(I started this blog on July 22, and here, I'm wrapping it up a month later!)
I've had a project in mind for several years and it is just now coming together.
I saved a few things from my parent's house when my sisters and I emptied and sold it; some trivial objects, some not, but things my parents held on to, things they couldn't let go. A pair of french brass chiming clocks for instance, a package of De Long hairpins found in a machinist chest in the basement, the machinist chest itself, my grandfather's denim shop coat, the Griswold Inn and Oldsmobile matchbooks in the right hand pocket of the shop coat, some false teeth, a palm sized Swedish book of Psalms, my father's graduating class high school year book, cigar boxes full of small prints, and a 6.5x9cm German box camera. There is more.
The yearbook was a critical find. I discovered my father was salutatorian for his class. Number two. He was all over the yearbook, involved in everything, loved by everyone. I also discovered that he really loved photography. Why he never shared that information I will never know. Perhaps he didn't want to encourage me. He was an aerospace engineer, and maybe photography wasn't worth encouraging his son toward. Family pictures yes, but career, no.
I suspect the camera was one of the earliest cameras my father owned. It is a "Bee Bee" model manufactured by Certo Camera Werke Model A fitted with a 105mm f3.5 Zeiss Tessar, manufactured some time between 1935 and 1942, during his late teens to early twenties, high school and college years for him, the same age photography took a hold on me. There is something about the camera that captivates me. I need to make pictures with it.
The collapsible eye-piece and ground glass were missing but the shutter to my ear sounded accurate at all speeds. I purchased a box of EFKE 100 iso film cut to the required size and considered my ground glass options. Not willing to invest in a custom glass I cut down a piece of picture glass and coated one side with Rust-Oleum Semi-transparent Frost spray. I fitted the glass into the removable back, attached the back and opened the lens, and wow, a wonderfully bright and easily focusable image emerged. Here is a test image taken in my office:
I have the camera, it functions, what of the project?
The title "Iron Things" came to me from reading Mary Oliver's book length poem The Leaf And The Cloud. I was taken back by this fragment from the first section:
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.
I mention them now,
I will not mention them again.
It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.
I give them-one, two, three, four-the kiss of courtesy,
of sweet thanks,
of anger, of good luck in the deep earth. May they sleep well. May they soften.
But I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life.
I want to take that Iron Thing and crack it open, hold the fragments to the light, consider their emotional weight. My father, my parents presence lives throughout the objects I've saved. What did a package of hairpins mean to my father? Can I turn the fragments, the "Iron Things", into icons of familial love and loss, give them the courtesy of sweet thanks, and let them go?
I brought the camera and a 4x5 wood field, processing supplies, and cyanotype materials with me on a two week vacation at a lakeside cabin in New Hampshire. I've been going to this place for 25+ years and always have some photographic idea purcolating for the trip.
Working in large format is a real challenge for me. I find that the longer time I spend crafting an image the more boring it gets. I love ideas and the life of the mind. But when it comes to image-making I need to be as spontaneous as possible and let ideas surface after the image is made. I'm good with that, they will come. They float to the surface, dreamlike, un-beckoned.
During the latter half of the first week I headed out into the woods to a familiar overturned tree. I love the "stage" that is created on the under-portion of the tree that is uprooted. I thought I'd do a portrait here. Clothing seemed inappropriate so off it came. Images were made with the "Bee Bee" and the 4x5.
Though I appreciate the Pictoralist quality of the image taken with my father's camera--the sense of emerging, with ease--I think the image taken with the 4x5 is the keeper, and I'm taking it as the beginning of Iron Things; am I emerging or am I stuck? Is this body the ultimate Iron Thing: weighty, rusting, full of memory? Where do I go from here?
To end, I return to Mary Oliver, and the preface to The Leaf And The Cloud:
"Between the earth and man arose a leaf. Between the heaven and man came a cloud. His life being partly as a falling leaf, and partly as a falling vapour."
John Ruskin, from Modern Painters