Stella’s Art Project

I GOT THE IDEA from something I saw a few years back on YouTube. A Dutch photographer had taken a picture of his daughter every day from the day she was born until the day she turned sixteen. Then he used software to sequence the pictures and speed them up, creating a video that showed her “morphing” from an infant into a teenager in about two minutes. It was incredible to see each stage of her development play out in such a compressed format.

My daughter is eight years old. On her first day of school last September I took a picture of her in our driveway looking very dapper and excited to be entering second grade. For some reason, at that moment, it occurred to me that I should take a picture of her every day over the course of the year, and in a similar way chart her emotional and physiological evolution.

As we drove to school I mapped out how a daily photograph might work. I wanted it to be fun, a project we could do as a team rather than having her just stand passively on the other side of the lens. But decisions would have to be made, rules put in place. Would the shot use the same location every time? Would it be taken against a white background? Would it just be of Stella’s face? How quickly would the whole thing become insanely dull for both of us?

I have a large collection of original pressing jazz, funk, blues, and soul vinyl. Right before we moved from San Francisco to Seattle four years ago, I culled and sold almost three thousand records. I still have about eight hundred, the heartwood of the collection. Most of them sit on large shelves in our living room. My wife and daughter do not care. I have no friends within a thousand miles who have the least interest in jazz or vinyl. I show the records to no one, except the occasional unlucky husband cornered during a couple’s dinner. Without fail, while being (delicately) handed a 1959 Sonny Rollins side in archival vellum, his eyes will glaze over before I can even explain the difference between Prestige and Blue Note.

Then it occurred to me: I’d let my daughter choose an album every day to pose with, in whatever way she wanted. I could finally put my vinyl to use (the records are far too valuable to actually play on a turntable), and in that way give the photographs a constant. The vinyl would act as an anchor. We could call it Stella’s Art Project, and post the pictures online. Stella loved the idea. Most of the time.

 

 

The first week of school presented a few difficulties. Most of them involving actually getting there. Another problem was brushing teeth, brushing hair, getting dressed, picking out the right stuffy to hide in her backpack, not spilling breakfast on her lap or the floor, and getting out of the house in time to make Morning Meeting. We were often late. The photographic process, as Robert Mapplethorpe once said, “does not lend itself to making it in time for Morning Meeting.”

Art is as art does. And there is no clock.

 

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Eight is an interesting age. In just the last six months Stella has evolved from a fairly single-minded hoarder of toys and ingester of desserts into a multi-layered, and newly distinct personality. For the first time she displays a regular understanding of nuance. She can be hilariously funny and astute. The converse is that I am no longer allowed to kiss her goodbye at school–it’s too embarrassing. The cognizance of the ever-present, suffocating appraisal of her peers has begun. She will still hold my hand, although only until we get within two hundred feet of the school building, at which point she finds a reason to let go. Her excuses are unbearably fraught and clever. I fall for them every time. There are times when I sit in my car afterward and bemoan a connection that will never return. Or at least not until she is twenty-four, and we will begin to hold hands again, but never quite so freely and innocently.

 

 

After a few weeks, the pictures started to evolve. They became artier. It was quickly unacceptable to just stand there holding a record. (“Daddy, this is bor-ing.”) We needed locations. We needed props. The rotating set of our house could not contain the pulsating light that was my daughter’s burgeoning artistic personality. Not every morning was a prizewinner. On certain days taking a picture was like a slog to the Gulag, a pocket full of cigarette butts and eighteen long years until the commandant would review our sentence. Other days were like a Conde Nast shoot in Biarritz. Stella is full of ideas, some of which she chooses to share. She is also a repository of many thousands of poses which can be Swiss-Army-knifed out for nearly any occasion. What’s a good morning? One where she looks over at me mid-oatmeal, gets a sly grin on her face and says, “Daddy, I have such a good concept for the next one!”

 

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Stella put on ten pounds and several inches by the following spring. She is, essentially, a completely different being than the one in the initial photographs. She now reads and writes fluently. As a result, she has jettisoned an entire range of toys, books, TV shows, and movies that no longer measure up to her intellect. She is a beast, hungry for knowledge, for confirmation of her particular brand of beauty, and desperate for the unequivocal acceptance of friends. These things are not easily had.

 

 

Every single record in every picture was dropped at least once, thus lessening their overall resale value. “Corners foxed” as it’s known in vinyl-hawking circles and honest eBay listings. “Please don’t drop the album,” I said, every time. “Okay, Daddy,” Stella would say, and then become interested in her hair, or her collar, or a squirrel, and drop a 50 year-old record on the unforgiving hardwood. Amazingly, none of them snapped in half. But when I die, she without question has cost herself several thousand dollars on the open market.

 

 

After a few months it became clear that taking a picture every day was impossible. Or at least taking an interesting picture. While I was definitely chronicling Stella’s growth, we both became much more invested in the quality of the photographs themselves. Composition became imperative. The avoidance of repetition was our mantra. Eventually, I had to cede aesthetic veto power to my eight-year-old daughter. If the shot didn’t look cool, we erased it and tried again the next day. Eventually, we settled into a routine of doing one really good shot a week.

 

 

By November I finally broke down and bought an iPhone. I’d been lugging the same crappy Verizon Razor flip-thing for six years, much to the amusement of anyone who ever saw me using it, and Stella’s schoolmate’s chagrin in particular. I guess part of me relished being an anachronism. I was the last person who had a beeper in 1993 as well. But the inclusion of the iPhone camera drastically changed the equation. Being able to shoot, edit, toss on a filter, and upload while Stella was still brushing her teeth made the entire process actually plausible. It seems completely insane now that I used to download each pic from my camera onto my desktop using two different types of software, re-size it, edit it, and then post it. By 7:49 am. It was like lining up at the factory doors to make epaulets for uniforms for the Russian front. Now it’s a digital breeze wafting over my gently swaying hammock. There is, by the way, only one Photoshopped picture in this entire essay.

 

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Stella’s musical tastes generally run toward what one might expect of an eight-year-old in 2013: Katy Perry, Carly Rae Jepson, Beiber, various American Idol castoffs, Jennifer Lopez, the Wicked soundtrack, pop-rap, and Bruno Mars. In other words, unbearable, soulless trifle which–by stern fatherly mandate–is not allowed to be played in my presence under any circumstances.

Since Stella’s infancy, our house has been full of a large variety of music played loudly and at all hours, including punk, thrash, soul, go-go, honkeytonk, gospel, blues, hardcore, metal, classical, funk, Brazilian, R&B, opera, rockabilly, Fado, Afro-Cubop, Afro-beat, Gamelan, psychedelia, alternative, Captain Beefheart, and many other poorly represented and/or refreshingly unnamed genres. But she has primarily been reared on jazz. From swing to bebop, from Louis Armstrong to Bitches Brew, from Ellington to Eric Dolphy.

And yet, amazingly, she has zero interest in any of it. If it sounds analogue, or older than yesterday, it’s doomed. She recoils at tape hiss. She runs from the room in the face of The Beatles, Nina Simone, or Fugazi. She loathes Bobby Bland, Bobby Fuller, Bobby Patterson, Bobby Byrd, Bobby Hutcherson, Bobby Whitlock, and Bobby Bare. She disdains Johnnie Taylor, Johnny Hodges, Johnny Griffin, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Otis, Johnny Hammond, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Thunders. She gives no truck to Charlie Rouse, Charlie Patton, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Charlie Rich, Charlie Shavers, or Charles Mingus.

But the second that something screechingly digital–something overproduced and underwhelming and cloyingly saccharine comes on–she leaps to her feet and begins to dance. She knows the words. And so do all of her friends. I have no idea where she hears this stuff, or why millions of eight-year-olds in disparate cultural and musical circumstances, like some bizarre aural meme, all respond to exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. Her cousins, three thousand miles away, like those songs as well. No doubt long-ago parents reared on Artie Shaw and Bing Crosby and Sinatra felt the same way about Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, but it is amazing to me how consistently an ingrained sense of either note sequencing or production value manages to ring some sort of subliminal generational bell. Stella should by all rights, given the music she has been largely and regularly exposed to, have a different set of tastes. And yet, she falls right into the brainless preferences of her peers.

As, no doubt, did I.

I remember having conversations about Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult with my Dvorak-loving father, all of which were equally hopeless.

 

 

One small saving grace is that I was able to get Stella mildly interested in Elvis. She saw his face on a CD cover and sort of fell in love. How could you not, if you are even 12% human, fall in love with Elvis? I am smitten every time I see a picture of him, too. She said “His hair is weird, but he’s pretty.” Possibly no more accurate sentence has ever been uttered in the history of man. So we jam out and do dance routines to “Little Sister” and “Good Luck Charm” and “Witchcraft” and “Suspicious Minds.” Aside from that, though, she tunes all my other music out.

 

 

It has been an interesting year. Ultimately, I am very pleased with the project and the pictorial record we created. There are many dozens more. I look at them with an embarrassing frequency. And when I do I get a welling feeling. I’m not sure what that feeling is exactly. Pride? Gloat? Hubris? Conceit? An admiration of my daughter’s willingness to be vulnerable? A giggly astonishment that I’ve had such a crafty partner in this musical endeavor?

All I know is that when I look at these photographs I love my daughter so much I can barely breathe.

 

 

Sean Beaudoin

About Sean Beaudoin

Sean Beaudoin (@seanbeaudoin) is the author of You Killed Wesley Payne and The Infects. His latest novel is the punk rock opus Wise Young Fool. His stories and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including: The Onion, Glimmer Train, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Spirit-the inflight magazine of Southwest Airlines. He frequently ends his bio with an ironic or self-deprecating personal comment.
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6 Responses to Stella’s Art Project

  1. Richard says:

    I’ve contemplated something similar and now I can’t do it because I’m already so jealous of you that I couldn’t possibly appear to copy this.

    Seriously, great work, you guys. And fantastic essay.

    • Kimberly Cox says:

      My husband suggested that I read this essay because he thought I would really love it. Anything to do with daughters, vinyl records, and photography is right up my alley.

      Sean, this project is not only touching, inspiring, ridiculously creative, not to mention well written, but it’s just plain cool. What a marvelous idea.
      I enjoyed the different photos, the creativity your daughter possesses, and the fact that she said “Daddy, I have such a good concept for the next one!” This is a terrific bonding experience and kudos to you, dad, for encouraging such creativity and imagination at a young age. A+ in my book.

      P.S. Keep pushing for some jazz, classic rock, and of course Zeppelin in her musical repertoire. That’s the good stuff.

  2. The Editors says:

    Prue, who turns seven today, has similar taste: Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, One Direction, Gaga, and all things Miley (all things Miley we let her see, that is). It is extraordinarily helpful in this to have a boy in the house who is a bit older to insist that Bieber sucks and that this music is all “crappy girl music,” and who likes the Doors and expresses an interest in metal that would make Joe Daly happy. Barring that, I recommend buying Stella both Lily Allen albums immediately. Lily will show her the way. — G

  3. Ashley says:

    This is so freaking great, Sean. Love it!

  4. Ashley says:

    Are these on Instagram?

  5. Ricardo Perez says:

    Sean – fantastic project, and inspiring essay. My 8 year old daughter just started 3rd grade this week, so I am keenly aware of the crippling love elicited by these wonderful beings. Stella’s a lucky girl!

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