John Eugene Panic

John Eugene Panic is a photographer born in Houston, Texas. John shares with Fragmentary Anthology, a series of images shared through an interview about his photographic practice.

Anthology consists of images selected from pre-existing portfolio’s or collections. Sometimes the images are connected by transitional images that mark the transition to a new theme. The first three images deal with dominance and submission. Dogs are the common motif. The motif of a bench connects the third and fourth images. In the third image, my agitated dog is standing on a table between two benches in the vet’s office. In the fourth image, the bench next to the garbage can is an example of hostile architecture- the center hand rest is intended to prevent the homeless from sleeping on the bench. As such, it is an expression of dominance and exclusion. The building in the background is a public High School that four generations of my family have attended (inclusion). The image of the pharmacy door with a keypad lock and the digital landscape display continues the theme of exclusion and contains an artificial, romanticized landscape. The landscape of sky/clouds/trees/roof framed by an arch is a reference to Christian Iconography and suggests that nature and home are sacred. This may be viewed as a romanticized take on nature and home- but it contrasts with the artificial landscapes that preceded it. The still life of the silver creamer and card continues the motif of an artificial, romanticized landscape (card: bike and forest). In the dark interior landscape, the family dinner table is in the foreground (inclusion), and the portrait of the romanticized, anthropomorphized, fantasy parrot on the TV is in the background. The headless portrait of my father in our kitchen conveys a sense of estrangement. My 88-year-old father is mercurial, and I never know when age-related cognitive decline will affect his behavior. Plus, he is often in physical pain, so I am constantly aware of his body language in order to get a sense of how well he is doing- hence the isolation of his body. The landscape with the children crossing caution sign reflects a sense of caution related to eldercare as part of aging is becoming more childish. The still life that follows is a ghost bike- a memorial for a bicyclist who was killed close to the bike’s location. Part of elder care is dealing with death. Death of the person one knew and impending physical death. The dead topiary angel blowing a trumpet is my editorial comment on a belief in angels, heaven and the hereafter. The grass seeds highlighted by the sun is a comment on the resurgence of life after death and the bright green tree is life in all its glorious vibrancy. The still life of the broken fluorescent tubes shares the motif of grass with the preceding images and is an approximation of a hallucination. The still life of my therapist’s day planner is a reference to therapy. The last four images are references to aspects of therapy and function as self-portraits.

What is your background in photography?

I was born in 1954 and studied photography and film during the 1970’s-80’s. I worked as a custom BW printer and floater in a commercial custom color lab around 1980-86. My altered SX-70 work was exhibited I n 1986 in a multi-gallery series dedicated to promising new Texas artists. I co-produced an observational documentary about a homeless career criminal/alcoholic/street singer and poet that aired on the local PBS station around 1987.

In the late 1980’s, I faced a choice between devoting myself full time to the production of art or being full time father to three children and a good husband. I chose to give up art.

I was ill between 1992-2006. Most of my early work was lost or destroyed during this time. Between 2006-11, I wrote about my recovery and my experience with all aspects of my mental illness. I am currently polishing the first draft of this autobiography. It has a rough title of “Mental Illness: Lockdown.”

I began teaching myself digital photography around 2012. In 2017, I began submitting images for publication. Three of my images, with accompanying text, were featured on The Broken Light Collective’s website in 2017. Three more of my images are currently on exhibit as part of The Houston Center for Photography’s 36th Annual Juried Membership Exhibition.

How would you describe your work?

I think of myself as primarily a documentary photographer because my work begins with a documentary image of a place, object, subject or space. I use documentary images incorporating various photographic styles to form compilations of compelling images, narratives, commentaries, editorials, and visual diaries.

Sometimes your work uses or juxtaposes a variety of photographic styles. Can you explain why?

My interest in a variety of styles has its’ origin in the stylistic range of the personal and avant-garde films I saw in my youth. Using a variety of styles is also a pragmatic response to the limited range of subject matter I photograph. Also, rather than being tied down to one style, I am interested in developing a lexicon of styles.

Juxtaposing styles in a portfolio can be a variation of cinematic storyboards- instead of action my storyboards reflect perceptions, feelings, perspectives or ideas. Also, using different styles is consistent with how symptoms of my mental illness alter my perception of reality. Finally, juxtaposing unrelated styles can be a surrealistic method that brings subconscious meaning to consciousness.

How has mental illness affected your work?

I am 64-years-old and have dealt with the symptoms of mental illness for 52 years. My current medications effectively control my bipolar mood swings and psychotic breaks. But, past bipolar episodes and psychotic episodes leave lasting scars that affect the aesthetics of my images. For example, elevated bipolar moods increase the saturation of colors and increase my sense of depth perception. Psychosis can make things seem hyper real, fantastic and imbued with special meaning. My images reflect these, and other, altered perceptions of reality.

I also have other symptoms I deal with every day. These symptoms include- amnesia, anxiety, overstimulation, dissociation, paranoia, and hypervigilance. These symptoms determine the how, what, where, when and why I engage in photographic processes.

Amnesia is particularly problematic. I tend to forget my past, new learning, social interactions, and procedural memories after 3-4 days. On bad days, I may forget within hours.

Sometimes, focusing my attention on photography can help reduce anxiety, overstimulation, dissociation, paranoia and hypervigilance. Other times, these symptoms can interfere with my ability to engage in photography.

Is your photography therapeutic?

Every step of the photographic process is therapeutic for me. Some steps help manage symptoms and other steps function as occupational therapy. For example, hunting for images instead of threats turns hypervigilance into an asset. The aspects of photography that require organization can be practice for organizing aspects of daily living. The aspects of photography that require following procedures can be practice for achieving goals and problem solving.

While I do not publish images of family members and family get togethers, they are also therapeutic. Among other things, they help me see family members more clearly.

You talk about hunting for photographs. Can you explain this further?

Humans were hunters and gathers for a very long time. I think of my hunting and gathering as a primal need that began being expressed in early childhood. Photography is just the latest iteration.

I use the term hunting in the dual context of searching and pursuing a prey. For example, searching can include searching for correct camera settings, searching for portfolio images, and searching for the right settings to produce a compelling print.

Pursuing prey means looking for a specific, previsualized image or something that fits into a pre-established taxonomy. An architectural photograph that requires specific lighting is a good example. In this context, the roads I travel are game trails.

Hunting for photographs usually begins by picking a time to take pictures. I can be anywhere, but most often I am running an errand in my car. So, a large percentage of my images are taken from the driver’s seat. Objects in the location I am in shape what I hunt for and the photographic style I use.

You don’t seem to post images of people. Is there a reason why?

Yes. There are personal and technical reasons why my work tends not include people. Personal reasons include- interacting with strangers makes me anxious, the process of getting release forms makes me even more anxious and my family members don’t want their images published.

Technical reasons include vision issues and a medication induced hand tremor. I can’t use glasses and see the entire viewfinder- plus the viewfinder frame scratches my glasses. So, right now, I don’t wear glasses when I photograph. The image I see in the viewfinder is so blurry that it is hard to make out subtle facial expressions.

I use the manual spot meter function of the camera to set the image focus. This takes time- making spontaneous portraiture problematic. Using on-camera flash takes even more time.

My hand tremor poses three challenges- preventing motion blur, making precise compositions and using a computer mouse. To prevent motion blur, I set my camera on manual and the shutter speed to 1/800th of a second. I alter the f stop to provide correct exposure. Digital editing software enables me to correct composition errors. Sometimes, I need to use two hands to control the computer mouse. The hand tremor can also make using a tripod problematic.

Some of your work includes images of dogs. What is your rationale for photographing dogs?

Dogs play a significant role in my life. My mother, who is an invalid, has a Shih Tzu (Spot) that I take care of. Spot was abused as a puppy and has adult behavioral issues. For example, Spot was slapped in the face and will bite hands (including mine) when Spot does not wish to be touched. I work with Spot a couple of hours most evenings. His behaviors have slowly improved over the years.

I am also interested in how dogs move through space and around people- I call this “dog ballet.” I’m also interested in photographing what I call “the unseen.”

What does “the unseen” mean to you?

The “unseen” began with photographs of details of telephone poles. I then started photographing debris I found on the ground, in parking lots and construction sites. I eventually realized my photographs of debris dealt with psychological issues of use, abuse, abandonment, transitoriness, loss, and transformation. The “unseen” category expanded to include other places, spaces or things not normally photographed. It further expanded to include automatic photography- taking bursts of images without looking through the viewfinder and selecting the most compelling images.

What do you want people to take away from your photography?

I produce compelling compositions, portfolios and prints despite my limitations. I hope interest in my photographs will translate into an interest in my writing. My photography and writing can be found at my website.

johneugenepanic.com