Portrait of Rose Lynn Fisher

The Tears of Rose-Lynn Fisher

What do sadness and joy, laughter and longing look like up close?

The artist Rose-Lynn Fisher began photographing her tears under a microscope because she had been crying a lot and wondered what they’d look like up close, those tears. Also, she had recently received a microscope. It had been her cousin’s. He was a cardiologist, and in his retirement, he started photographing heart cells. When he died in 2007, his family gave Rose-Lynn the microscope—a late 1970s Carl Zeiss with a digital camera mounted on top.

She took it home and, at first, looked at liquids that weren’t tears: blood, orange juice, pomegranate juice, seawater. She had worked with a scanning electron microscope in a lab before, photographing bees, but this was quite different, not a three- dimensional object but a fluid, dried upon a thin rectangular glass slide—mounted, with the light from below moving through the liquid, through the camera’s lens, and into her eye.

She was looking for something in these dried liquids, not just something visually striking, but something deeper. Maybe that something was funny or strange or—she wasn’t quite sure. She’d know it when she saw it. She’d once, starting about 15 years ago, done a photographic series on abandoned couches in her Hollywood neighborhood. There was something about those couches, the fact of them, the situational comedy and tragedy and personality that made her continue seeking them out and making images from them. She found one behind a gate that looked like it was in jail, and another with a sheet over it that looked maimed or like someone was about to operate on it. And then there was this whole other story, just below the surface of those cast-aside street couches, a story about dashed dreams and abandonment. A very human, very Hollywood story.

She was looking for something similar through the lens of her cousin’s microscope. Not the same story, of course, but a project that would ripen and change and carry her through years and years. Then the tears started and did not stop. They came from a complex stew of emotions, mostly prompted by a sudden spate of deaths, the loss of many loved ones. There was sadness, but there was also a good bit of joy. The joy of knowing these people—wise elders, she called them. Joy for their overlapping spans together on this earth. Nothing was driving the urge to see what her tears looked like under the microscope so much as sheer curiosity. Plus, they were liquid. The light could move through them. So.

When she saw the magnified tears for the first time, there was a strange, almost overwhelming sense of awe. There were patterns, and there were shapes, and there were strange striations. Geometry, broken and unbroken, walls and fortresses. Bubbles, bursting apart, forming coastlines. She shifted the slide beneath the lens and gasped as the patterns ended and began anew. There was a feeling of being inside something large, almost unknowably large. She felt humbled and small. The view, she realized, was a lot like looking out a window in an airplane, down at the earth far below. All in a dried-up teardrop.

Laughing till I’m crying, 2010 | Photomicrograph

When is a photograph finished? We think of photographs as fixed moments: a shutter clicked, light captured, time stopped. But what if a photograph’s finished state comes much later? What if the moment is not fixed at all, but stretched out across time, its ideal reached not upon its capture or when it is developed, but long after, when it is eventually looked at? Finally seen.

Rose-Lynn, now 62, studied at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, where she’s lived since she was young. She was born in Minneapolis and remembers her earliest years there in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac, close to nature, as being full of circles: smoothed-out pebbles, rolling hills, winding paths, round ponds. In L.A., everything was sharply angled, the grid of streets and slant of light and cut of the shadows. Her life defined by geometries.

At Otis, she studied under the artist Betye Saar, who worked in many mediums but is perhaps most famous for her mixed media collages. Rose-Lynn started as a painter but has done plenty of collage, too. What she remembers best, though, the lesson most important from her time with Saar, is identifying the element in her art that is the way in: for her, the artist, the way forward through the work; for us, the viewer, the way inside it. “Where is that? Where’s the fullness of energy? And if you can identify that point, stay with it. Don’t complicate it.” That’s what Saar taught her.

Now, with the tears, she latched onto this point of entry—the worlds within the teardrops—and it propelled her forward, through more tears. Most came through loss and breakups and fights and general emotional hardship. Her mother got very sick, and stayed sick, for a very long time. Other tears came from thick bouts of laughter. And some were prompted by chopping onions.

The slides piled up, close to a hundred, then more. When she looked at them on her computer screen, wired to the camera mounted on the microscope, she flew over the landscapes, going very quiet, into a meditative state, waiting for the topography to speak back to her. This was the part she didn’t want to talk about too much, or even know about: the mystery in selecting exactly the aspect of the world within a tear to photograph, and what it might mean. “You just wanna be with it,” she said, meaning the topography of her tears.

This process of selection was, in a way, much like painting or collage. A process spread out over time. She was seeking the sliver of landscape that captured the mix of emotions that had led to the release of the tear, a liquid then mounted onto a glass slide. The eventual image she would land on, she said, was the part within the landscape “that takes me somewhere, that makes me know something I can’t know with my mind.” It was an aspect of the landscape beyond words or thought, much like the inexplicable nature of a very specific feeling. Then, often, the image would inspire a phrase. Something like a title.

Some of these titles were concrete, tied to a specific emotion—“Remorse” or “Resolution”—or an incident like “Mom happy tears” or “Laughing till I’m crying.” More often they were oblique references, small parts in a larger story that could arrive mid-sentence, or at the story’s beginning or, more commonly, the end. One, titled “As she crossed over the bridge disappeared,” was about Rose-Lynn’s dog, Ginger. The title was meant to be said in one breath, “like leaving and taking everything with you as you go.” Rose-Lynn had been with Ginger—“a little dog, and all love”—when she died. Rose-Lynn watched her go, and cried. Then she took that moment, the all-at-once-ness of passing over, Ginger’s being there and then not—and collected it on a slide. She found in her tear a landscape that reminded her of nothing but sweetness. Ginger’s sweetness coming through in that image. The phrase about the bridge came to mind. It was a story she could gesture at, Rose-Lynn said, but not a story she could or would want to write. She didn’t want to detract from the real essential thing, which was a mysterious microscopic landscape inside the residue of a complex emotion. “As I went along, I realized my story is just my story: one moment of crying,” she said. “Everyone has their moments …”

She stopped. The room was very quiet. We were in her mother’s home, which was now her own, because her mother had died not long ago. This was tricky, opening up, telling her story, because it could interfere with the art. “I don’t want to restrict it,” she said. “I don’t want to say, ‘This is how you should look at it.’” In her paintings and collages, the ones she’d made early in her career, she’d realized that although she was giving something to the viewer, she was also taking something away by directing them into what she was about. She’d rather leave things open and unknown. She was a person who said “wow” a lot, and she wanted to leave room for people to have their own “wow” moments. And for that you needed space. You needed to leave the story unfinished.

Tears and lace, 2008 | Photomicrograph

Rose-Lynn had moved into her mother’s home recently. Her things were mostly unpacked, but not fully. This, too, concerned her. “It’s like having someone over in my bathrobe,” she said. “It’s like being laid bare.” She was hesitant to take me through the process of even looking at the landscapes on the tear slides—much less selecting—because it wouldn’t be true, because I would be there, watching. And later, she told me she didn’t want to describe the process of capturing a tear, mounting it on the slide, drying it. It was too mechanical, or awkward, or anyway—it would take people away from the art.

Another image, a whole set, Rose-Lynn titled “In the end it didn’t matter.” These all came from a moment that had been frustrating and unfulfilling. She took the tear, marked the slide with a time and a phrase (it was about someone, but she didn’t want to say who or what), and forgot about it for years until her anger and frustration subsided and she no longer wanted anything from this person or expected anything from the slide. And—wow!—it turned out the slide contained everything. It was filled with images, interesting lines and patterns, joyful and playful and strange. “It was kind of a joke on me,” she said. She made about 30 photos from that one slide, and whittled and whittled them down to a series of five. In the end, it didn’t matter: a joke on herself in five parts.

Another, called “Go!”, is also about a passing, about someone Rose-Lynn had a deep appreciation for. “The spirit of this person was so big and free,” she said. When she got word he had died, she cried, and in her tear found this bubble, almost like a spirit or a balloon lifting off, and she thought, Go! Not like go away. “A good go.” A thrust of life, an escape, bursting out within the tear. “Go!” There was a synchronicity, she said, a serendipity to the whole process, like recognizing the root of a feeling within the image, but—she hesitated. It was all so irrational. Explaining it too exactly could be dangerous.

The onion tears were more intentional, scientific even—sulfuric acid in an onion makes one weep—but Rose-Lynn still had questions, like: Would all her onion tears look the same, seeing as they were brought on by the same chemical process? They did not. Some onion tears appeared fern-like, some more crystalline. How could one be curved and the other gridded—a Minneapolis and a Los Angeles—both caused by the same chemical? It mystified her. She contacted a scientist who studied tears, a biochemist named William Frey who had coauthored a book called Crying: The Mystery of Tears.

Frey told Rose-Lynn about how, chemically, our emotional tears are distinct from tears that come from eye irritations. Also, the tear glands in women and men are anatomically distinct. Women cry more often than men, and women produce more tears when they cry. But the most intriguing thing Frey told Rose-Lynn was that crying in response to heightened emotions is not only useful from an evolutionary perspective, but likely good for health. Crying is a stress reliever, and unrelieved stress can hasten heart disease and kill brain cells, and has even been linked to early onset Alzheimer’s. Crying helps us survive.

Rose-Lynn still had questions, but she realized her tendency to want to figure out the meaning behind the different patterns and landscapes inside the tears, a deeply human instinct, was also misguided. We’re drawn to connections. We want tidy endings to our stories and answers to our questions. If she’d learned anything over the eight years the project spanned, it wasn’t that a happy tear and a sad tear might look different. In fact, Frey told her that deducting the visual meaning of the salt and mineral structures within dried tears would be nearly impossible. Just think of the experiment: a lot of people crying over the exact same things for the exact same reasons. Even if you could draw up the circumstances and overcome the liability laws, you’d still be prescribing the reasons for the tears using words. And words are limiting, nothing but blunt instruments we’ve invented in an attempt to describe a whole universe of interior feelings—the stuff we call emotions, an intellectual, chemical process, reduced to terms like sadness and anger and love. The science wasn’t there; words came up short. It was all deeply imperfect, like us. It was all eventually unanswerable.

Grief and gratitude, 2008 | Photomicrograph

In 2014, Rose-Lynn began showing the photographs of her tears in galleries all over the world. In France, a manufacturer from Chantilly took the patterns from one image and turned it into lace, a fabric, they noted, so often twinned with weeping—on brides, in funerals. An architectural firm also became fascinated by the patterns, drawing on them for inspiration in a project about water. People wanted to take these tiny structures and make them very large.

In her mother’s home—now her home—Rose-Lynn kept a stack of aerial photographs near some of the work. It was eerie how similar the landscapes appeared, one huge, one tiny. What she had, she realized, was an ephemeral atlas, a series of maps to places that didn’t exist. Maps to the interior. From the very start, she’d called her series The Topography of Tears.

Next to the aerial photos was one tear photo in particular, “Grief and gratitude.” This was the first tear. It had come after the loss of a friend, an artist, who had nursed her back to health in Italy many years before. “He had probably saved my life, and we had stayed in touch, and then I lost him. I thought: He’s old. I have to make sure he knows how much he meant, how much he mattered, how thankful I’ve been.” She tracked down his number and arranged a visit. Decades had passed, yet “it was this continuum of friendship, of time and connection. Everything got said. Everything that needed to be. It was very whole. And then he died. I cried. I cried for losing him but mostly for having found him again.”

When she looked back at the very beginning, she could see her artist friend in that photograph. Not him, exactly, but his creative impulse, his curiosity and playfulness and largeness of heart. There was a sense that the photograph and patterns could reach back beyond time. There was another photo she made from that first tear, too. This one she titled “Timeless reunion in an expanding field.” She got very quiet talking about these first photographs. The house was very still. Outside, the gridded streets of the San Fernando Valley were hot and white with late spring midday light. On the wall, behind the table where the photographs were piled, was a massive, rolling, geometric painting—one of Rose-Lynn’s, too. An older work. She had begun moving on from the tears, started searching for other long-term projects. Kelp was something that intrigued her, its dried shapes washed ashore on a certain beach with bone white sand. But she was still dwelling on the tears. In a few days, a book of the work, named after the series, would come out, and more exhibitions, further opportunities for the finished work to be seen.

If there was one thing she’d learned through this whole, tearful period, she said, it was to abide in the unknowable. She paused for a while. “You’re trying to bring words through into something that’s wordless, trying to describe something that exists perfectly well on its own. The thing with crying is that so often the very power of that moment is precisely because you can’t talk. There aren’t words with it. It’s something that’s so direct. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a release, like after a storm. The air is clearer. You feel the hair on your arms lift.” Those moments after tears, the wonder of those moments, that’s what her photographs captured. After tears, she’d realized that it was OK, good even, “to end on a question, but the question can be different for you and me. Maybe it’s, ‘Is it finished?’ Or, ‘How do I want to say this?’ Or, ‘What is my story in this tear?’” Like a real map, her topographies lead people back to places they’ve long forgotten, or places they’ve never been. Like an explorer, between the discovery of this landscape and her presentation of it, Rose-Lynn has spent her time charting a course, a way for us to navigate, to see.

Before leaving her alone in her mother’s house, I had asked Rose-Lynn something else, but she said she was talked out for the day and needed some time to rest. We could talk again, of course, but later. Only, when we did eventually speak again, I’d forgotten what I’d wanted to ask. “What was it?” she urged on the phone, trying to help me remember. “Was it something about where things begin and end?”

Ryan Bradley lives in Los Angeles. Formerly an editor at Fortune and Popular Science, he now writes for The New York Times Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review. Shoot him a note at rfbradley@gmail.com.

Portrait photography by Peter Yang

Originally Published August 2017