Friday, February 26, 2010

Doing the Lord's Work

Starbuck Neck, 2008

Many years ago I agreed to help a friend go around and pick up items people had donated to a church bazaar on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

The church rector, a great garrulous man of Falstaffian girth, came to get us in his beat up old tank of a Jeep Wagoneer. The Jeep was a point of some pride for Jack. He and the Catholic priest in town had a rivalry going to see who could have the most creative car horns. The priest drove a stately Cadillac that played church hymns when he tapped the horn. Jack’s Jeep, on the other hand, had the most obnoxious collection of calliopes, oogas, klaxons and cowbell sounds. He loved to tap on the horn and rattle the crowds of summer tourists on Main Street in Edgartown.

Jack was the kind of friend and spiritual counselor who was sought out, trusted and beloved by most who knew him, both youth and, as he described them, “the sequined sweater set.” He lived life to the fullest and died too soon. I’ve not met another like him.

That afternoon we cheerfully went about our duty of collecting the various items of junk that people were tossing out hoping to win, we supposed, a few extra brownie points in heaven for donating the junk they didn’t want to the church.

At one point we came to one the grand old summer homes on Starbuck Neck. While Jack was greeted like a long lost relative by the old lady of the house, my friend and I were directed like servants to the basement to collect some ancient wooden folding chairs, a table, a worn out couch and a colossal old console television set.

Upstairs, Jack kept company with the old widow, who explained apologetically that since she was closing the house for the winter, “Cook” had already returned to New York. She didn’t have any fresh baked goods for the bazaar—after all, what can one be expected to do when “Cook” has been sent back to open the winter home?—so she’d stopped by the bakery and bought several bags of cookies to donate to the bazaar food tables. I think Jack even had a glass of wine with the lady while my friend and I did the heavy lifting.

As the three of us piled back into the front seat of the pickup to leave, we all had a good natured laugh about the old lady being left alone in the big house without “Cook.” Ah, the travails of the rich!

We’d barely driven out of the lady's driveway when Jack reached across the seat, tore into the bakery bags and stuffed cookies into his mouth, gleefully proclaiming, “THE LORD’S WILL BE DONE!” as we barreled down the lane to the next pick up.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On This Spot

North Water Street, 2008

I took this picture at Martha’s Vineyard in the fall of 2008. As is my habit when I’m there, I’d been out wandering along the Edgartown waterfront since before sunrise and was headed back to our rental house to see what the rest of the family was doing for breakfast.

I can’t tell you how many times I have walked by this house at the corner of North Water and Morse streets through the years. Probably hundreds. It’s a huge place, one of the stately “whaling captains’ homes” that line North Water Street. But until this day I’d apparently never looked up at it and noticed how its porch, like the porches of a number of nearby homes, was painted a light aquamarine.

The light was right. The composition was interesting. I took the picture and continued on back to the house for breakfast.

A month later I showed a copy of the photo to my wife’s uncle, whose aunt had once owned an equally grand summer home across the street.

“Oh, that’s the house where my father proposed to my mother,” Uncle Terry said, nonchalantly.

In the years between WWI and WWII, Terry’s mother summered at her aunt’s house on North Water Street. Sometimes so many family members and friends would visit that a second house would be taken to accommodate the overflow and their children, maids and cooks. In the summer during which the following takes place, the rental home was the house shown above.

This particular summer, Terry’s father, an up and coming investment banker, followed Terry’s mother to the Vineyard to court her. Each weekend he took the train and boat up from New York and rented a room nearby. They were very formal people, living at the tail end of the Gilded Age that Edith Wharton wrote about so well. So the courtship was undoubtedly formal and probably chaste.

At the end of the summer, Terry’s father was ready to propose. That morning Terry’s mother happened to be at the “second house,” the one shown above. He didn’t want to propose to her in front of all the relatives sitting on the front porch. So he walked around to the Morse Street side, where he heard her talking in the kitchen. From the sidewalk outside the kitchen window, he called out her name, pledged his love forever and asked her to marry him.

More than eighty years later I stood on pretty much the same spot, turned to the right instead of the left and took this picture without having any idea of the tender moment that took place there so many years before.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Beach Club Memories

Beach Club Memories, 2005

Many of the good memories I have as a child took place at the Cavalier Beach Club.

During the mid-1940s, my parents operated a small beachfront hotel. After the guests had been fed and sent out for the evening to find their own fun, my parents dressed up and rushed up the street to dance on the Beach Club’s oceanfront dance floor.

They weren’t the only ones to appreciate the allure of dancing under the moonlight. The Cavalier Hotel was a resort destination for many of the country’s elite. F. Scott and Zelda danced here. My parents heard Sinatra sing there, and danced to the Dorsey Band and Glenn Miller. My sister learned to swim in the hotel’s indoor saltwater pool.

Me, 15 months, at the Cavalier Beach Club, 1953

When I came along, a decade later, summers were spent in a cabana on the upper deck just behind the band shell. We spent Saturday’s at the beach. We’d return home for dinner, after which my parents would dress up and return for a night of dancing under the stars. People really dressed up to go out in those days. On Sunday afternoons, the kids were allowed to hang out at the cabana while the adults dressed in their best linen dresses and sport coats and did the tango and the rumba and bunny hopped across the dance floor at tea dances. To this day I can’t walk down the beach past the old club without hearing Perez Prado’s trombone playing “Cherry Blossom Pink, Apple Green” and remembering parents, arm in arm, cha-cha-ing across the dance floor.

My Parents at the Cavalier Beach Club, 1952

This was a charmed life that didn’t last long. My parents’ marriage ended when I was still a child. The Beach Club became the victim of changing entertainment tastes. The famous dance floor and much of the two levels of tables and chairs that flanked its ocean side were washed away during a storm in the 1960s. What remains today is a tacky artificial deck masquerading as a dance floor and a lot of memories.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Forrest & Lilly

Forrest & Lilly, 2003

The love of Forrest and Lilly knew no depth and relied upon no conditions. They never regretted their decision to marry, nor did they ever regret any decision made in their marriage. Lilly lived and worked beside Forrest for fifty eight years, keeping house, tending the vegetable garden, and looking after the chickens and the pigs. Even when separated from one another in a group, you could always find one looking proudly and lovingly across the room at the other. They wrote notes to each other. They smiled at each other across the choir loft in church.

Forest and Lilly had no children. But they loved to dance. They had met at a dance hall in Galveston, where sleepy-eyed girls danced with cowboys to languid cancions, fast mariachis and slow ranchero ballads.

When Lilly died, Forest found a man with a 10-string guitar to sing at Lilly’s graveside.

You are my dream, my whisper, my light.

These are the only things I need to live.

And all I am I have to give you.

Be with me forever as you are tonight.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Trouble With People

Sur La Plage, 2009

I don’t take a lot of pictures of people. I don’t dislike people. Most of my best friends are people. I’ve become a pretty sociable guy over the years. And as I think about it, I guess I’ve taken my fair share of pictures with people in them. But I didn’t start out that way, and I still find people to be something of a nuisance when I’m taking pictures. There are several reasons for this:

I’m shy. The more I learn about them, the more I learn that shyness is a very common trait among photographers. For a lot of us, a camera was a ticket out of teenage social isolation. It gave us a reason to be places. We weren’t the boisterous extroverts in our classes when we were kids. We were the observers. I don’t know if there are deeper explanations, like maybe that we didn’t know ourselves well enough or weren’t confident enough in our own instincts to act upon them. Maybe we had to look to others to see how we were supposed to be.

(There are exceptions, of course. I think a lot of the people who photograph celebrities are more naturally voluble. They have to be more brazen to move among their subjects as closely and confidently as they do.)

People move. I frequently photograph passing phenomena, compositions of light and shape that last little longer than the moment I captured with my camera. There’s nothing like a good “decisive” moment ruined by people moving in or through it. That’s the trouble with people. I know I should be better about this. My tendency, though, is to keep moving, to keep working the light and the angles. Getting good people moments requires sitting still and being patient. I’ve learned this lesson, but I don’t follow it enough.

I don’t want to intrude. Part of being shy is not wanting to intrude on people’s time, space and life. Maybe we believe there’s something to the old adage that taking a picture of someone steals a minute of his or her life. I don’ t know. In any event, observers don’t intrude. We’re too polite. We stand around the edges and watch. It’s our job to watch the life of the party, not be it.

I’m too lazy to carry model releases. If you want to sell a picture with people in it for most any commercial purpose, you need a model release. I have them safely tucked away in my office. I’ve even carried them with me from time to time. But the act of asking someone to sign one seems to cross a line I’m not comfortable with.

So the bottom line is this: unless you’re related to me or have asked me to take your picture, I’ll probably ask you to step out of the line of fire. Most of the people you see in my pictures will be in profile, out of the light, have their backs turned to me or be otherwise unidentifiable.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Conspiracy Theories

Who’s Really Flying the Plane? 2006

I’m not planning to buy John Aaronovitch’s new book, Voodoo Histories, The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not good or that you shouldn’t consider it.

Voodoo Histories is one of those books I’ve learned I shouldn’t buy because it’ll only affirm my belief about something so much so that I’ll just become more obsessive and obnoxious about it.

Like conspiracy theories.

You know, like the New World Order one I heard about in Texas from Alex Jones (also a favorite of Glenn Beck), or the ones involving everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Pan Am Flight 103, the JFK assassination, the moon landing, the death of Princess Diana, the Elders of Zion and so on.

Voodoo Histories takes a systematic approach to sorting through the facts, the suppositions and the theories. As the The New York Times’ review put it, Aaronovitch uses the principle of Occam’s razor (i.e. that the simplest hypothesis is usually the right one) “to eviscerate the many conspiracy theories that have percolated through politics and popular culture over the last century.”

“In most cases, conspiracy theorists would rather tie themselves into complicated knots and postulate all sorts of improbable secret connections than accept a simple, more obvious explanation.”

Later on, he delivers the coupe de grace that had me pounding on the breakfast table in agreement. He argues that tangled webs of conspiracy theory are:

“…formulated by the politically defeated and taken up by the socially defeated.” [Those] “left behind by modernity...They are the America firsters, who got the war they didn’t want; the Midwest populists watching their small farms go out of business; the opponents of the New Deal; the McGovern liberals in the era of Richard Nixon…the irreconcilable American right during the Clinton Administration; the shattered American left in the time of the second Bush Administration.”

Or, dare I mention, the righteous, dumbfounded and anti-intellectual right, who still haven’t accepted that America is a country defined by its optimism, its trust in the fellow man and its confident eye to the future rather than the past.

Postscript: The January 2010 issue of Texas Monthly has a good article about Alex Jones in which, among other things, Jones states that Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone's 2002 fatal plane crash was caused by a government laser gun.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Indiscretions, 2003

Infidelities. I’m no expert on the topic. But it seems to me that it’s a heavy burden to carry a load of infidelity on your back.

There’s a couple that meets on one of the quiet streets near my mother’s nursing home each weekday afternoon for what I presume the kids would call a “hookup.” At one time you could see them from my mother’s window, which is the only reason I know much about their habits.

The area around the nursing home is pretty neutral: mostly doctor’s offices, two hospitals, four nursing homes, an assisted living facility, a dialysis facility, some condos that face away from the street and a bank. In short, very few judgmental “neighborhood eyes.”

It took me a little while to recognize what the couple was up to. But now you can pretty much set your watch by her arriving first and arranging her hair in the rear view window. Then the man arrives and parks behind her. He quickly scans the surroundings before getting into her car. A few minutes later the windows are fogged. Then he leaves, straightening his shirt as he gets back into his car and drives away. You get the picture. Maybe they live close by. Maybe this nondescript street is a good place for them to meet on the way home from work.

Year ago, when I rode the bus back and forth to work in Richmond, there was a regular bunch, most of them city or state workers, who got on at the suburban end of the line and rode the bus all the way downtown. They were a congenial bunch. They sat in the same seats every day. There were the jokesters and the ones who just wanted to read the newspaper. Conversations started in the morning picked back up on the afternoon bus home and sometimes spilled over to the next day.

Among the regulars, and always seated together in the very back row of the bus, was a middle aged man and a younger woman who I knew weren’t married to each other. (I know this because I saw her husband and his wife drop them off at the bus stop each morning.) They sat close together and held hands, whispering into each other’s ears and gazing at each other like young lovers. At noon you could see them stroll hand in hand from City Hall over to Capitol Square. In the afternoon, they sat together again in the back row as the bus rambled back out to the suburbs.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve known enough people in profoundly unhappy relationships to know that infidelity may be their only respite. But it still tugged at my heart each afternoon when the bus would get to the end of the line, we’d all line up to get off and Ray and Sue, always mindful to have a few people between them as they stepped off the Patterson #2 bus, walked over to where their spouses and children waited to greet them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Third Places

Sunday Morning at The Belvedere, 2010

In his book, “The Great Good Place,” Ray Oldenburg wrote that everyone needs three places: home, work and a “third place.” The first two places don’t require much explanation. The third, writes Oldenburg, include all those places—e.g. bars, pubs, buses, coffee houses, bookstores, cafes and parks—that “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”

Third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. The best indicator of a good third place is indeed that the talk is good.

The common element in the third places in my life is food. Like The Belvedere Cafe, above, where my wife and I have lunch on Sundays, or the Atlas Dinner, a neighborhood place where we meet friends for cheap burgers every Tuesday night.

Mind you, although we go to both places to eat—it would be putting too fine a point on it to describe it as “dining”—neither of these places is known for its cuisine. But both are, each in its own way, pillars of social vitality.

The Belvedere is small. The seating is close. You can’t help but talk to the people beside you. The person next to you might be a judge, admiral, motel operator, plumber, banker, flight attendant, teacher or just a couple of tourists from New Jersey amazed at how genuinely friendly Virginians are. Most are regular patrons, especially in the winter when there are fewer tourists around. On Sundays around noon the conversation usually starts with a rehash of that morning’s Face The Nation and then moves on to other issues. Some morning we just rib each other, or egg on the good-natured rivalry between the cooks and waitresses.

[I even made a little movie about the Belvedere here.]

The Atlas Diner is far more spacious and its community is defined on more of a geographic basis. I don’t know half of the people at the Atlas on Tuesdays. But because we all show up at about the same time every Tuesday there’s a default sense of camaraderie. If we see an elderly companion missing, we inquire about their health. If we see kids home from college, we stop to see how they’re doing. For an hour or so on Tuesday evenings, we are a community.

For a lot of people, online social networking is becoming the new third place. On Facebook you can even define the kind of “relationship” you’re looking for from your “friends.” Social networking in the online world doesn’t have the intimacy of meeting in real space. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel I know some of the people I’ve gotten to know through Flickr, Fotolog and Facebook better than I would have had I seen them on a hundred Tuesdays at the Atlas Diner. If I thought they had knowledge or experience that might help me, I wouldn’t hesitate to contact any of them, or be reluctant to help anyone who contacted me.

I don’t know any of them, though, who can beat the allure of cheap burgers at the Atlas.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Domestic Scenes

Domestic Scene - 03, 2010

There’s been snow on each of the last three Saturdays. I wasn’t able to get out much to take pictures. So this past Saturday I thought I’d get out for a while with the camera. The sky was gray with the last of yet another snow storm passing through. I imagined it would be a good day for dark, moody landscapes, most likely presented in black and white.

I headed for the beach first. I did a quick scan of the oceanfront, but nothing jumped out at me. Usually when this happens I park the car and challenge myself to find something interesting to photograph within walking distance. But as the snow turned to sleet and then to rain, I just didn’t feel like walking in the rain. I was a little disappointed in myself for not wanting to give it more effort. But there you are.

So like all dedicated photographers, I came home, had a warm lunch with my wife and finished a book I’d been reading. Then, in preparation for going to be out that night with friends to a dinner party, I took a nap.

I stirred from my nap just as the light was beginning to fade. All around me in the bedrooms in our house I started noticing little scenes. I know all these rooms well, but it had been a while since I'd looked at them as photographic subjects.

So on this cold dark Saturday afternoon I realized that the moody images I’d set out to take in the morning were right here indoors and within easy reach. I grabbed a camera and started clicking away.

Because of the low light, the photos are very grainy. I’ll probably end us using them as guides for going back later to make better photos of the same compositions. But I’m showing you a few of them now because, well, you know how I am about getting back to pictures I’d intended to take.

Domestic Scene - 23, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Simple Kindnesses

In Treatment, 2010

The other evening I was over at the rehab facility where my mother is recovering from a broken ankle. I arrived just as dinner was being served. The food at this place isn’t bad. But let’s just say it’s not such that you’d want to delay your recovery just for the cuisine.

My mother hadn’t been eating lately. Complications in her condition that had sapped her appetite were finally getting better and she was back to eating again.

I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in or visiting a rehab/nursing facility. No matter how bright and colorful, they’re still not very cheery places. I can’t imagine that any of the patients and residents chose to be there. The long-term residents are there because they’re not able to live alone safely elsewhere. The rehab patients are a revolving group of similarly older folks recovering from surgery, strokes, heart attacks and broken bones. Most of them walk out after a few months of physical therapy.

Places like this—this particular facility cares for about two hundred rehab patients and residents—get by with a handful of doctors, nurses and physical therapists and a whole lot of semi-skilled aides who don’t get paid much. It’s probably not a place you’d work as an aide if you had other choices. Some of the patients can be difficult. The routine upkeep of so many older incapacitated people isn’t always pretty.

Every now and then, though, you see little glimpses of kindness that reaffirm your faith in mankind. It might be an aide gently directing a confused resident back to his or her room or cleaning up after a bathroom accident, or a nurse calmly explaining to an agitated rehab patient why she can’t go home yet.

My mother’s dinner had just been brought in. Some of the dining room workers who bring meals around just drop their trays on patients’ bedside tables and quickly move on down the hall. But Corinne isn’t one of them. My guess is that she’s at the bottom of the salary pyramid at this place. Yet she brings dignity to everything she does. She took the lid off the plate of baked chicken and starting separating the meat off the bone so that it would be easier for my mother to eat. When I thanked her, she explained:

“I don’t like my people having to deal with bones. Too many chances for something to get stuck in a throat. Some of them can’t even handle the skin, so I pull that off for them, too.”

For those of us who don’t think twice about the potential dangers of the food we eat, this little moment might have seemed inconsequential. But I’ve learned that there’s not just a loss of independence that comes when you get old and sick, but an even more debilitating loss of dignity. I’ve commented here about my mother’s habit of joking about her “reduced standards.” It’s her way of trying to laugh off her circumstances. But I know it’s also a cover for the loss of pride.

It took Corinne less than a minute to make my mother’s dinner a little easier for her to digest. But making it possible for my mother to eat her dinner without having to ask for help gave her confidence and peace of mind that lasted the whole night.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Promiscuity I Can Get Behind

Photographic Promiscuity, 2010

Terry Gross interviewed actor Colin Firth on her Fresh Air radio program the other day. After getting all the requisite plugs in for the movie he was promoting, Gross asked Firth about his upbringing and his decision some years ago to go spend time in a monastery.

Firth explained that although he hadn’t followed in the academic/medical footsteps of his father nor in the “spiritual searcher” footsteps of his mother, he was self-aware enough to recognize the need to take a break from his career for some quiet time.

He said it was important for him to do that because he’d realized that his personality lends itself to “creative promiscuity.”

Creative promiscuity. Now there’s another line I wished I’d come up with. Doesn’t it sound like fun?

Terry Gross couldn’t let that line go by without comment, either. When she asked Firth what he meant by it, it explained that creative promiscuity is the process of throwing yourself fully into whatever project you’re working on, to the exclusion of other aspects of your life. It might be for a day, a week, a month or several months. Whatever the duration, it’s a complete immersion.

But when the project—in Firth’s case, a movie or play—is over, it’s over. The obsession is ended. The team is disbanded. Interest in the project is kaput. Next!

An old ad agency boss of mine used to say that a good agency needed a mix of talents, but that what it needed most were good “agency people.” He wasn’t referring to glib account execs or furry creative types. He was referring to people who thrive on learning and playing with ideas and images. Such people tend to get bored on long-term projects. They value a dynamic workplace, energetic workmates and challenging assignments far more than the trappings of place and status.

He used to shake his head at some of the people in the agency. “Client person,” he’d mutter quietly, making it clear that the person being talked about had been a mistaken hire and would be better off moving to the client side. Saying that someone was better suited for the “client side,” was code for saying that the person probably wasn’t very bright and would place a higher priority on stability, consistency and the more predictable life of working for the same company on the same things all the time.

I was reminded of this recently when I was looking at all the sets of photographs on my Flickr page (above). Compared to some of my friends who have a very consistent visual style or consistent interest in a single photographic topic, my work has been all over the board. The progression over the years has been anything but linear. More like fits and starts. Jogs this way and then that.

I don’t know if this makes me photographically promiscuous or just probably a little attention deficient. But I’m proud to know that at least one point in my career I was considered promiscuous enough to have been a good “agency person.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Barbershop Wisdom

Six Views of the Holly Famous Barber Shop, 2008

Before you start thinking I go to a barbershop with pictures on the walls of dogs playing cards, let me set the record straight. There probably were once pictures of dogs playing cards on the wall of the Holly Famous Barber Ship. There certainly were at Bill’s Barbershop, the place just down the street where my father took me every other Saturday when I was a kid.

Imagine taking your son to get a haircut every two weeks today! They’d probably sue for emancipation.

Bill’s was owned by a gruff old man named Bill Faircloth. (His wife, who was the nurse in my doctor’s office, was equally gruff.) Bill wasn’t much of a talker, at least to kids.

Kids were the province of Windy, a kindly older fellow who had the first chair by the door and whose real name I never knew. What little I did know about the man who clipped my hair every other week for eight or ten years was that he and his wife lived in a scary looking old house nestled into a sand dune just a few blocks up Pacific Avenue from the barber shop and that they were foster parents to a changing roster of teenagers just out of reform school. Or so the rumor went.

Bill’s Barber Shop was just what you’d think a 1950s barbershop would look like. Four big barber chairs on one side and a row of seats on the opposite side for people waiting for haircuts. Mirrors ran down two sides of the shop. On the rear wall was hung the aforementioned picture of dogs playing cards. My friends said they were guys straight at the barber program at the state penitentiary. There was a black janitor who hung out in the closet at the back of the shop and came out from time to time to sweep up the hair from the floor.

The latest issues of Field & Stream and Life magazine were on a little table near the door. There was a big hand cranked cash register at the end of the counter behind the barbers and the whole place smelled of Vitalis and Barbasol. A striped barber’s pole twirled outside.

Bill’s closed during the late 1960s. The Holly Famous Barber Shop, on the other hand, has been in continuous operation under different names for close to sixty years. Over the last ten or fifteen years, it’s been overseen by Darlene, who’s on a quest for peace in her life, and a changing cast of female barbers.

They don’t over promise. They are barbers, not stylists. This is not a salon. A no-nonsense haircut costs $14, plus tip. The signboard at the front door lists a variety of services. But I’ve never seen anyone get anything but a basic haircut there. There are no longer any pictures of dogs playing cards on the walls. But there are old pictures of Virginia Beach, surf pictures and postcards from places some of the regular customers have vacationed.

There are issues of Field & Stream and Sports Illustrated on the magazine rack. People, too. But the magazines that appear to get the most use are Maxim and Garden & Gun, if that tells you something about the mix of customers, which includes an eclectic blend of locals, everyone from surgeons and judges to oceanfront shopkeepers, waiters and drywall installers. The guys who work construction sometimes bring their dogs to the shop.

The defining link among the barbers is that they’ve all been done wrong by one or more husbands, lovers or boyfriend. They’ve been bounced around a lot. Most have pasts they’d rather not talk about. As such, they’re a scrappy bunch, hard working and dedicated to sustaining or regaining their independence.

The Holly Famous Barber Shop is a place of politics too practical to be pinned down to any one party. Politics really don’t factor into conversations much there anyway, unless it’s to complain about the municipal sewer project that’s shut down the street in front of the shop for several months. Mostly there’s just a lot of good-natured ribbing and flirting between the barbers and the customers. And I learned early on that it’s not wise not to raise the hackles of the woman cutting your hair over some silly political topic, especially when she’s the one holding the scissors over your head.