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 the words stuck with me—an apt description of much of what I seemed to be doing in those years of the 1990s. Graham 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— an erudite man who wrote insightfully not only about photography but on poetry and literature also—for that as well.
Liquid City was my first photography project that I considered serious. When I started it I knew three things: exploring the urban landscape had thrilled me as long as I could remember; I felt this painful need to simultaneously explore and escape things that were going on inside me; and I loved photography.
Lou Reed sang, The city is a funny place / Something like a circus and a sewer. Circuses and sewers sounded like places with dark secrets, good enough places as any to get lost in, places in which to lose myself. And that was was what I was trying to do those days, most days.
People mesmerized me. People terrified me. One time I was photographing a seedy store window—I remember there was a sun-faded rubber chicken in the display along with some cheap handcuffs—and the owner, a gigantic guy who reminded me of the monstrously sadistic guard in the film Midnight Express, came storming out— clearly less inclined to tell me to cease and desist than to simply beat me shitless. I’d caught a glimpse of his rhinoceros-like charging figure just out of the corner of the viewfinder and by the time he hit the street I—the intrepid artist with quick feet—was already in full flight half a block away.
So I mostly shot from the hip—a coward’s tactic I guess, or, if I’m being more self-kindly, a shy person’s way of doing things. The results were intriguing mainly because they removed from the equation my prejudices about what a photograph should look like. 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 really get going. Weird angles, camera movement, slow shutter speeds, the alchemy of accident—and all shaped by instincts that seemed to sharpen each week. I loved the gifts offered by public spaces—the streets and sidewalks, bus terminals, train and subway stations, the buses and trains themselves. And later on, airports, in those days before 9/11 when they weren’t so uptight about everything. These were spaces of perpetual motion, relay stations for anonymity and transience. Nothing seemed fixed—not bodies or expressions, not identities or moods.
Cinema had been my first love, and I studied it for a while, with, I think, serious intent. But, in a fit of self-awareness, I understood my temperament was a poor fit for the collective ways of cinema. Wisely I’d say, I made the switch to the more solitary pursuit of still photography, which I’d grown up with. But my passion for cinema always remained—and it continued to inform my photo practice in one way or another. From the start, I think I was interested in getting an image to be more than a representation of a point in time; I wanted to push that image to somehow incorporate or imply a flow of I-don’t-quite-know-quite-what, alongside the ambiguities and uncertainties that come with, well, everything.
And—I repeat myself—it’s 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 another benefit of looking at everything, but never through the viewfinder. And also from waiting a long time, sometimes years even, before developing film.
Surprises. I looked at the lone figure in Untitled, no. 1 (left, top), stooped and labouring 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 (left, third from top)—she surprised, even shocked me, with those hollowed out eyes and, as Stephen Perloff once called them, “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 peeling off to reveal a skull (Untitled, no. 46, left, fifth down), the Jehovah’s Witnesses lady selling Watchtower magazines (Untitled, no. 106, left, third from bottom). And the picture showing a solitary man sitting by the sidewalk, hands on knees, an aging figure with a blurred out everyman’s face, looking at the camera I think. When I saw that—Untitled, no. 123 (bottom left)—I said: that’s my future, and I knew it was the end of Liquid City.
• • •
My travels propelled Liquid City forward—there were new cities all over the world—but Clarke was right: on an elemental level things really did look the same, a tendency that has only accelerated in the years since. Not that anything was ever boring or repetitive. Never that. On the contrary, things were exciting—all over again, every time. I wonder now if that that comes with being on travels of a different sort—the kind with its own private vectors, destinations unknown.