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no gold (things will have to wait)

There is an old Russian expression for the inevitable moment when your neighbors begin renovating. "Searching for gold in the walls." They say, to describe the epic sounds of drills in ancient concrete. You might appreciate this odd humor, this dark joke, this survival tactic. I am not so graceful a man to wrap my thoughts around it. Those drills and grinders, they shake the very walls of our apartment. Early on Sunday mornings and often long into the evenings they go.

This has been going on for the last four months, maybe more. I stopped counting.

I cannot imagine there are any walls left, that there is an entire open floor below us, the wind whipping through the naked beams and nothing else. That is the only explanation. Or that they break down walls, build new ones, find a flaw, some grand mistake and then break all of the walls down again. Not swiftly with sledgehammers, but with one crappy old drill with a dull bit, mashing away, so that children hundreds of miles away…

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)





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