This picture I took today, a few days into spring, is part of what passes for pastoral in my Brooklyn neighborhood--a barn-shaped birdhouse visible through a vine-wrapped chicken wire fence at the Recreation Center on 1st Street. I like to take photographs of juxtaposed environments, especially where nature reclaims the urban landscape, or when individuals living here impose their notion of the country life on the city.
I read a beautiful essay by Barry Lopez once, perhaps in DoubleTake magazine, that addressed his interests in photography and writing, and which he wrote to accompany artwork by an unfamiliar, deceased artist who had admired him. In the essay, Lopez illustrates the scene that determined his choice of writing over photojournalism. He was in Alaska, I think, and out on a raft away from the larger boat to take photographs of bears. Kodiak bears? Polar bears? One was in the frame of the shot, one was not. When he got back to the boat, and was unloading the roll of film (a lovely tactile task of the past, now), he unrolled in his mind what he recalled seeing in between the frames of the camera shots. What was the other bear doing? Where was it swimming, what was it eating? How close was it? The energy of this excitement in getting his observations right, along with his need to know more than the limits of the frame, was the factor that led him to switch his focus, as it were, to the broader view a writer has.
I think of this often in relation to my love of writing and taking photographs, especially when I feel upset at not capturing a photograph I wanted. I can write about what I saw to make up for the picture I missed, but that always seems too difficult and inconsistent with my vision. Clearly, writing is more important, but I could not give up the framing of a photographic shot--my favorite part--to focus my attentions only on the words that describe and frame. I also do enjoy not letting the viewer see more than what I frame. This can be achieved with an unreliable narrator, too, a political poem, and a column, to name just a few writing controls.
The photograph can be its own message, untethered to any specific explanation, like a series of tiny Polaroids I took in Paris in November 2002 that cause me to feel the writing of Paris to be almost unnecessary. But, a photograph can also be a prompt for writing, as can the record of mistake and perception the old film-based photograph dictates. I'd love to write a story or poem based on an accidental photograph, the kind we are all less likely to take with digital cameras. A photographer, Jim Hair, whom I met last weekend at the "Kayak at the Confluence" event in St. Louis, described just the sort of eerie example from his trove that could work on my imagination. Jim is running for mayor of Richmond, Indiana, in hopes to coax it into the arts community he believes it could be, and we talked about how his becoming Mayor would not only put the photography business on hiatus but also, change the ways in which he can move through his town, camera in hand.
One of the benefits to being a writer is that there is no contraption to give away my eye. I am just as let down by my inability to capture in writing what I miss capturing in the camera. It is always possible to heal the writing anguish with another take on the page. I do love that difficult task of getting the words and meaning right far more than the capture of the physical in light. And photographs can't rhyme.