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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 Man
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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."
This article was published in The Photo
Review, Volume 19, Number 3, Summer 1996, 301 Hill Avenue, Langhorne, PA
All pictures ©copyright 1997 Patt Blue