Friday, July 31, 2009

Front Porches

The Porch at Beverly Hall, 2009

I can’t speak for other parts of the country. But I can tell you that front porches are one of the most civilizing elements of Southern vernacular architecture.

If you’re from the South you probably had a grandparent or Great Aunt Bessie and Uncle Bill from Whaleyville who had a front porch. And it probably had either a swing bench or a pastel-colored aluminum glider on it.

Porches date from that great divider of Southern eras—no, not the Civil War, I’m talking about the invention of air conditioning. Before air conditioning you didn’t want to stay in your house on a hot summer evening. You definitely didn’t want to be anywhere near the back of the house where the kitchen was.

Porches were where you hung out after dinner. Kids played in the yard or eavesdropped on the adult conversation from under the porch or behind the hydrangeas. You invited neighbors up for a sit and some iced tea. When it got dark you called the kids in for baths and bed. After that, grown-ups sat on the porch long into the night waiting for the heat of the day to dissipate from the upstairs.

All this disappeared when air conditioning came along, not to mention radio and, especially, television. They formed a trifecta of social isolation. And with them came the demise of front porches. Builders started eliminating them to save money. Modern houses didn’t want the fuddy duddy look of porch gliders. People didn’t want the views from their newfangled bay windows to be blocked by columns or screens.

I hear front porches are making a comeback, though. The movement probably started with people like my father, who moved in the early 1970s to a suburban house that had no front porch. He quickly built screen panels for his garage door opening so that during the summer months he and his wife and could sit out there, smoke cigarettes, say hi to the neighbors as they came and went and keep an eye on the street.

The New Urbanism movement formalized a return to front porches. It turns out front porches served both valuable social and sociological purposes that it took going without for a few decades for us to notice. Porches encourage the kind of social interaction that keeps some people from getting all squirrelly. Crime goes down in front porch neighborhoods because front porch people keep an eye on things. Sitting out and talking or playing games with your family or friends creates greater satisfaction than staying inside behind closed doors watching re-runs on the television.

The house I live in now has a wonderful back porch. But tucked away from the street, it lacks the social element of a front porch. So I sometimes find myself making excuses to putter around in the front yard waiting for neighbors to walk by so I can wave to them.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

La gazza ladra

Lynnhaven Bay Sailors, 2007

I live on the Lynnhaven River, a few miles from where it flows into the Chesapeake Bay. I took my little boat out one Saturday morning to run some errands and was coming back up the river towards home when I came upon a flotilla of day sailors in a section where the river widens to make a bay.

They were mostly older guys out in boats they’d been sailing for years. You see them out on Saturday mornings and on Sunday afternoons, gliding elegantly and quietly across the smooth waters like feluccas on the Nile. They still dress and behave in a relaxed manner reminiscent of a time when sailing was a sport of gentlemen.

Every now and again big cigarette boats bully their way across the bay and jet skiers buzz through the sailing fleet like bees or the proverbial thieving magpies, making a racket and causing swells deep enough to swamp the little sailboats. Inconsiderate bastards.

I stayed back a way for a while, idling my outboard and letting the water calm and the sailors catch their breath. When the noise of the other boaters subsided I was overtaken by the serenity of the moment. There wasn’t much wind. The sky, normally full of commercial and military air traffic, was for once quiet. The incoming tide was giving the little sailboats just enough push to be navigable. From the far shore I could hear conversations and dogs barking. Occasionally a fish jumped out of the water, as if to dare the ospreys that swoop overhead. At the edge of the channel, commercial watermen moved quietly along, hauling up and emptying a string of crab pots in a carefully choreographed minimum of motions worked out over many seasons. Along the shore kayakers in brightly colored life jackets paddled among low marsh islands.

One of the sailors who noticed my courtesy waved to thank me. When they had all passed over the channel into shallower waters where the other boat traffic couldn’t bother them, I continued home.

At times like this I think of how fortunate I am to live in such a place and how I lucky I am to know better than to take moments like this for granted.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Peace Man

Tom Blancato, 2003

There are many cabs at the Pittsburgh airport. But fate selected me to ride with Tom Blancato, chatty raconteur and self-described "probationer of conscience."

Not long before I met him, Tom had been arrested while protesting outside Fort Benning, home of what used to be called the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Between 1946 and 2001, when its name was changed to the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen trained there. No doubt some of them went on to do good work. But they were overshadowed by the ones who became notorious for their human rights violations. Manuel Noriega trained there. Some of Augusto Pinochet’s men, too. And the founders of Los Zetas, a mercenary army that protects one of Mexico’s large drug trafficking organizations? Yep, we trained them, too. Not for nothing did critics call this the “school for dictators.”

Tom’s business card describes him as "driver, activist, philosopher" and invites the rider to "talk about peace while getting there." When Tom arrived early the following morning to take me back to the airport, he came armed with hot tea and muffins.

If you’re going to Pittsburgh, need a cab, and are inclined to "talk about peace while getting there," Tom would be your guy. You might still be able to reach him at 412-606-4734.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tyler's Beach

Tyler’s Beach, 2005

I’d been driving in the country along the south side of the James River for most of an afternoon before I came upon Tyler’s Beach.

It’s not quite a beach in the sense that people go there to lie in the sun or play in the surf. For one thing, there’s no surf. The James River is wide and flat. And hardly any beach, thanks to the constant coastward tug of erosion. And it’s just downstream and barely out of sight of a nuclear power plant, which despite what a few cynical locals say makes for pleasantly warmer water, most people seem to want to avoid.

Agriculture is still the main business of Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Farming and raising livestock don’t allow for a lot of leisure time. Centuries of racial segregation have also left this area scarred. (Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion took place not far away.) Some white residents are still uncomfortable interacting with their black neighbors.

What they do like about Tyler’s Beach is that it has a nice boat ramp and the little protected haven, seen above. There are no services, no marinas, gas docks, convenience stores or bait shacks. But on warm weekends the parking lot fills with pick-ups and trailers carrying boats for fishing, water skiing or kayaking along the edge of the river.

It was overcast on the day I visited. The sun was just starting to set. Tyler’s Beach was deserted except for two elderly men who were fishing off the boat ramp. Each brought a folding chair and enough supplies to keep him stocked in bait, tackle, food and drink for a day. Yet they sat on opposite sides of the ramp facing opposite directions.

The friendlier of the two told me the other man “has problems and dudn’t take kindly to people.” So I avoided him. The friendly man, on the other hand, seemed happy to have company. He told me he’d once been a taxi driver in New York City. He’d made good money. His wife didn’t have to work and he put two children through college. But life up north had gotten too hectic for him. So he retired home to this rural stretch of Southside Virginia where his great grandparents had once been slaves and where he still had family and a few championship coonhounds.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Man v. Hurricane

Leaf Series - 13, 2007

In 1989 I was asked to make a presentation to a professional society in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The trip there involved flying on a big plane to Charlotte and then switching to a little plane for the hop over to Winston-Salem.

I should mention that this presentation was scheduled months before and without the knowledge that a hurricane would be occurring on the same day. Before I left I prepared our house for the storm and assured my wife that I’d be back the next morning. She wasn’t a bit happy with this arrangement. But off I flew to Winston-Salem. I gave my speech, made nice with the locals, and went to bed knowing that I had a very early flight the next morning.

During the night it started raining. The wind whipped around the hotel. I worried about my first flight, a “puddle hopper” over to Charlotte. I got out of bed around 4:30 a.m. and called the airline. The representative assured me that all was on schedule. I wasn't buying that line, and didn't want to go through this weather in teensy propeller plane.

Before 5:00 a.m. I was on the highway headed south to Charlotte. I hadn’t gotten very far before things got serious. The wind became wild and the rain more of a deluge. In the dark I couldn’t tell whether there were cars in front of me or behind me. Trees fell around me. At times it was hard to know whether I was in my lane or even on the road. I was afraid to pull over lest a tree or another motorist hit me.

This lasted about an hour. My attempts to find something on the radio to calm me were fruitless. It was as if all the radio stations had gone off the air.

What I didn’t know, because all the radio stations were indeed off the air, was that Hurricane Hugo had made landfall at Charleston, South Carolina, instead of up the coast in Virginia. More than seventy lives were lost. Tens of thousands of boats, homes and other structures were destroyed.

What I also didn’t know was that the hurricane had uncharacteristically continued inland for some two hundred miles, its fury diminished only slightly as it eventually reached Charlotte and, you guessed it, Winston-Salem. I had been driving right along the face of the hurricane.

The sun was just beginning to rise as I approached Charlotte. The sky was clear and blue. There was nobody on the road. Everywhere I looked there was damage. The only radio station I could find was on battery power and telling everyone to stay put.

Every tree that lined the parkway leading into the airport was pulled from the ground. The rental car return area was locked up. I drove right up to the front door of the airport and found a weary airline employee picking up pieces of glass and paper. “We haven’t even been out onto the field yet,” he told me, “to see whether the planes are still upright.”

Needless to say, nothing would be flying that day. So I drove home to Virginia, where Alamo Rent-a-Car socked me with a huge penalty for not having abandoned their car on the side of the road in Charlotte. I haven’t rented from them since and never will.

Friday, July 24, 2009

In the Garden

Summer Bounty, 1997

One of the great pleasures of having a yard is being able to garden. My parents were gardeners. But like most kids, I resented yard work. If you couldn’t run it over with a lawn mower, I didn’t have much time for it.

When my wife and I got married we lived in an old apartment house in the city. We had a porch with just enough sun to grow tomatoes in pots. From there we moved to a nearby row house that had a small and level, if narrow, plot of land in the back. We planted flowering shrubs and perennials, and even had a little pond out there. After we moved, the next owner filled in the pond and bricked everything over.

It was some time before we moved to our first “real” house. It had a wonderful yard. Anything I planted flourished. We had large perennial beds, flowering shrubs and a vegetable garden big enough to keep our family and most of our friends and neighbors fed.

After we moved from that house, we learned that the couple that bought it from us pulled out all the flowers and vegetables and planted grass. (Note to self: take more clippings next time you move. Apparently no one will miss them.)

We’ve been in our current house for eleven years. When we arrived it had so many trees that there was barely enough light to support weeds. I thought the carpet of unraked leaves was a sign of good arable soil. But the leaves just covered up a hard surface of impermeable clay.

Gardening teaches many lessons, not the least of which is patience. I spent the first three years bringing in soil, compost, manure and hundreds of plants, bulbs and shrubs. Most of them died, some because they didn’t get enough light or moisture, and some because they were eaten by moles, voles and other members of the local animal gentry.

In the fourth year I threw up my hands in frustration and decided not to give a damn. After loving her for years, Mother Nature had given me the big middle finger. I returned to photography instead.

In the fifth year a terrible hurricane came, knocking down trees and washing or blowing away anything that didn’t have deep roots. It took months to clear the debris and repair the house. But when the last tree crew, contractor and FEMA debris truck (it took more than 40 loads from our yard alone) pulled away, we were left with a clean palette.

In the years since, we’ve gradually restored some of the old gardens and continued to cultivate better soil. We’ve planted new trees and shrubs and taken some old ones out. We’ve begrudgingly accepted the limited variety of plants that will do well here. This summer, for the first time in a decade, we have a vegetable garden. It’s small, but has proven sunny and fertile enough to support basic veggies.

They say one of the things that draws people to gardening is its elemental relationship to life and death. You see it all in just a few months. It's sad to put a garden to bed in the fall. But fortunately, life starts anew in the spring and the cycle begins all over again.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Prospect Park Dawn

Prospect Park Dawn, 2006

A few years ago I made a quick overnight trip to New York to hear a presentation by my friend Gary Clark at a photography gallery in Brooklyn. My wife was hosting a baby shower that weekend and was probably happy to have me out of the way. The only condition was that I had to take Scout, our Welsh Terrier puppy, with me.

Gary’s presentation was good. He’s a very nice guy. I admire the easy way he has with people. His subjects always seem to warm to him. His work on behalf of the homeless is important and well worth your time. His other work reflects great kindness and wit.

Gary’s presentation also provided the opportunity to catch up with some people I’d met before and to meet in person some other people I’d only known before by their screen names on Fotolog and Flickr. After the presentation, a bunch of us had a wonderful dinner together.

My daughter had arranged for the dog and I to stay the night at the Park Slope townhouse of her then-employer, who was away skiing with her family for the weekend. The dog and I were assigned a guest bedroom on the fourth floor.

The house is beautiful and the fourth floor guest room is a wonderful aerie overlooking Union Street. But it was a little inconvenient hauling my bag, the puppy and the puppy’s crate up and down four flights of stairs and going up and down those steps every time the dog needed to answer the call of nature. (You dog lovers will recall that even in normal conditions puppies need to go out a lot. I will add that you’re additionally motivated to make sure they get out enough if you’re staying in a guest bedroom with white carpet.)

So, suffice it to say, the dog and I went up and down those steps a lot during the night. And when she was restless the next morning we were out before the sun.

Which is how I came to take this photograph in Prospect Park. It was late January and bitter cold. A few people were out early. I was hoping to get back to the house and maybe get a little more sleep before starting the day in earnest. But Scout had to sniff all there was to smell in the park. So we wandered around for a few hours, met a few other people and their dogs, and watched the sun rise over the trees.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On the UP

Summer Dinner, 2007

I haven’t photographed a lot of food. Shooting food well is a real art. Someday I’ll do more. In the meantime, here’s a food story.

Two of my work associates and I once had to make a trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Frank, the creative director, and I were both Southerners. Bob, the account guy, is a native Michigander. None of us had ever been to the Upper Peninsula. We were headed for Marquette, once a thriving port in iron ore mining country up on Lake Superior, where I was to do a research study for a bank.

What little we knew about the Upper Peninsula was that it is sparsely populated by humans, but full of wild animals. Winters are ferocious there, too. They say snow piles up so high along the road that you can’t pull over or see anything but sky.

The other thing Bob told us was that the Upper Peninsula is famous for its pastys. [This is the accepted plural spelling. A single is a pasty.] Frank and I were initially dubious about this. Pastys? Was he referring to those little tassel things topless dancers wear on their….well, you know where, so they can say they’re “clothed”?

No, Bob assured us. Michigan Pastys are a meat and vegetable pie you can hold in your hand. (Think Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies in Sweeney Todd.) The miners who came from Wales in the 1800s to work in Michigan’s iron mines brought pasty cuisine with them.

As we drove north, we had to stop in Mackinac City so that Bob could go to the go-kart track. (Apparently something he could only do when his wife wasn’t around.) That scratched off the list, we crossed the majestic Mackinac Bridge and headed into the forest of the Upper Peninsula. Even without snow it’s so heavily wooded that about all you can see are dark stands of trees on either side of the road and sky above. It’s woods like these that must have inspired Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.

About twenty miles up the road, we came to a diner that served pastys. Frank insisted we stop and try one. I was more attracted to the giant sweet rolls in the window. Bob’s face began to turn red.

“It’s like this, guys. I don’t really know how you’re supposed to pronounce ‘pasty,’ and I'm too embarrassed to ask.” Was it a short a, as in “past,” or a long a, as in “paste”? We didn’t know, either, and as three advertising guys loose in the north woods of Michigan, we really didn’t want to stick out any more than we already did.

So of course when the waitress came over to take our order, we pronounced it the wrong way, whereupon the waitress, all the other patrons and residents, bears, badgers, moose and loons for miles around, I’m sure, fell into gales of laughter on our account. They’re probably still telling the story of those three ad guys who came by one day looking for pasties.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Texas Never Disappoints.

SoCo - 171, 2009

I’d barely left the Austin airport, driving south towards Wemberley. I turned on the radio looking for some good music or maybe one of those ads for baby chicks. But instead of Townes Van Zandt or Mexican poultry, I find down at the lower end of the FM spectrum the invective-infused world of Alex Jones, self-described “investigative journalist and film maker.” I think it’s safe to add “conspiracy theorist par excellence” to that description.

And you thought televangelists were a colorful lot!

According to Alex, who sounds like Rush Limbaugh, only more self-assured and urgent, if that’s possible, it’s all about something called The New World Order that is going to enslave us all if true Americans don’t get their shit together and fight back. Henry Kissinger’s big in The New World Order. David Rockefeller, too, I’ll bet. And lots of other people Alex refers to confidently and collectively as “they.”

From Alex’ web site I learn that,

“A world government is just the beginning. Once in place they can engage their plan to exterminate 80% of the world's population, while enabling the "elites" to live forever with the aid of advanced technology. The global elite's risen to power by funding dictators and financing the bloodiest wars—creating order out of chaos to pave the way for the first true world empire.”

Still doubting? As I drive down the highway, Alex points out:

“They’re drugging us in the water.”

“They’re forcing us to learn Spanish.”

“They intend to enslave us once they’ve weakened our resolve.”

“The government wants to take your children away from you.”

“They’re putting hormones in the water to sterilize native born women so that elites and immigrants will make up a bigger proportion of the population.”

“Environmentalists are into the occult (when they’re not talking about wanting to kill us).”

“There’s a State Department memo that specifically describes how they want to cause starvation so that American citizens will start fighting with each other and reduce the population.”

“You’re called a racist if you favor abortion here, but oppose it in Africa where they’re pumping out enough little black babies to tilt the world population.”

“Everyone knows they’re keeping stuff from us.”

“We’re no more than a step away from complete socialism.”

Ray from Del Rio calls in to complain that it’s just plain hard for a free white man to get an even break these days.

Alexander from Ontario calls to let Alex know that peace-loving Canadians will take up arms to stop The New World Order when it reaches their border.

Between calls, there are ads for Gruffunder home safes (“the Rolls Royce of safes”) and “survival seed packages” (“If you own your own bread, you’ll never stand in a population-control bread line”).

All this in little more than the ten minutes it took me to find a better station playing, as luck would have it, Townes Van Zandt.

Like I said, Texas never disappoints.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This Was The View That Was

Edie’s View, 2000

This is a view that no longer exists.

One fall our friend Edie lent us her little cottage on the harbor in Edgartown on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Generations of her family had spent summers at the family compound that included the big house, a boathouse and a little one-room shack behind it for the boat keeper. After their parents passed away, Edie let her sister have the big house. She preferred the boathouse property.

The boathouse sat on a narrow spit of sand and grass between the harbor and a herring pond. A sluice running between the two created a moat separating the boathouse from the big family house. A marine railway once ran up from the harbor up into it.

During the 1950s Edie had the boathouse refitted into a small, no-nonsense Cape Cod bungalow with one tiny bedroom downstairs and one up. The mansions of the rich and famous surrounded it. But Edie’s summer place was furnished from the local church thrift shop. It sat so close to sea level and was so subject to flooding that Edie made sure all the electrical outlets and appliances were installed at chest level.

A few days into our stay, a hurricane approached. We had to get out before the storm surge came. Other friends offered us a rental house that had become available unexpectedly. It's a grand place in an exclusive community atop a hill well inland from the water, the kind of place where you felt like you had to dress a little nicer, serve better booze and use the good china. A famous Hollywood producer had rented it, but left early when his wife got scared they might be marooned if the ferry to the mainland stopped running during the storm.

We moved into the rental house. The hurricane came and went. Afterward, the sun came back out and we contemplated the house with every modern convenience, enough bedrooms and bathrooms for every person and dog, beautiful landscaping and a swimming pool.

We weren’t happy. The house on the hill was a gilded cage.

We packed our bags, gathered up the dogs and moved back down to Edie’s cottage. We sliced cheese with old U.S. Navy flatware and ate Triscuits out of the box. We read books, sailed and fished, had friends over, drank our gin and tonics from plastic cups and dangled our feet in the water each afternoon as the sun set.

Two weeks after we left, a crew came and demolished the cottage. Edie had a new place built, no bigger than the old boathouse, but higher above the water and suitable for year-round living.

The photograph above shows the view from the second floor bedroom of the old cottage. I loved that simple view with its Hopper-like colors. (Edward Hopper painted for many years at Cape Cod and on Martha's Vineyard. One of my favorites is The Long Leg.)

By the way, if anyone needs Jack Nicholson’s private phone number, we’ve got it. The Hollywood producer left it on a bedside table at the big house.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Walk on the Shrine Side

Shrine Parade, 2006

Every September for more than fifty years, Shriners have come to Virginia Beach, Virginia, to hold their annual conventions. In 2006, both the Mid-Atlantic and South-Atlantic Shrine regional associations came. A mostly graying crowd of portly old white guys and their wives hailing from New England to the Carolinas gathered to affirm their Masonic bond and have a good time.

When I was a kid, we lived well north of the resort strip. But it wasn’t unusual in the late summer when the Shriners came to town for them to set up card games even at our corner and drink and carry on loudly all night long. One year they even had a fire engine out there, and would wind up the siren when things got dull. I can still hear my mother yelling at my father to go out there in the middle of the night and tell them to shut up. And I can still hear him trying to explain to her the futility of that approach, especially considering that the chief police was probably playing and drinking and carousing along with them.

The Shriners are a little tamer these days. Most of them are probably in bed by 9:00 p.m. And rather than keep the locals up all night, before they left town this time each group thanked the local community for its hospitality by bringing out all their toys and holding a 3-hour parade down the main drag of the resort area.

It’s easy to snicker at their whites-only tradition (there is a parallel universe of African American Shriners) and to ridicule their silly customs and rituals, their jingoistic patriotism, cornball humor, midget cars, hillbillies, potentates, pointy toed shoes, fezzes, camels, clowns and rhythm bands. In this era of oil politics, their fixation on Middle Eastern iconography and their archaic way of referring to the Mideast as “Oriental” seems especially ironic.

But I grin and bear it. Over the years, the Shriners have raised almost $8 billion dollars to support a network of twenty-two hospitals in the United States, Canada and Mexico where transportation and care for children with severe burns and orthopedic injuries are provided without regard for ability to pay. If you’ve even seen these kids and the loving care they receive at Shrine Hospitals, this legion of corny codgers having a good time on the streets of Virginia Beach doesn’t seem quite so silly after all.

A series of photographs from the 2006 parades can be seen here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mary's Birthday Party

Mary’s Birthday Party, 2003

I’m not Catholic, so when a neighbor invited us to "Mary’s Birthday Party," it didn't occur to me that we were going to anything but a party for another of our neighbors, an elderly widow whose name happens to be Mary. We didn’t really know Mary well, and I was a little confused when another neighbor who was invited mentioned that there might be a “blessing of the fleet” involved. But being a nice guy and appreciating the kindness of our neighbors, I threw on a jacket, grabbed the camera and walked down the lane to the party.

Turns out this was a big thing. Almost a hundred people had arrived before me. The Mary in question was not our elderly neighbor but, rather, THE Mary, the one Catholics spend a lot of time thinking about. And the “blessing of the fleet” part? Well, that turned out to be a misunderstanding.

About a 30 minutes before the ceremony was to begin, out on the Lynnhaven River behind the house a line of boats came into view. A reproduction harbor tugboat led the way, a statue of Mary perched atop her wheelhouse. The parish priest stood at the bow, his robes flowing in the cool October breeze. A dozen or so other boats carrying the faithful trailed not far behind.

Upon arriving, the priest was the first to disembark, leaving the heavy lifting to a cadre of aging Knights of Columbus. When everyone had assembled on land, the statue of Mary was carried from the boat to a pedestal on the lawn.

A worship service was held on a rise in the land overlooking the river. The theme of the priest’s homily was "Jesus was a Feminist!!" (Emphasis the priest’s.) Hymns were sung that you might have heard in the Sister Act movies, only they didn’t sing the Whoopi Goldberg versions. Parts of them were sung in Latin.

Some of my pictures from Mary's Birthday Party were selected to appear in the monthly Catholic state newspaper. Unfortunately, Hurricane Isabelle occurred before they could run. The next month the newspaper was still occupied by more serious issues than pictures from a birthday party quickly receding into memory.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Early Bird

Outside Santa Fe, 2006

In photography as in fishing, it’s often all about how early you’re willing to get up in the morning. To catch the best morning light, you need to know your location, know how the light’s going to fall, and be in place before the sun comes up.

Finding myself in Albuquerque a few Augusts ago, I was more than willing to get out of bed before sunrise so that I could get up the highway and spend a full day in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. (It helped getting up early to be two time zones behind home.)

I left Albuquerque just after 5:00 a.m. The first hint of light was just peeking over the mountains. By the time I got within twenty miles of Santa Fe, I knew I had only minutes to find something worth photographing. The sun wasn’t going to wait for me to get to Santa Fe.

I pulled off the next exit onto a roughly paved farm road. I drove beyond sight of the highway, stopped the car, pulled out my camera bag and headed off-road on foot. It was wonderfully peaceful.

I probably should have paid more attention to where I was stepping. On the way back to the car I noticed that I’d stepped over a dead rattlesnake, its desiccated body a sign that maybe I should have been more concerned about what there was out there that could kill a rattler.

But I wasn’t thinking about that as I walked out from the road. I was captivated by the sky, the golden grass and the rising sun behind me. I had about ten minutes of excellent shooting time before the sun rose high enough to wash all that gold away.

I took a lot of pictures that day. I walked all over Santa Fe. But as the day wore on, I realized that I’d likely done my best work in those first ten golden minutes.

Los Alamos, by the way, was literally a washout. As I drove up Rt. 502 through Pueblo Canyon toward the ridgeline atop which Los Alamos sits, there came a thunder and lightning storm fiercer than any I’ve ever seen. The heavy rain sent a slushy river of mud and boulders down steep rocky slopes into the narrow roadway. A low railing was all that separated the road from a drop of hundreds of feet.

The worst of the storm passed by the time I got up to Los Alamos, which for all of its super secret technology and research, looks about what you’d expect a 1940s-era military base to look like. I would show you pictures, but there were so many so many security cameras everywhere you looked that I was reluctant to take any of the official-looking buildings. Besides, if you’ve seen one old military base, you’ve seen them all.

A series of pictures from that day, including the view from White Rock, can be seen here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Gimme More of That Ol' Time History

Battle of Great Bridge, 2003

One group of people I’d like to spend more time photographing, especially after reading Tony Horwitz’ Confederates in the Attic, is reenactors. They’re so serious about their tasks, and have such a colorful name, farbs, for other reenactors who don’t get their attire and gear right.

A few years ago I headed out for a reenactment of the Battle of Great Bridge, in modern day Chesapeake, Virginia. To be truthful, I missed the battle because the bridge—the one that gives the place its name and isn't all that great, nor is the body of water it spans much more than a canal—was raised and traffic was backed up several miles. But I imagine it was interesting, especially against the backdrop of the Intracoastal Waterway, with its steady parade of yachts and cigarette boats.

I got there in time to walk around the “official encampment,” where little vignettes of revolutionary life were set up, including campfires, rifle demonstrations, cooking, darning and letter writing.

In my limited experience with them, reenactors fall into two camps: those who lock their eyes on you when you as much as step into their area code and want to tell you everything; and those who prefer to talk only to each other about the minutia of their gear and view sightseers as an intrusion on their ultra pure reenactment of history.

I’ll give them this, though. Reenactors are a far sight more accurate than Renaissance Faire aficionados, another group I’d photograph more if I had a proper outfit of tunics and tights and a full sheaf of bodkins. (Believe me, I don’t want anyone pointing fingers and yelling “FARB!” in my direction.) Reenactors have history on their side, whereas the Ren Faire crowd appears more interested in concocting imaginary scenarios combining Robin Hood, comely wenches, copious amounts of grog and an S&M camp out.

People who attend reenactments also seem to fall into a couple of camps: those who have a passing interest in history; and those who want to believe, or officiously impart in the children they’ve dragged along with them, the belief that what they’re witnessing actually is history, rather than just a bunch of guys who prefer dressing up in tights and britches and fighting over who gets to play General Washington to playing golf.