Thursday, May 26, 2011

Present Tense

Cassandra by Max Klinger

from Cassandra in Love by Gabriella Mirollo

Knowing what I know,
I can’t catch up with me.
I’m there when I arrive;
I’m gone before I leave.
How can I bide my time?
I have no present tense,
just urgency, suspense.

Many years ago I wrote a poem called “Cassandra in Love,” based on the unfortunate prophetess of Greek myth whose particular curse was for her predictions to go unheeded in spite of always proving true. It occurred to me that she must have been very uncomfortable as an occupant of the present, with her mind full of tragic visions of the future no sooner realized than displaced by the next ones. What was going on inside her was likely always more immediate, compelling and demanding than anything going on around her.  To a certain degree I think we all suffer from the tendency to spend far too much of our precious time worrying about what lies ahead instead of enjoying what is happening in the here and now.  There are those who would argue that if something bad is due to happen tomorrow, all the more reason to live in the moment today, and those who would call this behavior desperate or denial and suggest making preparations for the inevitable is a much better use of time and energy.

Looking Ahead

Try as I might, I have never been a live-in-the-moment kind of girl. While I have fully enjoyed many pleasant moments in my life in the here and now, like Cassandra, I have probably already been anticipating and envisioning them for so long, by the time they arrive they seem almost redundant and often quite anti-climactic. This goes for the unpleasant events too.  The way some people get headaches from the barometric changes in the air caused by a storm still hundreds of miles away, I have often felt the grief of an approaching situation days, weeks, even months ahead of time. Sometimes it is a nameless vague emotion that grabs me from inside or crushes me from above, with no apparent provocation in my present circumstances. Sometimes it is my own mind running ahead like a scout on a dangerous mission, to see what the territory ahead will be like and thus prepare the rest of the team for what they will soon encounter. 


Last year around this time my inner scout was getting a real workout.  Departmental reorganizations and reassignments had rendered my job almost unrecognizable and completely intolerable. My beloved cat Marlowe had been diagnosed with advanced kidney disease, and as I did not know at the time, but already sensed was coming, had less than three weeks left to live. While some encouraged me to think positively, I found myself making mental and emotional preparations for his end, rehearsing the worst imaginable outcomes so that when the time came, I would be able to be strong and capable and ease his departure from this world. Meantime, in the present, I was performing my job responsibilities with about ten percent of my brain activity, while the other ninety was engaged in plotting what life could, should and would be like when I no longer had to be in that office for the majority of my waking hours. 

 Roses For Marlowe (1996-2010)
On June 8th at 7am, at home on the bed he spent so many happy hours on and in, Marlowe, calmed by firm and gentle hands, took his last breath. He spent four days in intensive care in the hospital and when he recovered enough strength they sent him home for the final brief week of his life. His last morning was the most difficult of my life, but I knew exactly what to do, because I had played it in my mind a dozen times until the unthinkable became not only possible, but practical. Seven weeks later, I walked out of the doors of my former workplace for the last time and have not returned. Many people worried about what seemed to be an abrupt and radical change to an entirely new life as a full-time artist, but what they didn’t understand was that I was already living that life in my mind for weeks, and that nothing going on around me at the time was as real as that ongoing inner drama. When the time came to begin it in earnest, I knew exactly what to do.   

  Some Things Never Change (self-portrait ca. 1982)

Why these musings, you may ask? In order to contextualize myself and my life, I often play a little mind game called “where was I this time last year?”  It’s interesting and instructive for me to examine how I have made progress or gone off track, what I have gained and lost in the span of 12 months, whether I am any closer to becoming the person I believe myself capable of being at my best, and if not, what course corrections need to be made. In many ways, the life I am now leading is very much as I imagined and hoped it would be. But from the beginning I knew this year of living the life of an artist was stamped with an expiration date, which is now soon to come due. Like Cassandra, I have been preoccupied with what lies ahead, and finding it hard to enjoy my last weeks of freedom, as if I have vanished already from my present scenes to attend to my activities in the future.  I’m gone before I leave. Like Gabriella, I felt an inexplicable crushing fatigue and despair yesterday; today I received notice that my application for an artist’s grant, which would have re-filled my coffers and extended my state of unassailed unemployment a few more precious months, was rejected. This news would have been more upsetting if I hadn’t already felt the shock before it even happened! I’m there when I arrive.

 Waiting for the Winds of Change

My visions of the future are impossible to ignore and yet remain unclear at the moment. It is certain that I vacate my current studio space on June 30th and that this room will no longer be a part of my daily routine or landscape. It is also certain that new regular reliable and lasting sources of income need to be established over the next few months as the last of my private resources dwindle. What I cannot see is the sort of life I will be leading as a result of these changes, where will I spend my days and with whom? How will I balance my creative pursuits with the earning of a living? You may wonder why I am so far ahead of myself, worrying about an inevitability still months away. I wish I could shut it out, but already I can feel the change in the air. It may be nearer than I think, or further away, bigger or smaller, for better or worse. Urgency, suspense. All I can say for sure is that when I look back to this time from this same date next year, it will all make perfect sense.

Looking Back

All of the images in this post are from old negatives dating from the 1980s to 2003, some of whose original prints have faded and wrinkled beyond recognition with the passage of time. They were recently rescued from an old filebox and scanned on the new scanner I have finally learned how to use, giving these images a second chance at life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Where to now and how?

Reflections in a Train

The only bad thing about traveling by train is that it gives you, oh so temporarily, the kind of certainty of direction and destination too often lacking in your daily life. Even though my return trip from New York City ten days ago involved a one hour delay due to a mechanical failure and necessary transfer to a second train, I was never in doubt that in the capable hands of Amtrak, I would get where I was going along an established route in familiar and reliable circumstances.   Don’t let the black and white photo above fool you. That is not water but wine in my glass, and the endless generosity of my car attendant probably made the inconvenience of a delay a little easier to accept!

view from a laptop

                      view from a cellphone

Because I felt I needed a little break from filtering everything through the professional and creative urgencies of recent months, I did not bring any cameras on my trip. Fortunately, nowadays, cameras are built into just about everything, and I found myself using both the camera eye in my laptop lid, and finally learning how to use the camera feature in my cellphone to capture some interesting images. I was impressed by the low resolution effects one can achieve with the former, and the surprisingly high resolution effects of the latter. So much for spending several hundred dollars on a good digital SLR!

 Hot Spot
Last Sunday I attended the artists reception for the show at the Nave Gallery featuring all toy camera photography. It was a lovely event and I was finally able to see my work hanging in the company of some fine examples of what many believe to be a new trend and others know to be a means of capturing images that never quite vanished since the appearance of these cameras decades ago. Most of the artists were working with Diana or Holga cameras with typical blurry or grainy results. I had a conversation with one of the artists about how images corrected and perfected according to programmed standards in a digital camera or computer do not actually reflect what is seen by the human eye, or the unique conditions present at the moment of capture. This, we agreed, was what photography meant to us, isolating that moment and preserving it honestly, even if that means a partial, indirect or indistinct view. Try this at home:  doesn’t something in motion that is not in your direct line of sight appear blurry? Are you capable of focusing on something two feet away and twenty feet away at the same time?  Doesn’t bright light create a halo of glare around its source? Don’t objects in shadow lack sharp detail and ideal color?

 by Miroslav Tichy

One of my favorite photographers is Miroslav Tichy, whom I discovered at a magnificent exhibit a few years ago at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan. Tichy was an eccentric Czech who haunted the streets of his native Kyjov with cameras he built himself from common materials. The results were far from perfect from a technical point of view, but perfectly capture the unguarded human and urban truths he encountered on his walks. Whole societies have materialized who pay tribute to this man and his unique perspective and aesthetics by creating images in his style.  When I see a Tichy photograph, I know I am seeing something that may lack accuracy in terms of factual detail, but is absolutely true to the inner identity of the moment or the subject he has captured. I am seeing not so much through his eyes, as through his soul. Tichy died last month at the age of 84.

 Tichy's camera
What begins as a genuine desire for a new approach to an artform all too often becomes distracted and degraded by those who follow trends to be part of something current and fashionable. For every artist who uses the distortions of toy or handmade cameras as a means of releasing some deeper truth about the way we see and interpret the world to ourselves and others, there are hundreds who simply want to be part of something cool and popular. There are even those who now manipulate images taken with digital cameras to make them resemble the toy camera style! One of the best things about working with such basic and often unpredictable tools is the release of control and the resulting possibilities when human and camera become one. My experience with Holga photography was one of surrender and trust. With few exceptions, the images that came back to me on film were not only what I saw when I released the shutter, but what I felt as well. To deprive yourself of that magic by simulating it through post-processing is a choice others are free to make if it suits their particular needs and aims as photographers. I can only say that my needs and aims are not theirs.

Tichy taking aim
Readers of this space will know that in the past several months of pursuing my photography as more of a profession and less of a private passion, I have struggled with many issues regarding the state of this art, which is also a science, and is now more and more becoming a matter of advanced information technology. I’ve taken refuge in shooting with film in black and white as a means of protecting myself from what to me feels like a trend away from what photography should be, further from art and closer to computer science. Still, I question the purity of my theories and practices when I am still letting others develop and scan my film and I then commit these images to life inside an electronic file. On the one hand, I would like to go backwards, and do everything myself, to live and work like Tichy. On the other hand, I would like to move forwards, and master these technologies that vex and frustrate me whenever I need to send my work out into the modern world for review. We shall not even speak of the fact that I don’t have adequate resources of time, energy and money for either of this directions, much less attempting both simultaneously! 

 At the End of theTunnel
Where to now and how?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Halfway There

On the Road

I’m writing this post in New York City, which, for anyone new to this space, is my hometown and continues to be the one place I can go to remember who I am, how I got there and where I need to go next. My experiences at the Somerville Open Studios last weekend left me feeling a little deflated but not defeated. After so many weeks of working with such passion and focus towards a specific goal, I suppose I expected an equally intense, immediate and obvious reward, but it turns out the true meaning and effects of that weekend may take many months to declare themselves. It was not an arrival, but a departure.

Gibson, Inc.
Archtop Guitar, L-5 model (serial number 87083)
, 1928
Spruce, maple, ebony, steel, celluloid, mother-of-pearl; sunburst finish; 8 1/4 x 6 x 24 1/2 in. (21 x 15.2 x 62.2 cm)
Private Collection

My first day here I went directly to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the show Guitar Heroes, a wonderful exhibit featuring amazing instruments created by Italian and Italian American luthiers, ranging from a late 16th century lute through several Stradivarius violins to a 2008 archtop guitar. You can see some of these objects here but the show runs through July so if you are in NYC, I recommend you go. Anyone who loves guitars, music or art will be thrilled. I actually felt a little chill running through me when I stood in front of the Gibson pictured above.

Alexander McQueen (British, 1969–2010)
The Horn of Plenty
, autumn/winter 2009–10
Black duck feathers

“It is important to look at death because it is a part of life. It is a sad thing, melancholy but romantic at the same time. It is the end of a cycle—everything has to end. The cycle of life is positive because it gives room for new things.”
- Alexander McQueen, Drapers, February 20, 2010

In the gift shop of the guitar exhibit, in which I spent almost as much time as the show itself, I struck up a delightful conversation with two lovely ladies, the cashier and a nearby guard, both of them lifelong New Yorkers. I was intending to view a small photography show next, but they recommended the newly opened Alexander McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty. Again, if you are in NYC anytime between now and July, I urge you to see this show. I knew that this talented fashion designer and artist in his own right had committed suicide last year at the age of 40, but I was not familiar with his work, hauntingly beautiful, outrageous and provocative creations that seem to come from our worst nightmares, strangest fantasies and most fragile dreams. Such a wild free imagination clearly could not have found peace in this world and his tragically premature death makes more sense to me now. The presentation of the show was as dramatic as the works themselves, as if you were visiting a palace out of a Gothic novel. There was one installation featuring a tiny hologram projection of a woman dancing in slow motion inside a glass pyramid, swirling her flowing dress around her while John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List played in the background. It brought tears to my eyes, and I realized, just as with the chills provoked by the vintage Gibson guitar, that I have not been so deeply touched and moved by art, or by anything really, in far too long.  Read about the show and view a video of the installation here.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with this past year, readers of this space will know, was having to give up doing marathons as a result of an injured knee. Perhaps that explains in part why the sensation of an utterly transcendent experience has been missing from my life for so long. My journey as an endurance athlete began, where else? in my native city in 1999 when I first attempted an event called The Great Saunter, a 32 mile walk around the perimeter of Manhattan island. I’ve started and completed this walk 5 times, and attribute to it the confidence required to begin walking official roadraces alongside runners a few years ago and eventually taking up running myself.  Saunterers come in all shapes, ages and sizes and there are no time clocks or mile markers along the route. You leave the South Street Seaport at 7:30 am, and you return there from 9 to 12 hours later, or however long it takes you. The only reward is being able to say you walked around the whole island, and a signed certificate from the club president handed out at the after party at the local brewery. You can read more about this excellent group here .  They do hikes and walks all over the New York area throughout the year to promote fitness, outdoor activity and keeping walkways and waterfronts open to pedestrians. Enjoyment is far more important than athletic prowess.


I wish I could report completing Saunter Number Six, but unfortunately my lack of recent training, weight gain, and still unstable knee began to show after 10 miles, and I made the decision at the halfway mark to call it quits. This is the first time in my brief career as an endurance athlete that I have dropped out of any event. My motto was always “DNF (did not finish) is NOT an option." But yesterday, a wise voice inside me said that 16 miles on a bad knee and carrying extra weight after a very stressful year of inactivity was plenty to be proud of. Could I have summoned stubborn pride and pushed myself another 16 miles? Probably. Would I have enjoyed it? Probably not. I might even have caused further damage to my knee and thus further delay my return to regular fitness activities. So, just like the New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle I was able to work on when I came home earlier than expected, a feat as notoriously difficult as circumambulating Manhattan island, I am content with getting only halfway through.

 Doors of Perception

This made me ponder the nature of the goals I set myself. A wise person once said that it is better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit the mark. In many ways this past year I have been conceiving and undertaking things most people would never imagine or attempt. The spirit of artists like the ones whose works I viewed at the museum is strong in me. We all crave completion and immediate rewards. But sometimes rewards come late, and sometimes completion never comes at all, because the process itself takes all our energy and ultimately holds the most meaning. 

 The Best is Yet to Come

Better a spectacular miss than a perfectly executed mediocrity. Better halfway on an amazing journey than going nowhere.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Before and After

The big weekend for which I have been preparing these past few months has come and gone and here I am safely emerged from the other side with a full report to make.  Somerville Open Studios was an event whose true rewards and results may not be evident for a while. As of this writing, I am still coming down from the adrenalin high of so much social and creative stimulation. I managed to take photos of my setup at the beginning of the day, but thanks to steady traffic of visitors was unable to leave my studio to get shots of the people crowding the hallways as numbers increased, and too distracted with one-on-one exchanges to sneak photos of the people inside my space, so words will have to suffice to document the day’s activities.

I wanted my studio to feel like a gallery space and offer more than simply a selection of my work for sale. To my delight, the simple spare quietly intimate effect I wanted to create, and hoped would suit small black and white photographs, was appreciated and commented upon by many of the visitors to my space. More than once I heard  phrases like  “it’s like a whole other world in here” or “what a sanctuary.” Someone was even so taken with the quality of sunlight through my drawn red curtains he asked if he could photograph it! More than one person felt comfortable enough to sit on my couch while admiring my work and many fell into conversations with me that went way beyond “nice photographs.”  In general it seemed as if the people who chose to visit my studio were not only specifically interested in photography but often practitioners themselves, and kindred spirits. 

My Holga images were of particular interest, and confirmed for me that the backlash against technology and desire to return to simpler tools is indeed a widespread phenomenon and not a passing trend. My retro look disc player and equally retro selection of music also received a lot of attention. Apparently there are a lot of fans of Django Reinhardt and classic jazz out there! My New York background and images also sparked interest. New Yorkers are everywhere it seems and wherever they go they love talking about “the city” with a fellow native!  

Sales were less satisfying. On Saturday and Sunday I received far more compliments than cash. Each day I sold a few small prints priced at 5 and 10 dollars. The big sale of the weekend came very close to closing time Saturday night, and I was so taken by surprise I almost missed what was going on when a woman pointed to my snowbound bicycle photograph. I thought she was simply admiring it. Payment  was made in cash and I spent the rest of the night proudly showing off the 100 dollar bill to my fellow artists. 

My apologies for the brevity of this post. I am still in recovery mode from so much activity and unequal to so much thinking I’ll need to do about what it all means. I firmly believe that this weekend was not an end in itself or an ending at all, but a beginning. I’m leaving in a few days for a recuperative weekend in New York where I can let the events of the past weeks sink in and decide where to go from here. I may even have time to fully catch up on all the blogs I’ve been neglecting! Thanks to all my followers for being there. It is no exaggeration to say I could not do what I do without your continued support and sympathy!

All the best to all of you.