Sunday, December 09, 2007

Photography As Memory

The fall I lived outside Taos, NM, and the images from the time I spent there, come back to me tonight as I review other aspects of my life. A life's threads are all tangled together, usually not so deliberately woven that one can wear a life as a scarf against the chill of night, but not so disorganized either that no fabric can be made of them. We create fiction when we write memoir, because we're impsing order and interpretation after the fact. From the vantage point of the present, everything that led you to where you are now seems inevitable, destined, progressive. At the time, it never felt that way; only in hindsight do patterns emerge. It's tempting always to create a narrative of cause an effect, to impose such a narrative on chaos in order to bring chaos to order, and to give it meaning. But is this really the right way to go about it? Psychological history is biography is memory is fact is fiction is memoir.

on Taos plateau

I had the habit, that fall and winter in Taos, of putting several of my photos there into banners, sorted by date or by topic. Visual remnants, traces of history. I've always used photographs as memories. I suspect most people do. There was a period in the early 20th Century, when "art photography" explored the same sense of abstract forms as writing and painting had been doing, usually by doing close-ups or distant landscapes in which the details of representation melted into pattern, and meaning and image were much harder to discern. Edward Weston's close-ups of green peppers, of parts of the female body, of driftwood on the Pacific shore, were all of a piece in their explorations of curvilinear forms. In retrospect, this observation of the same forms recurring in different subjects, on different scales, and at different locations, prefigures the development of fractal geometry.

I write this at sunset—an overcast winter day with just a hint of pink in the sky for a few moments before the woods fade to indigo—after having gone this afternoon to wheelbarrow in a load of wood from the stack in the woods. I also stood for several minutes, shivering and bundled up against the cold, beside the tripod while the video camera was shooting long takes of the snow-covered blue spruce moving slowly in the wind. With the video camera, these long shots are just like still photos—carefully composed, thoughtfully cropped, carefully lit—except they move, even if only slightly.

Home trailer home

I would construct a photo-banner to illustrate an entry in the Road Journal, which I had just started to keep. (I still find the word "blog" to be an ugly word, so I avoided using it when I started this online journal, which was never meant to be a diary, or unpolished reminiscence.) The Road Journal now contains more of my life and memoir and personal experience than I had ever intended to include. I try to find a balance of poetry, prose, and photography there, since all three modes tangle themselves together in my life: biography as an illustrated book, or an illuminated manuscript. I can't think of anything more boring than memoir without photo. Because of the technology of publishing, which I have always been attendant to, I can also include music in my online memoirs, following Mendelssohn's idea for short narrative piano pieces, the Songs Without Words. And now, with Liquid Crystal Gallery, I am able to combine photos and music into films, with still photos made to move, just like the long video shots that are just like still photos, except they move.

Photographs as memories. Both aesthetic criticism and cognitive theory have looked into the implications of photographs replacing memories in their usage. Are family albums really about constructed memory, or are they designed to tell the family's idealized story, all the warts and pains removed? Almost everybody smiles when they know a picture is being taken of them. You get more natural expressions via candid or stealth photography.

remnant volcanic cone, Arroyo Hondo, NM

I went West in fall 2004, against the wishes of my family. Looking back, my birth family has undercut and second-guessed every major life-decision I've ever made. I guess they thought they were being the devil's advocate, but what resulted was that I learned that no decision I ever made, for any reason, could ever live up to their expectations, and nothing I ever really cared about would ever be supported. That's still true. Those voices you carry with you inside your head, undercutting you, are usually voices you learned from your family, somewhen.

But I went anyway. I needed to shake things up. The result of the past three years has been continuous change, accelerated disruption, occasional homelessness (sometimes literal as well as metaphorical) and, in the end, a return home to take care of ailing parents, giving up my own life for theirs. At this time, still recovering from all that, and the stress and exhaustion of it, I've become chronically ill myself. Most of my plans for the winter have been called into question.

Rio Grande River gorge, Taos Plateau region

As I look over the photographs I've taken in these past three years, several bodies of work emerge. As difficult as life has been during this high-stress period of my life, the art I've made during this time is among the best ever. Beginning in 1993, I started making site-specific landscape art sculptures. Out West, I found myself in places where all you had to do was point the camera at the ground and you could still get a beautiful image. I spent a lot of time in the Rockies, and also at the Pacific Ocean shore. I discovered that I do my best thinking, sometimes, on long cross-country road-trips.

Taos plateau

I developed a body of work that is literally about the body: nudes in natural settings. I came into my own as a landscape photographer, worked even more with portraits and nudes, and developed films based on my still photography, making them move. Now I have access to a high-definition digital video camera, the next step in the image-making process. I'm not interested in film-making except maybe as a photographer or cinematographer; I'd rather spend a week with Ron Fricke than anyone else in cinema.

home frigid tent

There's a lot more associated with photography and memory I could explore. It might take a lifetime to review the past few years, which have been more intense and amazing than I can ever explain. I know that I have begun a life review, to figure out how I got to this point. Where I started, who I was back then, seems unrecognizable now, unimaginably distant. Time shapes us, if we let it, if we're open to becoming more or less what we were meant to be. I could talk about the forge, the refiner's fire, the heat that sears yet heals.

Here endeth the prime lesson: Let no one interpret your own life for you. That's your required work.

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