Thoughts on Finding a New Path

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.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Finding a New Path

  1. I’m sorry your path has led you through such darkness. It’s good that art was there for you.

    My wife has had similar experiences with disabling medical issues that robbed her of career and time. She was, and is, a writer. During the worst times, she could barely speak and could not read or write. During the best now, pain her constant partner, she leans heavily on the lessons of a creative life. When her literary life failed she found painting, collage, and photography. It saved her and restored her spirit, especially during those times when the medical community provided no insight, answers or hope. Art and art-making has opened a door to purpose and meaning.

    I found your site while searching for information on the Bronica SQ-A — a recent acquisition. Reading this post had me thinking about how I might respond to not being able to make photographs any longer. While I’ve not suffered as you and my wife have, a heart attack almost five years ago reminded me of how fragile I am and should not take anything for granted. Gratefully I came through that experience and could continue to make photos, work in my darkroom and ride the Vespa scooter I’ve enjoyed for over a decade. But old age is creeping nearer and nearer so who knows what the next day might bring.

    I love the title of your blog. The smell of fixer is still in my hands after making proof sheets last night. Best wishes for your recovery and the new life you’re building. And thank you for your thoughtful post on the real-life experiences that many prefer to act as if they don’t happen.

    Steve Williams
    Scooter in the Sticks

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  2. I have not printed in almost 2 years due to Illness. And right now I am dealing with a vision challenge (long story, but resulted from a brain tumor). Blogging and communication with you and others online has kept me shooting film and posting. I am determined to print something before then end of this month. Doesn’t give me much time, but wish me luck.

    The vision problem also caused me to realign my photo interests……

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  3. So sorry to hear what you’ve been through and thank you for sharing. That’s great to hear you have a diagnosis and a prognosis of recovery. I really admire that you filled your creative needs in such… creative ways; knitting and then the cyanotypes (beautiful!) You certainly know how to get the best out of your lovely new Reality So Subtle pinhole camera too. Hope you keep getting stronger and stronger, wishing you a speedy recovery!

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  4. You are such a strong person, I admire you. ๐Ÿค— So many things happen in our lives , so many twists and turns but creating art stays with us no matter in which form. I love all you do but funny enough I have a sweet spot for your colour images and cyanotypes, somehow they show a side of you that was hidden before and it connects with me on my own journey. In general I think we should just forget 2019…it really wasn’t a good year. Big HUG!
    Isabel ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments. Do you know, I have/had a IRL friend and family member who both thought my b&w didnโ€™t suit me? ๐Ÿ˜‚
      Wishing a better year for us both! Hugs back at you! ๐Ÿค—

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