When she decided to start studying her own tears, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher was going through a period when she was shedding a lot of them. She'd lost her dog, some relatives and a close, nearly long-lost friend who'd once saved her life on a trip to Italy and with whom she'd recently reunited after 18 years without contact. "I suddenly wondered, what do all these tears actually look like? Are my tears of grief the same as my tears of gratitude?" she recalls in the afterword of her new book The Topography of Tears ($19.99, Bellevue Literary Press). "With another wave of tears, I saved some onto glass slides and went peering into my microscope."
It's not a scientific study; for instance, there weren't controls and the samples were collected and preserved in different ways. Some of the tears belong to other people. But this means the results are open to the viewers' interpretations. In a photo captioned "Tears of change," thousands of tiny cell-like structures butt up against one another, each one a vessel of anxiety. In "Tears of elation at a liminal moment," tiny etched lines that resemble branches or the singed remnants of a lightning strike on wood or flesh seem to reach upward into the corner of the frame. "Catharsis" looks like a photo taken from the sky of a river flowing through marshland, hence the book's name. Fisher compares the images to "aerial views of emotional terrain," adding that the "accumulation of these images is like an ephemeral atlas."
After beginning the project, Fisher, who's lived in L.A. since 1963 and whose photographs have appeared everywhere from the Museum of Natural History to Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, began keeping slides at hand so she could capture tears in the moments they were shed, whether she was mourning a loss or chopping an onion. She even kept some slides in her purse in case tears came when she was out and about. The slides were either allowed to air-dry or were compressed and placed in a sleeve. Then, using a vintage Zeiss optical microscope, she magnified the slides 100 times and photographed them with a digital imaging microscopy camera that was mounted to the apparatus.
Asked what she's learned from this years-long exercise, Fisher says, "Looking at images from many different tears, I’ve come to have more and more appreciation for the full spectrum of emotion, how a transitory moment can be personally revolutionary, a turning point, while maybe in another moment there’s no resolution to get to, but merely to stay inside a question."
She adds, "The practice of saving my tears has made me pay closer attention to these moments; I ask myself what am I feeling? Of course grief or total overload or rejection are clear enough, but sometimes there’s a quiet moment, a gratitude for just being aligned with life, that moves me to tears, in an instant here and gone, just like that."
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As for others, she says she hopes that perhaps people will pause and consider the nature of their own tears, the physical residue of our interior worlds.
Rose-Lynn Fisher discusses The Topography of Tears at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; Wed., May 24, 7 p.m.; free. blpress.org/event/rose-lynn-fisher-author-photographer-topography-tears-book-soup.