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 ... nothing.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; 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 has hung photographs of me.
Stacked on end leaning against the walls are huge framed photos wrapped in brown paper and masking tape. Some prints are pinned up, others hang framed on screws or nails. Gray file cabinets bulge with 4" x 6" glossy prints inside waxy paper sheaths. Countless boxes boasting thousands of photographs buttress towers of flimsy negative sleeves from recent and 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 and 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 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 and 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 cranny in the large cluttered space. I imagine Calvin’s little body, his smooth belly and flawless skin, and think of all the wicked chemicals we’ve spooned into him over so many years. Frigging seizures, I think to myself. 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 bars, 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 pills.