Monday, February 8, 2010

Water Level

Sentries, 2010

Last fall I had lunch with a photographer friend at my favorite Turkish restaurant in Norfolk. (Okay, it’s the only Turkish restaurant I’ve ever been to, in Norfolk or anywhere. The one time I was actually in Turkey I was there barely long enough to see some ruins and have a cup of tea.) The restaurant is located next to the railroad tracks that are the primary route between the coalfields of Appalachia and the port of Norfolk, the country’s busiest coal exporting port. The terminal through which all this soft Appalachian coal is shipped to countries like China and Poland that don’t care about air pollution is located barely a mile west of the Turkish restaurant. Because the tracks are so busy, noisy and dirty, the developer of this restaurant site saw fit to plant tall hedges between them and the restaurant parking lot.

It was a beautiful, warm day. As we were walking back across the parking lot to our cars, I happened to look above the hedges along the railroad track and notice a line of colorful metal objects poking out above the bushes. I didn’t know what they were. But I immediately regretted not having any more than a cell phone camera with me.

I go into Norfolk frequently for meetings. But it still took me several months to get back there with a camera and remember to go find out what those objects poking up above the bushes were.

A couple of Saturdays ago I made it my mission to go back and resolve this mystery. It turns out there’s a scrap metal yard on the opposite side of the railroad tracks from the Turkish restaurant. The owner, perhaps frustrated at not having been able to keep vandals out using a conventional chain link fence, instead bought a bunch of old channel marking buoys and installed them along the perimeter of his property. The buoys are quite heavy. Their different colors and markings tell me that some had come from the ocean, some from the Chesapeake Bay and others from inland rivers. When their bases are full of water, they’d be too heavy to move without a substantial crane. Therefore, when lined up beside each other and ringed with barbed wire, the old buoys are continuing to mark boundaries and warn people away from trouble.

I’d been counting on having a sunny say to brighten up the fading paint on the buoys since that’s how I’d originally seen them. By the time I got into Norfolk and over to the scrap yard, though, clouds had moved in. I stayed for a while to take some test pictures, look for interesting angles, and run back and forth across the railroad tracks to see if there were any other interesting vantage points.

The next time I had to be in Norfolk for a meeting, it was sunny. I’d made sure to have my camera with me. After the meeting, I rushed across town to the scrap yard and quickly took the pictures I’d planned.

The result was a very different series of pictures than I’d intended. Yes, I took the expected pictures, like the one above. But after I’d done that I got up closer to the buoys and noticed something far more interesting. What was interesting was the way each buoy has a different combination of colors, patterns and textures at its water line. Now, this was no great revelation. I’d seen these markings from the very start. But it took getting much closer and eliminating all the other distractions for me to see each of these water lines is its own visual story.

If I were a painter, these are the kinds of abstract paintings I’d paint. Instead, I made photographs. I’m calling the series “Water Level” and it started at my Flickr site yesterday.


  1. and, as I've already noted, the series is outstanding!

  2. I think these are some of my favorites of yours--they're wonderful! I like them from a distance, all quirky and looking for all the world like goofy people lined up, and from close-up, where they look like modern art that should be hanging in a museum.