The anti-column

Mission window

For the last several weeks I have been trying to write a column. I have approximately 2,452 unfinished pieces. I look at the titles, think hmm, maybe I have something to say about that now, open up the document, read what’s there, type some words, run out of steam, sigh, close. Repeat repeat repeat.

I changed the title of this blog to The Dark Slide, naming it after a column I used to write for a magazine. I thought, yeah, I’ll do me some stuff and publish it here for those people who said they missed reading about my antics. But all I’ve done is reprint a piece from another magazine, nothing fresh. I have been busy of course.

At the library there are the usual interesting patrons and their unique viewpoints. The person who promised us big money when her judgment comes in so we can build a better library. The guy who thinks the words, “we’re closed” means a leisurely trip to the bathroom followed by the slow slow shuffle out the door. The woman who defines the task her dog does to help her with her disability as, “being cute.”

Project-wise I have been obsessively driving up the coast to a particular spot to photograph a group of rocks. Really, they are pretty special rocks, especially when I dress them up in taffeta and organdy. After months of gathering supplies and breaking out in a cold sweat when I thought of all the things that could go wrong, I actually produced a copperplate photogravure, and it wasn’t an abject failure.

Prior to the gravure, I played with photopolymer film and photopolymer plates. I understand a little bit about the printmaking process–enough to get a passable plate in-between head-scratching failures. I never knew I wanted to do printmaking but it turns out it is pretty compatible with photography. I originally picked it up because I thought it could be a fun way to make a base image on which to build with gum or platinum or crayons.

In an effort to reclaim the traditional male territory in the garage, Sir is building me a darkroom. Or arranging for it anyway. Identical twin contractors are coming at the beginning of August to pick up the project and finish it. Sir conveniently forgets that not all the garage equipment will fit in the tiny new room, and has been annoyed with me several times over the same issue. I guess I will put off telling him I am planning to sell the press I have upstairs and get a bigger one to be store in….the garage.

With all this stuff going on, I thought it would be simple to pound out a few paragraphs about some issue near and dear to my photographic heart. I come up with something–using digital positives, for instance–and go gangbusters on it for 3 dense paragraphs, and then, well, there’s nothing more to say. How about the images I intend to do in gravure? Once again, so much to say for a few minutes until there isn’t. I don’t know if it’s because all I’m really doing is talking to myself and once I figure out the conundrum there is no point in persisting, or it is because I am still in the middle of a process and without a conclusion there is no beginning either.

Maybe it’s because I am having a kind of writer’s identity crisis. Up until a year ago, all the public writing I had done was an important part of a friendship that has ended. There is no longer feedback, suggestions, expectations, deadlines. I can do what I want, which turns out to be a somewhat uncomfortable position. Most of what I have written for the past several years is tongue-in-cheek, even while I envy and admire those whose talents are more literary. The trajectory launched during that friendship has fizzled, and I find that perhaps what I have to say isn’t either funny or serious, it just simply isn’t.

Perhaps I ought to be more optimistic and consider that the position I am in is one in which I am defining for myself what direction is right instead of living on the accolades and opinions of someone else. After all, new directions have been taken, new friends have been made, new discoveries about myself and my abilities have occurred. Maybe my writing will catch up just as soon as I stop trying to impose my will on it in an effort to reproduce the type of expression that was right for a different time.

Next column: sports.

The Boss of Mare Island

This piece was first published in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of View Camera Magazine

It was without much enthusiasm that I developed the 3 sheets of 4×10 film from a recent night shoot. I needed the holders for something else, so I mixed up the pyro and played a game on my phone while the tank cycled back and forth, forth and back. Twice it fell off the base with an almighty crash; the second time it fell, part of the tank came off and I thought the film was done for. My hope was to get something printable, something I could use for alt processes–which require more density than usually available from a night shot–but since I had never accomplished that before, I didn’t expect much. At last I pulled the first sheet out. I stood looking at it for some time–in shock–before exclaiming, “Holy crap!” Sir was immediately on high alert, and I heard him get up from his chair in the living room and head toward the bathroom where I was stationed over the sink.

I’ve been shooting after dark for several years, and at one time fancied myself rather good at it. I knew some film times in my head and became conversant in the use of a few developers. In 2008, I took a class from Tim Baskerville of the Nocturnes, which entitled me to attend his “Alumnight” on Mare Island, which he hosts at least once a year. I’d participated in many of them, but I was beginning to question why since I hadn’t shot a thing at night for over a year. What could there possibly be to shoot or experience that I hadn’t already?

Mare Island Naval Shipyard, in Vallejo CA, was the site of many important operations during both World Wars, although its primary function was the manufacture of submarines. Parts of the atomic bomb headed for Japan were carefully packed and loaded on those docks. It was there too, that the victory ships were fitted before setting out on their voyage to Europe to bring soldiers home. It is a fascinating mix of industry and genteel living, with rows of beautiful white houses with wide verandahs just two streets away from towering furnaces, chimneys, and silos. Many of the workshops and warehouse are still in service, though the base itself has been decomissioned and new housing has sprung up, along with a University based in the old hospital, and a large nature preserve on the south side of the island.

That Saturday night, I walked past the gathering of alumni chatting outside the museum, past the concrete bunkers that cast deep shadows on the road, and past the recent fencing of some of my favorite silos–the ones my daughter once referred to as “ice cream cones” because of their pointed bottoms and rounded tops. No, tonight I was going to avoid the popular spots and try for something new, or at least something I hadn’t shot in awhile. I settled for building 592, a small transformer station whose doors were plastered with PCB warnings. It cast a long shadow along the gravel which underscored a partially lit building in the background. It was brightly lit and figured I could get away with f/16.

As I was selecting my tripod location, I had a visitor–a man with a pit bull pup. It’s unusual to see people out walking on the industrial side of Mare Island after work hours. I said hi, and assumed he would keep on walking, but instead he held out his hand and introduced himself as James. His skin was rough, his fingernails edged in black, and his short dark hair stood in spikes on top of his head. In the low light I couldn’t quite see his features or guess his age. He asked what I was doing and why and then expressed the hope that I would take a picture of him and his dog. I told him my camera was unsuitable for the job so he fiddled with his phone to see if it could be done with that instead. In the meantime, I moved my tripod up a little hill, locked the camera on it, and started to rifle through my backpack for the other bits and pieces. I was slightly alarmed that I would have company for awhile, and I am a little afraid of dogs.

The dog was called Little Girl, a name I thought might become slightly awkward when she reached adulthood. I joked, “What are you going to call her when she grows up?” He cocked his head, looked at me, and said, “Little Girl.” He handed me the phone and posed with the dog, but as I pointed the phone toward them I saw that the camera registered only the brightest lights, and nothing else. Here’s the streetlight! Here’s another one! Here’s…nothing. We gave up on the phone, but not before he asked if I was single. Apparently the dark is kind to me; I am certain such a question would not have occurred to the man were the sun shining. A phone call summoned him to meet his security guard brother and he took off. Oh, I thought, this is an interesting tidbit to relate to Sir.

Alone again, I started the shot of Building 592, which involved covering the lens every time headlights went by on the stretch of road that showed between the two buildings. There was a continuous stream of cars in the little visual gap and the darkslide I used to block the light might as well have been a fan with all that waving around. I started to take risks by opening the lens when the cars passed behind one building but before they exited the other side. Still, my 6 minute exposure took at least 15 minutes, and felt like 90. I was happy to pack up after that one.

I circled back toward my truck, remembering that there were some interesting shadows generated by the trees in the park between Officer’s Row and the industrial area. I was attracted to the selective light on the porch of one of the houses and I chose a spot under the trees that would take advantage of the panoramic view. Periodically the lights in a house behind the one I was shooting blinked on, filling a dark area in the composition, and I hoped they would register on the film. I used a 210 mm lens and shut it down to f/22. The shot was 35 minutes and I remembered how tedious it can be to shoot at night. I paced, I read on my phone, I counted cars, I investigated possible shots close by, and wished I’d brought a snack or hot beverage. I know Sir would have remembered, had he any interest in night photography, which he does not.

Packing up, I mentally toured the island and thought perhaps a shot of some of the buildings near the dry dock would look good on 4×10 so I set out to look. I scouted some overhead structures, and the conning tower of a submarine, along with corrugated iron buildings and quonset huts, each of which had the potential for a great shot. But then, near the water, I saw a magnificent shadow, cast by a crane, crawling up the brick of a warehouse. Setting up the camera, I watched a young boy walking about in the company of a man with a wonderful long grey beard. I briefly wondered why they were there; they seemed so very out of place. Getting the focus was a delicate and frustrating dance between the subject, the lens, and the ground glass. How about a little tilt? Perhaps a tad of rise? Surely a pinch of shift? That long rectangle is an unusual proportion sometimes difficult to satisfy: the film area can be too long for the focal point so that the ends become superfluous, or it can be too short and the picture lacks appropriate context. In the dark it’s hard to tell which end of the spectrum you’re exploring. At last I was satisfied–or in any case, the shot was in focus. I stopped down the lens to f/32, opened the shutter, and got ready to amuse myself for the next 30 minutes.

The boy was back–alone, chattering to himself, his jacket wrapped around his shoulders, his bare arms free, his hands adjusting the black ball cap that shrouded his eyes. He looked through the chainlink fence to the dry dock–empty–and then turned to me. pushed up his cap, and said he had been on the last battleship that was repaired there, but it had sunk soon after. “But my uncle and I were canceled off it so we didn’t die.” Then he pointed to one of the cranes and said, “I climbed up there with my dad one time and he let me drive.” His dad knew where he was, he told me, but he wasn’t allowed to climb the fence–though one time he had and he helped the men there repair a battleship. He fingered the American flag pin attached to his t-shirt. “See this? I was in 1000 battles and I got this. And I’ll get a different one and a ribbon when I am in 10,000 battles.” He gave me details about torpedoes, guns, blasting holes in ships, but it always came back to battleships battleships battleships, and his exploits with his uncle. They were a team.

My new friend was 7 years old. I explained how impressed I was by his exploits at such a young age, and I wasn’t joking. The breadth of his imagination was boggling and he reminded me of one of my son’s friends growing up whose stories are still a source of wonder to me. But then he told me, “You know, I’m the boss of Mare Island.” “Oh?” I said. “And what do you do as boss?” “I have an office in that building over there and I tell the workers what to do. I have my own Jeep. In 50 years there will be a new battleship built here and I will get to see it.” Being nosey I asked about where he lived–Clear Lake–and why he was here–visiting friends–and did he have to go to school–yes. But all that factual stuff was clearly much less interesting than weaponry, targets, construction, ships. I wondered what I would do when the shot finished and he was still there. But I didn’t need to worry because soon someone was calling “Robert? Robert!” He said to me, “I guess you know now my name is Robert.” With a little nod, he walked off to join his dad, who was busy admonishing him about his whereabouts. I smiled–his wanderlust had helped delightfully pass a full half hour.

I was sad to see him go, but I finished up my shot and decided to call it a night. It was late. Three large format shots had taken me over 3 hours and I was certain none of the exposures had been any good–it had been too long since I had shot at night and in all likelihood my times were faulty. As I drove home I thought I wouldn’t bother to come out at night again, the appeal having faded. I used to relish the cool air, the solitude, the emptiness, the odd light sources and unpredictable shadows. The dark used to echo something I felt inside with which I identified; it held a kinship for me that seemed to be slipping away, the resonance fading. But not completely, it seems, as I was soon to find out when I pulled the negatives from the drum.

Sir looked over my shoulder.
“What is it?” he asked. “Have you poisoned us with developer?”
“No,” I replied, “Just look at this.”
“Um, what am I looking at? It looks pretty negative to me.”
“Ha ha. Very not funny. This is one of the best night shots I’ve ever taken.”
“Congratulations. I’m going to go back to watching the news.”

The negative I held in my hand–carefully!–was the crane shadow. The building was sharp, the shadow defined. Hell, most of my verticals were even parallel. And best of all, enough density for a ziatype, platinum, or carbon print. Then I pulled the second negative from the drum–the officer’s house. The porch was there, and the light from the house behind it had indeed registered on the film between trees, counterbalancing the brightly lit house and the dark foreground. I tried to contain my excitement. The final sheet, building 592, showed a glowing little building with shadow detail and a large building in the darkened background. One car had made it through, creating a not-unpleasing line of light.

Three sheets. Three keepers. Wow. I have never been that lucky before. Maybe the secret is to stop caring about the outcome.

Or be blessed by the Boss of Mare Island.

When you’re strange

chick and eye.jpg

Today I bought a pair of mannequin arms, described as “female.” How does the seller know this? Is the plaster for these female arms more tender, paler, nicer, and more graceful than the vats of glop devoted to the male figures? Do these arms have a voice, softly crying out for the appropriate torso with its perfect size 0 shape? Or is it as I suspect, just a more petite version of the “male”? I note a remarkable similarity in the pose of the hands between those sold as male and those as their opposite. Each have gently cupped hands, prepared to hold a duckling, book, or machine gun clip, depending on venue.

The gender of the arms makes little difference to me; I am interested in the shape of the hands and the smaller ones suit my purposes better. (Maybe they’re actually the arms of a teenage male. I am bothered by arms with a sex–can’t they just be small, medium, and large?) Actually, I’m not so sure about that. What am I doing with them again?

Recently I have been trolling the junk stores and unusual product shops. One, The Bone Room, sells all manner of skeletal parts, old medical tools, taxidermied specimens, icky things in jars, and fossils. Last time I was there I bought a prosthetic eye. As you do. It seems in line with my former purchases of a little stuffed duckling (charming and macabre at the same time), and the unbodied arms. I will put them together in a tableau of some sort that will come to me while I am doing it.

When I was a painter, I did enjoy a still life. The objects don’t move, I could leave them set up indefinitely (provided I did not use the kettle as part of the composition as I once made the mistake of doing), and just slight changes in position radically altered the painting. In a photograph the same principles apply. However, in a painting, the very paint tells a story about what it forms through the brush strokes and its manner of application. The resulting texture is tangible as well as visual. For the photograph the choice of lens, film, camera, and processing add up to the image. Few people look for much physical texture in a print beyond perhaps an art paper and once photographs get dimensional they are called something else, like collage or mixed media or horrible.

I am not entirely sure how I ended up here, putting together the grisly and the beautiful. It’s not like I am the first, but certainly it is new territory for me. When I have moved on to the next series and some time has passed, I may be able to look back and identify what it was I was trying to tell myself, or what I was working out through photographs. Was it the tough time my daughter was having and my feelings of powerlessness? Was it the acrimonious split with a close friend that drove me to make demented tableaux? Perhaps it was the decision to contact a woman with whom I had not spoken for 6 years. Each of those situations warranted many pages in my journal as I asked and re-asked the same questions, probing my own mind for my errors, areas for improvement, peace, and making my diary the dullest reading ever.

What every difficult situation in my life has in common is thwarted communication. I cannot make myself understood, cannot figure out how to be heard, cannot get past my own fears to speak up. None of our abilities work in isolation and when one is shut off, like our senses, the others compensate. What I cannot say, I can see. What I don’t hear, I can sing. What I am blind to I can feel. We find a way through, even if we do not recognize it; we articulate what we feel in ways we do not realize.

Psychologists who work with children often use objects to communicate with their young patients. When I was a teen my family had a janitorial business and one of our clients was a psychiatric clinic. One doctor’s office was chok full of figures and toys; a sand table and easel; reams of paper and assorted pens and crayons . I never touched anything but what a playland it appeared to be. One’s attraction to particular objects as an adult is no different than to a child, but somehow what seems clear in a child’s choice is not so obvious in an adult. Or maybe what it really is is that those adult choices are more cryptic to the creator than to the observer.

There is a difference in choosing objects with which to express a particular idea, and just choosing things that are attractive right now and making a picture out of them. I have done both, and more often the former. I want to talk about joy, or loneliness, or beauty. I want to express the space between things, the distance to something, the negative shapes created by deliberate arrangement. I am not someone who learns by doing, I am of the learn by observation school, so taking a bunch of objects and seeing what happens when I make a picture with them is scary to me; I prefer to think it through first.

Perhaps, then, what I am really doing is revealing my personal psychology to the observer while it remains obscure to me. There is little that could artistically feel more frightening. What’s next is a stranger looking knowingly at me, nodding as I attempt to explain my views, yet knowing I do not really know them as the stranger does. Or not yet. This leaves me with three choices: keep doing it anyway, do it and keep the images to myself, or stop doing it and try pretty–but for me empty–landscapes.

There is one thing in my arty life that is constant: I don’t stop doing what scares and excites me. I follow the fear because that is the road of growth. I don’t do it anywhere else in my life, but creatively there is no other worthwhile path. Bring on the eyeballs, limbs, taxidermied chicks, and mountains of taffeta. This trip is not about what others think of my play, but what I get out of it myself.

Watch out for those female hands. They’ll be doing something freaky in my next tableau. I just don’t know what.

It’s too late to be famous

 

still life for carbon 3a

When I was a child my life ambitions vacillated between wanting it to be discovered that I was a princess being raised by the wrong family, and simply being famous. At age 55 I am forced to admit that the former is untrue and it’s too late for the latter. Perhaps infamous is still doable, but famous requires work. Or at least the famous I wanted to be–the one where people buy your work and at least one piece is in a museum.

I have always been the creative type. I found out at a young age that being busy making something in my family meant I was left alone. I was the middle of 5 children, and alone time, as an introvert, was precious difficult to get and oh so necessary. I made clothes for my dolls, knitted this and that, later made clothes for myself, always always wrote–journal, poems, letters, stories. Later I quilted, embroidered, needlepointed, painted, and sketched inbetween learning small engine mechanics (my dad’s idea, not mine–but I had a talent for it) and photography. Making things has been something I am compelled to do, not something I elect to do in my spare time. I don’t have much choice in the matter and over the course of my life I have learned to measure my mental state by looking at my creativity, because, like everyone else, I am adept at deluding myself into thinking I am “fine” when I am not.

If I were to measure my worth based on sheer volume of crap I’ve made, then baby I’m a millionaire. Most people I know own–or at least have been given as I do not know the fate of objects once they pass from my hands–at least one thing I have made. My mother has multiple things, many of which perished in a house fire in 2004, so I have had to replenish her supply. As my mommy, she says she loves it all. I am not convinced it is worthy of such praise, but hey, it’s out of my garage so I’m thankful for that. My daughter also has a lot of stuff along with each of my siblings and many friends. And there’s still a shitload still in my house. I recently pitched a bunch of old canvases which I stupidly told some people about and they were horrified. I assure you, I kept the good stuff–all that was crap waiting to be painted over. Really.

Lately I have been feeling a great deal of time pressure. I don’t know how much time I have left to haul large format gear all around creation taking shots; how long I will have the energy to do it; whether I will feel as compelled to do it 2 years or 20 years hence. I don’t know if it will matter then, but it seems to now. I am as driven to create as I ever was but, when I was in my 30s I had loads of time. I don’t anymore. I am running out of years to put in the work required to Be Famous.

On the other hand, part of me doesn’t give a shit. When I was a kid I made stuff simply to make it. Later I made stuff so I could get what I wanted but either couldn’t find or couldn’t afford. Then I started making stuff to say something. That was a great place to be because I felt my work had meaning, if only to me. Now I have arrived at a place where what I have to say is a mystery even to me. I lay out the work I am compelled to make and I don’t know what I see. By this time in my life I should have settled on a style, a metaphor, a direction and instead I am more confused than ever.

I have to let go of the notion of being famous. It will come or it will not and neither should effect the work. Growing older means letting go of a lot of stuff: a svelte shape, good eyesight, career goals, friendships that no longer work, and yes, being famous. Instead, I need to embrace the place I am creatively. Perhaps my confusion is simply the cusp of a new creative output of which I yet know little. After all this time as a creative person you would think I had learned to trust the process and instead of worrying about where I find myself, be excited. I’m working on it. That’s all I can do.

It’s not just a truck–it’s Wanda

Fifi, 4x5 Fuji Acros

Fifi, 4×5 Fuji Acros

 A few weeks ago I got a new truck. Sir was fed up with my taking my little car over the dirt roads of the Alabama Hills and through Death Valley, and the fact that it seemed to be a magnet for accidents. As we were having coffee one morning, waiting to pick up my car from its fourth trip to the body shop, he suggested I trade it in for something more suitable. Like a tank. I didn’t know I was in the market for a new vehicle, but he figured the next hit and run would be the death knell for the car anyway; I’d been hit twice by persons unknown, once by a neighbor, and once by a maniac on the freeway. Then there were all the times I had scraped the vehicle on the fence or the garage cabinets, rolled over large objects in the road, and otherwise put the car through trials it wasn’t meant to face. It was a dainty car, not a utilitarian one. I needed a useful vehicle, not a looker.

Vehicles are part of your life, part of who you are, attached to your destiny and your past; they reflect who you are to some degree too and if you don’t care about what you drive, your car says that too. My early life, seen from the perspective of cars I’ve known, is rich with memory and nuance because all my family rode in those vehicles together, like sitting around a mobile dining table. There was the station wagon my brother made up a 1-line song for (“roof-rack car, roof-rack car, roof-rack car”); the one with the then-very-novel sunroof and diesel engine; the pick up we rolled around in the back of, playing “flexibility”; the van that sang a rhythmic tune –ka-kunk, ka-kunk, ka-kunk–as it rolled over the concrete slabs when we went to the beach; the one in which my toddler brother’s forehead got sliced open when we came to a sudden stop, the lack of seat belts propelling him forward to the dashboard (my mother tells me he pulled out all the stitches), and the one that towed our boat to Mexico and back. And then there was the legendary darling, Fifi.

When I was a teenager, my parents had a turquoise blue Citroen Deux Cheveax two seater truck-van. This was the famous little Fifi, symbol of our move into the past when when we left a comfortable home in California and settled on a farm in southern France. A farm without indoor plumbing, running water, or heat; a chemical toilet in the barn, and a wood burning stove. She rode high in the back and the front seats were made from the kind of spring system you find on a cot or a bunk bed. They bounced wonderfully over all the bumps in the country roads and when with age they got rusty, they had their own song to sing. The yellow headlights could be adjusted with a manual crank so that when the truck was loaded they didn’t shine in the oncoming drivers’ eyes. Eminently sensible. The windows didn’t roll down, they were hinged in the middle and folded. Changing gears involved a delicate and intricate dance of pulling, pushing and rotating the stick that extended from the dash rather than the floor. It had a 90 degree bend at the hand end and a fist-sized black ball to grab. It looked like a head being tortured on an amusement park ride as it went this way and that. I imagined painting eyes on it and a mouth in the O shape of a permanent scream. I was fascinated by the seeming patternless contortions the driver made that stick shift perform.

Fifi took pigs to the abattoir, chased down a stray horse, hauled topsoil and manure, brought home our new dog Blue from the pound, brought tools to work areas on the backwoods track, and helped take rocks from the neighbor’s fields. We transported a hind quarter of beef one time, picking it up in Devon from a family friend, crossing the channel, and driving the several hundred miles from the port to our farm in Languedoc. She carted furniture from my grandmother’s house in England to the kitchen in France; school children to the beach, and the luggage of visiting friends. It was in that truck that my brother tried to strangle me because I made fun of his drumming skills. And when the moped ran out of gas, she came to the rescue.

Fifi carried a new Rayburn stove from England to France on one occasion. My mother and grandmother waited to board the ferry for crossing the channel, arriving in the dark early morning hours to be sure of getting on. The sun came up and others began to arrive and the pair left the truck to find some hot coffee and breakfast. When they returned most of the cars that had arrived hours after them were busy being loaded. Like the grocery store, the lanes were moving at different rates and my mother couldn’t decide which was quickest. She agonized over her choice and finally picked a lane that seemed to be moving well. But, true to form, the person in front had a problem. A big, time-consuming, patience-devouring, frustration-producing problem. The solution took so long to arrive at that in the end the only car not to make it on the boat was little blue heavily laden Fifi. As the ferry operated just once a day, my mother and grandmother were forced spend the night in the truck or sacrifice their spot. Nan stretched across the front seats and mum spent the night on top of the stove.

That little van brought me home from boarding school on the weekends, hauled water from the spring when the municipal supply had been cut off, was harnessed to the plow horse when the tires spun in mud, witnessed a lot of my teen tears, and carried my father to the train station to say goodbye to me when I left home at 17. He was drunk, sorry, and sad; it was one of the most poignant and painful experiences of my life.

Some years after I had left home, poor Fifi met her maker while my mother was driving yet another pig to the abattoir. There was an accident, and she remembers grain spilling all over the road and being worried about it. My poor brother had to be cut from the front seat and taken to hospital, though fortunately all he suffered was a broken nose. The pig had been the joint project of my dad and the mayor, and when the latter discovered that the pig had never made it to the slaughterhouse he went straight to the farm, rousing my sick father from bed. “The pig!” the mayor yelled, “all that time and money and no pig!” “What?” replied my dad. “Where is my wife then?” “Oh she was in an accident. Tell me, what are you going to do about the pig?” The mayor was still going on about the lost animal 10 years later, while in the barn the remains of Fifi gathered dust, stacks of firewood, sawdust, and nesting birds. Someone bought her carcass in 2009, when she was 33 years old. Fifi lives on somewhere still.

I first learned to drive on our Massey-Ferguson tractor when I was 16, but I was fully 23 before I actually got a license. My first car was a 1970 Volkswagen beetle. I drove it from North Carolina, where I bought it after I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Soil Science, out to California, to the town where I grew up. My brother once got pulled over in it and I can’t quite recall the circumstances but somehow the fact that we have the same initials, and obviously the same last name, meant he didn’t get a ticket. I too got pulled over in it, right in front of the police station, and given the full battery of field sobriety tests. The officer couldn’t believe I had had only one drink, since he’d seen me walk out of a bar at 1 am. I worked in the attached liquor store and had had my free drink before leaving to come home. I had also waited at least an hour between drinking it and getting behind the wheel because I knew the reputation of our petty small town cops. Ha. No ticket, just an admonition to get my California tags.

I’ve had several vehicles since then, all but one a dark blue, but nothing bigger than a wagon, which was as soccer-mom as I was willing to get when my kids were growing up. I don’t like vans and I refuse to drive an SUV. In one way or another I have identified with every car I have had. There was something I loved about each one, and something I wanted to change. I vacillated between wanting a vehicle that was suave, and one that was utilitarian. Some days I wanted to fit in at the swank shopping mall down the freeway, and other times I wanted to flip off the same set of people. A truck is something altogether different. At least for me.

For the first time in my life I have been able to chose a vehicle that points me in a certain direction, a direction I have been yearning for lo these 20 years and more. I am headed toward the artist’s life, the one where I devote my time to creativity, the gathering of ideas, the exploring of territory. My truck tells me I am serious about this photography lark and here is the tool for the job. The truck is the foundation on which my journey will be built. My dad would have been all for it, had he lived to see the day. My pops was all about the tools and having the right one for the job. And he loved him an adventure. After all, he was the guy who got a job playing with dynamite in Australia simply by telling the foreman that he had worked for British Rail. He also went through 3 months supply of the stuff in 2 weeks by using it for fishing. He was fired.

 Yes, it is only a truck and it isn’t necessary for me to have it in order to be an artist. I know this. But it is a symbol, and symbols can be the impetus to action, a way to believe in oneself and one’s destination. My truck is the representation of my intention and it is part of how I will get there. Like the beloved and long lived Fifi, I think my vehicle will be a touchstone for memory and image when, in future years, I look back at this time. That’s how deep it feels.

 I’m calling her Wanda.

A does not lead to B

 

memorial

Some mornings –or afternoons– I wake up thinking about a project and wonder how in the hell I got to the present point. I compare where I started with the current location and can barely see the correlation betwixt the two. Kinda like having a baby and two days later she calls you from jail. Or thinking that your vacation of a lifetime will be to exotic locales but you end up in Cleveland. Or that new stove that turns into a garage conversion and a new fence. So I shouldn’t be surprised when this happens with a project, but I still never cease to amaze myself.

I’ve worked in a lot of different media and I know that the initial path I choose for a project is usually not the one I’m on when I finish. Along the way, as the project and I become friends, or more often frenemies, things change. Perhaps Ms. Project doesn’t like a color or texture or juxtaposition and so I change this or that to quiet her voice in my head. Still, when I start with a painting I end up with a painting; if I cut a bunch of fabric shapes I end up with a quilt; if I train my camera on something I end up with a negative. So how come my latest project started with a camera and ended up a sculpture?

What I wonder is, at what point does an artistic undertaking cease to be a viable project? Where is the line that I cross and say, Nah, this isn’t where I want to go? Do you just go there anyway? Let me elucidate. I started with 9 images of roadside memorials. Actually, 8, but I knew I’d find that last one at some point. I shot them on MF film over the course of a couple of years, and they were too small to contact print. I planned to projection print them at 5″x5″. First the images were lith prints mounted on wood with wax on parts of the surface. Ok, but not thrilling. Then they were transparencies on a colored ground. Not bad. Next, transparencies on top of gold paper and under glass. Now we’re getting there. Currently they are trying to be glass dry plate positives on top of a piece of gold /bronze painted wood, the two layers held together with copper. The reverse side of the wood is painted and then covered in wax with a blue thread running through it and all nine are dangling from the barrel of a gun that I’m holding to my head while juggling wet cats. Well, not that last part. Plus some of the parts that came before that are still largely in my head. My point is, that’s where I want the project to go (before the gun part) if only I could get the dry plate part to work.

I thought I had the deal down when I first enquired on a social media site about where to get the glass for dry plate, and I was directed to get in touch with Mark Osterman of the George Eastman House. As he pointed out, many of my trials would have been short lived had I been able to pop over to the GEH and take a workshop. However, there is the small matter of my being in California and it being in New York. That’s 3000 miles, people. No is chump change. Anyway, the poor fellow has been trying to help me out via the miracle of the internet but methinks I need a miracle of an entirely different calibre. He has guided me through cleaning the glass, heating the plates and emulsion, pouring the plates, chilling and leveling the plates, etc. In the process, I wasted so much emulsion that I went through the whole 250ml without getting but 4 decent images, and I needed to buy more. Unfortunately, I had to change brands.

Oy vey! The new brand (because the original brand was no longer available in the US) proved to be a disaster as the emulsion was opaque and seemed to act as its own filter. I projected my image onto them in the darkroom as I had before  but to my horror, the images on plate after plate were murky and grey before they began lifting off the glass in the developer and sliding into oblivion in the fix. Fed up, I slammed one plate with a full minute fully open under the enlarger to see if I could get any black at all. Oh yes. There is was….and….going, going, gone. I should have used that floating image to make some groovy new emulsion transfer wacky distorted spontaneous serendipitous cosmic-mistake lo-fi ART. I missed my chance.

Next step was to try my hand at making my own emulsion. It took a couple weeks at least to get all the stuff together and order in the chemicals and so on. And then to find an adequate chunk of time in which to play mad scientist. Which unfortunately I became when I discovered that I had managed to severely fog the entire batch of emulsion, rendering it useless. Of course there are 514 ways I could have mucked it up but I think what I actually did was get careless about light when I was popping in and out of the darkroom. Or it was the green power light on the hotplate that I neglected to cover. Possibly the bag I put the emulsion in to chill it in the fridge. Could also have been too high heat. Maybe I shouldn’t have been playing Candy Crush Saga on my phone in the darkroom. Or smoking a cigarette while using the flashlight to look for the earring I dropped.

I could quit now and shelve the whole project since I seem to have embarked on a hopeless and ridiculous journey for which I have neither the skill nor patience to complete. Or I could try again, since I still have silver nitrate, and see if I can actually do this right. What’s the motivation to choose one over the other–the doing versus the not doing? Is this dratted project worth it? For all my effort, it still may turn out to be garbage. Or, more likely, something only I like and everyone else thinks is meh.

I choose to continue because I want to finish this mofo. That’s what drives me. The idea in my mind still has the power to motivate me to try again, and again, and…again. I am frustrated, irritated, and stunned that I am still with this project despite being out in some creative pasture that I never knew I’d find, much less try to cross. I cannot know if the finished piece will say anything to anyone but me, but it isn’t the thought of reaching others that motivates me–that’s just a bonus. Each of the 9 memorials is special to me, each is evocative, and as a whole they have the power to say something that has meaning to me, if only I can get there.

Naked isn’t Nude

The unclothed and semi-clothed female form has been used to express both lofty ideas and carnal desire for as long as art has been made. There is a thin line that separates the depiction of justice from desire, sex from mercy, and truth from eroticism. While I could get all feminist and strident on the subject, I will instead try to explain how I see the difference.

Women’s bodies are attractive, arousing, and comforting to men and women alike, regardless of orientation, and for reasons best explained by Carl Jung, not me. It is not surprising that unclothed and semi-clothed women show up in a multitude of poses in a multitude of settings. At times the message in the image is clear and at other times it is jumbled; sometimes the model is naked and sometimes she is nude.

Art, sensuality, and sex are closely linked. It is not surprising that many artists have had sexual relationships with their models, and these liaisons have created some very memorable and moving pieces that, perhaps ironically, are not about sex, but about love, tenderness, and vulnerability in addition to their explorations of shape and form. Wyeth’s Helga paintings for instance, or Weston’s portraits of Charis show the depth of feeling these men had for their muses, morals aside.

Apart from the use of the female body to express the deepest and most tender emotion, woman has also traditionally been employed as a symbol of justice, truth, and honesty. Semi-draped Lady Liberty, for instance, is hardly dispensing sartorial or relationship advice from her perch in New York Harbor–instead she stands for the ideals on which our country was based. Lady Justice is also scantily clad in most of her depictions for the same reasons–Justice should have nothing to hide but should at the same time show mercy. It is no coincidence that our language embraces this symbolism as well with expressions such as, “the naked truth”, “bare justice”, “the unadorned truth” and so on.

We see a lot of different things when we look at an unclothed woman, and while we may easily see the symbolism and the inherent form in the roundness of her body, we also see her through the filter of our own experience. It is that experience that often leads the way in composition and paves the road to our peril, for photographs of the bare body will show what we may want buried like no other subject matter. It is in that little, often unconscious, pit where the difference between naked and nude resides.

For me, the definition of ‘naked’ is a picture in which the unadorned female is gratuitous, whereas ‘nude’ is a woman whose lack of clothing is integral to the message, which may, in a semantically confusing way, express naked emotion. Darn you, English! If a picture is stronger without the model, or the model could easily be posed another way for a better picture, it’s likely you’re looking at a naked woman. If, on the other hand, the presence of a figure is central to the image, and cannot be removed without losing the composition, or if posed differently weakens the piece, she’s probably nude.

Naked pictures can show how the photographer feels about the model’s body, what the model represents to him, in an erotic sense. Maybe she’s just wearing high heels, perhaps her drapery dangles between her legs, maybe her tongue is out, perhaps she’s leaning against a horse. What would it say if those high heels were battered or old fashioned instead of shiny stilettos? What if the horse weren’t even there? Or the woman? Alternately, a naked woman may be trapped somehow–in a hole, under a table, closed in a car. What kind of picture would it be were those women posed in a way that showed anguish, fear, defiance, resignation, or fury?

Naked pictures also often show heavy-handed symbolism, just in case you missed the message that the photographer is aroused or angered or hurt by unclothed women. Or they show attempts at making a naked woman into a “fine art nude” (which seems only to be a declarative statement that the photographer is not making porn, though it’s hard to tell). You might see bottles of alcohol, knocked over glasses, an arched back, or a coy look. Some tricks to arty-up a naked picture may include soft focus or the use of alternative techniques (an ambrotype of a naked woman is still a naked woman, just taken by a person who knows how to pour plates); the presence of props that are supposed to show she’s brainy–a book or glasses for instance; hard surfaces to set up a contrast between it and the softness of the body; or my favorite, the naked woman with her face covered.

Nudes, on the other hand, transcend the nakedness of the model. What you see is the beauty of form, the conversation of shape. A nude can be slender, she can be heavy, traditionally beautiful or conventionally ugly, but her body always has something to say. A nude may not show those parts that are uniquely female; a nude may be largely androgenous; she might be fully relaxed; she might be raw emotion. Possibly there are props or context where they lend something to the story, but you won’t find superfluous objects. The relationship described may be between the body and its surroundings, or the body and its parts.

The truly extraordinary nudes show not only the beauty of form and shape of the female body, but also express the emotion that flows between the model and the photographer. The viewer is privy to the depiction of vulnerability and strength, sensuality and tenderness, nakedness and respect, and the purity of human connection. We couldn’t see this as clearly with a clothed woman, or pull it out of even the most clever arrangement of objects. An extraordinary nude shows us the best of our humanity, where woman is treasured and revered, no matter how she looks.

In the end, a naked picture makes me feel old, fat, and unattractive but a nude lets me see the enduring beauty of the female form at any age and any condition. A naked woman makes me realize my loss of attributes whereas a nude shows me they never fade.