I’d rather be here…

Institutional malarkey be damned… memories of Venice soothe my nerves. How long before a plane takes me far from here?

Venice, curved building
Venice, Cannaregio, Alps in the distance
Venice, Vegetable market
Venice, Canal

Kerala travelogue 3 – Part 1: The Cyprus Edition

(this one’s been in the hopper for a while, unfinished, because there was always more to add. it’s still not quite where i want it to be, and still unfinished, so i offer you here one part of a multi-part reflection that connects kerala with cyprus and the uk through the simple thread of human hospitality and the impetus for story-sharing)

****

What is your hyphenation?

This was the question posed to me during an exchange about identity markers, labels and categorizations — those that are asserted as well as those that are given. It was March and I was enjoying the warm embrace of Cyprus when this set of transnational interactions transpired via twitter direct messaging, and while in this island mecca I found myself, quite unexpectedly, invoking my recent trip to India with startling regularity — startling to me given that my ethnic origin is rarely on the tip of my tongue or the first site of reference. And yet, as I found myself in the company of my friend, the very lovely and peerlessly hospitable S, and her charming and incredibly warm family, I was immediately and frequently moved to share tales of my recent travels to India and the stories they evoked of memories and long-forgotten family traditions. Conversation in the form of story-sharing was the apt garnish to the preparing, consuming, and communing around food that characterized a large part of my time in Cyprus.

On my first night in Larnaca, the town where I spent three of my six nights in the island nation, I was taken to a restaurant that was known to S and her husband from the time of their youth; a place that despite the immediate blanket of low light that greets its visitors, is filled with brightly colored paintings and other artwork — some of which, S told me, were made by the owner herself, who greeted my hosts with an air of familiarity, not quite the intimacy of family but certainly not the reservation of strangers. So consumed with our conversation had I been, that I was literally caught off guard by the flavor of the tomatoes in the salad. Tomatoes! Fruit in vegetable’s clothing that I rarely, until that night, ate fresh because years of mealy, overripe, flavorless varieties had made a jaded tomato eater (read: avoider) out of me. Tomatoes were, until that night, strictly relegated to the sauté pan for stir fry or tomato sauce recipes.

It would not be an exaggeration to state, plainly and without hyperbole, that first taste of tomato was nothing short of a gustatory revelation. No, a revelation. Period.

The next night, with not-too-distant memories of a familiarly strange flavor on my mind, I was treated to a homemade dinner of two traditional Greek soups: Trahana, made with the dried and sour wheat cakes and halloumi cheese and a second soup made of lemon, egg, and rice, the name of which escapes me at the moment. Once prepared, the soups joined the salad, asparagus dish, a pastry-type appetizer, and bottle of wine already placed on the neatly set table around which S’s parents, brother and sister-in-law, spouse and little V had already gathered. As the soups and libation flowed, so, too, did the stories – of living in Larnaca, of being forced out of the now-Turkish occupied northern section of the island, of being a teacher in Cyprus – and the questions – how was I enjoying myself? Was I born in the United States? How often did I visit India? What was my plan for the week?

In this scenario, I was the linguistically disadvantaged one, with nearly zero Greek words in my language knapsack – it was just on this trip that I learned that “ne,” contrary to phonological leanings – means “yes” – and my hosts bridged our language gap with ease, sharing stories, asking questions, answering my questions, and making me feel completely at home. It was here when I was first aware that I was reaching into my deep stores of childhood memories and recent conversations with familiar and unfamiliar strangers while traveling through Kerala.

There is a kinship between these countries and its inhabitants that was rendered in the abundant offerings of food, in the understood practices of talking over one another to communicate a point, and found in the unspoken transitions between hospitality and communion. When learning about the preparation of food, I shared my own early experiences of learning to cook alongside whomever was in the kitchen – very often, this was my grandmother, who catered to my particular and fickle adolescent tastes. And no story of my grandmother is complete without the added detail that she was my very first roommate, personal storyteller, and witness to my earliest dream-state ramblings and pontifications.

The dining table is a gathering place, a get-to-know-you spot, a place in which to learn about the world and debate its great possibilities and unspeakable disappointments, a mantle on which to lay the intersecting storied histories each of us weaves.

We traversed the small but culturally expansive terrain, S and I, and stayed overnight in the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis. I fell in love with this tucked away cluster of homes and homestays much in the same way I was enchanted by the tea plantations and hills of Munnar. In both places, the roads twisted and wound their way from one side of the mountain to another. Unlike the “only in Kerala” imagery of construction happening (quite literally) at the speed of one grandmother carrying a large stone on her head at a time, Kalopanayiotis was even less hurried in its existence; and unlike the countless shacks and more makeshift housing structures found on the subcontinent, the Cypriot village homes that we saw all had doors and small gardens and, I suspected and fantasized, an endless supply of halloumi cheese in their refrigerators.

But places, no matter how picturesque, gain meaning and memory through the people who pass through them. And on the morning we were set to leave the village, S and I encountered a woman that I know neither of us will forget. She looked to be at least seventy – we later learned that she was well into her 80s – and was standing at the foot of a small bridge and holding a bag as we approached after visiting the nearby church. The grey of her hair that was half visible underneath the scarf that was tied around her head matched the shirt that was tucked into a long, black skirt that was topped a black apron – as if she had left her house with great urgency; I imagined food that was in the process of being cooked and wondered how long she had been in possession of her apron, acknowledging that it could might also just be a fashion statement.

Her smile was instant and grew even wider when she spotted S; she took a few steps forward and said hello and in Greek asked S if we were visiting the village. For the next few minutes, the two Cypriots talked and I could tell there were questions being asked and answers being proffered; S occasionally paused to translate for me in the middle of bemused laughter at this situation that would turn out to be a highlight – not only of this trip, but also of the sabbatical thus far. The animated chatter stopped abruptly and the woman linked her arm with S’s and began walking, with me following alongside them. As we walked, S quickly filled me in: the woman was newly widowed, her husband had passed away just 45 days ago and she was returning home from visiting his grave. When she learned I was visiting from America, she told S that her brother lives in San Diego, that she had visited him before, and that another brother makes his home in Madison, WI. It turned out that the brother in the Midwest was known to S and this instantly made her like kin to the old woman who insisted we accompany her to her home for some food and drink. There was no argument that would be worth launching in the face of such staunch conviction. For a woman in her eighties, she had an impressive gait that she did not break as she turned back and shouted to her friend Antigone that she had “found some company!” and was going home. (S translated this, as well, in between her own laughter at the woman’s joyous declaration.) Antigone, just a few years younger than her friend, it seemed, quickly followed suit.

Once we reached the woman’s home just steps away from the other side of the bridge, we were treated to an assortment of Greek sweets and pastries and homemade iced tea served to us by a younger woman who appeared to be a housekeeper, while our host shared photos of her children and grandchildren during momentous occasions in their lives – graduations, weddings, anniversaries. (I was involved in a rather peculiar exchange with the woman’s youngest son, which I will save for a future post as it contributes to my ongoing musings about how the world views the US.)

The offerings of food and stories and memories that were being made to us was reminiscent of the impromptu visit my travel companions (one of my parents and my spouse) and I had with an octogenarian living in the village where my grandmother spent her childhood. In fact, the woman lived next door to the home where my great-grandparents raised most of their sixteen children, only about half of whom survived to reach adulthood. My grandmother was the youngest daughter and she was closest in age and in communication with the brothers who were immediately older and younger than she. The woman answered our knock on the iron bars in front of her door verbally first before making her way to the entrance. She paused as she looked up and listened as we announced our presence and purpose of the visit. Once she had made the connection – that we were relatives, descendants of her one-time neighbors – she turned the lock and joined us on what amounted to her front porch (or stoop, depending on your geo-linguistic preference).

Dressed, as my spouse pointed out later, in her Wimbledon best, she instantly began to recall stories of my grandmother, her parents, and her siblings and their various comings and goings. As she talked and gesticulated and directed her attention alternatingly at each of us, she interrupted herself briefly to ask her nephew – who was visiting from Canada and who, dressed in sweatpants and a tee shirt was clearly not expecting visitors – to bring out bananas that were in her kitchen. He obliged and our protestations were in vain, and so we obediently consumed the mini-bananas that are indigenous to this and other warm climates, as we listened and laughed and allowed ourselves to be temporarily transported to another moment in time.

[end of Travelogue 3, Part 1. Part 2 coming soon… including tales about my great-grandparents, village hospitality, and how this all relates back to a peak hike in Sheffield via a discursive pitstop back in Larnaca.]

eve

The hour is late, although I suspect a few more will pass before I can surrender to sweet slumber — and even that will feel like too little, as the alarm is set to twinkle well before what seems like a humane wake up time. L and I were talking this weekend about the ever alluring “else” — that is, what else we’d be doing if not this. The “else” game is intoxicating and one that cannot be kept at bay when the hours that spill out in front of you are unfettered for days on end. But now, the “else” game feels like a punishment. Still, we played. There were other “wheres” that came with ease, but as for “what”… despite a year-plus spent pondering this very question, I came up empty. Initially. I realize that within mere hours of returning to campus, I had been transported back into the rhythms of others — ones that were tuned to manic frequencies, with every beat seemingly consequential, each transition or hiccup leading only closer to an impenetrable wall of agitation.

Tonight, on the eve of the new school year, I settle once again into the realization that is strangely comforting: this is exactly what I would be doing. Almost. I would eliminate all of the administrative duties, the negotiating of adult petulance (for which I have little patience and even less sympathy), and abolish most of the meetings that are currently mandated, if not by force then certainly by social pressure.

But the bulk of this gig I would want to continue — some of the teaching and especially the research that affords time spent with young people which yields stories about which I do want to continue composing artifacts and narratives.

But if I had my druthers I would do less and limit the extent to which I had to manage projects and be instead steeped in the doing — doing the work rather than talking about the work (which can also be the work, itself… sometimes). (However, with great power… or so the saying goes…)

My delusions are not of grandeur but rather of increased simplicity.

Perhaps in a society that swallows whole ideas like the four-hour work week and obsesses over talent as a commodity more desirable than consistency or effort, doing less and simplicity are counterintuitive. Doing less is swiftly translated into decreased revenue and fewer luxuries, not only for the self but also for those to whom and for whom you may be responsible or answerable.

Immediately my mind drifts to the documentary series “Alone in the Wilderness” that chronicles the experiences of Dick Proenneke while he is living in the Alaskan outdoors. Over the course of countless pledge drives on PBS (the public broadcasting service in the US), I have watched the entire series at least a few times, and each time I catch a glimpse, I stop — mid-sentence, mid-phone call, while drying dishes — and listen to his tales of not merely surviving, but living off of the land. Proenneke films and narrates while also living the experiences about which he is crafting stories. This video excerpt below, that comes from the second video in the series, documents Proenneke’s return to the cabin he had built a year earlier. Simply put, he takes his leave of the civilization with which he was familiar to pursue nature’s beckoning calls. For extended periods of time. Away from the everyday. To something else.

Proenneke also sets out on a new life after the age of 50, like Duncan E. Slade’s turn to art education. (I’m making a mental note to pay extra attention when my 50th birthday rolls around for whatever life changes come my way.) His narration is unhurried, keeping in harmony with his patient practice of living in the wilderness.

Unhurried. But purposeful. I think I remember writing something about this earlier this year.

So I’ll seek out unhurried but purposeful ways to be responsive as new students share their anxieties or as colleagues threaten to spiral deep into their own frustrations. I suspect a visit or two to Dick’s cabin couldn’t hurt, either.

Happy new year!

the possibility of what can be seen

If photography is about seeing and showing, then could photo editing have something to do with the possibility of showing and what is seen? I’m not talking about the endless scandals of hazardous photoshopping in which a model’s ribs, hips, or appendages have been eliminated for the sake of preserving some strange ideal of “beauty” or, quite simply, to market and thus sell things. No, I’m referring to the art of photo editing in which a digital image taken of the world is made to look somehow celestial, even as it maintains a representation of this reality.

In short, I have been captivated recently by the work of Leanne Cole, a photographer whose blog is full of such artful photographic treatments. What first brought me to this blog escapes me, but I know that I keep revisiting it and at first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing — only that I was full of questions about how and what. Only later did it become clear that what I was seeing were artistic renderings of photographs.

Here’s an image of Leanne‘s that I absolutely love, in large part because of its Hopper-inspired quality:

Counter

The red face of the counter corner is, of course intriguing, but with each look — and there have been many — the street, the back of the road sign, the lampposts and trees become increasingly interesting. And the wooden floor, weathered and reminiscent of the surface being meticulously attended to by Caillebotte’s scrapers: (image courtesy of Musee d’Orsay website)

The Floor Scrapers (Gustave Caillebotte)

But Leanne Cole does not keep her secrets secret. She has shared some of the photoshop techniques she uses, including posts that offer excellent tutorials full information about sliders, layers, masks, and more. I haven’t tried it yet, but, inspired by her technique of seeing and then seeing again I present a respectfully doctored image of a stone staircase near the beach in Cromer (manipulated using the basic exposure, contrast, and saturation functionality allowed by iPhoto).

Cromer Beach Stairs (edited)
Cromer Beach Stairs (original photo)

How to explain the strange fact that the first image is what I recall seeing when I first decided to take this photo? Has a camera yet been invented to do what the eye seems to do effortlessly? That is, processing color and shape and shadow and scope, all while triggering memories, intertextual connections, and adjusting for light exposure.

Hung on the walls of the cafe from where I write are paintings, several of them by the same painter, most of which depict people in naturalistic settings — next to foliage or biological life of some sort. The painter’s brush and palette of paints here work in the same way that the mouse and video editing software does in the images above. An entity exists in the world, and instruments are used to render a version of it — never can a painting or photograph or film or even exact replica be the thing, itself. So, if all representations are, at most, approximations of the truth, why not dabble in the practice of creating entirely new worlds with their own truths? That is, to conceive of photographs as paintings, as not merely captured or clicked, but composed long after the shot is taken.

What kind of photography is this? In a world of instagram filters and readymade schemes anyone can apply to enhance a photo, what is this practice of carefully manipulating an image to create an altogether different artifact? Are we all just auto-tuning our pictures?

In John Berger’s words, “Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation.” In asking questions of photographs, therefore, we are implicitly questioning the photographer who is implicated in every image, in every choice made to document or not, and in doing so, to “bear witness.”

What does one do with a manipulated photograph? How do we read an image that has been stripped of color? Whose shadows have been augmented or minimized? Haven’t photographers always dabbled in photo making? In deciding how long to let an image burn onto the photo paper or how quickly to take it out of the developing liquids — no image is free from mediation, yet the chase for some unreal sense of purity persists (though not among photographers, I suspect).

For the inspiration, for the provocation, and for the beautiful work, my thanks to Leanne.

“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” — Emerson

humans of kerala

The phenomenon that is HONY has inspired numerous photographic spinoffs — among them, (the occasionally quirky captions of) Humans of Paris, (the close-up portraits of) Souls of San Francisco, (the “still finding its groove”) Humans of London, and several more — even as its own viewer base continues to skyrocket, from fewer than two thousand “likes” on facebook when I first learned of it, to near 177K at last count. A few months before stumbling onto this project, the act of taking photos had started to wiggle its way back into my daily practice after slowly leaving some years back, save for the photography and video work that is central to certain parts of my work. But living photographically involves more than fulfilling the impetus to document or capture. The work of photographers that slips into my subconscious, taking root in often inexplicable ways, reflects a way of being that is fueled by an incurable fervor for story, taking in the world as it is, as it could be, as it might be, as it was, as it wasn’t, as it isn’t… and creating artworks as offerings of humanity back to humans. These are not the musings of someone who has “studied” photography, who has majored/minored/or otherwise degreed in arts, art history, fine arts, or the like. No, these are just the the observations of someone who is continually moved by the work in the world that photographs can sometimes do, sublimating cliched boundaries of allegiance and affiliation in the process.

Take for example the following few photographs, some that come from photographers I’ve long loved, others from recent discoveries — all that fall within a loose categorization of “street photographer.”

1. From a recently published collection of photographs by Gordon Parks in the NYTimes Lens section that depicts everyday life in during the 1950s and 60s in the segregated South. His quotidian narrative is enchanting, educative, and occasionally startling. Sparks, who died in 2006, would have turned 100 this year; the same would have been true of my paternal grandfather who only lived until the age of sixty-four, the same age that my father is now. The world has a strange way of grabbing our attention, much like the intersection of color, beauty, and disbelief that collide in Parks’ photos.

2. Photographs of children also enchant me. Specifically photographs from another time that seem to recognize the hidden world of children (long before they become overexposed due to the ubiquity of image making means) continue to weave stories long after first glance. Consider these four images together:



The first two photographs were made by Diane Arbus and the second two by Roy DeCarava. In both of their bodies of photographic work, I find a resonance toward empathy for “people who have been sidelined in one way or another.”* They hold a sympathetic eye toward the people about whose lives they produce stories of images. It may be appropriate to note at this point that while I came to Arbus somewhat recently or late, depending on your point of view, Roy DeCarava has been a treasured name to me for nearly two decades, which coincidentally is how long I have known my spouse, the very one who gifted me with The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaboration between DeCarava and Langston Hughes that features the former’s photographs of life and people in Harlem accompanied by the latter’s poetic prose.

Until then — that is, before I held in my hand the square-shaped book that would become the text to which I would return time and time again to remember, to learn, to practice seeing with curiosity and with humility — I had taken pictures with the enthusiasm of a child who was allowed to ride her bike around the block unsupervised. The experience remained new with each venture, limited by my own abilities, and threatened to take me to unfamiliar places; and because of this, my eagerness only grew. I had made good use of the dented and damaged Leica that was said to belong to my uncle but that had taken up permanent residence, at first, in the hallway closest of my childhood home, and then, mysteriously, onto the desk in my bedroom. This hunk of leather casing and mechanical functionality is what I used in my first photography course, before upgrading (or was it a lateral move?) to a Minolta x700, the starter of all starter SLRs. All the while, as I tinkered with buttons and learned to process film, I realize now in retrospect that I wasn’t practicing seeing. I still wasn’t looking. The best photographs I took during those relatively early years of my practice seemed to happen by accident. I never mastered composition or framing, and paid little attention to exposure and depth of field — although, of the latter I took copious notes. But the accidental shots were taken, well, quite by accident: the light catching a friend’s hair in a way that just missed making her look like a well lit and haloed angel; shadows and reflections of a lake underneath a bridge in Boston Common; and portrait of a woman named Janie who was a member of the administrative staff in the organization where I worked right after graduating from college. All were shot in black and white, with knowing subjects, and without hesitation.

3. There are the photographic creations that can seem otherworldly, palpable in their ethereality, haunting even. Some of my favorites come from photographer and educator Mary Ann Reilly who brings the affordances of digital media tool together with photographic images in an effort to say something else, something other than what the image or the enhancements could say on their own. Two examples:

Green Trees

Climbing

4. And another before sharing a few snaps that fulfill the promise of the title of this post. I have mentioned here before the writings of the author Teju Cole — both his book, Open City, and his twitter stream where he composes small fates about news items, largely about the lives of those who have been somehow wounded, occasionally fatally, in another place, in another time. (He explains it better here and here.) Some time last fall, I think, Cole started a second twitter feed from where his photographically inclined self speaks, shares,  probes and renders true Thoreau’s assertion that “The world is but canvas to our imaginations.” His travels take him to far flung corners of this earth, yet with his image makers, both digital and analog, he produces visual artifacts that demand second, third, and fourth viewings. An early favorite of mine was of a young woman sitting at a counter facing the floor to ceiling windows; what I first saw, however, was a ball gown, a regal air, the beauty of solitude. The light and shadows crafted reality out of illusion, and what I recall of it now are hues of red and black and, for some reason, the presence of blue. The actual image seems to no longer be online on the flickr page, so you’ll have to trust me and hope that the image appears in an upcoming exhibit somewhere… Meanwhile, I’ll share another favorite that needs no explanation:

Steven Pinker in India, January 2012

And a link to a recent snap from Brazil that, like several others in a collection he has labeled “Spectral Tendency,” a set (in flickr terms) that seems to be creating a full bodied experience with each photo. There is much that coaxes your gaze further into the image, inviting you to lean in, breathe deeply, see the relations between the on screen players in new ways. Another image in the same set was taken just steps from the Tate Modern, and as with the boys from Brazil, the spectrum is wide as well as deep; the layers are playfully endless. These photographs, as with some of those above and the work of others who take to the proverbial pavement (I’m thinking here of the work of Zun Lee and the roving Underground NY Public Library photographer, for instance), are artifacts redolent of photo making that strives to banish the fourth wall; in these images, photography feels less like something “to look at” and more so as both portal and realm through and into which enters, temporarily shedding the immediate present for the possible present. Photographers — those who live photographically — have been, have become, and continue to be my strongest teachers, for they deal in the currency of seeing.

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For the past few weeks, with each upload of a new batch of photos to my laptop — itself a version of Christmas morning that foretells of gifts and secret wonders that will soon be revealed — my eyes keep traveling back to the India folder that contains the photos I took during my trip to Kerala earlier this year. They feel different, somehow apart from the other thousands I’ve taken in the past twelve months. Sure, the landscape is unlike that of my other travels, but so is the perspective, the angles, the subject matter. The people. In some of the villages we visited, I was not just photographing daily life, but I became a part of the story. In taking photos, I was also implicitly agreeing to share the photos with the people who were photographed. My last Kerala travelogue will be posted soon, and yes, it will be six months late — so for that reason, I share these photos here, unvarnished, without commentary or further context, save to say that in these images, I feel as if I finally started to see. Each photo suggests a plurality of stories, that is true. But it is the stories that brought them into existence that play on the tiny screen in my mind’s eye when I look at them.

*
*Sebald once said in an interview: “I like to listen to people who have been sidelined in one way or another,” referring to the cone of silence following World War 2. He seemed to understand at an embodied level that stories were lurking everywhere, some that needed little prodding and others that were more reticent to emerge. What has been profoundly humbling has been consistent encounters with the lives of people — in their homes, their places of worship and work, sharing the streets and modes of transportation, sharing a meal. Sebald, too, placed himself in these spaces, listening as he did with both heart and ear; that’s not meant to over sentimentalize the man, but rather to call attention to his studied practice of attending, particular to wounds that may have been heavily scarred over, barely noticeable in some cases, utterly raw in others. He was, as Cole has described, a poet of the disregarded.

i miss…

the brollies and the wellies,
greens, parks, squares, and closes,
rain mist so fine you won’t need that facial appointment,
(nor the aforementioned brolly),
because the sun will be shining soon enough.
just wait. (and we/they do.)

a ten-minute, guilt-free visit to the tate, and the modern,
saying hello giacometti and a nod to pollock,
eyes filling with the remnants of architectural epochs
while strolling across the bridges,
blackfriars, millennium, waterloo, london, and the rest.

walking. twenty minutes in either direction offers entry
into different worlds. budding gardeners, ballerinas, and
mysterious, magical storytellers in twickenham; just down
the road from the gardens, kew and park, richmond;
celebratory ubiquity of horticultural penchants —
in the yard, in a palace, ’round the corner, on a bus.
playgrounds, swings, slides, toy soldiers,
midday snacks, secret passages, midday pints and half pints,
before or after long walks
hither, elsewhere, and everywhere in between.
walking, with abandon.

trains that transport passengers to another time,
the new built into standing memories of the old,
making “now” a mere accident of colliding timescales.
slipping into and out of high streets, creaky corners,
one step towards colonized delicacies,
another in the direction of heights of fusion.

busy, car-free streets,
irony as a default position,
questions out loud, causing discomfort or otherwise,
free to be you and me
(not the usual politics of identity;
a whole new set to ponder — refreshing, frustrating)

relative anonymity,
geographical obfuscation,
quiet,
the unknown.

(the denouement has begun.)