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I've theorized that anybody can be a great photographer if they use black & white film. Just about everything you shoot in black & white holds artistic merit. I tried proving my theory once by randomly shooting everything, even ridiculous things like kitchen utensils sitting on a counter. In black & white, even spatulas and ladles peer back at you aesthetically.
Snapshots, however bad, are reduced to their elements in black & white. They're simplified down to simple lines of contrasting color. The artistic merit of black & white pictures isn't the color -- it's the stark contrast of definition.
My father doesn't have any teeth -- at least not any real ones. He's worn dentures for as long as I can remember, as has my mother. They have nice teeth, though fake. And so long as they can eat solid foods and smile, who cares?
Our first Christmas home with our first child, I watched my stern father transform into a doting grandfather. And one mental image, one snapshot stands out: of my father without dentures baring a toothless smile at my daughter, she toothlessly smiling in reply. A snapshot sweet enough to make your teeth ache.
Romance Still Life#7
She was unsure she'd ever totally love him, be over the moon. At lunch, outside beneath the sharp blue and white of an April Saturday, she looked at him. He was trying to decide what to include on his burger, and she noticed the way the sun danced shadows off his hair, how the curve of his nose made her stomach tingle, how when he noticed her staring, he flicked her a smile and a wink, and she felt the totality of the moon beneath her feet moving at speeds only her heart could keep up with.
Scene From a Hospital Bed
Evening now, and the fluorescents above dull more than illuminate the sterile sheets. She lies there, pale from blood loss, but almost never before more breathtakingly striking. I smile at her in anticipation as they wheel around the bassinet. She struggles between sitting up and reaching out, the five-hour wait since the delivery more painful than the actual surgery. At last she cradles our daughter – for this moment, simply
daughter – and I believe her thoughts to be the same as mine as I gaze upon them: how anything, how anything could be so beautiful.
Seeing Snow, November 2001
It had been seven months since she became her own person to me, sitting in her high chair and wiggling for a reaction in full knowledge that what she was doing controlled the laughter of others. I realized then that she was an individual. I watched her now staring through the open blinds into the November gray at the flakes spiraling earthward in fury. “That’s snow, Angie!” I whispered, and still entranced by this new experience she repeated the word. Connecting the sound in her ears with the images of the falling sky in her eyes.
Blind Man in a Canoe, NH
Anybody can dress in black to grieve. That’s too showy, therefore most likely not genuine. I wore sunglasses for three or four months, often carrying them indoors in the off-chance my eyes couldn’t bear fluorescents. I wore them not to better see in sunlight, but rather to paint all I saw in shades of gray. At a fall retreat in New Hampshire, in a canoe in the middle of a lake, I symbolically hurled them sunward. I opened my eyes, blinded by the stranger of sunlight, but I opened my blind eyes to see.
I felt out-of-place coming home that summer. Not only had I changed from my college experiences, but also in my absence, my family had moved to a nicer house in a nicer part of town. Our neighbor was a part-time professional photographer, and at summer’s end, my siblings and I posed on the new lawn in front of the new house, all of us smiling. Staring at that picture now, I’m not sure we were grinning in response to our neighbor’s command, or in response to the nicer house, the nicer part of town, the nicer life behind us.
Urges, a Still
In the picture, she’s wearing black pants with a white top dotted with little black circles. She’s balanced precariously on two legs, her first real attempt at walking. In her hand (and in her mouth) is a piece of cardboard. She seems to be deciding which urge to obey –the urge to push whatever she can into her mouth, or the urge to walk. To me she’s balanced precariously between two urges – the urge to remain small – where everything is potentially edible, and the urge for independence – to walk away from me, and break my heart forever.
For Mother on Her Birthday
She had told me and my father to cross the street and buy sandwiches. She was going to wait for her cousin on the corner. They’d flown cross-country to help me settle in. I ordered a sandwich without thought and sat down. My father told me to look across the street. At my mother. Standing there. Dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Crying. I’d lectured her earlier for trying to organize my room her way instead of mine. At that heart-sinking moment, I realized her way wasn’t filled with purposeful inconvenience, but rather inexpressible love.
I learned once that great works of art don’t present a perspective so much as draw one out of the viewer. This snapshot of my grandmother is such a work of art. Taken at our wedding, she poses alone in front of a grayish-blue screen, hands clasped in front, her priceless smile drawing perspective out of you. Some would remark she looks small and frail. Others would comment she’s healthy-looking for 80. My mother thinks she looks somewhat silly in her slightly too-large gray jacket. I see a thousand words that can’t contain a human life so pretty.
Sightseeing, Oregon 1996
We’re headed south on Interstate-5, headed towards the coast. Our first meal together married is at a drive-thru McDonald’s, but we can’t stop. We just want to drive. And we stopped at the red light before the highway onramp, and she held my right hand, and I her left, and there’s no music playing on the car radio because it’s only an a.m. radio and I can’t stand the oldies, but there seems to be a rhythm in us that propels us forward, and the light turns green, and I step on the gas, and we go.
Sadness, a Case Study
Subject is a 19-year-old Caucasian male, blond, blue-eyed. Around 6’3” and probably 170 pounds. No childhood trauma of major importance. Well-liked socially – so far as he allows. Outgoing and respectful of authority. Highly intelligent, and privileged where background and opportunity are concerned. Subject drinks heavily nightly, and falls asleep this afternoon in the easy chair clutching a bottle of Jim Beam in a pose more appropriate someone older, someone less liked, someone with less opportunity. Subject is the one who’s using alcohol for happiness, but looking at him, why am I the one who’s feeling sad?
Portrait of the Artist as an Angry/Compulsive Man
Statisticians look for trends in data, consistent patterns appearing longitudinally over time. Archaeologists and biologists follow similar processes in determining bone structures of extinct creatures, or in family-mapping species. The scientific method is based on observing patterns and making hypotheses.
Observation: Child is frowning in his kindergarten class picture. Again in his first grade picture. Second grade picture, too.
Hypothesis#1: Subject has anger-management issue; probably misbehaves in class.
Hypothesis#2: Subject doesn’t understand why he’s out of class, why his daily routine has been suddenly disrupted, why he can’t be left comfortably alone.
I love you with a love that’s more than love, my love.
a pair of star-crossed lovers not of Verona one a first-born raised believing he’s the sun the other a maiden fair with spatial beauty second to none with differences impeding flight as its begun
but ere their bonds were torn asunder and made undone beyond frustration’s reach out from under timing’s gun and duo-focused on the tough-fought truth that’s spun
that maybe only star-crossed lovers can run and soar o’er hanging clouds to laugh at the moon in fun and dance beneath the close gaze of God’s Son
He’s sitting in an easy chair, content to be lost to whatever thoughts dementia pulls from the ether of random memory. I approach him and kneel, hoping my face falls in the line of sight of his slightly drooping head. I whisper a greeting. He raps my knuckles with his own with unexpected force, and struggles to his feet hoping to finish whatever recollected battle my greeting conjured up. My grandmother calms him down, points out that I’m his grandson, and he nods, smiles and apologizes, and returns to being eighty-plus and content rather than younger and riled.
Foot of the Cross
He’s been there an hour, in the front pew, gazing up at the crucifix. I’ve been watching him the whole time. From back here, it appears he’s having a conversation with himself. He buries his hands in his black hair – in frustration or surrender. But he doesn’t let his gaze escape the sorrowful gaze of Him on the wall for long. He suddenly genuflects, and I realize he’s made a decision and I jump from my seat and run to him, calling his name. The mirror shatters, and I am on my knees calling His name.
Picture of Health
Aunt Nancy looks fabulous. She’s not really my aunt, but she refuses to be called “Mrs.” by anyone she cares for. I found it difficult calling anyone “aunt” who looked thirtyish but I respected her wishes – more out of a desire to relate to her than out of simple respect. Even at 45, as she was now, I wouldn’t have wagered money she was over 35. She looks fabulous, comparably, to other women her age. She propped herself up in her hospital bed, told me she was dying, and I lost all faith in visual perception forever.
She glances out the window for the hundredth time – not out of nervousness, but out of confirmation. She was going to sleep earlier than usual and wanted to confirm she wasn’t missing anything. She decides against regular sleepwear, and lies atop the blue and white covers in her skirt and flannel top after downing her medicine. Her headache fades and her last thoughts are of how excited she will be to wake up tomorrow. I’m sure she also thought of me. I imagine she closed the shades, rather than risk sunlight accidentally preventing her from falling asleep forever.
Couple, In Expectation
She arose at her usual hour, marked not by ringing alarms, but by a whimpering daughter first-awaking. She fetches the restless one, and both head upstairs to have breakfast. I rouse myself an hour later, brush my teeth and make the bed. They’ve finished breakfast already and are headed downstairs to get dressed. I browse the web, scanning headlines, checking scores. Today is lazily routine, and the colors of the sky are no different from yesterday. We’ll have lunch, she’ll take a nap, and the two of us will pass the minutes, slowly waiting for a miracle.
Miracle, Framed 4”x6”
He is literally breathtaking. Looking at him, my lungs stall and raw emotion chokes my words with inexpressible love.
He is literally spectacular. His every movement seems to me some grand event, and my eyes continuously scan him hoping not to miss a single move.
He is literally beautiful beyond description. My clumsy attempts to convey his beauty appear to be the incomprehensible ramblings of a lunatic – but the object of this insanity smilingly offers no relief.
God once walked on water and turned water into wine. Somehow Zachary seems to me so much more personally incredible.
Day Two, Self-Portrait
They’re looking at me again. Every time I open my eyes, one of them is watching me: gauging my reaction, scanning my face for signs of recognition, memorizing my every detail as if I were the subject of an art pop quiz, and they the soon-to-be sculptors. Yesterday morning I was alone in darkness save for the occasional muffled voice. And now out in the light, I can’t sleep without round-the-clock surveillance. I’ll close my eyes now, and maybe they’ll disappear. Although their voices, unmuffled now, seem vaguely familiar. I know them, I think, but from where?
Homecoming, Deja Vu
Present: I carry him into the den in his infant seat, after which I help her into the house, and bring both into his room, and he’s in his crib for the first time and it feels like he’s home.
Earlier: I push the bassinet into her room, after which I pick him up and place him into her arms, and she’s lying there and he’s lying there, and I’m just standing there, and it feels like he’s home.
Earlier: They hand him to me and we stare at each other – he, me, her – and we’re home.
Strangers in Love
She doesn’t know quite what to make of him on this sort of blind date. Seeing him for the first time is exhilarating and anxious, familiar and strange. For him, it’s even a little confusing. Of course, they’d spoken to each other many times prior to this first meeting. Maybe she even pictured this meeting in her head. But the actual meeting defies and bends expectations. She gives him an awkward half-hug and a kiss on the forehead filled with potential love. He stares at her and returns to newborn sleep. She stares in return. Just stares.
Mark of Youth, Fall 1994
The first thing you notice in the picture is the amount of dirt. It’s everywhere. In our hair, in our ears, all over our clothes. And not merely powdered onto surfaces, but really smeared and pressed into it. Two of us are wearing white T-shirts never to be worn again. The other is in a blue and white one (also, soon to be retired). The second thing you notice is the friendship reflected in linked arms across slender shoulders. Never mind my personal problems with dirt and getting dirty. I have no problems with frolicking.
Dress Rehearsal, July 26
It’s hotter than it’s ever been with record humidity level to match but the sanctuary feels cool – or I’m so in the moment that the memory of the temperature escapes me – and we’re finally on the stage together in shorts and T-shirts all of us even the wedding party – except for the pastor – and we’re holding hands and we’re smiling and everything seems to fade even the heat and the humidity and finally even our friends and family and it’s me and it’s you in the heat of the moment and this to me isn’t practice.
Behind the table sits a dozen emotions. On his lap sits the face of an angel. Surrounding them both are balloons and a banner and curtains and innocence. The posed half-smile states in comic word clouds too visible to see, “I am not what you see,” but it is half-lying. The gloss captures the death of youth, the sacrificial life, the folly of freedom, and the blessing of folly. I am told by the photographer that the picture doesn’t exist. I turn around and swallow the truth, knowing father-to-father that the celebration of life can sometimes cut twice.
Flight of Fancy
We’re walking through the park, it’s late, and he’s telling me again how he’d choose the power of flight given a choice of superpowers, and I smile and note that he’s silly, but maybe it’s this silliness that makes me want to stay with him, I’m not sure. He lets go of my hand, walks away from me and lies on the ground and raises his arms as if in mid-flap, they fall back to his side, and he’s suddenly too still, and I rush to him, heart pounding, hoping, just hoping he hasn’t flown away forever.
Pictures at an Exhibition, February 2003
He flips through each picture. On some he lingers for minutes on end, taking in each detail, scanning the picture repeatedly as if mentally reconstructing the pose, the mood. On others, he passes them as if they contained some visually-communicable contagion, and a familiar one at that, better left unrelapsed. Each snapshot makes him internally examine his perception of beauty. Maybe beauty’s truth is in the examination itself, and in the individual’s perception of it, and not in the physical shot. Or maybe all of it’s an illusion, nothing more than a faded memory.
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