Entering a photographer’s private world

Her father’s photographic trove gives Cassia the pieces she eventually assembles into a massive picture puzzle of his world. It spans some big changes in his own life, as well – especially regarding her own family.

In my novel What’s Left, this task also means she has to master some now obsolete technological skills, including reading photographic negatives, where blacks and whites are reversed, moving around in a dusky darkroom, using a photo enlarger, and developing glossy prints in trays of chemical liquids she’s mixed on her own. (My, have those things changed thanks to digital photography!)

In passages that didn’t make the final revisions of the novel, she gets a sense of his artistic identity, too. When it comes to his work as a newspaper photographer, for instance, she realizes:

So much is routine. The usual assignments. High school football and basketball games, car crashes, house fires, elections. Except that it isn’t. He keeps finding small touches that illuminate a broader humanity.

That is, something you might call a personal style. And then he quits, moves in with her family for a year, and goes off for three years of intense Buddhist discipline.

There’s a gap in photos, of course. They resume when Baba returns from the monastery and marries. Not that he shoots his own wedding pictures. But everything I see in his collection is touching. Polaroids, anyone?

And then he’s back for good:

For the most part, Baba returns to photography as his profession, but not as a journalist. He accepts freelance assignments as well as more personal artistic projects, ones Manoula will draw from for the annual calendars she publishes, along with postcards, greeting cards, and an upcoming regional travel guide. In that way, he’s an integral part of her venture, even apart from making the rounds to bookstores and other retailers, contacting printers, marking up manuscripts, shipping out orders, billing, and, the like. It’s all rather small-scale, actually.

More than that, he and Rinpoche work well as a team in translating ancient Buddhist texts and interpreting the teachings. Baba senses what Rinpoche desires to say in his limited English, and Baba collaborates well in being faithful to both the original document and a suitable alternative in contemporary American — not just formal English, but sentences that are clear, clean, and direct. On top of that, with Rinpoche’s counsel, he’s able to provide a meaningful commentary for readers.

When Manoula proudly publishes the results, the critical praise and public demand, more than anything else, establish an honorable reputation for all three — Rinpoche, Baba, and her press. We should also note Baba’s role in working with Manoula in designing the pages, typography, and book covers, too. Oh, yes, along with remodeling the housing for the institute. He’s more versatile than he ever let on, she tells me with a wink.

At any rate, Baba becomes recognized as a major Tibetan scholar — an unfettered voice who travels and lectures in addition to writing. The fact that he isn’t attached to a university is, for him, a positive, liberating, life-enhancing insignia.

Family life pulls him in another direction. While the world at large beckons, his center of earthly gravity is Manoula — along with us babies as we arrive. George Gyatso comes two years after their marriage, and William Everest three years later. And then me.

Crucially,

There’s a wealth of photos from this period — many of them our family in action. Me and my brothers, in abundance. And Manoula. But of course we rarely see him in any of the images. He’s almost always behind the lenses.

What we really want to accomplish, Baba hears them say, is to carve out the time and place for some intense spiritual study and practice. It would take him farther into the wilderness than any of journeys he’s already undertaken.

~*~

Remember, What’s Left is available at Smashwords.

A strip of film negative like this was common in photography not that long ago.

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