The handwritten text on the yellowed and stained page of a notebook, reproduced on one of the first pages of Ed Templeton’s Wayward Cognitions (Um Yeah Arts), ends with an announcement of the end of the world, which was supposed to happen in 2012: “Say your goodbyes. You will not survive.” However, it has not yet come to that and we are still alive in 2014. Templeton undoubtedly came across this unfulfilled prediction somewhere on the street, just like the images he has gathered together in this photo book. These images always presented themselves in passing, just ‘around the corner’ from his home in Orange County during informal outings, and on the many trips he made around the world over the past 20 years as a professional skateboarder and visual artist.
Templeton previously published his photos in clear-cut series, grouped thematically like in the books of photographs entitled Teenage Smokers and Teenage Kissers. Other publications dealt with young people growing up in the suburbs of Southern California and with street scenes that were all shot from the car. But for his latest book, Wayward Cognitions (Um Yeah Press), he has totally renounced this serial approach. With no preconceived plan, he has gone through the now gigantic quantity of material from the past two decades once more, and made a new selection solely by the intuitive eye of the artist-photographer. It was a time-consuming occupation that formed just the beginning of the process of creating a book that in the end can best be characterized as an artist’s book, as Templeton, a fanatic collector of books of photographs himself, has taken all aspects of the book’s production in hand. Besides selecting the photos, he was also responsible for making the prints in the darkroom and creating the layout and design of the book. In this book, we find photos based on negatives, taken with a keen eye for composition, and with great feeling for the creative possibilities of the camera. And then there is also the interplay of combined images, achieved through sequencing techniques, subtle reflections, tricks of repetition, and visual rhymes.
But apart from the book’s formal, technical, and compositional qualities, Templeton’s do-it-yourself approach has made Wayward Cognitions a fascinating viewing adventure. Templeton’s selection is certainly wayward, and the same applies to his method of compiling the collection of images. Setting to work with no preconceived plan has not detracted from the fact that his compilation provides enough material to be able to speculate on possible contextual themes and motifs contained in the images. The photos themselves focus mainly on the subject of people, alternated or combined here and there with animals or “announcements” in the form of fragments of text and graffiti. Nothing is staged and with one or two exceptions nobody has posed for the photographer. They are impromptu, fleeting moments, recorded by a photographer who is part of the situation himself as a passerby. This transience forms a recurring motif in the book; a layer that is about “being on the way.” Some photos show people literally in passing, as eternal passersby, who always appear to be on their way somewhere on the bike, in the metro or in the car—extras in a play about the aimlessness of the endlessly repeating parade we call “life.” The atmosphere of indefinability linked to this thread running through the book is reinforced by the photos that show people standing or sitting somewhere, waiting for something. In these pictures, the parade has stopped for a moment and Templeton has fixed his subjects in a time-out moment, which at times gives the impression of them waiting for somebody and at others has more of an atmosphere of boredom and moping. In a couple of photos, Templeton has managed to choose the moment in such a way that “waiting” and “passing by” are cleverly blended together.
Wayward Cognitions can also be seen as a collection of pictures that express wonder about an everyday reality that, as a Dutch author once remarked, is actually much crazier than anything the wildest imagination could dream up. It is clear that Templeton has developed an unerring photographic eye for recognizing those un-everyday qualities of the everyday. It is a sort of wonder that is typical of the view of artists, as well as of the way young children approach the world. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that children form the subject of the photos at several places in the book. The photos in which the children appear express notions of expectation, promise, and hope, and the candor and innocence of their playful presence counterbalances the existential doubt that forms another thread running through the collection of pictures in this book. Against this childish innocence, but also against the youthful overconfidence and bravura of teenagers and young adults, Templeton places the disillusionment and decline that people can be faced with during their lives. The photos of homeless people, old hippies, drunk teenagers, urban nomads, and cripples, which surface here and there in the book, exude an atmosphere of desperation and hopelessness, summarized pithily in the tattooed text on a foot in one of the photos: “entropy.”
“Say your goodbyes. You will not survive.” The announcement that opens this book states the only certainty we have in life: that of our mortality. In this light, Wayward Cognitions can be seen as a photographic memento mori, an idea that is nicely expressed in the photo of a cow’s skull, whereby Templeton places his work in an age-old art-historical tradition. But the book is also an ode to mankind, who despite everything continues bravely on his way and keeps developing all sorts of strategies for averting existential doubt. This, too, is written down, concealed somewhere in one of the photos: Never let hope elude you. That’s life’s greatest fumble.
Stijn Huijts is currently Director of the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. Wayward Cognitions, which features a collection of photographs by Ed Templeton that pulls from his personal archives spanning more than 20 years, will be published through Um Yeah Press next month.