Friday, April 29, 2011

Good bye, good friend.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.

Excerpt from High Flight, Gillespie Magee

I attended a memorial service yesterday for an old family friend who died this past weekend at the age of ninety-one. It’s probably safe to say I knew Merle as soon as I was old enough to know anyone outside of my immediate family. My parents met Merle and his wife Betty and became fast friends when they joined our church. Betty and my parents sang in the church choir.

Merle had been a U.S. Navy aviator in WWII. He flew missions over North Africa and was shot down and rescued during a mission in Japan. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses. After the war, he went to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd and served as commanding officer on a number of ships.

The Navy and additional assignments to NATO took his family to Naples for several years, where Merle developed an interest in all things Italian. (I wrote about one of their experiences in Italy here.) After retiring from the Navy the family moved to Colorado and then to California.

But they never sold their little house in Virginia Beach and this is where they came to spend the latter years of their lives. Betty died in 2002. In the years that followed I didn’t see Merle regularly. But as I sat through his memorial service yesterday I realized that I was around him enough that his example taught me more than anyone else's about what it is to be a man, a husband, a father and responsible citizen.

Memorial services and funerals can be mixed bags. I’m least impressed by high church pageantry and most touched by sweet send-offs. I’ll admit to being a little leery of children and grandchildren speaking at such occasions. One of Merle’s daughters and three of his grandchildren, however, read poems that were both important to their grandfather and captured the parts of him that they believe will stay with them the longest. They were tearful readings. But the poems were short.

A good memorial service also needs a little humor. Merle’s grandsons both expressed amazement that they have even had the chance to know Merle in light of, as they put it, the “risks he took coupled with the primitive state of airplane technology in WWII.” His granddaughter admitted that Merle’s WWII service had seemed distant and abstract to her until she became a history teacher and realized just how daring his missions had been.

But perhaps the most touching moment of the day was when Merle’s oldest daughter Susan recalled a recent night at the hospital. Increasingly beset with dementia as his body failed him, Merle was determined to go home. It was all Susan could do to keep him in the bed. Nurses and doctors swarmed around. “It was like we were all doing our very best to catch an escaping soul.”

In the midst of this chaotic moment, the phone rang with a call from Merle’s youngest daughter, who lives in Vermont. Said Susan, “When I told Dad that Jane was on the phone, he sat up in the bed, took the receiver and greeted Jane with a hearty Buongiorno!

I went to the memorial service out of respect for Merle. I went to see his daughters and their families, all of whom live far from here and will have little reason to return now that Merle’s gone. I knew it would be a touching occasion. But it wasn’t until the tears rolled down my cheeks that I realized just how important Merle had been in my life and how much I will miss his smile, his good humor and his embodiment of love.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

By the sea, by the beautiful sea.

It’s true. I live in a very class town. 2011

It’s true. I live in a very classy town.

Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the picture above. You might have a place in your town where there’s an “old country pancake house.” But does your old country pancake house charge $895 for the pleasure of having that breakfast “Southern Style”?

I think not.

Can you get your name engraved on a grain of rice where you live? Or buy a rice necklace or a rice keychain?

Thought so.

From time to time I do research for our local tourism industry. Even when I’m not doing anything with them, I still try to keep an eye on what’s going on in our resort area.

Like a lot of people my age who grew up here, I worked all kinds of tourism-related jobs when I was young. At spring break, I cleaned pools, painted and did landscape clean up. During the summer I toted bags, waited tables, told tourists how to get to Colonial Williamsburg and watched Shore Patrol officers break up fights between drunken sailors outside the Peppermint Lounge.

These days many of the people working along the resort strip are temporary workers from former Soviet countries. College students, most of them. The official line is that they come here to work on their English and make some money for school. But what they really want is a taste of the American life they’ve seen on television. Some local people complain that these young people are taking jobs from Americans. But the tourist industry depends on them because few local kids are willing to work in hotels and restaurants any more and those who do quit before the end of the season. The temporary workers are mistreated by some employers, shunned by landlords and subjected to jeers from redneck tourists who treat them like aliens because of their accents, which is a shame since it is this impression of America that they take home with them.

April is the time of year when the resort hotels, restaurants and attractions put their finishing touches on things. Memorial Day is the traditional kick off of the summer season. But if the weather’s nice, as it has been this year, people start coming earlier. It used to be that only a few hotels were winterized enough to even open this early. Now just about everyone’s open year-round and touting their ocean views, low rates, free parking, swimming pools, hot tubs and wi-fi connections.

Yesterday afternoon Atlantic Avenue was lined with trucks belonging to carpenters, plumbers, painters and pool repairmen. During the summer they’ll be replaced by trucks delivering food, beer and clean towels and bed linens. Every few blocks there’ll be a booth staffed with perky young men and women selling timeshares. The trolleys that run up and down the main drag will be full of sunburned visitors from Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New York and Boston.

When this happens I’ll shift my walking to the residential north end of the oceanfront and count the days until fall when all the tourists go home.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Port Call

Port Call

[About fifteen years ago I started writing a book, an action story, to be precise. It never had any pretenses of being serious literature. I referred to it as a “movie of the week.” There was a plot. There was a beginning and an end. There were chapters in between that actually made some sense. But I got bogged down in making it all work together. I recently pulled out the box of pages I’d written and decided to share some of them here in the hope that seeing them again might inspire me to go back and finish the book. Today I’ll introduce Port Call, one of the minor characters in this enterprise.]

Portulacca Oriana Call, “Port” to her chums, walked across the asphalt parking lot purposely, as if her income depended on it. Which it did. All around her, tractor-trailer trucks idled, waiting to pick up shipping containers and carry them across the countryside to the inland cities.

“Hey, Baby!” a man yelled from a 16-wheeler. “Daddy’s home from Dundalk.”

“Hey, Sweetheart!” shouted the driver from a big Volvo car carrier. “How about a little sugar?”

Baby. Cutie. Honey. Hots. Skank. Sleeze. Slut. All these names and many more that were even less kind were used to beckon Port. As unfriendly, even cruel, as these names were, they were in any event accurate. For as God gave some people special abilities to play a violin or paint magnificent frescoes, he gave Port Call the gift of love. And she was good.

Or had been. Truth be told, Port’s heyday, like those of the docks she worked so assiduously, were over. Long gone. Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas gone. Lester Pearson in Canada gone. Harold Macmillan as prime minister gone.

“Come on over, old Port!” yet another driver called from across the lot.

The years had taken their toll on Port. Port O. Call—her retired seaman father liked to run it together to make “Port O’Call,” a little more than token irony given Port’s career choice—had once had a taut figure. But now her corpulent figure was plagued by a series of sags in all the wrong places. The hem of her dress hung ragged. The wind off the sea made her dress cling to her legs. A pretty, even stylish dress once upon a time, by now its colors were dull and its shape stretched way beyond its original contour. Despite the summer heat, Port wore a metallic silver jacket over the dress, the jacket emblazoned with the logo of the Intermodal Shipping Line. It was a gift from one of Port’s regular customers.

Port sidled over to the cab of a giant Volvo truck where, after a momentary bit of negotiating, she climbed in and the interior lights went out.

Not long thereafter, 18 minutes to be exact, Port stepped back down into the parking lot, giving the driver the merest wisp of a goodbye wave.

Afterwards, Port retired to the closest pub, an establishment so long unfamiliar with respectability that when the door was closed you scarcely knew any establishment existed there at all. Located in one of the low, nondescript buildings across from the docks, the exterior of the pub was covered with unpainted corrugated aluminum. The upstairs had once been used for warehousing, but now was empty like most of the rest of the building. Outside, a sign, unhinged, but not completely destroyed during a stevedore strike in the 1970s, dangled by a single, non-functioning electrical wire. Not that the place needed a sign. Everyone knew it was Leech’s even though old man Leech himself now resided under an oxygen tent at a rural nursing home. Leech’s son-in-law Hank ran the place. The one window on the street was so splattered with mud and masking tape that the landlord had nailed a giant TO LET sign over it, hoping to find another sucker to rent the upstairs.

Some hookers develop drug problems. Port avoided this affliction, but made up for it by spending most of her free time drinking at Leech’s.

In better times, when there was plenty of work around the docks and everyone paid his tab with wages instead of their allotment from the public dole, patrons of Leech’s had even been known to pull a few chairs from the pub out to the curb and play checkers under the afternoon sun. One of those men was Jimmy Valesquez, who now sat at a stool at the pub’s bar. When Port’s career had been peaking during the glory days of the Liverpool docks, Jimmy’s career was in a rapid descent while he sat biding his time in His Majesty’s Bristol Prison.

In his day, Jimmy was a superb break-and-enter man. As crafty as he was slipping into and out of homes, medical offices, electronics shops and other places that could be counted on to have goods that were easy to fence, he’d never been lucky in love until he met Port.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Rite of Spring

Spring Cleaning, 2011

Parisians stormed out of the theater in 1913—“riot” is the word that has been used most often to describe their reaction--when Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed. Neuroscientists now believe it possible that Stravinsky’s alternately calm and violently rhythmic Rite was so jarring to concertgoers’ brains that they had no choice but to flee.

We’re a little easier on spring around here, where one of the many rites of spring is the annual cleaning of the screened porch.

The porch may just be our favorite part of our house. We added it not long after we moved here and spend much of our summer on it. There’s no better place to eat, entertain friends, read a book or just have a conversation. The porch is shielded from the worst of the north winds. But it still manages to get quite dirty over the winter. Also, being located under so many trees and so close to water makes it something of a constant challenge to keep anything clear of vegetation, moss and mildew.

Some years we’ve been able to use the porch in late March. But any attempts at serious cleaning are quixotic since the onset of pollen season in April quickly covers everything with that fertile yellow powder of spring.

Besides, cleaning the porch isn’t just a matter of moving the dust around. It usually includes putting a new coat of battleship gray paint on the floor, touching up the white trim, checking to see if last year’s rain makes it necessary to replace the sisal rug and spraying every wooden surface that could possibly have mildew with a light concentration of chlorine bleach.

Stravinsky assaulted the ears of Parisian music lovers with rhythm. I assault the porch with Clorox.

Each year I swear I’m going to get this down to a more efficient process. But each year it seems the task of moving all the porch furniture outside so that it can be washed only becomes more cumbersome.

And once you get all the furniture outside, you also realize just how green and slippery the back patio had become over the winter. This necessitates yet another yet another hour or so of scrubbing with a broom, bleach and a water hose.

[If all this talk of bleach makes it sound as if we’re the world’s worst environmental scofflaws, be assured that we use it carefully and without damaging the garden or any of the birds and other wildlife.]

By the time everything’s done, the porch looks a whole lot more welcoming, but I’m usually tired and whatever I’m wearing is speckled with bleach spots. (That’s another thing you’d think I’d learn to avoid after all these years.)

I was just about finished cleaning the porch this past Saturday morning when I happened to look from the garage out to the back patio. I was waiting for things to dry so that I could haul the furniture back up onto the porch. Something in all the shades of green, though, caught my eye. For whatever reason, it seemed an awfully peaceful view. Or at least peaceful if you can ignore the whirlpool of pollen in the middle of the picture.

July on the Porch, 2010

Monday, April 25, 2011

Dept of Pop Psychology

Further, 2011

I don’t know what I hunger for,
I don’t know why I feel the hunger more
And more with every passing day.

(Excerpt from “Saturn Returns” from Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns)

Was there ever a time in your life when you questioned the big things?

When you’re young, birthdays are moments of greater independence, self-determination and opportunity. At sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one, the future is all open and possible.

It’s when you turn thirty-five or forty or maybe even fifty when you start asking the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I fit in? What was all that about? What do I want?

It was turning thirty-five that hit me. When I was twenty-one, I’d adopted confidence about where I’d be in life at thirty-five. I’d imagined a certain level of independence, personal and professional confidence and financial stability. Looking back now, I realize I did achieve some of these things. But at the time it wasn’t so apparent. So I lost a lot of sleep worrying about taking care of my family and about moving along in my career.

At thirty-nine, I had another shock. A friend my age had a heart attack. I knew my friend’s excessive eating, drinking and smoking contributed to his condition and that my eating and drinking habits—I’ve never smoked—were far more moderate. Still, it was the first time a contemporary had experienced a health condition normally associated with much older people.

After that, turning forty was a breeze, despite the firm I’d been with for ten years having been sold and my job lost with it. My first inclination was to find a new job. I’d never been without a good job and predictable income. Fortunately there were good offers, too. But I wasn’t comfortable with any of them. Then another friend challenged me with this thought: “Would you rather be ‘unemployed’ on your fortieth birthday or president of your own business?” It’s funny how the right question at the right moment can redirect your life. I came away from my fortieth birthday full in the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to re-invent him- or herself at age forty. It’s incredibly liberating to shed baggage you thought was important and replace it with elements of life that have greater meaning.

The fiftieth birthday wasn’t a problem, either. By then I’d figured out that reaching fifty wasn’t tantamount to putting one foot in the grave and that all things considered it was actually quite a good time in life. With fifty comes yet more realization, wisdom and appreciation.

I’m now less than a year away from turning sixty. It’s beginning to hit me that maybe there are some things that were always out there as possibilities that aren’t as accessible now as they used to be. I’m not depressed by this realization. But it did catch me off guard to even be thinking about it.

All this comes to mind because a young friend is experiencing one of these existential crises: wondering whether the path chosen is the right one; whether decisions made are wise or relationships meaningful.

Behavioral science has probably come up with some kind of therapeutic pathway for people facing such crossroads. I didn’t know enough when I was younger to know this. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and keep walking until I found sure footing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Spring Garden

The Garden View, 2009

Our yard is definitely a spring yard. It doesn’t go anywhere the rest of the year, of course. But apparently the things we’re most predisposed to plant are things that peak in the spring and early summer. The rest of the summer the gardens settle into a verdant green with stray punctuation from day lilies, hydrangeas, potted plants and impatiens. There’s a flurry of color again in the fall when the leaves turn and then winter drags us through months of brown and gray. But it’s spring when the place really shows.

It wasn’t always that way here. When we moved into this house thirteen years ago the back yard was a heavily shaded expanse of clay and leaves. There wasn’t enough sun for so much as a patch of turf or, I learned, much of anything else. You’d have thought that years of accumulated leaves would have composted into something useful. But all they did was compact on top of the clay in strata so thick and densely packed that it took me the better part of a winter to get them ground up and out of the way so that I could see what there was in the way of soil to work with underneath.

The picture below gives you an idea of what we found when we got here and what we were able to do with it after the first two planting seasons.

Before (1998) and After (2001)

The shock of what we found here was even more striking because we’d moved from a yard that was a veritable Garden of Eden. It was sunny. The soil was rich and drained well. Just about anything we planted there flourished. We spent seven years at that house, each year replacing more and more of the lawn with floral gardens.

The history of gardening at our current house has been more a series of fits and starts. I planted several hundred hostas and bluebells the first fall we were here, only to watch voles eat them and tug their foliage down into the ground the next spring. I had to learn how to look for shade loving plants, though even that became a challenge because of the unforgiving clay soil. I’d get all excited in one year and plant a lot of stuff and then become discouraged the next year when everything either died, failed to thrive or disappeared altogether thanks to the local wildlife.

If there’s one thing gardening teaches, though, it’s patience and perseverance.

In the Garden, 2009

Over the years we’ve brought in truckloads of topsoil and various sludge-based soil enhancers. It took ten years to get the worst of the drainage problems resolved. Hurricanes and winter storms have cleared trees that blocked the sun, but that we’d been legally prohibited from removing due to our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. Every leaf that falls gets ground up and composted. I’ve become that guy who rides around the neighborhood in the fall when everyone else is putting out their leaves and brings all their bags of leaves home to grind up and compost in our yard. We’ve finally learned what kinds of plants the local wildlife will leave alone.

Now we just have to get the seasons right. Give me another thirteen years and I might finally get the seasons balanced horticulturally.

By the way, the photo at the top of this post is one I’ve shown before. It’s the view from the west side of our house looking northward into the back yard. This past winter’s snowstorms destroyed the arbor in the foreground and some of the bushes around it. We were recently able to find another, sturdier arbor to replace it. The bushes have been cut back. In another year I hope this view will be fully restored.

This Week in the Garden, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Infinite Possibilities of a Single Pier

Wooden Fishing Pier, 2011

One of the great advantages of being mindful of your surroundings is that you can go to the same place and see different things depending on the time of day or the day of the year.

The Wooden Fishing Pier in the resort area of Virginia Beach is one of those places. Its name probably doesn’t need the adjective wooden any more because the Steel Pier that used to share the resort area oceanfront and that necessitated a distinction between the two, has been gone for nearly thirty years. But that’s what we older-timers call it.

It’s actually kind of ironic that the sturdy steel pier that could withstand most anything the Atlantic Ocean could hurl at it was the pier to be taken down. The Wooden Pier, by comparison, bends and creaks with the waves and has to be repaired periodically when winter storms knock it apart.

Fishing piers are pretty straightforward photographic subjects. Most people tend to emphasize the pilings, the long leading lines and the diminishing perspective. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just that you’ve seen it a hundred times before.

As these pictures show, I’ve taken my fair share of pictures of the Wooden Pier that emphasize the pilings, the long lines and the diminishing perspective. But in recent years I’ve tended to use the pier as more of a framing device for some other perspectives rather than as the primary subject.

One of my favorite pictures taken at the Wooden Fishing Pier is the one below that shows the kids playing on the beach. This was taken during the winter of 2003. This was one of those right-place-at-the-right time photo opportunities. If I’d been looking south rather than north, or out to the surf rather than at the beach, I’d have missed it. The kids had been playing further up on the beach and only for that brief moment captured in this scene had they run down to the water’s edge.

The picture at the top of this post, on the other hand, was taken just the other day. It’s a cliché shot, one that I might have thrown away for its lack of story. But each time I looked at it the blue of the sky and the green of the water won my heart.

A Child’s Christmas on the Beach, 2003

The Tat Perspective, 2009

Fall Sunrise at the Wooden Pier, 2007

Under the Pier, 2008

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Working the Beachfront

Dyan + Bryan 4 Evuh (or until the next wave), 2011

On Sunday I went down to the beach for my afternoon walk. My current schedule allows me time to do five miles in the morning and five in the afternoon. I usually walk in the neighborhood, where I have a measured course. But it was such a beautiful day that I thought it foolish to miss a chance to walk on the beach.

The only surprise was how crowded it was. The beach and boardwalk were full of people. Sometimes I walk up at the residential north end of the beach. I can usually count on running into a few people I knew. But this past Sunday I instead walked down in the resort area where I know almost no one. Not that many Sundays ago you’d have only seen a few people on the beach. But this past Sunday it looked more like June. It was warm enough that some people were even swimming and playing in the surf, although I suspect they’re Northerners whose water temperature frame of reference must be Lake Erie.

I really hadn’t any idea of what I was going to photograph when I started out. I’d vaguely thought about doing something abstract with sand. But after I’d walked a few blocks I discovered that the tourists had arranged a topic for me. Photo walks can be like this. When confronted with something unexpected, I’ve learned that it’s generally smart to forget what you’d planned and go with what you find.

I took a few pictures of the surf and the sky. But the real attraction turned out to be the words and marks people had left written in the sand, like the photo above. I don’t know Dyan or Brian. But part of the ritual of their visit to Virginia Beach was obviously leaving a mark, however temporary, of their relationship. It’s sort of like carving your initials in a tree, only these initials are no more lasting that the next high tide. (I’m not sure what this says about Dyan and Brian’s chances.)

I do have one regret about Sunday that reminds me how I have to brush up on my people skills. In the midst of a group of people standing together near the water I noticed a gorgeous African American woman wearing a particularly striking green dress. Her deep black skin and that green dress would have made a killer picture in the afternoon sun. But I was so caught up in the moment that by the time I realized that I should take a picture of the woman I’d walked almost a half block on. Bu the time I got back she’d left the beach.

I tried to make up for this oversight a little while later when I saw a guy with some particularly eye-catching tattoos running from his shoulders down his back. I’d been thinking last summer about doing a series of photographs of people with tattoos and sunburn and figured this guy might be a good place to start. He looked friendly enough. He seemed initially flattered when I asked whether I could photograph the tattoos. But after a moment’s reflection he refused my request. “The gal I’m with isn’t my wife,” he explained. “You know how that goes.”

I don’t, but I didn’t want to find out.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Band of Brothers

Veterans Day, 2003

I’m of an age that when I came out of high school I could have been called to military service in Vietnam. But I wasn’t called and didn’t offer to go.

The Vietnam War ended while I was in college. Like some of you, I remember the film of those last Americans being lifted by helicopter off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon while hundreds of Vietnamese stayed below, hoping that other copters might come and rescue them. No more copters came and those people suffered terribly for their support of the United States.

But as we also know, they weren’t the only ones who suffered. By 1973, U.S. military personnel—most of them Navy aviators—began to be released from North Vietnamese prisons. The wife of one such young officer lived a couple of doors away from me at the time. We’d all kept our fingers crossed that her husband would return unharmed.

He did return, and was one of the lucky ones so far as physical problems go. But it’s probably safe to say that no one returned from the “Hanoi Hilton” unscarred.

I’ve since gotten to know several former POWs of that era. Even those who came home with few physical manifestations carry deep emotional and psychological injuries.

A few years ago I started noticing an elderly man driving a van in our neighborhood. He’s a survivor of a North Vietnamese POW prison. I know this because his license plate says so. I used to find his license plate to be a little uncomfortable. Of course, I respect what he went through. But I’m no sure how he expected people to react to his license plate.

The Vietnam-era POWs I’ve known tend to be smart and strong-willed, but also somewhat reserved. They’re uncomfortable being treated as heroes and when they came home they just wanted to get on with lives that look ahead rather than behind.

This past Saturday morning while I was out for a walk in the neighborhood the former POW with the van stopped at a corner to let me cross. We nodded at each other in acknowledgement. A few minutes later he pulled into a driveway just ahead of me. Seeing me again as he stepped out of the van, he made a comment about the beautiful morning. I stopped to acknowledge the comment and, thinking that this was as good a moment as any, decided to see what I could learn about this man that I’d thought might be something of a showboat.

I told the man I’d noticed his license plate and thanked him for his service to the country. I asked if he knew my former neighbor from Richmond. He said that they had served together and were in the same North Vietnamese prison camp.

Keep in mind, this conversation was taking place at 6:30 a.m. I asked why he was up so early. He explained that he checks on several of his war buddies each morning. “Some I can call. But some of the guys don’t hear so good any more. So I go by and check on them in person.”

Boy, did I feel like a jerk for having thought him pretentious to have the POW license plate.

When I got home I happened to see a picture of some Tea Party tax protesters who’d held a rally the day before at a local office complex. They’d waved flags and banners that proclaimed, “God Bless America,” and “Don’t Tread on Me.”

I couldn’t help but believe that these people who wrap themselves in the folds of the American flag and the pages of the Bible while advocating the withdrawal of support for the poor and the sick are no more Christian than my dog. And I knew for sure that when I’d been chatting with the former POW who gets up each morning before sunrise to check on his buddies that I was closer to the true spirit of American decency and patriotism than I was when I saw the picture of those self-styled “real Americans” standing on a curb yelling about “fair taxes.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Same View. Different Eyes.

Same View. Different Eyes. 2011

Sometimes I see things I want to photograph, but I’m not sure how I’ll want to present them.

Take the picture above. I was walking down the street near the beach on a sunny afternoon and happened to look up and notice the colorful horizontal lines on the wall of an otherwise ugly parking deck. There was no story to these lines. I just thought they might make an interesting graphic statement. I could easily see this image enlarged and hung on the wall of a house with sterile white walls. It would be just the thing someone would want to bring a little warmth to a cold contemporary house.

What I didn’t want, though, was for this to be a photograph of a parking deck. That led to the second treatment, the blurry one. If you’ve spent much time at this blog, you know I’m nothing if not nutty about blurring things up until they become about the shapes and colors rather than the actual things they are.

So there you have two different views of the same thing. I find the literal version on the left to be a one-hit pleasure. It might catch your eye the first time you saw it, just as it caught my eye the day I saw it. But would I enjoy walking by it time after time if it were hung in my house? Probably not. The colors are bigger and bolder. But straight lines are so definite. Once you’ve seen them you’ve seen all there is to see.

Would I, on the other hand, enjoy walking by the blurry version time after time again? I think I might. Blurry lines are less definite. They blend together. You never know what’s lurking in them. They hold opportunity. An imaginative person can see different things each time this picture is viewed.

But that's just my eyes. Our brains want to straighten lines and make the indistinct distinct. So I wonder whether someone else looking at a blurry picture that I like might instead become nauseous when confronted by something that so purposely defies the mind's natural inclination to make order of it.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tell Me Why

Some Days You Just Stand Still and the Sky Does All the Work, 2011

I need your help.

I posted the picture above at my Flickr page yesterday. I almost didn’t, though, because I considered it something of a throwaway shot. It was obviously interesting enough to catch my attention when I took it. But when I looked at it later on what I noticed was all the things I wish were different about it.

This is another one of those instances that reminds you how difficult it is to judge how your own work will impact other people. There are photographs of mine that I really like, but that failed to attract much interest from other people. And then there are pictures like this, pictures I was close to throwing away altogether, that seem to really click with some people.

It wasn’t exactly a groundswell, but this picture did seem to touch far more people than I’d imagined it might. Several left comments at Flickr. Even more sent me e-mails, including people I’ve never even heard from before.

This was all flattering. But I don’t get it. What was it about this picture?

Was it the title? I’ll confess: I was trying to cover what I thought were the shortcomings in the photo with a title that was both vaguely alliterative (or is it sibilant? “some,” “stand,” “still,” “sky”) and honest in stating one of the truths of photography. (Namely, that it’s sometimes worthwhile just to stand still and not try to overthink things) And where I was just hoping that no one would think me disingenuous, instead they seemed genuinely touched.

Is there something in the sky that I’m missing? It’s a nice sky, but far less dynamic than others I’ve photographed.

Is it just the broad sweep of blue dominating the frame?

Feedback welcomed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Light. Shadows. Color.

Plaza Shadow, 2008

A neighbor of mine who has become a very technically proficient photographer is trying to develop his right brain skills. He’s a very detail-oriented person, retired from a career in a highly detail-oriented organization. By his own admission, he’s conditioned to notice a lot of what’s going on around him, but purely as information. He wants to be able to create more contemplative photographs.

In the course of his daily travels this neighbor came upon another neighbor who is a painter. Mostly portraits. When he mentioned to her his desire to become more attuned to the artistic opportunities of photography, she suggested three exercises for him.

The first is this: for two weeks, spend fifteen minutes each day paying attention to the light. Notice where it’s coming from. Notice how the direction from which it comes changes the way things look throughout the day. Notice the color of light at different times and in different places.

The second exercise: for the next two weeks spend fifteen minutes each day paying attention to the shadows. Notice where they occur, how the shapes of things affect them and how they change throughout the day.

Finally, spend fifteen minutes each day for the next two weeks just noticing the colors of things.

Sometimes when people approach photography for the first time, they become obsessed about equipment. They think the right camera or the right lens will make their photographs better. Of course, one must have equipment capable of capturing whatever it is you’re trying to capture in the picture. But I think we all know that it’s the photographer’s eye that really counts.

I was giving some thought recently to trying my hand at conducting a photography workshop at a local community center. I thought I might combine some classroom time with a series of photo walks. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that the most important thing to impart in such a workshop would not be about how to use a camera, but rather how to become more mindful of one’s surroundings.

I used to take it for granted that people who like photography are generally observant. But I know now that this is not the case. Last summer my wife and I were out to dinner with another neighbor, a retired vascular surgeon, and his wife. When the condensation on one of the drink glasses caused the ink on a cocktail napkin underneath the glass to run, the image it created as it spread across the paper was like a river delta. My wife and I were fascinated at how the moisture and the blue ink spread in a pattern so much like something from nature.

The doctor leaned over to his wife and expressed amazement that we noticed such a thing. “Isn’t that interesting that they see such things? I’d have never noticed that.”

I’ll be interested to see if and how my other neighbor’s photography changes as he becomes more attuned to the dynamics of light, shadows and colors. The three exercises the painter suggested may be as close to meditation as he’s ever gotten. But I do believe that if he’s faithful to the exercises he can indeed become more mindful of his surroundings.

The photograph above is one I took in New York some years ago. I was standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and happened to look up and see how the morning light had cast a severe shadow across the eastern façade of the Plaza Hotel.

Light. Shadows. Color. Without them, we’re nothing.