Friday, April 6, 2012

Me and My Camera

The last couple of months have been taken up with preparing a photography exhibit about the largest known gathering of women in the world. This is the Pongala festival in Trivandrum, South India, which takes place every year during February-March. Three million women gather in Trivandrum on the night before the Pongala offering, a porridge of rice and jaggery made as an offering to Bhagavati. Many temples hold this festival, but the one celebrated by the Attukal Bhagavati Temple is by far the largest.

I explored photography a little as a young girl, took a few good shots, then forgot about it till I was twenty or so. I explored it a bit more during college, and once again put it aside, this time in favor of a novel I was writing (and writing and writing and writing; I didn't seem to know when to stop). But picking up a camera again in 1999, just before I returned to India after an absence of more than fifteen years, seemed natural and right. I took pictures of everything—so much had changed and so much had stayed the same.

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.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I greatly admire talented photographers. Your work is fascinating! My daughter-in-law is also very much into photography and does beautiful work, but she has not as yet shown any of it.

I hope you do the cover art for your next book!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jackie, I hadn't thought about doing my own cover art but maybe I will. FiveStar does a wonderful job with my covers--I have no complaints. They even show them to me in advance so I can comment. I suggested some changes to the first Anita Ray cover, for Under the Eye of Kali, but the second one, for The Wrath of Shiva (due out in July) was perfect just as it was.

I would encourage your daughter to exhibit her work--there's something very satisfying about hanging your own photograph and seeing it in a show.

Mary Schoenecker said...

Very interesting blog, Susan. I especially liked your photoof the row of women cooking over small fires. It brings many questions to mind, like what are they cooking? Is it an open market or a competition? Photographydoes that. It opens the mind to question.

bdtharp said...

What a wonderful blog. Good photography definitely tells a story. I used to paint portraits with oils, now I paint them with words. I think it's fascinating how the creative mind works and finds ways to tell stories. -BD

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