On taking pictures
Or, as Toni Morrison said, ‘What is all this corn doing?’
At the end of summer, I bought a point-and-shoot film camera. I’d never had one before, or not that I know of, though as I type this sentence, I realize it’s a lie: I probably had one as a teenager in the nineties, since point-and-shoot film cameras were what everyone used then. But like everybody, when affordable digital cameras came on the market, I bought one. My first digital had the dimensions and heft of a brick cut in half. I used it in the early days of Orangette, and I thought the photos were AWESOME!!!!! Eventually I realized they weren’t, and then I upgraded to a DSLR, but that’s boring and not what I want to talk about.
In 2007, I think, I joined Flickr, which was then its heyday. If you don’t know or remember it, Flickr was a photo-sharing website and sort of the Instagram of its era — not technically social media, but social. Everyone was so generous there: sharing what type of camera they used, posting thoughtful comments for each other, making friends — though the concept of “meeting online” was not yet a thing and doing so came with a degree of embarrassment, as if you couldn’t meet people the normal way.
Anyway, I was immediately taken with the photos I saw on Flickr, many of which were shot with film. Eventually I went to a used camera store and, on the recommendation of the bemused gentleman who owned the place, bought a Pentax K1000 for 199 dollars, including the lens. Manufactured in the year I was born, that Pentax was, still is, ideal for a beginner, and with it I taught myself to use a manual film camera. I liked the way film captured light and color. I even liked the mistakes that came with shooting film — a light leak, blurry focus, under- or overexposure — the mistakes you get when you can’t instantly view the image on a screen and reshoot until it’s perfect.
That was 2008. There’s a whole cohort of people I met through blogging in the aughts, but most of the “Internet friends” I still think about today are the ones I “met” on Flickr1. We were all around thirty years old then, give or take, and we had a lot of energy to put toward friendship — maybe because Instagram didn’t exist yet, Trump was just a billionaire who liked to put his name on buildings and marry ex-models, and pandemics only happened in movies, lololol. For most of us, taking pictures and hanging around Flickr was less about doing photography than it was about figuring out what kind of adults we would be. We were using cameras to find and record what we liked — each of us assembling, frame by frame, a kind of vision board, which was then bolstered and reified in real time by everybody else’s vision board. Of course we wouldn’t have explained ourselves that way then, and some of us, 🙋♀️, might have even balked at being summed up so tidily. I also want to be clear that I have never made an actual vision board.
But here’s the thing: whatever we were doing, it worked! I can think back on those Flickr photos now and trace a through line for each of us, see how what we were making then laid the way for what we make or do now. For instance, I can see that I was learning something about myself as a writer, a job title I was then shy to claim.
Taking pictures helped me point to what was important to me, whether I consciously knew it or not, and whether or not I understood why. Whatever I’d grabbed in the freeze-frame, it meant something. The purpose of writing, then, would be to figure out what it meant. I mean, I’m oversimplifying. A photo doesn’t have to mean, and not every photo does. But for the willing writer, for me, a picture is more than a record; it is also fuel, discrete as a battery, a source of energy to power the work that is writing, that is thinking in complete sentences.
I take June to the library a lot, and while she pokes around in the graphic novels, middle-grade fiction, and what she calls the “witchcraft and crystals” section, I peruse the poetry and narrative nonfiction. Last Wednesday I came upon a hardcover copy of Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. I took it home and set it on the table where everything in our household collects, hoping I might find myself with a quiet minute and reach for it instead of my phone. This morning after breakfast, while Ames grunted around with a rogue bath toy and the dowel we use to secure the sliding door, I finally did. Opening to a speech called “The Site of Memory,” I read:
… [T]he nature of my research begins with something as ineffable and as flexible as a dimly recalled figure, the corner of a room, a voice. I began to write my second book, which was called Sula, because of my preoccupation with a picture of a woman and the way in which I heard her name pronounced. Her name was Hannah, and I think she was a friend of my mother’s. I don’t remember seeing her very much, but what I do remember is the color around her — a kind of violet, a suffusion of something violet — and her eyes, which appeared to be half closed.
Morrison proceeds to lay out her project for the evening’s talk: to explore the way that memory and fiction “embrace” in her work, and “where that embrace is symbiotic.” I don’t write fiction, have never had an impulse to fictionalize, but I recognize the process she describes, of working from “image to picture to meaning to text.” She gives an example from the process of writing Beloved: “I’m trying to write a particular kind of scene, and I see corn on the cob. To ‘see’ corn on the cob doesn’t mean that it suddenly hovers; it only means that it keeps coming back. And in trying to figure out ‘What is all this corn doing?’ I discover what it is doing.”
I keep wanting to mistype that last sentence, to make it say, “I discover what I am doing.” But one does not put words in the mouth of the late Toni Morrison. I will say then, for myself, returning to the subject of photography: In trying to figure out “What is this picture showing me?” I discover what I must write about.
What I see in my photos is, more or less, okay, wow, this lady is home a lot. I mean, it seems like she also likes to travel, but she’s home a lot. And WOW, this lady is interested in people. She takes very few pictures without people. This lady is also into ordinary objects and routines and stacks of books and dishes, domestic life and home — oh that’s it, wow, yes, home, relationship, family, that’s the orbit in which she turns. And has anybody noticed that this lady seems a little sad, but in a happy way? Contemplative, let’s call it. Why is she this way? What does she want? She’ll have to write to figure it out.
I had set film aside, mostly, after I had June. Digital was faster, simpler, and allowed me to fire off two-dozen auto-focus shots of my toddler eating a strawberry without feeling guilty about the amount of film I was using or how much it would cost to develop it. But I still used my film cameras occasionally, when I wanted shots that would feel special. In 2022, my first summer teaching at Zapata Ranch, I took along two disposable film cameras, which always take better pictures than they should. By my second time at the Zapata,2 last summer, I knew the saddle bags could accommodate a real camera, so I brought my old Nikon FE — like the Pentax, but a little nicer. But it’s heavy and takes two hands to focus and shoot, and one does not have two free hands on horseback. One of my students had a little 35mm autofocus point-and-shoot from the nineties, barely larger than her fist. That’s the way to do it, I decided.
Back at home, I did a bunch of googling, learned that celebrities love old Contax cameras enough to spend $3K on them, and decided instead to bid $90 on eBay for an Olympus Stylus 120.3 It is the size of a juicebox and a color I believe is called champagne, and it was manufactured the year I graduated from high school. It is small enough to put in a fanny pack. I’ve only shot two rolls so far, the first being a throwaway for testing purposes, a roll of black-and-white that expired in 2011. I fired haphazardly, wanting to finish it and find out if the camera worked. Still, it showed me things.
The other evening we had plans to go to an OL Reign soccer game with a friend and her 11-year-old son. It would have been my first time attending a professional sports event, and June’s too. But it was Friday, and we were exhausted, and we bailed. Climbing into bed that night, Ash sighed.
“Are we lame? We can’t even make it to a 7pm soccer game,” they lamented.
“We’re not lame,” I said. “We have a nine-month-old baby. Of course we’re tired.” I thought for a minute. “We also just like being home.” I see it more clearly all the time.
Though we’re now in touch via Instagram, not Flickr. Also, there are many of them/you who I haven’t linked to here. I apologize. I see you. I just ran out of stamina for searching IG and linking.
2024 will sadly be my last summer teaching at Zapata Ranch! The Nature Conservancy, which owns the land, is changing their focus for the ranch, and after next year, they will no longer offer guest stays. **→ If you’d like to attend my 2024 workshop, registrations are now open, and we expect it to fill quickly. ←** The Nature Conservancy’s future plans include tribal involvement with the ranch’s bison herd and “use of the preserve as a place for cultural connection, learning, and resource protection alongside meaningful engagement with tribal nations, indigenous peoples, and the San Luis Valley’s historic Latino community.”