|Matthias has been a teacher and psychotherapist. He is the author of The i Tetralogy and Down To a Sunless Sea. Visit his site.|
WINNER OF THE SUBTLETEA SUMMER WRITING CONTEST 2008.
© 2008 Mathias Freese
A Kodak Bantam camera with a lens that folded out on chrome rails, petite, charming and intricate, with a metal knob to set the f-stop and one to cock the shutter, I could place it on the palm of my hand like an inlaid treasure of inestimable value. Because it was so well engineered, I favored it that much more. I did not value things for their material worth. I treasured them for their personal meaning to me, the small epiphanies of my life while growing up as a young boy. The Bantam used 828 film which is no longer available -- again, we are given immediate obsolescence. Digital cameras having taken over from film, a recent shuffle through camera magazines informed me that I was "obsolete." I will always be a film person.
The Bantam was a pleasure to hold in my hand and operate later on in life, my father having given it to me. Many snapshots over the years were taken of my sister and me traipsing through our childhood. I recall admiring the smallness of the Kodak as our father posed us.
The snapshots of the late forties and early fifties were 3 x 5 inches, I believe. Scalloped edges as was the fashion then -- and glossy, I never saw a color snapshot taken with that camera, nor a slide. Perhaps dad did not have sufficient money for film or developing. The camera was encased in a good leather case and by the time I gave it over to my son it had fallen into such disrepair it was of no consequence.
My son Jordan has the Kodak now, and my Nikon FE as a personal gift to him as well. The Bantam was replaced by a Pentax K1000, great little camera to learn about depth of field and f-stops. After awhile, I "mastered" reciprocals. I bought the Nikon in 1979, sold the Pentax, and for about two decades photographed our family lives together. I made sure that I was in the shots, for too often fathers leave no photographic evidence of themselves. I had extrapolated far into the future.
In 1999 my wife Rochelle died. After a few months, I purchased an expensive Nikon SLR for my son at B&H in New York City, the place for camera buffs. It was a grand and well worth it. Rivened by the loss of his mother as was I, it was a mutual gesture, to make "merry" to alleviate our intense sadness. Agony is so hard to bear. I had to learn to relate to him in a different way. I was no longer the father within a context. I was the father in a photo whose other half had been torn away -- Rochelle, she who always photographed so well.
Somewhere in his Chicago apartment two cameras sit. One has the photographic memory of my childhood molecularly fused within its dark bellow and interior case, and the other has Jordan's history as a baby, toddler, adolescent within its more modern and intricate recesses. I fantasize late at night that both cameras chat about the places they have been, the scenes lensed before their optics, the care by which they were handled and the value given to them by their owners. I hope they exchange photos and comment about skylight and polarizer filters, depth of field, aperture vs. shutter priority, the camera "issues" of the 70s and 80s, camera errors as well as camera tips that their owners should have been aware of. And I hope in solemn pleasure they mourn the loss of the faces of those who have died. And I am very sure that the little Bantam will mention to the very sophisticated Nikon that his greatest picture of all was taken in 1969, a picture of Rochelle sitting in the passenger seat, window down, and resting both arms on the 65' Mustang convertible, top down, and looking at me with all the love she could give, with her Hedy Lamarr face, European, Mediterraneran and Hebraic.
I am thinking of what photo that the FE might crow about -- I have no idea. I do know that Rochelle would choose those pictures in which she is sitting in Amish country with Jordan and Brett as small children, to the right and left of her, on her lap, her arms embracing them, a Judaic earth mother. Oh, mothers, how often so cannily wise about what is important and what is not.
I have a professional photograph of my sister Harriet and one of myself taken in the 40s with a Graflex. We lived on a corner house in a basement apartment on Brighton 2nd Street, 222 Oceanview Avenue, to be exact, now Little Odessa, in Brooklyn. Harriet was photographed holding a long stemmed rose in her pudgy hands and is softly alive, a Renaissance cherub, untroubled, in repose. She was four, and I was eight.
Both photographs capture more than who we were. They are a distillation of us before we were enervated by woe and wear. In my picture I see such opportunity for myself, a great and eager Arabian, frisky, pawing at the ground, itching to gallop.
When you look as if it were for the first time upon that observed for a thousand moments, you can feel and intuit truths unknown to you before.
Before I moved to Arizona I had planned to return home, to capture photographically the supposed halcyon days of my childhood (I never did). In the photograph taken of me I am wearing a short blue plaid jacket, just to my waist, my dark brown hair coifed into a pompadour and parted to one side -- no doubt a touch-up done by mom, my eyes vividly hazel, my front teeth in, but a space between them -- never attended to, and my face lit from within, alabaster, aglow with innocence, unclouded with worry or angst, an unconditioned soul.
The molecules shed from my family and I permeated the walls on Brighton 2nd. Street. I believe we leave spoor. So much happened to me there, so much was done to me there. First coats of neurosis were appliquéd on my self. In my photograph of me you can see the young pre-pubescent boy still innocent, still only mildly conditioned
. When I look at my sister and myself as if for the very first time, I see children not yet totally conditioned, more open than closed, stepping gingerly into life which daily immersed us both.
After Rochelle died I also purchased a new camera for myself, a point and shoot compact, Ricoh GR1s -- I supply its nomenclature because I give it respect. I bought a brand new heirloom, and cognizant of that. The camera is terrific but not mechanically reliable. Recently I had it repaired for I was not going to go digital. I admire retro. I love that which does not expedite me. New is not necessarily better -- growing old has taught me that. It is only the press of culture to advance speedily, quickly, to nowhere.
When it is my time, Jordan will retrieve my Ricoh, with my blessing, and place it alongside the other two. In the grand sweep of time, he too will be remembered. I do not shy away from the inevitable, for in that dramatic and sad-tinged feeling, I configure a presence of meaning, whether for myself, or for those dear to me. In a way I die each and every day, and make note of that. I feel it deeply. I taste loss and in a casual and remarkable way, it makes tomorrow more to be cherished and this very moment most important -- and endearing. A photograph is representational time; it is a nanosecond image of death in transit. It captures loss. Despair is for those unaware and not awake.
As I look back time and event, what we call experience, has been corrosive. I have few regrets. It is what is, it is what I have been given. I have used writing to take flight from out of that world, the one which made me rueful, regretful and laced with rage. Moreover, it is not by design. It is all happenstance or just bad luck or error that I was reared in ways that now limit me. My parents were as blindly ruled by the fates as I was blindly ruled by them. They did not live coherent lives. Who does?
Photography and writing are sisterly arts, one writes with light, the other writes of life. Both reveal much more latently than manifestly -- if one sees. I see my parents rearing, nurturing, more or less, as collectives -- masses of dumb-blind and random actions that on a sub-atomic level, if you will, bombard and crash into one another, bringing about disparate energies: matter changes. I view my life in particular, and life, in general, as a gallimaufry of aimless, random, mindless, numerous, interactions. Frightening to contemplate, but at least it gives mom and dad a break, takes them off the hook. So, instead of blaming my parents for their malign influences, I reflect that all is flux.
Most if not all of the individuals of my childhood, their idiosyncratic gestures, their mass in space, incidents with them, sitting on laps, or cradled in arms, their attitudes and modes of existence, are all gone now, laid to rest. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, parents, cousins, family friends have passed. A blizzard of feelings and moods about them is silenced. The Mardi Gras parade of my life has turned the corner on the block and has dissolved from movie footage to a single photograph, a still! Gorgeously sad it is to contemplate all this. All that sound and fury, hurly-burly, a thousand infinite influences, extinguished -- except in one solitary mind, my experience. To remember all this, to remember the all of it, I tremble at the face of time, that elusive, rotten scoundrel that ultimately lays us low.
Kane utters "Rosebud," the emotionally-charged sled, his last verbal photograph in his mind, with the gravitas of an entire childhood subsumed within it. I ponder what my "Rosebud" might be. When my mother was weeks away from her death, her ovarian cancer having traveled to her brain, she was visited by a woman cousin. The household was shrouded in anguish and pain for my mother. In "conversation," my mother now attenuated and sallow beneath her housecoat, blurted out from the disturbed neurons of her brain, "Father Knickerbocker."
Incomprehensible, agonizingly humorous, sickeningly inappropriate, these were her final spoken words. Speech and conversation had disintegrated into shards. She suffered terribly for a year in 1960. I was 20, Harriet 16, two babes lost in the woods, critically unprepared for life. Our father, sadly, was the third child. All her life had come down to "Father Knickerbocker." Forty seven years have come and gone and I cannot metabolize that horrific event. So I stay away from it, much like the autopsy report of my wife, Rochelle, in which her body parts are graphically described. I have had too much trauma in life -- and it persists...I have it now. This is my "Rosebud": "Enough!"
The agony of it can be tasted. As if I have something to discharge that comes half way up my gullet, only to recede, I have the sneaky suspicion that all my writing is an eruptive metaphor. I weary of ingesting life. It has not been good to me. As I write, I feel distress. Writing is purgative as well.
If I have a bit of good fortune when I come to die, may the "Rosebud" of my mind be Rochelle in that 65' Mustang convertible. What a year!..."O insupportable and touching loss."
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