Celina Su wrote a short story called “Missing Persons” for CultureStr/ke. I contributed photographs to accompany the story.
When Celina first showed me her story, I saw the images clearly: figures passing through one another, with the longings of both the living and the dead compelling them to make contact.
I also saw her images clearly in the photographs I was taking at the time, where a pattern of reflection and lateral storytelling emerged.
Below is an essay I wrote a year after moving to Brooklyn, before starting the new job. I’m at the point in my brain evolution where I don’t remember things before a certain period—and for some reason I don’t remember writing this. I found it again after searching for writing I’d started when Celina had finished “Missing Persons.”
You Are Now Here
Reflections on the Subway Commute
For the past few months I’ve been formulating, sometimes aloud, in the middle of crossing a busy street or passing a familiar storefront, a thought about capturing reflection in a photograph. I think about this to both contain and expand my curiosity about my environment. A reflection is a mirroring of a self—as anonymous or specific a self as one chooses or as the situation dictates. And through this mirroring, even multiplying, depending on the angles and number of surfaces involved, depending on the softness or hardness in the image’s resonances, a network of fractured others can be identified. Inside a single window, then, lives the microcosm of a city.
What interests me today is the reflection of a window in a subway car. Before moving to Brooklyn last September, I walked eight blocks to work for eight years, and at the job before that one, I had to cross only a single street to reach my office—a trafficking, literally, of complacencies and short thoughts within the span, during each walk, of ten to fifteen minutes. Now, instead of complacencies, I have the luxury of time and unchecked scrutinies—from the world of home and comfort to the world of work and duty, from an A-to-B direction to an R-to-D-to-F line, of whose zigzagging route, lasting forty minutes to an hour, becomes still as soon as the D rises aboveground for two minutes’ worth of East River brightness. This is an astonishing privilege. To participate in a subway commute is to participate in the respective solitudes of my neighbors. I’ve heard that we put on our outer self as soon as we leave the front door, moving as though puppets inside the shell of an itinerant theater. For me, this outer self arrives only when I encounter a reflection in a window, preferably a moving window, specifically a plurality of windows, in which these various solitudes, or puppets, are revealed. Yes, encounter is the word, for only through encounter am I aware that a self, my own, contains multiplicities.
The transition from an ambulatory commute to a commute involving overstuffed cars and passageways has not, however, been smooth. I tend to fall asleep past my stop. I forget to transfer. I gag at the multiple odors coming from my end of the cramped car. I apologize for bumping into my neighbor, and curse the neighbor who’s bumped into me. I berate the D for snapping its doors shut just as I reach it, then praise it like a child when it welcomes me in. I realize I’m on the wrong train. I realize I miss walking to work. I dread returning home, because returning home means this day has ended and a new one—that is, a reused one—will soon begin.
But this is my story, and I always ask my stories, whether I am living, writing, or photographing them, to transform. And because now I carry a camera with me nearly every day, I find transformations everywhere on the subway: a woman leans against a wall and stares back at me, a man gazes out the window and ignores his fidgety seatmate, a boy stretches out in his mother’s enduring lap, a girl studying her newly painted toes finds herself on the cusp of excitement. These are moments of such calm, such insight, that the angles of refraction become angles of total comprehensiveness. Every day, then, by examining a reflection, or a series of reflections, the city, as well as the story of my commute, transforms itself. When I realized this, I felt I’d discovered a new language. Yet when I returned to Saul Leiter’s own trembling reflection, I was reminded that there is no such thing as new language, only appropriated or amended ones. I think constantly of “The Analytic Language of John Wilkins,” in which Borges meditates on an infinite Chinese encyclopedia that explains how appendations of multiple prefixes and suffixes subtly adjust the meanings of words, indeed creating a new understanding towards language. Our language grows because it is appropriated, or is appropriated because it grows. Language is indirect, creating depthful reflections; reflections in a window are indirect, creating depthful languages.
My mode has always been indirectness, a slantness. But for the sake of a series of posts I’m writing about strangers and strange places, in which I explore an intimate dislocation and relocation within New York City to expose a sense of place through movement or stillness, brightness or darkness, &c., I have to learn the mode of directness and exteriority. And because I love this city, and have grown to love my commute, I will learn to wear my interiority on my sleeve.