Mandala of the "Round Table."
There once lived a wonderful human being who some of you may recall, his name was Steve Allen. From the 1950's through the 80's he entertained and inspired millions as a comedian, writer, musician, talk show host, composer, and philosopher. As a child and young man I was frequently inspired by Allen's multi-talented personality. I often enjoyed his late night programs, read several of his books, and laughed along with his "madness." When he was in one of his frequent cheerful moods, he would turn to his audience and announce, "salami's for everyone." The audience would cheer as the actual salami's were circulated and everyone went home happy!
Among his many creations, Allen came up with a wonderful concept, "Meeting of Minds." It was an exceptional experience watching and listening to this television series that was aired from the late 70's to the early 80's. Allen would invite various guests to sit at a table and discuss philosophy, religion, history, science, and other relevant topics. What made the experience especially unique was that the participants portrayed various historical figures, Plato, Aristotle, Cleopatra, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Marie Antoinette, etc. The actors would sit at his table and discuss the various "topics" from the perspective of their character.
For many years a round table existed in the corner of the art room that became a home for young thinkers very much like the Meeting of Minds. Young people enjoyed the table arrangement which was in sharp contrast to the large rectangular variety. They would sit at the table sharing their opinions and expressing their frustrations about every topic within the Woods, and in the universe. An ongoing turnover of attendees transformed the round table into a center for exchanging ideas and opinions, frustrations, knowledge and sometimes sorrow. Adolescent "struggles" for establishing one's identity as well as determining their role within a circle of peers was always an ongoing challenge.
The round table was literally a physically circular table that one day mysteriously appeared in the corner of the "Woods" art room. Designed to accommodate four or six people, or perhaps ten, it's capacity seemed to change according to the current demand. Under the "watchful" eye of the instructor, students would occupy the table depending on their schedule. Often several individuals would bring their lunch and spend a little time "unwinding." In a sense, the table became a living mandala, a colorful kinetic three-dimensional portrayal of youthful existence. During my early days as a new teacher, I quickly understood that everyone was a unique individual with their own abilities and challenges. There were differing learning styles and differing teaching styles necessary for each individual. As I recall, with very few exceptions everyone that interacted at the round table learned a little something about art, but more importantly a great deal about themselves.
The entourage of young adults who shared the round table were an eclectic group of multi-talented students who in most cases were not yet aware of their own potential. Many specific memories and many images of so many youthful faces still linger in my mind. I still recall many of the complexities that accompanied the presence of each young person.
One particular young student named Donna had just arrived at the round table along with several others as a registered participant in an advanced art class. I described the requirements of the course and explained that much of their involvement would be based on their own individual interests and potentially developing "style." Donna asked if she would be permitted to paint her own boots. On one level it seemed like a funny and interesting artistic concept, if we recall the various historical stages of art, all sorts of experimental and innovative concepts were explored. Yet, on another level I immediately thought about any possible repercussions especially from the parent. After some discussion and eventually with requested parental permission the student began to paint her boots with acrylic paints, storing them to dry in a corner cabinet on a daily basis. The shoes originally resembled a sort of "Gothic" combat variety but were quickly transformed from glossy black to a multi-colored design concept with decorations and stripes. The completed project was surprisingly interesting and visually appealing. Other individuals signed their names on the boots as a final gesture of closure. A short while later during a subsequent "parent's night" the student's mother got her first look at the completed "masterpiece" and enjoyed seeing the finished object. Of course there were other more traditional art pieces produced that were inspired by classical art, poetry, and literature. The student was clearly one-of-a-kind within the space of the round table and went on to become a librarian and a professor at a University. I will always recall our adventures together and remain proud of her many accomplishments. I am inspired to improve my own writing skills based on Donna's current scrutiny and level of literary "awareness" far surpassing my own.
Donna recently reminded me of the unfortunate experience we shared during 9/11. Like most of us we were perplexed, nervous, frightened, and uncertain about what had just occurred. Hall "monitors' and selected students were quietly and quickly asked to circulate sheets of paper announcing the tragic event. Donna was attending one of her classes when the news broke and the minimal printed information was circulated. She and several other individuals proceeded to the round table where they encountered others who were equally frightened. One individual was crying as she announced that her father was working in the lower Manhattan area. No one knew what had happened or what was in store for our entire nation.
I recall being handed a piece of paper that included a short paragraph explaining that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Little else was known about the incident and we were informed that we would soon be dismissed. In the confusion, my first thoughts went to my young children who were attending two different schools some distance away. Thankfully I was able to meet them and transport them home.
Always glowing with ideas and energy regarding the "round table" one student initiated the brilliant idea of bringing a portable chalkboard over to the table and placing it nearby. His concept was remarkable at the time and still "rings true" today. Noteworthy, insightful, foolish, erroneous, spectacular, absurd, and even humorous statements were written and preserved on the chalkboard. The quotations served many functions simultaneously. In many cases they were read back and group analyzed. They were interpreted and enjoyed, laughed at and contemplated. In addition, throughout the day, other students would occupy the table and read the spontaneous notes from the previous group of occupants. Art and inspiration were constantly being created and it did not begin or end on an 11 by 14 inch sheet of paper. It thrived everywhere as each individual expressed a multitude of human emotions and concerns. Among the many elements regarding the "round table" was the implied consensus that it served as a "safe zone." A location within the woods where students could spend time working, creating, and sharing their concerns while feeling relatively secure in their environment.
Many of the stories I recall originated at the round table or in the room surrounding it. Most of these recollections contained a cheerful or comical element, some were inspiring, and a few were especially frightening. While my intent here is to focus on the positive memories, there were also a handful that were very sad and almost tragic. One of the comments I received was that these stories resembled those of a comic-book character. Perhaps, but my intention is to share some of the realities of my career from within the "box" labeled "art teacher."
Several months ago I finally began unpacking dozens of dusty boxes I "rescued" from a nearly-perpetual storage facility that I originally intended to use for no more than two or three years. Through no effort on my part, the two or three years mysteriously became twenty or thirty. Apparently one's life time can pass by so quickly that we fail to grasp its disappearance.
Hence I headed upstate to retrieve what I could no longer remember. I found a near by second-rate motel for the night in order to provide myself with an early morning start.
The day began with my prying open a cold rusty garage door that had not been opened for at least 20 years. As the door eventually was lifted I found myself looking through the many cobwebs of my past. Furniture, stacked alongside vinyl records, 78's, books, and papers. I spent most of the day sorting through what had become "garbage" and attempted to set aside any meaningful or perhaps valuable items. After a long day and multiple trips to the local "dump" I packed my SUV with as many boxes as I could and began my long journey back home.
The next morning I hesitantly opened some of the disintegrated and dirty cardboard boxes as if I were looking for buried treasure. About half of the contents once belonged to my mother who died years ago, the remainder were personal and sentimental "knick knacks" and other possessions including my camera collection. I discovered that the "treasures" of my life had become forgotten objects. We all take part in a life-long journey that begins and ends with the unknown, but worthless objects become priceless sentimental possessions along the way. I was transported back in time by each item I rediscovered and unpacked. I had used newspaper to cushion the fragile objects and found myself reading each torn piece as if it were a personal diary.
During much of my college "career," one might say I was "financially challenged," I was fortunate however to have had a kind friend who often took pity on me, had a few extra dollars and kept a little notebook of his expenses in his shirt pocket. Sadly, many pages of the tiny book were devoted to my monetary "plight." He (Gene) would often loan me small amounts of currency as we explored our frequent adventures together, and carefully recorded the exact amount. Periodically I would attempt to repay him in dollars and cents, eventually I succeeded, however it was not until many years later. It took several years but it was eventually a good reason for mutual celebration!
Among my favorite pastimes at the time, was locating and attending tag-sales, garage sales, flea markets and rummage sales. I loved searching for knick-knacks, figurines, and musical instruments. With only a few dollars in my pocket I would usually search for my holy grail, old cameras. I discovered that at the time "box cameras" were within my price range. I was able to make a purchase for as little as 25 or 50 cents. Old cameras were not particularly valuable yet, hence the beginning of my favorite and affordable collectable-hobby. The Box cameras I purchased were simple cameras with a mechanical shutter release and sometimes an adjustable f-stop but otherwise not very different from home made pinhole cameras. I tried to limit most of my purchases to mechanically working items as much as possible. I thought myself to be fairly well informed as I examined each new prospect! I generally did fairly well in most of my purchases until sadly, I brought an old 35mm camera in an original box home one day! Removing the camera from the box, I discovered there was a bullet hole in the back, an unexpected surprise!
My first few years in the "Woods" were especially rewarding. I had the good fortune of meeting and working with two highly talented "arts teachers" who were soon approaching retirement. I was introduced to the idea of teaching photography by beginning with the concept of "Camera Obscura." For the next 25 years, all our "traditional" photography classes began with the construction of individual pinhole cameras. Although pinhole cameras could be constructed from any number of materials or adapted from pre-existing boxes or containers, our preference was to require that the students build them from "scratch" using recycled cardboard boxes, glue, masking tape, and a small piece of aluminum foil. Initially, everyone was responsible for the construction of their own individual camera but as class sizes increased from an initial 12 or 15 students to 25 or more, individually constructed cameras evolved into small group projects. As mentioned, the materials were very simple, sturdy cardboard, masking tape, black acrylic paint, gloss medium, and a small thin piece of copper or aluminum.
Students were instructed to construct their Pinhole boxes (generally 5 by 5 inches), glue and tape them together, and finally paint them black. The "cameras" actually consisted of two five-sided boxes, one just slightly larger than the the other allowing them to slide into each other. A small window was cut out of the "front"and a small piece of metal was glued and taped behind the window (see the illustration above). A small aperture was created by inserting the tip of a push-pin. Many diagrams and charts are available online that specify the recommended exact size of the aperture relative to the dimensions of the camera. For our purposes, the push-pin did the trick. A black cardboard flap served as the "shutter." The final challenge was to enter the darkroom and insert a small rectangular piece of photographic printing paper into the inside back of the camera. Once this was accomplished, the camera was "ready to go."
The above is a typical pinhole negative created many years ago, I was informed by one of the subjects that this was created around 1993 or 1994. The emulsion side of the photographic paper was placed into the back of the camera (facing front) and exposed by opening and closing the manual flap "shutter." Unlike simply pushing a shutter release button on a mechanical camera, the cardboard flap is merely opened and closed to permit light to enter. A typical exposure for a five by five inch camera, depending on the amount of daylight might take anywhere from 10 to 5 seconds on a sunny day, but there are many variables. Because light travels in straight lines the subject is inverted and projected onto the back of the camera. If one were to enter into the camera, the inverted image would be visible opposite the pinhole. In fact there are several universities and museums that have constructed an actual walk-in Camera Obscura.
It was always an exciting experience to see a pinhole image develop for the very first time in a darkroom. One would generally hear cheers when an image appeared and became visible but often this was followed by groans and other sounds of anger if the image was overexposed and eventually disappeared into "nothingness."
During the construction phase of the cameras there were always a handful of disbelievers. Comments would be heard such as, "there is no way anyone could take a picture with a cardboard box." Other's would simply state that it could never work!
Most of these photo-courses were co-taught with the input of a very talented and knowledgable artist-in-residence and a wonderful friend, Mr. L. Together we would share our knowledge, provide examples of our work, and often vocalize old obscure T.V. commercials and songs, one of our favorites was "If I only had a brain" from the original Wizard of Oz. We had a tendency to sing this one frequently as we circulated among the victims of our vocalization. Actually it was I who had the horrible voice, my partner was an accomplished professional musician, nevertheless we made an interesting pair of instructors.
One of our on-going challenges was "problem solving" and assisting in correcting any presenting difficulties. Sadly, there were a few times when these problems could not be easily solved. A couple of examples included one physically large individual who could not fit through the entrance of the darkroom, another was terrified of the darkness, and a third was understandably allergic to the "fumes."
A baffling problem was presented one semester when after several weeks of explaining the correct procedure for processing pinhole photography the individual could not successfully produce a visible photographic print. Several times, my colleague and I explained the required steps, still no results. Finally we learned that rather than going into the darkroom and extracting a small sheet of paper from the "paper safe" this individual was using ordinary random drawing paper. It required a few weeks of classes before we could solve the problem. I guess we all make mistakes, teacher's included.
One exceptional encounter was with a. former student and now a young friend, Andrew Wirshborn. Always a uniquely creative and innovative individual, Andrew decided to "break the rules" and exceed the 5x5 inch pinhole camera requirement. He used a cardboard box measuring approximately 20 x 20 x 20 inches. It would barely fit into the darkroom, used an 8x10 inch or larger sheet of photo paper, and generally required about 25 minutes or more to expose. It was a challenging task to use "old school" methods for photographing people. A long time to hold a pose but it was "authentic."
Surprisingly quite a few people survived our courses and many became photographers or found careers related to photography. In the woods we eventually replaced "analog" photography with digital and computer editing and manipulation. Quite frankly it was an overdue improvement, actual ventilation in a room where one could breathe, ample space, and a working station for everyone! In spite of these improvements, my partner L and I continued to sing "If I only had a brain." Please note here that while singing the song, neither "L" or I were referring to our students but rather we were thinking of our own "plight."
The darkroom was often a "safe place" to create and work in solitude.
Many hours of my life were spent in a quiet, isolated, inspiring, and at times challenging environment of a darkroom. It was a place away from the "outside world," a shelter from the multitudes of "naysayers" we often encounter on a daily basis. What could be more pleasant or more stimulating than being self-confined to an almost lightless room, inhaling toxic fumes, and dripping harsh chemicals on one's self ?.
The magical moment when an image would first appear during development usually made my efforts worth while. At the least until all the flaws became apparent. There was always that "unknown," that element of surprise. Was the paper exposed long enough under the enlarger? Was the aperture set correctly? Did I manage to keep my fingers away from the surface? Then of course, the perpetual challenge, did I manage to keep dust particles off of the negatives?
Many years ago while attending an opening luncheon for doctoral students, we were greeted by a prestigious guest speaker who was carrying a rather large "cumbersome" briefcase. He addressed various issues related to our anxiety regarding the pursuit of our possible degree. At one point, he opened the briefcase and proceeded to expose what appeared to be a manual "typewriter."
"This device is my old typewriter, " he stated as he placed the typewriter on the podium in front of the audience. "When I struggled through my dissertation, I had to depend on this!" "If I made a mistake or was required to produce a rewrite, I had to return to the beginning of the specific section and start all over." "Unfortunately a mistake could take hours or days or more to correct."
Dust particles on negatives were similar to writing errors within a document, one often had to start all over or attempt to retouch the image. Printing an 11x14 inch photograph and then discovering several scattered dust marks was an unfortunate experience. This was especially the case if the photographs were intended for display. Retouching attempts often resulted in more than obvious errors, becoming an annoying and frustrating personal obstacle to "perfection."
My "Life in the dark" began when I was 17 and had just graduated from high school. I worked on the school yearbook where I developed a passion for photography. This passion would become a life-long "friend." In my search for learning more, I discovered a "non-accredited " school in Manhattan, located on a lower floor of the Empire State Building. It was an interesting and informative program experience designed to encourage students to understand photography and explore the possibilities at their own pace. Six professional photographers were available to assist students in their elected assignments. On many of the walls were posted large charts indicating the various choices,
subject areas and related assignments. Lighting, Camera work, Commercial, Fashion, Table-top, Portraiture, and Film Development appeared among others. The experience was very similar to that of an "internship," students focused learning on their own interests and abilities. Completion of all assignments was required, but they could be pursued in any order. The student made the choice and completed the assignment with as much assistance and time as necessary. This made the curriculum interesting and individualized. The element of competition did not exist, both students and teachers assisted one another. This approach worked quite well, as the students made their own choices and would often repeat assignments if they chose to improve their skills in a particular area.
There were two darkrooms, one for film development, and one for printing. We were provided with assorted cameras and lenses within the studios and often worked with large format including 5 by 7 inch and 8 by 10 inch sheet films. The darkroom for film development was essentially black with the exception of a very dim green light. The film being used at the time was "panchromatic" and some of the preparation for development was accomplished in complete darkness. We were using large sheet film as described and loading each sheet into rectangular developing tanks in total darkness. In order to identify the film and the emulsion side (the light sensitive side) there were little notches cut into the corners of the film sheets. It took a great deal of practice to be able to identify the emulsion, handle the film without touching the surface, and place it into the tanks properly.
The photo-printing room was of course much more manageable as a red light was permitted and one could navigate with ease around the space. Both rooms took some time to get accustomed to and understand the various stations etc. There was one gentleman from Texas who enrolled in the program. He was quite talented and serious about his "studies." After one three day weekend the Texan returned to the darkroom to print several portraits. An hour or two later he decided to take a break. I was able to see and hear him as he walked past me and into the narrow corridor that led to the exit.
In order to reach the exit one was required to make a turn just outside of the main darkroom space. Unfortunately the gentleman continued to walk straight into a plaster wall. This resulted in a loud "thump" and considerable cursing with a Texas accent. Though fortunately not seriously injured, he proceeded to holler at the staff, insisting that the wall was not in that location a few days earlier. He claimed that the wall was placed in that space over the past weekend! At 17 I stayed away from the "line of fire" but I still remember him hollering at the staff for sometime later.
My "favorite" darkroom came to exist many years later, one that I had constructed into a third of my kitchen. I built a temporary wall that divided the kitchen into 2/3's of the original space. I was fortunate to have had a wonderful friend and "land-lady" at the time, "Rose," who was the mother of one of my close friends. She gave me the permission to construct this space. It was a comfortable darkroom that included all the luxuries of home. I installed a small air conditioner, a landline, safelight, and even a small television. I placed red acetate over the screen so the light from the T.V. image would not expose the photo paper.
In this space I worked for my many hours, especially on the weekends. I was studying and practicing Tai Chi at the time and was frequently "recruited" to photograph Master Ahn for a book he was compiling. In exchange for my work I would often print photos for 6, 7, or 8 hours in an effort to meet his "deadline." Most of the photographs consisted of Ahn himself demonstrating the various moves that combined into Chang style Tai-Chi. It was a positive experience that helped me to speed up my ability to develop and print photographs. Master Ahn was also a philosopher, fine artist and a professor who I first met in college, He influenced my understanding of Yin and Yang in art and in my life. He assisted many people, young, and old. to find their "center," and strive for both mental and physical success.
The image above is a fairly accurate representation of the darkroom I first discovered in the "Woods." I inherited the space from several predecessors and fine former teachers who retired as I began my work there. For several years I privately referred to the space as "Das Boot." It reminded me of the film I had recently seen, and was reminiscent of a narrow windowless, poorly lit, claustrophobia inducing submarine. Somehow hundreds of my students learned about and experienced darkroom work in this unlikely space, to this day some have become professional photographers and journalists.
Both comedy and sadness occurred within those cinder-block and plywood walls. One student became lost in the space and started shouting for help! Another was unable to participate despite several "tries" because he was unable to fit through the narrow maze-like entranceway. One of my somewhat sad memories involved a misinterpretation of directions. I will discuss this misinterpretation soon in an upcoming blog entry "The Pinhole."
My Aunt as I envisioned her suffering, inspired by an old photo, late 1950's
During the late 1950's my grandmother and I would periodically travel from Washington Heights to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. It was the initial part of a journey I did not fully understand at the time. Our destination was a small town named Amityville on Long Island (yes like the movie). We would eventually arrive at this somewhat frightening place, a large old ivy covered building constructed for the rehabilitation of the "mentally ill.” The intent of our outing was to provide an opportunity for my grandmother to visit with her daughter (my aunt) who had been hospitalized with “schizophrenia.” I was never informed regarding all the details or even comprehended what initially led to my aunt’s illness. The family circumstances revolving around her suffering were kept "secret" especially from the younger children. I now understand that at that time the treatments of the mentally ill were harsh and yet to evolve into some of the more humane methods currently in use, There were far fewer options for the treatment of schizophrenia back then, especially regarding medication.
I would sit quietly in a waiting area that was barely a short distance away from the cafeteria. I watched as several women walked in and sat with their visiting mothers or other family members. I was a bit frightened by the strangeness of the environment and some of the patients who appeared. Many women had shaved heads that were partially covered with scarves. My grandmother eventually explained that my aunt was very ill and that she would be visiting with her for about an hour.
Electroconvulsive therapy was prevalent back then and it still is in use. I was never told if my aunt had been subjected to this ‘treatment” but I strongly suspect she had experienced it. Having some knowledge of psychiatric treatment, I am aware that some professionals still favor this method. During her hospitalization, and following her discharge, “A” who was married, was denied visits with her children by her husband. There was no doubt this greatly increased her suffering and her level of despair and anxiety. I was a child, but I can still remember her futile search for her young children and her frequent questioning, “Where are they?”
Schizophrenia is complicated and the characteristics may vary from individual to individual. Among some of the most profound and disturbing, are visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, fear, delusions, speech disorders, and mental confusion. As a result, these and other problems generally evolve into loneliness, social isolation, and often disorientation.
Sadly, one of the lingering memories I still have of my aunt is of the day she apparently walked past a pre-school nearby our home and believed she saw her child inside. She proceeded to enter past the gates and into the school grounds calling out his name. The police were notified and there was much confusion. Needless to say this escalated into a serious matter which required the involvement of family members and professional intervention. Fortunately she was released after this highly emotional experience. I should point out that by that time her children had grown much older, yet in her mind they remained the small children she once held in her arms. Aunt A lived out the remainder of her life in France, she was fluent in Greek, English, and French, and was able to find help at an assisted living residence. It was not until many years later that her grown children were able to reunite with her in France, and assist her as she grew older.
I spent much of my adolescence attempting to understand life while in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Some of my recent photographs are evidence that I am still lost in those mesmerizing woods. It is a comical and puzzling community, to this day half of the residents argue with the other half as to whether Riverdale is in fact part of the Bronx. Another point of contention is whether North or South Riverdale is the "authentic" Riverdale. Then of course to further complicate matters there are the bordering neighborhoods of Spuyten Duyvil, Kingsbridge, and Inwood.
Somewhere within the unofficial South Riverdale area, I was once involved in a quasi-baseball game with an assorted group of young adults. Indeed a motley crew we were, as we attempted to play a game of baseball on the school field. When it was my turn to swing the bat, I accidently managed to hit a fairly solid ground ball and proceeded to step on first base and run towards second. There, I was confronted by a young man named Gene, who I had not met. He stood on the actual plate while playing the position of second baseman, thereby blocking my path. I explained that this was not the correct location for his position. This turned into an ongoing friendly argument for many months, and we became friends for the next fifty years until he recently died.
A few weeks after the game, Gene introduced me to his older brother who I will call “S.” Gene explained privately, that his older brother was not well since his final year at college, and that he suffered from Schizophrenia. I did not feel frightened or alarmed since I had experienced similar circumstances with my aunt, and thought perhaps I would be able to befriend him.
Gene and I ocassionally attempted to include S in some of our social plans and interactions. Unfortunately this effort became increasingly difficult. During our conversations, S often spoke of “martians” spying on us, he especially avoided any contact with physical objects, such as a basketballs, frisbees, or softballs, because of “germs.” One afternoon he accompanied us to a dance club in Manhattan.Many potential dance partners avoided him, yet he pursued them and asked inappropriate questions, such as “Do I smell badly?” “Don’t you like my haircut?” or "Is it my breath?" Several times we attempted to assist him in his plight by suggesting a different approach, but the evening became increasingly unpleasant and we eventually headed back home..
For a several years after this experience, S managed to deal with his disability, then one day he was discovered by the police urinating on a Manhattan sidewalk. He was almost arrested, his family was contacted and he was released. The family was instructed to seek professional help. S had apparently avoided taking his medications on that particular day and his condition deteriorated.
Schizophrenia began to manifest itself while he was attending college. He was a very hard-working math major and about to graduate when his illness changed his life. Men typically begin to experience symptoms some time between their late teens and early twenties. Women typically experience similar symptoms between their mid-twenties to their early thirties. In either case it was a devastating experience for him and his family.
Eventually “S” ended up in an “institution” at an upstate psychiatric center. He was permitted to visit home periodically on pre-planned weekends. One weekend I was invited to ride along with the family as he was returned to the hospital. I considered both S and his brother to be friends and didn't mind the short ride. S's mother packed two large over-filled shopping bags with assorted foods and a few clothing items for him to take back to his ward. I remember that there were several large Kosher salamis, long loaves of Italian bread, and apples and bananas. An attendant looked over a printed "pass" and permitted the three of us to walk through the long corridor leading up to the ward. We walked past many huge steel doors prior to arriving in front of his "home." Not knowing what to expect, we backed up and observed as two tall double doors were unlocked and partially opened. The scene inside was alarmingly chaotic, noisy and upsetting. Locked behind those doors, dozens of men meandering throughout, walking in and out of the maze of bunk beds, in various stages of dress and undress and apparently experiencing different levels of uncertainty. Some seemed to wander about in circles around the room, others spoke out loudly seemingly to no one in particular. As we bid S farewell, we watched him enter into the unknown. Two individuals greeted him at the door and took the bags from his hands, "Welcome back S" they said, "Let us help you with that." The attendant closed and locked the steel doors, putting the heavy ring of keys into the pocket of his discolored white lab coat. It was an eerie feeling, listening to the sound of our own footsteps and realizing that behind all those other steel doors, there were hundreds of human beings separated from their lives and their families. We tip-toed through the empty hallways as I silently thought about S being locked away in such a vast and cold room with so many other patients, What would become of him? My own anxiety increased as we slowly approached our seemingly distant "escape." The attendant had barely spoken to us the entire time, yet he kept staring at us as if we could easily become permanent residents or perhaps his latest victims. It was a frightening thought but we were ecstatic upon our own "release."
There are many theories pointing to differing causes of schizophrenia, some have discussed the idea of living within a "double-bind." A situation where there is no way out, there is no way to win, or no way to make the right choice. Frequently after S was eventually released, I heard his mother shout, "If you don't do what you're told to do, you know where you will be going." He never returned to the institute and managed to live with his mother while attending several day-treatment programs. S now resides in a retirement home near Hanover in New Hampshire where he was originally rejected by the other residents for being schizophrenic.
Following those early encounters, I became increasingly "comfortable" and unafraid of the disease. I learned a great deal about the schizophrenia and the difficulties that individuals and their families must face. Sadly, it is still a very misunderstood illness, among other things, frequently mistaken for multiple-personality disorder. Many individuals fear the unknown and choose to confront rather than comfort.
During the 1980's I worked part-time at a day-treatment "half way house" for formerly hospitalized schizophrenic patients. The program served approximately 40 participants. Twice a week a psychiatrist would arrive to medicate the patients individually in his tiny office. After their medication was injected, the patients often became sleepy and would recline on one several couches. The director usually came out of his own office, usually shouting, reminding everyone that they were not permitted to sleep on the sofas.
It was at this center that I met a young man by the name of Paul. I worked with him for about a year and did the best I could to help him. There were many challenging characteristics that made Paul particularly unique. Paul's fascination was the world of light bulbs. He could look at any light fixture and identify the type of light bulb, it's intensity, it's color, lumens, temperature, etc. This obsession with light bulbs did not manifest itself as a minor interest or hobby. It was the dominant topic of his thoughts and entered into any conversation Paul would have at any time. Paul owned an old IBM Selectric typewriter that was clearly his proudest possession. The typewriter provided the writer with the ability to change its font by removing a "ball of letters" and replacing it with another. On a weekly basis Paul would type out a single page "newsletter", make copies, and distribute them to all of the 39 other patients and the staff.
The problem was not in the concept of a newsletter, but the constantly repeated content. Ninety percent of every issue was devoted to the world of light bulbs, manufacturing, quality, his favorite brands, and detailed descriptions. The newsletter was written in a cryptic language that only Paul understood. I attempted in my work to learn understand his language, to respect and accept him, to "meet him where he was." This was not an original idea but rather an approach I had read and learned about from many therapist's including Carl Young, Milton Erickson and others. Jung once encountered a young patient who insisted she had been on the moon. He did not reject the idea or confront her, he accepted the fact that her abuse and trauma resulted in her retreating to this far and distant place.
I was pleased to have made considerable progress with Paul, until one particular week that I was away for a week. When I returned, I found Paul, unlike himself, speechless and reclining on one of the sofas. No word of his lightbulbs, no greeting or acknowledgement, no social interaction. He appeared extremely depressed as if he had lost a good friend or a family member. I inquired as to the reason for this regression. I was informed by the director that one of the other patients became aggitated by Paul and his obsession with light bulbs. Tired of listening to Paul's stories, the patient took Paul's IBM electric typewriter away from him, carried it to the window and dropped it down the four stories, It was the end of the typewriter and the end of the newsletter. It was also almost the end of Paul who was never the same, even months later when I had to leave the program, he remained depressed and sat in the same lonely place.
Just prior to my leaving the program the staff met and discussed the possibility of organizing a day-trip to the Bronx Zoo. It was located nearby and it was an affordable option for the group. I made a suggestion to the staff that we might use the outing in part to implement photography. At that time there were numerous proponents for the use of photography in therapy. When questioned as to how this could be done, I explained that I was a camera collector, and that I could bring in twenty cameras loaded with film. My plan was to carry them around my neck on my shoulders, and loan them out individually to those interested. To my surprise there was considerable opposition by the staff. Among other objections there was a concern for the "privacy" of the individual and an argument that schizophrenic patients would not be comfortable being photographed by one another or even being in photographs. In contrast, advocates at the time pointed out that photography was an excellent tool for schizophrenics. The controls of a camera, selecting an image, choosing an f-stop and shutter speed, and focusing on the subject, could all be helpful in transferring these abilities to individual self-control.
When we arrived at our destination the cameras became very popular among the patients. While this was prior to the current "selfie", practically all of the group members enjoyed taking turns "being the photographer" or volunteering as a "model/subject." To everyone's surprise, the group members were not self-conscious and a good time was had by all. As a token of my appreciation and due to my departure I distributed the processed prints a few days later.
My first cameras were an 8mm Keystone and a great big box containing a tiny Kodak Brownie "Holiday Flash" and all the equipment necessary for lighting and film development. I recall jumping for joy when I viewed my first self-processed image including fingerprints, dust marks, and faded grey edges! The joy of my chemical darkroom work had begun!