For the Love of Michelle Gardella
“You would love her,” said my friend, because she knew. She just knew. It was about five years ago, maybe six, when I first found Michelle Gardella. And it's true: I love her with everything in my soul.
I’ve wanted to write something for years that shares my gratitude and appreciation for this wise and generous woman. I have privately, in conversations with others, but when it comes to writing out my shy heart in black and white I fail miserably. Because words can’t even begin to say how much she means to me.
I will try to show you, but even here, I can’t do it justice.
Michelle Gardella is an artist. She writes words that take your breath away and sends it right back, purified and abundant, so your lungs expand freely with strength and joy. She creates photos that make you tremble and weep because of the holy hush of them, and all you can do is let your eyes soak in the truth as you sit there, being changed. She is a gifted teacher, literally the best ever in life. I’ve been blessed & honored to take three classes she’s created, each one fully life-altering. She cares so deeply and personally about everyone in her class and when she speaks, she stands there literally pouring life and strength into your heart.
She wrote this to me once, as feedback in a class, and it was medicine:
“When you speak, I listen. Your words and energy are the kind that blow people’s hair backwards, like in the cartoons when someone runs by super fast. I am here for you to help you stack your tool box with whatever I can to help you reach your destination, but as I finish reading your words I am also super called to tell you this: You are already there. Your photographer’s voice will never be clearer than this magic you have already refined, or maybe it will but that’s not the point, I think what I hope you get from working with me is being comfortable with the fact that you may never feel ready, you may never feel refined enough, and so you may just have to learn to live with those feelings on your shoulder while you get the f*ck out there and share your incredible, necessary, potent, powerful, divine, wise, brilliant, beautiful gifts with the world AS THEY ARE. Feeling your way through it is the only way for you to do life, I think. I am the same way. So I guess my point is – be the imperfect beauty you want to capture in others while you navigate the forest of the unknown. You are already more than enough and I promise I am not BS’ing you. I’d pay for you to take my picture tomorrow. With all the contrasty, mystical, magical post processing that looks like they were developed on the paper of old library books, but without words. I know you know what I’m saying. It’s all just so delicious. I am spilling this truth because I know you can handle it. Sending you so much love, Michelle.”
This past autumn I participated in her most recent class, “Photography & Empowerment.” Aching to learn, I intentionally revealed a terrible photo and the art I made from it, along with desperate, vulnerable words. I'm sharing this because I want you to know Michelle and because I want you to love her, too. I said,
“I chose to make art with this photo because it is awful. This is where some of my creative frustration comes in: in the years that I have seriously sought to develop my skills as a photographer, manual settings are like math to me: tear-inducing, rage-forming, despair-settling. My brain cannot grasp the differences with f-stops and apertures and go wide to go narrow or whatever it is they say. I end up with too much grain from too-high ISO. Or the image isn't focused or clear. There have been photos I've taken that I've loved but it's not due to my skill....more of random pushing the buttons a thousand times and having one or two come out how I wanted it to. But I don't know what I did to get there, or how to get back to it. So I'm sharing this photo and my frustration in the hopes that I can be guided to truly grasping whatever it is my brain resists understanding.
“I LOVE being creative with textures, tones and other features but I don't want to hide my photos behind them. Sometimes I do this and this makes me feel like a fraud. Truth is, I don't know what I'm doing. And I have the audacity to want to do this for a living!
“Below is the original unedited image so you can see how truly awful it is:
Through Michelle’s love and patient guidance, my mess (shown above) turned into what you see below, made with great intention, thoughtfulness, presence, and actually knowing what to do.
I chose to photograph an abalone I keep in a windowsill. The underside of the shell reminded me of a vertebrae & the ribs of someone bowed low, vulnerable, humble in its being-ness. While the abalone is collected for its inner light, the humility of the unseen beauty moved me to tears as I worked.
When I shared my homework, I wrote,
“I cried while photographing this shell. And for the rest of my life I am going to use this [homework] prompt in all my photography. […]
“I was entranced by the story of this shell. Her curves and shadows. The way light found its way into the creviced places. And I especially loved the underside of her, the parts we rarely see. Compared to her mermaid interior it is quiet. To an untrained eye, dull. But while I will always love the cupped light and dance of color in the belly of an abalone, my most loved part is the unseen.
“This might sound strange but I feel like a different person after this work.”
And as she does so deeply, Michelle saw everything…the whole truth: the way I love. The way I see others. Why I love photography and photographing women. She replied,
“I am in love with this shell and it's because of the way you captured it. I mean, I actually feel love for this shell as if it was a person. The first image feels like a spine to me, Like a person curled into a ball in a very vulnerable position, and from there, each image felt like you were introducing me to a being, not an object. I think, knowing you in the way I do, that this is a huge piece to your gifts for the world. You see people as sacred beings, even when they cannot see themselves this way. The same way you took this shell and made us see the sacred here - you take people and you see the sacred and perhaps through photography you can help us see that in others and ourselves, too.”
This is one of the thousand reasons why I love artist & wise woman Michelle Gardella. Why I long to experience her signature offering, A River Story. One day I will. And it’s why I am counting down the moments to when I hold her forthcoming book, Catch & Release, in my hands.