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“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” - Oscar Wilde
It is funny how one can feel so alone lost in a city, yet feel so connected by the simple presence of another in the most remote and desolate region of the world. Cities almost seem to be a Mecca for vagrant vagabonds, as known as the the homeless, or even the “Urban Nomad” (Hoff). One wonders, who are these familiar strangers, where do they come from, and as the artist/photographer R. Andrew Hoff asks, “Where do they go?” With just one photograph, R. Andrew Hoff captures the quintessence of a city's unconscious – no, of a city's alter-ego; a representation of a people who are seemingly invisible until one looks juxtaposition out the
Cassell 2 corner of their eye. In what follows, I will analyze what is seen in Hoff's photograph, compare and contrast the work with another, address the artist's statement, and describe my experience at the Susquehanna Art Museum. The first thing that is noticeable about the work of art is, that it is a photograph – specifically of a sidewalk in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This particular sidewalk houses not only the usual suspects – dumpsters, dirt, and the delicately designed diminution of urban decay, but also an urban nomad's bed and belongings. This urban nomad's bed and belongings are found medially “between two dumpsters” (Hoff). On top of the pile seen in the photograph is what appears to be tawdry underlinings, stacked upon more clothing and other assorted fabric. Although this is a photograph, does it really correspond to the visible world? Not really, and absolutely. Are these nomads hermetic in nature, like most people? No, their belongings are clearly out in the open. But how then are their private lives able to evade the common worker rushing to and from work? The answer may not reside in the urban nomads themselves, but rather within ourselves. Perhaps we are just too busy or do not care. Or perhaps we have just forgotten the forlorn, forgotten to look out the corner of our eyes. So yes, the photograph absolutely corresponds to the visible world – a world that resides just beyond our visible horizon – a world most have forsaken, and yet it exists all around us. How else can one explain a bed of an urban nomad set up right behind the “Dauphin County Human Services Building?” (Hoff). Artists that distinctively use photographs as their medium sometimes use elements e.g. lines, shape, color, or movement to enhance the effect and meaning they are trying to portray. To generate these effects, occasionally the artist will “stage their photographs” (Sayre 264). However Hoff explicitly says in his statement “I almost feel a voyeuristic guilt looking down into the bedroom of this person; but they are not there.” So in this case, it does not appear the photograph was staged, and therefore it most certainly can not be assumed that it was. On the
Cassell 3 other hand, an artist that does not stage their photograph can however manipulate the angle, distance, and time of day. Markedly, the angle is almost awkward. Instead of a direct head on picture, or even a “widescreen” portrayal which would encompass both dumpsters and the urban nomad's belongings, the shot is again, taken at that very awkward angle. The distance is also interesting, almost as if the artist either respects the resident's land ownership or is afraid to get too close, or perhaps it is simply a matter of being the only possible way to capture the entire scene. Finally as sincerely stated by Hoff, “They walk the streets of the city during the day or sit on stoops... At night they seem to melt into the shadows of the city. Where do they go?” Clearly according to the artist, the only time to really observe the urban nomad is during the day, and yet they are nowhere to be seen in the picture. The artist's message emerges both from the photograph itself and from the statement accompanying it. My personal interpretation of this disconsolate duo is that it embodies a side of humanity that can only exist hidden in the alleyways – only thrive out in the open, in the capitals and epicenters of humanity. A duality at it's ugliest. One study estimates the number of homeless in America is approximately 2.3-3.5 million, with the recession aggressively threatening to increase that number by another 1.5 million over a two year period (PBS). It is this duality of how a problem can be so brazenly apparent, so right in front of our faces, and yet it absconds to an abysmal reality every night. While most go back to their homes forgetting the forsaken – those urban nomads that “seem to melt into the city's shadows” sleep beneath the stars every night (Hoff). A similar duality can be seen in Alfred Stieglitz's photograph from 1907, “The Steerage” (Sayre 261). But unlike Hoff's photograph which has no people or sense of movement, Stieglitz's is the exact opposite – it depicts a scene on a steamship where very little free space
Cassell 4 exists, as opposed to Hoff's photograph which consists almost entirely of empty space. What does exist in the scene however are people, and the duality arises as the entire top floor of the ship consists of wealthy upper class individuals, while the lower class resides entirely on the bottom deck (Sayre 261). This duality reflects an unnatural parity. By nature humans are a social species; however, the mere existence of social classes and the inequality of people is strangely supernatural. Another similarity between the photographs that is also supernatural is laced throughout the constructs and shapes. Manifested in both are unique geometric patterns found almost only in human made constructs. These patterns in Hoff's photograph are on the sidewalk, design of the dumpsters, and the wall – but not in the stains on the ground. In Stieglitz's photograph, the same patterns are seen in the ladder, ropes, and bars – but once again, not in the stains on the tarps. This contrasts the difference between human made constructs, and the constructs of nature. Going to the Susquehanna Art Museum was an assiduous task for a country dwelling individual such as myself. The parking meter took only quarters, of which I had none (luckily I was able to get a few from the museum). The bleep-bloop, bleep-bloop of the cross walks and local non-commercial ethnic restaurants on the way to the museum reminded me of better and happier days in a city which I can not bare to name. Having this partially set the mood, I quickly breezed over the fascinating but completely alien world laid out on the first floor, and again over the many “un-named” treasures on the second. But there in a corner was R. Andrew Hoff's “Urban Nomad's Home.” It was my first time at the museum, and I was the only visitor there at the time (around 11am on a Friday). So I was drawn to this petite photograph, which was eclipsed by the enormous and vibrant Barak murals in the adjacent room. Another duality. In front of that photograph I sat for
Cassell 5 about ten minutes just thinking and wondering, so alone lost in a city, in a world much bigger than myself, am I to become an urban nomad? Perhaps one day, but not today. Having worked for the Salvation Army helping these urban nomads through their “recoveries,” I realized the difference between them and me is that they have become gray with time (even though many are and were younger than myself), forgotten their hopes and dreams, and hence have become broken windups shunned by society. It's not so much the individuals that are broken, as it is the society. The two are simply reflections of each other, an ego and alter-ego, the unconscious and conscious; but most importantly, an unnatural parity in nature – a duality society created. Overall the goal of the trip was to find a piece of artwork that spoke to me. If had I failed in this mission, writing the paper would have been all the more difficult. R. Andrew Hoff's photograph, statement, and the peculiar placement in the museum did just that; and although the museum itself was very small, being the only visitor there gave the trip a rather halcyon melancholy. To anyone that takes the time to look, an “Urban Nomad's Home” is a portal to a world just as rich and vibrant as that of the Barak murals. The problem is, we just got to look, just have to care, and just have to be able to face our own reflections in the mirror. Sometimes we even see ourselves in the artwork others create, just as I did in Hoff's “Urban Nomad's Home,” quite literally in fact, as the picture I took of the work contours my silhouetted reflection. Reflections of ourselves and society represent both natural and unnatural dualities in nature – geometric patterns of symmetry and unsymmetry. R. Andrew Hoff's piece is a still-life, and yet it has many parallels with Alfred Stieglitz's “The Steerage,” a work full of movement and energy. Interestingly enough, both whisper – no they scream of humanity's untapped potential; and if we could just tap into that reservoir of energy, just think of the wonders we could witness. Hoff dared to look, and as a result gave us a glimpse into the duality of nature, of
Cassell 6 society, and of ourselves.
Cassell 7 Works Cited "Facts and Figures: The Homeless." PBS, 26 06 2009. Web. 10 Sep 2010. <http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/526/homeless-facts.html>. Hoff, R. Andrew. "Urban Nomad's Home." Susquehanna Art Museum. 301 Market Street Harrisburg, Pa. 17101. 19 Nov. 2010. Sayre, Henry. A World of Art. 6th. Prentice Hall, 210. 261,264. Print. Wilde, Oscar. Think Exist. N.p., 12/1/10. Web. 1 Dec 2010. <http://thinkexist.com/quotes/oscar_wilde/>.
Cassell 8 Me Outside of the Museum
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