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eye strain, lately

I was embarrassed in Grad School to admit that I didn’t really like looking at much photography, the area of concentration for my MFA.  Many of my peers and professors, though, had to know about everybody, see as much as they could, like in the early 70’s when one had to know the names and albums of even the most obscure bands to keep up, to be hip. I kept up with some photographers whose work I liked but I really just wanted to concentrate on making my own work.

When I started teaching photo, I did have to study trends, examine historical and contemporary work, and be able to speak cogently about it to students. The last few years were exhausting, because of the massive quantity of digital work online. There were times I found something I really liked, smart work or work with heart and genuine conviction. But most of the time I was indifferent to what I saw.

I feel the same now, of photography, fiction, and music. There are occasional pieces that stir me but not many. I am even more selective in what I care to look at, now that I have left teaching. The volume of mediocre images is mind boggling. Most of it is blah: emotionless, diffident, nonpartisan. Does it matter to me that some win critical acclaim despite their shallowness? No. Almost every day I receive emails from galleries and online magazines showing work that has no meaning for me at all. I look away, like I do from anything on television (besides the Weather Channel), because it bores me to death.

Am I a cultural snob? Maybe. If I read the first paragraph of a book and the words do not hit me like hail, I drop it on the hard wood floor, thumping it, allowing the pages to fold over awkwardly, punishing it for wasting my time. Music doesn’t get much better treatment, a few bars and off it goes. Photographic works gets less than one second. Say something or don’t bother me.

I am about to start a new project tomorrow and I am very nervous, feeling I need to screw up the courage to start. I have not shot in the US in a long time. How will I relate to my fellow Americans, when I am so isolated here, so unconnected to my own culture? We shall see. I cannot put it off any longer. I must get to work. It would be unhealthy to do otherwise.

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Into the void

Making art, whatever the medium, if done from deep need, reminds me of a young bird taking wing for the first time. The difference is that the bird gains confidence and surety with each flight, until it is as much part of its routine as eating bugs, seeds, or worms. For artists, that surety never really arrives. It is a blind leap each time. Equanimity and composure are illusive; self doubt more often dogs the maker. Satisfaction comes in the doing, with success or failure a mere epilogue, as fickle as wind. 

I have been thinking about Edward Curtis these days, having just finished a very good biography about the resolute pursuit of his dream. His intensity and drive were undiminished by financial or familial pressures. He had a vision and worked to exhaustion to achieve what he could before the inevitable eradication of the cultures he admired, respected, and sought to preserve on glass. Time was his greatest enemy. He could see from year to year the choking and dying of an era, a people, sacred traditions. 

Are artists hardwired to pursue their work, despite the consequences? From what I see and know, I would say yes. It is not a vocation one can walk away from without a great sense of loss. People sometimes ask me, “Are you still taking photographs?” not understanding that making my images is as elemental to my life as breathing. I have tried to imagine how I could continue to make photographs if I were blinded or bed-ridden, though I am not someone who makes pictures every day. Far from it. But, I think about it every day and wait for the spirit to move me to act. When I was younger I had to shoot constantly. Now I need to bide my time and sprint to the finish, like a runner of short races. 

There is rarely glory, often disappointment and frustration, hardly the reward for such self sacrifice. Such it is, though. We do what we do because we cannot do otherwise. 

Gratefully I say thank you, Edward Curtis, for leaving us the stories and images of what is long gone. 

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The shameful hiatus

This respite has been unmerited and irresponsible. If one has the occasional reader, then respect is due and I have been remiss. I apologize.

I am no longer employed. Since I last wrote, I do not think I had committed to retiring. But, the deed is done and I am no longer a teacher. I am happy, fearful of my financial future, but I do not live in Syria and I should count my lucky stars each and every day.

Because I am no longer employed, it is important to do something worthy every day. It would be easy to stay in my pajamas and watch movies on my iPad all day, with a nap in between films, but I have restrained from doing that. I have begun writing a fictionalized memoir which I began in 1984 but left off when I let someone read it and they were frighteningly enthusiastic. This time is different. I write a couple of pages a day. I write with a pen. When the ink from a good pen flows properly, the story is just as fluid. I use a lined black and white composition book which says Composition Book on the outside.

A couple of pages feels right. Nothing too obsessive, nothing that feels compulsory. I have no idea what I will write, as pen moves to paper. That is a wonderful feeling, like the open road, like a photo of Robert Frank that I have in my head. I tell stories that are made up but based on an element of truth, something I have heard. Sometimes the strange events that occur there make me laugh.

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And, now, it is time to visit with my husband as he is employed and he deserves my attention.

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beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings

2/15/2014

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Bittersweet feelings about the turn of events in the last couple of days. I had a large exhibition scheduled for June in Perú and I have had to cancel because of the baggage limitations of the airlines. The airline, Spirit, the worst and cheapest, told me first that it was a restriction on the Peruvian end, an airport restriction. Now I find it is an airline limit. So, to ship the work would cost me $2000.00 each way, for the large crated images and boxed frames.

It doesn’t matter. I really don’t want to fight on every end, overcome so many obstacles in one hemisphere or another, just to exhibit my work. It is not the way things should be, if there is a real appreciation of the work itself. Why should the photographer have to jump through so many hoops to put images up on a bare wall? As one friend put it, “It’s like throwing a party for oneself.”

I am sick of the whole thing. I just like making photographs and creating images. I want to step back from the pressure to exhibit, whether self-imposed or otherwise. No one is knocking down my door to view my work, much less collect it. I don’t want to look for sellers or buyers.

I felt this way 25 years ago when I left graduate school in 1988. I saw the art world as a bullshit game, with success as arbitrary as tiddlywinks. I continued to make my work but began sticking my head out since the advent of things like websites, online galleries, and greater direct communication among photographers online. Then things started sucking me in. I began to show work, look for opportunities, and submit to publications. I have had some very nice invitations from cultural centers, museums, and magazines. I have had moderate success, good success in the view of some.

The nagging dissatisfaction with the process has not changed. My gut tells me that what I need to do is get back to the place where it began.

I want to take pictures.

I want to shoot film.

I want to develop film.

I don’t want to seek out venues.

I don’t want to think about an audience.

And, I certainly do not want to bend over backwards for anything or anybody.

In a way, I feel relief, somewhat liberated and, in another way, sad. It is mixed bag.

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The Times, oy.

2.4.2014

It’s has only been a couple of days since the Super Bowl, a stupid spectacle in my eyes, and the Super Bowl commercials, which are somewhat less irritating. This year I saw the Bud Light one with a retriever puppy and the Budweiser Clydesdales that reduced me to tears. Blubbering after a 6o second spot that promotes the drinking of beer is the height of lunacy but I succumbed.

What was far more annoying was when I heard about the Bob Dylan commercial for Chrysler. I didn’t watch it live, but my husband came into the bedroom after the game and told me about it. He was mildly surprised but I almost gagged.

Bob Dylan, the scrawny anti-hero of my youth. This was the guy whom I have looked up to as the King of Cool, rough around the edges, scornful, and cynical. At the last concert when I saw him live, he refused to even look at the audience but kept his back to us the whole time. Arrogant but at least in keeping with his disdain for convention and his jaundiced view of humanity.

I said, “Chrysler?”

“Yeah,” said hubby, “and it lasted almost two minutes. Weird.”

Then yesterday I watched it. Well, I watched half of it. I could not watch more than one minute. His grizzled grey hair was dyed brown and his accent, very fake cowboy. I tried to believe that he was singing for Detroit, the underdog city. I wanted to believe that he was donating all the money from the commercial to rebuilding a city that deserved to survive, but not because of General Motors, or Dodge, or Ford.

I was just fooling myself. When he started singing about the greatness of America, I wanted to yell, “Hey, what’s wrong with you, you dick? Did somebody tie you up, drug you, threaten you, and force you to get a dye job? What happened to the rebel who knew that this rhetoric about America The Great is bullshit?”

He just sold out. Like Dennis Freaking Miller. One day, a frothing radical, the next a Fox show host.  He became like his own lyrics. He serves somebody, but somebody that smells like a goddamn Republican.

“You may call me Terry, you may call me Jimmy
You may call me Bobby, you may call me Zimmy
You may call me R.J., you may call me Ray
You may call me anything but no matter what you say.

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

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The Times They Are A-Changin’. They certainly are. Fucking A.

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A Truth and The Truth

A fellow photographer and blogger, Lewis Bush, on http://www.disphotic.lewisbush.com, posted a fine article yesterday about truth in photojournalism. One point of his is that no photograph can be trusted as to the message/meaning ascribed to it, for multiple reasons that he describes very well, the least being the manipulations of the image by the photographer him/herself.

Beyond the photojournalistic image, though, I think there is NO photograph that can reveal the truth; it can only reveal a point of view. There is a difference between A Truth and THE Truth. There are photographic images that hint at something that might have existed for that fraction of time. Beyond that, the rest must be left to the viewer to believe or not to believe. Is how we read it based on our biases? Think of other factors that filter the message.

Even snapshots succumb to the need for close scrutiny. We may think them less contrived. And, yet, remember the false smiles, the cheesy kisses, the demands of the photographer on the subject, for example, to simulate a happy occasion.

I like to look at images and see what I think they say.  Sometimes there are gestures that reveal something unintended by the person taking the photograph or by the subject in the picture. We see only one angle and conclude something, which might not be true at all. The photographer may have chosen it because of the message intended. This image is one example of how a photograph can be read or misread.

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I see a grandmother with her hand on her grandson’s neck. They are dressed for a formal occasion, a Communion, a Bar Mitzvah, perhaps a wedding. Her corsage says wedding but I cannot be sure. The background suggests there is a hired photographer with backdrop, props, and lights taking the picture. I assume it is Grandma because both she and the boy have reddish hair, there is that age difference, and there seems to be a close relationship between them. Grandma’s red fingernails draw attention to her quasi-grip on the young boy’s neck. That is the funny part of the image for me, her hand like a ventriloquist’s, holding his dummy.

This is likely an outtake that survived. Had her fingers not been right there, we could have read this quite differently. Perhaps the one chosen from the contact sheets by the family had her hand behind the boy.  But this one made the list of Awkward Family Photos.

Here is another one I like in that same list.

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The members of the family seem prepared with props, wigs, or expressions for the photographer, with one exception, the little girl with her fingers in her mouth. She is caught unready or unsure of what is even happening. Again, the sister or mother’s gesture pressing her two fingers on to the little girl’s shoulder seem to say, “Don’t Move.” The little girl looks a bit nervous, sucking on two fingers, and the balloon just looks sad. To me, to me.

Final thought for the day. Does it matter that we recognize the subjectivity of the photograph? Well, apparently, it does. There is something so convincing about “seeing it with one’s own eyes” that even the most savvy viewer can be seduced by the illusion that it is real or true.

Advertising photography, intended to sell a product, creates a fantasy for us. We may know that, intellectually, but the sales push driven by imagery still works its magic. My current favorite is the Ralph Lauren fashion ad played before and after Downton Abbey, models parading turn-of-the-century-inspired gowns in front of an Abbey-like building. We become the perfect audience prepped for the pitch.

Whatever the image, trust not, at least not completely.

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reverential respect

Right now it is wicked cold. And, the forecast for the week ahead looks worse. Bone chilling temps, -17, real temp, not wind chill. What it was like before furnaces to warm a house is unimaginable. The people who populated these lands, Native Americans, pioneers who settled, must have been very hardy folk. Survival is such work.

In the early ’70’s, I lived in an Indian village in the Andes for a while. The nights were cold, at over 12,000 feet, way above the tree line, so cold that we boiled water to make Jell-O, put it on the wide window sill, and, within an hour, it turned cold and firm. It might get to 10 degrees at night. The room of the house where I stayed had mud floors; the walls were adobe, about two feet thick. I cooked with a primus and there was no running water. About six blocks up the hill, there was clear water, an Incan underground spring with water as pure as pure can be, and very icy. I would fill and carry buckets of water back to the room but, being klutzy, I usually only made it back with two half buckets full.

That was just for a few months. Civilization was only two hours away by truck, which came to the village with supplies at least three times a week. There were dirt roads that were fine. I spent most of the day buying and preparing food, washing, doing chores. I was not a photographer yet, though I used a camera occasionally. The man I lived with at the time was a painter and, as the days passed, the walls soon filled with canvases the colors of the earth and sky, burnt ochres, dark and light siennas, cobalts, ultramarine blue.

The knowledge that I could leave, get to a hospital if I needed, made everything easier. We were there because we wanted to be there. We made choices. One could turn back.

The house in which I sit in now, in front of this computer, where an energy grid I rely on keeps us safe and comfortable, was on Indian Territory two hundred years ago and conditions, for humans and animals alike in winter, so extreme.

Awed.

Chinchero

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Good Enough for Hawking

Perhaps you will think me unhinged, if you don’t already, but I assure you, there is no hyperbole in this post.

This is a story I thought only I knew, until rather recently when my BFF from grade school told me that I had whispered it to her at the time. Thank goodness.

It was dark, a very warm night in the summer of 1960 or 1961. I was about eleven or twelve. I stood under the street lamp on the corner of my suburban block. I was waiting for my best friend’s parents to pick me up in their car to go somewhere special, perhaps to a drive-in movie. She lived only two blocks away and, as a matter of course, we visited each other almost daily. As I stood watching the insects flutter and buzz about in the stream of light, I saw a large flat thing hovering above me with many colored lights. It was triangularly shaped and about the size of the bottom of a whole house. It was low because I could see the sharply molded details in it and the multi-colored lights on the bottom were clear and bright. They blinked on and off a bit, just a little bit. I thought it might be about three house heights above me. It was not far off, not at all. I was mesmerized. After quite a while, in the blink of an eye, it was gone.

I stared, expecting it to reappear but there was nothing. When my friend’s parents arrived soon afterwards, I got into their car. I never told anyone, or so I thought, until I mentioned it to my same friend about five years ago. She remembered that night vividly. She said I had climbed into the back seat next to her and had been very quiet, subdued. She asked me what was wrong and I whispered to her what I had seen. I told her not to tell anyone. I was sure no one would believe me.

I did not remember that I had told her at all. It wasn’t until many years later that it dawned on me that there were no sounds from the thing at all, either while I looked at it or when it disappeared. Stillness.

So there you have it. I saw one.

Last night, I watched Part One of Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking. He spoke about the likelihood of aliens, and the distinct possibility that they could be in our midst already. Call me cuckoo but at least the world’s most noted cosmologist wouldn’t snigger.

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The Art of Repose

Sometimes I worry that when I retire I will never get dressed again. I will just stay in pajamas, really a nightgown, all day long, wandering from room to room, showering occasionally, playing with the dogs.

I hate it when I am obliged to do anything. A commitment to go somewhere, to a play, to a gallery opening, to a party, usually sets up an attack of Dread.

Dread is not reserved for Sunday afternoon; it can extend itself to anything that involves corporeal effort. The mere thought of exercise is abhorrent. I detest doing physical activities. When my husband and I watch the Winter Olympics, I am amazed that people like to do those things and that they can do them. I groan when I have to get up from the couch.

Even when I was a kid, I remember my mother urging me to go out and enjoy the fresh air, when all I wanted was to nestle in bed with my latest Nancy Drew mystery.

During gym class for four whole years of high school, I hid behind the bleachers. A couple of times, Ms Knuth, a very bulky Swedish woman, would find me and force me to climb a rope or balance on a beam. She was an evil madwoman.

Now when people ask me what I do for exercise, I tell them I wear Dr. Scholl’s and chew gum. I just want to play. I relish the time to take photographs or work on them. I like to watch movies and read books. I like to pet the dogs.

What is wrong with that? There are so many groups defending human rights, can’t Relaxing be a civil right? Can Inactive People not be regarded with such open disdain? I have always been willing to sacrifice for my non-sporting lifestyle. I eat less. I occasionally cut out carbs.

One day, I dream, just lounging around will be appreciated.MarilynReading

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the Now

I am slowly emerging from a dark space. To make art and to live Now are the only escapes really.  A friend wrote that “life has a delicate beauty that can inspire and destroy.” Indeed.

I have never learned to live Now very well. It is the past that occupies so much of my mental space. Not the painful past, mind you, just visual memories that come and go. Our minds are so curious.

That is what draws me to the photograph: the fleeting moment caught in time, a fugitive memory made permanent. And, then, if that were not miracle enough, we can view the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. One can return to a piece of paper that defies and transcends time and space. Such magic.

I really love snapshots. There is a freshness and honesty that lightens my spirit. I will leave you with a few I found that make me feel good. They are so Now.

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FishingNetgirl

HappyCleaners

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