heading east: 2008 – 2009
“The times of drastic change are times of passions. We can never be fit and ready for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: We undergo a test; we have to prove ourselves.”
– Bruce Lee ‘Tao of Jeet Kune Do’
The move back east was jarring and the long drive in my sketchy Toyota didn’t help, packed as it was with what little was left, most being all the uncertainty and anxiety that now came by default. But I landed in West Virginia in the spring of 2008 and met up with my old friend Jon who, along with his wife, ran a successful real estate business near Beckley. I pulled into the office, set up camp in the storage room and began studying for the real estate exam. Eventually, with Jon’s help, I passed the test, found a little studio and did my best to settle in and get my act together.
Weeks passed, then months, I tried to earn but couldn’t focus and with a recession looming, no one was buying, at least not from me. So I got to work and did what I had to: I cleared brush, dug ditches, cleaned gutters… Whatever I could to get by.
As September neared, the weather cooled and the color rolled in and that got my attention, notably from a dogwood tree that grew near a fence behind the house. When the sun rose, it hit the tree hard, darkening the branches and heating up the color in the leaves: First the fading greens, then the brilliant yellows and by the time the reds showed up the whole economy was heading for the gutter.
By that point, I was home full time completely glued to the news. For weeks, when the light got right, I would tear myself from the TV, get my camera, trek out to my spot and photograph the tree. Back and forth, out to the tree and back to my room, day after day and so on. Basically, as the world’s collective jaw dropped; I spent the days alone, torn between the glowing flicker of a world gone mad and the rich, changing beauty of a single dogwood tree.
“There’s some big, crazy ass bug hanging out on the sliding glass door in back. He’s got in twice already and I humanely moved him out both times. Now he’s just banging his big head on the glass making quite a racket. That’s some bug.
I cleaned gutters today, roof gutters. I made a hundred bucks.“
from Beauty and Debris
The dogwood tree, or Fenceline as I call that series of work, was not my only focus of interest during my time in West Virginia. On a clear night in winter, during a full moon phase, I got it in my head to open the shutter for several seconds and practice keeping the orb in the frame while I moved the camera around. Of course, it’s difficult to do this while looking through the viewfinder or even while looking at the LCD screen. Especially when maxed out on the lens. But given my commitment to this style of shooting, I considered it a worthwhile practice and a good use of my time since many a fine shot was foiled by poor framing. In fact, nothing pisses me off more than to achieve the distinct color and texture that is motion blur, only to have it ruined by a floppy, misaligned frame. My computer is filled with ‘almost and ‘not quite right’ pictures that came painfully close. Of course, this is not confined to motion blur, it’s been the bane of photographers since the beginning of time. Well, the mid-1800s at least.
Initially, my only interest was keeping the moon settled in the center but as I got better, I began to work on more directed movements and took to ‘drawing’ simple forms – Crosses, spirals, boxes – as an upgrade to simple camera movements I started with. Mimicking brushwork has always been an interest and when I noticed a leafless poplar tree standing nearby, its spindly bare branches arching towards the sky, I positioned myself underneath and aimed for the moon. The resulting effect was as brush like as any edit preset or plugin could achieve and this, combined with the simple forms I was creating, took the initial intent to practice into something complete and meaningful all unto its own.
Curtains West Virginia 2009
Of course, I spent a fair amount of time indoors working my interiors, always a reliable and revealing motif. But landscapes were my main focus and I often left the confines of the property and looked for more complex candidates for pictures. More and more I was interested in introducing other elements into the frame and since we’re talking landscape, water was an obvious option. In my humble opinion, looking over the history of art, no other element has been given so much leeway in the application of technique and depiction as water. Apart from strict realism, anything goes when getting water down and I took my liberties whenever the opportunity presented itself.
A nearby location was Beaver Lake, just a few miles from home. I’ve always been a hiker and the trail around the lake was a good place to burn off energy and gather my thoughts but I noticed the backlit, tree-covered hills surrounding the lake, which cast dark, loose-edged shadows over the water, had some potential and I spent many a day trying to work out the brushwork on the water behind the cattails standing in the foreground. As it is with motion blur, with photography, art making, and life in general; some days are better than others but I managed to get a few keepers. Regardless, it got me thinking about water, about adding more complexity to my shots beyond the trees and follage I’d been working on. West Virginia is a ruggedly beautiful state not well-known for its open spaces. I made trips deep into dark canyons looking for moving water and color but the steep, wooded hollers I explored made it difficult and I longed for more light and open terrain.
I also longed for security, stability, freedom, and thanks to the demons that made the cross-country ride with me; sanity as well. The fact was, I was no better at real estate than I was at the construction business. As I said, I made money when I could but without the support of Jon and his wife and my other friend Kevin; I would have gotten all the water shots I could handle by paddling straight into the troubled rapids of Shit Creek.
Still, even with the tremendous support from these friends, every day started with a groan. Every day was a battle, a struggle. The guilt and shame of the mess I left behind, the constant search for work and cash, the unhealthy necessities, the insecurities, stress, and foggy confusion … All of it bore down on me daily and I wanted nothing more than to get up and run.
And I did. I surrendered to the dream of the simplicities of the road and to the need for the open spaces that sat farther East.