48 thoughts on “The uses of art

  1. As the older generation would say in Ausralia : it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ” a corker” ? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.
    Cheers then,

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for the warning at the beginning. Because talking about the “small things art can do” is itself a (valuable to remember) way of responding to the election. And I won’t belabor the point further.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m sick of talking and hearing about the election. I can barely bring myself to read the papers or listen to the news. And I have yet to find anything remotely funny about it. So, yeah–let’s change the subject while we still can. Sooner or later, I’ll have to face up to it, but right now I’m going to indulge myself and not.

      In the interests of which, let’s talk about photography, okay? I really do believe that a circle gets completed when we make our work public. I do know a few writers and artists who work only for themselves, and for the work itself. But the rest of us? We’re talking to someone, and our work changes when we make the effort to really have that conversation.


      • That is an interesting thought – seeing though I’m one of those strange photographers who use a camera as a shield against the world, instead of an opener for conversation.

        The most public offering of my photographs has been the shots used by my BF for his band and his book (I supplied the images and post-work for both) – so I got his feedback, but nothing beyond that.

        I find it impossible to arrange a public viewing of my work on the merit of MY work – I just don’t have enough desire to step out of the background and onto center-stage.

        I’m just weird…and more than just a bit insular.

        Liked by 2 people

        • There are all sorts of ways for work to get out into the world. I don’t think it has to be the traditional public viewing, or traditional publishing. I don’t think the art’s creator has to be anywhere around when it happens, in fact. My great aunt wrote a family history that was never published and was never meant to be. She wrote it in Yiddish and translated it onto tape at my uncle’s urging. It’s circulated in the family and is, I think, a wonderful gift that she gave us. I never heard it until after she died, so I never got to tell her what it meant to me. I wish I could have, but the work, if it gets out into the world, lives its own life that we know nothing about.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, making art public does complete the circle. It is something I have known but never really thought about. I have a number of people tell me how my little art works resonate with them, so I have known…..but hadn’t thought how those art works have made a little shift in someone’s life. Thank you for bringing it to the forefront of my mind.

    Beautiful photo too. Maybe Wild Thing is seeing from her heart and doesn’t need to rely on her eyes so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ellen- thank you for not blogging about the election! You are so right about art. It is about reaching people & making them feel something. You have written a very refreshing escapist post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now I am wishing for a piece of sourdough toast.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I bought a guide book for a trip to Berlin. It recommended one particular donner kebab place as the best in the city. I tracked it down. As I ordered, I noticed that the guy at the counter was the same one in the picture in the book. I showed it to him. His eyes got huge. One by one, all of the guys who worked there came over to me as I ate and asked to see the picture. It was great! Oh: warm up the sourdough bread, and put apple sauce on it–it’s heaven…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Both art – the painty and sculpty sort – and photography have a part to play in helping people connect. In a way (but I think I only realised it recently, though probably my unconscious knew it all along) I think my own little blog has that effect with it’s emphasis on wildlife, birds, etc. I would love to take photos of people as Wild Thing has done (I love your name for her, just love it!) but over the years I’ve become very shy about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love portraiture and baking. To combine both elements so well into a photograph makes me smile.

    I asked The Boffin about Bude. His only memory of it is getting his bottom smacked. No, he isn’t traumatized. It’s a simple story. After riding in a car for hours, his parents decided to make a pot of tea in the car park and gave no instructions to The Boffin and his siblings. The expectation was that the kids would just stand around and wait for them. Meanwhile, The Boffin, his older sister, and his younger brother saw the pathway to the beach and just took off without telling their parents what they were doing. Lack of communication all around lead to old-fashioned discipline.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Love this post. It has a tender tone I think. Agree very much with experiencing the real person when you take their photo. So different to ‘borrowing’ them as interesting object. I feel as if I could start a conversation right away with the Breadman.
    Talking scones- the tallest scone I’ve ever seen is in the Periwinkle Tea Rooms, in Selworthy, Somerset – almost scarily big !

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent stuff. What I’m worried about is why I’m so behind with your posts? Don’t they appear in my Reader? I tend to take seriously the blogs I follow, by which I mean I keep visiting them, going back to wherever I stopped. I’ve been doing this with you for over an hour now. How come there are so many unread ones?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: How the U.K. and U.S. differ | Notes from the U.K.

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