Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A more affluent power boater

Consider this photograph. Larger image here.

I have nothing to say. It is what it is. You can make of it what you will. The meaning is entirely up to you.

You might think that it meant something to me. Perhaps it did, but maybe not. Would it help if I told you that the subject of the picture is the curtain on the left? That I was fascinated by its gray and white appearance in the context of the grays and whites of the trailer face and the porch? Did I even notice that? Or could it have been the juxtaposition of the hunting garb with poor mobile home, the image of the cross on the door adding a level of irony? Or was it just nostalgia. This was actually taken near my hometown and was a common scene in my youth.

Living in the cities or the suburbs as you do, you may not recognize the aspect of danger, but you probably feel it subconsciously. I could have been shot for taking this picture, you know, there was a shotgun involved. If risk is present, does that add something to a photo’s quality?

But before I explain, I’ll tell you what it’s not about. It’s not about politics. I do not like to write about politics and I am not a political photographer. I work for a respectable company that is a positive force for good in our economy. Photography is just a hobby and these musings I share are of no consequence. I have no interest in the political ramifications of life outside the cities. And you are probably better off not knowing what it’s like out there.

The photograph means nothing at all. It simply is. This narrative, on the other hand, is directed by consciousness. There is no telling which conscious or subconscious influences direct a person to take a particular photograph, or even if there is a conscious idea, the picture remains but an imprint of light reflected, completely free of intent. And if it seems to tell you something, that too is just a reflection, not of light but of you. These words, on the other hand, are echoes from my conscious mind that will bounce around in yours. For how long? We'll see, but they begin and end with meaning. They are nothing but meaning. It could not be otherwise.

I know that all sounds a bit ephemeral, but the story of how I came to take that photograph will clarify what I’m trying to communicate in a way that the photograph itself cannot.

My job takes me to all of the cities on both coasts and a couple of the few in between. During a project in Chicago I took a sdie trip to my old hometown, which is far from the nearest city or suburb. Of course I had moved my parents out of there as soon as I could afford it and hadn’t returned for more than twenty years, so I didn’t know anyone or have anywhere to stay. It was getting bad back then, but how much worse could it be? I asked myself. The news told me the situation was stable.

And it appeared to be okay when I arrived. The streets were quiet. I rented a room in a dingy hotel, drove around the town a couple of times feeling uneasy, but with no real sense of foreboding. I saw my old house and those of my long ago friends. I drove by the schools and the courthouse. I saw poor people sitting out in front of their trailers and shacks. I sat by the river and watched the boats go by and remembered my days as a power boater. That was pretty much it. When no one was watching, I took a few photos.

But things got very unpleasant shortly. I don't want to disturb you with too many details, but this encounter led directly to the photograph I’m talking about and serves to illustrate a lot of what I'm trying to explain.

I had gone out to the liquor store nurturing a faint hope of finding a decent bottle of wine. The shelves were mostly stocked with fortified wines and malt liquors as well as the more potent spirits. The line to the register was long and moved very slowly. It seemed like every other individual lacked the money to pay for the items presented to the cashier and would slow things down while he tried to borrow the difference from one or more acquaintances farther back in the line. Or maybe I just remember it, exaggerated, that way?

Nevertheless, the man directly ahead of me in the line most definitely came up short and looked around for someone to help him out. He hadn't given me a second glance until he started counting his change and then when he scanned the line in back of him, he recognized me as a long lost friend from high school.

I think that’s one of the reasons, beyond the obvious, why so many of us never visit the old hometowns. It’s bad enough when you don’t recognize someone who recognizes you, but it’s so much worse when the person in question is scary. This man was scary. He was unnaturally thin and his posture was stooped in an unhealthy manner. He had long thinning hair loosely framed around a bone sharp face and his eyes twitched sporadically. There was something unusual about his mouth too, but I didn’t stare. In fact, I looked away a little too quickly.

Chuck, he said, it's me, Dave, you remember your old buddy Dave, dontcha? And unfortunately I did. I’m a little short, he said, could you help me out?

Sure Dave. I paid for his liquor. Why shouldn’t I? It was nothing to me. I wondered how they made it that cheaply. Nice to see you again. Then I paid for my own. The bottle was dusty and hardly what I’d normally call drinkable, but it would have to do.

I dawdled in the liquor store, but he was waiting for me in the parking lot. We had a brief, stilted conversation about old times, the details of which I did not want to remember. He invited me to come out to his house some time for a beer. I said I'd love to, gave him a few bills to help him out with the rent, and we parted. Of course I had no intention of visiting him, but I did. Thus the photograph.

I had an uncomfortable night in the hotel. The bed was lumpy and the wine bad. I had planned to leave first thing in the morning, but after a shower and some breakfast I decided to take a drive through the country before heading back to the city. I spent a good deal of time on the river in my childhood. I wanted to see it one last time.

So I drove out to the old ramp where my father used to launch our boat. Apparently no maintenance had been done on the road in all those years and it was little more than a dirt path when I finally reached the river.

I got out of the rental car and looked around. The river was brown, seemingly thick, with rainbow colored eddies swirling in and out of existence along its banks. Behind me was a vast field, empty of all but weeds and refuse. A light mist rose mournfully to a distant tree line. Up the river to my left were gleaming silver factories with bright fluorescent lights and thick white clouds billowing in the early morning sky. The steady rat-tat-tat of an approaching powerboat was an annoying counterpoint to the industrial noise. I remembered that dad’s powerboat was much quieter. I took a few photos. I’d seen enough. My shoes were covered with mud and it stank.

Going back the way I came, I saw a truck stopped with its hood up in the distance. As I approached, a man appeared from behind the hood and stood in the road waving his arms for me to stop. Thinking it could be a trick, I sped up and took an angle that would allow me to cut around to the left and get by him, but when I got close I realized that it was Dave from the liquor store. So like a fool I stopped. His truck had broken down again. I offered to give him a ride to town, but he asked if I would take him home instead. It was not very far and he could find the parts he needed there. He seemed quite agitated. I reluctantly agreed.

His house was not a house but an old trailer, as you can see in the photograph. There was also a rusted camper, the kind people used to pull behind their station wagons, with blue plastic canvas stretched out to make a porch. He asked me to sit outside and wait while he went in to take something to ease the pain in his gums. He said that he had had all of his teeth pulled recently and that it had been very unpleasant. There was an overwhelming chemical smell coming from the trailer and I saw industrial looking cans in the brief glance I got when he opened the door. While he was inside I took the picture.

When he came back out, he had a shotgun. I made my excuses and hurried away, leaving him with a small amount of money to by food for his kids, who he said were staying with his ex-wife. I don't know if he even had any kids, and hoped not for their sake. I was happy to pay any toll to get out of there and back to civilization.

So you see? This narrative may or may not add anything to the photograph and the photograph, being little more than reflected light, tells us absolutely nothing. But the narrative does tell us something about our lives. It does illustrates how important it is for us to continue working hard so that we do not lose our jobs and endanger our status. It shows how bad things can be for those who fail to make the necessary effort. That's all I wanted to say on that subject.

I hope you enjoy the photograph. That’s all I really want to say.