Read a poem slowly. Let the words sink in. Then photograph what you feel.
That is what we invited photographers to do this summer for a series of visual essays inspired by poetry. We selected poems by six contemporary American poets — Ada Limón, Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Adrian Matejka, Jericho Brown, Katy Lederer and Jenny Johnson — and presented each one to a different photographer.
We urged them to embark upon a somewhat intimate mission: to let the words inspire them. Poetry can mean different things to different readers. And over time, the meaning behind each line — each word, even — can change.
After reading Ms. Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s poem, our staff photographer Damon Winter thought about fear, love and grief. And then he kept thinking. “Many-Faced Poem” shifted in meaning many times as he read and reread (and reread) it.
“Let me read it a few more times,” Mr. Winter writes, “and I might feel completely differently.”
Below, our photographers explain how they interpreted the poems they were assigned.
Carolyn Van Houten: “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use” by Ada Limón
The Texas-based photographer Carolyn Van Houten visited her family’s farm in North Carolina, where she spent her youth connecting to the land — and to horses.
Upon reading this poem, my mind filled with memories from my family’s farm. I recalled the seemingly endless humid summer days I spent working there, experiencing a connection to nature.
In the poem and in my early years, nature was a sacred place. I discovered photography around the same time and initially used it as a way to process my own emotions. When I moved away, my work quickly evolved to almost entirely focus on others’ emotions and experiences — a practice I find far more fulfilling.
I immediately thought of horses when I read the poem — they’re how I connect to nature almost every day, even now. I included a picture of a horse in Texas in this series because the work I did on the farm revolved around the horses. Even now, spending time with them is like therapy to me. It is sacred time that balances out all of the emotional work I spend so much of my time doing.
Returning to the farm to photograph the poem was, at times, uncomfortable and surprisingly difficult, because it clarified how much my experiences and beliefs have changed since I left. But what remained was my connection to the land.
Damon Winter: “Many-Faced Poem” by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello
After two of his grandparents died recently, Mr. Winter traveled to their home in Ithaca, N.Y., where he visited places that stood out in his memory. Mr. Winter, a New York Times staff photographer, framed his scenes and, he writes, allowed his camera “to drift up toward the sky as the light traced the journey in a single brush stroke.”
Every time I read this poem, its meaning changes. The first time, I couldn’t get past the imagery. As I kept reading, hints of meaning started to come though, although subtly and somewhat elusively. I didn’t want it to be a riddle that needed to be solved, but part of me wanted to know exactly what it was she meant. I wanted to know more about the “it” she refers to through the poem. Initially I thought about fear. I thought maybe I had found it.
I realized at some point that I had been reading the poem without knowing the title. When I discovered that it was called “Many-Faced Poem,” it affirmed what had been going through my head. At first, it was physical and visual. It was this series of arresting scenes, earthy and natural, that drew me in. And then those scenes spoke to me about fear, and then love, and perhaps, as my mother suggested, grief.
Then it was about the words that we use to describe these emotions. It was about the way we communicate feelings, the way words emerge from their hiding places in our minds and hearts, tucked away in deep-seated memories. Or as the title suggests, maybe it’s about all of those things that are worthy of poetry, the things that find their way in and out of our lives, the things we live for and hide from, the things that are important enough to care about and write about. Maybe it’s about the way love takes shape in our lives or the way fear casts a long, dark shadow. I think it all depends on where and when the reader is in life. In that way, perhaps it also is about time and the passage of time.
But let me read it a few more times, and I might feel completely differently.
For this series, I decided to travel to my grandparents’ home in Ithaca, N.Y., and spend a few days there with my mother. Both of her parents, my Nana and Gramp, passed away in the last year and I don’t think I ever really took the time to process that loss. In many of the images: my grandparents’ home; the shores of Cayuga Lake, where I used to walk with Nana; Robert H. Treman State Park, where we all used to hike down the gorge and Gramp would take photographs.
I set up my camera, framed a scene and let it go, allowing the lens to drift up toward the sky as the light traced the journey in a single brush stroke. For me it was a chance to revisit places where we shared our time and thoughts, where memories were born and sometimes lost. It was a chance to walk familiar paths and open myself to what might come up.
Zora J. Murff: “If You’re Tired Then Go Take a Nap” by Adrian Matejka
The photographer Zora J. Murff took these photographs in the Near North Side neighborhood of Omaha, where he is doing work as a graduate student.
My first time reading through this poem, I felt nostalgia. I was reminded of getting out of school on a warm day, hanging out with friends into the night and all of the things — trouble or otherwise — that might ensue. I could feel the butterflies in my gut, a feeling between anticipation and trepidation.
This work is connected to my thesis as an exploration of race, location and image. As a graduate student, I have been working in the Near North Side neighborhood of Omaha, which experienced a tumultuous history of racism through physical violence and redlining. My thesis research takes a broad approach; even though I am connected to this experience by the color of my skin, it tends to not take such a personal approach.
However, in visualizing Mr. Matejka’s poem, I felt that a more personal view was needed. Growing up, I never really paid much attention to how my race related to my surroundings. But in a few ways, North Omaha reminds me of home — or the one place from childhood that I would consider home — and it was nice to look back historically, personally.
In these images I see icons or stand-ins for people, places or experiences that I had growing up. The older kids you would admire for all the wrong reasons; the girls you couldn’t take your eyes off of but were too scared to approach; the community center or church you were forced to attend, but where you never quite fit in.
I tried to hold on to the feelings that the poem gave me, and as I wandered around, I would photograph areas where I felt the same response. While I approached most of the images in that abstract way, some are more of a direct representation of a person or place I knew.
The poem allowed me to have an intimate experience with myself. Once I realized that, it shifted the way I made the images — I wanted that level of intimacy to come across in the photographs.
Nina Robinson: “N’em” by Jericho Brown
The photographer Nina Robinson took a series of portraits of her Aunt Jean as they visited sites in Arkansas from Jean’s past. The series was inspired by a photograph that Ms. Robinson took in 2014. That work is now showing at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, Ark.
I’ve stared at that image for so long. My Aunt Jean drove me out to this lake in Joan, Ark. — it’s a small community in rural Arkansas. We happened to get out of the car and she started to smoke a cigarette. I just stared at the back of her and I snapped this photo. I’ve always loved it. It’s one of my favorites from the body of work and it’s mysterious, in a way.
My aunt and I are very similar: We’re really adventurous, and if I go on a road trip somewhere she’s always ready to go with me. She’s into history; she’s into poetry. I’ve been wanting to do this project for a while and I felt like, “What better person to collaborate with than my aunt?”
If I ask her direct questions, she’s going to give me really short answers. But when she’s sitting at her table and we’re having a conversation as she’s smoking a cigarette, we get into so many discussions about her past. She’ll tell me stories about certain people or places. I said, “Well, why don’t we visit those places and I photograph you there?”
When she was standing (above) in the spot where the black segregated high school where she graduated from was, it brought back a lot of memories for her — a lot of good memories. She actually stood there for a while. I don’t know exactly what she was thinking; I just let her have her moment.
Todd Heisler: “Valentine” by Katy Lederer
Todd Heisler, a Times staff photographer, took photographs while spending time with his family in Brooklyn.
Poetry, to me, is what is right in front of you every day that you fail to see. Great poets have the ability to eloquently amplify the internal monologue, which is so often muted by outside distractions. Lyrical photography, in turn, is often hindered by too much thought.
I often find that when I don’t carry a camera, I see great photographs because I’m not looking for them. This is an effort to not seek photographs but rather let them find me.
Preston Gannaway: “Ladies’ Arm Wrestling Match at the Blue Moon Diner” by Jenny Johnson
The photographer Preston Gannaway, who is based in San Francisco but grew up in the South, drove along the Shenandoah River seeking moments that, she writes, captured the feeling of “new growth over old.”
I thought about this piece a lot and felt that it was most about coping with defeat and the resulting rebirth. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the rural South and a good part in Appalachia. When I read the poem, I had vivid images from my own personal experience and other photos I’d seen or taken in the past that seemed well suited.
But I didn’t know this particular part of the region and I sometimes struggled to find the images I was after. It’s a beautiful area, and so much around me just felt too picturesque to be tonally appropriate. During the middle of the week, much of the landscape was quiet and empty.
Few defeats are greater than the South’s in the Civil War. And symbols of that are all over this part of West Virginia and Virginia. I tried to look for landscapes that echoed the new growth over old, and to add some different imagery that I felt complemented the words.
I used my typical journalistic approach and relied on found situations — nothing was manipulated or staged. I decided to keep the figures faceless so as not to tie directly to any specific population (other than predominantly female).
An article last Sunday about poems by contemporary American poets that inspired photographers misspelled the given name of one poet. She is Katy Lederer, not Katie.
Kerri MacDonald is a staff editor in the photo department and on the social media team. She joined The Times as a producer on the Lens blog, and has also worked on Metro and as a picture researcher in Hong Kong. @kerrimac
|God & Nature Magazine|
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