“We are made of time. We are its feet and its voice.”

—Eduardo Galeano

I
And the years slip like breath along the edges of our skin, an abundance and a reckoning, the firmament spreads wide, like a gap-toothed space, dark and unending. Pitch and Pale above, all that which twined and coursed through you, comes forth like small accumulations. And then.

II
Words, like small billows under hull, tiller the jib of my meandering thoughts. Pictures, like wisps of exhalation, rudder the carriage of my body’s hinting. I have always worked both, rhyme and flap, to set my life’s navigation right—Ballast of Boom and Keel—the steerage from which I have tried to helm my way home. A halyard in its pulling.

III
How does one see through the clouded time of unseeing, especially when they themselves tell stories with pictures while all along they have struggled with the nature of how to see. So, it is me. I am blind, blind in my right eye from a congenital disease, Coat’s. It has defined nearly everything about me. It is the one trait that I see about myself, and it has raised and matured and settled me. As a child, I struggled with unseeing. At an early age, and often to my horror, I sailed over the seas and gulfs of my own face and eventually learned that each face while navigable is not attainable, certainly not my own. In fact, I have spent the better part of my life trying to decipher what it is that I see when I look into the mirror: How is it that this chimera, this insolvable jigsaw is possibly me?

Faces gather time along their edges, sprockets of light pitched around thumb-bowed shadows, the way milk rims the lip and bottom-dip of a glass, the way bone sediments sentiment pitched from the age and voice of the earth, the way glass and stone color from exposure. We speak of time, we speak of faces, we seldom speak of how these cauterize and coalesce into some odd unknowing. How is it that we distinguish one face from all the others? How is it that we speak of others and ourselves through an algebra of memory or of the faces that we have seen or known distinguished into certainty? What else is there in our knowing, at the heart of the well of our remembrance?

IV
If I could not understand this revenant shell as me (my face yes, but surely not the “I” that is “me.”), how then do I photograph someone else, let alone his or her face? When I became a photographer this became an ethical question that I have yet to solve. The quandaries of how to properly remember—how to remember “you” when hopelessly stuck in the teeth of “me.” How to write about this? How to right the writing?

All of which is simply about a stretch, a space that separates you from me. All of this is about duration, obdurate duration and the hum of the heart, tilting in its gorgeous spin. Not the duration of pictures but about the persistence, each of our, of honing and hoping.

V
The Oxen of the Sun, a story born of broached thought and flickered gesture late at night, is part of a larger body of work, a chapter really, pulled up from the depths of an elongated voyage upon which I have been at work for several years and, which I am still entangled. This wider body of work is entitled And Our Memories Brief as Photos has served as a compass point of sorts for all the work that I have thought about and created over the last few years. The Oxen of the Sun is inspired in part by childhood memories, the books of John Berger and the films of Chris Marker, in particular Sans Soleil. Most of the photographs have never been seen before. I have kept these to myself, like poems in a drawer, like small wedges of thought and hope that have been scattered and spit across my life over the last year. Droplets wrung from crags of a solitary reckoning. Twitch and Tongue and Torque. Alas.

This journey has always been an internal one and the images and words in The Oxen of the Sun reflect this. Besides my photographs, the essay is also comprised of drawings that I have made to accompany other parts of And Our Memories Brief as Photos, I have also included scanned family negatives and photographs (many re-worked) that my mother gave me this past Christmas. Though everything in the essay has had its birth and launch from the moments of real world documentary, my work is really about the negotiation of things and its re-imagining and reinterpretation. A pressing and compounding, attempt to excavate and sweep away those things that seem stuck inside me, like a rusty key that is difficult to unhinge from its lock. But this is still not describing the work very well and I am not certain the syntax and morphology of my photographic practice fits into the category of documentary. My work is not fact nor fiction, but both. It is a grammar yielding nothing more succinct or special than my internal piloting: horizontal and vertical, transom and stanchion.

VI
I make photographs because words still seem to fall away, and my photographs seem trapped, carved up, repeated. I photograph the same picture again and again. My work was never born of darkness but the opposite. Strangely, even more than the meaty weight of words, photographs seem, even in their ineluctable disappearance, born by buoyed hope. A looking, not into the abyss, not into the murky distance, but into the opposite: forward and horizon-bound, some flowering. That is the gaze that I seem perpetually to be photographing, the look past, the gaze upward, not necessarily vertically, but toward–like Icarus’ suspension that while the dark drunk sea lay below, the firmament and gesture guide, the long spread of the horizon, the mark toward which we still bow, regardless of all, and pinned by hope.

The blotch of sand, a smudge of heart-stain, the dark snow-bitten window of dust and mesh, the expression of that man that passes by, caught paper casual in the rain, the cow-licked bite of wind and the knock of a sudden twist: A sublime bridge of light upon a heroic nose, Achilles regretting his rage and sorrowful in absence. How does one begin to enumerate this and all that alphabetizes a life? And though I have never believed in the truth of photographs or that photographs reveal the truth of a particular moment or person, I have always preferred their illusive nature of description. In other words, their carving meant more than their translation; their ability to describe a wider aspect, a gauging really or guessed-at lunge, a tilt toward a circumference…not the truth of a single man, but something more spreading…a condition of a life, a part of a life, a junction, an eruption, a conjunction.

VII
So, how do I begin to tell this particular story?

As a child, I lived in Taipei, Taiwan. Does this offer a direction? I still taste the green hills and the mossy scent. Yet, I write far away and far from a description that is nimble. Worse yet, my photographs seem to stride away as if some orbital escaping, past the velocity of gravity. Refusing to approximate what I remember but pulling away, arabesques of broken grain and pinched suffocation: what do they possibly have to do with those extraordinary memories that harbor my sadness when I feel alone?

In which case, my photographs may or may not be about the place, time or memory. They may just be about the sense of now, alone. Then again…

How?

How does one begin to tell any story, especially one that is an internal one? One that is an abacus of memory strong from places and people and things that I have made here, far from that small boy I once was. How can these pictures and drawings and the categorization of them, a visual mainframe, be an attempt to reconcile what it is I remember and how that stands up now in the flight and fragrance of the life I see before me.

VIII
The Oxen rid of their sun ranging in the shade of the trees, the hills, the dark and then a light brush, a shadow before it has been forestalled, this swaying.

Calves, children, boys, four brothers swaying in the sun.

IX
For my entire life, I have relished stories. I have loved reading books from the earliest times of my life and have loved listening to people tell their own stories, personal or historic. For most of my adult life, I have also tried to tell stories. To write them in whatever form they seemed to take, battered floorboard, scribbled lines of language or stained print on a vellum of white.

But….

Like the cyclops shepherd Polyphemus from The Odyssey, I am blind. Blind still but I have not walled a cave of resentment around the country of my wakening, nor pleaded for a reconciliation of my blindness. Instead, from the splintered stake and rush of darkness that stuck me to this small place of re-imagining, the pull of sky and step of moment, I have continued to tell stories. How else to square the squiggled shapes and rise of passage that still accrete before my neutered vision but if not in the form of stories, stories that bridge the darkness and assuage the sense of fear.

Are we not the same, you and I?

X
“He reaches to grasp the shadow of his spoon, but the shadow reappears on the back of his hand.”–Lydia Davis

XI
Oxen: Memory born of deprivation and the mirage funneled beneath the sun of a life’s assignations. Can we reproduce those swaying moments or reconstruct the corridors of waves, like gestures seen in passing that batter our lives into shape and spleen? Splintered raft, cadenced lap of language, weighted scent and a castoff look. All those things tendered in exchange for the what-has-gone-missing, The Oxen of the Sun.

In a word and picture, a small anterior hatch through which I have tried to see things forward to stake out a clearer path from the engulfed past of places receding. What is it that I have seen and visited and remembered and how has this marked my onward course. It is a long haul and I am only just beginning: Line of clink and clatter.

And so a rhyme comes forth, the inkling of a thought, a gesture of sorts, an image with the shape and gored of a bared fruit, seeding itself into my body, gestation and resignation: A weaving at the loom, an attempt to stitch together a patchwork of watches and winches, a story born of the many stories circling in my head which rush like the electric snap between pulse of space and dendrite: The Oxen of the Sun. But does this really explain anything?

XII
We are, till this day, marooned upon the island of lotus-eaters, only the narcotics and dream-swell is different. We consume inwardly not to forget our homes and families but instead to waft upon the haze of another luxuriant disappearance: Not the loss of memory of home but its re-imagining. We chew upon the plant of our memories as a foundation that builds, reluctantly, a miasma, or a smoke, of memory from within. We dine about these chewy substances not as blanketing and disappearance, not as a recipe to forget the time that has swatch’d the fabrics of our days, the misguided and the misconstrued, but as a way to recapitulate that which has been shorn away. A stemming of the oblivion in the form of another oblivion: a construction. I cannot cease the building of these things from path and predilection. Can you?

Spanner, hoe and ladder, I hunger to remember and in that I cast away as shadow and scorn those things, which have become an ellipse: what past as the real. We want not to return but instead to remember, need to remember, stranded not upon a spit of sandy longing but upon a peninsula of reconstruction. Again and again, I tend to recreate that which came and paste-patted together the forgetting. Though a face, a vessel of appearance, this that contains is not enough to add to the things of which I am. We are faces, bodies, countries, countenances of gene and circumstance and place, and yes, photographs too. We are photographs of our faces and places. I am a construction. Are we not, all?

XIII
All photographs are faces. Our memories: faces. Our bodies: faces.

Faces carved upon and set afire like Greek tripods into which we have stewed and burned all that entered us as tribute and offering. Our faces and our bodies swelling shape and pullulate like an alchemized paper imprinted with something. A photograph covered in a basin of contortions and distortions, carriers of both time and the denial of time, elusive thought and arrangement.

We are pictures rendered.

How am I, in spirit and in letter, different from a picture? This question, which does not disappear, reveals our faces and bodies and the stories that these images house in a rearranged order. Are we not vessels harboring and hiding the ‘me’ contained in the architecture of the body? And yet, as photographs and as memories, we escape ourselves through our actual, sheltered and shuttled breathing. I.

Then what about the blind, what is etched upon their skull and their lithe memorial imagery?

XIV
Soon a disorienting calculus sets in: closeness, infinitely halved. A diary of failure: how far away, how licked-over the distance in the print of a smudge of space, how upended this rearranging becomes: breath between a barracks of lens and light, the ligature of word and likeness. And Yet, we continue even when we have not yet understood how to begin. Bereft. Beating. Brook.

Fall upon me.

XV
It begins with the knotted sound of a bell rung in a temple, the clap of something indistinguishable that takes flight, the flutter of a golden silk robe, the tap of a market cart’s wobbly-kneed wheel, the bark scattered in the distance, the inviolate movement of an old woman’s hands across the ravine of a green fruit, the bellow and the bought bough, gone-gong, left out in the tropical rain for too long.

XVI
“From our ugliness will grow the soul of the world.”– Platonov

XVII
Bodies grow rich and bent like small trees under night’s weight, along the pavement and crack of ice, water and snow. All that aglow welled and bucketed up from below.

How do I tell you about a place and time that in truth may not even exist but in the unreliable tablet of my memory arcs. How. And then, in a moment caught unaware, a shadow moves by and I recognize: Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae: I feel once more the scars of the old flame.

How does one pull from the muck all that fertilizes and has become fecund, all that with time has disseminated itself over land and time and memory, all which has flowered or grown frail? How do I begin to share with you those first memories, those moments in time and of place that caught me unaware, those faces and places that began to pistil and impregnate my imagination and the stubborn “I” inside me? How do I begin to describe to you a moment of germination?

This story clipped by a forest of thoughts and rusty words, strung together by a tethering of photographs hair-pinned at the edges as if twitching laundry weighted down by a moss-lined stone.

XVIII
It began with the knotted sound of a falling word that slipped its shape into the space between my recognition of the word and its meaning: sound before thought, scent before taste, and perception before knowledge. Later the words that began to bubble up spun themselves into banners of tightly taught thought. Going, adrift: a white cotton scarf set wide over the escarpment of the land and a gull at glide upward to snatch it and then is gone and I stare wide-eyed and frightened and loose myself in the sounding of the salt-damp ocean air, frenzied and a twirl. Gone.

XIX
The husky scent of street vendors and urine, the calming salve of burned incense and the splay of long, dark hair orchestrated in an arrangement of light, the bulrush of voices and pedestrian scrapping, an arabesque of conjuring: are these my memories or the real place? Am I trying to resurrect them?

XX
How do I bridge the distance between the troika of shuttled words and the chasm across which I desire to describe and understand? If I told you as a child, I lived in Taiwan, would this make a difference to the whys of the people and places I photograph? Does this help explain why I am drawn to certain faces or certain aromas? Or why I bully certain words against one another, the contours of a young woman’s face from Asia, the mark of a poem? Why is it that certain things snap and rebuild my heart? Is any of this contained in my pictures, or just stuck and dull in my head?

It begins with the knotted sound of a falling word, with the nearly silent snap of a roll of film unwound from a canister, from an arrangement of syllables and chemistry. It begins, obviously, at the beginning: the spark of a lit-up moment that somehow dug inside you and left you re-arranged.

All of which is simply about a stretch, a space that separates you from me. All of this is about duration, obdurate duration and the hum of the heart, tilting in its gorgeous spin. Not the duration of pictures but about the persistence, each of our, of honing and hoping.

Always about disappearance, the banging back against the bank of forgetting, the retooling of things, the flickered image, the bowled scent, a palimpsest of congregated memories, both of others and mine. How to describe this accord of things, like a tool chest scattered after an upheaval in its cleaning. It is, in a way, theft. I appropriate, that which is mine, that which has entered me, those moments and stories I have gathered and listened to and reworked upon in the taverns of my head. I have always appropriated from the outside, to snatch up what I see and hear and remember but borne back by the richer wash of fiction, by the transforming alchemy of rearrangement: tacking life to the board of inner waking. Maybe it is because I have read more books and memorized more poems and spent more times watching films than I have spent thinking of photography. I have always been more drawn to the physicality of things, photographs as drawings, and words as splinters: again, the reworking of things.

XXI
My practice has always been about negotiation and so too The Oxen of the Sun. It is a form of archeology, a digging into things that feel replete but in fact may be simply apparitional. It is a probing, an uncoiling of my internal world in the guise of things that I have seen in front of me. More than the memories themselves is the act of remembering. How is it that we remember, correctly or with falsehood? Private memoirs: the shape and punt of words, the rhyme of light transmogrified by chemical, the stitching in a face when shuttered through tin. Again, it is a probing about endurance and repetition: the unyielding slipping of running water tugged away by the land after an emergence.

XXII
Chekhov wrote that each of us is torn between two lives. As Odysseus, of Greek Mythology, negotiated his way between Scylla and Charybdis, each of us adjudicates the life we are given and the life we imagine for ourselves, our true selves, the one we harness and nest in the back rooms of our waking life, the one we war our way towards but seldom realize. The life we know we bare, the person we believe we are and the way we are seen, around in opposition. And how can we articulate that treacherous path of rock and swirl, surely not in words or in parrying away of emulsion. How then?

Distill this life and swing-sing it wide, allow it to circle, swell, pivot and drop inside and sit for time and then expel it as if a child’s winter breath, gathering heat in the gallop of joy, the sacked-packed step of snow under thunderous foot: swung up through the earth’s canopy, there, widening.

We hunger for memory, for pit of image, print of time, and photograph as hieroglyph disappearance. I am photographing a group of students who have come far from their homes, carving up and out a new memory and in their steps and their tossed moments of doubt and capture, I myself begin to doubt what I am doing. To photograph someone, for what: recall, distillation, and homing-hope?

The roaming far typed and shuttled, long settling away our loam and pottery-bone life. What have I seen when I have chosen to photograph you?

XXIII
It began with the knotted sound of a bell wrong in a temple, the flutter of a golden silk robe and the line on an old woman’s hand who once told me I would live as long as bird at sea.

The lacuna steeped inside.

Let my photographs shuttle inside and out. Vanquished.

XXIV
All this and that is all because of that voice and then.

Light awakens in a room. A small ache stirs—A child’s tooth, drops.

Epilogue

Because of you, it is not memory but something far larger that cannot be caught in the accordion flaps of filament, aperture and click. I begin and began and then came the switching. And then, shortly then, it was there, along the edges of my photographs and along the lining of the life that you have carved from my weary body and my drought-dry mouth. Words. Sight. You. We. And then I began.

Alas:
We carve light from shadow. Husk cob of time from skin and bone and draw circles out of incurable lines.

Arise.

Author’s Dedication:
The opportunity to create something specific while being granted artistic freedom is a rare and treasured gift. I want to personally thank my friend David Alan Harvey for his unconditional support and understanding of my personal journey, as a photographer and as a person.

I dedicate this essay to my father and mother, from whom everything I am was brought forth and from whom I still continue to learn so much; to my son Dima, whose own memories and recollections and photography have inspired much of my work and ideas, for he has enlarged my life and strengthened the person that I have become; and above all to my wife, Marina Black, an extraordinary photographer in her own right, without whom nothing would be possible. She is the true North, the watch fire upon the hill, toward and by which I have steadied my course, the luminous navigation point by which I have been able to reach, though the journey was arduous and began long ago, my way back home: to her and our son. She is the reason I am anchored to the place that we have built together, a hermitage from the battering sea at last; along, I am held fast and steady upon the ripened land of our home, of this unimaginably fecund life together, our very own Ithaca.

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