Photographs Not Taken and Photographs Stolen

There was an image that I did not take when I was in India this winter, but the image is burned in my memory.

I did not take it on purpose. It was the kind of photo that I would have felt unkind in taking, a moment that would have been nothing more than exploitative gawking. But the moment and its full context unfolding in front of me was just too overwhelming in an East-meets-West/cognitive dissonance kind of way.

R. and I were in the northeast mountains of India, in an area that you had to have a special permit to travel in, called Sikkim. We were visiting one of the famous Buddhist monasteries there, and this was the only monastery that we visited where there were armed guards with machine guns outside the gate (and for those not versed in things political in India, those guards were not there to protect the monks). The whole place had a very different feeling–repressed, strict, somewhat unfriendly–than any other religious site we had visited. We had walked around most of the grounds, and were about to wind up our visit and get back into a rented car for a multi-hour bumpy ride on roads-that-are-not-roads. We were headed back to the main gate outside the monastery when I saw the woman with the bamboo basket.

First, a contextual note: on roads winding up mountains we saw for miles and miles the same scene playing itself out. A slight woman or man–but most usually a woman–carrying a basket on her back with a strap that wrapped itself from the basket around the top of her head, with the basket’s contents almost certainly weighing as much if not more than the person. In more populated areas we would see the same slight frames carrying impossible loads of other people’s luggage, barefoot, up steep hills, all with the same strap around the back reaching to the tops of the bearer’s forehead. On the roadsides, the contents were almost always rocks the size of a human head, or dirt. People carrying dirt and rocks were doing so to actually make the roads as we were driving up them. Endlessly, for hours, we would see small collections of humans sitting atop piles of rubble, with small hammers in hand. They were making smaller rocks out of bigger rocks– literally making gravel to fill the road that they were seated on the side of. So. There were these women and men, and these baskets for carrying heavy things, using one’s head as a fulcrum.

Back to the monastery: there are three people. Two monks, clad in scarlet robes. Shaved heads, dusty, sandaled feet in the winter air. There is a young woman standing between them. She is maybe in her early twenties, maybe younger. In the mountain areas there is a tangible mixing of ethnicities, and it is not a given that everyone is “Indian.” Her wide face has the reddish complexion of Tibet, or Mongolia, maybe. In any case, she is there. With one of those bamboo baskets on her back and a strap wrapped around her forehead. Her basket is half-full. The two monks are filling it the rest of the way up, with the same contents as what was in it to begin with: rocks the size of her head. She is wearing flip-flops, a skirt, a t-shirt and a cardigan. Her cardigan was embroidered with the phrase, in cursive–I could not make this up–“Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” Her gaze was vacant, and enduring.

I didn’t take that photo, but here is one that I felt less bad taking, out the window of a moving car. It has one of those baskets in it that I described:

The stolen photograph was stolen two weeks ago. Not in the cheeky sense of a photo taken with the subject unawares–although it was that, actually. I mean in the literal sense. The photo that cannot be taken again was on a memory card inside a camera that was stolen from my house two weeks ago in a break-in. It was a photograph of my mother.

It was April, and I had gone to take care of her for the month while she was recovering from her second major abdominal surgery following an ovarian cancer diagnosis. That month was fraught with so many things and so many emotions, and most of what I felt during that time was just that of willful pulling through in a prolonged moment of crisis. It had been rough going. She was moody, afraid of eating and so not eating. Every day was a struggle between us, and I worried that she might die while I was there. Or shortly after I left. She slept all the time, though not well. She was exhausted, existential and shrunken. Truly a shadow of her former self.

The photo on the memory card was one I snuck of her while she was asleep. She was buried in her bed, cocoon-like under an avalanche of comforters and pillows. A narcotic-induced deep and restless sleep. Her shaved head with bits of black stubble growing back in, a strong oblong outline of her skull while she lay on her back. The covers had her obscured totally up to her neck, and she was clutching them to her. There was a small light turned on at her bedside. What was most memorable about that photo was that she was half-smiling, half grimacing, in a very pronounced way while she slept. Her expression and her mouth jutted out in a focused, deliberate manner. It was intensely private and intensely something that was just for me to remember of that time. And I had not unloaded it from the memory card before it, and the camera, were unloaded from my home.

I don’t have any other photos of that time with her, though I do have another stolen image (again: semantics) to act as a placeholder. This image I stole–again literally–when I fled the homestead at eighteen, full of righteous anger and purpose, but still feeling homesick even as I was leaving. So I swiped some meaningful photos. It’s my mother, at eighteen. The photos were taken by a lovestruck serviceman, who dabbled in photography as a hobby. He wrote captions in red felt-tip on the backs of all the photos. The first time I ever saw these photos, as a teenager myself, I was struck by the fact that I make this exact same exasperated face.


influences and confluences

to have the knowledge that you seek a particular vein of something is to be aware of not only your tastes, but what influences you, creates bias and division, separates one set of concerns from another. connoisseurship, perhaps, but also a little bit of greek wisdom: to know why you are drawn to specific things, people, situations or a kind of aesthetics is a form of knowing thyself.

i have been swayed by a particular kind of representation of birds. for years i’ve been made aware of this imagistic longing which i posses. it is very specific. when i say to someone, “i’m interested in making photographs of birds,” to the addressee that immediately creates some presumptions that become harder to correct if the conversation goes much deeper than this. “oh, so you’re into landscape photography then?” no, not exactly. not the way you perceive what that genre is, nor, probably, the way that i do.

when i search for ways to describe this, even to myself, the vocabulary comes up lacking. the best way i can find to describe what i mean and to describe it absolutely is to pull a photograph or a book from somewhere and physically give it and then in turn my meaning to someone. to you. my clumsy visual lexicon:

a certain awareness of grace:

camille solygua


michael ackerman

a love of form and play with space:

katsushika hokusai

masao yamamoto

smallness. delicacy:



jim dine : birds

from multiple sensibilities i become aware and attuned to my own. i define what bird is to my own eye, and i redefine each adjective i found to describe each form; meaning becomes expanded and at the same time compressed. i also define by negation what the image i seek is not. a healthy respect for both these image makers and what they pulled from within them begins to emerge within me. awe is balanced by fright which is balanced by play which is balanced by tea-stained memories that never were. the influences become confluences when i take my camera into a scene with a mind full of birds.

these were taken a much warmer season ago, in a much warmer clime than i inhabit now. before i left the south:

these are sketches of thoughts, really. the diet of one who intends to make more images which will evoke the lexicon she’s using to go by for the moment, and then expand the meanings she had previously described. more work in the works. both the written and the seen.

the thing of the thing

a blog is a funny thing.

in the beginning, it is a tabula rasa, a place where you can project onto all that has needed a very particularized and niched space to simply be. because of its newness, you are able to create and alter at will the tone, the subject matter, the seriousness and the obsessiveness of your own little piece of the self-publishing cyberspace pie.

given time and diligence, some of the reasons you carved out your little niche begins to come manifest: you receive responses to posts, emails and find through your statistical log that other people, other blogs, are discussing your posts. sending people your way. creating community, audience and critics in a seemingly fast amount of time.

it is when this above mentioned occurs that something about how you think about writing takes a subtle shift. before response, we’ll say, you wrote thinking that maybe somewhere someone might be reading, but it wasn’t a given. after response, you know empirically that people are, and you might even know, in that indirect way of the internet, who some of them are. it’s like heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: the observation of the experiment begins to change the quality of the actual experiment such that you cannot know if, or to what degree, the observation taints the experiment being observed.

i bring this up not because i have become stymied and inconsistent in my writing due to the fact that i know someone is looking, but because i find it worth mentioning that when one hesitates in the face of their experiment, and then when something outside of that niched out, projected-place she created fundamentally shifts–say, a job, a relationship, a move or all three–the blog is the first thing to go.

at least, that’s what introverts like me do. i become exhausted at the thought of producing the very sorts of things that it gave me great satisfaction to produce not for you (solely), dear reader, but for me. and like the garden in my yard which is slowly being prepared to weather the brutal winter that will undoubtedly be coming soon to my new locale, i have had to take a long meditative breath away from this space and communicating these things which i ponder on a greedy, constant basis. my neighbor is laying cardboard on the ground, and then hay on top of the cardboard, so that the ground underneath stays warm, moist and fertile through the frosty, biting winter. i feel i have been preparing myself much the same.

so, with renewed purpose and a clearer mind, i return to this too too neglected space. perhaps some redecorating is in order. since i would like to be more frequent in my musings here, it may be appropriate to open up the floor to writing that is not only the full-length artist psycho-biography–though i do adore that and will keep writing them–but some more fractured and fleeting writing. sometimes i forget about the gems that can be found in fragments; truer thoughts which rise so quickly to the surface because you imagine you care about them less.

speaking of fragments, i offer you this one. it swept all the art pretense from underneath my feet and knocked me sideways:

at the met this month i was rushing back and forth between galleries trying to get my one-day-in-the-city special exhibitions fix. i had gone to look at the the spirit photography exhibit that was showcased, and was excited as i’d never laid eyes on these types of photographs in the flesh. the show was packed with people, and i seemed to be eternally in line behind these two loud women that kept pointing and saying things like, how could anybody ever think these things were real, anyway?” over and over again. anxious to leave and visit another part of the museum, i rushed between the hallways which connected their photography wing to their painting wing. the hallway that has the oft-changed permanent collection of photographs, and, as you near the exit, a gallery of drawings. i almost missed it, and then i stopped.

it was a drawing of hokusai’s the great wave at kanagawa, copied by van gogh. his familiar ink stroke, those wobbly lines on yellowed paper. next to the drawing was an excerpt printed from a letter by van gogh, discussing it. the image of this wave, which has been co-opted by every new age purpose known to man, has been commodified to symbolize an experience of serene zen calm. it used to be the advertising symbol for a holistic health care place i worked for in grad school. to van gogh, however, it did not embody any of those fuzzy warm things. look at the foam, he wrote, you can see that they’re really claws, they’re clutches. and that they’re coming for the fisherman in the boat. i’m paraphrasing from memory, but that’s the gist of it. and it was astonishing to me. this ubiquitous image, this famous woodblock print that i’ve only ever glanced at, apparently. how could i have missed the danger inherent here? the vulnerability and tinniness of those wooden boats caught underneath the crest of that great–as in inspiring fear and awe–wave? those clutches?

i wasn’t even looking to catch a moment like that, and out of all of the ones i was seking in my art hiatus weekend, this was the most stunningly felt and realized.

good things in threes

three more for the gold-leaf album:

a few notes-to-self on future process:

*avoid 90# hotpress. it curls too much with the multiple layers of media, and often jams the copier.

*bristol board 2ply curls the least and has the easiest time in the copier, but we also like the radiant white of cold press. leave time to settle and flatten after coating with medium and before your date with the color copier.

*never never never use a foam brush to apply anything again ever. leaves ridiculous bubbles and you waste many dollars in gold leaf.

*kinko’s color copiers are better than the lamentable one at the library. and everyone leaves you alone. and you don’t feel bad if you break it.

*don’t ever think you can shit these out in a week (ever again).

all the pieces in the gold leaf album will be on view beginning saturday, december 4th at the blue ruin gallery in pittsburgh, pa. the fabulous tamara moore invited me to take part in their christmas show “unwrapped”, and i thought if the world could use anything this season, it would be a little more naked and a lot more gold.

the kids are done with their finals where i work, and home for the holidays, which means i’m going to have alot more time on hand to concentrate on looking, thinking and writing. cerebral stretching. and the perfect way to end and begin the year.

(further note to self: on the bright side: the ones that got jammed in the copier make nifty presents)

less talk, more looking

the manner i’ve been looking, lately. and what i’ve been looking at.

birdholes, chattanooga, tennessee

century plant, backyard, savannah, georgia

the house next door used to be a strip club, savannah, georgia

dog person pic, atlanta, georgia

cat person pic (or, the cat that loves me who will not go away), savannah, georgia

i’d like to go back and tea stain some of these, and that’s something i haven’t engaged in in a long while, anyway. it always seems like so much more of an overwrought process in my mind before i just actually go in and do it. come to think of it, many things are like that: taking photos, reading/writing for a thesis, having a hard conversation, making a meal. is growth really just learning to accomodate a will-to-action?

i took all of the above over labor day weekend, which was spent in part in three places: here, atlanta and chattanooga, tennessee. some i did are in color; i haven’t posted any of those yet. staring at so much black and white work of late, color has begun to startle me in an unsettling way.

and i entered two pieces in the atlanta photography group’s juried show only in 2004, juried by Anna Walker Skillman, the owner of the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, georgia. it is my favorite photographic space in the city: it is a tad more intimate than traditional gallery spaces–maybe this has something to do with its being a little cottage house situated on a quiet neighborhood street that you could easily imagine yourself living in. quiet and happy and lush with green all around. aside from that, she shows kick ass work. it was where i first encountered masao yamamoto’s work, and there’s currently a sally mann exhibit showing. she stages thoughtful shows, and you get the feeling she only puts on the walls things she cares about. i could (and probably am) be entirely projecting that sense, but for what it’s worth, that’s the sense when you’re there and when you return for a new show.

and reading. and reading. more posts to come about musings on more japanese photographers. one recurring theme that visited me today were these photographic elegies that seem to be composed about the relationships of wives and artists. masahisa fukase and yoko fukase, and their split that gave birth to his most known work the solitude of ravens; nobuyoshi araki and his wife (also named) yoko, pictures including their honeymoon, life together and her death; and then the strange strange work of seiichi furuya, who emigrated to graz with his wife christine gossler. i remember seeing his work in chicago, on a tour of the revco collection. the photos are so memorable because they horrifingly show the photographer–step by step–returning home one afternoon to finding an open window, with her slippers carefully placed beneath the sill. as you go with him to the window to look out, he shows you her very dead form on the pavement below, as he mediates his responses and actions through the camera. the pictures–or maybe, more precisely, the act of having not only lived the event but photographing it as one lived it–made me wonder if this was a kind of emotional photojournalism. what else could it be? or could explain the compulsion to photograph such a moment–when that moment is you, your wife, your loss, right now? i still haven’t waded through my thoughts on his images, and will sit down with some of them tonight.

and a big beaming thank you to those who’ve sent the assorted emails and comments i’ve been receiving regarding this site and my thoughts. it is astonishing to me that anyone wants to read what i’m processing in my head concerning photography and art, and gratifying to hear words and experiences and encouragement from those i’ve never met or had a conversation with. it’s wonderful that writing here becomes its own kind of conversation, and i like how it’s pushing me to think more fully about what i encounter, look at and read. i strive to be engaged in a full way, and i’ve found that writing here has been vastly fulfilling in that regard.

birds on the brain

so happenstance, structures and strategies began as an attempt to understand an artist that i had admired very deeply since i was introduced to his work. masao yamamoto is a japanese photographer that works quietly, quirkily, and, i’d like to believe, quite happily. his work fulfills many aesthetic “musts” for me: it is personal without being preachy; it meditates on itself and outside of itself; it is idiosyncratic; it is intimate; it often makes me wish i made it myself. he does not title his images; he makes many prints of each and each is printed differently; he intentionally distresses them–but not too much–corners are often bent or rounded; they are stained in tea, they are little. and they are legion. this is one of my favorites of his:


i first saw his work at the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, georgia. probably in 1997 or 1998. i was moronically mesmerized walking from one surprising image to another. they vary in subject matter, but maintain a tone, a way of seeing, that remains consistent. his consistent vision is what surprised me. that it was so constant, so there, in every image. there are photographers who have a “style” or a gimmick that singles their images out as theirs again and again, and if prompted it could probably be argued that yamamoto’s images are all small and tea-stained. but i would argue that his is a singular way of perceiving what he would like to show us, as if plucking something out of the world and depositing it into a mason jar, and then putting that mason jar on a shelf next to dozens of other mason jars with equally baffling and/or beautiful contents.

at the time that i saw these images, i was convinced i was going to be a famous documentary photographer (oh youth! oh youthful indescretions!). i was going to one day work for magnum photo, i was going to be a war correspondent, i was going to bear witness to the various sins and graces of which humanity was capable. i didn’t know what to do with these tea-stained jewels. but they stuck in my craw.

and one day in my last year of graduate school, with a documentary project going badly, my professor paul d’amato suggested a different tack. “why don’t you do a master’s study?” he suggested. i looked at him sideways. “isn’t that what i’m doing now?” “no, no: a master’s study, in the painting sense. pick a master, someone that you consider as such–someone you’ve always loved and not known why. find out all you can about how they worked, their technique and materials, and try to make some images in their spirit. at first it may look like imitation, but then you might discover something about your own vision that you would never have arrived at.” he said that, and i realized what he was giving me: the chance to make images i would never make otherwise, freed from the impending sense that i had to finish the uninspiring project i was undertaking. this was an opportunity to stretch, and see if i could see a fraction of the way that this little old japanese man did, bowling me over as he did so. i knew immediately who my “master” was. masao yamamoto.

i came back a week later sticking these tiny little tea-stained pictures to the wall. in repeating series, each a little varied in exposure, staining or size. photographs without any people in them. photographs of a city of 8.5 million people that looks like everyone just left the party. a hose wrapped around an iron fence. plastic hanging from a lamp post, flying in the wind. birds in a bare tree, looking like ornaments that had been carefully placed there. paul didn’t believe i took them, at first. “you?” he kept saying incredulously. “the same person who was photographing civil war re-enactments, you took these?” and then he straightened up. “these were always there in you, waiting to be made. this should be the work you do the rest of the time you are here.” and he was right and it was and i have never enjoyed photographs that i have made more, or the making of them.

making them in chicago was almost easy. a place with landmarks both easily recognizable and then others that become almost oddly personal. i had a rule: i only photographed in the area that was one mile in radius to my home or my school, the places where i spent most of my time. i wanted to learn to see what i saw everyday in new ways. in ways that were respectful and quiet and made mine. i photographed through the seasons, from fall into winter when the snow changed the shape and landscape of everything. i realized that my images would never be imitations of yamamoto, if only because i was not an old japanese man making images in japan, but me, myself, making images from the spaces in my head and in my own country, making my own particular sense of self and place. and that it would by necessity be different, unique and uniquely personal.

but moving to the south has daunted this body of work, and i have only made a few pictures that would begin to approach what i tried to do in chicago. i am afraid that the landscape–both regionally and city-wide–makes these images almost saccharine. the south is dilapidated, in that appealing, falling-down sort of way that makes photographers get all misty-eyed. and i’ve been worried about looking like a bad, tea-stained post card.

but, as the title of this post suggests, i’ve been thinking about birds lately. about the way they appeared in yamamoto’s pictures and in mine. how they suggest delicacy and autonomy; how their movements can’t be directed in a photo and are always out of my controlling nature’s control; and how birds will do what birds will do whether they are birds in chicago or birds in savannah. so i’ve been looking at the bird pictures i’ve made:


and then looking again at some more of yamamoto’s:


and then even looking at some others:


(the last was one from Masahisa Fukase)

and then thinking: i can do this here. and: i need a longer lens. and i need to be looking at some more birds. hopefully, in a week or so, some bird pictures will follow. in the spirit of them, and of me.