On Screens and Notre-Dame

A couple weeks ago, as Notre-Dame burned, I thought about my first trip to Paris, in 1995. I was 21, and it was April of my senior year of college. I met my high school best friend, Wendy, in Paris (she was studying abroad for the semester), and we traveled from there to Nice, Rome, Florence, and Venice, before returning to Paris. I carried a Minolta with me and took rolls and rolls of film, but I can’t find the photographs anymore, and I have almost no memory of the pictures I took. I do remember one, of a little Parisian boy rolling in the grass in a park where we had sat down to hang out.

Mostly what I remember from that trip is having a lot of time to read and think and just look. We sat on park benches for hours, reading, eating baguettes, and watching the people walk by. I read and wrote in a journal. Wendy wrote in her journal with a fountain pen, in French. We called our parents every few days from payphones on the street—just a few minutes before our francs or lire ran out. For those 17 days, we were totally disconnected from everyone we knew, except each other.

I was imagining what that trip would be like today. The texting and emailing and FaceTiming with friends and family. The sharing to Instagram and Twitter. Having a map in my hands at all times. Wendy and I were walking from our pensione in Rome to the Spanish Steps, and we ran into the Colosseum. And as we tried to find the Spanish Steps, we sat down and turned around and realized we were sitting at the bottom of the very steps we were looking for. That wouldn’t happen today, with iPhones in our hands. We started every morning, each of us buying a bottle of water and a fresh-out-of-the-oven baguette. Throughout the day, we would gnaw on our baguettes when we got hungry, maybe stop for a slice of pizza or a gelato in the afternoon, and then aimlessly look for places to eat dinner on our way back to our hotel every night. Today we would just look for restaurants on Yelp. It would save a lot of time, but it would also eliminate that sense of serendipity we had when we happened upon an amazing restaurant in a basement where we had pasta and wine and talked and talked.

Can I go back to that time? To a time before screens?

I bought an iPad several years ago, to show photos to clients, and I tried reading books on it, but I just couldn’t stand staring at another screen. Being able to carry dozens and dozens of books with me to Europe would’ve been easy, but I kept the copy of Leaves of Grass I took to Europe, and that meant more to me than any e-book ever could.

I bought an Apple Watch recently, and returned it a month later. You see the push–pull here? The conflict? At first, I was thrilled with all the information it gave me. Within 24 hours, I had turned off all notifications on the thing, because I didn’t want to be buzzed or beeped at so much. I used it just for activity tracking for a while, and then even that I found obtrusive. I didn’t count my steps in Europe. I just walked and walked and walked. It didn’t matter how many miles I had walked or flights I had climbed. I just knew I was standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris spread out before me.

I’m wearing an analog watch now, for the first time in years, because why look at my phone to check the time, and look at a screen more than I do already?

What is this about? I love technology in so many ways. I love the sense of community I have online. Some of my best friends I met through Twitter or Instagram. And Wendy and I have lost touch—although I texted her as Notre-Dame burned, and we arranged a time to talk on the phone, for the first time in seven years.

I cried watching Notre-Dame burn, and I didn’t know why. I’m an agnostic, I was never Catholic, and churches hold no special meaning for me. I cried watching Notre-Dame burn, I realize now, because it wasn’t just Notre-Dame I was crying for. It was the memories of that trip to Europe when I was 21, of a time and a place that feels lost to me, as lost as Notre-Dame appeared to be as the flames consumed the famous spire. And yet Notre-Dame still stands, and will stand for hundreds more years, and that time before screens is gone forever.

Stepping Out

Last month, I rented a Leica M6 for a weekend. I’d had a nagging sense that I was missing out on something. I’d never shot with a Leica before, and it had been nearly 14 years since I last shot film. It was fun, changing things up—it’s always exciting, trying something new. But I was so happy to discover that it didn’t change how I see or how I shoot. And in the end, although I like the results, I like my Canon 5D Mark IV even more. Sacrilege? Maybe. But it feels good to love the one you’re with.

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Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings

I went to the Getty on the closing day of the exhibition Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, which I had been meaning to see since it opened. That I waited until the last possible moment to see something I had wanted to see for months says something about where I am right now.

I became aware of Sally Mann through Immediate Family (1992), the photographs of her children that first shone a spotlight on Mann and her work. Soon after, I happened upon the documentary What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (2008) and, through that, discovered some of her more recent work. I savored her memoir, Hold Still (2015), on a train trip several years ago. But there is something about seeing the breadth of Mann’s work in one exhibition, tying together family and place and history (of both family and place) that made me think about it differently. What previously had felt disjointed to me (children, aging bodies, dead bodies, landscapes) now felt like one cohesive body of work illuminating, ultimately, Mann herself—what she loves, what she fears, what she worries over, the way a dog worries a bone.

In the past year or two, I’ve been letting my hair grow. It’s longer now than it’s ever been before, so long that it easily becomes matted underneath. On the surface, it looks okay, but it’s masking a huge mat of hair that I have to brush out every night. Brushing out the mat of hair reminds me of carding wool. And the only time I’ve ever carded wool was in an art class I took when I was 5 years old. Forty years have passed, and I still remember the feeling of carding wool and watching it be spun into yarn that I could make a little swatch with. Forty years and every night I am back in my 5-year-old self, feeling the pleasure of untangling a mess and making it right.

Lately, I’ve felt like my life has become matted, and I need to spend time carding it, untangling the mess. On the surface, it looks fine. But underneath, there are lingering questions: What do I care about? What keeps me up at night? What is the through line of my work? What do these projects say about me? And what am I trying to say? How is the environment I’m living in shaping me, for better or worse? How can I get to some kind of singularity of focus, some essential truth that blocks out everything else, the way the moon blocks the sun during a total eclipse?

I recognize now that there are times in my life when I have been knitting—producing something every day. And there are other times when I’ve been spinning—working toward a goal with alacrity and purpose. And then there are times when I’ve found myself with a mound of raw wool to be carded. It is so easy, in these times, to distract myself. It is so easy to sit down in the evening and binge whatever show everybody is talking about, or stare at my phone, refreshing Twitter and Instagram over and over, until it’s time to go to bed. It is so much harder to see the potential in that raw wool, and to have the patience to card it.

Pressing Pause

So many words and photos are coming at me, all day long. I just want to stop the world and catch up for a year. I love Instagram, I really do. But the images fly by, and I worry I don’t even know how to look at a photograph anymore. Twitter is so quick and the news is coming at us so fast that I can’t develop a thought or have a conversation. Back in the day, blogging was how I connected with other photographers, how I put my work out in the world. Blogging feels dead these days. Who has the time to write, let alone read?

I’m writing this on a Monday night in the middle of January, and I don’t know if I’ll ever even publish it for anyone else to see. But it’s an attempt, however small, to stop, to breathe, to think. If I keep this up, maybe I’ll start making this blog public. Just these few minutes have helped, though. And that’s something.