SandBox

From Plastic Tub

== Photographic essay

Some background

To understand the genesis of Mister Wilson’s photography, one must do a little digging through the roots of his family tree.

It all began 120 years ago with his great-grandfather Wilhelm Ratzinger, born in 1880 near Chicago, Illinois, the son of a German immigrant and pig farmer. Wilhelm was an ambitious lad who found the constraints of mid-western society chaffed against his sense of adventure. Thus at the tender age of 17 he made his way westward in search of his fortune.

Ratzinger made his way to Albuquerque, New Mexico where in quick succession he worked as a roughneck, stable boy, mail courier and finally, down on his heels and contemplating suicide, as his journals recount, he was employed by a "shifty and unscrupulous" character who supplied the local army garrison with pork. Ratzinger could not escape the pig, it would seem, and he dutifully began his life as a swine driver.

His life on the pig trails was a colorful one, full of hardship but also great whimsy. He took to wearing a bright red poncho and was nicknamed "the Cardinal." On one such swine drive in May, 1900, a National Geographic photographer by the name of Barnabas Atkins accompanied the swine driver as he drove his herd from Albuquerque to Denver. Atkins photographed Ratzinger and the lads, sharing the trail and the chili, along the way showing Ratzinger a thing or two about photography, allowing him to observe the preparation of the heavy glass plates and even to manipulate the camera. At least one picture survives today, inscribed with the words "Colorado City, July 15, 1900. Poob country." Whatever "Poob" means, it was certainly an insult; the three uses of this word in Ratzinger's journals are certainly disparaging.

Upon returning from this swine drive, Ratzinger took his earnings and began to amass photographic equipment. By the end of a year he had become proficient enough in the craft that he was able to set up his own studio, where he specialized in portraiture and even made a few extra dollars for the local newspaper. But there was another trade which proved not only to be quite lucrative, but his undoing. It seems that at some point in 1903 he had been contacted by brother keeper for the purpose of making pornographic pictures of his ladies. On May 20th he wrote: "I have decided to take Mr K up on his offer to produce pictures of naked ladies for sale to local prostitutes, as keepsakes for their time in our city."

The trade in smutty pictures was a lucrative one and for the first time in his life, Ratzinger seems to have begun to accumulate a comfortable bank account. He invested in new equipment, making his own modifications, experimenting with different developing processes, grinding his own lenses. He was especially interested in inventing color photography. He'd found that his hand painted images sold very well, but the process was time-consuming and thus less profitable. Another obsession seems to have been to invent a lighter, more mobile camera. He also wanted a camera which could work under low-light conditions, which required neither flash nor especially long exposure times, yet which could produce clear images. In all of these pursuits he was stymied, but not for lack of trying.

It is clear that Ratzinger's pursuit of a "faster" camera was motivated as much by his private concerns than his photography business. Ratzinger, to put it bluntly, was an ardent voyeur. He recounts in his journal that his fetish began as a child. He had fallen asleep at home while his parents worked downstairs. He awoke to hear "strange guttural noises" from his parents' bed chamber and went to investigate, where he saw his mother, "bare-breasts bobbing in rhythm as if in time with some strange tide, mounted upon his father." As he watched he developed a sizable erection. "Trembling with excitement, I experienced my first ejaculation. All my peeping since that time I have sought to reproduce the excitement I felt at that moment, but to no avail."

He yearned to photograph the things he saw as a voyeur and indeed, the surviving examples of his professional work show a variety of staged scenes involving keyhole shots, through the window shots, images through cracks in the floorboards, etc. Subject matter too, involved couples engaged in sex acts while a man hid under the bed or looked on from within a closet.

This side of his activity eventually became known and he began to be subject to harrassment, instigated by local clergymen. Ratzinger was shunned by polite society. The newspaper ceased to buy his pictures, his clientele for more conventional portraiture dried up. He was drifting danerously towards the poorhouse and began selling off his precious photographic apparatuses. On one fateful day in May, 1910, the 5th, Ratzinger finally met his undoing. He had climbed up on a ladder at the house of a local magistrate upon whom he had spied previously. This magistrate and his wife were apparently quite regular in their habits and at "8:30 PM each Friday came together for mutual satisfaction". Ratzinger decided to commemorate this goldmine of voyeuristic delight" by trying to capture it on film with a "radical new camera Kodak could only dream of."

Ratzinger was exposed. He fell from the ladder and the resulting clatter had him caught red handed, trousers unbuttoned, with "incriminating evidence there found."

Ratzinger was jailed and would certainly have been imprisoned a great deal longer if not for the fortuitous circumstances of his incarceration. Ratzinger shared his cell with a "'bookie'" by the name of Thomas and a thoughtful negro called Carrington, who claimed to have a ranch in Texas and was imprisoned after striking a white man who had insulted him. Ratzinger recounts that Thomas, the bookie, was "clever and nimble fellow and who contrived to get their jailer blindingly drunk, whereupon he procured the man's keys and "promptly liberated us all."

Ratzinger said goodbye to his erstwhile companions and stole his way to his home and recovered all of his remaining money and a carpet bag full of his most treasured photographs. He lit out for El Paso and from there made his way by train eastward. He wanted to be "as far away from New Mexico and civilized society as possible" so he made his way to Florida. Settling eventually in the area which would soon be incorporated as Clearwater.

Using the last of his money, he bought a run-down shack and a tract of land and, much to his chagrin, made his living raising pigs, heartbroken after losing his equipment, his studio and his negatives: "my entire life seemed lost".

By 1914 Ratzinger had changed his name to William Wilson, both to protect his identity, "just in case" but also to protect himself from the anti-German fervor occasioned by the outbreak of the First World War. By war's end he'd met a fellow German, Stephanie Forkes and after a brief courtship, married on June 22nd, 1919. Wilson was 39. Forkes, 27.

Their first and only child Peter was born in 1924. Wilson was apparently a doting father and was devastated by his son's death in Germany during the Allied occupation at the end of the Second World War. Peter Wilson had survived D-Day and the march on Berlin, only to die under mysterious circumstances which the elder Wilson only referred to as a "freak yodeling accident." Ironically, this occurred in the Bavarian village of Ratzing.

Peter left two young sons, Tim Wilson's father and my father.

Part two.

Tim and I grew up near one another in Clearwater and it was on one day in the late 1970's on a hot summer's day that we discovered Great-Grandpa William's affairs tucked away in a dark and dusty corner of the attic at Tim's home. I recall a large and unwieldly plastic tub, grey I think, with a green lid. We opened up and found a wild collection of journals spanning decades and a fat sheaf of photographs. These ere the images William had managed to bring with him when he absconded from Albuquerque. We were shocked and titillated by these images, featuring young women, scantily clad or naked, spanking one another or engaging in more explicit sex acts. Recollecting them now, they were not vulgar or hard in terms of today's pornography. On the contrary, the most explicit images of penetration or fellatio were always obscured in some way: a stray curtain, the bars of a window. There were lots of spying, including a series that seemed based on Molière's Tartuffe.

Tim was fascinated by these pictures, but not particularly for their erotic content. Soon after this discovery Tim fell seriously ill with some kind of mysterious virus. At the height of this fever, he experienced hallucinations and visions as if he was observing the world through some mysterious framing mechanism". It was at the height of this delirium that his house burnt to the ground. Tim barely escaped from his life. But as the last embers of this fire died out, his fever broke.

Tim later confided to me that he felt the photographs were somehow responsible for his mystery fever. "Maybe it was psychosomatic, maybe there was some kind of disease in the dust, mouse shit or some such....but as you'll recall Janice, the fever when away when those photos burned."

This illness marked Tim. He began to draw and paint as a way to recapture the exhiliration he felt "when he peeped through the veil" into a hallucinatory realm. He avoided photography, however, preferring to paint, draw and make collage. Film, for some reason, intrigued him and, when he studied Fine Art at the University of South Florida, he completed a degree in Filmmaking. His earliest photographs date from this period, in fact, and are mostly film stills from his various films, such as Water:Pillow or Manifesto.

Tim recently confessed that he'd stayed away from photography so so long because he thought it a bit "too easy yet to dependent upon an inflexible stupid device" but that it also "frightened him more than a little....I'm not entirely certain it was a stack of photographs that somehow burnt down my childhood home....one built by the man who made those photos....and they almost got me too." Yet the need to recapture the things he saw when he was nearly consumed by the fever could not be met through the means he was then employing. He thus reluctantly returned to photography, by this time rendered much more immediate by digital technology.

"I hated waiting around to develop photographs before seeing what I'd gotten. With the digital medium I can see it right away, which has it's benefits, but it's incomplete....if I might wax self-important, the elaborate photographic process I jump thru is basically a reaction to years of eye-balling digitalia. When I re-engaged my interest in photography one thing was certain --- I needed to grokk the real thing, in-hand, physical. In a sense, this is delightfully uncharacteristic, my being freshly aged and 40, happy in contradicting the dictates of my younger jump-boots ... but then I have always loathed photography in particular.

The camera is a little machine-pud, somehow gamed by its accessibility. Poetry will be made by all, yes? Lately a change of mind, quite profound, has overtaken. I enjoy the distancing mechanism of the machine, but celebrate the unique position of the image in the post-exposure ... if it's only destined for a monitor then who gives a shit, really? I reject the snapshot aesthetic, the morose and simple fussiness of a thing born into a world festooned with a celebration of dull quotidian poop. Photography is funny, the machine does its sweatless labor ... but what then? Hit Print and call it a day?

As our Great-Grandfather himself said, "The value of a thing is largely decided on its abilities in the area of being easily tattooed an asshole."


And here the asshole is the replicative properties of the digital medium.


I simply don't see the point of doing what I'm doing if its not somehow grounded in the actual, something which bears unmistakable marks of having been crafted in the World, wearing imperfections of the makers hand, not digital, distant, sallow, dumbed."




Carnival Play: A (More-or-Less) Pantomime Script

Characters:

  1. Bacchus (or a fat roman)
  2. Harlequin
  3. A creole woman
  4. A ditzy secretary
  5. An angry noble Venetian style

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