Saturday, May 31, 2008
Dixie Palms Motel
St. George, Utah
"The FBI," she said, "look in on houses to see if people are committing any crimes. They do it through the TV, you know." She lay back on the bed and the room was spinning. It was like the motel room she had gone to with a rich man. She had felt so alive that night because the plastic was so dead.
excerpt from The Motel Room
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
After I left Mountain Meadows, I drove back to St. George and checked into a room at The Dixie Palms Motel. I turned on the TV and found the story about the FBI raid on the polygamist compound in El Dorado, Texas on Larry King Live. The same footage played over and over again with victims telling their lurid stories, newscasters with menacing snarls and women who claimed they liked being one of many wives. I sat on the bed and shot digital photos of the TV screen and thought about how everything felt all at once sleazy: television is sleazy, the FBI is sleazy, polygamists are sleazy, newscasters are sleazy, victims are sleazy, motel rooms are sleazy, Utah is sleazy, Texas is sleazy, America is sleazy, religion is sleazy, cameras are sleazy, even I am sleazy.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Sunday, May 25, 2008
I have donated a print of the image, Teenage Boy, to the HIV Law Project exhibition and silent auction which takes place at Moti Hasson Gallery on Monday, June 2nd, from 6 - 9pm. Work by all of the participating artists can be seen at ARTISTS and tickets to the event can be purchased at TICKETS.
Moti Hasson Gallery
535 W. 25th Street
Thursday, May 22, 2008
After I left Colorado City, my next destination was Mountains Meadows north of St. George, Utah. I decided to stop in St. George to calm my nerves and take a tour of Brigham Young's winter home. The house was clean and quiet and soothing, and the tour guide seemed almost saintly in contrast to the bulky and intimidating men I'd encountered in Colorado City. I felt a little guilty that my motivation to photograph Brigham Young's home was less than celebratory since the guide was so gracious when I asked if I could take some pictures. He told us that Brigham Young fathered fifty-seven children with multiple wives, and I took some photos of his massive canopy bed, upon which lay a top hat and a cane. I sensed that the images might be useless given the overexposure from the sun pouring in from the window behind the bed, and I was right.
My daylight hours were fast fading so I got back on the highway north towards Mountains Meadows. Mountains Meadows is the site of what historian Geoffrey Ward described as "the most hideous example of the human cost exacted by religious fanaticism in American history until 9/11."
I first learned about Mountain Meadows through Jon Krakauer's book, Under The Banner of Heaven. On September 11, 1857, a militia of Mormons disguised as Indians, along with real Paiute Indians, attacked a wagon train of Arkansas families known as the Fancher party who were traveling to California. The Mormon militia persuaded the families to surrender under the false promise of a truce and a safe passage. And then in a brutal slaughter known as The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Mormon militia took the lives of approximately 140 men, women and children.
After the massacre, The Mormon Church first tried to lay the blame for the killings on the local Paiute Indians. But when evidence revealed Mormon involvement, the church then tried to shift sole responsibility onto John D. Lee, a Mormon zealot and the adopted son of Brigham Young. Lee was executed for his crimes by a firing squad in 1877, and controversy exists to this day about the involvement of other church members in The Mountain Meadows Massacre.
According to an article by Sally Denton in The New York Times in 2003, the current church president, Gordon B. Hinckley, agreed to restore a landmark in 1999 where at least some of the bodies were buried, a concession which drew controversy when a contractor's backhoe unearthed the bones of 29 victims. Denton wrote, "After a debate between Utah state officials and church leaders - what has been called Utah's "unique church-state tango" - about state laws requiring unearthed bones to be forensically examined for cause of death, the church had the remains quickly reburied without any extensive examination that might have drawn new attention to the brutality of the murders."
She further wrote, "At a time when religions around the world are acknowledging and atoning for past sins, the massacre has left the Mormon Church in a quandary. Roman Catholics have apologized for their silence during the Holocaust, United Methodists for their massacre of American Indians during the Civil War, Southern Baptists for their support of slavery, and Lutherans for Martin Luther's anti-Jewish remarks. But unlike the leaders of other religions, who are believed to be guided by the hand of God, Mormon prophets are considered extensions of him ... To acknowledge complicity on the part of church leaders runs the risk of calling into question Brigham Young's divinity and the Mormon belief that they are God's chosen people."
Well, as I drove closer to Mountains Meadows, I wondered just how eerie it was going to be, and man, was it eerie right off the bat. Dusk was just beginning to approach an overcast afternoon, and the feeling of death and evil was nearly as pervasive and palpable as what I recall from a visit to the site of the World Trade Center two months after the attack on 9/11. I took deep breaths as I drove down the dirt road to the memorial site where an American flag was erected to acknowledge the loss of American lives.
I got out of the jeep with my camera and tri-pod, praying that I wouldn't be die alone here, subsumed by ghosts or startled by an attacker looming in the meadow. Shortly after I set up my first few shots, a truck came barreling down the dirt road and two men climbed out with a pit bull. I ran back to the jeep and stood at the door and asked them, "Are you guys spooky?" They assured me that they weren't spooky, but we agreed that this place sure was spooky. They left quickly, and I resumed taking pictures until a large bull walked out of the meadow gazing in my direction, and that was it for me at the memorial site. I drove up to the top of a hill to take in the full view of the meadow and hurriedly took three shots and got back on the road.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Colorado City, AZ
Colorado City, AZ
When I was a student in junior high school, I remember reading a short story by Shirley Jackson called The Lottery, and the impact that this story had on me. The story is about a farming village which holds a lottery each year and selects one member of its community for a ritualistic sacrifice. A family name is first drawn from a black box, followed by the name of one member of that family, who is then stoned to death in the town square by his or her family and friends.
The story is so chilling, I recall a quiet and profound sense of shock and sadness that settled into me as I finished its final words, an experience that stands out in my mind as one of the events that marked a transition from my own childhood into a darker and more complicated adolescence.
I don't know that anything I subsequently read gave me a feeling like this until, in the summer of 2005, I read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. This work of non-fiction describes the murder of a woman and her child committed by her husband's brothers, Ron and Don Lafferty, in American Fork, Utah in 1984. The Lafferty Brothers, who were members of a fundamentalist sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claimed that they received a divine commandment from God to commit this horrific crime and later expressed no remorse for causing these violent deaths.
What is further disturbing about Under the Banner of Heaven is the dense history of violence it illustrates surrounding the Mormon religion, and particularly the violence and misogyny associated with Mormon Fundamentalists who to this day practice polygamy in communities in America. Before I read this book, I had no idea grown men were marrying and abusing teenage brides and beating wayward women in "re-education camps" outside of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah.
What I read in this book stayed with me for years, and it became apparent this winter that I could finally make a trip to this part of the country. I didn't form much of a plan other than to simply make the drive across the desert north of the Grand Canyon to see Colorado City and Hildale for myself and to photograph whatever I might find there.
The day before I left for Colorado City, I talked to my mom on the phone, and she told me about the FBI raid on the polygamist compound in West Texas, which I hadn't yet seen in the news. She was concerned since she knew I was planning to drive from Arizona to Utah that week and she figured tensions would be heightened in the area. I didn't mention to her that I was actually planning to drive to Colorado City the next day since that is not the kind of thing you tell your mother, even when you are thirty-four years old.
The drive from Kayenta to Colorado City took several hours passing first through the stark and beautiful Kaibab Plateau and then up into a snowy forest region in the mountains. My sense of fear began to settle in as I reached Fredonia, a small farming town whose name had appeared in the book in relation to the polygamists, and then it grew as I made the last stretch of the drive through a desolate landscape north into Colorado City.
I didn't know what to expect. Would it look like a normal town with a settlement on the outskirts that I would have to search for? I felt waves of fear pass through me like the sensation of being on a roller-coaster that is climbing towards a peak, when the impending moment of the plunge is full of uncertainty and suspense.
The one thing I had read about the area outside of Krakauer's book was an article I found on the internet about a restaurant in Hildale called The Merry Wives Cafe, where women in long dresses serve food to curious travelers. I planned to stop at the cafe to eat lunch and to get my bearings.
As I drove into Colorado City, I realized that the settlement was the town itself and consisted of houses and yards set off of the highway at the base of a mountain. I stayed on the highway and passed the border into Utah and pulled into the parking lot of The Merry Wives Cafe, whose glass windows were black from the outside. I walked into the cafe and ordered a turkey sandwich and a rasberry lemonade from a woman in a long dress, but when she brought the food to my table, my mouth was too dry to take more than a few bites.
The article about the cafe described portraits of polygamist families on its walls and a mural depicting several woman harmoniously working together in a field. As I sat at my table, I gazed at the mural and thought about asking if I could take a photograph, and then decided that it wasn't important enough to call attention to myself as a photographer since my real goal was to drive into the residential section of Colorado City.
I left the restaurant and drove back east on the highway and turned onto a road that led into the settlement. When I stopped the jeep on the street in front of the cherry tree, several small children in traditional dresses who were playing under the tree immediately ran and hid when they spotted me, even before I picked up my camera. I quickly got out of the car and took a few shots of the tree and drove further in the neighborhood. I saw a woman in a long dress standing in her backyard leaning against a fence, and my desire to take a photograph was overwhelming and yet impossible to realize.
Part of what made Colorado City seem so surreal, besides the large houses with dark windows, was the amalgam of the new and the old. The streets were lined with brand new trucks and SUV's with black windows, while the children and women, some of whom were driving these vehicles, appeared to belong to another century.
I wished I were invisible, but knew that I wasn't, and was, in fact, more than conspicuous, and however real or imagined, my sense of danger in this settlement alone with a camera was growing. My heart was racing, and I imagined one of these many trucks chasing me down in my jeep, and how unlikely an escape would be in the event of a confrontation. I took a few more photos of these eerie houses and drove back toward the highway. I passed a boy with a brimmed hat seated grandly on a horse that was slowing trotting down the road, and I quickly leaned out of the the car window to shoot his photo. But as soon as the boy saw my camera, he fled.
The was my last sign to leave Colorado City, and I continued northwest on the highway. And while the drama of this excursion was clearly a reflection of my imagination, I still felt lucky to leave a place where so many women are held captive.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Monument Valley region
Along the small highways in the deserts of Arizona and Utah, there are long winding driveways leading to clusters of houses and cars. I found myself entranced by their mysteriousness, but more than a little afraid of the unknowns, wondering who lives down there? Do they own guns? Will they shoot me if I drive down their driveway?
Are they natives? Or a cult? Or a religious sect? What are they protecting or hiding?
People hide out in the west for all kinds of reasons. Some of them aren't hiding at all. But how can you know?
At the moment I took this photo, it was as likely that I'd venture down this driveway as I would have climbed into the Egyptian Room with the mummy cases at the public library when I was on a class field trip in grade school. Meaning, I was spooked, and as soon as I took this shot, I jumped back into the jeep and raced down the highway. I told myself that I was saving any possible thread of courage for my next journey and my next post.
Friday, May 9, 2008
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Alexandrea was the first person I met in Kayenta. I saw her blonde hair shining in the bright morning sunlight and pulled the jeep into the parking lot where she was walking with a friend.
I always feel clumsy about these encounters and what to say to someone whose picture I want to take. How would I feel if someone jumped out of a car and stopped me on the street and wanted to take my picture?
If it were someone like Alexandrea, I might be flattered and intrigued, and do my best to share my soul with her for a moment in time, though usually, I am like a deer in the headlights when someone tries to photograph me.
On a Navajo reservation, my awkwardness about taking pictures of people was stronger and more complicated. I felt almost sheepish as a photographer from a middle-class Midwestern family living in New York and wandering this new terrain checking out teenagers. In the end, I didn't make many photos of people in Kayenta, and mostly watched from a distance and wondered how to make these kind of connections. But Alexandrea was open, and I loved her face.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Past, Present, Future
Psychic Reader Palm
I flew into Phoenix on the afternoon of April 6th and picked up my friend's second car from the driveway of his uncle's house in a sun-drenched subdivision near the expressway. My plan was to make the drive from Phoenix north to Kayenta near Monument Valley where my friend works for the federal government as a doctor in a clinic on a Navajo reservation and to spend the night at his house.
I passed through Flagstaff and was enthralled with the pine trees and retro motels lining Route 66 with names like The Frontier and The Wonderland. And while motels like these are some of my favorite forms of eye candy, something about this fortune teller's shop beckoned me to stop the car. Besides the bright pink and green against the blue sky and the long dark shadows cast by an afternoon sun, I also knew that I was at the beginning of a journey to explore some thoughts about America's past, present and future.
And it was the beginning of spring, which is a time of year when I am especially prone to nostalgia - when the past, present and future seem to reveal themselves in uncanny and interconnected ways - when meeting a new person, for instance, can return you to all kinds of important people and events in your life that came before. The threads that bring people together and bind them to one another seem more vivid and almost fated, and memories unfurl like flowers and insects and colors and sounds.