Appropriating a Photograph, or Why Academic Papers are Hard

Chicago thrives on its rawness and dynamism. The city inhabitants consider themselves to belong to the city. Since the entire city is considered home, daily deeply personal experiences unfold in the most wonderful ways. While there is some anonymity in an urban existence, one’s experiences are often laid bare to strangers. It’s in the smallest gestures that seem commonplace. A passer by sees a simple expression of intimacy and the youth falling in love for the first time. Tugging on their parents hands, children express their deep seated anxiety for attention. The homeless ask for some sort of pittance of help to stave off the troubles they face. No one stops to think to restrain these little personal moments since recognized names and stories will never be exchanged.  Yet, these people who both enact and watch these moments unfold become intertwined with these other lives. It’s the beauty of city life, to become a part of innumerable lives in the smallest but most personal ways.

I am not unique in my desire for belonging, which I always seem to find satiated at the Art Institute of Chicago. There’s always a work of art that punctures my study of art, and reminds me of the great capacity of humanity.

I am always the passer by in these experiences, seeing someone else’s experience unfold before me, even if their story is long over. Four years ago, it was this image by William Eggleston. At first glance, it’s a plain image, with little to say. Yet, I always identified with the white teenager pushing the shopping cart, as a way to avoid becoming the looming female figure who walks towards him.

I imagined his day, home for the summer, regretting every day that he spends working his old job. His head aches, from waking up far too early after reuniting with high school friends over one too many shots. It was all he could manage was to curl his hair and gel it, his defiance to “the man” that keeps him from being himself in this unnamed suburb. A song, some song by an anonymous band plays through his mind and reminds him of the girl he never had the nerve to invite to some beatnik poetry reading. He wants to go home, to his dorm, to the days of writing overcomplicated and tortured essays on Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank. The agonizing boredom of his summer only worsens his headache, the only cure, reading.

While I knew I was appropriating his story, making jumps I never could in an Art History paper, I just could not bring myself to care. Both of us were fighting against our own upbringing to try to live a worthwhile and meaningful life. This photograph is one of the many images that guided me to the realization that Art History was what I loved and that I had to get out of the suburbs of Chicago. In viewing photography, I could connect with people I would never meet, talk to, or even see in person. Photography was an escape from the cookie cutter future that I perceived my hometown to demand. To be fulfilled, I needed to create something innovative and new and to do so I needed to experience as much of the world as possible. I wanted to lay my life bare, to fight any sense of anonymity, and let the world with all of its kindnesses and painful bruises in. If I could allow myself to be vulnerable and raw, I could give myself entirely to something. I could own that sense of belonging for myself that I see so frequently walking down those Windy City streets.

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