For a large part of my adult life, I lived to print in the darkroom. Printing created meaning from my photographs. I loved all of the process – the technical, manual, and the thought involved. If I went for too long without printing, my mood was affected.
I sometimes wondered what would happen to me if I couldn’t print. Would I find a way to adapt? I’d watched others go through the pain of losing the activity that brought life meaning, and knew that for some people, they couldn’t cope. Frankly, I always figured that failing eyesight would be my ultimate test, and that I had many years of printing before I faced that challenge.
I was wrong.
In mid-April of 2019, my life came to a screaming halt and I started on a new journey.
In early April, I had come down with a weird flu-like virus. It knocked me out of commission for a bit but after a little over a week, I was up and back in my routine. Then fatigue started creeping back and one day I found myself unable to climb a set of stairs without stopping several times to catch my breath. A few hours later I was bedridden and I knew that there was something very, very wrong.
The 8 months that followed are a blur. Endless doctors appointments. Treatments that have only solved some of my symptoms. Medical leave from work. The list goes on…
I was pretty much disabled – I couldn’t lift a grocery bag, I could barely walk around the block. Even sitting for more than an hour was painful and exhausting. I had trouble verbally expressing myself. There were weeks that my family was scared to hug me, my body seemed so fragile. I was often emotionally numb inside and spent a lot of time in bed just looking out the window.
I definitely wasn’t printing, and often wondered if I’d ever print again. What was also disconcerting was that I wasn’t even “seeing” as a photographer – I wasn’t seeing potential images in my everyday life.
There were many days when the despair felt overwhelming but I leaned on my family and friends – friends from real life and ones that I had never met – and they kept me afloat.
Then, sometime in early summer, came baby steps. The full reality of taking life a day at a time. Knitting kept me occupied and focused – the same stitch over and over again, like meditation. The fabric might make a good photogram. Arranging objects on paper was a tactile experience and became a gentle mental exercise. I grew to have enough strength to sit in the sun for a few minutes, and it was lovely.
Making cyanotypes was how I could continue to use art as self-expression.
More baby steps followed. It was late summer, and flowers in all their colorful glory were close by. I could walk short distances now, albeit very slowly. I didn’t know if black and white film fit into my life without my being able to print but I had slide film in my stash.
Looking at flowers made me happy. Shapes and colors in my viewfinder.
There is a running joke on Twitter that I am allergic to color photography. But I am happy with the slide photographs that I made at this time. If I could never print again, I would shoot in color instead.
October 2019 rolled around and I was still on the rollercoaster. Still no diagnosis, still many bad days curled up on the sofa, still many days in a fog. Drawing for #inktober didn’t use up too much energy; it was a bit of fun that I looked forward to every day. I am deeply grateful for everyone who cheered me on.
In late October, I was scheduled for a nerve-wracking bronchoscope test. I had not been feeling up to pinhole photography – my preferred approach uses an intensive visualization process – but I decided to reward myself with a Reality So Subtle 6×12 pinhole camera once I had run the gauntlet. I justified the purchase by figuring that I could make cyanotype contact prints if I never got into the darkroom again.
That round of tests finally led to a diagnosis; while there is no cure and my illness is rare, it should resolve itself in 6 months to two years. I have medication to treat the symptoms and I am in physical therapy to recondition my muscles. I have my 6×12 pinhole camera, which (once I got the hang of loading!) turned out to be more fun to use than I had hoped. I am even using black and white film again, although I can only develop film on a good day, and even then I need to lie down during the wash.
I am nowhere close to functioning normally and I still have a long road ahead of me. I won’t be printing in the darkroom for quite a while. But I have stronger relationships. And I have the knowledge that I can adapt and still find ways to be creative in very difficult circumstances.
Making art is a fight, and it is worth it.