Starting Over

“A crisis takes place when the old has not died and the new has still not been born.” — Bertolt Brecht

Before every therapy appointment I decide I’ve squeezed this lemon to it’s fullest, rehearse my departing speech and set off to deliver it. My therapist asks, “So. How are things?” and I take 90 minutes to respond, peaking with agitation around the middle and quieting with resolution toward the end. I leave feeling light and inspired like Amelie Poulain after returning the tin full of childhood objects to Dominique Bretodaux. I go to Starbucks to journal; oldies are playing and I forgive life for it’s ills thinking, “Okay life, you’re alright. You can stay.” And I pencil in my next appointment, forgetting why I wanted to stop. Like the meandering thicket of creative life, I find the sessions about 90:1 in thicket-to-gem ratio, but the gems make me return to the task. At my last appointment my therapist said of a certain family-of-origin-slash-marital-dynamic-that-shall-not-be-named: “that’s the entrance to the country of chaos for you.” Damnit Sharon. (Side note: The Country of Chaos, a new memoir by Anastasia Pagonas Campos?)

If I had to name my current chapter in that book it would be Kill Your Darlings And Other Things I Heard in College That Make Sense Now. It’s a phrase I first heard in my Personal and Exploratory Writing class with the brilliant Lois Roma-Deeley. It was my first semester of school and I signed up for the course on the premise of taking “only fun classes” (the others were drawing, art history and philosophy… come to think of it that was the best semester of my life and it’s been all downhill from there).

“Kill your darlings.”

She said it as she said most things: like we already knew the answers and she was the emissary sent only to wake us from our slumber. Of course, it means excise the mediocre, regardless and especially because of your feelings about it. Delete the chapter you spent three years perfecting. Toss the photo you climbed Montu Picchu to take. Put your childhood dog down. It’s what’s needed, it’s for the best, but it will kill a small, thriving, important part of you. Because although it’s time has passed, you love it.

Oh art, usher of many deaths. This quote has been attributed to everyone from Ginsberg to Faulkner. I can relate: such was the case with family photography for me. In no way could I (with integrity) jam that work to fit my creative bent. Unless I paid the families instead of the other way around, which I considered. No, all of those photographs were a good thing for the form they inhabited, they got credit in the school of Something Good Christian Girls Do, but were not created with the voice to which I feel bound. It was a lot of time (ten years) for a precious few insights, but it produced the singular realization I needed to discover my body of work: that the only reason I photographed families was to photograph children. Time to start over.

I’ve seen other artists do this and watched on with respect, knowing the bravery it takes to walk away. Not just from a business but from a public brand that says, “this is who I am. This is my work.” Remember when Mumford and Sons released their electric album and we were all like YOU’RE DEAD TO ME. We really like when artists stay in their lane and keep giving us what they’ve mastered. Especially with Instagram where we get it all-but-intravenously.

Lucky for the world artists have a perennial discontent with our work. Except for the first few moments of creation when we’re like, “Bow to me Ansel!!!” we tend to crawl back into our lowly position of not-yet-there; ever-moving toward the thing that seems to better-capture the impulse within. I’ve read how many artists in their 60’s circle back to the work they made as a child. The thing that arose spontaneously before awareness of self, what Annie Dillard called the “dark object I could not ignore”. If that is the case I may have a career of collages made from war photography books in my retired future. When I look back at my early works, I see the seeds; the premonitions of what would become my lifetime callings to explore. It feels like lost time until I think of it as a necessary overcorrection unto the final, personal, permanent clearance I gave myself in 2017. Go forward, make art.

I’ve been inching up to this confession (grab your smelling salts): I deleted all of my Instagram. And it feels like a $100 haircut. After Eleanor was born I set out to use the space as a mini-blog; chronicling creative experience and my journey learning 35mm. I wrote and wrote and wrote, often exceeding the character count and revising to fit the limitation. It was fun. I did it with one hand while nursing. I learned the fundamentals of film. I functioned like a photography influencer (a thing?) talking about creating while I documented my children, my world and my thoughts.

As I was talking with a friend one day about my desire to hire a nanny she said affirmingly, “You’re making time for you.” I grimaced. I’m making time for the work, I thought. But then I thought, what work? Taking flat lays of my cameras and films and writing five clapping emojis? In short: I have a body of work within that I haven’t yet started. When a tech at my lab saw my name on my negatives and said, “I know your Instagram! I love your work!” it was a bit surreal (and my ego smiled) but I recoiled. No, no, no, wait! That’s not my work, that’s just — stuff! A journal! And I realized: the photographers I admire use Instagram as a portfolio. I’ve been slow to realize I’d like to do the same.

So where am I headed? Conceptual work. Instead of documenting my daughters in the river, hiring a friend’s daughter to stand in the same river and execute some visual ideas that have haunted and hunted me for years. Paying her as a model, in gummy snacks and flowers. As for personal documentary work? Chronicling of travel and life? Always. But not any more at the expense of the greater work I long to create. Work that says something bolder; a subject matter outside of the loving and protective maternal gaze through which I’ve made a lot photographs in the last ten years.

Okay mom, you’re officially caught up on my creative process. That’s where I am today — I see how writing captions on Instagram has kept me from longer essays like these and the creative fulfillment they bring. And how creating one image at a time has kept me from filling a larger creative container: the photo book, the series, the exhibition. My baby is two and two months; my body and mental real estate are ready to accommodate an expansion. Funny thing is, I made this decision months ago but have been slow to implement it. Turns out it’s hard to change while the old thing still lives. It’s hard to replace your busted dresser when it still holds clothes. Killing your darlings is hard as hell. But every time I do it, I watch a new and yet ever-known work emerge.

Photographs taken in New York City in 2007, after the semester of “only fun classes” when I decided not to go to The New School for visual art as planned. These photo were part of my goodbye. Excavated from my hard drive for a project titled Early Works — a photo book covering my street & documentary work from 2007-2017; to be self-published in spring 2019.