by Larkin Vonalt
A Writer Talks About Photography
My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic 126. It was under the Christmas tree for me when I was six years old. The first photo I took with it was of a pen full of hound dogs, neatly foreshadowing the hundreds, nay, thousands of pictures I’ve taken of hound dogs since. It made little square pictures, all of them fuzzy because while Kodak was making these dandy little cameras for middle America, they were outfitting them with the cheapest little plastic lenses ever. It was like making a photograph through the bottom of a plastic wine glass. Did we even realize how awful they were? Looking at these snapshots now really is like looking at your own hazy memories, everyone is no more than a suggestion.
Eight years later the Christmas tree once again bore photographic fruit. This time it was a much nicer camera, a Rollei B35, at the time the smallest 35 mm camera made. The “B” is for “Belichtungsmesser”– a lightmeter, which was built into the front of the camera. (You can see a B35 in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Melinda Dillon used one to take photos of the landing of the spaceship.) I didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture of any spaceships, but I did photograph chocolate shops in Brussels, friends eating herring outside the Hague, and a shot that showed early promise– I turned around and got a photograph of the hordes of tourists all taking snapshots of the Notre Dame.
I was already cast in bronze as a writer. Of course, I planned to be an actress and took to my high school stage as the Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Smith in The Bald Soprano. I couldn’t sing well enough for the big roles in the musicals (the Fiddler, you might remember, is not Tevye, but a mute) and when I was cast as one of a dozen nuns in the Sound of Music I hotly told the theatre teacher, Don Oickle, that I couldn’t waste my time with such things. Which was probably the truest thing I ever said in that room. I was already editor of the school paper, after all, and for the first time ever I had an English teacher who both recognized my talent and raised the bar so high for me, that for the first time in my life I was having to work at writing.
I liked my camera, but I didn’t think of it as anything other a means of recording memorable events, and always on slides. My stepfather had a very nice camera, a Leica IIIf from the 1950s and he shot (exclusively) Agfa slide film, so I shot Agfa too. We had a lovely Rollei projector and a good slide projected across the room can make a breath-taking image. They’re just a little inconvenient to casually leaf through. In time I started experimenting with different films, taking “artsy” photographs with an array of strange film from Ilford. I remember well a series of “eggs on a table top” that all came out cyan. My first year in college I stretched myself with the camera, shooting in the rain, at the beach, and all kinds of scandalous images that I’m surprised the local photo place deigned to print.
These were, however, good enough to get me into art school. On a trip to New York before I went off to MassArt, I “borrowed” the Leica, and shot several rolls of the Chelsea Hotel, including a wonderful portrait of the famous hotel’s famous manager Stanley Bard. The Chelsea (in those days anyway) was very plain. Radiator pipes that banged all night long, narrow beds with thin blankets. But the wrought iron staircases were extraordinary, and the lobby was resplendent with boys in leather and raccoon-eyed girls, the celebrated and the notorious, cheek by cheek. I think that week is probably when I first started to use the camera as a different way to see. When I (ahem) “returned” the Leica, I left a roll of film in it, about half the exposures gone. I understand that when my stepfather went to pick up “his” roll of photos that he was quite bewildered by half of what he got back from Eckerd’s.
At Mass Art, I studied with Nick Nixon, who must be one of the most patient people alive. My little Rollei had long since packed up (salt water and whatnot is hell on cameras) and with the first installment of my student loan, I bought an Olympus OM10 with a motor drive and two lenses. Nick’s work is unflinching, capturing the beauty in the faces of people with AIDS, people in nursing homes, the blind, the sick . . . and thank God, school children and city scapes. I wanted to take photographs like that, but I was shy about approaching people, so I shot almost exclusively with the telephoto lens. Yeah, it was a cop-out.
Even worse, I couldn’t get a grasp on exposure– I struggled with the light meter and most of the time just ignored it. I still can’t tell you exactly what “bracketing” or “matrix metering” is. I understood why it was difficult to shoot a photograph of a black horse in the snow, and what to do about it, but I couldn’t explain it to you. I suppose that’s like a writer who never bothered to learn to spell. It’s not that I meant to be disrespectful and careless. I was just in a rush to get the photograph. Somewhere I read a statistic that professional photographers believed that about five percent of the shots they took were successful. Five percent! That was one in twenty. I could produce a reasonable photograph one time out of twenty, well, most of the time.
I started in filmmaking at MassArt, drifted to photography and then upstairs to the Studio for Interrelated Media– “Performance Art.” There I built installations, made tape loops, shot film, and piled them all together to tell a story. Even though I was using various visual arts techniques to produce the finished piece, at the core all of my installations was the essence of it all: writing. I might have been running from words, but they were chasing me down.
The Olympus with telephoto lens and motor drive weighed in at nearly three pounds– which is a lot to carry on your shoulder day after day. Though I kind of hated to give it up, years later I finally packed it away in a box on the shelf for a much lighter Nikon SLR. I was a long hold out for film. I’d see film stock from different companies disappear forever and each time would die a little inside. Every time I had film developed, there was grousing about the expense. I understood the transient nature of a computer file though. Formats change, things disappear, they can’t be read down the line.
Daguerreotypes from the 1830s are still very much with us. Henry Fox Talbots “calotypes” of prints made with a silver solution fixed with salt still exist. You can make new prints from very old glass negatives. I love old photographs, particularly those of dogs, but also of family. My grandfather was an avid photographer and chronicled his family’s life with a medium format Speed Graphic, which belongs to me now. I have a photograph of Grampa, when he was just two years old, sitting on the lap of his grandmother, Elizabeth Tressler, who was born in 1837. So here’s a photograph taken in 1910 that is of someone I knew very well, well into my adult life,9 in the company of a woman who was born 125 years before me. I look at this image and I am connected to her. I can see that connection– he’s sitting on her lap!
I hated to change over to a format as tenuous as a computer file, and if the risks of losing the image weren’t bad enough, there was the trouble with capturing the image. I’d used friends’ digital cameras, snapping a picture for them at school functions and the like. There was no mistaking that lag between pushing the button and the shutter opening. That might be fine for taking pictures of a house or a tractor or an African violet, but what about shooting dogs, horses, children? You’d never be able to capture anything. They’d be long gone before the camera even cooperated.
Well, you know what comes next right? Nikon made a digital version of my beloved SLR, and it had no shutter lag. So I capitulated and agreed that the camera should be under the Christmas tree for me, 39 years after my first Instamatic. It’s been wonderful. Given that I never did master the technical aspects of photography, the digital format allows me shoot dozens of images to get the one I want. This year, as part of a fundraiser, I used it to take pictures of pets with Santa Claus. I know, having had my owndog’s picture made with Santa Claus, that it’s usually one shot and you’re done. Not for me. I photographed each dog, as many times as necessary, until each owner had an image that made them smile. We would have gone broke trying to be that accommodating with Polaroid film.
None of my photographs has ever stopped anyone in their tracks. Well, one maybe. In 1998, a friend and I spent 9 days crossing Wyoming on US 20. One evening, I took some photographs of an old fire truck parked under a sodium vapor lamp at the aptly named “Hell’s Half Acre.” They were slides, and some of them were pretty fantastic. I chose the best one and entered, for fun really, in the Gallatin County, Montana Winter Fair. I should have had copies made, but I didn’t. Imagine how surprised and delighted I was to find that the photo had been named “Best Overall Photo” at the fair and “Grand Champion.” When the fair was ending and I went to pick up the slide, and some other prints, my ribbons and prize money, none of it was there. Someone else had picked it up. At first I thought it must be a mistake, but as no one came back with them it was pretty clear they’d been stolen. You had to wonder about the man who usually won the photo contest at the fair, if he could be that small? They reissued the prize money and rosettes but the picture was lost forever and now Hell’s Half Acre itself is gone.
I take lots of pictures of the place I live, my family, some of the food that we conjure up in the kitchen, and of course, the dogs. One schmuck, an acquaintance, posted online a series of photographs he’d taken of Dayton. They could not have been less flattering. They weren’t even honest, just bad snapshots of parking lots and vacant houses and the quality was horrible– they might have been taken with my old Instamatic. When I shared my own photographs of Dayton with him he said they were the “typical yuppie bullshit” and called me a name. Another person looked at some photos I’d taken along the river in Mississippi and saw in them a condemnation, when really that was not what I meant at all. So I think I’m not very successful in using photographs to communicate.
What I am good at is that I can make a great snap shot, an informal portrait. I can take a picture of a building or a harness horse or a carnival ride and make you go “Hm, that’s interesting.” No one’s ever going to want to buy them and put them on the wall and that’s fine with me. They work for me as illustrations, something to make the stories bigger. Photography for me was always about seeing, and writing is about feeling. Each photograph may indeed be worth a thousand words, but when I look at a compelling image, the journalist’s old maxim rises up in me: who, what, where, when and why. I see the photograph and I hunger for the details.
The noted photographer Shelby Lee Adams was a close friend of my late father’s. He is best known for his images of Appalachian family life, and those images are stories just begging to be told. There has been an ongoing controversy about his work and whether or not it is exploitive of its subjects. These people are poor, to some they might even seem grotesque– but surely no more (and perhaps less) than the homeless on the streets of L.A. or New York, or the babies with AIDS that Nick Nixon photographed. Or the children made famous by Diane Arbus’ work. If we look at a photograph of another human being and it makes us uncomfortable, do we then deem it exploitive? Utter nonsense. When I see Adams’ photographs, I don’t feel pity or compassion or contempt– I feel curiosity. I want to know more about what’s going on in the picture, how these people are related to each other, what the circumstances are. It’s not up to me to judge their lot in life, but I greatly appreciate the glimpse into their world. When Dad was alive we used to look at these images together and he would explain to me what he knew about them. He and his wife were invited to go to Kentucky for a “Dinner on the Ground” with Shelby and came back with more great stories to go with these faces.
I like to take photographs, but I am not a photographer. I’m a writer, so I want to use words to tell these stories, but a single image catapults that person into our lives front and center, if only for as long as it takes to turn the page. Over my desk hangs a large print of “Chester and His Hounds,” which Shelby Lee Adams made in 1992, and when I glance up to really look it, it always makes me grin. But then I always had a thing for pictures of hound dogs.