(Re)Collection #12: Photography, Pt. 1
This photo was taken a year or so before I was born. My dad was in Chicago on the El platform in the Loop. It was on the wall of every house or apartment I lived in growing up in DC. I probably looked at it nearly every day. It was so common that I never thought twice about it.
My father was an aspiring professional photographer at one point in his early adulthood. He never got a chance to tell me about that part of his life. At least I have the photos. They speak for him. All black and white. Mostly lonely images with a single person or the absence of anyone. They were what I thought photography was supposed to be.
I developed an interest in photography later in college. My best friend Ben pulled me into it. He was the photographer. Not me. I watched him grow more and more fascinated by it. He always had a camera in hand. Snapping away. Some times when I wished he wasn't. He took a lot of photos. He has a very good eye for it. He eventually ended up working as a photographer and editor for the University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal.
My interest blossomed when we both spent our junior year abroad in Germany at the same program. I lived in a student housing high rise. There were a variety of types of students on my floor: married, single, German, foreign, male and female. A husband and wife lived next door to me: Peter, a German graduate student, and his American wife Laura, who was originally from Wisconsin. Peter was an interesting and quirky guy. For one, he spray-painted most everything in his apartment silver. He was a huge music fan as well. His interest was in new wave, punk and progressive music. I lucked out. He would let me come over, tape records and his wife made me tea. He was also into photography.
Peter very generously gave me a Yashica FX3 SLR, a beautiful Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 lens and a small flash unit. And all were spray painted silver. It was a manual camera so I had to set shutter speed and aperture, but it did have an internal light meter. It turned out to be a wonderful little companion. Peter showed me how to use it. Ben taught me even more. I started to understand why Ben loved shooting photos so much. Carrying the camera around made me feel kind of important like I was a journalist or artist or something. Plus, it gave me something to do when I was bored. I could look around for cool and interesting things to photograph.
Our housing complex had a dark room, and Ben showed me how to develop film and make prints. That was super exciting. Watching an image that I captured appear on photo paper in the dark is just about as cool to me as recording a song and then listening back to it. Magic.
After I got back to the US for my senior year in college, I kind of forgot about photography. Ben kept at it though. I got more into music. That is the place I put all of my artistic interest and energy. I wasn't making and recording music yet, but I was a DJ. I was more than a little obsessed with it. But I would return to photography 14 years later after The Fire Show broke up in 2002.
In retrospect, I wish I would have had a camera on the many tours I did with bands. It pains me to know that I can't revisit old photos and remember things I have long forgotten. Oh well.
When I got back into photography, I dove in head first. I bought different format cameras and experimented. I developed my own film and made my own prints. I took a lot of that energy that I had been directing towards music and learned how to take a decent photograph. I photographed weddings, live bands, music festivals like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, cars, motorcycles and bike races. I took pictures of everything. I apprenticed with my friend Jim Newberry who is a professional photographer. I printed photos for him in his dark room. I had a lot of fun.
This photo was taken inside the residential portion of Pachyderm recording studio up in Cannon Falls, Minnesota in 2005. The house was designed by Herb Bloomberg, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. My friend's band was up there recording an album. My group Number One Cup had recorded People People Why Are We Fighting there in 1997, and I was curious to revisit it. I had fond memories of our time there. I knew I could take some evocative photos in that environment.
It was a beautiful studio if a little ramshackle at that point. But I loved how solitary and peaceful it was in the woods. It reminded me of my grandparents' house in upstate New York. The recording studio was remarkable, too. It had the Neve recording console and Studer tape machines from Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studio. Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Grant Hart, PJ Harvey and many others recorded there.
I took this photo as the band was loading out. I used a Widelux F7 panoramic film camera. I never knew what results I would get with that thing. But at the very least, most shots were interesting and unconventional. Of all the photos I took at that session, this one is my favorite. I did not realize until a few years later that my dad's photo above is very similar. As you can see with this shot and the ones below, the influence of that photo looms large in my photographic eye.
I like non-standard film formats. While the 35mm aspect ratio is tried and tested, the panoramic and square formats are where I feel most comfortable. The above shot was taken with my Hasselblad 500C and an 80mm normal lens. Once again, I gravitated towards an image that is eerily reminiscent of my fathers photographs. This one is of my mom walking in a park in Annapolis, Maryland shortly before she moved to Chicago.
In 2009, my mom could not handle living alone any more. She was falling a lot, having seizures and passing out. These episodes continued to get worse and more frequent. My wife and I decided to move her out to Chicago to be closer to us. We got her a condo. I flew back, packed her up and drove her to Chicago in her silver Honda Civic.
This was a very painful time for her and for me. She declined fairly quickly and could not live alone even with 24 hour care. She couldn't walk safely, cook, dress herself or do her bills. She lost her ability to talk. She had dementia which progressed to Alzheimers. We moved her to a nice assisted living place not too far from our house. She had a series of small strokes which robbed her of her ability to chew and swallow food. We made the decision to put her on hospice. All of the trips to hospital were very hard on her. She really suffered.
On November 8, 2015, she passed away. I was walking out the door to visit her when I got that call. She was sitting in her chair at a mass that a traveling Catholic priest offered every Sunday. It is ironic that she died then because she was not religious and was a fallen Catholic. I am thankful she went peacefully though. She was surrounded by nice people and not in some awful hospital.
The picture says it well enough. She was on her way out.
My best friend Ben took the picture above with my iPhone. I wanted a photo for the record that I was finishing up: the triple LP vinyl release Lenzi--Ballads of Lost Son. Once again, the particulars of the picture are so familiar.
It was taken in the coastal hills well north of San Francisco, California. Almost every year since 2014, Ben and I have done a three day car rally called the Melee after Labor Day. In recent years with the death of his parents and the death of my mom, we both have realized how important our friendship is. When we get together and travel in his father's 1964 Morgan Plus 4, it feels like we are 20 again. I love the photo. The Void jacket, me staring out into the distance, the desolate landscape. All the hallmarks.
Melancholy and loneliness have their claws in me. I don't only like these elements in art or music. I don't just listen to sad music and make sad music. But I lean towards it. I could take happy pictures and make happy music, but it would feel like I was being disingenuous. As I get older, I accept my influences and inclinations. I am kind of a loner at heart. The images speak loudly.