23 May 2016

where (part 4)


The package arrived on a shitty day, and somehow nothing else seemed to matter. Here were five rolls of Soviet film, carefully spooled into canisters by kind people in New Jersey, shipped to an address in Moscow and then into my hands. They seemed to glow a little, as I peeked into the envelope. I loaded a roll, the camera empty for days waiting for this moment.

There was a girl with a pink umbrella on wet streets that were bright as the sun poked from behind some clouds. There was a handful of street characters that were burning a fire in a lost corner of a park, behind a little pocket of trees the police would never see past. They shouted something at me that sounded like "paparazzo" or "photoapparat". I only took two shots through the bent and sagging fence that separated us. Better to keep moving.

There were two men digging a hole, one watching more than working. There were people behind a collection of dirty windows, making their way through a metro station. There was a foot bridge that crossed the railroad tracks where I could shoot straight down, at a lone worker in an orange suit.

It was all there, waiting for me.

Work was crazy, and I could not find a window of time to get to the lab. And then Friday came and I thought  - to hell with everything - and went with E as soon as I got her from school. We were in the metro and I thought to stop being greedy, just roll the film back up and have it ready. I was just passing 36 exposures and then I felt no resistance. Maybe they had put 40 in there, something generous - something I would definitely do in their position. And then, I pull on the rewind and it is just spinning, as if the film is ripped and all on the take-up side. My heart falls. I am swearing on the long escalator going down into the station. E cringes, then gives me a pat on the hand.
"Don't worry, Pop.' She says quietly.

We get to the lab and I just drop off some old rolls, from a different type of film and camera. Of course this film makes my head spin too, but it is not the new and special stuff, the shiny bright thing in my mind. On the way home, I ask myself - maybe it is a 24 exposure roll? Could it be? Did I really miss that? And then of course, I know that I missed that. Lost in that desperate excitement, lost in that stolen moment, the only type of creative moment I am familiar with, I lost track of the simplest things. I would probably forget my own name in this situation. I admit to E that I am a mess. She nods. I have taught her that I am not perfect, sometimes very imperfect. Somehow I think there will be no surprises later in life this way.

At home, I pull the camera into a light-tight changing bag, along with an empty canister. I shove my arms into the two holes that are ringed with elastic. Staring at the wall, I feel everything, navigating the rewind, opening the bottom of the camera, putting the bottom plate to the left. I wiggle my pinky inside. The film is all rewound, back in the canister already. Nothing on the take-up side. I feel around, checking and double-checking.

A long sigh.

The bag is unzipped, the film tucked into a special pocket in my bag. I load another roll in the Leica. Yes, it says 24 exposures on the side.

I think of those shots I thought I had, those three second love affairs, those marriages that went wrong. They are gone, a lie, a trick I played on myself, an unmarked grave.







16 May 2016

the wall



I am still unsure about how one foot follows another, about how there can be a roof over our head. There was that time when I was just treading water, chin at the surface as I measured the weeks until rent was due again. Then, the slow climb to a life lived with the minor comforts and I dared not look down, knowing the vertigo that waited for me if I did. The years unfold, little check marks on an invisible bedpost. My stomach still turns when I look too far backwards. They say nostalgia is a dangerous mirror, but I have no sweet longing for those lost years. I simply cannot turn my head.

The days are full now. I know what happens, but I don't take account of things until my head hits the pillow. There is so much to do, and I still feel like I am just scratching the surface somehow still treading water - a different water at least.  There are needs and wants and headaches upon headaches. There are rushed wishes, and long waits for replies. Living here, we feel unknown and forgotten half of the time. Out of sight, out of mind. But maybe the whole world has evolved to that, and we are in good company. The face in the mirror is mine still, that I know. It stares back at me, sad and quiet.

The kids break me out of these moments. V is on the verge of words, her face a mixture of recognition and thought, lips pursed and ideas bubbling to the surface. She is all about taking your hand and dragging you from room to room of the apartment, pointing "aaah!" and then "ahhh!". Some secret often makes her want to laugh, and she fights it for a moment, which of course makes it even funnier. And E is taping band names to her bedroom door, now closed. She is obsessed with music and which album is better the first one or the third one and "Can I buy this EP?" is her first question on most days.

I imagine cracks forming in some giant wall. It is smooth and white, almost shiny. The cracks are there under the surface. I can hear them if I rest one of my ears there.

Maybe something big is coming.




09 May 2016

where (part 3)


There are parades today. Jets screaming overhead in formation, tanks rolling across cobblestones. The embassy sends out alerts, suggesting to Americans that they should stay inside on holidays like this There was a moment when I thought to try to stand in the crowd, saying not a word, my camera tucked under my arm sneaking pictures of faces and children, of soldiers and militia, the crisp lines of uniforms, the cheeks shaved smooth. 

But that is not what happened. I stayed at home. 

On friday I got to E's school on the early side, and wandered around behind it. Here, the river snakes through the city. The White House is just across from this spot, a bridge arcing across the water with flags snapping in the wind. I go to the left, as a party boat cruises past, no music pumping, no people bouncing on the upper deck. It is too early in the day for that. At one point an old man ambles past me, his medals clinking on a tattered jacket, ribbons and gold discs making a little song as they slap against each other. I take one picture as he passes, pretending to be looking at the White House and the water. He smirks, nods his head after I click. He is carrying a pink plastic bag that flaps around in the wind. 

I go back the other way, towards the little gas station that perches behind a hotel. A young woman is walking towards me in a black leather miniskirt, black shirt, black stilettos, black purse with a chunky gold chain on it. Her hair is more puffy balloon than anything else. I see her cotton candy pink lipstick, the big hoop earrings. Something tells me she is going to try to ask me something, that she is a prostitute. I am wrong. She says nothing, chin tucked towards her chest as she passes. I have pulled off two frames before this, with one of the gas pumpers smoking a cigarette in the background. I see her face, it looks too young for the clothing she wears as she cautiously clicks down the sidewalk. Later she will turn back, asking questions from men getting out of their cars as they pay for gas. Maybe she is lost. Maybe she needs to borrow a cel phone. I see them talking her for some time, and then driving away. 

I camp out across the street from the gas station. One guy is wearing no shirt, just overalls and he reminds me of a character in an early Wenders film - Kings of the Road.  The sun goes behind a cloud. I check the meter, framing up the empty street, the red and white smokestacks in the distance. The girl in the miniskirt is still making her way up and down the sidewalk. 

I go back to the school, where children are running with jackets twisted around their waists, where E appears, her face lighting up when she sees me. 



02 May 2016

steps


The moment arrives, me on my knees with my hands stretched towards her. She leans back against N, her face caught in surprise. I can see the ideas turning over in her, yes, no, yes, no. She stares at me.
I clap my hands together once and then again.
"Come on, come on." I say, laughing, trying to make this into a game.
She looks up at N, her chin all the way to the sky.
N tells her it is ok.
In one movement, her foot lurches forward and then the next. Her hands are waving like she wants to fly not walk. She steps quickly, her face smashing into my chest as she arrives. I am whooping and crowing and she is shouting. I wonder what the neighbors think we are doing in here.
N's face is serene, glowing. She drinks it all in with quiet grace.

V will go back and forth between us, steps growing longer. Her face lights up each time, her little bottom wiggling back and forth. E is watching, leaning on a doorway, lost in thought. I wonder if she is trying to remember her first steps, what she must have been like so many years ago.

I sigh. I breathe in deep, my knees starting to hurt from the hardwood floor. V wants to do it one more time before dinner.





25 April 2016

she knows



The call comes. I ask E if she is interested. She shrugs her shoulders. It has been about a year since she did a voice record. I can't tell if she is removed or wants to do it. I ask her directly, yes or no and no is ok. She wants to. I think of parents I have seen, ones that push things on their children, tricking them, guilting them. I want her to chose this, or to have a normal Friday afternoon. We could just go for sushi and look out the big windows at the people on the street below. 

I take her from school the next day. We order a taxi, siting hot in the back seat in traffic. The weather changes so quickly here. We go upstairs, and wait for half an hour but I remind her how important it is to be on time. She nods, she knows. 

The script is long with plenty of alternates. I hear her voice through the speakers, so serious these days, and she needs to slow down. The directions come, little fixes to the text get made. She sits, a little slumped, pencil in hand. I hear her struggling in a good way, searching, finding the right balance, finding the way to go up at the end of a sentence even though the urge is to go down. Man, she sounds too much like me, I tell myself. This is surreal. Well, she has been on this side of the glass for so many of my voice records, am I really surprised? 

She needs to sound younger, more innocent, more naive. I tell her to shrug her shoulders a little, to feel the curl of the corners of her mouth go up and how that changes the sound. People always want it to sound sweeter, happier. 

And all at once we are done and people are shaking hands and bowing heads and little avalanches of thank yous are raining on us. I pull her close, tell her quietly that she did good, that it was a tough script and a long one. Her chin pinches up, her eyes as big as saucers. 

She knows. 




18 April 2016

where (part 2)



It is raining, the sky a green, gray marshmallow. E has been on vacation for a week. I finish work early, and tell her to get dressed. The cameras are tucked into my bag. Extra film and a light meter all find their places. E slings her camera across her shoulder, bringing it with her. 

Outside, the street is shiny. We pull our collars close to our necks. I point towards the main road with a glance and she nods. There is a bus stop, and I take pictures of the people behind the milky windows of the trolley bus for that moment when the doors slosh open and then thwack shut. We start downhill, towards the river. Sometimes I stop, waiting for the right old woman to creep past us. Sometimes E stops, fascinated with a railing on a bridge, or a view that swings wide as we pass some dead trees. There are no words, just nods and looks, but I cannot help but smile at her.

We are under the bridge, dark and heavy as it reaches across the green water. 

There is the aftermath of a car accident, a very common sight here where people treat the road and other drivers like fantasies until they smack into a railing or a bumper, or a person. A man is running across the six lane street, and I get one frame of him with the crumpled white Range Rover in the background. Maybe that is something, I tell myself.

We have walked almost 2 miles, and tuck into a Georgian place for lunch. We order khinkali, giant dumplings stuffed with beef and pork and chili and black pepper. They are full of a sort of broth they create, so eating them is a balancing act, a dance between slurps and guesses and then forcing the remainder into your mouth. E eats them with the unrushed grace of an old man, not a drop on the plate. 

Later, she will show me the pictures she takes. One is of me in my long, dark coat under the bridge. That is how she sees me, I realize. My cheeks flush. 

We will bring the film to the lab the next day, and pick it up a few days later. 

She hovers behind me as I scan them. She nods, saying "yes, I know. I was there" with no more than her chin on my shoulder. 







11 April 2016

where (part 1)

Jim only takes pictures within three miles of his home. His images do not feel like they are made under any limitations. They simply are about what they are about. I like this interview of him very much.

I struggle a lot, not knowing why and what I should be photographing. I think that has to do with being an outsider here, not a tourist, not a local. There is a closed-off element to most things Russian. Kremlin (kreml) basically means "wall". There are walls around everything here. Even in the cemeteries, there are little fences around each grave, as if the dead themselves can be annoyed by unwelcome feet above them. I often feel like I am trespassing here, especially when there is a camera tucked in my pocket.

Something shifted last December. Maybe it was the return of an old film stock I love that had stopped production and by some miracle had reappeared. When I saw the Agfa APX boxes in the cold case at the lab, my stomach twisted, my voice became invisible in my throat as I pointed at it, my hand slowly shaking in the air. Yes, I am capable of a  love affair with film emulsion. Some people are goofy for cars, or watches, or guns, or radios, guitars, espresso machines, turntables. I am one of them.

I shot a test roll, and a fresh wave of inspiration pulled at me. I would shoot close to our apartment, and not for a year but just a few months, just during winter and see what I came up with. Jim is a good influence, is all I can say. Something about being direct and sparse with nowhere to hide, it felt like a good place to start. I brought the camera with me every afternoon as I travelled to get E from school, shooting a frame or not, taking meter readings, studying the faces and the way the light bangs sideways into the trolley bus at one point as it runs along the river, and that this light paints everyone's faces for a handful of seconds. Many close their eyes. Some cross themselves because there is a famous church across the river from there. Like a bank robber, I cased the locations, making mental notes of everything.

One roll was destroyed because I went out in -20C shooting a few hours too long on a Sunday morning and the film got brittle. I ripped it into shreds as I advanced it. A few more rolls and the epiphanies began to roll in. "Don't waste your time with these." I told myself about the shots you cannot avoid taking, the ones you need to get out of your system like the 100,000 words every writer has to commit to paper, in order to toss them and never think of them again. You have to get the poison out.

I found myself talking a lot, inside my head, arguing, debating, never compromising. No, that is too easy. No, that is too cruel. Yes, that is something, but now it is already gone.

Then, there was a trip to the lab with seven rolls to process. I had to wait a week before they were ready, and when I did look at them it was terrifying. What if nothing that I had imagined was there? What if they were crooked? What if my focus was off, so close to people dozing off in their chairs, scared to shoot more than one frame.


(to be continued)