Photo Essays

Portraits of city-dwellers in their environments.

Charlie Arnold

Photographed with Nikon D90, 18-105mm lens, 300-watt constant color monolight, and edited in Lightroom

37 years old   |   Art Critic & Professor of Art History

The thing you have to understand about Charlie is that he is opinionated. With a capital O. The first time I met him I refused to hang out with him again. He came across like a judgmental know-it-all. No thanks, count me out. Buh-bye.

Photographed with Hasselblad 500 C/M and Portra 160 film

But eventually I came around. You see, Charlie may have strong opinions, but that’s because he’s passionate about what he does. As an art critic and professor of art history, he helps people get excited about art by demystifying the intentionally mysterious world of fine art.

Photographed with Nikon D90, 18-105mm lens, 300-watt constant color monolight, and edited in Lightroom

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, in his disheveled one-bedroom apartment in North Austin (he said he was in the process of moving), but this scholar was once a part of a writing crew. A writing crew, in case you’re wondering, is a group of graffiti artists. Usually a couple of outliners, a couple of fillers and a lookout. They work in a crew because they need to work fast to avoid the unwanted attention of law enforcement.

Charlie happened into the world of graffiti during his undergraduate days in Baltimore. He noticed graffiti artists working on a large bulletin board set atop a junk shop / Korean karaoke bar / brothel housed in a building next to his studio.

Eventually one of the guys invited him to be a lookout for the crew, which by the way didn’t start working on their art until two in the morning. Since Charlie’s only plan for the night was to go home, drink hard liquor and pass out (his words), he took the guy up on his offer.

Graffiti, or more specifically, the idea of the tag, a mark that says “I was here,” would come back to Charlie in various forms. The next being his dissertation. Now, I have not had the pleasure of reading all 399 pages of his scholarly efforts, bound into two massive spiral books, but I will try to condense what we discussed the day of the photoshoot.

Charlie's writing environment. Photographed with Nikon D90, 18-105mm lens, 300-watt constant color monolight, and edited in Lightroom

We talked about how presence and absence creates community. Are you scratching your head? So did I. I may have even squinted at him.

“Graffiti,” Charlie clarified, “is not a statement of presence. It’s a statement of absence. I was here. Extend that to the viewer and it becomes I was here, where you are now. It is in this space where community happens.”

I typically think of community happening where people come together and find commonality, similarity. But Charlie suggests that community actually happens in this sharing of differences, not similarities, because you can never be completely and totally the same.

The concept of absence and presence came up for us later in the conversation as we discussed motivation, mortality and memory. My gaze wandered around the odd objects and artworks surrounding us. I asked him to tell me about the strange metal sculpture set on a fold out table. The Perpetual Motion Marble Machine, he called it. This was obviously an object of importance for him, given its prominent place in the apartment.

The Perpetual Motion Marble Machine. Photographed with Nikon D90, 18-105mm lens, 300-watt constant color monolight, and edited in Lightroom

It had belonged to his uncle who passed away from a stroke in 2006. He had been an engineer of some notoriety who lived in San Francisco. This was a man Charlie looked up to, one of the many men in his family that had found success. This, Charlie says, is a motivation for him to pursue his own work and find achievement in his own field. And he would rather have this wacky sculpture than a bunch of old photos of his uncle.

I think the presence of the absent uncle in the form of the object, the Marble Machine, helps Charlie maintain his motivation. He is connecting to the uncle in the same way the tagger is connecting to the person walking down the street two years later, taking in the weathered tag.

And now that he's left Austin for the visions and opportunities of Los Angeles, I wonder if we will become absent to one other. And if that happens, if eventually we forget and nobody puts forth the effort, I know I won't be looking at these photographs. I'll be looking at the paintings he left me before he moved west.

Hindsight Lesson: I ended up photographing Charlie on two separate occasions. During the first photoshoot, I was unprepared to ask him to move things around his messy apartment in order to make a good photograph. I had the notion that I needed to document his environment rather than make a good portrait. Thankfully he was amenable to a reshoot. And we crafted a few good shots to compliment the first set.

Sarah JonesComment