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The Clevelands

As part of her independent study project at Stony Brook Blue began photographing a family with twelve children, the Clevelands, whom she had met during her work with the anti-poverty agency. Something about this particular family drew her to them. In looking back she feels that her experience with this family was a kind of "reincarnation" and that her presence among them was a way to understand her own life.

She visited the Clevelands numerous times over three day weekends, and describes the exhilarating, yet exhausting work of staying endless hours over countless cups of coffee talking with the mother, the father, the children, and the neighbors. A friend would drop her off in the mornings and pick her up in the evenings. In the noise, confusion and constant activity that was the Clevelands’ life, Blue photographed when she could, smiling as sticky fingers pawed her equipment, and looking away when a lens accidentally dropped to the floor. Every so often she sneaked into the bathroom to grab a bite of a candy bar for sustenance.

Retrospectively Blue has come to understand the strong connection this family had to her one troubled family and her compulsion to try to understand them better through the magnifying glass of her lens. It was the beginning of a long term project which became "The Cleveland’s: An American Family and the Culture of Poverty, 1973-1981."

Blue speaks affectionately of the Clevelands and of both their fondness for her and her interest in helping them when she could. While she says that she never interfered with the family, she believes that her presence had a strong influence. They saw her in three roles: as friend, social worker, and photographer.

As a friend she shared their joys, their many sorrows, and the constant state of chaos that engulfed them. In the role of social worker, she tried to help negotiate the public assistance system, intervened with the authorities and offered advice in areas where she had some knowledge. As a photographer she recorded the minutiae as well as the important occurrences of their lives. By this act they became aware, however remotely, of a certain attention, a significance, to what was happening to them. They became active participants in this attention and were careful to notify Blue about crucial events such as the release of a son from jail, a daughter’s graduation, or the birth of a baby, lest a photographic opportunity be missed.

ICP

After graduation from Stony Brook Blue moved to New York City and felt herself fortunate in finding a job as a darkroom technician at the International Center for Photography, a fledgling institution in only its second year of operation. Blue says, "ICP became my second family." She worked there for many years, eventually becoming Coordinator of Darkroom Programs and beginning her teaching career. Devoted to Cornell Capa and his philosophy of "concerned photography," she was not able, however, to find much time or energy after fourteen-hour work days to pursue her own work during this period.

Other People

After four years she resigned from ICP (but continued to teach part-time) in order to devote her time to a project she had begun around the subject of death. Realizing that in order to study death she needed to know more about life, a friend recommended she visit Goldwater Memorial Hospital, a chronic care institution located on Roosevelt Island housing approximately 1,000 people. According to Blue, "The people at Goldwater Hospital are representative of the worst cases of disability and without doubt the most ‘hidden’ group of disabled persons. They are unfortunate recipients of stroke, accident, birth defect, or progressive diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and hereditary disorders like Huntington’s Chorea."

Seeking a way to find access tot he institution, Blue volunteered to work in the hospital’s recreation department. Assigned to document the activities in that program, she began by recording the birthday parties, public events and holiday celebrations of the institution with all the happy faces and bright smiles put on for those occasions. When she felt she had enough confidence and had gained their trust, she began taking pictures for herself, this time exploring some of the back rooms and hidden corners where no one but staff was allowed.

For the second time looking through her lens for her own purposes rather than those of an institution, she noticed a profound difference. "Everything seemed to darken around me," she says. "I was frightened and scared."

Blue found she could photograph only about 10% of the time. The rest of the time she provided small services for the patients including letter writing, toenail clipping and simply being "there" for them. She says, "I could face what I saw only by looking through the viewfinder." Confronted with the huge abyss between healthy people and the sick, she searched for a way to bridge the gap. It took her six months to recover from the shock, fear, tears, and pain she felt in their presence. She says that at the end of a day of pushing wheelchairs with one hand and shooting with the other, "I walked away from that doomed place thanking God for legs that could carry me out into life." One of her patients/subject/friends told her, "it’s very unprofessional to cry while photographing."

The work from Goldwater Hospital became Other People, a book project which has yet to find a publisher. Other People paired color snapshots of typical celebrations such as birthdays, graduations and weddings, with black-and-white photographs of people in the hospital. (Sometimes the snapshots are of the same person in the black-and-white photograph, sometimes not.) Her hope was to give the viewer an entrance into the work by creating a way to identify with the patients as people who are not only disabled but who might have been in any of our own photo albums.

Life Magazine

Blue says the book was rejected many times because it was considered too "graphic." However in 1981 she took it to senior editor, Jeff Wheelwright at Life Magazine, and picture editor, John Loengard, and they loved the work. Life published an essay about one patient at Goldwater who had been stricken with Multiple Sclerosis. Blue’s photographs of a disfigured and severely crippled woman were offset by earlier pictures from her family’s photo albums showing a healthy, beautiful young girl only a few years earlier.

After the Life story, Blue’s freelancing career took off. She received many assignments from Life as well as other work, but found that she was most often assigned to stories that dealt with suffering, pain and loss. Eventually she proposed a story about the Cleveland Family. "At this time Mrs. Cleveland had become frustrated with her status as a welfare recipient and wanted to get off welfare," says Blue. "She wanted to go to school to become a licensed practical nurse. I knew that during the Reagan era there would be a demand for just this kind of ‘Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps story,’ a kind of forced assumption."

Life sent Blue and a writer to document Mrs. Cleveland’s difficulties in finishing school while taking care of her twelve children and a disabled husband. She recorded the moment of triumph when Mrs. Cleveland finally received her diploma, but Blue wondered to herself if the Cleveland family was ever really going to change. She questioned if getting a job, and getting off of welfare would really lift them out of the constant crisis and chaos that was their lives. Nonetheless, the story ran, and won a Robert F. Kennedy award for coverage of the disadvantaged and years later a special grant from the W. Eugene Smith Fund.

Heart of ManHart of Man, 1983-1985 Copyright, Patt Blue

After completing this story Blue felt that her freelance work had reached a point where she was no longer following her personal vision. She had mastered assignment work and could fulfill the needs of an editor, but she saw that the work was always dictated by someone else and found herself typecast to certain assignments. The stress of working directly with people so in need was beginning to wear. She says, "I didn’t feel I could take people’s faces and lives into my camera anymore."

Respite came in the form of a month-long fellowship to the Macdowell Artists Colony in New Hampshire. She sold her Leica to buy a view camera and packed 100 avocado seeds for the trip, convinced that the seeds would lead her work in the direction she needed to go. Years later, there on a shelf above her desk are numerous glass bottles of dried avocado seeds. She takes them down to show a visitor.

Deeply interested in ideas about transformation, she describes what she thought the avocado seeds might reveal, "I wanted to express feelings about having no control over our existence - that we would change no matter what." The shriveled seeds reminded her somehow of the shrunken, twisted bodies she had seen at Goldwater. "With the avocado seeds, I felt I could narrow the variables and study them on a one to one basis."

At Macdowell everything went wrong. She didn’t have the right lenses to photograph the seeds. A friend then sent her an enlarging lens which she purposely put on the camera backwards to get a one to one ratio. She had hoped to make connections between nature and the human condition by gaining control over her subjects, unlike her previous work with people over whom she had no control. The lens worked, the pictures didn’t.

One afternoon a friend visited her studio and she playfully began taking pictures of his face. He happened to have a particularly mobile face with what she describes as, "great plastic ability to become metamorphosed." Suddenly she saw that everything she had been looking for in the seeds was in this man’s face.

Thus was the beginning of her series on the body called "Transmutations" (later called "Heart of Man"). Previously she had ventured into the world to record what she saw, now she turned her focus inward. It was also the first time she had turned her camera from the subject of women to that of men. Using an open shutter, multiple lights, and a studio covered in black velvet, her subjects were directed to move during exposure, their arms and legs sometimes taped to their bodies to create the distortion she was seeking.

Only much later did she realize the genesis of this project. The work consists of expressionistic black-and-white photographs, reminiscent of paintings by Francis Bacon depicting what Blue calls, "the existential act of corporeal and spiritual metamorphosis." Accompanied by a sound piece of continuous human breath, Blue says that while these photographs are a "studio fiction," her concerns remained the same as in her documentary work. They were another way to deal with the trauma of what she saw at Goldwater Hospital.

If You Wanna Kill Me, Leave Me

In 1985 Blue was awarded a full scholarship to graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago. She accepted reluctantly. Having already worked for years as a photographer, she was loath to subject herself to the confines of a classroom and instruction, but she found that the experience changed her and ultimately changed her work. It was during this period that she became more involved with spiritual matters and what she describes as "the struggle between the flesh and the spirit." She also became interested in performance art and continued the "Heart of Man" series. "My work became less about ‘men’ and more about ‘man’," she states. "I went from photographing men with guns at their heads to men flapping their wings like angels."

In graduate school Blue also dared to begin a project about the tumultuous life of her long suffering mother and wayward father. Interviews with her elderly mother over the phone resulted in a small hand-made book. This was the model for a later, a many-years-long book project called Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale, (also called If You Wanna Kill Me, Leave Me) and the beginning of her interest in serious writing, although she had kept diaries for many years.

In the introduction to her book Blue describes an interview with her mother and a photograph taken by her father, "Sitting stark naked in the cold examining eye of her husband’s lens, she is wearing only high heels, gray suede perhaps. About twenty-eight years of age. The photographer’s low camera angle swells her legs as they fold under her in kneeling submission. In a twangy trance-like voice, my mother began telling the story of her first and only love affair. The photograph of my father’s smiling face, looking like that of an astronaut just back from a successful mission, was startling in its shared space on the chenille with the image of the cool, naked, unsmiling woman."

E.O's Photograph of Roberta, 1950, From Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale  " Your daddy liked to make pictures of me.  I don't know where you all was, you'd have to be in school, 'cause of the things that went on around the house.  It was a game with him - he would catch me - I would be laying down with a headache and he would want me to pull up my dress for him to make a picture."Living on a Dream, the writing of which Blue says has been extremely cathartic, combines early photographs of her family taken by her father with text alternating between excerpts from her father’s letters, forty hours of interviews with her mother, and Blue’s own diary writings. She says that it is a book about a talented man with an emotional weakness for women, who has the potential to have everything and instead destroys everything in his path, and a plain, good-hearted woman who cared deeply for humanity. She says, "With my camera I have always confronted what I most feared, and so I began a project on my family." Ironically, after two decades of photographing other people’s troubles, she discovered her own personal Greek tragedy right in her backyard.

After traveling to and from Texas over a two-year period beginning in 1988, to tape her mother’s oral history and rediscover her father’s photographs, she rented a small cabin on the Neversink River in upstate New York and began to write. For Blue the writing of the book was a struggle to free herself from the shadow and shame of her parents’ past. It was a way to speak about the experiences of her own life as well as a way to fuse the dark side of each of her parents into something energetic and positive. Five years later she finds that working on it has transformed her life. Blue recounts suffering periods of severe depression and chronic fatigue syndrome during the process. She feels that she is on the other side of it now. The book is ready to find a publisher.

Teaching

After graduate school Blue returned to New York City and says that at this point she was completely lost. Her former life in New York City had dissolved. She felt she was no longer the same person. She had turned into someone she didn’t know, perhaps not even a photographer. "Here I was, writing, spending all my time in front of a computer. I started to question my identity."

She took a full time teaching position at Kean College in New Jersey where she is now a tenured professor. In the beginning, adjusting to her students and figuring out their needs consumed her time. She says that she went into teaching with something of a "high brow" attitude. In her former teaching at ICP she had been able to discourse on the finer subtleties of tonality, surface, space and frame. Now she had to work to find a way to communicate with students from widely varying ethnic backgrounds and disciplines other than fine art. Many had never been to a museum. "Teaching led me down a path I thought I didn’t want to go," she says, "My students had to teach me. I learned about their lives, what it is to be a working class student from an immigrant family. I began to see and love their simple untrained vernacular images, the result of assignments I gave to photograph their lives. I encouraged them to photograph what they knew best, families, lovers, and themselves - something I had always done automatically." Gradually, Blue had come to feel a great sense of purpose and contribution in her teaching.

FACETIME

While writing her book, Blue simultaneously found another project she could work on without leaving her word processor or darkroom. In an effort to record "history in the moment" she began in 1991 to photograph a close up of her face in the same straight-on position every day. FACETIME evolved out of a preoccupation with aging. "Every blink," she says, "is the past. I am aging at such an infinitesimal pace it is beyond comprehension of eye and mind to see and retain experience simultaneous to experience."

Excepting when she travels, each morning Blue places herself in a special head brace she has constructed and takes an extreme close-up black-and-white photograph of her face with a 4x5² camera according to exact specifications. Eventually the accumulated pictures will be printed and shown in a huge floor to ceiling grid.

FACETIME is about the transience of life. "A process," Blue says, "over which we have no viable control." The finished piece, of which I saw only a segment, has the same compelling and obsessive quality of mystery as the photographs of watertowers by Hilla and Bernd Becher. At first glance each face, uniformly photographed with passionless objectivity, appears to be identical’ however, upon close inspection, each image reveals slight variances. The uniqueness is in the structure itself. Blue says the series is ongoing. "I plan to do it until I die."

My Best Friend

Blue and I have been talking all afternoon. The hour has now grown late. Sassafras is curled up sleeping quietly on her chair and I must go home to see what havoc the contractor has wrought, yet I am interested to know more about the current direction Blue sees for her work. "I’m taking it one day at a time," she says. "Life feels dense." After a many years long search she has been reunited with the daughter given up for adoption so many years ago at the Washington Square Home For Unwed Mothers, and she is involved in a serious relationship.

I am impressed with the sheer amount of work she has been able to accomplish in her not overly long life, despite a full schedule of teaching and other activities. "It’s only recently that I’ve begun to have anything resembling a personal life," she says. In fact she happily announces that she is about to be married and her daughter and mother will be attending her wedding in upstate New York.

Blue describes her way of working as a Zen-like process, "Like water dripping on a rock." Incremental effort over long periods has allowed her to produce a significant body of work. "Over time I will make an impression. I will not give up. My work has changed, but the concerns are the same. The question ‘What is human,’ still captivates me. I believe," she goes on to say, "that photography can be cathartic, that it can help to retrieve memory and that it can change your life. Photography is my best friend."

END

This article was published in The Photo Review, Volume 19, Number 3, Summer 1996, 301 Hill Avenue, Langhorne, PA 19047, 215-757-8921

All pictures ©copyright 1997 Patt Blue

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