Take my Kodachrome away
Got a photo you never want to see again? Give it to Jason Lazarus.by Megan Voeller | November 10, 2011
Somewhere in my apartment in a box of old contact sheets — pages of thumbnail-sized black-and-white images I never got around to printing as larger photographs — there's a picture of the first man I ever considered my lover. In the image, he lies face down in our bed, refusing shyly to look at the camera as I photograph his slender, naked body. The bed is made with sheets his mother or stepmother had sent him: beige sheets striped with floral vines.
The other day, when a new lover asked me to make a photograph with him, I thought of that old image and wondered where it was. If I knew, I might be tempted to look at it again. I'm glad I don't. With youthful impetuousness that I remember wearily now, I once told the man in the black-and-white photograph never to speak to me again, and he didn't.
Some photos — tangible reminders of past loves, lost siblings, life-altering journeys and other heartbreaks — you might just be fine with never seeing again. At least, that's the premise (one I find myself embracing wholeheartedly) behind Jason Lazarus' "Too Hard To Keep" photo archive, which the artist describes on his website, jasonlazarus.com, as "a repository for photos you cannot live with any longer."
Why you can't live with them, Lazarus doesn't particularly want to know, though contributions to his archive sometimes arrive accompanied by anonymous letters or are handed over, face to face, with a story. That you can't live with them is enough to merit inclusion in THTK, a project Lazarus began in 2010 and which now includes more than 1,500 photographs, as well as entire photo albums and quirky handcrafted photophilia like a small flip-book made of post-it notes and color snapshots.
This fall, Lazarus, 35, is Kennedy Visiting Artist at USF Tampa's School of Art and Art History; he ordinarily lives in Chicago, where he teaches photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College. While he's here through mid-December, Lazarus is working on three projects in a conceptual medium that often shapes his art: the photographic archive. For example, in 2007 Lazarus invited people — i.e., the general public — to send him photos of the loved ones, friends, friends-of-friends, etc., who had introduced them to the music of the band Nirvana for the first time, along with a brief description of that experience.
As an outcome, Lazarus's projects often reveal something about the role photography plays in our lives — emotionally, culturally, politically — and in our relationships with other people. (Submissions to the Nirvana project read as fascinating micro-memoirs, each an individual voice in a larger, collective narrative of shared cultural experience.) His projects are diverse. The other two he's working on are an archive of animated GIFs and a collection of Occupy Wall Street signs based on photographs of the protests. To create the latter, Lazarus has recruited USF students as collaborators, opening his studio on Thursday nights and compensating fellow sign-makers with pizza and conversation about art and the Occupy protests. As of last week, they had covered his studio walls with dozen of the signs, transformed from photographs into concrete objects made of weathered cardboard and black permanent marker inscriptions like "People Before Profit" and "The Beginning is Near."
"Too Hard To Keep" might be Lazarus' most accessible project. Everyone to whom I've described the archive seems to "get it" in a split second — a sure sign that the artist is on firm ground as a cultural anthropologist of sorts. (To an intergalactic traveler, it might seem bizarre that scraps of paper coated with light-sensitive emulsion and printed with pictures hold such sway over human beings, but to us it's business as usual.) THTK is also the project Lazarus wants to make the most public and the most participatory while in Tampa. To that end, he'll undertake something here that he's never tried before: a THTK photo pick-up day on Sunday, Nov. 20. Call or email Lazarus in advance or on the 20th, and he'll come get your photo contributions to the archive. Leave them on your doorstep, or meet the artist and shake his hand. (You can also mail photos to the address listed above.)
What happens to your pictures once they're part of THTK? A couple of things are possible. Either you give Lazarus the right to exhibit your photos as anonymous contributions to the archive and to keep them in perpetuity, or you can specify that they may not be shown face-up, in which case he will exhibit them so that only their reverse sides are visible. Either option requires a kind of participation that is integral to the project: trust.
By press time, Lazarus hadn't secured a date for a possible exhibition of photos from the THTK archive in Tampa. If he schedules one, it will be announced before mid-December on his project blog, toohardtokeep.blogspot.com, where you can peruse the photos that other people just can't live with anymore and learn more about saying goodbye to some of your own.