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My downtown studio is a separate small building located behind our home on South Main Avenue. It was originally an old garage, with a gravel floor and rusty yard tools hanging by hooks. Are stories uncovered or do they reveal themselves with time?
My wife Naomi and I purchased our home from Opal Haley 40 years ago. Haley and her two husbands (one at a time) lived here for 50 years. They were careful and deliberate. In the old garage, we found 42 glass jars with labels announcing particular screws, bolts, and fasteners. Cigar boxes were neatly stacked, full of ideas and unfinished projects. I converted the garage into my studio 25 years ago with six large skylights above, my connection to the sky.
I work as a photographer but also as an audio/photographic documentarian. All my projects are about wanting to know more — a desire to understand communities and places and ideas unlike my own. From an early age, we have a hunger to have bigger lives than the ones we were given. In the middle of the night, in the darkroom with a soft orange glow of the safelight, photographs resting in running water are owners of their own light. I fell in love with the medium and all its possibilities.
In my studio, I have a Lehigh-Leopold solid oak desk that I purchased at an auction at the Bexar County Courthouse. It has several initials carved on one corner. In front of my desk are two windows with a view of our pecan trees, our backyard, and the changing spectacular sky perfect for daydreaming. In the second grade, I was sent to the principal’s office for daydreaming. I continue that practice today.
Most of my work has been made using an 8-by-10-inch Deardorff View Camera, a box camera with accordion-looking bellows for focusing very similar to the kind of camera that Mathew Brady used during the Civil War. I was lucky to be a photographer during the period of film. I might carry only 14 sheets of film because of the weight of the camera and film plates, which meant increased attention and careful choosing. How would I use these 14 sheets of film in one day?
I have a back room in my studio that is perfect for conversations. Half of my work involves interviews and audio editing. Floating into my studio during these interviews are train whistles, barking dogs, bird songs, and occasional lawnmowers. It has been an incredible privilege to listen and learn from others.
My last project, My Heart Is Not Blind – On Blindness & Perception, is about the nature of the mystery of perception and adaptation. The brain has the ability to rewire itself to favor non-visual orientation. It is about our shared humanity and shared fragility. I met and interviewed Michael Hingson. On September 11, 2001, Hingson was on the 78th floor of 1 World Trade Center when the first plane struck. He said he felt the building swaying back and forth. Hingson was blind and was with his guide dog, Roselle. He knew exactly how many steps it took to walk from floor 78 to the lobby. Hingson was able to assist others down the 78 floors to safety because he paid attention to details. He told me, “The biggest problem that blind people face is not blindness, but rather what sighted people think about blindness.”
On the walls of my studio are visual images. I have a small painting of a snowy landscape painted by my great grandmother Esther Nye. I have a wedding photograph of my parents made in 1943. My father is wearing his formal Navy uniform. I have a gallery of double-decker buses that our 5-year-old grandson Connor and I taped to my studio wall. I have two photographs from the remarkable photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. I also have a photograph above my desk of our son Madison when we were living in Hawaii, and he was in kindergarten. I asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween. He said, “I want to be a muffler.”
Photographs are not quiet or still or motionless. So much is missing from a still photograph. It might be the smell of smoke, dried leaves, or the memory of rain. Emotions and desires and temperament and bent propensities are hidden. How does anyone photograph the serious remoteness of landscapes or the emotional longing many feel and share? I’ve come to realize that a photograph’s indeterminateness is its strength. It is not just content but light that illuminates imagination.