Identity and Photography

Curwood Castle, Owosso, MI © 2013 Michael Maurer Smith

I have taken many photographs in and around Owosso, the town in which I grew up. And though mine had not been an easy or happy life growing up here, I believed then I knew who I was and how I’d come to be. When I made those photographs I saw them through the eyes of my self identity—confident that I understood the relevance and meaning of what I was seeing, doing and photographing.

My mother died in 2018 but throughout her life she never wavered in her claim that E.M. was my father. He is listed as such on my birth certificate. But my mother and he never married and he played no part in my upbringing. I never knew E.M., and the only time I ever saw him was as he lay in state in the funeral home. I was 23 then, and I am 69 now.

This summer (2019), I took two of the most popular DNA tests, hoping to learn more about my ethnic heritage and my father’s history. I’d hoped to learn who my half siblings, grandparents and cousins were, however, my results showed no convincing connections with E.M., or any of his relatives. But, without going into detail, I was subsequently put in contact with E.M.’s son James and he agreed to take DNA tests from the same companies I had, to determine if we were half brothers and shared the same father. It turned out we are not related at all, thereby proving E.M. is not my father. Moreover, other DNA evidence soon corroborated this. My mother had been mistaken or she had lied.

This revelation was a blow to my sense of identity. And now when I look at pictures I had made in and around Owosso they seem a kind of betrayal and mockery. What other secrets, I wonder, still hide in those images?

Since learning that E.M. was not my father I’ve visited Owosso a couple of times. Each time I brought a camera with me, thinking I might walk about and make a few photographs. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Owosso, has for me, become a ghost town filled with reminders of past lies, deceits and disappointments.

A photograph may be an accurate recording of how the moment/object/subject appeared before the lens but it can never penetrate to the actual truth behind the appearance. At best it may point in the direction of the truth(s).

Before I knew that E.M. was not my father I had taken photographs of his gravesite and the house he lived in Owosso, when he was a boy. Those pictures remain unchanged in appearance but what they mean to me now is radically different. Before, they were a visible connection to the man I believed was my father. Now they have become artifacts that remind me of who I once thought I was, but wasn’t.

The photographer then is well advised to remember that the photograph he or she makes is never the truth that lies behind the image, or hidden in it. Moreover, that truth and meaning is subject to change when new facts become known.

The Price of Art

“Night and Day” (detail) © 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

One of the most difficult decisions for an artist to make is what to charge for her or his work. Let’s consider the following example of a hypothetical painter. 

Janine is an experienced but not well-known artist. She has spent most of her adult life living in a small town in a “flyover” state. In the town there is a frame shop that sells the work of local artists, and a member supported cooperative gallery that limps along on membership fees and grants. Janine has a deep knowledge of art history and has honed her painting skills over a period of more than 20 years, but she lacks formal credentials—having not so much as an Associates degree. But she is not a Sunday dauber. And though she lacks formal art credentials and the recognition of the art world, she is, nonetheless, a real artist. When she can’t make art she suffers—like a mother torn away from her child. It is art and art making that gives her meaning and purpose. And though her art brings her joy it sometimes plunges her into despair and self doubt, causing her to question why she follows this path that demands so much sacrifice.

Janine’s paintings are not conventional, pretty, cute or clever. They are non-representational. She doesn’t paint pictures of adorable puppies or stunning sunsets. She does not study what sells and then conform her paintings to the demands and preferences of the market. She does not make a fetish of technique. She does not paint for an audience and acclaim. She is not an entertainer. Janine paints to express feelings from the core of her being. She finds solace in art making. She uses her art to express and share what is otherwise ineffable. For her painting is visual poetry and inquiry. It is a form of breathing; of being.  

So asking Janine, the artist, the price of any one of her paintings is to ask her to place a monetary value on part of her soul—something she (or any artist) should never undervalue.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

Free Rein Photography

Man hole cover, Auckland NZ ©2010 Michael Maurer Smith

Kate and I were on our way to to dinner at Cin Cin on Quay in Auckland when we stepped into the crossing at the end of Queen street and I seized the moment to photograph the man hole cover in our path.

Nine years later that photo still proffers aesthetic satisfaction and vivid memories of that time and place: what it felt like underfoot, the odor of the sea mixed with cooking smells from nearby restaurants, the beeps and rumbles of traffic, the squawking of the gulls, the waning gold light of the sun about to set and the slight chill of the evening breeze. 

London Transport, Auckland NZ © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

My senses were heightened then, as is always so when one is thousands of miles from home and in an unfamiliar place. Everything was interesting: the tallest, oldest, grandest and most humble buildings; the street people; the monuments; the Emirates yacht tied up in Viaduct harbor; the London Transport emblem on the aged, red, double decker English bus parked alongside the curb. Everywhere there were photographs to be made, if I were open to them. Here the gut, heart and eye had to be given free-rein, and I had to know my camera so well that it was an extension of my thought. I was in the flow, photographing what compelled me and showed some essence of the place; photographing details which experience has taught me often result in more personal, revealing and meaningful pictures. This is when I most enjoy photographing and why I do it.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith  

More Than Megapixels

Written in the Sky © 2013 Michael Maurer Smith

I crossed to the northwest corner at Dewey and Grover streets where sits the house where the Mill’s family had lived in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It had been a beautiful place then.

Mr. Mills restored antique cars and he lavished that same care and attention on his home as he did his restorations. But on this day, more than forty five years later, the place stood vacant. The lawn was overgrown, several of the upper windows were broken and the exterior paint was faded and peeling. 

I’d come to Owosso this morning to take photographs of the neighborhood in which I’d grown up. My plan had been to roam about and photograph whatever caught my attention. As I looked at what had been the Mill’s home, I noticed the vintage television antenna on the roof. It was laying on its side and seemed to be reaching up to the tree above it, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel; the hand of God reaching down to Adam.

The tree’s branches were budding with spring’s promise. In contrast the antenna lay lifeless and cold—an anachronism. It was probably the very antenna that once brought into the Mill’s living room the Lone Ranger, Soupy Sales, Sky King, and Roy Rogers, in black and white, in those days of innocence and ignorance.

Looking through the viewfinder I composed to include the antenna, roofline and branches. I made 3 or 4 exposures and was satisfied. But then, I noticed in the distance, the contrail of high flying jet approaching from the east. I thought, if I could make the same photograph, but this time with the contrail included, it would enrich the meaning of the picture. I returned the camera to the tripod and composed for the same scene again. When the long white line came into the frame I made several exposures to be sure I got a good one. And I did.  

I made a photograph that day that contrasted the natural and the manufactured, the then and now. I had made a photograph that displayed a pleasing arrangement of shapes, tones and lines—a photograph of good geometry. It spoke to the history of the last century and the one we now live in. It is one of the most satisfying photographs I have ever made. And not once during that process, nor since, did I feel I needed more than the 12 megapixel capability of the Nikon D90 I used.

NOTE: This piece was originally written in 2013 and revised 5 November 2019.