Composing Meaning From The Mundane

Brent Finnegan -- December 3rd, 2010

Harrisonburg photographer Jeff James got his first camera in the mid 1980’s, and realized almost immediately that he could express his ideas more fully through image making than he ever could with words.

Tables photo by Jeff James

Jeff’s photo blog, The Friendly City, caught my attention several months ago. Some of the images are simultaneously unrecognizable and familiar to Harrisonburg residents. The strange combinations of subjects make many of the pictures worth a third and fourth glance. A child’s pajama-clad legs and a dead mouse. A forsaken “I Voted” sticker next to a photo of yard signs. A Harrisonburg police officer and an opossum.

Harrisonburg Opossum photo by Jeff James

Jeff, who manages the Visual Creation department at Rosetta Stone, says he started the blog as a way to organize his shots of the city. “I can travel back through it and see how my work has evolved in time, and in many instances how the place has changed. I also envision that a portion of this body of work will someday be published as a book.”

I’m intrigued by how an ordinary, mundane subject can be altered in meaning through the subtractive process of composition. The ordinary thing can become something deeply personal or profound. Making photographs is an intimate experience; it’s memory inducing, and a way for me to connect with place […]

Later, during the editing process, I do find themes in my work. Signs and text, images in advertisements, the marks of man on nature or nature on man, these subjects seem to attract me. I’m interested in how we market ourselves or our businesses, and what that says about us as a culture. There are inherent contradictions and distortions in all acts of marketing, and so I play with that in my work and find alternate meanings by creating compositions where the content is juxtaposed against something unintended.

Ms. Pacman photo by Jeff James

I’m also fascinated by how an image in isolation can mean one thing, but when paired against another it creates an altogether different meaning. I’ve heard it described as the math of photography — it’s never 1+1= 2 images, but 1+1=3 or more completely different interpretations. In a blog, you have a continuous stream of images. So, if an image speaks a word or a sentence, and two side by side form the paragraph, than a blog of pictures must be a novel or a biography. It is both for me.

Jeff also has a Flickr account.

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11 Responses to “Composing Meaning From The Mundane”

  1. I’ve worked with Jeff. He has fantastic eye and a unique way of looking at things. I think it’s great that his work is getting recognized! Bravo Jeff!

  2. Sandy says:

    I’ve been following the blog for quite sometime and am fascinated by the photography! Great work!

  3. Sarah MacDonald says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Brent – and Jeff, I’m deeply impressed and in awe!

  4. meg says:

    Jeff James is a spectacular artist!

  5. Renee says:

    This post was shared by 4 people in my Google Reader group – a testament to Jeff James’ great shots and unique perspective. Very cool!

  6. Jermbos says:

    Jeff married my sister and I couldn’t be happier about it!

  7. Meredith Olson says:

    Fascinating photos, Jeff. I’ve learned so much about appreciating photography from studying your work. Thanks for expanding my world!

  8. I have had the honor of counting Jeff James as a great friend for 13 years. He has documented – through his photos – the incredible experineces we have had together in Kenya, E. Africa. Jeff’s photography is amazing!

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