Between Brick Walls
In May of 2014, I took a three-week photography class. Earlier that year, I’d started doing photography professionally, but I knew I needed to improve my skills. Armed with my old Canon Rebel XS, I plunged into the class, three hours a day, four days a week. I was excited, but I also knew that my photography would not fit in with most other students’ work.
Since taking up photography almost four years prior, my inspiration had changed only to become more unconventional. Most people relied on pets, babies, friends, or cars for their photography. Some took pictures of drinks or wide, open landscapes. All of these were great subjects, and I’ve used them myself in the past, but the bulk of my inspiration came from brick walls.
I squeezed myself against their sunburnt surfaces to capture the minuscule holes in the bricks, the jagged edges of each one, the gray roads of mortar between them. I looked at cities from a bird’s eye view. I looked at underground grids for escape plans. I looked at the workers’ plight in the Industrial Age.
There was a kind of safety in brick walls, but that’s not to say a photographer in Flagstaff, Arizona, faces many risks. Photojournalists in Afghanistan face militant attacks. Independent photographers at protests in the West Bank or Cairo face the full power of the state when they dare to immortalize its brutality. Storm chasers face tornadoes, hurricanes, and lightning. Even tourists at the Grand Canyon might chase after a perfect shot of a nearly extinct condor and not realize the cliff’s edge is an inch from their toes. I often envied photographers who put themselves in danger for a good shot. They sought the truth while I played it safe in Flagstaff. They took pictures of real humanity while I took pictures of brick walls.
It wasn’t only brick walls, though they were certainly the most aesthetically perfect subjects to me. It was anything industrial, preferably old and industrial. I took a particular interest in rusted chains, and hunted down discarded sections of pipe leaning against buildings under renovation. Steel drums and old, unused brewing equipment were occasional favorites. I wanted to see human hands in everything I shot, invisible scarred hands laying brick, hammering nails, twirling cigarettes, sawing wood. While most of my colleagues in class took pictures of bikes, birds, or each other, I took pictures of brick walls.
That was also the summer that a forest fire consumed the nearby Oak Creek Canyon. The Slide Fire, as it was called, would eventually grow to 21,000 acres. Although the fire was relatively distant from Flagstaff, the wind swept smoke and ash northward, so much that one morning the entire city was engulfed. The dull orange monster of smog masked the sun, making the city look like it was plastered over with one of a dozen dull, orange Instagram filters. #dryseason.
That smog-covered morning while I drove to class, I got stuck in Flagstaff’s morning traffic and sat looking at the hideous orange breath, smelling the burnt air sneak in through my windows. Like hot snow, white balls of ash fell onto my windshield. I turned the radio on, only to hear the latest climate change report on NPR; everything around me, the news and traffic and smoke and ash, hammered a single thought into my brain: this is what the world will look like in thirty years, burned and polluted.
I parked my car and sat in smoke and silence. I killed the ignition and tried to imagine daily life in Beijing or Los Angeles. One hundred years ago, I thought, men in white collared shirts rolled up their sleeves and slapped brick upon brick to build the Industrial Age, and lived in smoke. Did the women in the Triangle Fire claw at brick walls when their bosses locked the doors? Did the steel workers scramble away from men who fell into the vats of boiling, glowing metal? I dared myself to jump out of the car, run to class, and simply hide from the reminder of the impending apocalypse swelling over me with the wind, but chest pressure prompted me to simply walk to class. As I walked the pressure in my chest grew. It wasn’t a physiological reaction to the smoke. It was only a small sign of panic, something I often felt when confronted with grim facts. I felt the same panic in history classes reading about genocide, and regularly when I listened to the news. To put myself at ease, I directed all my attention to photography that day, to the daily assignment I had the whole afternoon to work on. That day it was an abstract triptych.
Abstract photography often involves distinct, sometimes unusual patterns, repetition, and shots whose subjects cannot easily be identified. Kitchen utensils are good subjects to practice with. Instead of using a fork as the subject, one can focus on an individual tine. Instead of a whisk, the shiny network of wires. Instead of a blender, the propeller blades at the bottom. A triptych is simply a set of three photographs placed together, related or otherwise. That was our assignment that day, two lessons in one project. I didn’t want to drive home to take pictures of my kitchen utensils, knowing that driving would only remind me of how complicit I was in climate change. I also felt I had more to work with in downtown Flagstaff, so I walked the few blocks to the train tracks, crossed them when it was safe, and wandered the alleys downtown, into the jungle of beautiful brick walls.
After spending a few hours shooting brick walls in alleys and sides streets, I had two of the three abstracts I needed. After my adventures in brick wall pornography, however, every non-brick wall subject I tried only dissatisfied me. I took a picture of a street lamp, but two people stepped under it to smoke, as if the smoke around them weren’t enough. The white statues atop the big pink Catholic Church downtown were too far away to get a close-up. Some dogs panting in the heat offered promising solutions, but they refused to cooperate and only wanted to lick my camera. I continued searching for something else that conveyed the daily grind of the twentieth century.
The trick to any good picture, I’d discovered, was to take nine million with minute changes to each. About four or five will be worth keeping, and even then I’d be disappointed that they were slightly fuzzy in the corner or that the colors were a little dull in the foreground. Photoshop could only do so much, and when it came to editing photos, less was always more. The best shots were the ones that required no changes, no cropping or saturation of colors.
By around 4 PM, I’d taken well over nine million photos of downtown Flagstaff: hostels, coffee shops, garages, chains, pipes, streetlights, and none of them, I imagined, would look good between the other two abstracts. If I’d shown a stranger the pictures on my camera, she would think Flagstaff was a colossal maze of disunited brick walls, tiles, fences, chains, locks, a veritable cemetery of ways to confine. The only thing I felt confining me, though, was the smoke above. Walls meant comfort. The open air meant strangulation.
After a long break in one of my favorite coffee shops, I stepped back outside into the ever-imposed orange tint, ready and eager to finish the triptych. If I found nothing, I could get a shot of my silverware and insert it between the wall abstracts. Then it would make no sense, I thought as I walked toward the train tracks, as another train roared through Flagstaff. Putting something between brick walls could mean something. It could be a metaphor, a whole story. It could offer insight into the human condition if the audience grasped it properly. I was afraid sticking a fork between brick walls would be arbitrary and meaningless. Meaning was what I sought.
The train zoomed by me where I’d stopped in front of the tracks, pulling smoke and ash behind it, filling my lungs with Oak Creek Canyon’s detriment and my ears with its metallic thrum. The railroad crossing bell stopped, the gates rose, and traffic rolled past me down the street. I paused on the tracks and looked up and down at the gleaming metal.
Train tracks were loaded symbols, I thought. Peace train. Love train. Crazy train. Freedom train. Trains piling over the American West, trains pushing through Poland toward concentration camps, trains delivering wayward passengers to their dreams. In a way, they could represent anything. I walked to the middle of the tracks, stood between them, stared at the metal rings and rust, the rocks and wood. Sticking an abstract of tracks between brick walls would mean something, and it would make sense. The triptych could be about confining peace, love, craziness, or freedom. This was it.
I was a college student standing on train tracks with a camera. First, I stole a few preliminary shots of the tracks curving into the distance, into the smoke-filled sky and around the blurry bend in the hillside. Then I dove in for the close-up, working slowly to get as many good shots as possible. So I was a college student kneeling on train tracks with a camera. Kneeling got me a few good shots, but too many details were absent: the rust of the rings, the shine of the steel in the dim sunlight, the jagged edge of the wooden planks. I wanted the pattern, the endlessness of it as it spiraled forward. To get in closer, I lay flat on my belly between the parallel lines, squeezing myself tighter against the hot metal. So I was a college student on his stomach between the tracks with a camera. I crawled forward and focused my camera, and that’s when a few yards behind me came the bell warning of a train. The gates descended. Red lights blinked, one after the other.
So I was a college student on his stomach between the tracks with a camera and a train coming. I looked up, saw it pushing toward me on the same tracks I was between. I turned my camera off, but froze in place. The warning gave enough time to flee unless I was physically, mentally, or emotionally confined to the tracks. There was enough time for me to capture some shots of the oncoming train, to capture several dozen shots even, but I stayed in the dirt between the hot metal swords, under a roof of woody smoke. Suddenly the pressure returned to my chest.
What did I really have to lose by staying where I was? What did I have to lose by being spared from watching the gradual decay of the planet? I could close my eyes and not have to see the oceans rise, cities fall into warming water, deserts expand, forests dry up, and communities thrown into migratory struggle. I wouldn’t have to see my beloved mountain town consumed by the pollution of its neighbors. If for nothing else, the train would spare me from yet another panic attack about disaster or genocide, of which I’d had countless that previous year. It should have scared me how quickly I wanted to stay; instead it felt normal, maybe even relaxing. I closed my eyes and waited.
And waited and waited, and thought while I waited. I thought about how the train conductor would feel as I heard the horn blare. I thought about whether or not the people waiting to cross several yards away would pull me up, or if they’d film the whole thing, take pictures, post them on tumblr. #suicide #anotheronebitesthedust #mustbeanotherartist. Would they use a filter to make it look retro? If they took pictures, I hoped they’d at least try to get a good angle. So many people stand where they are and simply point their camera or phone at their subjects, so that ninety percent of all photos have the same angle. None of those hacks, I thought, would think to kneel down or walk closer to see what the other side looked like. Nobody would try to use leading lines or a Dutch tilt. Instead, they’d all produce the same photo. And then I thought, here I’d spent the day leaning against brick walls, pressing myself into sidewalks, climbing stairs, and laying down on train tracks to get a good, clear, original shot, and these wannbes would fill the Internet with more uncreative, overexposed photos.
I finally stood up. The train was twenty, maybe fifteen seconds away, its horn growling in a single, monotonous note to scare me off. Looking around, I saw nobody getting ready to take a picture. There were two people across the street waiting to cross, and I doubted they noticed me. They weren’t hack photographers, just ordinary folks waiting for a train to pass. I stepped off the tracks so the conductor wouldn’t feel compelled to pull on the breaks. Walking back and returning to the road, I started to shake a little. The chest pressure was gone, but my hands trembled, my skin lurched momentarily. I walked back down the street and took in the smell of smoke, trying to think of camping but unable to think of anything in particular. Photography, fire, social media, train tracks, bricks, melting ice. All of it drifted around in the empty space between my ears.
I went back to the coffee shop and sat at one of the tables outside, my back turned to the train as it hissed behind me. Why did I move? Why didn’t I move? It was a long time before I realized the train was gone, and I heard only the river flow of traffic and the furtive congestions of conversation around me. After a while, I gazed into my camera’s blank screen, switched it on, and flipped through the day’s photos. This one for the triptych. This one for editing practice. This one for the triptych. This one for another project. One by one I passed judgment over each photo, though I would alter my decision upon seeing them on a larger screen.
That evening, I walked down one of the many alleys I’d neurotically photographed earlier, between the cavernous brick walls like rotting buck teeth, to meet a friend for wine. I stopped in the alley on my way and stared at the bricks, a regular activity for me. I counted the tiny holes in one. I rubbed my fingers against the now cool, rugged mortar, then brushed them over the bricks, so smooth compared to the mortar. These little islands in perfect gridlock felt irrevocably placid. I closed my eyes and dragged a finger down the wall, letting the skin on the tip scrape from brick to mortar, brick to mortar, brick to mortar, settling slowly on mortar. I slid it horizontally in the tiny sidewalk the pattern formed. My fingertip bounced against the lumps and grooves. Bricks defy nature; brick walls doubly defy it, but bricks were just the beginning. Bare feet slapped against dirt to build ancient temples, Roman roads, prisons, dungeons, castles. Brick walls sprouted to form the Tower of London, the cathedrals in Mexico, the walls of Southern plantations, the ghettos in Poland, the Berlin Wall, the imprisonment of Palestine, the US-Mexico border fence. Why was I so comforted by them? Why did I feel so alive pressing myself against brick walls, running my hands against their grizzled faces?
Maybe I was too obsessed with abstractions at the time. Maybe I thought that if I stared long enough and close enough into something unnatural, something confining, something that should cause inherent discomfort, I might find a kernel of beauty in it. If I stared long enough into a brick wall, digging my eyes deep into its rustic, scaled skin, I might see something lovely or wise. But I’ve stared intently into walls, train tracks, roads, pipes, and haven’t seen anything yet, no spark of enlightenment. I keep staring, and I keep embracing, and I keep wondering why I stayed and why I moved.