Every so often when we’re watching TV, an ad plays for the latest Google Pixel phone. Like the phone, the ad is slick and sleek, looking pretty and talking fast. It has irritated me since the first time I heard it: when introducing the camera’s Magic Eraser feature, it refers to other people in the background of a user’s photos as “annoying,” as though we shouldn’t be inconvenienced by the fact that others exist in a narrative starring ourselves.
There’s an insidious creep of “main character syndrome” in digital spaces lately. Filters and ring lights make people look brighter and more perfect than they are. Other people or imperfections in the background of our photos are “distractions” (the term used in another Google Pixel ad). We aim for poised and perfected images that can be framed for a gallery wall.
So it felt like a huge exhale when I turned on a new documentary the other night and saw life, messy and often unsightly, splashed across the scene in original photographs. The film was All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the story of artist and activist Nan Goldin’s life.
Goldin may be most famous for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985), a photo slideshow that depicts images of her life in New York in the ’70s and ’80s as the AIDS epidemic ravaged her community. Most recently, she’s fought to hold the Sackler family responsible for their role in the opioid crisis. Her activism dovetails beautifully with her photography, which she says is really a practice in capturing emotion:
A lot of people seem to think that art or photography is about the way things look, or the surface of things. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s really about relationships and feelings…it’s really hard for me to do commercial work because people kind of want me to do a Nan Goldin. They don’t understand that it’s not about a style or a look or a setup. It’s about emotional obsession and empathy.
There’s resonance in the work of photographer Peggy Nolan, who just released a new photo book called Juggling is Easy about her experience as a single mother raising seven kids in South Florida in the ’80s and ’90s.
“The age that my kids were when I took those pictures, what really mattered to them was community. That’s what they cared about. To deprive them of that would have been awful — I would have paid the price.”
I spend less time writing for myself these days and more time chasing a busy baby away from my books and the compost bin and the internet router. I know this stage in our lives is fleeting, though, so I’m doing my best to stay present to it and to remember these wise words:
“Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible.”
I’m 33 today. In honor of my birthday, and all of the lousy first drafts hanging out on my computer’s hard drive, I’m sharing today a piece I wrote a couple of years ago.
For the past 18 months, I’ve lived in a mid-sized, pleasant Midwestern city. It has a robust art scene and gorgeous, maze-like art museums that are, shockingly, free. I’ve spent many solo afternoons wandering through rooms drenched red or blue or cream, gazing upon canvases and feeling pleasure and discomfort and wonder.
Visual art has never been something vital in my life; it’s more like a language that I studied half-heartedly in high school but pretend to maintain so I can get through a conversation. It’s rare that I feel justified in understanding what the artist is trying to say, what I ought to be thinking and seeing as I look at the layers of paint or graphite. But an art gallery is a place where I can feel less alone in a new city, or at least more at home in my solitude. No one in a museum is expecting anything of me. I can simply stand and look at something that reflects my mood or broadens my mind with decades or centuries of perspective.
Lately, I’m not even leaving my apartment to find some beauty in the world. The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco recently launched Send Me SFMOMA, a texting service that allows it to share its thousands of archived pieces with the smartphones of the world.
I text a message to 572-51 and it responds within seconds with a photo of original artwork and a caption with the title, artist, and year it was created. I type “Send me quiet” and receive Clarence H. White’s “Evening Interior,” ca. 1899. In the sepia photograph, a woman sits on a chair, facing toward the windows and away from the camera. Spindly plants line the windowsill. The windows are draped in filmy curtains. The woman’s hair is pulled up and she wears a long dress, creating a sweeping, graceful curve from her left shoulder to the end of the dress’s train bunched on the right-hand side of the chair.
I save the photo as my phone’s wallpaper and open my messaging app again. “Send me calm.” Vija Celmins, “Untitled (Ocean)’, 1977. Choppy small waves stretch out across the entire grayscale photograph. I exhale. I save the image to my photo library.
At time when I feel burdened or caught up in my emotions, I find myself texting SFMOMA, a friend who gives and gives and who is always ready to help to soothe my fears. If I request something that the service can’t find, I receive a friendly response: “We could not find any matches. Maybe try ‘Send me San Francisco’ or ‘Send me [wave emoji]’ or ‘Send me something purple’.”
A quick review of my texts to SFMOMA could tell anyone what I’ve been seeing and feeling in the past several months. On a trip home to visit my parents on their farm in western Oregon, I wanted the message stream to reflect the lushness around me: “Send me sky. Send me flowers. Send me [fire emoji]. Send me landscape.”
Coming home from a late weeknight date: “Send me romance. Send me excitement. Send me red.” The images come flooding in, sometimes awakening me to the singularity of my thoughts. “Send me desire,” I type, thinking of a man’s jawline, the musk of his neck, and SFMOMA responds with Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Display Cakes’, 1963. The clean painting features three round, perfect cakes on tall cake stands, throwing shadows onto the muted white background. Now I want dessert, too.
This service doesn’t cost me anything, except time, and yet it feels like a higher-minded pursuit than scrolling through over-filtered landscape photos on Instagram. This is art that has been forged in a fire of time and public opinion and market preference, art that has endured, art that now drops into my hand at my bidding and feels approachable. It speaks to me.
I wake up on a Sunday morning from a bad dream. In the dream, I was having an episode of dissociation, bringing back a flood of emotions that I’ve had put to bed by day for some time now. My dream world was dark and narrow and in it, I was panicking and unable to soothe myself. Getting out of bed, I feel a heaviness in my chest. I struggle to shake off the fear that the anxiety I felt in my dream is coming for me again in my waking hours. I reach for my phone. “Send me comfort.” In comes an untitled piece by Martin Kippenberger, 1990. It’s a simple line drawing, done on a sheet of paper from a hotel notepad. The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Frank Lloyd Wright, I think, right? Wright wanted to bring the outside in with his architecture. I urge myself to think about the earth, trees and plants, the ground beneath my feet. I look back at the image on my phone. I’ve visited Tokyo with my sister and I felt at ease and alive there. I link these small comforts, putting some distance between myself and my feelings. It’s OK. I’m not alone, I think, looking at the drawing of a woman holding a distressed man on a couch.
I type again. “Send me grounding.” SFMOMA can’t find a match. “Send me reassurance.” Nothing there, either.
“Send me ease.” I’m looking at Sid Grossman’s ‘Untitled [Portrait of painter]’, 1940s. In the photograph, a painter sits on a stool, holding a paintbrush to a canvas. His profile is thrown into silhouette by the window he sits next to, sunlight flooding into the room. I feel the corners of my mouth lift, almost imperceptibly. My jaw relaxes. The subject of the photo is a little blurry, but the lines are clear. His head and his painting hand are tilted toward the canvas with focus and intent. Like this artist, when I sit down to my canvas, the cursor blinking on a blank page, I know I am where I am supposed to be.
We honeymooned in Nice, France this fall and were enchanted from the beginning by its colorful buildings and soothing sea views and the food and wine. Nice was ideal to visit after the long wedding planning process, once the details had stopped stuffing themselves into our evenings and weekends and dreams.
A few days in, we took the bus to visit the Matisse Museum. Europe can be so charming with its rich history — once we found the museum, we realized we were within walking distance of both Roman ruins and a monastery that housed the Shroud of Turin in the 14th century.
The museum was small but showed the depth of Matisse’s work, including his cut-outs and some early drawings. I snapped two pictures in the same gallery, delighted by their similarity to the wedding we’d just celebrated.
Here’s Matisse’s The Windshield (1917).
And here we are, as seen by Alixann Loosle through the window of my grandpa’s Model A car, which my uncle drove us in from the church where we were married to the reception venue.
In the same gallery as The Windshield, I snapped this Matisse sketch of anemones.
Anemones were the focal flower in my bouquet, captured again by Alixann Loosle, a Portland-based photographer who has an artist’s eye.