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Arts : Shoot this, please


Tim Davis turns the camera’s cold eye on democracy

Tim Davis is not a cynical bastard. He’s adamant about this. All he did was set out to photograph what politics in America looks like right now; it’s not his fault the modern political landscape is a desolate place.

“My hope is that it isn’t dark and cynical,” says the Yale-educated artist and Bard College instructor. Davis is lounging in upstate New York, searching for a cell-phone signal that’ll let him explain why his latest monograph, My Life in Politics, is more than just a colorful, brilliantly composed, and utterly caustic demolition of the American political experience.

Photographs by Tim Davis
Aperture Foundation
$40, 108 pages

This isn’t going to be easy.

Shot between 2002 and 2004, My Life in Politics attempts to give physical form to the nebulous forces shaping Americans’ lives. “Politics is mostly invisible,” Davis explains. “It’s kind of imaginary — Tony Snow comes out, he’s standing in front of a dais with a logo on it, and he says, ‘This is the agenda of the day.’ That’s what politics looks like. So, I asked, what else might it look like?”

To my eyes, it alternately looks like tragedy and farce. Disinterested punks line up at an ATM before protesting the nation’s drug policy; an activist sporting a “Palestinian State Now” bumper sticker on his back sits on a packet of ketchup; shirtless yah-doods stand in front of badly peeling billboards, yelling and waving flags at passing cars; a protesting teen lays down his “The revolution will not be telivised `sic`” sign to check footage on his camcorder; a gun-show bookseller hawks books on the SS and Luftwaffe; and a taco shop honors Martin Luther King, Jr. with a mural bearing the slogan: “One People, One Nation, One Taco, One Destiny.”

Davis’s photos would seem to capture a nation suffering from political decay, its citizens armed to the teeth with slogans that say nothing at all. My Life in Politics exudes a sense that, in America, political meaning has been reduced to inarticulate emotion. But Davis doesn’t see his work that way.

“I’ve noticed other reviews have labeled it as very cynical, and kind of dark,” he says. “I really hope that’s not true. I think that photography has a kind of redemptive power.”

No shit, huh? How do you figure?

“It’s a kind of mirror that’s being held up to what politics looks like on a daily pedestrian level,” Davis argues, “and that might inspire us to look deeper at our own practice of politics, and think about whether we can do more than stand there shirtless in a parking lot, waving flags.”

Davis’s photography has always worked in opposition to its subjects. In making My Life in Politics, he didn’t necessarily try to undermine politics itself; instead, he attempted to target political art as a genre.

“The idea of political art is always to motivate people in a particular direction,” Davis says. “My hope is just the opposite of that. It isn’t there to prove that one side is right and the other is wrong, or even that one issue has value and another doesn’t. The idea is that maybe there’ll be some openness into how complex the country really is.”

Some may see cynicism in the way Davis highlights those complexities, though he insists he’s only trying to celebrate them, and maybe squeeze a laugh or two out of you bastards in the process.

“There’s a lot of humor in the book, and that’s not always something people expect from art,” the photographer says. “And if the humor is dark, well, yeah, that’s something I won’t be able to help you with.”

His humor, however dark, is nevertheless well-intentioned. The MLK-taco masterpiece, which Davis discovered in a late-night, Korean-owned taco shop in a South-Central-LA strip mall, is a prime example. Inexplicably, Davis loves the thing.

“It’s not a cheesy, bad, Starbucks mural,” he says earnestly. “It’s actually kind of great the way it was done. And on some level, they could put that on the dollar bill. Instead of ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ you’d have ‘One People, One Nation, One Taco, One Destiny.’ It makes the perfect motto for this nation. Why pretend that there isn’t a commercial enterprise inside of everything we do? Let’s not pretend anymore.”

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