IMG MGMT: Getting to Know Len

by Cam Archer on December 30, 2013 · 0 comments IMG MGMT

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[Editor's Note: IMG MGMT is a series of image-based essays by artists. Today's invited artist, Cam Archer has written, edited, produced and directed numerous award-winning shorts, music videos and two feature films. His first feature, "Wild Tigers I Have Known", a queer coming of age film, was an official participant at the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab in 2005, when Archer was just 24. After a successful festival run, the film received an Independent Spirit Award nomination, as well as a nationwide distribution deal through IFC Films. Archer’s second feature film, "Shit Year", a portrait of an actress falling apart, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 as part of their Director's Fortnight Program. Currently, thanks to a 2012 grant from Creative Capital, Archer is developing a series of personal films, including his first feature-length documentary, 1981, which dissects the artist's creative process.]

I never met my grandmother. Her name was Len and she died before I was born. It had something to do with smoking. I know almost nothing about her, but I can tell you she was an artist who liked to paint. I have a watercolor she made of an Aboriginal man in my living room, plus a sketch she did of my grandfather, Jules. I also have a recording of her whistling ‘Mack the Knife.’ None of this tells me much about who she was, but still, I cherish the work.

I know Len left Australia to marry Jules in upstate New York. She hated New York, painted a lot, whistled some and raised three boys. When the boys were gone, she couldn’t stand the empty house and became horribly depressed. Most afternoons, she’d walk down to the schoolyard, chain smoke and watch other people’s kids as they left their classrooms and traveled home. It feels like fiction, or cinema, and it’s one of the only stories I’ve ever heard about her. How could anyone know what she would do alone?

For the past year, as I continue to develop a film about my creative process and my relationship to images, I’ve been sorting through my grandfather’s photographs. I tell myself that I’m looking for something like a code, or an ‘inherited aesthetic.’ Jules loved to travel and everywhere he went, he took photographs. I find myself most interested in his photos of Len, but can’t find a single image that feature more than the back of her head. It’s a difficult way to get to know someone.

So I stare at the images and make up things. I guess you could say we’re getting to know one another. We have long conversations about her favorite images and the most incredible things she saw. We also talk about the things she was waiting to see. She says it was just an accident that her face was never in the frame.

Last night, I swore she was in my house, laughing from room to room. Everything made her laugh. She discovered my closet and it sobered her up. She couldn’t talk. I watched the back of her head as she wrote on my wall: I used to have a sweater in every color. I tried a few things on for her, and then she pointed to the window like she had to go.

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[IMG MGMT is generously supported by The Joan Mitchell Foundation.]

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