More images inspired by the work of Charles Jones (1866-1959).
Not long ago, I discovered the work of a little-known photographer who never got recognition for his work during his lifetime, and his aesthetic speaks directly to mine in the kinds of subjects he chose and in the kinds of contexts in which he shot them. Charles Jones’s work makes me want to run out and buy produce. In fact, it has. An Englishman born in 1866, he was a lifelong gardener, a very private person according to surviving family members, and apparently, a gifted photographer who made, quite literally, the fruits of his labors his photographic subjects.
Like Vivian Maier’s work, Jones’s work was discovered accidentally. Photograph collector, Sean Sexton, found a trunk for sale at a London antique market that was filled with hundreds of photos of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Apparently, “they had been passed over and scored by dealers and collectors earlier in the day” but “Sexton instantly saw an originality and quality in the works.” (I need to frequent large flea markets more often.) Sexton then published some of the images in his book Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones in 1998, but the book was re-released in 2016 with an introduction by Alice Waters.
I can clearly see the love this photographer had for his subject matter. According to Sexton, there are no surviving negatives, so the prints are all that’s left of Mr. Jones’s legacy, in addition to a few stories by surviving relatives about the photographer himself. You can find a wonderful piece about the photographer on this site along with more of his images: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2012/03/09/charles-jones-gardener-photographer
Jones died on November 15, two days after I was born, but I’d like to think I carry forward the legacy of his work. Though I didn’t grow the plant matter I photograph, the fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other botanicals are as alive to me as they were to Jones. This one is for you, Mr. Jones, with gratitude.
I know many of my friends lately have had to deal with the passing of a parent. This past February it was my turn. I didn’t know, but my father had been living with Parkinson’s-like symptoms for a while, not having told anyone until the symptoms were unavoidably visible. I live a continent away and trips back east are not frequent, except that while I was visiting with my mother, whose husband died after Thanksgiving, I went to see my father who was hospitalized. The doctors were having a hard time diagnosing what was happening with him. Dad thought it all may have had to do with a cyst on his brain stem. It wasn’t. Turns out he had a very aggressive, Parkinson’s-like disease and died within two months of the diagnosis, two months after I saw him for the last time. The boy in the rowboat crossed the horizon.
Dad and I had a fraught history. My parents were young when they had me, an accident. Neither of them knew how to be parents. They weren’t yet fully adults themselves. It took me a long time to understand and accept that after measuring my childhood in losses and absences, words not said, hugs not given, voids filled with fear and anger. Later in life, Dad seemed to find his way, learned how to be a grandfather to my brother’s daughter and his companion’s kids.
At his memorial, I heard people say many warm things about my Dad. He was certainly a likable person. But I sat counting the things I couldn’t say, like how hard it was to find Father’s Day cards that didn’t ring false. Like how I didn’t hear my father say he loved me until I was in my 50s (though better late than never). How some men’s cologne will always be the scent of rage for me. However, because of his absences of heart and attention, I’ve learned how to be strong, self-sufficient, how to step out of the dark of depression to create my own life.
A recent movie presented a beautiful, heartbreaking meditation on time and memory, posing a question; would you live your life over again knowing what you’d have to go through? I don’t know. I know I miss my Dad. We never seemed to have much in common beyond shared biology and history, but in the last couple years, he began to respond to my photography in a way that I never expected, initiating conversations on various images. For Christmas this past year, I sent him a calendar I made from my photos. My brother said that when they had to move Dad into a nursing care facility, they posted my calendar on the wall where he could see it. His last post on Facebook in September of 2016 was of two images side-by-side, images that meant much to him: a photograph of his beloved Rottweiler, Greta, and an old black and white photo of me at around age 2, explaining that “both are beautiful.”
I know this final absence has opened up old wounds, but I look at my favorite image of Dad, the boy in the rowboat, and I understand how he is a part of me, regardless. He was once young and hopeful. He had things he wanted to do and to be. He lost things and gained others, including 5 marriages, while he navigated the complex scope of his life. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, particularly at the end.
What I do hope is that at my end, I can look upon the intersection of his life and mine and also declare, “both are beautiful.”
“Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.” –George Orwell
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.
This is the first time a new year approaches where I’m feeling more trepidation than hope, but I will work hard to lean into hope. Not a believer in fortunes, particularly the random kind that come in cookies, I kept this one. There are things I need to accomplish this year, and things I know we will all face as individuals and as a nation. We will all need strong and willing hearts.
We all need to gather the fragments we will shore against our ruin, so at the end of it all we may chant, “shanti, shanti, shanti.” (from T.S. Elliot’s, “The Wasteland”)