11th October, 2020

by Clay Mills

 I couldn’t feel my memories anymore.


When I moved away from North Texas in 2016, the first thing I did was create a mental image of my home. People who live the same place their whole lives don’t need to do this. If I were less neurotic I probably wouldn’t need to do this either, but a local without a doubt doesn’t need an image of their home. Who needs an image when you can look out the window? They can understand their home without seeking to give explanation, they live it everyday, like a limb it doesn’t require conscious thought to function. Though this isn’t to say that removing oneself from a place doesn’t allow a greater breadth of understanding. What appeared previously possible reveals itself as quite limiting, while what was once taken for granted is revoked, creating negative space in the self. 


Here is this image of North Texas: it is stark, hot, mostly parking lots and strip malls. Landmarks become the signage that extends high up enough to be seen from the network of highways connecting everything like a massive nervous system. There are no gaps between towns yet everything is spread out, and all undeveloped land will inevitably get devoured by the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Childhood memories in the woods will become more scarce generation to generation. Everywhere must be reached by car, so gas is cheap. Suburbs eventually become post-suburbs, new nuclei for the extensive nervous system to branch off from: the Plano, TX syndrome. 


Due to rapid urban sprawl, one gets the feeling as one drives away from the heart of Dallas-Fort Worth that in the air is a platonic suburban ideal created by profit-maximizing developers and Texas denizens with a stunted concept of the Good Life. As one gets further from the metroplex, developers get closer and closer to their perfect ideal, but can never quite reach it. No one feels fulfilled, those who do are stupid and self-deceiving. Your surroundings teach you to be stupid because your surroundings are stupid and in Texas you are nothing but your surroundings.

Liberal real estate (multi-level marketing) agents who take seminars on networking and post Instagram photos at Lifetime Fitness post-yoga. Conservative Academy Sports and Outdoor managers running credit card schemes over Xbox Live. He likes her because he wants “a blonde girl with a fat ass.” She likes him because she can be openly racist with him. Both get married to one another at 22. “Married and homeowners at 22, what’s your excuse?” is how they announce it on Twitter. Four likes. They divource at 27, and their one child grows up with trust issues and difficulty forming positive relationships. He’ll die in a car accident at 17. Triple Cs, alcohol and coke found in his bloodstream. His friends will argue online over who really knew him. He fucking sucked.

At this point I can thoughtlessly summon this image at will and the more I perfected it, the more Texan I became. When I left Texas my mom told me to drop the accent or people will think I’m stupid, so I did. I became someone from nowhere until I was asked. “Wow you don’t have an accent at all!” Then I tell them about (my image of) Texas, to tell them how right they are, how distant I am from my perfect image. But the more I say it the more real it becomes, and the more I mirror my own image. Whenever I’m back in Texas I can’t see what’s right in front of me, I can only see my perfect image. Maybe something can’t be so until someone says it is so. Maybe Van Gogh stopped hearing from his severed ear only after he painted Selfportrait with Bandaged Ear.


When I returned to Texas towards the beginning of the pandemic, I came with a project in mind. In conversation with my friend Dhruv, he said all his important adolescent memories happened at sunset. I told him that’s Hollywood bullshit, every one of my important adolescent memories happened “in broad daylight in parking lots.” This was partly a lie, though I likely didn’t know this at the time. My image of Texas was of quicker access to me than my actual memory. But the lie became the launchpoint of a photo project. I would take photos of parking lots important to my development in adolescence, places rich with memory to me. All of these photos would be taken at sunset on the most beautiful landscape film currently produced: Fuji Velvia 100. I would force myself to relive every formative moment with every photo taken, but this time with a perfect teen dream Hollywood sheen with some Perks of Being a Wall Flower gleam. The irony of all of this was that I would be taking pictures of (my image of) Texas, the most (romantic) unromantic place on the planet, the hope being that the formal devices used would be completely dissonant with the content of the photos. 

I went through my roll of Velvia over the course of a few months. Nota bene: if you intend to shoot something at sunset, show up early to where you want to take a picture. Nearly every time I took a photo for this series I arrived right before sunset so I had to run around everywhere trying to find the frame I wanted to shoot before the sun disappeared 😓. After my roll returned from development, I began the process of scanning and touching up. But as I went through the roll, I felt numb. I saw my image but not my memories. I couldn’t occupy my own image of Texas, which had grown so abstract that there was no place for people, only perfect images of people. Perhaps Texas as it is doesn’t really allow for people. In True Stories, a film that can be remarkable in its sincerity and astuteness, David Byrne drives by a series of sterile suburban homes in North Texas and comments, “Look at this. Who can say it isn't beautiful? Sky, bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Is this scene ironic? Maybe it takes on the optimism of a tourist. But maybe it doesn’t, and Byrne was able to see hope for people in a place where life previously appeared impossible. But the image in my head could not, I was disassociated from it. I couldn’t feel my memories anymore.


I’m ambivalent regarding these photos. I think because I didn’t go into the project with solid intention. I think because I no longer believe I understand what photography is supposed to do. I think because I no longer believe I understand what art is supposed to do. Paul Klee says that “art does not reflect what is seen, rather it makes the hidden visible.” But my image is too visible to me, and it veils everything. What’s hidden is what’s actually there and what was once there to me in my actual memories, memories that have been paved over by my image. 


Do I feel dissatisfied because these photos take on the look of establishing shots at golden hour, and that this formal device removed my memories from myself? Wasn’t that the intention? Photos aren’t supposed to convey experience, they can’t, but did I secretly deceive myself otherwise? Did I believe that all would be revealed of my own unjustified nostalgia once I relived my memories through photography? That just sounds like therapy, and art isn’t therapy to me, art therapy is just the LARPing of art that could be done better at a professional-level.


What do others see in my photos? Is my mental image all that’s apparent or do they see what’s seen by everyone else? Either way I’ve failed. What value is there to what’s actually seen? What’s seen has nothing to say about anything, it just is. ‘Art’ that shows what’s already seen, art of experience, is convinced of its inability to say anything. But what my image of Texas has to say is just the same old, it can merely go through the motions of mediating what’s seen and still deliver its truth, and I’m not even sure if I believe that truth anymore. Were my pictures at least beautiful? It’s not my job to make beautiful pictures. Pinterest and the One Perfect Shot Twitter account have automated that position. Also, consider the following: what if these pictures are actually just bad?


When I next return to Texas and continue this photo series, I must reevaluate what these photos would need to do for this project to be successful, because I can’t say with honesty that it succeeds in its current form. Perhaps I would have to disassociate myself both from my image of Texas and my memories of Texas. The need would be to find what’s actually there, and not to summon something into the frame that doesn’t belong, because to do otherwise would be self-serving. This may require some ego-killing on my end. Maybe I should stop being so self-serious, but I don’t really see the point in doing anything if it isn’t done seriously, even irony. 


Maybe the point of this series is to reveal something about Texas as a place, but I had a dream last night (not joking!) where I was informed that art that can only speak on place is unserious and isn't capable of revealing much about reality. Soon enough I might believe that, or make myself believe it. Maybe the point then is to reveal how Texas as a place creates conditions which create people, and how those people then reproduce Texas as a place. How one can develop nostalgia for a place like Texas, a place that probably doesn't deserve it (though most nostalgia is self-deception anyway). I haven't quite figured it out yet. 


Clay Mills is a filmmaker, writer and photographer living in Chicago, though in a miserable ploy to get paid, he’ll often tell people 45+ years old that he’s a consultant. You can learn just how right he is all the time on Twitter and Instagram @claythemills