On following the deer
I started seeing deer, really seeing them, in the summer, around the fog and Japanese maples behind the university.
We made our acquaintance at Holy Hill, a street crossing in north Berkeley, at around three in the morning one warm June night. The fire alarm had sounded in my building. I walked at a distance from the other students, following a buck, a fawn, and a doe as they passed the theological school. The buck strode ahead proudly as the moonlight struck his back. The doe, sheltered by the same mist that enveloped the fawn in a blue glow, brought her front legs together as though in prayer. I wanted nothing but to run after their graceful forms, to follow them through empty streets to where they called home. But I knew that would have been insane. As the deer descended the stone stairs, too beautiful in their artless amble, I felt a sense of impossibility. Paralyzed with indecision, I waited for them to pass, until they had all gone, and only the dew remained.
For a long time, I carried their image with me, grasping at the chance of ever seeing them again. I began carrying a pocket camera on me, every morning slipping the silver Contax T3 into my jacket, becoming used to its small weight. I enjoyed training my eyes to compose an image in one try. It felt like removing a layer of insulation between myself and the real world, the world where the deer strode calm and defenseless. Wanting to return to that first night, to its strange and total rapture, I waited for a second chance.
I hadn’t always shot film. I made the transition from digital after the deer night. To revert to film meant risking the easily known for the impenetrable; film required a certain amount of guesswork, for a result that was not available right away, and not without patience for the process. One night, while out on a run by the Rose Garden, I caught them making a hasty escape beneath flowering arbors and cover of darkness. I didn’t have my camera with me then. I took photographs for the sake of fixing things in orderly, static arrangement. But the deer didn’t allow for such leisurely permanence, so I ran after them, trying to make my steps light, as far as I could this time. They permitted it, pressing forth daringly into front yards and crosswalks. Never were they still enough for me to fix in place.
Amelia and I both began on digital. Amelia wore her straight black hair long, with side-swept bangs. She had a gentle way about her and shot animals the best, had a good feel for what they were about. We met in high school English class, back when I volunteered at the animal shelter. On Saturday mornings, she would pick me up in her red Acura RSX to go to the Newport coast, where we shot the sun dancing over the sand crabs, the hungry gulls, the tide pools teeming with life. I spoke without reservation; Amelia was subdued, her voice scratchy from disuse. After she left for architecture school, I would go to the beach after my shift at the boba shop, taking video clips of the rising tides. I drove the hour to see her on Fridays. We drank boba in dark cafes and attended small electronica shows, coasting the LA streets aimlessly when the evening grew long. Nights like these passed with a predictable ease.
Midway through my last year of college, we went on a trip to Yosemite. Before heading out, we made a detour to an Oakland camera repair shop.
“Why did you buy such an expensive camera?” she rebuked.
I said, “Zeiss glass”—knowing she used a Zeiss lens and attempting to deflect attention from myself.
She seemed satisfied with my answer, so I changed the subject. “How do you compose your images?” I asked.
“Taking photos has always been easy for me,” she said, denying any significant design. “It’s just the way I see the world.” I nodded along in acquiescence.
Taking photographs was a difficult process for me, full of starts and stops, of moments that worked and that didn’t. I swallowed my admiration with a pang of envy.
We entered a dead forest at around four in the afternoon. A logging truck piled with old mossy trunks careened past our car on the Highway 120. Stopping at a diner overlooking the town of Knights Ferry, we parked at the curve before the hills became empty pastures. The road wrapped around the mountainside and abruptly disappeared.
A matronly woman, presumably the mom of the mom-and-pop restaurant, came out to take our order with a clip pad. She was swift and methodical, and moved as if in musical time. “A one-woman show,” Amelia said after we had stepped inside. I knew Amelia valued self-sufficiency, and was unsurprised. The wood-paneled walls were decorated with framed black-and-white photographs. I dug into my vegan burger and fries.
“I like that photo,” I said, pointing to a portrait of a father hugging his daughters. One of the girls had slipped out of his grasp and had been caught with her head turned in profile, her hair flipping out behind her. They were all smiling.
I wanted all photographs to have an emotional register, a meaning that pulled at some far-off and separate experience. This photograph reminded me of my father, who had moved back to China to remarry after divorcing my mother, who had become deeply involved with a religious group. Presented with slides on the Chinese siheyuan during architecture class, I had left the auditorium crying. I was shocked by my own tears.
“It’s nicely composed,” Amelia said with finality, seeing it for its formal truth, the symmetry expressing a beauty, a perfectibility. The people in the image became forms, and flattened. Disenchanted with the narrowness of her vision, I finished my meal.
Not long after I moved into an apartment in the Berkeley Hills, my landlord came knocking at my door. “Do you have a moment? I want to show you something,” he said. I followed him out of the canyon-facing room.
A buck was seated along the corridor by the building. “He’s sick,” Len said, pointing to the deer’s matted coat. “Deer are all about motion. They’re instinctive. They move quickly at the first sign of danger. I came to warn you not to get near him. Another deer has made a burrow below the apartment. They must know that predators are not around, that this is safe.”
I took in the white foam around the buck’s mouth, his panting breaths, his remarkable closeness. He had come here desiring solitude. Maybe he was dying. Did he register my presence, my eagerness to photograph his pain? I slid my hand off my camera, where it had traveled automatically, and went back inside.
In the morning, both deer were gone.