The Pornographic Forest (working title)

 In the past few years I have dedicated myself to photographing extreme close-ups of cigarette butts I pick up from the streets of New York. The work that has emerged so far is presented in toned silver gelatin prints a little smaller than 16” X 20”.  During my Djerassi  I would like to pursue further the esthetic concerns of this work and expand its by photographing other subject matter as well.


A Zen koan has a monk asking his master the usual question, "What is Buddha?"  The one-word reply is "Shit-stick!" (or kanshiketsu, used in old times instead of toilet paper, a lowly object at once private and soiled.) The Zen tradition abounds with such whiplashes of absurdity, the main purpose of which is to allow us to encompass dualities without analyzing them and solve existential problems through spiritual intuition rather than knowledge or reason. Zen’s love of paradox is crowned by its being one of the few religions without a God in the Western sense of the word. 


My choice of cigarette butts three years was not consciously informed by a search for a terminally low-status subject matter, which doubtlessly would be a very good Zen starting point for glorifying a non-existent God.  I have never smoked and have little interest in the health hazards or social issues presented by smoking. The tiny dregs attract me with their physicality and richness in textures and shapes ranging from body allusions to micro-landscapes. Their uselessness meshes perfectly with my belief that true art is ultimately purposeless and my distrust of photographic subjects that have inherent “value” —such as a beautiful woman or a celebrity. The nakedness of the cigarette butts allows me to shoot nudes without paying dearly for models while the element of chance introduced by their fragility is a perfect foil to the highly controlled large format camera and lighting approach I practice. Finally—and the list can go on—their malleability and ability to assume anthropomorphic guises are perfectly suited to my striving for images that sit on the edge of abstraction.


The results so far have opened my eyes to the length of the road ahead of me.  I see in the successful images totemic and sacred qualities that remold the original objects completely. Whether beautified or “uglified” the enlarged scraps assume a soft monumentality which is imposing and light at the same time—like a cloud or a Zen koan. I see the best images as quixotic sentinels standing mute at the intersections of the sacred and the profane. Like the shit-stick reply in the Zen koan they invite understanding by casting reason aside. In that sense they are mystical images.


To conclude this project successfully I will use a large format camera to create a body of work of some hundred or so photographs that move freely between unrelated subject matter while retaining the Zen spirit, the primacy of emotion and the paradoxes of visual transformation. It is important that each image preserve its independence and possess surprise and individuality while engaging with the others to form several emotional currents in the larger whole. My tentative list of subjects to cover (after I am finished with cigarette butts) includes: bread crust, excrement, shoe soles, discarded chewing gum, coffee sludge, slaughterhouse refuse, vegetable and fruit peels and olive pits. Of course one visual clue always leads to another and some inevitably fizzle out, so as always I will let intuition lead me.


The working title The Pornographic Forest is derived from a statement I wrote in the year 2000, which informs fully both my creative vision in general today and my intentions for this project in particular. It is short and included below:


As an adolescent who had just picked up a camera I had a very immodest ambition: to photograph a forest and make the image look pornographic. Or the opposite: take a picture of a sex act and communicate the serenity of a landscape. Only half-knowing it at the time I was longing to escape the tyranny of subject matter--an ambition which taken to its end can lead a photographer to madness ... or to pure abstraction.


  Not surprisingly, 20 years later most of my photographs 

stay on the edge of abstraction. In the time passed I have

learned that one pursues mad, impossible dreams without

thinking about them. The sharpshooter taking aim at an 

invisible target is well-advised to keep his eyes firmly closed.




Rafaelo Kazakov, October 2004, New York City




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