Waking up to every day

Chico photographer’s visual diary celebrates the extraordinary delights in his ordinary world

Byron Wolfe in his university office.

Byron Wolfe in his university office.

Through his lens
To see images from Byron Wolfe’s book, check out the Everyday section of the Publications page on his Web site.

June 23, 2002, was a big day in Byron Wolfe’s life. It was his 35th birthday, and it was also the long-planned starting point for his first solo book project, a “yearlong photo diary” titled Everyday.

It was also, sadly, the day his grandfather died. The news no doubt cast a pall on what was meant to be a day of celebration, but it also had the ironic effect of enabling Wolfe to begin his book with a touching story told in a series of photos taken during his family’s trip to his grandfather’s funeral in Indiana.

This opening series, which covers about a week, quickly establishes the premise of the book, which is that a visual diary, like a written journal, can tell stories and have a narrative shape that is larger and more revealing than the individual images it includes. The challenge it presents, of course, is to offer pictures that are consistently surprising and intriguing. Snapshots won’t do, any more than banal observations about the weather or what the author had for breakfast render a written journal interesting.

Wolfe’s book, published by Chronicle Books

What makes Wolfe’s book remarkable is that he gives the everyday stuff of his life a delightful freshness, as if he’s seeing it for the first time. All great photographs ask us to see in new ways, and Wolfe’s book is no different, but he wants us to look at and really see the small, intimate details of our lives, their colors and textures and loveable messiness—and shows us how he did it in his own life.

Wolfe, who is now 40, is a tall, trim, square-jawed man with a brush of curly brown hair. He has taught photography at Chico State University for nine years and is the co-author of two previous books, Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers and Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West. Both are collections of “rephotography,” which involves going to the sites where earlier photographers, some dating back to the 19th century, had taken landscape pictures and rephotographing the same scenes to show the changes and continuity over time.

When Wolfe decided it was time for him to do a book on his own, he turned to something far more intimate and personal, something he’d long been doing—taking quirky, offbeat pictures around the house.

“For years, I memorialized family events, but I rarely made the kinds of pictures that normal people would want to paste into their scrapbooks,” he writes in the book’s introductory essay. Instead he tended to photograph such things as “the halo of crumbs left after a flurry of plastic forks had obliterated a birthday cake, or the kids’ tears following the inevitably popped party balloon.” These images, he thought, were “more engaging and truer to the experience of the occasion than a blinding ‘just-say-cheese’ flashbulb moment.”

Photo By Byron Wolfe

He also made pictures that commemorated “ordinary mileposts,” with captions such as “When the car turned 200,000 miles” and “Our annual wedding-tree picture, year seven: spraying to kill a fungus.” The pictures were “simple and shared elegies that chronicled a young couple’s shared life and lamented the passage of time.”

Family members rarely showed up in these pictures, or if they did so, it was only peripherally—the top of a head here, some feet there, a flash of a child running by. The pictures were about the world they lived in, Wolfe explains, not about them. “We weren’t characters in a play; instead, the play was onstage before us, and we tried to pay attention as its stories emerged.” They were photos made for their own enjoyment, and most ended up in a box, “safe from the light of day or any need for an apologetic explanation.”

In Everyday, the story of the Wolfe family spans exactly a year, from one birthday to the next. It’s divided into four parts, for the four seasons, and begins, as mentioned, with a chronicle of events related to the death of Wolfe’s grandfather.

This opening series characterizes the book, so it’s worth describing in detail. It begins with a photo of orange flowers in a glass vase on a table. Some petals have fallen off. The inscription reads: “First day: my grandfather died and I turned thirty-five.”

Photo By Byron Wolfe

The second photo, taken on June 24, is the closest thing to a snapshot in the book. It shows the Wolfe family in their back yard—Byron, wife Barbara, and sons Ethan, who at the time was 6, and Ben, then 2—sitting together, facing the camera. The caption reads: “Traditional family portrait, made to share at the funeral.”

It’s followed by a series illustrating their journey: a solitary cloud, apparently taken through an airplane window; a view of a lightning storm from his grandfather’s barn; a shot of the old man, lying in his viewing casket, clothed in dark-gray burial suit and red-and-gray striped tie and wearing his glasses, his hands folded on his stomach.

For June 28, Wolfe offers the nighttime scene shown here, of his grandfather’s barn and yard and his sister, a blur of motion, putting discards from the barn on a small bonfire outside. It’s a story in itself, full of depth and resonance and beautifully composed. The lighted windows of the barn suggest eyes, as if the grandfather is watching his grandchildren as they do the work of finalizing his life.

On the next page, dated June 29, are two photos of Wolfe’s grandfather’s favorite slipper, one of the top, the other of the sole. We see that his grandfather used duct tape to repair a tear and nailed plastic wedges to the heel to make it last longer, and we get this rich sense of the man: frugal, orderly, meticulously caring of the things he cherished.

Photo By Byron Wolfe

The series ends with a colorful, almost abstract sunset image taken through the airplane window ("Final descent, returning home") followed, on July 1 and 2, by images of the boys in the bathtub ("Back home in Chico") and of a shovel and human shadows next to a hole dug in the yard to plant a maple seedling “transplanted across 2,200 miles and four generations.” Life goes on.

Everyday has other similar series, and the cumulative impact of so many small stories and telling images is to allow us into Wolfe’s world while still permitting him and his family to maintain some essential privacy.

Every morning, Wolfe got up knowing he had to take at least one picture that day worthy of being put in the book. Some days were better than others. “It was important for me to communicate something every day,” he explains, “even if it wasn’t something important to communicate.”

“To be sure, it was an unnerving undertaking,” he writes in the book, “and even today I have to remind myself, as I often did then, that I just had to try to make one picture a day, and not all of them at once.”

Photo By Byron Wolfe

His “document everything” approach led to the emergence of “surprising themes … and I learned to pay attention to things I’d not previously considered important. … I was comforted by the reminder that for centuries, some of the most serious creative work has come from the most ordinary things: children, pets, fruit trees, seasons, and the passage of time.”

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop,” Ansel Adams once said. But of course Adams’ goal was for every one of his published images to have an iconic stature as a stand-alone work. Nothing less would do.

With Everyday, Byron Wolfe postulates that pictures can be both artistically valid—many photos in the book can stand alone—and at the same time develop a remarkable cumulative power and resonance when created with a narrative in mind. The book has the familiarity and warmth of ordinary snapshots but none of the banality, and it often offers the surprise of a truly extraordinary image without the pretension that often accompanies fine-art photography.

Of all the photos in the book, none captures its nature better than the two or three shots of refrigerator snapshots Wolfe has included. These are ordinary snapshots, like those found on anybody’s refrigerator, but by arranging and framing them in a creative way Wolfe turns them into compelling collages. They are, he says, “a sort of metaphor for the book,” and the viewer looks to them for the kind of ordinary information about the family that Wolfe doesn’t provide otherwise precisely because he eschews snapshots.

Like all good volumes of photography, Everyday is in many ways about photography. It uses a unique form, the visual diary, to explore photography’s storytelling and narrative possibilities and how they can be realized. Part of its success is the way the photos are packaged in the book. Wolfe says “a lot of pounding the pavement” took place before Chronicle Books agreed to publish it—and only after turning it down once. But the result is remarkable.

The book is not large—only 9 inches square; diary size, actually—so the photos are necessarily small, but printing quality is high and they’re not hard to decipher. They’re arranged in ever-changing ways, from a single photo on the page to four or five, and even some pull-out spreads. It’s not easy to fit 365 pictures into one relatively small book, but with Everyday Chronicle Books has done a fine job. The book, which at $29.95 is a real bargain, is being sold in major gallery bookstores, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and locally can be found at Lyon Books in downtown Chico.

Taking the pictures required a level of alertness Wolfe had never summoned before. “It was a year of paying attention unlike any I’ve ever had,” he now says, “and I miss that.” But the book remains to remind us that, unless we pay attention, we’ll miss much that is wondrous in our lives. Everyday is about living fully in every moment and waking up to the beauties and delights to be found in ordinary life, if we only had eyes to see.