Tag Archives: photography

the mystery of how much

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” wrote Eudora in The Optimist’s Daughter. Perhaps the implication is that the same mystery applies to places as well as people.

My visits to Rodney with Chris and Mary in the last six months are as far distant from Eudora’s visits to Rodney in the 30s and 40s as hers are from the Civil War.

I’ve just gone through and added some excerpts from the Welty story At the Landing to a small set of selected images.

To explore more photos of Rodney and the surrounding river country, please go here.

cows and corn


Today I paddled to the Aitkin Campground from about 18 river miles north of town. Aitkin County is mostly farmland, and it was interesting, to say the least, to hear cattle lowing for a good 45 minutes before I rounded a bend and saw a good-sized herd hanging out by the river. At another point, I saw corn growing right up to the edge of the river, replacing the cattails and reeds that have lined the banks up to now. The huge distance between agriculture and nature has never been clearer to me, and I understand in a new way how strange it must have been for the Ojibwe to have had their lands divided up into 160 acre parcels, which were then bestowed on them with the idea that each nuclear family group would become farmers.

I managed to take a photograph of the cows, but I didn’t get out my camera for the corn, and I’m sorry for that. It raises a funny issue that Richard and Mac and I have been talking about since almost the beginning of our travels. It’s very difficult to overcome the urge to take pictures only of picturesque or iconic sights: the growing corn doesn’t make a particularly compelling photograph, so I’m too lazy to take my iPhone out of its waterproof container. But since I am interested in trying to communicate the river as it is, not as I would like it to be, I feel like I am failing in an important way if I neglect to photograph the corn.

I keep thinking about Mary Ellen Carroll‘s artwork where she strapped a camera to her back and walked down Broadway from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, snapping a photograph at each intersection. Because she didn’t frame the photographs, choose any particular feature, but just clicked a remote, the photographs are a random sample of Broadway as it radically changes character on its journey through Manhattan. It’s a fascinating trove of images of the city at a particular time (mid-90’s if I remember properly), and the ”bad“ photographs are precisely what makes it such a compelling piece of work.

I started out doing audio recordings inspired by this idea of random samples, but I found it less interesting than I had imagined. As I think about it, though, perhaps I should be patient and try doing at least one recording each day and see what unfolds over the whole journey. It isn’t about emulating the elegance and beauty of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps of the Hudson River and the Danube: it’s perhaps a more Cage-ian idea, one that requires me to embrace the process and let go of the results, as they say…

I did take some other photographs, and you can see what I mean about capturing the picturesque and the iconic: a nice farmhouse with trees, and one I really like of a living tree and a dead tree intertwined. I think very often these days about how the natural world is half-living and half-dead all the time. One set of stuff is fallen and decayed and another set of stuff is growing out of that decay, and the living is completely dependent on the dead. The muddy, organic river intensifies that sense of death-in-life, I think. I don’t really like the river water, it’s murky and scary even here at the early part of the river; and while it’s of course a river of life, the rich and varied wildlife are proof of that, it also seems to carry a daunting amount of death in it.

And of course, we are in late high summer, the trees are fully deep green, no new life is left in them, they are at the fullest flower of their maturity.

Where Do I Live?

Getting organized to be on the road for a year has been kind of a lot of work, especially because I only got news of the McKnight funding a month ago, and without that funding as a basis, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to take on this River Project in its full incarnation. Getting everything settled in NYC for a year away, catching the Ethan Allan to Rutland Monday, and sleeping in my tiny cabin on my land in Brandon the last two nights has been a really THRILLING first step! I feel such a strong sense of finishing one phase of my life and beginning anew. It’s pretty great to wake up along with the brightening sky and lie here looking out at the clouds and the mountains and the sun gradually adding light and heat to everything.

Last night I started reading a book about Dorothea Lange’s fieldwork in 1939 for the Farm Security Administration. One inspiration for my River Project is the idea that I want to understand this country at this moment in history. For so many years, I didn’t really feel like this was my country, exactly, and the election changed that. And the current financial crisis made me think a one-person WPA project (since even Obama’s administration is unlikely to imitate FDR and hire artists to travel around the country documenting and interviewing!) might be a really worthwhile thing for me to take on. And since I’m a musician, my documentation will start from sound rather than image, and my relation to words is also different from a writer or historian…

So last night, I was reading about how in 1958, Dorothea Lange taught a course at the California School of Fine Arts called “The Camera, an Instrument of Inward Vision: Where Do I Live?”

“To ask ‘Where do I live?’” wrote Lange, ”presupposes that one lives in a house, or a trailer, or a house boat or someplace with a certain amount of things–personal things. ‘Where do I live?’ could also suggest a type of dream-land full of ideas and ideals, or a social structure which seems to have established a guiding class ethic. Yes, this is where I live: in a land of road markers and guide posts; yet every man must still find his own way.“ [p. 45]

When I think about the question ‘Where do I live’, I realize that on one level, I have lived in the same apartment in NYC for twenty years, and I am rooted there about as deeply as a person can be rooted in a place. On another level, I really don’t have a clue where I live. And I hope this journey will help me find out.