Tuesday, August 31, 2010

First Impressions

Skim Boarders, 2010

I don’t know how it is with you. But when I “see” a picture, or a “moment” forming I take a quick shot with the camera and then stay in the same place for a while waiting for a better version of the same shot—say, a shot with better light or composition—to come along.

Every now and then this pays off, which I why I guess I keep doing it. But usually the follow-up shots turn out to be the photographic version of “You should have been here yesterday.”

Case in point: while standing on the beach the other day waiting for the skim board competition to begin at the East Coast Surfing Competition, the crowd between me and the rope line separating spectators from competitors cleared for just a few seconds. I had just enough time to lift the camera and take the picture shown above before people started walking back into the scene.

I didn’t really like the composition of the first shot. I liked the elements: the colorful pennants in the foreground, the skim boarders and the surf in the middle and the dark sky above them. Three nice layers to the photo. But the skim boarders didn’t quite form the shape I wanted. So I kept shooting, as shown in the sequence below.

Follow-Up Shots to Skim Boarders

But each shot got worse than the one before it. Somebody would walk into the frame. I tilted the camera too much. The huddle of skim boarders spread out as they got ready for their heat to begin. I even unwound the pennant on the righthand side.

In short, the original moment was the moment worth photographing. It was what it was and I couldn’t wish it into something better. What came afterwards was just mindless documentation. You have to capture those moments when you see them because after that they’re gone and no amount of waiting will bring them back.

(This is probably a lesson about how to live your life, too. But I’m too tired to learn from it now.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting Closer. Making the Ask.

Live it Up, 2010

You’d have been so proud of me.

I went to the East Coast Surfing Competition on Saturday. This was the 48th ECSC, as it’s known around here. Through the years it’s attracted surfers from up and down the East Coast, with a few celebrity surfers thrown in to spice things up and draw a crowd. But it’s also always been something of an iffy proposition because some years there was hardly any surf to ride.

This year, though, Hurricane Danielle sent swells ashore that made for great waves when they hit the beach at the south end of the Virginia Beach resort area.

Back when ECSC first started, it really was about the sport, which in the early 1960s was just starting to make the transition from the heavy wooden boards of the Hawaiians progenitors to lighter and sleeker fiberglass boards. ECSC may never have been a purely grassroots thing. But the concept of “sports marketing” and the idea that such events could be packaged as marketing extravaganzas was still in its infancy back then. Today’s sports marketing pros would probably wince at all the money the early organizers “left in the sand.”

The innocence of those days is long gone. ECSC in 2010 is still about the surf. The surfing enthusiasts, a mostly 40-something crowd punctuated by the occasional young person with a board, hugged the shoreline on Saturday morning to watch the action on the water. But the real crowd was the gridlocked scrum of 14 year-old boys and girls lined up in the vendor area to get spray-on tattoos, free energy drinks, shots at the skateboarding half pipes and a good place to stand and watch motorbike acrobats. In short, it was prime territory for the hormonally advancing.

On yeah, and music. As I was leaving on Saturday, a band of young men with hearty Celtic brogues was launching into a heavy metal screed that had as its refrain, “I’m so stoned and I’m not going to do anything about it!”

But that’s not the part you’d be proud of. Some places you go these days it seems like everyone under the age of twenty has a tattoo, and I’m not talking about the spray-on ones that the suburban teenyboppers can wash off before Mom sees them. No, there were lots of people at ECSC with whole stretches of their bodies covered with epic graphic novel-like statements. The kid, above, in Live it Up was one of the tamest examples. But he’s the first person that I actually stopped on the boardwalk and asked if I could photograph.

It is like they say. The first one’s the hardest. Then it gets easier. After I stopped this kid, I saw three cute girls wearing “I Love Virginia Beach” hats sitting on a bench. They said “yes,” too, although one asked me to wait until she’d finished a mouthful of gyro. After that, I had no shame. I asked anyone if I could photograph them.

In retrospect, I supposed that to some of these kids the idea of saying no to me would have been like saying no to their grandfathers. Whatever the case, I’m on a roll.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Norfologists, 2010

For a moment I felt like I was in a pub in Amsterdam. Well, I was drinking a Dutch beer. And I was surrounded by a crowd of hip young people. And it was a pub only in the respect that the hip young people were gathered around tables engaged in earnest discussion about the future of the city they call home.

Norfologists, they call themselves. Norfology is a joint project of AltDaily, a local online magazine and the City of Norfolk Department of Economic Development. The purpose of the project is to create a sense of community among young professionals that can, among other things, help stem the city’s brain drain.

Last night’s gathering was designed to give some of the project’s followers a chance to identify issues of importance to them and see if there were ways they could work together to address these issues. There were table discussions on such issues as public transportation, the local music scene, bike paths, high-speed rail and, just to keep things lively, spiritual mindfulness.

Strictly speaking, I was just there to observe (hiding discreetly behind a succession of bottled beers and peeking out only so often to grab a coconut-encrusted fried shrimp from my plate before Walt and Hannah ate them all). There’s a good thirty years of age and grizzled life experience between me and most of the people there. I don’t even live in Norfolk. But I am very interested in civic engagement and wanted to see how this group worked and what kinds of issues they raised.

I’m always impressed when I see people come together determined to work on something. Last night’s group had a sense of enthusiasm and open-mindedness that was energizing. I don’t know if all the young people there fit the “young professional” definition exactly. But they cared enough to come out by bicycle, bus, car and foot to take part in the conversation. That’s more than enough for me. Did I mention there was beer?

Oh, and the picture above? That’s, from left to right, the charming Ginger expounding on the merit of keeping sand bags around for when the Lafayette River rises, Stan politely trying to look interested and Walt trying to bring us all to our senses with a rousing read from the book of Leviticus.

More Norfologists, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some Old Plane

Some Old Plane, 2008

I live near one of the U.S. Navy’s busiest master jet bases. It’s located just a few miles from the oceanfront. When it was first opened, Virginia Beach was little more than a village hugging the shoreline. The base’s runways were surrounded by little but fields and woods. Over the years the city grew up around the base, so close that every now and then the Navy threatens to pull up stakes and move the jets and the base’s billion dollar economic impact to some other more isolated place where, if planes crash on take off or landing they won’t come down on elementary schools, malls or houses.

There’s a huge military presence throughout our region. Every branch of the service is here, most with multiple installations. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed directly or indirectly by the Department of Defense and related agencies. The U.S. Navy’s Mediterranean and Atlantic fleets are based here. NATO’s American headquarters is here. NASA did its first astronaut training and continues to do research over in Hampton. The CIA trains people at a top-secret base just up the road. There’s a “space port” over on the Eastern Shore. Everywhere you turn there are big gray ships and aircraft of all shapes and sizes zooming overhead. It’s nothing to be driving down a local boulevard and look up and notice a stealth bomber or an F/A 18 Super Hornet fighter jet looking for all the world like it’s getting ready to land on the highway right in front of you. They get that close to the ground on approach.

Military aviation operations are so omnipresent around here that real estate agents used to not show houses in certain neighborhoods on days when they knew the Navy would be using certain runways or approaches that crossed these neighborhoods. It’s that noisy.

Years ago the City passed an ordinance requiring that anyone buying residential property in the city be shown and put their signature on a map indicating which noise or aircraft accident zone the residence is in. That way you couldn’t say you weren’t warned. (Unless, of course, you moved into a Zone 2 neighborhood, as we did, and then the Navy changed aircraft and all of a sudden you found yourself upgraded to a Zone 1 neighborhood, the loudest.)

People complain. It is noisy at times, enough so that you’ll need to apologize to people of the telephone when you can’t hear them or that you’ll have to turn the TV or radio up to a level than can be heard in the next zip code. A couple of Super Hornets flew over the house this afternoon at such low altitude that the dog put her tail between her back legs and tried to burrow into the ground under the hydrangeas.

But most of us at least try to give them a break. These young pilots screeching just over our heads and doing repetitive touch-and-goes on the runway might be training to make nighttime landings on aircraft carriers, about as dangerous a thing as anyone ever thought of doing in an airplane. The jets screaming overhead today might be flying actual combat missions in the Middle East or Afghanistan this time next week. Enduring the “Sound of Freedom” is a small price to pay to make sure these young men and women are properly trained. And for a lot of us, it’s as close as we come to feeling any real burden from the current wars. But that knowledge sure didn’t make it any easier to sleep last night!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the Interest of Full Disclosure Dept.

One More Embrace Before We Go, 2010

No, I don’t have anything to disclose about taking money or gifts from anyone to promote or say anything here. (Though I’m still more than willing to become a shameless shill for Nikon. All it takes is one D3 and a couple of good lenses, guys.) It’s more of a confession or, as I’m choosing to look at it, a lesson in how unexpected consequences are frequently better than anything you planned.

I posted One More Embrace Before We Go, above, at Flickr yesterday. It’s part of the ongoing At The Beach project. When this image first came out of the camera I was struck by the sinuous lines of the water, the warm tone of the sand and the two figures and their close fit. “Embrace” was the first thought that came to mind.

Here’s the confession and the unexpected consequence: There’s only one person in this photograph; it is a single man standing at the edge of the Lynnhaven Inlet tidal basin holding a blue bait net. He’d just gathered up the net as I approached. I was waiting for him to toss it back out across the water again so that I could apply the panning movement that I’ve been using in this series and get a photograph with a broad sweep of blue against the background of the green water.

Only as I stood there waiting for him to do this, I discovered that he was actually rolling up the net up in preparation for going home. Just as he finished rolling the net into a long cylinder shape about as tall as he was, I quickly panned the camera from left to right and got the image that you see here.

The “two” figures are so closely aligned because they are the same figure. The blue is not another person. It’s the net. My abstract eye saw the moment as two figures embracing, though, and I’m sticking to that story!

But for now I’m going to go take a shower and wash away my shame.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Riding the Rails

Grand Central Terminal, 2007

My father worked almost all of his career for railroads, most of that time for just one, the Norfolk & Western Railway. When I was a kid, family members of railroad employees got passes that allowed them to travel for free anywhere on the line. My sister came along just in time to take advantage of this when she was in college. But the time I came of age, the passes had been phased out and the whole concept of passenger rail was undergoing change. The once genteel passenger rail service on the N&W—on trains named Powhatan, Pocahontas and Raleigh—was disappearing and would be eliminated or substantially reduced by the time I got to college and could have used one of those passes to see the country.

But those years of riding the N&W up and down the track between Norfolk and Roanoke left their imprint on me. To this day I can think of no more civilized way to travel than to step on a train, take a comfortable seat by the window and watch the view as the train glides down the tracks.

Of course, rail travel isn’t what it used to be. When I was a child and rode the train back and forth between Norfolk and Roanoke to visit my father, the passenger cars were becoming worn looking. But the dining cars were still shiny and were staffed by proud black men who were not only thoroughly serious and professional in their jobs, but also had pride of being among the most respected members of the African American middle class. On the N&W, the dining car service was impeccable and you ate off real china and used real silver flatware. In my mind’s eye I can still see and hear those silver pitchers from which they served ice water and tea.

I’m far from a serious rail aficionado. But when there is a good opportunity for me to take a train instead of flying or driving, I’ll be on the train. My friend Greg Ward wrote the other day about a trip he and his son took to and from Washington by train. This is a trip I’ve taken a number of times, and extended as far north as Boston and, on VIA Rail Canada, across Eastern Canada from Toronto to Quebec.

Union Station, Richmond, 1970

Trains are great places for stories because you’re generally seating around a lot of people for several hours at a time. It’s also my experience that train people also tend to be more sociable than airplane passengers, too. One time I got on the club car headed north out of Newport News, Virginia, and the only other passenger in the car was a woman freshly released from a psychiatric hospital. She was clearly nervous to be on her own and had the slight difficulty walking that people who use lithium to stabilize their mood sometimes have. But she was friendly and harmless. The two of us rode alone in the rail car for the first twenty minutes of the ride up to Williamsburg. But in that twenty minutes the woman managed to tell me her entire life story, all of the protocols of her most recent hospitalization and all about the relatives she was going to stay with in Philadelphia. While doing this, she also managed to dump everything in her purse and suitcase out on the floor of the rail car. I mean everything. The floor around her seat was awash with eyeliner pencils, lipsticks, coins, pens, train tickets, Chap sticks, candy wrappers, all kinds of scraps of paper, cigarettes, keys and underwear.

When more passengers got on at Williamsburg, I was relieved to have someone else on board to keep the woman occupied. Several very proper Southern ladies—the kind who still wore white gloves when they traveled by train—looked as the woman as if she was dangerous. By the time the train pulled out of the station and headed for Richmond, though, the woman had gathered up all her belongings, the porter had helped her pack them back into her bags and settled the woman back into her seat, where she was much calmer now that we’d gotten a few miles closer to her destination. Every now and then for the next couple of hours, I’d hear her laugh out loud as she described to seatmates who got on in Richmond, Washington and Baltimore how much fun she was going to have when she got to Philadelphia. But by then hers was just one of many conversations floating among the congenial band of travelers in the last car on a train headed north.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.

Tattoo Man, 2010

Allison and I had a brief e-mail exchange the other day about the camera equipment we carry with us. She described how free she’d felt when she left her camera bag filled with every piece of camera equipment she owns at home and instead gone on a trip with just her camera and a single 50mm lens.

I described how I carry a backpack full of lens, filters, spare batteries, chargers, cleaning supplies, a backup storage drive and a backup camera when I travel for vacation. But when I’m on a business trip and don’t want to add an extra ounce to my load I, too, reduce the pile to a single camera and single lens. The camera’s always hanging over my shoulder, always at hand.

I’ll probably always carry the whole bag of tricks when I have the luxury of a car to carry it in. But more often than not, I’ve found that having the flexibility of having all that extra equipment with me translates into fewer shots rather than more. In many cases the moment I was trying to capture will have passed while I was fumbling around in the bag for just the right lens.

(As I wrote that, I remembered that I’ve started carrying two cameras, one with a long lens and one with a shorter, wider one, when I shoot parades. So maybe all isn’t lost. But I mean, really, how often do you shoot parades? And just how pretentious do you want to look, Mr. Two Cameras Man?)

The larger point is this: one of the things I’m trying to train myself to do a better job of is forgetting about thinking before I take a picture. That probably sounds counterintuitive, especially if you’re a photographer who is big on careful arrangement of the scenes you photograph. Now that I think about it, I recall hearing photojournalists who cover wars and other tragic events describe how they have to shut down their thinking processes and become almost mechanical about shooting what they see in front of them. If they stop to consider a horrific war scene, the moment will have passed. If they stop to take in the human toll of an earthquake, they’ll be too emotionally involved to do their job.

As a rule, I face no wars and few natural calamities in the course of my photography. I can think of a half dozen times, though, in the last year when I’ve missed good pictures because I waited too long to take them. That car full of Goth kids who lifted their tops to provoke me, for example. While I stood there thinking about how I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of acting out in front of me, I should have taken the picture and worried about the morals later on. And then there was the young couple I saw on the street embracing after a fight. It was a sweet emotional instance of young love that many people can identify with. I should have taken the picture right that second rather than be drawn into the tenderness of the moment (especially since two minutes later they were back to fighting again).

In both of these cases I could have easily deleted the photographs later on if I decided they were too provocative or too invasive of the subjects’ privacy. But since I never took them I didn’t have that choice. No one lost in this proposition but me.

Tattoo Man, above, is another good example. I saw this old man walking down the oceanfront boardwalk recent. His chest and arms are covered with tattoos, made only more interesting by his age and a generally hostile facial expression. I wanted to ask him to let me take a full portrait shot of him that would include all the tats as well as his facial expression. But I waited too long and when I finally got my act together for permission his wife was yelling at him to “get the f*** back to the car so we can get the f*** out of here!”

Just take the picture. Think about it later.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In the Rooms

Living History, 2004

Many recovering alcoholics, when asked where they derive the strength to see their way from day to day without a drink, refer to “the rooms.” They might refer to people they’d trust with their lives, but who they know by first name only, because they’re fellow travelers they’ve met “in the rooms.” That’s how much “the rooms” mean to them.

The “rooms” they’re referring to are all of the various places—church Sunday school rooms, school classrooms, community centers, office building break rooms, airport lounges, cruise ship staterooms and luxury hotel conference rooms—where meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous are held. Most of us don’t have reason to be conscious of these gatherings. But if you look around, you’ll find there are meetings taking place all through the day in all kinds of places near where you live and work.

In the course of my professional work, I’ve had a chance to visit a few of these rooms and get a sense of how what goes on there arms AA members to cope. The path to recovery may look simple to someone who doesn’t have a problem with alcohol. But it’s a long and tough slog for many of those who do. When a recovering drinker gets edgy, the rooms are where they find understanding company, honesty and reinforcement.

In the marketing research world, we have our own “rooms” where we try to create the same sense of openness, honesty and insightful exploration. In our case, they’re focus group rooms. Over the years I’ve conducted a few thousand focus groups. I’ve done them in about as many different kinds of places as where AA meetings are held. Most focus groups, though, are conducted in very plain meeting rooms specifically designed for that purpose.

Fieldwork O’Hare, 2005

Some of the same elements of the group therapy method of modern psychiatry that can be found in twelve-step programs are used in focus groups. Everyone sits around a table or in a more casual setting, preferably in a circle, where the can see each other and be on an equal footing. A skilled moderator leads them through a semi-structured conversation. You’d think people would be uneasy in such a setting. A few are. But you’d be amazed at what people tell you about themselves when all you’re really trying to find out is how they distinguish between the brand personalities of different banks, hospitals or hot dogs.

If I’ve learned anything from doing this kind of work, it’s that most people don’t have anyone who’ll sit and listen to them for a few hours, to give them the gift of unconditional acceptance, no matter how wise or cockamamie the words that come out of their mouths might be.

That doesn’t mean I like all the people I meet in focus groups. I have something of a specialty in dealing with what we in the trade refer to as “hostile audiences.” Dealing with these groups can be a challenge. But you know that going into it and can be prepared to use or defuse the hostility.

It’s the people you meet in the seemingly easy groups, though, that surprise you. Over the years I’ve met thousands of profoundly kind and decent people from just about every walk of life. But every now and then I run across people whose values and behavior are so repugnant that I felt like I have to take a shower after spending two hours in the same room with them.

Every now and then I get a chance to get out of the meeting room and interact with people in their own milieu. I met the couple shown above on a shuttle bus at Colonial Williamsburg. They have costumes there for youth visitors. But it’s a little unusual to find grown-up visitors in period costume. When I asked the couple about their dress, the explained that they are both “really, really into history” and are amassing over time, as their budget allows, a full authentic Colonial wardrobe that they can parlay into jobs as historic interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. To which I could only reply in my best researcher voice:

“That’s so interesting. Tell me more.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Stuff We Carry With Us

Stopped, 2010

I’m told that Californians are encouraged to keep a stash of emergency supplies—clothing, medications, copies of important papers, etc.—in their cars in case an earthquake makes a hasty evacuation necessary. We don’t have earthquakes where I live. We have hurricanes, but hurricanes usually give you enough notice to get a few things packs.

Around here, it’s the day-to-day traffic that gets you and requires its own set of supplies.

When my daughter attended the College of William & Mary, her dorm was 62 miles from our house. Not far, you say. But depending on the traffic, it could take an hour to get there or more than five hours. Such is our local traffic.

This is not a post about traffic, though. Enough hot air has been expended on that topic elsewhere. Rather, this is a post about the supplies we carry with us.

My wife’s pocketbook is a veritable Fibber McGee’s closet of things she carries “just in case.” I dare say that if we were out driving somewhere and suddenly needed to do, say, a root canal or dress a deer she’d have all the necessary tools. I like to look upon my wallet as a more efficiently organized collection. But deep in its folds are membership cards to museums and clubs I haven’t belonged to in years, all sorts of travel affinity cards that I’m sure I haven’t taken out of the wallet since the Reagan Administration and at least one “emergency” travelers check that dates from at least the early 1980s.

Getting around our area requires a variety of water crossings. There are five major bridge-tunnel facilities and countless other bridges of all lengths and shapes. On most any day at most any time of the day, there’ll be a stoppage or bottleneck condition at one or more of these facilities causing traffic to back up for many miles and taking many hours to get flowing again. Add to this a lot of regular highways that haven’t been substantially improved since the 1970s and you’ll understand when I say that it’s easy to spend a lot of time sitting in traffic around here.

Whenever I have to travel across our metropolitan area by car, there are at least three things I try to have with me: something good to read; a camera and at least one legal pad and a glove box full of pencils and pens. (You never know when or where inspiration will strike.) Yesterday I drove up to Williamsburg for lunch. Theoretically this is a one-hour drive. But you have to allow two “”just in case.” Yesterday I needed both hours, and ironically when traffic came to a standstill on the westbound approach to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel I spent about thirty minutes reading a fascinating New Yorker magazine article about the traffic in Moscow.

Much has been written and recommended about what kind of supplies photographers “should” carry with them when they out to take pictures. There’s always a tripod in the back of my car, but I rarely use it. If I don’t know what I’m going to be photographing, I try to carry a backpack that carries an alternate camera body and a variety of lenses, filters and such. That gives me more technical flexibility. But sometimes the backpack, however compact, is just one more hassle to deal with and ends up getting left at home. When all else fails, I’ll take one camera with a middling zoom lens on it and let that be it.

By the way, in case you want a tip on how to beat the traffic between here and Williamsburg, it is this: take the state ferry from Jamestown across the James River to Scotland Neck and work your way back home through the two-lane countryside; it’s longer, but the ferry’s free and what journey isn’t made better by a boat ride?

On the Pocahantas, 2003

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Julius Shulman

A Poor Imitation of the Style of Julius Shulman, 2006

When the famous architectural photographer Julius Shulman died last year, it didn’t make a huge impression on me. I knew his work. You’d probably recognize it, too, even if you don’t recognize his name. Shulman’s photographs of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study No. 22 house in Los Angeles and Richard Neutra’s Kauffman residence in Palm Springs are probably two of the most iconic examples of residential architectural photography in the United States. Los Angeles gallery owner Craig Krull says simply of Shulman:

“He’s the most important architectural photographer in history.”

For many people, I suspect, it’s Shulman’s exquisite black and white photographs that define Southern Californian Modernism. Shulman came to California in the 1920s and got to know Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and other cutting edge architects of the day. He championed their work and they grew to trust him above all other photographers. Now that some of the buildings they designed are gone, it’s Shulman’s photographs that keep them alive for students of architecture and others.

(I wrote about Schindler and Neutra here after visiting two of their best-known projects in LA last December.)

I never knew much about Shulman the man, though. There’s a terrific documentary about him, Visual Acoustics, that’s running currently on the Sundance Channel. It was produced a few years before his death and I commend it to you highly if you’re interested in the intersection of photography and architecture.

Shulman loved his work and he respected the architects whose work he photographed. In the documentary, one art historian says the residences photographed by Shulman:

“…were probably not as beautiful in real life as they were in his pictures.”

There’s truth to this. Shulman’s photographs, which were extremely popular in both architectural trade journals and consumer magazines alike, portray an idealized notion of living that I suspect compelled a great many people to move to California.

Shulman believed the camera “is the least important element in photography.” His photographs are known for their strong leading angles and their skilled lightning. The Case Study No. 22 photograph, for example, included two rapid flashes to illuminate the interior of the house, followed by a fourteen-minute exposure at f39 to capture the detail of the nighttime skyline in the background.

What Visual Acoustics does so nicely is highlight the work while introducing the viewer to Shulman’s charming personality. In one sequence, Shulman tells a much younger photographer that he always darkens the edges of his photographs (a technique many of us have borrowed from landscape painting). When the young man protests that he never darkens the edges of his architectural photographs, Shulman confidently jokes back:

“Well, I always do that, and it’s why people like my photography so much.”

Lovell Health House, 2009

Some attribute the rebirth of modernism in residential architecture and the popularity of mid-century home furnishings designs to the re-release of Julius Shulman photographs. There’s no doubt it was his finest time. In fact, Shulman was so turned off by the tricks of the postmodern architectural movement when it hit its stride in the 1970s that he chose to retire rather than chronicle it.

Julius Shulman’s another one of those people I wish I’d had the chance to know. I know I’d have learned a lot. But even if I didn’t know him personally, I know his photographs have and will continue to inform my architectural photography and the documentary Visual Acoustics will give me more of an appreciation of Shulman and his enduring contribution to the fields of photography and architecture.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Grand Canal, 1996

Is there a place as otherworldly as Venice? I suppose there might be. But for sheer decadence wrapped in the history of the ages, for me there’s only Venice. (Okay, maybe there’s New Orleans, too.)

If you go to Venice by train, you leave the industrial mainland behind and glide smoothly over the Lagoon as if on a magic carpet. (In the 3rd class rail car, it’s more like magic Ford Pinto with bad shocks.) Outside your window you might see fishermen, oarsmen, gondolas or just the vast Lagoon blending seamlessly into the sky. You arrive at the enormous Mussolini-era Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, a place that despite its mellifluous name is brutally stark. From there you step out onto a broad piazza overlooking the upper reach of the Grand Canal. This is where the magic starts to work on you.

I don’t want to cheapen the experience, but for some people I’ve watched, stepping out into that piazza is like stepping into Disneyworld, except that Venice is not some artificial contrivance of entertainment architecture. It’s the real thing, even more so because it’s not uniformly neat, clean, cutely painted and as meticulously maintained as a Disney creation would be. The canals don’t stink like they used to. But there’s still a pervasive dampness and underlying note of decay that tells your mind that interesting things can happen here but that one of them probably shouldn’t be an impromptu dip in one of the canals.

Venice Backwater, 1996

Before we went to Venice for the first time, I did a lot of reading. But I probably got more from watching David Lean’s soppy love letter of movie, Summertime , than I got from anything I read. It’s said to be the first major motion picture shot entirely on location, in this case Venice. The story’s a cliché: Katherine Hepburn plays a lonely single woman from Ohio who in the course of shaking off the vulgar manners of her fellow American travelers in Venice, finds, loses and then ultimately finds love again.

The real star of the movie, though, is Venice, which didn’t look very different when we first visited in 1996 than it did in 1955 when Summertime was made. Where small workboats once plied the broad Giudecca Canal giant cruise ships now glide into port each morning, towering over the low city. But the basic elements of the built up environment of Venice are largely unchanged and, befitting a place of such tradition, unchanging.

Maybe this is a bad analogy. But if Belgium’s Bruges is like Charleston, South Carolina, all gussied up for visitors like a theme park, Venice is like Savannah, Georgia, her social royalty still safely ensconced in their grand palazzos, but with a decidedly more raffish demimonde edge.

Calle del Fabbri, 1996

The earliest settlers are thought to have retreated to the mud flats of the Venetian lagoon over 1,500 years ago. So there’s a lot to be said for the City’s staying power. Still, because of the increasingly frequent and higher flooding, the acqua alta, there’s an ever-present sense of fragility and foreboding. A new series of barriers under construction may prevent the worst of some future flooding. But the ancient piles and foundations upon which the lagoon’s mudflats were gathered into a city are rotting and depletion of the fresh water table under the lagoon is causing Venice to gradually sink.

There’s an old joke among fishermen everywhere that “you should have been here yesterday.” But nowhere is that more true as a metaphor for a place than in Venice. I’ll confess that the first time we went to Venice we arrived by cruise ship. But it was a small ship as cruise ships go and our impact on Venice was minimal. Today it’s nothing to find two or three “mega” ships in port at the same time, each carrying 3,000 – 5,000 passengers. Add in all the daytrippers from the mainland and you have a shoulder-to-shoulder scrum of tourists hustling to keep with their tour guides and score a good deal on a piece of Venetian glass.

The funny thing about the crowds in Venice, though, is that they rarely extend more than a few blocks from Piazza San Marco. You can walk two or three minutes and find yourself in a maze of alleys so narrow and disorienting that it’s possible to go for a while without seeing another living soul.

I’m fortunate to have been to Venice twice, once in July and once in May. I’d like to go again, but this time in the winter. I find the masks of Carnival to be a little creepy. So maybe it’ll have to be in December or some other time when reasonable people know better than to go to a cold, damp place that floods at the drop of a hat.

By the time I get around to visiting Venice in the winter there’ll probably be a crowd. And when I check into my hotel there’ll probably be a departing visitor who’ll tell me, “You really should have been here yesterday.”

Calle del Basego, 1996

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finding a Style

Tower, 2010

I know I’m sounding like a broken record, or at least someone making much ado about nothing. But putting these thoughts about personal photographic style in writing helps me think things through. So I’ll have to beg your patience as I do it once again.

Some people have such consistently practiced styles that merely hearing their names brings to mind a specific subject, tone or visual style. If you hear the name Gregory Crewdson, you know it’s going to be a meticulously staged and lighted tableau. If you think of Joel Meyerowitz, you think of exquisitely colored large format photographs.

I’ve spent far more time than any right-thinking person should figuring out how to describe, or even identify, my own photographic style. I probably wouldn’t be so obsessed with this except that when you enter juried competitions you have to write an artist’s statement. I’ve seen some really bad artist statements and I’ve seen others that genuinely enhanced my ability to enjoy and understand what I was looking at. I just never could write one for myself that I thought sounded like I had a single coherent thought in my mind.

When I asked a few friends to tell me if there was a consistent element to my photography, my friend Christine thoughtfully answered by saying that my photographs:

“…are clean, clear and often feature dramatic colors and architectural details. There’s a classic, even ‘New England Yankee’ feel to his choice of subject, color and style.”

Recently I’ve been talking more about trying to make photographs that have familiar starting points, but which really aren’t ultimately about the thing that was the starting point. Well, I think I may be getting closer to describing this in more articulate, if stolen, language.

The other day I listened to author Joseph Skibell and his editor, Elisabeth Scharlatt of Algonquin Books, describe how Skibell’s first novel went from being something in his imagination to being a book on a bookshelf.

How A Blessing on the Moon became a success is one of those stories that inspires writers to dream big, to get up earlier in the morning or stay up later at night writing out of the belief that John Grisham-like success can really happen overnight if you just try hard enough.

Skibell’s experience is unusual in that he finished the manuscript for his book one month, found an agent the next and had a publisher and contract by the end of the third month. It’s even more remarkable because the novel is about the Holocaust, a subject that’s been covered before in hundreds, maybe thousands of books. I mean, why do we need another Holocaust novel?

Here’s why, said editor Scharlatt:

“What caught my eye was that it’s about a subject you’ve seen before and thought you knew. But this book brought an entirely new way of looking at that familiar subject.”

I really like the way Ms. Scharlatt says this. So I hope she won’t mind if I adopt it as part of my artist’s statement, something to the effect that I’m trying to show you something new about something that you thought you already knew all there was to know about.

The two “Tower” pictures, above and below, are good examples. The subject is the signature tower of our local convention center. The picture below is what it really looks like. The picture above is my impression of it, an impression far closer, I like to think, of what the architect was envisioning.

Tower (the literal version), 2010