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.