February 17, 2019

KAMBHAMPATY | Remember the Milk Carton?

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I heard a professor once say you only really understand the world when you have a child and see them live through it. You live your life twice, once through experience and then through seeing your children understand it. I find that art is another way to try and understand the world — an impossible feat, but why not attempt, while we’re here?

Stephen Shore, one of the world’s most influential and innovative photographers, is best known for his images of mundane scenes and for pioneering the use of color in art photography. I urge you to look up American Surfaces and Uncommon Places for visual clarity before you proceed. Now, Shore teaches at Bard and continues his photography through various digital forms (his Instagram is one of my favorites).

What first drew me to Shore was a photo of an individual-sized milk carton against a strikingly red background. The milk carton is open. Clearly someone had drank out of it already. But it doesn’t look like trash. It looks like a found object of sorts, like someone left it there for Shore to find. The high angle at which the photo is shot makes it all the more visually intriguing. The carton is slightly off-center in the photograph, but its stark contrast against the background makes it look drastically so at first. It’s confusing but in a good way. Further, I hadn’t seen or thought about individual milk cartons since elementary school. Did they stop selling them? Or, have they just faded from my memory past the fourth or fifth grade?

What really made me go from I like this photograph to God, I freaking love this photograph was the subject matter. An open milk carton. We are often forced to view poorly composed images of drinks and food on Instagram. How many pictures of Moscow mules, avocado toasts, and Balthazar brunches must we endure? They’re all to show that someone spent too much money on basic sustenance, is capable of abusing the accessibility that iPhone cameras afford and felt the need to post it to social media because they needed everyone else to know that they have friends and the same exact taste as everyone else. Shore’s photo is of a drink that doesn’t speak to a greater societal confusion. It’s a photo of a drink that is a work of art, an artifact documenting a moment and a snippet of our cultural past. Shore brought me back to viewing photography as art.

In an interview with the MoMA, Shore explains how he tried to photograph the way people see. You know how writing often is different from the way people talk, how a conversational tone in writing is quite rare? A visually conversational tone in photography is even more rare, especially at the time Shore first applied this type of philosophy for capturing. When I see his photographs, I feel like I’m looking at what and how he saw. What everyday people in the 60s and 70s must have been seeing as they went through life. His work created in me a heightened sense of cognizance as I navigated this world. When I’m zoning out in class or walking the street, I can’t help but ask myself what am I looking at? What feels centered in my plain of view? Why? What colours are appearing brighter?

Shore’s photographs helped me become a nerd again —  something I somehow lost between high school and the end of college. Remember when you were 16 and The Bell Jar defined you? When a Two Door Cinema Club album literally got you through high school? When Holden Caulfield was a character you swear was based off the voice inside your head? Why do we let this go? Why not keep obsessing, if it gives all this (life) some meaning? When I discovered Shore’s body of work sometime during my sophomore year of college, I let myself become obsessed with something again. I felt myself see the world as a place for endless exploration and experimentation.

Shore started conversations between me and my friends about nostalgia and the meaning of time periods. We wondered, if we were to redo American Surfaces today by keeping a “visual diary” during our road-trips, would we be intrigued by our images or just bored? Was it the fact that we saw objects that made us crave a simpler, more colourful time that drew us to Shore’s images? Would future generations find our photographs interesting the same way we look at American Surfaces today or is it something unique to the aesthetics of the ’60s and ’70s we find appealing?

Beyond innovating and furthering an entire field, art reminds us that we are human. It brings us together to question what we know and what we don’t know. It forces us to think about why we act and feel a certain way. It reminds us that we are all going through the same world, just with different perspectives. I don’t love birthdays or Christmas or most big holidays. Life’s over-hyped moments stress me out. I worry about not being able to have a day that lives up to expectations. But, I’m not someone who hates life. I’m someone who loves life. My friends have seen me freak out about the design of soy sauce bottles and the way the sun shines on the brick of Bradfield Hall. As I go through life, I find that the days that are most beautiful are the ones that didn’t have some assumed greater meaning attached. Everyday life is colorful, surprising, funny, and beautiful all at once. Stunning photographs of drinking fountains, mugs of coffee, and cantaloupe encapsulated this belief and seeing them framed as art reaffirmed this way of living for me. I found excitement in the imagery of the ennui.

Shore helped me become fearless in the pursuit of making things. Something, again, I was comfortable with in my younger years but stopped as I grew older. Age, I cannot help but notice, is the antithesis to most things innovative or creative. What I would do to have my 12-year-old brain again. Maybe this is dangerous to write, as I near graduation, or maybe that’s what’s spurring these feelings in the first place. In any case, I leave you with this: find an artist to become obsessed with. Emulate them. Learn about their process and who they are. Living life with an obsession like this eases the painful mundanity of everyday life into something much sweeter.

Anna P. Kambhampaty is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at akambhampaty@cornellsun.com. This Imagined Life runs every other Monday this semester.