Monday, February 27, 2012

what we liked

As kids my sister and I would covet certain toys and books between the two of us, handling and caring for them with special purpose- prized possessions that had specific resting places upon the highest shelves.  Things that were too good to share with the neighbors in fear of accidental damage, theft, and overuse.  Two such items were southern style porcelain dolls given to us from friends of our parents.  The synthetic hair was carefully pulled back in elaborately decorated bonnets over blank white faces with fluttering eyelids.  Both dolls were placed or suspended from the upper corners of the bedroom, like security cameras.  We were sure that we could see them moving and monitoring us as we slept.  Strange details of these dolls, my fingertips can still recall.  Another such prize was the book series Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz.  We would bring them outdoors with flashlights at night and sit beside a quiet fire in the back yard, or beneath the bed covers before sleep.  Hearts beating and we thumbed the pages carefully.  These books held what I consider to be some of the most influential images to my sister and me.  I began to think about these books the other day when I was looking through the photo works of Joel-Peter Witkin.

This image entitled Harvest is dated 1984 and came out the same year are the second book of the 3.  The span of Witkin's work reaches toward all corners of grotesque and dark while being delicate, soft, and warm.  Using elements of sculpture in his work, he has created some of the most interesting images I have seen being made in the past 30 years.  Witkin credits his vision and sensibility being flavored by a gruesome event that occurred when he was a small boy:
"It happened on a Sunday when my mother was escorting my twin brother and me down the steps of the tenement where we lived. We were going to church. While walking down the hallway to the entrance of the building, we heard an incredible crash mixed with screaming and cries for help. The accident involved three cars, all with families in them. Somehow, in the confusion, I was no longer holding my mother's hand. At the place where I stood at the curb, I could see something rolling from one of the overturned cars. It stopped at the curb where I stood. It was the head of a little girl. I bent down to touch the face, to speak to it -- but before I could touch it someone carried me away."

It is of course unlikely that a child would be unaffected by an event as such, especially one who may be (if there is such a thing) naturally inclined toward creating imagery.  It is strange though, the visceral images that are adhered in our brains as adults, the most memorable experiences of our senses as children.  They could both still feel the thick glue on their fingertips.  She could recall the smell of her grandmother's attic.  He could still feel the splinter beneath his foot.  For me, I can still feel how I felt when I looked at the illustrations of Stephen Gammell, a midwestern neighbor.  I remember how I felt every time I see something that reminds me of why I find beauty and intrigue in the things that I do.