by Christine Lee Smith
This summer, after over a year of planning, working, preparing, thinking, naming and finally installing my MFA thesis body of work, it dawned on me what this body of work is ultimately about. I stood in the gallery, mask on, stunned into silence.
In January 2020 I finished photographing my 4×5 portrait series on parental estrangement. It was my final MFA project. Conceptualizing, finding participants and shooting it took over six months. It was finally time for the next phase: hand printing. I had previously purchased all the 20″ x 24” paper I would need because, in an eerie foreshadowing, the supplier was struggling to ship this paper to US retailers.
A handful of weeks later my darkroom closed. My husband and I were already limiting contact with others and sanitizing due to COVID-19. In my naïveté I assumed I’d still be able to use my low contact darkroom. I was wrong. I denied the truth of how scarce darkrooms are and told myself I’d find a new darkroom. There weren’t any.
I briefly considered building one in my house until I started reckoning with the financial unviability of my plan as a newly unemployed person. At this point I began to feel my dreams of finishing this work slip through my fingers. I had spent time, and a good deal of money, aiming to finish well. It didn’t matter. It was falling apart due to circumstances outside of my control.
I reached out to my MFA department in an act of desperation. They safely secured my use of the school’s facility to try and finish the project … except it couldn’t print 20″ x 24″. More difficulties ensued. The enlarger and the paper got into a spatial disagreement. I would have to print horizontal but then discovered the horizontal mechanism for the enlarger was missing. Internally depleted from the outside world going upside down I rigged a new mechanism (aka., stacked paper boxes). “What else could go wrong?” I thought. Then test prints revealed the “safe” lights were burning the paper, meaning I had to work in complete darkness. Chemical issues ensued. I was ready to be defeated; every time I thought this must be the last straw. Inevitably one more possibility would appear and it would work. I finished all 13-prints.
By July I sat masked, tired and sweating among this cloud of witnesses on the wall as the wise words of my spiritual director came to mind: we are invited to the journey, not the outcome. This project was about learning how to move forward when things fall apart. The people who shared their stories with me about their parental estrangement each took something awful and unfair and figured out how to not get stuck; they’re on the journey.
The journey is the part where at the end of all my good ideas, ready to throw in the towel, Jesus whispers, “What if you printed them horizontally?” and I get to say, “Well, I’ll try.” I wasn’t promised a successful outcome. The prints are marked in ways they wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t graduating in the middle of a pandemic. I said yes to Jesus on this bumpy journey, even when the outcome looked differently than I wanted.
I wanted to finish my MFA with my cohort in person, to have conversations in the hallways, to defend my work in the gallery and to have a show opening and graduation with all my loved ones. I didn’t get those in-person experiences. What I got was to journey with Jesus, to be reminded he is with me on the stormy seas and a nudge that sometimes I could want more – like realizing this work that I thought was only about one thing, is actually about something even bigger and potentially more impactful.
In this season the seas are, shall we say, quite stormy. But I am not alone. You are not alone. Jesus is with us riding these waves with us through to the other side. If I stay present in it with him, if I keep saying yes to the journey, just like the participants in my parental estrangement portrait series, I am learning how to move forward when things fall apart.
Christine Lee Smith is an award-winning portrait photographer in Southern California. In 2020 she completed an MFA from Azusa Pacific University. Additionally, she has a MA in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Biola University. Christine was a finalist in the 2019 Taylor Wessing National Portrait Gallery award and has shown her work in the Duncan Miller Gallery, Gallery 825, and the Museum of Latin American Art. In 2019 Christine presented at the CIVA biennial, as well as at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Install process at christineleesmith.com/estrangement