About The Chicken Skull Reification
The concept for this sequence hasn’t changed much since I first started it in 2005. The rules change a little each time to help define the new project, but there are always rules, they are always important, and they always start:
1. There must be a chicken skull mask
2. There must be a teacup
The first time I did this (“Teacups”), those were the only rules. The second time (“The Great Chicken Skull Revival”) there were more. For this series there was only one other rule:
3. There must be a frame
The constancy of the concept is why I keep revisiting it. The core elements are always the same. What changes between each project is instead how I choose to address those reductive rules, and what I set out to accomplish with them. Every time it’s been the same concept, but every time that concept has been applied to different goals.
The first time the goal was subversion–to take a boring assignment on teacups and make it more exciting for me, while still completing the assigned task. How much could I make each photo be about people in chicken skull masks while there also being a teacup? I liked it immensely as a concept, and the sense of play it brought. At the time though, I barely understood how to use my camera, more or less what I wanted to do with it. That inexperience shows through in all the images. The first series was a triumph of intention, but it fell flat in every technical way.
After years more experience working in photography, I revisited the project on 2010. I had a better mastery of a camera, and more tools at my disposal to adapt to more situations and opportunities. My goal the second time was to play with a common assumption people had about the first series: that the particular elements meant something. The objective became to get as many volunteers as possible to create images all with the same very narrow and specific requirements, and then see what motivations viewers assigned to them where I myself had none. Again it was a triumph of concept and fell flat on execution. In those intervening years I had learned to use a camera, but I still hadn’t answered to myself why I wanted to use it. The images were unified in subject, but inconsistent and mismatched in handling. They fell too often into a trap of chasing a quantity of photos, rather than a quality of photos.
I let it sit for another nine years. I hadn’t yet accomplished the work I wanted to in either attempt, but I wasn’t sure what revisiting the concept would add that the first two projects hadn’t covered. Then, after a long and winding series of artistic digressions (including shooting photos for a theatre company for six years) I had a series of personal epiphanies about my relationship to photography. I discovered I had been focusing too hard on what I wanted to say with photography. I was caught up in what my photography would be about. After a while having the ‘what’ decided for me shooting theatre and studio portraits, I discovered that along the way I had finally found how I wanted photos to look. I found my voice in the medium, and once I recognized and acknowledged that voice it became easy to recognize what work was “my” work and what work I recognized as “good.”
That’s when I realized I had a new and valid goal to revisit my old concept with: to do it “right.” Not to make it perfect, necessarily, because I had internalized that the perfect is unattainable. But rather, to do the work with as much care, quality, and focus on making what I then recognized as good results as I could. Whereas before I had been stuck thinking what new I could _say_ with the concept, it had now been reframed as what new I could _show_ with it. It had become a way for me to measure my own progress as an artist. I didn’t need anything new to say, but I did need to prove to myself that I had better ways to say it. That I had better solutions to bring to the same concept.
Starting with making the mask I wished I’d made the first two times (but had let myself cut corners for time or budget constraints), and then moving on the using that mask to make carefully considered images where I always showed up with a specific result in mind. Before I had let myself get rushed or cut corners financially, this time I would allow ideas whatever time they needed and whatever budget they required. Before I had blamed the limitations of the work on external factors, this time the only limitations I would accept would be those of my own abilities and skills. And I would push myself as hard as I could to remove those as well. To make the work a measure of my best self.
This series is still ongoing, but with the subject predetermined via my familiar concept and its rules, the questions each new piece are: Is the product a good image? Have I created something that doesn’t just check off the items in the rules, but which exists as a larger representation of who I am as a photographic artist? Am I making the best art that I am capable of?
There must be a skull, there must be a teacup, there must be a frame. After that, all I can do is the best work I can and see where it takes me, and where I take it.
Special thanks (so far) to: Megan Martin, Max Brustkern, Jessie Beck, Nick Henry, Moxie Henry, Dahlia Desire, Black Circle Brewing, Katy Newton, Monica Deck
Pouring yet another cup of coffee