Like most people, there have been a number of times in my life when I have had that strange feeling of deja vu. Most times, I start doing or saying something that feels like I have done or said it before. But during a photography trip back in 1975, when I was still in school, that feeling was much different.
Early in my career, I had already become addicted to the feeling of driving along an unknown back-country road in my car, exploring and learning through the eyes of a photographer.
In those pre-GPS days, I would find some seldom used country road and just drive. One road would lead to another. I would drive all day, following the light and getting “lost” not only geographically but also creatively. As the light started to fade at the end of the day, I would open the map, figure out where I was and then plan my return trip. To this day there is no other photographic activity I enjoy more than being with my wife and exploring on an open country road that we’ve not been down before.
Back in 1975, I was in central Wisconsin with my family over the Memorial Day weekend. Instead of participating in the usual activities of swimming, water skiing and fishing that are associated with a lake cabin, I loaded my camera and tripod into the car, and off I went to find photographs to make.
After about an hour of driving, I came upon a long curve in the road that was bordered on the right by an old stone fence. Immediately I had that feeling of deja vu. I just knew there would be an old farmhouse on the property. Now some will say, obviously there would likely be some structure associated with the fencing, but this time I actually knew what it would look like before I ever saw it.
A quarter mile down the road, the farmhouse I had “seen” in my mind appeared at the end of a long driveway. As I approached the building, the feeling of having been there before became even more intense. Upon entering the abandoned house, I already knew how each floor was laid out.
I can’t say I had any magical moments of remembering something I might have done in those rooms. None of the artifacts seemed familiar to me. I explored the property for a couple of hours before I even thought of making a photograph.
I finally decided to make an overall photograph of the house and setting. My only choice for a clear, unobstructed view was atop a huge mound to the right and back of the field. Throwing my Graflex Crown Graphic camera, my camera bag full of 4X5 film holders and my tripod over my shoulder, I started up the field. I’d stop every so often to consider what I wanted to include in the photo based on the only lens I had for the camera.
Finally, I reached the mound. After climbing to the most elevated vantage point, I set up my camera to make the photograph. Now up to this point, the sky was a clear, deep blue. Just as my camera was set up, however, a line of clouds starting blowing in from the west. It was the leading edge of a major storm. I made a number of images as the clouds continued moving in, until feeling that I had made the image I wanted. I got back in the car just as the rain began.
Five years later, a family friend was driving me down the same road. When the stone fence appeared again on the right, I mentioned that there was an old, abandoned farmstead coming up. He said, “Yes, you mean the place with the Indian burial mound on it,” and suddenly my experience of being there before made more sense.
I don’t claim to know what this experience means other than the lessons it taught me about my photography. Among other things, I became more aware of the feeling I get and want to convey while making photographs, of how complex the creative process is and how each of us attaches different meanings to the art we make. We engage based on our life experiences and in some cases, those unexplained memories we have inside of us.