I recently read a wonderful interview with Tobias Wolff from which I posted a couple of quotes on the LBM Tumblr. My favorite was this one:
We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that’s the only way we can give it significance.”
ONE) While hunting around in the basement of a suburban historical society, Brad discovered a treasure trove of photographs by someone named Irwin Norling. In a 2003 feature on Norling in City Pages, Brad wrote “I wasn’t more than a couple hundred photographs into the bottom drawer of the file cabinet and I knew that I was looking at an astonishing record of life in one American community. I spent much of the afternoon wading through those files, incredulous. What the hell was this? Who was this guy? And, a more pressing thought: What had I gotten myself into.” Five years later Brad published a book on Norling called Suburban World. This is my favorite story:
By the time the family moved into a new house in Bloomington in 1953 Irwin had a police radio that he never turned off. “I was going out to shoot photos at all hours of the day and night,” he remembered. “And all this time I was working eight hours at Honeywell, plus overtime.” As Norling’s pastime made greater demands on his time, it became a family affair. “When that police scanner went off, it didn’t matter what time of night it was,” Dave Norling said. “In a matter of minutes all of us were up and dressed and in the car.” There were occasions when the family would beat the police to an accident scene, which was, Pat said, considered somewhat bad form.
TWO) Up until that point I’d never met Brad, but I was asked to write an introduction to Suburban World wherein I told the following story:
My first job as a photographer was with a suburban newspaper on the eastern margin of the Twin Cities. Like most small-newspaper photographers, the job required me to be a generalist. I photographed baseball games and small-business owners, parades and potlucks. Most of my time was spent in the mushrooming suburb of Woodbury. Almost every week I had to attend a ribbon cutting for another new health club or minimall. I dreaded these assignments. The lineup always looked the same: a banker, a mayor, a pair of giant scissors (or a silver shovel), and a dozen other guys in in ties – an insult to my photographic artistry! Each year we submitted our best photographs for a national small-newspaper award. I would ransack my proof sheets looking for a gem, and I remember being particularly proud of a picture of a shilhouetted cross-country skier. But this photo, along with all of my other submissions, never even took third place. One year our elderly sports writer was driving home from a basketball game when he stumbled upon a peculiar automobile accident. Using his Kodak Instamatic, he snapped a picture of a car suspended in a tree. Though he didn’t know the first thing about F-stops and art history, the old guy managed to win the newspaper associations’s coveted award for spot news. The “real” photographers were sick with envy. That was when I leaned that most great pictures are not about artistry. If I’d been the one to photograph the car in the tree, I’d have won the award. The genius is not in technique; it is in being present.
THREE) Trolling online in 2010, I stumbled across some pictures that a Japanese traffic inspector had made while visiting the US in the early 70’s. I asked Brad Zellar if he wanted to investigate and/or invent the story behind the pictures. In the end, he created one of the most beautiful and mysterious book projects I’ve ever seen: Conductors of the Moving World:
From Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar
FOUR) In 2011 I asked Brad to investigate another character, the ever-reclusive Lester B. Morrison, for our book House of Coates. Brad dug up more information than I could have ever imagined about Lester. He was able to get access, I think, because Brad’s no stranger to the reclusive mindset. “I’ve had times where as a grown man I have run away. An eight-month stretch a couple of years ago in Vermont,” Brad told Minnesota Public Radio, “Just me and my dog.”
FIVE) On my last birthday, December 30th, I called Brad and asked him if he’d give me a gift. I was tired of the runaway fantasy and wanted to experience community life. I asked Brad if he’d join me on a newspaper story. We could be like Irwin Norling and his family, I said – I’d be the photographer; he’d be the reporter. Brad and I followed up on a story in the local paper about a cat that had been living for three months on a small patch of land between two interstates. On Christmas Day, the cat was rescued by a Woodbury policeman named Adam Sack. The Humane Society renamed the cat Adam in Sack’s honor and put him up for adoption. After photographing the notably skittish caged animal at the Humane Society, Brad and I drove out to the freeway interchange where Adam had been living. The small triangle of land happened to have both a deer carcass and a pipe with unfrozen water. It turns out Adam had been plucked out of Eden.
SIX) Brad and I started regularly going out on imaginary newspaper assignments. One day we attended a breakfast meeting of the Bloomington Optimist’s Club at the local Double Tree Hotel. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the guest speaker was introduced. An expert in the perils of overpopulation, David Paxton gave the least optimistic presentation in the history of Powerpoint. “If you think driving a Prius is going to do anything good,” he barked at the small audience of mostly elderly Optimists, “well you’re just drinking the Cool-Aid.” Guest speaker at the Bloomington Optimist Club by Alec Soth
SEVEN) Last May, Brad and I made a road trip to Ohio. We didn’t find any Optimists, but we did visit a Moose Club in Clyde. We were there when they opened the doors at 6:30am. By the time they closed, Brad had been initiated into the club. Brad becoming a Moose, from Ohio, by Brad Zellar & Alec Soth
EIGHT) Brad recently wrote this on his blog, Your Man For Fun in Rapidan
I write every day, and have written every single day without exception for at least twenty years. My goal every night is 1000 words, and though that sometimes proves impossible, I have held myself to a strict 400-word minimum. Many nights I will write several thousand words. I have filled up hundreds of uniform, lined, black journals.”
NINE) My hope is to keep working with Brad for as long as I can. A week from today he and I are hitting the road to find some stories in upstate New York. Soon after we’ll publish another newspaper. In the meantime, you can read Brad’s stories on his blog or buy his books at the LBM store.
I was recently reminded of last November’s post, ‘Should Artists Be Entertainers’ when I read about Nick Hornby’s new book ‘More Baths, Less Talking.’ This book is a compilation of Hornby’s ‘Stuff I’ve been Reading’ column in The Believer. I’m a huge fan of this column. Hornby doesn’t write formulaic book reviews. He talks about the real experience of reading. Over and over again this reading prompts Hornby to address the myriad ways in which we consume culture.
In one column, Horby discusses Carl Wilson’s book about Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste:
Why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion?… We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us! In a few short, devastating chapters, Wilson chops himself and all of us off at the knees. “It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness,” Wilson observes.
In a 2006 article in The Telegraph entitled ‘How To Read,’ Hornby talks about the need to embrace all forms of literature.
The regrettable thing about the culture war we still seem to be fighting is that it divides books into two camps, the trashy and the worthwhile. No one who is paid to talk about books for a living seems to be able to convey the message that this isn’t how it works, that ‘good’ books can provide every bit as much pleasure as ‘trashy’ ones.
Why worry about that if there’s no difference anyway? Because it gives you more choice. You may not have to read about conspiracies, or the romantic tribulations of thirty-something women, in order to be entertained.”
Yesterday my friend Ron Jude, wrote a comment after reading this quote in an in-flight magazine:
Originality is dangerous. If you want to increase the sum of what is possible for human beings to say, to know, to understand and therefore in the end, to be, you actually have to go to the edge and push outwards… This is the kind of art whose right to exist we must not only defend but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.” —Salman Rushdie, in an address at Cooper Union, May 6, 2012
I’m all for celebrating revolutionary art, but this sort of work is, by definition, the extreme exception. A hundred thousand revolutions doesn’t do anybody any good.
As Ron mentions, the same in-flight magazine has a short interview with me about my favorite things in Minneapolis. The interviewer asked about my local dining habits. Knowing that countless people were going to read this interview, I wanted to say something really cool. But I’m not a foodie. I respect people who have a passion for fine cuisine, but it isn’t my thing. This doesn’t mean I eat at Burger King. I like good food, but I generally eat pretty simple food. In other words, I’m happy to know there are revolutionary French chefs working with liquid nitrogen, but I don’t necessarily need to eat it. And I most certainly don’t want to eat it every day.
So what do I want from my food? Along with it being nutritious, I’d like it to taste good. Isn’t entertainment in art pretty much the same thing?
On the website for The Sustainable Practice in the Arts, Robert Adams was asked, “What part does an artist play in society.” This was his answer:
First we have an obligation simply to be the citizens we want everyone to be – informed, engaged, reasonable, and compassionate. Then as artists we are called historically to a double mission, to instruct and delight, to tell the truth but also to find in it a basis for affirmation.
With this in mind, it is interesting to look at this year’s finalists for the prestigious Prix Pictet – a $100,000 award described as “the world’s leading prize in photography and sustainability.” When it comes to such vexing global problems, it seems extraordinarily difficult to fulfill Adams’ “double mission.”
Yesterday a friend of mine, Sarah Newman, sent me a link to her Kickstarter Project: Imaging Sustainability. Sarah’s plan is to photograph the sustainable urban landscape of Malmö, Sweden. She writes:
Here in the U.S., renewable energy is often kept outside of the energy-consuming cities – making energy production (and consumption) less visible in our landscape and in our consciousness. In Malmö, I will photograph green architecture and design, and people within the community, while conducting independent research on environmental and social sustainability.”
By showing us what the sustainable landscape might look like, Sarah is providing a valuable service. The challenge, I think, is to fulfill Adams’ double mission – to both instruct and delight.
I hope you’ll join me in supporting Sarah in this effort: IMAGING SUSTAINABILITY by Sarah W. Newman
Funny what photographers find on the street once they start looking. Robert Frank found latent disillusion; Gary Winnogrand found random social clarity; Phillip Lorce DeCorcia found the breadth and depth of exchange. Arianna Arcara and Luca Santese, two photographers from Italy, found photographs.
Not just one or two. Walking the streets of Detroit, Arcara and Santese found thousands of photographs. Found Photos in Detroit is a selection of this archive. There are mugshots, snapshots, interiors, police documentation, cars and notes varying in condition from unreadable abstraction to heartbreaking clarity. The only thing we know for sure about these photographs is the most important thing to know: they have all been abandoned. We don’t know who abandoned them: it could have been a family member or a bored janitor, it could have been the photographer or the subject of the photograph. All we know is that these photographs have come unmoored from the ties that bound them into a system of social meaning. They have been lost to the streets of Detroit, moving inexorably through various degradations toward a blank field of dissolution. It’s not a pretty picture. Maybe it never was.
One more thing: Except for a single group portrait, every photographed person in Found Photos In Detroit is African American. Young and old, male and female, staring, glaring, entreating. The message is clear: It is Black culture, their houses, their rule of law, their very selves that have been abandoned. Like homeless ghosts, the social reality of these photographs haunts Detroit and America, signifying a despair so deep that abandonment is the only method left to represent their loss.
Within the form of the book, Arcara and Santese have constructed a shelter for these homeless images and, by extension, renewed meaning and social contact for their subjects. In the process, they have also created a powerful document of contemporary Detroit that moves beyond the bailout and the romanticized urban ruins of good times past to address the human tragedy that are the results of inequality, racism, and political impotence. That said, there’s no walking away from the fact that these images and their subjects tell another story. As so often in the past, these African-Americans have been reconstructed into a narrative not of their own making, revealing their utter representational powerlessness, no matter the intentions of the current powers that be. That is the agonizing contradiction at the heart of Found Photos in Detroit: that the source of its power as a social critique is made possible only by appropriating the despair of the abandoned. To hold those contradictory positions in your mind is to grasp the cost of representation; to hold them in your heart is to know truth as an oppressive other.
– Vince Leo
Reading Joerg Colberg’s reflections on the ten-year birthday of his blog made me consider the way in which blogging is like parenting. Both take a ton of time and energy and the rewards, while significant, are oblique. You also have to deal with a lot of tantrums.
My biggest frustration with blogging is the same as my frustration with parenting: not enough time. I’m particularly bothered that I’m unable to respond to the fantastic unsolicited books that people send us (if you follow our Tumblr page, you know we get a lot).
One of my favorite recent arrivals, for example, was Found Photos in Detroit by Arianna Arcara & Luca Santese. This book will surely end up on my list of favorite books from 2012, but it deserves more critical attention than just being on another list.
So I turned to one of the best arts writers I know, Vince Leo, and asked for help. Vince just sent me his review and I couldn’t be happier. His text has me thinking about the book, and myself, in an entirely new way.
One of the lessons of parenting is that you need to ask for help. While you may not be able to hire a nanny, it’s essential to splurge on a babysitter now and then. I’m beginning to think the same is true for raising a healthy blog.
– Alec Soth
If you enjoyed Carrie Elizabeth Thompson’s recent post on being an artist and a mother (here), you might enjoy following Carrie’s Tumblr. For over a month, Carrie has taken on the ambitious task of posting 10 pictures a day of her life as an artist/mother. For those of us who struggle to be alert to the beauty, mystery and complexity of everyday life, Carrie’s blog is an eye opener. Go here: http://carrielizabethompson.tumblr.com/
Buy it here: http://littlebrownmushroom.com
Forgive the silence on this blog. Things have been quiet on the LBM front, but I’m happy to report that I’ve been busy making pictures. Last month I was in Rochester NY for two weeks as part of Magnum’s Postcards From America project. Today Brad Zellar & I are driving to Ohio for a week of rambling. We also hope to make it a week of blogging. Check out our project tumblr for stories and pictures.
If everything goes well, we also hope to produce a newspaper at the end of the trip.
Last May, five Magnum photographers (Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Mikhael Subotzky and myself) and the writer Ginger Strand, set out from San Antonio, Texas in an RV named Uncle Jackson. Two weeks later we arrived in Oakland, California. The project was entitled Postcards From America.
The project was a thrilling experiment. There were mistakes and mishaps, of course, but there were also some wonderful and unexpected successes. In my mind, our greatest success was the pop-up show we had at the Starline Social Club in Oakland. Assembled in less than two days, we papered the walls with pictures. We also had two long tables with thousands of 4×6 drugstore prints:
The morning after the show, most of these prints were gone. This wasn’t something we’d anticipated. But we were happy. We were able to share the work we’d just made in a way that was both immediate and physical. In a world of digital downloads, the live show becomes more meaningful. As one friend said afterward, the ‘decisive experience’ is now as meaningful as the ‘decisive moment.’
With that in mind, we began planning a new project for this year: House of Pictures:
Ten Magnum photographers will be working in Rochester. Two of these photographers have already gotten started. A couple weeks ago, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Jim Goldberg picked up Uncle Jackson in Oakland and began driving to Rochester. You can see some pictures from their trip here.
On their way, Alessandra and Jim picked me up in Minnesota. Later today we’ll be joining Bruce Gilden, Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr, Paolo Pellegrin, Larry Towell, Alex Webb, and Donovan Wylie in Rochester. For two weeks we’ll be living together and working together.
A couple of public programs have already been planned. There will also be a number of informal interactions and installations. For instance, we’ll be doing something at the public market on Saturday, April 21. But a lot of this is still up in the air. We’re making it up as we go along.
As with Postcards From America, we want you to join us in this experiment. We’ll announce details through social media, so it’s a good idea to follow us on our Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook pages. You can also post your pictures of Rochester to our Flickr group and tag them “Rochester”.
It is going to be a wild couple of weeks. Stay tuned…
Last year I worked with Ginger Strand as part of the Postcards From America project. This week Ginger is releasing her new book. It looks fantastic.
Read an excerpt of Ginger’s book here
Watch a video of Ginger talking about the book here
See Ginger give a reading in NYC next Monday here
Ginger’s website here
Buy the book here
After selling out the first edition of House of Coates in under two weeks, we’re happy to announce that we are printing another 1000 copies in a sexy brown cover.
Preview the book here
Buy the book here
Please note that orders of the 2nd edition will not be shipped until late April. We appreciate your purchase and your patience.
Thanks to everyone that came out to the fantastic book signing event at the Midwest Hotel.
photos by Carrie Thompson
To celebrate the release of House of Coates, Little Brown Mushroom will be hosting a very special book signing event at the infamous Midwest Hotel.
Zellar & Soth will be signing books in the hotel office. Visitors can also see a small exhibition of photographs in one of the hotel rooms.
Saturday, March 24th, 3-5pm
Midwest Hotel, 2144 University Ave. West. St. Paul, MN
For more information or images, contact:
Note: We will be holding 100 copies to sell at the signing event on March 12th. These copies are only available for customers who visit the Midwest Hotel.
Little Brown Mushroom is proud to announce the release of a new book, House of Coates, by Brad Zellar (with photographs by Lester B. Morrison).
In House of Coates, writer Brad Zellar pieces together the story of legendary recluse Lester B. Morrison. Working from a handful of encounters and contradictory conversations, a sketchy paper trail and often confounding interviews with individuals who may or may not have been “associates” of Morrison (including Morrison’s former collaborator Alec Soth), Zellar attempts to reconstruct one episode from Morrison’s decidedly episodic life. In the winter of 2011, Zellar finally crossed paths with his evasive subject, and was –with Morrison’s permission– granted access to the results of an MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) test that Morrison submitted to in August of 2009, along with the administrating psychiatrist’s copious notes. Finally, in late December of last year, Zellar received in the mail a duct-taped shoebox –marked “PERISHABLE”– containing almost two hundred photographs that Morrison termed “disposable documents of the approximate period in question.”
From these raw materials designer Hans Seeger has assembled a book that Morrison himself has pronounced, “Probably close enough to what might or might not have happened, and that’s as much as I’ve learned to expect from the so-called ‘real world.’”
Publication date: March, 2012
118 pages / 68 photographs
Designed by Hans Seeger
© Brad Zellar & Alec Soth
Edition of 1000
Preview the book here
Buy the book here
Book signings with Brad Zellar & Alec Soth:
New York: Thursday March 8th, 6-8pm at Dashwood Books
Minnesota: Saturday March 24th, 3-5pm at the Midwest Hotel
Carrie Thompson: When I was pregnant I had a studio visit with Lorna Simpson. She is a mother, so I asked her for advice. I wanted to know what I should do before I have my baby. What would be the challenges for me when I become a mother? She said that since I had been working on two projects dealing with family history, including a trip to Japan that directly preceded my son’s birth, I should write down the narratives of those photos. She said I had to do this before my child was born. She repeated the advice a few times. I didn’t listen. I didn’t write the stories. I should have. When my son was born everything changed. My extra time disappeared. Making work slowed way down. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of balancing motherhood with a career as an artist. I decided to get some other photographers/mothers engaged in a conversation on the subject.There are a few things that I want to address. I want us to talk about being women, mothers and artists and how we find balance. How do we continue to make work, raise children and continue/find success? Alec is obsessed with age on this blog (see here). I think something important was missing from that discussion. No one seemed to address the fact that many people over 35 have children, families and other responsibilities. Do you as mothers think that having children makes it harder to be successful?
Greta Pratt: To the first question I have to say that it completely depends on how you define success. If success is defined as a mad dash to the top of the ladder and whoever gets there first is successful then yes having children definitely interferes. But if success is defined as quality of life as in being loved and showing love and having deep, long term relationships that cause you to question the meaning of life and love and art and help you to look at the world through different eyes well then I would say that having children helps you to be successful.
Beth Dow: I can’t lay claim on the word “successful” but I can substitute “productive”. I envy people who can switch on their focused mind in an instant. Focus for me comes much more inconsistently, and if I’m really engrossed in something, the worst thing that can happen is real life getting in the way. If I suddenly need to get someone from school, for example, it’s like a million little bubbles popping. It’s difficult for me to regain that focus later. This is especially true when I’m writing. When the kids were little and I had a tight deadline, I warned the kids they could only interrupt me if they were bleeding especially badly. Black humor fuels our household. Now to address the “harder” part of “harder to be successful”. I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.
Paula McCartney: I just read Beth’s comment after listening to my two and a half year old yell from his bedroom in both in joy and despair for two hours in an attempt to not got to sleep while I sat in the living room trying to prepare tomorrow’s photo history lecture. I can definitely relate to finding it difficult to focus. When Oliver is talking-whether in the same room or not-I find it extremely hard to concentrate on anything else. Having a child and an art career, and teaching is a lot to juggle. I always wonder and ask other women how they do it. The most helpful response was from a photographer that I greatly admire who said “sometimes you are a not-so-great artist, sometimes a not-so-great mother, and sometimes a not-so-great teacher.” Hearing that made me feel not so bad about being not so great all the time at everything I was trying to do. Since grad school I made the decision to define success as continuously moving forward in some way, even if very slowly. And while I continue to ask artists with children how they do it, always hoping for some bit of wisdom that will make doing it easier, I realize that I am doing it too. For me, finding some balance (though that word makes life seem a little more stress-free than it is) happened when my son started going to day care two days a week and I had those days as studio days. I could focus on my work those days, teach a few mornings and be genuinely present when I was with him. The thing that I have seemed to sacrifice in being an artist and a mother of a young child and teaching is having a social life. In the whirlwind of the first two years I didn’t pay that much attention but have recently made much more of an attempt to make dates with my friends (mostly other women artists, many with children). When I think of all the women I am friends with who are artists, the ones that would be considered as more successful are the ones with children. So, I guess that no, having a child doesn’t make you less successful, only more tired. And while for me, life is definitely more difficult with a child, it is also definitely more amazing.
Danielle Mericle: I (like everyone) am so busy most the time I forget how useful camaraderie can be. That said, I’ve been surprised at the positive impact motherhood has had on me, both in a general sense and artistically. I was one of those who had little or no interest in having kids, so when I found myself pregnant I was pretty terrified at what it might mean to me. Much to my relief, I’ve found that it has made me less anxious about “career,” more genuinely invested in the process of creating, and happier in general. I think this is for a few reasons- first, I simply don’t have the time to be anxious anymore- after the full-time job and Charley (and house, food, exercise, etc) I get on average half day per week to focus on my work, so when I’m in my studio, I’m working. And it feels so nice (and necessary) to have that space to work, however little the time. I also have experienced (a cliche, I know) a major shift in my priorities- I’m not sure that I can entirely articulate the change, but I know that my definition of success is different- and has much less to do with the notion you have in art school of art-stardom, but rather is a better match for what I really want to do in life (which, fundamentally speaking, is to have an interesting and fulfilling life). This is not to say that it’s been totally rosy and without issues. My darker moments have come over battles for time. My husband is a working artist too, and the struggles for an hour here or there have been throughout our tenure as parents (almost three years now). For whatever reason, I’ve had a tendency to relinquish my time more than I would like, which has been a really terrible habit that I’ve had to consciously break. If I had any advice to a new mother/artist, it would be to guard what little time you have- it may not feel like much to give up an afternoon, but from a sanity perspective it’s huge. Other things- I too have little or no social life, which is fine for now. I’ve worried that we’ve alienated a few people around here, but there’s not much to do about it (and fundamentally I don’t know that we really have). And I don’t read anymore- this drives me crazy- and I’m really looking forward to that coming back.
Amy Stein: Danielle’s comments really resonate for me. Many are spot on to my recent experiences as a mother. I too feel less anxious about career concerns than I did before Sam cam along. I used to be very consumed by my work and career and now I feel I’m much more relaxed about it and have more perspective on it’s trajectory as well as many other aspects of my life. The cliches we often hear are that motherhood is “transformative” and “puts things into perspective, are uttered so often because are true and still they don’t go far enough to describe the awesome, overwhelming changes that motherhood brings. In the past six months these changes have overwhelmed me and thrown everything I knew before out the window. I am still adjusting to the countless large and small impacts on my life. But as a 41 year old first time mom, I welcome those changes. I think I was getting used to the idea that the major positive changes of life were over for me. I switched careers at 32, built a new career in the arts that was satisfying and rewarding. Sure I still had a long way to go, but I was happy to plug away at it everyday. And grateful that I could spend my days making thinking and teaching photography. We tried for a long time to get pregnant. We went through a lot to have a child and just before I got the good news I had resigned myself to the fact that it just wasn’t going to happen for us. Then along came Sam. Of course there’s joy and the deep connection of having a child, which has made my life immeasurably fuller and more meaningful. As Danielle says there’s less time to worry about yourself, which for me is a good thing, because I was spending about 90% of my time before motherhood fretting over work, career and meaning in my life. And now there’s so much meaning that those demons are crowded out, swept away. I think we as artists and mothers struggle with the same issues most working moms struggle with: limited time, overwhelming demands on our time in and outside the home, wanting to do well with career and personal and home life and not being able to because often it’s just not possible to do it all well. And as Danielle mentions the constant negotiations with one’s partner about who will care for your child and when are wearing. Then there are the financial concerns: how to pay for childcare, etc. And finding that balance of how much childcare you need to do your work and for me fighting the guilt over watching someone else spend large amounts of time with my son as I answer emails and photoshop files at my desk ten feet away. But then feeling incredible relieved when the work gets done. But missing my son at the same time. It’s a cocktail of joy, resentment and guilt.
Linda Rossi: This is a wonderful opportunity to write about our adventures- as mothers and artists- I so appreciate these reflections. I have three sons who unfortunately due to crazy circumstances I had to raise from a young age on- by myself. My first son was born the day after my grad school exhibition. As I still had to finish the written part of my thesis- I was nursing and writing at the same time. I found it completely changed my interpretation of time and space- there was a blending and compression- I needed to accept quickly the chaos and the unexpected. As the years went on all 3 helped me make works of art- their skills and aesthetic knowledge grew and I was able to trust them (at a young age) for new insight into the work. It has continued to be a provocative and powerful exchange. During those years it was a matter of finding bits of time that I could create work,so a lot of the time I was dreaming about pieces -not actually making them- I would actually try to schedule time to make art in my head- for example while washing the dishes I would focus intensely on the work I would do in the future. At the same time one would find domestic and artistic tools side by side on the kitchen counter- the loaf of bread and peanut butter were spread out with saws, wood, etc. Probably not the most sanitary- but it was a way to not separate our lives. I look back now on years that were filled with pain, beauty, terror, humor,profound baby -teenage boy smells, and yelling and and fear and laughing and it still continues. The intensity of the home fueled the work I created. During a certain time period I created an elaborate installation about Russian poets whose voices were suppressed by Stalin. I became interested in the power of art during a time of danger- the strongest work was less political and addressed freedom and beauty- often the wives of the poets would memorize the words- keep them in their minds for decades until it was safe to reveal. I suppose I was feeling my own small entrapment and as a result wandered into an area of study based on a mix of home emotion. It was the double edged sword- there were days I didn’t think I would survive and yet it was such a complex and rich environment to be within. I am profoundly grateful for what they continue to teach me- even though the lessons can be a tough reflection on myself.
Carrie Thompson: Like Linda, I am raising my son (Goma) in a non-traditional home. I don’t need to get into details but the descriptive word I would use is complicated. And like Amy, I struggle with the amount of time that Goma spends in daycare. As you probably know, I am Alec Soth’s studio manager. My job is full-time and demanding. Since I work for an artist, most nights after Goma falls asleep the idea of working on my own art makes my head spin. My issue is that I, like many of you, need time to create, think, and explore. I can’t just turn my ideas on and off. I am 31. Goma is 15 months old. Before Goma was born I got my job with Alec, won a few grants, made two bodies of work that I am proud of, had many shows, traveled, and applied for every grant and show for which I was eligible. Now since I have a child I do less than half of these things. This is why I think younger artists without children rise to the top quicker. Artists with children continue to create yet not as quickly. As many of you have mentioned, the idea of success shifts when you become a mother. I would love to hear any other thoughts you might have on the discussion to this point, and I would like to add one more question: Since becoming a mother what is the one thing you gave up that you wish you had back?
Danielle Mericle: One quick observation, and then I will write more later. I too work a full-time job, although I’ve managed to get it down to four days/week instead of five (it does help). And while I don’t pursue many aspects of my work nearly like I used to, it’s definitely starting to come back, however slowly. My sense, and others chime in here, is that it gets easier all the time. The difference between 15 months and three (which is how old Charley is now) cannot be underestimated. I’m guessing that three to six will be another huge leap, and so on and so on. That said, the challenges are very real. I’m incredibly fortunate in that I convinced my mother to move to Ithaca to provide childcare for us (we pay her well, but still, my guilt is gone)- when I was sending him to daycare it was pretty agonizing… Anyway, more soon- and I will contemplate what I wish I had back (it’s finally happening, however, where I really can’t remember my old life much anymore-so I may have to ponder the question a while).
Beth Dow: Our kids were born in London, and I was pregnant shortly after my first solo exhibition. I continued to shoot film but it was difficult to work in the darkroom, and this became basically impossible after our son Miles was born. Our daughter Maisie was born less than two years later, and then we moved to the USA not long after that. The film I shot back then was roll after roll of unfinished thoughts, and it was deeply frustrating to not be able to print. I also didn’t have my own darkroom, so I had to use my husband’s when he wasn’t in it, which was only nights or weekends. I wanted to apply for grad school at that time, too, which then became impossible. I was still able to get my work in some group shows, but I didn’t regain any kind of real focus for several years. I don’t know how much the international move had to do with that, though, but that could have played a big part. My London gallery completely changed its business model and became a picture library at the same time we moved, so I also no longer had representation. Looking back, I don’t know if I would have really changed anything, but I do wish I had had more bodies of work under my belt before I grew a baby there (ha). When you asked what was the one thing I gave up that I wish I had back, I really had to think about that. Life is all about giving things up and getting things in return. Sometimes we get things we don’t want, and other times we get things we didn’t know we wanted. I wish I could regain the freedom to completely throw my full attention into one thing at a time, and to do that without any guilt. When I’m doing family stuff, whatever that may be, part of my mind is on my photographs; when I’m working, part of my mind is on who needs to be where, what’s for supper, and what is that goddamned dog barking about now. I suspect this is a gender thing, whether it’s the divided focus or the guilt about that division. I do know, however, that it gets easier. After a huge gap in my resume, things picked up for me as the kids went to school and became more autonomous. When the kids were small I would fantasize about what it must have been like for Ward Cleaver to return home to a clean house and a cooked dinner. There were also a few dangerous occasions, after long and stressful days with toddlers, where a full tank of gas, some loud music, and a bit of cash in my bag were calling out all kinds of temptations to just keep on driving. I bet a lot of mothers of young children have felt like that, and I’m suspicious of those who would deny it. I wish I could regain the facility to easily compartmentalize my attention, and I wish I could do so without feeling any shred of guilt.
Greta Pratt: I have raised two children in a traditional/nontraditional home. Traditional because I am married. Non-traditional because my husband and I live in different states eight hours apart. I have a tenure track job in Virginia and he needs to be close to New York City. It is complicated. I always knew I wanted to have children but I don’t think I gave a whole lot of thought to all the practical issues of having children. I proceeded as I do with most things by just winging it. Sometimes is has worked out better than others. When the kids were little I was home with them and my work time always involved towing them with me unless I could find a mom to trade a few hours of kid- watching with. I didn’t have the money to hire a sitter. My husband, who is a freelance editorial photographer, travels non-stop and without much advance warning, so he was not available for any kind of consistent help. I learned to shed things so I could continue to photograph and take care of my kids. No time for a social life, reading the paper or books, watching TV, keeping up with current events or talking to friends. I did however manage to keep my focus and keep working towards a goal, however slowly. At that time I was working on what would turn into my second book of photographs, “Using History” It took me eight years to finish the project. Part of the reason it took so long was figuring out and understanding what I was trying to say; another part was the travel involved; and another huge part was the figuring out how to fit in the kids. I did a lot of driving in those days. When Axel was eight and Rose was six I went back to school and got my MFA and that led to my current full time job. I do feel like my life went completely out of control from that point on. The demands of graduate school and then a job in academia along with creating art and raising my kids have been intense. Also, I moved to a different state and my husband stayed behind. What was I thinking? As I stated earlier, sometimes it has worked out better than others.
Paula McCartney: There’s a lot I miss, actually (at 37, I was very used to my adult life and the freedom I had when he was born), but NOTHING enough to trade back! I am certain that Oliver is the most amazing thing that has or ever will happen to me. I guess the thing that I miss the most is the ability to go out in the evenings. Lex and I used to always go to openings and lectures and I thought of that as my continuing education, as well as a way to stay connected in the community. Without family in town, we honestly can very rarely afford a sitter, so we hardly ever go out at night, which feels isolating at times. And going out to dinner together for a date and paying for a sitter is basically out of the question. I am lucky that Oliver goes to –and loves– preschool several days a week, so I do have studio time (I didn’t for his first year, and didn’t make much work) and realize that I make as much work now as I did on average before he was born. I love him more than anything, but my work is still very important to me. I will admit I do still worry about my career. But, I am able to NOT worry about it when I am spending time with him and can be really present; I just worry while driving to work or at night when I should be sleeping!
Greta Pratt: My kids are now 17 and 19 so it is hard to remember my life without them and what I gave up. But in thinking about it, what I would like to have back is time with my partner where the conversation is not related to the kids. I also miss the freedom to pursue an artistic idea without having to think about what a houseful of teenagers is doing back at home. It is tough to find balance and as Paula pointed out before it is impossible to be the best at everything all the time. There are just not enough hours in the day. When I was first getting started a male museum curator counseled me not to have kids. He said I would never be successful if I had them. I was incensed. But if you define success as a race to the top he was right. Nurturing children, making a living, and being an artist comprises three fulltime jobs and that is impossible. However, life is richer when we look at it from many angles. If we want a world comprised of diversity of thought and ideas maybe we need to understand that the old path to success does not work for all types of people and we need to seek out and value the contributions of a variety of individuals.
Amy Stein: Well, sleep would be up there on a list if things I sorely miss. Also, freedom to plan my own day and unstructured time are distant memories. Now every moment and activity’s value is weighed against spending time with Sam or the cost of hiring a sitter. So a lot of things I used love to do I just can’t make time for: going to openings, attending talks, waking in the park, showering. Sometimes I feel like every moment of my day is consumed by mothering duties, and to break free for even a minute I need to negotiate with someone to take over and spell me (having said that I have an attentive and loving part time sitter and my husband is amazing and shares many duties, especially in the evenings). Carrie thanks so much for initiating this conversation and pushing it forward. I’ve come to really look forward to reading everyone’s responses. Especially because the other moms are more experienced and have a broader perspective to share. Sometimes I loose sight of the fact that Sam will not always be 7 months old, with the intense needs of an infant. He will of course grow and go through many stages of development and increasingly become more independent and need new and different things from me.
Linda Rossi: In response to Amy’s mention of the need for sleep, it has been an enormous issue for me over the years as my boys were not good sleepers and then I waited up all night once they were teenagers. One evening I remember in particular was when my oldest son, Skye, who was two at the time would never stay in his bed; around midnight my husband and I pretended to be asleep ( while waiting for him to go to bed –he apparently was in charge). I remember him coming into our room and standing next to me. I could sense his closed fist holding a toy right above my face. He wanted me to read what it said on the bottom of the toy car. With great delight he said, “Oh, they are sleeping and they are dreaming about me!” As I was so sleep deprived, the concept that when I did get a wink I would be dreaming about him was both funny and excruciating. If I could change one thing it would actually be to get more sleep. I would encourage younger mothers to get as much rest as possible. I would often use the late evening hours to “make art” and as a result it has actually compromised my health. I now try to get more sleep and dream about new work when I go to bed, as the often random connections in a dream state lead to new ideas.
Carrie Thompson: Like Beth, I was thinking a lot about freedom when I wrote the question, “Since becoming a mother what is the one thing you gave up that you wish you had back?” I would love to have the freedom to really plunge into a project without guilt. I dream of taking off and exploring the world slowly and completely. I think this is a dream for many artists, not just women. I think there are probably a lot of women –and mothers– who share the escape fantasies of Lester B. Morrison, and one of Beth’s observations has stuck with me, and almost perfectly sums up my own conflicts: “I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.”
Sean Kelly Gallery is delighted to announce the opening of Alec Soth’s new exhibition, Broken Manual. The opening will take place on Thursday, February 2, from 6pm until 8pm. The artist will be present.
Last May, Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Mikhael Subotzky, Ginger Strand and I drove an RV from San Antonio to Oakland. Since then, we’ve been trying to make something that expresses the frenetic energy of that trip. In the end, a simple book wouldn’t do. Instead we produced the Postcards From America box. Inside is a collection of objects – a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster and five zines, all in a signed and numbered box.
Designed by Emmet Byrne and Michael Aberman from the Walker Art Center, the result is, well, cooler than hell. Just check out this giant poster by Paolo Pellegrin:
The signed and number box (edition of 500) costs $250 from now until February 1st. Buy it here.