Learning to Look: a Year in the Life in Photos

We were sitting at a table in a small restaurant. My friend Joan had just received a high-end digital camera as a gift. She’d decided to chronicle her life by taking a picture each day and posting it to her social network. I wondered how anyone short of National Geographic’s Jim Brandenburg had the discipline to not only take a photo every day but make it an interesting one.

Back at work, I thought about following Joan’s lead. Would the project be worth the effort? Could I sustain it? Would anyone view the work?

We never know until we try. So I downloaded the Instagram app to a smartphone, linked it to my accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr and started to shoot. I wanted the first image in the series to reflect reality, not aesthetics, and chose to photograph the highway through the windshield during the morning commute—not something I’d recommend doing on a regular basis, given the problem of distracted driving. And since online privacy is also an issue, I avoided photographing family members.

During the year I’ve taken photos on vacation, at concerts and in the office, shooting from airplanes, sailboats and cars. The subjects range from kayaks to cats, from people in line at Wal-Mart to flowers to Ferris wheels. The images are straight or processed. They chronicle a life in transition, capturing the changes in families, careers and seasons.

Some days I knew what I wanted to shoot—the current activity, the dramatic change in weather, the empty road that captured the sense of isolation we sometimes feel. Other days I left things to chance. I vowed to shy from the overly familiar subjects on the Internet—pets, food and sunsets—and never to take a photo of something just to fulfill the daily requirement. But on busy days I had to bend those rules.

In reviewing the year, I find I enjoy the images that look artfully composed, like the still life of silver frost edging green leaves. The impromptu images seem more interesting, like the elderly couple falling asleep at the gate while they wait for their plane. I also enjoy social commentary—the bored faces of fellow workers during meetings, the pre-school girl using a $600 smartphone some adults can barely afford, the empty chair outside a classroom in a district that just dismissed dozens of teachers.

But my favorites are the unexpected images—the delighted look on a woman’s face as she wins a prize at Bingo, the college mascot flexing his muscles during graduation, the couple photographing themselves at a baseball game. Each carries an emotional impact as well as an aesthetic appeal.

While I’m pleased with the images—you can view the collections at the Year in the Life board on Pinterest or the two YITL sets on Flickr—I’m amazed at the response. Almost every picture posted to Facebook receives more “likes” than anything I’ve written.

That enthusiasm is contagious. After a year of collecting snapshots I find myself as fascinated with the process as the product. Photography is a great teacher. It urges us to act boldly, to stand in the rain, to get close to noise and dirt and smiles. It helps us to focus, to crop the distractions. It teaches us to see.

What better way to spend the year.

Jeff Widmer is a writer, editor and photographer. He is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

A Year in the Life collage

 

 

Seven questions for Barbara Aline Blanchard

The mellow mouth of my French horn
Is worth all the jade or silver
Or the superficial birthright
Of an old family of scholars
That I’d trade for Scottish whiskey
And the junk I learned in college.

That’s how Barbara Aline Blanchard begins the poem that begins her book, I Was a College Dropout: the French Horn Was My Mistress. In it she tackles issues like aging, jealousy and making jam in her grandmother’s kitchen. During her career she has overcome the challenges of shopping her work and supporting her children as a single mother. Here she revisits her childhood dream and shares the ups and downs of a long career in an interview with Crossroads.

Blanchard BabetteHow did you get your start as a writer?
As a child of four, my mother called me Babette, French for “little Barbara.” She nourished my inner poet: repeating and recording my thoughts, praising my creativity, shaping my self image. Poetry was the core of my being—I always planned to be a poet when I grew up. As a shy child, poetry and art were the way I expressed my feelings. Ideas could take shape in essays, but emotions needed a poem or a picture.

When I met my husband of 26 years, I was a high-school English teacher in New Jersey, also teaching creative writing at night and lecturing in the psychological and nutritional aspects of weight control. Before that, I had been a social caseworker and a parole officer in Newark, New Jersey. Divorced with two sons, I was driven by a desire to provide for them in the only way I knew how: writing. Poetry wasn’t paying the bills, even though I had written two books of verse, recorded my work and given poetry readings in Washington Square and at such venues as the Lone Star Café in New York City and the Playboy Club in Great Gorge, New Jersey.

For years, I wrote two pages of fiction each weekday and five pages each weekend day, for a total of 20 pages a week. If I had a school vacation or a snow day, I would write extra pages, which would allow me to take occasional breaks. For 13 years I rarely missed a day. Most of my writing took place after 10 p.m. when my children were in bed. I would write until I fell asleep at the typewriter (remember those?): the typewriter bell would bing and I’d wake up and go to bed.

Blanchard Arthur & BarbaraMy first novel was accepted for publication just before I met Arthur. The check was equivalent to several months’ salary—enormous to me at the time. A sister publishing company then asked me to write a romance novel. I had never even read one. I was guaranteed an advance if I delivered the manuscript by December: it was ready in six weeks. Christmas was good that year, though I was sleep deprived.

After those two minor successes, I took a sabbatical from my teaching job to write fulltime. In addition to my then-current novel, I wrote short stories, newspaper articles, and “fillers.” I tried to make writing a business. Obsessively, I wrote 10-12 hours a day. In the evening, I painted to relax. I had two children and one TV—which I rarely watched.

What challenges have you overcome?
Making a living as a writer was difficult, even though I was publishing. I needed cash flow. After taking a bartender’s course, I worked special events at the Holiday Inn, experiences that were memorable and lucrative. But when my health insurance was about to run out, I returned to teaching and Arthur and I moved in together.

Arthur took an executive position in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania while I freelanced. A magazine picked up my ghostwritten article. “I Was a College Dropout, the French Horn Was My Mistress,” a sestina, arguably my most technically-proficient poem, was published.

What makes you proud?
Undeterred by those who said a writers’ group wouldn’t last, I wrote an article for the local paper announcing the inaugural meeting of Pocono Writers. Twenty-six of us met one evening in a real estate office. Raising a glass of “literary sherry” (a reference to Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado), I dared the group to prove the skeptics wrong. We began a tradition of monthly meetings around the fireplace at a local restaurant, reading, listening to and critiquing each other’s work. All “business” was printed and distributed in the newsletter, which I began and edited for several years until Arthur took a job in Massachusetts. I left my friends from Pocono Writers, which was and is the seed of the arts in the tristate area. The group continues to thrive.

Arthur is a scientist and a businessman. He convinced me that writing yet another novel without an advance or contract was just not logical. I bought a 640k Leading Edge word processor with an amber screen and began to teach myself. I landed a job as a consultant for Better Communications, the premier corporate writing-training company.

For seven years, I traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Bermuda, presenting workshops to, among others, Ford Motor Company, Sun Microsystems, the U.S. Department of Transportation and AT&T. I edited corporate documents; ghost wrote speeches; coached scientists, engineers and executives how to write more succinctly and give their documents visual impact. As the director of curriculum and instructor development, I was included in Who’s Who in of Global Business Leaders in 1996. Finally, I was earning a decent living as a writer. My hourly rate was 50 times what I had earned as a fiction writer, maybe more.

Meanwhile, my typewritten manuscripts were beginning to fade away and were impossible to scan. My first still unpublished novel, The Barefoot Years, which I had once submitted to Random House with high expectations, had fallen into the technology gap. “Despite obvious merits, we will not be making you an offer to publish,” the editor had written. Why not? Too short? No sex? Too introspective?

What was your breakthrough?
Hotel rooms were where the phone rarely rang: the perfect atmosphere for a writer. After a day in which I exceeded my word quota, I sat in the room and doodled. I sketched. I wrote poetry. There were no laptops, no cell phones. Business writing and creative writing collided in a cyberspace that had not yet been invented. The visual world took over my right brain.

Blanchard garden torso--Prize winning sculpture 2009 001 (2)The time came when the train to the future chugged to a stop: Babette had loved to paint, to mold clay and words into the shapes of clouds and butterflies. The journey back to my childhood destination has been arduous, like the overnight train from Beijing to Xian. I looked out the window at the early dawn and watched a fantasy landscape pass through a cotton-candy cloud that melted at the touch of my tongue.

Now I am walking through the dream I once had: traveling to exotic lands, attending theater and concerts, sculpting and painting. My studio is a place to play, to work, to imagine.

What is your latest work?
Blanchard Cover smA poet-songwriter friend, Virginia Wagner Galfo, spent three years editing my previously published poems. She persuaded me that these poems were my legacy. I Was a College Dropout: the French horn Was My Mistress was recently published. My sculpture by the same name is currently in a 3D show at the Venice Art Center, Florida.

What do you do for fun?
Almost everything I do is for fun! Recently, there was Brecht’s Galileo, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Verdi’s La Traviata. The porcelain workshop with master potter Ki Woon Huh is hard work—today I spent four hours carving my piece. My hands hurt, I’m tired, but it was fun. Tomorrow I go to my twice-weekly workout at the Y: it’s fun when I finish.

What is your advice to fellow writers?
If you want to write for a living, write nonfiction. It’s helpful to have some credentials and knowledge about what to write. A major in science, for instance, would make it easier to publish in myriad journals and websites.

If you want to write poetry and/or fiction, get a day job. Take lots of notes, keep a journal and don’t worry about writing for a living. Write what comes from the cherry pit in your belly.