Ways to Document a Life, part II

The Surface Reveals

This is the second story in a two-part series about documentary photography and its connection to poetry.

Since composing my recent essay on Witness, a retrospective by North Carolina photographer Titus Brooks Heagins, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to document the world through a subjective, ethical and authentic lens. I’ve been rolling the words documentary poet over in my mind recently–curious about the place where poet intersects with essayist intersects with journalist–and checking out the work of documentary artists in other media has been part of my personal research process.

After working on the first post in this series, I went to see One Place at The Center for Documentary Studies, a collection of black-and-white prints taken by Paul Kwilecki in Decatur County, GA, over the course of four decades. Instead of traveling around the world to find his subjects, Kwilecki stayed at home to find meaning and newness in his place of origin:

“Real circumstances are richer than anything we can invent,” he writes in his essay Decatur County, “and photographs made from them have unique credibility and economy. When one searches for a specific image, he blinds himself to everything else. He is apt to let a possible photograph pass unnoticed that is better than what he set out to find.”

Though Kwilecki and I work in different times and places with different media and subject matter, I can relate to his open, receptive approach to creating art. I’ve found that my best work happens when I let go of my expectations and write the piece that is available to me, rather than the one I had planned to write.

One Place: Translating Time

“White dress in rain” by Paul Kwilecki, 1961

Last Tuesday afternoon was a perfect time to visit the CDS gallery. The halls were quiet–grey and I were the only ones in the space–and that solitude allowed me not only to look at the photographs, but also to listen to them. The images are rich with wordless narratives–groups of people participating in a baptism, a young couple getting married in a clerk’s office, men hauling logging trucks or slaughtering pigs.

One image, “White dress in rain” (reprinted here courtesy of Duke University’s Digital Collection), stood out to me among the others, and I kept it in my mind all afternoon until I was able to set it to words. Following Kwilecki’s approach, I didn’t go looking for a photograph to write about; I allowed this one to enter my consciousness, then trusted the words that arrived. The result was “A Fiction,” a brief narrative poem I’ve shared below.

In these lines, I hoped to recreate my experience of viewing the photograph–one that moved me deeply and inexplicably at first–and then translate that felt sense into a poem by placing myself both inside and outside of the image simultaneously.

A Fiction

In Muscle Memory: Rivers, I wrote about taking walks by the water as a way of building trust with myself, a way of remembering that my body will carry me towards answers I haven’t even realized I’m looking for. The experience of writing “A Fiction” was very much a confirmation of this trust, the kind of experience I don’t have very often while working on a new poem.

I did not plan for all of the lines to even out into two- and four-line stanzas; I did not realize that, by the end of the poem, I myself would enter the picture and share in the loneliness I perceived in the woman whose image I was contemplating; I did not know that I was holding up a mirror instead of a photograph to see what I could find there. With uncharacteristic clarity, I finished the poem with just a few adjustments and revisions, and I bring it now to you, side by side with the image that inspired me to write it.

Writing is a muscular experience. It requires a physical commitment, whether we write with a pen in one hand, with two hands on a keyboard, with our voice into a software program, with a stylus on a tablet, through another’s transcription of our words, by blinking out the paragraphs letter by letter, or any other way. Trusting the body–even in the presence of physical limitations–is crucial for a writer. I’m sure it’s also vital for photographers and other artists, especially Kwilecki, who reduced the scope of his subject matter to a single county as a way to open himself up to possibilities he may not have even dreamed of. He trusted himself to find what was available in his surroundings, rather than controlling or contriving his subjects to fit an idea he had in his mind. I’ll leave you with a story in his words, which describes just this sort of experience:

“For several years, I was fascinated by old photographs on gravestones. I carefully sifted through every cemetery I knew. On a dreary day I was walking through an isolated graveyard in a remote part of the county. Cows were grazing just outside. I passed a monument topped by a marble lamb quietly watching them. It was both droll and, because of the light and the misting rain, beautiful. I like the resulting photograph better than any of my pictures of pictures on gravestones.” — from Paul Kwilecki’s essay “Decatur County” in One Place

“Cows Grazing Lambs Watching,” by Paul Kwilecki

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3 responses to “Ways to Document a Life, part II

  1. Very moving, especially your poem. I paused when I read this line in your essay: “Trusting the body–even in the presence of physical limitations–is crucial for a writer.” I do not write and create art like I want to; I have a million reasons why I don’t have time. Your sentence made me realize that a physical disability could/would drastically change my ability to do them, unlike the nebulous excuses I have now. Thank you for helping me see the danger in taking the gifts of art and writing for granted.

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