Another way I learned.
In the mid-1980s, I was a 4-H kid (I quit Girl Scouts because it was rumored that we would have to eat baby food in order to earn the childcare merit badge). 4-H was a big deal in my small southern Indiana town; my friends and I lived in a variety of non-urban areas--I on my family's wooded property (which, when I think back on it, seems so improbable for us to have owned, and yet so perfect); my best friend on her family's farm; another friend of ours on a wildlife preserve that her parents managed. That last friend was how I got into 4-H. Twenty years later, I have had to look up what the four Hs were: I thought that one was "home," but it turns out that they're all personally located: head, heart, hands, and health. I was pretty much unqualified when it came to the agricultural activities that are a mainstay of 4-H (and, in turn, of county fairs all over the place, particularly in the midwest): I did not do animal husbandry; I blew it when it came to growing vegetables and flowers (the wooded property, remember, coupled with my tendencies toward procrastination and impulsiveness, meant that I ended up backing out of vegetable exhibition and taking in some houseplant or another as a "flower"). I did slightly better with some of the homemaking projects: I made a skirt one year and participated in the pre-county-fair fashion show at the local high school. And we rocked the talent show one year, in part because I wrote our skit's script. But for the most part, a lot of 4-H projects I undertook became a big pain for my ever-patient mother.
When I turned to the non-domestic things, though, I shone. One year, I received some kind of really good ribbon for my project on computers. I have little memory of what that entailed. But I loved the photography project I did with my father one year. And that one earned me some kind of champion ribbon--not a grand champion of the whole fair, as I recall, but a champion in my class. My father, as I suggested in yesterday's post, is a photographer (in addition to all his other talents, virtues, and professions). He's also the person who did more than anyone to invest me with a scatalogical sense of humor. My 4-H photography project became a great moment of confluence for these aspects of his personality and of our relationship: we decided to drive through southern Indiana photographing outhouses.
One Sunday, my father woke me up early, so that we could catch the early morning light. All these decades later, it sticks with me, his telling me that pre- and immediately post-dawn light is the best of the day. (Part of the reason I'm thinking about the outhouse project, in fact, is that I had to rise much, much earlier than usual today, in order to get to Columbus for an appointment, and so I did my favorite mid-Ohio drive just before, during, and just after sunrise--which was something of a revelation for this resolutely nocturnal person; I'm almost convinced that I should make some stringent efforts to rise before the sun, at least occasionally, if I want to see my world at its loveliest.) We packed the big camera bag with the old Nikon F2, with the flash, the light meter, and all the lenses, into the Oldsmobile and drove south, heading toward the Ohio River.
That Sunday morning was my first experience with taking a drive that was all about the drive, not about pushing swiftly and efficiently to some destination. We meandered, and when we saw something for which we wanted to stop, we stopped. We did all manner of trespassing, my father and I; presumably, he was ready to do the defending and explaining if anyone confronted us about why we were walking around his or her abandoned and dilapidated outhouse at 6:45 a.m. Can you picture the scene? A man in his mid-30s walks around with a ten-year-old not-yet-Dr. S, showing her how to use a light meter, showing her how to hold the camera, showing her how to focus in more senses than one. How to look for architectural details. How to find the best color combinations. How to see why a ruin might matter. How to see.
I've just had to take a break from writing in order to retrieve this computer's power source, and all the way from one floor of the house to the other, all the way through my little retrieval sweep and return to my perch here in the upstairs, I fell into wave after wave of realization. Through their artistic practice--my mother's quilting, about which you know; my father's photography and mechanical designs and inventions--I learned about how to learn to see, how to see needful things, how to watch patterns and workings quietly, waiting to see what they'll reveal about themselves. How to know that there is a life in objects, and a story. How to see that story does not require words. How to see that seeing does not always require story, though it may lead to implying it.
I don't remember how many rolls of film we shot on our outhouse gathering drive. And we did not develop the film ourselves; by the time we were in Indiana, my father no longer had his basement darkroom (one of the many wretched things about having moved to Indiana, I believe, was the loss of that darkroom--which, in the Buffalo house, had also been the site of my mother's experiments with silk-screening and my father's adventures with mounting and framing all manner of things). But when we got the film back from the developer, there were some startlingly good shots. I have a clear memory of my favorite sequence, a group we did of a blue outhouse with white details. Many of those images went into my final poster presentation of our work. For (if I may) cheeky effect, we mounted the pictures on brown matboard before affixing them to the regulation foam-core board required for posters. (And what a pain that was to find--we had to drive to a hobby store near Seymour, a good 30 miles away, to find foam-core board every year. Seriously, my mother is a saint for the things she, who doesn't even like to drive, subjected herself to in my youth.) And the judges liked the project, which was an excitement indeed.
I'm thinking about this stuff so much this weekend because of an intellectual and aesthetic move I'm making for myself this spring. After a year of having told you all that something big was on its way, I finally have a sense of another part of what I mean, and it's not at all what I expected. A year ago--and you can just get yourself ready for this project's first birthday, because it's going to be a party, come December 15--I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and when I started taking and posting photographs, I thought of them as, in most ways, simply illustrations of what I was writing. I have long thought of photography as that thing that I accidentally do well every once in awhile but that is actually my brother's province, while my province is the written word. And our provinces lie next door to one another, and we visit freely, but we don't really mess with one another's turf.
But in the past year, my brother has been writing more and more (and getting better and better at it), while I've been shooting more and more, and suddenly it feels as though we might be living in different parts of the same province of creativity after all. This realization is one that I love, because taking pictures together (or talking about how we take pictures) has become another way to relate to yet another member of my family. One of the best things about last month's mystery trip was my getting to take pictures all day. I'm certain my brother knew this, going into it; I suspect that that might even have been part of the reason that he was shooting only with his camera phone. It's a neat revision (if you will) of that outhouse drive twenty years ago, really: someone else at the wheel, carrying me through our rural landscape and giving me ways to see those surroundings anew.
It's in part because I keep receiving that gift that I've finally decided to take a hint and learn something about what it is I'm doing. I know how to intuit things visually, and with a smart piece of equipment helping me out, I can, every once in awhile, feel that I have had my vision, as Lily Briscoe thinks to herself. But I've never gotten training in how to use photographic equipment, how to handle film, how to make and mount my own prints, how to experiment. That all changes, starting in just over a month.
I'm going to learn how to see all over again.