Eighteen years of photographing Krissy
BEGINNING TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS
... began to photograph her toothless smile and waving hands with a Pentax camera that my father had given me for my eighteenth birthday. I more-or-less knew how to use the light meter. We were living in a dismal loft with low ceilings and a sagging, splintery floor on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. I had gone back to work part-time a week or two after she was born, leaving her father to care for her.
Although he had been regarded as a gifted painter at Bard College, where we both went, this young man had little understanding of how difficult it was to get work shown, especially for anyone black, however handsome and light-skinned. Only Romare Bearden’s work was well known. To complicate his prospects for the future, he had no intention of going back to work as a waiter so he had no way of continuing his work. The leftovers from my small salary only allowed for minimal drawing materials
I was invested in him as the artist, had no idea that I would begin to slowly build up a body of work. I imagined little for myself, a common dilemma for women who graduated from suburban high schools in the late fifties.
When Krissy was less than a year old, her father headed for San Francisco, leaving us in a small apartment for us on the top floor of a tenement on Avenue D. At night, I occasionally heard men climbing the fire escape to the roof. By day, I could look down on kids playing in a corner lot of rubble. After some months, he phoned because he had a job, shared an apartment, and wanted us to join him. I quit my job and we went.
Since I was the only person in this heyday of the hippie movement who never used marijuana, dropped acid or drank, I was quite out of place and undoubtedly not much fun. Krissy and I went to the zoo and to a movie house downtown where she sat in my lap as we we watched horror films, one after another. After six months, I took Krissy back to the noise and chaos of New York, to my friends, to find another job and apartment. Within a few months, he came back to us. And so it went. He would leave, return to his life on the West Coast, to some woman or another. He would come back. Then leave again. Come back.
UNDERSTANDING THE OBSESSION
Somewhere in here, when Krissy was three or four, my father and stepmother, Mari, urged me to finish college. They were worried about my ability to earn a steady income. The Goddard Adult Degree Program allowed a residency in Vermont of two weeks every six months, so that seemed feasible. During my first semester, I began to write about my intense memories of the house where I lived before my mother died of cancer when I was twelve. Though I still vividly remember those large rooms, the polished dining table, the folded paper lamp that hung above it, I remember only the barest fragments about my mother. I don’t know what she looked like except through five or six snapshots in the leather-bound family album. Finally I understood that my obsession to record my daughter and her life was because I was unable to remember having been a child, having lived within a family. The following semester, I concentrated on those photographs more seriously, though I didn’t know how to print.
PATH TO A CAREER
I was extraordinarily lucky that Will Faller, a good friend who had been earning an unimaginable quarter of a million dollars as a commercial photographer in the late sixties, offered to teach me to develop film and print. He had a basement studio on 6th Street. His technical skills and perceptiveness provided the grounding I needed.
Marion Faller, Will’s ex-wife, who lived with their son just up the block, was instrumental in my joining a cooperative gallery. Barbara Lobron, an assistant editor at Camera 35, noticed my work in a group show and told the editor, Jim Hughes, about it. A large portfolio that included the Krissy photos and eight months of daily self-portraits that I had taken from 1972 into 1973 was published in the Camera 35 Annual.
I have no idea what would have happened to me if Jim Hughes had not functioned as a hand-from-the-side-of-the-stage. I’d had endless temporary jobs: an assistant to city planners and landscape architects; a typist; a part-time teacher in a program for second graders already failing in school. I can’t remember all the things I did to put together enough money for Krissy and me to survive. After publication of the portfolio, I was offered two part-time jobs teaching photography at the New School of Social Research and at Brooklyn Community College. At last I walked into something I could do well. And then a number of the self-portraits were purchased by the Museum of Modern Art. That turned out to be a crucial credential.
My best and fourth therapist, Dr. Gordon, whose kindly silence allowed me to talk my way into a slightly more cohesive self, helped me finally free myself from need for my daughter’s father. I had been replicating my father’s relationship with his second wife, the nurse who had brought my mother home from a hospital in Chicago to die. After she married my father, she commuted regularly to Chicago to maintain her relationship with her second husband. My father became a quiet drunk. They divorced a year after I graduated from high school and he married Mari Vargosko. They spent a devoted thirty years together.
THE MOVE TO BOSTON
When an advertisement for a yearlong fulltime job teaching photography at MIT crossed Jim Hughes’ desk, he urged me to apply for it. By then, he’d decided that our living situation on 5th Street between Avenue A and B was too dangerous. “Krissy needs a tree,” he told me. I got the job. Will drove a U-Haul with Krissy, the cat, dog, me, boxes of prints and bits of furniture up to Brookline where he helped me move into an apartment that cost more than half of what I would be making a month.