I learn to see with a camera and a pen
Mom bought a small trailer that was no longer in good enough shape to travel the nation's highways. She blocked the trailer in place just in back of her garden, light-proofed the windows and doors, set up her equipment, and developed film and printed photographs. She made part of her living by selling landscapes that she hand-colored with oils.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That summer, I lived just off the dirt road that led to Nimshew Cemetery, which wasn't far from Mom's place. I lived in a small cabin hidden in tall black locust trees on the rocky, steep edge of the canyon that Little Butte Creek had eroded over millennia on its way down the mountain to the Sacramento River.
I built gardens, mowed lawns, replaced broken windows, and repaired plumbing or roofs for people who lived on the mountain. Sometimes I helped Mom with her darkroom work, so it was easy for me to develop my own film and print pictures from the negatives.
When no one needed me for work, I walked the mountain. Some rambling days, I photographed the ridge and the canyon. I photographed natural scenes on the mountain, and I photographed the history of the ridge, as recorded by the etching on headstones in the old cemetery at the end of my dirt road.
I photographed another perspective on history at dumps near long-unused mines in the area. Man-made technological artifacts blended with nature as decades passed, and that blending sometimes gave me startling images. Moss took over an ancient, cut stump, for example - the growth rings showing clearly in the exposed wood that had blended with the ageless moss.
Some child, long ago grown and gone into the world, left a toy machine on the dump at a mine, and someone had set fire to the dump, years ago. Now it takes viewers of the photo a moment to realize they're looking at a small toy and not at a large crane stripped of paint by blackening fire and rusted by time.
Some days, Mom and I sat on her porch and talked, watched water run by in the irrigation ditch, planned to work in the darkroom, and didn't get started. But usually we completed whatever project we had in mind and became so absorbed in the work, we didn't talk much.
We projected images onto photographic paper and watched them appear on the paper when we floated it in the developer. Then we shepherded the photograph through the stop bath, into the fixative, and into the water wash.
Mom captured the long views of an abandoned house and orchard and the forest, mountain, and sky behind the house. I took closeups of the weathered grain in the ancient boards of the house, and close-ups of the texture of the bark on an apple tree. She developed 16-by-20 inch photos and colored them. I kept my finished prints 8-by-10 inches or less and kept them black and white.
I accumulated 80 photos that I liked. I mounted and framed them, then took them to a gallery in San Francisco. The owner liked them and arranged a show. I didn't sell many of the photos. It didn't matter. I hadn't put the exhibit together for money, but to show the theme: humankind's history blending into nature.
After that summer, I left photography as an art form behind. I concentrated on writing. Writing is the most portable medium. I knew I could carry a pencil and notebook into whatever future I walked into. I didn't have to buy film, lenses, darkroom supplies and equipment.
My eye and my mind became the lens. Pictures developed in my mind became the images that knit together my stories, essays, and poems. With writing as my medium, I could afford to build anything I could imagine.
Through the years, I have carried the memory of working on photography with my mother. In my mind, I carry the images I found that year on the ridge.
I write about that time, about the images we worked on together and that communication with my mother. I write about how the two art forms, photography - the capturing of images - and writing - the evocation of images and their meanings - blend in my memory.