Journal 11/30

Well, it happened, even though I didn’t want it to.  Another class overcame me, and I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to finish and refine my essay.  I had trouble finding the words that I felt captured my site – nothing felt quite right, but I also didn’t feel like my own words were sufficient.  I am certainly no poet, and I felt like no prose I could write would contain enough poetry.  I spent so many hours looking for words that worked, but nothing felt quite right.  I tweaked and tested things I’d found, and stumbled upon something that I felt worked enough, then promised myself I could go back later.  Except – life happened.  Other classes happened.  I found myself at 11:30 on Sunday night staring at the computer screen I’d been sitting at for 12 hours making maps, thinking, oh my god.  I have to post my website.  So I decided to let it go, to believe that it was enough.  Post it, let the burden fall off my shoulders, and learn what I can from posting an imperfect essay.

Here’s what I learned by making this essay:  while I feel like it is somewhat easy to convey emotion through a single photograph (as long as you take enough, at least one will speak to you), tying that emotion throughout an essay is very, very hard.  There are so many ways to change it subtly, so that it no longer holds the same power.  Just stringing together individual photos that have power is not enough – how do they speak to each other?  What do they tell as a whole?  What if your words are only detracting, not enhancing?  Additionally, maintaining emotion and momentum is tricky.  Inevitably some parts of the essay hold slightly less emotion in them, and it can be difficult to keep the ups and downs in check so that attention doesn’t wander and overall the essay as a whole as impact.  All of the parts can be impactful individually, but they may fall flat when they come together.  Do I feel like I got it completely right?  No.  Do I feel like I got parts of it right?  Absolutely.

In the end, while I don’t feel like this essay is the best work I’ve ever done, I am still proud of it, proud of the work I’ve done during the semester, and happy to publish it and let it go.  Everything I do is a learning experience, including getting it not quite right, and as long as I accept that and am grateful for so many opportunities to learn, I am on the right path.

 

Journal 11/22

I have decided to go about making my final photo essay almost completely by feel.  I again laid out all of my photos, and felt around for the sequences that felt right.  For text, I re-read my old journal entries, finding text that somehow fit with my photo sequences, fit on a gut level.  In a way, I feel like I’m cheating by not “intellectualizing” this process.  My essay is not complex.  I have not pulled some esoteric text that proves how much I know about poetry or literature.  I do, in fact, love to read and probably could have pulled text that fit, but at the end of the day, I am going back to my instincts here, putting together an essay that I do not intellectualize, but instead simply feel.

During the course of the semester, I went through a cycle with my site.  At first, I simply felt.  Later, as nuances of the site revealed themselves, and complexities emerged, I struggled with the mixed feelings the site gave me.  In order to make sense of the complexities, I added brain, and reason.  I started trying to show this in my photography, to see both sides of the site.  But truthfully, exploring this side didn’t really work on a visceral level, and the photos of the more everyday mundane aspects of the site just didn’t seem to fit, didn’t seem to carry the same weight.  The photos that worked were the photos that evoked emotion, the ones that didn’t engage the brain but pulled at the soul.  This is what works on my site.  I came full circle, embracing this for my final essay.  I want people to feel my site the way I did.

I also came to peace with what I want to get out of this essay, this class.  I don’t care about making something complex or innovative just for complexity’s sake.  Sure, I could figure out how to do something that would show off how intelligent I am, or how complicated my brain is, or how innovative I am, but for this, I just don’t see the point.  Would it get me a better grade?  Maybe.  Like I said, I feel sort of like I’m cheating, because I am simply flowing through this final assignment by feel, not slaving over it or staying up until 4 am writing code.  The only way to know that I’m “doing a good job” is to slave over things and have them be hard.  This is not hard.  This is a flow, a dance, an impulse.  But what is the point of making it hard?  I said this in a previous post, but I am happy with what this class has taught me.  I am satisfied with my efforts, even if I am not the best photographer in the world or will have the most interesting final essay.  The grade I get will not help me get a job, or hurt me and prevent me from getting a job.  It will not tell people how useful I am, how much I am worth.  It will not tell people how happy I was with the class, or myself.  It won’t even tell people my potential as a photographer.  My grade won’t reflect me.  But my photo essay will, and if it shows that sometimes, I operate out of subtlety, out of feel, that I am not always innovative, or intellectually powerful?  I’m ok with that.  These are the things I am coming to terms with in myself.  I may not be always exceptional, but at the same time, I am always exceptional

I chose this class because I needed something different.  Last year, I dealt with some health issues that were partially caused by stress, and would worsen with more stress.  I spent the summer forgiving myself, letting to, re-examining the choices I was making and the life I was living.  I slowed down, decided that I didn’t have to be the best, that just being myself WAS the best.  This class seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity to practice these new skills, to learn to explore and see without judging.  I was nervous at first when so many people seemed to immediately intellectualize their choice of site, tying it to a project or a thesis, because I thought it would be painfully obvious that I was just this silly girl who wanted to take photos that felt like something, but it didn’t turn out to be like that at all.  I did what I wanted to do, and it felt right.  I don’t want to change my approach now for the final essay just because some ancient impulse in me is telling me “work harder!  you’re not suffering enough!”

I’m done suffering.  I’m feeling out this dance between me, my images, and my words.  And it is enough for me.

Journal 11/16

For my looking response, I chose the beginning sequence of Death of a Valley.  I loved how the images set up the story of this bucolic valley, showing its people and its life and history.  I began with the image of the woman holding her hand out, welcoming us to her valley, although now I relize that I should have started with the first page of text, the page with the words “And the Valley Held Generations in its Palm.”  It is a nice setup to then see the woman, a genial look on her face, palm extended.  She is the representative of the valley, not only extending her hand in welcome, but appearing wholesome, healthy, happy and maternal, the valley’s grandmother.

The next image is an overview shot of the valley, showing the town as its situated next to a river.  I think in this case it is effective to show the larger image first, with detail shots after (unlike many other times that I am thinking of in class when students used the reverse in an effective manner).   The point here is not to show detail and disorient first, only revealing the whole later.  The point is to show the overall whole, peaceful, bucolic, and sunny, and then go in and pick out details.

The next image is of a white farmhouse with what looks like lilacs out in front, surrounded by old trees.  This image to me is so peaceful, and also so familiar – it reminds me very much of my favorite old farmhouse in Sonoma county (and in fact this valley is located very near Sonoma County), resembling it almost to a t.  I can just imagine how the lilac smells, and I picture farm cats roaming around, and fresh fruit coming off the trees.  It speaks of California to me, the old-fashioned California that still exists in pockets in the North Bay, part of the history of the state.

The last image is of an old cemetary, surrounded by California Poppies, the state flower, and ancient, wobbling headstones.  While the previous images showed the current life of the valley, this image shows its past and history, completing the series.  In just four images, we see the people of the valley and their friendliness, we get an overview of the valley, we see how its people live, and we see the history of its people.  Its quite a narrative to pack into four photos, but its very effective.

I realize now that I chose four photos without text.  As mentioned before, I realize now that I should have included the first page of text, not only for how it sets up the photo of the woman extending her hand, but because it sets up the story of the valley.  However, I think that even without the text, the narrative of the valley is clear.  We still get an effective snapshot of the valley with simply the images.

I am struggling a bit more with my own narrative.  Since last week, I have taken a bit of a step away from my images.  I am worried about the narrative emerging, worried that I don’t have enough strong photos to convey any sort of narrative, or at least one that’s strong enough.  As I talked about in last week’s journal, I’m also worried that my strongest images don’t tell the whole narrative of the place, and that bothers me.

I am struggling a bit in general, right now in school and my life.  Recently a lot of things have conspired to pull down my energy levels and my mental capacity to bounce back, and I would be lying if I said that it was not affecting my view of my photos and this narrative.  Perhaps after a brief break I will be myself again, but right now the anxiety is taking over, and I am paralyzed, unable to move forward.

Journal 11/8

I’m feeling a lot of mixed emotions about my essay.  I had been thinking about it intellectually, top-down, which is how I approach nearly every single assignment I ever do.  But after meeting with Anne last Thursday, I am attempting to read the story bottom-up, sensing what emerges, and it is making me feel very insecure.

I’m disappointed that the images I have don’t seem to support the full story of my site.  I spent the semester really reading the site, learning its beauty and its dark side, reading both the spirituality and the humanity.  Each assignment asked us to look at a particular element of our site, or to find certain ways of seeing on our site, and while I tried to choose striking and evocative photos for each assignment, I also chose photos that seemed to fit the assignment and show what I wanted to show well.  For the essay, though, we are encouraged to choose the narrative based on our strongest and most evocative photos.  It is hard for me to go from trying to show something specific, and intellectualizing my photography to judging my photos almost solely on their aesthetic value.  I am uncomfortable with this because it opens up the opportunity to judge myself, judge my work, and feel insecure that I wasn’t able to achieve exactly what I wanted to achieve (ie, having striking photos that tell the WHOLE story of my site).  It can be discouraging to know that I don’t have the skill and/or talent at this time to be able to tell the story that I feel and know intellectually.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the class was that there really was no judging.  We showed our photos and everyone was given equal time, equal analysis, equal comments, equal conversation.  Unlike, say, a studio class, where everyone is judging and critiquing you harshly, and people with superior aesthetic skills are held in the highest regard, I felt safe knowing that what mattered most was the looking, the viewing, and the learning, not necessarily my ability to be the best photographer in the class.  I never felt judged.  I felt accepted.  I felt safe to learn, to make mistakes, to move at my own pace.  For once, I stopped judging what came out of the camera, and I began to feel as though it all had value.  It felt great, and it made me feel confident.  Its hard now to judge my skill.  Although overall I feel happy with many of the photos I took and more confident at my skill behind a camera, it was still hard to see Anne look over all of my photos, and emerging with only a small handful that were deemed “striking.”  Is this normal, I thought?  Do most people have more?  Should I have more?  I had to push these questions out of my head.

Now I feel stuck.  In a way, I’m afraid to look at my photos again, afraid that I will realize that I don’t have enough strong images to create a complete narrative.  I don’t want to look at all 324 photos and feel like they are all a waste.  I don’t want to sit there wishing I had more, blaming myself for not having more.  When I intellectualized it, I could choose the best photos that fit a particular theme, but I didn’t have to choose my Best Photos of All Time.  What if I realize that I really only have 4 great photos out of 324?  How do I then tell a great story out of those, without the story feeling thin and sparse?  These are the issues I’m wrestling with in my head.  Fears, insecurities, judging myself, comparing myself.  All of the things that have gotten me into trouble in the past.  All of the things that have made my work less than authentic in the past.

How do I just trust myself, and trust the story that emerges?

Journal 11/1

I have to say, using rhetorical devices to describe my site does not come naturally to me.  It simply isn’t language that I relate to.  Throughout this course, I’ve change a lot of the ways in which I photograph, and see what I am photographing.  The first time I photographed my site, I took 15 photos.  Now, I routinely take 50 or more.  I have almost 300 photos from the whole semester.  I am much more satisfied with my photos now than before, and I feel as though I have some control over my camera, what I see and how I see, and editing in Photoshop.  But the one thing that has not changed is that I feel my site viscerally.  I can describe it in words that evoke meaning, emotion, or even provoke contemplation, but describing it in terms of rhetorical devices is extremely difficult.  It adds a layer of intellectualism that I feel just doesn’t exist on my site.  I don’t WANT to intellectualize my site.  I almost feel as though intellectualizing it would somehow make it lose some of its luster.  I want to simply feel my site.

As my narrative develops though, that’s harder and harder to do.  I’ve written before about how over the course of the semester the story of my site has changed, from simply a beautiful, calm landscape of spirituality to a landscape of duality, one that posesses those qualities but also the mundane, the profane of human life (and college life, at that).  I find myself resisting it.  I want to keep the site sacred.  I want to keep it a refuge.  I want to hide from the college students who smoke and leave their cigarette butts on the ground.  This is the tension I will be exploring in my narrative.  But assign rhetorical devices?  Aren’t I struggling with enough tension already?  🙂

Journal 10/24

Contrast

On my site, there is a small lane with houses on either side that is home to clergy and faculty.  This little lane was what first drew me to the site – not the towering church, the gothic architecture, or the Brutalist library.  I stumbled upon it on the snow, and from where I stood, it seemed to me to be the perfect picture of a small New England town.  Saltbox houses set in small lawns, a gravel road, and a backdrop of a miniature New England wood seemed idylic and quaint to me.  I fell in love immediately, and wondered what sort of place I had found.  On my way out, though, I turned around to look at the other side of the lane.  That side was the exact opposite of the image I’d seen on my way in – 1960’s architecture with large glass windows, spare Japanese Maples, and a backdrop of rooflines, not trees.  For a long time when I started revisitng the site for this class, I couldn’t make sense of the stark contrast on either side of the lane.  On one hand, I am still drawn to the New England-y side of the lane, and often take pictures of it when I visit.  On the other hand, I have never once taken a photo of the other side of the lane, and can’t imagine why I would, aside from highlighting the stark contrast in this miniature village.  Its like two different worlds only yards apart from one another – the contrast is something I still grapple with, turning my body fully towards one side or the other, rarely taking in both sides at once.

Rhythm

The facades of the buidlings on my site lend themselves to rhythm easily.  The main wing of dorms (the photo from the details assignment with the fans) presents a facade that repeats itself over and over – window, window, recess, window with an arch, end recess, window, window, repeat, repeat.  The roofline goes small peak, large peak, small peak, large peak, again and again.  Even the stones in the facade create a pattern and a rhythm, and it makes me imagine the rhythm of the life that happens behind the facade, the patterns of the student’s lives as a second layer behind the patterns of the facade.

Climax

I see climax on my site in the spire on top of the church.  The spire is, to me, the culmination of all of the prayer, the study, the devotion, and the hopes and dreams of the students.  They all gather together, constantly, and the energy that they create winds its way up the spire, around and through the cross, and into the sky, for God, or whatever/whomever to hear, or answer.  The spire is also the tallest point on the site, so on a more practical note, it is actually the geographical climax of the site.  This was highlighted by the bird that I found, resting on the cross, on one of the days that I visited the site – the bird automatically found the climax of the site and used it as its perch, emphasizing it as the high point, the highlight, the culmination of the site.

Anachronism/Prochronism

I chose these terms to describe the contrast in the architecture of the library, which is a 1960’s Brutalist-style building, and the main building, which is almost gothic in its architecture.  But I can’t seem to decide if the main building is an anachronism, or the library is a prochronism.  Which is out of place, the past or the future?  I don’t know that I have an answer.

Euphemism

Ephemism is everywhere on my site.  Not necessarily explicitly, but to me, at least, it is implied.  It is a calm, holy, reverent place, a place where religious leaders are born.  This is played out in the architecture, in the silence, in the trees and lawns, the landscaping, the arhcitecture.  But, and I keep forgetting this, it is home to college students.  College students, even if they are destined to be religious leaders, drink soda, ride their bikes everywhere, hang out in groups, try to act cool, and sometimes steal away to the shadows, where they can’t be seen, to do things they don’t want people to see.  Once, when I was visiting the site in the evening, I saw two students (one male, one female) sitting in a childs play structure in the dark, whispering, hidden.  The next time I went back to the site, the play structure was gone, and the yard was again restored to its stately self.  While I know it wasn’t cause and effect, it almost felt like the site saw what I saw, deemed it unsavory, and cleaned itself up for me.

Euphony

Although this isn’t exactly the right word, I chose euphony to describe my site because the silence that prevails there adds so deeply to the sense of the mood on the site.  Euphony is a harmonious blending of sounds that can add a mood to a place – my site, I think, is harmonious in its silence, punctuated by low voices on occasion, or the voice of a child walking with a parent through the site.  Mostly it is the silence though, that is so pleasing to the ear, that helps it feel cohesive, calm, and like it is its own distinct “place,” separate from its surroundings.

Livvie

I found this short story very photographic in its telling.  Welty describes the settings in exquisite detail, and emotional detail, not only describing how things look, but what they mean to Livvie, and the people who created them and brought them to where they are resting.  Every description of a physical object stands for something else – the quilt that Solomon lies under is really his mother, her care, her life work; the pickled peaches and fig preserves standing for Livvie, and the small life that she occupies in the house, caring for her elderly husband.  One element that may be difficult is the thoughts inside Livvie’s head – everything that happens means something to her, affects her in some way, but she keeps it all inside her head.  I could see this story being told as a pairing of photographs and a poem, with spare use of words suggesting Livvie’s thoughts and feelings.  I think that the way the photographs are set up could speak volumes for the words unspoken.

Looking Assignment

I chose Joel Meyerowitz this week, in response to some thoughts I had last week while photographing my site on the spire of the church being the symbol for the place, much like Joel uses the arch as a symbol for the city.  In his photographs, Joel uses the arch as many different metaphors, changing its presence from small to large, caring to looming, soft to harsh.  I chose two photographs that I felt personified the arch, or turned it into character playing a role in the story of the city.  The first shows the arch in a glowing mist, behind a stately building and a statue of a human.  This, to me, showed the arch as a sort of god-like presence, looking over the city, looking over the seats of power and archetype (the building), and looking over the people (the statue).  Other poetic words that can describe this photo include framing, synechdoche, litotes, and mood.

The second photo I chose also personfiy the arch, but this time as a small, humble human rather than a great power such as God.  The photo shows the arch as a reflection in a diner window, almost as if it is a person contemplating stepping inside for a plate of eggs.  I liked how these two photos showed the arch in completely different scales – both as a large, looming, overlooking presence, and also as a small, contained, human presence.  Other poetic words to describe the second photo can include anticlimax, anastrophe, litotes.

Journal 10/17

This week, I related very closely to the discussion of scale in the reading assignment.  While photographing my site for the significant detail assignment, I seemed to naturally work at different scales than I had worked at in the light assignment.  I found myself zooming in to look at close details, examining what these details could tell me about my site, but I also, for the first time, left the site to see what it looked like from a larger scale.  What can my site tell me about itself by walking across the street, or next door, and looking back at my site?  In fact, I found more details at these two scales than at the middle scale.  Up close, details became large and important.  From far back, details became anomalies in the landscape, interruptions in patterns.  It was as if I could only see things if I examined them very closely, or very broadly.

This exploration is clear in the photos I eventually selected for the assignment.  Perhaps the two photos here illustrate it best.  I spent a great deal of time with the statue, focusing on fingers, face, feet, arms.  I loved the way the copper had aged over time, producing green streaks down the body of the statue.  The speckled green on the hands and the head revealed time and age, the processes that have worked on the statue over the years.  The other photo in this post was taken from across the street from the site.  I spotted the bird perched on the cross of the steeple, and ran across the street and around the corner to get the cross from an angle that would show its shape.  I shot photo after photo, and then, suddenly, the bird flew away.  I like this photo because the element that makes it of my site, the steeple, is almost an afterthought in the photo.  Rather than my site be the subject of my photos, it is enough to have evidence of its presence somewhere in my photos.  This allows me flexibility and exploration in a new way.

I started to think of Meyerowitz this week, the steeple of the church my St. Louis Arch or bank building, my “where’s waldo” of my site.  I suppose it began in the light assignment, in the photo of the dirty globe light with the steeple in the background, but on this assignment I made it conscious, made it into a game.  When does a photo of my become no longer a photo of my site, but a photo of something else with elements of my site present?  Yesterday I walked next door to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house, and began to shoot photos in his garden, playing with framing the steeple through branches or arches.  Do those count as photos of my site?  Does the steeple represent my site, or stand in as my site?  Once I started playing with scale and pulling back and pushing in at different scales, these questions started to emerge.  I don’t know that I have an answer.

 

Journal 10/11

To me, I related very deeply to Heaney’s idea that one’s relationship to landscape is known through both the unconscious and the learned.  That, I think, is the fundamental difference between “context” and “sense of place.”  Context is the known – the historical context, the political or zocial context, the environmental context – anything you can intellectualize.  You can be in a place, sense a place, without knowing the context.  But having a sense of place is something that is felt, sensed, tasted, heard.  Not known.  Walking into a place and feeling it – that is the “sense” in sense of place.  That’s not to say that the two can’t become combined, and in fact they often do – having contextual knowledge can deepen and intensify the sense of place, make it more complex and satisfying, and having contextual knowledge of a place can help to create an emotional connection to a place.

My site certainly began its life in my consciousness through the “sense” of it.  I suppose knowing that it was a divinity school (context) helped to shape how I sensed it, but my first reaction to it was largely felt, not intellectualized.  Even know, after spending several mornings and evenings there, seeing it through the lens of my camera, the sense is still more emotional than intellectual.

I don’t know if I agree with Heany that a landscape seen without the knowledge of a place is only seen through an aesthetic eye, and that this is necessarily a bad thing.  I feel like, at least for me, the underlying sense of a place, its culture and history, are embedded in its aesthetics and we are able to tap into our deep and vast knowledge of archetypes, cultures, history, and our own instincts to understand most landscapes beyond simply aesthetics.  That said, I am always the tourist who reads the signs describing the history and culture in the area, who reads the guidebooks prior to visiting a landscape, and who seeks at least some intellectual context for a place.  So perhaps for me, I am simply unable to see a landscape purely aesthetically, as part of MY nature.

When I think about these issues, I picture an undesigned landscape.  Growing up in California, the landscapes that instilled the most feeling in me were always the Sierra Nevada, vast areas seemingly untouched by humans.  To me, these are the landscapes that inspire a sense of place, landscapes that are pure and pregnant with their own “is”-ness.  It is hard for me to apply my own sense of what a landscape is to my site, which is urban, wholly developed, and entirely shaped by human hands.  That’s why its also hard for me to decide if a designed landscape can put people in touch with “the sense of place in its richest possible manifestation.”  How does one design that?  What does it look like?  What are those design elements that cue that feeling?  How do you quantify that?  Of course I believe that creating a rich sense of place should be the goal to which designers aspire, but I really don’t know how one would package and present that.

One thing that has changed significantly in the way I see my site is the addition of people, one of the elemental landscapes in The Language of Landscape.  The people sometimes seem to be at odds with the way I saw the site – to me, the site was sacred and quiet, but the students seemed just like me – college kids, in their early twenties, riding their bikes, wandering around in groups, carrying their laundry, sitting in the dark whispering to each other.  At first, I wanted these sometimes loud, very human students to be what I expected them to be – quiet and reverent.  But they weren’t.  They flirted with each other, smoked cigarettes, and drank sodas.  Eventually I came to accept them as a part of the site, the modern foil to the traditional context in which they lived and worked.  They changed my sense of place of the site in a way I never expected.

Looking Response

I chose Kenna’s Le Notre’s Gardens for my looking assignment.  Kenna’s gardens are ephemeral, soft, dream-like.  They convey a place that has history, power, and reverence.  He uses landscape elements, particularly trees, and sculpture as significant details, giving us clues to the nature of the landscape.  I chose two photos of the same garden that show two different aspects of the same place.

The first image I chose shows a regimented, controlled landscape of water with a very defined edge, a planted row of trees, and another row in the background.  What was interesting to me about this photo, though, was the anomalous branches reaching out over the water, and the missing tree that breaks the line, allowing space for imperfection, an opening for the eye and the mind.  This photo tells me that this space is extremely well-tended, that great care has been taken in creating a specific experience, and that control is highly valued.

The second photo I chose is of the same garden, but to me has a very different feel.  It feels less regimented, more wild, because of the way the branches reach out and form a canopy, rather than predominantly upwards as in the other photo.  This photo also shows the statue of a wolf or a dog, which also signifies wildness to me.  It is almost as though the wolf is protecting the forest, standing sentinel at its edge, warning you of what is to come.  It is darker, more enclosed, more intimate than the first image.  But together, they give me a more complete picture of the garden in its entirety, that it is composed of pieces, and that it allows for different experiences.

Journal 10/3

I revisited my site yesterday after being away from it for almost two weeks.  Whenever I visit my site, I let it lead me.  I never go with an agenda – just my camera.  I have a general path I follow, scoping out different parts of the site, saying hello, seeing if they have changed, seeing what each part wants to say to me, but the path is loose and fluid, and I wander quite a bit.

I sensed some changes in the way I saw my site this week.  The first is that I have started feeling a sense of ownership towards the site.  In the beginning, I felt like it was very obvious that I didn’t belong there, that I wasn’t a student there.  I almost expected to be asked to leave at any moment (who would ask me, I’m not really sure).  I felt self-conscious and in the way.  Yesterday, though, I felt like I was meeting with an old friend as I crossed the threshold that takes me from normal, everyday Cambridge to My Site.  Someone asked me directions, and I knew where to point him.  I walk through cloisters and across lawns like I have the right to.  The site is becoming mine, becoming a part of me, and I can feel its intimacies in a way I couldn’t before.

I also saw my site through new eyes – not just light (although at first I kept looking for interesting light), but now through the stories it tells, the significant details it quietly shares with the patient and keen observer.  Almost everything I saw, no matter how seemingly unimportant, I wondered the story behind it.  The library on campus is one of two mid-century concrete buildings, completely at odds with the rest of the gothic architecture.  The front steps of the library have been roped off my caution tape since I first started visiting the site, and the steps are crumbling in places.  Why is that concrete crumbling?  Why in some places and not others?  How long ago did it start?  When did they decide to tape it off?  As I was viewing these steps through the lens of my camera, I started to notice the concrete on the facade of the library.  Dark streaks punctuate the space below every window, creating a rhythmic pattern on the facade.  What causes those dark streaks?  Rain?  Something else?  I don’t know, but suddenly I want to know every process that takes place on that site, from the growth cycle of the trees to the story behind the patch of brighter red bricks in the middle of a wall of dark, aged bricks.

I also noticed that my conception of a significant detail (at least on my site) often means something that has been altered by the people who inhabit the site on a daily basis.  People live on my site – there are dorms for students, and houses for the clergy.  My site is a home.  Yesterday, I looked up at the facade of one of the wings of the dorms.  Fans punctuated several of the windows, forming a random pattern of round white fans set in dark rectangular windows.  I loved how it looked graphically, but I also loved what it said about the people inside and how they alter their space, my site, for their own needs and desires.  I tried to take pictures of the facade, but the light was just low enough that I wasn’t able to get a crisp shot without a tripod.  I made a note to try again, another day,  but now the weather has turned cold and I worry that the same story won’t be there when I return.

My site, I am realizing, has so many facets, so many stories it wants to tell me.  It still feels slightly magical to me, a place of refuge within a city that is at once familiar and unfamiliar to me.  In fact, now it feels even more so, now that the site and I have a level of intimacy.  I am thrilled that I so easily picking up these new lenses in which to see my site through.  I find it almost effortless to change my way of thinking about the site, from the initial gut level reaction to more nuanced, though no less stirring ways of seeing.  It makes me feel like I chose my site correctly, like I knew that it was a place with the potential to become more deeply involved with.

I have been searching for that quiet intimacy with a landscape since I’ve moved out here.  In California, and especially in the Sierra Nevada, finding that intimacy seemed effortless.  I always knew where to go to feel a connection to a place.  I never had to “learn” how to communicate with a place – it just came naturally.  But here, it was like I spoke a different language than the landscape.  I remember being thrown off by how different the vegetation is here, even.  It made me feel restless, like I had nowhere to rest, like I was constantly scanning for something, which consumed far too much energy.  I was disconnected, floating, wandering.  When I first discovered my site, for the first time, I felt some sort of ease.  It was as though for just a second, I stopped scanning.  Learning to gain greater intimacy with my site quiets the scanning even more.  Learning to read my site makes me feel, just for a moment, whole, connected, and alive.

Journal 9/27

Reading my Site

As someone not from the East Coast, something that strikes me deeply about this part of the country is the many-layered landscape, shaped by centuries of human hands.  While I’m not trying to discount native settlers, the extent of alteration, burying, construction, deconstruction, and determination to shape space by white people just boggles my mind.  Every step I take, I wonder how that spot has been manifested at intervals of the past.  It doesn’t hurt that historical markers are everywhere in this town, prompting one to take a mental journey to whatever date the marker is calling to attention, and imagine that someone else once stood there, feeling the same quality of light, the same depth and heaviness of the air, the same anticipation of winter, spring, whatever.  In my head, I picture the process through which our present-day landscape has been created as sort of a layer cake, strata of history laid on the ground, or rings in the trunk of the tree, marking how the landscape has changed over the centuries.

My site, the Episcopal Divinity School, is no exception to this historical layering process.  I’m not really sure the age of the buildings – I know that the school itself was only formed in the 1970’s after two other seminaries merged, but I believe that many of the buildings were built upon the founding of one of the original seminaries, in the 1850’s.  I also know that Cambridge as a town is much older than that – what did the soil of my site see before these buildings were built?  How many iterations of homes, public buildings, or churches came before?  This is how I think about the processes that made my site – imagining the feet that have walked across the soil, year after year, but also the human growth and education processes that have taken place on the site.  How does the use of the site now – shaping religious leaders of all shapes and forms – shape how the site feels, how it reads?

The site strikes almost everyone as unusually silent, a respite in the middle of Cambridge.  Is this a manifestation of the purpose of the site?  Does the site know the gravity of the activities it hosts?  I sort of think it does.

When I think of the form and performance space of the site, I picture the people I have seen, moving between the buildings, crossing the paths, compacting the lawn over and over again.  I also think of small snippets of use I have seen – the two students sitting in the dark in a tree house in the children’s playground one of the warm, humid nights I was there, or the way students always ride their bike in the back way, everyone dismounting in almost the exact same spot in front of the bike racks.  I think of the couple I saw, walking quietly down the cloister – it wasn’t until I saw them from the front that I realized that they were carrying laundry, such an everyday occurrence in such a sacred space.

Lastly, I think of the material of the site.  I associate the site with the stone of the buildings and the clarity of the air and light.  Its almost as though the air there is what causes the silence – as though it is so clear that it cuts through the sound.  The permanence and solidness of the stone buildings is somehow also balanced by the clarity of the light (at least at this time of year).  The two come together to make this site feel, at least to me, like somewhere quiet, solid, calm, and clear.

Dorothea Lange

In looking at the photos by Dorothea Lange, I found that the humanity of the people she managed to capture distracted me significantly from the actual objects or landscape within the photo.  Over and over, I was drawn to the people, not the setting.  On occasion, an object or a setting would play a role in making the people more human, more alive, but mostly it was the faces that struck me.  In this way, I was almost entirely unable to see the significant details until I read the captions; even then, it was the information in the captions about the family history and family structure that I loved the most.  Because of this, I chose a photo pairing about a specific family, the Arnolds.

I chose the first photo pairing based on one photo, that of the Arnold children posing with the oldest boy’s bike that he had purchased with his own earnings.  Two details struck me – the younger girl holding a cat in her arms (I’m a sucker for a cat), but also the face of the fourth child in the window.  The caption says “three of the four Arnold children,” but in fact the fourth is there.  The framing of the photo, including the fourth child through the window, right at the edge of the photo, rewards you for looking deeper, looking beyond the boy and the bike.  The cat, I believe tells its own story – of the children’s desire for companionship and domesticity, perhaps for dreams of permanence and settlement, and the entire family’s willingness and ability to harbor a pet.  I really love also that the child decided that the cat had a place in the photo.  I realize that it’s entirely possible that the cat wasn’t even theirs, or just hung out at the house but was not “owned” by the family, or that it just happened to be walking by before the photo was taken, but I like to believe that it tells its own story within the photo.

In the second photo, of the mother with the children standing in front of their strawberry fields, I notice the mother’s clothes.  In almost every other photo I have seen in the book of women, they are wearing dresses.  This woman is wearing pants and a work shirt – indeed, in another photo that goes with this caption, she is seen hauling stumps to be burned.  Her hair is covered by a scarf or a hat of some sort, and she is wearing work boots.  This tells the story of a family where everyone contributes, and traditional social roles sometimes must be broken, for the sake of staking out a successful life and making a basic living.  She is unique in this book for me because of her clothes.  I particularly like how I can just make out her boots, behind the ferns, and I am glad that Lange caught her whole presence in the photo.