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The Columnest: Life Seen Through Others’ Lenses

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. […]

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad, Minneapolis, MN, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad: Minneapolis, MN, 2014. All photos courtesy of the artist.

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. My fantasies foundered rapidly, but not before I took a few photos (something I rarely do) and uploaded one to Instagram. (What is Instagram, anyway? What’s with these streams of images? What do they tell us?)

I suppose the appeal of photos taken by ordinary people is that we can look through each other’s eyes. You live on the Isle of Skye, I live in North Carolina; you’re a professional ballerina or a hobby farmer or a stunt pilot, while I am a yoga teacher or a mother of three or a chocolatier; you’re black and I’m white, or you’re seventeen and I’m seventy. In short, you’re not ordinary, and neither am I.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

But this inherent diversity is undercut by the uniformity of our cameras and by their built-in filters (edge blur, vintage — and what’s this 1977 one do?), and by another filter: our shared sense of what makes for a good photo now. Conditions of weather and light, food in erotic soft focus, animals, babies; people seen from a lover’s angle; scenery framed so it seems already inside.

Like the rest of the wired world, photographer and poet Jeffrey Skemp is posting photos. His, though, go up on his blog in a brief series, remain available for ten days or so, and then disappear. Think of it as a show in an alley, the photos leaning casually against unfinished brick; his presentation has the same casual and fleeting quality.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter's Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter’s Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

I can’t pretend to objectivity here. I know Jeffrey; in fact, he took the author photo for my last book. And even if I could, what can I say about photographs? I’m no expert on their technique. All I can tell you is that these images look real and deliberate. Skemp photographs, in his first series, in a few locales (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Addis Ababa), and, though he sometimes gets “lucky” (a perfect reflection, a graceful shadow), more often, he tracks his subject with the patience and sincerity of a portraitist. He looks directly at whatever he’s interested in, and usually it looks back. When Skemp can’t get at what he wants to photograph—when he spies a moose head stuck to the wall in a museum basement, with vitrines and cabinets blocking his path to it—that frustrated communication becomes part of the image. Lovely, many of these images are, but the women he photographs are people before they are beautiful. The animals are beings. The “scenes” are alive too; the inanimate material objects and the immaterial artifacts of vision—an elegantly tall light pole or the reflection of a trash can in glass, the plastic bag creasing, pleating, puckering—have souls.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Skemp puts me in mind of a puzzle I’ve been reading about lately, the puzzle of Leibniz’s monad, which is an atom or a person or a thing, whatever can be singular, and which is the only reality, yet which only reflects the passing unrealities (whatever they are). Never mind — it’s complex and I don’t understand it. What I do understand is that this idea upturns our sense of what is real and what is autonomous, and Skemp’s photos do that, too. They redistribute life.

Now I’m thinking again about that 1977 filter. Oh, the old days of photographs! Remember the slide projector? Two or three weeks after a family vacation, we’d set up the screen, turn out the lights, and revisit our trip in pictures that were surprising because we had never seen them before—and by that piece of obviousness, I mean that we lived our trip in the usual four dimensions, through human eyes, and these were flat, still images. Moreover, these images seemed to come from the vantage of an additional traveler, from an eye that had seen the mountain as smaller than we all remembered, or had gazed on the waterfall until it blurred to a white fuzz, or had caught my mother looking absolutely beautiful and completely unlike herself (and she was beautiful—but none of us had ever seen that particular expression cross her face). That other traveler’s trace is as eerie, now that I think back on it, as any “angel” outlined in a cloud or a spray of light.

Last week, I wandered around the bend of a trail in a local park, and there, not a hundred feet from the parking lot, was a family cemetery. Two stones identified “Father and Mother” and “Sister,” the last buried in 1929; a half-dozen or so broken and blank stones stood for the broken and blank relations below. I stood a moment in my quandary: how to pay attention to these sudden long-dead. Then I snapped a picture—to share it with you, I suppose, once I figure out the right filter.

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC.