The question of how anyone understands his childhood is predicated up on an always changing perspective because one's memory is faulty and our childhood is so complicated, particularly seen with the layers of knowledge we gain in retrospect. There are good and bad things and a great deal of gray . People tend to make their childhood into myth s because they haven't a clue what it was all about. If you are a mature serious person you will spend a good deal of your adult life analyzing how you grew up.
The family picture was taken when I was about four years old. It is an ideal looking picture of a lovely American family. My mother is quite beautiful surrounded by three happy children but she also seems protective of some unknown vulnerability. My sister, attractive and confident, doesn't reveal the tragedy of her weight problem that in later years would cause diabetes and kill her. My brother today is still very much the dreamer he appears to be in the picture. He fantasizes a construct of a world he is unable to build as an architect. And me in the Eton suit. How cute and uncaring; safe with my mother's touch from my future fears. We look happy and connected? But where is my father? Psychologically this is disturbing even though I know the picture was made for him as a birthday present to put on his desk. A family picture without a whole family? My father indeed was often missing from my life. He was a doctor busy at work and aloof from the daily activities of our household. Prophetically he would die young and I would grow up feeling I hardly knew him. Though I was quite young I remember the situation clearly; my first encounter with professional photography- a very exciting and formative moment- one of my first vivid memories. The photographer was very grand and personable. He allowed me to look through the camera glass upside down and under the dark cloth. He showed me the darkroom and the childhood wonder never left me. What a great experience loaded with history, meaning and memories all wrapped up in one object -a symbolic gift for an absent father whose presence is latent in the image and the memory of my experience.
As I reflect, my childhood was as nice as any American could have. The house I grew up in ways similar to the Ozzie and Harriet house of '50s TV. Inevitably every family has its difficulties, but out of them also comes its uniqueness. Our distinction was that we were Jewish in a city that did not have many Jews and we were also unusual in our Jewish heritage . Our relatives settled in Kentucky in the 1830s, so we were an established part of the community and not really identified as Jews, yet we were outsiders in this Southern city. We were caught in a role of compromise required to balance our political, social and historical identities in the rift between North and South , Jew and Gentile, small town and big city aspirations.
Raised as a liberal in a neighborhood of conservative Republicans, I had beliefs and freedoms that my friends did not necessarily share. I felt that Louisville was a provincial place that I had to break from by doing something special but I had no idea what that would be . I grew up with learning disabilities. Sadly, in the first grade I was sent home because my teacher thought I was retarded. Fortunately for me, my father knew differently and I was tutored. Nevertheless, I felt great trauma and emotional confusion over the fact that I could not perform as well as other kids. I knew I was bright, had a great sensitivity and the kind of presentation of self that had power. I stressed over what I would become.
The '50s and the media that grew to power at that time formulated my ideal of America. My father, like so many, came back from World War II and created a good life for his family. Though he made us mindful of our privilege in his concern for the human condition, he shared little of his own personal struggles. I remember being proud of him and of being an American living the way we did . After all, my Middle American life was quite different from the experience of most people in the world. Every few years in our neighborhood people got new cars . As children we looked to the future with a sense that everything would be better in the following year. And in fact it usually was! Technology brought new wonders in all the conveniences that made for the postwar suburban American dream we were living. Despite our good fortune my understanding of the world was not sheltered; the media revealed a less privileged life in the chronicles of the Civil Rights movement and we learned to be involved. I saw a lot of racism and experienced anti-Semitism, but I was proud that Louisville created a model for desegregation in America. I was in grade school when the Sputnik crisis shook every American's world view. Why were we behind? Was our educational system good enough to compete in the world? With my learning disability I felt way behind-afraid! The well-being that prevailed throughout America in families like mine completely gave way when President Kennedy was shot. The bubble burst! Our innocence was violated! With the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, our government became suspect and my generation and I retreated from the odyssey we had thought made our country so great.
Today I share the dissolution that most of my generation felt in not being able to fulfill the promise of our fathers . Despite the fact we have a long way to go , I think the Civil Rights movement was immensely successful. The plight of the disenfranchised of the '50s is significantly better because of it. We don't have leaders committed to the truth and excellence. However, I see the power of the American democratic energy in the multicultural mix that now drives us and the new technology that allows us to communicate our creative selves. Such is my image of my American life. Each of us learns in our own way through how we decipher mediated experience. I turned away from the word because of my inability to concentrate on the written page. I learned to love illustrated magazines and books and my critical understanding was as much formed by the picture as the word, allowing me to reach a diverse world from that of the confines of my middle America.
My father left another important photographic legacy with me. When I was a child we frequently went on long auto trips to visit my father's mother in central Illinois. I would complain about how ugly the central plain looked as compared to my beautiful Kentucky with its rolling hills. He'd say: "You just can't see it, the beauty is in the horizon, in the place distant where the earth meets the sky." Many years later I went to university in that state. My father had died leaving me a Leica so I decided to take a photography elective to learn how to use it. I had never taken an art course before! When I went to the art building to register, I noticed hanging there a long narrow black-and-white photograph of the Illinois horizon such as I had never seen before. It was by Art Sinsabaugh who would be my first photography teacher. The image captured the vision my father had implanted in my head-I finally understood what he had loved about his native landscape, what seeing was about. I experienced the power of photography to be expressive. That single picture ironically connected everything about my missing father, his heritage and my future as a photographer. In course of time I became a photographer and a teacher. My whole life now is involved in making art; trying to define the possibilities of photographic vision and helping students to engage it as meaningfully as I had. It is a most powerful matrix for understanding our culture, civilization and us. Optical observation and capture is the primary form of representation effecting everyone in the twenty-first century.