Friday, October 30, 2009

Adolphus Mitchell

Adolphus Mitchell Residence, 2003

Adolphus Mitchell, son of a rural minister, answered his country's call to service in World War II even though his country did not treat people of his race with much respect in those days. When he returned home from the war in the Pacific, the first thing did was use the construction skills he learned in the service to add two towers to the front of his parents' home.

Mitchell died in 2002, not long before I took this picture. One of his sisters still lived in a tidy home nearby. "Having grown up in that old jalopy of a place, I told my husband it was going to be brick for us, all the way." She told me Adolphus built the towers not just to make more room for the family, but to "reach up to the Lord."

(From the Southern Stories series.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nude Sunbathing

Cannes, 1996

I don’t have a lot of experience with nude sunbathing. My first experience with it was at a small neighborhood beach near Cannes, France. The tour bus we were on had stopped for the guide to point out some item of interest out on the Mediterranean Sea. When the men on the bus noticed that the ladies out on the beach in the foreground were without cover, I thought the bus would tip over as they rushed to one side to see the sights. When they further discovered that the average age of the nude sunbathers was 75 and that most were several stones heavier than…let’s just say their dimensions were Raphael-esque, the oglers returned t0 their seats and the bus continued on to Cannes on more or less a level plane. In that way she has of stating the obvious when I do something immature, my wife dryly observed, “Nude sunbathing isn’t for everyone, you know.”

(Actually, I didn’t know it until then, and I didn’t know where she had learned that sage lesson. But if I have learned anything, it’s that it’s best not to challenge the veracity of such statements unless you want to spend the rest of the day with no one to talk to but yourself.)

The next time we encountered a clothing-optional beach was just two weeks later on the island of Zakynthos, Greece. Zakynthos might be a very charming island. We knew it had ancient churches and antiquities because we’d made the specific decision not to see them. Fourteen days straight of high intensity culture vulturing in Spain, France, Italy and Turkey had left us ready for an afternoon in the sun.

Saint Leo’s Beach was a roughly half mile-long sandy crescent with a Tiki Hut-themed outdoor bar operated as something of a private club. Most of the people there were pale British tourists seemingly determined to spend as much of their holiday as possible drunk. It was a beautiful and hot late July day. The beach was crowded. The fake palm trees surrounding the bar swayed in the breeze. We swam. We drank Greek beer. My wife and I rented a jet ski, something we’d never be caught dead doing at home.

Most of the American tourists didn’t even notice at first that some of the women on the beach had discarded their swimsuits. When it finally dawned on them that these women were not only bare, but worthy of notice, there was a flurry of interest. Some of the guys practically fell over themselves to get a closer view. (Curiously, it was the American wives who, while professing to be so worldly about such things, quickly whipped out their cameras to document the scene.)

It’s well understood among those who make photographs of nude figures that, generally speaking, a partially clad body has far greater allure than one that holds no secrets. And so it was on the beach that day. After the initial allure of the bare bodies on Saint Leo’s Beach wore off, most of the guys retreated to their towels, the wives put the cameras back into their bags and everyone called the waiters over for more cold beer.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Rock Man of Ephesus

The Rock Man of Ephesus, 1996

In the summer of 1996, we went on a 17-day Mediterranean cruise. It was one of those cruises where every day is spent in a new place and every day includes a long bus ride and a dawn-to-dusk race to see how much history and culture you can cram in. I don’t recommend this kind of cruise to the faint-hearted. I probably wouldn’t do it again myself.

The cruise started in Barcelona and headed from there to France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Greece again and then up the Adriatic to Venice. Our ship was the Pacific Princess—yes, the same one from the “Love Boat”—a fairly intimate vessel by today’s mega ship standards. Our fellow passengers were a congenial lot, with the exception of a one large party of crotchety old factory workers from Philadelphia. They were recognizable not only by their excessive rudeness—they were forever cutting in line, pushing other passengers out of the way and acting like bullies to the more timid seniors—but also by, in the case of the men, the embarrassing degree to which they were sartorially challenged. Most of the men sported wardrobes of pastel jumpsuits or coordinated outfits, by which I mean that if they’d decided that the day’s color was baby blue, every item of clothing, from hat to socks, was baby blue. Or tangerine orange. Or aqua. You get the picture

Luckily, the ship was big enough for us to all maintain a state of peaceful détente. The rude Pennsylvanians stuck together. The rest of the passengers—from all over Europe, the British Isles, the U.S. and South America—mixed and made for good company.

The trip was full of impressive sights and wonderful experiences. When we got to Ephesus, Turkey, our guide, a moonlighting NATO officer, warned us that it could be a little chaotic at the entrance to the ancient city and that we should take our time passing through the single turnstile.

So picture this:

We arrived at the entrance just as a fleet of buses from the cruise ship Marco Polo arrived. The people on the other ship, I’m sad to report, were all like the rude Pennsylvanians on our ship. They pushed. They shoved. They knew nothing of patience or courtesy.

One of the rude Pennsylvania couples from our ship got separated at the turnstile. The husband was swept in while his wife got stuck in an eddy of people spinning around outside the fence. The wife, a large woman, immediately began to shriek and as much as threw herself into the turnstile melee as if it were a mosh pit.

The rude seniors from the Marco Polo were having none of this and heaved her back outside the gate. When her husband protested and yelled from inside the enclosure that they should make a clearing for his wife, one of the Marco Polo men yelled at him, “Shut up, you old fool! Your wife is acting like a goddamned cow.”

Eventually, we all got in. Even if you’re not up on your biblical history, Ephesus is an impressive sight, even more so because you can touch most anything and there are all sorts of stone antiquities just laying around on the ground.

About half way through our tour, I noticed that the old man whose wife have become separated from him at the gate had picked up a chunk of marble from a fallen column and was clutching it furtively behind his back. Concerned that the old man was stealing a piece of Turkish antiquity, I approached the guide and explained the situation. He chuckled, thanked me for my concern and explained that the old man had come up to him earlier, claiming that his wife has been “assaulted” at the entrance gate and asking if it would be okay if he held on to a piece of marble during the rest of the tour just in case he needed to defend her honor again.

The next day, having endured 12 days of museums, lectures, folkloric dancers and old churches, a number of us asked to be dropped off for the afternoon at a beautiful beach on the island of Zakynthos, Greece. All the guys found broken pieces of coral that we presented to our wives that night at dinner to assure them that we, too, were prepared to defend them. My piece of coral sits on our kitchen counter to this day. You just never know when some cranky old fart from the Marco Polo’s going to barge in the door.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Nap Interrupted

Red Bottle, 2009

It was unseasonably warm here in coastal Virginia this past weekend. I spent most of Saturday working in the yard, pruning bushes, mulching flowerbeds, raking leaves and cleaning up the thousands of acorns that carpet nearly every horizontal surface in our back yard.

By 4:00 p.m., I was tired. I took a book I’ve been trying to finish out onto the back porch and, as often happens when I settle into a comfortable chair after a lot of physical activity, I was soon nodding off to sleep.

For me, one of the great sleep pleasures is a nap on the back porch on a breezy day. (Rainy days aren’t bad, either.) This past Saturday all of the stars were aligned. It was sunny and the temperature was in the upper 70s. A consistent breeze was blowing out of the South. The trees and leaves swayed gently back and forth. Light reflected off the river in the distance. The little frogs that have managed to evade our resident snake were hopping around on the lily pads in the little pond just outside the porch.

I don’t know if it was the book about the rebirth of urban democracy, the fatigue from an honest day’s labor or the gentle breeze. Between the three, I dozed happily with the knowledge that all was under control and that nobody expected anything from me for an hour or two.

When I awoke, a cold front was starting to push through the area. As the clouds flew by the sky was alternately overcast and shining brightly. The dull gray of the clouds flattened the colors of everything around me. But when the sun peeked through the light was vivid, creating sharp lines and shadows.

That’s when I noticed how the sunlight seemed to set the little red bottle with the fish head stopper, above, afire. Everywhere I turned my head a line or a shadow or a color caught my eye.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Elizabeth Taylor and Me

Near The Plains, Virginia, 2005

Some of you may recall that during the late 1970s Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia was married to Elizabeth Taylor. It was not her best of times. She briefly drew international media attention to Richmond when a fried chicken bone got stuck in her throat at a luncheon there. Supposedly distraught over Senator Warner’s long absences when the U.S. Senate was in session, she put on a lot of weight.

When my wife and I were newly married, our best friends were fellow newlyweds Ralph and Cathy. None of us had any money. We spent Saturday nights at our place or theirs, having spaghetti and toasting our impending fortunes over glasses of Riunite wine and watching Saturday Night (later known as Saturday Night Live).

Wondering what this has to do with Liz Taylor? Hold on, it’s coming.

Cathy had what was for us a glamour job. She was the scheduler for the state’s Attorney General, an up-and-coming young Republican by the name of J. Marshall Coleman. The job sounded more glamorous than it was. But compared to Ralph and me schlepping newspapers and my wife making sure people paid their newspaper bills, it seemed pretty posh. At least you got to meet some interesting people.

One of those people was Marshall’s charming and artistic wife, Nicki. Nicki took a liking to Cathy, and eventually to the rest of us. As Marshall geared up for the first of what would be two unsuccessful runs for governor, the Colemans invited Ralph and Cathy to various political and social events. Sometimes my wife and I got to tag along.

One fall, the Colemans and their two young children were invited to Senator John Warner’s annual Republican Party picnic at his Atoka Farm, near Middleburg, Virginia. Ralph and Cathy were invited because of her job. When the Coleman children couldn’t go, my wife and I were invited to take their place.

Atoka is a farm in name only. There is cultivation going on. But mostly the farm is Senator Warner’s gentleman’s country estate, his retreat from the stresses of nearby Washington, D.C. There’s a massive stone mansion, tennis courts, swimming pool, stables and hundreds of acres of beautifully tended rolling Virginia countryside.

My wife and I, not being Republicans, thought we might have to skulk around the edge of the party. But upon finding more than a thousand people already there when we arrived, we quickly jumped right into the middle of things.

Which is how, according to my wife, I came to appear in a photograph in People magazine that showed me dancing with Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve only seen the picture once and believe it takes something of a leap of faith to believe that the two of us dancing in the same photograph means that we were dancing together. But it impressed the heck out of some of our relatives and co-workers, and that was worth more than a whole case of Riunite.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Silver Spoons

Sulgrave Road, 2003

Between years of college I was a waiter at a convention hotel. The base pay was miserable, but if you had a big group your share of the tip made up for it. There was a law of diminishing returns, though, that guaranteed that you’d never get rich doing this kind of work. The old pros knew the name of the game was to serve the largest number of people with the fewest servers.

The job was hard and messy. The hours were long and late. At the end of the night you smelled like stale cigarettes and whatever meat or fish had been the main course. I watched and learned what I could from the old timers, including how to juggle eight or nine prime rib dinners on my arms and how to spirit away unused liquor before the food & beverage manager showed up to count the bottles; skills that served me well when I returned to college.

One of the servers I worked with was a guy who’d bounced around the beach for years. You’d find Del working the front desk at one hotel one month and at another the next. I never quite understood how Del supported his wife and two kids. But after I’d worked a few convention dinners with him I at least understood why he moved around so much from job to job.

Del was a nice guy, but he was lazy, perhaps the laziest person I ever worked with. Lazy people don’t do well as convention servers. While the others of us were out on the floor doing all the heavy lifting, Del would be back in the pantry smoking cigarettes and talking about all the big deals he had brewing. Needless to say, nobody wanted to work with Del.

But he did tell a good story. When he was in college, Del worked as a lifeguard at the oceanfront. Toward the end of one summer Del took up with a pretty girl from Richmond. When it came time for her to go back home, she accepted Del’s offer to drive her to Richmond.

Del knew the girl was from a well-to-do family. He had no idea how well to do until he drove through the gates and down the long drive of her family’s home, a fully restored 1700s brick plantation estate overlooking the James River. If he’d been from Richmond himself, Del would have know that the girl’s father was a media baron and member of one of the city’s oldest and most prominent families.

Being a kid from a working class family in Norfolk, however, Del knew nothing of this and probably wouldn’t have cared if he had. He parked his beat up old Chevrolet at the front door of the house and, dressed in little more than a bathing suit, t-shirt and flip-flops, walked proudly into the mansion when the butler opened the door.

The girl’s mother greeted them and welcomed them to go downstairs to the playroom. But first, the girl’s mother asked Del if he wouldn’t mind moving his car around to the service entrance. Del didn’t know enough to be offended by this and moved the car out of sight.

When he returned indoors, he found the girl downstairs in a lushly furnished playroom, watching television and talking to her younger sister. A silver tray of fruit, cheese and crackers was on an ottoman in front of the couch. When they got thirsty, another butler in a white jacket somehow knew it was time to come in and serve them Cokes in crystal glasses from a silver tray.

Del didn’t last long as a convention server. The last I heard he was selling water softeners door-to-door.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Last Rites

Jake Bonney, Minnie Bonney, others unknown

My grandfather was a colorful guy. For most of his life he was a railroad comptroller, work that took him from Norfolk all throughout the Mid-South working for the Southern and the Louisville & Nashville lines. He outlived three wives and had four children. He was a lay leader in a succession of Methodist churches, became an ordained minister after he retired and served a small island church along the Virginia-North Carolina border until he was in his eighties. He lived into his 90s, just short of the record set by his mother.

When my grandfather died, among the things my father brought home from his house were several boxes of pictures and Super 8 movies. My grandfather always had a camera with him to take pictures of whomever he was with. When reel-to-reel tape recorders became popular, he once put one under the dining room table at my uncle’s house and recorded an entire Thanksgiving meal. (No conversation, it turns out. Mostly a muddled series of grunts and requests to Aunt Doris for more mashed potatoes.) When movie cameras came out, my grandfather was the first person I knew to have one.

My father had no idea what to do with all the old pictures and movies. He was in his sixties, old enough to know all the family members, but he didn’t know any of the people in the pictures. We suspected that they were probably from decades of church luncheons, picnics, dedications, retreats and other occasions.

Dad couldn’t bring himself to throw the pictures and movies out. So when he died I brought the boxes of pictures and movies home to my house. The pictures were easy to go through. There were no clues as to when they were taken or at which churches they might have been taken.

One cool October day, not unlike today, I got around to setting up my grandfather’s old Super 8 projector in the garage and went through the movies. The movies were no better than the pictures had been in telling me where they’d been taken or when. I’d have happily packed them up and sent them to anyone who could use them if I’d known who they were. There was no take-up reel, so as each movie played for one last time the film ran out of the projector into a large trash can.

There was also no sound in those old movies. But I really didn’t need it. I’d spent enough time at church socials when I was a child to supply my own soundtrack in my head.

The people at the left in the photo above, which was probably taken by my grandfather, are my great-grandfather Jake and great-grandmother Minnie. I don't know who the other people are, perhaps members of Minnie's Ayers family. Jake is immediately recognizable because he has the distinctive perpendicular ears that ran through at least three generations of Bonney men until, thankfully, more powerful genes prevailed in my generation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Child on the Porch

The Porch, 2007

My parents’ divorce was ugly and, like many, took a toll on the lives of everyone. The forty years thereafter were marked by outbursts of hostility so fierce that you could only conclude that there was still an underlying love.

I was young when the divorce occurred. Looking back at that time, I find that much of the memory of it is erased or just tucked deeply into the folds of my brain. My sister, who is ten years older than me, and I can sometimes fill in the gaps in each other’s memories of those days. She was in high school and then going off to college just as I was becoming alert enough to realize that what was going on around us wasn’t what all families were like. Before he died, my father filled me in on other details. My mother, in moments of clarity, continues to do so. Rolled all together, these stories help me understand who I am.

Around Christmas, not long after the divorce, my mother’s brother invited us to a holiday open house. My uncle owned a plumbing business that enjoyed some success through the years. He was a respected member of his church and the building trades. He and my mother had had a falling out over some inheritance a few years earlier and she had not initiated a conversation with him since that time. He knew she was in fragile shape, both emotionally and financially, and phoned from time to time to check on her. She was barely cordial in return.

When the invitation to this holiday party came, my mother decided she couldn’t face her brother. The inheritance issue had finally been settled, but she could not let the grudge go. She thought it might be good for me to see relatives, though, so she called my father and asked him to take me to the gathering. I have no idea what his relationship was with my uncle’s family by then. Looking back, I suspect that because my mother was known to have periods of emotional instability that could be very difficult to be around, they may have felt that my father was the just the unlucky guy who got caught in the line of fire.

In any event, Dad picked me up and took me to the party. Mind you, I don’t remember any of this. It’s one of those memories that got blocked. But as the story is told, when Dad brought me home I immediately bolted into the house and right on through to the back porch, where I huddled down under a table in the cold, dark night.

Anyone who as a child had to deal with parents who fought a lot knows what it’s like to want to get away from the hostility and the noise. Nearly every encounter my parents had with each other in those days ended in shouting. The resulting tension took days to dissipate. When you’re too young to know enough to run away, you seek the muffling silence of bedcovers, closets and, apparently, tables.

Before my father even got from the car up to the front door of the house my mother was already armed for bear, ready to yell at him for whatever he’d done to send me hiding so quickly. It took him some time and a bit of shouting of his own to quiet her and explain that he’d done nothing, that when we’d gone to my uncle’s house no one had even acknowledged our presence, that he’d had words with my uncle, and that he’d taken me out to dinner afterwards so that I’d at least have a decent meal before returning home.

As I say, I don’t remember any of this. I was under the table.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nipping at Her Heels

Barnard Street, 2008

(This is a true story. Some of the people involved are still around, so I’ve changed a few things.)

A friend who lives in a small town told me about a meeting of the altar guild of her church. The meeting took place in a grand old mansion built in the mid-1800s. Carpathia, as the house is called, has fourteen-foot ceilings, double parlors, a ballroom sixty feet long and half as wide and cast iron balconies all around. The family that owned it was known to be having a hard time keeping the place up, so it wasn’t a surprise when the ladies arrived and found the house cold and drafty this particular January night. Draperies swayed as the wind whistled up from the harbor and around the tall windows frames. Wooden stairs and floorboards creaked under foot. Even in the dim light you could see that the paint was chipping and the furniture in the front parlor was practically threadbare. A few ancient cats kept to the shadows.

If you’re not from the South it can be hard to understand the importance of pride and presentation. Southern women of certain generations do not simply have people over and open a can of spray cheese, no matter what their circumstances. The dining room at Carpathia was set as if for a party. All the leaves were in the table and all thirty chairs were polished and arranged around it. There were enough refreshments on the sideboard to feed half the town. All the good wines and liquor were out. The silver platters and serving spoons shined in the light of the crystal chandeliers. Candles burned in the sconces on the wall. Logs crackled and burned in the fireplace. Three arrangements of fresh flowers lined the dining room table.

There were only about ten ladies attending the meeting, so they all sat at one end of the long table. The hostesses’ mother, a fragile old woman quieted by a succession of strokes, sat by her daughter near the head of the table. As the meeting proceeded, the old woman would occasionally make short Tourette-like outbursts, unintelligible, but not curses. She’d grab at her arms or reach under the table at her legs. Her daughter would gently reach over and calm her mother and urge the other ladies not to be distracted.

This happened many times throughout the evening. The old woman would screech. The daughter would calm her. The meeting would lose momentum, but pick up again.

As the night wore on, my friend said she had to reach down a few times and swat away what she assumed was one of the cats brushing against her legs. She noticed that other ladies were doing the same and made a mental note to wear slacks instead of a dress the next time she came to an altar guild meeting at Carpathia.

By the time the meeting ended, the ladies were anxious to gather up their coats and get back down the street to their own much warmer homes. It wasn’t until they stood up from the table and the hostess helped her mother stand to receive polite kisses on the cheek from the ladies that they noticed that the old woman was covered from ankles to arms with flea bites and that they, too, were developing little webs of little red nips around their own ankles.

Not exactly A Rose for Emily, but true.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reading Faces

North Street Face, 2005

We went to see John Stewart the other night at Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall. I didn’t know it before, but my wife told me this is what you're supposed to do on your 33rd wedding anniversary. So much for gems and minerals.

Stewart was good. He recalled his student days at the nearby College of William & Mary, though not altogether fondly, and took some pride in being on the same stage where he once came to see U2 perform. He took jabs at Wall Street, the religious right, gay rights opponents and the Republican candidate in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. He drew his usual attention to the inconsistencies and contradictions of indecisive Democrats, fundamental conservatives and the galaxy of hysterical Fox News opinionators.

My wife and I don’t go out every night. But we’ve been around. We’ve seen enough places to have an idea of who the people who share this world with us are and what they’re like. We’ve laughed when we found fellow Rick Steves fans at a certain corner of the Eiffel Tower (because Rick told us that was the best place to catch the elevator). We know what fundamental social and political conservatives look like. Likewise rabid liberals, gays, lesbians, the rich, the poor, people of color, extreme Christians, New Agers, Gilded Agers, Fleetwood Mac fans, gardeners, society dames and all manner of other folk.

You can usually pick out members of some of these groups. There’s a certain, almost recognizable similarity and camaraderie, for example, among those who go to the opera or the symphony. The same holds true for people who hang out at NASCAR races, UFC fights, Baptist church socials and garden clubs meetings.

The John Stewart audience was much harder to read. When we walked into the theater, I found myself asking, “Are these ‘my people’?” Are these the people with whom I’m likely most in sync? I assumed they’d have more liberal social and politically perspectives. Beyond that, I had no idea.

The crowd wasn’t generous in its clues. They were neither very young nor very old. Most were earnest looking adults with gray hair who likely get most of their news from NPR and like to think their life includes some “good work.” There was a smaller group of college kids, some of them down from Williamsburg and wearing the green and gold of William & Mary, and some dressed as if they’d just come from a rave or a Star Trek convention. (I’m afraid the W&M kids were disappointed that Stewart’s comments about his college days were more tipped in acid than they were in love for a college town that is forever stalled in 1764.)

As best as I could tell, Jon Stewart’s fans are birds that only flock together on television. The friends I could pick out in the audience were a geographic smorgasbord of our region, defying attempts to categories them by anything but their political perspective. My guess is that our kindred spirits, like my wife and me, are living among the infidels, occasionally lobbing flaming arrows over the fence when we’ve had enough of our neighbors’ hysteric rhetoric, but not getting too close to the fence posts to get burned ourselves.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What I Saw - Fiction Dept. #2

The Bottle, 2007

John Thomas Wingstock sometimes calls when he passes through town. We’ve been friends since childhood, had lots of fun together. Our families vacationed together at the beach when the children were young. John Thomas—it’s always been John Thomas, never Jack or even John—was a promising architect with esteemed commissions to his name. He and Anne Elizabeth raised three good children.

Drinking is a staple of life in the world from which John Thomas and I come. It starts in prep school. Later on, it’s drinks with prospective clients at lunch, at the cocktail hour at the club or with neighbors, wine at dinner, and a glass of bourbon and a good book in the late evening.

All of this works when things are in balance, when raising a family and making a name and career keeps you on the straight and narrow. But when the passage of time leaves voids, the balance is upset. For some people, it’s when the kids leave. For John Thomas, it began with a dalliance with a female client, a woman so alluring that his male friends—and even some of his friends’ wives, at least secretly—expressed relief that they had not been tempted by her themselves. All of this Anne Elizabeth endured with the strength of her Episcopal upbringing and the knowledge that her own mother had been tested this way more than once. After that, John Thomas soothed his anxieties with drink. He resumed the company of a college fraternity brother, a prominent attorney who was also alcoholic. There were said to be other affairs. But it did not really matter since by this time the drinking had offset any good that could be accomplished by fidelity, the occasional intervention of the parish rector or even a brief stay at an exclusive sanitarium.

The marriage ended. The wives surrounded Anne Elizabeth. I would occasionally run into John Thomas at the country club, where I’m told he settles in at the bar around noon and stays until Horace the barman summons a couple of waiters to bundle him into his old Audi around nine. After too many sloppy client meetings, John Thomas’ partners had no choice but to separate him from the firm. He moved out to the beach house and took up with an alcoholic ex-wife of an ex-friend. Their life is predictably sad and destructive. Estranged from his children, from his career and from the company of honorable men, John Thomas has slipped from view.

Now I only hear from him late at night, usually from a pay phone at the airport. If my wife answers the phone, she stays on the line only long enough to hear John Thomas slur, “You know I always loved you, baby” before silently handing the phone over to me. My conversations with John Thomas are superficial, usually something about a possible commission, a promise to get together soon. But the calls are brief. John Thomas has to get on the road to the beach, and I turn over and go back to sleep.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Make the Voices Go Away!

Garden May, 2009

I was first drawn to photography after seeing other people’s photographs, the work of photojournalists, especially. This was the mid-1960s. To me, Magnum photographers were the kings and queens. Fashion photographers were right behind them. The old hardbound volumes of Travel & Holiday were a window on places and ways of life entirely different from my own. National Geographic brought up the rear with the exquisite color representations of the natural and built-up world. Bruce Davidson’s East 110th Street project brought it all home when it merged my interests in visual representation and sociology.

As I’ve tried to describe my own style over the years, I have frequently found myself unable to do so because I still felt like I had to get all the photographers whose work I’d admired over the years out of my system. That is, I found myself duplicating their pictures or at least proving to myself that I could take pictures in their styles. Looked upon several months after I made it, Garden May, for example, is nothing if not an attempt to channel Helen Frankenthaler.

Maybe we all do this. I don’t know. We attach ourselves to a single kind of work or style and ride it out. I know some artists shoot right past this derivative phase early on and get on to the important work of interpreting their vision. I know that many gallerists like to fit artists into neat, consistent niches.

I know enough about myself to know that my visual interests are too varied to adhere to a single subject or style. With the help of friends and a few other arms’ length observers I’ve been able to pinpoint some common attributes that help me begin to connect and be able to describe what I’m doing. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly propel myself out of the giant hairball of other people’s influence, or whether that’s even a necessary thing.

One of the guys who does podcasts about the art (rather than the craft or business) of photography recently challenged his listeners to steer clear of any other photographers’ work for a full month. Don’t look at it. Don’t listen to anyone talk about it. Don’t read anything about it. And while you’re at it, why not avoid all visual artists for that month.

I get his point. A little mental palate cleansing is a good idea from time to time. But as much as I might complain about having all those old photographers bouncing around in the back of my head, if I sent them all packing I think I’d be left feeling very alone.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

There for the Seeing

Anatomy Lesson, 2009

My Fotolog blog is called There for the Seeing. (I don’t post there as often as I do at Flickr, and would stop posting there altogether except that there are a few friends and a few daily glimpses of the far flung world I’d miss.) The blog is called that in recognition of my belief that there’s good material for photography in your own backyard if you just let yourself be sensitive enough to see it.

As I’ve described before, my mode of operation when I’m out taking pictures, especially if I’m traveling, is to concentrate closely and then move quickly to the next thing I want to concentrate on closely. It’s a little schizophrenic, but it works for me. I took a lot of pictures I like, for example, and covered a lot of ground out in the Pacific Northwest recently in just thirty-six hours, time which also included “day job” work, breakfast with relatives and, somewhere in there, a night’s sleep.

A lot of photographers feel like they have to get away from home to take interesting pictures. I sure did for a long time. I wasn’t so arrogant as to believe that I’d taken all the good pictures there were to be had near where I live. But I wasn’t a very good practitioner of my own “There for the Seeing” belief.

So when the economy slowed down and put a damper on discretionary travel, I dedicated this year to being more diligent about exploring photographic opportunities within my own environs. The Surf Series was one result of that. Another was a return to my Summer in the Resort series. I recently added to yet another series of Shriner parade photographs and even produced a book based on that series. (You can preview the few pages of the book here.)

Anatomy Lesson, above (click on it to see it larger), was the result of a specific attempt to slow down. While walking down at the beach one morning, my eye didn't seem to be drawn to much initially. So I went up on the boardwalk, sat down on a bench, pointed my camera at the beach in front of me and decided I’d see what I’d get if I took a picture every fifteen seconds or so. Ten minutes resulted in more than sixty shots. (Okay, so I’m impatient when it comes to counting seconds).

This isn’t the stuff of great art, and if I were trying to make a study of the human form it would be a pretty dismal stab in that direction. But in its own way it drew my attention to all the different body types people have and, by my primitive marks, what their skeletons might look like.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Unexpected isn't So Hard

St. Patrick’s Reversed, 2009

“If we all walk, why do we all walk differently?”

Merce Cunningham

There’s a famous photograph taken for a 1960s Ogilvy & Mather tourism advertising campaign for Puerto Rico that was instrumental in my photography education. It’s a simple color photograph showing a cello leaning against a chair in the home of the late Pablo Casals. Given that Casals was among the most famous and respected Puerto Ricans of the time, but that he was also by then deceased, the lesson of the photo was that you didn’t have to have the real person present to evoke a compelling portrait of the person.

That was my first exposure to the idea of looking for the unexpected in photography. Most of the other portraits I’d seen were straight head shots. Arnold Newman was doing very nice environmental shots. His portraits of Stravinsky, de Kooning, and Robert Moses, just to name a few, are masterpieces.

A recurring theme here at What I Saw is my desire to find unexpected photographic interpretations of familiar things and places. For example, the idea behind St. Patrick’s Reserved, above, was that you don’t have to show something to show it. Everyone’s seen a photo of the front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. It’s impressive, like most any other massive houses of worship of that same style. My goal was to capture enough of the shape of St. Patrick’s to make it recognizable, but in a way that better portrays its presence, and difference from, the crush of commercial buildings around it.

I like the Merce Cunningham line because it reminds us that even though a dozen photographers might all stand in the same place looking at the same thing, what each chooses to remember about it or capture in a photograph can be entirely different. Some impressions, if we’re lucky, might even be unexpected.