Frank Rodick, 2017
The postmodern condition, perhaps, is that every city will begin, as far as the photograph is concerned, to look the same. Every image will be untitled: the postmodern city will not so much be a place as a condition; and to capture that condition will be the challenge for the camera.
— Graham Clarke, The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History, 1997
The city will not so much be a place as a condition. By the time I read those words I was well on my way to finishing the 40 images that would make up Liquid City. But they stuck with me as an apt description of at least part of what I seemed to be doing in those years. Dr. Clarke's words are also likely why I never titled any of the works in Liquid City, and I owe a debt of thanks to him for that, an erudite man who not only wrote insightfully on photography but on poetry and literature as well.
Liquid City was my first project that I considered serious, and when I started it I knew three things: I loved photography; I loved exploring downtown cities everywhere; and I had this need to get both closer to and farther away from things that were going on inside me.
Lou Reed sang, The city is a funny place / Something like a circus and a sewer. Circuses and sewers sounded like places good enough as any to get lost in, to lose myself in, and that was a big part of what I was trying to do those days, most days.
People fascinated me. People frightened me. One time I was photographing this run down store window and the owner, a gigantic guy who reminded me of the sadistic guard in Midnight Express, came storming out, more inclined, it seemed, to beat me shitless than just tell me to cease and desist. I’d caught a glimpse of his his rhinoceros-charging figure just out of the corner of my viewfinder and by the time he hit the street I, the intrepid artist, was already in full flight nearly a block away.
So I often shot from the hip—a coward’s tactic I guess, or a shy person's way of doing things if I’m being more self-charitable. The results were interesting. But they got a whole lot more interesting when my photography teacher, Henry Gordillo, gave me what remains the best piece of advice I've ever received. Make more pictures, commanded Henry. Lots more. And so I did, shooting at least 25 rolls a week for years.
I owe Henry for this because that's when things started to roll. Weird angles, camera movement, slow shutter speeds, the alchemy of accident shaped by instincts that got sharper every week it seemed. I loved the gifts of public spaces—the streets and sidewalks, bus terminals, train and subway stations, the buses and trains themselves. And later on, airports in those pre-9/11 days when they weren’t so uptight about everything. These were sites of perpetual motion, relay stations for anonymity and transience. Nothing seemed fixed—not bodies or expressions, not identities or moods.
Cinema was my first love, and I studied it for a while with, I think, serious intent. But, in a fit of self-awareness, I realized my temperament was better suited to the solitary modus operandi of still photography, Wisely I'd say, I made the switch. But my passion for cinema remained—it’s always informed my photo practice in one way or another. I think I must have been interested in getting a picture to be more than a representation of a single point in time, getting that image to somehow incorporate or imply a flow of I-don't-quite-know-what, along with the ambiguities and uncertainties that come with, well, everything.
It's also pretty clear I was a lot less than content in those days. I look at these pictures now and I see a mass of disquiet and agitation that was coming from more than what was in front of the lens.
What I loved most about working on Liquid City were the surprises. Actually, there was nothing but surprises, just better or worse ones. That was just another benefit of looking at everything, but never through the viewfinder. And also from waiting a long time, sometimes years, before developing film.
Surprises. I looked at the lone figure (Untitled, no. 1), stooped and working his way up a stairwell (the word “Herren” behind him, a men’s toilet somewhere in Berlin, probably the bus station), and I saw—I still see—the gravity-laden solitary life of my father. That little girl, in Untitled, no. 93—she surprised, even shocked me, with those hollowed out eyes and, as Stephen Perloff once said, “paws instead of hands,” her mouth agape and head twisted back to look at… what? I have no idea. I don't remember the shot. (I never remembered the shot.). A man in a cardigan and blazer, his face exploding into a skull (no. 46), an older woman selling Watchtower magazines (no. 106). And the picture showing a solitary man sitting by the sidewalk, hands on knees, an aging figure with a blurred indiscernible face looking at the camera I think. When I saw that—Untitled, no. 123—I said, that’s my future, and I knew this series was over.
Travelling helped—new cities all over the world—but Clarke was right: on a certain level everything really did look the same. Not that anything was ever boring or repetitive. Never that. Things were exciting all over again, again and again. When I think about it, maybe that comes with being on travels of a different sort—the kind with its own private vectors, destinations unknown, which, in the end, is the only kind there is.