In my photography work I tend to focus on one subject for a period of time, and when I am done, move on. Thus, I came to spend nearly ten years of my life solely on the subject of homeless women in America. When that project was finished and made into a book and then a movie, I jumped into something completely different and never looked back.
During that period if there was a beautiful scene, or a spectacular sunset, I never lifted my camera to my eye. It was “off topic.” I needed to conserve my energy for the work at hand. It was the same when I began other projects.
Still, there have been occasions when over time, a long time, a group of images taken on the sly, sporadically, haphazardly or in the midst of some other compulsion, began of their own accord to coalesce into a theme, a subject, an identity, that merely by simple accumulation made itself known to me.
This is how I came to photograph young men and boys in nature, on the brink of knowledge, lost in dreams and all knowing. Gradually the pictures raised themselves to the surface of my consciousness. When I looked, they were there. Why had I photographed the six-year old son of the cook at a hotel sitting on a windowsill? Just three shots on a roll of something else. What made me ask the so tall boyfriend of my model, initially there just to keep her company, to stand on his hands and see if his feet could reach the ceiling? And then what convinced him to take off his clothes?
In the south of France I rented a ruined farmhouse by the side of the road in the rural countryside. From the nearby village came prancing down the street three bored teenagers at loose ends on a summer day. They had heard about the American in town and felt free to walk right into my open studio and practice their best high school English. “What are you doing?” they inquired. “Painting,” I said, but I also took photographs, and the few I took of them are nearly all here. They thought it funny when I suggested they stand over there against that wall in a police line-up.
High spirited and enthusiastic they asked if there was anything else I wanted. “Yes, how about you two go outside and one stay inside. Ok, no laughing,” I admonished. “NO LAUGHING!” They laughed and I did too, but then I said I had to get back to work and they left reluctantly, returning for frequent visits throughout the summer whenever there was nothing else to do.
And so over the years, the pictures piled up in the corners of contact sheets and at the edges of other work, waiting for me to notice. I have accompanied these found images with a poem by William Wordsworth.
In this beautiful poem, a meditation on mortality, Wordsworth makes explicit his belief that life on earth is a but a faint shadow of an earlier, purer existence, one recalled from childhood and then lost in the process of maturing. According to Wordsworth, the essence of what makes us human is found in the natural world, and inversely, all our humanity reflects what is found in nature. The meanest flower can bring, "thoughts that lie too deep for tears" but Wordsworth asserts that this grief will not spoil his joy in life.
He tells of a boy of six, fretted by his mothers’ kisses, the light of his father's eyes, playing with some fragment of a child's dream, some scrap of a festival or a funeral. The child holds a truth for which we toil all our lives. Why, he wonders, does youth give up this knowledge for the confines of maturity and adulthood. It is a great loss.
For Wordsworth it is the memory of youth that enables us to make this vital and moving connection. It would not be right, he says, to feel sorrow, while there are children who laugh and romp in verdant fields. Nevertheless, a tree and a mountain that he looks upon make him think of "something that is gone," and a flower does the same. He mourns what has happened to "the visionary gleam": "Where is it now, the glory and the dream?" Nothing can bring back what has been lost to youth, to time, to all that has gone before, yet in his poem Wordsworth asks us to grieve not, rather, to look through death and find,"strength in what remains behind."
The three French teenagers are now young men working in corporations in Paris; the little boy on the windowsill a university graduate; the ex-boyfriend of my model a soccer coach in Italy; and my model the mother of three little girls. They all prosper. I happened upon them in a split second of their young lives. They allowed me the sacred privilege of a tiny momentary window into the untarnished soul of youth. For this I am grateful.