Dirk Wales says he loves numbers. "I know where I am with numbers. No tricks. Dependable. They never try to fool me." He also says he hates numbers. "I once fell in love with a woman who loved numbers, money. She thought about it all the time."
But what he really is, is intrigued by them. After photographing numbers for the past few years, he's come to realize that they hold a certain power over people. He's also written down some of his revelations about numbers. For the next month, about 20 of his photographs of numbers, with accompanying text, are on exhibit at Jerome's Restaurant.
Wales has only been "seriously making photographs" for four or five years. As a maker of corporate and medical films--and the occasional animated children's film--Wales has a practiced eye, but his mind "really works in motion." So he started out slowly, bringing a camera along on filmmaking jaunts and taking still pictures in his free time.
On his return from a trip to Scandinavia, he noticed he'd taken several photographs of numbers, mostly address plates, license plates, and signs. He pulled out pictures from other trips--to Aruba, Curacao, San Francisco--and noticed a trend. "I had five pictures from Scandinavia, I had a whole batch of numbers from San Francisco, and I had numbers from the Caribbean. I thought to myself, 'I must be doing this on purpose, this must have some meaning for me.'" So he began to seek out numbers as subjects.
Soon he began to write things down about numbers, "to try to explain to myself what was going on." On a trip to San Francisco, he'd photographed an 11 he found near a filming site. Later he realized the photograph was the perfect symbol for a past romance.
"11 is the number of my lost love," he wrote. "She couldn't stand the idea of one (person) and one (person) making One. Too scary! But she knew that romantically Two was not the right number. So, I told her that for us it would be 11. One beside one made 11. She liked that, but she ran away anyway. No number was strong enough to hold her."
Eventually he began talking to other people about numbers. "I began to listen to other people's feelings about numbers--I began to notice that people had feelings about numbers. Just ask somebody what their lucky number is, or ask them what number they hate."
He started to read meanings into them--"three into two won't go," for instance, referred to love triangles--and to use numbers to ponder the mysteries of life. One of the numbers he photographed served as a sort of answer to a debate he'd been having with a friend. "We'd been having this long-distance letter discussion about truth. Basically, he believes that you can never know the truth, and I believe that you have to kind of accept what's there and just keep your eyes open." One night, as Wales was following the friend to a restaurant, the friend started beeping and pointing at some graffiti. "There it was, under the overpass: '94 false truth.' I mean, this was graffiti, for Christ's sake." The next day he went back to take a picture.
By last winter, he had enough photographs and text for a book. He put together a draft and sent it off to an agent, who thought it needed more work. By spring, Wales figured out a better way of organizing his material: he paired off the photographs, and then added to each pair one of his short writings pondering the significance of numbers. The resulting boards are hanging in Jerome's; Wales hopes that eventually they'll also be published.
"You're always looking at two numbers," he says. "That's important, because it's about numbers, it's not any one number." One of the combinations, about hating numbers, won him first prize at the Printer's Row photography fair this year. He's also sent several off to London and Santa Fe, hoping to interest gallery owners.
Lots of the photos, Wales says, are interchangeable--further proof of the randomness of numbers, which is one of the things he appreciates about them. "One day 11 might be awful, and the next day heavenly," he says. "It's not like these numbers are on just one channel; they're on many channels, like frequency, and we can dial them into our sensibility."
Wales long ago lost count of how many photographs of numbers he has. But despite his obsession, he manages to keep the importance of numbers in perspective: "You can't be intellectual about this. You just have to follow your eyes."
Wales's photos hang at Jerome's, 2450 N. Clark, through November 11. For more information, call 525-7701.