Friday, September 30, 2011

Today We Celebrate Color!



Tucson 14, 2005

Enough of the gloomy memories. Today we celebrate color!
I don't know if psychologists have some explanation of why some people are drawn to primary colors and some are drawn to more subtle shades. Maybe it's a vision thing, or of the contrasts between adjacent primary colors. Whatever the case, I'm a sucker for primary colors.

Old Town 28, 2009 

Old Town 95, 2009

 Oak Bluffs, 2008


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Memories, Repressed & Otherwise


#202, c. early 1950s

At the end of the movie Cinema Paradiso, the adult Salvatore (“Toto”), having avoided visiting his Sicilian home town for thirty years, comes home for his mentor’s funeral and realizes:
“And now, after all these years, I thought I was stronger, that I’d forgotten a lot of things. But in fact, I find I’m right back where I was, as if I’d never been away.”
I left home for college and didn’t come back for thirteen years. I didn’t have any hard feelings about my hometown. I’d just assumed my career would lead me in other geographic directions.
These days it’s not uncommon for kids to go away to school and not come back. Depending on where you live, the opportunities they’re looking for might just not be there.
Going back to your hometown can be like stepping back in time. But there are other triggers. For me it’s the sound of the surf crashing on the beach at the end of our street, or salt spray hissing on power lines on a windy winter night. Songs take you back. Smells, too, sneak up on your memory when you least expect it.
Photographs certainly do it, too.
202, above, shows the house where I lived until I was twelve. There are good memories in that house. Cookouts. Beach parties. Getting a swing set for a birthday. Memories of my sister’s teenage friends coming and going and my parents entertaining and singing with their friends.
But those good memories have to compete with the much larger number of bad memories, the kind you repress. My parents fought in this house and eventually divorced in this house.
You could say, by the way, that the house itself might have had something to do with this. My parents bought this house from the builder, who’d intended to live there with his family but divorced before the house was completed. My parents divorced there. Everyone who ever owned the house was or became divorced while living there.
I found these old pictures a few years ago, right about the time I met the nice young couple that own the place now. I hated to think the house would inflict its malevolent curse on them and their sweet little children. They’d undertaken a substantial renovation and expansion of the house, though. I hoped this would exorcise whatever bad vibes lingered. Just the same, I took them a print of these pictures in the hope the pictures and their renovation would remind the house that there were once happier days there.
The couple invited me to tour the house. To be honest, I didn’t want to. Too many tough memories. Like Salvatore in Cinema Paradiso, I’ve spent years getting over those memories. I didn’t need to step back into the house to be reminded of them. But the couple was so eager to show me what they’d done that I finally acquiesced. I don’t remember much about what I saw. But I do recall feeling like I was in a new house and that the corners and rooms in which I’d once hidden to avoid the noise of my parents’ discord are finally gone.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Plus ca change, plus c'est ne pas la meme chose

Katama Shells, 2005

Another turn of the screw.
Word reached us this week that property at Martha’s Vineyard owned by a very distant relative, the remaining wooded parcel of what was once a grand family estate, has been subdivided. The rustic little shack of a cottage where we used to stay is being replaced by two McMansions.
I’m sure the new places will be quite grand.  You don’t pay millions for a piece of property and then keep an old skunk-ridden shack on it. From the look of the construction so far, they’ll be your classic sprawling Robert A.M. Stern-like shingle style residences, the kind that’ll set you back $30,000 or $40,000 just to rent for a week or two in the summer.
I can understand the pressures on the distant relative to take some action regarding the property. Her annual real estate taxes for roughly a dozen wooded acres and the ancient hot dog stand-turned cottage were said to be on the order of $50,000. She wanted to keep the property in the family. But faced with the need to keep the place leased out every possible moment during the summer rental season just to pay the taxes, the wisdom of that dream probably started to seem questionable to the children and grandchildren who never knew a time when the old summer cottage they’d grown up with was just a tool shed for the old estate’s “big house” (now owned by the CEO of a famous footwear company).
 The Old Cottage, 2005

As disappointing as it to hear this news, I do hope that making this tough decision allows the owner to keep at least her half of it, build her extended family a new house suitable for year-round visitation and have enough left over to endow the taxes.
Still, the property that was full of trees, wild blueberries and, yes, skunks—vegetation, at least, that hasn’t been disturbed by anything but Mother Nature for almost a hundred years—is now flattened and cleared. You used to have to drive onto the property on a rutted dirt path so narrow that the brambles always left the sides of your car scratched. Now there’s to be open lawn, with only a single line of trees between the tidal marsh and the houses.
Moments like this make me happy that I take and keep pictures of places that have meaning to me.

 Front Room, 2005

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Purpose is Just an Excuse


Easton Red, 2010

I don’t know how it is with those of you who illustrate with pencils and ink or paint with oils and watercolors. Do you ever put that first line down on the paper or canvas and then decide to change the subject to something completely different from what you originally intended to paint?
I would guess that this doesn’t happen much because illustrators and painters are probably more contemplative by nature and inclined to re-arrange elements of the painting, if they do it at all, once the basic landscape’s in place.
Photographers used to be this way, too. They hauled heavy tripods and huge box cameras and large film plates. They were more contemplative and more accustomed to sitting in one spot until the circumstances were just right (unless they were Matthew Brady, who we now know stacked dead Civil War soldiers up like manikins in some of the pictures for which he’s so famous).
This is also how a lot of us were when we started out with our Pentax and Nikon 35mm SLRs. We had some of the most portable and flexible high quality cameras ever made, but we were still influenced by the costs of film and processing. When you had just 12, 24 or 36 total opportunities in a roll of film to get something right you were pretty careful to stick to whatever subject you’d planned to shoot.
That’s all gone now. There remain photographers who do beautiful work with large format cameras and others who persist in believing that the only legitimate photograph is one captured on film. But whatever your bias, the trade-off of the high cost of today’s increasingly sophisticated digital cameras is that at least you can shoot with abandon without having to worry about any immediate direct cost.
The more important point, though, is that if your goal is to create good photographs, you can go out and take the picture you came to take plus whatever pictures you found that were more satisfying.
I’m a big proponent of having some idea of what you’re looking for when you go out to take personal pictures. But as I’ve also written here many times before, I’m okay with forgetting about those original intentions when something better presents itself.
In fact, I’m coming to look upon that original goal as little more than an excuse that established where you might go to start taking pictures. But what actually get excited about shooting might end up being something different altogether.
That’s exactly what happened with Easton Red, above. I’d set out to take pictures of an abandoned factory and that’s exactly what I did. But the picture I took and was far happier with that morning was this picture of a weed in front of a bright red shed across the street from the old factory.
Life is fleeting. Why be stuck behind a goal when there’s all this color out there?

Monday, September 26, 2011

First Impressions Last a Lifetime

A Zito and Sons, 2003

Yesterday afternoon I listened to a reading of Colson Whitehead's essay "Lost and Found" on the Selected Shorts podcastyou can hear it herein which Whitehead notes that one becomes a New Yorker the first time you find yourself looking at a storefront and remembering what was there before the current business.
''You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”
I'm not a New Yorker. But my impressions of the city are shaped by many places and references that have indeed changed in the city.
Practically from the time I was old enough to have memories, there were New Yorkers who were regular visitors in our home. They were, for the most part, artists, writers, musicians and other creatively inclined individuals and couples. Most were Depression Era babies who came along before what in the 1950s were called "beatniks" and in the 1960s "hippies." They werent at all like those later groups anyway. They were classically trained artists, having studied with some of the best-known American artists of the early Twentieth Century. A few were self-sufficient as artists. Others had day jobs to pay the bills.  Nell, for example, was a painter who had a day job illustrating sewing patterns books. Her husband Don was a sculptor who had a day job sculpting hood ornaments for Jaguar automobiles. Shane illustrated and painted cartoon cels for Casper the Friendly Ghost films.
The New York I knew as a child was the New York of their stories. It was a tough city, hot in the summer and cold in the winter and noisy and crowded with people, but also a fertile crossroads for all kinds of people. To a kid living a sheltered life hard by the ocean in a little beach town, it sounded pretty glamorous.
I didn't see New York for myself until I was about ten years old. My father took me there for a day or two. On our way into the city we got lost in and drove around Harlem. We stayed at the Manger Vanderbilt Hotel at Park Avenue and 34th Street. We went to the Empire State Building and the Central Park Zoo. The highlight of the trip, though, was getting to sit in the window of a restaurant near Times Square and watch the people go by.
I returned to New York a couple of summers later for an overnight stay at Nell and Don's fourth floor walk-up on Sixth Avenue in the Village. (People still called it Sixth Avenue then.) I loved every minute of prowling the used bookstores downstairs, feeling the subway rumble underfoot and watching the people pass up and down the avenue.
Needless to say, many aspects of the New York of 1962 were far different from the New York of today. I'm not a New Yorker, but just like Colson Whitehead says, when I walk down Sixth Avenue at Bleecker Street I still look up at the building where Nell and Don's apartment was and proudly point put out to whoever's with me that the chain drugstore on the corner used to be a terrific used bookstore.
I took the above picture of the A. Zito and Sons bakery in Greenwich Village in the fall of 2003. I was out walking with my daughter and was intrigued by the shapes of the different kinds of bread in the window. Not long after I posted the picture on Fotolog I was contacted by current and former Village residents telling me how much they'd enjoyed the Zito bakery through the years and how sad they were that it had closed not too long after I took the picture.
I didnt have a history with the Zito bakery, but thanks to this picture and those sentimental New Yorkers, its yet another place in New York where, if you happen to be there with me, I'll say, "You know, that used to be....."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Forever Young


Forever Young, 1970

When I went off to college I thought I was going to tear up the world with my photography. It had never occurred to me that I could actually study photography in college. I’d gone to a college prep school where the expectation for male students was that you’d study practical things like history, English, science and physics with an eye toward becoming a doctor, teacher, lawyer or other respected member of the community. Your art, if you had one, would be practiced on the side. Mind you, most of my female classmates were far more academically accomplished and have gone on to achieve great things. Yet it was fully okay for some of them to go off to major universities to study textiles.  Textiles?
When I got to college I found that a few seniors had a lock on the photography for the campus newspaper and yearbook. They had fancier cameras and more versatile lenses. They had cars—freshmen weren't allowed to keep cars in those days—and better still, they controlled the access to the school’s darkroom.
A more determined person would have bulldozed through those roadblocks. I didn’t have the benefit of that confidence, though. So instead, I turned my eye and my camera to the city outside the college walls and took pictures on campus only occasionally.
The picture above was taken at school at an outdoor amphitheater located on what was then known as the “women’s side” of the campus. (In those days the men’s and women’s undergraduate colleges operated under different names and faced each other across a lake known sometimes by students of both schools as the “Bay of Pigs”).
The event was likely some kind of band concert, the kind of activity that a school that had once had extremely close Southern Baptist connections would have looked upon cautiously. They didn’t have many night concerts back then because they didn’t have a good venue for them and well, you know, it might have led to dancing.
When I took this picture I knew who most of the people in it were and had at least a passing friendship with many of them. We were young, full of piss and vinegar, as the saying goes, and anxious to be turned loose on a world of opportunity.
Today most of the people in this picture are in their sixties. Every now and then I see one of their names in the paper. They're still kicking us some dust.   I don't like to see their pictures, though, because I like to remember us lazing around on the lawn, telling tales, flirting with girls, throwing Frisbees, playing with the dogs and doing all the other things you do when you think you'll be forever young.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Power Must Go Through

The Power Must Go Through, 2011

Thousands of words fell from my mind through my hands to paper and keyboard yesterday, leaving little room for free thought. Most of the writing was professional in nature, research reports and memos. I’ve been at it long enough that this kind of writing comes pretty quickly.
It was a more general essay that I’ve been working on for a while that was stumping me. The essay’s about an important issue facing the area where I live. The subject isn’t important here, only that after having written and re-written this piece many times over the last few months, I realized today that the problem with it was that I have no idea where I am headed with it.
This is a perfect case of the Cheshire Cat syndrome, by which I mean, to paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will lead you there.” In the case of my essay, it’s one thing to identify and document an issue. But it’s a waste of people’s time if I don’t also offer a solution. 
The good thing is that while clients are waiting for the research reports, nobody’s sitting around waiting for this essay. So I can put it down yet again and come back later when my thoughts are more articulate.
A friend of mine who studies how the mind works has a technique he calls the “subconscious hit list.” If you’ve taken any kind of creative thinking class you’ve probably done a variation on this technique. The premise is that you write down on an index card the fragment of an idea, a subject or a thought that is puzzling you. (Taking the action of physically writing down the words plants the idea in your mind.) Then you stick the card in your pocket and forget about it while you go off and work on something else. Theoretically, at least, when you come back to the index card later in the day you will have resolved the idea.
There’s no hocus pocus or psychic power involved here. Rather, you’re just taking advantage of the brains’ ability to multi-task at verbal and non-verbal levels or, put more simply, you’re using the mind’s capacity to work on things even when you think it’s not. 
The index card idea doesn’t work for me. But I am one of those people who is usually surrounded by lots of little scraps of paper on which are scribbled scraps of thoughts or just a word or two. I look upon this landscape of paper as my idea farm. Some of the scraps grow. Others fail to thrive and end up in the trash.
When this method works, I’ll find myself interrupting other work I’m doing to add words to these scraps or tape other scraps of paper to the original scraps. Before long, there’ll be a fairly well developed outline of something. 
The picture above demonstrates a very common situation where I live. Developers and homeowners plant tress right under power and telephone lines. Eventually the tress grow into the lines and have to be trimmed. I look upon some writing and photography as being like growing a beautiful tree.  But even if the creative output becomes a beautiful tree of words or visual images, sometimes you’ve just got to blow a big hole in the middle of the whole thing because ultimately the power’s got to get through.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Clean Slate Scenario


On, 2003

What if?
We ask ourselves that question many times. What if I had followed a different path, gone to a different school, made different friends, moved to a different city, married a different person?  There are no answers to these questions, only opportunities to dream of what might have been.
Just a few months short of my fortieth birthday I found myself unemployed for the first time since high school. I'd had part-time jobs from the time I was fifteen to make spending money for dating, books, clothes and school supplies. After college one job lead seamlessly into the next as I moved up in the companies where I'd assumed I'd make my career.
Then it all came to a standstill. The ad agency I worked for was sold. The new owners asked me to stay. But the place that had once been a Camelot became instead whatever the opposite of Camelot is. At the end of my first year with the new owners, I became the latest victim of a "reduction in force."
To make matters worse, this took place two weeks before Christmas, not exactly a time you want to bring bad news home or bring your friends down by talking to them about other opportunities. As luck would have it, though, word got around and good job offers appeared. I appreciated those gestures, but decided not to pursue them and, instead, opened my own business. In January, that business will celebrate its twentieth birthday.
The best gift that holiday, it turns out, was the realization that I'd been compelled to revisit my life, to be free of a dreadful workplace, to shed habits that werent good and fill more of my life with others that were. I could revise what I did for a living. I could have more time for the things that provided satisfaction. It was in fact so empowering that I started telling my friends that if they were lucky they, too, would get riffed and have a similar opportunity for personal reinvention.
All this came to mind when I read a story in yesterday's New York Times about artist Lonni Sue Johnson, who at age fifty-seven experienced severe brain damage. Ms. Johnson had to re-learn how to walk, talk, read and take care of herself. She had to remember or re-learn who the people were in her life. She had to learn who she was. As much as anyone can, she had a clean slate.
I gather that the traditional approach in such cases is to help the patient get back to, or at least remember how he or she used to be, by doing things that unlock the memories and personality traits packed away behind the tissues of the diseased brain. Johnson's mother helped her rediscover her artistic interest, first by having her copy simple lines and shapes and later by drawing a straight line or curve on a page and letting Ms. Johnson use that line as the starting point for completing a larger scene.
Lonni Sue Johnson has made amazing progress. Not everyone who suffers brain injuries is so lucky. Her experience, though, coupled with my own clean slate experiencefeeble thought it may be in comparisongot me wondering whether Id want to go back to having the same artistic interests if faced with the same clean slate or instead take off in a new direction if faced with the same situation.
How about you? Would you pursue different forms of artistic expression? Switch from art to music or from music to writing or from writing to performance art?
Again, it's hard to know what the answers would be. Theres probably a lot of comfort in rediscovering familiar old neural pathways. Yet this experience could theoretically be the gateway through which the old mind enables new consciousness and insights.
Hopefully none of us will have to face this decision. Maybe wed all rush back to find our old selves just as fast as we could. But if we didnt isnt it interesting to wonder how we could use that clean slate?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Men in Red Hats


The Duke of Altoona? 2011

Men of my father’s generation wouldn’t have thought of leaving the house without a hat, even if it was just to go to the hardware store. It’s said that John F. Kennedy ended all that when he didn’t wear a top hat to his inauguration, just as Clark Gable is said to have finished off the men’s undershirt industry when he appeared without one in It Happened One Night. Snopes declares the Kennedy story to be a myth. (The jury’s still out on Gable and the demise of the undershirt industry.)
Whatever the case, men’s hats used to be big, but aren’t now unless you’re a cowboy, a baseball player, a polar explorer or my friend Wally Torta, who came home from a trip to New Orleans last year sporting a canary blue fedora-like number.
My head’s always seemed too big for hats. I did go through a bit of a Panama hat period during college. I tried British-style boater for a while, too. But that was like wearing a hat made of foam core.
I was thinking about hats because as I looked at some of the pictures I’d taken at the recent Mid-Atlantic Shrine Association in Virginia Beach it occurred to me how much some of these guys recall Piero della Francesca’s famous portrait of Count Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino. I don’t know if it’s their profile or just the red hats.
 Count Federico da Montefeltro, by Piero della Francesca

Many artists, by the way, have had fun with della Francesca’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro through the years. Columbian painter Fernando Botero did this version (below):
 On Federico da Montefeltro, by Fernando Botero, 1998
The original della Francesca portrait is actually one half of a diptych that includes a portrait of the Count’s wife. Perhaps the most outrageous take off on this is a diptych of Carmela and Tony Soprano, painted by Sopranos actor Federico Castelluccio (“Furio”).
 The Duke and Duchess of North Caldwell, by Federico Castelluccio




Monday, September 19, 2011

On Simplicity (and Not)


3244 Prospect Street, 2011

Sometimes you want your pictures to be complex, dense with story or meaning and open to multiple interpretations.
And sometimes you just want to take a look at something, a place or a moment in time, and say, “Ah.”  That’s it. A simple moment, usually something with some symmetry to it.
Like a single green door on a gray background, the colors just unexpected enough to catch your eye and call your mind to a peaceful place.
3244 Prospect Street doesn’t have much of a story to it. It’s a private residence. I know nothing about who lives there. Given its location, it’s probably worth millions, yet true to its architectural roots and elegantly simple in presentation. I did have to Photoshop a crushed pizza box off the front step because I didn’t want to trespass enough to move it out of the way. (Which, in all honesty, I’d have probably done had there been a trashcan nearby.)
A couple of doors down the street, though. Not that would have been a story. The sign on the front of that building mentions some kind of retail management operation. I didn’t write the name down then and don’t remember it now. But as I stood on the street taking this picture of the green door, one woman after another arrived and stepped out of a fancy car and into the front door of that building. Each was striking in her appearance, stylish in her dress and make-up and wearing the kinds of sexy shoes that accentuate all the right places.
The kinds of people who advise you on how to dress professionally for the workplace probably would have tut-tutted that these ladies were overdressed. But that’s dress-for-success people for you. They like pin stripes, gray suits, blue shirts, red ties and dull shoes. These ladies, on the other hand, work in retail. They know style. They know it’s about theater and about being just enough over the top to draw your eye and challenge your senses, like characters out of Sex in the City.
Yeah, I know what you’re wondering.  Why in the hell was I photographing the green door when these beautiful and beautifully dressed women were right next door? It’s a good question. The truth is I was dressed in beat up old shorts and a t-shirt that was, by then, sweaty because I was halfway through a 6-mile walk. I had shots worked out in my mind. But I couldn’t imagine that if I’d asked to photograph them in those fancy clothes that they’d have believed for a moment that I was anything other than a stalking creep.
Note to self: Get some more stylish walking duds. Change name to Paolo. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

What the Glasses Saw

What the Glasses Saw, 2011

Okay, so sometimes I'm just slow on the uptake. Or maybe I just don't know what I'm doing when I take some pictures. Or at least I don't know where I'm headed with them.
The linear part of me gets a little upset with this. I mean, I set out to take pictures of one thing and end up focusing on something else altogether, and then even that becomes the gateway to something different still. Wheres the order in that?
I used to feel that I was still working my way through copying the style or content of every good photographer Id ever studied. Now it seems Im riffing on my own work. I think this might be progress.
Take What The Glasses Saw, above. The roots of this photo are in the series of pictures I took a few weeks ago of store windows in New York City. In that series I thought I was collecting pictures of engaging visual merchandising in shop windows. But it turned out that the better outcome of that series wasnt about the visual merchandising, but instead about the reflections of the city that appeared in those windows. And I did get some interesting pictures from that exercise. But as in New York, the picture I like the most from the group I took in Washington that past Monday morning turned out to be not only what I thought I was doing, but yet another twist on the reflection paradigm.
Up until the moment I took What the Glasses Saw, I'd been paying little attention to the contents of the store windows I was shooting. I was focused on the reflections in them, and how the merchandise in them either set up, complemented or confused the reflections. It was when I happened to be checking out the possibilities of an optician's shop window that I realized that in addition to the store window reflections I was looking for the eyeglasses themselves were reflecting a view, as if the glasses were observing the street view.
So it goes like this: 1) I started looking at the windows and then 2) through the windows, and finally 3) through the eyes of the contents of the windows.
It's possible, of course, that I would have seen this picture opportunity without having gone through that progression. But I kind of doubt it.
Sometimes youve just got to plow through the early generations of something and not let yourself get bogged down in the belief that youve done your best already or else youll never get to the best part. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Just Color and Shadows


 Georgetown 70, 2011

This past Monday found me staying just a mile or so across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., so I took my morning walk in Georgetown.
It was a beautiful morning. I cheerfully walked over the hill at Rosslyn while leagues of workers headed like drones into the modern office buildings there. While commuters inched over the Key Bridge, I strolled steadily along, stopping only to look up and down the river occasionally at the intrepid young men and women in racing shells sweeping their long oars out over the river and pulling themselves along like mosquitoes atop the muddy water.
Georgetown is one of those areas that seems to come and go from fashion. It’s always been a swank residential neighborhood for government officials, diplomats, journalists and other policy makers and internationals. The commercial strips along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, though, come and go. When I was in college, boutiques, liquor stores, bars and head shops lined M Street between Wisconsin Avenue and the Key Bridge. Georgetown was where under-age teens from Virginia could slip across the border into the District of Columbia to buy liquor. Today the street is lined with outposts of the country’s leading upmarket mall retailers and home outfitters while the once crowded Georgetown Park mall sits nearly empty. 
 Georgetown 103, 2011

I started my walk along M Street because that’s where the morning light makes for great color, shadows and reflections. I fired off a few dozen shots before deciding to leave the noise and traffic behind and work my way up the hill to Prospect and M Streets, where stately brick townhouses with colorful front doors and cool gardens make for a quieter walk. In the early morning, you can hear families starting their day. Government officials in suits step out of their front doors into waiting cars to be whisked downtown to run the country. Georgetown University students rush hurriedly in the other direction to class, nearly all of them shuttered from the outside world behind white iPod ear buds.
The tree-lined streets, hills and allies, cobblestones and cracked sidewalks made for great shadows and contrast. Walking up and down those hills and across those cobblestones and cracked sidewalks also, it turns out, did a number of on the plantar fasciitis in my right heel. (What was I thinking?) By the time I headed back down the hill and across the bridge to Virginia, my gait was more like that of an old man.
But that would come an hour or two later. For now, I was in my own little photographic zone. Cataclysmic events could have been taking place all around me. But I was just watching the small stuff, like shadows and color.
 
Georgetown 107, 2011


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Today We Honor

Halsey Drive, Arlington National Cemetery, 2011

On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation.
How many times have we heard those words? They’re part of the culture. But not until I attended a burial service at Arlington National Cemetery earlier this week did I have an appreciation of just how deeply they touch.
I’d never attended a burial at Arlington. I'd seen a wonderful National Geographic documentary about the burial detail there and the honor and seriousness they attach to their work. But until this week it had all been in the abstract for me. I knew people who were buried at Arlington.  But I’d never been present for this last rite.
You don't have to have ever served in the military to know that they have their own ways of doing things. There's an official way to do everything, no matter how big or small or consequential or inconsequential. Everything is spelled out and rehearsed again and again, right down to the last detail.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that the military is as ritualized in handling death as it is in handling matters of the day-to-day life. Ritual holds troops together in times of adversity and provides assuring structure for grieving survivors and loved ones in times of death.
I arrived early at the cemetery and walked and took pictures among the headstones. I was humbled by the number of graves of people of my generation, including one West Virginian born the same day as me who served in Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm and in our most recent wars in the Middle East. How different our lives must have been.
At the appointed time family members and friends assembled at a reception center and were given a brief rundown of the day's schedule. We then drove along immaculately kept lanes to a clearing where the casket of the deceased was transferred from a hearse to a caisson drawn by four horses. During this brief interval, a dignified Navy band played off in the distance. An honor guard maintained watch. You don’t think such things will get to your heart, but they do.
On a cooler day, people attending the burial might have marched behind the caisson for the last half-mile or so to the grave site. Out of deference to the heat and the fact that many of the people in attendance were in their seventies and eighties, we were asked to instead drive behind the caisson and a column of more than eighty uniformed sailors, Navy officials and representatives of the ships the deceased officer had commanded. The drive was slow and solemn, the pace marked by the beat of drums and the footsteps of the sailors.
The graveside service was conducted by an Episcopal rector and a Navy chaplain, the former finding comfort in the ritual in the Book of Common Prayer and the latter in the Navy's burial texts. Marksmen fired volleys. The band played the Navy Hymn (“Eternal Father”).  There wasn’t a dry eye on the lawn.
The two ministers' comments and prayers were economical in their brevity.  Yet even in those carefully chosen words there was deep meaning and comfort. When, at the end of the service, the chaplain leaned over to convey the folded American flag to the eldest child of the deceased and uttered those familiar words, "On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation...." it was as if the president himself had penned those words just that morning and sent them across the Potomac to be read. A final “Taps” was played in the distance.
We've heard these words before and will no doubt hear them many more times. But they will never have such meaning as when they are being spoken to us or about people we knew and loved.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

They Come Back


It’s That Time Again, 2011

When the little miniature cars start showing up on the streets of Virginia Beach, you know that the Shriners, like swallows to Capistrano, have come back to Virginia Beach. We were barely over Hurricane Irene this year when the “Welcome Nobles” banners started fluttering in the breeze in front of hotels and restaurants in the resort area.
I’ve written about the Shriner parades before, so I don’t want to repeat the background about this event. There’s also a series of my photographs of Shriner parades at Flickr and even a book of them at Blurb. We don’t need to revisit those, either.
As I contemplated on Friday night whether I’d even go down and watch the parade this year, it dawned on me that I’d pretty much lost interest in Shriner parades. I’ve shot most of these floats, midget cars and cornball clowns many times now. The Shriners themselves get a little older, a little fuller in the belly and fewer in number each year. But I knew Saturday was going to be a beautiful day and I was itching to get out and take some pictures. So there I was, standing on Atlantic Avenue just before 9:00 a.m. this past Saturday morning waiting for the parade to start.
I’ve learned a few useful things about shooting parades over the years. For one thing—and it still amazes me that some people don’t know this—you’re starting from behind if you don’t know what the parade route will be and what time the parade’s supposed to begin. It’s also wise to scout out the route the day before at that time to get a sense of where the light and shadows will be. And finally, it’s good to know where the staging area for the parade will be.
I’ve learned over the years that some of the best photographs will be taken in the staging area. Parade participants are much more relaxed there and generally looking their best. It’s easier to move among them and get close to people to whom you can’t get as close during the parade.
Ready to Roll, 2011

As I wondered what I’d do this year to keep from merely duplicating all the pictures I’ve taken in the past, it occurred to me that I might turn the camera around, as it were, and focus on the people watching the parade.
A smart idea, you might think, but easier said than done. Because if there’s one thing you learn if you’re a regular parade goer, it’s that the experienced spectators sit in the shade, especially on a sunny humid morning in Virginia Beach.
No sooner had I started wandering down Atlantic Avenue that I realized that all the people I wanted to photograph were in deep shade. “Well I’ll just shoot the people on the sunny side of the street,” I told myself, only to notice that hardly anyone was sitting in the sun.
I’ll be honest. I hung around the staging area as the parade got started and then walked up and down the parade route several times before concluding that I’d seen enough. I left before the parade wasn’t even halfway done.
For All Your Color Needs, 2011

To be sure, there were still good pictures to be made. But if there’s one final thing I’ve learned about shooting pictures, it’s that when my mind has decided it’s seen enough, it’s already turned off my eyes and there’s no use fighting that.
Writers have “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that’s called for photographers. My solution, in keeping with the sage advice of funk musician George Clinton (“Free your mind and your ass will follow) is to find some distraction that will “re-set” my mind. Today that took the form of coming home and mangling…“pruning” hedges.  The Shriners will be back next September. Maybe I’ll be more ready for them then.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Where I Was


Homage to the Twin Towers, 2002

There’s been a lot of conversation this past week about “where you were” on September 11, 2001. I suppose this is replacing “Where you were when JFK was shot?” as a focal point of shared national experience.
I was in the shower when the first airplane flew into the World Trade Center. My wife called me out to watch the news on television. I could not believe what I was seeing and tried to make it conform to some scenario involving pilot error, mechanical failure or some other, all things considered, innocent explanation.
The second jet flying into the second tower nixed those theories and threw us all into a new, unimaginable landscape. It would be a few minutes yet before we heard about the third plane crashing into the Pentagon in Washington and a forth crashing into a field in rural Pennsylvania.
I’d been scheduled to introduce a speaker later that morning at a meeting of some of our region’s most influential people. They’d been closed up in a meeting room since breakfast. By the time I arrived, the first World Trade Center tower had collapsed. The fall of the second was expected momentarily.
I realized quickly that the group I was to speak to had no idea what had occurred on outside their doors, I called the meeting host out into the hall and brought her up to date. She then asked me to go into the meeting room and repeat what I’d said for the audience there.
As a researcher, I sometimes have to deliver bad news. My approach is to do this as factually as possible so that there is no confusion or hyperbole. As I began to describe the morning’s events, I could see my audience reacting with absolutely amazement as I described the first plane hitting the first building. Like me, their first impulse was to find some rationale explanation. When I got to the second jet and the second tower, their initial expressions of sadness and amazement were replaced by a steely look of horror.
When I continued by telling them about the third and fourth planes, the fire at the Pentagon, the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower and the imminent collapse of the second, they were dumbstruck. This was simply too much to digest at one time. As they caught their breath, some ran out to the phones to check on family members, friends and associates working at the World Trade Center. Others bowed their heads in prayer.
Curiously, given all that was going on, the event host felt it would help people if we maintained some sense of order. The person I was to introduce was asked to make his presentation. I feel confident, though, that no one who was present in that room, including the speaker, can remember a thing that was said.
My story ends ten months later in Paris, of all places. My wife and I were standing at the hilltop overlook in front of the Sacré Coeur basilica when we noticed an American fighter jet flying overhead accompanied by two French Mirage fighter jets. Because France had denied the United States air space for military aircraft, we knew the presence of an American fighter jet in the sky over Paris was not routine. We stood puzzled and more than a little shocked as the three fighter jets crossed the horizon. No one else seemed to take notice of it, and as we walked the mile or so back to our hotel we could find no news or other explanation for this unprecedented flyover.
That evening at dinner we met a couple from Texas who’d been out at Versailles when the jets passed over. In the days that followed it seemed that whenever we came across other Americans the first question they’d ask was, “Did you see those jets the other day?” Like the afternoon JFK died and the morning in 2001 when terrorists turned airplanes into weapons, we all knew about it and remembered exactly where we were when it happened.
 The View from Sacré Coeur, 2002