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Memorable Quotes- Jerry Uelsmann & Duane Michals

There are a many thoughtful photographers out there who speak eloquently about their work and photography in general, but few are as inspiring as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals. (I could list more, like Kip Fulbeck, for instance, but will limit myself for now.)

Last month I attended the Society for Photographic Education’s national conference, where 82-year old Uelsmann was a featured speaker. Here are a few of the more memorable things he said:

“I asked an historian, “What IS history?”, and he answered, “History amounts to those things that you choose to remember.”

“The camera is a license to explore.”

“The viewer always completes the image.”

“Art is one of those areas where there is more than one right answer.”

“Once you think you know everything, the questioning stops.”

And perhaps my favorite: “I don’t want this presentation to be a snore-fest with yawn-sauce on the side.”

Michals, who is now 85, was equally entertaining and challenging when I heard him speak at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2000. Here are some of his most memorable lines:

“Do not try to be perfect, please. Perfect is boring. Your humanity lies in your vulnerability.”

“Pay attention to your mind. You put crap in your mind, you get crap in your life. You put good things in your mind, you get good things in your life.”

“I think about thinking.”

“Don’t come crying to me because nothing happened. Nothing happened because you didn’t make it happen.”

“You have 2 choices in life: doing and bullshit. Don’t tell me what you are going to do. Show me what you have done.”

“Guess when you were born? You were born now.”

When golfer Arnold Palmer died in 2016, it was written of him, “People loved him because, in a world of sullen superstars, Palmer radiated joy and delight in the treasures of his life… He had a wonderful time being Arnold Palmer and squeezed every drop of juice from the experience.”
The same can be said about Uelsmann and Michals, both giants of 20th century photography.

Tracking Family Connections

The project I am currently working on examining, in part, the connections among my various family members. It’s fascinating to me that we all know each other so well, and yet at the same time don’t know each other at all. What connects us as a “family”?

A. Hope Jahren, currently a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oslo, recently published an essay in The New York Times titled

“My Father’s Hackberry Tree”. In it, she describes a connection to her father that arose from her research work:

“…In 1993, my father collected hackberry fruits for me. My task that year was to observe the development of the seed over the course of the growing season, and I had earmarked several trees in South Dakota for that purpose. During a rare visit home to neighboring Minnesota, I saw with new eyes the fine specimen of C. occidentalis that graced the southwestern corner of my parents’ property.

I asked my father if he wouldn’t mind pulling off a few fruits every week throughout the summer, and he obliged. From May through September, he visited our hackberry tree twice each day, carefully recording the weather conditions, and also sampling, first flowers, then green fruits, then ripe, then withered, all placed into small plastic vials. Hundreds and hundreds of fruits — each week’s harvest wrapped in a sheet of paper describing its yield.

… (My) father spent the better part of his 70th summer observing a single tree, and in the end, gave me a hundredfold more than what I had asked for.

My father can no longer write. He is 92 now, and he cannot make his hands work. He cannot walk, or even stand, and he can barely see. He is not certain what year it is, but he is sure that I am his daughter, and that my brothers are his sons, and he treats us just as he always has…

When I visit him these days, we sit in the same house that I grew up in, but we don’t talk about science anymore. … (We) talk about poetry instead…

As with many Midwestern families, great distances pervade our relationships — both literally and figuratively. We never really talk to each other; instead we box up our hurts and longings and store them for decades, out of sight but not forgotten.

… This year my father and I have spent (the summer) inside, reading…

In the fading light, we offer each other words that were carefully written by dead strangers, because we know them by heart. We also know that children eventually leave. Even when they do come home, there’s always the end of the day, of the week, of the summer, when they fly away to the other side of the world, off to a place where you cannot follow.

This month I am leaving Minnesota, and the United States, relocating yet again, to build a new lab and start over a fourth time. Compared with my previous moves, I am taking very little with me. The dead fruit of my early career has now been discarded. Instead, I carry in my luggage a delicate pile of paper. It is the small bundle of notes written in my father’s handwriting that I recovered from the box of hackberries he collected.

The notes are precious because they constitute proof — proof that my father thought of me every single day and must still do so. Proof that I am his, our shared last name written on every page. Proof that no one in the world knows that tree the way he and I do.

Our hackberry tree still stands, tall and healthy, near the western edge of Mower County. It should outlive both of us, growing stronger and greener even as we inevitably wither and fall. The tree will remain in my parents’ yard, and the notes describing what it was like 20 years ago will go with me, though its fruit will not.

I am taking with me only what I can’t live without, and the utility of these letters is clear. This collection of papers, filled exclusively with symbols and dates and botanical terms, is all of the things that my father and I have never said.”

How beautiful that a collection of simple scientific data can make such a profound connection with a loved one. This task that was performed daily for a summer left behind evidence of that love, of the fact that the father thought every day of his daughter, and performed a service on her behalf. The notes that Jahren’s father made say “I love and respect you.” in a different way than the words themselves, and which is profoundly affecting.

Members of a family sometimes express attachment and affection for one another in such subtle ways that they can be essentially invisible or are not seen for what they are. It is this sideways approach to familial relationships that I am examining right now. What do we discover about our families and our selves when we look for evidence of love and connection in the less obvious places, in the places where links are there, but lie undetected? Trying to answer this question is requiring me to think quite differently than I have in the past about how to portray these issues visually.

“The Dust Lady” Photograph

Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs that were made in New York City on September 11, 2001, many of them resonated with people for different reasons. The images of the aircraft hitting the Twin Towers, the towers burning, of humans falling from them, and of their ultimate collapse all caused horrified reactions from those who saw them.

But there was one picture taken that day which resonated on a profoundly human level, that reduced the event to the intensely personal, and that somehow reflected the shock and paralysis that so many felt at the time. That picture, later titled “The Dust Lady”, was taken by a photographer from the Agence France-Presse, Stan Honda, and it was of a woman named Marcy Borders, who worked at that time as a legal assistant at the Bank of America.

dust ladyAs film director Errol Morris wrote about documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, “The role of documentary film is not to give us reality on a plate. We have plenty of our own reality to deal with. It should make us think about reality.” The photograph of Marcy Borders that was taken on 9/11 certainly did that, and more.

Ms. Borders died in mid-2015 and the New York Times Magazine ran a memorial article on her that is well worth reading. Although she became an iconic figure for many because of The Dust Lady photograph, the New York Times article reminds us that every person in every photograph has a story that no photograph can ever tell.

We are all more than what we look like or what we show of ourselves in photographs.