I grew up in a rural place, and these were the main things you could do: get coffee at Yum Yum Tasty Donuts; play pool at a convenience store/hoagie counter/video rental place owned by the same family who operated the funeral parlor next door; attend very, very occasional punk shows at the VFW, which were really just the guy you knew from C++ class playing Sabbath covers. There you go. There were other things. Those were the main things.
When I was a sophomore, my friend Scott and I took over the literary magazine. We were its editors, but as our sense of publishing ethics was severely lacking, we also made ourselves its primary contributors. When you look at the table of contents from any of the issues we worked on together, it's mainly our names with a few other people thrown in for propriety. Many spreads combine his art with my poems, or vice versa. We collaborated on these things well
At some point, we started taking days to drive around and take pictures of things. I think we might have been taking pictures for the magazine specifically, or maybe that happened after. There isn't a lot to do in Greene County, but there's a lot to see. There's the burned out bank vault in Littleton. There's railroad tracks, saucepans full of gray dish water in kitchen sinks, one lonely red shoe on a pile of shoes in a thrift store. In the summer, so much green it could smother you, so many cicadas you can't take a step without crushing one.
I had my dad's Pentax, and I forgot what camera Scott had, maybe a digital camera we borrowed from school. But it was often film that we shot on, all guesswork. It sounds so strange now to take a picture and not know what it looks like. Either way, this activity was total magic to me. Suddenly all of these things around us, and all of this space which did not seem to have much of a relation to me, or me to it, felt like it was collaborating with me, showing itself in some way, getting my attention so I would take its picture.
I didn't really know how to be from where I was from. My family wasn't from there, and my parents were lefties with homemade bread and Midwestern accents. I picked up the feeling of being not quite right. Eventually I wielded it, and sometimes that was a good thing, but sometimes it was just arrogance. And I had always felt somehow spoken to being alone in the woods or fields. But the places where the other people lived felt forbidden somehow. Taking pictures was a way of being there. Still at a distance, I know. But I needed a way of being there, and also a way of being curious, and I discovered it on these days when we would drive around, just looking.
We still do this, actually. As a matter of fact, almost all of the pictures on this website Scott and I shot together on a day where we drove around Pittsburgh, just looking. We can take a lot more pictures now that we have iPhones, of course. It's funny, comparing the files, we'll find all of these shots that we both took, that we framed in the same way. In the stream of everything, everything, everything, we single out some of the same moments as funny and interesting. Maybe this is why we're still friends 20 years later. Maybe this is part of why everybody loves Instagram: It says so much about someone, where they put the frame on the world.
I've been thinking about this because there's a moment in Tommy Orange's There There, where Dene Oxendene is on his way to interview for a grant which he wants to use to document Indian stories in Oakland. On the train, looking at the graffiti, he sees a tag he used sometimes in middle school:
"Back at school Dene wrote Lens everywhere he could. Each place he tagged would be like a place he could look out from, imagine people looking at his tag; he could see them seeing, above their lockers, on the back of the bathroom stall doors, on the tops of desks. In the bathroom stall tagging the back of the door, Dene thought about how sad it was to want everyone to see a name that wasn't his, a name written to no one, to everyone, and to imagine them looking into it like it was a camera lens. It was no wonder he hadn't made a single friend in middle school yet."
(Bubs, we're not even on p.50 of this book when this moment occurs, so are you getting why everyone loves it so?)
There's so much spinning and pulling in this image, I could think about it all day. It was one of those times that you read something incredible, and then you know all of these new things you had never known before, except you know them so suddenly that you can't see them all at once. Something about this character and this passage I recognize so much it's like I heard an actual TWANG in my head when I read it. I love how Dene insists on a kind of power and everywhere-ness, using a word, a name, to make objects into portals. Not just portals, though: a lens works differently depending on which side of it you're on. By labeling bathroom stalls and desks and train windows, Dene is taking a picture of the person who reads the word, but he's also rendering a portrait of himself: I'm the person who needs the world to be like this. I'm the one who sees you and needs to be seen. I'm the one who doesn't know any other way to say it.
I get why Dene calls it sad. I think when I was taking pictures in high school and writing in white-out pen on the straps of my backpack, I thought it was sad, too. (As a matter of fact, once I wrote "SAD" on my flip-flops, the day we climbed a fence to swim in somebody's pond, and I mean, that's so sad it's actually really good and funny to me now.) I thought nobody was on the other side of those gestures, as maybe properly speaking, they were not yet. But it's also fierce, and fierce things touch my heart because they point toward all the reasons fierce is necessary. It's magic. See, now somebody is on the other side of that gesture, because you're reading this. And Dene, I'm the one looking into the lens of your camera, even though you might only live in a book.