About a year ago I took a workshop with Nicole Hardy, author of Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin, on writing an artist statement. She ran us through a battery of quick prompts to mine our lives so we could see the connections to our art. One question was about our early influences, which is a question that always flusters me. I don’t come from an academic family who introduced me to great works while in-utero, and I grew up on TV, pop tarts, and frozen vegetables. I listed out a few names that were true for me, but still nothing felt authentic.
The next day I picked through my books and pulled out Allen’s Ginsberg’s Snapshot Poetics: A Photographic Memoir of the Beat Era. I made some notes, and kept the book by my bed for a month, eventually tossing it back into the pile of my art and photography books, which were perched on top of an old Ilford photo paper box – a box full of contact sheets, test strips, and more than a decade’s worth of photos I’d taken.
I don’t know about you, but the artist statement is my most dreaded part of any residency or grant application. I often miss deadlines or abandon my application ¾ of the way through because I just can’t pull one together. Total self-sabotage. (Any other writers feel weird even applying “artist” to what they do?) I decided that it was time to get my artist statement done, just to have it in my pocket. I emailed my friend Carla who has a memoir coming out in 2019, and asked if she’d be my accountability partner and exchange drafts, giving us both (myself mainly) a deadline.
When I started working on my artist statement again, I went back to what I wrote in my notebook in the days following the workshop and decided to follow the photography thread. Alongside a detailed description of Ginsberg’s photograph of Kathy Acker, I scribbled in the margin, “In 61 pages of plates, there are less than a dozen women.” Rereading this sent me back to my bookshelf, back to the photographs of Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Cindy Sherman, and Annie Leibovitz.
At its heart, writing is an act of discovery. In going back to my original workshop notes, then the notes I’d written after, then exploring from there, I discovered that photography played a pivotal role in my development as an artist, as a writer. It’s so strange to me that I never saw it before. I studied photography from 7th grade through the seven years I spent getting my undergraduate degree, even taking architectural photography classes when I was majoring in urban planning. I’d also studied literature and creative writing during those times as well, and it still took me awhile to figure out that writing was maybe more than a hobby.
Here’s a snip from the current over-written draft-in-progress, which I really ought to get back to since I’m 16 days past my suggested deadline.
Almost 30 years later, my writing still holds elements of the black & white photography that captivated me in my youth: the composition of the frame, the light and shadow casting nets on life’s totality, exposure and controlling the narrative as an antidote to erasure, the desire to show, show, show, show (and tell beautifully).
PULL OUT YOUR NOTEBOOK!
Who and what were your early influences? Are there any parts of that medium or those people that still resides within you? That shows up in your work?
Feel free to post in the comments, or reach out via my contact page. I’d love to hear what you discover!
Some old work from the photo box, circa 1993 -- 1996
Notes on music, mamahood, and the writing life from a part-time blog keeper.