One of the odd things about photography is that often the best of it is about something else. The idea that you can have photography that's just about photography is about like the idea of having writing that's just about writing. No matter how beautiful, writing has to be about something. The son of man who cannot say, or guess, for he knows only a heap of broken images and where the sun beats; or Gulliver, having therefore consulted with his wife, and some of his acquaintance, determined to go again to sea; or Gatsby and Daisy. It's unsatisfying to try to write without content—"white writing" bedamned. Story trumps style.
I'm amused when on several occasions I've posted photo essays about one thing or another (assembling a pool table, laying a concrete street) and get responses like "I thought this was supposed to be a photography blog." That's what those were, those little rectangles of color—those were photographs, little recordings taken of the life of the world.
Magical things, recordings. I have almost a Zen relationship with them. In many forms. Even the way these words are the recording of my thoughts, right now, here.
In the past week or so I've been packing up the house with the very able help of a wonderful professional organizer named Linda Palmer. One thing that's been going just superbly is our method of dispatching piles and boxes full of random papers, of which my house is, or was, too full—Linda does triage, and gives me stacks to check—either stacks of things she guesses I might want to keep, to check for things to throw away, or stacks of things she guesses I might want to throw away, to check for things to keep. It works wonderfully, and the piles that I find it so difficult to cope with are melting away. It's been great.
It's also been hard for me. Many memories, unearthed and brought into the light.
As all these old artifacts have passed under my eyes I've come across a lot of my old writings, going back to high school. Many of them are good—at one point in my life when I was serious about crafting longer-form literature I think I reached a pretty high level of skill and polish, not that you'd know it now.
But I had no subject.
The prose is far from empty, but it's all over the place—a sheaf of many dozens of poems, about three or possibly five of which are excellent; a superbly fluid essay that purports to be about music (and is actually embarrassingly puerile in those parts) that is really about the love of wilderness; an account of an occasion when I was suspected of shoplifting. (I was daydreaming so badly that I walked out of a bookstore carrying a paperback I had not paid for, and immediately went back into the store to pay for it—and was asked to put it in the cubbies provided for the backpacks that students weren't allowed to carry into the store. The necessary interrogations and explanations that followed were bizarre and funny, I thought. Not so funny was the way unjust suspicions clung to me for months afterward. Now, I look back on that experience as an early harbinger of the chance and random ways that trouble comes to find me.)
Taken together, it all has no focus. I dipped a bit in this or that, tried different forms, mimicked different styles. (I was good at that. You want Hemingway or Bellow? I could do either. I just can't do Johnston because there was no Johnston.) My peak as a "general writer" was probably a 150-page beginning of a planned series of novels for adolescents. Stapled to the front is a rejection slip from the publishers of Harry Potter on which is handwritten, "This almost made it for us. Keep us apprised of your future projects." Found that too.
There were no future projects. I have the wordsmithing skill and the intellect to be a novelist but not the psychological robustness or the organizational ability. Really, I am only good at one thing as a general literary writer, and that is memoir, real or fictionalized: autobiography, life stories and stories from life, personal history. That's the frame on which my better stuff is hung. I wish I'd had the maturity to realize that earlier—wish I'd had the good sense to focus on that. The tale of the paper-piles (which admittedly don't make the best case for me) is a tale of a dabbler.
At least, with photography, I get paid to be a dabbler! That fact armors me much better against regrets.
For me, a thick weave of rich history is unearthed in relics and keepsakes, samples of unforgotten friends' handwriting, faded snapshots of dogs long dead. For example, I found a scrap of paper that said "For Michael from Mr. Collett." That's all. The story is more: Mr. Collett was my grandfather; the note was written by one of my grandparents' housekeepers and was stuck in the topmost of a stack of photography books. The books came from Walter Y. Elisha, who was a friend and former protegé of my grandfather's in the business world. Mr. Elisha was the chairman of a company called Springs Industries, which funded many photography exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art while John Szarkowski was there. Mr. Elisha would send the books that resulted from the shows he'd helped pay for to my grandfather, who would give them to me. The stack this note was in was waiting for me in a room of my grandarents' house they called "the Pine Room." (The house is now owned by Debby Knox, who retired last year as the News anchor of WISH-8 TV in Indianapolis, Indiana, after a 33-year career. In packing I came across that, too—a newspaper clipping about her and the house that my cousin sent me.) The Elisha connection also allowed me to meet Mr. Szarkowski, who then kept in touch by phone, which I considered then and still consider a great honor.
(He had a peculiar way of signing off. The conversation might continue for 45 minutes and then he'd say, "Okay, I'm hanging up now." I'd start to say something polite like "Okay, nice talking to you Mr. Szar..." click. That was it. It wasn't exactly "hanging up on" someone, and yet it sort of was. I took it that he just did not have patience or time for pleasantries.)
Why and how did that tiny scrap of paper survive? I have no clue. Its story is certainly not contained in the artifact. But this is the curse of people who have the hoarder gene: that tiny scrap of paper, written three decades ago by an unknown servant I cannot identify, brings up with startling presence the smell of the Pine Room and my pleasure on first paging through those wonderful books. You can imagine all the things that more meaningful artifacts trigger in my memory.
I did some calculations the other day and discovered to my considerable surprise that I've lived at my present address longer than I've ever lived anywhere in my life. Leaving, even though we're moving a mere seven miles, is bittersweet.
[I originally indicated a Part II to this post and I had it mapped out in my head, but it did not flow. Writing can take real time when it doesn't flow. And the dumpster comes today! I have one of those days where the schedule is lined up one thing after the last.
As I said in the sticky, this month is not situation normal for TOP—please forgive!]
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