Thursday, January 10, 2008

hiding behind the lens

I was reflecting on what I wrote about my grandfather in the lost ritual, that he used a camera and a highball as a foil. Lately I begin to understand this tendency in myself. I wear my glasses more often, not because I can see more clearly, but because they make the world around me more blurry. I seek refuge in the fact that everything beyond reading distance is an indistinct fuzzy mass, which further corroborates my possible misguided notion that reality is no more than a fog anyway, until you kick the tire, that is (an old philosophical riff). But the ghost, the voyeur, the observer--this was Benjamin, and Rilke, and even (I have heard) Marilynne Robinson--a veil of words is no less a lens to hide behind than a Zeiss Ikonoflex, after all.

I recall many years ago when I was living with my mother on a reservation in Eastern Montana. The day we arrived she fell ill with a sever kidney infection, and I was left alone to fend for myself among the town of Lodge Grass. I went to the store, to the gas station, wandered at will. What I noticed most pointedly was that no one spoke--or rather, spoke very little. It was uncommon to shoot the breeze. Communication was brief and purposeful. This took much getting used to. I was a philosophy major then and monologues and dialogues flowed through my brain like the rivers that cut through and flooded the very verdant valley of the Crow. One old man did saunter out to me one day, at the gas station, and nodded toward my Guatemalan wallet perched on top the gas pump. “That your medicine bag?” he asked.

But I had brought a camera. I began wandering afresh, looking at the landscape and the junk cars and old refrigerators piled up with teepee poles in overgrown meadows. The kids began to follow me, and I took many pictures of them. The words were tamed, I guess, by the images, and the camera gave me an identity among the townspeople that I had previously lacked. I became “the photographer.” I took so many pictures back then I almost thought I was one. Most gratifyingly, though, was the feeling that I ceased to exist behind the camera, that I could go almost anywhere without being noticed--the ultimate refuge behind the lens.

I imagine my grandfather seeking this same refuge. Fuzzy world beyond the glasses, vague, amorphous world beyond the bottle of bourbon, but a clear, quiet world behind the viewfinder. People rarely bother a man behind a camera.