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Week 25 // Let Go

Portrait_Week24cI’ve felt this way a lot lately… like I am just beginning to walk out into a great big unknown. Like it is time to loosen my grip from the past and begin to step into the present and embrace life more fully. My life since my fiancé died has been a huge unknown – but for the better part of of these two years I have been in hibernation. I have, in a strange way, carved out a comfortable existence living within the beauty of my past. And it can be easy to want to stay there. I cannot see anything concrete ahead of me for my future after all. To face walking out into the vastness – with a fear that I will be alone and that his love will not follow – quite frankly, it scares the hell out of me.

And on another level, I have known for a while I need to start to build a community of photographers and galleries around me to continue to grow as an artist. This too scares the hell out of me, because it means everything to me. To take my images – which are very much a part of my soul – out into the scrupulous art world in bigger cities feels incredibly vulnerable. To walk out into that means that I have no clue what the landscape will look like or where it will take me. That’s scary for any artist.

But the past few months have been different. I have felt deep in my bones a push to move forward. It feels strangely automatic – like my soul is gently prodding me that it is time. And also a little bit like he is telling me so too. But it isn’t something I’ve been ready for at all. Cue the freaks outs and fears and tears that have run rampant in me for months now. It’s a daily struggle that few in my life have even known is going on.

There is a tremendous amount of pain in accepting that its time to let go, and begin to step out into this big unknown future that I must create now. The struggle has been in the fear that if I let go of whatever small solid ground I feel like I have, that I will lose my connection to him and perhaps to myself in a way.

I want to be clear here, by “let go” I do not mean let go of him. I think people get this confused… that somehow we got the meaning of this phrase all mixed up with the idea of letting go of a person. It doesn’t have anything to do with that. Why would anyone want us to let go or someone whom we love and who brings beauty into our world even after they have died? Of course not. The phrase “let go” is about trust. It means to let go of the fear. The fear of losing our connection to them. The fear that we are incapable of handling what’s ahead.

So that is place I have been for the past few months, the next lesson that I have been asked to learn I suppose. Trusting enough to let go. Learning it has meant being caught between this paralyzing fear of losing more and this insatiable pull to embrace my future and create more. It has meant learning to choose trust when I really want to choose fear… because I find trust is often more about a decision to commit than anything. This part of the journey has brought me to this image. To this new place where I’m gaining enough strength to decide to let go and trust… both in the unknown and in the idea that he will be with me no matter where life takes me, for all my years to come.

What an Age-old Process Exposes

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Artist & Instructor Timothy McCoy explaining tonal variations on a sample print.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to take part in a two-day workshop on albumen printing taught by the talented Timothy McCoy. What I discovered in this process was far more than I’d imagined to find. I’ve been doing digital work since I began shooting about give years ago – but have been itching to try some alternative developing techniques this year. So when I saw this class, I jumped at the chance. Albumen printing was invented in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, and was the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. It uses the albumen found in egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and became the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the turn of the 20th century, with a peak in the 1860-90 period.

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Albumen coated papers drying

The developing process for albumen printing is quite slow and tedious. Many washes in various chemical solutions and baths… ten minutes in water, another twelve in gold toner, eight more minutes in two other baths and a final two minutes in a fixer before one last six minute wash. And that’s not including the 30 or so minutes of exposure, the time converting digital files to film negatives, coating all the papers with both albumen and silver nitrate and the dry time for each of those. It takes hours to produce just one or two prints. But it is all worth it for that moment you walk out of the darkroom to see that print. And for me, it was worth a lot more…

As I watched my first image slowly develop… there were many moments that tears nearly came to my eyes. As I rocked this precious piece of paper so gently and tenderly in each solution – I fell into an mesmerizing private world. For a time, it was just us… no one else’s eyes had yet seen this print. That moment was for me and me alone, and for my late-fiance – who set on fire my love affair with photography in the first place. I felt an overwhelming connection to my own story… a mix of pride and pain, child-like wonder and deep soulful love. It sounds overdramatic I know, but the metaphor of creating something quite literally out of the darkness was not lost on me. It is what I have been doing for the past two years – and now, literally doing. There was something incredibly moving about being so delicate and careful with a piece of myself. And a piece of him… of us. Of spending painstaking hours on a part of our story.

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My two final prints

And then the moment came to walk out of the darkness. I can say that nothing has compared to the experience of walking into the light with this piece of myself in my hands and seeing it for the first time. I was awe-inspired. Beautiful warm brown and purple tones and subtle textures unlike anything you could ever achieve via printing. And then laying it out in the open, exposed, for all to see. It is what self expression is all about – the private moments between you and your story – which gives you one gift – and the moment where you allow yourself and your story to be seen, which gives you another.

I long already to do more of this process… more importantly, I feel like I discovered another part of the journey that my Still, Life collection needs to go on. I will most certainly follow where it’s leading me.

Week 24 // Veiled

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I’ve been wanting to experiment with this sort of imagery in the project for some time now. I’m finding already in the first shoot that there are a lot of stories to glean from it. There’s many different meanings tied into the idea of fog when relating to grief. It represents the odd, hazy way that we operate in the world after a traumatic loss. It also speaks to the insulating quality of that haze… how – even though it is confusing and sometimes frightening to us – it is a very real necessity in our healing. It is a brilliantly evolved automatic response to extreme trauma. I also see fog as a spiritual symbol that can speak of the boundaries and connections between this life and the next, between souls still living here and souls living on in the hereafter. For the next few weeks I’m thinking that I’ll be exploring the stories that lie here.

People who have been through any kind of horrible trauma will be able to tell you about a thing called “the fog”. It was one of the most frightening and confusing aspects of my fiancé’s death. It felt very much like being only half existing in this life, and half existing in some surreal other world that no one else could seem to see. It felt insulating and isolating at the same time. It was sometimes calming and other times incredibly frustrating. I was entirely incapable of organizing my thoughts for even the most basic things after he died. I could not plan or make appointments or pay bills. I went 6 months without paying a credit card that only had $200 on it because I couldn’t remember and because I just didn’t care anymore about a thing like credit. I could not remember much of any new information. I forgot entire chunks of old information – including simple tasks I had spent the past four years doing at my job. For about the first year after his accident, I floated in this world most of the time. I felt completely handicapped – as if I had suffered some blunt force trauma to the head indirectly from his accident. And in a way I did, because emotional trauma really can affect your brain function in some very tangible and major ways. That in itself was scary.

The fog is absolutely necessary for healing though. We need to be removed from our overactive brains and the bustle of daily life. We need to be disconnected, to have a veil up for a time so that we have the quiet needed to listen to our own pain and feel through it. Even though its new and unfamiliar territory – I think it can help to see it as a beautiful response of self protection when we need it most.

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post. Or to see the full image gallery visit 2014 PROJECT. Please share with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 23 // Iron Will

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This week I wanted to share one final shot from the ropes. Unlike most of my images which are very still and calm – I was drawn to the movement of this one. To me, it likens the energy of a wild mustang fighting to break free.

There are times in the midst of grief when we are so fully depleted and exhausted that we haven’t the strength even to hold our head up. I’ve talked a lot about those times in my past images. But there are also times when we have the chance to rise up… bucking the despair off our backs and fighting like hell to break out and embrace life. I think sometimes fighting can be a bad thing – when you are resisting feeling the emotions that need to be felt. But there is a different kind of fight, too. Fighting not against our emotions, but FOR the expression of them. It is the kind of fight that throws us up into the wind with our faces skyward to remind us that our story is worth expressing. And not only THIS part of our story, but the rest of who we are too. Painters, dancers, writers, mothers, humanitarians, friends, sisters…. although we are tied closely to our pain, there is still a soul within each of us wanting to be fully expressed.

I’ve felt this kind of fight in me so often since my fiancé died. More than in all my previous years combined. And the thing I am learning is that this beautiful fight is not in spite of the pain and the grief, but because of it. Being tied to the pain and having to struggle with it daily has made me fight harder to enjoy life, to express myself, to have compassion, and to stand up when I feel like falling. My pain has brought me the lessons which have taught me that I have the capacity to rise up and not give up. And pain has somehow (even though I don’t want to admit it) made my life far richer than I ever knew possible.

Of course we can’t always succeed at fighting for a new life after losing someone we love. We all have times we just get exhausted and must give up for a while to recharge. And that’s okay. It’s vital to be kind to ourselves, allow rest, and trust that we will regain our energy eventually. There will always come a next moment, or a new day, that will bring a renewed strength. It may not be tomorrow, but it will come. We must trust this as best we can. And when it arrives, let’s choose to rise up and fight to express our soul and embrace what is left of this beautiful life.

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post. Or to see the full image gallery visit 2014 PROJECT. Please share with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 22 // Spirit


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I’ve been holding on to this image for a while now. It’s one of my favorites. Sometimes when I initially shoot an image the timing to share just doesn’t feel right yet – often times the words aren’t yet ready to come. So I wait. Today it seems, was the day for this one. I am so glad. 

Living with the loss of partner, or any great loss, is one of the most challenging things we will ever face in life. It sends us on a journey through the fire – into a darkness the likes of which we have never experienced before. It brings us to our knees and breaks us. Severely. I certainly remember this feeling well. Before my fiancé died, I knew I could handle anything that life threw at me. Only I didn’t really know that at all…

On the day he died, and the dark days thereafter, I came to find out what it really means to be able to handle anything life throws at you. To lose a soul mate – particularly in a sudden way – takes you to a place more painful and terrifying than I ever knew could exist. It breaks you right down to your bones.

I feared for my life – in a very real sense, for probably the whole first year. I feared for my life because I feared the death of my spirit. I was so badly broken that I honestly did not know if my spirit could ever recover. I was afraid that I would become dark and lose my sense of childlike wonder and hopefulness about the world. That this brokenness would overtake me and I would not be able to come out of the fire with my eyes ablaze anymore.

YET… I can still recall in the midst of it all – in those first hours and days and weeks – something inside me WAS ablaze. Something inside me was saying that this world can throw anything it wants to in my face and I will not stop believing that this life is beautiful. Or in the words of Mr. Tom Petty… “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, and I won’t back down”. (one of my go-songs right after he died, and still today).

I didn’t really know it at the time, but am quite certain now… that this was my spirit. This is the kind of stuff that amazes me about the human spirit. How broken we can be and yet still somehow, inexplicably, that soul part of us stands up for our broken human self. It doesn’t mean we feel any less broken. Or powerless. Or scared. But what I do know is that listening to my spirit was – and still is – something that gave me the ounce of strength I needed each day to get up and keep on trying to figure out what to do with all of this.

Looking back over things two years later is incredible at times. Because it feels like no time has passed at all – and often I still feel like I’m back at square one with my grief. But other days, like today, something lends me some perspective. And on days like this I can actually begin to feel like, yeah, I’ve crawled out of the fire… out of the worst of the darkness. I’ve been battered and bruised and burned and scarred by this long journey, and I will be battered and bruised and burned and scarred much more before my time here is done… but I have not been broken. My eyes are still curious, my heart is still hopeful, and my spirit still burns bright… perhaps, even brighter than before. 

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post. Or to see the full image gallery visit 2014 PROJECT. Please share with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

Week 21 / Isolation

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One of the most difficult parts of grieving my fiancé’s death has been the isolation… the way it constricts around you, separates you from life and leaves you feeling disconnected and separate from the world. I think it can be the hardest part of the journey through loss… this isolation.

Grief is never linear. It comes in waves, and usually tied to profound or meaningful events in our lives. I’ve been going through one of the more painful waves lately. This project and my photography in general has gained some momentum and a bit more exposure lately. I’ve got an image that will be published in a month on the cover of a book. I’ve had more sales of my prints. I’ve had a few requests for commissions. I’ve signed a contract with a curator to sell some of my work. I’ve gotten another offer for a solo show and had a few more pieces in some juried shows in the area. What is happening right now in my life is exactly and precisely the thing I have dreamt and hoped for since I was a little girl dreaming her big dreams. And it’s incredibly satisfying and exciting. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy or fun necessarily, because that little girl didn’t dream of doing all this for these reasons.

With all of the growth has come more. More emails to reply to, more people to call and connect with, more appointments to remember, more work to manage, just more of everything. Everything is growing and changing so quickly and suddenly I am finding myself grasping at thin air – feeling confused that this person is no longer here to help me understand what I am going through.

I’m searching for the one who was here on this journey with me – the one who truly saw me and understood all of my complexity as a woman and as a human. We mirrored each other so well – always spending a great deal of time discussing the new, scary, exhausting, exciting things happening in our lives and in our life together. As we talked and shared about such things, we learned even more – about ourselves and each other and life. It became a beautiful and powerful catalyst to our personal growth and the growth of our relationship.

I know I can do this without him (or without him physically here, I do still believe he is with me in a different way), but trying to pursue something so bold and so vulnerable without this amazing dynamic that we created together is quickly becoming one of the most difficult and isolating parts of this journey. No matter how much everyone else in your life cares, nothing can replace the one who was in it with you. The one you grew with, side by side, who saw all of your depths and understood you as well as – and sometimes better – than you understood yourself.

I suppose that was a long-winded way to explain what’s behind this image. What is behind my feelings of isolation lately. To put it simply, it’s about having an ocean of words inside you, but knowing that the person you need to speak them to isn’t here. And so thusly, you find that you don’t have any words at all… and you sink back into your grief and yourself, into the quiet and the isolation, for a time. Until the wave passes and you regain enough strength to emerge again.

 

If you’re new to this project, you can read more about it in this post. Or to see the full image gallery visit 2014 PROJECT. Please share with anyone who you feel can relate to the imagery, my hope is that it gives many others a visual for something they are going through in their own lives.

The Power of Words

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I had my first session with a creative business coach yesterday, and wow is the word. I’m already feeling more focused, grounded, and ready to take on a few next steps that I’ve been avoiding for many months.

One of the biggest takeaways from this meeting was word choice. My coach share with me a quote by W. H. Auden: “A sentence uttered makes a world appear where all things happen as it says they do.” This is just as true in writing poetry and fictional worlds as it is in the creation of our own worlds. Now that’s not really new information, I know. But yesterday I was given some very clear examples of just how powerful this is.

So often, I put a lot of extra pressure on myself by the words I choose to use around my work. And I have no clue I am doing it most of the time. While talking with my coach, I began to go off on a tangent about the heaviness of this year-long project. After a moment, he stopped me and pointed out the language I was using… “I have to get this photo done by the end of the week”, “I can’t give up on this project because it’s all I’ve got“, “It feels like a responsibility now because so many people are watching it unfold”. He asked me how all of that made me feel, to which I replied, “Tired, and unmotivated, and like I don’t want to do any of it”. Naturally.

Then he asked me a great question. Why am I doing this? What do I get out of it, removing all other people from the equation? And then I went on for several minutes describing all the wondrous things about it… “I get so completely lost in my photography in the best of ways. It’s like creating my own universe that only I exist in and I can create it to be anything I want”. By the time I was done, I was bright-eyed and beaming. He asked me to notice how I felt now, and how completely different this feeling was from the original one. Amazing.

What I took away from this, is to be oh-so careful about the language I use around my work and life. To protect it fiercely from the wrong words. A simple change he requested I practice was to start replacing the words “have to” with the words “want to”. So simple, yet SO powerful! Just as soon as I started saying “I want to get this photo done today” or “I want to be doing this project” it was like a complete 180 in my motivation and excitement about it.

I know I’m not alone in this one, we all can stand to pay closer attention to the language we use about our work, our life, and ourselves. This isn’t exactly new information I know, but I figured we can all use a little refresher about the importance of choosing the best words. Something to think about and practice in the coming weeks!

Adam Robert Young

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