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.