Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Ocean Vuong - Ten Books

This post is a selection of quotes from Ocean Vuong's article, The 10 Books I Needed to Write My Novel. These quotes speak to me about how we each must find our own way to tell our own story and set that story in the larger society in which we live. Vuong emphasizes metaphor as a way to make the specific general and the general specific. He references kishōtenketsu, a Chinese (also Korean and Japanese) narrative form "without conflict", that further informed his work. His novel is not about a narrative arc, but about the qualities of experience and how experience shapes our lives.

Ocean Vuong - LitHub.com

Vietnamese refugees, for example, use metaphor as a coping mechanism; metaphor provides a way to talk about trauma without stating the experience outright.

The metaphor in the mouths of survivors became a way to innovate around pain. ... “papaya seeds scraped out of you” ... “the doorway of your body broken into” ... “get on the road” ... to render the horrific via an alternative speech act

write about American violence without it becoming vital to the novel’s arc ... violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax

Through Kishōtenketsu, violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax.

these people ... exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story

a writer’s growth is often a slog, the slow burn of reading and trying and failing when, finally, by some luck or mercy, the book you’re reading turns into a torch in your hands ... with it you make a sentence so new and exacting to your desire that it startles you into a new vision, a new life, one that exists through the presence of elders before you, both here and gone and some nearly forgotten but never lost

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee

a necessary, orchestrated sense of disorientation as a method of enacting displacement, trauma, and national and private grief

courage to stop seeing historical trauma as something that has to be refurbished in order to achieve “fine art,” and more so that fracture, even incomprehensibility, can be a powerful conscious mode of storytelling, one that interrogates colonialist gauges of successful art-making without forsaking its central thrust: to tend and hold close the bodies expelled by canonical narratives

documents and family albums ... as evidence of erased histories

Toni Morrison, Beloved

a refugee narrative ... survival as an act of creation

the power of protection through love—even if it means committing the ultimate act of rescue: death

nothing is “too much” or “indulgent” if it is true

refugees as survivors with agency ... who must now furnish a future within incomprehensible aftermaths ... worthy and exceedingly beautiful

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

contemporary vision of rural queer life, the isolation of art making and the brutal repercussions of favoring interiority in a patriarchal system

refusal to enact her protagonist’s development via a false and forced inhabitation of heteronormative ideal ... he bravely embodies his otherness, or “monstrosity”

insists on the necessity of alterity as agency instead of succumbing to the readily assimilative

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

employs the autobiographical gaze to suggest radical modes of queerness, polytheism as progressive self-knowledge, expansive meditations on whiteness, both in regards to ... purity and to race, ... forges the allegory of the hunt as a doomed American quest for self-knowledge

What would happen if all modes of voices, themes, threads, systems of knowledge and influence were potent in equal measure within the novel’s temporal investigation?

quick detours and returns, while still retaining the vital urgency and vulnerability of a direct address

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

the autobiographical novel ... serves as a map of one’s journey towards art. It says, essentially, that a writer of color does not arrive at the literary table, as is often believed, in spite their geographical and cultural roots, but because of them, that those origins, complex and rich with joy and challenges, were foundations within their praxis—not shackles that denied them an imagination.

a map of passage wherein a gay black writer garners self-knowledge through the careful, thorough, and luminous rendering of his elders, which includes their flaws, triumphs, and the near-obliterating effect of American racism on their minds and bodies

lê thị diễm thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For

oscillation and destabilization as a mode of inquiry and storytelling

multiple points of view, voices and non-linear time ... builds a narrative that feels, at times, more like landscape art than writing—all to a tremendous embodied effect

such rules can be consciously rejected because their rubrics were made without considering the bodies her book holds—even at this risk of rendering it, in the eyes of critics trained to recognize and celebrate hegemonic styles, as nonsensical or wrong

a bold and empowering refusal of conformity in search of other ways of speaking and being

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

privileging characters, people and ideas over “story”

insistence on the extended metaphor (near Homeric at times) as a means of destabilizing the temporal function of plot

What is real when the metaphor becomes just as felt, if not more so, than the narrated life, when it becomes a portal?

David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

sentences are attempts at laying ground within a community disintegrating before his eyes and voice ...  a testament to queer innovation and survival—but also the residue of a boy’s coming of age in broken homes in New Jersey to an equally blighted yet life-savingly vibrant New York

Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place

Kafka’s credo that a book should be the axe that shatters the icy soul of our interior

a personal reclamation of falsehoods

commitment to wonder and awe. It looks at a region that is deemed blighted beyond repair by outsiders and insists that the sublime, under the writer’s honest and unflinching gaze, is made as true and palpable within the text as it is for those who live, dance, and die there.

Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation

refreshed demand for the reader to participate in the novel’s arc, each gap, like stanza breaks in a poem, both asks and allows us to feel the emotional pressures made resonant through associative leaps ... it demands charged and complicated emotive renderings to carry into white space without thorough bridges and narrative connections

The Ten Books

The ten books with their original publication date and links to WorldCat. Find them in a library, on a friend's bookshelf, at your favorite bookseller. For some of books, WorldCat seems to have problems finding the primary work. In those cases, I've linked to Wikipedia. Where that was a problem, I've used the publisher's website or other public reference to the work.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (1982)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1986)

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red (1998)

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

lê thị diễm thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003)

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)

David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (1991)

Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (2013)

Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation (2014)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities

A Journey of Discovery and Relationship

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities
The Photography Workshop Series
Photographs and text by Dawoud Bey
Introduction by Brian Ulrich

Aperture Foundation
Dawoud Bey takes us through a journey that starts in Queens, NY, where he was raised, continues through Harlem with a handheld 35mm camera, a 4x5 on a tripod, a massive Polaroid (265 pounds, 20" x 24"), to color with the 4x5, to high schools and to Birmingham, AL. Along the way, he moves from New York to Chicago and Columbia College, where he has been teaching for twenty-two years. While the touchstones may be images and equipment, the real story is that of building community every step of the way, every day, working with his art, refining his skills, developing his message.

Take Time

He tells us, again and again, with grace and persistence, to take time. Time to know the place you want to work. Time to know the people and their stories. Take time to establish a relationship. Many relationships. To allow the work to unfold. And to be fully engaged that whole time.

Think Deeply

Think deeply about what you are doing. Look closely at all aspects of the image, at the entirety of the frame. What's in focus and what's not? How does that affect the viewer's experience? What can we see in the frame? What is suggested by how the subject presents themselves? How they are seen by the photographer?

Master the Medium

Dawoud Bey spent ten years with that massive Polaroid. He built on his early study of Rembrandt. He observed how the light illuminated his subjects and what the resulting images looked like. He worked with single individuals, with two or three people. Single images and multiple images. And then he took what he learned and used it in his further work, with different equipment, different projects.

Know Your Community

While Dawoud Bey is an African-American, he is from Queens, not Harlem, so making images on the streets of Harlem required that he get to know that community, those people. Early in the book there are images by others, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and James Van Der Zee. These photographs spoke to him as he began making pictures, they set the stage for his own work, and are a means for us to learn the importance of knowing our heritage as photographers, as humans with a past and present, living in a particular place and time.

Know Where Your Work Will Be Seen

Dawoud Bey learned the power of institutions early when he viewed Harlem on My Mind, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1969). 

"Whether an image exists in an institutional space, or on a printed page, or social media, the context is an active and loaded site. Where the work is going to exist should always be part of the consideration in its making. What kind of conversation do you want the work to provoke?

"Thinking back to my early experience of witnessing the protests surrounding Harlem on My Mind at the Met, I knew the institutional space of the museum was not benign. It could be a site of protest and also play an important role within the community where it sits. This shaped my thinking about where I wanted my work to end up. I knew I wanted my photographs on the walls of a museum; it was never my intention for my work to be seen in magazines or newspapers.

"I knew that I wanted to present my Harlem USA work in Harlem. I wanted to break the tradition of making the photographs in one place and showing them somewhere else, which can convey varying degrees of otherness in regards to the subject. I didn't want there to be a separation between subject and audience. I also didn't want to preclude the work going out into the world, but I thought it was important that it be shown in Harlem first."
Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities, page 43

Build Community

Along the way, he built a community of other artists, of curators, of teachers and students, of the people he photographed. Personal connections that were nurtured across time and space. The work connected him to others and brought others to him. 

on Photographing People and Communities is a masterful telling of how Dawoud Bey has worked over many years. The time spans are staggering in our era of instant response and instant gratification. The Birmingham series took six years before he felt ready to make the first image. There was then six months of daily work to create the 32 portraits of 16 pairs. 
Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2012

Beyond This Book

Dawoud Bey ends with 18 books: Recommended Reading/Looking.

Friday, December 13, 2019

December Exhibits in Chicago

Current Exhibits

FXSLT Contemporary Gallery

Oli Rodriguez: A Familiar Panting (Dec 7, 2019 - Jan 19, 2020)

FXLST Contemporary Gallery, A Familiar Panting, Oli Rodriguez
I had the pleasure of talking with Jan Christian Bernabe, the gallery director. We discussed the importance of a narrative arc in an exhibit, one which takes the viewer on a journey through the images. In this case, there is a journey from exterior to interior spaces. This parallels the journey from outer experience to more personal emotions.

The work includes images of lush plantings and concrete and desert; exposed skin and bodies wrapped in plastic and rope; a disembodied arm and the tops of trees. The final works are lightboxes with blowups of gummy bears, a blast of bright color.

"The photographs explore the intersections of fetish culture and queerness within and outside the domestic sphere and the quotidian, using Los Angeles and images of domesticity as their backdrop."

"They are playful actions in color, form, and constructed sculptural and domestic compositions of sugar, palms, plastic wrap, and breath play, reveling in performance and references to childhood. Incorporating the iconic landscape of Los Angeles as well as indoor domestic spaces, these are visualizations and conceptions of contemporary relationships between consumption and pleasure while investigating the manifestations of mundane objects in fetish culture."


Lawrence and Clark Gallery

Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds (Nov 1, 2019 - Jan 4, 2020)

Jason Pickelman runs this gallery with quite a fun mix of work. Currently Warhol's Clouds are floating in the gallery. Living nearby, I get to see the clouds on a daily basis, as they drift in the gallery, sometimes all bunched together on the floor, other times floating at the ceiling, drifting in the space.

The gallery is open Saturdays (and Thursday evenings for the Clouds exhibit). Jason is there to talk about the art. He brings a lot of personal history from his years in Chicago.


“The clouds were Warhol’s attempt to bring the energy of his studio… into the world and make his environment public.”

“Lately they’ve been feeling like my children or my pets,” Pickleman says. “They all behave so differently.”
Jason Pickelman



Elliot Ross: American Backyard (Dec 6, 2019 – Jan 4, 2020)

Elliot Ross, American Backyard
I'm drawn into the abstract qualities of the landscapes and the narrative qualities of the portraits.

The landscapes have me looking at the graceful sweep of sand or confronting ragged canyons. Some show the slice through the land made by border enforcement. Others show us one earth without boundaries, or natural boundaries without explicit human imprint. In all of them, I stop and look, and question.

The portraits are of rugged individuals in context. This is where I work. This is where I live. These are the people in my life.

The image here, of the men with trucks and a fence running between them, a fence which is a very limited barrier. These men all look the same - brothers, cousins, clones - their clothes, their hair, their expressions, their stance. The trucks, backed up to each other, perhaps to exchange contents, of which we see bales of hay, the trucks are also the same but different.

Elliot Ross, American Backyard
What has brought these people together?

"Through an amalgam of portraiture and topographical studies of infrastructure imposed on the landscape, American Backyard looks at the reality of American lives on the border."
Elliot Ross

Museum of Contemporary Photography

Third Realm (Oct 10 — Dec 22, 2019)

Jompet Kuswidananto, Third Realm Venice Series and
Paola Pivi, Tulkus 1880 to 2018
"Capturing a crucial period of artistic production in Asia (2004-2019), Third Realm presents works by artists who use photography, film, installation, and performance to investigate liminal spaces. ... nonbinary spaces—between past

and present, local and global, secular and sacred."

The exhibit uses the word "ritual" to describe the works. They combine the rituals of daily life with more social or religious rituals.

FX Harsono, Writing in the Rain

Museum of Contemporary Photography, Third Realm

The Art Institute of Chicago

Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (Oct 20, 2019 - Jan 26, 2020)

Andy is the big draw (but he's not the only artist with good work at AIC). I've been back to this exhibit several times. There is a lot here.

CBS Radio Network
The Nation's Nightmare, 1951/1952
The Nation's Nightmare: I was taken by the multiple parts of this project from CBS with first person interviews, "a Los Angeles mother whose 15-year-old son is a dope addict, a Youngstown Ohio policeman describing a gambling raid, a Jersey City newspaper reporter ... how mobsters took over a local [union]." Warhol did drawings for a full-page ad in the NYTimes and the album cover for the audio recording.

"Warhol combined multiple images to create the drawing of the young man injecting heroin, using sources such as a series of his own studio photographs featuring a different young man pantomiming drug use. He executed the final images using his signature blotted-line technique, blotting wet ink drawings with blank paper to produce copies."
Art Institute of Chicago, display label


These other exhibits also spoke to me.

Photography + Folk Art: Looking for America in the 1930s (Sep 21, 2019–Jan 20, 2020)

"In the 1930s, as the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, a rising interest in early American vernacular arts—collectively referred to as folk art—converged with major documentary photographic projects. As artists, curators, collectors, and government administrators sought to define American culture as distinct from Europe, they identified in these two burgeoning fields [, photography and folk art,] a national culture they considered egalitarian, unpretentious, and self-made."
Includes images from Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and many others.

Karel Martens: Image and Icon 

Karel Martens, Dutch Clouds

"Inspired by the analog "dots" used to make fields of color in half-tone printing, Martens created a system of geometric icons that employs the traditional color palette to form bull's-eyes, starbursts, and cruciform shapes. When viewed from a distance, the field of digital icons reads as an image, yet it dissolves into an abstract grid when seen close, creating multiple experiences for the viewer."


Eleanor Antin: Time's Arrow (Aug 24, 2019–Jan 5, 2020)

Eleanor Antin, Time's Arrow

"Her landmark early feminist work, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972)—part of the Art Institute’s collection—comprises a grid of 148 photographs that sequentially capture the artist’s journey to lose 10 pounds over a 37-day period." 

"Time’s Arrow marks the first time CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture is shown with CARVING: 45 Years Later (2017), an expansive reprisal of the original work through 500 photographs over four months."

Antin commented. “I believe that my older body was in a valiant and existential struggle to prevent its transformation into the skeleton beneath the protecting flesh … death.”

Monday, October 7, 2019

Botanic Garden Reflections

Class Assignment: A Stroll with Theophrastus

Walking, the class is tasked with taking a picture and in sitting down at the site where the picture was taken, and having both the photograph and the natural subject as reference material are asked with pencil and paper to describe in the most specific and eloquent way which essential quality the photograph is meant to capture and express.

The class will take turns reading their descriptions aloud, and will engage in conversation about the essential quality of each photograph's subject, as claimed by its photographer.

The two "pictures" will be considered a diptych, and may be complicated further if a drawing is included.

Images and Writing

Scanning, looking and questioning: What is it that caught my attention?

Stopping to make a photograph, one leads to another. Stepping away. Sitting down to write. Comparing what’s on the camera screen with what’s in front of me and what I imagined. The whole process one of slowing down. Looking broadly. Looking closely. Seeing how the different moments come together in the image. Or fail to come together.

What resonance is there beyond a well composed, well exposed image?

#1: Head of Grass

A mound of grass - a head of hair wanting to be brushed - something amusing in a plant looking human, above bright flowers and the flow of water
Larry Wolf, Head of Grass (2019)


Of the five photos made of this mound of grass, the last, from a distance, looking back, speaks to me the most.

What was intended as a context shot seems to tell the whole story and is also visually the strongest. It shows the created symmetry of the formal gardens. These are not wild grasses, wild flowers or free flowing water. Contained. Ordered. Manicured. A garden is a created thing. It is also an exercise in giving up control - the growth of the plants, the decay of the structures, the unpredictable weather.

Making an image is also working with the materials at hand, the objects, the light, movement, stillness, the technical capabilities of the technology and the experience of the photographer. The mound of grass stands proudly at the center of the garden.

#2: Standing on Water

I was drawn to the leafy water plant among the waterlilies - got up close to what I imagined.
Larry Wolf, Standing on Water (2019)


The image shows the structure and texture of the plant above the water. The waterlilies and clump of plants on the edge provide context. Shadowlike, the dark reflections further enhance the shape of the plants. There is mystery here. Are the dark leaves reflections? Shadows? Another plant?

#3: Red Rose

“Single” red rose floating in a sea of green, through a break in the trees. Can I capture the sense of surprise?
Larry Wolf, Red Rose (2019)


In the image, other red roses also float above the foliage. None of the roses are in focus. Perhaps it works better this way, a smear of red, multiple dots of red rose. There are little red berries in the trees. More here than originally seen.

#4: Arches into Garden

Ceramic tile half pipes set in a brick wall, allowing a view into the other side. People walk by. Wait. There will be more.
Larry Wolf, Arches into Garden (2019)


The brightness and the darkness across the frame and coming through from the garden. The arches of ceramic creating frames within the frame. The visual field cut into repeating, non-rectangular, pieces.

The ceramic window creates a substantial barrier to the garden on the other side. Sound and light may travel through but I cannot. I’m blocked off. I can see small parts of the garden through the multiple tunnels of view through the tile. They guide my eye and keep me at a distance. A very solid fence that I can see through but cannot reach through, cannot touch what lies on the other side.

#5: Cabbages!

A sea of cabbages. Ornamental. Edible.
Larry Wolf, Cabbages (2019)


This is the fourth shot of cabbages in this garden. The leaves curling around the center of the plant. The whole bed bursting with them. The layers of garden up and down the frame: sidewalk, cabbages, brick wall, hedge, trees.

More cultivation and wildness. The abundance of the cabbages. The hard surface of the walkway and the wall. The multiple horizontal stripes create a layering and are also a flat surface. There is abundance and it is locked in the aesthetics of the garden. Visual nourishment, not bodily sustenance.

#6: Square Tree

A giant hedgerow of trees. What’s the right angle to show them?
Larry Wolf, Square Tree (2019)


A pair. Isolated. Yet caught in the visual chatter of the other trees. The flat white sky is a perfect surface to backlight the texture of the tree, the artificial shape it has been pruned to.

3pm: Chimes

Heard and not seen. No photograph.


Time is passing while I wander making photographs. People swirl about in constellations, individuals orbiting around their groups’ moving centers of gravity. I have my own momentum through the gardens, stopping, seeing, exposing, reviewing, writing.

The chimes stop my activity for a moment. I shift into my body. Standing. Listening. Feeling the passing of time. Attentive and relaxed.

#7: Water

The surface of the water catches the light, shows cross-currents of motion, bright and dark spots dance across its surface.

Ripples and reflections in the water. Sacred island in the distance. How to get just the water? How to show this pond as vast?
Larry Wolf, Water 7a (2019)

Larry Wolf, Water 7b (2019)


Which image to choose? Here is a pair with no land, no trees. Light and dark. Mystery and also simply water. Boundaryless. Fluid and static. A moment.

#8: Sunflower Bride

Flowers scattered across a lawn. Large sunflowers on short stalks… get up close… shoot low and up into the flowerhead. Fighting with framing and exposure and focus and wind.

Then, walking along the path in the distance, a pair of photographers, the groom, the bride. They appeared suddenly. The camera remained on the exposure for the closeup of the flower.
Larry Wolf, Sunflower 8a (2019)

Larry Wolf, Sunflower 8b (2019)

Larry Wolf, Sunflower 8c (2019)


This feels like a sketch of what I wanted. The rough texture of the seeds. The jagged edges of the petals surrounding the seed head. The white, burnt out, sky. The finality of the season. A fierce ring of teeth surrounds the mouth filled with seeds, the fruit of the summer. The white petals bite into the seeds. Like bones bleached in the desert sun, a ring of death surrounds the future life.

The people walking behind the flower, overexposed, burnt out yet clearly visible. The wedding may represent a new beginning, yet they feel (to me) like a medieval theater troupe, moving through the landscape, bringing welcome distraction during the Black Plague. In 8b, the first man carries a black hood, the second man has his hands raised in prayer, or so I see it. In 8c, the groom, in black, is cut through, while the bride, in white, is a hole in the image, her hands holding a bouquet of flowers, an echo of the sunflower with its strong stem, her face and hair the only bit of human texture.


It is the beginning of autumn. The great wheel of the seasons is turning. The plants are still vigorous and, in their maturity, signaling they will soon perish, that winter is not far away.

These are formal images. Surfaces that are meant to hold the viewer’s attention with texture and light and shape.

Where is the photographer, in these images? Playful and serious. Seeking and discovering.

There is a joyful exploration at the beginning, the humor of grass that looks like hair, the pop of color with the rose, light and darkness in water, a sunflower at the end of the season, the wedding party caught as ghosts.

Footnote on Theophrastus

Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC), a Greek native of Eresos in Lesbos, was the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school. ... Theophrastus presided over the Peripatetic school for thirty-six years, during which time the school flourished greatly. He is often considered the father of botany for his works on plants.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

More Or Less Transparent

Looking from the W Hotel to the Treasury Building, Washington DC, September 25, 2019.

Here are 4 of the 18 images in the series.
Larry Wolf, More Or Less Transparent (2019)
Larry Wolf, More Or Less Transparent (2019)
Larry Wolf, More Or Less Transparent (2019)
Larry Wolf, More Or Less Transparent (2019)

Lillstreet Photobook Library
Five prototype booklets were created, one of which now resides at the Lillstreet Photobook Library.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

September Morning Walk

 Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)
Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)

Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)

Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)

Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)

Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)

Larry Wolf, September Morning Walk (2019)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Camera in Hand... Walking

Larry Wolf,
Metra Union Pacific North (2018)

Most Weekdays 

I walk with my husband to the train he takes to work. We walk west, the morning sun behind us, for the eight or nine minutes to get to the station.

Larry Wolf, Three Routes Overlap in the City (2019)
I continue walking, typically one of three different routes: a one-block wide six-block east-west journey which may end at a coffee shop across the street from our home, a longer east-west journey with a one-block jog north at the west-most edge to a coffee shop, or a more square route north and east to a coffee shop and then south to home. The walking time varies between fifteen and forty minutes. A day begins.

Intentionally Aimless

The walks have no particular purpose other than to start the day together, to step outside, to wake up slowly, one step at a time, wishing Eric a good day, and by walking, in the neighborhood, whatever the weather is, as the seasons change, noticing the sky, the traffic, the buildings (and the activity of building), the people (and their dogs), the trees and other plants, sometimes in bloom or past bloom, a passing train, occasionally a rabbit, being with whatever is happening each day. Sometimes stopping at a coffee shop, as much about taking time to pause and consider the day ahead as to have another shot of caffeine. I've been doing this for the past six or seven years (yikes!).

I often stop and capture moments in pixels. They collect in the cloud. They rain down as texts or tweets or are posted to Instagram or to this blog.


Walking can be a formal or informal meditation practice. How much am I conscious of the whole experience and its details? The feel of my feet as they touch the ground, one foot, the other foot, weight shifting, toes in shoes, legs in pants, limbs and joints in motion. The world going by. Breathing. Breathing and walking. Sensing. Awake and asleep. Embodied. Part of and not separate from the environment. Sometimes. It comes and goes.

A Companion

A camera has been my companion for years and years. Not just on my morning walk, but out and about generally, at work, at meals, at museums, all the parts of my life. In my twenties, I pretty much lived with a camera, sometimes shooting from the hip, often with more formality. Almost never any staging, almost always full frame.

There was a dual aesthetic of authenticity, that the image should be of my life, as it happened, a close-in documentary, and that what was on the film emulsion needed to be shown in full, the whole story without further reframing. This was also a commitment to a specific discipline of being with the camera, developing the reflexes to focus, frame and release the shutter quickly, more and more on instinct feed by the cycle of shooting and printing.

Larry Wolf,
Companion (2019)
People were the primary subjects, friends, family and co-workers as we went about our day, making a connection with them through the lens, through the images. Other times, I was more in my own bubble, turning a purely inner experience inside out, making something to share.

Seeking to reconnect with that, I dusted off an ten-year old digital camera and resumed having a camera with me. I've stuck with that old friend for this past year. One camera, one lens, a fixed focal length. Creating a consistency of what I'm using. Allowing a friendship to emerge.

Allowing. A Friendship. To Emerge. 

Allowing, not forcing something conceptual, getting out of my own way. Letting it develop over time. Feeling my way into knowing who I am as I hold the camera. Who the camera is, the life it holds in its body, in its technology, in its settings. , but having it develop from the inside. Feeling my way through the options of subject, shutter speed (freeze the motion or show it? move the camera or hold steady? how slow is slow enough? how fast is fast enough? run experiments and see results).

The friendship is as much about my relationship with myself as with the camera. Having the camera in my hand, I feel the lightness of it. Solid and present, balanced. My thumb rests in a slight curve in the corner, my fingers wrap around the edge, a gentle grip, a relaxed hold. Ready. I notice something, see it on the view screen, adjust the exposure, the angle, touch gently to focus, hold and reposition, wait for a moment, press through to the snap of the shutter. Physical and digital, optics and electronics and human together.

I pick up the camera, curious to what emerges.

Life Is Fragile and Resilient 

There is a tentativeness, a fragility, that wasn't there before. I'm not twenty-something, out to seduce the world. I'm not the same person who first used this camera ten years ago, enthusiastic for a new piece of gear, on vacation, exploring a new place. Almost seventy, life is pain and joy. Grand visions have crashed and burned. Persons, places and things which were safe refuge turned out to be merely illusions. Deeply disappointing. Certainly impermanent. Subject to change. Old relationships are revisited, touched fresh, reawakened. Some are found dry, brittle, sun-bleached; they fade away, are walked away from, are cut off.

Alive. Being alive is all of that. Change. Disappointment. Joy. Illusion. Vision. Order forming and dissolving. Routines established and dropped. Weight gained and lost and gained again. Births. Deaths. Deaths. Births.

Day to day, one breath at a time, getting to know the moment, to know me in this moment, to feel the current streams flowing through me, to find fresh sustenance.

Though not fully intuitive, I am getting better at knowing what this camera sees, better at simple post-processing, better at images that resonate although not always in ways I expect or understand. I don't have the full immersion of years ago, I don't do it all the time, but it's growing.


Holding a camera in my hand transforms my seeing, shifts me into a visual mode. My thinking moves into my eyes, into the eye of the camera. The camera becomes a method for letting go of the usual mental chatter. A simple curiosity takes over. What is this? How does light bounce off its surface? What is in the shadows? What has caught my eye? How does it change as I keep looking? The questions are more attitude than words. Like the ringing of a gong or the lighting of incense, holding the camera invites the meditative mind into the foreground.

And then there is training: classes, critiques, readings; experimenting with points of view, use of reflection, of motion, of focus, of framing. Conscious choices, actions and what results; deepening my skill in the mechanics; opening me to see more, more layers, more whole. The craft and discipline further open the experience.


Yesterday Miriam Hall talked about images she made in Barcelona in the days immediately following 9/11. The images were unlike anything she had taken before -- fragmented, disjointed, chaotic -- revealing her state of mind. Looking at the developed film was a surprise. She did not know her mind, did not know what she was making. Then she saw her mind in the prints. Ah yes, this is why I photograph.

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned how he was taken by individual letters, drawing each one, richly formed, as individuals, worthy of attention. It reminded me of Arthur Rimbaud's poem Vowels.

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue : vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins

Larry Wolf,
Canopy (2019)


I'm looking for that direct link from mind to image/image to mind, short circuiting the inner narrator who is writing the story and shaping perception before anything is seen, as the shutter is released and an image is captured. Looking for surprises when reviewing the result, for moments where my mind gets out of its own way and sees, with the camera, directly, sees what is as it is. And to let go of the whole thing. May it be of benefit.

Thank You

A short note of thanks to Becky for hosting and teaching contemplative art, for Levi for his photographic walks and upcoming workshop, for the many people who have nurtured and challenged me over the years and especially my husband Eric who has been the homo fabula in my life for twenty years.

[Originally posted September 3, 2019. Revised September 5, 2019]

Friday, August 30, 2019

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

August Ravenwood Flowers

Larry Wolf, August Ravenswood Flower (2019-08-12)

Larry Wolf, Ravenswood Flower (2019-08-16)

Larry Wolf, Ravenswood Flower (2019-08-16)

Larry Wolf, Ravenswood Flower (2019-08-19)

Larry Wolf, Ravenswood Flower (2019-08-20)

Larry Wolf, Ravenswood Flower (2019-08-20)

Monday, August 19, 2019

MoCP Exhibit and Podcast - Focal Point: Dawoud Bey and Teju Cole & Go Down Moses

Images and words. Images assembled into groups. Words in conversation. Reflected and refracted.

Stitcher: Focal Point, Episode 3
Writing this began with a Focal Point podcast from Columbia College Chicago, a discussion with Dawoud Bey and Teju Cole, hosted by Kristin Taylor (quotes from which are below, in italics).

Bey and Cole have both recently created exhibits by selecting from the archives of a museum (Dawoud Bey, Art Institute of Chicago, This Land Is Your Land and Teju Cole, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Go Down Moses). Go Down Moses is still at the MoCP (July 18 through September 29, 2019).

What to select?

Museums are powerful cultural forces. They honor our collective past and shape our future. Their power has received heightened attention, from the membership of their Boards of Directors, to their curators, to the works in the collection (and sales from that archive to fund new acquisitions as part of reshaping the collection), to a broader invitation to open their doors to the people of their local communities (yes, institutions and geographies are intersectional). 

What to select is a core question of how we function as a society, the voices we bring into the conversation, and how we build from the diversity of our many cultures. We are the same humans with very different personal and communal histories, and with structural imbalances of power and wealth. 

What is in the archive?

How does the archive reflect the bias of the institution?

How are decisions made about what is art and what (and who) is worthy of our attention?

It is the challenge of our 21st Century lives. Where do we put our attention? What do we select from the endless options all around us? How does that selection process shape our future?

Personal and Specific

Where does my attention land? What am I drawn to, repulsed by or breeze by? This is a personal question, a personal experience. The answers are personal.

How do I, how does each of us, respond to a photograph, whether one we make or one we come across?

"Certain pictures that hit you right between the eyes"

"A photo I wish I had taken"

Bey and Cole express their own humility in making photographs, that a photographer might only make one picture which really touches us, perhaps the best make a dozen in their lifetime that hit that mark. A reminder for those of us who are working to photograph in ways that have a deep resonance for ourselves and others. Patience. Nurturing. Curiosity. Open to the magic.

Grace Note

Early in the podcast, they discuss the grace note of Go Down Moses, Roy DeCarava's Man in Window.
Roy DeCarava, Man in Window (1978)
As the study guide suggests, this image is worth spending time with, adjusting to the darkness, soaking in the patterns within patterns, feeling the presence of the man in the window gently lit from an unseen source (A television? What is he watching as we, by way of the photographer, watch him?).

Larry Wolf, MoCP Wall of Images
The photo is on the back wall of the exhibit, on the third floor. The first time there, I missed the image entirely. The adjoining wall is a mass of images, all brightly lit against a white wall. I was saturated, unable to shift from the cacophony of the many images to the stillness of the one.

I'm glad I went back a second time and started at the end.
Larry Wolf, MoCP Last Image

In a world that is full of bold colors, high contrast, brighter than bright attention grabbing moments, it is very refreshing to simply stop and look. To let the graphic elements float in front of me. To see the image as light and dark, loose and tight patterns, associated ideas and direct observation.

A few of the photographs in Go Down Moses are similarly mostly black. They seem to be punctuation points in the exhibit. Stopping my eye as I scan the wall. Causing me to pause and look closer, closer at that one image and more closely at the images they are grouped with.

Tenderness combined with strangeness 

Gordon Parks,
Young Boy Standing in in the doorway of his home
 on Seaton Road in the northwest section.
His leg was cut off by a streetcar
while he was playing in the street (1942)

"Tension in the interpretation of what you are seeing."

The photographer looking

"Locations retain the ghosts of things that happened there"

"Public, social and quietly intimate"


How does one visualize the passing of time?

"How do you do the thing with a camera that photography is designed to not do?"

Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan (2012)
Dawoud Bey, Michael-Anthony Allen and George Washington (2012)

"It is designed to make a still image of a moment. How do you make something about an extended period of time?"

In these photographs Bey pairs two life-size portraits representing the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and related violence in Birmingham that Sunday in 1963: one portrait of a young person the same age as one of the victims, and another of an adult 50 years older—the child's age had he or she survived. [Press release from the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, September 12, 2018 through April 22, 2019]
This exhibit was also at the MoCP, April 11 through July 7, 2019.

Life at its best

"I know I'm at my truest and best self when everything is in conversation and I don't have to make declarations of any kind of purity."

"If I did believe in god, god would be against any kind of purity and isolation because we are all in this together."

Thank you 

Shawn Rowe suggested I listen to the podcast and also asked me about the Roy DeCarava grace note photo. Thank you Shawn (http://shawnrowephotography.com/) for bringing them to my attention.