Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Beautiful Sunsets

So Last Season, 2009

In the current (#84) issue of LensWork is a wonderfully simple observation by the late photographer and educator Bill Jay:

“Pictures of sunsets are too easy, like clubbing baby seals.”

In tourism marketing, photographs of beautiful sunrises and sunsets are such a cliché that only the most unimaginative resorts and attractions use them as primary visual images. There are very few places in the world where the sunrises and sunsets look different, and that’s usually a function of the foreground rather than the sunrise or sunset itself.

I’ll bet most photographers can still recall their first compelling sunrise or sunset. We all do it, just like when we go to New Mexico we simply must do our own version of an Ansel Adams' Moonlight Over Hernandez. (Mine's here.)

Years ago I built up my nerve and called a respected museum photography curator to see if I could come by and visit with some of my work. I was struggling to find my artistic “voice” and thought the curator might be able to see something in my schizophrenic collection of images that might give me some guidance.

The curator was cordial and looked carefully at each of the two dozen or so images I’d brought. He commented on some of it and put some aside without comment.

When he was finished, he picked up the stack of images he’d said nothing about and told me, “It’s too expected.” It took me a second to understand what he was saying. I hadn’t ever heard the term used in that context. But as soon as I realized what he was saying I knew exactly what he meant. The pictures might have been “pretty” or technically competent. But they were like beautiful sunsets. There was nothing about them that attracted the eye, no story that drew the viewer in, or composition that was just askew enough to engage the brain.

I still take a lot of “expected” pictures. It's a hard habit to break. But I make an effort every time I'm out with the camera to look for new, unexpected ways to present the familiar.

Which brings us to another observation from Bill Jay:

“Books on how to be a photographer are as futile as dance lessons on the radio.”

I used to believe this, and still do to some extent. A friend, though, recently steered me to Chris Orwig’s new book, Visual Poetry. Orwig’s a teacher at the Brooks Institute out in California. Visual Poetry is ostensibly a serious introduction to digital photography. There is a lot of material about the basics of photography, composition, exposure and digital imagery. You can find that in a lot of less expensive how-to books. What make Visual Poetry well worth looking at are its first several chapters that are all about developing one’s artistic “eye.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before in any book about photography. It was like reading in just one place and in relatively few pages everything meaningful I’ve ever learned about photography.

So Last Season, by the way, is my "unexpected" homage to Fashion Week.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Favorite Place

Monticello Arcade, 2005

Norfolk, Virginia, is a city full of history. There are many distinctive historic homes. There’s a church that still has a cannon ball in one wall from a British attack on the city in 1775.

One of my favorite places in downtown Norfolk is the Monticello Arcade. It’s one of two such arcades built in Norfolk during the early Twentieth Century. Though there are times when you might question the wisdom of standing under one of the seemingly loose stones in its City Hall Avenue facade, the Monticello Arcade has been kept together through the years in more or less its original shape. Its neighbor across the street, the Selden Arcade, on the other hand, started out as a smaller, simpler place and has endured many renovations that have obscured any reference to the original look of the place.

It was probably my father who first introduced me to the Monticello Arcade. His office was nearby when I was a child. We would occasionally walk through the two arcades on the way to check out the sights on the Elizabeth River waterfront. In those days, the downtown waterfront was still a working waterfront, alive with ships, tugboats, barges and other working watercraft. The Monticello Arcade’s ground floor was a thriving retail area in those days. As “white flight” and the development of suburban shopping centers siphoned off downtown shoppers, the Arcade’s retail tenants left. The building never closed, but it fell quiet until downtown Norfolk experienced a Renaissance during the early 1980s.

Today thousands of people have moved back downtown. Office buildings, condos, a park, a cruise terminal and a variety of other assets have replaced the working waterfront. There’s giant shopping mall in the middle of downtown that has defied naysayers’ predictions of failure. Downtown streets are full of trendy restaurants and nightspots.

The Monticello Arcade never regained many retail tenants, but its three levels of storefronts and offices are nearly all occupied with attorneys, maritime shipping agencies and other businesses. It’s classic columns, rounded corners and worn wooden handrails and office fronts give the Arcade a feeling of humanity and warmth.

It must be a labor of love to own such an old place. Maintenance is a never-ending task. I was recently contacted by one of the owners who asked to use some of my photographs of the Arcade on a web site. He thought, after looking at my pictures, that I must have a long connection with the Monticello Arcade.

No, I said, just a long love affair.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Coney Island, Baby!

At Nathan’s, 2009

We were in New York over the weekend to visit our daughter and son-in-law. It was a quick visit. We had several things we wanted to fit into a single day. One of them was go to Coney Island. Our daughter guided us onto the right train and provided color commentary for our excursion.

To be honest, this probably wasn’t the best time to go to Coney Island. The Cyclone roller coaster closed for the season last weekend. Many of the carnival rides and attractions were shut down. The closest thing to a “freak show” was an empty alley where, for $5, you got five chances to hit the “freak”—actually just a young man wearing a mask, hiding behind a wooden shield—with a underpowered paint ball gun. We passed on that.

On the plus side, it was cool enough for a brisk walk, the sun came and went, the girls rode the Ferris wheel, the three of us avoided expensive family therapy by working out our grievances in bumper cars and The Brave New World Theater Company put on a interesting performance of The Tempest on the Boardwalk.

We started with hot dogs from the original Nathan’s. I don’t know what I expected. A hot dog stand? This was more of an emporium, reminiscent of, say, The Varsity, in Atlanta. It’s noisy and crowded and everything’s happening fast. You bark your order, you pick up your dogs and you get the heck out of the way of the next person. The hot dogs are really good, though. I recommend getting them without anything on them. That probably sounds dry to you, but they have an excellent crunch and they’re so tasty that you don’t want to hide the flavor.

The real payoff at Nathan’s, though, is the outdoor seating area. Every table was a different New York stereotype. Every class was represented. Within just my ear shot five languages were being spoken. On one side of us was a well-dressed, elderly couple, Brahmans from the Upper East Side. On the other were two working class guys and their wives who were so coarse and so full of themselves that I took to calling them Ralph Kramden and Norton. Everyone got along well, though, proving once and for all that hot dogs are indeed the great socioeconomic equalizer.

I haven’t had time to work through all the shots from the day yet. (They’ll be at Flickr eventually.) At Nathan’s isn’t your typical Coney Island shot, nor is it even a shot that looks like it was taken at Nathan’s. But it is, in fact, all that a Brahman from the Upper East Side wants you to see of him when he’s eating a Nathan’s hot dog.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Wave Church, 2009

I must confess to feeling a little sheepish about showing this picture.

It was taken last summer at a large church located at the edge of my neighborhood. This is one of those churches that preaches a concept that I’m told is known as “prosperity Christianity.” You know, the kind where God wants to have that Lexus. The heck with the “least among us.”

Anyway, this group bought an old and much smaller church located at the site and bulldozed it down so that they could build a dazzling new edifice—they actually call it a “convention center—that seats something like 2,500 people at each of several services on Sunday and throughout the week. It’s a striking building, all glass and aluminum on the façade with bold punches of yellow and blue. Most people think it looks more like a Silicon Valley semiconductor plant than a church. But I find that to be one of the ironies of mega churches; they preach “old time” religion, but cloak it in the latest style.

I won't belabor the point other than to say that this church hasn’t been a very good neighbor. Its members don’t live in the immediate area. Attempts by neighbors to talk to church officials about traffic congestion and the helicopter they were using to ferry their minister in and out on Sunday mornings were rudely rebuffed. They referred all communications to their attorney.

So when they sought permission from the city to replace their old magnetic letter sign out by the street with a larger, brighter LED sign that would have allowed them to stream video and whatever else they wanted to display into the eyes of drivers and the windows of dozens of neighboring homes, I joined in with neighbors to try to prevent the LED sign from being constructed.

A petition was quickly circulated and gathered almost 2,00o names of neighboring residents who opposed the new sign. Representatives of the neighborhood met with the local planning commission. Our borough’s City Council representative attended a well-attended neighborhood meeting about the issue. A bunch of people went and spoke at the Council meeting where the vote on the sign would be held.

And then all but one of our city council members voted in favor of the sign. Of course, we neighbors were disappointed. But it bothered me more than council had taken ownership of the neighborhood away from the residents. At a time when civic engagement isn’t what it should be, this seemed, well, boneheaded.

So I wrote an opinion piece critical of the church’s behavior and of the Council’s vote against the wishes of the neighbors. It ran at the top of the local newspaper’s op-ed page and was picked up by a variety of civic leagues and civic engagement web sites around the region. Other people across our city are using it as a rallying point for increasing civic engagement in their areas.

I took about a dozen decent shots of the Wave Church one day last summer. I like shooting architecture. But given my stance towards the church I feel a little dirty in retrospect for even having stepped onto their parking lot with my camera.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Word to the Unwise

Beware of Adders, 1989

Leave it to the British to civilize even safety warning signs.

On our first visit to England many years ago, my wife and I couldn’t figure out what the discreet signs along walkways meant when they said “It is inconsiderate to foul the verge” until we finally saw one that also had a pictogram of a dog doing what little children refer to as “#2.”

In America, subway PA systems squawk safety warnings at you about staying on the platform side of the yellow line as if you’re first-graders (or as if you can actually understand what they’re saying). The Atlanta Airport underground tram even makes zapping sounds right out of Star Wars if you step too close to a rail car door when it’s getting ready to close. But anyone who’s been in a Tube station in London will at least have initially been charmed by signs politely advising you to “Mind the Gap.”

In America, it seems we have to be tougher. Texas created the “Don’t Mess with Texas” to deal with twenty-something, pickup truck-driving bubbas who litter. In Washington State, as I’ve noted here before, the took it a step further with signs along the highway that read, “If You Litter It Will Hurt.” Ouch!

I’ve had my own hand in designing some of the more obnoxious safety pictograms in your life; for example, those pesky seat belt and air bag pictograms that are plastered on the backside of your sun visors if you own a car manufactured since 1993. I’m the guy who told the Department of Transportation and child car seat manufacturers that you’re more likely to fasten your child into a properly installed and fastened child safety seat if the little chartreuse-and-black safety pictogram on the side of the child’s car seat shows the seat actually breaking apart in an accident.

My favorite British safety warning sign, though, is the one above. (Click on it to see it larger.) We came upon it in Southwest England in 1989 in the parking area for a traveling country fair, a place where you'd assume there'd be a lot of families with children. It advised us—you could almost hear one of those dignified BBC announcers saying it out loud—that, “IT IS UNWISE TO PICNIC HERE. BEWARE of ADDERS.” Which, if you’re not up on your reptile vocabulary, means venomous snakes.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Problem was the Queen

St. Martin-in-the-Fields, 2002

During our last trip to England, my wife and I discovered and became fans of the lunchtime concerts at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the Trafalgar Square outpost of the Church of England. Since the 1720s St Martin’s has had a lively faith community and a close connection with music. The “fields” surrounding the church are now the busy streets of central London, but music remains to be a big part of the church's life.

After a busy morning of walking and sightseeing, we could think of nothing more delightful and restful than dropping into St. Martin's aptly named Crypt Café for an inexpensive lunch, following by an hour-long concert upstairs in the sanctuary. Other people apparently felt the same way because the church was full each weekday we were there. Over the course of a week, we heard an opera singer, a string quartet, two solo musicians and a girls' choir.

It’s hard to pick favorites. The Russian pianist was terrific. The string quartet played exceptionally well together. But I can say without a moment’s doubt that our favorite performance was the girls’ choir up from Southend for the day.

It was early July. The day was hot and humid. The forty or so 13 to 15 year-old girls were wearing heavy plaid woolen school uniforms better suited for a cooler day. But they cheerfully assembled on the steps in front of the alter and followed their director into a challenging program of sacred and secular music.

About midway through the concert, my wife elbowed me when she noticed that a couple of girls standing in the front row were looking faint. As we paid closer attention, we noticed several girls throughout the group who were starting bob and weave. Their eyes fluttered a bit. A few minutes later the girl standing at the end of the second row fainted and fell to the floor. A few minutes after that a girl from the other end of the same row fainted.

As anxious mothers rushed around collecting fallen girls and hauling them off to the cooler shadowy edges of the sanctuary to recover, the remaining girls soldiered on. They closed the concert with a rousing arrangement of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. You could tell from their excitement that it was their conductor’s gift to them for having plodded through all the sacred music. Unfortunately, the demands of Bohemian Rhapsody were so rigorous that several more girls fainted and fell to the floor during its performance.

At the end of the concert the audience applauded wildly, not so much for the performance as for the fortitude of the performers. Afterwards, my wife ran into some of the girls in the ladies room, where they were changing from their heavy jumpers into jeans and t-shirts. When my wife asked one of the girls if they were okay, the girl explained that the problem was a combination of the heat and the heavy clothing. "But," she explained, "it was the Queen what really got us.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What's Your Focal Length?

At The Parade, 2009

It’s a staple of most creative training that when you feel blocked you do something to shake things up. When I took piano lessons my teacher would have me learn a piece and then play it in a completely different style. She had me play Chopin in a ragtime style and Bartok as the blues. Supposedly this loosened me up by getting me to think about something besides the notes on the page.

I’ve been shooting Shriner parades at Virginia Beach for several years. I’m not a Shriner myself. My grandfather was. My father was Mason who, although I don’t know that he attended a meeting in thirty-five years, died wearing his Masonic ring.

Two of the regional Shrine associations hold their conventions here every other year. They’re usually scheduled one right after the other. So there are parades held on successive Saturday mornings.

Over the years I’ve learned to cover these parades with two cameras, one with a long lens and one with a shorter zoom. They give me the flexibility to get shots both wide and close. Carrying two cameras also apparently makes me look legitimate enough that if I walk out onto the street and into the midst of a throng of marching Shriners to catch an interesting shot no one bothers me.

I use the short lens most. I tend to want to see things wide, full of information and just skewed enough in perspective to draw the eye in. But having used this same pair of lenses for several years, I decided that for this past weekend’s parade of the South Atlantic Shrine Association I would leave the short zoom lens home—well, to be honest, I was too insecure to do anything but leave it in the car, “just in case”—and replace it with a fixed 50mm lens.

The 50mm lens is thought by most to be the perfect lens for street and travel photography. It doesn’t have the distortion of wider lenses. It’s great for either shallow or deep depth-of-field.

You’d think that would be good for a parade. But try as I might to adjust to needing to stand in a different position relative to my subjects than normal—how hard could that be?—I found myself spending most of the morning fighting the lens. The lens’ scope was too tight. I wanted to see wide. I’d stand out in the middle of the street between screaming Shriner go-karts from Sumter, South Carolina, and a bagpipe band from Richmond and not be able to compose the scene I wanted. The heck with shaking things up!

Since the camera lens is ostensibly an extension of the photographer’s eye, I concluded after Saturday morning’s parade that it’s indeed my style to see things wide, whether than means having to live with straight lines rendered into curves, or not.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Joy Decoded

Impressions of Martha's Vineyard, 2008

Last week my friend Lucy, a British ex-pat living with her husband and two daughters in Portugal, introduced me to Halfway to Hollywood, the recently published second volume of diaries of Michael Palin. You’ll recall Palin from the Monty Python troupe, from various movies and from his wonderful travel documentaries.

Palin’s an interesting guy. I’ve long admired how he moves across the creative spectrum. He acts, he writes, he directs, sometimes all on the same project. He brings charm, sensitivity, good humor and warmth to whatever he’s working on.

In this BBC radio series, which features excerpts from this new volume, Palin talks about his family, his work with the Pythons, his movies, his friendship with George Harrison and his foray into travel programs. He recounts how, after having written, directed and performed in two films that didn't fare well at the box office, he reluctantly accepted a role in A Fish Called Wanda.

He wasn’t pleased initially with his character. He didn’t want to be in another movie where Cleese played a stiff upper class Brit. But after having worked on several films in a row where he'd had so much day-to-day responsibility, the opportunity to just act, to just play the character and collect his pay, was appealing.

Once filming began, Palin found himself thrilled by Kevin Kline’s method acting practices and by Jamie Lee Curtis’ “West Coast directness.” Instead of having a dreadful time “for the money,” Palin admits that he fell in love with A Fish Called Wanda. He ultimately thought it was John Cleese's best work since Fawlty Towers.

And then he says something that stopped me dead in my tracks:

“I’m really enjoying this return to uninhibited comedy. Wanda gave me the chance to embrace the joy of showing how well I could do something.”

Many people I encounter in the course of my research work tell me they feel trapped in jobs they dislike. But for those of us who’ve been lucky enough to find work or creative pursuits that provide satisfaction, isn’t this what explains why we like what we do? We may be proud of what we produce and whatever acclaim that might bring us. But where we really get our joy is in the doing, especially when we know we're doing something that we can do well.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Mullan Road, 2008

I didn’t expect to like Missoula.

I went out there last year for my nephew’s wedding. It was a chance to see my sister and her husband and all their kids and their spouses, partners and kids together in one place.

I had such low expectations of Missoula that although I carried my camera and hoped I’d find a little time to explore, I booked travel that didn’t leave a lot of discretionary time.

So the joke was on me when I fell in love with the natural beauty of Montana. In her defense, my sister’s been going out to a dude ranch in Montana every summer for years and telling me how nice it is. But all I could ever conjure up in my mind were old images of “Spin & Marty.”

The wedding was held in my nephew’s back yard. It was joyous, as weddings should be. The reception provided time to visit with relatives and friends. Fearful of being branded an effete Easterner—I did have a sports coat on, after all—just before the wedding I’d traded my dress shoes for cowboy boots and left my neck tie in the rented pickup truck. (The only rental vehicle available in Missoula that weekend.) The truck bought me some credibility. But I don’t think I fooled anyone. I stayed for enough of the reception to be seen and then lit out on my own with the camera to catch the last light of the day.

Missoula’s big enough to take a few minutes to cross, but small enough that you can see mountains and wilderness from practically any part of town. It’s a university town and a popular staging point for hiking, mountain biking, skiing and other sports. So there’s a perennial air of youth and physical vitality. There’s also gambling—not the flashy Vegas Strip kind, but more like the low-bet Freemont Street halls—which attracts a certain raffish crowd.

In the golden light of late afternoon I had time to walk the downtown, find the highest point in town for a good shot of the Missoula Valley and scope out the iffier precincts around the rail yards. A brief, but heavy rainstorm slowed me down for a few minutes, but left a crystal clear sky in its wake. (You can see more of the afternoon's take here.)

The next day I drove my sister several hours north to the ranch outside Bigfork where she’d be spending the following week riding horses, singing around a campfire at night and commiserating with her fellow campers that there just aren’t enough good Republicans in government. (I made up that last part. But there’s no denying that a lot of Montanans, and many of the people who visit there, were sorry to see Dick Cheney leave office.)

The Flathead Lake Lodge turns out to be a very nice place. It's log cabins and lodges offer simple, but comfortable accommodations with central heat and plenty of indoor plumbing. I can see why my sister likes it so much. I’d like to spend some more time there myself. But I suspect they’d rustle up a hanging party when they discovered I subscribe to The Nation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Myopia Dept.

Steve & Louise, 2006

My wife and I were having a quiet dinner by ourselves in a restaurant in Paris. It’s a small place, with maybe a dozen or so tables, and presided over by a hilariously animated pair of characters right out of Central Casting.

We were dressed nicely for the occasion. Most of the other diners were well dressed and were greeted by name by the staff. We supposed they were regular patrons from the neighborhood.

We’ve been fortunate to be able to travel abroad several times. Much of the world remains to be seen by us. But what we have experienced has been rich and broadening. The diversity of places and different ways of life always amazes. Such travel was unthinkable for our parents. It’s special to us. Our daughter’s generation think nothing more of hopping a plane to Paris or Peking than they do of flying to, say, Chicago.

While we were enjoying a glass of wine before dinner, a more casually attired couple, Steve and Louise, was seated at the next table. Overhearing us speak English—up to then we’d been the only people doing so—they struck up a conversation. They, too, were in Paris celebrating an anniversary. We were from Virginia. Steve and Louise lived just across the Channel in a suburb of London.

Our perspectives on Paris could not have been more different. My wife and I had been to Paris before. But on this return trip there was still much new, different and interesting for us to explore. Steve and Louise, on the other hand, had never traveled more than a few counties away from home in England. Steve was extremely suspicious of Parisians. His approached them with skepticism bordering on rudeness, and it only affirmed his self-fulfilling prophecy when he got the same treatment back. I suspect Steve went home from Paris only more confirmed in the belief that it was a waste of time to have ever gone there.

I’m not surprised by the usual social, racial and class biases you find most places. But I am almost always caught off guard by the nationalistic biases of modern Europe. In the U.S. we have regional differences. But until recently, when some of my Southern neighbors’ behavior has prompted new considerations of whether Southerners are really as backward as they seem, our regional differences have mostly played out through parochial variations on Polack and “blond” jokes. They might mock a Maine accent or a vapid valley girl. But they’d never make the kinds of sweeping derogatory comments I’ve heard some in Britain make about the Irish or the French, what I’ve heard the French say about Africans and Germans, or what tourist guides everywhere say about Asians. (Italians, it seems, are too consumed with each other to have any beef with outsiders.)

Some day I hope we’ll go back to Paris. I don’t expect we'll run into Steve and Louise.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Old Friends

Fannie and the Kids, c1926

One of my mother’s oldest friends died last week. My mother will soon be 89. Eloise had just celebrated her 100th birthday.

I don’t know how or when they met. I became aware of Eloise in the mid-1950s, when she and my mother ran the kitchen and dining room at a conference center near our home. Looking back, I picture them as Lucy and Ethel, cheerfully over their heads, but determined to do it well and with gusto. A few years later, Eloise and her husband bought the house next door to us.

If you were born in 1909 and live to be a hundred years old, it’s likely that you will have outlived most of your contemporaries (not to mention having seen the world go from horses and buggies to automobiles to space ships). Eloise’s husband of seventy-one years passed away almost twenty years ago. Most of her friends in the latter years of her life were the friends of her children and the children of her friends. She embraced them all.

It’s a cliché to refer to someone as a force of nature. But the cliché was created for people like Eloise. She was a tall and striking woman. In her presence you could not fail to feel her energy and enthusiasm. She was once one of the nation’s leading female professional bowlers. She refused to be held back by customs that discriminated against women. Life threw a lot of curve balls at her, but she stood up to them and knocked most of them out of the park. She owned and operated a popular bowling alley when most women not only didn’t work outside of the home, but also didn’t own businesses. She was the first woman to be president of a state bowling association, and the first president of the Virginia association to be elected twice. She later worked in the corporate world, promoting the sport of bowling around the country. She and her husband raised two strong and capable daughters and were involved in the lives of their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

At her memorial service, several of Eloise’s grandchildren spoke of her good humor, her good example, her generosity and her unconditional love and support. They wondered how they will get on in life without her deviled eggs and salads. The congregation chuckled as each claimed to be her favorite. But mostly they told us how very much they will miss the safe harbor of her physical presence in their life.

My mother wasn’t able to attend the memorial service. News of Eloise’s passing set her back more than any broken bone or weakened heart has. She and Eloise were polar opposites in some ways. But they shared the experience and confidence of having been strong-willed, independent women at a time when it wasn’t easy to be a strong-willed, independent woman.

As for Fannie and the Kids, above, the photographer is unknown. It could have been my grandfather. The woman in the upper left is my maternal grandmother. My mother is the little girl at the left in the front row, partially obscured by the double exposure. That's her brother beside her. Her sister stands in the middle of the second row. I assume the other kids were neighbors, happy to ham it up for the camera.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

At the Star Gazer

Star Gazer 35, 2009

"I had to photograph old things because I knew they wouldn't be there long."

Art Sinsabaugh

One of the compelling capabilities of photography is its ability to portray texture. This is a good fit for those of us who like to explore old places because old places usually have a jump on new places when it comes to texture. Old places are tired. They’re worn. They’ve seen a lot of use. They’re full of texture.

Earlier this year I was up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, on a research assignment. I had a morning free, so I grabbed the camera and headed out early in search of something interesting to photograph. (You can see what I found here.)

Those of us who search for old places to photograph know they’re not found along interstate highways. You have to get back on the old two-lane roads and back streets. You have to figure out where the parts of town are that have been bypassed by progress, where structures are empty and decaying, where streets have weeds growing in them. You look for the places of such little commercial value that no one has cared to knock them down yet. Railroads were once the connective tissue between towns and defined their commercial terrain, so you know to follow rail lines because they’ll almost always lead you to forgotten places.

I didn’t have to drive far on the old state road north out of Harrrisonburg before I found an old tourist court motel. It didn’t have individual cabins. But each guest room in its one remaining wing had its own garage or carport.

Sometimes old places are creepy just because they’re old. Floorboards and stair treads have a way of giving out. Ceilings fall. But this old place was creepy because it showed so many signs of the desperate lives of some of its more recent squatter residents. The floors were littered with whiskey bottles, beer cans, old clothing, animal droppings and drug paraphernalia. I didn’t expect to run into anyone. The rooms offered little privacy or protection from the elements. The windows and doors were all gone. There were huge holes in the roof. But given the drug paraphernalia, I was a little more wary than usual. (I made a lot of noise before I entered any enclosed space.)

Every room was a texture lover’s dream. Paint was peeling. Wood timbers were sagging. Hunks of insulation, bottles, shingles, syringes, spoons and all manner of other debris covered the floors of what had once been a respectable business.

When I got home I sent a few shots of this place to my friend, architect and photographer Dave Chance, who wrote back immediately to say that he’d also photographed this place several years ago while visiting some relatives in that part of the state. When Dave was there, though, the place hadn’t deteriorated quite as much and still had a proud sign out on the highway that announced it as The Star Gazer.

I don’t think it would take much more than a stiff wind or heavy snow to finish off this place. But as I thought back to its location on the side of a hill overlooking the upper Shenandoah Valley, I imagined tired 1950s travelers, perhaps salesmen like my father, who after a long day on the road could think of nothing finer than to pull a chair from their room out onto the driveway, share a bottle and look up at the night sky.