What is a more juvenile photographic impulse than to want to document where you live? Photography, I was taught for four years, is a sort of vicarious and voyeuristic telling. We seek to see pictures of things that are unknown or mysterious to us, things that are to be desired or mastered in looking at. We take pictures of things we think are interesting. We think our own lives are interesting, but in so many of the spaces we occupy and the relationships we hold, these things are not interesting to anyone but us.
I began to photograph my house in the months between my graduation and my wedding because I knew I wouldn’t be living there for long. Actually, I photographed there because I felt crushed by the weight of photographing anything else and trying to make meaning out of it without school around me. I tried to be innocent and light-footed. I tried to stay near to myself and see what could be seen with a camera without walking out of my front door.
The “rules” were simple. Flash. 100mm macro lens. Don’t leave the house. I was trying to grow my business as an architectural photographer, so I thought about space a lot. How do I do interesting things with layers of architecture and objects? How did materials reflect light? How do flash and natural light interact? I tried to make 5 photographs a day as innocently as I could.
I put my camera in the microwave, in the refrigerator, I climbed into the attic and photographed my toilet. I investigated the seams of the house and the dirty surfaces. The house was filthy. Five guys lived there when I started, then briefly six, then back to five, and when I left there were four.
The creative process from which these photos and this writing emerged was a slow cycle of hating them and knowing that they were important to me. I kept returning to a harshly cynical perspective that it was only practice, they were of a relatively unimportant subject, and that not everything I made was golden. However, I kept getting pokes in my side, knowing that this house was interesting to me and that this was a particularly unique time of my life. Yes, everything at the end of it all is “unique”, even if it comes from a familiar category. Humbly, though, I think it can be worth considering these things.
It doesn’t mean anything until it does. In its telling, I hope I can bring you along with where I was and what I was feeling.
Feel with it
My state of mind for many months is inscribed on these photos. That is the pleasure of making photos (or anything) apart from the pressures of commercial demands. By the act of selecting things to photograph, the act of making arrangements and curating a set of photos, they speak in their combinations and their particulars to a state of mind held for several months on end. It is an exercise in reading which results in meanings less literal than words. The pictures are demonstrations of what was important, what was pressing in that moment. The content of the photo is emotional, notional, and non-literal.
That has always been the joy and mystery of photography, I think; that something happens beyond the literal. I think the proof of this is to try to explain exactly, to decode, to unwind the photo for the viewer. Follow with me below, see how it feels to have this photo spelled out as best as I can explain. First, the photo (but feel with it first).
This photo was taken late in the project, deep in this self-critical state of mind. My room was in disarray because of moving, and my walls were bare. I was so enamored with those walls and what happened when the flash hit them- they revealed their “character” in the patches of thin paint and deformities which quick observation hides. There were scuffs, unfilled holes, kinds of grease, just an overall off-kilter look when the flash hit them.
My dresser was messy, my photography work was piling up and enters into the corner of the frame. Yet through the center of the picture, the obvious focal point of the image, was my belt. Hung on the nail that it usually rested on, it lay on the wall in the twisted shape of my waist- an index of my body hung up there on the window trim. You can even make out the holes I’ve drilled in my belt during my efforts to lose weight. You can get a little something out of that, an inference and a feeling.
That is my goal in taking photos, in writing a blog, in doing creative work. It is the goal that you feel after my feelings much more than you think after my thoughts. It’s my goal for the viewer to be a little grossed out by pictures of gross kitchens, or a bit menaced by pictures of a domestic space that seem off. Sometimes that takes a little prod on how to read images, or even how to feel. My hopes in writing this is to educate the reader a bit on that emotional reading of images, and to tell the story of where I lived.
Mysterious, gross, upsetting, menacing, what I am aiming for in these personal, essayistic images is uncanniness. Whatever the opposite of boring is. To be uninteresting is ] maybe the third or fourth worst crime a piece of art can commit, because it is inviting the viewer to waste their time for the indulgence of the artist.
That said, I want to avoid context-less mystery. I want to get you thinking and seeing in a new way, and to use the space between these images and these words to do so. These pictures to me are beyond just tricks of the eyes or documentation of the space I lived in, so let me invite you into the personal history.
For seven years, a family of six lived in a house in the north side of Richmond, Virginia. The house was in a neighborhood that had been in flux almost since its foundations were laid. It was at first a posh streetcar suburb, then its fabric were torn up by redlining and white flight. The house sits perhaps on that fault line. Go three blocks east and it’s almost as if nothing changed. Go three blocks west and more houses are abandoned, more houses are rented and divvied up into units.
The neighborhood was bisected in some places and trimmed off in others by an interstate. In the time between when the family I know bought the house and when I lived there, that street ticked its way back up in property values- the neighborhood still a little white and a little black. Investors bought houses and flipped them in the space of months. The house itself sat, probably, not too far from one of those lines which existed in city planners’ notebooks and ripped communities apart.
For nine years after the mother and father moved to another city in Virginia, the house was occupied by a rotating cast of young men. At first, the sons of the family. Then the rooms were filled with other guys, often associated through church or school, occupying the bedrooms and the basement and sometimes the couches of the house. There was no complete turnover- the house was never emptied out to empty walls and floors between inhabitants. The family’s history can be found, still, in the attic and the basement and the space between the possessions of so many boys.
The house was still cozy and functional, albeit with its eccentricities. Any piece of real estate has them. The house was a far cry from the four-square plan that it was built with, straight out of a catalog. The family had stripped it in the early 2000s to its studs and transformed rooms from one purpose to another. Updated it with security systems and new appliances. Then a storm and parade of men moved through in years and in months. Collective low standards of cleanliness were agreed to without speaking about it too much.
There were little battles here and there, personal distaste of any particular thing getting too dirty or left in neglect for too long. Cleaning schedules, personalized cupboards, mostly unshared bathrooms kept tensions at bay. But it boiled over into Facebook arguments and passive aggressive silence on more than one occasion.
I was there in a gap in my life that I think this house filled for many men: the space between graduation and marriage. I was happy to be living in a house with other Christian men, though there was nothing in the patterns of living or the fixtures of the house that would tell you that writ large. It was there in quiet ways, in books on the shelves, a painting in the basement, and on Thursday mornings when my close friends and I filled the silence of the sun rising with our prayers, meeting every week. The living room was otherwise large and empty. For a time before I moved there, a small group was hosted and the space was put to good use. But it was often quiet and empty when I moved in.
We went to our rooms and shut the doors, mostly. We worked on our computers silently or yelled at headsets connected to game consoles. I wasn’t sure when and where most of my roommates ate, because I seldom saw them cooking or eating in the dining room, save for a professional chef who lived there. I got to be friends with him over time even though we didn’t talk much at first. I took for granted that we would be friends because we lived together, even though I barely knew anyone when I moved in.
The house worked. It was not full with laughter, but there was some. We did not live as brothers or as family, but we were roommates that were usually encouraging and friendly with one another when we were in the same room. The two brothers in the house, the only remaining occupants from the original family, lived together in the basement. I was only occasionally and privately sad about it: I had sometimes dreamed of my brother and I living together in Richmond. We were not so close as they were growing up. But it did not come to pass.
I lived there for nine months. I moved in barely a month before proposing to my then girlfriend. I hid the ring box in that desk there, waiting to plan a perfect surprise party in celebration of our engagement. I knew it was going to be temporary when I was moving in. Not temporary in the sense that everything is temporary, but temporary in the sense that I was sure that my living there would last less than about a year and end for a specific and known reason.
In nine months I thought a lot about being in the space between one life and another, singleness and marriage. I got to steep in the environment one family had created and many single men had lived in since. I lived there just long enough to really settle in, to work my junk into the cracks of the house. Standing in those rooms you felt like the dust off of so many lives had gotten up on top of the moldings and found its way into things that would never get really cleaned out. Then there were these lives that were still being lived all through it. The chances that something that looked old would be used tomorrow was the same as the chances that something unblemished had been sitting in the same spot for a long time. You could set something down thinking you would come back to it, move out, and it wouldn’t be bothered for four years.
But I really loved the light in the place. I couldn’t stop looking at the shadows and the reflections and the shimmering light come in the blinds that would light up the windows and show the dust and the scratches on the walls and trim. I tried really hard to take good photos of it because I cared about it and it was the only way I felt like I could ever access the meaning of it after the fact.
What of pictures of light and dirt? They don’t mean anything by themselves. They may not even mean anything when you string several of them together. But my interest in photography and writing in combination has always been what happens between the two things. Take the words out of this essay and leave the photos, and you have no information with which to access them. Take the photos out of the words and they become too explanatory. They also lose a sense of grounding, or even a sense of proof. It’s like they are an evidence of a feeling rather than an event.
The house was the address my fiancé and I put down for our wedding registry, so the gifts came in day after day and week after week as the date got closer. One of my roommates moved out a few months ahead of me (he also married and moved from that house into a home with his wife) leaving an empty room that I could use to pile the gifts in. Rachel and I spent a few evenings in that room opening presents given on behalf of a wedding that hadn’t happened yet. I sort of hated that, celebrating over gifts for a life that wasn’t fully realized. There was a pang in my mind that these things that were new and untarnished now might one day have the same sort of unplaceable dust covering them.
So I was still single, still unmarried, and living in the midst of this place where family was on the walls and in the rafters. I thought a lot about how we build spaces around us that are reflective of that stage of our life. I made pictures that tried to encapsulate this feeling. I felt a little lonely in that place, but also loved in another way. It was a brief and confusing time, and it’s enjoyable to look back on it.
I think the most interesting moments in all of it was taking it apart slowly. Rachel and I started a lease on our house a month prior to the wedding, and neither of us were planning on moving until after we were man and wife. It was nice to have something to look forward to, and as I packed up my belongings and my walls got more and more bare, I could only think about how life is far more than the accumulation of things. Yet, our things and our lives and moving around creates marks on the environment around us. I could take pictures of the marks and the dust and the things I positioned in my room in a particular arrangement, but I could not take photos of the emotions themselves.
So I took photos of the dust and the wood and the glass and the light which went through it all, to stand in for the things that I could not photograph. They were things that I couldn’t even really write down- the words themselves only symbols which get close to the feeling.
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Now the feelings are not all that was there, nor was there only the material in the house and the furniture. I was living there for only a little bit of time, and we all only live for a little bit of time. We go and try to make space and meaning and it’s all around us, quite evidently before us and within us and above us. In the time that I lived on Hawthorne Ave I thought a lot about family and friends and marriage and myself and God. Our lives mean something, and we all go down to dust. Nonetheless, I can think on these things and be grateful to Jesus Christ. For in Him, what we do is not without reason, it is not without meaning, and it is not without beauty.
The story of anything can be absurd and meaningless, or beautiful depending on how you think about everything. I can hardly try to take stock of what nine months of my life means without considering it as far forward as I can imagine. Barthes would say every photograph is about death, because every subject dies or disappears and yet the photograph is a cruel and sentimental reminder that they were once living. I take these photos as something of a reminder of the grace and beauty of Jesus Christ, that through all our strivings and moving piles of dust around, that He is moving in history and in our lives to create beautiful things. I’m quite confident at the end of it all that we will be amazed at how little we accomplished and how much God has done in spite of us.
Every photo, every house and family and life is charged with an aspect of this story. When I go out and photograph or write and try to think about everything at once, it is the only thing I can come to, safely and sweetly. I beg myself back, lest I think that life is in the accumulation of wooden objects and dust, or in the accumulation of pictures and words.