Beth

by Rebecca Bowman

I’d arrived at the cafe first, so I watched Beth come through the glass door and scan the room for me. A few months before, when we’d first met, her hair had been blonde. Today, it was dark brown. Her lip color was surprising, and her large eyes were lined and lashed in a style that reminded me of the Barbies I collected as a kid. She looked unflappable, smart, slick in heels and black leather jacket. I resisted the urge to slouch. I was glad to be the one already sitting down. My nerves jangled somewhere behind my ears, and I went back over what I knew. She is my roommate’s photographer friend. She’d actually studied art in college, something that, to me, indicated a bravery and sureness of vision I wanted to probe in our conversation. She, like me, grew up in the quasi-rural sprawl of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, in towns that prop up the big cities around them. I was nervous, but had hope we could connect, at least, on having grown up in similar places. This is something I frequently hope when meeting new people in New York City. More than half of all the people I met had come from the suburbs. It was an immediate connection to be made and mined for repetitive, reliable conversation: growing up was so boring, I’m just trying to make enough money to stay here, here is where life is.

Our mutual friend had told Beth about the online magazine I had in production. She emailed me about the possibility of sharing her work, and I was immediately keen on profiling a visual artist. I imagined the project of the magazine as an investigation into how meaning is constructed, but had mostly attended to words, rather than images and their role in that process. Photography is the most direct artistic confrontation with the appearance of things, and I was thrilled to schedule a conversation with a studied photographer. I suggested meeting at a cafe near almost every subway line in Brooklyn.

She produced a large, bound book from her purse. It had Dianne embossed, metallic, across the front. Beth explained that it was a project named for its one subject, her mom, and invited me to flip through. In one, Dianne’s making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a kitchen with honey-oak cabinets and floral tiles identical to my aunt’s. In another, dressed in utilitarian-black snow-clothes, she’s standing, as if waiting for her lollygagging daughter, in front of a Jeep. The driveway seems lost under recent, half-shoveled snow, before a forest background that fades to wintery grey. There are several from a shoot of Dianne holding one of her grandchildren, and she’s wearing a rosary with beads the same turquoise as her fingernail polish. In almost all of them, she’s wearing lipstick a lot like Beth’s.

These portraits were not what I was expecting. I’d prepared to present Beth with some sort-of-dull questions about mechanical aspects of photography, her perceptions of beauty and how they play out in her work, and who influences her practice. I’d jotted these talking points onto a piece of paper, in small, cribbed handwriting, to help me if I got too nervous or conversation lagged. While Beth pointed out the shots she liked best, her voice glossy with pride, I surreptitiously slid the paper under my cup. I asked about her work more generally, and she told me Dianne was her primary project, that she had taken up her mother as her muse. In my head, I wandered around a new line of inquiry I didn’t feel confident pursuing: why has Beth seemingly circled back to make her mother the center of her artistic attention?

Per my own experience, Americans living in the interior of the United States watch the coasts through tinted pinholes. My grandmother has a habit of letting me know who is soon to appear on the Today show, in case I want to wake up early to glimpse a celebrity in real life. It’s a privilege she attaches to living in a cultural center. I’m never interested, but I enjoy imagining her calling me on her cordless house phone, reclined against the dusty afghans folded across the back of her couch, just in case I wanted to know Justin Bieber could be seen in the city tomorrow. There’s part of me, of course, that’s bemused by her calls, but I also know how amazing it would be if someone even a little famous visited her town out in the sticks. I remember the excitement around Johnny Unitas’ son visiting the local Barnes & Noble and the picture, texted to me by my mother, of Grandma posing with him after his book-signing. I can understand, but not share, her feeling that these encounters are thrilling. They are small meetings with a world presented to her as foreign and physically inaccessible, but important enough to be transmitted into her living room, by every channel, on a television she has on eighteen hours a day.

It’s not novel to consider how differently the world appears to me, someone who’s been web-surfing since my preteens. Thousands of studies track how the consumption of processed images has been hyperaccelerated by almost full national access to the Internet. But the first generation of people exposed to the Internet during early adolescence have only recently become adults; like all adults, they’ve developed enhanced critical thinking and are tasked with reckoning with the psychological legacy of childhood. The emotional contents of their daily lives was partnered, from a uniquely early age, with the emotional contents of their Web consumption. My grandmother recalls being riveted by the local news and racist, blockbuster Westerns on her family’s first television, brought home when she was in her late teens, while I remember being fourteen, talking with strangers in anonymous chat-rooms every night after my parents went to sleep. Sometimes I feel a gulf between my grandmother and me, our ways of expressing ourselves and what we consider valuable enough to receive our attention. The raw materials of my daily life are not much different from my grandmother’s, yet I feel myself moved away from her unrelenting sincerity, inherited morality, and devotion to the rural community she never left. I dislike this and feel guilty because I love her. And it’s my instinct that habituated consumption of multifarious, emotionally-stirring Internet content has redirected much of my attention from the daily, concrete parts of living, those things over which my grandmother and I might connect.

Internet content is a maximally engaging species of Hitchcockian drama— life with the dull parts cut out, but cut out by you, your clicks and views. The whole of the expanding world and human experience seems to exist on the Internet today. A web user consumes helpings of that infinity, per their own ideas of what they want to consume. There is a significant, invisible choice to be made: what do I want to pay attention to? But there are equally interesting questions attached to the underside of that one. Can infinite, non-physical access to whatever you want to see impair your ability or desire to pay attention to that which physically surrounds you?

I think a person’s most immediate surroundings are the mechanisms of self: the physical body, and a person’s corpus of beliefs and memories. The environments and people near a person’s body could be called secondary surroundings. A person’s Internet-environments seem between these two sets, in a way that may mediate or moderate the connection between our immediate selves and secondary surroundings. This isn’t a prelude to shaking my fist at people glued to their phones. The web provides a person with access to myriad perspectives and catalogs of brute fact. A kid in Nebraska can become acquainted with obscure Russian writers, or the most respectful way to address a transgender person they haven’t met yet, or the culture and history of the Native Americans who once inhabited the land now occupied by their tiny town. The relationships, learning, commerce, and activism which are made possible by the Internet are as real as those which exist in three dimensions.

However, family and the other people which surround a person have, traditionally, provided those perspectives and lessons which inform a person’s worldview. In addition to being an evolved tool of survival, family connections are meant to socially and culturally educate a person limited to only their singular point-of-view. The insertion of the Internet into a child’s daily life takes from that traditional role of the family. So, in 2017, there are legitimate questions about the changed role family plays in a child’s emotional and intellectual development. And, to be honest, I wonder if paying close attention to one’s family is less appealing to a generation of children exploring the expanse of the Web.

Probably, yes, I think. I thought about this while I looked at Beth’s photographs, feeling anxious. It’s clear, as she smiles and flips through them, that she’s reached a different conclusion I can’t explain away by generational difference, like my grandmother’s interest in the Today show. Beth pointed to small details in her photographs, explaining how they tell stories about who her mother is. She loves Dianne, but it’s obvious she also loves the portraits of her. I wonder, what are these photographs, if they are something separate from Dianne, herself, to love? Our chitchat digressed, and I found that as kids, Beth and I both hated our Catholic school uniforms and felt separate from our peers. In high school, we loved the same singer from an emo band, and I could imagine us both, alone in our rooms, trawling MySpace and practicing our eyeliner technique.

On my way home from meeting, I steeped in embarrassment over my remaining questions and wondered if something was wrong with me. I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life with my mind turned from the world of my upbringing, and while that’s largely a conscious choice having to do with politics and trauma, I know I must hold unexamined feelings. I couldn’t reconcile all of the similarities and differences between Beth and me, so I took a seat on the train and returned to the plastic envelope she’d given me, full of prints from Dianne.

I looked for clues in Beth’s photographs. She described Dianne as her attempt to see the woman which contains her mother. But as much as they are portraits of Dianne, they are also portraits of Beth looking at Dianne. Beth makes images which attempt to “elevate her to not-mom-ness,” which is to say, by my understanding, that they attempt to illuminate those of Dianne’s features which are not always visible to her. Beth’s always been interested in art, but found, after her grandfather gifted her a camera during high school, that in taking a photograph she could capture external instances of beauty, rarity, and meaning without battling a medium like paint or clay. It was also a practice of mindfulness— seeing and capturing a moment both as it is and as she sees it. That urge to mindfulness echoes what she remembers as her mother’s personal philosophy and advice she can recall verbatim: “Beth, live life right now. Stop trying to fast forward.”

She resolved to make a living by making art. This resolution moved her to place more physical distance between herself and her family; she moved to New York City, got a job doing commercial photography, and became immersed in the culture and images she’d previously consumed remotely, through the Internet.  The role of the Internet shifted for Beth when she was an adult living in New York. She found herself obsessed with ancestry.com. She would pore over her own family photos, and admire the work of other photographers, like Larry Sultan or Elinor Carucci, which adopts the artists’ families as the subject of inquiry. Her occupational art-making, work mostly involving merchandising and home goods, became increasingly separate from her emotional self. She found herself heading back to Pennsylvania on weekends, feeling lucky that she was so close to her home and family, and able to disconnect from life in New York for a few short days. She’d always been a family-oriented person, but it became the most important thing to her, now, when she was most physically removed from them.

Dianne did not study art, and she never moved to New York City. She married, then supported her husband’s small business and kept a home with five children.  She took Beth and her siblings to painting classes, workshops, music lessons, and sports practices. A different woman may have suppressed her daughter’s interest in the arts, but Dianne understood the importance of expression. She’s never stopped wearing bright pink and red lipsticks, and has kept her hair blonde for decades. In both of her two homes, she’s installed a pink bathroom. These details are prominent in Dianne and show themselves in Beth’s own sense of style. Dianne commissioned a painted portrait of herself in her late 20s, and it still hangs in her home today. Despite all of this, and how comfortable Dianne appears in front of the camera, Beth said that when she first began photographing her mother, Dianne questioned who would want to see her.

Of course, it’s Beth. Dianne, as both mother and muse, provides a centering touchstone for Beth that the shifting tides of fashion, career, aesthetics, and romance cannot. Now, both adults, Beth and Dianne can consider their relationship in terms more nuanced than mother and daughter. The act of attempting to strip that layer of interpretation is also an act of revealing that layer.  For both of them, this process is revelatory. Beth is revealed to herself in the act of looking at her mother as a person; their similarities and differences are thrown into higher relief, and, in the process of creating an image, Beth is forced to confront subconscious ideas she holds about her mother’s appearance, appearances in general, and how appearances are transformed by and with love. Dianne is also revealed to herself by taking in her reflection in her daughter; she said to Beth, “I had so much fun watching you kids grow up, I didn’t realize I was aging with you.” She experiences being seen, not just as a doting grandma or mother, but as a person and source of identity and inspiration for Beth.

As we talked, I alternated between looking at Beth and at the photographs of Dianne. It was easy to see Beth behind the camera, in the backyard or the bathroom, using the visual language she’d studied in art school to capture images of her mother. Dianne contains fundamentally beautiful and thoughtful portraits which experiment with looking and presenting. In one shot, Dianne peers at Beth between the fronds of her houseplant, with a nude, daily-wear bra strap hanging just below her sleeve. In another, Dianne is distracted, but Beth is watching her closely through the screened storm-door on their porch.

I shuffled through the photographs again, wedged between two strangers on the train. It was impossible to miss the intimacy captured by Beth’s work, and I felt a pang of loneliness. It began seeming foolish to wonder why Beth would take up her mother as her muse. Emotional relationships, familial and otherwise, provide texture and value to the inevitable passage of time; if Beth’s aim, as an artist, is to capture moments as they are and as she sees them, a series of images may serve as a topographical survey of time’s passage. In collecting these images of her mother in various present-moments, Beth is building a history of her own shifting feelings toward Dianne and their relationship. It’s un-mysteriously valuable to Beth that she can return to these images to see her mother, but it’s less obvious that it’s also valuable to be able to look back upon one’s own perspective of one’s mother. Taking the photograph provides the moment which reveals Dianne’s personhood to Beth, and it provides a record of that experience too.

I imagined Beth and her mother looking over the prints, spread out on Dianne’s kitchen table. It suddenly felt strange to be holding them, in the view of strangers on a packed train, as they so obviously contained the unique intimacy found between to a mother and daughter. Each was a token of the physical closeness they shared when the camera shuttered. They are Beth’s means of answering: these are the details and moments I want to pay attention to.  

Rebecca Bowman is a writer working in Brooklyn, New York.