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Why I Made It: Tom '22

Tom '22 explains why he made his photogrpahy portfolio "Growth Into Focus," which uses photographs, FaceTime screenshots, and scanned images to explore the theme of nature versus technology. 


Four years ago, my grandmother entrusted me with an Olympus OM-1 film camera that had been given her by my great-grandfather. Dust and other residue had rendered the machine almost dysfunctional, and various components, including the small contraption used to wind on film, were missing. So used to the disingenuous echo of a smartphone’s shutter, when the mechanical “click” reverberated through the body of the camera, I was struck by the realization that here, in my hands, lay a heavy, complex, and powerful thing. I also recognized that nature, which had slowly but surely begun to take its effect on the camera, was significantly more powerful than the machine, a concept that I explored in my Sophomore Photography portfolio, “Growth into Focus.” 

During the lockdown months of last academic year, both my camera and Commonwealth’s darkroom were not available to me. In my portfolio, I used FaceTime snapshots to photograph subjects from across the Atlantic, my printer’s scanner to document images of household objects, and a digital camera to take photographs of various leaves found on “lockdown walks” in the Arnold Arboretum. My resources were limited, but I used this restriction to illustrate the almost transcendent qualities of nature that seem to override in their beauty and simplicity any boundaries set by humans. I also aimed to scrutinize the effect of the medium on the viewer’s experience of each image. 

Two photographs feature the scanned image of a small sculpture, a minute replica of Rodin’s “Le Penseur,” who seems to rotate as the main subject remains static. In this movement, the viewer is invited to follow my thought process as a narrative is formed within each image, and then within the portfolio in its entirety. Only one fully visible face appears in the set, that of my grandmother, who is the subject of “Scanning for Life” and “Italian Tea-Towel” (both taken during a video call). The leaves of one photograph are present in another, behind the lamp that sheds light on the picture of two hands, one cradling the delicate structure of a disintegrating leaf. Hands play an integral role in this portfolio: in their gestures they signal the movement of the argument in the photographs, and they are also some of the mechanisms through which we come into contact with the organic world. 

I tried, in this portfolio, to maintain the blunt characteristics of black-and-white photography, whilst also paying homage to my redundant film camera. At the same time, I aimed to reconcile the two orders of decomposition that exist in the real world. Machines will eventually fall into disrepair; all natural life will eventually revert to nature. And yet, in these two ideas a fundamental difference exists: where one, the machine, suffers permanent death, the natural world shows again and again an ability to resurrect itself and prolong the cycle of growth. I wanted to capture that one seemingly universal truth in a way that enabled me to make use of the time, space, and technology available to me and to give some insight as to the implications of the pandemic on our understanding of the human relationship with nature.