Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go
Well I don’t think so
But I’m gonna take a look around it though
Blue, I love you
–Joni Mitchell, Blue
When I was sixteen, the Virgin Mary spoke to me. I don’t remember what she said — just the tears, blue in the cool afternoon shade. I cried first in response to what she had said, and then the tears rapidly became about forgetting.
The forgetting happened instantaneously; I can only grasp blindly at what was said by considering the first tears, which even as they fell, felt like they were washing away something important. When I consider them, I’m pulled to another memory. Staring at those tears, I dive in deeper, swim further back and land in an older place.
As a child, did you ever spin around until you collapsed in the grass? And, when you did, did you watch the sky continue to spin from your vantage point on the dewey ground? I recognized something of that feeling, where your internal state has bled out into the outer world and taken on a momentum of its own– the thrill of dizziness, the merging and morphing of the world around you, the laughter of falling when you know you won’t be hurt. And the fear too–the-quick-jolt-of-hard-ground- the stomach turn that gave way to the lulling lushness of fragrant grass. That is something like what I felt- cocooned momentarily in what seemed like the last still place while the very sky vortexed around me. If that is the diluted flavor of the experience, what I felt when I spoke to Mary was infinitely more concentrated.
Beyond the flavor, I remember the hue. Mary was blue and ill-defined; a shadow more than a figure. There was something watery about her, wavering, flowing, but never losing her shape. I’ve never seen quite that color in nature. It’s somewhere between a Forget-Me-Not and a Morning Glory, between lips when you’ve come in from the snow and a fresh bruise. The veins in my wrist come close; sometimes I wished I could jab them with a fountain pen and draw her. When I read about Hume’s missing shade of blue, I thought maybe that was it.
It was years until I saw that color again, rather unexpectedly. It was on a Joni Mitchell album cover — the cover for Blue. I recognized the photography style. It’s a cyanotype- a bit of Victorian magic which uses chemicals to create light-sensitive emulsions that give the resulting prints their characteristic hue. I’ll tell you a secret: all cyanotypes are haunted. There is something spectral about the process of mixing the emulsion, rather like brewing a potion. Upon your elixir, you place an offering– a negative image or physical object (lace and pressed flowers work well). From there, you wait for the sun to accept your sacrifice and respond with a vision. No print develops quite the same, and to some extent, the final product is beyond your control. You’ve issued a prayer rather than a mandate.
When the final image emerges, it does so slowly, on its own time. The figure approaches, misty and shadowed; the thick blue fog of the emulsion recedes to reveal its visage. The final ritual is to cleanse the page in water, clearing off the last of the emulsion and freezing the image. As it dries, you have at last the invited visitor, the frozen apparition. But you haven’t caught her forever; the prints fade over time. She continues to elude you. Cyanotype printmaking has become something of an obsession for me, and it took me a while to realize why. In every image, I was looking for a miracle. I was looking for Her.
Photography has always been a ghostly enterprise; its inception in the Victorian era was largely in the interest of preserving memories of the recently deceased via mourning portraits. Balzac so feared that the camera could snatch up a person’s soul that he only allowed himself to be photographed once. Perhaps he was right to be afraid.
Religions have often feared and harnessed the power of images; the dread of idolatry is a testament to the force of imagery. Representations are so powerful, it seems, that they threaten even the divine. But perhaps no other photographic form so closely mimics the experience of an apparition; the negotiation with an invisible presence, the mysterious interplay, the waiting, the wondering, and hoping. And for me, it even captures the color.
In the years that followed my conversation with Mary, I explained the episode as sleep paralysis. This makes sense for several reasons. What I witnessed was in fact accompanied by paralysis. I struggled to make my chest move to breathe, though I remember discovering, to my surprise, that I no longer needed to. I had been ill for nearly six weeks, bedridden with an episode of mononucleosis exacerbated by an undiagnosed eating disorder. My bones were brittle and fractured, skin dotted with blackberry bruises, undereyes cobalt. I slept all day and dreamed little, woke up only to stare at my phone screen idly, pale face illuminated by its blue light.
It also isn’t surprising that my mind would conjure the Virgin Mary in that state. At sixteen, I had long since begun to question the Catholic faith I grew up with, but even the shape of this very rejection was a sign of how entrenched I was in the Church. One couldn’t stand outside it, only in reaction to it. It was the lens that made things real; a camera that substantiated and delineated the frame of my world. During this time of illness, I prayed the rosary almost as a reflex. It was a rhythm I knew by heart, musical. Though I didn’t admit it to myself, it was also an antidote to loneliness- a real form of companionship. I wasn’t sure whether I believed in God, but as I lay in that bed, His Mother felt undeniably close.
It’s convenient to explain a lot of “miraculous” visions this way. Sickness, mental illness, isolation, and girlhood are common ingredients in the cocktail that seems to generate Marian apparitions. And sleep paralysis is an especially good way to explain the sensations people report. Even Mary herself seemed to experience a sort of paralysis upon seeing the angel Gabriel such that she couldn’t speak until he first said “Do not be afraid.” And yet, I can’t help the feeling that this explanation is reductive. When the world continues spinning after a tumble, you get the nearly psychedelic sense that there is more to existence than what we ordinarily perceive; that our perception is a contingent rather than objective aspect of reality. I am haunted by this moment where the world keeps spinning, and what lies beyond it; in my printmaking, I’m trying to catch a glimpse, an image, a shot of this space. In Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel tells Mary that the power of God will “overshadow” her when she conceives the child who will be the light of the world. I can’t help but think of a photograph; shadow and light in one, both needed to birth the antenatal negative.
There’s a statue of Mary that’s been sitting on the window sill of my family’s kitchen since I was a child. It’s survived several moves, and always returns to the same spot by the sink where she watches us do the dishes, waves of water sometimes splashing over her face. Poor Mary is cracked in half, held together by a stalwart rubber band.
Maybe there was a time the Blessed Mother was whole, but her body’s been bandaged like this as long as I can remember. When I picture Mary now, I see her like that, a makeshift rubber halo keeping her hands together in prayer, her whole figure shrouded in blue.
Abigail Tulenko is a writer, photographer, and PhD student studying philosophy at Harvard University. She is based in Cambridge, MA. You can find more information at her website, abigailtulenko.com.