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.

Reflections on #Inktober2019

Inktober is a drawing challenge which encourages artists to draw every day for the month of October. Many participants share their drawings on social media, and I really love seeing all the variety of drawings in my feed during the event.

Official Inktober Prompts

Last year I couldn’t manage a daily drawing, so this year I set myself a few rules: I laid out a drawing grid like a negative contact sheet, with each drawing space approximately 6×6 cm square. Keeping the drawings small made the daily challenge less overwhelming. Sometimes I went all out with water color and ink wash. Other times a one minute doodle was all that I had energy for, and that was better than not drawing at all.

And I did it! A drawing every day in October, and it was really fun. I don’t think my skills improved, but that’s ok. And I ended up creating a little character called The Teacup Dragon, and I’m really looking forward to creating more drawings with it.

Flirting with the sun

When I first started dabbling in cyanotypes, I thought that summer would be the ideal time to create them. It was logical after all – cyanotype is a photographic process that utilizes ultraviolet light to expose specially sensitized paper. Seattle’s winters and springs are not well known for sunlight.

Knitting

However, March has become my favorite time of year to make cyanotypes. The debris of winter rains yields many plant materials suitable for photo-grams. And when the clouds permit a sunburst, spring fever propels me to capture the fresh, warm sunlight on paper that will turn as blue as a clear sky.

 

 

This was the first year that I tried coating my own watercolor paper with cyanotype chemicals. It turned out to be easier and quicker than I expected, and I was fascinated by how different papers printed differently. I played with photo-grams – which I love for the tactile nature of the process. And I also explored contact printing from negatives. The tonal responsive of cyanotype is different from gelatin silver darkroom paper; finding what works best is going to be an ongoing exploration.

 

 

April has arrived, bringing relentless clouds and showers. The lovely blues of the cyanotypes that I made remind me that the rains will pass, and in not too long summer will arrive. These prints, blue as a clear spring sky, make me very glad that in March I flirted with the sun.

Words and Images © Monika Danos

On photographing leaves

The house is nearly silent, the only sound is the indistinct murmur of my family’s voices in the basement. They are absorbed in a project and I am essentially alone.

My 4×5 large format camera waits on the tripod, its one eye drawn close to the light table, bellows fully extended, craning its neck for the closest view.

My collection of skeleton leafs waits on the table. I pick leaves up, one at a time; ever so carefully, lest they crumble to dust. I choose one, a tomatillo husk. I like the way it is not perfectly closed, how part of the husk curls away from the whole. And I place it gently on the light table.

I look through the ground glass, the camera’s eye is now my eye. Gentle touches to move the husk – left, right, up, down – the husk’s contours moving through white space, the smallest of motions amplified, until something whispers “right here”.

My fingers are on the camera movements, the husk is no longer a husk. It’s a web of lines, the camera movements are my pencils; now sharp, now soft, I draw an undulating landscape of black edges on white, this way and that. Until something whispers “yes, here is a map of this moment.” I ever so slowly step away, without stirring the air, and take the shot. And then return to the leaves and begin again.

The Crows

Some micro fiction, inspired by this pinhole photograph of crows.

The crows were banging on the chimney cap.  All day long they banged the chimney cap.  Clunk clank.  Clunk clank.  It was beyond irritating.

The noise made my cat pace.  To and fro.  First she paced in front of the fireplace.  Then she sat at the window, stretching to reach through the glass and pluck the crow off the roof.

I had been trying to do… something.  What was it? My thoughts keep slipping from me.  Slipping from me, then sliding up the chimney, snaking through the bricks like smoke.

Perhaps the crows are collecting those thoughts.  Charming them up, catching them like bright objects in their beaks.  And when the sky finally darkens at nightfall, they will return to their nests with these treasures.  Then my cat will curl into a nest of blankets and I, I will have nothing but the clunk clank echoing through the emptiness of my mind.

Words and Images © Monika Danos

My mother’s gift

Five years ago this week, my mother passed away.

We did not always have an easy time in our relationship.  But I’m not here today to talk about that.

Today, I’m taking the day off to work in the darkroom. I’ll cue up my darkroom playlist. Fill the trays with printing chemicals. Just turning on the safe light brings me a deep sense of well being.

And it struck me, that I might not have had this love of printing if it were not for my mother.

When I was 16 – give or take a year – she was in the associate of fine arts program at our local community college. And one of the required courses was an introduction to photography. At that time, there was no digital photography. The students learned to shoot manual film cameras, process their film, and print their images in the darkroom. They started off by building an oatmeal box pinhole camera. They had to complete a cohesive project by the end of the class.

Before this, I was only familiar with photography in the form of snapshots. And even though I was a teenager, with my own concerns, I paid attention. It was a time when we were close and I fell in love with everything that she did. I fell in love with homemade pinhole cameras, and black and white tonalities, and darkroom prints. And while photography and printing held little interest for her beyond that one class, it became my life blood.

I wonder if she ever realized what a gift that class was. I have a slight smile on my lips as I write this, thinking of all the intentional gifts that faded away over the years: the endless music lessons, lost on a girl who can’t carry a tune; the language classes that never led to fluency.

It was that unintentional gift that left the deepest mark.

Words and Images © Monika Danos

Some thoughts on Housebound

“The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” – John Muir

The mountains are calling, and I cannot go.

There are breakfasts, and lunches, and dinners to prepare. There is laundry and weeding. There is work that must be done yesterday. There is a sick child who needs her mother’s comfort. There is a husband who needs to talk about his day. There is a friend who would like companionship.

It is 8 PM and I am wandering the aisles of the grocery store. My cupboards are bare.

Time flies, with agonizing slowness.

A sundial marks time with it’s shadow.

Far off in the distance, there is a beautiful light, touching the trees and hills of imagination.

My thoughts are dandelion seeds, that scatter on wind that is so much noise. And I am being blown apart.

But.

This shadow, it will not come again. Through the mechanics of earth and sun, or vanishing with rain and cloud.

But. There are moments that I may take for myself. In between all these things – if I look hard, if I focus inward, I find worlds that belong to my mind only. And I learn how to slip into these fragments of time. And within these fragments, I am myself.

 

Words and Images © Monika Danos