Push Pins: Remnants of a Photographers Journey

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Reminiscent of the gothic novel Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, downstairs in my photography studio, instead of a painting I harbor a world map.  Like the book’s protagonist I treat it with great reverence.  Over time & with every new escapade it changes, ie I scar it with another pushpin.  There are dozens.  Almost every inch of landmass is covered.  Only the oceans are vacant.  My memories substitutes pushpins for the adventure.



However, long after the trips, when I casually glance at the map, each placement seems so insignificant.  Although they are labor intensive, each single thumb tack gets lost amidst the sea of others.  So small an item belies the fact that each pushpin represents a complex chapter in my life.  Underneath most pins exists a new language or dialect.  Each one casts shadows on all manner of human experience.

It seems so insufficient to reduce years of research & turmoil treading so much real estate while crossing foreign frontiers.  The pins diagonally intersect perpendicular latitudes & longitudes.  Each spot has put huge dents in my psyche & physique & pocketbook & I am quite sure my presence has put huge divots in the landscape itself.


In the beginning when I started traveling there was no scheme or blueprint.  What eventually happened was random.  The first few journeys were educational but after time patterns emerged.  And a pattern is the skeleton of a story.  Stories of startling scope.  Each round headed pin stands for multiple truths but hides them beneath their points.  They are colorcoded: each green one represents one of the thirteen Summer & Winter Olympic Games I have covered, white ones signify a forgotten corporate assignment & the red ones are favorites.  They form a Picasso-like mosaic view of our globe.


All but two US states are pricked.  Every major city in North America has a stainless steel needle through its center as well as nearly every secondary town.  Each continent (except Antarctica) has been marked.  It has taken over thirty years of planes, trains & automobile transportation.  I have worn out cows of shoe leather.  So much time has passed that some of the countries I have traversed have changed their names.  For some reason pushing the pin in is the longest journey.

In 1900 Edwin Moore made the first pushpins—a pin with a handle.  He was working at a photo lab & was missing a simple way to hang up film to dry. His first sale was one gross (a dozen dozen) for $2.00.  His first “big deal” was a sale for $1000 to EASTMAN KODAK.  Today his legacy encompasses all shapes & sizes.

Everywhere there are bulletin boards—somewhere.  At the community center, college dorms, laundromats, grocery stores.  Photocopied sheets, 3”x5” index cards, photos, business cards, tacks, tape, pushpins—the modern equivalent of the town crier.  Typing-paper flags with local phone numbers dangling vertically, some missing like bad dental work.  People love to post things.  In their small way they are advertising: used cars for sale, tracking down lost pets, club meetings, items stolen, items needed, services bought & sought.

People who use pushpins do so for various reasons: for geography, for business, for education, as hardware, for art.  But some entrust pushpins with the simple task of affixing one object against another.  With such a simple tool, we overlook reliance on gravity & friction.  Besides that the usual cliché is for mapping, cartography & indexing.  Also geology & crime investigation use pushpins for their third & fourth dimensions.  Depth, patterns & randomness can be surmised by color & aggregate clustering.  Virtual pushpins have been dragged into the twenty-first century by complex software that digitally enhances visualization.

Upstairs in the studio behind all the blinking computer screens, the aggregate of pushpins is a metaphor for a million slides & negatives (& now gigabytes more pixels).  File drawers of photographs “contain” over a million frequent flyer miles.  At a glance they remind you of the storm of adventures.  At one point in history, tacks jutting from corkboard were state-of-the-art—but it is now old technology.  Three dimensional geography.  However the visual effect continues to be the way we think.

    Push Pin Studios is the graphic design & illustration studio formed
in New York City by legendary designers Milton Glaser & Seymour
    Chwast.

A client once saw the file cabinets full of photographs & grieved that I had not kept a diary over the years, implying that words were more important.  For weeks I was depressed by my oversight.  But I soon remembered what I had was more precious—photographs of every place I had ever been—visible proof.  (A few years later I realized I had also religiously maintained notebooks dating back to 1974.)

I tell clients & students that when you start your career as a photographer all you need is a camera & a little courage.  Everything else is an accessory.  But within a few years, if you are lucky, you realize the fallacy.  Not only are you responsible for documenting the world unseen by most but you are responsible for preserving your workproduct.  Where do you store all your output?  When we moved recently we made an inventory of almost 500 exhibition prints.  The frames alone are worth a fortune.

    Eric Daigh, the Picasso of pushpins, employs thousands of pins to make
    large scale portraits


When we look back the most important byproduct is the memories.  Pushpins do not discriminate between good & bad experiences, friends or enemies.  But after a while they form clusters making apparent trends not in evidence at the beginning.  Then they grow vague & cloudy over the ages.  The memories more like fantasies, the stories more apocryphal, the impression more universal.

1 comments:

Dave Cearley August 16, 2011 at 12:00 PM  

Thanks for a wonderful essay.

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.