Normally, I am too independent to take direction when choosing a subject or theme for a series of personal work, but the suggestion of the alphabet as a subject was intriguing. It appealed on two fronts; I have always loved a treasure hunt and this would be a great way to train my eye to find more detail in what I see around me.
I spent some time online looking at various examples of alphabet art and learning about its history and symbolism. It has a long history that spans back nearly 4000 years. While I found it interesting, researching the history really did not answer my questions about how to tackle this series.
Since this was an “assignment” piece, I used the method of producing the work to create an emotional attachment to it. I try to create work from the heart first and the head second but this was a reversal of my usual process.
The first step in creating these pieces was to make some very basic decisions about the work; would it be a freeform method or a set of very strict parameters to work within? What were my technical boundaries? Would I shoot the letters in alphabetical order or randomly? Should I use found alphabets or create setup ones? The list turned out to be quite long so I finally decided to go out into the world, see what I could find and let that inform the process. I call this “taking my camera out for a walk”.
An old wrought iron fence in Auburn, NY was the first site that jumped out at me. I managed to find a C, G, and K there and even thought that I might center the entire portfolio on letters found in fences. On the way home, we stopped at a little antique store where I found my Y. This confirmed the shooting order and a quick drive around Syracuse did not yield much in the way of interesting fences so I scrapped that idea. Next, the city streets of Syracuse beckoned and yielded an E, J, M, T, and Z while answering the question about found alphabets. On a trip to the Erie Canal Park in Camillus I found an A, a D, and an antique steam train that gave me I, O, V and X. The train contained a wealth of textures and shapes and inspired a trip to a railway museum in Central Square. The museum was closed for the season but the curator happened to be there buttoning up for winter. He let us into all the trains and in the circus car, I found my S. Outside in the train yard, I hit pay dirt and got B, H, L, N, P, Q, R, U and W leaving only one letter unaccounted for, the F. I had one possibility that I just did not care for from the Central Square shoot so I needed something better.
Over Thanksgiving, I attended a jam session that my father was playing at and saw my F. It was subtle but I liked it and the sound hole of his double bass rounded out my alphabet.
In the process of completing the series, I realized that, in fact, I enjoyed the work immensely. Although, I will admit that I cannot stop looking for letters everywhere I go which is beginning to feel a bit like a curse. My family is feeling the pain as well, I get calls from my daughter every so often telling me about a great letter she saw and how I should go “shoot it”.
The conceptual basis for a photographic alphabet is deceptively simple. Since it turned out to be fun and entertaining work, I think there will be more alphabets in my photographic future. Narrowing the process by defining stricter parameters could stretch this kind of work out over a lifetime. The themes are limitless and this is a lot like those magic eye posters, once you start seeing the letters around you, it is impossible to not see them.
I think that for me, the best part of this particular portfolio is something completely selfish, it represents memories made with my family. My husband and I took the trip to Auburn together as well as the trip to downtown Syracuse. He even stopped traffic for me while I found the perfect position in the middle of the street to shoot the shadow that formed my T. My daughter went along for the ride to Erie Canal Park with me and played the perfect assistant. We both had fun.
My husband happily went on the trip to Central Square, he is a train enthusiast, and having private access to the trains while hearing all the stories about their reconstruction made it a great day for both of us.
My father was thrilled that we accompanied him to his Friday night jam session. He introduced us to friends that he has made, sang us a song, and even told a joke or two. It was a fine night and now I have an image to remember it by.