Volodymyr Kovalchuk of Lutsk, Ukraine, and my friend of 20 years, died on May 1, 2017.
He died of stomach cancer. “Volodymyr thought you were a very noble person,” my friend wrote me. “I saw him about 6 months ago. We stood outside my apartment and reminisced about those years when the Fitzmahan’s lived in our town. We talked about how much we looked forward to working together to help with your next book.”
Many of my friends from Ukraine are suffering. Jobs have dried up. Pensions are not sufficient to pay for retirement. Many have left and moved to other parts of Europe.
Those who can not leave, stay behind dreading the Russian invasion and fear for their survival.
Open the Other Door is a collection of short memoirs.
The title, Open the Other, came from my experience of living and working in Ukraine in the late 1990s.
Large buildings in Lutsk, Ukraine were of similar architecture and were built with massive double doors in the front. Although the doors were impressive, inevitably, one door was always locked. Lesa Ukraina University where I taught comparative law, had eighteen foot double doors and no matter how many students crowded in and out, they were squeezed through one door. I assumed this was to save heat in the very cold winters. However, this theory failed in light of the fact that only one door opened even in the hottest summer months.
I once asked a friend why the university, the banks, and the department stores always locked one of their double doors. Looking puzzled, he answered, “Hmmm. That is a good question. I have no idea. We just know that one door will be always be locked.”
The one locked door, was a metaphor for life in Ukraine. That is the way things were. That is the way they have always been. A broken lightbulb, a shortage of bread, a corrupt leader…these were things that just were.
However, the government realized that it was important that people were allowed to complain. Admitting that their oppressed citizens can be a fussy bunch of troublemakers, the Soviet government institutionalized complaining. The government actually set up regular formal meetings where citizens gathered to complain about the government and their life in the Soviet Union. No one expected change, the people just needed a place to vent. Without a place to complain, the people might revolt.
The Russian sardonic humor made complaining a whole new genre of humor. The Soviet anecdotes were still subjects of humor in 1997 Ukraine.
“A Frenchman, a Brit, and a Russian are admiring a painting of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
The Frenchman says, “They must be French, they’re naked and they’re eating fruit.”
The Englishman says, “Clearly, they’re English; observe how politely the man is offering the woman the fruit.”
And the Russian notes, “They are Russian, of course. They have nothing to wear, nothing to eat, and they think they are in paradise.”
From my research in Russian history, I know that this waiting for someone else to fix my problems was not invented by the Soviets. Generations of Ukrainians (and Russians) were oppressed and raised to believe that problems were meant to be endured. The Tsars did not encourage individual initiative. A well educated, self starting population might ‘self start’ a new and different government. If the people could solve their own problems, they might wonder why they still tolerated their repressive Russian, Polish, and then Soviet governments.
With independence in 1991, the people in Ukraine found less and less comfort in the leadership of the Party (which no longer existed) or the Leader (that was not much different or better than the Soviet one). When the dead Soviet system was replaced by a system of private property, the new state failed to come up with a modern infrastructure, and the old infrastructure decayed. Apartment buildings crumbled, lights didn’t work, streets were cracked, towns ran out of gas, parks became overgrown. Again, hunger, low wages, poor health, mediocre education systems, and corrupt governments were things to be expected. As my friend Nora said to me, “We Ukrainian are depressed, so we smoke and we drink coffee. Unless we drink vodka.” See, my Open the Other Door memoir.
Back to Open the Other Door. Remember Open the Other Door? What if an individual or a collection of individuals said to the university president, “Why don’t you unlock the second door so that more students can easily come in and out of the university. It would be safer and easier for all.”
The closed door is symbolic of the closed mind. It is a fear of being judged, of being mistaken, of being viewed as different. The closed door is a photo of the mind of a victim. Dark and helpless. It is symbolic of a fear to try something new. To say something different.
The Open Door is open to new ideas. Sometimes ‘crazy ideas.’ Sometimes dangerous ideas. The Open Door is taking responsibility for yourself and for others.
This is my philosophy. Take action. Think of ways to make life better for yourself, for your family, and for others. Take chances. Get on a plane and take your family to live in Ukraine. Take a photo of a stranger on the street. Teach a photo class in Kyoto. Get on an air balloon in Napa Valley to see the vineyards in Autumn.
Most of the memoirs in Open the Other Door are collected from my two decades of living and traveling in Europe and Japan. Since returning to the United States, during this time of political turmoil, my memoirs have expanded to include my time het in the United States.
After 2 years of sharing my photos on social media and exhibiting my art, the best thing I do for my art is to work in a salon experience.
A salon is a gathering in the home of an inspiring host, to show and discuss art. The salon is an ‘incubator’ for new ideas. It is where rising artists can gather and draw inspiration.
The salon of the 21st century is a continuation of the spirit of the cafes in Paris where great artists and writers met in the 1920s and 30s. Over cups of cafe noisette Hemingway sat in Le Select writing, smoking, and meeting with other writers and artists. Hemingway escaped the claustrophobic confines of his small apartment and daily took up residence in Parisian cafes where he wrote The Sun Also Rises. My favorite Hemingway book is his autobiographical account of his early years in Paris, A Moveable Feast.
It was in the cafés and salons of Paris that artists broke away from the stultifying and male dominated art world in Europe.
For the artist, a first entry into showing work may be by posting art on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogposts (WordPress, Weebly), Flickr, 500 px). It may be your first entry into the public art world.
Social media is a non-threatening way to announce to your friends and family that you are working in art. Here you will find a receptive group of admirers.
1) Art is one of the extraordinary ways human beings share experiences or emotions that we are unable to communicate in any other way.
Beauty, love, hope. Loss, fear, hate. Awe, faith, excitement.
The soulful moments we experience walking into St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.
The giggling kind of fun we feel when we hear the beat and the sound of Bruno Mars singing “Downtown Funk.”
These are moments of art.
Giving off aromas of deep green woods, a massive bronze incense burner is central to the Japanese temple.
A wayfarer embraces the smoke. Clinging to the remains of the sandalwood, he applies the wood scent to his hands, hair, and clothes.
Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This rather modest and self deprecating statement, is an admission that all that we know and all that we achieve is only possible because of the hard work of those humans who did the work before us.
Now it is our turn. To journey, to seek. To find truth. To make great art. To make a better world than the one we inherited.
It is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
We are the shoulders from which the next generations will launch.
If we do not contribute to human knowledge. If we do not bring woman-kind closer to world peace. If we do not come closer to making a sustainable use of the world’s resources.
We will be forgotten. Or worse, we will be held responsible. We will be condemned.
In October 2006, I traveled to rural Romania, to volunteer at a nonprofit orphanage in Romania.
One evening, I took this photo of Roma mothers and their children. The women had been raped, abandoned, and left with babies. The orphanage built a home on their property, giving these women basic housing and food. The families lived together in one small house – a modest existence, but they were safe from the poverty and horrors of the city.
Hours after I took this photo, in the deep night, this house burned to the ground. All the families got out. But, homeless again. Just before the harsh winter.
Just a little girl. Barefoot. Wearing a torn white shift. An enigma – poor and lost. Is she cold? Where did she come from? Where is her mother?
These are questions that could be applied to all Roma people. Where do they come from? Where do they live? Who cares for them?
I took this photo during a visit to a sleepy little town in Portugal. Very quiet. No tourists.
Roma music plays an important role in many European countries. The Gypsy Kings, a popular group of salsa singers from Arles and Montpellier (in the south of France), were mostly gitanos, Berber-Moroccan and Spanish gypsies who fled Catalonia during the 1930s Spanish Civil War.
Roma are also associated with a romanticized idea of their mystical powers and passionate temper. Fortune telling grows out of folklore associated with Renaissance magic, closely associated with the Roma.
As of 2013, with a population of 12 a 13 million people, the Roma people were the largest minority group in a Europe. Communicative Methodology of Research and Recognition of Roma People
The Roma generally are reticent to assimilate with local cultures. Refusing to educate their children in national schools, suspicious of local and national laws, and following their own singular customs, have made these people a pariah in many countries. Associated with chronic poverty and criminal behavior, the Roma people often suffer persecution, prosecution, and mistreatment.
In the 1940s, the Nazis tried to exterminate the Roma people in a process known in Romani as the Porajmos. 1,500,000 men, women, and children were killed. Later, the Soviets conducted a universal sterilization of Roma women. Today, post Soviet Eastern Europe is rife with discrimination and persecution of the Roma people.
The Italians don’t know what to do with the 150, 000 Roma people that crowd their streets begging from visiting tourists. “With the addition of Eastern European states such as Romania into the European Union, Italy has seen an influx of Roma people in the past decade. The attitude towards the Roma people is for the most part hostile, accusing them of opting for crime over a legitimate job and isolating themselves from Italian society (and taxes) by living in illegal camps. One survey in 2008 found that 68 percent of people in Italy wanted all Roma expelled from the country. ” (The Roma People and the Italians: A Strained Relationship)
Come to my upcoming show! This Thursday. From 5 pm to 8.
Then, let’s go to E.J. Phair, the local brewery for a beer on tap and the best pizza in Northern California!
I am participating in Art Trax in Pittsburg, CA. I will be showing 13 of my pieces.
This will be Pittsburg, California’s first art walk. It is an art walk through Old Town Pittsburg, with 20 venues and 24 artists. Open every third Thursday of the month, the art walk features the artwork of local artists.
Where: 777 Railroad Ave (My Beauty Salon), Pittsburg, California. 40 minutes East from Berkeley. Right on the Bart.
When: April 20, 2017. 5-8pm
A cup of coffee cost a whopping $5.00 or $6.00. That is more than $20 in today’s money. American journalists loved to report how exorbitantly expensive Tokyo was by quoting the cost to buy a steak dinner or a cup of coffee.
I didn’t care much about steak dinners, but I loved my coffee shops.
In 1968, I was surprised to find a booming coffee culture in Tokyo. I expected to see a plethora of tea shops. You know – tea, temples, and geishas. Actually, I found it challenging to find a tea room in the city. Instead, I found that Tokyo had the finest coffee and coffee shops outside of Europe, perhaps the world. The kissaten.
It was in Tokyo that I learned to love coffee.
My photography is best when my photos introduce you to me. In my photography you can find seven decades of this artist. Not only what I did, but what I value.
There are many photographers that have mentored me. I have been inspired by their photos, their skills, their aesthetics, their teachings. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ruth Bernhard, Édouard Boubat, Niki Boon, Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, Mariana Yampolsky, Eric Kim.
Art is a solo sport.
Make your photos be you. This is what will make your photography completely unique. No one else is even close to being YOU. Incomparable. You are not in competition with anyone else.
Now comes the hard part. Who are you?
Make a list. What do you like to study? What do you like to do? Who and what do you love?
- I am deeply touched by Japanese aesthetics.
- empty space, irregularity
- aging, the imperfect
- I love Japanese kanji and calligraphy.
- I like to translate and study haiku.
- I am drawn to the study of Zen Buddhism.
- I am interested in philosophy.
- I like learning about the universe, the stars, and the constellations.
- I like mathematics.
- I am fascinated by history.
- I like to travel.
- I like to have conversations with strangers.
- I like stories, and sussing out the secrets that people like to share.
- I like cultures different from my own.
- I like the aesthetic of black and white photography.
- I like the beauty of older people, and children.
- I love and am fascinated by my daughters, my grandsons, and my husband.
- I like to write.
So, I was again having a WAIGTDWIGUM (what-am-I-going-to-do-when-I-grow-up) moment. You know, when you feel guilty because you can’t figure out what it is that you were born to be? See my last post.
Shouldn’t I have figured out what I am suppose to be in this life?
The question was also bleeding into my photography. I asked myself what am I doing in photography? What kind of photos should I be making?
When I was 26, I thought I was finally all grown up.
After many years of schooling, I had just passed the bar exam. I was a REAL attorney. With a real job.
We hide in the sands. We survive. Beauty in the sand.
This young girl picked ground nuts.
She smiled shyly as I took her photo. I was happy to see smiles amongst all the tears.
I worked in Sierra Leone a year after the end of the 11 year civil war (1991-2002). 50,000 people were killed. I was hired by the Sierra Leone TRUTH and RECONCILIATION COMMISSION to write the history of the civil war.
I met a 20 year old boy. He didn’t have any hands. I don’t know how many people lost their arms and legs during the war. The villagers were forced to line up, and the rebel soldiers chopped off limbs, one by one. “Go back and tell that government of yours that you will never again use your hands to vote for their corrupt government.”
Many, many more people were left homeless, without families. In many villages and towns, all sense of family was destroyed. Young girls were wrenched from their families, and forced to become ‘brides’ to rebel leaders. Fathers were killed, boys were drafted into rebel forces. Old women were killed.
This photo was taken inside a large abandoned movie theater in Old Town, Tallinn, Estonia.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the movie theaters closed down. The Communist Party used movies as an effective tool to educate, entertain, and to inculcate Party values in its youth. Soviet movies were the best entertainment in town.
The communist occupiers were thrown out of Estonia in 1991. Democracy and capitalism were adopted, and the aging old movie houses were replaced by ungainly concrete movie complexes. Going to the movies in Tallinn today is like stepping into an AMC movie complex in Walnut Creek, California. Popcorn, Coke, M & Ms, jelly beans, and Brad Pitt.
In 2008, when I was teaching photography in Tallinn, Saskia, one of my students, cajoled her father to allow me to take photos of the abandoned movie theater he owned in Old Town. Saskia’s father was one of the deeply wealthy nouveau riche in Tallinn.
How Saskia’s father, a Russian-Estonian, moved up from being a common worker of the communist Soviet Union, to a multimillionaire is part of a murky tale of acquisition of wealth in the early years of independence.
The Russians of Estonia, unlike Putin’s oligarch friends, did not walk away with political power in Estonia, the smallest of the Soviet republics. But, great wealth during privatization of property was grabbed by a few.
A quiet breath/hiding in the garden/spring is yellow (mbfitzmahan)
The end of the year fair/I would like to go out /and buy some incense
山の月・花盗人を・照らし給う (ISSA: 1763-1828)
The moon over the mountains/even shines/on the flower thief
三尺の・庭をながむる・春日かな (Shiki: 1867-1902)
A three foot garden/taking a moment /a spring day
I was inspired by Viola Davis’ acceptance speech at the Oscars on Monday, February 26, 2017. Viola Davis won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, in the movie, Fences
“People ask me all the time — what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies! Exhume those stories — the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”
Photography is the art where I like to ‘exhume those stories.’ It is a responsibility that I take very seriously.
When I’m looking for ideas for photography, I look for inspiration wherever I can find it.
Recently, I watched Chef’s Table on Netflix. Chef’s Table is a series developed by David Gelb who filmed Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The cinematography in the series is visually rich, the stories are engaging, and the film is escorted by the music from Philip Glass and Vivaldi.
I love the sublime feeling of the FLOW that I get when I create through photography. I love the visits from my Muse. A day of taking photos, coming home and viewing and editing those photos. That is an amazing day. Add to that another day writing to you on my blog. Writing, telling stories, sharing ideas. And sharing with you some idea how to take photos and be a photographer.
As much as I enjoy the process of creating, I must admit that I have a desire to be valued. I’d like for someone to see my work and say, “Your work is fabulous, earth-shattering.”
Is there anything that you love doing so much that while you are doing it, time passes without you even noticing?
I love being with my daughters. And my Donny. I also love reading a great mystery novel or seeing a good Star Wars movie. I love a piece of watermelon, still warm from the summer fields.
Photography has the ability to influence world politics and public opinion. I took the photo above three weeks ago, the day after the Trump inauguration. I marched with my husband, my two daughters, and their families and friends down the streets of Oakland to not only say we support women’s rights, but to advise the Trump administration and the Republican Congress that, “We will not go quietly into the night,” to paraphrase Dylan Thomas.
I sit here feeling sorry for myself. For my children. And, yes, and for the rest of the country. In the shadow of the 2016 presidential campaign and election, I grieve for the losses in my country. I weep. I mourn.
I used to chant to my high school students, who were easily distracted, “Focus, focus, focus.” One of my Polish students protested, “Ms. Fitz, I AM fuckist!” Many years later, I still say to my self, “fuckis, fuckis, fuckis.”
Just as my photos may sometimes be out of focus, so may be my hours in the day. Continue reading “Am I in focus?”
I’ve received a few questions on what camera I use. When I need a new camera, I like to go and talk to someone I trust for advice on cameras and lenses. So, I’ll tell you what I use.
When my children were little, I felt guilty when I worked on photography. Who had time to work on art when there were all those dirty clothes to wash and diapers to change? Dinners to make. Children and husband to tend to?
I got around this problem by making my girls my models. “OK. Katie sit here. It will be just a minute, then we’ll make scones. I promise. No…just a few more minutes. I’m almost done. Hey, Shauna, please come get in this picture, too. It’ll just be a minute….”
I have two deep passions. Black and white photography, and kanji, the system of Japanese writing. The allure of these two systems comes from my attraction to Japanese aesthetics: simplicity, suggestion, irregularity, quiet refinement.
Both photography and kanji can be minimalistic, complex, esoteric, mysterious, and enigmatic. Continue reading “Quiet refinement”
I make my photos in black and white.
I’ll admit it, I do sometimes take photos in color. But, I don’t think of those photos as real photography. You know, art photography.
Rewind. Let me backtrack. Color photos of family. Babies, grandparents, the latest vacations. Those are wonderful photos. They are snapshots of our lives. Of our times together. I love looking at them. I liked sharing them on my iPhone. I like to sit with my girls, laughing and talking about the adventures in those photos. Continue reading “What flavor do you like your photos?”
Over 100,000 people came out to march. Women, girls, men, boys. Black, White, Asian, Latina, Native American, Irish, Russian.
This was a protest march for women. About issues that concern women. Women’s health, babies’ rights, children’s education, African American rights, Latinos rights, immigrant issues, voters’ rights, the environment, men’s rights, LGBTQ rights. Prisons, police abuse, rape. “So many issues, so little sign,” was my favorite sign of the March.
10 years ago, I taught at a small international school in Estonia. A handful of the American teachers were invited to a reception for the President.
Out of ethical opposition to the standing president, my friends refused to go. Being the most liberal of the bunch and a supporter of Al Gore and John Kerry, everyone turned to me to lead the protest, to refuse to attend the reception.
No way! I jumped at the chance to meet President Bush. What an awesome photo opportunity!
There are different kinds of crowds. There is the Sunday-go-for-a-walk crowd. There is the tourists-watching-the-street-performer crowd. There is the parade-watching crowd. There is the March for Women crowd. There is the protest crowd. There is the riot crowd.
For a street photographer, a crowd is a gift. No one pays much attention to the photographer and there are plenty of opportunities to get interesting candid pictures of people.
A solitary man.
The cuffs of his pants were frayed. His coat torn. His shoes were worn.
I was walking through Central Park in New York, when I took this photograph. I sat across from this spot for about ten minutes. Waiting for the right light, the right composition. I wanted to take this picture without obviously being noticed.
Photo: 11.48 in. x 11.48 in.
Fujifilm X-T1. 35 mm f/1.4 Fujinon aspherical lens.
“Just take the Number 8 bus,” the secretary said. “You’ll have no trouble getting home.”
“But all the buses look alike,” I pleaded, with what I thought was perfectly good logic.
“Don’t worry. You won’t get lost,” she said with a smile and then returned to her magazine. Continue reading “The empty bus rattled down the road. In the wrong direction.”
Nora puts herself in her art. Pointing to her sketch of a pregnant woman sitting on a turtle, she said, “See here. It’s my nose. I can’t paint without putting it in.” I bought this sketch, The Spanish Lady, from Nora in 1998. For a $100. I smuggled the piece out of Ukraine, rolled up in my guitar case.
“A man came to the KGB office. He looked frightened. ‘My talking parrot has disappeared.’ The agent was confused. ‘That’s not the kind of case we handle here. Why don’t you go to the police?’ The man frowned, ‘I know that, but I am here to tell you officially that I disagree with the parrot.’” Viktor, dean of the law school, was a man who liked a joke. I once read that every nation likes political jokes, but to the people of the Soviet Union, jokes were a national sport.
On my first day at the university, Viktor took my hand and smiled, “I am happy you are here to help us get a new perspective. A class in comparative law is just what we need. I must warn you, though, we have no textbooks, no printer, and no computers. Sometimes we don’t even have lights,” he laughed. Continue reading ““Hide your papers,” he advised, “under the potatoes.””
I first saw an image rise up from a pan of Kodak D-76 in 1995. I cried. It was a miracle, and I had created it. Well, Nikon, Kodak, and a bunch of chemicals had created it. The blank 8 x 10 piece of paper morphed into a black and white image of a freckled girl becoming a woman. I didn’t realize the experience would be so personal, so intimate. I needed my own darkroom. I picked up a newspaper and searched for a used enlarger. I found a 30 year old, 3 foot tall, Omega D6 on sale by an 85 year old man. He sold me his entire darkroom: light box, loupes, timer, safelight, tongs, easel, and enlarger. Continue reading “My first darkroom image”
“Hey, Volodya, take care of this American lady,” Borys hollered down the hall. A gangly young man peered around the corner. Grunting to Borys in a “Ja, ja,” but smiling at me like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins, a young man took my hand and guided me down and around into a long narrow room soaked with the smell of chemicals. “Is OK. I speak English. Not very well, but we will be fine. We will be friends. We will talk photography.” Pointing to the enlargers, he said, “These are old Russian machines. Not bad. Nothing like you have in America, I bet.”