Autism Awareness Month and Mother's Day

Actually, it is neither. April was Autism Awareness Month. I said nothing then. Mostly because there seemed no point in sharing annoyance. Don't get me wrong.  Having a 37 year old son with autism has its challenges and certainly there is need for better understanding.  Plus there is still more than a little prejudice against people with disabilities, particularly in the workplace. Why annoyed? Autism is mysterious stuff. It was mysterious when it was rare and remains mysterious now that it is an "epidemic".  What comes with the mystery is a never ending supply of research and "discoveries" based upon very small samples. Some of this is good science but very preliminary. Some of it is hokum. Some is well reported. Often the reporting is comically bad. Last month we watched an interview with a "science" reporter on a story that autism was caused by fat mothers.  Yep. This guy (really good hair) spouted a flurry of statistics - 80% of mothers of autistic children were not fat, 30% of the general population was fat, children of fat mothers in the study were 60% more likely to have autism. We all thought gibberish like this died with Gabby Hayes and the "code of the west.". He ended the piece with saying the data was not conclusive but that fat mothers should lose weight even though it was difficult. I am not making this up.
Tomorrow is Mother's Day. My son Isaac does not perceive time continuously as most of us do. For him time is a sequence of discrete events. Mother's Day 2011 is "one" away from Mother's Day 2012 the same way May 13, 2012 is "one" away from May 12 2012. He also does not distinguish between what he knows and what he believes everyone else knows.  He thinks that every Mother's Day should be the same. Same people at dinner. Same food. Same presents. He also has no concept of surprise. Since everyone knows that Isaac and Dad buy flowers for Mom on for Mother's Day (at the same florist every year), Mom knows what she will get.
On Tuesday I pick Isaac up for music and he asks when we are going to pick up the flowers. "Isaac, let's buy a different present" "Dad says a different present" "No, Isaac does" "Buy mom pen and paper". This is a great idea. I look up a stationary shop and after music he and buy some really beautiful paper and envelopes that we hide in the back of my car. I rehearse with him "Will you tell mom about the paper?" "No""Will you tell mom about the paper?" "No".
Next morning he makes his daily call to his mom. She gets off the phone and asks me why I have note cards hidden in my car.


"Who are you"

I want to talk about the unexpected joys and discoveries coming from doing work. When I started doing this full time four years ago, I knew things would change. No more always printing the same size, a real opportunity to create more conceptual work, chance to explore new kinds of subject matter and, in general, exploring new ideas and techniques. What was not expected were the changes in what happened when the work was "done".
Exhibiting is an example but I will save that for another time.This post is about how living with a project after it is done allows you to build understanding of its meaning.  Decisions that were intuitive have time to reveal themselves. Partly from just having to look at the stuff. More importantly, when you explain the work to others you are forced to articulate what had been only visual. Like teaching, the more you explain the more you learn.
My favorite example (at least today's favorite example) is Trevis from Precious Objects. Trevis was a complete stranger when he walked into the shoot at the African-American Museum in Hempstead, NY. I did not know him. He did not know me. He said he had two things, a book of his poetry and his inmate card from prison from 25 years ago. In general, I have discouraged examples of people's work unless they were unique as objects. I had a number of people with stuff like that. Nice enough but they did not grab me. Not that a book you wrote, an invention or piece of art is not precious. Just that they were more examples than precious as themselves. So, I suggested he do his inmate card (and library card.)  The fact that he brought something so personal knocked me out - I knew that his piece was a keeper.
For a year, that was that. His piece would always be part of Precious Objects.  Then I showed my portfolio to Andrew Moore, the photographer who did Detroit Disassembled, a book and exhibit well worth checking out if you have not already. Copyright Andrew MooreHe made a lot of helpful comments. All was good and then he turned to me and said "You're a story teller". OK, I was flattered. But more he unlocked an issue that has bothered me for a long time, the question of identity. As a guy who has no trouble talking, nothing catches me more thoroughly or frequently than the question "What do you do?"  Really not thrilled to say "photographer."  While it fits my general inclination to short answers, more often than not, it communicates very little about how I spend my time and make my work. Sure, photography is the method I use to make my stuff. Certainly, there is still the joy of making the occasional great image. But making photos is not really the point. The next choice "artist" just seems to be bit arch.  Need a beret and more black clothing and maybe a garret. Besides to the person that asks, neither "photographer" or "artist" either  explains much or forces them to seek a longer explanation before heading for the chip dip. Not sure "story teller" does either. However, when I think about what I am doing, it fits. "Think about what I am doing" is nearly an every day event since most days are up against deadlines nor filled with appointments. And because it fits, it helps me to focus. And that is worthwhile.
In his poem and his cards, Trevis asks "Who are you"  Good question. Thank you again Trevis. And thank you Andrew and all the others that have allowed me in showing to learn.

P.S. I just realized that Trevis and Andrew share the same last name. Go figure.


Thomas Kinkade and Me

Well, sort of.  The Ohio Historical Society is beginning a multi-year program on the fifties and as part of that is bringing a Lustron Home into their building and assembling into an exhibit. Lustrons were steel homes manufactured in Columbus between 1947 and 1950. They were made of steel and assembled on site. When doing research for my foreclosure project, Every Place - I have ever lived, I was struck by how many of the homes, including my childhood home (the second piece in the series), were built in the optimism following the first and second world wars. It was dificult to resist getting involved with the Historical Society's Lustron work.  The Lustron Home was invented to serve the young families in the post-war housing boom. The concept on this project is to photograph the current residents in these homes built 60+ years ago and get their stories both as they recount them to me and in a statement that they write.  This project is still in a formative stage.  In some cases, the need to balance the person's privacy can interfere with how the story is told.  As a start, we worked in the Cleveland area and took the opportunity to do some of these around Kansas City when I travelled to the opening of PhotoSpiva in Joplin, MO.

Richard, the fellow in front of his Lustron, was a delight.  He is a retired boilermaker from the Santa Fe Railroad which stirred up my longstanding love of railroads. Not to mention the opportunity that I was a boilermaker of sort, Purdue 1969.  In addition of being an interesting guy, he generously insisted I have the Thomas Kinkade plate he is holding in the image. I'll bet you were wondering when I would get to Kinkade.  Fear not. You should note that the squares in the siding are steel coated in a baked enamel which give Lustron Homes their characteristic look. Here in Cleveland, many of the Lustrons have been covered with siding since the weather is tough on steel, no matter how well treated. That was not true in the milder climate of Kansas City where the Lustrons seemed to look more like they did sixty years ago.


The handwriting is on the wall

I returned from showing my Precious Objects at FotoFest in Houston to find The Power of the Pen written by Tom Palaima in Sunday's Plain Dealer.  Professor Palaima is at the University of Texas at Austin.  From the Captain Penny reference in the article, he is clearly a Clevelander. The article addresses the disappearance of handwriting as a core skill given the ubiquity of electronic communications. Of course, handwriting is not the only material medium being displaced. Remember the snapshot? And the family album?

Precious Objects prominently features the hand-wirtten stories of each of the 175 subjects.  While in many cases, the content of the writing is the highlight, often it is the appearance of the person's writing that tells the story. Qian insisted on doing her statement in calligraphy, something you can see as an indicator of Asian culture. As many of the pieces I would feature when selecting the "Exhibition" it is something I admire without sharing (my handwriting, neat for me, is barely presentable.)

In many of the pieces the form of the writing looked like the person or the object.  Similar to dress and posture, it makes a statement about how these people want to be viewed.  For those of us whose writing would earn a ruler slap from our fourth grade teachers, it might mean something else.

Lastly, the writing can be a clue to the writers profession. At the very beginning of the project, I showed Marc's piece to a Spaniard whose lack of English fluency rivals my lack of Spanish fluency.  He immediately identified Marc as an architect.  Amazed me. After looking at Marc and the handful of other architects in the project, you can see their training.  Which brings us back to the article.  We lose something when everything looks the same, no matter the content. Actually, we lose a lot.


Tommy Edwards

Attended an exhibit and discussion at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of photographs made by Tommy. Edwards was a seminal disk jockey in the fifties in Cleveland who began as a country music DJ but, because so many of those guys were at the roots of rock, expanded his material to include the newer music.  He produced a number of legendary shows including one featuring all the early greats including Buddy Holly and a very young Elvis.

I never heard this guy on the radio, but knew his name from my job in college working for the highway deparment (yes, I was a highwayman.)  As was the practice, highways were run through cities' neighborhoods that were least able to complain. In this case, the near west side of Cleveland which at that time was tranforming from an amalgam of European immigrants attracted by work in the mills and factories in the Cuyahoga valley to the east to a mixture of poeple from Appalachia and Puerto Ricans.  One of the main streets boasted Tommy's record store, "Tommy Edwards Hillbilly Heaven".  As a confirmed jazz snob at the time, never went in there, had no idea who this was.

The exhibit which contains some remarkable photos from Sam Cooke to the Big Bopper. Even Tony Bennett. (Tony Bennett?) Saw the sign at the entrance to the gallery last.  Zooming in it talks about an Elvis concert he had held at the Circle Theater in 1955.  Elvis started in 1954 so this was pretty early stuff.  Even crazier is that, when I was putting together my foreclosure project, Every Place, I needed photographs of Doan's Corners, the bustling "second downtown" of Cleveland in the neighborhood of my parents apartment at the time I was born (my first home.)  What my search found were some photos on a website dedicated to Scotty Moore, one of Elvis's sidemen who was part of that concert. I ended up using one of those photos on the side piece for Birth, the first piece on that project. I guess it all makes sense in the end..... I recommend the exhibit and the wonderful book of the photographs, 1950s Radio in Color, published by Kent State University Press.