Archive for May 5th, 2007

Mrs. Rhodes Finds A Hobbit, doodle © 2007 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Mrs. Rhodes was my tenth grade English teacher at Valley High School. She was petite, with small ears, and she wore her long graying hair swooped up, often in a giant bun or thick braid.

In my mind I see her at the front of the class wearing a crisp white cotton shirt and a long denim skirt. She doesn’t sit at her desk so much as stands in front of it, stands with leather moccasin loafers and talks with arms flying in the air. She speaks of the genius of the written word. Then she says, “Class…,” says it in a nasally voice that draws out the word, “Claaasss…, it’s time to open our books and read.”

She walks in fast steps around her desk, pulls out the chair and drags it in front where she’s been standing. Sits down, opens her book to the page where we left off last session, and begins reading. Out loud, as if we are first graders.

The funny thing is, I remember nothing about The Hobbit. That’s the book she read out loud to us. I can’t remember if she assigned or read any other book. The only memory I have of Mrs. Rhodes is her reading The Hobbit, and the only memory I have of The Hobbit is Mrs. Rhodes reading it.

We open our books to the page she tells us. We cradle our copies with our arms, drop our heads inside our cradles, then sneak glances at one another. We know what’s coming. She starts reading. Her voice gets small and childlike. She reads slowly, much more slowly than we track in the page. For this reason I close my eyes and listen only to her voice. It floats in the space around us, but not loose and unanchored. It fills the room. There is depth in that voice. There is history and generations. She’s carrying something forward, passing it on. All this I detect in the stillness of the room, silent except for Mrs. Rhodes’ small singular voice.

And this is what I remember most. Always, the voice cracks. It wobbles and weaves, eventually stopping altogether. I don’t want to open my eyes. I beg in my head, Keep going, just keep going. Silence. A classroom full of 15-year-olds, some giggly and high, some asleep, most shuffling, moving waffle-stompered feet on the dirty linoleum. I look up. Mrs. Rhodes is fixated on the page, tears falling now. She doesn’t look at any of us. I can tell she is composing herself. She takes a wadded Kleenex and dabs her nose. Then she continues.

I want to recall what happened to the hobbits that made Mrs. Rhodes weep. Did someone die? Were they tortured? I tell myself I will re-read the book, perhaps read it out loud to Dee. Maybe I’ll cry, too. I cried at the end of Watership Down when Hazel was old and slipped away to the heavens. The emotion welled up from nowhere, it seemed, and I tried to keep it in, but in my trying it became big and full and caused me to tremble so much that Dee lifted herself from my side so she could turn and look at me. Was it the same for Mrs. Rhodes? Did she fall so headlong into the story that she couldn’t help but cry when the characters she loved slipped away?

She always made it through the crying; it never lasted long. Then she’d get to an exciting section. Here her voice drops to a whisper, as if we’re alongside the hobbits in the woods, crouching under bushes. If she speaks too loudly she’ll give away our position. Someone in the class snickers, one of the vatos who’s had enough. She immediately stops, snaps her head up to see who’s making fun.

“What is it?” she asks. He shakes his head, says nothing.

“Don’t you believe? They’re real, you know.”

She looks from him to each one of us, looks deeply with her blue eyes, imploring. You can tell she’s pleading, You believe, don’t you?? There is desperation in that room, in that teacher. Each person she looks at in turn looks down.

She wants us to believe the hobbits are real, like fairies or spirits. Real like this moment. This life. We are not in Literature. This is religion, spirituality. We’re either believers or we’re not. When she gets to me I hold her gaze. Not because I’m a believer. I don’t know what I am. I’m lost, but I’m not about to let this poor woman be alone in the world.

Where are you, Mrs. Rhodes? What ever happened to you? I know nothing about the book you had us read, nothing except this recollection of you and me and the class. Why didn’t it dawn on me before what you gave to us? I thought you were crazy. Maybe you were. But you believed with all your heart in something at a time when I believed in nothing and no one. You touched me, left me with one of the few imprints I have from that time of walking through halls stoned and apathetic.

Thank you, Mrs. Rhodes, for leaving me with faith.

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I saw a post over on This Is Mimbres Man that reminded me that Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day passed on April 29th. Check out his images at Pinhole Photography. I made my first pinhole camera over 20 years ago out of a Quaker Oats container. And seeing the image come to life was the thrill of a lifetime. If you are a photographer, you’re probably as passionate about photographic processes as you are about the photos themselves.

It is similar to the way artists love their canvases, drawing papers, paints, and graphite. And writers have their favorite pens, papers, and notebooks. It’s no secret that creative souls spend a great deal of time and money on regular jaunts to the nearest independent office supply or art materials store. It’s in our blood. I could spend hours trying out pens, marking across pads, or choosing the right ink.

Process is important to any art form. And old style photographic processes teach a photographer the details of capturing light and shadow and transforming them to canvas. When I was in art school, I majored in Media Arts with an emphasis on black and white photography. But I took a lot of Fine Art classes to inform my processes. That’s when I began to dabble in alternative photographic media like pinhole photography, cyanotyping, brush on emulsions, mural prints, and exposing negative images on raw clay. It busted my photography wide open.

Digital has taken over the marketplace. But there are purists who still preserve the old methods of shooting and developing, people who are more fascinated by process than instant gratification. If I had endless amounts of dollars, I’d set up an elaborate art studio and darkroom on one whole floor of a new 5000 square foot home. I know what you’re thinking – I could jerry-rig a tiny darkroom into my bathroom right now if I wanted to.

That’s true. I’ve got an old enlarger in storage. But I’m feeling too worn out for the likes of 3am romps across splashing trays of developer, stop, and fix to get to the shower. And it sounds too perilous for our cat, Chaco, who has currently taken up residence in the bathroom sink.

What I do want to say is that I’m happy to still be able to find people like Mimbres Man and George L. Smyth at Handmade Photographic Images who are still doing it the old fashioned way. (Mimbres Man is also into insect noises and bottle rockets. So I head over to his site when I can to surf unusual behind the scenes happenings, the white noise in all our heads!)

You can learn how to make a pinhole camera at Oatmeal Box Pinhole Photography by Stewart Lewis Woodruff.  And George L. Smyth also has a blog, Meanderings, at Best, about handmade photographic images.

If you’ve never experimented in the photography of yesteryear, there’s no time like the present. Handmade photographic processes are the world of photography’s best kept secret. They are image-making history and bones, photographic anthropology. Archaic practices will slow you down long enough to really listen to the visual. And build on the structures of the past.

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

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