I’ve always thought that anyone can take a photo, but few of us could call ourselves a photographer. And few who call themselves a photographer really are. One person who could define the occupation in a profoundly original, intriguing and beautiful way was my friend, Lauren Simonutti.
I write this as a complete and utter non-photographer. I am one of the many who can ‘take a photo’ but I would never go so far as to call myself a photographer. So forgive any lack of eloquence when it comes to describing photographic processes, using the right terminology and understanding the technicalities. That’s not what this story is about anyway.
It’s about a person. She was a photographer. And she was my friend.
For me, Lauren’s death has left behind not a huge body of work for us to admire in the decades to come. It has left a hole where my friend once was. Maybe over time the hole will fill with other things and the work will remain. I will remember a friend who was gifted, kind, generous and upstanding. Maybe my greatest lament is that the world needs more people like Lauren – people with integrity and honesty – people who display these qualities in everything they do.
As much as I loved Lauren’s photos and her handmade books, to me she was simply my friend. I found her work fascinating – not from any technical point of view – but rather because of the contrast between the person and her pictures. It always amazed me that we could both walk into the same room or experience the same place, and she could portray it in such a way that I wondered if I had ever been there at all. Indeed, when I look at the portraits she took of me, I feel that I am looking at someone I don’t know, but I remember being there. I’ve seen so many accolades for Lauren’s work (rightly so) in the month or so since her death. What I hope to achieve with this piece of writing is to show a little bit of the person who was my ‘mate’.
Lauren was a loyal and caring friend. One time when she was staying with me she came into my bedroom for our usual ‘pre-going-to-sleep chat’. We’d talk about what she did that day in her travels around Melbourne, and I’d tell her what I did at work. On this occasion I’d had a hard day so she told me a joke to cheer me up. For the life of me I cannot recall the exact words of the joke so I won’t try to re-tell it here – (it had something to do with a hooker and a mattress). Whatever it was, it was hilarious at the time and we laughed so hard and for so long that I felt like I’d broken a rib. Lauren laughed herself to the other side of the room. Once we calmed down she said that she could go to bed and sleep peacefully, knowing I was happy and that she’d made me laugh.
Lauren said that she took photos so she could remember what she did and that she was there. Here is a story about the photo that never was…
In 2010 Lauren travelled from Baltimore to Melbourne stayed with me for a month. We flew from Melbourne to Sydney for a long weekend holiday. Our first adventure was to visit Waverley Cemetery. Lauren had wanted to go there ever since she saw a photo I’d taken which portrayed an angel against the backdrop of a blue ocean. She wanted to see the ‘cemetery by the sea’.
We had packed her 5×7 ‘accordion camera’ (as I called it) into her backpack, along with the tripod and various other bits and pieces she needed. It was quite heavy, and she lugged it along the coastal path for the hour-long walk from Bondi Beach to the cemetery.
We undertook this trek with the intention of taking some photos of the beautiful monuments at the cemetery. Lauren did not usually shoot outside, so this was a nice challenge for her, she said.
We scouted around the cemetery, looking at angles, textures, details and so forth. Up and down the rows of graves we went; me, feeling like the person who must have held Picasso’s paintbrushes when he painted. It took a while but finally Lauren found the perfect shot. (I could go back there tomorrow and tell you the exact place she chose.) She unpacked her gear, set it up and then reached for the film in the front flap of her day bag.
It was at this moment that she realized she had forgotten the film. We looked at each other, feigning serious disappointment, and then fell onto the grass and laughed our heads off. “Imagine that”, I said, “the illustrious photographer forgot her film.” (As it turned out, she had left it in Melbourne. We thought she’d left it in our hotel room in the city, but it was, in fact, 1,000 kilometers away.)
So now I think about the photos that were never taken, and the things that were never seen or the words that were never said.
And I am sad, but I am also remembering what my mother said to me when I told her that Lauren had died.
“You were incredibly fortunate to know someone like Lauren, in the way you did. She revealed a lot of herself to the world, but she did not share a lot of herself with many people.”
I still can’t conceive that I won’t get another email from Lauren, that I won’t get to go to NYC with her as we had planned, that she won’t get to see my new house, meet my partner Brendan and my little dog, Serge.
I see her photos every day when I look at the framed prints on my wall. I can handle the books she made for me and appreciate the time and effort she put into them and her reason for making them. But I can’t tell her about my day, or what I’ve got planned for the weekend or what’s happening with my family.
Waiting for the light
Many people who see the pictures of Lauren’s that I have on my wall remark about how ‘dark and gothic’ they are. ‘They’re so black and gloomy’, some people say. Others ask what sort of person makes images like that – troubled, tortured and at times disturbing.
For me, Lauren’s pictures have nothing to do with darkness, torture or disturbance. They are all about the light – how she cleverly manipulated light to show the things that she wanted us to see. How she used mirrors to direct our view to something secreted behind; the things not initially visible. The darkness and the shadows are about what was left out, not what is shown.
Lauren used to describe the process she followed when taking her photos. She would sometimes sketch her ideas, then she would set up in her shooting room, arranging props and rearranging furniture, checking the distance from camera to where she might sit if she was going to be in the photo (she used an ‘extended shutter button’, the cable of which you can see in most photos she was in if you look close enough). She found a lot of her props on the street – items discarded by others and given a new appreciation in her photos. Everything would be set up according to what she wanted to reveal.
And then she would wait for the light.
Lauren, I hope you are no longer waiting for the light. I hope you are somewhere in it: a part of it. And I hope that all the darkness has finally left.