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IntimatEye – Vision | Photography | Film | Memory


 WHEN PACKING FOR a mid-March road trip, I chucked my wellies and warm socks into the trunk. Never know when a photo op will seduce me down a sloppy road to a semi-frozen river bank. Can I get an intimate eye shot without slipping into the drink – camera, tripod, et al?

     Growing up outside of Gladstone, New Jersey, a rural enclave with charming villages including, Far Hills,  Oldwick, Pottersville, Peapack, Mendham, Chester – and Bedminster. Ring a bell? These historic villages are tucked in and around rolling farmland, valleys, copses, hills and rivers. As kids we had land-lots-of-land with room-to-roam on foot and on horseback. Don’t fence me in: I followed deer trails, leapt hot barbed wire fencing through fields and furrows yielding arrowheads; and harvested watercress in chilly springs for late summer dinners. At idyllic Blair’s Lake in warm evening sunlight, venomous camo-copperheads lounged smugly on the dam. Paddling solo from the security of my canoe, I’d look them straight in the eye to challenge my reptilian fear factor.

    Blind Helen Keller famously said, “Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.” Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968)  was  was an American author, disability rights advocate, suffragette, political activist and lecturer. Born in Alabama, she lost her sight and hearing due to an illness at the age of nineteen months. Footage of the dramatic production of her life “The Miracle Worker” was filmed at the Gladstone Rail Station. The end of the Eirie Lackawanna line, the station became a site for the production of “The Miracle Worker,” a film based on Helen Keller’s life. Anne Bancroft, as Anne Sullivan, and Patty Duke as Helen Keller, reprised their Broadway roles for the movie. In the process, they took home Academy Awards for Best Actress (Bancroft) and Best Supporting Actress (Duke). The film garnered a total of five Academy Award nominations.”
     The Gladstone station was two miles from my family home. Breaking with the local country vernacular, my architect father James Suydam Jones designed a postwar California style redwood board-and-batten house tucked into a forested hillside. Award winning, the house’s expansive windows gave onto picturesque farmland alive with insatiable Guernsey dairy cows; my old polo pony Blacky; furtive foxes; highlights of scenic sheep resembled an English landscape painting, bails of fresh cut hay, and summer cicadas orchestrating in the crepuscule. Think Gloucestershire, England in the rolling hills of agricultural old-guard Somerset County, New Jersey. In my childhood days, there were vast tracts of private patchwork fields in horse country owned by friends – no boundaries.  In the day, the countryside was inviolate from incursions of nouveaux golf courses and influxes of rich urban refugees subdividing the scenery.
     On the club car from Gladstone, my grandfather, Frederick Suydam Jones commuted to Wall Street on the Eire Lackawanna with its switch-wicker seats fore-and-aft. After he died, while scavenged in the basement for family memorabilia, I discovered a box full of Indian Head pennies, collar pins, cufflinks and well-worn fox embossed gold signet ring. To my sadness, it slipped off my teenage finger into the chilly waters of Blair’s Lake never to be worn again.
     More intimate memories from my rural childhood: we local kids pulled off high jinks at the renovated Gladstone station. Encouraged by older brothers, I placed shiny copper pennies on the tracks of the incoming train.  Before my photographic life ensued, they became close up detail impressions for my evolving intimate eye. My country childhood allowed, as well, for natural discoveries. One season, I found a luna moth, turkey feathers, rust-and-gold fall leaves, and a detached fuzzy bunny tail. All were collected in my father’s Cuban cigar box. What happened to the bunny? Found in the woods, did bunny tails get snagged on raspberry brambles?
     Then there was Sticky-Bun-T. Easter hot cross buns were spirited away by my older brothers to a bivouac somewhere along the Gladstone line. Little sis was not included on these mischievous adventures. I have yet to find out what S.B.T. was all about: must ask my bro.
     After this imaginative early development, an over fifty-year+ marriage ensued and an international career awaited me. In 1968, age 21, I found myself on the photo staff of the Boston Globe: I became the first female staffer. Having lived in Europe, I was already an avid global photographer drawn to intimate close up images – whatever the subject matter.  As a rookie on the Globe, I learned basic photojournalistic skills that broadened my perspective: overall, medium and close up. When entering a scene – whether calm or kinetic – first, take the overall or establishing shots. Step in closer for medium views as you acclimatize to the situation, then move in closer still.  Running the gauntlet through barking dogs, shilling children – or the cultural whatever – I learned to feel safe as I moved into optically intimate photo opportunities
as they emerged. 

     This is the point where many photographers bog down – go blank. Even if they see a seductive scaled down intimate subject, they retreat too soon: The intimate eye eludes them. (Nature photographers with macro lenses fixated on a flower are the exception.) But a close up active social photo encounter is where one is most vulnerable, both psychically and emotionally. For me, in such situations, gender and national identity drop away. Self-consciousness dissipates allowing naturalness and social skills to take the lead. The domination of photo-colonialism recedes, giving way to inchoate cultural competence foundational to creativity anywhere one be.

     I demo’d this awareness and expertise with my Traveler’s Eye photo tour participants. Cutting them loose in bustling Indian or Moroccan markets: See ya later on the bus. Where is it? Turn around, take a look back – half a mile  through masses of shoppers and vendors’ pop-up stands. Just underneath the water tower, as the crow flies: locate yourself in the here-and-now. Look for the features in your field of view. Cultivate your eye far, wide and near.

     Intimate close ups: Having taught photography since the 70s, I can’t tell you how many students – including pros – have stated, “Lost on me. I just don’t have an eye for those close up shots.” Don’t see optically intimate, nearly abstract detail images. The blind Helen Keller was never lost. She insighted, “Look the world straight in the eye.”

     One day, having skied at Wolf Creek outside of Pagosa Springs, Colorado and on my way home to Santa Fe, I got myself lost-in-time along the Rio Blanco. Parking on the verge of the tributary along southern Colorado’s San Juan River, I pulled on my “wellies,” grabbed my handy Olympus Penn camera and tripod to see, what I could see. I kicked through dense tamarisk to the edge of the trickling waters I could hear from the road. Runoff dove under snow lips, reemerging as sludge. Frilly frozen hoar – like Belgium lace – might survive another day-or-two of spring sunlight.
     The semifreddo Rio Blanco, dissipated through my lens as snow melt from the San Juan mountains flowed into spring’s gurgling creek.  End-of-season precipitation affected sheets of thinning ice and spread like textural modern canvases of frozen filigrees and graphic integers. Beautiful to my intimate eye – all soon to be lost from the ephemera of winter Into the emerging spring thaw. Sometime later, these memories and images became a chromic montage in Adobe Lightroom: woven gold mesh; ground zero grey; crevasses of negative space; yucky old mold; ruby and garnet currents; gestalt sun shards; soggy pine needles; and nasty looking viral fringes.  All beautiful in their seasonal meltdown.
     Through her intimate inner eye, Helen Keller avers,“Remember, no effort to attain something beautiful is ever lost.” The squashed copper pennies from rails at the Gladstone Station have been beautiful keepsakes in the cigar box of memory – all these years.


Colorado | Spring Melt

Mali | Mutiny

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Amazing how often my imaginal mind-in-the-moment zooms off – given the slightest cue – on flights of memory to exotic locales I have know and loved. At the Prajna Mountain Refuge, an Upaya Zen Center upcountry inholding tucked into a soft grassy valley in Northern New Mexico, I was asked to fetch water from the Abbot’s cabin. Hauling a multi-gallon bucket of water up to the main kitchen to be boiled for the perfect Putanesca seemed, at first, a simple enough task.

My tweaky back and computer neck were out of sync with the uneven uphill terrain at altitude. The bucket instinctively ended up on my head with a dish towel donut as a buffer. My body scanned for a symmetrical balance. The bucket slopped over until I got the fluctuating fluid flat enough with my chin tucked under, posture plumbed, and stride smoothed out.


Images of loads balanced on elegant heads, my mind tripped to Mali. Memories emerged of market-bound women from Dogon Country with humongous bundles of produce atop their elegant heads. They lithely ascended the steep sidewinding trail up from the verdant valley below to the arid flats of the Bandiagara Escarpment. On the Prajna Refuge trail, this exotic flashback was nearly as harsh as the West African landscape I was hiking through. In Mali along the Niger River, I was  surrounded by the cliff dwelling  prehistoric Dogon people who dwell in adobe huts with animated conical thatched roofs. In this context, I experienced a career-altering leadership meltdown, as well as a vision-shift in my intentionality around my own  destination photography.

Hotter than the hinges in the Dogon valley, I sought refuge inside my tent, a bolt-hole which became my Heartbreak Hotel – having nothing to do with Elvis. I considered why this trip – this country – was so challenging for my client photographers. In those days, I was a newby at meditation, attempting to sit zazen, breathe hot air, and to take stock of the mutiny from the hands of discomfited Silicon Valley wannabe adventure travelers entrusted to me on this ill-fated trip in a deep African culture. For openers, the Malians were not  especially receptive to tourist photographers. Unlike, say India, which has a mostly bright atmosphere – at least before the pandemic – abundant photogenic color, and willing subjects, Mali is, well, dark and uncooperative.


On a school visit, I spotted broken pot shards under a tree. Chatting with an experienced teacher in our group, I asked if there was anything I could do to make the others feel more secure within their Mali misadventure. “Nothing,” he replied. “The vessel is broken. You just have to wait for the semester to be over.” A bit of empathetic wisdom was welcomed.

So was the gift of viewing the shards settled into the desert sand. StoryShards, I thought. From then on, StoryShards became the branding of my work – articles, lectures, seminars – and StoryShards Publishing Projects LLC.


The drama and details of my Malian meltdown would fill a book not unlike T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Water Music” (Little Brown, 1982). This semi-fictional hysterical account of the Scottish surgeon turned explorer Mungo Park, who, in 1796, first discovered the Niger River at Segou. Sponsored by the Scottish Explorers Society, Mungo Park in flamboyant military mufti was not a target out of range. Suffering all the expected mis-adventures and illnesses common to early African exploration, Mungo came to an unsavory demise with bugs in wrong places downstream on the Niger at Bussa.


I, too, got into trouble in Mali – up to my gunwales on the Niger. As an award winning paid panjandrum of socially and creatively engaged travel photography, I’d been contracted by a high-end adventure travel company. What can be told in this context of my sorry saga are the consequences of my own leadership flamboyance. The toxic atmospheres of my putting out a hifalutin intellectual-field mixed with a pretentious Buddha-field, to-boot. Yikes! At the outset of our journey in Bamako, I quoted to the bewildered group from Susan Sontag’s bestseller “On Photography.” Sontag challenges, ”To take photographs is to take possession of space in which one feels insecure.” There were no comments; this flip line sunk into the collective unconscious of the group, and it came back to  spook me.

Our first photo field trip in Bamako was spooky. On the itinerary, we were guided to the murky labyrinth of the recycle metal market. The dismemberment of cars and defunct appliances made for clanking, buzzing,  and rancidity. My deal for the trip was to do set-up demo situations, and discuss my creative thought process. So, thinking of Louise Nevelson’s monochromatic wooded wall pieces and outdoor sculpture, with camera on tripod, I framed a modernist composition of tortured steel. The group walked right on by me – this did not augur well. Worse was the fruit and vegetable market. Dark skinned vendors rebuffed photographers’ advances. I got spooked myself. From the get-go in Bamako, we could’ve used some good gris-gris.