Photography stops life and allows us to study, peer at, and examine. It opens up a face, preserves a gesture, the nuance of a glance, or an impossible situation. It’s a time sensitive, ephemeral art form despite what appears to be something concrete. I’m grateful for moments when I am able to connect my thoughts to my eye, and that people are interested in what I see. Not only did I make a living from how I view the world, it offered the added gift of meeting people I never would have had the chance to know.
I had taken no an art classes beyond elementary school, it was good fortune that I was accepted to study at the The Cooper Union in New York. I was thirty-three years old. Required to take every studio course offered, it was humbling. Many of my fellow students were accomplished artists, and we helped each other. I brought life experience to my work and our talks; I felt fearless in my approach to photography and my peers taught me how to hold a brush, make sculpture, create 2D design, and talk about art.
I learned photography using film. Nothing about shooting on film is immediate or predictable. It’s a slow, Zen-like process, from loading the film, advancing it, cocking the shutter to images coming to life in a chemistry bath.
My husband made me a darkroom wherever we lived. Tiny, but functional. I would get lost in there, so much so that our daughter would slip notes under the door: “When are you coming out?” “When is dinner?” “Can you hurry up?” When I eventually started using labs to process and print my work, these technicians became my confidants, and we were loyal to each other.
Eventually I donated much of my analog equipment to a program on an Indian reservation in Montana, where a former colleague was teaching photography. I received images back the kids had taken with my cameras. I remember the scent of that equipment: old leather and metal, worn, soft, precise and imperfect. You had to understand how to calculate light. I could hear my breathing when my eye was up to the viewfinder.
I tell my students to slow their world down, take notice of small moments, that’s where the secrets can hide. That’s what I try to do.
The older I get I realize how much of who I am goes back to who I was as a child. Always clumsy, I would fantasize I was a ballerina and dance with the foundation poles in the basement (I’m the tall one in the center).
A fellow student and friend from Cooper Union, Abbott Miller, gave me my first dance assignment. The subject:
Merce Cunningham. It was for a beautiful new magazine Abbott was art directing called Dance Ink. Now a well-known designer and writer, he was my mentor for years. There was little budget on that project, my husband Jim was my assistant, and I was in awe when Merce seemed to float over and asked me what I wanted him to do? I’m fortunate to have projects that have allowed me to spend time with different artists, musicians, and writers.
When you’ve shot film your whole life it can be a tedious archaeological dig to search for the negatives. I spent hours in the basement of our home looking for them, cursing myself for my lack of organization, going through memories of subjects and assistants whose lives ended too early, and feeling grateful to the people I have worked with to make these projects happen. The process is daunting, humbling, and empowering. In the company of a boiler, an ironing board, a web of clotheslines, and the shredded paper of mice settling in for winter, I stared at my work on a tiny light table and my old loupe.