Family Photos

September 23, 2022

My Grandmother, Agostina Moreno Fisk (circa. 1900)

I remember seeing a black-and-white snapshot in one of my mother’s old photo albums of an older woman I did not recognize.  I believe the picture was taken in the late 1940s when my parents were living outside Washington, DC, and I was a baby.  I learned much later that the woman was my mother’s birth mother.  The woman’s existence was a secret kept from my siblings and me until I was 40.  It was then my mother disclosed to us the shameful fact that she had been adopted as a baby by the couple I had previously taken to be my natural grandparents.  Of course, social attitudes toward unwed mothers had changed markedly by the time her own children reached adulthood, and none of us felt the least stigma about our supposedly tarnished lineage.  We just felt bad that my mother saw the need to keep her adoption a dark secret all those years.

The woman I had previously assumed to be my grandmother had died of congestive heart failure when my mother was only 15, so I never knew her.  But I had a framed photograph of her hanging in my upstairs hall.  Judging by her hairstyle and dress, the picture must have been taken around the turn of the last century.  She was a Mexican-American beauty in a silk gown, standing by a lace curtain window. How had I failed to notice that this diminutive woman had somehow produced a tall, blond-haired daughter?

As it turned out, my mother’s revelation wasn’t the end of the story.  She and my father had tracked down her birth mother when I was still an infant.  My original grandmother had been a schoolteacher who had never married, a graduate of the University of Maine.  My parents found her through the alumni office.  The only information they had on the father was that he was been a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War I.  Tracking him down took a bit more detective work, which my younger sister undertook much later.  She used her own DNA sample to identify him through Ancestry.com.   

What she found was also a bit of a revelation.  It turns out our grandfather was a very enterprising man, although not in a good way.  He had twice been convicted of bigamy, and none of the four women involved was our grandmother.  He did a stretch in Sing Sing after two of his wives found out about each other and turned him in.  Apart from his criminal record, the only other thing we learned about him is that he once lived in the same Greenwich Village townhouse later occupied by the novelist James Baldwin.

My mother never knew about any of this, thank God.  She passed away before it was possible for people routinely to uncover skeletons in their closets through DNA testing.  It was enough for my mother to deal with the fact that she was a illegitimate daughter of an otherwise respectable spinster schoolteacher from Maine. 

What do I think about this skeleton in my closet?  The fact that I am disclosing it here might suggest that I’m not overly concerned about this blemish on my family history.  You might even say it adds a certain colorful twist to a narrative that would otherwise involve a dreary fling between an unwed schoolteacher and an anonymous sailor.  I do not think their indiscretion reflects badly on me, my mother or even that poor young schoolteacher who allowed herself to get carried away by her feelings for a sailor who would go on to greater glory as a bigamist. 

My tangled family tree reminds me of a saying popular among born-again Christians: “God has no grandchildren.”  By that they mean what matters is your immediate relationship with God the Father, not who your earthly parents or grandparents are.  I can be the descendent of a saint and still be estranged from God.  This case is the reverse of that.  I can be the grandchild of a criminal and still be no less a child of God.


Color

August 24, 2022


Two of my photographs have been accepted in a juried exhibition entitled "Color" at the PhotoPlace Gallery in Middlebury, VT: "Nooks Hill Road at First Light" (2014), above, and "Iced Over" (2014), below.  The juror is photographer Jeff Cutro, professor emeritus of photography at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. The exhibition runs from August 25, 2022 to September 23, 2022.

 


Chiaroscuro

July 31, 2022

"Attic Treasures" by Eric Rennie

My photograph, "Attic Treasures," is one of 30 images appearing in an international juried competition entitled Chiaroscuro at the Chateau Gallery in Louisville, KY.  The online exhibit runs from August 1, 2022 to September 1, 2022.  The images were selected from among 450 submitted by artists in 17 countries.  The term "chiaroscuro" is derived from the Italian words chiaro (meaning “clear” or “bright”) and scuro (meaning “obscure”' or “dark.”  It is a technique artists use to heighten the drama of a particular subject with contrasting light and shadow.

My photograph was taken in the attic of a farmhouse that had once belonged to my grandfather and that had remained in the family for more than a century.  This was "found art" in the truest sense, since I had come upon a collection of sea shells arrayed on an old steamer trunk.  There are times, like this one, when you come away feeling you have done nothing to deserve the shot you got.  As the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once admitted, “Of course it’s all luck." 
 
     


A World Without Names

July 14, 2022

To pull the blinds of habit from the eyes, to see the world without names for the first time, to wonder at every age and stage, at one with it – to be alive.                 
                                                                                              -- Alastair Reid

 

The Lord is is in his holy temple, let all earth keep silence before him.(Habakkuk 2:20)

When I took early retirement some years ago, I decided to switch brains.  For 30 years, I had earned my living as a public affairs and government relations executive at a big insurance company in Hartford, jobs that called upon verbal and cognitive functions mostly domiciled in the left hemisphere of my brain. In retirement I became a fine arts photographer, drawing upon visual and creative functions originating in the brain’s right hemisphere.  

The notion of switching brains is a gross oversimplification, of course. We don’t normally operate with half a brain; indeed, I am a writer as well as a visual artist, which brings both hemispheres of the brain into play. Nevertheless, I find that when I look through the lens of a camera, my visual cortex predominates.  It is no longer a coherent world of objects in a particular time and place but nameless shapes, patterns, colors, the play of light and shadow on a wall.  “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” the poet Paul Valéry said. Once we put words to it, we are in the realm of thinking, not seeing. 

I have gotten particular insight into the interplay of left and right hemispheres from another writer and photographer, Quintan Ana Wikswo, who suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy as a result of a traumatic brain injury.  “I have synesthesia,” she explained.  “The two hemispheres are intimately linked, and I like to imagine the intricate fireworks in the cerebral cortex as the two chemically instigate perceptual miracles.”  She recalled one seizure when her language processing was shut down altogether for several months: “… within hours, my visual cortex had become tremendously amplified and colors, shapes, and patterns came alive with a ferocious intensity.”  She added, “I write stories when my visual processing is impaired, and make photographs when I lose the capacity for language.” 

Writing and photography are not an either/or proposition for me.  Nevertheless, I find it both useful and illuminating to be able on occasion to experience the world when it is unfettered by language.  Language turns the world into a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces carefully labeled.  Even if our left brains assemble the pieces into a coherent picture, it's not the underlying reality we see but a pattern of puzzle pieces.  As the philosopher Owen Barfield has expressed it, “The perceptual world comes over its horizon already organized.”  In effect, we have remade the world with our words and don’t even realize it.    

"The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds -- and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds," wrote the linguist Benjamin Whorf.  "We cut nature up, organize it in this way, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way -- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.”  Our most basic concepts about the world -- of time and space, self and other -- are learned at our mother's knee.  These are not phenomena of nature but constructs of the mind.

Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a massive stroke in 1996 that shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, much like what happened to Quintan Ana Wikswo when she experienced an epileptic seizure.  All interior chatter ceased, and Taylor lost any sense of bodily separation from her surroundings.  As a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, she understood exactly what had happened to her.   Yet she characterized her experience as a spiritual awakening, likening herself to “a genie liberated from its bottle.” Never very religious, Taylor did not suddenly get religion, at least not in any conventional sense.  As she put it, “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain.” It is not a story that the right brain can express in words, nor is it a story that the left brain can understand except in words.  So where do the words of the story actually originate?

To answer that, we might look to our culture’s founding myth, the creation story in the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, so the story goes, there was not nothing at all but an earth that was “without form and void” — what Helen Keller once described as the “no world” of her original blind, deaf and dumb state, a world of sensation without meaning.  It is also a fair description of the world as it might appear to the right hemisphere of the brain, a world without names.  

Then sound emerges from silence. The first words are uttered: “Let there be light,”  and light emerges from darkness.  Each act of creation in the first chapter of Genesis begins with an utterance.  God’s words give shape to creation, separating light from darkness, firmament from waters and waters from dry land.  Stated another way: Before there are worlds there are words, everything literally called into being.  And last of all the man made from the dust of the ground in God’s image and given power to name all the other creatures.  You might say that the right hemisphere of God’s brain begets the left hemisphere. 

The creation story ends when Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise for their disobedience.  An angel with a flaming sword is stationed at the gates of Eden, so there can no retracing one’s steps back to God.   We now experience the world predominantly through the left hemisphere of the brain, where we can know everything about God without really knowing God at all.  God has become mere religion, a story the left brain tells the right brain. We try to put names to the Nameless One and wonder why we can never quite get the puzzle pieces to fit. 


Frozen Light

June 15, 2022

I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.
 – Louis Daguerre 


Artists since the Renaissance had used a tool called the camera obscura as an aid to drawing a scene with proper perspective.  The camera obscura is a box-like device with an aperture or lens on one end that projects an external scene onto a piece of paper or other flat surface.  A successful diorama painter named Louis Daguerre found the device useful in laying out giant canvasses measuring as much as 70 feet by 45 feet. Daguerre had the inspiration to wed the camera obscura to earlier technology developed by Isadore Niepce that captured an image and preserved it with chemicals on a polished metal surface.  The result was the first practical form of photography, known as the daguerrotype after its inventor.

As sometimes happens, Daguerre’s invention was so radically new that he was unable to interest investors in it.  Fortunately, Daguerre won backing from the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, François Arago, who arranged for the initial display of daguerreotypes on January 9,1839.  The first reports of Daguerre’s invention did not hold back, trumpeting that it “disconcerts all the theories of science in light and optics.” 

The announcement in The Literary Gazette; and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c.noted, “M. Daguerre has discovered a method to fix the images which are represented at the back of a camera obscura; so that these images are not the temporary reflection of the object, but their fixed and durable impress, which may be removed from the presence of those objects like a picture or an engraving.”

The reason photography “disconcerts all the theories of light and optics” is that it appeared to halt time and motion in their tracks.  Upon closer inspection, however, this turned out not to be the case.   The initial announcement in the Literary Gazette acknowledged that “nature in motion cannot be represented, or at least not without great difficulty.”  Initial exposure times were about three minutes — far too slow to capture most movement.  Early photographs of crowded city streets appeared nearly empty, because the daguerreotypes were incapable of registering moving figures.

Early improvements in photography were aimed at reducing exposure times and capturing motion, thereby stopping time.  When faster exposures finally allowed photographers to take in busy street scenes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was astonished by the awkward poses of pedestrians caught in mid-stride. “Is motion but a succession of rests?” he wondered. “Motion is as rigid as marble, if you only take a wink's worth of it at a time.” By the 1870s, landscape photographer Eadweard Muybridge used a high-speed shutter he had invented himself to prove that all four hooves of a galloping horse left the ground at the same time — something too fast for the human eye to follow.  

In the 1930s, MIT electrical engineering professor Harold Edgerton pioneered the use of a stroboscopic flash synchronized with a high-speed camera to capture motion that was otherwise too rapid to be detected by the human eye: a .30 caliber bullet passing through an apple at 2,800 feet per second, a hummingbird’s wings in flight, a balloon bursting, an arrow flying from an archer’s bow at the moment of release.  As his pièce de résistance, Edgerton and his colleagues photographed a nuclear explosion at the instant of its detonation, using specially designed equipment that had no mechanical shutter, enabling them to take exposures as brief as one ten-millionth of a second.  Life Magazine, which had printed many of Edgerton’s photos, hailed him as “the man who stopped time.”

Why was the early development of photography so intent on stopping time?  Apart from certain scientific and documentary purposes, such a preoccupation would hardly explain the hundreds of millions of photographs posted every day on Facebook, Instagram and other social media.  Or would it? 

I doubt people give much thought to what they are doing when they take a picture.  They are looking for a keepsake, a reminder of happy times: an evening out with friends, a church picnic, a meal at a fancy restaurant, a new addition to the family, a wedding or a baptism.  By holding their cellphones at arm’s lengthand turning it around, they can place themselves at the scene.  Now, with the push of a button, an event that would otherwise be lost in the slipstream of time is preserved forever.  For that moment, at least, time no longer holds sway.

The earliest daguerreotypes necessarily depicted inanimate objects, because they were incapable of recording motion. Soon enough, however, they found a use as one-of-a-kind portraits. (There was no negative, so no copies could be made.)  As it happened, the first such image was taken by a Philadelphia chemist named Robert Cornelius, who removed the cap from his camera and jumped in front of it, holding still for one minute before covering the lens again.  In effect, the first photographic portrait was a selfie.

Until then, portraiture had been a costly adornment of the privileged few.  Now, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. marveled, this “mirror with a memory” enabled even the common man to achieve a kind of immortality.  “It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old,” he wrote.  “They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers….How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!”

Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 12,000 generations, and for most of that time they have come and gone without a trace.  Yet as soon as they were capable of abstract representation, they began leaving their imprint on the world, as if to say, “Here I am.”  One such representation is the stenciled outline of a human hand found on the Peche Merle cave in southern France, dating from about 25,000 years ago.  Similar stenciled hands or handprints are found on cave walls all over the world.

Is the impulse to leave a little piece of yourself on a cave wall any different from a selfie posted on Facebook? Culture critic Susan Sontag complained in On Photography (1977) that “to take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality.”  But that is true only in retrospect, when perhaps we look back on an image of a person in the full flower of youth now sadly departed.  However, photographs are “once, forever,” to borrow a phrase from the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.  They are taken in the moment and of the moment, hoping to preserve some small impression of that moment forever and thereby to achieve a kind of immortality.    

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