On January 7th, 2019 we started printing my book titled REFUGE at Paragon Press in Salt Lake City. The next couple of days were equal parts liberating and harrowing, during which I sometimes soared with joy and others was so angry with myself that I had to stop the presses, re-edit an image or two, and then have them burn new plates and restart the flow. By the time the pages were printed, boxed, and on the shipping dock headed to the bindery in Arizona I was exhausted, elated, and relieved that it was out of my hands. In a moment of calm I looked back to how the project began.
In November 2016 I finished working on Justice League (and Wonder Woman back-to-back) and left the UK without looking back. I took the direct flight to SLC and then drove south to New Mexico and Selina. I didn't have a plan other than to be with her and to figure out what would happen next. I was not interested in any movie work that took me away from her, and thought I might be done with the movie industry altogether.
During the years that I trained folks for movie roles I wrote, and I shot pictures, but the chaotic nature of the training work prevented me from committing to any long form output. The once-per-week, quick hit of a Sermon for my old business scratched an itch and bled off steam but it rarely satisfied. I knew I was using those short essays to keep myself from confronting what really needed to be done, and what I was afraid to do. I had successfully suppressed the idea of making a book for years, using excuses the way all of us do when addressing something too big, or hard, or seemingly extraordinary.
In New Mexico I was without distraction or direction, which were perfect conditions to begin work on the book I had been “rehearsing” with Instagram. I imagined a book where images and words were paired to amplify the effect of each. This is based on Lev Kuleshov’s concept that the meaning of an image may be influenced by seeing another image sequentially or simultaneously, and in the case of REFUGE I used text to shape perception of an image and vice-versa.
I had no idea how to assemble the material in a coherent presentation so I did what I have always done: trial and error. I had passing familiarity with the InDesign software, which, combined with the Blurb plug-in for on-demand printing, appeared to be the best way for me to make a book.
Simultaneously, I was trying to find my “voice” as a photographer and despite believing I was quite done with film, my interest in it reemerged. I bought an old Leica M4, some Kodak Tri-X, and the tools and chemistry to develop the negatives myself. The odors and the process took me back to the early-90s when I learned to shoot, develop, and print black-and-white. It slowed me down and made me think. I bought an old Minolta scanner from eBay and that step triggered the idea to combine analog and digital means to ultimately produce an analog product. After all, whatever book I made would combine film images from as early as 1985 with digital images captured as recently as 2018, and words spanning that same period.
First attempts to lay out a book were lame. I asked an old designer friend to help and after seeing the PDFs she wrote, “You got this.” I didn’t but I also understood why she replied as she did, and her shove actually forced me to learn things I otherwise might have outsourced. I pushed on, and each time I had a draft I felt OK about I printed a proof using Blurb. Holding a physical copy in my hand told a far different story than the computer monitor did. My dissatisfaction with each draft was like failing on a new route in the mountains, it just made we want to learn more, to understand why I had fell short, and to try harder. Sometimes though, I had to take a break.
I was a year into trying to make REFUGE when Michael and I decided to produce a Zine. Raze was the result and through the process of producing four issues we both learned a lot, and in my case, I learned enough to reinvigorate me regarding the book. I finally knew (barely) enough to make it real.
If you have listened to episode 55 of the Dissect podcast you already know that I believe strongly in DIY and I've been willing to suffer for and because of it since I started climbing. REFUGE is no different than climbing was although the risks are merely social and financial, not life-threatening. Still, when I assigned enough value to the outcome the risk felt very real, and real enough to engage me fully in the process.
Making this book taught me a lesson I had already learned, one I had shouted from mountaintops and later in the valley, having returned from up high: if I believe in it I must commit to it, and when I believe in it I do commit to it. If my commitment is questionable it means my belief in Self or the product/task is also questionable and that I should examine it and myself very, very carefully before proceeding. REFUGE became a powerful diagnostic tool for me. I was done climbing and could no longer claim that activity as identity. I was done training others for either military or movie or recreational roles so I turned in my right to that identity as well. Who and what was I when I ceased doing the activities and work that defined me? That I used to define myself?
I don't have a definitive answer and what I do know of myself will change but when I am pressed right now I say, "I am what I create, what I make, and sometimes what I do." And if or when you come a cross a copy of REFUGE you will know exactly who I am.