Tracking Family Connections

The project I am currently working on examining, in part, the connections among my various family members. It's fascinating to me that we all know each other so well, and yet at the same time don't know each other at all. What connects us as a "family"? A. Hope Jahren, currently a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oslo, recently published an essay in The New York Times titled


"My Father's Hackberry Tree". In it, she describes a connection to her father that arose from her research work:

"...In 1993, my father collected hackberry fruits for me. My task that year was to observe the development of the seed over the course of the growing season, and I had earmarked several trees in South Dakota for that purpose. During a rare visit home to neighboring Minnesota, I saw with new eyes the fine specimen of C. occidentalis that graced the southwestern corner of my parents’ property.

I asked my father if he wouldn’t mind pulling off a few fruits every week throughout the summer, and he obliged. From May through September, he visited our hackberry tree twice each day, carefully recording the weather conditions, and also sampling, first flowers, then green fruits, then ripe, then withered, all placed into small plastic vials. Hundreds and hundreds of fruits — each week’s harvest wrapped in a sheet of paper describing its yield.

... (My) father spent the better part of his 70th summer observing a single tree, and in the end, gave me a hundredfold more than what I had asked for.

My father can no longer write. He is 92 now, and he cannot make his hands work. He cannot walk, or even stand, and he can barely see. He is not certain what year it is, but he is sure that I am his daughter, and that my brothers are his sons, and he treats us just as he always has...

When I visit him these days, we sit in the same house that I grew up in, but we don’t talk about science anymore. ... (We) talk about poetry instead...

As with many Midwestern families, great distances pervade our relationships — both literally and figuratively. We never really talk to each other; instead we box up our hurts and longings and store them for decades, out of sight but not forgotten.

... This year my father and I have spent (the summer) inside, reading...

In the fading light, we offer each other words that were carefully written by dead strangers, because we know them by heart. We also know that children eventually leave. Even when they do come home, there’s always the end of the day, of the week, of the summer, when they fly away to the other side of the world, off to a place where you cannot follow.

This month I am leaving Minnesota, and the United States, relocating yet again, to build a new lab and start over a fourth time. Compared with my previous moves, I am taking very little with me. The dead fruit of my early career has now been discarded. Instead, I carry in my luggage a delicate pile of paper. It is the small bundle of notes written in my father’s handwriting that I recovered from the box of hackberries he collected.

The notes are precious because they constitute proof — proof that my father thought of me every single day and must still do so. Proof that I am his, our shared last name written on every page. Proof that no one in the world knows that tree the way he and I do.

Our hackberry tree still stands, tall and healthy, near the western edge of Mower County. It should outlive both of us, growing stronger and greener even as we inevitably wither and fall. The tree will remain in my parents’ yard, and the notes describing what it was like 20 years ago will go with me, though its fruit will not.

I am taking with me only what I can’t live without, and the utility of these letters is clear. This collection of papers, filled exclusively with symbols and dates and botanical terms, is all of the things that my father and I have never said."

How beautiful that a collection of simple scientific data can make such a profound connection with a loved one. This task that was performed daily for a summer left behind evidence of that love, of the fact that the father thought every day of his daughter, and performed a service on her behalf. The notes that Jahren's father made say "I love and respect you." in a different way than the words themselves, and which is profoundly affecting.

Members of a family sometimes express attachment and affection for one another in such subtle ways that they can be essentially invisible or are not seen for what they are. It is this sideways approach to familial relationships that I am examining right now. What do we discover about our families and our selves when we look for evidence of love and connection in the less obvious places, in the places where links are there, but lie undetected? Trying to answer this question is requiring me to think quite differently than I have in the past about how to portray these issues visually.

"The Dust Lady" Photograph

Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs that were made in New York City on September 11, 2001, many of them resonated with people for different reasons. The images of the aircraft hitting the Twin Towers, the towers burning, of humans falling from them, and of their ultimate collapse all caused horrified reactions from those who saw them. But there was one picture taken that day which resonated on a profoundly human level, that reduced the event to the intensely personal, and that somehow reflected the shock and paralysis that so many felt at the time. That picture, later titled "The Dust Lady", was taken by a photographer from the Agence France-Presse, Stan Honda, and it was of a woman named Marcy Borders, who worked at that time as a legal assistant at the Bank of America.

dust ladyAs film director Errol Morris wrote about documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, "The role of documentary film is not to give us reality on a plate. We have plenty of our own reality to deal with. It should make us think about reality." The photograph of Marcy Borders that was taken on 9/11 certainly did that, and more.

Ms. Borders died in mid-2015 and the New York Times Magazine ran a memorial article on her that is well worth reading. Although she became an iconic figure for many because of The Dust Lady photograph, the New York Times article reminds us that every person in every photograph has a story that no photograph can ever tell.

We are all more than what we look like or what we show of ourselves in photographs.



Artists I Like- Michael Somoroff

Artists often take on the challenge of trying to convey the absence of something. I am no different in this respect, for my work frequently wrestles with the notion of memory, which is inherently fleeting and notoriously changeable as time passes. My Tears of Stone project set out to convey the enormity of loss in the massive number of casualties in World War 1, without actually showing people grieving. So I was instantly intrigued by Michael Somoroff's work "Absence of Subject". Somoroff carefully chose certain images by German photographer August Sander to work with and created a body of work that is visually arresting and thought-provoking. Microsoft Word - deltio typou Somoroff_Sander_EN.docSander was most famous for his body of work titled "People of the 20th Century", a collective portrait of the German people from all walks of life taken during the Weimar Republic.

timthumbIn each of Sanders' images (seen in these images on the left), Somoroff has digitally erased the human subject(s) originally found in them, leaving only the background and surroundings for the viewer to contemplate.

Because these photographs are shown together, the viewer immediately compares the two and is asked to engage with the issue of "subject".





How important is the human subject to our reading of this photograph? What happens to the meaning of the photograph when that subject is erased? What is lost or gained through this manipulation? Is familiarity with Sanders' work important to understanding Somoroff's? Does the fact that Sanders' photographs were taken in the 1910's-30's inform our reading of this very contemporary treatment of them? I love it when artwork provokes questions like these!


The Importance of Photography

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I read - a lot. I read books of all kinds, magazines, newspapers... pretty much anything I can get my hands on, as I love learning about things I know nothing about. As a result, I often stumble upon articles that have some kind of reference to photography, whether overt or implied. I find connections to photography and creativity in most things I read. The November 2013 issue of The Atlantic magazine contains an article titled "The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel" which came from the opinions of a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and historians of technology. Ranked at #29 was the invention of photography, which they consider to be among the "Innovations that expand human intellect and its creative, expressive, and even moral possibilities". Ranked at #5 was the invention in the early 13th century of optical lenses, without which photography as we know it would not exist. This was considered to be an innovation that extends life.

Because I'm a photographer, of course I would have included both of these items in my own personal list of 50 greatest breakthroughs. But it's great to see that others outside of the field consider it to be that important, too.

Planting Seeds....

In the mid-1990's, I was invited to exhibit images from the Stargazing project in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A catalog was published that included an image from that work. Fast forward to two days ago, when I received the following message from someone in Brazil through my Facebook page, which I have edited somewhat:

"A few weeks ago, while looking for references material to start drawing the graphic design of my first EP (CD) - I'm an actor, singer, producer (former MTV latin america) and performer, born in Sao Paulo - came to my hands,  the book "Fotografia Pensante" (edited by) the valuable and genius Luiz Guimaraes Monforte!"

He goes on to say that he found my photograph in the book as he leafed through it. Then he wrote:

"The impact that this image generated in my heart was so intense, that there is more than one week can not sleep! Seriosly!"

The idea that someone couldn't sleep for a week because of an image I made was.... well, way cool!!! But what struck me most about this is that once you put your work out into the world, you never know who will see it, when they will see it, or if it will resonate in any way with those who do see it.

It reminds me of the seeds of desert wildflowers that lie dormant for decades until just the right conditions occur that cause them to finally germinate and bloom. So plant the seeds, just get your work out there, and see what happens.

Work-in-Progress- 10/27/13

I'm currently working on a project that has gone from nebulous to partially-formed in the past few months. But I am still wrestling with how to make it sing, am still in the middle of it, trying to figure it out, which means that I am frustrated by my apparent lack of progress. (Even though I know that every time I work on it, I am making progress.) I love this excerpt from John Jerome's book Stone Work, which talks about seeking a breakthrough:

“It is when I am finally stopped, when the sentence falls right, when what I’m trying to say finally comes off my tongue, when I understand what someone is saying to me, when the pieces fall together and what was muddy confusion is suddenly clear:  the eureka moment, when some conglomeration of ideas comes together for you, that otherwise, until then, you were unable to link. A connection made that you can’t explain, that just . . . furthers you, somehow.

            I used to have a wonderful quote about this moment pinned above my desk, but I lost it. Insert your own wonderful quote here. Mine was about that moment before which all is confusion and despair, and after which things suddenly become clear and there’s never going to be any confusion anymore. It doesn’t work out that way, of course, but the moment when you think it will is worth preserving. It is what I work for, I think.

            The physical epiphanies available in working with wood and metal and stone are no different from those other little instants when some flicker of truth comes in. when the information from some sense organ or other succeeds in breaking through. I always thought these moments were supposed to be intellectual, the product of pure abstract thought. But they come to us through the sense organs. It was the taste of the apple, I think, that flipped us out of Eden, into the world.” (Jerome 108-109)

The Importance of Art

Last September, Emory University in Atlanta announced that it was eliminating four departments, among them the Department of Visual Arts. Here was an interesting response someone wrote that resonated with me: "About a decade ago I was lucky enough to experience one of finest lectures that Emory University ever sponsored, which was through their anthropology department. It was by one of the great thinkers of our time, E.O. Wilson, the world renowned biologist and philosopher of science who was at the height of his career. In his fabulous book Consilience, that he was discussing, and in this lecture, he described the evolution and survival of our species from the perspective of creativity. He talked about how art has survived the test of time for a fundamental reason: it brings people together in co-operation in a way that nothing else, even religion, can do as well. He said that if this wasn’t so it would have been abandoned by humans in the beginning. At the end of the lecture, which was standing room only, he received a standing ovation."