30 Oct Practice
Last night my daughter began working on a film about her grandmother, my mother, who passed away 7 weeks ago. As her health was failing, I spent a couple of hours a day with her. During this time, I began to document her final months. There were some good moments and some tough moments. About 20 minutes ago, I was in the meadow making photos when my daughter called to ask about ejecting the drive, and we discussed some of the footage. She wants to be a filmmaker, and she grew up around her parents making films (mostly documentaries), but she hasn’t really made much work of her own. I feel like I have a lot I could teach her, but like a lot of children, she doesn’t want to learn from her parents. I try to accept that but still find ways of giving her information that will make her path more fruitful. [Maybe talk about how that’s like your mother and how you learned to navigate it with her…]
As I walked back home, I thought about the photos that I make in the meadow. Six years ago, we moved into the house I grew up in, and there is an old cow pasture out back that is now a public park. We moved from Brooklyn to Chapel Hill for a lot of reasons but one was that we all needed to find a little bit of calmness. Shortly after we arrived, I began to walk in the meadow each day. In New York, I often made street photos as I moved through the city. As I walked in the meadow, I began to notice things: light, plants, bugs, reflections, etc. I started to make images in that space. In the city, we are often inundated with sights and sounds. It’s hard not to see interesting images every step of the way. In the meadow, it was harder for me to make sense of what I was seeing. Soon, it began to turn into a practice. Part of my reason for making those images was that I wanted to become more present and mindful. It was a practice of noticing and making art, but it was also a practice of meditating and being mindful.
Like all practices, it took some effort to stay on a path. My first images were fine, but over time, as I found more focus, and more awareness, the images got stronger and began to develop into a body of work that held together. This wasn’t an immediate process, but instead developed over a number of years. I pushed myself to take new perspectives, to slow down, and not fall into patterns or tropes. Still, I often made the same, or similar image, over and over again because I was able to see it a slightly different way that most people wouldn’t notice. Perhaps the light was slightly different or the clouds changed an image. I shot all the work on my phone and just kept moving. I wanted the images to be strong, but not too strong.
At 50, I have learned to have some patience. I make the work for myself. I always have. What I have found is that this kind of work doesn’t always jump out at people in the moment, but over time it gathers meaning. After a few years, I put together a pretty strong body of work and I arranged a show at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. I’ve found in my life that by the time I’m ready to show the work, it usually means the work is done. After I announced the show, I spent a little less time in the meadow, and photographed less as well. I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t seeing it in new ways. Then one day in April of 2018, I was looking at the pond which was covered with swirling patters of pollen. I snapped an image and turned it upside down. I was looking at Van Gogh’s “starry night”.
I’d found a new way of seeing, and over the next couple of months made dozens of strong images. The following April, I got a note from the botanical garden asking if I wanted to show that work. A light bulb went off and I headed straight out to the meadow just in time to find the first trails of pollen on the pond. I shot new images and they got a powerful response. One friend asked me to make some longer, panoramic, images so that he could use them as a gatefold on a record. This opened up a whole new realm of image-making. This summer, I had a show of the work. It was during the time that my mother was suffering quite a bit. She had not left the health care facility since a fall that fractured her skull in May. I had hoped to get her to he opening but she wasn’t well enough. A couple of weeks later she was doing a little bit better so I got her in my car, and with the help of her health aide I brought her to the show. She was right on the line of being able to appreciate it. She seemed to like it, but for years I had gotten her unconditional and focused support for my work, and this time she was not able to give me that. It was a little bit difficult.
In any case, after I got off the phone with my daughter, I thought about the idea of practice, and how important it is to just keep making work, because we never know where that work will lead us, or what we’ll learn from it. I still see the work that I do in the meadow as being akin to street photography in that it’s not staged, and I’m just chasing images that are yet to appear. One of the first photos I shot in my life that meant something to me was of a wall in DC with a graffiti quote from Andy Warhol, “Art is anything you can get away with.” I don’t always get away with it, in the sense that it’s not always embraced. However, increasingly, as my practice continues to develop, the work grows in resonance. Practicing doesn’t mean that everything comes with ease, but it does come with increasing levels of awareness.
I wrote this post as a message to my daughter. I have often talked to her about the importance of developing some level of discipline. She and I are alike in many ways, but are also uniquely ourselves. One thing we share is the desire to do things our own way. I’m not trying to steal that uniqueness from her by giving her advice or guidance, but instead trying to help her find her own strength in her own practice. Recently, she started to move in the direction of finding her own discipline and her own practice and it is my sincere hope that this note helps her to move down that path.