I sit motionless in a gray steel and vinyl chair before a grid of
full-spectrum compact florescent lights, eyes closed, a double-sided
dark cloth draped over my shoulders. For ten minutes I hold this pose as
Michael looks into the ground glass focusing the image of my face onto
it, adjusting the camera’s fully extended bellows. He vanishes into his
darkroom where he pours the emulsion onto the glass plate and dunks it
into a silver bath before emerging and snapping it onto the back of the
camera. He counts down, “four, three, two,” and on the count of one I
take a deep breath and hold it for the forty-second exposure. In my
stillness I realize how calm I feel—warm, silent—and I remark about it
later, about how I rarely, if ever, relax like that and just ... do ...
My husband’s studio is packed to the brim with his photographic
paraphernalia: chemicals, cameras, flasks, clamps, plastic trays, cloth
and latex gloves. And then there are the photographs themselves; large
black and white riverscapes; hand-tinted prints of old mill town
structures; expansive cityscape triptychs, curled satiny silver gelatin
prints; an oversized cyan sky reflected in a muddled green river
reminiscent of an oil painting; and translucent glass-plate ambrotypes
resting against a black velvet backdrop that magically reveals the
rugged beauty of the images. To my delight, in nearly every section of
the large space he’s hung photographs of me.
Stacked on end against the walls lean huge framed photos wrapped in
smooth brown paper and masking tape. Some prints are pinned up, others
hang framed on screws or nails. Gunmetal gray file cabinets bulge with 4
x 6 glossy prints inside waxy paper sheaths, countless yellow boxes
boasting thousands of photographs buttress towers of flimsy negative
sleeves from recent years past.
Michael is the most prolific artist I know, tirelessly laboring,
inventing, creating—dreaming. His bodies of work are vast, deep and
varied. His fearlessness of new territory, different methods, themes and
subject matter reminds me of the innovation of Miles Davis or
Beck—constantly evolving, experimenting—yet the familiar thread of
genius throughout the work remains. He’ll blush at reading these words,
dampen them down in his own modest way, but I know, his work is
gorgeous, provocative, impeccable and timeless.
A few nights after modeling, I return to his studio to see the day’s
work. Scattered across the tabletop are countless orange bottles with
childproof caps sporting printed white labels with Calvin’s name. In
large bold letters one reads MAY CAUSE DIZZINESS. Many are empty, others still contain the sinister little capsules stamped in a tiny font: ZONEGRAN.
We’ve saved most of the empty or discontinued drug canisters and their
contents over the past six years for Michael to photograph. Along with
the amber bottles are translucent ruby vessels with traces of syrupy
liquid beading their insides, paper-backed foil blister packs—the kind
that are oh-so satisfying to pop—bundles of striped urine test strips
and multiple dozens of crinkled, stained, handwritten medication logs
with rows of penned in Xs and administration times.
“Makes me sick to look at them,” I say to Michael, regarding the piles
and piles of foil and plastic casings strewn on surfaces or spilling
like guts from every possible nook and orifice in the large, cluttered
space. I imagine Calvin’s pristine little body, his smooth belly and
flawless skin, and think of all the wicked chemicals we’ve spooned into
him over the course of nearly seven years. Frigging seizures, I think, effing drugs.
And yet this paraphernalia proves so ironically beautiful to behold,
like precious metal, little gems or handfuls of pearls. At the same time
they remind me of the acrid metal of war, of steely prison walls,
padded white cells, of the numb brain and bleak future of my precious,
innocent little boy who, every morning and night, we woefully coax to
open his mouth and choke down this string of endless, chalky, bitter