A couple years ago, my friend Graham Walzer pulled out a proof of a book that he was working on and told me that I might be interested in the subject given I was working on Mend - the book, Glow Worm , was the visual narrative of his last relationship and break up, pieced together with photographs and texts and OKCupid messages. I flipped through and was so moved by the images and how the story incorporated the elements of digital intimacy that we rarely see on display; I immediately had a million questions. I didn't think to record that conversation, but luckily we were able to catch up again recently so that we could chat more about the making of the book, his personal experiences with heartbreak and his outlook on love.
Did your ex know you were making a book about your relationship?
I don’t think even I knew I was making a book. I was spending time with this beautiful woman who looked amazing in photographs. But when I spend a lot of time with somebody, that’s what I do; with my parents, my friends and people I date. Photographing becomes a way I interact with the people I love.
That’s one way you relate to them.
Right, so I didn’t have the intent of a book. We broke up and for a number of months this pile of pictures just sat there. I didn’t know what to do. [My friend] Nick was living in New York and came over and asked what I had been photographing recently. He saw the photos and asked “Why aren’t you doing anything with these? Why are they sitting in a pile?” That’s when I thought maybe I should revisit. I spread the images across my bed, looking for some kind of narrative and I realized I was looking at our love story. Creating a narrative about our relationship felt like a positive process. It seemed to be easing some of the pain. I dug through text messages and emails looking for key elements of the timeline.
Sometimes it’s hard to dive into memories because you’re too close to them.
Yeah. I still have pictures of my grandmother’s funeral that I haven’t looked at because they’re too painful. That was two years. You need space and time for your emotions to settle.
Was it too painful with the Glow Worm photos?
I feel like with most break ups, within the first year it’s so painful. But after you’ve had closure, the time you spent together and memories you made are sweet and something to smile about. It’s just unfortunate you broke up.
So you decided to make a book. Were you in contact with her?
We were. There wasn’t a definite ending. It slowly went downhill, feelings got hurt and then we had to stop seeing each other.
I’ve actually never experienced that - a slow fizzling - I’ve only experienced the breakups where you say you’re breaking up and then stop talking.
It’s hard to say which one’s worse...So I think a number months after we had stopped seeing each other and I talked to my friend, I thought, “I should put this book together.” Initially she was okay with it, but when I showed her the first draft she wasn’t. There were a few photographs that she felt violated by, which at the time I didn’t understand, but now I do. They were more explicit. We got in a really big fight about that.
So then what?
So I was like, what if I take these pictures out that she hates? I continued making it. After showing it to a lot of different people, even my mother, I was like “Is there anything bad in this book?” And they didn’t think so. She also came around. She had a boyfriend the second part of the year so maybe that was also some kind of buffer. At the same time, I was planning an opening party for the book.
Did you plan the party together?
I told her I was having the party and I was contemplating different ways to present the book. Was it just going to be a book launch? Or an opening with a picture on the wall? It kind of snowballed into the idea of doing an installation, and I wondered if she would do it. We were talking a little bit, not in a romantic way, so I asked her and she initially said no. It wasn’t because she was uncomfortable though; she actually thought it would be cheesy. She was like, “This sounds lame.” (laughs) I had to kind of persuade her that it wouldn’t be.
It’s pretty amazing you went from not talking at all to collaborating artistically for a book launch party.
Yeah. We talked. The other thing I did at the opening was set up a station with headphones connected to my iPhone.
Oh I remember that! You could listen to your voicemails you left each other.
So we had to meet up to exchange voicemails. We got coffee and I had to download voicemails from her computer. So she was very collaborative and I don’t know if she believed in it artistically, but she was willing to help me out.
Do you think the experience of making that book changed how you’ll record future relationships? Do you still want to do that with each relationship?
No, it’s too weird.
You think so?
Totally. Afterwards people were like, so you dated somebody to make art about them? But it wasn’t like that. It was like, we were dating, so I made art about it. But I don’t think I could do that again. It starts to feel like awkward, like there are pieces of the puzzle that you’re gathering as you’re interacting with them.
It gets contrived.
But you’re a photographer.
Yeah, I still photograph people I date. I just think that the newness of cataloging this relationship was there because I was new to internet dating and the relationship started with text messages. I don’t think I could do that again. It feels too weird. I think I could do it in some other kind of way, like the book I’m making about my Dad. But that’s another angle. It’s more about him than our relationship. I think I could do that again.
So it will be more about the subject and less about your relationship with the subject?
I just think those kind of projects are complicated. How do you take a relationship that has so many layers and put it on a piece of paper? Even when I try to explain the break up in terms of bad timing and different points of view, it’s not really fair to put a break up into that one sentence. It wasn’t as simple as “You did x, therefore I’m breaking up with you.”
I hear you. Okay, so let's talk about the OK Cupid messages in the book. Was this your first relationship to start on the internet?
She was the second girl I went on an OK Cupid date with.
Did you keep following her on social media after the break up?
I did up until a point and then I had to stop.
I saw her and her boyfriend. You don’t want to see your ex girlfriend being cute with another boy on the internet.
Do you feel like it’s harder to go through a break up now that there are so many ways to see what your ex is doing?
Harder than when we only had a rotary phone?
Right. I think it’s harder but I think it depends on how you deal with breakups. If you’re good about not looking online, then maybe it’s not harder.
Maybe it was easier, but that’s like saying everything was easier before. Was it easier? I dunno, I mean if you want to punish yourself you can look at someone’s internet status. But it’s a choice. I do think break ups are more complicated. I think the whole relationship is more complicated. There are many more fragmented components. You can text. You can FaceTime...
There are so many ways to communicate.
Yeah, communication occupies more of our headspace. But if there weren’t so many ways, would you be more there with them? I don’t know.
I think there are aspects of technology that are really not healthy for relationships because I think it pulls you into your device and you lose face to face interaction. Like when people are sitting at dinner and they’re both on their phones. Or during the day when they’re texting back and forth the entire time instead of being present in their real lives.
I agree with you.
I personally try not to text in my relationships.
I did see a photo on the internet that was captioned “iPhones in 1960” and it showed every man holding the newspaper in the subway.
So you're saying there will always be "an iPhone" for every generation.
I think time is diluted a little bit when you’re online everywhere, but I think that bleeds into everything.
That’s just modern life.
We’re getting deep. One more thing. I rarely interview a guy. For women, we usually have a strong support network and when the relationship ends with a significant other, we can go to other people. For guys, they’re used to talking to their significant other about emotions, and when they lose that person, sometimes they struggle to find support. As a guy, do you think that’s true?
Disappointingly, emotionally I’m a little bit androgynous. I grew up with my mother always talking and asking about my feelings. I know how to talk about feelings, but I think most men don’t know how to talk about feelings.
Do you see that in your friends?
Totally. I have to dig it out of them.
What was the worst break up you’ve ever been through?
My first relationship after high school. We dated for three years then broke up and were on-and-off for two more years. I initially broke up with her in 2008 because I went to school in New York. It was messy.
How did you get through that breakup?
I talked to my support system. I called my parents. I was really upset. I have this distinct memory of riding my bike through school in the snow, crying. Again it wasn’t like she broke up with me and broke my heart. I broke up with her because I was going away to school. I think that’s when someone told me “whatever half the time you dated, that’s how long it will take you to get over it” I think it took me more than that.
Was there anything else you did?
I wrote a lot. My favorite thing to do when a relationship is ending is to go on a long road trip. You’re processing, but you’re not in real life. There’s a lot of stimulus, but you’re not attached to the rest of your problems, the rest your of life.
So road trips. Talking. Writing.
I mean you’ve got to process, right? If you don’t know what you’re feeling, you have to let it percolate. I tell my friends, you need to go on a long run. Or a long hike. Or a long drive. Get out of your day-to-day to think about things. It’s like the movement of the soul.
What’s your advice for guys who don’t know how to talk about their feelings?
Therapy. Legit pay for it, therapy. It’s like having the best friend who doesn’t need to tell you about their day. You just get to talk about yourself. I mean, you have to pay for it. If you can’t talk about it, you can write about it. You have to do something to get it out of your body. Once things start coming out of you, things start to make more sense. Your true feelings come out.
Are you an optimist about love?
At one point I think I was a firm believer but now it’s more difficult. Can you have that first real love again? That love where you pour everything in and lose yourself in it?
I agree it will never be the same as your first love, but it’s just different. And because it’s different, it has the potential to be sustainable. You can still let yourself go, but just with a bit more self-awareness. I’m an optimist.
I guess I agree. Relationships won’t ever be that first irresponsibly amazing love. But now they can be of more substance. A relationship can be a positive thing that really improves both people involved.
Glow Worm can be purchased in Los Angeles at Skylight Books in Los Feliz or online by directly emailing Graham Walzer. You can see more of Graham Walzer's photography on his website and on Instagram at @latergraham.