I am free
when my imagination soars
by the ways others imagine me
when the stories they write
aren’t the stories of my dreams
I am stars, bursting
Photo and Words by Star Rush
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed,” Susan Sontag, from On Photography
Street photography is a kind of improvisation, not unlike jazz. It’s got beats, rhythms, spontaneity — attention to speed and a kind of “pre-visualization” of a final photography, a story, a revelation or insight.
I’ve been asked about some of my candid street portraits and the seemingly intense eye-contact that’s evident in some of them. I’ve been warned about the “soul stealing” that I’m engaging in as one who photographs people I do not know in candid moments without their awareness. These are ethical issues; these are moral concerns of a high order. There appears this apparent connection that surfaces, as though I and the subject are standing face-to-face, eye-to-eye, an intimacy that emerges, a vulnerability that can leave us unsettled.
Seconds go by as I walk by people on the sidewalk. I don’t stand on corners or lean against poles watching people pass. I don’t wait. I am seldom still. I walk, usually at a good pace, with my iPhone in in my right hand down at my side. The candid portraits are taken straight-on: me facing them and they me. We encounter one another, I raise my iPhone slightly, snap, lower it again, and walk on. All this happens in maybe 2 seconds. We then walk in opposite directions on the same sidewalk, neither slowing the pace much. I take one photo—that’s it. If it comes out, then great. If it doesn’t, I delete. I’m not an editor, and I don’t want a stream of photographs, all just slightly different from the next. One is good enough, or it is not. Well before I and the subject meet, I’ve already composed the final photo in mind’s eye, already saw them inside a frame, and so the photograph takes shape about 1 minute before the steps I’ve described above.
But what about that eye-contact? Surely it is suspicion with or concern about the camera that’s being represented in those glances. I don’t think so. I don’t think that at all. I’ve started to look at people I don’t know in the eye when I’m out in public, without my camera. It’s actually harder to do than it seems. About two-thirds of the time, people don’t look back. Eyes get lowered or turn away. The others, they look back. We make eye-contact. There’s no camera—just our selves, locked for a split second. No words, no other gestures but a mutual recognition. It feels intense, this locking, this seeing. It’s emotional for me when it happens. There’s a kind of electricity, a surge of feelings, a rush of a kind of knowing or an insight, and then, just as fast, it’s all gone when we pass at the shoulder, each heading to separate directions.
Maybe it’s not only the presences of this “stealing” camera that posses us, that has us violating each other in ways that are irretrievable. Perhaps it is a kind of meaningful observation that the camera records, a kind of “seeing,” a seeing of one another in our depths, our inner selves for a second. We meet in glance, and in this glance is a pulling away from the mundane. This is who I am. There is vulnerability in revealing, even in a second: “This is who I am. I see you.”
What I like about jazz and the blues is the same thing I like about my experiences of candid photography; they tell stories, they express feelings about daily activities in life. Every line tells a story, expresses feelings or meaning—an authentic poetry that speaks to how people are, who they are, the most personal aspects of one’s humanity expressed in a public context.
It’s kind of like telling secrets, these candid portraits, showing what passes unnoticed most of the time as we hurry by. Certainly, there's more is happening. Images lie and, well, they don’t. In the photographs, I share not just the subject’s but my eye, my sensibilities, my vulnerability, too. When I look at the photographs, I see my secrets surface, too.
Originally written for Mobile Photo Group and shared October 28, 2011
"It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see." — Anais Nin
For me in practice, this translates to finding ways to re-vision (to see again) so as to defamiliarize myself with what's around me and even "me" in the end. It's not easy, to unknow a place, things, or people. When I photograph, I find corners of myself that I hadn't been to in awhile, or spots I may not know had existed. When I look back on completed images, I am surprised by what and why I choose to look at on that day, in those seconds. Wonder. As a viewer, I enjoy images that push me to see differently, to fall into the image's less familiar zones and find me there, too.
This dream has tendrils
Magpies wild and reckless
Big sky stretches wide
Dark falls, shooting stars
Needles threading sky
I am caught in a
Phosphorescent tangle of
Clinging to helping verbs
So much filler here and there
Killing the poem
But a furious landscape
Cells divide, collide
Moments between the lines
Minutes or eternity
The organ removed
Through the middle incision
Held inside a bag
Flesh once unobserved
Now pretty pink incisions
Make imperfect scars
How much does it hurt?
On a scale of one to ten
I count each ache twice
Body parts no longer mine
Sutures conceal loss
How many syllables
In the pucker of these scars
Mending my many wounds
Eternity is an ellipses on the page
beginnings and endings far from view
A ratio of youth to old age
subtracted in days to accrue
A moon circles the planet's orbit
disappearing for half its route
The pair to each other seldom forfeit
as the line a circle includes
Equal is the distance to travel
each point on the curve a mirror
Where certainties of existence unravel
life's axis tilting familiar
Measuring far to near the ruler proves a riddle
intersecting meaning in a nexus of middles
I see the landscape
Uneven, ravaged corpus
Devils in the dust
Glass shards on a road
Strange courage walking barefoot
Among shining stars
Angry rain rushes
Cresting rivers, rising tides
The land washed away
Light punctures the night
Constellation of rhinestones
Who can tell heaven?
Bending currents around banks
Back to beginnings
Days in December
Afternoons dark and shuttered
Mired in doubt, look above
Cloud from cloud, and some combine
Solace in science and art
Rain wakes languid sleep
Beating hard against the hour
Heavy heaves the huntress
Sun, lazy to rise
Drowsy eye amidst the clouds
Daylight dims, stars gone
Shadows disappear from view
The sun standing still
Wild winds whirl through trees
Lifting the hem of king tides
The beach now is empty
A low sky, stars spark
Sea and shore close their divide
Radio waves move at the speed of Light,
Cacophony--cold--as Daylight's quick exposed.
The Moon on a trampoline--bouncing or bending--
Hangs round in empty Space radiating divinity.
A crown of stars coronates the Universe.
without magic square or measure of angles--precise
turn corners to curves as wonder bends light.
Unhook the stars
And scatter them
At my feet, paving
The journey across
An empty sky
This way my heart broke
as tides beat the shore
or purple mountains erode
by pebble and stone worn
The machine mighty--
Silver electric steel
Dynamo and plastic heat
--dies, a lapse deity
In July 2014, the collective of mobile photographers and artists at grryo.com published my essay and photo series, "Transversing Trails and Frontiers." See the text and photos by clicking through the image or here. Photos taken with iPhone 3Gs and iPhone 5 between 2013-14.
A short essay and photo series of mine has been published by German magazine Kwerfeldein. Thanks to the editing and writing staff for their work in putting together a superb translation from its original English to German. All photos taken between 2013-14 with iPhone 3Gs and 5.
From the copy:
Vor etwas mehr als zwei Jahren begann ich, meine Zeit zwischen Seattle und dem ländlichen Pacific County, etwa 230 km südwestlich der Stadt, aufzuteilen. Der Landkreis ist einer der ältesten im Bundesstaat Washington. Die Gründung durch die Regierung des Gebiets Oregon geht zurück auf das Jahr 1851. Die Gegend erhält ihre Dramatik durch den Columbia River, der hier in den Pazifik mündet. To see and read the rest, visit: http://kwerfeldein.de/2014/09/19/ueber-pfade-und-grenzen-hinweg/
She dreamt of beautiful things and wondered what’s to be, who’s to know and what’s to see. She took a rocket through the skies, and the stars streamed and planets twirled, oceans opened and swallowed worlds. From high above, she fell hard to earth, beneath the cloud and Wordsworth. This world too much, she said to him, soon and late: for mischief and madmen to trip the gates and send us hurling through space and time, head over heels and eyes shut tight, out of step and out of mind. She pulled the horizon like a rope, and wrapped it twice around a Cypress tree, and left the gun where it was found, silver and cold and the barrel ground. Along the slow drawling river, all night and early morning, she sang the blues to ravens, silver dollar bracelets shaking, while around her hearts and beats and levees breaking.
On her back, she lay in fields of lavender and dreamed of castles, to watch clouds drift across a sky brushed with silver.
She’s leaving home, getting out of the city, to clear her head, searching for a sky wider than her imagination. Restless, she wants to start, to say aloud what’s only been in her head, leaving all the hours she has known, each moment, on the side of the road. Cars moving slowly, and she moves so fast, a superstar. She says the best things are daydreamers, wishful stars, bends or curves, summersaults and cut grass, open windows and breezy freeways. Once, she believed the myth that she couldn’t be anywhere else. Letting go of evidence, discarding words to listen to daylight, she drives to places alone listening to the radio, obliterating everything to discover the world is not the shape of her window.
A seam is not a fold
Wholeness of a single history,
Cut on the bias between
Domestic lives and secret souls.
Translucent patterns stitched in pairs
Trace irregular borders, turning eyes inward
Among rows of machines, thread and bobbins
Twists of silk, knots of embroidery, scents of love.
The secret lives of seamstresses
In those factories, those offices,
Binding words and sentences.
Dying is fury, the fury of sunsets. Dylan Thomas, tells us: “Fight, fight the dying of the light.” I always picture that scene through the haze of smoke, late at night. When I smell cigarette smoke, I can hear country music: a bending steel guitar, the quick-quick-slow of a two-step, and the cool trickle from a long neck keeping time. I hear Loretta telling me she wants to be free through the pop and hum of curves on my old albums, when the needle on a RCA record player rolls over the vinyl hills of Williams’ highway, lost, like youthful promises, to a bend no one can see around. I would rather watch flowers wilt, wither, than dust collect on silk and plastic, forgotten on the shelf through the shuffle of days. Dying is hard, I think. Sinking down into a mattress, I fall to pieces, my weight dropped…like a beat between bars. Consciousness is hard. When boots scuff across a wooden planked floor, there’s a meter to that heal, crushing starts and ends. Rage rushes through these hisses and hums of mono, of imperfect acoustics to accompany killing and drinking and fighting songs sung through a sneer, like Johnny does, or, against a driving train rhythm that just pushes on, like a heart beat, like a pulse, like blood rushing through veins.
I had a dream.
And it faded away.
It wasn’t good or bad.
Just lost, like socks in a dryer.
We had ideals, this fidelity burning like fire, like promises passing in an hour, like the softness of words when they ramble. We crumble, keeping time and disassembling, holding onto what keeps us trembling. The past and future jitter, like words scratched on walls, the weight from which we crawl, like stars falling against a window, sliding into night’s perfect indigo.
And I’ll follow you
from dream to dreaming,
through lazy white clouds
drifting across an ocean of sky,
wider than both our minds.
Night has no corners; it bends. A star’s brilliant burst specks the sky, dying. About every second, a shining star explodes somewhere in the universe, scattering elements over my head. Emptiness is hard to come by when even the distance between stars is not empty, filled instead with dust and gases: artifacts of destruction, elements of life. Beneath a silent splendor of silver showers, all I have is all that I know. I am made of stardust.
I am free
when my imagination soars
by the ways others imagine me
when the stories they write
aren’t the stories of my dreams
I am stars, bursting
Everything goes away, and we fuss about it. How long will this be here before it goes? What comes next?
Mornings and evenings. Beginnings and endings. They are what grab our attention, what we tend to remember, what we want to fill or extend. Middles are a little more complex, a lot less tidy. Everything changes in the space between arrivals and departures. What fills the gaps between the two are the stories we live and tell–about how we move from starts to ends, what we find between, forces with and against us and within us, where we work the angles.
A spattering of disparate moments, dots on this white page, scattered here and there, are the many middles of this life. Flashes, afterimages floating across the eye. One after the other, they make little sense. They bounce. Collapse causality, segue to coincidence, ride the serendipity of chance.
It’s in this flux of scenes that fade in and out that I consider the plausibility of my life not being quite as chaotic or random as I had imagined, not senseless or obscure. Maybe these dots don’t arrange themselves into a level line; maybe I should stop trying to force their geometry. All my ends and beginnings are middles, and it’s okay. Our collections of middles make living round.
Photo: Bow/Edison, Wash. iPhone 3Gs in 2011
Yes, I’m recovering from another late night tweeting argument. It’s not easy reading like this, which reminds me of Ginger Roger’s famous line about dancing with Fred Astaire: in heals and backward. In Twitter’s case, it’s reading backward through fragments.
When I teach a composition and rhetoric class, exploring the difference between forming an idea and having an opinion is pretty important stuff. They’re not the same; they’re not synonyms.
An idea is a concept held in the mind as a result of mental understanding, activity, or awareness. Central to an idea is the human activity of making sense, comprehending the meaning of the idea, remaining open to the likelihood that an idea can change.
An opinion, is a view or judgement about something based not necessarily on knowledge or experience, often subjective. Opinions are seldom, if ever, central to the purpose of finding or making meaning of something or anything. They are many and shared often, solicited and unsolicited.
Opinions may certainly be ideas but ideas must be more than merely opinions.
Opinions, being what they are, are highly subjective. They are efforts to be right, not correct. They assert superiority or claim self-evident truths: It is because I said it is! I can’t imagine anyone liking this, since I don’t like it! The purpose of the claim is to hold one’s position or to claim other opinions are wrong or inferior.
An idea is product of mental activity: experience and/or knowledge. It is less subjective, seldom rooted in judgment, and open to substation and refutation. We make and share ideas when we are interested in making meaning, comprehending something. When our opinions shift or change, they do so because we’ve moved our views toward ideas or have had ideas affect our previous opinion.
Opinions are wrapped up with emotions and habits: dig in my heals, hold my ground, claim my rightness, claim the others’ wrongness. Mostly, what’s transpiring online are the posting of 140 character or status editorials. We collect opinions on-line.
Global societies are transitioning to networked electronic communication, as a significant means of transmitting information. This transformation further develops logo-centric privilege, increases the need not just to accept change but adapt to it, and shrinks diverse discourse platforms. What place is there for ideas and their explication, refutation,or substantiation in our new digital spaces?
Ideas take time to unravel and examine. They take a myriad of diverse influences to grow. They need space that cultivates contemplation as much as chatter. They live in rich, complex cultural contexts–which are difficult to preserve digitally, where too often everyone’s got an opinion. Ideas are more than a single person’s possession. We’re moving a lot of images across these networks, too. In our current proliferation of image-making helped along by our ubiquitous smart phone are we making/exchanging ideas or opinions?
Perhaps our new media cultivate new habits and the practice of meaning-making that moves much faster, less recursive, more immediate, less reflective? Maybe we’ll habitualize this collecting of editorials and opinions, in a space where everyone is always right and everyone else is always wrong. Are we suppose to get used to that? We may be changing, and the changes inevitable. We may be adapting to a new intellectual paradigm, but at what cost and to whom, for what gain or value? In the end, as they say, opinions are a dime a dozen.
Originally Posted: May 15, 2013
Often, we can improve our photography by paying even closer attention to how we see the images of others.
The kinds of photos I like to take, the subject as well as the concepts or style, are heavily influenced by the kinds of photos I like to look at. As a consumer of images, my eye have grown accustomed to seeing in certain ways, recognizing subjects as more or less familiar or unfamiliar, translating the language of visual culture into a personal a syntax of meaning that resonates when I turn to produce images of my own.
For example, I am use to seeing street photography in black and white, as a lot of people are. So street photography that is black and white is at once familiar and immediately recognizable in a way that color work in the genre is less so. This isn’t because one is superior to the other; it’s because one has been my in visual vocabulary longer than the other. Hence, I’m more fluent.
I find myself deeply challenged shooting in color, trying to prioritize the weight of certain elements and their relationships in the frame. Clothing, for one, is something more pronounced to me in color than in monochrome, unless the fabric displays distinct form, contrasts or patterns. So much stimuli overwhelms me when coupled with the rest of the composition, including framing and mood.
So to inject new approahces or find fresh inspiration, the first thing I do is find photographers to study who shoot photographs I’m not use to seeing, subjects that I’m unfamiliar with, styles that appear strange enough to unsettle by habits of seeing, disrupt easy comprehension. I study their images, I read their biographies, and then, if I’m still interested in learning, I will try to temporarily adopt the style, try it on like a new pair of clothes, to see how things may fit.
I think this is why, if you browse my shared images on-line, you can see shifts in subject, in focus and attention to certain ideas or concepts, and regularly slips between monochrome and color. I take leave of street or urban photography fairly regularly, too, to try on other genres. These are moments of learning, studying, and fun.
I tend to venture back to my own style soon enough, but the journey into the unfamiliar, new, indecipherable leaves a mark on both my intellect and my creative process. Sometimes those marks surface later, when I least expect them to appear.
What I'm looking at now:
I’m pretty sure I loved movies before I loved photography. What I mean is from childhood on, I have loved how movies look and the way the images string together, how they reveal a story through visuals. I wasn’t (and still am not) always drawn to the narrative but to cinematic language of film.
After I started taking photographs as a young adult, I began to understand just how strongly I was impressed by movies.
I grew up in the 1970s when broadcast television still regularly showed old black and white movies. My memory of sick days or rainy weekends (there were a lot in Seattle) are marked by hours spent half asleep in front of our family’s console color television watching Hollywood movies in so many shades of grey, shadows, and light.
My father worked swing-shift, so early afternoons in the summer also meant eating lunch on T.V. trays watching Westerns, gangster movies, and detective sagas. Of course there were gameshows and soap operas to choose, but more often than not, the movies were a strong pull. I’m sure my sense of time was off, too, because it always seemed like the movies went on and on, lasted much longer than the 90 or so minutes I know they were.
These were cinematic worlds that held very little resemblances to the one I lived in, and maybe that was also the draw, at least for me. Black and white was fantasy and beauty, drama and humor, exuberance and melancholy. Even if they weren’t always ‘cool,’ they were always mesmerizing.
Those images and stories have stayed with me. I love classic Hollywood movies. I love the black and white ones most of all. They don’t seem to date for me and maybe that is because those world’s were never really my worlds to begin with.
I think my own visual aesthetic is deeply informed by those movies, when I take photographs and when I view them. It’s hard to shake those early impressions or the context in which they were made. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam in the late 1960s, and there my grandmother took be matinees to see Hong Kong movies, many I have only faint recollections of beyond flashes of color, swords, fighting, and brightness. In America a few years later, movies were a touchstone and an entry to place & culture, especially as an immigrant child learning English and American culture.
I don’t remember how important to me or well understood the words were in Saigon or in Seattle: I’m not sure I cared or could fully understand in either context. But the images? Those frames and sequences on the screen: they did the trick, even if they aren’t quite accurate. There’s plenty of room for “between-ness” in monochrome–of something being neither black or white. The liminal space, not unlike what I was feeling myself swaying in a bicultural and biracial youth. There is also beauty. Sometimes beauty brings sense and calm unlike anything else.
I have a different understanding, I guess, after spending this morning looking at and thinking about movies, about black and white film as aesthetic and comfort for why I am drawn to my own photography through the monochromatic lens. It feels at once like an exotic adventure and also so very much like home: a way to see and a place to be.
We drove north along the Washington coast to a check out a town recently featured in Sunset Magazine, Seabrook, which is advertised as a “new beach town,” by the Seabrook Land Development Company.
Looking around, I was reminded of Disneyland’s Main Street or a Hollywood movie set, except without fake facades, just cottages and houses that look like them. The development has its own store, trendy restaurant, playground, park, and rental cottages (for those less ready to commit the $299,000 to start vacation homes). The tiny lots and close-in proximity of neighbors are a striking contrast to the dramatic expanse of landscape outside: tall Douglas Firs, a roaring Pacific Ocean, rolling fields, wide skies that carry blustery weather in winter.
I prefer the old, established, worn-around-the-edges town of Pacific Beach just 2 miles north, where everything is more run down, slow, dented and scratched. I wonder if the folks in the two towns mix, and something tells me they don’t. Gritty isn’t included in the amenities of Seabrook, as much as insularity from the local environment, its community, that surround the magical wonders of a McTown plopped on the Pacific Northwest Coast.
As we returned to Seattle, I took the photo above driving through Hoquiam, a city in Grays Harbor County about 2.5 hours west from Seattle. Highway 101 to the Washington Coast passes through Hoquiam and its neighboring town, Aberdeen, on its way to the Pacific. The indigenous peoples of the area include Quinault, Humptulips, Wynoochee, and Chehalis Indian tribes. These are old places, built by logging and forestry. These are working towns with an earned patina surrounded by lush and expansive landscapes. Aberdeen was Curt Cobain’s hometown, and the sign that welcomes visitors now also reads: “Come As You Are.”
The coastal communities, and those just inland, struggle, hanging on in much smaller scale to industries that thrived in the previous centuries: forestry and lumber, fishing. They have rich histories, quirky charms. Maybe it’s me? I’m nostalgic. For me a visit to the coast means clamming, crabbing, charter fishing, camping, dodging rain and wind, and camp fires: decidedly unglamorous and utterly Pacific Northwest. These communities could use a shot-in-the-arm and a boost in their economies from new generations of tourists, travelers, settlers — like the ones now being drawn to Seabrook, which looks a lot like some beach town, just not any on the Washington coast.
Here’s to finding ways to strike a balance between growth and sustainability, something short of abandoning distinctions of place and culture for the comfort of conformity. To travel somewhere means also to journey from what one knows (and who one knows) to discover what else is out there, who else there is to know. What lays beyond the shore of our familiarities or the sea of our interiors?
Photo: “Green Means Go,” Hoquiam, WA in August 2013 with iPhone 5
I think night is good for many things. Telling lies by starlight, for one. Stories unfold as the moon rises. Tender words lift language from a symphony of silence. In the oblivion of darkness, we lose inhibitions and find words, otherwise misplaced, unknown or formless in days we can’t really remember, when we lose moments before they happen. That’s where truths vanish to, these spaces between letters in gaps rather than the marks. Fascination resides in our being, in finding a missing language, in the pleasure of our make believe when we discover what we love most is to be heard and to say, “Listen to me.”