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Essay

HER MOUTH is taped shut. That’s what gets your attention first.

At first glance, a photograph like this might trigger alarm or suspicion. But context is everything.

Look again, and see how those temporary tattoo lines spiral like fiddlehead ferns from her eye to her ear, and that speck of blue glitter gleams on her cheek. This is a costume, a deliberate arrangement of elements. Everything about her, the earnestness in her gaze, the wave of auburn hair spilling back into shadow, wants to tell us something.

Then there is the matter of what she herself has written on the image, a tease of gold lettering that tells us she’s carrying secrets.

PLATE 1. Fritz Liedtke. Losing My Friends, 2013. Archival print with handwriting. 18 x 12 inches. From the series Quite Normal.

PLATE 2. Fritz Liedtke. Same, 2010. Archival print with handwriting. 18 x 12 inches. From the series Quite Normal.

And of course, there are the rest of the images in this series of portraits, called Quite Normal, that photographer Fritz Liedtke created in collaboration with the students of da Vinci Arts Middle School [see Plates 1 to 4]. The photos explore the wide range of what it’s like to be a teenager, moving from troubling expressions of alienation to brash displays of confidence and humor. These faces could be from anywhere, kids hoping to attend college, find a job, or—someday—enjoy families of their own.

Most of us are drawn to the people we have been conditioned to notice. We see those who have made it—the strong, the sure of themselves. Liedtke is different. He is more interested in the halfway-there, the stranded-in-between, the stumblers and the striving. To browse through his portfolios is to step into various twilight hours, where people are at play to see who they might become, or wrestling with what binds them.

Liedtke has a particular affinity for adolescents as they try on new identities in search of themselves, fumbling their way into adulthood. But he is also attuned to those who struggle in silence with disordered appetites, disrupted by their own or others’ skewed expectations. And he sees anomalies of the flesh as a challenge to our customary perceptions of beauty—a face too freckled for fashion is, to his eyes, a sky full of stars.

PLATE 3. Fritz Liedtke. Dying, 2010. Archival print with handwriting. 18 x 12 inches. From the series Quite Normal.

Sometimes his subjects are finding their feet, endearing in their self-assurance and whimsy. Sometimes they telegraph doubt and insecurity, caught in the act of sinking and calling out for help. But where other artists labor to find the right composition according to their preconceived notions, Liedtke is on the lookout for surprises. His camera is his satellite dish as he sweeps the scene for secrets.

Hence his collaborative approach. Liedtke investigates his subjects’ stories for inspiration, inviting them to improvise in playful ways that might shake loose something unexpected, the suggestion of a world beyond the scope of our vision.

When he asked these middle-schoolers to express themselves, one by one, by turns plucky and pretentious, silly and profound, they put on costumes and wrote down what came to mind.

Here’s one of my favorites. A boy in close-up, probably fourteen, whose tousled brown mop needs a trim, looks like he’s auditioning for the lead role in a Wes Anderson film. His gaze, through a grownup’s glasses, says, “You don’t fool me.” His white dress shirt is unbuttoned, and his necktie’s been loosened. If he were an adult, we might assume he’s just been sucker-punched…or possibly kissed. In the available space, he’s written, “Bad day lawyering, came home drunk, shirt unbuttened, tie askew, but looking sharp as allways.”

Here’s another: a safety-goggled boy, cushioned with several layers of clothes, a pair of jeans on his head like a jester’s cap, puts up his dukes like a superhero. “I live to solve indecent overexposure!” he writes.

PLATE 4. Fritz Liedtke. Quite Normal, 2010. Archival print with handwriting. 18 x 12 inches. From the series Quite Normal.

Boys in wild homemade wrestling costumes stand back-to-back as if besieged. “Every moment needs to be gracefully executed,” one of them writes. “You’re allways trying to dodge a cliff-hanger, or a roundhouse kick. The only difference is that in life, the roundhouse kicks are metaphorical…usually at least.”

Even when these  kids are funny and flamboyant, I come away with a lingering sense that they are also, perhaps inadvertently, revealing real conviction, even first-person testimonies of their lives so far. They each have something to pursue, something to resist, and more often than not, something to survive.

A girl halfway up—or down—a crooked set of stairs has the look of a captive who’s not going anywhere. Sure enough, the writing on her wall—or steps, rather—speaks of a house divided by anger.

In the introduction to the portfolio, Liedtke quotes the poet John Ciardi: “You don’t have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.”

One young woman’s bruised expression, seen up close, is accentuated by the burn of her blue eyes and the lightbulb shine of her hair. Look closer, and you’ll see a worrying scar beneath her lower lip. She looks more like a refugee or someone rescued from a war zone than someone who just suffered a breakup or has a difficult home life. Asked to say what’s on her mind, she writes, “I still have the rest of my life left.”

And the girl with the auburn hair who surprised Liedtke by sealing her mouth shut with tape—unbeknownst to her, she has gone right to the heart of Liedtke’s work. It’s what draws him in, again and again, to investigate faces, postures, places, and spaces—works in progress.

“The things you keep inside,” she writes, “are the things that make people wonder.”

§

October rain spatters our windshield as Liedtke and I travel south of Portland, Oregon. I’m spending the weekend with him, learning about his work and inspirations and retracing his development as a photographer. His camera bag is on the back seat.

We are a little bit nervous as we make the long drive to Woodburn, Oregon, to visit a friend of ours, another work in progress. We’ve known Kimberly Bennett since we attended Portland Christian High School together twenty-five years ago. Last summer, she was thrown from a horse, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and fell into a coma. She’s home now, awake, living alone, and struggling to recover memories from the past several years of her life.

The drive through the downpour gives Liedtke time to think back on the events that made him want to be a photographer. He recalls one of his first cameras—a Kodak 126.

“We lived in an old log cabin in Vancouver, Washington, under these big old trees, and we had this panel of nine single-pane glass windows. One day, in the middle of winter, I took a picture of a window covered in droplets of water, and it was all gray and wet and stormy outside. I couldn’t have identified why back then, but I think it resonated with my feelings about the Northwest winter—the dark grayness and oppressive nature of things. That was one of the first images that felt artistic because it said something. It was more than just portraying a thing.”

As the windshield wipers mark time, memories keep coming. How, in his teens, Liedtke photographed his three younger sisters. How he gave the youngest a birthday present: a collage of portraits. And how one particular seventh-grade boy caught his attention during high school.

“Mikey,” he says, “was kind of scrawny and geeky. His classmates picked on him. I got some free tickets and took him to the circus. I took some portraits of him in the hallway at the junior-high end of the school, using a twin-lens reflex I had bought. I was trying to portray him as small within the bigger space of the school, trying to represent something about who he was.”

“Wait,” I say. “You took him to the circus?”

I’d forgotten that Liedtke earned cash one summer by distributing brochures promoting a circus that was coming to town. He tells me he nearly traveled to Chicago with them for their next show before they discovered he was underage.

“I almost got to run away with the circus.” He’s obviously pleased with this historical footnote. He may not have joined the circus, but that brush with the big top seems to square with his ongoing attraction to outliers.

Liedtke credits an English and photography teacher, Michael Demkowicz, with helping him hone his skills and break free from utilitarian definitions of art. “I was fighting against my evangelical culture’s ignorance of art and art’s validity as a pursuit in life,” he says. “They didn’t see the value in anything that didn’t clearly evangelize and that didn’t appeal to only one small segment of society.”

In Demkowicz’s photography class, one image in particular—a photo by Wright Morris—made a strong impression on Liedtke. “It was a photograph of an old drawer in an old house, lined with newspaper and full of old silverware. And he said something like, ‘This is about much more than silverware.’ That started me thinking about all of the implications.”

It was a revelation, the understanding that the meaning of a poem or a picture is not “behind” it, to be revealed and explained, but is rather inseparable from the art itself, to be explored and never fully solved.

In a high-ceilinged art studio at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Liedtke teaches a course called “The Artistic Portrait,” in which he challenges his students to study great work by other photographers and discover the relationships, contrasts, suggestions, and questions waiting to be found within the frame. He wants them to see—as Demkowicz put it—how “things mean things.” He finds that the lessons he learned early on are helpful even to accomplished photographers.

And yet, Liedtke’s own art has led him to explore very different territory than what he studied in school. A decade after high school, as he examined a proof sheet of new landscape photos, he found himself facing a hard truth. “This is just like the stuff that Ansel Adams did, but not nearly as good. So why am I doing it?”

It was a humbling realization. It was also a turning point.

He began narrowing his focus, looking for the common thread in the photos he’d taken that reflected something distinctly his own. “It was my interest in people who didn’t quite fit in, who are geeks or outsiders.”

I suggest that a lot of photographers are drawn to outsiders because, well, it’s easy to ogle whatever is odd or unusual. How is what he does any different from exploitation?

“It’s easy to let subjects become objects that you’re using to impress people. ‘Look what I found! Look at my shell! Look at my rock!’ It’s tempting to work for shallow reasons—to collect things just because they look strange, or to photograph pretty things just because they’re pretty, and to forget about meaning and compassion. There’s a line that you can cross. I try not to.”

Liedtke has distinguished himself as a photographer—he earned a BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art; his work has been published and praised in periodicals (including Shutterbug, LensWork, View Camera, and Photo Life); he has done commercial work for Tiffany, Asics, and Adidas.

But those are footnotes. What sets Liedtke’s photography apart has more to do with how he works. Everything he does comes out of the care that I first saw in those early years, when he went out of his way to spend time with classmates who did not quite fit in. To me, that’s just Fritz.

That’s what I’m remembering as we arrive at Kim’s place—some of the first visitors to her home since the accident.

She welcomes us with the broad smile I remember. We listen to her describe the challenges of recovery, the uncertain road ahead. Her injury shook up her memory, with strange consequences. It’s as if someone has turned back the clock on her emotional experience of the world. In the hospital, she felt like a small child again, unsure about what was happening, trusting the “adults” to take care of her. Now, back home in Woodburn, she feels like she did when we first knew her twenty-five years ago—a teenager, wondering who she is and what she will become.

Liedtke leans forward, saying very little during the visit, listening intently.

Around the time that we’re halfway home, I realize that he was too focused on being there with Kim, offering friendship, to ever think of taking out his camera.

§

Here’s Cammi—a forty-something outsider, another work in progress—wearing a bikini beneath graduation regalia and standing in running shoes on a rock in the Willamette River. She’s clutching what appears to be a diploma. A ribbon boasting “#1 MOM” is pinned to her bikini top. Behind her, thick pylons that once supported docks now hold up nothing at all. (A sign of collapse?) A bridge spans the river, but it’s just out of the camera’s frame.

Cammi seems triumphant. But whether her victory is in graduating, in motherhood, in her beach-ready figure, or in having made her way out to that unlikely spot—it’s unclear. Perhaps that pile-up of possibilities is part of her story, the madness of playing so many roles.

“Every year, Cammi takes a vacation with her young son,” says Liedtke. “So she decided to fly to Portland with him, just so I could photograph her. We’d talked about all of these things that she’s great at. She earned this diploma, this degree, later in life. She’s a mom. But there’s also all of this dark, messy stuff in her life. That’s what we were trying to illustrate.”

What the casual observer will not discern about Cammi becomes clear in context. The image is part of a body of work called Skeleton in the Closet, portraits that illuminate the subjects’ stories of their defining struggle with eating disorders.

Cammi was only one of many who responded when Liedtke invited people to tell him about their experiences. Startled at the opportunity to share—and more, to pose for a portrait that expressed her inner conflict—Cammi knew she had to make the journey to Portland.

“Struggles like hers are so common,” says Liedtke, “it kind of surprised me. Something like one in ten women have had an eating disorder at some point in their lives. So we all know people who have stories like this.”

So do I, as it turns out.

Around the time that we parted ways for college, Liedtke was already embracing photography as a daily discipline. It would serve him well in the coming years, which were heavy with trouble.

In a word—anorexia.

“I didn’t really know anything about eating disorders at the time,” he tells me, “and didn’t think I had one. But with counseling, I discovered that I did. And I was able to resolve some things in my life that helped me let go of the need to control my food intake. As is often the case, it had nothing to do with appearance, but more to do with control over my thinking and eating.”

While that particular ordeal was fleeting, more physical affliction awaited him. In the mid-nineties, during his sophomore year at George Fox College in Newberg, Oregon, Liedtke became weighed down by severe fatigue. He dropped out of school at the end of that year and moved in with his grandparents in rural Carlton, Oregon. In time, the illness limited him to such a degree that he could barely take care of himself. He avoided a variety of allergens, experimented with different diets, and sought out specialists. It was like he fell out of the world for a while.

I keep a yellowed greeting card from our extensive correspondence during that time. In it, Liedtke expresses his hope for a visit from a friend, asks me when I’ll be back in the area, and tells me he’s found comfort in Bruce Cockburn’s album In the Falling Dark. He writes:

My chiropractor had me write out six goals I want to meet in six months. It was hard to be realistic and yet challenging. One of the very challenging ones is that I’d like to be able to drive myself to Seattle and visit you and another friend up there…. You can be praying for me toward this…. Peace, Fritz

The fact that my friend, who had been so energetic, creative, and high-spirited when we had met a decade before, would find a few hours’ drive up to Seattle so daunting—it was hard to believe. On the rare occasions I saw him, he was frail and rarely had strength for more than short excursions. His future seemed grim.

And yet, almost every letter he sent contained more than just an update on his condition. He sent poems and photographs too, striving to make something of the time by finding beauty and mystery in the mundane.

The photos show an increasing interest in scenes of erosion and disrepair. Collapsing barns. Paint flaking from trash cans. Yet they were also alive with colors, textures, and slants of light. Each image he shot was a way of taking nourishment, whatever way he could.

He practiced and practiced. “Even if you don’t think you’re doing great work,” Liedtke tells his class these days, “working regularly and constantly, it’ll build up technical skills, your confidence in yourself, your confidence in relating to your subjects. It will refine your vision.”

It is hard to believe that this man, who has traveled all over the world taking pictures of people bearing with suffering or enjoying success, is the same one who was confined to the shadows for so long. But in the middle of the ruins his interest in life persisted, and just as making images helped him out of his own valley of shadows, so he determined to come alongside others dealing with affliction and alienation.

PLATE 7. Fritz Liedtke. Katie C, 2006. Archival print. 16 x 20 inches. From the series Skeleton in the Closet.

PLATE 8. Fritz Liedtke. Tristen, 2006. Archival print. 16 x 20 inches. From the series Skeleton in the Closet.

He launched the ambitious Skeleton in the Closet series in 2004, a few years after finishing art school; it took five years to complete. The portraits in the series are often discomforting. The subjects—most of them women—expose their bodies and their stories, revealing the damage of malnutrition and assuming postures of insecurity and shame, the scars and souvenirs of their ongoing struggle. Liedtke has given the images rough textures, murky colors, ragged edges, producing something more abstract and painterly than a photograph. A few images are straightforward portraits without overt references to eating disorders. Some are rich with implication [see Plates 7 and 8].

Liedtke’s “messy” approach to the project—beginning with using Polaroid film—was quite a departure from the lessons he learned studying Ansel Adams. “I’m talking with people who are trying to control their lives, and yet they’re making this huge mess out of their lives,” he explains. “I enjoyed using a messy-looking photographic process to illustrate that.”

To gather testimonies, he spoke with each subject, took notes, then invited them to write about the parts of their stories that intrigued him most. If they didn’t like to write, he transcribed pieces of conversation. His own story of a year with anorexia helped his subjects trust him with theirs.

But, he quickly clarifies, he knows the boundaries between their experiences and his. “I went into this project to tell stories, not to help people. It wasn’t a social service project or outreach in any way. It was just a project I wanted to pursue, photographs I wanted to make. My role as an artist and photojournalist was to listen and tell their story, not to be their counselor.”

Listening, he says, was sometimes difficult. His subjects were often completely convinced that they were fat, ugly, and unworthy of love. Some were still clinging to drugs for comfort. “I’ve sat face-to-face with these beautiful people who were headed for death, and I could do little more than listen. The depth to which we are able, as humans, to deceive ourselves is quite surprising sometimes.”

Still, by merely listening, Liedtke might have given them something that others in their lives, eager to respond or act, could not. He was often caught off guard by how they would tell him things they had never told anyone. “I felt like a priest in a confessional,” he says. “I was honored to be able to listen.”

Tracing recurring patterns in his subjects’ stories, Liedtke came to see Skeleton in the Closet as a narrative, and his role as a sort of illustrator. “Everyone has an interesting story, of which I could only illustrate a small part. So this series is really a bunch of small chapters that tell a larger story of what it is to battle with—or give in to, or have victory over—an all-consuming foe.”

Perusing the book that came out of the project, I pause over the image of an emaciated nineteen-year-old—Katie C, 19—who holds a prayer rock carrying the good wishes of the friends in her treatment program in her skeletal hand. I turn the page to another woman, Katie, 28, who lies in a fetal position, caged, on ground littered with dry bark.

I ask Liedtke if he struggles with knowing whether or not to capture and share such intimate, personal details. He pauses before replying. “Every artist is, in a sense, stealing something from others or from nature, as we draw on what is around us to create our imagery. You have to be careful. In this project, though, I knew that the act of asking good questions and being a good listener—and just caring—was a benefit to people. I’ve had participants write to me and say, ‘I wanted to let you know that just sitting down to talk with you about this, being part of the project, was a turning point for me in becoming healthy.’ But I didn’t go into the project for the purpose of helping people. That was just a happy byproduct of pursuing my work.”

None of the pictures in Skeleton in the Closet represents victory. Even the subjects who testify to making progress—like the clinician pictured in Laura, 36 who speaks about her work counseling others—admit that their fight goes on. In Laura’s sunlit portrait, she stretches for a run, but her shadow lies large on the concrete, its outline distorted and beast-like.

I turn the page to another portrait—a third Katie. This is Katie Nolan, and looking at her is like a taking a breath of fresh air. The twenty-six-year-old is beaming; her story, unlike several others, culminates in freedom: “Recovery was like climbing Everest,” she writes.

Like many of these portraits, this picture does not tell a story on its own. All we see is a striking, healthy young woman. But in this collaborative, testimonial context, the image is an important piece of the full picture.

Beyond the project, Nolan’s portrait became part of another story that no one could have anticipated. Nolan’s recovery enabled her to pursue travel, adventure, and social work with tireless energy. “And two winters ago,” Liedtke says, “she got caught up in a storm on Mount Hood and never came back down.”

He shows me the newspaper clipping. In the large color photograph, Liedtke’s wife Shannon embraces a friend outside of Portland Foursquare Church where the memorial service was held. The article records the words of Rick McKinley, Nolan’s pastor, who described her as “a multi-faceted diamond.” He also acknowledged that she was, “in her private moments, a battler of demons that attacked her self-image.”

Some of Liedtke’s photographs of Nolan volunteering at various humanitarian aid events found their way into the international press coverage of her death. And the family arranged to display a framed print of the Skeleton portrait at the front of the memorial service.

§

Instead of throwing something in the microwave for lunch, the Liedtkes browse recipes. At the computer, Fritz calls for olive oil, baking soda, garlic powder, and rosemary.

Shannon scowls. “Rosemary. Yeah, we might not have that. Unless you want to go outside and pick some.”

As cooks, the Liedtkes are preoccupied with natural and organic foods, with whatever is healthiest and most flavorful. But they’re also open to surprises.

Shannon fumbles one of the steps in the recipe, then says, “They say pregnancy really does affect your IQ level. I’ve experienced that.”

“Yes, she has,” Fritz laughs.

“But,” she continues, “at the same time, it has me thinking a lot about my brain and how it works. I am very spacey about certain things, but I have an amazing memory for useless details and names. Even Latin names of plants.”

Fritz almost sounds like he’s boasting when he says, “In Shannon’s dreams, she dreams in Latin plant names.”

It’s inspiring to watch them bring their improvisational, creative energy to something as simple as making a pizza, especially when they already approach so much else in their lives—including their impending parenthood—with the same readiness for anything.

Downstairs, on a cork bulletin board above Fritz’s work table, I find a photo from one of the countless weddings he has photographed. Let’s call it The Fire-breathing Bride.

He treats it as a candid, a snapshot, compared to his personal work. But how can I not be impressed? The bride stands in the dark, leaning forward as if to shout into the sky. Like a lampshade over hot lightbulbs, her gown is illuminated by the same fierce light that erases her face—flames, blasting into the air from her mouth, reaching almost ten feet into the dark.

“In one of our meetings prior to the wedding,” Liedtke says, “the bride told me that she used to be in the circus. She’d done fire-breathing and trapeze artistry. I said, ‘You’ve got to bring that along.’ And when that happened, it blew everybody away. It was hilarious. I had no idea the flames would be so…huge!

The things she kept hidden were the things that made him wonder.

“A lot of photographers have great conceptual ideas,” Liedtke muses. “But that’s not really my forte.” He might set up to shoot a subject, but if he’s distracted by an unexpected detail, he’ll chase it until he ends up printing something altogether different than he’d planned.

One evening, after dining at a pub in San Francisco, he noticed that his friend’s girlfriend was covered in freckles. “I thought she was really beautiful, and I asked her if I could take her portrait.” He took her outside to the only available light—the glow of the pub’s neon signs. “I absolutely loved the image.”

Following an intuition, he discovered that, for those who have them, freckles can be as sensitive a subject as eating disorders. Soon, he was listening to testimonies from volunteer models who had been made to feel embarrassed or even ashamed of their complexion.

PLATE 5. Fritz Liedtke. Alisha, 2011. Photogravure with chine-collé. 9 x 6 inches. From the series Astra Velum.

Liedtke’s next portfolio would highlight and celebrate the unusual beauty of these markings, often overlooked or covered up, revealing them in—quite literally—a whole new light. It would also remind viewers that in a time when powerful cameras can be found in shirt pockets, as commonplace as packs of gum, there is still no substitute for hard work, natural materials, and old-fashioned processes.

Astra Velum—“veil of stars” in Latin—is the result [see Plate 5]. You can look through the images on his website, but Liedtke insists that you need to see the actual prints to fully appreciate them.

Having studied printmaking for more than a year in college, Liedtke came to love the craft of working with diverse materials—papers, inks, presses—and a variety of processes. The process he uses in Astra Velum—photogravure—was invented by Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce and Henry Talbot, photographic pioneers of the 1830s, as the original means for making a photographic image that wouldn’t fade.

“Up to this time photographs had mostly been positive images on metal or paper,” Liedtke says, laying out the photogravure materials on his basement studio table. But, he explains, they were able to make plates—copper plates originally; now photographers use photopolymer plates—that are covered with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue that holds the image, then etched, inked, and printed.

He holds up a print. “These linseed oil–based inks have a very distinct smell,” he says with obvious delight.

The darkest areas of the image are etched deeply into the plate. The lightest areas are shallow. The very top layer corresponds to the areas of purest light. “To ink it,” says Liedtke, “I take the ink with a spatula and essentially rub it into the plate. The ink goes down into the holes, and then you buff it off the top so what’s going to be white in the print is clean on the plate.”

Taking an extremely thin sheet of Japanese rice paper the same size as the inked plate, and a piece of white backing paper, he runs the papers and the plate through a press that exerts forty thousand pounds of pressure. The two pieces of paper fuse into one, and ink from the plate is forced into the paper.

The detail in these prints is exquisite; if you have a chance to see them up close, take it.

“What you’re looking at is ink on top of the rice paper, which is on top of the other paper. So there’s a little bit of depth, and the light can move around in there. There’s a nice glisten to the highlights. It looks handmade and it’s three-dimensional, instead of just ink sprayed on paper. It’s so archival—cotton, rice, and ink made out of carbon and linseed oil. It’s about as long-lasting a piece of work as possible, with nothing artificial.”

That’s some homemade pizza.

In Astra Velum, photogravure brings viewers into an intimate encounter with the astonishing constellations on the subjects’ bare faces—a blessing that has often been treated as a curse. Author Gina Ochsner, who has heard unkind comments about her own freckles, contributed a stirring introduction to the Astra Velum artist book. In it, she writes:

If skin were paper, bearing the story of our lives, those markings would be the punctuation. Scars are dashes, hyphens, and sometimes exclamation points—reminders of trauma. I have a comma-shaped gouge on the side of my nose, the last vestige of chicken pox and a careless moment of exuberant scratching. Moles are periods. But freckles…those are ellipses. They beg us to employ a little imagination. They ask us to connect the dots. They ask us to consider the space in between.

§

In the Newspace classroom, the students gather in a half-circle as Liedtke aims flashes and angles reflectors like a magician setting up a trick. Alex, a young woman in colorful makeup and an extravagant belly dancing costume, waits patiently in the lights, sequins sparkling and tassels swishing. (She later tells me that she works as “a professional princess,” visiting little girls’ birthday parties in costume.)

A couple of the photographers gape like they’ve never seen a belly dancer before, but the rest watch Liedtke closely. In his attentiveness to his subject, he’s become the subject.

After class, back in the Liedtkes’ living room, I spend an hour on the couch looking through photos on Liedtke’s website, including his own portrait of Alex. It’s quite different from the professional portrait he gave her for her website and business cards. You wouldn’t know it’s the same woman. The image is arresting and unsettling, reminding me that “beauty” in the conventional sense is predictable, but the beauty of particularity is something strange, even disquieting.

This sends me back to my favorite of Liedtke’s projects—his 2003 series on adolescence called Welcome to Wonderland. A study of tweens and teens in black and white, these faces, textures, objects, and environments evoke the mysterious and dangerous territory where children either sink into loneliness and insecurity or press on with something like confidence [see front cover].

In Goggles, a girl of an awkward age slumps in a dry yard, swim goggles and a sullen expression on her face. It looks like the summer games of children might be a thing of the past now; if she has any remaining friends, they’re nowhere to be seen. Behind her, a garden hose snakes through the dirt. The implications of her environment—the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden—are changing right along with her.

Dark, brittle branches dangle in the dreamscape around the small, crooked Playhouse, in which a girl stands restless, leaning against the door frame. She might be sending us a signal with her hands—a call for help or mercy, perhaps—as she waits, an oversized Alice trapped in a place she’s outgrown.

In Sucker, a boy in a basketball jersey sucks on a lollipop held up by his girlfriend. Their ease with one another is striking. So is the mischief in the boy’s eyes. And so is the way the girl, with the poise of a grown woman, is staring off into the distance, as if already imagining herself somewhere else.

PLATE 6. Fritz Liedtke. Sonja, 2002. 5 x 4 inches and 20 x 16 toned silver gelatin print. From the series Welcome to Wonderland.

But the most riveting of them all, by my lights, is Sonja, the most straightforward, unaltered image in the gallery [see Plate 6].

Sonja has a face that would not seem out of place in a Faulkner novel, or a story about the Great Depression. It reflects a strength that comes from enduring hardship, yet it is free from cynicism or despair. I look into her eyes and see a child’s trust and a mother’s wisdom at the same time. I don’t need a written testimony, or any background at all, to know that Sonja will survive.

Sonja is one of the few images spotlighted in the Liedtke’s living room, a space that has been set up like a gallery. Beneath her trusting gaze, the expectant couple sits on the floor sorting through what has washed ashore on an early wave of change—a carload of gifts from Shannon’s baby shower.

“It’s all a little overwhelming,” says Fritz, unfolding a piece of stray packaging. “What is this?”

“Those are the instructions for the stroller.”

As they separate and organize the gifts, marveling at some and laughing over others, I’m reminded of how Fritz explained the contents of his camera kit to his students during the class I sat in on.

“That’s a porcelain dish set for the baby. We’re keeping that,” Shannon says.

Fritz pauses, surprised. “Oh, we are?”

“And these—these are wipes.”

“Don’t we already have wipes?”

“Those are disposable wipes. These are cloth wipes.”

“Oh.”

Here, Fritz is the student, learning about the stuff of careful parenting, about the tools he and Shannon will use to bring another subject into focus.

§

Three months later, I am looking into the wide blue eyes of a beautiful stranger, eyes that seem to see the world in a way that I’ve forgotten. It’s like she sees right through me.

But no, newborn Lucia Grace Liedtke was looking at her father, the photographer, as he zoomed in one January day to capture this image in pixels, this portrait that I have found on Facebook.

Who can say what kinds of surprises will emerge as Lucia grows? Time will tell. And Liedtke will be there to witness them. He’s hard at work again, investigating a mystery, accompanying an outsider, attentive during a time of suspension between two worlds. This child will be seen.


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