Thursday, January 27, 2011

What's New

 Ice Haiku

One of my 2011 intentions is to try new things. So far this year in this space, I have strayed from my usual format of personal essay interspersed with relevant images and let a series of winter photographs speak for themselves. I’ve showed the results of my first attempt to use a Holga camera whose ways were mysterious to me and I hope will always remain so. I have even turned my camera on myself. This week I’ll be writing a different kind of post in which I give you some quick brief updates on what’s been going on in my life so far this already busy year, without exploring any grand themes or issues, at least not intentionally!


As it draws to a close, I will remember January as the month of deadlines.  No sooner had I recovered from the holidays and only partly wrapped up the old year and put it behind me, when all sorts of 2011 business needed to be attended to.  Applications for outdoor markets, photography contests and state grants all came due so quickly I even missed a few in the first two weeks. It’s hard to think in the dead of winter about events and announcements that won’t be happening until spring or summer - especially when one of my other 2011 intentions is to “live in the moment!” - but there I was, setting things in motion months ahead of time, projecting who and how I will be in May, when I’m not even sure what will happen tomorrow! For the grant and contest applications in particular, for me it meant creating artistic statements that were written from the point of view not of the photographer I now am, but the one I plan on becoming in 2011, with a body of work I can present on demand, and  projects to promote that are worthy of respect and funding. Thinking of myself this way is indeed a big change. A good eye, I have. A good resume full of impressive academic and professional credentials? Not so much.

While this cold season still makes such items marketable, I’ve been working on scarves and wrist warmers to sell over the next few months. The scarf pictured here is a new design in a chevron pattern using an old technique in which I gather all the leftover colors that have been collecting from other finished pieces and put them together in an order that the colors themselves suggest as the piece progresses. 

I’m always surprised how well these odds and ends blend, considering they were all acquired at different times for separate projects! Another case of something old creating something new! My next scarf will be a commissioned piece for my father. I was concerned that I would not finish it in time for him to make good use of it this winter, but considering our record snowfalls with no end in sight, I’ve got nothing to worry about!

leaf alone

In April I’ll be switching my focus exclusively to photography so I will be able to participate in Somerville Open Studios this spring with a wall full of professional mounts in a unified theme. In a recent bit of good luck, with our studio lease expiring this summer, Brian and I secured a new studio space in the same Vernon Street building we now occupy, to begin in March. This means we will have a transition period during which we will have two distinct spaces in which to work, and more importantly can each exhibit our work in our own spaces during the Open Studios weekend, perhaps the biggest event of the year for the Somerville arts community!

 Ice Sculpture

Meanwhile, back in the present, today we are once again digging out from more snow here in the Northeast, and my monochrome lover’s cry of delight at an abundance of snow scenes to capture is quickly turning into the winter hater’s cry of “enough already!”  It’s not easy to find interesting new shots or the enthusiasm to seek them out, but that’s part of the challenge, to render the familiar strange and exciting again. Sometimes it’s not about finding unprecedented new subjects, tools or techniques (as I feared might be the case with my competitors for the grants and awards I’ve been applying for) but simply seeing things with new eyes and bringing that way of seeing to other people.  As I began this post this morning, I was once again gazing at heaps of snow collected outside my window from the safety of my living room, but this time I took pictures of what happened on the window itself, instead of what lay beyond it. No two snowflakes are alike; so it is with snowstorms, their aftereffects, and the people who love to photograph them.

Little P is having a wonderful 2011!

This past week, just as I was making good on another 2011 intention, getting back into healthy diet and fitness routines, I came down with the bad stomach virus that has been making the rounds, and spent a few days too nauseated and weak to eat much or exercise at all. Fortunately, I remembered that my mother used to give me Ginger Ale whenever I was sick as a child and how it immediately settled my stomach, so I changed to a diet of bananas, rice crackers, applesauce and this apparently magic ginger beverage.  I’m still a little weak, achy and dizzy, but at least I no longer feel as if any food I take in will immediately be sent back. Throughout my illness, and not being the kind of patient who can stay in bed for too long without getting restless, I was still strong enough to sit at my computer – with the nearby attendance of the best nurse ever, the amusing and adorable Little P, whose new favorite place to be is sprawled next to my laptop on my writing table while I’m typing.  This is a change for her, so perhaps she has her own 2011 intentions to fulfill! Now that there is more snow outside, and with such excellent company, why would I want to be anywhere else?

Ice Dancing

I have one more new thing to report: I finally finished reading the Art as Business book that has been occupying my featured reading space at right for several weeks. It had a lot of useful information and I will need a few days to follow through on all the helpful websites and strategies suggested. Now I’m ready for a good novel – and I’ve chosen one of the two remaining novels by Jose Saramago I have yet to read – The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. After this, there will be only Baltasar and Blimunda left to enjoy. I’ve read everything else he has written, and no new works will issue from the silent pen of this departed literary master. Perhaps this is why I have been holding on to these last two novels, knowing when they are finished, I will never again have the experience of reading an unknown Saramago book for the first time. I will have to content myself with the experience of reading them all a second time, for the first time.

Special thanks to followers new to this space, and those who keep coming back for more.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The HOLGA is Greater than the Sum of its Parts


This week I used my new Holga camera for the first time.  The Holga and other “toy” cameras like it are making a comeback lately, probably in reaction to the limitless possibilities for manipulation and control in digital photography. For those of you who have never seen or used one, these low tech cameras have only two settings -- “sunny” and “not sunny”  -- and only four fixed points of focus, ranging from a closeup of a person (3 feet away) to a mountain (infinity), that you have to estimate and select as you aim at your subject. The body is plastic, and so lightweight a mouse sneezing nearby would likely blow it apart. The seams are not airtight, watertight or light-tight, which means the film inside the camera is subject to “light leaks” that can expose the film randomly, often beautifully. Basically, you depress the lever 12 times, hand the film over to the guy at the camera store, hope and wait.

 Things Are Looking Up

I am in love with this camera. Everything that is wrong with it is right for me. My digital camera is so much smarter than I am, I have owned it for months and still haven’t finished reading the instruction manual, and when I do open it, there is so much to learn about so many settings that can produce so many nuanced results, I forget everything I’ve read an hour later. And that’s before the images even get out of the camera and onto the computer for post-processing! After an extended shooting session recently, the camera beeped and turned itself off after flashing me a tiny screen full of icons and abbreviations that may as well have been in cuneiform for all I understood. I later guessed correctly that the batteries needed recharging, but I still had my suspicions that the camera had simply gotten tired of me and wanted to go home and go to sleep and so, simply shut down. Maybe one of the icons was the universal symbol for “triumph over a fool.” My greatest accomplishment with this superior being was to learn just enough to set everything on automatic and surrender control entirely. I have a camera with which I can do anything, and I have chosen to do as little as possible!

Sharp Eyes

My old film camera and I have a more equal relationship. I let him figure out the shutter speed and aperture, but I insist on doing the focusing myself. He can advance and rewind his own film, but I have to first put it in place. We have developed a certain trust that if I have done my part to carefully select, compose, frame and focus a shot, he will get the rest of it right for me in the 24 or 36 precious occasions allowed to us. We have an agreement. There are no take-backs or do-overs. When we work together, we are serious and joyful and in absolute harmony. Most often I’m pleased by the results that come back from the camera shop, which look exactly like what I saw through the viewfinder and hoped to capture, and require no further online editing.

Night Studio

The Holga is another creature entirely. Entrusting the film into its insecure chamber, advancing it by means of a plastic lever that feels as if it could break off any second, waiting for a faint number to appear in a tiny red-tinged window and making sure it is not too far or not far enough, all of this before taking a single photograph, I feel the same ignorance and lack of control as I do with my digital camera, but in this case it isn’t a matter of one of us knowing more than the other – there is something at work greater than both of us, and we are equals in the game of chance. So, this week in the safety of the studio, I estimated distance (not a person but not a mountain), I aimed the camera, I depressed the lever, advanced the film, and handed over to the camera store what could be brilliant images, or 12 black squares, or anything in between.

Visions of Time

There are ways to make a Holga work for you, but they do not involve an instruction manual the size of the Gutenberg Bible, expensive software, or an academic degree. The effects you can get with a Holga are indeed subject to chance, like the strange electric arc of sparkling light in the image above.  However good you are at calculating and correcting for certain conditions, working with a Holga is a unique blend of giving in to the randomness of the possible, while attempting to impose all of your skills and instincts in setting up a shot to give it the best shot at looking as close to what you see and want to capture as possible. Then you have faith. Then you have fun. Then you wait. Then you have even more fun.


I'm happy to report the first images my Holga and I created together look very much like what I saw and wanted to capture. I think this could be the start of a beautiful relationship! I tried one double exposure by shooting with the same frame twice before advancing the film. Oddly, when I got this film back, there was a second double exposure of two shots I distinctly recall advancing between, which you can see below. It is one of my favorite shots of the group though I feel only partly responsible for it! I like that feeling. Ah, Holga! 

Upside Down

Monday, January 17, 2011


The Woolblade in a vintage photograph

In another post, in another year, in what now seems like a galaxy far far away, I announced a feature called Guess the Artist. I provided clues to the identity of the inspirational person behind a new fiber work I was creating, which began its life as a scarf, and then evolved into a long glove with a life and ideas all its own. It reminded me of a formidable gauntlet in an old tv series called Witchblade, which I wrote about here. And so the Woolblade was born.

 The Woolblade today

No one ever did guess the artist, except for the artist herself, which is I suppose the best response I could have hoped for! In the interest of fairness, I’ll once again offer free choice of ANY ONE ITEM in my online shop – scarves, wrist warmers, note cards, mounted photographs, my book of poems – to the first person to guess correctly. As a reminder, the previous clues were that the artist is female, not American, contemporary, and has a certain connection to interior states of being and mythical magical subjects. Samples of my work appear at right in my etsy showcase, but you can see my full inventory from which the lucky winner will be able to choose their reward here. As for the artist, she will be receiving the Woolblade in the mail soon. I wanted to keep it here, but for me it refused to transform into an invincible weapon of myth and legend. I can only assume that there is only one true wielder of the Woolblade, and on anyone else’s arm it remains a whimsical fashion accessory made of alpaca fiber. The Woolblade leaves next week on its journey across the sea to the Old World, whence it surely originated, centuries and maybe millennia ago, to find its home on the arm of the Warrior Woman to whom it belongs.

The Woolblade in its untransformed state

I have friends in blogland who not only believe in simplicity and elegance in art, they actually create stunning works that live up to this philosophy. I agree with them in principle, admire their creations, and often need to hold myself back from overthinking or overworking a piece, be it a poem, photograph or fiber object. Simplify! Walk away! Less is more! All true, but the problem is, I am not a simple or an elegant person. I am messy, vague and confused, but also ruthlessly analytical, impulsive and intense. When I read T.S. Eliot’s quote “only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go,” I wondered if maybe I said it first in a bar right before I fell unconscious off my seat, and then he stole it from me. Except that I have never been in a bar drinking next to T.S. Eliot. I think. 

Me and Leo the Lion Before his Haircut, 1968, Rome

It was ever thus. I may have been a shy quiet self-conscious child, but possessed of a delicate touch I was not. I have vivid memories of being first gently urged and then firmly commanded to “play nice” with my toys, and somehow always ending up with everything broken. At age 6, I drowned a beautiful puppet from a set made in Italy while playing house. Mind you, the “house” was an elaborate structure with multiple levels and rooms built underneath a small square cardtable from all sorts of available household materials borrowed and re-purposed without permission. The “drowning” occurred in a small realistic bathroom area, complete with miniature tub full of water. Unfortunately the puppet was made of painted clay and held together with glue and therefore not waterproof, as her immediate disintegration proved. Don’t let the sweet face pictured above fool you. Leo the Lion later lost part of his luxurious mane when I started giving my stuffed animals haircuts to see if it would grow back. It didn’t.  He was never the same after I opened him up to see what he was made of, and then stitched him up again hoping no one would notice. They did. I also shaved Barbie’s (or was it her annoying younger cousin Skipper?) head and painted her face blue. I have no good explanation for that one! I don’t recall any anger or frustration behind these acts of seeming destruction and defiance. It was more about uninhibited curiosity, an inborn dissatisfaction with the surface of things and a deep desire to see how it all worked on the inside. I wish I could share more images of some of my old toys, but none of them survived into my teenage years.  In my twenties, I tried to write an overly clever poem called “Return of the Broken Toys” in which the spirits of these victims of my careless childhood impulses sought me out to reproach me while I attempted to explain myself. Ironically, the poem shared the fate of the toys, and could not escape my rough handling; I cut and took it apart until it was beyond repair and eventually needed to be discarded.    

Sole Survivor

As my aggrieved parents looked on, not only did I routinely rip the clothes off my pretty dolls, open the seams of my stuffed animals, and take mechanical things apart that I had no clue how to reassemble, until my playroom resembled both a hospital ward full of the walking wounded and a junkyard, I also applied my scissors and crayons to the covers and pages of books – dear sweet books who somehow forgave me and became my best friends later in life and to this day - leaving them full of holes and marks, inside and out. The edition of the Annotated Alice pictured above is the only book to survive those days. Somehow it inspired enough awe and respect in me that the pages remain intact and unmarked, and only the cover bears a few of my faded marks. To be fair, I wasn’t any better playing nice with myself -- so many little girl dresses torn or stained, so many shiny black shoes scuffed, so many scraped knees and elbows, and the kind of perverse spirit that drove me, in spite of a bad cold and parents' orders, from my bed in a summer house one morning, barefoot in my nightgown, to greet the day, damp grass and dawn chill be damned!   

How can I follow signs I cannot see?

I ended up with a high fever after that little expedition, and to this day have no real memory of what drove me to leave my bed and venture outside, (so bold at age, was it 8?) but a very clear memory of how it felt once I found myself there, free and alone. I never did learn to play nice. I don’t own many dresses nowadays, and prefer sneakers to shiny black girly shoes. In fact, dark colors suit me best, not because they’re slimming, but because they show wear and tear more forgivingly.  I still have a strange urge, at odd unpeopled hours, sometimes late at night or early in the morning, especially if I have been indoors for a long time, to venture forth into the world, even if I’m ill, even if the weather is bad, and just exist in a way that harms no one but is absolutely against all common sense, propriety and normalcy.  My midnight excursion in 18 inches of newfallen snow last week, that yielded the photographs above, is but one example. And I still succumb to the curiosity which urges me to take and break things apart, material and metaphysical.  I’ve never been very good at leaving things well enough alone. But now I like to think instead that I am VERY good at NOT leaving things well enough alone, and this is who I was and am and need to always be. 

It's all in the details

I still go too far. But I am also occasionally capable of restraint. I have learned to set things aside when my impulses will do more harm than good. I have also learned that there are times when simple elegance is not an option, and outrageous uninhibited excess is precisely what is called for. The making of the Woolblade was one of those times. This item was never meant to be sold or shown, or useful in any situation I can imagine, unless you are a wanderer in the land of unicorns and wraiths and need just the right fashion statement for the cocktail party of the year. It was fun to make something completely without meaning, purpose, and sense, in which my own instinct to overdo was just what was needed!

Even as I wrote this, and prepared to post the photographs of the finished product, I felt the Woolblade was not finished, and that by not going too far, I had not gone far enough. I deleted the photos and continued to add new elements to the piece, and even then there seemed to be further extremes to explore. Perhaps a new project awaits. Perhaps I need to set aside time to create one utterly ridiculous, outrageous and irresponsible item for every dozen serious pieces that defer to the need for restraint. I do believe the act of creation needs to be taken seriously by creator and audience alike, but it can also be an occasion for absolute whimsy and nonsense, the sort that makes the audience shake their heads in confused disbelief, and the creator laugh and clap their hands like a child – look what I did! – and then reflexively look around and think  - uh-oh, I’m going to get in trouble for this! 

Here's to a little unrestrained nonsense and mischief in your creative lives!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Snow Day

We are in the midst of blizzard conditions here in the Boston area, so what better way to spend a housebound day than writing and taking photographs through my snow-encrusted window? The last news report claims we already have over a foot of snow in my area and we are not even halfway through the storm! And as if that weren’t impressive enough, Brian actually walked over to the studio this afternoon to paint!

I’ll create a longer more thoughtful essay later this week, but I just wanted to share these photos, fresh out of the camera, and also thank all my followers, old and new, for such a warm response to my last post. I have never been called brave and beautiful by so many people whose opinions I actually trust! It’s a good thing I have decades of low self-esteem to counterbalance this great outpouring of compliments or I would surely be walking around with a swelled head!

Thanks to all of you, I’m going to continue my project of self-portraiture and see where it leads. It’s a whole new way for me of looking at my photography, its purpose and potential. So, many thanks to all for such a favorable response towards this initial effort. One of the photos appeared as Number 89 on Ria Vanden Eynde's awesome blog The Body Nothing Else, recommended to me by dear friend Monica. I urge you to check out both these wonderful sites. And now, in the interest of furthering one of my New Year's intentions to sometimes be quiet and let images speak for themselves, here are more snow photos. All the best to each and every one of you, but especially those of you in cities dealing with the ravages of Mother Nature at her most destructive, and the effects of human nature at its worst.