Laurence Greene, “Naming the Homeless.” Lucy Gray, 1998

Life is Work

Rebellion is essential

Rebellion is essential to me as a photographer and a writer. I am dependent on the ideas I generate for projects, and they come out of my desire to share a dissatisfaction with the world and to push us towards a more positive future. Some constants in my exhibitions and books have been work as a subject; costumes as a visual story-telling tool; and some premise that is hiding in plain sight — until I pull open the curtains, as it were. It feels great when I get paid well for my art but if that were a requirement I would rarely get anything done.

I was a new and insecure homeowner, when I drove by a homeless man who was holding a sign asking for work. I thought how handsome he was and imagined if he had a shower and a shave how much easier it would be to see that he was hirable. The idea for my first public art project that year was to hire thirty-three homeless people to let me photograph them where they slept at night and then again after they had been made over, ready to work.

I called the series “Naming the Homeless.” I wanted us to see that these people were our neighbors and if we knew their names and stories perhaps we could appreciate them more. I wrote the participant’s career history and aspirations around the pictures, and I hung them on pillars in the nave at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco at Christmas time when 50,000 people visited. For a month the pictures were swarmed with sobbing viewers.

Eight of those participants got jobs. A hundred or more had big experiences being involved in the making of the project, and it was part of a transition in city politics around the homeless. After a show of the pictures in our City Hall, they went to Yale and hung in New Haven’s City Hall. I gave a speech there that the Governor came to and he invited the pictures to hang in the Capitol of Connecticut in Hartford. Wasn’t that more important than me making money?

My next idea came from being a working mother with two small boys. There were 75 million working mothers in America who were being dismissed, undermined, taken for granted. And our husbands were sometimes being pressured financially while being kept out of the love. I knew this feeling. My father could not support his wife and five children and it sure seemed at the time that that drove him to drink, and then violence.

When I was ten, he finally left, and I watched with pride as my mother got a job flipping houses to support her five children. If you doubt that difficulty, I can tell you about the time I walked in on an investor chasing her around our kitchen table trying to kiss her. She describes our circumstances then as “bone sucking poor.” She was far from perfect. She had a terrible temper. She preferred her sons because she felt they had power. Both my parents made me an early feminist. But what impressed me most about my mother was that she was reliable.

I wanted to pay tribute to her and to working mothers, to point out that women with babies should be supported, beginning with childcare and paid leave. And then I happened to meet a prima ballerina with her three-day-old son in the market. I knew little but prejudice about ballerinas. Who knew they could have children? Instinctively I wanted to photograph this woman. Her fluorescent skin made her look like a ghost. Her spidery bones seemed as if they’d snap under the weight of her child. But when she was backstage in a tutu holding her newborn, I needed no words to explain my subject.

She introduced me to two more dancers at San Francisco Ballet who were also having children. After all three gave birth and they returned to perform critics wrote that their dancing had improved. So the premise for my book became that working was good for mothering and mothering was good for working. I was feeling that way myself. It’s what I had in common with the dancers. I assumed what I was doing was so original and yet relatable, so inspirational, that I’d have a book in two years.

It took fourteen years to secure a publisher. That was work.

“Balancing Acts: Three Prima Ballerinas Becoming Mothers” got international press, sales looked good, I was flown around to speak. And just before it came out, I’d been hired to do another book. It was a project as exciting and unexpected as the money. I was beginning to believe I might have talent.

Throughout their youth my husband and I — he’s also freelance, a writer — told our kids how happy we were to be able to work on what we wanted even if it sometimes left us trembling financially. The month our second son started college, we had to sell our house. We’d hung on for their childhoods and we had a new apartment for them to come home to by Christmas. Success!

Our older son, the wild one, had me so worried in high school that I bought him spray paints — only adults were allowed — so he could go out in the middle of the night and tag. He was a gifted painter who left his brushes home when he started at the University of Chicago. After college, he got a job at Knopf, one of the places his father publishes, and our son wrote books at work, which may endear him to his bosses one day if they are published.

But recently he fell in love with a woman at “his father’s house,” and with a handful of other assistant editors, they quit. Some, including our son, took out loans to go to coding camp. My husband was hurt and worried what would happen if our son couldn’t learn the new computer languages. I was more hopeful but I, too, lamented his ability to change everything in his life so readily. It reminded me of the way I started a new business every time I took on a project: new skills were required, new relationships, new arguments mounted. My way is a hard way.

But now, the camp is done, and our son loved it. He started a new job this morning. I think he is proud of working in a language we can’t understand. And if he succeeds, we will only know by his reports of his earnings. His starting salary is more than I’ve ever made in a year. My mother complained that he’s turned his back on his artistic talents. She became a teacher and she doesn’t approve of going after money. But I can’t help admiring that he’s rebelling against his parents and our unreliable incomes.

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