I was raised in an apartment made up of four very small rooms. My sister and I shared the cramped bedroom in the back, and my parents slept in the dining room. It was embarrassing when any of my friends came over. They wouldn’t say anything; they ignored my family life, but I could tell they noticed and they judged. They couldn’t help it. It wasn’t their fault. That’s just how they…we…are raised.
We were simply guilty of the crime of being poor. And there are ramifications to that.
Also, while growing up in that tiny apartment, my father and sister both had serious mental issues that were left untreated. It felt like every day of my life I would scream in my thoughts, Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY? They couldn’t, but I didn’t understand that, at the time.
I haven’t had these feelings in a long time, but now this is what my country feels like. All of this is so very familiar. Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY?
I'm embarking on a new project, exploring my family and my history to try to understand what is happening in the United States. I've lived around insanity, and all of this is so familiar.
And I am so...afraid. An artist friend and I have been talking about the fear and all of the reasons for it at the very beginning of a project to put pen to paper or, in my case, pictures and ink and paint and God knows what else I decide to throw up on a board. I'm not crazy about delving into my past. I'm one who believes there's nothing better than a good suppressed memory. I'm not anxious to relive any of my childhood. And there's an immense fear of failure. I'm working with materials I haven't worked with in forty years. I mean, the chances of anything worth showing is minimal. But you know what? It's kind of fun. I am so inept that it's all I can do is have fun. I've been working with pastels a bit, and all I think is the same thing I think when I'm hanging out a car door shooting a series for Riding Shotgun: Don't think, just shoot. (Or in this case, it's, Don't think, just draw.) And I remember the idea that I had when I was in art school, that I never was interested in replicating anything, but instead just focus on what's inside me: my own work and my own presentation, about putting my own mark on something. So I look at these pastels and think to myself, well, you still know color. And your work is strong, it may not be pretty, but it sure does demands attention. And that's where I am today. Oh yeah, the coronavirus? I hope I don't die before I finished this project.
These images of garlic sprouts were taken with a simple USB microscope my marine biology daughter, knowing my love of image making and nature, gave to me as a gift off Amazon. I think it cost about twenty dollars. There is a focus, and that's about it, that's about as sophisticated as the technical control gets that I have at my disposal. The image capture-er--I hesitate to call it a camera or even a microscope though we really are capturing light--records the light in jpegs at 72 dpi, and I control the lighting the best I can by paying attention to the background that is reflecting light back into the scene and the ambient light. I print these images small, 5 x 3 inches, centered on bright white pieces of vertical washi paper. That's it for all of us who like to geek out on technology and process.
But...but, it takes an artist's eye and it takes curiosity to be making dinner and see this very tiny green slip nosing out of onion skin on the cutting board. And it take curiosity to wonder, what does it really look like in its own Lilliputian world? And perhaps you might think it's arrogant to say, but it takes an artist's eye and control to see a fleeting image (because hand-holding the mechanism at 500x or 800x and certainly at 1000x only intensifies camera shake) and compose it, and take the image. If you look at these images and think, well, my three-year-old could have done that, I guess all I can say is, Thank you, I've done my job. But I've also done my job as an artist if, when you see these images, you pause and wonder at the beauty of the world around us, and it makes you ask yourself, what else am I missing? And how do I make myself see it?
John Greiner-Ferris is a fine arts photographer and writer in the Boston area.