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.

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.

More Than Meets the Eye

MMS_20120922_139I have not lived in Owosso for more than forty years now, but on the morning of 9 October 2012, I came for a visit. While here I walked around the old neighborhood I’d grown up in. As I approached the corner of Park and Comstock streets I saw beneath an American flag an A-frame sidewalk sign that read, Shane Thanks For Your Service—the words spelled out in upper case, unpunctuated, sans serif, plastic letters of mixed size—a humble and poignant scene. PFC Shane Cantu had been killed in Afghanistan six weeks earlier.

As a photographer I saw a pleasing composition—the curving yellow curb, Old Glory waving against an azure sky and the flag’s shadow framing the sign. But there was more in this picture.

The sign stood in front of 123 East Comstock street, the current location of Sunnyside Florist. But, in 1948 this was the building in which Clay Reeves began Reeve’s Wheel Alignment. As a Marine Clay had fought on Iwo Jima and was wounded three times. For his heroism he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. And just a few yards up the street, but not visible in the photograph, sits the Indian Trails Bus station from where hundreds of young men and women have left for service in: World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, I was one of them—on my way to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. So it is fitting that Shane was remembered in this place.

When I look at this picture I remember how I felt that August morning in 1968 as the door closed and the bus lurched onto Comstock street. I remember those last glimpses through the window of the quiet town and life I was leaving behind and thinking I might never return.

For me this photograph is a reminder, warning, evocation and image of hallowed space.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith

The Enlightened Window

A little after 2:00 p.m., on 15 December 2005, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I photographed the front window of Evangelo’s Cocktail Bar. It displayed a melange of images taped and painted on the pane, including: a partial events calendar, a cash only sign, an ice blue and yellow hand-painted welcome star or flower, a spindly yellow painting that appeared to be a Christmas decoration, and two Xeroxed copies of photographs originally taken by the renown photographer W. Eugene Smith, during the Second World War, of Angelo Klonis, the founder of the bar. Behind all this a table, or some other piece of furniture, leaned against the glass.

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Evangelo’s Window, Santa Fe, NM

This was not a window dressed by a professional. It was not conventionally beautiful, pretty or appropriate to the season. But it was an intriguing assemblage that called out to be photographed. And for me it was a pleasing find—a Christmas gift.

I find windows fascinating aesthetically and for what they reveal about the people who made them and those who live and work behind them. Windows are historical, cultural, social, political and artistic statements both in their form and by whatever appears on and behind the glass.

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City Lights Bookstore window, San Francisco, CA
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“Storrer’s” (vacant storefront window), Owosso, MI
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1947 Dodge Pickup, Davison, MI

The fundamental purpose of the window is to allow light in but some emit enlightenment. They are portals for vision and imagination. They can be promises, gifts or disappointments. They demarcate the here from there, the then from now. They show, tell and inspire.

© 2018 Michael Maurer Smith