Always held close in your fear

After several months of sitting on it, taking forever to finish it off (and only 36 exposures! amazing what the cost of printing will cause you to be stingy about), I finally had a film roll developed at my nearby lab. I had not shot a roll in nearly a year, and before then, not in about a decade. I had never shot in black and white at all, before the winter before last.

I was far more encouraged by the results of this set than the one from last year. Perhaps last year’s pieces were tied too closely to emotions that were difficult to process, tied up in too much pain. I’m not sorry I took them — I’ve taken millions of photographs in my life, having picked up my first camera over 25 years ago — I will never be sorry to have taken a photograph. But the keep ratio on that roll was embarrassingly low, and I had set too high a bar to challenge myself with, after so long away from the unforgiving, changeable, wonderfully unpredictable nature of film. I shot nearly an entire roll late at night, wandering alone out on the streets of the city, with an old, persnickety steel tripod and a handheld shutter release shaking in my hands in the coldest weeks of winter, losing the feeling in my fingers, wishing I still owned a pocket watch to properly time the seconds of my long exposures. The camera body itself is 10 years older than I am, and made of steel, too. Its heft is reassuring and dependable, but must be adjusted to. I stumbled a lot, on that roll.

This second batch is certainly not without its errors, and not just because I’m not the only one to use it — a couple of friends picked it up, at my urging, for a few shots. I ended up, somehow (too many months have passed to be sure how), with a few double-exposures, one is entirely underexposed — so much so it took me a few minutes to decipher where I had taken and what it had been of. A few are not a good mix of aperture and shutter speed, and came out sadly flat as a result — black & white film is completely unforgiving to a failure in getting those elements talking to one another smoothly, and will wash most all detail away in mid-range grays as punishment.

And yet… the ones that do work, this time, outnumber those that do not. And the ones that work rather stunned me. It has been such a long time since I felt so moved by any of my own work. I am reminded how much more deeply film carries a feeling of place and memory for me, in a way that digital never has. It’s not that digital photographs I’ve taken (which still greatly outnumber those I’ve shot on film, sadly) hold no meaning or value to me; quite the contrary. But no digital photograph has ever given me the feeling of sudden and deep transport back to a place I once was and exposed a frame to light in the way that photos like these do. And the places (the poppy fields, Hollyhock House) and things I most hoped to capture — to freeze in time, as Susan Sontag once described us photographers as constantly, vainly fighting to do — were right there before my eyes, almost as if I had been transported directly back into those very moments again. I’ll even admit to audibly gasping at one or two, they exceeded my expectations so completely. The warmth and texture, the true depth of space, the contrast and purely imprinted light… I have scrolled through the lot of them several times already, and with a sense of deep contentment with my work I have not felt in perhaps many years. This is how you want a photograph to make you feel, but it’s been long enough since I last achieved this, I had forgotten what a powerful feeling it can be. I’m sure some will be posted here, or elsewhere, soon. I can feel proud to place my name under them. I also can see better what my margin of error will be with this particular film I’ll have to work within for a series I’ve been planning to shoot for years, and will begin work on soon. But looking through these, I can also see — within those limits — what I am capable of capturing, within those limits, and it is encouraging.

One photograph in particular — and it is not even one of the technically “successful” ones; it is underexposed and not fully in focus, though I knew the moment I took it I would be lucky if anything in it would come out discernible at all — captures a treasured memory, a very precious moment in time. I surprised myself, at the time, in even daring to take it. And it is fairly dark, and somewhat blurred, but… it is there. My happiness in that moment, my peace and contentment, are right there within it, alive still.

Seeing any sort of hope realized, for once, even a relatively small one, feels so rare to me, or possibly it just seems that way of late. Looking at it reminds me how I still long for another moment like it, but seeing it preserved better than I dared hope I might be able to makes that feel not quite so impossible now, somehow. I did not know even a slice of my own face could look as beautiful as it does there, and that is a hopeful thing to see, too.

I drive off in my car

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1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass (Hollywood)

I may not be doing a damn thing when it comes to actively shooting the photo series I’ve been talking and talking about shooting for easily three years now, but I do spend quite a lot of time thinking about things that I recognize are elements connected to what it might eventually become; what I want most for it to somehow express. (If I ever turn thought into action, of course, as the caveat goes. As an engine myself running almost entirely on varying types and degrees of anxiety, this is one of the greatest hurdles of my life, no matter which problem of non-action you apply it to. Choose any one thing: if I have not done it, I am vibrating silently in anxiety over both it, and the 500 invented reasons why I have yet to do it.) Maybe I’m simply doubtful I could ever, at this point, create work that could even begin to communicate such a concept. Moving from concept to execution: the bane of my existence.

I think about it when I’m sitting at stop lights, inevitably, because the idea first arrived in my mind while watching strangers doing the very same thing. I think about it because, in my ideal world of action, I should be somewhere out on the sidewalk, capturing it, rather than participating in it. I think about it when I watch people pull into the gas station I always use from the wrong direction; they’re operating from within the bubble I want to document. I think about it when I’m doing the very private things in my own car I want to catch strangers doing: singing… crying. Particularly the latter, though I usually save that for nighttime, when other drivers can’t really see into other cars. I think about it a lot.

Aimless driving is one of those many things, too. It’s something I’ve engaged in ever since I was able to drive, once I finally had a car of my own (as two years passed between the two). In my hometown, it was an easy habit to engage in, both because I was largely miserable, and because there is nowhere to go there. I would simply get into the car, usually when my mother was already asleep (i.e. any time after 9PM), and drive. Typically north, but always along the coast. I would do it simultaneously very aware of having nowhere to go, and not caring. Gas was much cheaper when this habit formed, but I still do it now. Being as desperately broke as I am (and apparently will forever be) cannot stop me from doing it even now, as long as there is gas in the car already. I don’t even attempt to justify it to myself, both because I know this isn’t possible, and also because it’s the rare thing in my life about which I could give a fuck regarding its justification to myself.

I was aimlessly driving around just last night, which was a poor choice; it was a Friday night, in and around Hollywood; peak traffic time for those with actual lives who have concrete destinations and plans to get to and from, which felt both annoying and exclusionary. When I do this, in a city as large and busy as this one, I typically allow traffic to direct me, because there is nothing else to decide where I will go, or which route I will take to get there and back. If the roads are not so packed, though, I’ve found that I sometimes will — without meaning to, of course — dissociate slightly, here and there. I will lose focus on where I am, and what I am doing. I will follow blurred head- or taillights more closely than more immediate indicators. I put absurd trust into my sense of where exactly on the road I am, simply because I have learned over many years that I can. (My mother would kill me, if she knew.) I have good instincts in a car — mainly thanks to the manner in which I was taught to operate one, and my generally good reflexes — and am not overly concerned about my control over the vehicle, but at the same time, I’m rather amazed I’ve never gotten into an accident; my concentration is not at 100%, any time that I am doing this, because I am going nowhere.

This ever-developing project inevitably came to mind again last night, because it is mostly about the strange space we enter into when we are inside cars, and how deeply they alter our behavior. They become protective bubbles we feel we have absurdly more control over than we actually do (and this doesn’t even take into account the thousands of other drivers, even less predictable than ourselves, we are sharing those roads with); these bizarre, heavy, sharp, mechanical, deadly extensions of ourselves. Or rather, we behave and feel as though this is what they are.

People often express outrage, dismay, and helpless confusion as to why and how it is that human beings treat automobile accident fatalities — which occur in astronomical numbers — so casually, but I am sure all these psychological elements are a part of that. We accept that cars can kill us — are more statistically likely to kill us than any other entirely separate entity or object we regularly engage with, by far — almost casually, because some part of us sees them as an extension of our bodies. We feel protective of them, react to traffic transgressions as personal slights; gas and brake pedals can feel like extensions of our legs, the turning wheels a greater reach of our hands steering them. (This is, when you examine it closely, something like a shared lucid state of all drivers, flirting a bit with mild insanity.) Maybe we associate cars and driving so deeply with escape because merely driving one is skirting more closely to death than just about any other activity we ever participate in on a regular basis. Of course a car can kill you; cancer can kill you, too. It feels more akin to that than an outside element acting upon us, as with homicide, which we react to with far more visceral horror. Until, of course — potentially, likely when you least expect it — they fold in onto you like a metallic accordion — because you are just a small, soft animal, precariously housed in a glass and metal cage full of gasoline several times your size — crushing you to death.

I think about these things while driving around, rather than about where I am going, sometimes slightly dissociating, all the time.

City of Angels

Four years ago today, I moved to Los Angeles.

I was afraid I might be running away, the sort of running away you engage in when trying to escape yourself — both impossible to accomplish and impossible to resist attempting — and maybe I was. I’m not even sure now, because returning to the state of mind I was in then is impossible. Considering how unhappy I was then, this is a relief, even if it makes the me of my early 20s essentially a stranger to me now. I don’t know how that girl was somehow able to spend so much time so alone, doing so little; I don’t know how she survived wasting the countless hours on the horrible jobs she did. I don’t now how she survived to become me, but perhaps that’s the key word: survival can erase everything but the barest essentials from your life. You can withstand things that might cripple you under other circumstances, or that might seem insurmountable from the outside, purely because human beings are as stubborn about surviving as a virulent strain of some horrible plague. We keep thinking things cannot be survived, and then survive them, almost in spite of ourselves.

One of the best novels I’ve read this year was centered around the multiple universe theory of physics. (Well, funnily enough, that’s actually true of the plots two of the best novels I’ve read this year…) The concept of the various versions of yourself you both do and do not become (or, rather, the version you become in one timeline versus another) has always been something I’ve thought of now and then, but the plot of a book bringing physical manifestation to that idea made me think on it more. Who would I have become if I hadn’t come here? How much longer could I have survived my life as it existed then? One of the few things I do remember vividly from that time is how desperate I had become to change my circumstances; I would have done just about anything to do so. I had no money, and I let that keep me from making the move for years, but eventually even that could not stop me. I risked living out of my car to get away. To come here. I only escaped that potentially disastrous outcome by the very thinnest skin of my teeth, with some unexpectedly generous outside help, and through some pretty absurd (and uncharacteristic) luck.

The first month was hell. I told no one, because I didn’t have the words, and there was really no one to tell, besides. I burst into tears in my car on several occasions, in full view of any strangers who might see through un-tinted windows; whoever I was becoming, I was frighteningly different from the woman who, just weeks before, had never even shed a tear in front of the friend she’d had since she was seven years old. It shocked and confused me; I felt like a stranger to myself. Whatever I thought I knew so solidly about myself, my identity; nothing felt certain anymore. I ate very little, and poorly; I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. On more hopeless days, I thought I might be losing my mind. Just who did I think I was, driving a U-Haul up here with absurdly unfocused hopes of finding some kind of salvation in a new city? At least actors, actresses, writers — the ceaseless tide of people who come here with dreams of becoming part of The Industry — have some idea in mind of who they want to become, of what life they want to find or manufacture. I had nothing. I didn’t have any sense of who I was then, and no idea who I might possibly be. I looked at the choice I had made the night I arrived, sitting on the floor alone in an unfamiliar apartment littered with cardboard boxes, and the brazen stupidity and recklessness of what I had done crashed over me like a wave. (And that was before I realized I’d left my cell phone with my friend already on his way back to my hometown, and knew literally no one in the city.) I can be terribly cruel to myself, but I’m sure I’ve never berated myself with more force than I likely did then, knowing I had no way to go back should I change my mind or fuck up, no safety net of any kind to protect me if I failed, and no idea at all how to move forward. I’m amazed I didn’t actually throw up. Probably all that stopped me was sheer stubbornness and an empty stomach.

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Alta Loma & Holloway (West Hollywood)

But I had felt the energy here, so many times before, during brief visits to the city; all the people in the midst of creating or striving, and felt so drawn in by it, you could have measured the polarity inside me changing with a multimeter.

Whenever I came back to visit my hometown in the future, I wanted to be nearly unrecognizable from who I had been before. I guess I never knew, until it propelled me here, how powerful a motivator self-hatred can be. If you are determined enough to become a person you don’t hate anymore, you can do just about anything. It will sting your throat like bile and make your insides feel scraped out and raw, but you won’t be the same on the other side of it. You’ll shed the skin of your former self like some venomous snake.

Not much later, I met someone who not only forced me to confront my honest, truest, sometimes ugliest self, but saw through all that to the better and best parts of me, then chose (and still chooses) to remind me of them often. He thought I was beautiful even at my messiest and most lost (and still does, though I can still be plenty messy now). He looked at me and didn’t see anything other than who I really was, before I even knew how to see her fully. He helped me build a safe place to discover her for myself. Now, we get to move forward together, too; we get to build new things, forge new paths. I get to be braver than I knew I could be. But that version of me was always in there, somewhere, or I don’t believe I could be her now. I had to earn the right to meet her, then to become her. It was the hardest, most necessary, work I’ve ever done.

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Kauai Surf apartment complex (Martha St., Van Nuys)

I found an amazing city. I found streets I loved to walk on, and places I loved to walk to, things I loved to do. The first place I lived here was not ideal, but it was preparation for where I would end up next, which pretty much is. Sometimes, still, I walk through my neighborhood, or further out, and feel the breeze move through me like wings fluttering in my chest. I feel so full of love for my city I could run over with it like an overflowing cup. I’ve found a kind of home and peace here I don’t believe I’ve had anywhere else. I found wonderful friends. I found good work. I found inspiration, which had been absent so long I was afraid I’d lost it forever. I sat at a table in a dumpy little burger joint late at night, after coming in from a bit of rain, let someone hold my hand and really look me in the eye, and took a step toward an unknown future, cracking my heart wide open to any and all of it like an eggshell. All of these things are, in a way, part of the same single choice I made to point my car north and set out alone for whatever I could carve out in the world for myself. It was — all of it, simultaneously — the best, bravest, craziest, most terrifying, and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I never knew I had it in me until I had already done it, and by then there was no turning back. Not that I ever would have.

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Fatburger (Santa Monica & Vista, West Hollywood)

I blogged throughout all of this, sometimes in painstaking detail (albeit on another site) to bolster my memory —  to this day I know (and am grateful for knowing) that particular memories are especially vivid to me because I documented them while they were freshest in my mind — and later, as I allowed it to become more personal, more therapeutic; to understand, or at least attempt to make some sense of myself. I still do. I’m doing it now.

It wasn’t a painless process by any means; I’ve weathered things since coming here that brought hurts with them deeper than anything I’d experienced before. But I’ve earned what I’ve made, and part of it comes with and through those things, too. Nothing worth having comes without struggle, or so they say. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience plenty of firsts in my life during my time here, too. Some infuriating (first parking ticket, moving violation and tow to the impound, though thankfully not all at once), some disgusting (cockroach infestation! thanks to the messiest roommate ever, also my first, of the non-familial variety), some exhilarating and transporting (kiss, and all that followed it), some shocking (celebrity friends (?)), others all manner of bizarre (too many to list here, frankly). An on and on, and so it goes.

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Spaulding & Santa Monica (West Hollywood)

Maybe you do have to start out running away — and maybe it doesn’t much matter what from — to end up finding the truest version of yourself. To each their own. Maybe fear and pain and risk and struggle have to combine in just the right way, at the right time — like chemicals in solution, under just the right control settings — in order to burn through whatever falsehoods and barriers you’ve constructed around yourself, until there is nothing left but your true, core self. It’s not that your real self never changes — it’s changing all the time; we are constantly remaking ourselves and relearning ourselves until the day we die — but that you reach that decisive point, where you make a choice: I will not stay still the better to hide from myself. I will keep moving forward to see myself more clearly.

I ran and I ran, I was looking for me […]
I ran and I ran, I’m looking there still […]
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

Song lyrics are Madonna’s, © 1998, from my favorite song of hers; photographs are all mine, © Eleanore Studer. Shot long exposure throughout the city with my ’76 Nikon F2S on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros black and white negative film, winter 2015/2016.