Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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Alfred and the Axis Mundi

Alfred bends over and digs his fingers into the soil. He grunts and stands up straight and walks toward me with his arms outstretched. A late-night sky patinas his garden with silver light. The illumination rims Alfred’s large frame and his Poseidon-white beard.

“Here, eat this.” Alfred hands me a large head of cauliflower as would a doctor handing me my firstborn child. He keeps walking toward the barn, where we will spend the night playing Ping-Pong. I cradle the cauliflower, a vegetable descendent of wild cabbage, and pull off its swaddle of leaves. Having told Alfred I had not eaten dinner, he offers me the bounty from the garden furrow along which we walk. I lower my mouth to the cauliflower, and without regard for aphid or cabbageworm or stinkbug, take a bite.


Alfred’s farm is cradled in a hollow, nestled beneath a north-facing ridge that forms a circle that almost encloses in on itself. A gravel road runs up through the opening. The whole space feels like a lull in the terrain, a vast amphitheater of green that funnels steeply down to a cluster of gambrel-style barns—cow barn, sheep barn, chicken barn—an apple house, metal shed, and two family houses. A hardwood floor barn now used to store hay still has the wall benches and band platform that hosted barn dances, where it was common to see over forty cars parked outside on a Saturday night over a half-century ago. The farmland is a spatial contradiction: evoking an expansive openness and a low containment. To be there is to feel this tension from which arises a magnification of scale that requires, at least on my visits, a moment of reorientation. Within this concavity, Alfred’s farm induces a feeling of easy isolation, a place removed from all the clangor of the world, and to drive down the gravel strip and back out onto the two-lane road feels like being released from a spell of the pastoral.

“It is a misnomer to say I am a farmer. I am a mountain homesteader,” Alfred once claimed. Agriculture has been on a long decline in this North Carolina county that borders the Tennessee state line. Decades ago, beef and burley tobacco farms were the mountain standard: land and labor costs have since outsized the price of beef, and the use of tobacco has seen sustained contraction since the mid-1960s. In his youth, Alfred and his mother worked half an acre of tobacco, the regulated allotment determined by the farm’s total acreage. Only a large garden yields vegetables today. Livestock fills in most of the corners of the farm. Sheep, goats, and cattle graze over the fields while chickens and guineas are more contained, along with rabbits. An old red barn that was once used to hang and air-dry the burley tobacco now provides shelter for his twelve cows.


Even well into his evening libations, Alfred is an attentive teacher. The process of film development demands it. While he delivers his instructions in a slower gear, his recall of the specific measurements and temporal elements involved in the film making process is precise. Drinking transitions Alfred into a more benevolent version of his already genial self, even if that comes with an uptick in his demonstrative flair. Rhetorical in nature, he poses more questions than usual, each delivered with the gesture of a hand bow on an Elizabethan-era theatre stage.

Like anything for the first time, preparing film for development seems harder than it really is. There is the proper dilution of chemicals at exact temperatures and the precise time these chemicals spend in contact with the film that requires hands-on concentration. The process also requires a moment in the complete absence of light.

“What’s wrong?” Alfred asks. It is obvious what is wrong. My hands fidget inside a large black changing bag as I attempt to spool an open roll of film around a reel. Slotting the film by touch alone isn’t working.

“Now, what you need to do is turn your fingertips into big old eyeballs. It might help to tune out everything. Shut your mind down. Just feel it,” Alfred delivers while decreasing the volume of his voice, his arms spread wide and his fingers fluttering across an imagined piano. “Like Beethoven. See?”

The film finally threads into the spool. Moving quickly through the workflow, prodded along by Alfred’s instructions, I pull from the tank my first three-foot-long roll of medium format film, which I hang up to dry.


To put it simply—Alfred’s red barn is the center of my universe. From my house you can see the barn across the valley, its geometry of red tucked between soft slopes of green. It centers my view of the mountain ranges that encompass it. The world unseen beyond this view belongs to the barn’s circumference. Other towns and states and continents lie in its periphery and are radiuses to its geographical location, although the center the red barn occupies is also firmly situated in my imagination.

Many cultures and religions point to an axis mundi: the Sioux located the Black Hills as theirs; Mount Fuji situates this point in Japanese culture; the mythical Mount Kunlun has served this function in Chinese culture for centuries. In Norse cosmology there are nine different worlds that are connected by Yggdrasil, a massive ash tree. The ancient Greeks located the Earth’s omphalos, or navel, at Delphi.

Most often this world pillar or columna cerului is a place imbued with divinity, a spiritual location believed to be where Heaven and Earth meet. It is considered the axis of rotation of the celestial sphere, a point in which the cosmos can be centered and ordered. Like a jar in Tennessee.*

The barn allows me to self-identify according to my valley—to attach my sense of who I am to where I belong. Symbolism is the joy of poetry, the long side-glance of the semantic. It is language doing a jig on a worn wooden floor. Placing Alfred’s red barn in the middle of my world is an act of poetic agency, a value-added signifier that coheres my world, and allows an intimate and resonant reading of my surrounding, both near and far. How we imbue the world with meaning is lyrically connected with how we choose to experience the world. So then, the trope: the red barn as the still point in my turning world.


A number of years after Alfred taught me to develop film, he calls and asks me to drive over to his house: “I have a mitzvah for you.” At his house, Alfred hands me a dark wooden box, roughly the size for a pair of shoes. He takes a few steps back, raises his arms and poises his fingers as if he is about to conduct an orchestra, and intones “A destiny with dignity.” He repeats this two more times.

I wait to see where this is leading. “My father was an idolater. He worshipped at the shrine of the pristine object,” Alfred exclaims. I know from past conversations that Alfred’s father was a visual artist and educator. He took a position at a nearby college and started an audiovisual department back in the 1950s. The farm was part of his vision, and he purchased land that accrued over the years to 120 contiguous acres. Alfred grew up on the farm and was taught the art of photography by his father, whose shelves around their home were full of cameras.

“Go ahead and open it.” Inside the wooden box, cradled in pink cloth, is a Rolleiflex 2.8F 1984 “Platin” camera, a special edition of only five hundred units. Introduced in 1960, the 2.8F was considered the apex of the Frank & Heidecke run of 2.8 models, long considered the standard among twin-lens reflex cameras through the twentieth century. A mint camera from the 1984 2.8F limited series, with its platinum plating and black African lizard leather, can command a price in the range of $6,000 to $8,000.

The iconic German camera is a precision, manually-controlled machine that pulls focus with a knob and advances the film with a crank handle. The camera requires a photographer to look down into the camera to frame a subject, with the camera positioned at the level of the sternum. Robert Doisneau, the great Parisian street photographer, famously remarked the posture required the photographer to respectfully bow to his subject.

I lift the camera out of the box with a reverence reserved for heirlooms or incunabula. It is inspiring to hold and beautiful to behold—its design-build and performance still in a state of preserved potential, more ideal than artifact.

My involvement with photography has developed over the years. If Alfred shows interest in one of my photographs, it is because it expresses the element he feels essential to the art: it tells a story. That I choose to work in black-and-white film also aligns my photographic pathway with his. We share an interest in film photography that is mid-century, and rooted in the weathered aesthetic of old machines: the blunt geometry of 50s-era Brownie box cameras, the expandable bellows of folding pocket cameras and the optical apparitions of evanescent light within twin-lens reflex camera bodies. I think when Alfred sensed that photography had become a life-defining mode of expression for me, he decided to give me his father’s Rolleiflex.

Alfred repeats his cryptic enchantment of the future: “A destiny with dignity.” I understand what he intends by the phrase. The camera has never been used. It has been shelved in a virginal state, unhandled and untarnished. Light has never passed through its shutter. No image of the world has ever flickered inside its body. Rub off the patina of the pristine, turn the crank, and spin the knobs. Open the shutter and let submicron-sized grains of silver-halide crystals perform their photochemical process. Let the photons whirl, Alfred is saying, so the camera will have a destiny with dignity.

The implications of Alfred’s gift are overwhelming: the outlandish generosity, the strange injunction for the future, my desire for beauty galvanized by a machine’s exquisite precision. “You know, Alfred, the first photograph I take will reduce the camera’s value by thousands of dollars,” I say, letting this responsibility sink in.

“Yep,” Alfred replied.


Embedded in my photographs, though unseen in the composition, is Alfred’s red barn. As my axis mundi, the barn is an anchor for my peregrinations, a tether whose slack is endless as far as I travel out into the world. Every destination is also a distance, a foreground to the background of psychic space the red barn occupies.

Images captured in new territory hold a residual power that the elicited memories attempt to reclaim, and reshape, for the present. Held in the film strip is the original light of the moment. Each moment, summoned and sealed by the camera shutter, aligns like a coordinate across a soul-making territory. Over time, my photographs illuminate the sum of their signification. The forms and morning-early shadows compose a visual autobiography of place and perspective.

Images of the corridors and courtyards of New Orleans trigger the emotions of the long ramble, the cloud-dim approach, the healing moment, and the anguish of its ending. Photographs of the Faroe Islands, Germany, and New York are answers before the questions are asked: in reflection, they reveal a curiosity for the peculiar, or moments of transience articulated by intensities of depth and texture, or the fluency of forms evoked in odd-houred landscapes. Moreover, they reveal to me a person seeking new territories of relevance and identity.

Over the years a map forms. At some point an aesthetic comes into sight. My photographs narrate the latitudes and longitudes of my search for and exploration of beauty. They are as well a way-finding through the geography of my personality. For each arrival, a departure. For each unknown, a point of origin.


“The only person who I think can make any sense of all this is Blaise Pascal, who was both a great mathematician, and . . . a great mystic. He died around 1650 or so. I don’t know exactly when. It doesn’t really matter, does it?” No, it doesn’t, although because of the complexities of his financial dealings in Tennessee, Alfred and I take a rain check to hang out one afternoon.

A few days later, on his porch, watching his two dogs roam over the hillside above his sheep barn, Alfred offers: “Love is an ascent. We aspire to an expression of agape. God is agape. You and I—we have a philia relationship between us. This will be tested through time and circumstances.”

The two dogs are daughters of Blanche, a large and beautiful Great Pyrenees who protected Alfred’s assortment of livestock, mainly his sheep and lambs, from coyotes. Because these dogs range over a large territory, Blanche was often sighted around the valley. At night she roamed the ridgeline that surrounded Alfred’s farm. Once, a feral potbelly hog terrorized the valley, and the nights it attempted to cross into Alfred’s fields, Blanche held ground, barking and attacking. Alfred couldn’t sleep those nights, nor those who lived nearby, for the raucous caused by the stand-offs. Blanche protected the farm’s flocks for fifteen years. Two weeks after she died, a pack of coyotes killed eight of Alfred’s fourteen lambs over three nights.

“Those dogs don’t love my lambs,” Alfred says as the evening’s darkness increases. “But they protect them. That’s their breeding, their instinct. Which would you want to protect you—love or instinct?”


The human eye blinks in one-tenth of a second. Air vibrates around the hummingbird whose wings flap up to eighty times in a second. Faster still, the Rolleiflex 2.8F camera shutter can let in light at 1/500th of a second. This light, by the way, is no slouch; in 1/500th of a second it can travel 373 miles, plenty of time to travel the two inches through the camera’s lens onto a roll of film stretched within its interior chamber.

It took a year after I received the camera before I loaded in a roll of film. I had been hesitant to drive the new car off the lot, so to speak—an act that would end the mint condition of the camera. What photograph is worth a few thousand dollars? Finally, I pressed the shutter button and let the light in. The first photograph I took with the “Platin” Rolleiflex 2.8F? The great gulf of the valley rising up to the mountains, and there in the center of it all, Alfred’s red barn.  

* In Wallace Steven’s poem, “Anecdote of a Jar,” a jar is placed on a hill in Tennessee, with the result that “The wilderness rose up to it / And sprawled around, no longer wild.” The jar, in its inorganic difference to an organic hill in Tennessee, provides a focal point around which the landscape orients. It is a centering device—and like the jar, Alfred’s red barn “took dominion everywhere.”

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