HANDS – Recollections of Dad by Jerry Mann

I’d never had a gallery show before. Kind of odd for a photographer who graduated with a BFA and had been working for ten years. But I’ve always been a late bloomer.
After five years in NYC, I eventually moved into the McGuffey School in Ohio City. I met a big group of cutting edge artists,including my partner, Sally Hudak, and the building’s owner, Laila Voss. These exciting people led me down Franklin Hill and up Columbus to Tremont, with all its galleries, bars and other trappings. That’s when Jean cornered me at the Lit, way too late in the evening, and rattled off a list of open show dates for Southside. I committed. Now then, I have a problem. What do I do for my first show. It better be good if I am a professional of ten years and live with a bunch of great artist from the McGuffey School.
My dad died in March of 1996. That mattered more to me than anything else happening around me. And ever since he was gone I kept feeling that he was inside me as I did everything: driving down the road feeling the air ride over my left palm; attempting to repair that fan that he attempted to repair; slumping in the chair in the TV room. That was it. I would honor Dad with my first show.
As is my usual downfall, I had to do this the hardest way possible. So I chose to use a pinhole camera and Polaroid film–without using the Polaroid holder. And I would make self portraits.
So I went to work, creating a pinhole with the most ridiculous–but crucially important–features. It was a situation where one design decision created the need for more creative solutions. Because I refused to use the 4×5 Polaroid film holder/processor, the camera had to accept the film, and be able to do everything the regular holder would do: Keep a light tight seal, hold the negative in place while I pulled out the paper envelope for an exposure, keep the negative from buckling when reinserting the paper envelope, release the film from the camera. I used slots in cardboard and black velour and clips and flaps and strings and wax and tiny brass brads. Making the camera was nearly as important as shooting or showing the photos. My dad always tinkered out in the garage. As he got older he’d bitch about his “Damn hands!” and he couldn’t do as much as he used to. Well, here I was, tinkering away and loving it. I should have been an inventor. I still wonder if I should change direction. The camera was a triumph. Every bell and whistle worked as flawlessly as cardboard, string, wax and velour could.
Now to be a photographer. And a Goddamn artist. Here is what I was avoiding all my life, and for the past three days of camera construction. Time to turn the camera on me. I listed a bunch of situations that were classic Dad moments, I picked the best and started shooting. And it wasn’t enough to set it up, shoot it, and go on: I had to actually get something accomplished. If Dad could do it, so could I. I sharpened a pocket knife. I repaired a lawn chair. I lit a Coleman stove without flooding it. My time was running short, and this added considerably to the time it took to shoot a picture. Consider that my exposures in direct sunlight were 45 seconds long. That’s doable. When I shot film of repairing my exhaust system with a soup can, I was under the intense heat of quartz lights for 20 minutes per exposure. (And that kind of repair never works.) I also chose to capture simple moments of pleasure: driving down a lane with the wind blowing in the window; slicing a cantaloupe on a warm afternoon; handling his Voigtlander camera, the same one he taught me to use. I felt really good about these pictures.
As I printed the negatives, I kept coming up with more ideas for the gallery that would honor my father. I shot Super-8 film of some of my setups, and would project them at Southside for the opening. I dug up about 80 slides from Dad’s archives, all shots of him, and projected them on a screen. And you could sit in his TV room chair to view them. Finally, I enlisted Ed Caner to record my voice, imitating my Dad calling my name, as he did from our home at dinner time when I was up at the ledges. During the opening, this tape loop could barely be heard above the din of the gallery visitors. It was subliminal. My sister may have been the only one to notice, and she only mentioned it when I told her about the recording weeks later.
I think I got a review in the Free Times. I think it was even good. Everyone had a great time at the opening. I showed up typically late, cramming in the installation down to the last minute, then running home to shower for the first time in a few days. I had a closing party, too. I put the pinhole to use, making portraits of the visitors. We drank beer and went to Major’s for mussel afterwards. It was a sunny Sunday in October, my favorite month, and the month I was born.