Thursday, July 25, 2013

Photo/Text 3: Medusa Reading

A friend made the hat and gave it to her along with a book of Greek mythology before she could even read—a friend who perhaps recognized something in her that I could not see, unleashing a love of myth so powerful that she now lives in a world peopled—godded?—with the likes of Zeus, Aphrodite, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Icarus, Hermes, Artemis. She even dreams of gods, mumbling, when awakened, of Arachne’s boastfulness or the Caledonian boar hunt. For half her life she has been Medusa, the terrible snake-haired gorgon with the power to turn those who dare gaze upon her to stone. She wears the hat to school, where the boys sometimes hiss at her, but she doesn’t care because snakes for hair make her powerful, and more than this, knowing the Greek gods and their stories—the knowledge of these other worlds—makes her powerful. She tells her classmates of Hades kidnapping Persephone, of Odysseus’s encounter with Circe, of the tormented Althaea who must throw the enchanted log into the fire to end her son’s life. “You be Athena,” she instructs her classmates. “And you be Poseidon. You be Hephaestus. You be Hades. And I’ll be Medusa.”

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Photo/Text 2: Trucks

They strike me as relics, like the Pripyat bumper cars, though it’s been only a month, maybe two, since he left them parked in the sandbox, but so quickly the marks of our presence are buried—pine needles fall, maples sprout near red tires—and though this is probably not the last time he has left them—probably he will return yet, to turn sand, to haul another load—there will nonetheless be a last time. The trucks will be abandoned, and he will be fully grown, a man, a person who does not concern himself with plastic toys. But now, when he sees that I have taken an interest, he comes to explain that he baked a cake with a candle in it for me in the truck bed and it’s been waiting here all this time. I thank him; I tell him I like his trucks. Pleased, he wants to know why I am taking pictures. Because, I explain, I want to remember what his trucks looked like the last time he played with them. But this is not the last time, he protests. I know, I tell him. But I am marking it now anyway, so I don’t miss the last time.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Photo/Text 1: Legs

When I find them, their legs dangling through the slats of her bunk bed, lined up to dip their toes into the bedroom air, it’s as though I had a plan for all of it: a quarter of a century ago traipsing all over Southern California malls with my grandmother, seeking the dolls whose scarcity was nearly inciting riots, looking for particular hair and eye and nose combinations, sewing the dolls elaborate costumes, displaying them like fine china on shelves, and later, after my fetish had faded, packing them carefully away in boxes, and moving them a dozen times in four different states, so that I could discover them again in a basement in Connecticut and give them to my daughter, who would haul them into her bed, undress them, arrange them. And now, when I encounter them here, I can see clearly why I have kept them, why I acquired them in the first place: simply to delight in finding them in a girl’s bright yellow-walled room. “Mom, their diapers are a bit saggy,” my daughter says, apologetically, as though this fact is a reflection on her mothering abilities. “That,” I tell her, “is bound to happen after twenty-seven years.”

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Camera, Part 3: Nikon D600

A week ago, I got my new camera: a Nikon D600. So far, I’ve taken 1,121 photos—most of which I’ve deleted. I am trying to learn to think like a photographer, to consider light and composition and exposure. I am trying to learn to make good images with a DSLR camera. I am trying to give real thought to what I see in the viewfinder before snapping the shutter.

As a writer, I have always believed in the primacy of language, but I am learning that sometimes, images can be as crucial as words (and many would argue even more crucial than words). I am also learning that to see as a photographer can help me as a writer, and vice versa. How do I frame the shot? What do I include? What do I eliminate? These questions are as valid for the writer as they are for the photographer.
I am interested not only in the images by themselves and the words by themselves, but also in how the two can be wedded, balanced, both image and text present in a work but neither overpowering the other. What will these text/photo pieces look like? I am only beginning to see.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Camera, Part 2: Olympus Camedia

Nine years ago, my husband bought a digital camera: an Olympus Camedia C-740 Ultra Zoom. At first, I wanted to have nothing to do with it. I was still using my Pentax K1000, and I wasn’t interested in switching from film to digital. For one thing, I was still skeptical that a bunch of dots would ever produce the kind of sharpness that is possible with film. And second, I knew how the Pentax worked. The digital camera, a point-and-shoot model, was unknown territory.

Finally I did pick up the new camera and begin to use it, but I still also used film for my “real” photos. After my daughter was born and it was time to send out birth announcements, I loaded film into the Pentax and photographed her when she was just short of two months old. But all the pictures of her before that—including her very first photos taken in the hospital—were shot with the Olympus, and I had to admit that the quality was excellent.
And slowly, over time, something happened. I began to use the Olympus constantly. A day came when I no longer loaded film into the Pentax. It went back into the camera bag and stayed there. The Olympus was simply too convenient: I took it everywhere without worrying about buying, reloading, or developing film; I could email the pictures to family and friends; I could buy prints online. Gradually, the Olympus became my camera. My husband relinquished it, and now he uses it only when I place it in his hands and tell him to photograph something.

I’ve taken thousands of photos with the Olympus. Both of my children’s first photos were taken with it. My life in Nebraska—Lincoln, Sidney, then Omaha—and then my life in Connecticut have been documented by it. It has traveled with me to California, Montana, New Mexico, Maine, South Dakota, and other places in between. Nearly every photo I have ever posted online has been shot with that little camera.
I admit that I’ve grown fond of it. But now, as I find myself wanting more control over camera settings, more lens options, and higher resolution images, as I become a student of photography, as I place the image at the center of my attention—not as an afterthought snapshot but as a composition in its own right, integral to my project of seeing and documenting the world—I understand that I have outgrown the camera. Reluctantly, I am putting it away. Reluctantly, I am moving on.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Camera, Part 1: Pentax K1000

When I was eight years old, my uncle gave me my own camera for Christmas: a Pentax K1000. I started out shooting slide film because my uncle did, and I suspect that I created box after box of very poor slides (which I no longer have). But over time, I learned how to operate the camera correctly—how to adjust f-stop and shutter speed, how to focus, how to judge the light, and later, how to use a tripod and shutter release cable and flash. My Pentax turns thirty this year, and it is still in perfect working condition. It can still take photos as well as it did the day I first opened the box.

The Pentax traveled with me to Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as to Egypt, Estonia, Poland, Italy, the Czech Republic, and countless camping and hiking trips and travels in the U.S. I have thousands of prints. Here is just one, taken in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

When I studied photography and journalism in college, I used the Pentax. I shot in black and white, developed my own film, and for a short period practically lived in the engrossing world of the darkroom, spending days in near darkness making prints. Most of these were of my Southern California of the mid-1990s. Somewhere I still have thousands of negatives with proof sheets as well as hundreds of black-and-white prints like this one.

The Pentax hasn’t had film in it in over five years. I’ve been thinking about teaching my daughter—who is eight—how to use it. Like me, she would learn to load the film, to manually adjust f-stop and shutter speed, to focus, to put thought behind each image. And yet, with the availability of digital point-and-shoot cameras, the high-quality images almost instantly splayed across computer monitors, the extraordinary storage capacity to record our every waking moment with thoughtless abandon, I wonder if she will ever appreciate the magic of shooting pictures with care and forethought, manually rewinding the film, mailing it or dropping it off to be processed, and then waiting with impatience and hope for the slides or the prints to be ready, to finally see how well the captivating image in the viewfinder has been captured in the physical artifact.

Monday, July 1, 2013


A ten-minute walk from our house, on the edge of a college parking lot, grows one of the two largest white oaks in Connecticut. A stately, burled giant, it is likely around three hundred years old. I often take the children to visit the tree.

I write more about this tree in a recent essay in Adventum. I write about how the tree has become like a friend to us, one that we visit regularly, in every season. I write about how our first fall in Connecticut, nearly three years ago, we picked up one of the oak’s plentiful acorns and planted it in a pot at home. The acorn sprouted, and the following summer—two years ago—we planted the seedling in our yard.

This is the continuation of that story. Our oakling, progeny of a mighty tree, is flourishing. Its first year, the tree had six leaves. This year, it has thirty-four. Oaks are notoriously slow growers, and none of us will be here to witness the tree reach its full mature splendor—if, indeed, it ever does. But this is one of the joys of life we should teach our children—to hope for and anticipate a future that is not for us, but for others.