Still Life in Virginia

The days are stretched and sagging at all ends. I get up in the mornings and try to write, exercise, read something, check the news. Normal routines that feel like anchors in a shiftless sea. I listen to podcasts, watch shadows crawl across the morning floor, walk for miles in the same three directions. I procrastinate, make the same excuses I made when I was busier. I call and text with friends. I watch television and play video games and draw in small notebooks. I have a palette of watercolors I haven’t touched in over a month. It’s an elastic era. It’s hard finding motivation when every day is the same blank slate over and over again.

We venture out and see the few friends we can, when we can. We make little road trips up and down the east coast, scurrying between places of safety, never unaware of our surroundings. But mostly it’s nothing. It’s exhausting work, doing nothing. I’ve picked up my camera a handful of times. I’m using this time to think, I tell myself, to absorb and process and find new ways of seeing: a spiderweb filled with leaves, virescent lawns, ornate mailboxes, shimmering reflections on still water. The woods.

I’ve been in Virginia for nearly two months, and will likely be here until July, at least. It’s not all bad at all. I’m remembering a lot of things I’d forgotten over the years, finding peace and solace in small moments, letting the days stretch and sag, riding them out with deep, even breaths.

Life and Death and Family Photographs

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There are no perfect photographs of my grandmother. Each is slightly blurred, too dark or too bright. Creased, bent, broken, and faded. There are tape spots on them, markings from years spent in family albums and various drawers and envelopes. All are different sizes—taken with different cameras and printed at different labs and worn down by different fingers over the years. It all adds up to a kind of rich tapestry of family history. A randomness of human experience that never feels quite matched with camera phones or digital archives.

She died the other day. So this is what’s left of her—things imperfect and touched and loved and part of a much larger whole.

In my mind, she always looked the same. Nearly identical in 1943 as a teenager as in 1979 when she’s holding me as a newborn baby. It’s not necessarily that she looks old, just aged. Then again, she was never really a child. Her father died when she was young, as did her twin sister and other siblings, leaving just two daughters and a single mother in a rural parish in western Louisiana in the 1930s. Not the kind of place for a young girl, and so she was never really a young girl in any way that anyone can really remember. I’m sure there were stories once upon a time, but we only grew up with the ones that were told afterwards.

She grew up speaking Cajun French and picking cotton and working odd jobs after school to help her mother make ends meet. She didn’t graduate high school. After the war, my grandfather came home from the Pacific and they met at a barn dance and got married and moved to New Orleans to try for a better life. He had worked on the Higgins boats that made the Normandy landing and so when he returned he went back to work for the same company. They bought a plot of land in a swamp just west of the city for a song and when the land finally got filled in they built the house with their bare hands.

The first photos I can recognize of myself are in front of this house. The red yellow bricks and magnolia trees in the background. When I was young I would overturn rocks by the shed to play with the doodlebugs that lived there in the dirt. I would climb the magnolia trees and when the flowers were in bloom I would pick them apart petal by petal in the high branches surrounded by their faint milky perfume. I would somersault and kick and imagine myself a ninja warrior on the two large squares of grass out front of their front room. There was a persimmon tree in the backyard and when it bore fruit my grandmother would call me over to sit sentinel by the roadside and sell them to the neighborhood. So she was my first employer as well.

At some point they stopped taking photographs. There are the odd ones from when my grandparents met. Their first trip together to the city. Friends long forgotten standing in fields, next to fences. Young men in uniforms on their way to Europe. All small cajun men. Picnics or just times that at the time seemed worth remembering. Then the road trips out west when my mom was a young girl in the 60s. Snapshots of her hanging out of a window feeding bears at Yellowstone. High school and beyond and then me as a young unaware thing and then eventually it all fades into memory. Imperfect. Too dark or too bright. Creased, bent, broken, and faded. But loved. And imprinted somewhere far more lasting and permanent, where in the end we all live on.

Polaroids from New York 02: Let’s Stay Friends

I could write a thousand words about each of these people, but probably better just to leave you with links to their work, which is leaps and bounds better than anything you’ll see on this blog. My teammates from the 2010 Eddie Adams Workshop, in order of appearance:

David Wright. Unnikrishnan Ravendranathan. Stephen Reiss. Jason Greene. Louisa Marie Summer. Austin Mann. Matanya Tausig. Nicole Franco. Julie Glassberg.

Polaroids from New York 01: Miscellaneous Scenes

I’m trying hard to think differently about the way I photograph, to become both more restricting and more creative in my style and method. My images have been feeling a bit stale lately and I’m almost trying to move backwards in order to progress again. I’m trying to shed some of my baggage and see if I can’t stumble upon something new. Part of this process was buying a small Fuji “Cheki” instant film camera during a recent layover at the Tokyo Narita Airport in Japan, to facilitate more image-taking during seemingly mundane moments of the day, at times when I would normally either not have my larger digital camera on me or when it would be buried beneath zippers and Velcro in my bag. It’s not that I’m necessarily a fan of the snapshot aesthetic that was all the rage a few years ago, but it is a great way/excuse to take new images.

These pictures are all from New York at the beginning of this month, while I was attending the recent Eddie Adams Workshop. It was nice to not think too much about the photographs I was taking, nice to see a print show up immediately before I could erase it on my card. I took about 100 pictures with the camera while I was away, so obviously there’s a bit of editing done to get to these very few, but still. I like it. The camera had its own quirks that needed to be figured out as well, which added to the newness factor. I don’t think I’ll be shooting assignments solely with instant film from now on, but I do think there’s a lot to take away from the experience/exercise. And I bought another 100 sheets on the way back home to Hanoi, so I’m definitely not done with the camera yet.

Sometimes a Vague Notion

Tuesday. October 12, 2010. 22:55:48. Brooklyn, New York, USA. I took the bus back into town from the Eddie Adams Workshop early this morning after about two hours of sleep. That much is clear. I’m still digesting the rest of it, though some things stand out. Kings of Leon. Large tables in little rooms. Winding highways and rolling hills. Fall foliage. Team Nahvey. Polaroids. Projectors. Projects. Pros. Cons. And more. But we’re already moving forward. There’s a lot to be said though that’s for another time. I’m back in Vietnam in a few days. For now stop reading this and go watch the Chilean miners get rescued.

End/Begin

It’s been four long weeks of travel. Finally in a few hours we’ll be heading back home to Hanoi. There are so many stories to tell and small things to recount. But it’ll all have to wait. For now, we pack. I’ve got bags full of film and expired Polaroids and my old Speed Graphic that has been sitting in a storage space for the past three years. Plus so much more. I’ve never carried this many bags back to Vietnam. It’s the end of this trip but returning feels very much like the beginning of something new. Which is exciting. Things couldn’t be better.

A Much Needed Break

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After coming down with pretty much the worst sickness of my life for the past seven days, I’m finally starting to feel a bit normal again. Not completely better, but more so than before. I’ll be taking it easy in New York for the next few days before flying back to Hanoi on Saturday morning. Don’t expect anything on this end of things for at least a week or so, maybe longer. I need to take a bit of a break and reevaluate. I’m tired and worn pretty thin right now. So until then.