Saturday, February 26, 2011

L.A. and Tucson

 How can you not be delighted walking down the street, seeing buildings painted with signs like this?

 And how can you not gulp when you walk out of a craftsmen house and see more such houses lining a street lined with these palms?
 So I fell in love with L.A. I said this before...if I had another lifetime or was ten years younger...I would move there, though a friend suggested I have enough time left to make this change. That would mean I'd just stare at signage and those insane palm trees that serve no practical purpose except to amuse me. Glorious.

I have not filled this whole blog with photographs of Jinx, the most glorious dog, who actually slept with me on my last night in L.A. Large, comfortable, his heavy head sometimes resting on my stomach. This is hardly fascinating reading, but it's such a good memory.

We went to an interesting exhibit of work by Fred Lonidier at the CardwellJimmerson gallery...small space, but quite remarkably hung (I hate to use that phrase, but displayed is even worse) exhibit. I found it very interesting in that his work exemplifies the problems of depending on theory/words/text as the basis. And I truly appreciated the tension between esthetic and meaning as I stood reading (sometimes skimming) three of the, what eight or nine?, pieces of "L.A. Public Workers Point to Some Problems..." The problems are commonplace and, to me, very interesting -- low level, probably not well paid workers trying to give decent service-- a librarian, a teacher (young kids), someone who worked in what we called the welfare department. The struggles, cutbacks, lack of material, poor pay, etc., interesting stuff rather densely presented on, let's say, 4x6 panels (I just checked, there were 11 of them and they are 50x33") with small, prosaic black-and-white photos that I didn't even glance at. I just read. Informative and punishing. I liked that impulse though I can't imagine many people standing there, craning their necks, to read it.  

Though my "Streets are for Nobody" was hardly in the same critical vein that Lonidier works in -- since I'm a documentary photographer -- I faced a similar problem with excerpted text interviews that I was told were too long, much too long.  (I would have preferred text panels the size of Lonidier's!) The portraits were quite prosaic, hardly attention grabbing, since I wanted it clear that these were women who happened to be homeless and not examples of the visual curiosities of a shelter.

Back to L.A....the work that I thought was most successful was "The Health and Safety Game," which combined images taken of a number of people (let's say 5) who had been victims of industrial accidents with text about their physical and legal struggles. This was framed, a bit more graphically seductive (that was hardly his intention in the "L.A Public...") and insightful.  Dense. Seriously interesting.

His most recent work, "AZTEC VS A.T.U." was the most graphically interesting with unnecessary bits of design that probably made it more pleasing to someone glancing at that wall from across the gallery...the information was, of course, interesting, political, about a union struggle against a bus company that ended up going bankrupt so no one got anything useful out of the demonstration.    (But I found myself fussing about the extraneous bits, and I mean tiny bits, of decoration....shows how cranky a person can become.)

Anyway, it was certainly interesting. I was glad that we went in what was, for L.A., a torrent of rain. I thought of backing out, my usual avoidance tactic, but pulled myself together to be a decent sport -- much to my benefit.

Arriving in Tucson to a dry, flat (in terms of color) landscape is a shock. It's not yet spring so whatever bits of color will sprout from the cacus are not yet visible. This first photograph is at the University of Arizona...

It's probably more realistic to think of the last of my lifetime here with manageable driving and one or two months spent indoors under an air conditioning unit.

We went to an exhibit yesterday, across from that low flat building (the sky was blue!). It was in an old warehouse, hence the photo of the floor which became, to me, an exhibit, an installation, in itself. I loved the floor. Nance loved the paintings and would happily live with one. (I prefer paintings that are chaotic and noisy. These were very quiet.) We both admired the director with his melodious voice, who with his wife, has actually made a business of selling regional work. That seems remarkable.

Today I get to go to a rodeo.................

Saturday, February 19, 2011


 One of the nicest dogs in the world waited for us while I got a latte and bought a small ice cream for S. (cost $10 for both) at a newly opened boutique-coffee shop. When I'm facing a difficult meeting or late in the afternoon or after an exhausting experience, I need a latte.

(I do like Starbucks  -- the latte is predictable. If I ask for light foam, I get it rather than a light cup of foam. Some of the staff I know in the Everett store are serious about their commitment to the organization, rely on the health insurance, feel comfortable because they can get a similar job in another city (transferability) and want to become managers. Some, of course, will only work for a few years. So, I haven't been able to work up any hatred against this expensive franchise. I'm even fond of my gold Starbucks card.)

However, buying this coffee, served by a handsome young Italian who didn't entirely understand what I was saying, allowed me a picture of Jinx, just his legs, the better image of his soulful eyes not being included here..and a glimpse of that fine dog sticker attached, along with many stickers, to this bench.
The ice cream was inordinately gorgeous.

After fortification, I met with a young woman to show her some work. Unexpectedly, she had the capability of getting me to talk about it. (As S. said later, she's very smart and there should have been a tape recorder.) Though I can't remember the exact phrasing of the question she asked, the basic idea was for me to define what most interests me. Of course, I am now thinking about that, not having come up with a decent answer at the time.

(My basic attitude is to resist defining even though I scrap around working like mad, obsessed with some vague idea or another, a thread to follow, a cliff to leap off of. What are you doing? Oh, I'm just working. It was very hard to allow myself to work and necessary, for complex reasons, to pretend I wasn't.)

The self-portraits are a very narrow view of my preoccupations, though they display a considerable change, one that I would have thought impossible, in my emotional development since '72-'73. Perhaps they even hint at my social interests, but I'm not sure they reveal enough. At least they show a much broader person that the original set does -- that lovely fruitcake leaning against the white wall in that tenement in a quite dangerous neighborhood, wondering how she was ever going to raise her daughter. My looks were not an asset, I'm now sure, and I thought nothing about them then other than that they caused me considerable trouble.

After our meeting, I tried, in my vague way, to think about what sort of worker I am. In the middle of the night, I came up with a good couple-of-words description. I can't remember it now, though I'm certain it had to do with social instincts. And that the gist of it was borrowed from the title of the book (along with a quarter of a Valium) that got me to LAX -- Scent of the Missing, Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, by Susannah Charleson.

This morning, the definition of my body of work as search-and-rescue still makes sense, starting with a search for and rescue of myself and then leading on to a search within distressed or somewhat distressed communities/clusters and a rescue of individual stories. I know that I can't actually present an adequate/comprehensive version of their experiences (and certainly not in their native languages), but since these are people who I enjoy and am curious about (women who are or have been homeless, workers in the barn area of a small race track, six eighty-year-old ladies who have made over a thousand quilts for babies in Intensive Care Units since 1989)  aren't about to do that and I think their lives are important/significant/, I don't think that the interviews, even filtered through my brain, do any harm and  might allow some insight.

So, my curiosity about and comfort within diverse communities that don't have a lot of economic or social privilege defines my work.

Two summers ago, I met a much younger Irish woman, earning a living as a cook for a family and trying her first run at Thoroughbred training/racing, learning the ropes on the backside of Suffolk Downs, getting ready to race her co-owned horse in it's first race. We had a brief conversation while she grazed that horse about the problems we've both found at various parties or gatherings in Boston.

People, she said, seem quite friendly if she says she's done this or this, (hum, yes, that's alright, nod pleasantly), but if she adds that she's done that and that, they look away. She's aware that she suddenly failed the test of class and prestige. We are both highly aware that, in some circumstances, we both appear to have some touch of class, even though our economics and our interests lean a lot more to the marginal.

We commiserated about how comfortable we both felt in the barn area. I like it there because I now have a group of people who talk to me, tell me stories, even though they know that I understand little about taking care of and racing a Thoroughbred.. and I don't have to say much.

She found the same comfort -- the easy banter, the hard-scrable lives, the acceptance of danger, or death (the old guy who fed her horse at night had died of an overdose recently, she told me.)

Anyway, I suppose that all this is leading to the fact that I'd never do a series of portraits or a video about academics (except about Gene Sharp, who I'd never heard of until the NY Times wrote about his influential writing concerning non-violent protests. (No, even though he lives in the next poor town over, I'd never heard of him and he's not, I think, the Marxist influence that enthralled a Vietnamese student some fifteen or twenty years ago.)

And I think that being in an academic setting wasn't particularly good for me since I usually felt that colleagues were weighing each of my hard-won sentences. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the urban student body, often first in their families to go to college. I was curious about how they would solve the problems that assignments set, what ideas they would explore, how they would convey them. I view sets of images as somewhat equivalent to poems, stories and essays, each having a different purpose, exploring different ideas or feelings. And I truly liked watching their explorations.

Enough of this now. I'm in L.A....amazing.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Sound of snow shovels....

I ran out of oil late one night last week. And the next day the (new) tank (oh, was that expensive, that Christmas present of a leaking oil tank) over $700 worth of oil was delivered. I'd used that much in less than a month. I hate to think about it.

The sound of snow shovels, of the snow blower that the folks across the street bought this year and the occasional plow. It's remarkable. If I felt more comfortable driving in it, I'd be out taking more photographs as they pile up more mounds today. On Sunday, loaders were clearing old piles for the snow predicted today and tomorrow....moving them from the street onto walls. There's no where to put it.
On Saturday I saw an old friend -- well, I'm not sure how friendship is defined if you haven't seen a person for years, but she is responsible for my job at UMass. Somehow, after the MIT contract ran out and I was like a seal begging for any tiny fish to be thrown my way so that I could keep my daughter in a good public school in an expensive neighborhood, I was given her address and sent her several articles I'd written. We met and talked and then she recommended me to teach at UMass and I was hired for a night class of Photo I.

I've always been dependent on hands-from-the-side-of-the-stage like hers. At any rate, she retired early and I'd only seen her once in many years, at a party for the slide curator who had been a student. So, I was completely surprised when she called after New Years and wanted to go to lunch.

She's a painter and video artist and the only woman I know who has had a long marriage with another artist who not only supported her work, but joined forces during their early careers. That happened before I met her, so I missed their performance pieces and exhibits. A couple of years ago, there was an afternoon retrospective of her videos at the Museum of Fine Arts, but for some reason I wasn't able to go. Right now they're working on a website which both say seems like creating an obituary. Though they don't have that New York fame, they've been innovative and productive, as well as recognized and have left their mark in many ways.

But what all this is about -- other than remarking about a marriage and partnership of almost 60 years -- was how happy she looked on Saturday when she showed me the flowers she's painting now. This is a woman whose work has always had a philosophical and intellectual bent with a serious touch of surrealism added to the videos and also in her paintings. I would not have imagined opening the door to their house and finding her so delighted about a little painting of pansies.

She does have comforts -- two cases of mechanical toys that she enjoys looking at and thinking about (she wound up a tin dog who did back flips on the kitchen floor), a table of plants, nicely ordered space -- and is extremely serious and very thoughtful. And she looked so sparkly because of those painting.    

Of course I thought -- oh, what can I do to give me such pleasure?

I liked making prints with the butter soft rectangles from the art store that are so easy to cut. My subject is usually some aspect of a fat nude woman, though I've carved images of pill bottles and plants. That's the only activity that might, in any way, match her enthusiasm for and focus on these paintings.

Most work, and this applies equally to hers, has a small percentage of pleasure attached to a great deal of slogging. That bit of pleasure is the seduction, probably. And the slogging is the necessity. But she seemed to be enjoying the demand of 'finding the right color,' as she said, that easy phrase that covers up so much effort.

I've been slogging to put together a video of the Empty Spools Quilters at the Senior Center. I go there on Friday video tape, now photograph, and to start a quilt myself. They are spunky women in the eighties who have been doing this since 1989 or 1990, small quilts for babies in Intensive Care. "It's relaxing," they tell me, to put pieces together, "You don't have to think about it." Evidentially there's no right and wrong in their eyes, though I managed to suffer last Friday when I started working on one. I wanted to use red squares, only red squares, or pink, maybe a bit of purple if I had to...having totally ignored the fact that it would belong to a baby...I was gently reminded of my error....

So, I like Friday mornings. A lot. I wish I'd been part of a gathering working on some beneficial project. Maybe a book club could function in the same way, but I particularly like that these women have had this type of goal.

But I suffer over the video. Not that I don't like it. Or that I'm not pleased with the interviews. But besides it being a hell of a lot of work, I'm not trained in Finalcut Express to do fine editing. In the last month or so, working on two rough cuts of different projects, I've managed to loose what i'd

Which leads me to the next problem.

Any videos that are 'my work' are edited by Liz Hesik. I can't afford to have these final edited by her. Are they 'my work'? I've done countless interviews with people who worked for "Spare Change," a newspaper sold by people who are homeless. They were published with photographs I took. I was on the Board, active at the paper, productive. But I never thought those interviews were part of 'my work' though I considered them as part of a wider definition of 'Service' for the university.

I've always been interested in alternative venues, but perhaps adopted the standards of the university which allowed me to include the portraits/interviews with women for "Streets Are For Nobody," as 'my work....   but not consider community work as 'mine.'   Curious....

What was also interesting and probably what lead to me thinking about all this is that my benefactor wanted to invite a former student to have lunch with us...I know her, too, an activist in her 'art' and in her actions...she's responsible for any legislative actions and has built up a strong core of art advocates. So, I got to hear what she's doing -- a new job with a grassroots organization as well as her regular job. And when we had a cup of coffee together after lunch, she told me about her experience at school where she felt grounded in the necessity for action, that many of her courses promoted that bent of thinking. I was quite surprised, having thought that much of her direction came from her life before college, from direct social concerns.        That talk really got me thinking....