The term “outsider art” isn’t heard very much if at all among writers or among those outside the professional art world. But I am, by default, someone who produces “outsider art.” I have never been trained as a photographer, and have never studied photography as an art form. I have never learned the finer (or coarser) principles of design and arrangement, color and balance, framing and technique. I can barely manage the technical aspects of my very advanced digital SLR, just as I struggled to appreciate my very advanced film SLR.
The technical aspect of photography eludes me much of the time. Instead, my mind is always on the image. My photographs are an attempt to capture the life I’m experiencing at the time I’m in it.
My husband gave me a small point-and-shoot when I left for India in 1999, and said only, “Fill the frame. When you take a picture, fill the frame.” I kept that in mind, and some of my best photographs—including one that was my first sale—were taken with that simple camera and those words in mind. The next year I was using a film SLR.
My relationship to my photography is hard to explain. I enter juried shows and enjoy seeing my work hanging next to the work of far more accomplished photographers. I occasionally sell a photograph, and I find that amusing and pleasing. I very much enjoy putting together exhibits because they allow me to develop a narrative to go along with the photographs. In my heart of hearts, I want to tell a story, and if a series of photographs enables me to do so, then I’m ready.
One of my favorite photographers is Ansel Adams, but as much as I admire his photographs of Yosemite National Park, I have never taken a shot of nature (sans humans) that has ever seemed to have any quality worth noting. To me, in my photographs, trees are just trees. I want people.
But perhaps this slow-to-blossom love of photography runs deeper in me than I have apprehended. A few years ago I started to put the pieces together. When I was cleaning out my mother’s house after her death, I came upon boxes and boxes of photographs—the earliest dating from the Civil War. I didn’t think much of it—after all, my mother’s family lived in upstate New York, near the birthplace of Eastman Kodak. But as someone pointed out to me, most families don’t have quite so many photographs surviving through the years. My family photographed everyone. My grandfather was a photographer, and some of his photographs are better than good. My mother was a photographer, and I have the cases and cases of slides to prove it.
So here I am, following along a family path I never really knew existed until a few years ago. But as I look back at the preceding paragraphs, I can’t help thinking that here again is the drive for narrative. I could have packed this brief essay with photographs (instead of the two I have used), and talked about the nature of the images. But instead I’ve made up a story about family. It’s all about pictures, images, scenes that take us into another life, another way of being in the world. Right now the pictures are found in a glass lens. Perhaps tomorrow they’ll come out of my writer’s eye.