Sunday, September 27, 2009

Abandoned Things: Fleishhacker Pool

It’s suddenly fall. I’m not sure why this surprises me so much. Perhaps because summer never truly seemed to arrive, unseasonably cool and moving at a different rhythm and pace this year. Swimming pools have been closed up and readied for winter nearly a month now, at least in the parts of the country that have true seasons.

Summers seem shorter and shorter, and I long for one of those long, slow summers of my youth – the ones where I used to complain about being bored and begged my parents to take us somewhere we could go swimming for an afternoon. I rarely succeeded in finding my way to a pool, but I did manage to spend hours upon hours on summer days immersed in books, experiencing worlds beyond mine through the written word. I lived far from the privileged suburban lifestyle of the characters in John Cheever’s stories, where it seemed every backyard had a pool and cocktails were served promptly on the patio at the end of the work day, yet his story “The Swimmer” was a favorite. On those rare occasions when I got to go swimming, it was usually at a state park or at a community pool in the town where my cousins lived. One summer I was lucky enough to swim at the local country club for a few days while I was the houseguest of a friend who was a member. It gave me just a glimpse of how some of my classmates got to while away their summers.

In 1980 while living in San Francisco, I saw the biggest swimming pool I could’ve ever imagined when my husband and I wandered onto the grounds of the abandoned Fleishhacker pool. I don’t remember exactly how we ended up there, but I do vaguely remember that we had followed a path overgrown with shrubbery. What was this place? What happened to it? Knowing nothing then about the pool’s existence or history, we were completely amazed by its size and were a bit puzzled by its location since it was directly across the Great Highway from the ocean. The pool property was also adjacent to the zoo on its opposite side, which was the side we had approached it from, so it’s possible we had discovered the path to it on our way out of the zoo. It was like finding a secret.

The act of discovery is my favorite part of the writing process. It’s in those moments of clarity, of seeing how all the seemingly disconnected fragments of a developing story actually fit together with finding the missing piece, that the writing is truly joyful. Aha. So THIS is it. Of course! Why couldn’t I see it before? Sometimes the missing piece is an object. Sometimes it’s something a character says in a key piece of dialogue. I know I am not alone in this experience of typing away at the keyboard, or moving the pen across paper, to see what was hiding there all along just below the surface suddenly emerge.

Occasionally writers find themselves working at stories that just seem to go nowhere. We’re moving the characters around but nothing much is really happening. We try putting them in places and situations where that will change. And still, nothing happens. We’re stuck. There is no discovery. If we’re wise we put those stories away for a while and work on a different story. Sometimes these story fragments are forgotten and abandoned. Other times the characters nag at us until we pull the old draft out of the file drawer and give it another try, a fresh start after a break, or after a sudden insight that seems to come out of nowhere – usually when we are away from our desk, away from our computer, away from pen and paper. We find a new path, a different way into the story. We see a gate we hadn’t noticed before – and sometimes that gate is not only unlocked, it is standing wide open.

For me, the idea for a story often starts as an image. And where that image comes from, I have no idea. It’s just suddenly there, in front of me – whether it’s as a real object I’m actually looking at, or as an idea or scene I’m daydreaming about. It’s the same with stories I’ve put away thinking I’m done with them and that they’ll never be finished. I’m not sure why writing is such a visual process for me. I suspect that for some writers it’s more auditory – certainly it must be so for poets.

I wonder at what moment John Cheever realized his character Neddy Merrill in “The Swimmer” was going to swim across his suburban neighborhood, from backyard pool to backyard pool. What would Neddy Merrill have thought had he come upon a pool the size of Fleishhacker pool?

I like to imagine what it must’ve been like to swim at Fleishhacker pool, in a man-made pool filled with seawater that was so huge it was patrolled by lifeguards in small rowboats. Surely there is at least one story there. I’d often wondered over the years what had happened to the Fleishhacker pool site. Expecting to find that a condo had been built on that valuable property so close to the ocean, I was surprised to learn that the pool had been filled in and paved over for the purpose of additional parking for the zoo and that despite being condemned, the bathhouse still stands.

Photo credits: All photographs of Fleishhacker pool are copyrighted by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dani Shapiro: Black & White

The idea for this blog began with a certain synchronicity of life events last spring and began to jell as I read several novels which used photographs as story details and photographers as characters. One of those novels was Dani Shapiro’s Black & White. Shapiro crafts a story about the relationship between a mother and her daughter – the mother, Ruth Dunne, a photographer whose fame is based on a series of photographs she’d done of her then prepubescent daughter, Clara. It’s a story about identity, where the boundaries between the roles of being a mother and an artist are blurred, and about the effects of those photographs on the daughter who struggles to maintain her own identity separate from her role as a model for her mother’s fine art photographs. The novel opens as Clara, now an adult living in Maine with her husband and their young teenage daughter, learns that her mother, who she has not seen in fourteen years, is gravely ill. Clara reluctantly goes back to her childhood home in New York City to see Ruth Dunne.

The narrative explores the function of memory in a very engaging way, the voice lending a current of authority just below the surface of the story. I’m fascinated by how photographs, particularly those frozen glances back through time which end up preserved between the pages of family photo albums, become incorporated into memory – when the facts of those images can be as unreliable as memory itself. For instance, do we remember the event or do we remember the photographs of the event that we grew up looking at in the family album? Those images begin to take on a history and story of their own. In Black & White, Shapiro writes: “Impossible to isolate a memory: to carve it out and separate it from what has come before or after, from what has been told and retold. Stories turn what we remember into a series of polished little gems.”

It was impossible for me to read Black & White without thinking of the photographs of real life photographer Sally Mann, who did a series of images of her three children in the 1980s. The photographs were exhibited and then published in 1992 as Immediate Family. Mann’s work was controversial and drew harsh criticism from those who believed she was exploiting her children. Her work made people uncomfortable, particularly the sexuality of the nudes.

I contacted Shapiro to ask her if the photographs in Mann’s Immediate Family had an influence on her in writing Black and White. She responded: “I was very much influenced, when thinking about the novel, by the work of Sally Mann and by my different responses to her work over the years, especially after I became a mother.”

This response intrigued me since my own reaction to Mann’s photographs is very mixed. The images are technically gorgeous, the subject matter often provocative, and her photographic eye bold. But many of the images of the children are disturbing: surreal yet earthy, feral, intimate, suggestive but not pornographic – although some of the images come uncomfortably close to that edge.

I asked Dani about what ways her own responses to Mann’s work changed and how being a mother affected the way she viewed Mann’s photographs. She responded: “I first encountered Sally Mann’s photographs when I was in my twenties. I was very taken with her work 'Immediate Family.' I found it evocative, provocative, quite stirring. In fact, I very much wanted to own a photograph of hers, but couldn’t afford one. The images stayed with me, and though I saw other work of Mann’s over the years, I found 'Immediate family' to be her strongest. Then I encountered the photographs again, in my late thirties, as the mother of a young child. And though the images had the same impact on me as they always had, there was an additional, somewhat uncomfortable layer to my response. I realized I was asking the question: how were these pictures taken? It occurred to me, as it never had before, that the photographs were posed, staged, lit. I wanted to know how it had happened. How the mother, Mann, had asked her children to pose. So I answered those questions the only way I could – by writing a novel and imagining those scenes myself.”

In Mann’s work, there seems to be an undertone of defiance not only in the subjects, but also in the photographer. In the later photographs of the “Immediate Family” series which was done over several years, the children are at the edge of innocence, at the edge of childhood, seeming to play at the role of pretending – pretending to play dress-up, playing at innocence. These are not spontaneous or candid shots, but are set up and posed in exactly the right light. The images were shot with a large format camera, an 8 x 10 view camera, which involves a slow and tedious shooting process that requires a lot of set-up time to arrange and compose the subject in the frame. This is the type of camera which must be set up on a tripod and where the photographer looks at the image in the ground glass on the back of the camera under a dark cloth. Because exposure times can be long, subjects must remain very still to hold a pose for the camera, which means the children were full participants in making the photographs.

Dani Shapiro had been a child model herself, and she has written about this experience in her own nonfiction books and in articles such as the essay “Frame by Frame” for Vogue (June 2007). I asked Dani if that had an effect on how she viewed Mann’s work. She answered: “I’m not sure that being a child model affected the way I viewed Mann’s work, because really my modeling career – such as it was – was incredibly tame. I was the baby in the Beechnut Baby Food commercials, which of course I don’t remember. When I was three, I was the little girl on the Kodak Christmas poster, and I do remember the feeling that it was somehow important. I had some awareness that my picture was being taken and it was a big deal. Honestly, I never once consciously thought of that time while I was writing Black & White, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact.”

In the introduction to Immediate Family, Sally Mann writes: “These are photographs of my children. . . Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic, but most are ordinary things every mother has seen. I take pictures when they are bloodied or sick or angry. They dress up and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters in the dark river.”

Hearing Mann talk about her photographs and seeing her at work, as shown in the documentary film “What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann,” is more interesting to me than viewing the actual photographs. What she says about her work adds a layer of understanding that allows me to look at them in a different way. Watching the film, I finally understood that she uses her camera to find answers to her questions (particularly her later work which explores death), in the same way that writers use words and narrative to find answers by crafting stories around their questions.

In Black & White, Shapiro explores questions about the impact of an artist’s work on family members, creates fictional characters that are believable and behave in compelling ways, and describes photographic images that read as real. The novel’s epigraph, which also serves as a fitting close for this post, quotes photographer Walker Evans: “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Appalachian Images: Guest Post by Photographer Kevin Scanlon

[The story behind a photograph sometimes changes the way we perceive that image. Guest photographer Kevin Scanlon shares the story behind one of his photographs – a story that reveals radiance that might otherwise be overlooked.]

My fantasy as a photographer is to have someone look at one of my prints on a gallery wall, put the back of their hand to their forehead and exclaim, “YES, that’s it EXACTLY! This photograph is very beautiful AND tells a great story!”

Never happens.

I hold up a frame to enclose a small slice of the world. Choosing what goes in that frame is the story I tell. My hope is to include enough to make the story clear, but sometimes a photograph needs to be married to words to be complete. My photograph of James and Cissy is an example.

* * *

“Would you mind if we keep these?”

I was startled. Not by the question, but by the presence of other people. I had just driven an hour on a dirt road to a tiny isolated town and then several miles further on a rutted mud path along Laurel Creek. When I parked next to the train tracks I hadn’t seen another car since town and there were no buildings of any kind nearby. The tracks were perched on a narrow ledge about 20 feet above the creek. I was picking my way between the rails, watching my steps. The voice made me look up suddenly. As a photographer I try to notice little things but I hadn’t noticed a man and woman, smiling broadly and walking toward me carrying two steel railroad tie plates each.

“I think the railroad couldn’t really care less,” I answered. The man must have thought I worked for the railroad. “Watch out,” I said, “there is a train coming up behind me in a few minutes.” I knew the train was on its way and I was hurrying to find a spot along the creek to photograph it. The couple watched me climb down the bank to the water and gingerly crawl out onto a large rock. The man was yelling something down to me but I couldn’t make everything out, something about a waterfall. They walked back and joined me along the creek, telling me about a large waterfall down the track about a half-mile.

“Maybe I’ll take a look at it after I get my photo of this train,” I said.

“Okay, we’ll wait and show you where it is,” he said. They seemed eager to take me there. Why not? My sun was almost down and I had nothing else planned for the day.

“Alright, that would be nice.”

The train came; the woman asked the man to step away so that they wouldn’t get into my photo. They bounced up the slope to the tracks after the last coal hopper had passed. I labored up behind them, grabbing at branches and twigs to keep my balance. We all walked down the tracks past my truck.

“You can drive down there if you want,” he said.

“I think I’d rather walk.”

“We love walking. We do this every day, up and down the tracks,” he said.

He told me their story as we walked. They had gone for a stay in a fishing cabin in February. He had fallen in love with her and had proposed marriage when they first got there. They had been in the cabin for almost seven weeks now.

“In the first week it got down to minus 2 degrees at night,” he said. “We knew it was cold but didn’t know how cold until we found a thermometer on the porch. We didn’t have a saw so we had to go out and find branches I could bust with my foot for the stove. It sure was cold but we kept bundled up.”

He told me all about their stay in the cabin. About the other people who spent weekends in the other fishing cabins. About the 12-inch brown trout he had caught in Laurel Creek. We talked about water quality, coal mining, the Sago disaster and mine safety. They told me about a sycamore tree 27 feet around up in Webster Springs, and another spruce tree over 20 feet around near Bergoo, dead with a new spruce growing up out of the rotted stump. We talked about dandelion wine and ramps. We talked about other places he had done extended camping and we talked about the wedding. “We’re getting married in about three weeks right up at the cabin,” he said.

All along the walk they were picking up railroad spikes and bits of metal. “Kind of like picking ginseng, you have to leave a little for next time,” he said. I didn’t ask, but I’m guessing they were selling it for scrap. Clean steel scrap was selling for about $5 per 100 pounds. As we approached a short railroad bridge, maybe 100 feet long, James told me that on the first day when they crossed it, Cissy froze in the middle. He had to take her hand and lead her to the other end. He pointed out their cabin up on the hillside.

“Where’s the waterfall?” I asked.

“Oh, we passed it back there a little ways,” he said. “Doesn’t look as nice with all this water. You should have seen it in February when it was frozen over.”

“It sure was pretty,” Cissy said. “Just like a perfect picture.”

They were clearly in love with each other and happy to share their joy with a complete stranger.

“Next time you are in the area, drop by and say hello,” said James.

“Thanks, I will. It should be real pretty here in three weeks. All the trillium and wildflowers will be blooming.”

“I already got Cissy a dandelion bouquet!” he said.

I thanked them for the tour and wished them the best of luck. Before taking my leave, I asked, “How about I take a wedding picture for you? I’ll send you as many copies as you want.”

“Yeah, that would be great!” James didn’t hesitate. He and Cissy went over the names of people that might like copies of the photo. They stood between the tracks on the bridge for the photo as I moved off to the side.

“Give me a minute to set up the camera, I don’t take many portraits. Stay right there, the sunlight looks nice.” They didn’t just stand side by side; they embraced tightly and looked at each other, smiling. A wedding portrait. James wrote his address in my notebook as general delivery to the nearest town. I thanked them again and walked back to my truck, kicking a couple of railroad spikes out from under the leaves and into view along the way.

Photo credit: “James & Cissy” copyright © 2007 by Kevin Scanlon

Kevin Scanlon was born in Pittsburgh and has spent the past thirty-five years documenting heavy industry and railroads across the country. He is drawn to subjects such as steel mills, the coalfields of southern West Virginia, and our dwindling railway systems. His photographs have been exhibited at art museums and galleries, and have appeared in various railroad-themed books and magazines, and on the covers of literary magazines and trade journals. He is currently working on a series of industrial landscapes in the Pittsburgh area.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On The Road: Going Home

Even though Pittsburgh has been my home for a longer period of time than any other place I’ve lived, I still say I’m going home when I return to visit the area where I grew up. Jacks Mountain spans four counties in central Pennsylvania, but the part I call home is the ridge that separates Huntingdon and Mifflin counties. I make the journey only two or three times a year now, and as I begin each trip I wonder what will be different and what will remain unchanged.

Going home is one of the oldest stories in literature. It’s said that all stories come down to just a few basic plots, and it has even been argued that all stories can be boiled down to a single plot: a stranger comes to town. I sometimes feel like that stranger when I go home and see how things have changed with time.

The road home has always been Route 22, although it is no longer the two-lane highway winding through small towns that I once traveled. Instead, it’s now a four-lane divided highway bypassing most towns along a straighter route past Wal-Mart superstores and identical looking shopping centers. There are still a few diners along the way and a few curves left here and there, but the diner atop the ridge in the photograph above is gone. The two-lane stretch of the road that goes past the house where I grew up, however, remains much the same with the biggest difference being that there are more houses along it in what used to be fields and woods.

None of my family remains on our old home place, a small house on two acres of land near Atkinson’s Mills. It was sold when it became too much for my mother to manage after my dad died. Mom lives in town now, as do my brothers and their families. It’s not a town I’ve ever lived in, and not the town where I went to school – so going home isn’t, well, quite home anymore. Except that it’s still on Jacks Mountain.

The mountain was named for Captain Jack Armstrong who was a fur trader there in the mid-1700s. I’m not sure why the mountain name lacks a possessive apostrophe, which always makes me think there were multiple Jacks for whom the mountain was named (not to mention how much it pains me to omit that punctuation). But there it is on the maps – Jacks Mountain, my plural home.

There are several versions of the Captain Jack story. Legend is that his ghost roams the mountain and that the glow of his lantern can still be seen at Jacks Narrows near the Thousand Steps. The version I grew up hearing was that he was searching for his dead wife and children who’d been murdered by Indians. Another version is that he was murdered along with his two Indian guides in some sort of disagreement. Our school was named Captain Jack at one time, but by the time I reached high school it had been renamed for the town where it is located, Mount Union. I preferred the more poetic, slightly roughish name.

Peduzzi’s, was the favored after-school hangout for its tall wooden booths in the back where multiple generations of names were carved. The phone booth, also wooden and located in the back, was a place where a dime could connect you with your sweetheart for unlimited minutes – or at least until the call was interrupted by someone’s impatient pounding on the door. Peduzzi’s as my generation knew it is a thing of the past, although the building still stands and the sign remains.

I’m almost always up for a road trip, even if it’s just a short one, and especially if I’m with my husband, Kevin, who is my favorite traveling companion. He knows all the interesting routes, and I swear he’s driven just as many blue highways across the country as the fictional Dean Moriarity. In fact, one of the reasons I got to know Kevin years ago when we were students was because we both happened to be reading Kerouac’s On The Road at the same time. That book opened up many conversations between us, one of them about Route 22 which Kevin deemed as the kind of route Kerouac would’ve chosen. It’s been a while since I’ve read On The Road, but I seem to remember a scene where Sal Paradise was walking along the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg at night. Perhaps I’m mixing it up with another story. Or, maybe I’d just like him to be one of the Jacks connected to Jacks Mountain. It may be time to revisit the book. To see what I remember and what I’ve forgotten – the same as with going home.

Photo credits

Top Photo: Jerry’s Diner, Route 22 near Huntingdon, PA (1981). Copyright © by Dory Adams

Bottom Photo: Peduzzi’s, Mount Union, PA (1981). Copyright© by Dory Adams