I'm a photographer who's always been skeptical of the portrait. A picture of person is always less interesting than an actual person, where a picture of a thing is just another thing, and might be even more interesting than the original. So when my friend, the journalist Joe Hagan, and I started talking about making a project together examining the tenor and texture of the American dream, I felt I had an opportunity to open and deepen the prospects of the photographic portrait. He is a professional profiler, trained to wring meaningful information out of recalcitrant sources; getting Karl Rove to show him his baby shoes. So we decided to set out across the country making portraits in the WPA tradition, meeting people and letting their voices leach through the flat affect of the photograph. The process is utterly liberating. It often takes some persuasion, but when people look past the microphone being pointed at them, they see an opportunity to have their voice—no matter how untrained—amplified and heard. So we are moving through the real world, a place so diminished in stature these days by virtuality that most people don't notice it at all. People keep saying that our digital networks are making the world smaller. Of course it's exactly the same size, only everyone is paying less and less attention to it. Our hope, no matter how outrageous in scope and ambition, is to make a sounding of the aspirations of the American people at this very instant, across class, race, gender, level of education and certainly political divides. It's like poking a fork into the milky way and hoping to understand all of astronomy, but one doesn't look at the oral histories of Studs Terkel and fault them for their inevitably failed ambitions. So much contemporary discourse—political, art historical, journalistic— is hemmed in by hardened positions. This project is fluid and open ended. It is dedicated to the dreams of the people we meet no matter how uninterpretable they may be. It may not even be art. It may stay closer to life than art. I kind of hope so.
Tim Davis is an artist and writer currently at work on a long-form music and video project called It’s OK to Hate Yourself. His work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum and the Walker Art Center, among many others. He teaches photography at Bard College.
Joe Hagan writes about politics and media for New York Magazine and Rolling Stone. He has published long-form profiles and investigative exposes on Karl Rove, Henry Kissinger, Bill Maher, Dan Rather, Goldman Sachs, The New York Times, Twitter and the Bush family. In 2010, he discovered and wrote about the secret diary of civil rights singer Nina Simone.
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