I meant to tell you before, when you asked why I’m so guarded: a few years ago, I loved a woman who drowned.
I had loved a fair amount of women by then, it came naturally to me. I liked to watch myself fall for them. Attenuated Diane tucking her legs under herself while she talked about how she wanted to borrow my Minolta, or shimmering Claire with smudged eyeliner getting dreamy-eyed about wherever she was traveling to next or lovely Colby with her pet rat running across her tattooed shoulder.
I calibrated all of my actions and angles and choices - it is what photographers do. We look at subjects and analyze them from a measured distance, but we still approach situations spontaneously, intuitively, boldly, because we won’t get anything worthwhile if we’re too cautious. So I have loved a lot of women. Usually models. Predictable, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
But with the woman who drowned, well, with her it was a kind of feeling at home with somebody that is so natural, so big, that you don’t even ask yourself what the feeling is, you just have it. You have it like when somebody has a pretty smile that hasn’t yet been spoiled by too many compliments.
I have always taken my best shots the same way that I loved her: instinctively. I will be out walking along the water, thinking of something else, often angry or stuck or confused and suddenly, without thinking, sometimes without remembering after the fact, I will be lifting up my camera to catch something: children fighting, usually, or someone asleep in an inappropriate place - I like situations where guards are down.
We met at a lookbook shoot, featuring autumn collections, which meant we were shooting in the bitter winter. She came in with red knuckles from the ghost wind and a big tweed coat that didn’t fit and some men’s pants that were rolled up around the ankles with mismatched socks and penny loafers. Actual penny loafers, copper pennies agleam upon her narrow, bony feet. She surpassed the arch, poised geek-chic that models often go for these days and ventured into actual nerd territory: messy hair, loud voice, that pretty smile unspoiled, like she couldn’t believe what she was doing there. We met. Her hands were very cold and wet from melting snow. She said, laughing nervously through her nose, “I’m sorry, I’m all clammy - I’m not actually dead, I promise.”
This haunts me. She had a peculiarly acute intuition, the depth and complexity of which later seemed to rival my tendency toward remembering obscure and ridiculous detail. Like her first words to me. “I’m not actually dead, I promise.”
We fought. Often. The first four, five, six weeks, they slid by in a blur of gloved hand-holding and her catching snowflakes in her mouth and then kissing me. Again, I am haunted. Her cold wet mouth pressing against mine, her hair crowned with sparkling snow. But then later we began to fight. I was always out too late, but she was thirty minutes late to any engagement we planned. I drank too much, but she was too uptight. Our arguments would careen around each other as we shifted roles, shifted positions: I would apologize for drinking and she would apologize for being uptight and I would tell her to loosen up and she would tell me she might be able to if I didn’t make her so uncomfortable by drinking so much and anyway it would go on like that until three or four in the morning and then we would fall asleep together and in the morning I would be captivated by her small animal-like waking-up movements and we would stay in bed until eleven or noon and then the day would cycle again.
By summer, she had decided she needed some time away from me to clear her head. Away from the city, she said, back to the mountains, she said, and “I have to go.” Her words had an eerie finite quality, and I was used to young beauties giving up on the city and so I took her to the catch the train to get to the airport and it was early in the morning and she said: “I love you, you know,” very thoughtfully, very gently, the way someone might notice that the leaves were changing.
I’m told she was with friends. They went camping her second week home in Colorado. In an uncharacteristic turn, the woman I loved drank a lot that night. The people she was with were old high school companions, and it was how they had spent many summer nights in youth, drinking and swimming and canoeing beneath the stars. I had never known anyone from her past, never spoken to her family. They decided to get in contact with me because of tagged photographs on Facebook.
There was no sound when she slipped under the water. No one noticed for awhile that she was gone. Subsequent research on my part would reveal that such things are common - lifeguards are trained to look for people listless in water, slowly sinking, not the exaggerated arm-thrashing and choking motif of a drowning victim common in the movies. After some time they just realized she was gone.
“I have premonitions sometimes, don’t you?” She asked, during week two. She had thick wool socks on and had made hot chocolate for us. I laughed. “No, I don’t think that’s too common.” She shrugged, dwarfed in my college sweatshirt, looking out the fogged window. “I guess maybe I just put the patterns together and see the picture before other people do.”
Hands wet and cold with melted snow. Mouth wet and cold with melted snow. Cold, wet mouth. “I’m not actually dead, I promise,” I see it now, I do, how the story was already taking form, one layer at a time.
Olivia Pepper, From Memory
American, b. 1982, playing from Austin, TX, USA
Olivia Pepper grew up in rural Oregon among artists, dreamers, mountain men and hippies. She is a writer, performance and installation artist, amateur naturalist and professional fortune-teller and mystic currently living and working in Austin, Texas. Her work is informed by the world around her and by the remarkable patterns she finds in nature, in people, and in words. She has lived in Austin for seven years, and during her time there has founded a multidisciplinary gallery and art space, an artists' salon, a jewelry and design collaboration called Fourth Moon, a shadow puppetry company, and a monthly story circle celebrating oral traditions.
Thoughts on the Telephone process
It was so thoroughly lovely and intriguing. I never really know where my stories come from anyway, and I have always suspected that it abstractly has to do with my daydreaming whilst observing things out in the world: like I'll be on the bus watching a man sleeping there and wondering about his life and some aspect of his imagined story line transports me into another possible world and I imagine a woman he loved when he was young and I'm curious about what happened to her after they grew apart and the story grows organically from there. It was interesting to deliberately use another person's work as a starting point. I noticed a certain amount of obviousness in my story (a woman with water where her mouth should be = someone drowned), and I was a little embarrassed by that to tell you the truth, but I decided to surrender to the nature of the project (the game?) and just let it be what it was going to be. In the end I had an eerie kind of resonant feeling that told me it was what it was supposed to be.