When I set out for my morning walk the sky was overcast and it was foggy; not the kind of morning most people consider good for photography. But I learned long ago that there is no perfect day for photography, every day and kind of light presents potential.
As I walked the path alongside the Grand River everything was blanketed in grey and dark saturated greens. It had rained earlier and the grass and foliage was wet. Nothing jumped out begging to have its picture taken. Then, as I happened to look down, in the grass at the edge of the concrete, I saw the unmistakable yellow flowers of moth mullein, (Verbascum blattaria) a flowering herb named for the resemblance of its stamen to the antennae of a moth. I walked on, but after a few steps I turned around and returned to those two points of bright color, and holding my camera at ground level I took their portrait.
The result is not my finest photograph but it is satisfying nonetheless, and proof that the most inauspicious surrounding offers potential to the photographer who remains open and attentive.
“Religion and Art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and Art are strangers.” Willa Cather
There is much speculation about how the art world will survive the Covid 19 pandemic. Most of what I’ve read centers on the financial devastation that will be incurred. Many galleries and museums are closing, art events and exhibits are being cancelled indefinitely, many university art programs will cease to exist, and thousands of artists are losing income. When the pandemic ends the world economies will have little, if any, funding left for arts and culture
But art and art making will survive. People made art long before money was conceived; long before the concepts of marketing, finance and economics were thought of; long before art was commodified and artists turned into production workers; long before art became a profession and universities offered Master of Fine Arts degrees.
Art making will remain available as a form of meditation or prayer. It can be a therapeutic practice—a way of expressing feelings—a way for the individual, or a group, to express joy at being alive. It can offer respite or a means of protest. It can be bartered for goods and services. It can be done just for the fun of it. Moreover, one’s artwork need not be sold to be valid and meaningful. Art making is its own reward. Nonetheless, artists should expect and demand fair prices when their artwork is sold. And the serious artist must work with integrity and self respect.
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.
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.
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.
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.
NOTE: The following quote, about the late photographer Robert Frank’s experience of looking in America is taken from, The Art of Looking Sideways, written by the renown graphic designer Alan Fletcher. Those of you with much experience photographing in public will likely have had similar experiences. I know I have. Moreover, in recent years it seems to have gotten worse.
Robert Frank spent 1955 criss-crossing the United States, photographing cafeterias, flophouses, shoe shiners, public lavatories, the abraded faces of retirees, assembly lines in Detroit. In the south a sheriff asked him what his business was. ‘I’m looking,’ he replied. He was given an hour to get out of town and in Arkansas spent three days in gaol for the same offense—observation. ‘To look’ was un-American.
Alan Fletcher The Art of Looking Sideways, page 187
It’s the one that got away; the one that didn’t seem worthwhile at the time; the one you didn’t think of taking then but years later you wish you had. Every photographer knows this regret.
I was raised by my great-grandmother—just the two of us living in the back apartment of a dilapidated late nineteenth century, two story house, that was said to have once been a commercial laundry. We lived frugally. We had too. Nothing went to waste.
But there was one luxury we indulged. Coffee. Grandma had to have her morning cup and so did I. I don’t remember when I had my first, but I’m certain I was still in the first or second grade. I loved the sound of percolating coffee and how it smelled as it was poured hot into my mug. It was at its most potent just before I diluted it with half and half and sweetened it with two teaspoons of sugar. Still it retained enough caffeine to jangle my nerves for the rest of the day.
Our morning coffee was taken at a white enameled steel table in our kitchen. We had no chairs for that table. Instead we sat on metal Farmer Peets 50 lb lard barrels. How grandma came to have them I don’t know. But they served a dual purpose—storage and seating. Each was filled with sundry items and the lid of her’s was covered with a thin pillow and mine was topped with two stacked Sears and Roebuck catalogs.
Neither of us was ever photographed enjoying our morning coffee. Grandma didn’t own a camera, and I didn’t get one until I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. But even if we’d had a camera at the ready it would not have occurred to either of us to take such a picture. We’d have thought, no one wants a photo of an old lady or a young boy perched on a lard barrel drinking coffee at the kitchen table. And we’d have been wrong. How I wish I had that picture.
So my advice to every photographer is don’t be quick to dismiss the simple, humble, mundane, discarded, broken, and common. You may miss the picture and regret it.
It is not for me to decide the value of my art except in regard to my personal standards of art and art making. I will know what I think of the work—whether or not it satisfies me. But I cannot perceive what other people perceive. I do not see with their eyes. I cannot feel their feelings. I have not lived their experience.
So it is pointless to think of myself as a success or failure as an artist. Perhaps one day, after I have died, my work will hang in prestigious collections and museums. Perhaps it will all end up in the landfill. I won’t be here to know and it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that my art making is a testament to my decision to mean—that it asserts my existence and brings me solace.
Not long ago I read the French author Patrick Modiano’s novella, After Image. It tells the story of a photographer in Paris who wanted to disappear. He kept his photos, in no particular order, in three suitcases, as he moved about constantly, disappearing for long periods of time—a mystery to all who knew him and perhaps himself. Was he his photographs? Was he carrying himself, wherever he went, in those suitcases?
Modiano is known for writing about memories and how they intrude upon and influence our lives. I too am a photographer, so After Image stirred my feelings and thoughts concerning photography—how it is always an act of creating memento mori—how it is always a conversation between record, perception and memory.
After Image evoked my memories of Paris and the French and caused me to reflect upon who I have become, who I think I was, where I am now and how I got here. What did and do my photographs say? Really? Who do they say that I am? What do they tell me I should pay attention to?
PhotoMart was not a place Architectural Digest would have featured. It was dilapidated, dingy and stunk of chemicals. Its paneled walls were unadorned except for a wall clock and a couple of photographs. A rack of sundry photo supplies and accessories stood against one wall and just inside the front door and below the big plate glass windows there was a long, wall-mounted light box and two chairs that once belonged to a cheap dining room set. Between the chairs sat a single wastebasket, invariably overflowing with discarded transparencies, film canisters, and pickup envelopes.
By the late 1980s I had become serious about my photography and would no longer entrust the processing of my film to a drugstore. I began searching for alternatives. PhotoMart became my favorite.
Whenever I came to claim my images I was eager to tear open the sealed envelopes knowing that each held a plastic box with 24 or 36 fresh 35 mm transparencies—Kodachrome or Fujichrome testaments to my vision or the lack of it. I hoped I’d be surprised but always I worried that I’d have nothing in the batch worth saving. And if I had done the shoot for a client I was doubly concerned. So I’d take a seat at the light box and before leaving I’d contribute my share of discards to the basket. For the serious photographer the rule of thumb was that only 2 to 4 images out of every 36 would be worth keeping. Shooting film was an expensive process.
Sometimes, Marty Kies, the owner, or his son, would greet me at the counter saying, “you got some nice ones this time.” That was always a pleasure. Even more satisfying was talking with them and the other photographers who happened to be there holding forth on techniques, film characteristics, composition, lighting, and working with various photography subjects and clients. There was in this a sense of community.
PhotoMart is now long gone. Today I photograph with digital cameras and do most of my own printing. It is an isolated process. I go from shooting the subject matter to immediately seeing the results on the camera back and I can archive a file or delete it with the push of a button—no mess. The final sorting process is done at a computer monitor. And because I shoot raw files I can adjust them in Photoshop and save images that would never have been salvageable on film. I appreciate all of this and I would not want to go back to the costs and waste of film. But, I greatly miss the community I found at the PhotoMart, and I miss the anticipation, waiting to discover what would appear in those transparencies and negatives.