Friday, July 30, 2010

From the Phototherapist's Couch

Rokeby Road, Delaplane, Virginia, 2010

Help me out here, please.

As regular readers know, I’ve been purposely trying to get away from the most literal kinds of photography lately. After more decades of taking “expected” pictures than I care to admit, I’m trying to see things a little more freshly, a little more differently. The At the Beach series is a good example of this. Water Dance is another.

“Pretty pictures” are plentiful. There are hundreds of humbling examples of them every day at Flickr. The world could go on for years without exhausting the supply. Serious photography magazines, too, don’t care much for them. And to be honest, unless you’ve got some personal connection to the subject or are feeling low and need one of those “Calgon, take me away” moments, you likely look at them quickly and move on to something else that does a better job of grabbing your attention and holding your interest.

My photography has feet in both the literal and slightly more conceptual camps. I say “slightly” because I still try to stick to subjects that I see or find. I don’t create elaborate studio tableaux featuring lithe art school girlfriends in various states of undress. If there’s a “statement” in my photography, I want it to be about the image, not about me.

I have only my few outlets to serve as a barometer. But I seem to have viewers who also have their feet planted in different worlds. The other day when I posted Rokeby Road, Delaplane, Virginia, above, at Flickr, viewers at the three places it was shown skyrocketed in number and far more people than usual made a point of either commenting about the picture or writing to me personally to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Flickr even highlighted the picture on its home page.

It’s an okay picture, a moment, not as cloying as one of those Thomas Kinkade paintings, but still far from offering much of a story or provoking thought.

I was just checking the statistics on this site earlier this morning. Rokeby Road, Delaplane, Virginia caused a spike in readers here, too. But Water Dance, posted a couple of days later, really sent the numbers soaring.

Initially, I was thinking you might help me decide which direction I should pursue. But knowing myself as I do, I know that I’m going to be just keep on being as schizophrenic in my photographic wanderings in the future as I’ve been in the past. (I do want to have fewer encounters with police, though.) So please don't waste your time trying to help.

I’m not the first person to face this quandary, of course. I happened to notice a review in yesterday’s New York Times of an interesting exhibition of portraits by actor, Vulcan and photographer Leonard Nimoy who, in case you didn’t know it, has been making wonderful pictures for years. There are a couple of lines in the review that have to do with either being conceptual, or not, that made laugh.

Speaking of Nimoy, Charles McGrath wrote:

“…in the early 70’s he studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, with Robert Heinecken, a conceptual artists so rigorous, Mr. Nimoy said recently, that if you happened to see a body falling from the sky, you’d be wrong to take a picture of it unless you were already embarked on a study of objects moving through space. Anything else was mere photojournalism.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Scrawny Bird

Pick a Little, Talk a Little, 2009

Last fall my wife decided that our Christmas turkey would be a free-range bird raised at a local family farm. My sister-in-law had bought some things from the farm, collard greens and bacon and such, and spoken highly of it.

The farm is located on the far side of our metropolitan area. They have a network of neighborhood representatives, though, who act as local pick-up spots for people wanting to buy stuff from the farm. We found one such representative nearby. In September my wife called and ordered a 30-pound bird, mailed off a deposit and sat back while out there in the country “our” bird grew into Christmas dinner.

I don’t know how it is where you live. Around here, at least, the locavore lifestyle must be justified on some basis other than cost. Free-range turkeys from local farms are far more expensive than store-bought birds. We tried to ignore this and focus instead on what we anticipated would be the fresh righteous taste of a local bird raised organically by a local family. The very thought was enough to warm our hearts through the chilly fall.

As the December pick-up day approached, we got a note from the farm announcing that all Christmas birds would have to be picked up at the farm. It was a wet and overcast day. We bundled up, threw a big cooler in the back of the car, as instructed, and took off for the country.

It’s about forty-five miles from where we live to the farm. The place itself is probably more what real estate people would call a “farmette.” There are half a dozen or so cleared acres in various states of casual homegrown cultivation. Field lines aren’t very straight, nor corners square. Here and there in the field were stray encampments of chickens or penned calves. There’s a makeshift barn/slaughter house and various ramshackle sheds. The free-range chickens have a large run and an old RV to sleep in. Up against the road is a plain brick ranch, the front yard of which had been turned into a muddy ad hoc parking lot.

Out under a tent in the back yard, the farm parents were handling the poultry and the cash register. Their children—I counted at least nine of them—were passing out cider and home made cookies, picking kale in the field, helping people carry the purchases to their cars and generally helping out. All of the children had jobs, no matter how young. Notwithstanding the clear plastic bags full of dead birds and guts, it was a sweet scene, like something off Walton’s Mountain. Every child had a job and every child was cheerful and polite.

The first thing I noticed about the turkeys was that they were all pretty scrawny looking. Seeing this makes you realize just how much moisture commercial turkey processors pump into their birds to plump them up.

The other thing is that this farm delivers its birds with their necks still on.

As coincidence would have it, our friend Anne, who lives in Paris, had posted on her Flickr page a picture of a Thanksgiving turkey she’d cooked there. In America, turkey necks are usually an ingredient in a basting fluid or something you use to make gravy. En France, it seems, turkeys are cooked and served avec cou.

My wife was initially taken aback at the sight of the neck. If you’ve gone more than fifty years without ever seeing one still attached to the turkey, it can catch you off guard since it looks like something that might appear in a poorly color balanced porn movie. Thinking it might add to the taste of the bird, though, she went ahead and roasted it in the French style, avec cou.

The Scrawny Birds, 2009

In retrospect, I don’t know that the turkey was all that good of an idea. I’ve never added up the full cost of this endeavor because I suspect it would only upset me.

And how was the much awaited bird, you ask? Under all those feathers it was so scrawny and disappointingly tasteless that we had to go to the store and buy another turkey breast so that there’d be enough to feed our Christmas guests.

This Christmas I expect we’ll be back eating factory turkey.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fluid Dynamics

Fluid Dynamics 14, 2005

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m repeating myself. I thought I’d written about the Fluid Dynamics series before. But other than having used one of the photographs from the series to illustrate another story, I can’t find anything. So here we go.

In the fall of 2005 I decided to go take pictures at the beach at sunrise. I’ve lived close to the ocean most of my life and have taken lots of pictures of the beach and the ocean. They’re okay. Some are beautiful. But to be honest, they look like millions of other people’s pictures of the beach and the ocean and, as such, aren’t anything I’d necessarily want to look at every day.

So there I was out on a chilly September morning just before sunrise looking for something different in a familiar subject.

The first pictures I took were pretty straightforward, mostly hazy shots of the first shades of pink in the sky. I knew they would be dull compositions and also full of artifacts, the digital “noise” that is the price paid for using an early generation digital camera in a low light situation.

For a while I thought I was going to end up with just another group of sunrise pictures like you’ve seen a hundred times before. Then, just before the top of the sun peeked over the horizon, there was a period of just a few minutes when the light was magical. I didn’t know how long it would last, just that it wouldn’t last long.

Keep in mind that I was exploring. I didn’t have a specific target in mind. I didn’t know what I was going to end up with. I knew only that I wanted it to be about the organic lines of the water, not a literal seascape.

Fluid Dynamics 2, 2005

Don’t tell your children or your photography teacher, but I didn’t use a tripod. Yes, I know I should have. But until they make one that’s steady as a rock, light as a feather and that fits in my pocket without ripping a hole, the chances are that my tripod will continue to reside in the back of my car.

I stood at the water’s edge, slowed down the shutter speed, closed down the aperture to allow a long exposure and just started taking pictures of whatever was in front of me. I shot rapidly, stepping into and out of the water to change my perspective. After five or six minutes the magical light was replaced by the brighter light and sharper contrast of the first direct rays of the sun. My moment was over. I packed up my stuff and went home, knowing I'd done the best work of the day I was going to do.

Fluid Dynamics 22, 2005

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tasty Acres

Tasty Acres 45, 2008

When I was a kid the seaside town where I was born had about 7,000 people. There were said to be more pigs in the surrounding county than there were people. In 1963 the town and the county merged to create a city that is today home to almost half a million people.

Needless to say, when an area has that kind of growth a lot of things change. Nostalgia being the stock and trade of age, a lot of us have fond memories of how things used to be. Like how storms used to unearth Nineteen Century shipwrecks on the beach or how you could have an evening cookout on the beach without being hassled about the fire. Or how you could drive down into the county and probably not see more than one or two people (to whom you were, in all likelihood, related) all the way down to the salt marshes along the North Carolina border.

The city experienced growth during the 1970s at a nearly exponential rate, so fast that they couldn’t come up with new street names that hadn’t been used before. It was joked that every homebuilder’s wife, daughter, mother, aunt and secretary had a street named for her.

While I was off at college and away starting my career thereafter, the formerly rural county of my ancestors was overrun by residential subdivisions. The big pig growing operation was replaced by thousands of homes, streets, lanes, cul de sacs, schools, shopping centers, office parks, hospitals and all the other signs of suburban sprawl. The old trees, barns, farmhouses and family cemeteries that used to be directional landmarks were replaced with convenience stores. Heck, even the old roads were moved, straightened, widened and eventually replaced with divided parkways. Old crossroads that used to be named for the families whose farms they passed now had four lanes of traffic in each direction. The intersection of Withduck Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard, where I got my first dog from some gypsies who lived in the woods, was once known as Chinese Corner. The Kempsville intersection where one of my great uncles once owned a grocery store and filling station, and where even in my youth there were still original Eighteenth Century raised houses located on the opposite corners, has been enlarged so much that were they still standing all of those original buildings would be sitting almost directly under the network of stoplights that control traffic at that intersection today.

But enough of that. Times and places change. We must, too.

During the first real estate boom of the 1960s, most new homes were built with brick. But over time it became cheaper to clad houses with vinyl siding. Some builders chose to fill entire subdivisions with houses all within the same narrow beige or pale yellow palette. My wife and I used to joke that these neighborhoods—we lived in one ourselves for a while—looked just like Tasty Acres, the fictitious Southern California neighborhood where Lily Tomlin and Ned Beatty lived in The Incredible Shrinking Woman or where Dianne Wiest lived in Edward Scissorhands.

Tasty Acres 35, 2008

Every now and then I drive down through the “county” to check out old landmarks and see what’s changed. A year or so ago I was surprised to find that despite the collapse of the housing boom work was proceeding on the conversion of a large former borrow pit into a residential subdivision. I haven’t been back there in a while, and I’ll admit that its builders were brave enough to embrace a few bolder colors. But it still had all the markings of a classic Tasty Acres, all bright and shiny and, as those little paper ribbons they used to put on motel toilets said, “Sanitized for your protection.”

Tasty Acres 45, 2008

Tasty Acres 38, 2008

Monday, July 26, 2010

Water Dance

Water Dance 4, 2010

(Double Click to see Larger)

On Friday morning, when I should have been in the office diligently wrapping up a client report, I instead slipped out to turn the water sprinkler on a allée of hydrangeas in the side yard that have been particularly distressed by all this heat we’ve been having lately.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I was also suffering from a bit of writer’s block and needed something to distract me before I could return to thinking more clearly about what I wanted to say in the report. (Writer’s block comes to me not in the form of not knowing what to write, but rather how to organize all the noisy things that are bouncing around in my head. There’s a probably a perfectly safe medication for this. But I’d rather have colliding ideas than risk having none at all.)

In any event, I set the sprinkler down on the garden path between the rows of hydrangeas and looked down to check my legs for ticks. As I lifted my head back up I happened to see the sun shining through the fountain of water coming out of the sprinkler. Rather than take in the literal view, though, it was as if my eyes focused on the water at a more molecular level.

I ran inside to grab a camera and came back and shot a few pictures. The first ones were pretty “expected.” Then I started slowing down the shutter speed.

Sprinkler in the Back Yard, 2010

Interesting, but nothing special. Then I started increasing the shutter speed. That seemed to capture more of what my eye was seeing. Water Dance 4, above, and Water Dance 7 are the result of that. I like the Brownian Motion, like sparks, in Water Dance 4, while Water Dance 7 looks like something Van Gogh might have painted.

Other than a little cropping, all of these images are straight out of the camera with very minimal post processing.

Water Dance 7, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

Decisions You Live With

Self-Portrait, 1967

Our daughter and her husband live in New York and mingle with the tragically hip from time to time. You don’t have to have been living under a rock to know that tattoos have been a big thing with the tragically hip of all ages for some time now. When we used to attend their street hockey league games on the Lower East Side, you’d see young artists, writers, musicians and stockbrokers covered in everything from discreet little tattoos of hearts and fishes to full “sleeves” of body art running from their wrists to their shoulders, across their backs and chests and all up and down their legs.

If you’re a parent of a young person who came of age over the last fifteen years, you’ve probably had a skirmish or two over piercings and tattoos. A friend wisely advised us early on to pick our battles carefully when dealing with a teenage child. I like to think we did just that, giving our daughter enough space to be experimental (e.g. blue hair) and enough independence to learn how to spend time on her own so that we could save our chips for the really serious stuff.

The summer she turned 18, it seemed important to our daughter that she do something to signal this first step into the world of formal independence. Her ears were already full of piercings. There was talk of something in the tongue. As a favor to us, I suspect, she didn’t do anything until the fall when, about ten minutes after we’d dropped her off in New York for her freshmen year of college, she went looking for a place to get her tongue pierced. By the time we saw her again a month later, we didn’t even notice the little stud in her tongue until she pointed it out. If she’d had swelling or infection, she’d endured it without any nagging from us. We didn’t say much about it and eventually the stud disappeared when the impracticality of a tongue stud became clear to her, too.

Our daughter still expresses some interest in getting a little tattoo every now and then. She’s an adult, so we stay out of such affairs, hoping that now that she’s in her late 20s and giving serious thought to having her own children she might be doubly cautious about inking something really obnoxious across her body.

One of my daughter’s friends is the wife of a famous indie rock musician. When they were together recently our daughter noticed for the first time that the woman has extensive “sleeve” tattoos up and down both of her arms. When she observed that she’d only seen the woman before in long-sleeved shirts and wondered why the woman didn’t show the tattoos more, the woman explained:

“You wouldn’t want to live for the rest of your life in the room you decorated when you were 16, would you? It’s the same way with tattoos.”

That same thought occurred to me recently when I came across the self-portrait shown above. I think I was somewhere around fifteen when I stood in front of the camera for this picture. Later on I would realize that at that age I looked like some kind of adolescent creep meant to be played on stage by Andy Kaufman or Crispin Glover. No wonder I had such a feeble social life!

I never had any piercings or tattoos. But I sure hope I never have to explain this picture to a grandchild.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shoot Something or Someone Every Day

Waiting to Go Aloft in Nashville, 2010

If you want to get good at something, you have to exercise every day. To be an excellent athlete, your body has to be conditioned to see opportunities that last little more than a glimmer of a second and execute them flawlessly. To be a good soldier your body has to be fit and your mind has to be trained to follow rigorously rehearsed protocols without thinking. You sure wouldn’t want to go to the surgeon who hasn’t done whatever you’re going to let him or her do to your body many times before on other people?

The same rigor applies to photography. You have to know your camera very well to know how to operate it without thinking when distractions get in the way. I forget this every now and then. I’ll go a while without taking pictures. A few days, maybe even a week or two. Sometimes I’m distracted by “day job” responsibilities. Sometimes I have a backlog of images to work on. Sometimes I’m just lazy.

There’s a price for this laziness. Holding a camera in my right hand is second nature. But when I’ve put the camera down for a little while, I have to condition my body to pick it back up. When I’m lazy or especially distracted, my disciplined “professional” senses, the ones I use to watch, listen to and understand what people are about when I’m doing marketing research, have to be told that they can relax and be open to the unexpected shapes, sounds, colors and moments of the world around me.

I’d had a long day of work in Nashville earlier this week, for example, before I took Waiting to Go Aloft in Nashville, above. I had only my iPhone camera with me. (Recognize that as the flimsy excuse it is if, like me, you buy into the notion that the “best camera” is whatever camera you have with you.) I was waiting to board my plane to return home, reviewing the day’s notes, when I happened to look up and notice the dynamic sky just outside the window.

It wasn’t like this was some great revelation. The picture isn’t anything to write home about, as the old saying goes. But it was just the mental sorbet I needed at the moment, enough to distract me momentarily from my work, give me an appreciation of the natural world and send me back to work after I’d taken the picture with my phone cam with a mind refreshed.

If you want to get better, you have to photography something every day, no matter where you are, no matter whether you have a “good” camera with you, or not, and even if the only subject at hand to shoot is your own foot. Don’t believe me? Check out this or this, or worse yet, this.

I Will Shoot Splatter Patterns on the Ground if There’s Nothing Else, 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More from the Overhead Dept.

Charlotte Douglas Airport, 2010

Overheard at the Charlotte Airport:

“I love you, too, Honey. Be good for Daddy while I’m gone.”

“I did not provoke the fight with your brother. He didn’t need me to tell him he’s an irresponsible ass.”

“I had such a good time this weekend. How long has it been since we had two days all to ourselves?”

“The lord is my shepherd….”


“If you hadn’t insisted on wearing that damned belt buckle, we wouldn’t have spent an eternity getting through security.”

“No, you can’t have a Cinnabon for dinner. Do we have Cinnabons for dinner at home?”

“Don’t stare, Henry. That man probably lost his arm in an accident. He doesn’t need you staring at him.”

“Who’d have thought your father would have so much fun with the kids. I thought you told me he was never around when you were a kid?”

“It never fails to amaze me how people dress to travel. Did you see that girl?”

“I told you he said Gate B18, not E18. Do you know how far we have to walk now?”

“If Mom finds out what we did at the beach, we’re going to be in deep shit.”

“God, I wish I’d taken Monday off, too. I am so wasted.”

“She says I don’t listen to her enough. I don’t get it. I took her to three movies last week.”

“He’s 18, for crying out loud! Let him play around some.”

“Ten degrees above zero and forty knot winds. Makes being stuck in Charlotte sound good.”

“I will not stay at any friggin’ Red Lion Inn.”

“I can see you looking at her. I’m sitting right here beside you. I can see when you’re looking at other women.”

“When can we do this again?”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Skiffle Off to Buffalo

Skiffle Minstrels - 26, 2010

In Buffalo, you expect polkas. You expect German Dätschers or Patschers. You expect all the other kinds of indigenous dances that are the remnants of Buffalo’s various immigrant communities.

What you don’t expect to encounter in Buffalo is rockabilly and Zydeco. But when I was visiting Buffalo recently my sister insisted that we go downtown to the Taste of Buffalo to hear the Skiffle Minstrels, a group that describes itself as “an eccentric bunch of Buffalo musicians…who play country-western and Cajun standards as well as upbeat originals with a swinging beat that gets ‘em on the floor.”

The Minstrels were performing on an outdoor stage as part of The Taste of Buffalo, an outdoor food festival held downtown on city streets. There were all kinds of food being sold at Taste, including local favorites hot wings and beef on weck.

Skiffle Minstrels - 34, 2010

I didn’t taste any of this. I didn’t buy a brat or even so much as a beer or soft drink. But I did enjoy listening to The Skiffle Minstrels. The founding member of the group was a high school classmate of my nephew. (Which just goes to show you that if starring in Fiddler on the Roof in high school ignites your performance genes, there’s a good chance you’ll be so smitten that you'll willingly end up busking on the street or playing bars and street festivals later on.) The girl singer/fiddler is an acquaintance of my sister.

The Skiffle Minstrels are reminiscent of groups like BR549. They play all the Hanks—Williams, Penny and Snow—with confidence and gusto. You can’t sit still when Pal Todaro starts tugging on the standing bass.

Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Buffalo.

Skiffle Minstrels - 24, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Small Town Scene

Leicester, New York - 12, 2010

Now, these are scenes you probably wouldn’t see where I live. They’re from what looks to be the town park of Leicester, New York, a village I passed through only because my GPS device sent me south out of Batavia via Route 36 instead of the usual Route 63. (How about those route numbers for symmetry? They’re like complementary sine curves that wind around and even cross over each other for about thirty miles between Batavia and Dansville.)

I drove into Leicester just before 7:00 a.m. The sun was barely over the horizon. There was fog close to the ground in the rolling hills outside town and wafting through the village as I approached a stop sign across from this park. It was so quiet that you could hear the voices of people in the houses around the park getting ready for the day.

Leicester has a population of 436. To put that into perspective, I live in a city that has roughly a thousand people for every resident of Leicester and is part of a metropolitan area with nearly five times that many people. When I was a kid, there was a small town feel here. But those days are long past.

One of the things I enjoy about traveling in western New York State and across New England is the profusion of small towns and the small town-ness of them. You get the impression that many are still small enough to be self-determining by town hall meetings that stand a good chance to drawing a majority of the town’s citizens. A town hall meeting on an important issue in my city, by comparison, might draw a hundred people, or roughly 2/10,000 of the population. Not very intimate, eh?

When I drive through a village like Leicester, the difference between its pace and the pace of where I live is striking. I don’t know that life is any easier or better in either place. But places like Leicester do seem to have more palpable connection with a lot of things.

Leicester, New York - 9, 2010

Like patriotism. Many of those who fight and have fought in America’s wars have come from small towns. When someone from my city dies in war, your connection to that person is no more than a picture in the paper. When someone from a small town dies in war, the whole town feels the loss. People in small towns know, or at least know of each other. Patriotism in such places seems more tangible and less jingoistic than it is around here.

Which brings me back to this gazebo. I suspect the bunting was left up from the previous week’s Independence Day celebration. I can imagine there might have been a band playing in the gazebo or on the lawn nearby. Maybe townsfolk gathered on the lawn for a picnic and to restore community ties. Whatever happened in Leicester, I feel pretty confident that if such a gazebo were to be placed along the boardwalk of Virginia Beach or at one of our larger public parks, it’s likely the bunting would have been stolen or defaced and not left to remind us of the potential of a new day.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Cloud Ballet - 24, 2010

In music, the word Nuages recalls Debussy and Django Reinhardt. Both composed pieces inspired by clouds. In the context of photography, Nuages brings to mind a series of photographs Alfred Stieglitz made in the Adirondack Mountains during the 1920s and 1930s. This groundbreaking series, better known as “Equivalent,” was described by the Phillips Collection this way:

“A symbolist aesthetic underlies these images, which became increasingly abstract equivalents of his own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. The theory of equivalence…was infused by Kandinsky's ideas, especially the belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, often emotive ‘vibrations of the soul.’ In his cloud photographs, which he termed Equivalents, Stieglitz emphasized pure abstraction, adhering to the modern ideas of equivalence, holding that abstract forms, lines, and colors could represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas.”

Stieglitz’ clouds were especially meaningful to me when I first came upon them in the 1960s because, beyond their obvious beauty, they were among the first photographs that told me that photography could be something more than reportage. When I first came into photography, I was drawn initially to the work of the early European photojournalists and then the more contemporary Magnum co-op photojournalists. In short, lots of reportage. Then I came across André Kertész’ On Reading, which I’ve mentioned here before, and Stieglitz.

The early history of photography tracked a line that began with fascination with self, followed by a fascination with place and then, finally, a fascination with presenting the history of the day. In the early Twentieth Century, the work of people like Stieglitz, Man Ray, Kertész and a few others introduced the idea that photography could be more conceptual, more like art. This very idea was controversial and continued to be so for another thirty years.

Cloud Ballet - 31, 2010

The clouds shown here were passing over the Boston Valley of western New York State, a few hundred miles west of Stieglitz’ Lake George country home. I don’t ascribe to them any “abstract equivalents” of my own experience. I’ve titled them Cloud Ballet because of the way they portray the interaction of lightness and tension. There’s give and take and just enough imbalance to suggest, say, Stravinsky rather than Debussy.

These photographs are a good example of what happens when you think you’re going to be out taking one kind of photograph and end up being captivated by something entirely different. I suspect it’s the joy of this very serendipitous kind of discovery, as much as anything else, that propels me back out day after day to make photographs. On this particular day, I had a few hours to kill surveying the red barns and babbling brooks of the Boston Valley before attending a family wedding. However, when I stopped briefly atop a ridge overlooking the valley, I realized there was far more interesting material in the sky above me than there was on the ground below.

Cloud Ballet - 25, 2010