Relishing the morning sunlight, Tacoma, 2011. Fujicolor 800 in Leica M4 w/135mm f/4 Elmarit, no exposure data. Desaturating the image -- rendering it in black-and-white -- enhances its timelessness. Photo by Loren Bliss copyright 2015.
PERHAPS THE BITTEREST lesson of old age is that – contrary to the mercenary lies of the USian psychology business (which revealed its true moral imbecility by its anything-for-profit service to the empire's torture-masters) – the toxins of familial dysfunction never die.
Though I had assumed for nearly a decade I had finally resolved my conflicting emotions about my father – on the one hand his often contemptuous, sometimes hateful and occasionally downright sadistic behavior toward his children; on the other hand his admirable political courage, socioeconomic insight and Mensa-caliber erudition – the newly disclosed terminal illness of my oldest male half-sibling summoned all that presumably buried angst from its grave and sent it rampaging like some vengeful zombie through the (again) suddenly vulnerable structures of my selfhood and identity.
The immediate result was the intellectual paralysis that delayed this blog, for which – particularly since I see how many people checked in Monday looking for new work – my apology. But it is impossible for me to write the sort of material I normally post here when I am suddenly confronted with the realization that, as I said on the comment thread of Rebecca Solnit's superb essay on post-Katrina New Orleans, Ms. Solnit is what I think of as a “real writer,” in comparison to which I am scarcely more than a presumptuous hack, and it would be dishonest of me not to admit I envy her talent. (Emphasis added.)
What I was actually thinking was infinitely more self-damning.As I admitted to a relative in a letter discussing the long-ago origins of the animosity between the half-sibling and me, whenever (economic or professional) circumstances compel me to define myself as a writer or an editor, it's always accompanied by an inner voice...shouting “Phony. You can't be a writer; you're a dyslexic.” That voice – obvious to the recipient of the letter but needful of clarification here – was the echo of a familial chorus of belittlement in which the half-sibling was one of the lead singers. But its choirmaster was my father, whose favorite pejorative for me until I was 11 or 12 years old was “goon boy.”
It was that same voice that prompted my desperate effort to escape the curse of dyslexia by trying, from my mid-20s through my mid-30s, to abandon newspaper reporting for a seemingly dyslexia-proof career in photojournalism. But the barriers – despite photo credits that included Newsweek and Paris Match – eventually proved insurmountable. The first of these was Moron Nation's visual illiteracy, which almost invariably prompts employers and patrons to chose photographers on the basis of personality rather than talent or vision, and which – because I never learned how to be “a fun guy” – usually excluded me from serious consideration. At the same time there was the USian Empire's post-World War II taboo against social-documentary photography – the resultant censorship of any images that focus on the savagery of capitalism or on the deeper aspects of the resistance thereto. Then there was the cosmic finale of the 1983 fire, which destroyed not only my life's work – all my photographic prints (save the few in my working portfolio) and probably 98 percent of my 31 years' production of negatives and transparencies. Because of the post-traumatic clinical depression that followed – or more specifically because of Moron Nation's thoroughly documented loathing of anyone who is even temporarily disabled – the fire ended forever any possibility I would ever again work as anything other than a (mostly unemployed) freelancer.
A further complication, which had actually become apparent seven years before the fire, was my inability to work outside specific environments, as for example my truly abject failure as a suburban newspaper photographer c. 1976-1977. I failed because, in the USian suburbs, which are to me the personification of Moron Nation, I could almost never find anything with which I could empathize. This meant I seldom found, apart from dogs and children, subjects I could photograph effectively. My one memorable image from that entire dismal period was a published but long-lost picture of workers in a ramshackle (and therefore visually intriguing) machine shop.
The real problem, of course, was that I was congenitally unable to come up with the Disneyland-type imagery my employers preferred. I had lived a big part of my teens in a suburb and knew its malevolent conformity and its enabling hypocrisies entirely too well. Hence I recognized the suburbs not just as a cultural, intellectual and emotional wasteland but as a behavioral sink – its superficial serenity yet another of capitalism's Big Lies – which means I knew the suburbanites themselves to be debt-slaves feigning happiness merely to alleviate the bottomless desperation of their hopelessly empty lives.
While that failure was meaningless in Manhattan, where my primary employer looked upon me as a latter-day Jacob Riis, potential employers outside the City regarded it as definitively terminal. Hence in the job market west of the Hudson River, it nullified my three major photographic successes: the three years I was the social documentary photographer for Beth Israel Hospital's free-clinic program (photographing the peoples and neighborhoods served thereby); my on-the-spot coverage of the 1967 Tompkins Park (Police) Riot (which got my work into Newsweek, Paris Match and The New York Times); and my brief but productive tenure (1974-1976) as the founding photographer of The Seattle Sun, an alternative weekly organized and staffed by seasoned pros that as a consequence was second only to the old pre-Murdoch Village Voice in quality.
Visually The Sun was far superior to The Voice – Fred McDarrah was not that great a lensman – but my strip-away-the-camouflage imagery was lost on xenophobic Seattleites, who regarded Ansel Adams as the photographic equivalent of Jesus Christ and disdained human-condition photography as an unconscionable waste of film. In a sense my career was therefore dead even before the fire.
Which – albeit indirectly – is precisely what made the fire so emotionally ruinous.
The photographic project on which I had worked the longest, 24 years in 1983, had evolved into a book, its working title “Glimpses of a Pale Dancer.” Though the work began as a 1959 journal entry describing an idea for a sociology paper, by the mid-1960s it had become an extended photo-essay, with the accompanying text birthed by the scholarship mandated by my need to understand what I was seeing and recording on film. Backboned by approximately 5,000 pictures – among them at least 50 of my iconographic “sandwiches” (photographic collages made by printing two or three negatives simultaneously) – the carefully footnoted text argued that the untold (and perhaps deliberately suppressed) story of the Counterculture was its rebellion against patriarchy. Its main disclosures are summarized in a post-fire memoir here (for which I apologize because it so desperately needs editing by a real editor, someone whose competence far exceeds my own).
Thirty-one years earlier, when former Grove Press Editor-in-Chief Cicely Nichols confirmed the original “Dancer” was publishable and said she believed it would be one of the most influential books of the 20th Century, I immediately recognized it as the salvation of my career. And when Cicely offered to edit the text and mother it to publication, I not only accepted her offer, I did so with an intensity of job-related ecstasy I have never felt before or since. It was definitely what the comics would describe as a “WHEW!” moment. But its skyrocketing emotional uplift was the cruelest, most injurious prelude possible to the psychological nosedive inflicted by the fire.
The plan was that Cicely, a longtime friend, would unscramble the dyslexic dysfunction that had grounded my 50,000-word rough draft of “Dancer” on a reef of organizational problems, and I would edit the photography to eliminate all but the very best images, probably 100 at the most. Then as soon as I got my next paycheck from the trade journal for which I was working, I'd arrange to have the pictures, the manuscript, its accompanying research notes and all the rest of my files shipped to Manhattan from where I had stored them in Washington state. In my mind I was dancing with joy – something I was entirely too grotesquely clumsy to have ever done in real life. But on 1 September 1983, literally at the same moment Cicely and I were meeting to finalize our working agreement – 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 4:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time – came the fire. “Dancer” was dead. So was my career, not just in photography, but in the low-level, minimum-talent-required jobs in word journalism by which I had so often financed my photographic efforts.
Now, 32 years later, I still sometimes photograph, though – as I must now confess – I am able to do so effectively only when the post-fire terror of another such loss abates to the point I can pick up a camera and view the world through it without being visually hamstrung by the associated fears. Sometimes the result is actually a halfway decent piece of work, like the image above and some of the other pictures I have made and continue making of my neighbors here in this senior housing complex.
One of the corporate names by which this dwelling-place is known includes the word “Commencement,” to which my infinitely cynical mind invariably adds the never-to-be-spoken-aloud tagline, “your first step toward the grave.”
But none of that really matters simply because at my age – 75 years old last March – there are no second chances. Yet I see now, in the bitter clarity of these reanimated familial hostilities, how so much of OAN's textual content was indeed nothing more than a desperate grasping at an imaginary second chance that would never materialize simply because, as I already said, there is no such thing, not the least because at my age and with my personal and political history, any notion of a second chance was never more than grandiosity, presumption and denial. More than anything else I was (obviously) still seeking to win the approval of my long-dead father – and perhaps the half-sibling as well.
Maybe now, in the renewed hope of having at last settled this matter, I will find some art-for-art's-sake way of rediscovering the pleasure and passion and usefulness I found in photography before the fire took it all away from me,. Perhaps my new digital single-lens-reflex, which came to me in affordable form only through one of those startling combinations of coincidences we know as synchronicity, is a genuinely positive omen. Perhaps fate is not setting me up for yet another encounter with the agony of loss.
And perhaps too my eldest half-sibling, a three-times Pulitzer nominee whom I fear was driven from journalism by our father's absurd but maliciously intended and therefore profoundly hurtful criticism of his work, will accept my turning away from OAN's previous format as a final conciliatory gesture. For it indeed marks my painful (but not begrudging) acceptance of my half-sibling's judgment of my own reportorial and writing skills: that they are – just as I so vividly saw when I compared my work to Rebecca Solnit's – mediocre at best. (Why not begrudging? Because, as I should have found the strength to say to him decades ago, any notion the writhing-spaghetti intellect of a dyslexic can produce “real writing” is patently absurd, our father's one slyly malignant claim to the contrary not withstanding – a truth I know perhaps better than anything else in this life.)
Until now my primary response to the self-hatred that is the inevitable and inevitably self-perpetuating consequence of dyslexia has been identical to my response to the horrors of my childhood: most of the time I lock them all away in a mental strong-box which I then hide in the most inaccessible corner of my alleged consciousness. The problem is that whenever I do this, I eventually lapse into self-deception, imagining myself to be normal rather than genetically defective and therefore capable of all sorts of impossible feats including being a “real writer” – a compensatory lie all the more easy to fabricate when (as had often been the case since the fire), there was not enough money for film and film-processing. No doubt the surprise entry of the digital SLR into my life, with its liberation from film and processing costs, is helping pull this pattern of self-deception into sharp focus.
Meanwhile I am left with the concurrent and no doubt final realization there is absolutely no escaping or even ameliorating the legacy of my childhood – a mother who so despised me she tried to murder me; a father whose early return from work saved my life but who nevertheless regarded my mother's toxic genes with such repugnance he soon afterward sought to abandon me in a state orphanage; maternal relatives who with but one exception thereafter regarded me as an unwelcome but legally unavoidable reminder of a socially embarrassing, potentially status-damaging and therefore wealth-jeopardizing incident that was never to be spoken of again; paternal relatives who were at best frigidly polite; a stepmother whose good intentions toward me were finally undermined by my father's relentless disparagement; four younger half-sisters who were subject to the same paternal conditioning (one of whom despises me, one of whom is indifferent and two with whom I am genuinely close); and the three older half-siblings, two male, one female, I did not meet or even know of until 1952, the children of my father's first wife.
The eldest of these was born a decade earlier than I and would become the primary role model of my adolescence, the man I so worshiped during my teenage years I sought to follow in his professional footsteps, the only male kindred for whom, even in adulthood, I ever truly dared feel love. I will mourn his passing, just as I have mourned the festering familial abscesses that so long ago drove us forever apart – conflicts neither my brother's fault nor mine and therefore eternally immune to such commonplace remedies as apology or forgiveness, unhealable wounds of enmity inflicted even beyond the grave by our father's everlasting malice.
LB/28-30 July 2015.