a house but not a home

divorce 

A few weeks ago I tried something I have never tried before in my imagery: a conceptual image with no human in it. Ultimately this experiment resulted in firing a blank - there was nothing in it for me emotionally.

Let me back up and explain the intent and the image itself.

We see a house at night. On the top floor a set of windows are alight, and next to it, another set of lights in an adjoining room, but dimmer. The house looks peaceful - trees and bushes nestle it on either side, but above it, in the darkening sky, menacing hawks fly overhead, and a faint wisp of smoke is seen from the brightly lit windows of the upstairs room. In the foreground, in front of a house, a coin-op viewer is pointed at the house.

That was all it was. What was the concept?


When I was 12, I spent a year listening to almost nightly fights between my mother and father leading up to their inevitable divorce. I would sneak to the top of the stairs, and listen as they tore into each other in hushed and heated tones. I learned things about their relationship, the problems they had, and probably I had a feeling that it was all ending soon. I was not surprised when the announcement came, and perhaps I was even relieved.

My image, which had the working title "the Divorce" or "Harry's Home," meant to convey this year spent listening in on the misery of a failed marriage. The room of light was meant to symbolize the fight, the two adults awake and tearing into each other. The adjoining room meant to convey my room, or me listening in to the goings on next door. The smoke coming from the adult's window was the heat of the argument, and the hawk overhead was the predator, the inevitable end, the threat lingering overhead. Finally, the viewer was symbolic of how exposed I felt in the neighborhood after the divorce, that part of the privacy of our lives was ripped away and we were now the house people gossiped about.

All this sounds well-conceived and functional, but…

I looked objectively at the image I'd made. There just was not enough of an indication that something was going on, that there was something not right, and at first glance, it was just a boring scene of a house at twilight with a bird overhead. I believe in the concept, I wanted to make this work - but in the end, I felt it didn't take the audience, the viewer to the clues enough, and I firmly believe a conceptual image should do at least some of the interpreting itself.

It's hard accepting the patient is dead. This one took as much work if not more than some of my other big edits. This house was not in this environment  - the setting, the lighting, everything was added and augmented one element at a time. Days were spent, seemingly to no avail.

All this led me to long internal thoughts on the audience for this type of work, and who they were and what they wanted. Who is my personal audience? What have they come to expect? While I believe it is important to try new things and explore the outer edges of your methodology, it is also important to have a constant line, a mark of recognition, a signature throughout your portfolio. Would this one look like it belonged in my portfolio? Sure, probably, but it also might be regarded as the least interesting in it as well. Over the years I have slowly been building up what I consider a respectable portfolio and my output has decreased over the last three years as well. This is intentional. I would rather produce half of what I did in my first year if that meant most of them were "keepers." In other words, I am trying to whittle down the lesser pieces, the ones that needed more time, the ones that had every good intention but in the end, found themselves lacking.

I also have had recently the opportunity to talk about Fine Art photography with a fellow photographer who absolutely hates the genre, and has no patience for trying to deduce meaning from visual clues. I showed this person a few of my images, and he spent no time at all looking at them, and said something to the effect of "they look cool, I mean, something is going on but I have no fucking idea what."

Now, I am never going to win over a person like that. If this was the world of literature, this person would prefer non-fiction and I would be immersed in the world of allegorical fiction. I realize that not everyone will like conceptual work. But what is important here, in my opinion, as it relates to the "divorce" image, is that this is the attention span someone may have out there - and if they saw this overly subtle concept piece with no human in evidence, they would conclude that there is NOTHING going on at all. They will not spend time on it, they will not want to. If this was to be the only piece of mine a given person saw, what would they think of me or the type of artist I am?

I think this failed image and the conversation I mentioned above helped drive home something important - the need to give a visual punch that is immediate and hard enough that someone would sense something unusual about it even with the most cursory of glances. I am not saying that things can't be subtle, I mean that they need to have a potency - every element in the shot, that serves the overall concept in a meaningful way. It is not sufficient to put birds in the sky because they look good. It is not sufficient to tell a story of divorce with lit windows only.

I present the image here but nowhere else because it is not worthy of portfolio status, in my opinion. Lessons were learned, certainly, and surely I am better for the journey of it all, even if it resulted in a dead end. How to tell a story in one frame…it is never an easy task, and I have often said it is indeed not possible, but it is possible to assertively point to clues that make up a story - they have to make sense though, and not just to the artist himself!

January 28th, 2015
Michael Bilotta