When Words Fail
Expressing the Mystery of the Self through Photography
Posted Dec 13, 2014
As 2014 winds down, I find that I am struggling to write. Reading is also a chore, not only the cool forms of scholarly books and papers, but also novels, stories, poems. Emails, texts and tweets rank high up on my list of tedious objects of readerly dread. I don’t really know why the language arts escape me. Maybe it’s just that, as if there’s a verbal quota, I’ve said enough for a year, read enough, listened enough, thought enough. Maybe it’s just the return of an old familiar visitor that I forever hope will stay away from my door—writer’s block. Certainly the block is thick at the moment, yet I feel compelled to publish one more blog before year’s end. When words fail, I often shift to visual imagery to scratch my expressive itch. And so, today I take on the role of photographer and in exchange for the usual 1500 words, I offer 12 photographs.
But first, a few more words for context. Photography has been an important language for me since the mid-1970s when I first learned to shoot, develop and print in a darkroom. Early on, I was attracted to the images of Diane Arbus, who photographed outsiders and outliers, including a disturbing series of institutionalized developmentally disabled people shortly before her suicide in 1971. Her photographs of people in masks were particularly exciting to me as I contemplated the mysterious relationships between face and body, real and unreal, hidden and revealed. And then I became fascinated with other art photographers who took pictures of people in masks, especially Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who photographed his neighbors in Lexington, Kentucky in Halloween masks, creating bizarre and unsettling effects in the mix of naturalistic settings and staged fantasies.
Influenced by Arbus and Meatyard, I took a series of photos of family members, friends, and street people in masks, which I called Still Lives. I saw the series as a group of self-portraits as the masks I used were built on my face. Although I painted them in a clownish-way, they bore my contours and expressions. By placing the masks on others bodies—women, children, old people, among others--I imagined myself as the other.
These still images helped conceptualize drama therapy in its early days of development. It appeared to me that by imagining the self as a multiplicity rather than a core, central principle, possibilities for change opened up. This, I reasoned, was a way to help clients understand that they are more than their disability. Thinking theatrically, I imagined that in everyday life, people could be character actors, capable of taking on numerous roles. When type cast, given and taking on a singular role, they limited themselves to single dimensions and by doing so, denied the ability to live within the beautiful contradictions of existence. I tried to illustrate these ideas through the medium of photography. The face was my stage on which its roles were represented by masks.
The photographs below are, first, those of Arbus and Meatyard from the 1960s.
Following are my photographs, early experiments with camera and conception, taken in the 1970s. These images set the stage for what later became the role theory of drama therapy.
I end with more recent images, those that I take unmasked, when words fail, sometimes through windows and mirrors, sometimes straight on, searching throughout the world for signs of life deeply lived.