Exposure Therapy 3: Sloshing

by Bucky Miller October 17, 2022

This is the third entry in an ongoing series. Click here for part one, and click here for part two 

Photo of a jar of honey in a pastry

A pie chart that divided all my adulthood bath time by year would appear as a solid circle with a single hairline scratch sneaking out from its midpoint. Zoom in on that scratch one hundred times and you’d see the entirety of my life thus far, individual slivers fanned out like the gills on the bottom of a microscopic mushroom cap. One of those bits represents this year, for the time in the summer when I was stressed and laid down in the shower. But it is more important to zoom back out and examine the solid mass that composes the rest of the pie. All that, basically the whole circle, represents 2020.

Half the time I was wearing the bathing suit that I wore all week anyway. Nonstop soaking in suds-free, plain warm water was a coping strategy for living alone during that time. These Times. Were two innocuous words ever mashed together in such a razor-sharp way, so absolutely bleak yet still somehow marketable? Ow. In the tub I read Jeremias Gotthelf’s 1842 novella The Black Spider, a story within a story that is about an old piece of wood and also about how the Devil’s gonna get you. I watched a romantic comedy called What If. The movie had Adam Driver in it, and my laptop was plugged in through an extension cord that ran into my bedroom. I ate, I drank. Sometimes I’d turn in circles on a vertical axis, like a seal, or find a word that was fun to say aloud and repeat it, elongated and atonally, until it lost all meaning. Mostly, of course, I looked at my phone.

It is now clear that an Android got me through the Big Covid year with an efficiency that has since mutated into the most persistent phone addiction of my life. But I was adrift, it was worth it, and I’ll take whatever is coming to me now in exchange for that year of buoyancy. Instagram in particular became a strange social conduit that pierced the grayness. The app was how my friends and I knew that we all still existed. In the early days, late March, people started to use Instagram to pass around cooperative meme games in their stories. Most of the details are lost to me now, but I think some of them involved making drawings from prompts. One of the memes snagged me good by tapping into all the things I hope people will give me attention for anyway: folks would post an appeal in their stories, asking their followers to reply with the fire emoji. In exchange, the original poster would scroll through the respondent’s account, find their favorite picture belonging to that person, and repost it to their own story. David Blakeman, who I went to photography school with, found and shared this picture of mine: 

Photo of a horse looking through a hole in a keyStarved for connection and eager to regress to the time — college — when I was able to shake off life’s many traumas through enthusiasm for photography, I decided to put forth my own plea along those same lines. From the tub I offered to write an Instagram Story-length blurb about one picture of my choosing for anyone who asked. All they had to do was send me the gorilla emoji. The tiny gorilla, he’s funny. On my Android he had a sour little cartoon face, while on iPhones he’s even dinkier but has a whole small-but-mighty thing going on. Either way, he felt like the right mascot for this lark. I figured I’d fire off a few bits of content into the void mid-soak and be right back to my desperate search for meaning by that evening. 

Eighty people sent me the gorilla emoji. For weeks I typed my responses straight into the app. I stumbled, started like five blurbs in a row with the word “imagine,” effused everywhere. With the permission of the posters, ten of the resulting entries are reproduced below in their original forms. I believe they exhibit acceptable cringe, an early-pandemic phenomenon that came easily, was corrupted by celebrities, and just as easily buckled. I guess I’m proud of the blurbs. Especially when it comes to art, I am kicking around the idea that embarrassing ourselves as frequently as possible might be the most exhilarating and rewarding path through. Maybe there is some earnest force from those times that should be drawn into the present and preserved in a glass jar in case of emergency:


Various industrial gloves on a shelf

Kyra Markosian, @kyramarkosian

A lot of photographers I knew in college seemed to be fixated on space stuff. I was. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe we were riding some residual wave of excitement about a “final frontier” or maybe we were so far removed from the technological reality of what it meant to go to space that we were able to approach the topic blinded by wonder. Wonder was important tool for us as photography students, and some of us were pretty cynical about the “Landscape.” Had to find it somewhere.

But imagine working for NASA, where space stuff just becomes stuff. I’m curious if the wonder breaks down, if these gloves, to a NASA employee, after a while seem no more exciting than the batteries I used to steal from an arts nonprofit.

This picture suggests otherwise, or at least it gives the sense of some really incredible straddling of two realities. Look at them flopped there. Totally just job stuff. But look at the light. Look at the care taken to compose the picture. There’s some reverence happening.


Commemorative placard of a John Wayne sign

Hayden Bennett, @haydenabennett

So this one really has to stay a diptych -> 

Photo of a german shepherd dog in the desert

Hayden Bennett, @haydenabennett

<- but look at that dog’s stupid hat. The first picture sets us up. John Wayne’s spirit, out in the desert, the specter of the photographer creeping over the kitsch. Classic. We could go anywhere from there. But then we get this wizard-eyed dog wearing a mountain as a cowboy hat. The associations don’t need to be spelled out.

This is funny.


Two women posed at a baby shower

Erin Miller, @erna_miller

The word “baby” is the funniest word in the English language. Visually, it looks like a baby. This is true in both cases. BABY. Two different babies, but both clearly babies.

Speaking of two different babies, a favorite hobby of mine is imagining the “baby” so often mentioned in rock lyrics is not a term of endearment but refers to a literal baby. 

So here we have the funny word made giant, gilded, but fragile, and completely tethered to the aesthetic of one moment in history. Two women stand beneath the word, nearly completing a circle while making the international gesture for “incoming baby.” For their loved ones, for their future children, this is probably a deeply sentimental picture. In the years to come these mothers will be able to point to this picture and say “this is when I was pregnant with you.” 

Yet I don’t know these people. I mean, I hope they are happy. But I am much more absorbed by the strange unintentional humor of the singular BABY hovering over their heads, the way pulses at a different wavelength than anything happening below.


A man and his dog in a pumpkin patch

Sallie Scheufler, @potatosallie

Pumpkins are like the word “baby,” I find them amusing whenever I see them. And the more pumpkins I see, the funnier I think they are. So there’s our backdrop — The Pumpkin Sea.

There’s a really nice parallel between the graphic on the person’s shirt and the human/dog relationship in this picture. I’m surprised to be making a yin yang reference, but this sentence is one. And then you have the shadow of the photographer: dark human parenthesis around the eternal lightness of the dog. Yet all throughout, joy. This is a picture of love, trust, and balance. It is a blueprint. I strive to relent to my own smallness and splay out across pumpkin abundance.


Photo of a woman on a swing in front of an apartment complex

Brooke Frank, @brooke.e.frank

Okay, well this is different. This is a picture of me. There are so many reasons one might love a photograph, and the chiefly personal reasons might be the most valid/least discussed of the bunch. Sure, this picture works with some generally likable qualities: nice light, floating human. But I can’t shake my own memory of the event, nor do I feel any obligation to do so.

I can tell you with certainty that this is me in Austin a few weeks ago, swinging on a swing in my friend’s backyard. I could tell you how the coffee in that mug tasted. I could even go into detail about the emotions I felt at the time, the strange mixture of worry and freedom and the release from expectations. But I am doing my best to keep these blurbs focused on the photographs, so I’ll leave that point hanging.

I value this picture for the friendship it represents, for the memories that it stores even from a close distance. If you are someone who is critically engaged with photography, I encourage you to not be afraid to like some pictures selfishly. I don’t know. There might not be that many people who need this reminder, but I do.


Photo of a little girl sitting on a lawn in a red chair

Margaret Merrill Rogers, @margaretmerrill

Here we see a young homeowner surveying her property. She stares directly at the photographer with an expression that could be read in a number of ways. On one hand, her posture and direct gaze contain a hint of “get off my lawn” suspicion. But it is maybe more likely that what we see is pride. She’s worked hard for what she has, and she loves her peaceful lawn with its well kept pink flowers, her top-of-the-hill view. She loves her chair. Via this read, she can be thought to look back at the photographer with a cautiously welcoming demeanor. The artist, in turn, keeps a respectful distance from the homeowner. The two are locked in negotiation, neither wanting to offend. This is a mild tension, likely familiar to anyone who has ever visited a relative’s house for the first time, but it is translated gracefully by the photograph.

Also, the cyan shorts and the red chair are quite a combo.


Dolphin ceramics and a small scale

Hannah Spector, @hanlalalalalala

We are constantly surrounded by potential energy. How annoying is it to hear someone say, “anything is possible?” Alternatively, how annoying is it to hear fatalism? More importantly, why do I see a photograph depicting a gemstone and immediately dive into some new-age routine that heretofore would have made me unfollow myself? Ah ah. Don’t go. Stick with me.

That’s a lot of movement swirling around for what is essentially a found still life. We know, because we’ve been to a gift shop, that these trinkets are immobile. Yet one quickly begins to fantasize. The dolphins are lifted from the earth by towers water. The pedestal has rejected its gemstone to become a Cetacean helipad. The jewel, meanwhile, dangles on the edge of a precipice, held in only by glass. The glass is made visible by the reflection of the photographer’s flash. The flash, in turn, brings us back to our world, one in which these are merely objects strewn carelessly around a window display. We know, because we’ve been to a gift shop, that these trinkets are immobile. Yet one quickly begins to fantasize. The dolphins are lifted from the earth by towers water. The pedestal has rejected its gemstone to become a Cetacean…


Frogs looking over the duct of a building

Kayla Jones, @i_am_a_lamp_now

What can be said about a perfect photograph? Look at them! They’re peekin’! See them up there! Sweet little gentleman lookouts. Observers of infinity, or at least the driveway.

I guess I could talk about direct flash. I like direct flash. It flattens. It changes scale. It brings everything to the surface, because it eliminates anything not on the surface. It cleans, it makes filthy. And of course it bounces off the eyeballs of animals and turns them temporarily into tiny gods.

But no, let’s talk about direct flash later. This is a perfect photograph. I would not ever want to say very much about a perfect photograph.


a red sign with indecipherable words in the middle of a street

Meredith Minne, @meermine

It is difficult to see Meredith’s photographs. First of all, they tend to be hidden. Then, happy, you finally see one, and there is a sensation that you aren’t exactly seeing a photograph in the way you thought you might. Sure, everything you expect is there, but things are a bit off. There tends to be a lot of space around everything, often to a degree that feels unnatural. Then you realize that somewhere in the infinite void of western American parking lots, there are jokes. Whether the photograph confirmed this directly, or just quietly made it apparent, is a matter of interpretation. Slow down or you’ll drift away. There’s probably another one of Meredith’s pictures nearby and that one might stir up even more trouble. Best to be prepared. In other words, Meredith rules. I’m writing so generally here because I’ve wanted to get these thoughts out for roughly a decade.

Science Diet. The arithmetic of this photograph is preposterous. How could a building sit vacant when it could house a call center as easily as it could a circus?


a U-shaped spaghetti noodle

Name That Noodle, @namethatnoodle

Name That Noodle is an account that asks people to correctly identify noodles. I guessed, incorrectly, that this one was called the boomerang.

Food pictures might be the original Instagram trope, and they are certainly one of the most enduring. Name That Noodle stands out among the countless food posters by making a truly enjoyable participatory game out of the experience. I love guessing noodles. And since Instagram is photography, it’s worth considering what other photo tropes could be turned into games. Sunset Bingo? Name That Succulent? I don’t know. Sunset Bingo is a good phrase. If—

Ok, wait. I can’t get this noodle out of my head. I need to make up for my first guess. It’s clearly not the boomerang. It’s grandma’s shoelace. The return to sender. The Italian baseball bat. Edible wire. The long one. Semolina slim. Aerial map of my trip to Canada. Bendy Billy. The cook-to-straighten special. The sauce magnet. Switchoo, the only noodle you can use to switch on your stove before boiling. The bad tea stirrer. Archie.


At some point, winter I guess, the baths waned. From there the chain of events is totally unclear. Maybe the most valuable thing about these short texts is how they are time-stamped. Instagram Story highlights declare how much time has passed since the thing was posted. If I’m curious, I can see that I wrote my response to Margaret 132 weeks ago. Her kid must be so much bigger by now. The pandemic timeline is such a blur that I am absolutely incapable of putting shape to it, but I am stunned by the density of 132. To order that chunk of time, which in my mind is a thick slab of frosting, I am likely dependent on photographs. I was there, and I took pictures, and those pictures have metadata. This could be useful going forward. To begin, let’s examine this picture of my weird cactus in front of my pandemic tub on apparently July 20, 2020. After that, we can see how it looks today. 

Photo of a cactus in a bathtub with a black and white square tiled backdrop

Photo of a cactus in a bathtub

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1 comment

Stan Poland October 20, 2022 - 10:04

Now that’s an all right picture to see! Every time I change a lightbulb or head down to the hardware store I’ll be thinking of how to use flash when I take photographs. I just got a new phone after my aunt passed. She’ll be glad to know! I do miss her. She tricked out each camera with a special lens. On the first lens it’s got a macro flare so I can get up close to different things like nails. I saw how rusty they got! I went down to the hardware store and got myself a couple more. I used that macro camera to take a second picture and by god I saw how rusty they got! But I just bought them—so what gives? I still have a connection with my aunt so I channeled her and asked what was the joy in seeing with such a penetrating camera lens, letting me figure all of the flaws in whatever I pointed it at. She said to think of it as a reminder. A reminder for what? I asked. She wouldn’t even say.


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