Sunday, May 31, 2009

Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb

Titan ICBM Missile Silo, 2006

Remember National Lampoon Vegas Vacation?

"I am your dam guide. Please don't wander off the dam tour. Please take all the dam pictures you want. Are there any dam questions?"

No, this isn't the Hoover Dam. But that's how I felt at the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona. The guides are a plucky and seriously patriotic bunch of 70-somethings, full of spurious military minutia and talk about "peaceful deterrence." It's not the kind of place you'd want to mention that you're a subscriber to The Nation magazine for fear of being slapped in irons or staked out in the Arizona desert for the buzzards to eat.

This is said to be the only Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silo complex in the world that is open to the public. The facility consists of three underground structures, connected by tunnels. Most of the hardware is still in place, including the 110 foot tall Titan II rocket. (There's even a hole in the top of the missile to prove to Soviet spy satellites that the nuclear weapon in its nose cone has been removed.)

The whole installation is underground and you probably wouldn't notice it even if you walked right over top of it. Its location was considered top secret until it was decommissioned in the 1980s. Truth be told, it probably wasn't much of a secret locally, though, because the silo crew had to made frequent calls to the local county animal control officer whenever a rattlesnake wandered into the portal staircase and blocked the only way out of the silo that didn't involve riding a rocket like Slim Pickins in Dr. Strangelove.

The control room is stuffed with the best and most modern computer technology of 1965. No one was ever allowed to be alone in the control room for fear that he or she might have a bad hair day and spark a nuclear winter. Today you could probably run the whole place off the technology in a cell phone.

During my visit to the Titan Missile Museum I couldn't help but be reminded of Lee V. McCullum great old song, "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb," most popularly performed here by the Blind Boys of Alabama:
Everybody's worried about the Atomic Bomb,
but no one seems worried about the day my Lord shall come.
You'd better set your house in order, he may be comin' soon,
and He'll hit like an Atom Bomb when He comes, when He comes.

In nineteen-hundred and forty-five the atom bomb became alive.
In nineteen-hundred and forty-nine, the USA got very wise:
They found that a country across the line had an atom bomb of the very same kind. People got worried all over the land, just like folks got in Japan.
God told Elijah he would send down fire, send down fire from the sky.
Showed ol' Noah about that sign, won't be water but for next time.


Now don't get worried, bear in mind: Trust King Jesus and you shall find
peace, and happiness and joy divine with my Savior by your side.
He said he wouldn't, buy I believe he will; He'll fight your battle if you'll keep still.


Old Sparky

Old Sparky, 2005

It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a state that executes convicted murderers at a rate unparalleled in the western world would have a prison museum. Located in a tidy brick building not far from the famous Walls prison in Huntsville, the Texas Prison Museum is staffed by a surprisingly cheery bunch, most of them former prison guards and staff.

The Museum houses all manner of prison paraphernalia. There are exhibits about the once famous Texas Prison Rodeo, dioramas about famous prison riots and break-outs, burnt flags left behind by death penalty protesters, and displays of weapons made by prisoners from soap, crushed bugs and belly button lint. And pictures galore: a hanging; a popular warden; a chain gang; famous Texas prisoners such as rocker David Crosby, Woody Harrelson’s dad, Carla Faye Tucker, and Kenneth Allen McDuff, who killed at least 14 people and whose likening of the murder of a woman to that of a chicken warrants its own display at the Museum, but is so crude that it will be described no further here. There’s even a cell and costumes where for $3 visitors can be photographed in prison stripes.

The Museum’s leading attraction, and most problematic one, is “Old Sparky,” the prison's first modern electric chair. Even an iron rail and Plexiglas shield cannot keep visitors from trying to sit in the Sparky’s eternal embrace. 

“We used to have a video camera pointed at Sparky and I was forever having to come back and get the kids out of the chair,” said my guide, a retired prison nurse who spoke as proudly of having once been asked to sit in Old Sparky so its restraints could be adjusted for a female execution as other ladies might brag about their prize dahlias or a special cake recipe. 

“Ain’t that something? People just don’t have respect for nothing these days.”

Witnessing: Southern Stories

Charles, 2005

In 2003 I started working on what I thought was going to be a coffee table book of pictures of a small town in North Carolina. Many of the places I photographed for this project had classic Southern gothic family histories, some of which would seem unreal to people born outside the South, but which were perfectly recognizable and understandable to those of us born in the South. Remember how outrageous and unreal the characters in Crimes of the Heart and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil seem? Well, if you grew up in the South you probably knew people like this and had family members every bit of colorful. 

That project never made it very far for lack of publisher interest. Nor did another one, in which I was going to ride around the South photographing and telling the stories of old residences and commercial buildings that were falling down, but which had once been the hopes and dreams of the people who had built them. But these two projects spawned a bigger idea which I called Witnessing: Southern Stories. The premise was this: I would make pictures of old places that looked liked like they would have interesting stories and then write stories to go along with them. 

I'd learned earlier in the small town project that too many of the people whose stories I wanted to tell were still alive. It would have been unkind to them or subjected their families to undue attention or ridicule to tell their stories while they were still around. Hence, my decision to switch to a more fictionalized style of story telling.  The fundamentals of all of the Southern Stories are based on true stories I have heard about real people, most of whom I've met. But specific details and places have been altered to protect the innocent and guilty.

I've developed about forty of these stories. Some of them can he seen here

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Final Voyage

Final Voyage, 1989

On a blustery March day in 1989 that still carried the taste of winter, the S.S. United States was indignantly nudged by tugs down Norfolk, Virginia's Elizabeth River after being out of service for 20 years. United States was once the mighty mistress of the North Atlantic cruise trade. The design of her rakish bow and hull were, quite literally, state secrets. She held the transatlantic crossing speed record for her entire term of service.

During a routine annual overhaul visit in 1969 to the Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company, where United States had been built only seventeen years earlier, the United States Line abruptly took her out of service, a casualty of the growing popularity of trans-Atlantic air travel. Her crew was given only enough time to pack their personal belongings and depart the ship. United States was later towed to an empty pier a few miles away in Norfolk, where she remained sealed and rusting for twenty years.

During her time in Norfolk, a series of investors and speculators came and went with plans for returning United States to service, none of them viable enough to result in any action. Despite her structural integrity and speed--there were reports that she was so fast that water literally blew out of temporary swimming pools rigged on her upper deck--United States had been designed for North Atlantic service and wasn't suitable for the growing Caribbean cruise trade.

By the late 1980s, the owners of United States were years behind in their rent for the pier and the Norfolk International Terminal wanted the space she occupied to expand its container handling operation. The ship's owners announced an auction of the ship's interior furnishings. Remember, everything on the ship was left just as it had been that afternoon in 1969 when she was taken out of service. Beds were unmade, ship's logs letters to loved ones were left unfinished, menus were in mid-course. Visiting the ship to see auction items was like pulling back the cover on a maritime pyramid. Hermetically sealed behind rusty hatches, the sleek moderne furniture and interior décor of United States was so untouched that you half expected the ghost of Cole Porter to start playing one of her famously fireproof pianos. Following the auction, the ship was to be moved temporarily to Newport News so that she could be readied for a tow to Turkey, where breakers were to gut the ship's interior so that she could be redeveloped.

On the appointed day of the move, I accompanied a few friends on a small sail boat to watch the move. It was a bitter cold and rainy morning. We left before sunrise in order to arrive at the United States before she departed Norfolk. Because the chains holding United States to the pier were so rusty, it was actually late afternoon before they could be broken and the ship pulled away from the pier. I was using my 22 year-old Nikkormat camera and filled several rolls of film documenting United States's trip down the foggy river. It was thrilling to watch her under way, even if not under her own power.

Unfortunately, only a few images from the day survive. The place where I took my film to be processed managed to destroy most of the negatives. The photograph above is an admittedly impressionistic view. The original negative was so damaged that anything else was out of the question. Over the years I've actually come to like this image more than a more literal interpretation would have been. I'd love to have this on a canvas large enough to cover a wall.

[In 1996, the S.S. United States returned home to the U.S. from her asbestos gutting sojourn to Turkey and the Ukraine and has been laid up and rusting in Philadelphia ever since.]


Buds, 2005

In the spring of 2005, during a visit to the Courthouse Gallery in Portsmouth, Virginia, I saw a display about two of Portsmouth's neighborhoods, Cradock and Truxton, that had been built just after World War I for workers at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (which is actually in Portsmouth, but is so named to distinguish it from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which is located in New Hampshire).

Truxton was for black workers. It was simple, just houses built close to one another. There were few amenities. Cradock, on the other hand, was for white workers and their families. It was conceived and designed by the same architects who designed the New York Stock Exchange, and had all the amenities workers and their families, many of whom had migrated from Appalachia in search of steady work, might need, including a place where residents could skin and render rabbits. Befitting a place with close ties to the sea, the basic layout of Cradock was in the shape of an anchor. There's a historic marker at the front of the neighborhood that proclaims Cradock to have had America's first strip shopping center.

Between the 1920s and early 1960s, as wars and conflicts kept the shipyard busy and work plentiful, Cradock was a proud working class community. Some young people who grew up there followed their fathers and grandfathers into the shipyard. Others distinguished themselves in the professions, business and the arts.

But the racial segregation that initially defined Cradock eventually gave way to racial integration, a bridge too far for some long-time Cradock residents. The same "white flight" that emptied many inner city neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s also emptied many of Cradock's residences.

By 2005, when I first visited, Cradock was down and out. The majority of its homes and apartments were in very poor condition. Its churches--there were once churches for just about every Protestant denomination--were losing members and, in at least one case, closing. Crime had become such an issue that the police set up a substation right in the middle of the neighborhood. The sincere efforts of a few hardy long-time residents, a small number of sweat equity investors and a growing population of gays, lesbians and Wiccans were having a hard time overcoming the momentum of decades of slum lords, deferred maintenance and general decay.

None of this deterred me. In fact, I hoped that in my exploration of Cradock I might witness the neighborhood's re-birth, inasmuch as Cradock, if restored, would be very much in line with the late 20th Century concept of New Urbanism. Each week for several months I spent afternoons walking the neighborhood, getting to know residents and taking pictures. Most were initially skeptical of me--the first question I typically got from people was, "You ain't a cop, are you?"--and I was careful not to arouse their suspicions any more than a guy with a camera might. During one visit, I encountered Portsmouth's city manager, who was so intrigued by my interest that he tried to sell me Cradock's roof-less and flooded movie theater. Over the weeks I got to know enough of the leaders of Cradock's various circles that my presence was no longer questioned. Things were going so smoothly that I even naively imagined that my photos of Cradock might become my homage to Bruce Davidson's 1960s essay on Harlem.

But the more time I spent in Cradock, the deeper my understanding of the neighborhood's problems became. I wondered, "Why are so many of the young men in this neighborhood not working?" and "Why are so many young people not in school, and why do so many of them, the boys especially, always look drugged up?" As I started asking these questions, some of the more criminally involved members of the community I'd gotten to know were beginning to realize that I was seeing more than they wanted me to see.

As cool spring breezes gave way to hot humid summer temperatures, tempers started to flare in Cradock. Domestic disturbances and racial friction spilled out into the streets. Gun shots typically heard only in the evening started being heard in the daytime, sometimes while I was present.

In late May, one of the neighborhood crime bosses sent a signal to me that I would do well to stop pointing my camera at some of the things going on in Cradock. By this time I had finally pieced together the answers to my questions. The answers weren't pretty, and just knowing them was putting me at personal risk.

The braver photographer would have persevered, perhaps even gone deeper into the criminal life of the neighborhood. I chose to take a break to take care of a personal health issue. When I returned a year later, the neighborhood had declined even further and many of the players I'd met in 2005 were gone. I was too depressed by what I saw to continue the project.

Over the years, many people who live or grew up in Cradock have come upon my Cradock photo essay and written kind notes thanking me for showing what some of their old haunts look like today and telling stories and filling in details about some of the places shown. There continue to be people living in Cradock who are working gallantly to breathe life and health back into the neighborhood. The City of Portsmouth has prepared a redevelopment plan for Cradock, but it seems unlikely that it will ever be implemented.

The full essay can be seen here.

Friday, May 29, 2009


If You Wanna Take a Picture, You Need to Talk to Tito, 2003

You might say that the Irish know how to celebrate their culture, or that no one can touch the Italians or Greeks when it comes to pride of heritage. But for sheer celebration, nothing beats Puerto Rico Day in New York City. New York hosts many such festivals, where it seems to be understood that whoever's culture is being celebrated can be as crazy as they want to be on that one day.

All morning long, Puerto Ricans jammed subways, highways, bridges and tunnels coming into the city. They waved Puerto Rican flags. They hung out the windows of their cars. They honked their horns. The streets echoed with music, sometimes played live, but more often from speakers in the grills, back seats and trunks of their cars and trucks. They enjoyed each other's company. They whooped. They hollered. They sang. They ridiculed anyone who wasn't Puerto Rican. They ate Puerto Rican food. They sold every kind of trinket you could imagine on which a Puerto Rican flag could be affixed (including, strangely enough, tube socks). And they generally ate up every minute of anything Puerto Rican.

Like most of these festivals, Puerto Rico Day includes a grand parade down Fifth Avenue. Spectators started jockeying for seats along the avenue hours before the parade began. They loved that on this single day of the year the most whitebread, affluent, exclusive stretch of real estate was theirs.

My wife and daughter and I came out of a theater just as the parade was ending. Practically every street and sidewalk in Midtown was covered by a layer of flyers and trash. Floats, marching bands and other parade participants were dispersing out into the streets off Fifth Avenue. But few wanted the show to end. Many continued to play music, sing, wave flags, preen for one another and otherwise revel in the day.

I found these guys on 44th street. Anxious to keep the party moving, but having failed to sell me any tube socks, the guys in green nonetheless welcomed me to take pictures of them. To the consternation of my wife, I moved in close and went to work. We were all having a good time until the big guy in the Fubu shirt stepped in front of the camera and allowed as how my time was up. I'm pretty sure I could have outrun him. But I took a few last shots of him blocking the group and moved on.

Photography Lessons

Eggs, c. 1967

I did not have the benefit of formal photography or art training. When I first became interested in photography, I read everything I could find and looked at every picture I could see. Two pieces of advice stuck with me. The first was that you really couldn't reach your stride as a photographer until you'd shot 50,000 pictures. The second was that anyone could learn most anything you needed to know about lighting by making photographs of eggs.

It would take some time to hit the 50,000 picture mark. (I'm not even sure if I've hit it yet, forty years later.) But while on the road to that goal I could at least set up a tabletop studio in my bedroom using poster board, a single incandescent light bulb and three eggs and learn something about lighting. I photographed every imaginable permutation of these three eggs. I arranged them in rows, in a circle, end-to-end and stacked. I shot them from overhead, underneath and from every imaginable horizontal perspective. I was too naive to have any artistic intention other than to explore the potential for light falling on curved surfaces. I was using a hand-held meter, knew absolutely nothing about white balance and was using an old Kodak camera with a fixed lens I'd bought with money saved cutting grass for neighbors.

Greenpoint Avenue

Greenpoint Avenue Station, 2003

By the fall of 2003, I was using my first digital SLR and beginning to experiment with Photoshop (and learning how a little too much PS could be a terrible thing). My photographic style, if you could call it that, was very much in the pictorial tradition. Many images were more like painted Impressionist landscapes than examples of the latest, sharpest photographic lenses.

(I'm also, as you can see, still trying to get close to people.)

I once showed this image to a nationally respected museum photography curator, who criticized its lack of sharpness, its compositional imbalance and its painterly style. I tried to learn from his comments--his input on some of my other work was indeed transformational--but I couldn't agree with him on this image, which was purposely about all the things he criticized in it.

The only individual in this image who's important is the young man in the foreground. I don't want this to be a strict portrait of him, so he's not in sharp focus. But we can see enough of his face to know that he's just biding his time waiting for the train, trying to look unobtrusive and avoid the camera's gaze. Even if, in fact, his attempt to blend into the landscape by looking away from the track is only making him more conspicuous and interesting in a crowd of people who are looking in exactly the opposite direction. I want the other people in this scene to be just about colors and lines; presence, but not enough detail for us to think too hard about them.

The converging lines at the top of the frame lead us into this scene and down the platform, where the other people waiting for the train become a blur. To my eye, the heavy dark of the left-hand side of the image, including the man in the red sweatshirt, provides just enough imbalance to offset the open white space of the right side of the image and impart a slight edginess to this scene. But what do I know?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Return to Photography

Vanderbilt Avenue, 2003

Photography became my medium of choice during high school in the late 1960s. I transitioned quickly from an old Brownie to an Instamatic to a Polaroid to a used manual Kodak to, finally, a brand new Nikkormat SLR ($269 1968 dollars, including 50mm lens). During those years I shot miles of Tri-X film, which could be purchased inexpensively in bulk and developed in either the school darkroom or the bathroom of our apartment.

As college, career and family occupied more of my time, photography fell aside. When I returned to photography in 2002, black-and-white film prices had skyrocketed. Color was the new norm. Digital was the new thing. And who wanted to mess with chemicals when you could have greater versatility in processing on the computer? This is one of the first images I took with an early point-and-click digital camera and liked. The scene is the southwest corner outside Grand Central Terminal in New York. We see the hustle and bustle of street life.

Unlike tourists, New Yorkers don't linger around Grand Central. They go about their business. The man in the foreground is purposely out of focus (though I didn't intend the crown of his head to be so blown out) to highlight his motion and let us know that there's more story to this picture than just him. His tussled hair, the profile of his face and his coat, though, tell us that he's probably not a tycoon, just a working man. He could be our father, our brother, our friend, our co-worker.

I like the way the curve of the corner entrance of Grand Central leads the eye into this photograph and down Vanderbilt Avenue.

I'm naturally shy when it comes to photographing people. This represented an attempt, however feeble, to get "close."