A Camera Like a Nose

Continuing to think about Lee Friedlander’s essay “An Excess of Fact”

The net is indiscriminant unless you point it and then are lucky. I might get what I hoped for and then some—lots of then some—more than I might have remembered was there. I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.

At about the same time, I was in love with the cheer and grace and wit of Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and later, Bird. My peers were listening to “I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China.” I had a record of Nellie Lutcher singing “Hurry on Down to My House, Baby, Ain’t Nobody Home But Me.” I guess it’s the same wish, but I felt that Nellie’s was full of more real possibilities. The real world, the capture of the moment, hurry on down, it’s happenin’ now.

In a weird way, this passage reminds me of hunting down parties with Rex when I was in my early twenties. We had a theory that it was always happening somewhere—the major problem was just figuring out where it was happening. Music and pictures have always fit together for me too. The difference in generations translates something like this: In the late seventies the choice was between ponderous stadium rock/heavy metal and punk (Rex helped push me toward the latter). In the eighties, it was no choice at all—hair metal vs. the paisley underground. I’m still fond of punk and paisley, and pictures too.

Forty-five years later, I’m still thrilled and in awe of Miss Lucher’s singing and of photography. Photography for me is always there like the taste of sugar or salt. For me, making photographs is an extreme of the gratification I get from the pleasure of listening to music and reading good literature—supreme fun, even when work is done under the weight of infatuation and poor judgment. The game (the hunt) is alive with the possibilities of discovery and the materials (photographic) mark the place and time simply. A photograph is made in a wink. The beginning and the end are the same moment—a juggler’s dream. Photography and music were acquired, like suits of clothes, good fit, mind you, but found. Lucky finds, they were for me, durable and comforting.

At the same age as these discoveries, I realized something about place. My home was at the edge of the Olympic Mountains in the state of Washington—a mysterious wonder of a place, a rain forest rivered between the Hoh and the Quinault. A huge, dense forest so thick that on a bright day it is always dark at the ground, and quiet beyond quiet. This beautiful place I took for fact, it was in my backyard. I was indigenous to it. I felt part of it, then and now. I would go there often, fishing and hiking with my pal, Jim Middleton. Although the place inspired in us awe and wonder, it was ours. We grew up there; it was maternal. The same wonder still exists and I feel the same connection and belonging to it. It is mine, and I am its. (103-104)

Friedlander was from Aberdeen, which was also the hometown of Kurt Cobain. I often wonder about the impact of the places that we’re from. I’m from Bakersfield. The Sierra Nevada Mountains were about fifteen or twenty minutes away from my backyard, from where I grew up. I visited there, but I never felt the sort of connection that Friedlander talks about here. I am a Bakersfield boy, not a naturalist. I always felt guilty that I never felt that “awe and wonder.” The sense of connection I felt was with the dust, asphalt, and stucco of a crappy little town. I don’t think it will ever wash off. I ventured into the foothills of the Sierras to photograph after a while, but I never really felt too good at it. It was more about testing things out.

When Helen Liggett described Lee Friedlander as a “photographer with an urban sensibility” it just didn’t ring true. I think what bothers me is the implicated corollaries—that Jazz is a big city thing, that complexity is a city thing, etc. that some people take as gospel. Bakersfield wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) urban— although its population is probably not that much different from the Twin Cities right now. But my subjects have often involved “urban” things—I think its difficult to define just what urban means. Of course, Liggett points to that in her book in a well-argued fashion. I can’t seem to let go of this; I think it’s because place is so central to what I’m intrigued with right now.

The urban center is not, in my opinion the ur-place that defines society. The wilderness isn’t either. The shades of place in between—whether the blinding light of Bakersfield or the daytime dark of the Olympic mountains cannot be described by grouping them under a master philosophy of cities—nor as raw material for such a philosophy. Most places are unique, and deserve to be treated as such (file me as a splitter instead of a lumper, I guess).

Jim had clearer priorities than I. He has always been a woodsman and although a good businessman, his heart and thoughts are always in some remote beautiful wilderness—hiking, fishing, hunting, or just being there. I, on the other hand, had this camera, like a nose. I smelled places, not only my Olympic Mountain surroundings, but later places that were foreign to me—towns, cities, man-made places—and the camera gave me a license to deal with these, curious they were for a country boy. I spent about twenty-five years wondering what would be around the next corner and testing what it would look like with my camera. Much of the time spent in vain, but always trying and terribly curious. (104)

This to me is the most profound metaphor of the essay—the camera as a nose. I can buy into that.