a walking project by Larsen Husby
Early Autumn 1914
“I love noticing things! I could notice things all day! But sometimes I wonder... do things like being noticed?”
— Zippy the Pinhead
I told myself from the get-go that Long Trace was not going to be a photo-essay, or a “portrait of a place,” or anything like that which might someday be turned into a coffee-table book. Not that there is anything wrong with such books (I would be honored if a publisher ever asked me to make one), but I am not a photographer, and I do not own a camera other than the one in my phone, and so it seemed that such an undertaking was outside of my ability. Still, it’s the 21st century, and we’re all photographers. The impulse to whip out that cell phone and snap a picture when the mood strikes is deeply ingrained, and so I found myself taking pictures on my walks anyway. I convinced myself that they were for “research” and might be used to reveal a pattern in the scenery, or some fundamental truth about the character of the city. And so I snapped away.
Most often I found my lens focussing on front lawns and the facades of houses. Really, that is what Minneapolis looks like from the sidewalk: suburban. With the exception of downtown and its closest neighborhoods (Loring Park, Elliot Park, Stevens Square), buildings here do not directly abutt the sidewalk as they do in Philadelphia, nor do they hide behind high walls or hedges as in Beverly Hills. Rather they sit at a polite distance behind a courtesy lawn, neither confronting the passer-by nor hiding from their gaze. And in that small space, between the private home and the public street, all sorts of items accumulate, a phenomenon I came to call ‘lawnstuff.’
To pay attention to lawnstuff is to be taken by its sheer variety: toys, pinwheels, chairs, bicycles, rakes, sandals, flags, garbage bags, bird baths, old newspapers, political signs, decorative stones, plastic flowers, dog shit. Some of it has clearly been placed there intentionally to convey a certain aesthetic sensibility or an affiliation with a group or ideology; once, on the North Side, I saw a hand-lettered sign sticking out of the grass which read simply “Jesus” in all capital letters. Yet so much of it is clearly accidental or incidental, as with this assemblage of items piled against the corner of a house somewhere on the South Side.
Lawnstuff on the corner of a house, South Minneapolis
I encountered this scene in mid-April of 2017, and was drawn to document it because of the formal qualities of the arrangement. Within the frame of this photo, the parts come together in a zigzag: the concrete slabs lead the eye up and right, then the planks and broom veer us up and left, where we are met by the explosive diagonals of the leaves radiating out from the sharp vertical of the wall. The white stucco on the right provides a negative space to counterbalance the busy jumble of trees, sheds, and telephone wires to the left. It felt to me like a composition one might be assigned to draw in an art class, were it not for the fact that it is just a bunch of garbage on someone’s lawn.
Still, it is the fact that it is just a bunch of garbage, and that it was not arranged in order to look “just so,” that makes it intriguing, causing us to wonder: how did all this stuff come to be here?
I do not know the story, of course, but I can imagine it. Perhaps, years ago, the owners of this house cut down a tree, either because it was diseased or just too close to the house for comfort. Pieces of the trunk were left scattered about the lawn when the tree cutters left, and the owners, seeing in these shapes an elegant simplicity of form, held on to them. But with no clear purpose for these remnants, they pushed them to the side of the lawn where they would remain inconspicuous and unobtrusive — so inconspicuous and unobtrusive that they ended up staying there for several years, long enough for the color to leech away and leave them ghostly pale when dry, velvety black when wet. The broom had been abandoned months before (this I can verify from Google Street View, which captured the house in August 2016 with the broom still visible), no doubt retired from its sweeping duties when the snow came and the shovels were brought out. The blue planks are a little more mysterious. Perhaps they came from some old, dilapidated lawn chair that finally fell apart, and perhaps these fragments just didn’t feel enough like trash to be thrown in the bin with the banana peels and plastic wrappers, and perhaps the owner was struck by the impulse to contribute their faded color to the small composition that had begun to coalesce on the corner of the house.
This isn’t a very interesting story, but it is an utterly relatable one. We make these sorts of non-decisions all the time, choosing to hold onto objects with no use and allowing them to pile up wherever they can be ignored. For the homeowner, who spends most of their time inside, the exterior of the house is the least visible part, which is why so much detritus ends up accumulating there. Yet the exteriors is all we, the public on the sidewalk, see. Lawnstuff confronts us with the indecision of others, giving us room to reflect upon the detritus accumulating in our own lives. But in the phenomenon of the corner composition there is a hopeful message: it is possible to achieve grace, even when we are not trying.
2. The Hannah Wilke House
That front lawns and the facades of houses are the site of a push and pull between public and private space makes observing and photographing them a murky proposition. The property itself is clearly private, yet it is an inevitable part of the visual landscape. Legally, both looking at and taking pictures of private homes from the street is allowed, but it still often felt to me like a minor invasion of privacy akin to staring at a stranger on the bus. How long is too long to look at someone’s house? I wondered. Does the intention behind my photos matter? What is my responsibility to the images I collect?
Clearly I overcame this reticence. I can thank Google Street View for this (they, clearly, have no compunction on this subject), but also the illusion of solitude I enjoyed while wandering down the empty sidewalks of Minneapolis’s quieter streets, where no one was there to question the appropriateness of my actions.
An oddly familiar color story, Northeast Minneapolis
But on December 10th, 2017, my freedom to consume the scenery by way of my camera was questioned for the first time. On a walk through Northeast, I came upon a little house with powder blue clapboard and sky blue trim. It was an unremarkable structure, so much like all the other little houses on the fringes of the city: economical, unpretentious, built in the years directly after World War II. This one only caught my eye because of the pairing of its mailbox and front steps. The mailbox was a flat, pale pink color, with a folded lid like an envelope. The steps were clad in Astroturf, a synthetic green that looked all the more out of place next to the snow covered ground. The colors, textures, and shapes of these two objects immediately triggered a memory of an artwork I had seen at the Walker Art Center some years before. It consisted of a ceramic form made of overlapping pink folds, resting on a nest of green fibres. The ceramic, with its smooth matte surface and gentle curves, was decidedly vaginal, an enclosed space carefully opened. The green nest resembled artificial grass, but beneath its partner the evocation of pubic hair was inevitable.
(Later on, I scoured the Walker’s online catalog for the remembered artwork, and found it: ‘Teasel Cushion,’ by Hannah Wilke, 1967. After doing a little research into her oeuvre, I was gratified to find that its vaginal resemblance was deliberate.)
Struck by the uncanny similarity between the colors and textures of a contemporary sculpture and the entrance of a Minneapolis bungalow, I decided to snap a picture. I took one step onto the front lawn, just to get a little closer to my subject, and thought to myself, I sure hope no one’s home to see me do this!
Which is perhaps what did it. Picture taken, I had walked only a few yards down the street when a voice behind me called out, “Excuse me!” I turned around to see a middle-aged woman in a maroon U of M sweatshirt, walking toward me down the sidewalk. “Did you just take a picture of our house?”
Immediately my heart started racing and a wave of guilt washed over me. I had been spotted! But there was no point in denying it. “Yes,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
What followed was a rambling explanation on my part, something about how I was an artist and that I often took photos of interesting houses, that I was taken by the combination of pink and green, and that I had been noticing pink in particular recently, probably because it was winter in Minnesota, when vibrant colors were scarce. I did not mention the walking project, for it seemed too complicated to explain briefly, and I wanted nothing more than to end our interaction as quickly as possible. I also did not mention the artwork her house had reminded me of, for how would that sound? I took a picture of your mailbox and front steps because they look remarkably like a vaginal sculpture I once saw!
She looked as though she didn’t quite believe me. “My daughter saw you from the window and said, ‘Mom, there’s a guy taking pictures of our house!’ I was worried.” She stared straight at my face, as if trying to derive my intentions from my eyes. “I thought you might be trying to case our house, you know, for a robbery. You never know.”
“Oh no,” I said. “I just liked the mailbox, is all.”
“Do you want to know the story behind that mailbox?” she asked, and I felt a slight warming in her demeanor. Whether or not she thought my actions were appropriate, she had apparently decided I did not pose a threat. She went on to explain that she had inherited the house from her father, and that upon moving in her young daughter implored her to paint the whole thing in her favorite color: pink. “The mailbox was the compromise,” she concluded.
I don’t remember how we said goodbye — despite the convivial turn of the conversation I was still eager to leave this awkward encounter behind. I remained jumpy the rest of the walk, feeling for the first time the uncomfortable truth that, as a person in a public space, I was just as susceptible to the inquiring gaze of others as the houses and lawns had been to mine.
Months later, I found myself on the other side of this equation. I was sitting at my desk one afternoon when I looked out the window and saw a young woman with short hair and glasses gazing up at my building from the sidewalk. She came half way up our front walk, held up a camera, and snapped a photo of the door. She then turned around and strolled away. Bemused, I considered bolting out after her to shout, “Excuse me! Did you just take a picture of our house?”
3. Early Autumn 1914
Soon after I had finished walking every street in Minneapolis in June 2018, I moved to Chicago to attend graduate school. Early on in the first semester, I gave a presentation on the project to my class, showing them the website, the maps, and, of course, the photographs. Our professor (who, as it happened, had grown up in the Twin Cities) commented, “The photos are nice, they’re funny — but they don’t tell us much about Minneapolis specifically. Most of these could be from anywhere.”
This fact is not lost on me. The photos never did reveal some fundamental truth about the character of the city (as if that were even possible). Yet I have found in them something else: a portrait of the experience itself. When I think back to the hundreds of walks I took over the course of twenty months, most of what I saw was utterly forgettable, but every so often I encountered a small moment of accidental grace, or humor, or mystery, and took a picture of it. Actively seeking them out forced me to pay attention even through the more mundane parts of the city. And it is that seeking which I see in them now, as much as the landscapes and objects they depict.
As for the “anywhere” quality of them, I can’t argue with that, either. The corner composition and the pink mailbox might just as easily have been found in Saint Paul, or Madison, or Portland, or Atlanta. Lawnstuff is not a Minneapolis phenomenon any more than lawns are. But those parts of the city which are truly one-of-a-kind and nowhere-but-here have been photographed countless times already: ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry,’ the star spangled mural outside First Avenue, the Stone Arch Bridge at night casting a golden light onto the rushing waters of the Mississippi. To photograph them once more always felt redundant, and so I avoided it. Besides, these icons are the exceptions, not the rule. If there is any secret uncovered in these pictures it is the mundane fact that most of Minneapolis looks like somewhere else. For that matter, most cities look like other cities, possessing their own unique qualities but always many, many more similarities than differences. How would focussing on that which separates Minneapolis from elsewhere, rather than what connects it, be any more truthful or accurate?
A temporal phrase, Northeast Minneapolis
On the same walk that I encountered the pink mailbox and its owner, I came upon another curious happenstance which stopped me in my tracks. Again, the house was unremarkable, a one-storey box clad in yellow-brown shingles on the lower half and white vertical clapboard on the upper half. But in the front corner of the house was affixed a wooden plaque reading ‘Early Autumn’ in a loopy cursive, and just beneath it a smaller plaque in the shape of a pennant engraved with the number ‘1914.’ Together they seemed to form a single phrase: ‘Early Autumn 1914.’
Such a poetic little phrase, a general time within a particular year. This combination of specificity and vagueness provides us a frame which we must fill with our own details. I imagined it as an inscription on the back of a faded old photograph: a sepia tinted image of sweater-clad young men posing in front of their new dormitory, or of a woman holding a small child before a line of trees whose leaves are just beginning to turn.
Of course, the number was clearly in reference to the house’s address, as this was the 1900 block of a Northeast avenue. But what was ‘Early Autumn’ doing there? Was it the name of the house? Some houses do have names, though in my experience they tend to be storied old estates or sentimentally titled vacation homes. (As a child, I spent much of my summer vacations at Crew’s Nest, my grandparents’ home on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a corny nautical pun, befitting an island house which hosted many wholesome family gatherings over the years.) Was this just a whimsy, a romantic nod to the owner’s favorite time of year? Did they intentionally pair name and number to produce a temporal phrase? And if not, have they ever noticed?
Were I a bolder person, I might have gone to their front door and knocked, and maybe I would have met the inhabitant and found out. But of course I did no such thing. Instead I took a picture and walked away, letting the mystery live on unsolved. That evening at home on my laptop, I did a little research into what was happening in the world in the early autumn of 1914. World War I had just begun, and the battle of the Marne was fought in Belgium. In the Vatican, Pope Benedict XV succeeded Pope Pius X. In Cincinnati, a passenger pigeon named Martha, the last of her species, died in captivity. A time defined by its conflicts, triumphs, tragedies — a time like every other.
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