Art Writing #9. On being “the one who takes pictures”

Experiments in Art Writing 04.19.2016

On Being “the one who takes pictures”

As I fumble in the dark closet in the basement of the Carpenter Center, the can opener feels crass, certain to maim the fleeting moments I want to capture. The rolls of film had seemed so sacred. How could cracking them open and spooling them with mechanical rigor possibly be right? Were my photographs too precious, too?

It’s all to make up for the roll of film lost somewhere in the Cascade Mountains on the trip to Washington the summer I got my Pentax, the summer my grandmother died and my mother stopped taking pictures. That roll of film had all the photos of pikas and Indian paintbrushes and other northwestern fauna and flora my mother could identify. At the Lutheran Holden Village, I first encountered huckleberries and saunas (it’s not a hot tub? It looks like an outhouse or garden shed) and vespers. Take down the f-stop and the shutter speed, my mother instructed, though I couldn’t imagine why. The details of those photographs probably still live in my parents’ attic.

My darkroom crush had a Boston accent and photographed his father, the guidance counselor who worked summers on a lobster boat. My shots had so little texture. My Massachusetts of rusting farm equipment and too-dark rooms paled in comparison. I would trade places over the trays hoping something would develop.

Senior spring I went back to print all the photos of all my friends. I stained the Saatchi Gallery t-shirt I got with the price of admission that summer in England. The smells of those baths. The drying shelves. The impatience that made me take the stairs rather than cross the basement to the elevator only to cross back on the top floor. My horizontal laziness razed by vertical exertion.

Trying to fix the memory. Trying to see what develops in the dark. Hoping you left things long enough so that your white papers won’t grow brown age spots. Those purple spots bruise brown on semigloss. The color darkroom with its machine out of 2001: a Space Odyssey never had the same romance. And color balancing took more numerical exactitude than massaging clouds out of overexposed skies. Back into the pitch black of the upstairs lab never had the same appeal. The basement where I went to cry and develop photos the day G. W. Bush won — a day in Concord hadn’t turned the tides and more than half the country thought otherwise.

I wrote my college application personal statement about a photograph. My mother took amazing photographs of us when we were small and made beautiful albums. Her reject photographs went to my aunt the illustrator as models of the various postures of children. My little brother subsequently starred in several of her picture books — he had a knack for getting photographed, a talent for being cute, a baby-brother ability to draw attention. My mother’s photographs designed our childhood, gathered us with archival clear plastic magnetism. The photograph I wrote about shows me with arms spread wide. I am on Good Harbor beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts, glowing pink in the sunset. We always went to Good Harbor after Halibut Point and its tide pools, after the crowds and lifeguards went home and the parking lot cleared.  In the photo, I am wearing the enormous pink sweatshirt with tumbling panda bears that was handed down to me by our unbelievably amazing babysitter. How could I but treasure anything owned by our next-door-neighbor, Sarah Hinckley, who looked like every childhood hero — Molly Ringwald and Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables. Writing the image into my college essay, I remember feeling a little clever and gross describing the snot-stained sleeves.

I recently photographed the girl I babysat when she was 9 months old, my first job in New York City. It was her 10th birthday and I gave her a sparkly sweater that had been mine. I had purposely worn the tinselly sweater to visit Anna and her six-year-old twin siblings because it struck me as the sort of thing children appreciate. Each time she saw it, she remarked that I ought to give it to her. Her straightforward declaration of desire amused me.

When she opened the present at her Ample Hills Creamery make-your-own-ice-cream birthday party last month, she immediately put it on. The image is produced from its negative. Give away the sweater to the image reconstituted. I asked her to stand as I had stood in my babysitter’s sweatshirt. Seeing my pose repeated back didn’t affect me as much as I anticipated.

“Click” said Cam Jansen, the kid detective with a photographic memory in the first chapter books I read to myself.

Images persist because of and despite their photographs. Are we the albums we make? Taking non-digital photography at the curdled cusp of its obsolescence developed my nostalgia and fixed my disgust. I got a better digital camera and researched digital SLRs, paralyzed by the proliferation of digital images. A camera phone struck the death knell. I wanted to write about self-imaging in social media for my autobiography class. I remember cringing when a precocious college essay student of mine introduced me to the word “selfie” in 2012. Vocabulary tutoring was a reversible operation with Greenwich Academy girls.

Reading Herve’ Guibert saddens me the way photographs do. The way it seems everyone can frame things in the same ways and they will still be forgotten, lonely, captured, fixed things. Endlessly repeating, lost, shuffled, printed. The thoughts like the photographs so easily become trite. It’s why I hate Instagram. Suddenly everyone is a photographer. The automation of the “artistic eye” gives me vertigo. I have a friend who touches up photos for actors who complains that filters are just junking up photos with all the crap he works so hard to remove. The notions of photography, like the photos themselves, yellow and clutter. A picture is worth a thousand words. A word is a thousandth picture.

My mother asks me to do something with the plastic bins of bad proofs and sleeves of negatives.