180 Degree Skies, Silhouettes, and Thriller
I dearly miss the sky in these photographs, stretching nearly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It is home and road trips and anticipation, solitude and conversation. It's "Thriller" on the Fisher Price cassette player, carrot sticks and pretzels in little plastic baggies, winter hikes on Christmas Day, rubbing my mom's shoulders from the back seat on long car trips, and my brother's legs creeping over The Middle Line.
I grew up in this flat midwestern landscape, and now I live in South Western Pennsylvania, where hills seem to pile up on one another. It is a challenge to get a clear unobstructed view of a single tree in silhouette. The foliage is often dense and interrupted by the sloping, layered horizon.
In fact, nothing ever appears in its entirety in South Western Pennsylvania, as it does in my flat midwestern homeland pictured above. I do love the coziness of Western PA, though it can feel as though the small wedges of sky are the only way out. When my husband and I first moved here, we found ourselves climbing hill after hill, trying to get a better view of our house, our neighborhood, the rivers, anything to orient ourselves. We needed to ground our understanding of our terrain by climbing higher and higher in an attempt to step back and see the whole.
I took these photos while visiting my midwestern homeland, from behind a tinted car window while my dad drove my daughter and I to the O'Hare airport in December. We all ate pretzels from a plastic baggie on the way. As we passed rows of trees planted as a wind break along the side of the road, I realized that full tree silhouettes are something I long for.
Look past the row of trees in this photo -- there's a silhouette of a spruce tree. A perfectly serrated triangle.
My 2 year old daughter is interested in silhouettes right now. She has been asking questions about the "black trees" when we're out at dusk. My husband and I explain to her that anything can appear black when it's lit only from behind. At one point, she asked if she could have a flashlight. She wanted to experiment with what would happen if she shined it on something in silhouette. Did she come up with this or did one of us suggest this at one point? It's difficult to know for sure.
While reading together on the couch, she asks "Why is Elmo black?" when she notices his profile in shadow in Elmo's First Babysitter. Every time we have these discussions about Elmo being black, and we have them quite often, my thoughts go to Kara Walker, in part because her work has shaped so much of my understanding of the Victorian tradition of silhouettes, and also because "Why is Elmo black?" is a potentially puzzling and powerful question. It reminds me of what my high school teacher wrote on the chalkboard on the first day of world religion class: "God? She's Black!" He intended to challenge us, and to provide a space where we could observe our own assumptions.
Silhouettes exist in a similar space. We become aware of ourselves viewing something at a distance, whether it's Elmo and his babysitter, Walker's fantastical and horrific scenes, tree silhouettes along the side of the road, or the back-lit dancing monsters in Thriller.