As photography evolves into another generation, the fate of our visual experience is thrown across the sprawl of the digital environment. The “uniqueness” of the contemporary photograph is not inherent, and more than ever the sum of it’s parts must grow in new ways in order to survive. Instead of offering a simple alternative to the now banal questions of what makes something original, Fred Cray’s first publicly released artist book offers a revised method: natural selection.
“Unique Photographs” adds dimension to ideas of chance in photography. Cray’s work gains substance from serendipitous interactions with people who discover his prints left at varying locations including New York, across the United States, Europe, Asia, Australia and South Africa. His work breeds discovery as he individualizes the images (and for that matter he individualizes the book with holes and unique photographs as inserts) by randomly punching holes in different spots, digitally altering, stamping, and/or numbering by hand (as if specimens set loose into the wild.) As a type of epilogue at the end of the book Cray shares the email correspondences and reactions he receives from those who accidentally find the prints. I am struck by the urge of those who discover his pieces to look up his name on Google and to actually send him their messages, a seemingly laborious gesture too often trumped by impracticality in this high speed age of our digital society. However, this project has been successfully (and delightfully) realized because of people’s pure curiosity and desire to reach out to others. Cray’s gesture offers us a chance to carefully look, and, moreover, he gives us a possibility to connect with people beyond immediate time and place: a sense that we are moving forward but not at the expense of expectation or technological grind.
With an interdisciplinary educational background in literature and painting, Cray has become a multi-faceted artist and has a particular sensitivity to narrative elements in art movements of the 1960s and 70s. He respects Joseph Beuys’ environment based works as well as the theories formed by Fluxus groups especially for their participation within a public setting. However, Cray’s attempts are intentionally apolitical unlike the aims of Fluxus members. He molds the current development of our digital culture to his advantage. Cray is hopeful in his attempts of connecting people (to each other and to himself) through his unorthodox process. By creating threads of connection with his photography, Cray presents himself articulately as a visual poet rather than an aggressive protagonist.
As a native Japanese, I can’t help comparing his project with “Lemon”, one of the masterpieces in modern Japanese literature and written by Motojiro Kajii in 1925. In this story, a lemon is placed on the pile of the books at the large bookstore in Tokyo. For Kajii, a bookstore was symbol of an overwhelming amount of information and on the other hand the decline and fear of the intellectual life. The lemon represents an actual object and an awaking for a fresh new mental life. I see this story as empathetic and insightful regarding hope and chance in a way not dissimilar to Cray’s project. After “Lemon” was published, I heard that the popularity quickly rose among many readers, they also left lemons at the bookstores, and it was a small trouble and an innocent act. I wonder [hope?] if the popularity of Cray’s “Unique Photographs” will induce the same kind of phenomena, and give us a joyful and genuine encounter with the other people.