A S C R A P B O O K O F S O L U T I O N S F O R T H E P H O T O G R A P H E R
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29 December 2016
You can't really review a memoir. And The River In My Backyard is a memoir by Mikkel Aaland, whom you may know from his instructional photography books and video that go back to the beginning of the digital photography era.
We've known Mikkel a long time. We reviewed his book on Photoshop Elements and his ground-breaking book on Lightroom and his collection of tips from pros on shooting digital. Somehow he recognized us at Apple's launch of Aperture in Cologne and introduced us to everyone he knew. He's that kind of guy.
We would run into each other at one convention or another. Macworld Expo, PMA, the aforementioned Photokina. He would always find something newsworthy for us to report after we'd joked around a while. We liked to pretend we were an innocent bystander who just happened to ask the expert Aaland a ridiculous question like "Isn't your Leica just a rebranded Panasonic?" We're that kind of guy.
He would take the bait and the crowd around him would laugh as we capsized each other's rebuttal in turn. Before they knew it they'd find themselves having a much better time than they expected.
AT ONE MACWORLD EXPO, we waited for him to finish a presentation at the O'Reilly booth before we caught up with him. He was already onto the next thing. The step-by-step instructional books were going away so he was going to do a personal book instead. He had a box full of 13x19 prints he wanted to show us.
We walked across the hall looking for an empty place to spread out the prints. The Microsoft booth was, as you might imagine, deserted. He showed us print after print of his river in Norway. Gorgeous things.
A Microsoft booth guy came over to see what we were doing. "I'm just showing off this new Microsoft paper," Mikkel deadpanned. The guy nodded and walked off.
He had a box full of 13x19 prints he wanted to show us.
We did not know much about each other then so, riding the escalator up to street level, he quizzed us. How old were we, where did we grow up, that sort of thing.
We told him we first heard about him years and years ago when a personal friend showed us his book about the county fair portraits he had published. She'd been one of his darkroom assistants and told us the story.
He used to take country fair portraits and process them in a darkroom trailer. He promised fair goers, usually in their Sunday best, that the print would be ready in 10 minutes.
The assistants would print the wet negative, process the print and hand the dripping sheet to the customer, suggesting they wash it in the tub when they got home. He didn't want them to be disappointed by a browning print. Well, he's that kind of guy.
We had to report that our mutual friend had subsequently suffered a debilitating mental illness. He was saddened. "We're dealing with mental illness in my family, too," he confided.
That's all he said then. The whole story would be told in the book.
WE FIRST FOUND OUT that the book had been published when we came across an article on SFGate.com about it. And in that article, the author mentioned Aaland had nearly died from an ulcer and subsequently required two heart stents.
We sent him an email apologizing for being so out of touch. He wrote back from Norway suggesting we get together when he got back. And we did.
He usually hangs out at Caffe Trieste in North Beach but it was a Tuesday by the time we were able to meet him, having to put off the meeting twice to repair a finicky water heater.
And on Tuesday, Caffe Trieste has an accordian concert. Which makes it hard to carry on a conversation. So we met at Caffe Puccini, where we hang out because the food is inexpensive and only the dead sing.
We talked about a lot of things, including how much the industry has changed and what to do with ourselves now that we're museum exhibits. Then he passed us a copy of the book to review.
When we'd said goodbye, we walked to the Mechanics' Institute on Post where we're a member and often sit down to read or access the Web when we're downtown. We found a nice, overstuffed leather chair, opened his book and began reading.
THE FIRST CHAPTER grabs you by the throat. You are sitting with him in his home office on Greenwhich St. when his mother calls to tell him his father isn't moving. His mother (unlike ours a few years ago) had already called 911.
We knew how he felt getting in the car and driving to the house. We knew the prayer. We knew the strategy of avoiding traffic and stop lights. He had further to go, though, across the bay to Livermore.
And when he got there, it was too late.
You will think that's enough for one chapter, but Aaland isn't finished. His father wasn't just dead. He was murdered. And the police believe the murderer was Aaland's youngest brother.
Behind the property is a river, the Eidselva. It becomes a metaphor for his family, from his ancestors to his children.
He had heard voices telling him to save the world, we learn later. This was the mental illness Aaland told us his family had been dealing with.
With the eye of a photojournalist, Aaland paints that scene, complete with yellow crime scene tape and casseroles from the neighbors, police who bar him from entering his mother's house, a flat tire as he approaches the San Mateo Bridge and all the other little details that season the suffering.
But it isn't that kind of memoir after the very first few chapters. Aaland confides his feelings and fears as he deals with his father's death alone in his father's bedroom, at home under his own covers, in Norway where he has to clean up a junk yard's worth of Citroens and, most of all, with his youngest brother.
By Norwegian law, he inherits the family property in Ulefoss and by the following summer, he has decided to move there for a year with his wife and two girls.
Behind the property is a river, the Eidselva. It becomes a metaphor for his family, from his ancestors to his children. His brother's act has polluted it but he wonders what was upstream and how to purify it for his children.
WE ARE NOW about a thousand words into this book review and it has all been text that, frankly, does not amount to a single image.
But the book itself contains what Aaland estimated to be about 75 of his photos. In fact, he had started writing the book in InDesign using a template that presented an image and accommodated an accompanying long caption.
That didn't quite work out, he said. So he went back to following the narrative, letting it flow like the river, and spliced in the photos like the old logs that used to be sent down the river to sustain the local population.
At our meeting at Caffe Puccini he told us he was thinking more and more of how images and words can be integrated. The ideogram is ideal, he said. But in this book he wanted the images to tell the story too.
There are old family photos and his own landscapes. They are on facing pages and on spreads. We read them like we read the text, which often refers to them. Sometimes they were nodding, sometimes shaking their head in disbelief, sometimes looking away. They had a beauty to them that balanced the story as it navigated the rough waters of the narrative.
And while he mentions carrying a camera and lenses, he never tells us what he's using. The photos themselves have no exposure information. There's no index listing them. No acknowledgement to one company or another for sponsorship. It isn't that kind of book.
WE HAD THE FEELING, reading the details in the book, that we had been on the same river, down the same trail, just at a slightly different time. The day before, the week after.
We knew the desperate attempt to make sense of mental illness. To research a cause to find a remedy. To make everything right. To explain.
For some of us that involves doing diligent research, asking penetrating questions of health experts, inhaling books promising to put it in perspective.
We aren't members. But we comfortably try on other traditions to cover what we don't know. It isn't shallow, it's genuine.
For Aaland, who did all that, there was also what he calls magical thinking, inspired by a Japanese friend. We are of a generation that wears our spiritually casually. A jeans and T-shirt spirituality rather than the smartly creased uniforms of our parents, marching to the anthems of organized religions.
We aren't members. But we comfortably try on other traditions to cover what we don't know. It isn't shallow, it's genuine. We're that kind of generation.
This is how Aaland eventually "cleans up the river" of his family, as he puts it. He makes a spiritual pilgrimage to a holy mountain he does not have any particular connection to and endures the high-altitude walk around it with his Japanese friend.
The circling of the mountain, he writes, brings him back to the beginning in the same way the river, emptying into the ocean, evaporates into clouds and returns to the river as rain.
Closure, in a word.
OF COURSE, the fates only allow us closure to amuse us briefly and keep us tuned to the same channel. Life is hard. As we left the caffe just a week or two before Christmas and only a few days after the anniversary of his father's death, Aaland was bemoaning the coming stress of the holidays.
"Wait until you have grandchildren," we promised him. "That's a ball."
But we weren't kidding. Those grandchildren will find they have a wonderful man for a bestefar, as his girls called their Norwegian grandfather. A man who went to the ends of the earth for them.
He's that kind of guy.
The River in my Backyard by Mikkel Aaland, published by Cyberbohemia press, 256 pages, available in $59 hardback, $24.95 paperback, $10.69 Kindle book and as an audio book (free with Audible trial account) at Amazon and also packaged with a signed metal print for $295.