From the swamp to the ocean

I spent Thanksgiving with the in-laws and associated family who live deep in the hinterlands of Florida, just a mile from the hard edge between suburbia and wilderness. Staying there makes me sad, I’ll make no bones about it. Nobody moves very much at all, and all the food comes from bags and boxes, and the there are veritable dunes of sweet junk accumulated in various places around the house, which the kids consume at all hours of the day. Not just on Thanksgiving. All the time. Much of day-to-day conversation is taken up by what’s on sale where. Perhaps understandable because they are so barely hanging on economically, having painted themselves into small corner via revolving credit, car leases and no retirement savings. So much fear, barely kept at bay with Xanax and Wellbutrin, and a reluctance to accept it or address it. I try not to judge. Self control comes easy to me, generosity is a bit harder. I try to see my in-laws as heroic but tragic figures within a larger game they haven’t quite figured out how to control. I wish I could figure out how to connect. They think I’m odd and a bit nuts. I probably am, in my own way.

But that’s why I get so restless there. After just a day I’m yearning for escape. In my self-tracking days I used to just wander for miles and miles through the de-peopled “communities”, along the strip malls, trying to make up my daily distances, six miles, seven miles or even eight miles, trying to control what can’t be controlled.

Now that I only walk for pleasure I decided for something more ambitious and perhaps symbolic; to walk from the swamp to the ocean, which happens to be 14 miles. The purpose of the walk was not only to shake off the mental confinement of being trapped between kitchen and couch, but to look at the Sunshine State from a pedestrian perspective rather than from a minivan or SUV, and perhaps impress upon those nieces that the world doesn’t end at the bottom of their cup-de-sac, that there is a way out.

Here are some of the pictures from that epic walk, which took me just over three hours:

2013-11-30 13.58.44 2013-11-30 15.14.58 2013-11-30 15.18.51 2013-11-30 17.24.00 2013-11-30 17.38.55 2013-11-30 15.36.082013-11-30 17.39.36 2013-12-01 18.14.442013-12-01 18.06.582013-12-01 18.13.352013-12-01 18.51.17 2013-12-01 18.41.532013-12-02 10.51.262013-12-02 11.14.142013-12-02 11.33.432013-11-30 18.04.27

I know the images are pointedly melancholic and not at all how most people experience South Florida, but that’s how it feels to me. I only saw a handful of pedestrians on my walk. Like, a few people standing on the sidewalk with boards announcing bargains. Some unexpected shared humanity there.

Needless to say everyone thought I was crazy, even crazier to take the bus back, but on that bus, humming with conversations, I felt I was somewhere, a real place.


The right to take up space

Just over a decade ago I got bored with my nice cosy life and my nice cosy job – this seems to happen every few years – and decided to do a Master’s Degree in photography. Studying photography is a license to explore places and talk to people you wouldn’t normally have the guts to approach. In my case it gave me the courage to explore the gay subculture of bears, who are, per Wikipedia, “large, hairy men who project an image of rugged masculinity.” An experience for which I, a straight skinny woman, am grateful for.

Why bears? I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time, but I knew something was broken with my obsessive quest to stay lean, angular, wiry and lanky. The idea that there were people out there who somehow had permission to be big/bulky/chunky/meaty/fleshy and  not only didn’t feel guilty about it but celebrated it felt utopian. Who didn’t want to be invisible. Who didn’t give a damn about what other people thought. Who felt they had the right to take up ample amounts of space.

The next couple of years I lived off the generosity of a wide variety of men all loosely affiliated with the bear tribe. I’d turn up at their doors with my camera and my lights and we’d collaborate on pictures – a leap of faith on both ends.

I loved the outlaw defiance of the bears I met, that they loved food, loved their bodies as a source of pleasure, not of guilt or shame.  Their willingness to be vulnerable opened me up to being more vulnerable. I wasn’t just a reporter documenting a scene, I was a human being looking at another human being and vice versa.

I learned that the nonchalant confidence with which they enjoyed their bodies was often hard-won. Mainstream gay culture was (and is) very prescriptive about beauty norms, and bears broke every rule, often landing them in a position of being double outcasts. Being a straight woman helped; I knew about norms.

I wish I could say that this project changed how I felt about my own body. It did give me more confidence to stand my ground and to look other people straight in the eye. It changed and expanded my definition of beauty. But actually change my own size? Take up real space? I don’t know what it will take to do that.



Patterns: running away

Another pattern emerges. The stuff that seems to make me happiest is all about movement, disappearing, vanishing, being isolated, unreachable. And I ran away from home. I’ve left several countries, changed nationalities twice.

Yesterday I saw the documentary about the making of Alec Soth‘s Broken Manual, Somewhere to Disappear at the Sean Kelly Gallery. No surprise that it got under my skin. Those men – all men – have taken the impulse I feel in myself and taken it to its full conclusion.

from Alec Soth, Broken Manual

I used to take pictures of men who lived by themselves, bachelors I’d call them, not quite urban hermits. It’s hard to do this, because however you take pictures people will stereotype them as loners, eccentrics, lost souls. I am not sure Alec Soth gets around this either, even though he professes to identify with these men (I don’t doubt that he’s genuine). The stereotype of the crazy man in the woods,Ted Kaczynski, Into the Wild, is too well-established, even in a country who holds up Walden as a defining narrative.

I felt guilty and embarrassed much my life for wanting to live like this. Perhaps I can pull it off in my old age?

The whisperers

I lived in Berlin for a year just before the wall came down, the only time I lived in Germany as an adult. It was a strange time, for many reasons.  But what stood out, unforgettably, were people’s faces. They looked distorted, like George Grosz drawings, as if they had put on a mask, but suffering and fear were breaking through. As if they had lost control of their features. Is this what living in this strange limbo, in a city still physically and psychologically damaged by the war manifested itself in? A sprayed-on normalcy that was peeling off like old wallpaper?

The next time I saw faces like this was in my many visits to Brighton Beach, New York City’s Russian enclave. Emphatic, overdrawn faces that seemed to want to portray indifference but were expressive all the same. It looked like long, difficult fates were inscribed in them, and no doubt they were. Many were Jewish and had been able to emigrate in the 1970s and 80s. Before that, what repression, what shattered hopes, how much putting on a proud face on a hard life, biting your tongue for decades on end, keeping two separate ledgers, censoring what you think.

Orlando Figes, in his wonderful ‘The Whisperers‘ brings to life the repressive atmosphere of the post-war years in Russia, especially for the persecuted and their families, and anyone else with a “spoilt biography”, like many members of the Jewish community.

As someone who is interested in images and their uses, I am fascinated by the new laser technologies that are revolutionizing gravestone design. Here are a few of the faces in Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery, all members of the Russian Jewish community. Such evocative faces. What are their stories?

Just to touch each other

I studied photography. I take pictures. I have an MFA graduation certificate that says so.

I never say “I am a photographer”. Photography is a set of tools and techniques that are used by many different people for many different reasons – sell a sweater on Ebay, document their kids’ activities, play dress-up, or whatever else. This is an activity that wants to be a verb, not a noun, nor a descriptor for a person.

I’ve also found the description ‘artist’ fairly useless if self-assigned. Almost a million people claim the profession ‘artist’ on their tax return. Like comedy, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Then, what exactly is it that I do?

I don’t take pictures with a camera to say “I was here” or “this happened” or “I saw this” or “look at me” or “buy this”.

I only take pictures of people, mostly strangers. Strangers who need pictures of themselves, for one reason or another. Like, they want to find someone who will find them attractive, desirable and lovable. And as a photographer, my look will be the proxy for that someone’s eye. I will take pictures that exude attraction, desire and love.

Why do I takes these pictures?

Because I think that photography is built on an illusion, a sleigh of hand, and I want to show it. If I look at a person in a picture, three people are really involved: the person in the picture, the photographer and the viewer. A “professional”, “successful” picture creates the illusion that there is no photographer, that somehow you are looking into a person’s soul  – or some other communion.

What a picture really is, is a document of a very different kind of relationship. The act of portrait photography is fundamentally just this awkward, muddled interaction – two insecure human beings looking at each other. Photographers across the ages have done a great job covering up this strange truth, with ever more elaborate props, poses and staging. I am really interested in stripping all that away, and letting some of that discomfort and vulnerability show through again. To see what happens when people let down their guard and just look at each other.

Barbara Kruger taunted in her famous 1981 collage of jostling men in business suits: ‘You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.’ Photography is just an intricate ritual that allows me to look at someone and for someone to look at me.

The luxury of poverty

I was for a good part of my life crushingly poor, at least by the measurement of government measures, such as poverty lines. There were times when I made less than $3 an hour. Where what I owned on this earth could fit into just a few small boxes. When I lived in a bedsit of 60 square feet, just about enough room to put my feet down.

I can’t say I ever felt poor. The few people I knew did not seem to have a lot more (though they did have emergency support systems such as parents). I had everything I needed. I spent roughly $5 a day on food, a newspaper and other small items, and that seemed to cover all that was necessary. I do however remember that major expenditures like dish-washing detergents or lightbulbs would knock a hole in my carefully balanced budget.

I would like to think that I could live in such monastic circumstances again, if life demanded it. However, having a child, I dearly hope I don’t. My son, having grown up surrounded by many things, would feel poverty acutely. Poverty is, as has been often observed, a relative measure rather than an absolute.

Whenever I see Peter Hujar‘s photographs, I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz’s description of how he was so poor he owned just a single suit and shirt that he’d wash every night so could look nicely turned out every day. There are the stark backdrops in his pictures, the bare walls, the beaten up chairs. But they drip in luxury – the luxury of wanting exactly what you got, and having exactly what you want.




Making patterns, finding patterns

When I first started this blog I had decided that this would be a documentation of my journey into patternmaking. The kinds of patterns you need to make clothes. Because I like clothes, design and sewing.

I had arrived at some kind of crossroads in my life where I decided to work less and make less money. And to rediscover what makes me happy. And strangely, looking at, designing and making clothes came up tops in those first few months of disorientation.

And yet, the world does not need another craftsy blog. And my experiments are too fraught to provide any kind of instruction to the outside world.

Instead, I began to blog about all the other things I can’t stop thinking about. The stuff at the bottom of the swamp that eventually rises to the top. And realized that this blog was not about making patterns, but trying to see patterns. And that perhaps, viewed from 10,000 feet up, these patterns would begin to say something. That once I’d crack the code on them I would find small self-revelations packed inside. I have no idea whether this will actually be the case. But here we go.