Entries in Precious Objects (9)


The Kindness of Strangers

When I started into photography full time nearly five years ago, i was prepared to be surprised. Turns out, not sufficiently prepared. Surely, free from the distractions of my other more traditional careers, the work would flourish.  While that may be true, the meaning of flourish and the meaning of the work are both completely different than anticipated.

The biggest rewards have not been the hoped for acceptance or recognition that the work has received.  It has been the people, mostly strangers, that have been in the work.

MarcellusThe hardest part of many of my projects has been obtaining participants.  The great abyss includes concerns about privacy, lack of trust of photographers and the photograph, confusion about my purpose and plain old fear. Sadly, the biggest barrier is the contemporary inability we all have to respond to any requests that are not urgent. We are all so busy, busy, busy.  I could get rich if I could monetize the instances of people telling me "I want to do it. Have been meaning to get back to you." Traveled to the other corner of Ohio earlier this week and attempted to contact two people who had expressed interest in participating in my Lustron Stories project. Neither one responded to emails or phone calls. Did they change their minds? Perhaps. Most likely they just did not get around to responding. 

This post is not just me whining about how hard it is to do what I do. it is about the other side of the coin. What happens when people do participate. 

This started with Precious Objects when I found myself photographing complete strangers. While we may debate the depth of a Facebook friend, when I hear from my two brothers on Long Island, Trevis and Marcellus, my day is better, my life is richer.  Same thing happens when I talk to Leo or Muriel's daughters about their dad and mom.

This phenomenon escalated with Lustron Stories. As in Precious Objects I found myself with new friends - people who were genuinely interested in what I was doing as I am with them. Added to that, some of these folks insisted on giving me gifts. I talked about the Thomas Kinkade plate that Richard gave me in an earlier post. Recently I received this beautiful barometer from Bob (who happens to be an original owner of his Lustron.) Bob was showing me around and pulled this right off the wall.

Added to the gifts, people in Lustron Stories and my new project with present and former teachers and students at the Music Settlement, Held Notes, have bought my books. Those of you who know me understand that I am a shameless promoter of the books. However, when I go into a stranger's home to do a photograph, it is not with the purpose of selling a book. The first time it happened, I was a bit stunned.  Last week when Renee ordered both The Album Project and Precious Objects Renee on the porch - her blue LustronI was just as pleasantly surprised as the first time. What is happening is more than a book sale. It is an ad hoc community of people joined by the work.

Who knew?

Blanche Dubois has nothing on me……..



Motivated to finally write something by an email from my friend Jacques in Paris. He and wife Celeste (arguably my best friend) noticed on a TV show what appeared to be a clue to the burial location of her dad's great grand-parents in Berlin. This caused the ever-resourceful Jacques to do a massive Internet attack, finding images and maps. This morning, watching old people's TV, during the movie reviews, they opined that holiday films (with Bing Crosby singing "Tura, Lura, Lura" on screen) are frequently about separation. Which brings me (finally) to the point - separation.
I have wanted to say something about the recent passing of my friend, Randall Tiedman. Randall was an extraordinary painter. He had a remarkable talent for showing how it feels to live in the city in a loving, but unvarnished, way. People would describe it as dystopic. He would disagree. If you looked ,
you could often see the same little islands of color that we find in a real city. Most of my artist friends here are open and giving. They have a little bit of Randall in them. I still look for Randall at every show opening. They are all diminished by his absence.
Randall participated in Precious Objects. He did not like his portrait because it was done at a time when he was not doing well physically. That did not stop him from coming over and telling his story. Out of respect, I have cut his object out even though I thought he looks fine. As an good friend should.
Many, many of the stories in Precious Objects are about separation. Some are about death, but equally as many are about those times when our paths diverge from friends and family. Letters (I fear I am showing my age my mentioning letters) are all about separation. In a way, we are not adults until we separate from our parents. Years later, like Robbii, we always regret that we did not talk enough to our parents when we could. In closing, just want to note that Celeste and her dad, Martin, both participated in Precious Objects. Martin is now 92 and the envy of this "youngster".


The Great American Dream

Lustron home at Kansas City Kansas Community College from my current Lustron Stories project. Fabricated in 1948 in Columbus OH.While working on Every Place (I Have Ever Lived) - The Foreclosure Crisis in Twelve Neighborhoods, it was easy to see the problem as an attack on the "The Great American Dream."  We employ the term loosely, particularly during a political season.   It is useful to ask what that means. Some things certainly arguable.  Nevertheless, I would suggest that somewhere at its core is the idea of home ownership. It is impossible to overstate the damage that the foreclosure crisis has done to our belief that we all can, and should, aspire to owning our own home. It certainly shattered it for those that have lost their homes.  For those lucky enough to hold on, their homes worth perhaps 30% less than they were a few years ago, maybe less, may or may not have the equity they were counting on to cushion their retirement.  For those starting out, they no longer believe that it is safe to stretch your resources to buy that first home.  While we here a lot about the recession being driven by lack of housing starts, the actual damage is more spiritual than economic.  This will take a long time to fix. The good news might be the message in Precious Objects - that everything in life is cyclical and no matter how good or bad things appear, you are only a single event away from a very different path.
Speaking of Precious Objects, when the Maltz Museum picked their preliminary choices for the exhibit (that ended a week ago) tone was John K. John was a colleague from my first career. His piece talks about his career.  It represents work as more than a way to make money but a, rewarding, fulfilling aspect of a full life. Having that kind of work and career was another part of The Dream. Sadly, we put a stake in the heart of that idea many, many years ago.  John did spend his career at that company (I was gone after 25 years - they and I had had enough) and realized The Dream. His success is both a testament his talent, integrity and hard work and toThe Dream's value and truth. At least at the time. I felt John's portrait and statement did not make that clear and was pleasantly surprised when the people at the Museum chose it. When they later dropped the piece from their choices, I had them include it - the idea behind it is just too compelling to lose.



"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.


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.