One thing leads to another. Recently I was asked to post a few favorite images on Facebook. I chose to post early favorites that show the genesis of the work I still do to this day. My voice was there, but I was not confident enough to pursue it with vigor at that early age.
In that post, one of the images is of my mother. She is reading the Sunday paper, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. At this point, two years after the death of my sister from leukemia, her depression had solidified into a deep sadness, and the furious anger of her younger days were replaced with a more passive form of aggression.
I was experimenting with a 4x5 camera, using it to photograph people and not products. It was a new challenge, completely counter to what I had done up to that point with 35mm cameras, and it suited my vision perfectly. She was aware of my photographing her, and I gave her no direction. She proceeded to read, preoccupied with the words on the page.
A few months later I encountered my father in a familiar place, watching television, smoking, eating peanut butter thickly spread on slabs of wonder bread. He too was aware of my photographing, and again, I gave no direction. He was preoccupied with the images and sounds emanating from the television.
In both instances, they gave me their profiles, but not their attention. In retrospect, these photos reflect with great accuracy my relationship with them. I saw only a part of them, and almost never their attention. I grew up hyper aware of their moods by observing their facial and body language. My father especially was almost always silent when it came to expressing his emotions, thoughts, beliefs and accumulated wisdom. My mother was the opposite, exquisitely sarcastic and spectacularly guilt inducing, but not much for being supportive. I felt invisible.
As I look at these images, and at many of the images I make now, I see that I am still working through those lessons of my youth. Reading people through visual clues, noticing that they are in a moment, or having a thought that troubles them, or are simply preoccupied with the noise that they carry in their heads, echoes of the big bang of their own childhoods forever reverberating. They give me their profiles, and that is enough. I see them. I know them in the same way that I knew my parents. They are as mysterious as ever, my parents, the people who pass by my lens, and that’s ok.
What I get from people now is different from what I got from my parents. Now, people are who they are and it’s about them, not me. I am no longer invisible as I stand before them, nor am I responsible for their feelings. I can see them as they present themselves, fellow travelers through time and space, carrying the baggage of the past while attempting to navigate the present.
I acknowledge their presence and applaud their persistence to keep moving forward. And now, at the age my parents were when I made these photos, I can also acknowledge the baggage that they carried, and realize just how overwhelming it was for them, and how much easier it was to stay preoccupied. They made me who I am and gave me this gift of observation and empathy, which as a child was my only means of survival. I’m just glad that I discovered a way to channel those experiences into something more profound than smoking cigarettes and watching television.
I make photographs.