Thursday
Jun072018

Lost in Thought

Caryl Pagel


 

In the late hot summer of 2012 I found myself living as a house guest on the thirty-fifth floor of a building on the west side of Chicago in the weeks preceding a haphazardly planned trip out east and a future I had yet to divine. It had been seven years since I last lived in the city and I felt fully like the stranger that—according to the science of cell regeneration—I approximately was. In the mornings I would wake early and for several hours, sometimes unshowered and silent in the floating apartment, sometimes buried in the stacks at the Harold Washington Library, and sometimes perched in a Logan Square coffee shop, attempt to string together the curious twice-told narratives I had been collecting for months. From there, when stuck on some plot's logic or unable to liberate a sentence, I'd walk the city streets, pacing and stalking with the hope of recreating a clear mind. Mostly, though, my walking thoughts were less comprehensible than the best of those I could compose and instead I daydreamed strange associations, abstract anxieties, and bewildering, unintelligible images. My body in motion forced a certain mental distraction, allowing my mind to wobble between contemplating work, imagining travel, and watching workers cut city corners as they sped through frenzied breaks. Sometimes I would head east on Grand and cross the river toward State Street and the mobs of downtown shoppers. Others, I'd walk south and east toward Millennium Park or turn northwest from where I temporarily lived toward Humboldt Park and the Field House. Back and forth I'd turn, zigzagging along new routes as though there were nothing so crucial to my survival as this continuous movement. I discovered that Humboldt Park, where I roamed many afternoons—known to locals for its massive summer festivals, Puerto Rican arts center, rose gardens, history of violent homicide, and "Little Cubs Field" (an      
exact miniature replica of Wrigley)—was named after the 19thcentury German naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander Von Humboldt, a.k.a. "the second Columbus," famous for his extraordinarily detailed drawings of South American botanical specimens (predating the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species), and author of the exhaustive five-volume treatise Cosmos: Draft of a Physical Description of the World, which upon further investigation contained such magnificent and comprehensive entries as "Starless Openings," "Magnetism," "Motion in Plants," and "Zodiacal Light." In Von Humboldt's only trip to the United States (during which he stayed at the White House as a guest of Thomas Jefferson) he never once set foot in Chicago. Humboldt was a lovely and large park, fairly empty during the day save for dog-walkers and joggers, and one could squander hours circling the gardens and rambling pathways. Around and around the city I'd pace, roaming parks and crowds, each morning hoping to hone a certain train of thought (and avoid those social interactions which inevitably disrupt one's focus) by listlessly looping the Loop, treading Wacker, or maundering aimlessly up and down the Magnificent Mile. It was the end of summer and the start of fall and all around me were lumbering, driving bodies barreling toward work, this job or that—appointments, lunch meetings, meetups, conference calls, early dinners, cubicles, offices—good citizens, all of them, bearing their portion of the city's labor. Additionally, there were those souls with whom my own treading paralleled: the homeless, wanderers, mothers, drunks, sick, adrift, visiting, and unwillingly or unhappily unemployed. Only for so long, I was discovering could one defend against the anxiety of time by senselessly orbiting. Virginia Woolf, who had clear rules about this sort of thing (one should always walk in the evening "between four and six," and in winter for the "champagne brightness of the air") wrote that the "brain sleeps perhaps as it looks," in her description of the particular reverie or trance-like state street haunting generates and it was during one of these walks that I recalled the work of Harry Callahan who, in 1950, had taken a series of mesmerizing black and white photographs of women's faces as he paced the streets of Chicago. The first time I encountered Callahan's work was during a visit to see my youngest brother M. and his fiancé L. in Washington D.C. a few months after they had moved out east and before I planned to stay with them for a week in mid-autumn. This initial summer weekend was oddly haunted by the as yet unexperiencedbut looming future visit and what kinds of activities we would engage in when I returned that fall; while spending time together we found ourselves talking about what spending time would be like when, soon, we were finally (at long last!) existing in this (created, approaching) together-space; each conversation lingering over what it would be like when we were in the time we anticipated being in. One extremely hot day, in preparation, we walked toward Capitol Hill in search of a bus tour with which to see the city but were unable to find a line that wasn't overly occupied by other tourists and dreading the sticky red seats and claustrophobia of the bottom deck we helplessly, over-heatedly wandered around the Mall, eventually ducking into the National Gallery of Art more for the benefit of air conditioning than anything else. I drifted in marble darkness toward a basement exhibit—"I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street, 1938-2010"—knowing that it featured a few Walker Evans photos and discovered upon turning a corner two small walls punctuated with high contrast inky portraits: excerpts from Callahan's "Women Lost in Thought" series. The first photograph that arrested my gaze in the dim haze portrayed a young woman's pale face stayed in three-quarter profile, her curly light blonde hair wild, pinned half back and illuminated by streaks of sun against a jacketed neck and shoulders; she inhabited a particularly remarkable heart-shaped face with swollen lips, carefully arched eyebrows, high, severe cheekbones and the start to a puffy cloud of exhaustion shadowing the underside of her eyes. The woman—caught close-up, her head the foremost factor in the frame—had what can only be described as an absent expression, with perhaps a slight frown rumbling under the surface of her mouth and running parallel to a single bulky silver teardrop earring, her eyes indicating, in my mind, some sentiment sorrowful, vacant, and stricken. The shadows of Callahan's shots were darker than most, the effect, so I later read, of a decision to pre-focus the camera (which would quickly sharpen the subject while risking a murky and imprecise background) and overdevelop the film for maximum density. The subjects in this series, all women, filled the frames completely, isolating them from the city and occasionally resulting in a cropped-off crown of the head or missing chin. The photos were obviously candid, Callahan having taken spontaneously surreptitious snapshots as he roamed Chicago streets in search of subjects without an identifiable expression. The women—because they had no inkling their picture was being taken;   
because their faces were vulnerable in the false privacy of a moving crowd; because their eyes had fallen flat, slack, and static; because their expressions were erased as the result of (what one gathers was) a concentrated mind; because their bodies were automatic, purposeful, and separate; because (for an instant, in passing) they inhabited not just the public theater of the street but also the nameless interior location in the brain where humans so often dwell; because they were uncomposed and decomposing; vacant, blank, and naked; because they were clueless and alien; apparitional, stolen—made compelling, unprotected subjects, uncannily physical while still void of the soulful spark one usually associates with portraits. Another photo in the series was of a middle-aged black woman in a flat cap staring straight into the lens of the camera. Her expression was powerful and direct, steady and unswerving. One could not help but to feel looked at, unconditionally present, as if suddenly—via this woman's point of view—the audience had become the object of attention or at least, I imagined, as if Callahan himself was at one point worthy of irritation or consideration. However, one discovers by reading accounts of his process that any sign of recognition is a fiction; the photographs were taken with a long-range lens from a significant distance and all subjects remained oblivious to being witnessed or captured on film. As I waited for my brother and L. to find me in the museum, I examined another woman from the series, a woman who was grimacing—cocked chin, stretched mouth, profound frown lines scoring tiny tick marks on her forehead—in what would otherwise seem like a moment of pain or trauma, but (by the eyes—one can always tell by the eyes) was more likely an involuntary, un-self-aware spasm and I wondered, leaning closer, what my own face conveyed in repose (while squinting at this photo?), or what sort of tableau my body ordinarily performs when caught in thought in public. Although all of Callahan's portraits were black and white the woman in this picture had what I assumed was chestnut colored hair and her contorted, ugly mouth disguised the machinations of a reeling mind. There is no way of knowing, of course, simply by sight, what someone else is thinking; she may have been anxious or pleased, exhausted, or suffering some mood wholly incomprehensible to anyone. The strange truth is that unless captured on film there are few situations in which we see ourselves as we actually appear to others: un-posed, un-formed, un-purposeful and innocently twisted with monstrous tics or perplexing gestures. And yet, candidly rendered (as one often appears on social media), we make an uncanny shape, incompatible with the image of ourselves we bear in mind—an image created from years of staring into mirrors or glancing at our own unconsciously fashioned and placed mask in the reflection of shop windows. While looking at these women—trapped as they truly existed for an instant, unprepared and duped into a mood of public privacy—I considered how one cannot continuously manage one's emotive surface and, mostly, that this lack of control is something to be grateful for. After all, humans are a vain and foolish species known for deluding themselves to the highest degree and imagining that, for example, they exert a vigilant rule over that billboard of the body—that one most essentially sensitive physical location—the face, which is the source of as much communicative potential as, say, language, and also the way in which we (superficially, perhaps, but importantly) involve the world. And yet, despite the significance of our gestures, while inspecting Callahan's photos I grew curious as to how often we even notice the subtle transitions between our own public (composed, controlled, posted) face and our private (lax, lazy, hollow) looks. From that day forward this idea punctured my walking thoughts and I would sense myself revising an expression or stretching to grasp a quick glimpse of my liquid shape reflected in a passing pane or puddle for, like anyone, I was capable of extreme shallowness even in the midst of my most focused trance. One sticky September afternoon after I had returned from Washington D.C.—while strolling west on Armitage in the direction of Kimball—this vanity (I had slowed for an instant to inspect the effect of my reflection rippling along a tinted taqueria's storefront) reminded me, out of the blue, as they say, of a horrifying incident in the fifth grade when my teacher, Mr. R., would delight in playing what I'm sure he thought of as an amusing joke in front of the class. Mr. R. would walk into the room or interrupt a lesson to exclaim: Hey! Let's turn around and watch C. blush!, at which point my face, despite any attempt to halt such utter humiliation, would ignite, causing crimson streaks to stain my cheeks from neck to eyelash. These days when the conversation turns—as it often does with my particular set of friends—to the topic of embarrassment or petty childhood cruelties, I am known to retell this anecdote, causing gasps of laughter and shock as listeners are rightfully appalled by a grown man poking fun at a little girl's—vulnerable, uncontrollable, mortified—face, and yet the (still irrationally wounding) tale almost always provokes similar stories from friends, a reminder that these maddening idiosyncrasies—such as, for me, my whole life the, I'll admit, not atrocious but nonetheless distressing act of blushing—which we find utterly reprehensible in ourselves can prove endearing and even occasionally captivating to others; love, after all, being the conscious decisions to dwell on a certain soul's particularities with care and intention. To love is to mesmerize and be mesmerized by—to pay attentionand requires maybe more than anything an enchanting narrative. One imagines bestowed upon each poor adoring psyche the ability to classify, like Humboldt's Draft of a Physical Description of the World, their beloved's essential qualities in encyclopedic detail: "Variations of Laughter in Company," "Length of Frustrated Sighs," "Hunger Signs," "Party Jokes," "Sleep Heat," etc. A few weeks after I saw Callahan's "Women Lost in Thought" portraits I received a gift in the mail, a catalogue from the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography that showcased Callahan's work from 1943-1945 (the years just prior to the series I was studying) and that included some of his earliest street photography. The friend who sent it had recently born patient witness to my fascination with the fact that the "Lost In Thought" portraits were all of women. I was convinced—or at least interested in making a case—that women have a considerably harder time exposing their "true" face in a public setting. My argument proposed that Callahan was attempting to engage the gendered implications of a woman's appearance while lost in thought; the break in her trained physical vacancy; the moment (so rare!) in which she is not or does not feel looked at. Although Callahan's photos were more than 60 years old, it seemed to me that I only occasionally ever saw a very particular type of unmanaged far-off gaze in the passing masks of those who identify as women. This blank expression is different from the slack, comfortable mugs of men or the obvious, signaling worry of a woman talking with a friend, hesitating at the door, or in some way reacting to the environment. One guesses how unusual it must have been for Callahan to catch a purely contemplative state—an undoing of the face or absolute relaxation of self-awareness, an uncanny openness—when so often a woman responds to the sensation of—however subtle or projected—public appraisal, attention, or judgment. Many women learn to compose their face from a young age, to createit, and to make it something worth looking at (one can, for example, slacken the muscles, paint new shapes, or arrange one's hair as a frame surrounding; one can blink up brightly, sideways coyly, or demur and bat in faux-worry) because to be stared at—to become a vision—is another version in this world of what love means. And yet, and yet, and yet. . . how beautiful is the face when un-proscribed! How much one loves the undone, the damaged and grotesque! Perhaps it was the lingering presence of these thoughts that led me to awake one November morning after finally returning from my trip out east with a paralyzing fear of walking outside or of being seen. Instead, I attempted to calm myself by monitoring the city from the thirty-fifth floor—an honest bird's eye view—feeling the full privilege of that vantage, the extreme distance creating an apocalyptic sense that all of Chicago could disappear, literally, in the blink of an eye. In Callahan's photos I had observed what happens when a pedestrian forgets, when they break the plane of conveying. I had seen that a face, when deficient of sufficient communicative expression, leaves something terrifying in its place—a soul stepping into her ghost, growing apparitional—and abruptly found myself wondering why that other hero of Chicago street photography, Vivian Maier, had not—despite the brilliance of her work and recent popularity—been included in the list of men (Harry Callahan, Bruce Davidson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Beat Streuli) featured in the "I Spy" exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Of the abundant posts that pop up when one types Maier's name into a search engine it is upsetting to discover how many of them mythologize her life in such a way as to distract from the significance of her work. In the mid-1950s (shortly after Callahan had paced the very same city streets) Maier, then single and in her mid-20s, moved from New York to Chicago in order to nanny for a family of three young boys (and is thus described by several sources as a "Mary Poppins"-type figure as well as a "spinster" and "eccentric"), taking thousands of photographs over the following decades but showing them to no one. Her photos depict Chicago street life: a ticket-taker veiled by the grill of the theater booth, the grim stare of a street guitarist, crowds lined up outside of a currency exchange, a homeless man pretzeled in the sidewalk's crook, plastically manic children, gooey teenagers, a beautiful brunette bobbing through downtown traffic, etc. Interestingly (or dramatically, so it is made to seem in much of the material I encountered), it was only shortly before her death that Maier's anonymous photos were discovered on the northwest side of the city (they had been retrieved from a storage unit she could no longer afford at the end of her life) by a young real-estate agent named John Maloof who—about two years later, after much research—was able to attribute them posthumously to their author. Since then over 100,000 negatives have been recovered from auctions and boxes although while exploring the various websites, photo blogs, and online archives now dedicated to Maier I will admit to dreading that her alleged eccentricities—her poverty, solitude, pronounced privacy, and lack of colleagues in the field—have gradually distracted from the force of her work. Unlike Callahan, whose startling shots of strangers were exhibited widely in his lifetime, Maier never sought to publish and for all we know would have been revolted by the suggestion, perhaps even appalled by the attention her work currently receives. Further exploration indicates much speculation concerning her so-called sacrifices: a decision to give it all up (and what is the meaning of itin this case?—a husband, publications, fame? a steady job? children?) for the sake of her art (as if life were a series of controlled preferences instead of, as we know, a distressed and desperate selection among available circumstances). As I read about Maier one morning from my temporary home I noticed that my eyes had loosened from their grip on the laptop's text to fix instead upon the then early winter mist which had begun to stick to the windows and hang in heavy drops—plumped by the field of fog approaching—calling to mind a vast and disastrous blizzard; a mask of ash and feathers. For those few months at the close of 2012 I felt like an actual material element of the weather: hypnotized by clouds for hours at a time, becoming rain formation. In retrospect I realize how frightened I was by my inability to focus on the present moment (or present sentence), a circumstance that walking helped facilitate. It is true that my attention has regularly resided in the far-off place where "lost" exists—a location in which pandemonium dictates and the linear progression of "real time" becomes just another layer in the brain's palimpsest of imagination and memory. That winter I noticed that—in the best case scenario—I would allow my mind to drift; to trace the slack ends of some abstract and ultimately irreconcilable detail and then to drop, or turn, or fold from the initial nothing, falling further and further into the chaotic quicksand of my consciousness until each day became a loosely translatable trance: association mixed with reading, fact, and conversation; repeated stories and discussions half-invented; ideas both entirely and practically hallucinatory; a lack of lucidity and logic; and an alarming infidelity to sense. Like an explorer negotiating new territory, my ideas were built slowly and mostly of wrong turns, sketchy records, bad tangents. Moreover, I became interested in the idea that this perpetual interiority (the location oflost? buried in thought?) had always, since I was quite young, affected the veracity of my memory. For example, I am more likely to retain the wave-like music of the opening rhythms of Their Eyes Were Watching God ("Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide . . .") than I am to recall a single conversation with my seventh-grade best friend, both experiences having "occurred" the same year in my life. Only as I've grown older has this condition seemed at all curious, primarily since the fragments of my so-called past are more often sourced from other artists' work, friends' anecdotes, scenes from old novels, or photos than they are from first-hand experiences. It is rare that I can recall for long my own life without effort or assistance, and I have observed that when I write the details or tell a story orally the instance survives longer, causing my own lived experiences to gradually become versions of twice-told tales embellished with the structures of fiction. Later that month—relived of my paranoia—I once again braved the city streets and discovered that the more I encountered great swaths of pedestrians (or, as Woolf would say, the "vast republican army of anonymous trampers") the more I felt an uncanny, ecstatic distance from my self: a ghost in the company of ghosts, each dreaming of lives unlived. I wondered if Maier was motivated to take photos as a means of keeping certain facts "alive" forever, of stopping time or halting vast-but-hidden stretches of human expression. The eerie loveliness of the possibility recalled me to the late 1860s phenomenon of spirit photos, particularly William Mumler's, which at one time had the effect of convincing a portion of the population of the veracity of apparitions. My favorite of Mumler's images is his most famous: a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln taken after both Abraham and her youngest son, Willie, had died. According to legend, Mary Todd attended Mumler's studio incognito, calling herself "Mrs. Lindall" and wearing a headscarf as disguise throughout most of the session. The exposed results present a firm, durable scowl marking Mary Todd's square face with a pretty, hovering "ghost Abe" standing behind her, pressing strong palms to her shoulders in reassurance. Most historians of President Lincoln speak to Mary Todd's interest in Spiritualism, describing how she hosted séances at the White House, visited Lily Dale (a popular Spiritualist retreat), and participated in events organized by her medium friend Mrs. Cranstoun Laurie. While this was unusual (some have used the word "crazy") activity for a first-lady, I recollect from my own reading examples of psychics famous for accuracy and renown, for their apparently divine knowledge. During the decades following the Civil War there were countless clairvoyants engaged in the (then lucrative) business of translating psychic messages from dead war soldiers to their still-living mourners. For these patrons every vaguely familiar fragment of language must have brought the deceased back, however briefly, to the present moment—briefly postposing their eternal grief—but like lightning striking the ocean at night, a swift blaze through the bleakness could only have served to further reveal the exact and baffling fathoms of unknown that exist beneath the surface of an all-too-familiar darkness. Moreover, it seems as if the role of the medium was one of the first true opportunities for some women to harness their perceptive intellectual authority in a somewhat public setting (séances, card or palm readings, fortune consultations), and also coincided with the then-evolving suffrage movement. Almost all of the successful psychics of the time were women and we might even see them now as having provided a sort of national grief counseling; social work for the masses following a tragic and terrifying war. These psychic testimonies and transcripts might serve as some of the first documents of the American public seeking women for skilled professional work; acknowledging their reliable command over a specific thread of knowledge that wasn't homemaking or childbirth. I cannot help but wonder what sort of dissent these mediums might have disguised through the art of prediction or what a woman (educated, until then, in silence) might have understood even of a stranger through modes of perception other than language. One need only look to Marina Abramović's now-famous performance piece The Artist Is Present to locate a recent example of purposeful physical presence as affecting experience; attention as transcendence. In the 2010 performance (part of her MOMA retrospective) Marina Abramović—perched on a rigid wooden chair and cast in "a square of light"—faced a series of anonymous strangers, one at a time, bearing the weight of their stare for as long as they chose to remain there. She didn't eat, drink, or move, sometimes for more than seven hours a day, seeing over 750,000 people over the course of the 736 ½ hour event (the longest solo piece Abramović has ever endured), and allowing each participant to intimately commune with her in front of a crowd of onlookers. The arrangement was fairly straightforward: an artist sitting across from her viewers; noiseless, rapt. One morning, while studying a still photo of the piece online, I found myself wishing to consult the book on Abramović that a friend, A., had given me as a parting gift the summer before but remembered that it was regrettably buried in a far-away storage unit along with the rest of my library. Instead I watched how a time-lapse video of the event transformed Abramović into a mother, a lover, a nurse, and a maid; a starlet, a volcano, and a rebel. In various interviews Abramović later revealed the immense physical and psychological energy the piece required to execute and it is not difficult to associate this role, both in setting and concept, with that of a medium: her stage the site of an unclassifiable extrasensory contact and her presence requiring neither direct action nor speech to cause several sitters to claim profoundly religious and emotional experiences (resulting, in part, in a Tumblr called "Marina Abramović Made Me Cry").    
During the show Abramović donned—day after day—variations of the same stately gown (in red, white, and navy) with palm-length sleeves, a high neck, and what seemed to be a substantial wrap-around train, making even more dramatic her controlled and static expression, a clear contrast to the twitches, giggles, sobs, and hysterics inspired in her audience by evidence of an enduring calm. With a side braid and wan face frozen in an expression that was gracefully grave—as well as yards of weighty, eddying fabric—Abramović looked the image of a proper Victorian lady awaiting her suitor in the parlor, or perhaps Ophelia dragged out of the water. One would not have been surprised if, while dwelling in her own relentless concentration, Abramović experienced a feeling of levitation or hypnotism akin to magic. An article described the feat as "as a pared-down, long-durational piece that destroys the illusion of time," and it is simple to see how the room bore the weight of the weather that was Abramović's mood as she embodied an eternal circuit between artist, object, and audience. Some time later I discovered that a documentary about the performance had been made by HBO, but to be honest I haven't seen it and will admit that my favorite piece of Abramović's is still her 1978 piece, "AAA-AAA," in which—for just under ten minutes, with a riotous face and vacant eyes—she screams the first letter of the alphabet at ever more alarming volumes into her lover's open mouth. 

 

 

 

 

Photo credits: 1. Von Humboldt, Alexander. Dragon Tree of Orotava. 1810, engraving. | 2. Pagel, Caryl. Milwaukee Avenue (Chicago). 2012, photograph. | 3. Callahan, Harry. Untitled (#1). 1950, silver gelatin print, © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. | 4. Callahan, Harry. Untitled (#8). 1950, silver gelatin print, © The Estate of Harry Callahan, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. | 5. Séance. Date unknown, photograph. | 6. Rudd, Scott. Marina Abramović performing The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2010, photograph, courtesy of Scott Rudd Photography.