Friday, October 29, 2010

Overheard: Blue Ash, Ohio

Parkers Blue Ash Tavern (No Iced Tea Served), 2010

“They have tickets to something every weekend. They act like they’re so rich.”

“I tell you, the world’s going to hell in a hand basket. You just can’t trust anyone any more. Even when you want to believe it, you can’t.”

“Just between you and me, I don’t think Frank knows what the hell he’s talking about.”

“If she didn’t stay with him, he’d have cataracts, too.”

“He’s wearing it all over his face!”

“I’ve done a remarkable job on this assignment, if I do say so myself.”

“Is it SWOT or SWAT? I swear, I think these marketing people are just making words up.”

"Where is Ronald Reagan when we need him?"

“When I got home he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on. I tell you, Miriam, I’m starting to get worried about him.”

“I need a new business partner. The one I have now is holding me back. People in Cincinnati aren’t very receptive to good idea men.”

“I don’t know anyone who clog dances any more. Used to be everyone knew how.”

“There’s been entrenchment on that team. Everybody knows it.”

“She called this morning and told me she has to have all the C42’s today. Today! Can you believe it? ALL the C42’s TODAY!”

“The gays, they’re very reasonable people if you just talk to them. My friend Myra’s son is one of them. He’s so polite. But do you think Harry’ll give him the time of day? Won’t even talk to the boy.”

“I think I’d do a lot better in Alabama.”

“I’m talking about this Martha Lou, not that Martha Lou. That Martha Lou can barely shuffle the cards when we play canasta.”

“I have a lot of great ideas. Maybe I’d do better over in Indiana.”

“If they don’t like coal, maybe they’d like to go without electricity for a while.”

“And then one morning he just didn’t wake up. That was all she wrote.”

“I could be great in Chicago. They’d get me there.”

“I don’t like anything looking scuzzy. I tell my husband, ‘If one of them’s worn looking, replace them all.’”

“I don’t feel it’s my job. But she sure does! So I guess it’s part of my job now.”

“If you ask me, those Tea Partiers ought to be locked in stocks out front of the courthouse where everyone can spit on them for what they’re doing.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll move to Chicago. I could be big in Chicago.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Askew, and Proud of It

104 North Water Street, 2010

Several years ago my friend Lilly called me “askew.” Lilly’s a nice lady. I didn’t take offense. For a time I actually got a kick out of someone considering my photographic style unpredictably askew.

If anything, many of my photographs have only become more askew, particularly when I’m photographing residences. I’ll still take a very traditional head-on shot sometimes. The residences I showed in Providence, Rhode Island, recently were all pretty much head-on shots.

But the truth is this: these kinds of pictures easily become one-shot wonders. They’re so very symmetrical. You look at them. You have a moment, maybe another. But that’s it. The symmetry might be an accurate depiction of them. But your mind has seen a lot of symmetry and, frankly, it tends to become bored with it pretty quickly.

So whenever I can, I try to supplement the symmetrical pictures with something a little more….yes, askew. I think they’re really much more interesting this way, in the same way I was talking about the Taj Mahal the other day. So much so that during my morning walks through Edgartown the week before last it was almost as if I couldn’t take a symmetrical head-on shot to save my life.

33 Cottage Street, 2010

Fuller Street, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Underground in Plain Sight

Flag at Menemsha, 2010

Okay, someone’s going to have to clue me in.

It’s funny how when you’re in the picture-taking mode you think you’re noticing things when in fact you’re missing all kinds of things.

While looking through all the pictures I took recently at Martha’s Vineyard, I was interested to discover in some of the pictures of what I call “quieter moments”—pictures that are typically close-ups of things—a surprising number of little American flags.

American flags are a proud and common element in American public life. Flags adorn homes, buildings, boats, public spaces and all kinds of other places. I’ve taken lots of pictures of these flags, and Martha’s Vineyard is full of them.

But these were little flags; cheap plastic flags most of them. And most were stick haphazardly in places where you don’t usually see flags, especially little plastic flags that a lot of people wouldn’t even notice at first.

The one shown above was stuck in a picnic table at Menemsha, a place so windy this time of year that I can’t imagine that the flag was left over from, say, July 4th or Labor Day celebrations.

The one shown below was stuck in the frame of a window of a 2nd floor law office on Main Street in Edgartown.

There were others, all located in unusual places; taped horizontally above a store entrance, glued to a One-Way sign located in front of a restaurant, stuck diagonally in a cedar shake in front of a real estate firm.

Are these flags some kind of Americana mezuzahs? Is there some kind of patriotic illuminati out there, an underground railroad of travelers who know they can find kindred souls under these discreetly placed flags?

Maybe I've just been watching too much Rubicon?

2nd Floor Window, Edgartown, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chance Glances

The Atlantic View, 2010

When you get in the habit of looking for pictures, I don’t think your eyes ever relax. They’re always on the lookout. Maybe this sounds like a lot of unnecessary mental work to you. But I consider it a gift. And if you’re similarly “gifted,” you know exactly how I feel.

A friend of mine (a poet who always has a pen and index card in his pocket for just such occasions) used to refer to this ability of the brain to keep working on things after you’ve consciously put them aside as the “subconscious hit list.”

I wasn’t thinking about pictures the afternoon my wife and I joined here sister and brother-in-law for lunch at The Atlantic restaurant in Edgartown. I don’t remember what it was we’d been doing before lunchtime. But I do remember that whatever it was we were all in need of a few moments of relaxation and liquid therapy.

Maybe the relaxation’s the key. I don’t know. Once I stepped into the restaurant my eyes started seeing things that had me drawing the camera up to my eyes again and again.

The first thing I saw was the view shown above. The scene is the Edgartown harbor as seen through the plastic screen surrounding the outside deck of the restaurant. The plastic gave the view the kind of impressionistic feel I often like. (Click again on the image above and it will enlarge so that you’ll see what I mean.)

It was still chilly outside, so we asked to move indoors. The first thing I saw inside was this view, a good example of the “portal perspectives” I enjoy so much.

From The Atlantic, 2010

When we were finally seated and began to unwind, I noticed a planter just outside the window. My first shot of it, below, was purely information, not anything I’d want to keep.

From The Atlantic, 2010

The last shot, though, was the one I like most because it has this scene of the two flowers poking their faces up at the window as if to look in and see what we were having for lunch.

Chance Glances, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

I Beg to Disagree, Mr. Gladwell

When You Get Stuck on a Long Conference Call And the Camera’s Within Reach,

You Shoot Anything, Even Your Own Foot, 2006

I enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. I don’t always agree with him. But I admire the way he draws seemingly disconnected facts, science and history across time into coherent insights and conclusions.

In the October 4 issue of The New Yorker, Gladwell writes (Annals of Innovation: Small Change) that social media cannot replicate the experience of personal contact when seeking to effect serious social change. He tells the story of how in 1960 four students from North Carolina A&T University held a sit-in at a Woolworth’s Department Store lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, store. If you’re too young to remember this, let me just say that those guys were putting their lives on the line doing this. Within days, though, their action inspired thousands of other people to hold sit-ins in cities throughout the South.

Sure, there are all kinds of flash mob stories. Yes, personalities like Glenn Beck can summon hundreds of thousands of people to rallies. But to do as those four brave young men in Greensboro did, to put their lives on the line, Gladwell states, there had to be close proximity between the four men. Their touch had to be more than virtual. In fact, Gladwell believes you can’t effect serious social change using social media.

I don’t know if I agree with Gladwell, or not, though I can’t think of any time I’ve ever been challenged by anything I saw at Twitter or Facebook to put my life on the line the same way those young men in Greensboro did. But I can tell a true story of when I believe a life was saved by the loose network of connections at Fotolog.

Fotolog is one of the early online photo-sharing communities. Its founders imagined that people would post snapshots of nothing more serious than what they were eating each day. But Fotolog quickly grew into a much larger phenomenon, one so vast that it soon outstripped its founders’ capital, technology and managerial know-how.

Even in those nascent days of social networking, though, like-minded groups of online friends started assembling. One of the people whose photographs some of us followed was a young lady in London who posted photographs of her legs and shoes. Before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you there wasn’t anything tawdry about her photographs. They were artful studies—almost like ads you’d see in Vogue—of lines and colors that just happened to be her legs and footwear.

It was during this time that I learned how when you follow a person’s pictures on a day-to-day basis, you can learn a lot about a person. If the person is up or down, you can tell. If the person suffers from depression, you could tell when the person was cycling down.

That’s just what happened in the winter of 2004. The young woman’s photos started taking on ominous tones. I don’t recall what it was about the photos or their titles that clued us in, but I could tell from the comments people left at her Fotolog site that those of us who followed her work were becoming concerned about her condition.

[I’ve done a lot of marketing research about and among people with mood disorders, so I’m attuned to noticing the symptoms of such conditions.]

Let me add that none of us knew each other by anything more than our screen presences. We didn’t know anything about this woman but her first name. But when things became so dark in her photographs that we suspected she was in some kind of trouble, we came together as a group, this disparate group of friendly strangers, and took action.

Keep in mind this woman was in London. Most of us were in the U.S. Our action took the form of an informal “six degrees of separation” game. Using what information we could derive about this young lady from her pictures and titles, we were able to contact people we knew or knew of in London who lived nearby. It involved a few more than six degrees of separation, but we were eventually able to find someone who knew the woman and send a neighbor who was closer to her to check on her. The neighbor found the young lady seriously considering suicide and was able to convince her to seek help.

Take that, Mr. Gladwell!

The photo above is in honor of Jackie, our English friend. She got help, but never returned to Fotolog.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Other View

Coal Wharf Fishermen, 2010

Although few of us may have been there, I’ll bet we’ve all seen pictures of the Taj Mahal. Probably the same picture, or at least it seems that way. For most people, there’s only one view of the Taj Mahal, a straight on formal shot like this that is really only interesting the first time you see it.

The shot’s informational. But what does it really tell us about the Taj? We always look at the Taj Mahal from that same angle, without knowing what it looks like from another angle. Is the Taj in the middle of a city? Is it surrounded by slums or gardens or factories? We’ll never know.

I recently saw a photograph of the Taj Mahal taken from a different angle. I wish I could remember where I saw the picture. I’d show it to you because it’s so much more interesting and yet still informational in terms of telling us what the Taj Mahal is like.

In the meantime, look how much more alive this one just by having framed the Taj Mahal through another portal.

Last week I got up each morning and took a walk along the waterfront of Edgartown, Massachusetts. One of the busiest spots early in the morning is the Town Dock, still known to old timers as the Coal Wharf. On the one hand, you wouldn’t know there’s a recession judging by all the fancy houses being built or renovated along Water Street. But judging by the scrum of building trade workers’ trucks parked at the Coal Wharf, each one carrying a half dozen or more fishing rods, you get the impression that a lot of these guys and gals have more time on their hands than they’d like.

Playing Hooky, 2010

The usual shot of the Coal Wharf fishermen is something like this.

Fishing at the Coal Wharf, 2010

I’ve taken this picture any number of times under different lighting circumstances. Here’s another shot I took two years ago. And here's yet another one from 2005.

Coal Wharf, 2005

Each morning I walked up and down the Wharf talking to the fishermen and their wives and children. Someone with a camera and clean socks is probably always going to be considered an effete visitor by locals. But I took the time to talk with each cluster of fishermen, asking about their catch and building a modest rapport over the successive days.

For reasons unknown, I wasn’t interested in making pictures of the fishermen themselves. And as the examples above demonstrate, I’ve taken the expected shots many times before. But I did want to do something visually interesting about the idea of people fishing from the Coal Wharf. And I wanted something different than the usual straightforward shots.

The result is Coal Wharf Fishermen, at the top of this post. It was taken from the walkway atop the pier roof.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Learn From My Mistakes, Please.

Black Dog Pier 16, 2010

Sometimes you just have to admit that you’re lucky and let it go at that.

During all of the years I’ve been serious about photography I’ve always owned a reasonably reliable tripod. At the moment I have one traditional tripod, a couple of tabletop tripods and a Gorillapod, the bendable legs of which wrap around things when you don’t have a steady horizontal surface. The regular tripod is always in the car when I go out to make pictures.

But does this mean I use it?


About the only time I ever use the tripod is…almost never. It’s safely stashed right there within easy reach in the back of the car. But I almost never think to take it out and carry it with me.

I’ve been lucky. There have been many times when I’ve taken low light photographs without using a tripod. Many of these times I’ve been successful. The camera I’m using these days is amazingly sensitive to low light, which covers a multitude of sins. Like not using a tripod.

The other morning while we waited to catch the ferry back to the mainland from Martha’s Vineyard, I wandered over to the Black Dog pier in Vineyard Haven to watch the sun rise and see if I could catch some interesting photographs of the rising sun against the schooners moored nearby.

I’ve taken a number of pictures through the years from this pier. I can even say honestly that I once used a tripod to take pictures there at sunrise. So you’d think I’d have the good sense to pull the tripod out and use it the other day, especially since the wind was blowing at nearly gale force.

But nooooooooo. The tripod was underneath all of the stuff packed into the back of the car. And besides, I felt sure I could count on the camera to help me cheat the wind and get some decent pictures without the benefit of a tripod.

Only the camera didn’t cover for me this time. Except for one or two images that I took while bracing myself and the camera against the little building on the pier, just about every one of the pictures I took was pretty worthless because of the vibration during a long-ish exposure.

Learn from my mistakes. Don’t pretend you’re so steady that you can take long-exposures in low light on a windy day without incurring a lot of vibration. That’s what tripods are for.

Black Dog Pier 27, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

We Keep Coming Back

Morse Street Car Park, 2010

Two different themes cross tracks here today. The first is a continuation of yesterday’s theme of house pictures that don’t have houses in them. The second theme is about the importance of never letting yourself think you’ve taken all the pictures there are to be taken of a place.

One of the most transformative experience I ever had was a day spent with Dr. Edward de Bono, who is perhaps best known for his championing of the concept of “lateral thinking.” I won’t bore you with all the details. You can reduce much of it to just one idea that can serve you in most any aspect of life: namely, that there are always alternatives.

It is this simple idea that keeps me going back to places I’ve photographed before, so many times in some cases that it would seem I’d taken all the pictures there were to be taken.

But of course I haven’t. Just as there are always alternatives, there are always fresh pictures to be taken of familiar places.

Morse Street is one of a number of picturesque village streets in Edgartown, Massachusetts. At the corner of Morse and North Water Street is a house that used to be one of our favorites. You can see it here.

Even if you haven’t been to Edgartown you might recognize this house if you’re of a certain age because it was used as the location for an Old Spice television commercial that ran in the late 1970s. The spot was pretty hokey. But you have to admit the house has a classic New England look that doesn’t require that you stretch your imagination to believe that a rugged Old Spice man and his lady might have lived there.

When people take pictures of houses on Morse Street, this is the house they usually photograph. It’s that classic. But on last week’s trip when, as you’ll recall from yesterday’s post, I decided I was going to look for different ways to tell the story of the opulence of some of these summer residences, my eye was instead drawn to a driveway across the street.

It’s not the fanciest driveway you’ve ever seen. The grandees of New England want their wealth to be recognizable, but not ostentatious. I think of it as conspicuous thrift, if there can be such a thing. The hedges are practical, but precisely maintained. Sturdy rectangular granite stones are a durable long-term investment. But they’re not native to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. So you also know that every one of these stones had to make a lengthy trip down from a mainland quarry and across Vineyard Sound by ferry or barge. That doesn’t come cheap.

The old Ford Galaxie—a ’63, I believe—pretty much tops off this picture and gave it a slightly Californian feel to me. I’m told this house belongs to people from New York or Connecticut. So I don’t guess I’d find any movie stars lurking behind the hedges. But if I hadn’t taken my eyes off the housed that is the easy photographic subject on this street, I’d have not noticed the little gem of landscaping.

This is why we keep going back, to notice the things we haven’t noticed before.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

As If Through New Eyes

Hedge Fund Lawn, 2010

I’ve been photographing the island of Martha’s Vineyard for thirty years. In the first years my pictures were mostly family snapshots. I didn’t get serious about seeing beyond that until about ten years ago. Since that time, I’ve taken hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs of the island.

We were at the Vineyard again last week and I noticed something different the first morning I walked out the door with my camera. Namely, that I was drawn to different photographic subjects than before. You see, “pretty pictures” are easy to take at a place like the Vineyard, where every coastal edge is a beautiful one, the towns are each different and photogenic, where much of the interior is taken up with dense forests and where “up island” there are verdant fields that run down to the shore. Classic New England coastal shots are so ubiquitous that we’ve jokingly assigned them numbers in our family. A “#1” is anything with a lighthouse in it. A ”#2” is any picture with a weathered cedar shingle building. And so on.

I was in the midst of an early morning walk in Edgartown last Monday morning when I realized that I didn’t want to take the regular old “pretty pictures” any more. Instead, it was as if I was seeing in a new light a town waterfront that I’ve photographed so much over the years that I can pretty much recite the characteristics of each house from memory. But on Monday morning I realized, and was even a little giddy at the thought that I was looking at it with new eyes.

Okay, in the interest of honesty I’ll admit that I took a few “pretty pictures” of houses. You’re going to do that because it’s so easy to do. But I knew that I already had a hundred good “expected” photos of the Water Street homes from prior visits. So I made a deliberate decision to stop taking photos of houses and started looking for other ways to tell the story of this place.

Hedge Fund Lawn, above, is a good example of this. The house just out of view is gorgeous. But what struck me about this residence was not the fancy house, but rather the striking simplicity of the lines of the fence, the green lawn and the blue sea and sky. These elements—all exquisitely installed and all conspicuously costly to maintain in a dynamic waterfront location-- tell me more about the extravagant wealth being spent on seasonal vacation homes on the Vineyard than any picture of the house would have.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Back on the Block

Coal Pier Striper Fisherman, 2010

So I’m back from vacation. It was a good one, but over too quickly.

The sun shined on us most the time. Toward the end of the week the wind blew hard. The rain came and went. I got a lot of exercise and sleep. We had some good meals. My wife and I celebrated our thirty-fourth wedding anniversary. I managed to read all of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and not miss the next-to-last episode of Mad Men.

I also got to meet a Flickr friend whose work I’ve admired, but whom I’d never met in person before. I had to go to the local jail to meet her. But that’s because she’s the nurse there. Still, it was the first time I’ve had to declare that I wasn’t carrying a firearm or be unlocked and locked in and out of various sally ports to visit with a Flickr friend.

What I didn’t get a lot of was dedicated time for photography. On most vacations I usually manage to carve out at least one full day to wander around by myself and make photographs. But this vacation was a larger family gathering, three generations’ worth. Even when excursions didn’t involve me there was someone who needed a ride back and forth to the ferry or across the island for something or another.

Still, I somehow managed to find the time to take more than 500 pictures. Most of them were taken during my morning walks, which means that among those 500 pictures there could be twenty versions of the same five subjects, all taken in whatever light was available between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. So much for variety.

I’m in the midst of reviewing those 500+ images. Fifty or sixty undeniable duds have been easy to delete. There are a few I can see already that I might really like. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t the usual photographic magnum opus that some prior vacations have been. For one thing, I realized on this trip that I was photographing places I’ve photographed many times before through essentially new eyes because the photographic subjects I’m drawn to lately are different than the ones I was drawn to before. (More about that tomorrow.)

For now, I’m doing basic organization and triage so that I can start working through the pile of images. I find I’m good for an hour or two of this at a time. Any more and the images all start looking the same. Which, given that most were taken during the same two-hour interval on successive mornings, might just be the case.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gone Fishin'

Casting Off, 2010

I’m going to be on vacation for the next week or so. Since these missives take more thinking and planning to conceive and pre-load than I have the capacity for at the moment, there’ll be no new posts while I’m gone.

We’re going offshore to an island. It’s not all that exotic. They speak our language. They have food we’re familiar with. The people are friendly, especially at this time of year when you’ve chosen not to be one of the more obnoxious “summer people.” You drive on the right-hand side of the road. Still, there’s enough sense of separation that when islanders go to the mainland some refer to the trip as “going to America.”

We’ve been going to this island off and on for thirty years. It has its charms and its inconveniences. The towns are all walkable and each has its own personality. Some can be crossed in a matter of minutes with even a slow amble. The western end of the island is mostly rural, with dense forests and open fields dotted with sheep that extend down to the shore (the fields, not the sheep). Unlike the Mid-Atlantic coast where I live, where the great glaciers ground down to sand when they met the water’s edge, the terminal moraine archipelago where we’re headed is still very rocky.

Chilmark, 2010

Everything costs more over there. Even toilet paper. So you bring things with you that you wouldn’t normally carry on vacation. Like pickles, gin, high fiber cereal, pasta, peanut butter and toilet paper. Oh, and let’s not forget the Rose’s gimlet juice this time.

A lot of vacations involve driving long distances, followed by a stay in an impersonal hotel, or at least in an unfamiliar bed. But this trip’s a little different. For one, the long drive ends with a ferry ride. It’s only forty-five minutes long. On a clear day you’re never out of sight of some land or another. But if there’s a good fog and the wind’s blowing from the northeast, as it’s wont to do this time of year, or it’s dark, as it’ll be when we get there, you can’t see a thing and you could as well be crossing the English Channel or the Bosphorus Strait.

No, we’re not going to Anatolia. But the effect is the same as driving from England to France or from the European Continent to Asia. You drive the car into the ferry on the mainland, where people are one way, and disembark on a little island where the mood is different, in this case more friendly, relaxed and socially progressive. Along the way you might see a pod of whales, a flotilla of sailboats, a celebrity or two, islanders coming home from a weekend off island or just other visitors anxious to leave the silliness of the mainland election season behind.

At the end of our long drive and ferry ride is a house we’ve gotten to know well. We know where the electrical sockets are, which beds are most comfortable and how to climb the steep stairs to the second floor late at night without waking everyone in the house. It’s like heaven as long as we’re there.

I’ll see you when I get back.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On College Hill

Benefit Street @ Bowen, 2010

I read somewhere that the median income of residents of College Hill in Providence is three times that of the Providence area as a whole. That’s not hard to imagine when you see some of the homes on the Hill. But it’s doubly amazing when you figure that many of the college students and young downtown workers renting apartments and rooms there are probably far from affluent.

I beg your indulgence if I’ve worn out your patience with stories of my recent trip to Providence. But I couldn’t finish without showing you a little more of College Hill.

Somewhere along the path of your study of American history I’m sure you picked up something about how the Yankee merchants, bankers and ship captains were known for their fundamental religiosity and their attendant thrift. The homes they built after they’d made their money, especially the early ones, were models of simplicity; little Greek temples, as it were, fashioned from the abundant timber of the New England colonies. Here and there scattered among them are a few undoubtedly over-the-top “wedding cakes” such as the one shown above at the corner of Benefit and Bowen streets. More common, though, are plain timber salt box designs built right up to the street with little or no cover for their front doors.

Looking at some of these houses, you get the impression that the rich who built them—theirs are the names on public buildings all over Rhode Island—had had just enough of Yankee restraint and wanted to find some way to show off their wealth. They couldn’t apparently do it with the main bulk of the house, so they focused all their exuberant attention on the woodwork surrounding their entrances. Look at these:

Transit Street, 2010

Benefit Street - Red Door, 2010

Owning a home like this, no matter how pedigreed your family history, is a real labor of love. I can’t imagine these houses are anything if not money pits. All that wood. All that moisture from the sea. All that painting, scraping and maintenance. Do you suppose there’s any insulation in those walls? History has been kinder to some of these residences than others. For every two or three you see lovingly maintained like the ones shown above, you see one or two that have been chopped up into apartments and rooming houses.

Even the houses that appear to have been cared for through the ages have complications. They obviously weren’t built with modern plumbing and electricity in mind, much less modern appliances, giant flat-screen televisions, oversized furniture and automobiles. Most have settled significantly over the centuries, warping once strict right angles into soft curves. Several have exterior walls bowed way out like timber aneurysms.

I don’t expect some of the bright colors you see on doors in this neighborhood are original. Colonial-era paint technology was pretty heavy on dark and dull shades. Perhaps these bright colors are how modern ancestors of the builders are showing off their stylishness?

Benefit Street - Yellow Door, 2010

Who cares? Let’s just enjoy the color!

Transit Street @ Thayer, 2010