Ars Photographica by Heather Mull

Self-Portrait, 2012.

I never intended to become a photographer. When I was 17, I applied to colleges without a clue as to what major I'd pursue. My primary interest in life at that time was soccer and I pursued my higher education on its terms: I only applied to schools with a varsity team (this was 1986 and many schools in the U.S. did not have women's programs, just club and intramural teams. The Women's World Cup wouldn't be established until 1991, the year I graduated. I seriously don't even think we had sports bras back then. But I digress.) I was a decent student academically with a lot of interests, none of which was mathematics. But what I really loved most was playing soccer. And, according to my favorite coach, Tony Novosel, I had an aggressiveness for competition in the sport that would have sent me running full speed through a brick wall, had he commanded me so to do. 

And so, in late August, 1987, off I went to Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, the school that most assertively recruited me to play soccer for their very competitive Division 3 team, where I now had to compete for a starting spot with the same girls from fancy suburban Pittsburgh high schools I faced as an underdog opponent on a motley team of rural girls who knew more about shooting deer than shooting goals. I had a lot to prove.

I beat out a senior fullback, the captain of the team, for her starting position and she quit the team before our first game. This, I learned, was not a good way to make friends with your upperclass teammates, but we worked it out, I started all season and the team ended up with an undefeated record in our conference. To my joy and surprise, I was presented a plaque at our end-of-season banquet upon which was inscribed "Most Valuable Rookie." Ah, Springsteenian Glory Days!

My promising sophomore return, for which I'd spend the entire summer running five to eight miles a day and playing in a mens' league while waiting tables at night to earn my tuition money, ended abruptly and ungracefully the third day of our pre-season camp, when I trapped a ball during a morning drill, my foot going one way while my knee went the other, tearing my ACL. That was all she wrote.

Actually, I wrote a lot more after that, as now I was left with only my academic interests, which ended up leading me down the road to an English major (or, as I call it, "the family curse") because that was the thing I happened to do well with moderate effort. As it fortunately happened, Allegheny had an exceptional English department, chock full of brilliant professors -- no grad student instructors. These were people who published books because they wanted to, not because they had to. It was the teachin'est place a teacher could teach and the learnin'est place a learner could learn. Not to drop names BUT our graduation commencement address was given by W.D. Snodgrass, a Pulitzer Prize winning word guy with a classic poet's beard. Also, he's cool because he was born in Wilkinsburg, PA, one of Pittsburgh's "outer boroughs" where I lived for 5 years before buying my house. (Check his poem "Heart's Needle" out here.) 

Fast forward, like, a ZILLION years and here I am: a 46 year-old photographer (I picked up a camera as a hobby in my career-floundering twenties) who has worked primarily in the field of publishing, a field that feels like the professional equivalent of one of those sinkholes that shows up in a plush suburban yard one summer and ends up devouring the house into its muddy maw (that last phrase is where my English degree really shines, don't it?)

Two months ago, my newspaper staff job of 17 years was tossed into the sinkhole; this week, I watched helplessly as The Pittsburgh Post Gazette did yet another round of contract buyouts (because T.S. Eliot wasn't screwing around when he said "April is the cruelest month") depressing my newsroom friends and enriching the muck with seasoned image-makers like Bob Donaldson (watch his PG epitaph here.) Bill Wade, another PG staffer who was my teacher and wrote me a recommendation for my job, had already taken his buy-out last year and has learned to tread mud, commiserated with me the previous week at a university lecture by the incredible sports photographer Simon Bruty, a refugee from last year when the corporate ax fired an entire staff of icons and succeeded in sucking the "illustrated" out of Sports Illustrated. (Seethe with professional jealousy over Simon's talent here and the way Bill Wade transcends journalistic photography into extreme arty-fartyness here.)

Hey, the dirt and slime and stench down here in the sinkhole might be horrendous, but at least the company is good.

So how does my ill-fated soccer career of yore relate to my now ill-fated newspaper photographer career? I suppose it all comes together to demonstrate that adage of how one door closing leads to another door opening. It's the kind of hackneyed expression that when flung my way, even though I know the intent is sincerely well-meaning in its optimism, still feels a bit cringe-y. But clichés become clichés for a reason, and that reason is that they're pretty much true. 

When that little band of tissue in my knee snapped twenty-eight years ago, I still had those English literature classes to throw myself into. That reading and writing stuff led me into the publishing stuff, after a slight detour through the community darkroom at Pittsburgh Filmmakers (where I'll be teaching a little workshop this August in iPhone photography. Check out their amazing multi-media education programs here.) The photography thing is morphing for me now as I move onto different aspects of the trade and the intimidating-but-awesome-because-I-can-work-in-my-pajamas-with-a-cat-on-my-lap-and-take-vacations-without-asking-a-boss-to-sign-off-on-them brave new world of full-time self-employment. Hopefully, I'll be able to make enough money to pay the mortgage. But I'll probably be ok. Because we're all way more adaptable than we think we are, but we only figure this out when we're forced into it. 

Meanwhile, that literature background sure came in handy for the title of this blog (it's also good at cocktail parties for chatting) as it brought to mind that famous poem by Archibald MacLeish, published ninety years ago, advising younger poets on how to hone their craft (MacLeish was 34 at the time he published this, so not as old and salty as I am, but read his bio here because he was a radical rabble rouser of the highest order, which I greatly appreciate.) I offer it to you below, straight, no chaser:

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit

As old medallions to the thumb

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind -

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

A poem should be equal to:
Not true

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -

A poem should not mean
But be