Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sixty-Three Fragile Moments

Each One a Gift, 2010

Yesterday morning, as part of a project I’m working on, I visited the neonatal intensive care units at our local children’s hospital.

Spread across a half dozen or so separate and carefully isolated areas, sixty-three tiny babies are struggling to survive. Sometimes the hospital has to find room for more. Most were born prematurely. They’re placed in high tech cribs, many covered by home made quilts that minimize stimulation. The lights are kept low here. Monitors and lines and machines that hiss and hum and beep are everywhere. The average stay is thirty days. A few of these infants won’t make it. Twins are apparently especially vulnerable. Nurses or doctors are never more than a few steps away.

Parents from all walks of life are one when it comes to being here, there being little more than a chair and a curtain, and sometimes not even that, separating one crib from the next. But parents seem to like having each other close by to share moments of progress and to have someone to lean on in moments of crisis.

Sixty-three fragile infants. Each breath a gift. I tell you, there’s nothing like a visit to a place like this to remind you just how inconsequential any problems you think you might have really are.

On my way out, I heard a loud cry from one of the tiny infants, a child barely bigger than my hand. The nurses all turned around and smiled. One exclaimed, “That’s the kind of lungs we like to hear around here!”

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Dog Ate My Picture

Vineyard Haven Dawn, 2010

(Double click to see Larger)

Our friend Brenda told us about how last Wednesday she made a lemon meringue pie to take to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving. Only while she and her husband were tending to other things their dog used its paws to stand up at the end of the dining room table and eat half of the pie.

Brenda had time to make another pie later that afternoon. The friends who were hosting the Thanksgiving dinner are big fans her Brenda’s pies and she was determined to thank them by bringing them one of their favorites.

Only while that pie was setting up, this time up on the kitchen counter, Brenda’s husband had to go to the doctor’s office unexpectedly and they didn’t get back home until late, whereupon they discovered that the dog had managed to reach up and eat half of the second pie.

(Like Brenda’s husband, my first instinct at a time like that would have been to cobble the two untouched halves together and cover them with some fresh meringue. But Brenda’s a stickler about food safety. So enough said about that good idea.)

On Thanksgiving morning Brenda got up early and made yet another pie. This one she guarded personally until it was time to go to the friend’s house.

I don’t think it’s stretching things too far to say that making pictures can sometimes be like this. It used to be you could take a terrific picture and then have it destroyed if you didn’t develop the film properly or if two pieces of negative touched each other during processing. That’s what happened to this picture, a once-in-a-lifetime photographic opportunity ruined.

SS United States, 1989

I sent the film out for processing and it came back with emulsion all over it. All I could do, years later with the assistance of Photoshop, was clean up the emulsion spots and blur the image into a work of Impressionism.

These days it’s most a matter of taking your picture and then discovering something wrong with it when you get it up on the screen. It could be a bad exposure or an item that intrudes in the scene that you didn’t notice when you were taking the picture.

Most times I have only myself to blame for the faults. Like in the case of Vineyard Haven Dawn, above. I knew the light wasn’t right when I took the picture. But I think I could have ended up with something much better if I’d been more mindful of exposing for the rising sun, which in the absence of having done such is just a big blown out blot on this picture.

But next time this happens I think I might blame it on the dog. There were dogs on the ferry where I was standing when I took this picture. If Brenda’s experience is any indication, that ought to be good cover for a couple of bad shots.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stumbling Upon Art in the Heartland

Bruning Yellow, 2010

By far the biggest surprise of my brief foray into Omaha’s industrial demimonde was the discovery of the Hot Shops Art Center. Located in an old Serta mattress factory, the Center hosts a variety of artists and galleries. The most conspicuous of these has to be Leslie Bruning’s sculpture studio. Bruning’s work is all up and down the adjacent street, bringing whimsical color and shapes into an otherwise linear landscape. You can’t help but smile at it. Bruning’s primary medium is steel. But in the side yard of his studio is littered with finished and unfinished pieces, including a cast iron tree and the two figures shown below.

Bruning Anguish, 2010

Bruning - If I Had a Hammer, 2010

Bruning Studio Entrance, 2010

You can learn more about Leslie Bruning and see more of his work here.

While I was photographing some of Bruning’s work, Jerry Neal approached me and offered me the card shown below. I’d never heard of Jerry before, but gather he’s one of those accomplished artists who's taken some hard knocks and never been heard of. I only met him because a kind do-gooder lady printed up these cards for Jerry to pass and try to raise money so that he can do a portrait of a local Omaha jazz legend.

Jerry Neal, 2010

By the way, the photo at the top is a good example of the kinds of pictures I’m sometimes drawn to take. They have no relationship to their environment. They’re just shapes. I’ve never felt I had to apologize for this compunction. But just the same, it was assuring to hear an excerpt from an interview of Georgia O’Keefe in which she explains in no uncertain terms that her interest in dried cow skulls was intended to have no association with death. (In fact, if anything, she took the skulls as evidence of once living beings.) Rather, she matter-of-factly states, “These were shapes that I enjoyed.”

That’s why I take pictures of shapes, too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Life in the Margins


The road into town from the Omaha airport doesn’t show off the better parts of downtown. It leads into a formerly industrial area that’s so low that I’d guess it used to flood a lot. Modern Omaha is built on higher land just up the hill. Cuming Street, despite some new development, is still a dividing line between the modern part of downtown the Chamber of Commerce is proud of showing off and the more Skid Row-like part that you won’t see on a tour.

But it’s in these margins that you can find some of the best photographic material. Take the factory, above. As I came around the bend into downtown from my airport motel (the one beside the gasoline plaza and the gentlemen’s club), the morning sun lit the word “Factory” as if it was a divine message from the heavens. Or at least I took it for that, and therefore obediently pulled off the road and made a beeline for the place.

It turns out the most interesting part of the building is probably that sign. I have no idea what they make, or made, here. But you have to give them credit for at least making its intention clear. Maybe Nebraskans need this kind of literal instruction. I don’t know. In any event, a quick walk around the block provided the opportunity for a few more interesting catches.

Factory Shadow, 2010

A couple of blocks away, I wasn’t so sure about the Fitzgerald Rooms. I get the impression Fitzgerald might be a prominent name in innkeeping in Nebraska. The Fitzgerald Rooms was probably once a reliable tradesman’s lodging. But now it’s a sad reminder of that time and, in case you’re interested, closed and for sale. A former factory just down the street has been converted into trendy loft-style apartments. But, judging from the debris and broken glass on the sidewalk out front, it doesn’t look like anyone but the local rotgut wine contingent is giving much attention to the Fitzgerald for now.

Fitzgerald Rooms, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

In the Heartland

Tri Point Column, 2010

I was in Omaha, Nebraska last week. Omaha might not be the exact geographic center of the continental United States; that’s a couple of hundred miles to the southwest. But it’s close enough to be reliably considered “heartland.” I was in Omaha to get a taste of the heartland’s feelings about health care reform.

When I first started traveling to Omaha to do research, people were wont to quote the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey (champion of the “And now, the rest of the story” and Interstate Batteries). Today they quote Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. It would be unfair to assess a whole city on the basis of just the few dozen people I spoke with. But let’s just say that when it comes to compassionate conservatism, the people I met are all too happy to throw your grandma under the bus.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today. This was a busy trip, one that left little time for personal photography. But I made the best of that time and, not having done any homework about potential photographic subjects ahead of time, had to forage for what material I could find along the road between the airport and the place where I was working.

Fortunately, Omaha has interesting photographic material along that road. One of the first things you see when you leave the Omaha airport (which is actually in Iowa) is an incongruously placed piece of sculpture on the south side of the road along a rather desolate stretch of undeveloped flood plain that looks like it’s waiting to become an office park.

Only it hasn’t. At least over the twenty-five years I’ve been going to Omaha this stretch hasn’t sprouted anything more ambitious than a gasoline plaza, a “gentleman’s club” and a cluster of budget chain hotels. (One imagines all kinds of upright Omaha men telling their wives, “Don’t worry, honey. I’m just going to a Rotary meeting in Iowa. What trouble could I get into there?”)

But there, right on the side of the road with nothing more than an accumulating pile of trash to keep it company is Tri Point Column, a 50’ tall sculpture made up of welded triangular sheets of steel plate. It was created by Idaho-based artist Rod Kagan.

I’ve always thought Tri Point Column was intended to be the centerpiece for some kind of commercial development. But there’s no sign of that being the case. The little stub street that approaches the work does nothing but lead you around its base and then back to the main road. There’s no sign for a larger development or even to identify the work itself.

Tri Point Column In Situ, 2010

But if you don’t mind walking into some weeds and standing on a rusty steel grate over a concrete pond than forms its base, Tri Point Column is a wonderful subject for photography. All those triangles make for interesting photo opportunities. And just a step in any direction completely changes the view.

Tri Point Column – The Hawk, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Red Season

The Red Season, 2006

We’re headed into the Red Season. I call it that because the maple tree outside my office window is about to turn red. This maple has two big days each year. The first one’s in the spring when it leafs out. That’s merely dramatic, the transition from bare limbs to buds or a full leafy canopy that shades the porch and patio through the summer. The other’s in November when, usually in the space of a single day, all the leaves go from fading green to bright red.

The transition is thrilling, not the least because it’s also short-lived. I try to be in town to see it happen because almost as quickly as the leaves on this maple change color, they fall to the ground and form a velvety carpet that lasts until the first steady gusts of winter blow them away.

About this time of year we also have some wonderfully foggy weather. It rolls in off the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay and winds its way down the Lynnhaven River to my house, where it cloaks the sky and trees in a coat of white that silences the sounds of man and nature, leaving you with just the sound of moisture dripping from the trees and a heightened awareness of things close by.

Leaf Series 3, 2006

Come spring I might tell you that spring’s my favorite season. And by all rights the birth of the season ought to be more thrilling than the time of the year when things go dormant, turn brown and nature shifts her workplace to under the ground. But for now, I’m going to get ready for Red Season because the leaves on the maple wait for no man.

Leaf Series 6, 2006

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Addiction

PIX, 2010

A lot of people have addictions. Mine’s looking at pictures. Like a lot of Flickr friends, I check in several times a day to see what my friends are posting. Their images are a mixture of straight reportage from around the world, great travel photography and thought provoking street and fine art photography. I’ve learned a lot about the world around me—e.g. more about everyday life in modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan that you’d ever learn from the news—from Flickr contributors. I’ve learned a lot about color and composition. And I’ve learned a lot about how to evoke moods in photography. (I’ve also learned that a little HDR goes a long way and that too much HDR is, well, too much.)

It’s safe to say that I’ve learned more about photography from looking at other people’s pictures than from just about anything else. (In all honesty, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy since the only formal photography class I ever attended was a two-day “Nikon School” in a hotel in Richmond in 1973.)

There’s a long tradition of learning from looking. You do it in every art class and, I suspect, most photography classes. It’s just that I missed out on the parts between the art slides where there was actual instruction.

About six years ago I had the opportunity to show a portfolio of my pictures to a well-known museum photography curator. He was polite, guardedly critical and mildly instructive, the latter of which were what I was looking for.

On the way out the door, he recommended that I take a course in the history of photography. A course in the history of photography! Did he know how many books about the history of photography I had read through the years? How many hours I spent in libraries poring over books of photographs and art? How many books about photographers I’d read?

But he was right. There’s a difference between looking at pictures and looking at pictures with a knowledgeable person.

I haven’t gotten around to taking that class. But there are a couple of resources I heartily recommend to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of the evolution of photography as an art form.

The first is John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs. If you’re going to have just one book about photography, this could be it. You’ll get good guidance on how to look at a picture, which for us neophytes means learning what to look for in a photograph.

For more about the history of photography, I’m high on Jeff Curto, whose course at The College of DuPage can be observed for free by spending some time at his web site.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bumper Crop

Speaking for Boomers, 2010

(Kindly disregard adjacent reference to "Senior Moment.")

Yesterday was a busy day around the old Bonney electronic cottage.

I was quoted and a photograph of me appeared in a national newspaper. Here’s what happens when you appear in a national newspaper:

  • Friends and relatives who were staying in hotels the night before call or write to say that you were the first thing they saw that morning. (Some were quick to note that you looked pretty good for having been shoved under the door.)
  • Friends who lunched together at Panera find your picture on their table. (At least one says it takes away her appetite. I asked if she didn't mean her breath?)
  • You hear from friends around the country you haven’t talked to in a while.
  • You find that national newspapers aren’t carried in bulk where you live.
  • You hear from people who want to sell you laminated pictures of national newspaper stories. No, thank you.

I also received the biggest check I’ve ever received for the sale of one of my photographs. It’s not enough to underwrite a good trip, but it is enough to inspire splurging on that new printer you’ve had you eye on, or perhaps a really good lens. This comes a few days after receiving my first-ever international funds transfer for the use of another photograph that will soon appear on the cover of a Swedish book about French cooking. A lesser amount, but hey, it’s Sweden. Some day I might visit Sweden and have dinner in a French restaurant where I’ll find the book on the chef’s shelf.

The last big event of the day was that my #3 molar cracked into several pieces, resulting in about two hours at the dentist’s getting a new crown.

It turns out the going rate for a new dental crown is almost exactly equal to a big photo sale check and a Swedish book cover.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Arcade Fire

Burlington Arcade, 2002

Had you going there, didn’t I? Thought this was going to be something about the Canadian band Arcade Fire, didn’t you?

I’m afraid about all I know about Arcade Fire is their name. So if you came here today looking for a music review, you’ll want to move on.

Instead, I’ll talk more about arcades. No, not the kind with pinball machines and video games. Rather, I’m talking about the retail arcades you see in European cities and a few cities in the United States. Can you imagine a more majestic cathedral of retailing that Milan’s Galleria, or a more cozy place that the Galerie Vivienne of Paris? (For more about the arcades of Paris, click here.) America has a handful of old arcades. Cleveland’s might be the most majestic. Norfolk has two, one of which retains its original design. San Francisco has the Crocker Galleria , but it’s so modern that it resembles nothing so more than your typical upscale suburban mall.

Speaking of which, American malls, sad as many of them may be these days, are no doubt a modern attempt to recapture some of the positive attributes of arcades: protection from the climate, walkability, safety, distinct separation of activity and automobiles and a sense of small town-ness in the arrangement of shops between the anchor tenants. There are some fancy malls that you can imagine might have something lasting about them. But most are just metal sheds connecting chain stores.

New Bond Street Arcade, 2002

Some of my favorite arcades are found in London clustered in Mayfair. The queen bee of London arcades has to be the Burlington Arcade, built by Lord George Cavendish and opened in 1819. Cavendish, who lived in the nearby Burlington House, is said to have commissioned the arcade “to stop ruffians from throwing quantities of rubbish, in particular oyster shells, onto his property.” That’s the unofficial story. The official line is that Cavendish built the arcade “for the gratification of the public and give employment to industrious females.”

For more than two hundred years, the Burlington Arcade has remained an important retail venue for London’s gentry, interrupted only by war and a fire in 1936. In 1964, six masked men drove a Jaguar into the arcade, stopping just long enough smash shop windows and steal something like $60,000 worth of jewelry. (They escaped by putting the Jaguar in reverse and backing out the way they drove in.) It was the kind of caper that if ever made into an “Italian Job”-style movie would have starred someone like Cary Grant or David Niven.

Among the most distinctive features of the Burlington Arcade are the Beadles, guards in Edwardian frock coats and top hats, who watch over the place. (But apparently not convincingly enough to stop speeding Jaguars.)

In the Burlington Arcade, 2002

When it was new one can easily imagine that only the well to do were allowed into the Burlington Arcade. Today, visitors are merely asked to respect a modest dress code and not yell up and down the Arcade at each other. Although open at both ends, the Arcade’s a quiet and dignified place, a respite from the noise of Oxford Street. Its mix of retailers—jewelers, bespoke cobblers, booksellers, dressmakers, milliners and watchmakers—remains decidedly upmarket. (Our only souvenirs from there was a glass paperweight and shoe shine.)

Burlington Shoe Shine, 2002

Monday, November 15, 2010

What are the Odds?

Edgartown Light at Dawn, 2010 (Click to see Larger)

As a researcher, I’m usually your man in probabilities. (Yes, I do have a life. It’s not like I’m an actuary.) But sometimes the odds still surprise me.

My mother’s recovery in the hospital continues. The fog of post-operative confusion is slowly clearing. She was moved the other night from a cardiac care unit to a room on the orthopedic wing in the newest part of a hospital. The rooms are nice here. There’s no question that you’re still in a hospital. But compared to the rooms she was in last week, this orthopedic room is downright luxurious. It’s bright and spacious. Soft woods are used to contain storage and hide some of the grislier mechanics of hospital infrastructure.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing this. What I’m writing about is the lighthouse on the wall.

We live by the Atlantic Ocean. There are lighthouses everywhere around here. They dot the coast just about anywhere there’s an inlet or where obstacles to navigation aren’t easily visible. Our city’s official logo includes an illustration of the lighthouse at Cape Henry (commissioned during George Washington’s presidency). Every other seafood restaurant has pictures of lighthouses illustrating the menu and hanging on the wall. Lighthouses once marked the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay. They guided sailors up and down the bay and into and out of the rivers, ponds and marshes than feed the bay. (Today, of course, it’s all GPS.)

Any one of these would have been the expected sight were you to hear that a hospital room in Virginia Beach had a picture of a lighthouse on the wall. But that isn’t the case in my mother’s room. The painting on her wall isn’t even a Virginia lighthouse. Nor is it one of the famous tall lighthouses of the Outers Banks of North Carolina, just to our south, nor one of the squat screw-pile lighthouses you see up the Chesapeake Bay. It’s not even a cliché picture of Nubble Light, or any of the other iconic lighthouses of the New England coast.

No, the lighthouse featured in the painting in my mother’s room is none other than the Edgartown Light, the stubby little lighthouse that guards the entrance to Edgartown harbor and Katama Bay on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.

Although it seems an eternity ago now, I was standing at the Edgartown Light barely a month ago. I walked by it and sometimes sat on its steps every morning and most afternoons for a week. We’ve been going to the Vineyard since the mid-1970s. So it’s possible, even likely, that I’ve take more pictures of the Edgartown Light than any other single object I’ve ever photographed. (All three of the photos shown here, plus fifty more like them, were taken in early October.)

There’s even a painting of the Edgartown Light by Amanda Kavanagh (based on one of my photos) on the wall of my office.

So how about those odds?

The painting on the wall of my mother’s hospital room is a really bad giclée copy of a painting by Ray Ellis called Henry’s Walk. It’s named for the late Henry Beetle Hough, longtime owner and editor of the Vineyard Gazette, one of the finest weekly newspapers you could read. Henry and his bride Betty came to the Vineyard in the 1920s after his father gave him the Gazette as a wedding present.

I had the pleasure of knowing Henry in the last years of his life. I worked in newspapers when I first met him and never tired of hearing his stories about the Gazette.

Henry loved to walk and was a regular sight walking alone in the woods and along the shoreline of Edgartown with his dog. (He had a succession of collies through the years, all of them named Graham.)

Edgartown Light at Dawn 12, 2010

I don’t think of Henry as having been a sentimental person. But it gives me some comfort to know that Ray’s painting of Henry’s Walk looks down my mother, whose only remark about this bit of synchronicity is, “I wish you’d stop going on about that damned lighthouse and come over here and tell me what they’re going to do about this broken leg of mine.”

I could be wrong. But I'm going to take it as a sign of recovery.

Edgartown Light Sunny Morning, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Little Picture, A Little Sound and You're Back in the Moment

Ecole Militaire, 2006

Do your pictures have sound?

Of course, still photographs don’t make sounds. And they don’t necessarily need it. Whatever it was that drew you to make a visual record or impression of a place probably was more about what you saw than what you heard.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t hear things when you look at some of your pictures.

A lot of my pictures don’t have aural memories. I remember taking the pictures. I might have other sensory memories, such as the way a river smelled, or how the exhaust fumes of a bus made my eyes burn. But I don’t always remember how things sounded.

When I do have a sound memory, though, it’s amazing how the sound takes me back to the moment when I took the picture.

Some pictures are easy. It doesn’t take much to remember, or imagine, the sound of water in a fountain or rushing down the Sperryville Run in the Shenandoah National Park.

Sperryville Run, 2009

But what about pictures that don’t have easy clues as to what it sounded like? It seems to me the wider the scope of the picture, the harder it is to pin down any memorable sounds. Up on this cliff where I took the picture, below, the only sound I heard was the sound of the wind from an approaching storm behind me. I couldn’t begin to hear the sound of the river hundreds of feet below me.

The View From White Rock, New Mexico, 2006

When all’s said and done, the picture doesn’t have to have sound, and for the sake of the enjoyment of an independent observer, shouldn’t depend on sound to prop it up.

But for the photographer, part of the joy of this form of expression, no matter how literal or conceptual the photograph, is the joy of being back in the moment. I can’t look at a picture of the Arno River flowing through Florence, Italy, without hearing the songs of swallows. (You can hear them about a minute into this video.)

Similarly, I can’t look at Ecole Militaire, above, without hearing the sound of the bicycle in the scene. It’s not like I haven’t heard the sound of a bicycle before. But like the swallows in Florence, whenever I hear the chain on my own bike I am back standing in Paris just after sunrise watching this man ride his bike to work.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Face the Face

The View from 2 East, 2010

Faces are on my mind. A photographer was here yesterday to take a picture of me for a newspaper article. This isn’t the first time I’ve been photographed for a newspaper or magazine. But since I’m usually on the other side of the camera this shoot got me to thinking about the face I show other people.

Also in the back of my mind is the face my nearly 90 year-0ld mother has been showing lately. She fell and broke both of the bones in one of her legs almost two weeks ago. In the course of treating them, the stress on other chronic conditions has taken her to death’s doorstep and back. Two surgeries in a week’s time have also left her with a tenacious case of post-operative confusion, a hellish twilight zone where confusion, dementia, hallucination and fear cross paths.

Over the past five years, the onset of senility and an accompanying decline in short-term memory have made my mother into a generally sweet and content little old lady with a good sense of humor.

But that’s a memory now. It’s as if someone took that lady away and replaced her with her evil twin. The loving face, the one I’ve known all my life, has been replaced by a hostile face. When my mother’s in distress, I’m the one she usually looks to for protection. I’m usually the face that calms. But for several days now, the face that looks up at me from the hospital bed is one of absolute hate.

I know this is dementia I’m seeing and that I shouldn’t take it seriously. But when the face that has nurtured you from birth suddenly turns mean and nasty and full of invectives, it’s still a tough slog.

But just to prove that sometimes life can throw moments at you just when you need them, I happened to hear the old Pete Townsend rock & roll chestnut Face to Face while driving home from the hospital the other morning. I don’t care if it’s almost thirty years old and the early 80s haircuts and dress look funny. The constantly repeated line face the face, combined with the right mix of brass, sass, back beat and catchy lyrics shook me out of my funk and got my body and mind back in gear to do what had to be done. Click on this link and see if it doesn’t do the same for you. As Pete sings:

We must race the race

So we can face the face.

We got to race the race

We must race the race.

So we can face the face

We got to face the face

We got to race the race

(Lyrics by Pete Townsend)