This post first appeared earlier this week on Cat Thrasher's blog."Lulu Tree" January 2013 Hasselblad + Kodak Portra 400 Film
This is a picture of my little Lulu, about 22 months old, exploring a downed, hollow, old-growth Virginia tree that once stood high at Monticello. The tree curves and bends, the perfect setup to play hide-and-seek with Papa Bear, Jim. This shot was taken as she rapidly shimmied up one slope of the tree and rounded the corner, stopping suddenly when she spotted Papa.
The photograph is of Lulu at a moment of excitement and discovery. Her eyes are wide, her face waiting to receive and accept what is in front of her. She is unaware of the mess of her hair, or her chubby hands touching the tree surface, but we see these things. The light illuminates her face upon the turn of the corner, a symbol of the beckoning of things that are to come - in this tree, and in her life. Things she is discovering and has yet to discover. Wonderful, fascinating, incredible things.
Right after I got the film back with this picture, I read a critique of Irving Penn, with this sentence:
"The photograph, like the still life, is always close to death. It builds monuments out of perishability and our mortaility, and it is always one of the ways we fend off death." -Jan-Erik Lundstrom, Penn
The quote got my attention because of the seemingly dark message. In slight contrast, I've always thought of family portraiture as a celebration of life, as freezing moments in time that we want to revisit, that we never want to forget. But this is an optimitists view, and it ignores the small, abstract pain that I get in my head and chest when I look at a picture like Lulu Tree. The picture actually causes me a bit of pain. I've always thought of that feeling, the tinge you get at the intersection of pain and joy, as the same thing that causes you to cry at a wedding, or at other moments of extreme emotion. But the quote above puts a more concrete spin on that feeling: it's about avoiding death. It's existential.
Maybe, as Lulu turns her head around the corner of the tree trunk, in her moment of discovery, the sweetness and beauty of it hit me so powerfully that I hurt at the thought of it passing. Or maybe it is so far away from death itself, that I am moved by the polarity: just as we cry at the moment when a loved one passes, we weep at the moment when they are at peak growth.