Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Homestead

Homestead, 2005


I had a work assignment in Beatrice, Nebraska. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have reason to visit Beatrice unless you’re re-tracing the Homestead Trail or happen to be in the lawn mower business. (Beatrice is the center of what is left of the Made-in-America motorized lawn mower manufacturing industry.) But in case you do find yourself in Beatrice, let me give you some advice.

Most first-timers pronounce the name “BEE-atris” as they would the woman’s name. But Nebraskans pronounce it “Bee-AT-ris,” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. Knowing this won’t keep you from standing out or getting into trouble, if that’s your wont. But it will show you at least know how to identify where you are if you do get into trouble.

Beatrice is a pleasant community of roughly 13,000 people located about an hour south of Lincoln, Nebraska. A friend once described Lincoln to me as a place where, if you landed at the airport on a Saturday afternoon during college football season, you’d be tempted to believe a neutron bomb had taken out the entire population until you figured out they were all at Memorial Stadium watching the Nebraska Huskers beat the tar out of some visiting team.


But back to Beatrice, whose most famous exports, notwithstanding the aforementioned lawn mowers, were actors Harold Lloyd and Robert Taylor, and Daniel Freeman, the first man to file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. Beatrice is also home to a facility once known as the Nebraska Institution for Feeble-Minded Youth, but which today goes by the more clinically ambiguous title of Beatrice State Developmental Center.

It’s easy to be snarky about towns like Beatrice. And I’m not saying I’d want to live there. But the people were nice. I found a number of things I wanted to photograph.

On the outskirts of town is the Homestead National Monument of America, a celebration of a movement of such magnitude, opportunity and hope that one would be hard pressed to imagine it occurring in our time. I was driving out to visit the Monument when I came upon the house shown above. It was starting to drizzle. I could have just kept on driving. But I turned around in a nearby church driveway and looped back to took a picture. Just as I pushed the shutter release on my little Sony point-and-click camera, the camera died. I rushed to the local Wal-Mart, bought a second Sony point-and-click camera and got back in time to capture the scene again before the rainstorm moved in.


Since I first posted this photograph at Flickr, I have heard from a woman who drives past this house every day on her way to and from work, and from another who knows the people who live there.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Home Away from Home

Basilique Ste.-Clotilde, 2007


My wife and I were in Paris. It was mid-May, springtime in Virginia, but unexpectedly wintry in Paris. We arrived early on a Sunday morning when there was almost no traffic or anyone out on the streets yet. It being too early to check into our hotel, we explored the neighborhood in search of a warm place to eat and while away some time. But even after a leisurely meal of croissants, hot chocolate and tea, it was still too early to return to the hotel. So, like all good fallen children and grandchildren of clergy faced with a bitter cold and gray morning with a hint of rain in the air, we went to church.

The Basilica of St. Clotilde was just around the corner from our hotel. The parish priest, standing at the door and noticing us gawking from the square out front—we were actually debating whether there might be heat inside—invited us in. We responded with the usual, “No thanks, we’re not Catholics” look that works so well in other places. But whether it was my fractured French that was too vague to make our intentions clear or his sense that we needed some community, the priest continued to beckon us in. (And let’s not forget, there was the prospect of heat indoors.)

A congenial group of three score or so parishioners of all ages—and all stylish in that way that so many Parisians aregathered for the service. Even on an overcast day light pouring through stained glass windows painted the interior in a spectrum of colors. We sat politely toward the back of the group, feeling a little out of place and underdressed from our overnight flight. But the people sitting around us welcomed us graciously and drew us into their company.

I can’t say it was any warmer inside, but we soon forgot about the cold as the service proceeded. Before it was over, the priest had delivered a stern homily, visitors from several countries were welcomed and my wife and I cheered two new babies into Christendom as if we’d lived in the 7th Arrondissement and known their families all our lives. Soloists perched way above and behind us were accompanied by a magnificent organ. (No slouch, this place, when it comes to music. César Franck was the organist here for more than forty years.)

Throughout our stay in Paris, we visited St. Clotilde several times to watch children play in the square out front, to watch a stylish wedding party process into and out of the church, and to relax in the small park outside on afternoons when the weather finally turned warm. Whenever he saw us on the street or in shops in the neighborhood, the priest greeted us like family and invited us to return to St. Clotilde for whatever was going on that day.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Connections

Robin's Cove, 2003


I may be a little simple-minded about this. But I like to think the water behind my house connects me with all the other places in the world to which this water is connected.

I’ve never taken my canoe beyond the mouth of the Lynnhaven River, nor my little powerboat much beyond the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. By if the physicists are to be believed, the tidal creek behind my house contains little bits of water from the Nile, the Amazon, the Venetian lagoon (the real one, not that pond in Vegas), the Seine, the South Seas, the Puget Sound, the grey-green, greasy Limpopo and even the estuary of Jiulongjiang River that flows past my friend Karin Faulkner’s window in Xiamen, China. And if its true that matter never disappears and just reconstitutes itself in different forms, with those drops of water from all those places comes all the history of those places; from Marco Polo's trips to China to the Polynesians crossing the Pacific on grass mats to Vikings crossing the Atlantic wearing hats topped with antlers to the wrecks of the Titanic, the Graf Spee and Thresher. These and countless other atom-sized bits of time and space are in all the drops of water in the little creek behind my house.

Water’s unites us and divides us. It can keep us both warm and cool. We play in it. We fight over it. We steal it. We dump crud into it. We harvest sustenance out of it. It gives us a lot considering how shabbily we treat it at times.

I think about all this when I sit on our pier and watch the fish jump and the crabs and muskrats scramble along the muddy edges at low tide. When we first moved here I thought this was the most peaceful place on earth. But now, what with all this marine life and history, I find it can be damned noisy.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

History, Updated

Mixing It Up With the Naturals, 2007

When the first permanent English settlers—that’s Captain John Smith’s group—arrived at Cape Henry in 1607 in what is now Virginia Beach, Virginia, they had a few run-ins with Indians they referred to as “Naturals.” To avoid being noticed by Spanish explorers who had laid claim to this same land years earlier, the men of the Virginia Company sailed inland until they found a point on the James River that could easily be defended, if need be, from Spanish forces.

The Spanish turned out to be the least of their worries. The settlers couldn't have picked a worse place to set up shop than swampy Jamestown Island. Just about all were lost the first winter. Those who didn’t succumb to mosquito-borne diseases died from starvation.

But mostly, they perished because of their own indolence. Most of the first settlers were such dandies, sons of English nobility sent to the “New World” to make something of themselves while searching for what they’d been assured would be copious amounts of copper and gold, that they refused to plant a seed, throw over a fishing line or make any other meaningful contribution to their community’s sustenance. Here they were, sitting in a fertile, unspoiled Garden of Eden. But instead they starved to death waiting for ships to arrive from England with new supplies of putrid meat, hard tack and other delicacies of the English traveling cuisine of the day.

Modern historians have begun to debate whether Jamestown was indeed a grand foothold in the "New World" or just one of the most embarrassing footnotes in American history. Some even believe that the settlers may have resorted to cannibalism. And if that wasn’t enough to set Virginia's genteel historians on end, playwright Larry Kramer enraged them even more by suggesting that Jamestown was America's first homosexual colony.

Oh, and the copper and gold? Well, that turned out to be the Spaniards' ultimate joke on the effete English. There wasn’t any. Virginia was rich beyond imagination with all kinds of natural resources that England needed dearly. But the Virginia Company settlers were too blinded by the allure of easy mineral riches to recognize the bounty before their eyes.

As the 400th anniversary of the first settlers’ arrival approached, history lovers all over Virginia planned festivities to mark the occasion. Our resident fawning Anglophiles, who parse Ralph Lauren ads as carefully as Egyptologists do hieroglyphics, were whipped into a frenzy when the Queen of England made a pass through Virginia on her way to the horse races in Kentucky.

Virginia Beach, which likes to say it’s where “America began,” put on a really swell reenactment of the first landing near Cape Henry. A more populist History Fair was staged on the oceanfront boardwalk. But as the photograph above attests, instead of the “naturals” they encountered in 1607, actors portraying the settlers in 2007 encountered “Ms. Virginia” and compared bust sizes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

San Marco When it Sizzles

Quadri Café, 2001

I suspect people have been declaring Venice “ruined” for years, probably for centuries. It is sinking. It is crumbling. It is crowded. Young Venetians can’t afford to live there. Older Venetians can’t stay because of the steps and bridges.

Venice is like a faded dowager trying to keep up appearances. Her splendor is evident, but worn. After you’ve spent some time in Venice you start to wonder whether the real thing that holds the city together is not its soggy pilings, but rather the muscle of its residents, the pride of its social royalty and its tradition of being a place where people do things a little more decadently than they do on the mainland.

Before I went to Venice for the first time, I read everything I could find about the city and its history. I watched Katherine Hepburn discover Venice in David Lean’s 1955 film Summertime, which is as much a love poem to Venice as it is about Hepburn and Rossana Brazzi.

Almost any way you arrive in Venice is dramatic, whether from the water or through the stark Mussolini-era train station. On our first visit we arrived early in the morning. We watched and listened as Venice came alive. Day workers arrived from the mainland. Work boats stocking shops and restaurants clogged narrow canals. Clunky vaporettos ferried Venetians from one island to another. Rich tourists staying at the Gritti stepped into sleek wooden water taxis for the run over to the sunny Adriatic beaches of the Lido.

We stepped into a small piazza near the Arsenale. From an open window above us, we heard a pianist rehearsing a Rachmaninoff concerto. It was one of those transcendent moments you hope for in travel. We listened for almost an hour while the pianist played and occasionally repeated passages.

Venice can be a pretty miserable place to visit in the daytime in the summer. There are just too many people, decked out in their pastel cruise line visors and grasping lace toilet roll covers from Burano and glass horses from Murano, or following bellowing guides, stumpy umbrellas held high to keep their flocks together.

But in the late afternoon the day trippers return to the mainland and cruise crowds return to their ships. The pace slows way down. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs are more relaxed and welcoming. Venetians come out to stroll and visit with neighbors. A patient visitor stands half a chance of being let in on a good local place to eat instead of being at the mercy of costly tourist traps.

At night the Piazza San Marco comes alive with music. On one side, a tuxedoed tango orchestra plays outside the always formal Caffé Florian, where Balzac once hung out. Across the piazza, a decidedly more boisterous orchestra plays outside the Gran Caffé Quadri, the one-time haunt of Stendhal, Lord Byron, Wagner and Proust.

I can think of no finer way to spend an evening with friends than sipping a cool drink while listening to the music under the summer stars in San Marco.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Habits

All the Ways the Light Comes In, 2007

“For more than fifty-five years he has gone into his studio every morning between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. and stayed until at least 6:30 p.m. for the sole purpose of making drawings. If he has no work, he will make some up. Either way, no matter what else is going on, he will have to go to the studio between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. and stay until 6:30 p.m.”

Paula Sher on Seymour Chwast

An eclectic mix of writers, musicians, painters and sculptors passed through our house when I was young. Back then, I thought they just put themselves in the right setting and the muse flowed through them in a single elegant motion.

How naïve I was.

Later on I realized how hard their work was, and for some how depression, alcoholism, toxic relationships and relationships lost were among the costs of that creativity. Yet, like Seymour Chwast, they could no more think of not practicing their art than they could stop breathing. Regardless of the mess it created, it’s who they were and what they were going to do.

Most of my friends today who pursue lives in music and art have day jobs that distract them from this pursuit. One friend, a marketing guy by day, rises at 5:00 a.m. each morning and spends an hour and a half in front of a typewriter writing poetry, or sometimes screenplays. Sometimes the words come easily and sometimes they fight him. But each day he spends that hour and a half in front of the keyboard, whether anything ends up on the page, or not.

Some years ago I read an account of how, when his children were young, Francis Ford Coppola challenged each of them to “do something creative every day.” As a result, Coppola family dinners were accompanied by lively recollections of the day’s serious and not-so-serious creative explorations.

Coppola knew that it wasn’t the actual result that mattered. Rather, it was all about the habit of making time every day to become sensitized in order to be receptive to creative inspiration.

When I joined an online photo sharing community in the spring of 2003, I figured that if I posted a single picture most every day of the year, I’d have at least a few at the end of each year of which I could be proud. I've been doing it for six years now. Some times I have a long string of pictures on a single theme, or from a single place. But some times, if there’s no backlog of photos to dip into, I’ll have to run out into the yard or look elsewhere in search of a subject. One day it was raining and I photographed my own foot. Two short series that resulted from the need to find something creative in every day, no matter how mundane, are Borders and At My Feet.

By the way, if you’re a fan of Seymour Chwast, there’s a wonderful new book just out about him. The book includes an introductory essay by Stephen Heller, another by Chwast’s wife, Paula Sher, and still another Q&A interview of Seymour Chwast conducted by Seymour Chwast.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Hideout

Hideout, 2005 - from the Cradock series


“People in his fiction have a hard time getting anywhere because they can’t scare up the bus fare.”

Edmund White on Reynolds Price, New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009

While working on the Cradock series of photographs in the spring of 2005, it took me a while to work up the nerve to go into the Afton Restaurant with my camera. The Afton may actually serve enough food to be called a “restaurant,” but mostly it functions as a beer joint for people who haven’t got much else to do, or whose idea of something to do might not be entirely legal. It's not the kind of place that welcomes a stranger with a camera.

But early on a sunny Friday morning with a sky so clear and blue and air so fresh and clean that I felt the hint of possibilities, I decided things in the Afton were probably quiet enough that I could wander in and see what was going on.

I got about three steps in the door before the guys in the photo above start razzing me. They weren’t hostile, but they were also not exactly putting out a welcome mat, either. Fortunately, I’d met two of them before on the street and was able to quickly accelerate the conversation past the hostile, “What the f--- do you want?” stage to the “Let me take your picture” stage.

There was a quick conversation among the three about the wisdom of being photographed drinking beer at the Afton at 10:30 a.m. on a workday. It seems all three had blown off work that day. One was also hiding from his estranged wife, another from a debt collector and the third from the sheriff who was looking to lock him up on outstanding charges.

But the allure of being photographed proved irresistible and they agreed to let me photograph them. Two of the guys lost patience pretty quickly and told me to shove off. The third got into the spirit of things and started clowning around for the camera. Before I knew it, he’d grabbed a chair to stand on and was reaching for a Confederate flag that hung from the ceiling. “You take a picture of me with my flag, camera man! I want ever’body to know I’m a free, white Southern male! Ain’t nobody got anything on me.” (Except, perhaps, that pesky bill collector.)

I never saw that guy again. But I ran into one of the other guys outside the Afton early the next morning. Since I’d seen him, he’d gotten into a fight, gotten beat up pretty bad, lost a few teeth, spent a few hours in the city jail and was still so drunk that he didn’t remember me or that I’d ever taken his picture.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Passeggiata

Naples, 1996

I love Italy.

I like a lot of places. But the scale and the mood of Italy seem to suit my temperament nicely. Italians haven’t checked out of the world. In fact, they have more than their fair share of political, economic and social turmoil. But they seem to rise above it nicely, knowing that whatever intolerable conditions exist today will likely be replaced before long with new conditions that, even if they're not better, will at least be different. In the meantime, why don’t we eat well, dress up a little and have a nice passeggiata?

On a rainy, bitter cold late December day, my wife and daughter and I took a bus tour from Rome down to Pompeii. It really was a miserable day, the rain occasionally giving way to sleet. But the trip was punctuated by several wonderful moments.

Visiting Pompeii, even in the rain, was far more dramatic than I'd expected. To walk in the same streets on the same stones, to touch ancient walls and look at ancient art so vivid, timely and accessible as to have been drawn just yesterday was thrilling. I don’t consider myself to have any extraordinary metaphysical abilities. But one would have to be deaf not to hear ancient life echoing off those streets and walls.

The bus tour was a pretty dreary affair. Between attractions, they’d drop you off at rip-off joints you’d rather avoid. (Believe me, I know more than anyone needs to know about the artisanal marquetry of Sorrento.) Lunch was at an “authentic Neapolitan restaurant” that was more like a Disney version of a Neapolitan restaurant, right down to the husky waiters wandering around the dining room strumming guitars and singing songs for tips. (Think O solo mio at Olive Garden.)

What we didn’t know was that among the members of our tour group was a well-known Asian opera singer. I didn’t get her name that day and have never been able to find out who she was since. But like many people whose lives are suffused with music, this woman felt comfortable and relaxed enough to stand up from her table and sing along with the waiters. Her voice complemented the male voices, at times soaring above and around them. The crowd was transfixed and erupted in applause when she finished. People who hadn’t mumbled a word during their meal stood up and cheered madly.

Rather than embrace the serendipity of the moment, the waiters were pissed. They thought the lady was working the room for their tips. But of course she wasn’t. When she realized that her singing might have interrupted their income, she politely sat down and resumed her meal.

More photographs of Italy can be seen here.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Marilyn McCoo's Legs

Ginger Baker Wannabe, 1969

Okay, this is going to reveal me in all my shallowness.

I was once crazy about Marilyn McCoo’s legs.

In the late 60s and early 70s I saw a lot of concerts. I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Dome in Virginia Beach in 1968. Chicago (then still Chicago Transit Authority) the original Blood, Sweat and Tears (with Al Kooper) and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels also played there. Diana Ross and The Supremes performed on what is now a middle school baseball field the next summer.

Yes, concerts were far more intimate in those pre-arena days.

One of the most entertaining shows I ever saw, though, was a double bill of a group called It’s a Beautiful Day and The Fifth Dimension at the Franklin Street gym at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1971.

The Franklin Street gym was just that, the gymnasium for an urban university that had until recently been known mostly as an art school and school of social work, which gives you some idea how much emphasis was placed on athletics. By today’s standards, the Franklin Street gym was small and smelled, as you might expect, of old tennis shoes, floor wax and deferred maintenance. For shows, you either sat on wooden bleachers that folded out from the walls or on the floor.

The concert took place on a bitter cold winter night. Inside the gym it was warm and humid, the smoky air a blue-ish tint of…well, you know. The floor was littered with parkas and purposeful looking longhaired guys and girls in turtlenecks and Frye boots.

It’s a Beautiful Day was a one-hit wonder band. “White Bird” was their big hit. It was no less treacly performed live than it was on the radio. I don’t remember much about their act other than that nobody cared if I wandered around the stage with my camera.

In the early 1970s it was still possible for standards, even Broadway show tunes, to be big on popular music charts. The Fifth Dimension had monster hits with songs by Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach. But they didn’t stick to familiar territory. They had a hit with a song from “Hair.” They recorded more songs by Laura Nyro than Nyro did herself.

And did they have an act! Which brings us to that night in the VCU gym.

By 1971, The Fifth Dimension had peaked. But they still gave every show their all. They sang. They danced. They didn’t need smoke or psychedelic light shows. Marilyn McCoo sang and strutted her long legs around that stage in a way that Mick Jagger could have learned something from. The crowd of jaded young hipsters loved it. And I fell in love with Marilyn’s legs. I was all over that stage with my camera.

If I say any more about Marilyn McCoo’s legs, it’ll just sound creepy. So I’ll close by reporting that I used five rolls of film that night. I could tell you those pictures were great, that Annie Leibovitz would have been jealous of them. But the truth is when I got home that night I stashed the film somewhere so safe that I never found it again.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Day Cesar Chavez Came to Town

Cesar Chavez, 1974

During the summer of 1974, Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, invited Cesar Chavez to visit and share the story of his work on behalf of the United Farm Workers.

Throughout his career, Bishop Sullivan has been dedicated to advancing the cause of social justice. Inviting union leader Chavez to Richmond, a most conservative capital of a "right to work" state, was very much in keeping with the Bishop’s style of shaking things up.

Cesar Chavez became known to most people as a result of his help instigating a nationwide boycott of California grapes during the mid-1960s. What probably isn’t as well known, and may surprise some people, is that Chavez and the UFW were consistent advocates of strict immigration law enforcement, and on many occasions reported illegal immigrant workers to the authorities.

The evening of Chavez’ presentation, people milled outside Cathedral Center, a dingy former parochial school in Richmond’s Fan District, until just before the presentation was scheduled to begin. They were an eclectic mix of nuns, priests, community activists, volunteers and curious strays like me.

The presentation was held in a plain basement meeting room. Fluorescent light fixtures hummed overhead. An old bed sheet on which “Victory to the United Farm Workers” was written hung behind the makeshift stage. The “stage” was actually nothing more than a microphone on a stand, a simple wooden lectern and a box for the short-statured Chavez to stand on so that he could be seen above the microphone.

While the bishop made his introductions, a toddler, shirtless because of the warm night, crawled over to the box and pulled himself up by the bishop’s pant leg. No one questioned the child’s presence and no one made a move to retrieve the child, nor did the bishop miss a beat in his remarks.

The crowd greeted Chavez warmly. He spoke calmly, but emphatically about the UFW’s quest for fair wages for all farm workers, especially migrant workers. He was passionate about the need to protect the jobs of farm workers against the growing tide of illegal immigrant farm workers, who Chavez believed undermined not only the wages, but also the integrity of legal workers.

I took many pictures that night. The only ones that survive can be seen here.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Study on a Country Church

Country Church, 1974

When I was in school and still unmarried, I had a six-day-a-week, part-time job as a circulation supervisor for a daily newspaper. To take a little liberty with a comment of William Faulkner's, everyone should have a job at least once that puts you at the beck and call of anyone with the wherewithal to buy a 25-cent newspaper. Which means it was a job with a certain amount of freedom and a certain amount of thrill--people with this job were conspicuous and attractive robbery targets--but otherwise quite thankless. Oh, and did I mention that because I was considered one of the more mature members of the staff I did my duty in some of the worst and most hardscrabble inner city neighborhoods?

But the job did provide me with $200 a semester towards my college tuition and a company car and all the gasoline I could burn. (With take home pay of about $58 a week, gasoline was about all I could burn.) And to be completely honest, I did learn a lot from the job, and the fact that the plain white company car looked suspiciously like the cars narcs drove in those days made some of the less savory residents of the areas where I worked a little cautious about making me their next robbery target.

On Sunday's, I would jump in the car with my camera and explore the back roads of Central Virginia. I photographed most anything I came across. Cows. Fields. Fence posts. Old filling stations. Broken bottles along the road. Collapsed farm houses. It didn't really matter. It was all new to me. Later on, the girlfriend who would become my wife joined me for these rides. We'd make day trips up to Charlottesville or Washington or out to the "rivuh," as Richmonders refer to the Rappahannock, and explore towns with names like Crozet, Warsaw, Saluda and Cuckoo.

I don't exactly remember where the country church shown above is located. I wasn't terribly good about keeping records in those days. My guess is that it's somewhere in either Hanover County or Louisa County.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Portal Perspectives

Oxford University, 1989

As long as I’ve been attuned to seeing things I wanted to photograph, I’ve been drawn to views through windows, doors, gates and other portals. I don’t know if it’s the way a portal frames a view or—this is my leading theory—the way a portal gives you the impression you’re catching a look at something secret or private. What do you think?

Some portals, of course, are meant to be looked through. Some were designed with specific views in mind, or vice versa. It’s said that Louis XIV sent workmen into the forest at the outskirts of Paris to plant trees and gardens decades before he started the magnificent chateau at Versailles so that his views would be mature by the time the chateau was completed.

Motion pictures, too, have used the portal perspective to great advantage. A window was as much the star as Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Who can ever forget the view from A Room with a View? Julia, the film version of Lillian Hellman's memoir, "Pentimento," opens and closes with long shots filmed through the frame of a boathouse door. If my memory serves me right, Sophie's Choice begins and ends with scenes framed by a high Lake District window. (See how it is? Once you start noticing them, they're everywhere.)

One of the first “portal perspective” photographs I took was made in the mid-1960s at what was then known as the Norfolk Museum. (Today it’s the Chrysler Museum, and quite a fine place, at that.) The photograph is taken from indoors looking out through an iron casement window into a private interior courtyard. Stone trim around the window frames the scene. There is no one in the image. The dark vegetation in the garden and the absence of an obvious means of entry, all portrayed on Tri-X film pushed to a high and grainy ASA, hints that this might be a secret garden. (I seem to have lost the photo, so you’ll just have to imagine a dark, grainy secret garden.)

Since then I’ve photographed a great many portal perspectives. One of my favorites is the view from Thomas Jefferson’s garden pavilion at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. The pavilion’s a most elegant little one-room brick structure with double-sash windows on all four sides and Chinese Chippendale railing around the edge of the low, pyramid-shaped roof. The only piece of furniture in the pavilion when I last visited was a single Windsor chair. But I could easily imagine Mr. Jefferson lifting the windows open to catch a breeze, sitting in that chair and keeping careful notes about the progress of the plants and trees on his “little mountain.” You can see his view here.

A whole series of Portal Perspectives can be seen here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dead Horse Bay

Dead Horse Bay Triptych, 2008

One overcast spring afternoon when there was still some chill in the air, Tim Connor and I spent a few hours scouting the beaches and salt marsh along Dead Horse Bay at the Southern edge of Brooklyn, New York. It's the kind of lonely place that thousands of people ride past every day, but barely notice. (A friend of mine who grew up not far away and kept his boat at a nearby marina for decades didn't even know about Dead Horse Bay.)  

During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, this is where they hauled dead horses from Manhattan and the other boroughs. Hence the name.

The supply of carcasses was so bountiful in those days that more than two dozen rendering plants and factories making glue, fertilizer and other products came to be located here. What the factories couldn’t render into something marketable they dumped into the bay. You can imagine how it must have smelled.

Over the years so many boiled bones, other industrial leftovers and other trash were disposed of here that Dead Horse Bay became more of a thick organic stew. In 1907, the whole place literally blew up when pent-up methane gas uplifted decades of wet, rotting matter and spewed it across hundreds of acres of water and land. 

Fast-forward a hundred and one years.

Tim and I weren’t interested in wet, rotting organic matter. But we were hoping to find industrial ruins, and perhaps outcroppings like that Statue of Liberty that juts out from the sand at the end of Planet of the Apes.

It turns out the factories had been demolished long ago and the whole area filled and built up with dredge spoils. What we found were sandy beaches covered with old shoes, bottles, bones, pipes, porcelain, tar, fabric, crockery, mechanical parts, broken boats and evidence of formerly live aquatic life forms. (You couldn't tell what some of them had been, only that they'd once been alive.) Erosion of the shore line exposed various strata of debris between the layers of dredge fill. The interior of the area was the kind of desolate place where you’d expect made guys to dump mokes who couldn’t pay their vig.

In a city with millions of other stories to tell, where else would a couple of determined photographers find entertainment but in a dump?

You can see forty seconds of Dead Horse Bay video Zen here.

The still photo series is here.