What is your background in photography?
Around 1974, I took courses in basic photographic technique, film history, and super eight film production, emphasizing personal/avant-garde cinema. I learned that there were many aesthetics, none inherently better than the other.
I started working in custom photographic labs in the 1980’s. I began as custom black and white printer/processor and ended up a floater in one of the top custom labs in the city. As a floater, I did whatever was necessary except custom color printing. I also worked as a freelance photographer and a photographer’s assistant. Concurrently I exhibited altered SX-70 work that explored Surrealism, Impressionism, and Expressionism.
I studied observational documentary production in 1986. I co-produced an observational documentary about a career criminal/alcoholic who was a homeless street singer and poet. We followed the protagonist around for a year. The documentary aired on local public television in the late 1980’s.
I returned to analog photography around 2010-11. Tired of years spent in darkrooms dealing with chemicals, I switched to digital around 2012. I used the internet for instruction regarding digital photography.
How would you describe your work?
I think of myself as primarily a documentary photographer because my work begins with a documentary image of an object or space. I am obsessed with finding compelling compositions in the spaces I pass thru. I am interested in a variety of subjects and aesthetics.
Sometimes your work uses or juxtaposes a variety of photographic styles. Can you explain why?
My interest in various styles has its’ origin in the stylistic range of the personal and avant-garde films I saw in my youth. Rather than be tied down to one style, I am interested in developing a lexicon of styles. Juxtaposing styles is also a variation of cinematic storyboards- instead of action, my storyboard reflects feelings, perspectives, or ideas. Finally, using different styles is consistent with my daily experiences with hypervigilance, dissociation, anxiety, paranoia, sedation, and mindfulness. I am also interested in photographing “the unseen.”
You mentioned “the unseen.” Can you provide more detail?
The category began with photographs of debris I found on the ground close to my feet in parking lots and construction sites. Those photographs deal with concepts of use, abuse, abandonment, transitoriness, loss, and transformation. The “unseen” category expanded to include other places, spaces, or things not usually photographed. The ultimate example of photographing the unseen is automatic photography- waving my camera around while taking bursts of images without looking through the viewfinder and selecting the most compelling compositions.
How has mental illness affected your work?
I am 67 years old and have lived with mental illness for 55 years. I am currently working on a draft of a narrative of my psychiatric history to be put on my website (johneugenepanic.com).
In terms of the present, I am doing better than I have in decades. My medications effectively control my bipolar mood swings and psychotic breaks. But, I have other symptoms that I deal with every day. These symptoms include- amnesia, anxiety, dissociation, and hypervigilance.
My amnesia affects four aspects of my life- my autobiographic memory, goal-oriented behaviors, new learning, and procedural memory. I tend to forget my past, goals, new learning, and procedural memories after 3-4 days. The difficulty with procedural memory can make using Lightroom and Photoshop to edit my photographs challenging.
Until the last few months, I could write a goal or procedure down and break it into steps- but after 3-4 days, it didn’t seem connected to me because my present was more intense than the past. This sense of disconnection affected using editing software, manually setting my camera, and making prints. I tend to have to do things at least every other day to remember how to do them.
Due to a decrease in dissociative symptoms in the last few months, I can follow a series of steps necessary to attain a specific goal over days, even weeks. And, I feel pleasure when I have successfully completed a task. In the past, I did not appreciate completing tasks. This lack of positive reinforcement was an impediment to successfully reaching goals and progressing in therapy.
My bipolar moods and symptoms related to schizophrenia (hallucinations and delusions) are fairly well controlled by medications. However, I suffer from chronic anxiety and still have dissociative symptoms every day.
Some of the things that trigger my anxiety include, but are not limited to-
- New people, places, and things
- Unplannned changes in my daily routine
- Not enough exercise
- Too much Caffeine
- Providing eldercare for my 90 year old father
- Writing about symptoms
- Composing Artist Statements
I experience dissociation (feeling detached from my self and the external world) several times a day. Exercise, getting out of the house, and taking naps are the most effective ways to recover.
In the recent past, I was constantly hypervigilant. I was always scanning my environment for threats and dangers. Hypervigilance was exhausting and resulted in dissociation. In the last few months, my hypervigilance has diminished considerably.
How is your photography therapeutic?
Every step of the photographic process is therapeutic for me. Some steps help manage symptoms, and other steps function as occupational therapy. For example- hunting for pictures allows me to redirect my hypervigilant focus from potential threats/dangers in the environment around me to finding compelling compositions in the environment around me. Hunting for pictures focuses my attention on the present. It also focuses my attention on the immediate experience of being in a space I am in or passing through. This refocusing decreases my dissociation, depersonalization, derealization, and paranoia.
The experiences of following photographic procedures, classifying images, and organizing my picture library are forms of occupational therapy that I can apply to daily living—for example, organizing my photos is good practice for organizing my living space.
You talk about hunting for photographs. Can you explain this further?
The genesis of my use of the term hunting comes from the time humans were hunters and gathers. I think of my hunting and gathering as a primal need that began being expressed in early childhood. Photography is just the latest iteration. I use the term hunting in the dual context of searching and pursuing a prey.
When I use hunting as a synonym for searching, hunting applies to a variety of photographic processes. For example, it can apply to finding images, making the correct camera settings, classifying images, searching/selecting images for portfolios/visual diary, searching/selecting images to print and searching for the right settings to produce a compelling print.
When I use hunting as a synonym for pursuing prey, I mean that I am looking for a specific image that is lit just right. In this context, the roads I travel are the game trails. I have pre-visualized the prey/image, and I wait until the right moment to capture it. Architectural photography and urban landscapes are good examples.
Pursuing prey differs from searching for compelling compositions as I run errands. I don’t have a pre-visualized image in mind. I depend on luck, lighting, and experience to find an image I hadn’t realized was there before. The process may, or may not, be entirely intuitive. I may, or may not, know why the image is compelling in the moment. I may, or may not, discover why it is compelling in post-processing.
I like to think my intuitive sense of compelling images is based on the fact that I have a museum in my mind. This museum contains a memory of every photograph, painting, and film that I’ve ever seen. Some of these memories are conscious, most are subconscious, and some are unconscious. Intuitively compelling compositions are primarily subconscious references, not duplicates of specific artworks in my mental museum.
I am driven to create documentary photographs that refer back to the contents of my museum/taxonomies because these photographs connect my thinking and my self to reality. This counteracts my chronic symptom of dissociation.
Hunting for photographs usually begins by picking a time to take pictures. I can be anywhere, but I am often running an errand in my car. So, many of my images are taken from the driver’s seat. Objects in the location I am in shape what I hunt for and the photographic style I use.
You don’t seem to post images of people. Is there a reason why?
Yes. There are technical and personal reasons why my work tends not to include people. I can’t use glasses and see the entire viewfinder- plus, the viewfinder frame scratches my glasses. So, right now, I don’t wear glasses when I photograph. The image I see in the viewfinder is so blurry that it is hard to make out subtle facial expressions- making portraiture difficult. Also, I use the manual spot meter function of the camera to set the image focus. Using the spot meter function takes time, making spontaneous portraiture problematic. My hand tremor can also make using a tripod difficult.
Interacting with strangers makes me anxious. The process of getting release forms makes me even more nervous. I have started experimenting with photographing family members. I don’t seem able to take flattering portraits. I have gotten some feedback that my images catch people as they are. I know that this is a sub-genre of portraiture, but I don’t feel comfortable doing it. Also, I suspect that the faces in my portraits reflect my discomfort. I have started including some people in my photos- but I make sure that 1.) they have no reasonable expectation of privacy and, in most cases, 2.) their faces are not clear.
Do you use any special camera techniques?
I have a medication-induced hand tremor that varies in intensity. I set my camera on manual to stop motion blur and use a baseline shutter speed of 1/800th of a second. Sometimes I can shoot at much slower speeds, but 1/800th of a second guarantees an image free of motion blur. Usually, I manually adjust the aperture to get the correct exposure. I determine exposure from experience, the camera’s digital display, and a handheld light meter. For example, the correct exposure for direct sunlight is close to f8@1/800th at ASA200. Well-lit interiors are f1.8@1/800th at ASA400.
What do you want people to take away from your photography?
I produce compelling compositions and prints despite my limitations. I hope interest in my photographs will translate into an interest in my writing.