Friday, July 29, 2011

Out of Context

Charlie’s Antiques 02, 2011

Someone asked me the other day whether I’d won any photo competitions lately. The answer was “No,” mainly because I haven’t entered any lately.

What I can say with some confidence, though, is that at least for the last several days I’m bound to have won the contest of how many different blog posts I could harvest from one two-hour drive.

The last few days’ posts have all been about things that happened on a single drive. Most of the pictures were taken within the same hour at different places along just one 30-mile stretch of highway between Williamsburg and Richmond, Virginia. This is the last of these posts, but I hope you’ll agree that I saved the best for the last.

So I was driving up Route 60 from Williamsburg toward Richmond. I’d gone though the little hamlets of Norge and was almost to Toano when I happened to see a something out of the corner of my eye that seemed completely out of context.

Charlie’s Antiques 15, 2011

Off to my left, scattered across an uncultivated field, was an array of what I’m calling “estate statuary.” It looked like someone had been present at the demolition of a grand British country estate and filled a container with all of the statues, benches and other man-made landscape elements.

Of course, I had to stop and see what this was all about. One doesn’t associate such stuff with eastern Virginia. But it has to come from somewhere, I suppose. So I made a U-turn and pulled the car over into the field.

I wandered around for about fifteen minutes, looking at he statues and shaking crickets and other bugs off my pants legs. Nestled up against a bush was a stone lion. Not far away and surrounded by an ancient wrought iron railing was the framework for a glass conservatory. Statues of dogs and naked women and naked women with dogs were scattered around, all without any apparent explanation.

I took my pictures and left. A little further down the highway I found the explanation I’d been looking for. It was in Toano and is an antiques business called Charlie’s. The web site doesn’t do justice to the crowded lot of bronze birds, stone Chinese soldiers, Italian fountains and other landscape statues scattered around the Charlie’s Antiques barn. For that you’ll have to go there yourself.

Charlie’s Antiques 17, 2011

Charlie’s Antiques 22, 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

God's Landing Strip

Liberty Baptist Church, Lanexa, 2011

If you go out to take pictures along Southern rural roads, rarely will you run out of material to shoot. One thing you’re sure to end up with, though, is a lot of pictures of churches.

Most Southern towns can be counted on to have at least a Baptist and a Methodist church and usually racially segregated versions of each. Slightly larger towns will have Episcopalians and Presbyterians, too, and maybe a Catholic church thrown in every now and then. Around the edges of towns will be a few small Pentecostals churches. Although there is an old Christian church over near Suffolk that has been concerted into a Muslim place of workshop, generally speaking temples and synagogues are extremely rare.

Antioch Baptist, Saluda, 2009

Churches still mean a lot in small towns. They are representations of not only religious affiliation, but also class distinction. They are also important elements in the local social fabric, small town churches are also places to be noticed missing from should you be so inclined as to opt out. (I once had a client who was incompetent in his job, but who was instead criticized during his annual performance review for not having been seen in church lately.)

On my drive to Richmond earlier this week, I had a chance to revisit some of the familiar old churches along Route 60. Virginia’s rich soft red clay is so plentiful that the survival of many historic churches can be traced to their having been built with brick. But not all churches could afford brick, so you see lots of old wooden churches like the ones shown here.

I’ve always found it interesting how churches demonstrate their faith through design and landscaping. Some churches are big and showy, meant to impress. Others are simple and homespun, making, if anything, a statement against showiness. Years ago I went down to interview a group of Southern Baptist church ladies in a little country town south of Atlanta. While I sat in the sanctuary of that beautiful little church listening to the ladies discuss foreign missions, curious dairy cows pressed their noses up through open windows as if they were regular members of the group with something to add to the conversation.

St. Luke's, Courtland, 2008

I get the impression that the members of Liberty Baptist Church, shown at the top of this post, apparently felt that a beautiful and clearly identifiable church with an iconic steeple were not expressive enough and therefore took the additional step of installing a cross formed from loose white pebbles in the front lawn. One assumes the lights are there to illuminate the cross at night. But when I looked at the cross in the daylight it reminded me of nothing more than an airport landing strip.

Capeville United Methodist, Virginia, 2006

Main Street United Methodist, Onancock, 2009

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Time Moving Faster Than I Thought

The Old Mill Office, 2011

It’s inevitable that the older you get the more you’re going to notice that things around you have changed. The house you grew up in will turn out to be much smaller than you remember. It wasn’t until I was almost finished with college that there was an Interstate-grade highway between my home on the Virginia coast and the state capital, roughly 100 miles away.

People complained. But it wasn’t all that bad. The legal speed limit was never higher than 55 mph. But when you have only a hundred miles to go what’s an extra five or ten minutes? Besides, you got to drive on the old four-lane divided highway through small towns and woods.

I rode that old road back and forth to college many times over the years. I loved that it went through all sorts of little towns and crossroads. One of my college friends was from one of those little towns. His family owned a thriving lumber and building supply business. His father and grandfather were big in that town. Their name was on a lot of its businesses.

Keep in mind, I started college just over forty years ago. Things change in forty years. But on those occasions in subsequent years when I would drive through this small town I always looked over and noticed David’s family’s lumber operation. It wasn’t hard to see because the town itself was barely a half-mile across and the mill took up more space than any other business in town.

Eventually, the last links of the I-64 connecting the coast with Richmond were finished, bypassing the town. The little roadside diner, where white customer entered through the front door and blacks and local Chickahominy Indians were served from the back door, closed. A self-service gas plaza replaced the old filling station.

I hadn’t driven through this little town in years. But yesterday I had some time to kill before my client meeting in Richmond, so I took the old Blue Highway instead of the Interstate.

When I drove through David’s little town, I was shocked to find that the family lumber mill was closed. In fact, it’s been closed so long that trees are growing where trucks once lined up to drop off logs for milling.

As I say, this kind of thing shouldn’t shock me. It’s been more than thirty-five years, after all. But it was still enough of a jolt to the system that I pulled over and walked around the property for a few minutes. The building shown above, the original mill office, had already been replaced by a more modern structure when I first saw it in 1969. But for some time thereafter the original mill office continued to be maintained and used for other purposes.

Now, it looks like it could fall down the next time a strong wind blows. The white paint’s literally peeled off the clapboard siding. The windows are broken. Old mill equipment is rusting in its three rooms amid piles of litter, broken liquor bottles and animal debris.

I swear, you go away for thirty-five years and everything goes to pot! What’s this world coming to?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eyes Wide Open

At Pierce’s, 2011

I realize this is not everyone’s idea of a good photograph, or a photograph at all. Admittedly, it looks more like a photogram. It really is a photograph, though, and also an example of how a serendipitous glance can translate a passing moment into an interesting image.

I was at Pierce’s Barbecue yesterday, on the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia. It was a little early for lunch. But I’m not usually within range of Pierce’s. So when the opportunity presents itself and there’s half an excuse for stopping by, I do.

If you’ve been there, you’ll know that the décor of Pierce’s is all about the colors yellow and orange. Over the years the place has expanded from a little shack with a window serving walk-up customers to an enclosed restaurant with an eat-in dining room and picnic tables spread around the lawn outdoors. But the colors have never changed. There’s probably a story behind those colors, something like Mr. Pierce having been compelled to adopt a color that would make his original barbecue stand hard to miss for tourists sent out through the woods from Williamsburg. Maybe he just liked orange. I’ve certainly had my moments with orange, so I could understand that.

I ordered my barbecue with coleslaw, filled a glass of iced tea and took a seat at one of the tables. It was a little before noon and there weren’t many other customers around. I decided to use my cell phone to take a picture of the place. That done, I put the phone down and started to eat. As I was unwrapping my sandwich I happened to notice that the phone had slipped down between my sandwich and my drink in such a way that the phone cam screen displayed the scene above. I was fascinated by it. You don’t have to know where it was or what the literal things photographed were. This is all about the shapes and the colors.

Every day we experience all kinds of visual imagery as we walk through life. Some of it’s big and unchanging. Some of it’s small and ephemeral, such as this play of light and color.

If the light had been different, if I’d been looking away or if there’d been someone with me, I’d have surely missed this little moment. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, I reached over and touched the screen and took the picture.

I don’t know why my eyes are drawn to such images. I’m just happy they are.

Monday, July 25, 2011

That Afternoon on 25th Street

25th Street, 2008

They arrived together and left separately, she to her family and dinner, he to his wife and a fight.

Strictly speaking, they didn't arrive together, just at the same time. She stepped out of a yellow taxi. He stepped from a black chauffeured Mercedes. Both were regulars at the cafe, albeit at different times during the week. She brought her children here every Friday afternoon on their walk home from school. He and his wife came each Sunday morning before making their customary rounds of the neighborhood art galleries.

It was taking a big chance meeting here. They usually met uptown in dark paneled hotel bars in the late afternoon.

Carlton, the cafe owner, would certainly make over the presence of two of his most famous customers. Sitting at a table by the window would make them visible to anyone walking down 25th street. For people who knew them only as celebrities their presence together would not be questioned; one assumes that a famous director and a famous actress are friends and have coffee together. Only their families would have questioned their meeting.

Besides, they thought they were ready to be public. His marital problems were tabloid fodder. She was convinced her husband was seeing someone else. Even before they slept together he knew he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. They knew what they were doing would cause a lot of pain to their children. They knew that what they’d found together was worth causing that pain. They were people who did not shy away from drama, who could be content to part rather than create collateral damage. They accepted that their merging of affections and body fluids would result in difficulty that would not go away easily or quickly.

And indeed all this would happen—because people like this go through life making waves that knock the innocent around—but in time, not today, and not as a result of this public meeting in the café on 25th Street.

When they had been seated at the table and Carlton had left to get their drinks she told him that she could not go on with him. She could do a lot of things. She could leave her husband. She could even leave her children. But she could not leave the other man in her life.

Yes, another man. Is there no honor among the unfaithful? She was seeing another actor on Wednesday afternoons between the matinee and the evening performance. They were not so chaste, though, as to just have drinks in a hotel bar. They were upstairs in his room having sex and dozing in each other’s arms until the car came to take them back to the theater.

And so they left separately, she to her family and dinner, he to his wife and a fight.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Old Ring Cycle

Seine Promenade, 2006

No, we're not talking about the Wagner Ring cycle, that seemingly endless series of operatic fantasies about rings and Nibelungs and Valkyries. No, we're talking about people who scam tourists, most notably along Seine in Paris.

I'm usually a very trusting person. I'm not at all like one of my neighbors who lives with the constant conviction that everyone is out to get her and that strangers are never to be trusted. I give people the opportunity to show me their best.

But I am not so naive as to believe that there aren't people who will take advantage of you, especially when you're in unfamiliar terrain. Like when you're in a crowded foreign city and you’re distracted by all the new and interesting things there are to see.

In Italy you’re warned to be wary of usual pickpockets in crowded places and around busy train stations. But the scoundrels you really want to avoid are the gypsies who will do things like throw fake babies at you, knowing that you’ll reach out to save the baby while the gypsies reach underneath your arms and grab your purse or wallet. This may sound like an urban myth. But I’ve actually watched it other gypsy scams happen.

I don’t have anything against gypsies, by the way. But they seem to have been relegated to such low status in western European counties that they’re left with only scams to support themselves.

It was in Paris, though, that we experienced the famous "ring" scam. I had actually read about this one somewhere before we went to Paris, so I recognized it when I saw it happening.

Unfortunately, my wife hadn't heard of the ring scam. So when a respectable looking woman called to my wife from the Seine promenade to ask if she'd dropped a ring my wife stopped to see what the lady was talking about.

I recognized the scam almost immediately. But my wife, never one to miss a jewelry opportunity, couldn't resist the call. Having learned over thirty years when to jump in and when to stand back, I hovered nearby while the con played out. The woman showed my wife a gold ring she'd supposedly found on the walkway where my wife had just passed and asked if it belonged to my wife. It wasn't hers, of course. But the woman said she felt bad about taking something that belonged to other people and instead offered to give it to my wife.

This was the set-up. The ring, of course, wasn’t made of gold and wasn’t ever on the ground. But at first glance it looked nice enough to be worth considering. The scam is that the ring is worthless, little more than plastic. The cycle plays out when the victim, aka the “mark,” also feels guilty about accepting something for nothing and offers the con artist some money for her time.

My wife might have fallen for the initial appeal of the scam. But by this point she realized she's being taken for a ride. I was standing not far away, so I knew she's in no actual danger. But I turned out to be unneeded altogether because by then my wife had started to yell at the con artist in her loudest Southern lady voice. I don't remember what she said, only that it was loud enough that it immediately attracted the attention of everyone standing and walking nearby. It was the very kind of attention that the con artist didn't want. She took off running immediately. We had a good laugh over the experience, chatted with a few people who had also observed it and then wandered off to a café to have a couple of cold drinks.

A few minutes later we saw the lady back out on promenade carrying a ring in her hand and calling out to another gullible tourist. "Madame! Madame!..."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Seeing Past Your Biases

Oracle Junction, 2005

The other night I read a blog essay written by a conservative acquaintance that bothered me so much that I’m still fuming over it.

The premise of the essay was that people living in poverty in American really don’t have it all that bad. According to a leading conservative think tank, the poor enjoy air conditioning, cable television, hot tubs, Xbox games and a variety of other luxuries. Its conclusion—that the poor are either that way by choice or, in the case of alcoholism or drug abuse, as a result of moral deficiency—is the kind of thing that makes it easy for the more mean-spirited among us to vilify the poor and believe that poverty is a chosen condition.

This is one of those issues you don’t want to get me started on. I acknowledge the presence of abusers in the system. But the research I’ve done through the years among the poor in America—studies that have taken me from the slums of our nation’s major cities to the “hollers” of Appalachia and the rice fields of the Mississippi Delta—tells me that few people living in poverty either chose to live that way or are so content with living on the dole that they have no desire to change their condition.

I’m pretty sure my conservative friend writing from his affluent suburb has never spent much time living in or around chronic poverty. People who are losing their homes today, for example, are portrayed as morally corrupt for having believed what some people told them they could afford when they couldn’t. I suspect my conservative friend has unquestionable faith in the myth of the “welfare queen.” If he did spend some time among the poor, of course, he’d find that the poor don’t have hot tubs because they can’t afford to pay the water bill or have to haul water to their abodes in buckets from a creek or a neighbor’s outdoor spigot. They don’t have Xbox gaming systems because they never had a home computer and had to sell the television set for pennies on the dollar to pay for a transmission repair or a child’s dental filling.

But enough with the ranting. What does this have to do with the picture above? It’s this: the lesson I learned from this picture was about seeing beyond my own biases.

Up until the day I took this picture, I’d been one of those Easterners who’d basically written off America’s deserts as inhospitably dry and colorless. Be honest. When you think of a desert, isn’t brown the prevailing color you see in your mind?

On the day I took this picture I was driving from Phoenix down to the Mexican border. I’d purposely taken the old tw0-lane road south from Phoenix in order to avoid the blur of interstate driving and to hopefully see more of how people actually live out there.

I’m not sure why I pulled over to the side of the road to take this picture. It may have been the Catalina Mountains that grabbed my attention. I’d stopped at a few places along the road to take pictures of giant cacti, but hadn’t really captured the surrounding mountains in a way with which I was pleased.

The idea of “desert flowers” wasn’t completely foreign to me. Still, when I stepped up from the hot asphalt roadway onto the sandy plain shown in this photograph, I taken aback for a moment when I found myself surrounded by colorful flowers. Voila! From a purely photographic standpoint I had something interesting and colorful to occupy the foreground in the photograph.

I don’t know if my conservative acquaintance will ever been open-minded enough to question his biases. But I do know that taking pictures in the desert made me a better photographer. It’s not just because of the way I was compelled to challenge my biases, but because it reminded me of the importance of stopping and looking and listening. It taught me to be more aware of the subtleties of the desert’s colors and textures and to be more aware of my surroundings in a way that I couldn’t have been if I’d been viewing them at seventy miles an hour from an air conditioned card on the Interstate highway.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Finding Your Form

Scherzo, 2009

Back when I was in high school I had this half-baked idea about making short films centered around music. What I was thinking about were what we’d probably refer to today as “interstitials,” short pieces of no more than a couple of minutes’ length that would go between two other longer forms of entertainment.

Keep in mind that this was more than a decade before MTV and the popularization of music videos. Outside of a few galleries, there were few, if any, media outlets in the late 1960s where you could present this kind of stuff.

A lot of people come to the concept of creative expression late in the game. Rather than being completely driven by some spark of originality, innovation or genius, they express themselves through the available media, whether that means writing, painting, sculpting, photographing or whatever. That is, we—and I am one of those people—make our expressions fit existing formats.

The late “creative paradox” Gordon MacKenzie liked to think that God hands newborns a blank canvas on their way down the birth canal. “When I meet you again on the other end of your life,” He’d say, “I want you to have painted on this canvas what you experienced in life.” Only when we are born, our parents take the blank canvas away and tell us, “You’re too young to know what to do with that. We’ll hold onto it until you’re ready.” But when you reach an age when you’re ready to interpret the world on the canvas, you roll it open and find that society has imprinted a paint-by-numbers template onto which you can only apply prescribed colors in prescribed spaces.

Many of the artists whose work we remember most readily are those who were not content to stay within the lines. They refused to paint what was expected or even to work within a traditional painting or sculpting or other familiar form of expression.

Innovation, entrepreneurship and creating the artistically unexpected never come from repeating established norms. They might be about re-interpreting established norms. But more often than not they’re the result of blazing some new trail in both form and format.

Oh, and my film-based-on-music idea? It turns out I wasn’t that far off, just a little early and perhaps not in the right place. The other night I came across a movie from 1987 that did something close to what I was thinking about ten years earlier. The movie’s called Aria and it’s made up of ten short films by such directors as Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Jean-Luc Goddard, Ken Russell and Charles Sturridge. The shorts featured a bunch of European actors I didn’t recognize as well as more familiar faces like Buck Henry, Beverly D'Angelo, Theresa Russell, Anita Morris, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and even the teenage Bridget Fonda and Elizabeth Hurley.

The idea of stringing a series of short films into a single feature length piece wasn’t original, even in 1987. At about the same time Aria was being developed Francis Ford Coppola was putting together New York Stories, a collection of three short films, including one by him and one each from Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, that had nothing more in common than that they all took place in New York.

What’s different about Aria, as the name suggests, is that each of its ten short films is built around a famous operatic aria. Most of the arias are well known enough to be recognized by anyone with a little music knowledge (and exposure to Bugs Bunny cartoons). Though Aria probably wasn’t very successful commercially, it wasn’t because the component films were too artsy or that they required the viewer to know anything about opera. You could float along with the music even if the visual imagery seems a little, well, weird.

[A few more samples: Here's Franc Roddam's take on the Wagner Liberstod. And here's Robert Altman on Rameau. And one of my favorites, Julien Temple's Elvis singing Verdi's La Donna Mobile.]

Some of Aria’s directors went for modern interpretations of the original opera plots. Others, like Ken Russell—who many of us may remember most for psychedelic fantasies like Tommy and Lisztomania—went for a similarly 1987 version of psychedelia, using the music as a lyrical set-up for some pretty abstract, and now very dated, imagery.

For me, the point of "Aria" is that even as dated as it is there are all kinds of forms of expression. Finding the form that’s right for you isn't easy, especially if you want to go beyond the most familiar formats. The exciting part, though, is that you don't have to be constrained by what is, but rather inspired by what can be.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Cucumber Madonna

The Cucumber Madonna, 2011

Oh, no. I seem to be nigh onto becoming the Guy Friddell of my generation.

For those of you who read What I Saw from afar, Guy Friddell was a newspaper reporter who covered Virginia and Virginia politics for decades. He was a confidant of governors and wrote several insightful books about Virginia and its politics, history and culture. In his latter working years he wrote a column for Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot that was a favorite among older readers for its evocation of simple pleasures and its annual celebration of tomatoes from Hanover County.

(Hanover tomatoes are a delicacy that has to be tasted to be appreciated. There’s no need trying to tell you why you should care about these giant red explosions of summer sweetness if you haven’t had one.)

I didn’t know Mr. Friddell well, but wish I had gotten the chance to spend more time with him when we crossed paths briefly at the Richmond newspapers. One gets the impression that he was one part cross courtly Southern gentleman, one part insightful political analyst and one part Walter Mitty. Picture him as a rumpled man whose socks didn’t always match and whose jacket and pants were as often as not from different suits. He drove a beat up old station wagon around town. But underneath the frumpy exterior was a guy who also knew all the right back stories and where all the political bodies were buried.

I've been thinking of Friddell lately because over the last few days I’ve been obsessed with our vegetable garden. Facebook friends have been following my travails as I try to protect the cucumber and squash crops from ravenous box turtles. Several times a day I go out into the garden to relocate one or more husky turtles to other leafy precincts in the neighborhood hoping that they’ll find someone else’s yard to dine in. (This reminds me of the famous streetwalking artist Wally Torta, who it’s said used to capture rats in Havahart traps in the basement of his apartment house so that he could release them in ritzier neighborhoods.)

The turtles have been entertaining enough in their own way, and as much as they are decimating the crops, I don’t want to do them any harm. They have, however, become so plentiful that I’ve taken to marking their shells with some of my wife’s old fingernail polish as a way of inventorying the extent of their local tribe.

Before he retired completely from newspapering, with his wife having passed away before him, Guy Friddell wrote a lot about his garden and his walks with his dog. I’m nowhere near retirement. But I do have a faithful terrier that accompanies me into the garden in the hope of finding a turtle or two to roll over.

Yesterday while we were picking cucumbers and squash I found the commingled cucumbers shown above. Being the hack art history fan I am, I immediately saw this as nature’s interpretation of the ages-old theme of the Madonna and child.

I realize this little bit of odd nature isn’t exactly Lourdes. No one is lined up in the front yard to see this scene. The cucumbers weep not. And to be honest I haven’t come up with a way to photograph them than quite captures the novelty I thought I might find in them. But I’ll keep looking for revelations in the vegetable garden and let you know if I find anything.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Good Day in the Sun

A Good Day in the Sun, 2011

If you’ve been around me lately, or anyone else living around here, for that matter, you’re probably sick and tired of hearing us complaining about the weather.

You have to admit, the weather has been strange this summer. We’ve been spared the tornadoes and flooding they’ve had out in the Midwest. No giant waves rolled in from the ocean and washed everything away. Rain has been sporadic enough to avoid drought.

We should have known things would be a little weird when we started having sultry August weather before the end of May. It’s not completely unknown to have hot weather then. But the run we had of high 90s accompanied by similarly high humidity sent air conditioning units on overtime long before that traditionally becomes necessary.

In June it was even oppressive when I walked in the morning at 5:30 a.m. Some days there was hardly a breeze anywhere, a rarity when you’re around this much open water this close to the coast.

It’s been so miserable that those of us who accept that living area here in the summer means that there will be heat and humidity still couldn’t seem to stop talking about it. As if that makes a difference. As if there really aren’t more serious issues. And certainly as if there aren’t people elsewhere genuinely suffering while we sit here complaining about having to run the air conditioning already.

Still, it is with great joy that we embraced a few days of wonderful weather this past weekend. It was the kind of respite—sort of like the day your infant child become potty trained—when conditions turn good so quickly and so satisfyingly that you forget all the mess that came before.

On Friday morning when I walked it was in the upper 60s instead of the upper 80s. The air was clear and dry. If I hadn’t had work to do I could have walked all morning. After dinner my wife and I rode our bikes and went for a ride in the car with the top down, activities that were all but unthinkable a few days earlier.

Saturday, though, was the best. The day dawned bright and clear. We spent a couple of hours at the beach in the morning, where the surf was great and a breeze kept us cool. After doing some chores around the house I was able to spend the afternoon out in the garden reading and listening to the birds sing. That the book I was reading was about the virtues of bringing elements of the rural environment into the design of public spaces only made the moment seem richer.

Some people take good weather for granted. But where we live sitting outside this time of year without every inch of your body covered in clothing or some kind of slimy bug spray is like announcing to the mosquitoes and yellow flies, “Hey! Over Here! I’m available for biting!” This is part of the reason screened porches are so popular around here. This weekend it was so nice out that you didn’t need to hide inside the screen.

The pessimists among us are already buzzing about the hot and steamy weather’s that’s coming back this week. As for me, I’m trying to hold onto the memories of these last few days in the sun.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mission Work

San Xavier del Bac Bell Tower, 2005

The thing about photographing the mission at San Xavier del Bac, just south of Tucson, is that on all three occasions I've been there much of the mission has been covered with scaffolding. San Xavier del Bac is also located on an Indian reservation, which adds interesting elements of regulation and squalor.

Coming as I do from the East, I don’t have much experience with the Spanish missions of the American Southwest. We studied them in school. I suppose I might have seen one or two during my travels to California. But until I visited San Xavier del Bac I hadn’t actually spent much time inside a real mission.

It comes as no surprise that it’s hot and dusty in the desert south of Tucson. You only drive through a mile or so of the reservation to get from the Interstate highway to the mission. But in that short distance you see dilapidated houses, abandoned vehicles and lots of trash. It doesn’t particularly speak well of the Native Americans who live there. But the more I think about it, I wonder whether this is intended to be a statement to visitors about how the United States treats the descendants of its most original residents.

Once you get back all that and the dust bowl-like parking lot, the mission itself is a splendid place. I don’t know much about Catholicism. But having visited a number of Catholic parish churches, basilicas and cathedrals here in the United States and also in Europe, I’m at least familiar with the arrangement of statues and icons. (What’s interesting is how some Catholic churches are so austere and others are so full of all of the trappings of religious pageantry.

San Xavier del Bac Market Square, 2005

I suppose San Xavier del Bac tilts slightly toward the more theatrical end of the mission church design spectrum. The exterior is obviously intended to signal that this is a significant church. But there’s little adornment on the exterior. It doesn’t need special adornment, however. In its desert setting, the whitewashed stucco exterior walls make for dramatic contrasts with the dark blue Arizona sky. The bell tower rises well above the surrounding territory.

San Xavier del Bac Sanctuary, 2005

The sanctuary part of the interior is relative simple, but has some interestingly ornate images to punctuate the plain walls. It must be challenging to design a large public space like this for a desert site that allows lots of natural light in but doesn’t also make for a very hot room. Even on the hottest of days when I’ve been there, the interior of San Xavier del Bac has been cool and comfortable. The altar and surrounding areas are awash in rich red and gold colors and the flickering shadows of prayer candles. The combined effect of all this can come off as garish to an outsider like me. But I suspect it all has symbolic meaning to the faithful. I’m not a person of much formal religious faith. But I do respect the integrity of places where other people feel and celebrate religious conviction.

A place like San Xavier del Bac can be a challenge for a photographer hoping to capture something of the essence of the place. On all three of my visits there have been lots of people milling about. There was the aforementioned scaffolding that made taking a clean exterior photo impossible. The interior isn’t small. But it’s small enough to require a wide-angle lens if you want to capture much of it in a single shot. I accepted that challenges and alternated between a 17-35mm wide-angle lens and a fisheye lens.

Looking Out from the Entrance, 2006

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I am Saved, I Think.

Despite the constant entreaties of our neighborhood church lady who makes a big thing of inviting me to her extreme evangelical Christmas church whenever we cross paths out walking in the morning, that’s not the kind of “saved” I’m referring to.

I’m referring to something decidedly more earthly.

In all the years I've had computers, I've been fortunate never to experience a disk drive failure. I used to hear friends complain about them all the time, especially back in the early 80s when PCs were first coming out. It used to be that I would lose files as a result of problems with the various Windows operating systems. But I never lost a full drive's worth of data.

As PCs evolved, I've always had back-up storage devices. I had floppy disks, tapes, diskettes, CDs and finally a series of external hard drives. Their capacity grew from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes and, finally, terabytes.

For the last several years I have used as my primary back up drive a 1 terabyte external hard drive. Imagine that. My first PC had a storage capacity of about 28 kilobytes and now I was working in multiples of terabytes, a quantity unimaginable back then. When I first got that drive, I felt like I'd acquired enough storage space to make a motion picture of launch a spaceship.

The problem, of course, is that as you come to depend on fewer and fewer storage devices—at one time I’d had my business files carefully back up on some 200 diskettes--you subject to the "all the eggs in one basket" vulnerability.

It's especially problematic when that single back-up drive starts making funny sounds, which my external hard drive started doing a few months ago. The good news is that I’ve been using Carbonite for a year or two to back-up the files on my computer. But Carbonite doesn’t back up external drives. For that, I found Crashplan, an online service that constantly backs up my external drive.

It took almost a month to fully back up almost 100 gigabytes from the external drive to the Crashplan site. But once that was done, I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew that if the external drive did actually die I would not lose anything.

I was pleased to learn that the external terabyte drive that died is still under warranty. Once I pack it up and send it back to the manufacturer they’ll send me a new one. Unfortunately, they will not recover the data on the broken drive. I’m hoping to find a local firm that will do that. Until this all sorts out I'll be without immediate access to my photo archive.

I’ve gone 28 years without a disk drive, which I’m told is a pretty good record for beating the odds. For now I’m not getting upset about this mechanical failure because I am confident that Crashplan will make my archive whole again. Just to be safe, though, I’m trying out a little Zen philosophy on this, reasoning that should I lose all those pictures and memories, it’s just a good way to clean my mind and make the space open for something new and better. But because I’m not very experienced with that kind of philosophy, I’m also keeping my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Seeing Wide

Place de Palais Bourbon, 2006

When I was a senior in high school a well-known portrait photographer was hired to do our senior photos. Looking back, I realize that although this man is known far and wide for his exquisite photographic portraits, he must have taken our job to pay the rent. We seniors trooped over to his studio in a nearby mall for portraits shot in a style that probably hadn’t changed much since 1955.

Up to then, I knew relatively little about camera lenses. I’d bought a single lens reflex camera a couple of years before. But as far as I knew there were long lenses and short lenses. But anything else was just too much of a novelty.

One day the photographer came to school to take a picture of the entire upper school. It wasn’t intended to be a formal portrait, but rather something unexpected.

I should mention that in those days, lunches were served family-style in a long room referred to, in classic Mr. Chips-style, as the refectory. We ate at long tables, each seating a dozen or so boys and each presided over by a pair of seniors who sat at either end. It was the job of the younger boys to run back and forth to the kitchen to bring the dishes of food out and to return all the dirty dishes when the meal was over.

There are any number of ways the photographer could have shot the scene in that dining room. Most would have been very predictable and boring. He chose instead to make it more interesting by shooting the entire room with an extremely wide fish-eye lens. He attached the camera to one of the ceiling supports, set his timer and jumped down and under a table so that he wouldn’t be seen in the photograph.

I’ve never owned a lens as extreme as the one the photographer used that day. But the photograph he took instilled a preference in me for “seeing wide” that persists to today.

For a number of years my default lens was a 17-35mm wide-angle lens. It doesn’t see as much as my eyes. But it sees a lot without creating too much lens distortion. Five or six years ago I finally bought a 10.5mm fisheye lens. There’s no missing the novelty of a picture taken with this lens. And like a lot of photographic novelties—e.g. Lens Babies, Instagrams, HDR, etc.—a little fisheye goes a long way.

Still, there are times when conditions don’t leave you any choice but to use a righteous wide lens. Place de Palais Bourbon, above, was taken with the 17-35mm lens. I purposely shot from a low angle in order to get the distortion you see, and made no effort to correct it.

Place de la Concorde and Chenonceau Peonies were taken with the fisheye. There was simply no other way to get the Chenonceau photo without using a very wide lens. For one, the place was full of people. Getting a shot without people in it took a lot of waiting and a fair amount of looking like a madman to scare people from the room long enough to get this shot. The real challenge, though, was capturing both the richly colored peonies in the foreground and the full portrait above. Again, distortion of reality was the price paid for this shot. But the distortion of reality is also what gives this photo much of its interest.

Chenonceau Peonies, 2006

Place de la Concorde was another time when I was determined to include more in the frame than a longer lens would have caught. By holding the camera as close to level as I could I was able to take in the full sweep of the scene—using the fountain as a foreground point of interest rather than as the primary subject—and minimize conspicuous novelty distortion.

Both of these fisheye photos, by the way, would have benefited from me using a tripod, especially Place de la Concorde. But that’s a lesson that still hasn’t been ingrained in me enough to learn from.

Place de la Concorde, 2006