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.