I brought out the 4x5 view camera for the first time in a while, and it felt so good to be shooting large format again. I had wanted to shoot outside, but spring mud and slush still abound... so I contented myself with bringing the outside inside for the time being, knowing that when I go outside again that what I will bring back will be beyond words.
I am often awake when others are sleeping: awake in the middle of the night, awake in the early hours of the morning, awake and wanting to sleep... but not being able to. This film is a poetic evocation of those times when sleep remains elusive, when I remain suspended between night and morning, between memory and forgetting, between past and present. My thoughts circle, around and around. I mentally trace and retrace my steps, while sleep remains just beyond my reach -- luminous, inscrutable, and still -- like a poem I read and reread with wonder and yet still cannot understand.
In making this, I was interested in seeing how the visual strategies and ideas I work with in my photography translate into moving images and function in time. After all, the process of making many of my photographs is performative: I act out intuitive and symbolic ritualistic actions over and over for the camera. One moment extracted from those actions becomes the photograph, and the rest of the narrative remains implied. But what if the entire action is recorded? How will that change the what my images communicate and how they are experienced? I decided to find out.
Because the film is a personal recreation of my own internal experience, it felt right to work independently on it, playing the roles of director, actor, and editor simultaneously. I acted and re-enacted and recorded scenes until they looked and sounded the way insomnia feels to me. This is my first film: I thus learned how to do all of these things in the process of making it.
Produced through equipment and facilities at the NW Film Center in Portland, Oregon. Fragments of ambient sound included in the film are from www.freesound.org.
I am still awake.
I'm not one to seek out antique shops regularly, but on the rare occasions I do go, I look for old photographs. And not just any old photographs: I'm drawn to the ones in which something's a little strange, the ones that contain hints of something other than what the sitter likely meant to be remembered for, or the photographer likely intended to show. These are the rare ones to be sure, and I'm not always sure what I'm looking for, until I see it, like this one:
I don't think I've seen an altered ambrotype before. Not that I didn't think you could alter an ambrotype -- clearly you can just scrape the collodion emulsion off the back of the glass plate -- but I've certainly never seen one deliberately defaced like this. Carefully defaced. Literally de-faced. Just the identity of the sitter obliterated, and everything else, including the velvet-lined case, completely intact.
Of course I had to buy it. It now sits on a bookcase in my living room, and I stare into the absent face, and, unlike most old photos, it does not appear to stare back. And, for some reason, I'm all the more drawn to it because of that. Of course, I have thought about who the woman was in the portrait, and the fact that no one now will know. But there's only so far you can go with that, and I've thought thoughts like that before. So I think more about who would so painstakingly remove her face yet leave the rest of the image intact, and why. I wonder if it's a historical or a modern alteration to the glass plate. I wonder if the person who did the defacing knew the person whose face was being obliterated. I wonder if there are more images like this.
I begin to think that all images are like this. They are like this even when we can still see the faces -- we see the old pictures as anonymous people from the past, who could be anyone, and everyone, and our future selves, and no one all at the same time; they stand in for all the other people who are lost to time and memory, for all the photographs that will lose reference to anything or anyone known and yet will still endure as compelling physical objects. We can see this, see ourselves, see the human condition, and see the limits of photography, both as information and as object.
But we also see the act of an unknown hand on the image, the one that did the defacing. I imagine that person, whose face is for me as unknown as that of the woman whose was originally in the picture, sitting at a desk, scraping tiny bits of the image off the back of the glass plate with a tiny sharp knife, an action that becomes what the image is now about -- the image is now a picture of that action, that impulse, that gesture, that need to obliterate the image and to preserve a record of the action of obliteration, more than it is a picture that used to be of someone, and now is not.
I returned to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina for a second time this year -- I attended Spring Concentration in order to learn metalsmithing (to read about my time there during the Winter Studio Residency in January of this year, see the earlier post below). I’m increasingly drawn to metal as a material, and as a way of potentially expanding the way I can work with photographic imagery in a three dimensional space, creating structures for experiencing images on a small scale, giving them presence and content that goes beyond their overt content. But first I need to learn a lot more about how to work with metal. And so I spent two months doing exactly that.
I learned a lot in a hurry – boxes! hinges! more hinges! enameling! chain making! soldering! - and that rapid absorption of new skills and techniques is one of the things that Concentration makes possible in ways that few other situations do. I made things out of metal all day, every day, for eight weeks. Of course, I should have taken days off, should have taken breaks… but I didn’t… and didn’t want to, either (which, I’m sure, accounts for the overwhelming exhaustion that hit me after leaving, the very same exhaustion that's responsible for my taking this long to share images from the experience). There’s something about being immersed in a community of artists that is too wonderful to step away from, after all… especially when you know the situation is temporary, and that you need to make the most of it while it lasts.
Here are a few examples of things I made:
I made more than this, of course, and I'm still finishing up pieces I didn't have time to complete while there. But I'm happy with how much I did and learned, and I feel like I can now see ways of combining metals and photography, ways of making my photographs into objects that extend what they can communicate as images. That's where I'm trying to go with this, after all. There's more to learn, but I can see the way forward now and feel like I've got the skills to begin... and that's valuable...
...As was spending two months looking out at the Penland landscape each day, watching winter change to spring, watching the fields and hills become a little greener each day. It was pretty magical, actually: spring and art and Penland, all together. If you have the time, you should go there. Stare out at those hills each day, while making things you've always wanted to make... things you didn't think you could make, but find, while there, that you actually can.
I'm finishing a four week residency at the Rensing Center in Pickens, South Carolina. It's difficult to believe my time here is nearly over. It's gone so quickly -- which seems strange, given that the experience of being in this rural environment has in many ways been about slowing down, finding peace, and making art from a place of greater internal and external quiet. How can quiet speed by? How can a slow pace feel like it's gone quickly? It seems impossible, but maybe when creativity is flowing at its own pace, when one's activities connect with a sense of place and the rhythm of time there, then the passage of time isn't as conscious, as labored, as it seems in normal life. In light of that, who would want to return to normal life?
Despite thinking of myself as a photographer, I've spent must of this residency working with book projects. I started with a book in the shape of a house (see an earlier blog post for an image of this). I've now created a second one, tall and winding, twisting upward, toward some idea of home. It's made from pages of an old manual for building houses. Perfect.
I also created books using plastic animals that I'd sawed in half and pages from an old dictionary. Here's one of those. I love the way the lion moves through the book (or the book moves through the lion), and the way the structure of the book allows the animal to double back on itself, to follow itself around in circles:
The time and space to explore new ways of making that differ from my usual processes has been so valuable -- I've loved being able to approach bookbinding more playfully, experimentally, and sculpturally.
And now I'm packing up, and preparing to move onward. I'm grateful to be here, to have been here. Every once in a great long while, you find exactly what you need -- and the quiet time to work on art, to rethink my own creative process, and to spend time in nature has been exactly what I needed... but didn't know I needed until I was here.
If any artists out there are looking for a residency that allows for reflection and creation in a peaceful rural setting, I'd very much recommend coming here.
It's a good place. I will be sorry to leave. Hopefully, I will return someday.
I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and it reflects my initial experiences here at the Rensing Center in Pickens, South Carolina, where I've been an artist in residence since early February. Despite the delay (and the fact that the lovely ice has melted now), I think I'll go ahead and share what I've been thinking about, seeing, and making while I've been here.
I'm sitting in the Guest House at the Rensing Center, a tiny house perched at the top of a wooded slope, overlooking a small lake across the road. The wind is blowing through the trees, shaking loose the ice that coated the branches after the storm. The light is beautiful, and makes the ice glisten. I've got food cooking on the stove and art in progress on the table. It's peaceful, and I'm making art I've been wanting to make, working on projects I drew in my sketchbook months ago and hadn't been able to actually create until now.
But first there's the little house and the solitude that makes this all possible. To make art, I need peace and solitude. Deep down, I know that I know that, but I tend to forget and need to be reminded from time to time. Since leaving my job a little over a year ago, I've spent a lot of time in fairly communal living environments. I've learned a lot and done a lot, but have largely been without the physical and emotional space I need to create effectively. And I found that here: in this little house and in the nature that surrounds it.
And so, as I began to work, I found that I was thinking about the meaning of solitude and about little houses, about how peaceful and right they felt. I was also thinking about bookbinding... and so I made book that was a small house (see below). I wasn't sure if it was possible when I started to make a book the shape of a house... and yet it works. It's sewn on both sides and does not open; it thus uses the bookbinding techniques sculpturally, rather than functionally. I think of it as a treehouse, and know that it will serve as a reminder of the peace that's found here, in this little house among the trees.
I also found that I wanted to make enclosures for some other recent images -- very minimal photographs of lines in nature in winter that I made just before arriving here. I thus made two clamshell boxes which hold the image like unbound books (or like a home for a pile of previously loose prints).
I had, after the first week, been feeling like I had not made a lot (I've spent a lot of time walking around in the woods instead of making things), but when I stacked up what I'd completed so far I was happy -- with the individual objects... and also, curiously, with how they looked stacked vertically. So here's the first batch of works from the Rensing Center, all in a pile:
And then details of the individual pieces, below:
This is one of the clamshell boxes, closed, followed by images of both of them open, with the prints inside. I like the that book cloth is color coordinated with the prints themselves (toned or not toned). Lucky me for bringing the supplies I didn't know I needed until I was here... sometimes these things just work out.
But back to the ice storm I mentioned earlier: I didn't think when I decided to come to the South in winter that I would encounter, well, real winter. But I have. Fortunately for me, I really like winter. I've been living places that don't get weather, exactly, and the ice and snow I've experienced here have reminded me of how much I've missed the changing seasons, missed the way they remind us that we're tied into a cycle of life that's much larger and more enduring than we are. I believe this awareness matters, believe it helps keep my own life in perspective. I think this is important as an artist, as well as someone who wants to understand and express more of what it means to be human in the world.
And winter is just beautiful. Tiny icicles everywhere. I love how fragile yet protected everything looked when encased in ice.
And so I sat at the kitchen table in the Guest House, making small things in a warm space, while thinking about my relationship to the big spaces of the world outside, while the snow fell softly through the trees.
I recently spent four weeks at the Winter Studio Residency at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. After not having had access to a darkroom for quite a long time, it was nice to be able to re-immerse myself in that environment and the darkroom processes. I really do miss it if I'm away for any length of time. I realize, when I stop to think about it, that I've been doing darkroom work for slightly over 25 years. It hardly seems possible, but...
I had initially planned to spend the residency making images much like some of my previous black and white work... but often it was too cold and windy for setting up the kind of scenes I envisioned outside (though sometimes the weather was wonderfully photogenic in its own right... see below), and I soon found myself doing other photographic things instead. I like it when circumstances allow us to discover what we can do when we're not making the kind of art we always make, what other images live in us that we may not have realized.
But when I wasn't wandering around in the fog, in awe of how amazing actual weather is (um, too much time in southern California, and it's all too easy to forget what weather is like), I was exploring other things. Like setting up still lifes. When was the last time I set up a still life in the studio? I have no idea. But good things happened. This is the first image I made, and it was the start of the series "Five Meditations on the Nature of Gravity and Weightlessness" that you can see elsewhere on my website.
And I kept shooting. And wandering around in the changing weather. And began noticing the way the leafless trees in winter created simple linear forms against the sky. And I began shooting those. Lots of those:
Not what I usually shoot, no. But satisfying in their minimal compositions nonetheless. So I shot and printed piles of these (I'm dealing with the piles now... just wait and see what I do with them...).
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, I also photographed some of the amusing things to be found near Penland, one of which I'll share below:
Four weeks went by quickly, and I'm already deep into the next residency, in South Carolina... I'll post some photos from that soon.
Where to start? Just prior to getting this new website complete enough that I can call it ready to view, I was traveling cross country en route to the artist residencies where I'm living and working on my art this winter and spring. So I've got images from travel, new art, and work in progress. It's nice to have a space to be able to share images as I make them. What to share first?
I'll start with a couple of images from my cross country drive, in which I stopped places I'd not been before (and having done a lot of cross country drives, I do have to plan to make that happen, to see the things I'd missed on other routes, other trips). Here's White Sands in New Mexico:
And rather than just photograph it as it is, I couldn't resist putting my typewriter in the sand. Because who doesn't play with one's typewriter in the sand when visiting national parks at dawn? And who, in this digital age, doesn't travel with an old Underwood manual typewriter? It seemed to make sense to me, yet I was the only one doing anything of the sort.
It was nice to have these images to get started with when I arrived at the Penland School of Crafts winter studio residency. It had been so long since I'd had access to a darkroom, and having new film to print is always a good way to get one's hands back into those chemical trays after some time away.
And having ended up in that part of New Mexico, I couldn't resist going just a bit further out of my way to stop in Roswell, New Mexico (hey, the UFOs went further out of their intergalactic way to stop there, so my detour is minor by comparison, right?). Who could possibly miss out on all the alien tourist attractions? (hint: not me.)
So, I've got typewriters and aliens... so this blog is officially off to a good start. You need to fit the aliens in at the beginning. It's awkward inserting them later on, but you'll always be sorry if you have to leave them out entirely, right?