Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Colder Than Ice On a Tombstone

November has only just ended, and it’s colder than a witty analogy. Four o’clock in the morning and I’m sitting in the kitchen watching the wind blow the dead morning glory vines outside; Leonard Cohen accompanies their St. Vitus’ Dance in a weird streetlight serenade. Don’t even want to look at the thermometer outside that window; as my mother would say, it’s even colder because of the “windshield” factor. What am I doing up this early? Too much sleep and your genius evaporates, as film director John Waters said. Heh.

Actually I think I was totally bothered by a photography exhibit I saw in a gallery on New York’s Lower East Side yesterday. Didn’t sleep well. The exhibit, “Anne Morgan’s War,” consisted mainly of photographs documenting the experience of a group of American volunteer women who went to help people in the devastated regions of France at the height of WWI.  The images of the human cost of war were so gripping that it had me on the verge of tears; I had to leave. I can’t imagine my own photography ever having that effect on anyone, but it’s certainly a goal to aspire to. The nearest I can come is to make the work as personal as I can. If it moves me, maybe others will find meaning in it.

I started thinking about using cold weather to evoke a certain response to a photograph. Since cemetery monuments are cold stone to begin with, what better device than snow and ice to accentuate this feeling? I want the viewer to experience a thoroughly penetrating and numbing cold, much as I felt it as I was making the picture. I made the photograph above while lying in the snow, on a blistering cold day in 2007. I call it “Colder than Ice on a Tombstone.” What fool would be outside on a day like that? Because of this, my winter cemetery photographs are highly “personal”-- no one in their right mind would be out taking snapshots under those conditions! But then what do I know. The writer (and private secretary to Abraham Lincoln) John Hay said the two greatest gifts of an artist are memory and imagination; that doesn’t work for me—to create art, I think arrogance and inexperience are more useful qualities.

Since exhibiting “Colder than Ice on a Tombstone” in various shows, it now speaks to me on a number of different levels. Maybe memory does have something to do with it--the image on one hand reminds me of my ex-wife, who was, well, you can guess. Also, I use the image in my upcoming book (“Digital Photography for the Impatient”), to exemplify the idea of putting yourself out there if you want to make good photographs.

“Putting yourself out there” applies to all sorts of photography, actually. If you don’t immerse yourself in your subject, become part of the action, as it were, you end up with snap-shoddy pictures. People can tell from your work that you’re on the outside looking in. You certainly don’t get the impression that the photographer was a casual observer from this image (above), which I made during a snowstorm while my teenage daughter held umbrellas over me! As I sit here, it makes me shiver just looking at it- a real visceral hallucination. Brrr.  Must make some Italian coffee and turn the heat up. There’s this infernal low chime coming from somewhere outside (or in my head)—like the sound old elevators make when they descend past each floor. Going…DOWN… I look up, shades pass by my window…I think I just saw Voldemort. Hmm, I wonder if this is how you feel when your Zoloft is stolen from your glove compartment?

Okay, I’m back. From making coffee, not the edge of the abyss—I’m still there. This last image was made a few years earlier. It’s a film image and I’ve always been afraid the roll of film would crack in the extreme cold, but it never has. And so far, neither have I. I remember having a title in my head, “Angel’s Wings, Icing Over,” and searching an entire winter for an angel statue that would do honor to it. The line is from the song “Sweethearts” by the band Camper Van Beethoven, and always intrigued me. Pursuing an image to match the beauty of the title has, so far, been a fool’s errand. I’m not satisfied with the pairing, but it is an object lesson on the danger and vanity of inspiration. You gotta have goals though, right? And the more personal they are, the better.

Links of interest:

“Ann Morgan’s War” exhibit at the Morgan Library 

Read more by Ed Snyder:

A celebration of t...
By Ed Snyder