Lonely?

Listening to this weekend’s Prairie Home Companion, it occurred to me just how lonely most of Garrison Keillor’s stories and sketches are. They feature people with no friends who are alienated from family and live in a cold and anonymous world. This week it was a sketch about a man at a party who almost met a girl who had ear buds in her ears because she was listening to opera on her iPod instead of engaging in conversation with her fellow party goers. I began to wonder if these stories were a reflection of Keillor’s own life.

But then it occurred to me that in another context I was accused of the same thing.

I used to post some of my photographs on an art web site. Someone told me that my collection was very lonely, which I initially found to be a strange comment. But after re-examining the collection, I understood exactly what she meant. Most of the images had no people and could be described as empty or desolate. My people – if there were people in the photo at all – were usually faceless. (There’s an example below.)

At the time I attributed it to growing up in eastern Montana, which most people hate when they first see it because it is so empty and desolate. But for many who stick around, they come to love it for its beauty. The trick is one has to learn how to look at eastern Montana (or an alley in downtown Sioux City for that matter) in order to find the beauty that is there.

This isn’t eastern Montana, by the way, but the parking lot of an apartment in which we used to live. Empty? Desolate? Yeah. Lonely? Maybe. But beautiful all the same.

After the sketch about the solitary man and the woman listening to opera on her iPod, a tenor began to sing a piece from Tosca, giving me more time to consider Keillor sketches and my photography. Maybe it was the melancholy strains of Puccini coming from the radio or maybe I’m really on to something, but an alternative theory sprang to mind.

Keillor’s lonely stories and my lonely photographs aren’t a reflection of our individual lives but rather a commentary on modern society. We Americans do indeed live disconnected lives. According to sociologists, few of us have friends while most of us have many casual acquaintances. Few of us belong to voluntary societies where true relationships can be built, and even activities designed to promote that (such as bowling and church attendance, according to Robert Putnam’s popular thesis) have been turned into solitary activities in our society. David W. Smith goes so far as to say, in The Friendless American Male, that our society has become so isolated that very few men have any friends at all.

In such an environment, people are unimportant unless they add some color to the scene, and even when present, their faces are certainly irrelevant.

Does the fact that I take lonely photographs make me lonely? I don’t think so, but maybe my friends (oh yeah, David Smith says I don’t have any, let’s make that “acquaintances”) would disagree. Problem is, I don’t know them well enough to ask.

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