Objects in My Father's Basement:
MY FATHER’S BASEMENT WAS FASCINATING. There were numerous drawers filled with mysterious items, tools of unknown use and stacks of things, the order of which made no sense to me, but made perfect sense to him. He could remember the location of anything in this place - even hidden three or four layers deep and beyond easy survey of the room.
My early memories of the place center around two areas - his desk and the workbench. I loved them for their lack of order and the surprise that they held. The desk drawers were marvels to explore. One, about five inches deep and as long as the desk, was full of pencils. Sorted at one time to graphite and colored leads, but now hopelessly confused, it was possible to sink your hands into wrist level and let pencils fall through your fingers, as a miner would play with gold.
The surface of the workbench was full of tools, sawdust and projects in various stages of completion. Like the desktop, it too was full of things that, once repaired, would be reason enough why there was no need for a new one. Things with their innards exposed - especially electronic and kitchen items - waited new parts or a renewal of
There were lots of small drawers under the workbench that were labeled as to their contents. They were made from old wood boxes with wooden knobs as pulls. They were my earliest memories of the basement. I would pull one out and look at what was in it. I suppose that, like the pencil drawer, they held the same fascination - lots of nails, bolts
or screws all in the same place. As long as I promised to put them back, I was allowed to take one drawer out and dump the contents out on the concrete floor. I would sort through that pile, the way kids look at shells at the beach.
Labeled drawers of nails not withstanding, my father’s filing system consisted of a good memory of where he had put things down last. As a child I would be sent for this or that in the workshop with directions as vague as, “It’s on the workbench near the grinder.”
After several fruitless attempts on my part he would personally escort me to the basement, and with a flourish, produce the hidden instrument. My protests that the device was hidden four layers deep were to no avail.
As I grew and used the workshop myself, the system broke down. I could never find anything I wanted to use, and he could never find anything I HAD used. I became very cynical about finding anything in the basement and used the basement workshop only as a last resort. My mother kept a set of tools in the kitchen. Whether she kept themthere for convenience or to avoid looking at the chaos in the basement, I was never quite sure.
Once Dad retired, he expanded his activities to another room in the basement, in which he made an office. In this room he placed his objects of business and items that were part of his life as a designer and model maker for McDonnell-Douglas. This room, with its models and pictures, had much more sense of decoration than the workshop. This
room was in a former life, a rathskeller - a basement bar and entertainment area - but now it began to share another function with his need for storage and workspace. Soon, models began to cohabit shelves with bar glasses and liquor bottles, and the Formica surface of the bar became full of projects to be finished. As time went on, he used the basement more and more. It had a TV, running water and a bathroom. As his health began to fail him, he spent most of his time there. In his last years, with the exception of sleeping and eating his meals upstairs, the rest of his time was spent in the basement. It became “his place”.
In 1986, one year before his death, I started to photograph both rooms. His first reaction was to offer to clean up the place. I don’t know if he understood my desire to make pictures of the basement the way it was. I’m not sure at the time that I knew why I wanted to make pictures of the basement the way it was. It was a place that was always there and had looked like it did for a long time. Maybe with his failing health, I felt that it
wouldn’t be there that much longer. Perhaps I felt that other people should see these things that I saw. I do know that after he died, and I continued to work to finish this portfolio, I realized that I was making a portrait.
These images are from a time and a process that has long passed. Kodak does not make G surface paper anymore, which had a matte surface and an off-white (almost yellow) base color. While “Kodalith printing” is still available as an “alternative process” it is really not similar to what I was doing in the early 80’s. I’m happy I have so many vintage prints from this series left. They remind me of a time back when my daughter was young and I was just beginning to think of myself as an artist.