Monday, February 26, 2024

My Photo Life


[I applied for something.]

My Photo Life

I was born in 1958 in Belleville, Illinois and grew up on the east coast, while cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals. I became serious about photography at the time I retired from over 30 yeaers of teaching American poetry and creative writing at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa. I’ve always been a writer. I work through through ear and printed word. My vision began to develop when my mother’s dementia deepened in the mid-2000s, I kept a blog that detailed the progression of her illness (and its digressions). The blog was published as two books. The discipline of keeping this blog over several years taught me to attend to what was directly in front of me, whether it was my mother or the love story between two Alzheimer’s patients in her “home.” I used to wander the care home looking at the residents’ “memory boxes,” framed spaces that held photographs of them when they had been active, engaged. Many were World War II veterans or their spouses, who had posed in their jaunty hats at a much younger age. The boxes were intended, we were told, to remind the residents of which room was theirs, but because they couldn’t remember themselves, they served to memorialize them for family and friends. (In Alzheimer’s, memorials come before, as well as after, death.) My friend, the noted photographer Gaye Chan, was fascinated by the idea of these boxes. She designed the covers to my books, both of which have flat “boxes” of photographs on the back. The first volume’s cover shows my parents in their Virginia living room, my late father a shade, and my mother blurring. The second volume features the page of an old photo album whose photographs are missing. What’s left are yellow lines, intended to help the owner set her photos straight on the gummy page.

Gaye and I also worked, for a decade, on a small poetry press, Tinfish, which I founded in 1995. I found the words and she assigned student and professors as designers, or did the books and journal issues herself. What an education for me in image and text! More than once, we gathered at large tables to put a publication together; the social aspect of it was part of the larger process. The journal issues were especially intriguing, as Gaye used recycled materials (print shop proof sheets, old cereal box covers, x-rays, and so forth) as the basis for her work, and as covers. Often, every cover would be different from the others, so that opening up the boxes when the finished work arrived was like being a kid again at Christmas-time.

As a teacher of creative writing, I increasingly let go of “knowledge” transmission (how to write a poem, how to scan a poem, how to construct a metaphor) and took up “attention” as my focus. My students had become unfocused, what with smart phones and financial crashes, sick relatives and two jobs, addiction and climate change anxieties. So I wrote a list of 30 “attention exercises” for them to do. Stand at a bus stop and watch and listen to people; watch a sporting event and pay attention to things that happen away from the action of the game; meditate on a raisin; take a walk with someone else, dog or person, and attend to what the other being notices. These exercises changed my own practice, and also led me into photography.

I have always snapped photos, but until recently, they were photos of things, snapshots, goads to memory. After getting a smartphone in 2019 (I’m an adoptive mother, but a very late adopter of technical gizmos) I began to change my way of looking at the world by getting my phone lens close to what I saw. The “whole” fell away and the “part” became my focus. Often, a very ordinary thing (the back of a tow truck, for example) became wonderfully strange if I got close to the back, where a metallic eye sat under a metallic brow. I take most of my photos, even now, on walks with my dog Lilith (Lilith Walks is another of my books, with photos, as writing and photography are coming together for me). I take close-up photos of rusty dumpsters (which remind me of modern art), pieces of trash with partially erased words on them, my dog’s tail as she wanders out of the frame. I’m especially fond of decay, of which there is so much in the rain forest of the Big Island, where I take photos of abandoned houses (eager to suss out family stories that were simply abandoned), brown hapu`u ferns, abandoned cars and boats covered in the asemic writing of mildew and mold. I’ve taken rust and lava walks with a friend in Volcano Village, who also loves to see the world through her camera’s lens.

I’ve taken a couple of photography classes since retiring from my professorial gig. I use a camera for many photos now, though my technical skills are still developing. For the final project of the first, course I took photos of roadside memorials on O`ahu and the Big Island. These are sites devoted to remembering someone—rather like outdoor memory boxes—who died there. They’re often built in intricate detail, then largely ignored by passing traffic. I wanted to see them close up and to record what time had done to the memorials themselves (following the advice of my friend, Gaye). For my second class, I took photographs of a local Eucalyptus tree, one of those that ribbons in reds and greens and drips sap and bark. It’s a messy tree, but beautiful. Black and brown sap runs slowly down the dark trunk, reflecting reds and greens; bark peels off in sheets. A Facebook friend suggested that the Eucalyptus had invented Abstract Expressionism. At around that time, an old poetry acquaintance gave me a copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, so I wrote a sequence of meditations on the tree, my photographs of it, and my relationship (I and Thou) with the tree. The manuscript, titled I and Eucalyptus, is a fusion of photograph and word—the links are not direct but in conversation with each other.

I’m a practicing Buddhist, so my attention to attention has taught me other lessons, on equanimity, the power of ordinary objects and moments to make meaning, on the meditative process of looking (as far as possible) without a screen of thoughts and memories. The idea of sangha (or community) strikes me as important in art, too. I am developing a sangha of fellow photographers, many of them poets who, like me, are late to the practice. But fervent.

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