Monday, October 31, 2011

Andy and Me

“Savvy Investor Cleans Up in Things Market,” 2011

In 1979, Andy Rooney, veteran newsman and for more than thirty years resident curmudgeon at the CBS Sixty Minutes television show, wrote a piece for the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal describing how, nine years earlier and slightly heavier in the pocketbook for having cashed in a life insurance policy, he had made a series of purchases in preparation for retirement.
Here’s some of what Rooney bought and stored in the barn behind his country house:
  • Two Volkswagen Bugs.
  • Fifty cases of Jack Daniels.
  • Ten pairs of shoes.
  • An assortment of 250 light bulbs.
  • Twenty-five toothbrushes.
  • A new refrigerator, two washing machines, a dishwasher and a dryer.
  • Five electric razors.
  • One hundred ties and Brooks Brothers 100% all-cotton Oxford button-down shirts.
  • Twelve pairs or Ray-Ban sunglasses.
  • Four thousand gallons of unleaded gasoline.
For each item Rooney gloated over the different between their 1970 prices and their expected 1986 values.
It turned out, of course, that the whole thing was a fiction, which Rooney thanked the Journal for allowing on their editorial page that one time.
I got such a kick out of the piece that I sent it to Rooney at CBS and asked if he’s autograph it for me. I didn’t know at the time that Rooney is famous for not signing autographs.
A week later a letter arrived from CBS with the newspaper clipping I’d sent neatly folded up and signed:

Sorry, I don’t sign autographs. Andy Rooney.”

[It was reported last week that barely two week after leaving Sixty Minutes Andy Rooney became seriously ill and at the time of this writing remains hospitalized.]

Friday, October 28, 2011

Worn and Comfortable

Worn and Comfortable, 2011

I love it when I read something about someone else that confirms that I’m not the only person with what I’d previously thought was my own idiosyncrasy.
This observation is prompted by me having accepted yesterday that the time had come to throw out two of my favorite shirts and two pairs of really comfortable jeans. I knew that throwing these items away wouldn’t leave me unclothed. But I still felt like I was throwing away children.
There’s a life cycle to the clothes in my closet. They go through a prolonged period of “presentable use.” That is, I can wear them in public without my wife being embarrassed.
Then they are reduced to two levels of less presentable use, the first of which is that I can wear them under something else to cover up the stray hole or fray. The last step is “suitable for yard work.” Jeans with blown out knees and shirts and sweaters with frayed collars, lost buttons and ripped elbows can still be worn to rake leaves, pulls weeds or clear underbrush.
Some clothing items stay in circulation for a long time. Suits, for example. Shirts, too. About ten years ago I went on a shirt buying binge. In those days good Brooks Brothers dress shirts were worth every penny because they could be counted on to endure a lot of washing and pressing. And indeed I’m still wearing some of those shirts without my wife being embarrassed. Shoes and boots can last for decades if you take care of them and buy enduring styles. I do draw the line at socks and underwear, however. Nothing like new socks and underwear to make you feel fully dressed.
So there you have my whole wardrobe “system.” I’m not responsive to fashion seasons, and I will stipulate that I avoided buying clothing for much of the 1970s. So there are no flammable polyesters lurking in the back recesses of the closet.
I really had been thinking about writing about this condition of mine. But then, as Providence (“the protective care of nature or God,” not the city) frequently does, I picked up the paper yesterday morning and read about a benefit held in New York the other night for Ralph Lauren’s cancer research charity. What caught my eye was not the celebrity guest list or the accolades for the poor immigrant painter’s son from the Bronx who became a style arbiter and poster child for the aspirational marketing movement.
Rather, it was the mention that Lauren “keeps all his old clothes ‘because you never know when you’re going to need them.’” I never thought I had anything in common with Ralph Lauren. But here was the evidence that we share not only similar classic styles—me, at least, without all the pretentious Anglophilia—but also a penchant for utility and, well, cheapness. 
Ralph—I’m comfortable calling him that now that I know we have this deeper link—explained that he likes to go back and look at his older clothes from time to time to get inspiration for new styles. I have no such excuse. I’m also sure he has a bigger closet than I do. Still, I am going to try that line out on my wife even though I’m not sure it’ll earn my old worn clothes any more space or reprieve.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Unexpected Views

High Line 024, 2011

Over the now more than six hundred posts here at What I Saw—who thought I’d ever make it this far? —I’ve touched frequently on the issue of perspective; that is, the angle of view or the broader viewpoint one brings to observing and capturing in a photograph.
I wrote the other day about how being open and aware of one’s surroundings exposes you to things that you might wish you hadn’t seen, or didn’t want to have to reconcile in your own mind and conscience.
But there are also times when being aware results in little visual treats, like the view above in High Line 024. The background for this work of art is a Manhattan rooftop, a rather hemmed in one at that since it's boxed in between between the plain brick walls several taller buildings. So this scene is only visible to those who can see the rooftop from above. That audience includes perhaps a few  nearby office workers, a few neighbors, and whoever among the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the High Line elevated urban park peeks over the edge to see what’s beyond the trees and shrubs.
So it’s not like nobody sees it. And I’m pretty sure whoever created this didn’t do it because he or she wanted it to go unseen. Rather, I think whoever did this did it as an artistic expression, maybe even a bit of self-promotion, and to provide a little unexpected visual engagement to High Line visitors.
Whatever the case, I appreciate the gesture. Thanks, whoever you are.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


West Tisbury Barn, 2010

There are places I like to return to and take pictures whenever I’m in the area. A lighthouse here, a tree there. In one place there’s a pasture I like to photograph. They're all places where I find a certain peacem, each one for a different reason.
The barn above is one of those places. It’s in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Over more than thirty years I’ve photographed this barn in every season and in every possible daylight condition. I've photographed it on film and with digital cameras, in color and in black and white. I've done it with the doors open and the doors closed. I've done it with horses milling in front of it and with no animals in view.
To be honest, there’s nothing special about this barn other than that each time I’m nearby I look over into the field and find myself compelled to photograph it yet again. One of the things that draws me, now that I think about it, is that the lane that approaches it puts you right at the corner of the fence, framing the view and creating a giant V of lines.
The funny thing about this is that the pictures I take of this barn are never very interesting to me because they never seem to capture the feeling that I have when I'm there.  Some of the pictures have  interesting angles and sometimes the sky is more active than others. But when all’s said and done it always gets back to the same barn and the same landscape.
That the barn and the landscape have remained pretty much unspoiled over thirty years is no small feat on an island that has become only more developed over that time. I live in a city where it seems no empty lot remains undeveloped. So maybe it’s their very permanence that makes this view so special to me. Maybe that’s the story I have to figure out how to tell about this place.
Until then, I guess I’ll just keep taking mindless pictures of it with the hope that one day something interesting might walk into view. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A New Word

New York in Windows 257, 2011

I learned a new word the other day. It always impresses me when I find that there’s a word for something that I hadn’t realized needed a name.
The word is “irmus.” I read about it in this past Sunday’s New York Times in Anne Beattie’s piece about her upcoming book about Pat Nixon. [For you younger readers, Pat Nixon was Richard Nixon’s wife.]
In the course of doing her research about Mrs. Nixon at a library, Beattie stumbled across a book called “The Book of Literary Terms,” which she says she read with “great interest.”
According to Beattie and “The Book of Literary Terms,” irmus describes the phenomenon in which “not until the end of a passage does the reader fully understand what is being spoken of.”
I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write a passage or even a sentence that would quality as irmus (or would it be an irmus?). Seems like the kind of thing that would call for more than the usual amount of cleverness. But I think it could be a really neat way of describing a photograph that can be interpreted in different ways the more time you spend looking at it. Sort of like palimpsest in reverse.
When I took the picture above I thought I was taking a picture of what was in front of me. (Yeah, I know I posted this recently. But this is a new take on it.) But the more I looked at it the more I realized that the real story of this picture was what was in the reflection of the window. Irmus! Or an irmus.
To get a little better handle on this new word—if only to find out whether irmus is a noun or verb or something else—I started looking for a more complete definition with derivations and usage examples. (I took a class in Latin & Greek in Current Use when I was in college, the context of that “currency” being, I’ll admit, now almost thirty years ago. But I did at least learn how to break apart words and study derivations.)
The results of this search are beginning to make me believe that maybe the talented Ms. Beattie isn’t as talented as everyone has made her out to be. For one thing, Google kept wanting me to correct my spelling and search for “firmus.” Lots of references there, it seems. But irmus was harder to find.
Actually, not all that hard, but not terribly more helpful, either. A web site called Rhetorosaurus, which I presume is for those who know a thing or two about rhetoric puts it this way:
IRMUS: last part of sentence completes sense.
        “Examples forthcoming.”
Well, you have to give them credit for brevity. Perhaps they were written in the days of the telegraph, when each letter added to the cost.
From another site I got this definition:
“The periodic sentence, characterized by the suspension of the completion of sense until its end.”
Huh?  That sounds like an awful lot of work. I think I’ll just go take some more pictures and leave the etymology to others.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Bandits of Fall

Leaf Series 1, 2005

They scurry around like bandits this time of year,
gathering all the acorns they can carry,
but leaving just enough for you to trip on.

They stash them in the nooks of trees
and bury them in the flower pots
so that next spring you'll find little oaks
popping up everywhere.

They run behind you when you turn away
and gambol on the lawn
And race along the tops of fences
and chase each other up and down the trunks of trees
and tease the dog.

And when they get so caught up in their work
that they unexpectedly find themselves toe to toe with you
they look up, as if to say "What?"

Then they run again.
The yard is theirs this time of year, these squirrels.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In a Melancholy Mood

Wyndham Suite 1406, 2005

I couldn’t seem to get the old Duke Ellington song In a Sentimental Mood out of my mind yesterday. Only for some reason I kept thinking that it was called In a Melancholy Mood because the tempo of the song is so slow and languid.
We photographers can be a moody bunch. "A study in brown," my father would have said. We spend a lot of time alone making and working on our photographs. We frequently do our best work when we’re not distracted by the presence of other people. We used to spend a lot of time alone in darkrooms. Now we spend a lot of time alone in front of computer screens.
Austin-based photographer Kirk Tuck wrote about this yesterday in the course of asking the rhetorical question of why we photograph what we do. Tuck suggests that some of us are drawn to scenes that “could be construed as an attempt to cheat death, or at least catalog the existence of something before it disappears. At many times the thing we choose to photograph has no more resonance to us other than its emotive ties to time that’s already slipped past.”
To be sure, some of us are drawn to decaying places because we actually do want to document them before they’re gone. But I suspect there’s also a part of us that's drawn to places that reflect our own loneliness and perhaps our own sense of life that’s already left the scene.
For those of us who travel alone a lot, is there anything sadder than an empty hotel room in an old hotel? Wyndham Suite 1406 was taken at an old theatrical hotel in New York that was our favorite for years because of it’s excellent location, it’s reasonable prices and its small and colorful staff, most of who had been there manning the front door, the desk, the switchboard and the elevator for decades. The décor got locked in sometime around 1960. The air conditioning was little more than an intention. The rooms were big and always clean and neat. But it also wasn’t unusual to have to prop up the leg of a table or the corner of a bed with a phone book. I met Ali McGraw in the lobby of the Wyndham. I’m told the Cassavetes lived in Suite 1406 for a time. It was that kind of place. One wishes that the walls could have talked, for they’d have had great stories to tell.
Georgian Terrace 805, 2010

The Georgian Terrace, on the other hand, was once a grand apartment house for Atlanta’s well to do. By the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was spending a lot of time in Atlanta The Georgian Terrace and its surrounding neighborhood had fallen on hard times. There was talk of demolition. Eventually a developer bought the place and turned it into an ostensibly all-suites luxury hotel. I’ll give them credit for having cleaned the place up. But as far as luxury goes, I don’t think I've ever stayed in as depressing a room as I did at The Georgian Terrace. If you walked into this room on even the sunniest day, you couldn’t have imagined that Duke Ellington would have thought of anything but a melancholy mood had he been there.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Building as a Composition, Not a Building

LVMH, 2011

I was recently looking for a few pictures to enter in an architectural photography competition and came across the picture above. The building in the background is French architect Christian de Prozampac's new Manhattan headquarters for luxury goods maker LVMH. It's an elegant building, housing the company's New York flagship Dior store at street level and offices above.
The red and black shape in the foreground is a section of Alexander Calder's stabile Saurien, located across the street under a corner of the elegant Edward Larrabee  Barnes-designed 590 Madison Avenue, also known as the IBM Building.

Saurien, 2011
A lot of times when I photograph buildings I like to have something in the foreground to frame the view. But as I looked at this photograph I realized the as much as I might like it as a composition, it probably isn't right for an architectural photography competition because it doesn't really show off the building very well or even, to be honest, establish its size (23 stories) or context (E. 57th Street, just off Madison), things that if you were trying to document a building with photography you probably wouldn't want to leave out.
And that’s probably what architectural photography’s all about; that is, showing the building in  way that showcases not only the architect’s overall design scheme, but also provides a sense of its structure and relationship to its surrounding.
I did submit three photographs for the competition, though, that are a little better about presenting the relationship between three different buildings and the people who use them. I won’t hear whether they were accepted until late December. None of them shows the whole building, either. So let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

More Witnessing

Step Out for Fall, 2011

Once you start conditioning your mind and your eyes to being more aware of your surroundings, all sorts of things that you might not have normally noticed become visible. “Was that sign always there?” “Didn’t that house used to be blue?” "I never noticed before how the light strikes that tree."
Under normal circumstances our brains have a way of filtering out things we don’t want to see or lack knowledge to comprehend. The story is told of a cultural anthropologist who couldn’t understand why the African tribesman he took the London, a man who had previously never traveled more than a few miles from his Equatorial village, was more amazed by the city’s tall buildings than by an airplane. The reasoning, supposedly, was that the tribesman had absolutely no concept of manned flight and was therefore essentially unable to see, comprehend or be amazed by an airplane.
The late psychic Edgar Cayce once remarked that having the gift of clairvoyance was no prize, and that it was in fact as much a curse as anything. He explained that just as he might foresee happiness in one person’s life, he’d also see the sorrow coming in the life of another’s. For Cayce, the weight of that premonition was the source of considerable physical and mental fatigue.
Being alive and fully aware of the photo opportunities in your surroundings can be the same way because to be perceptive enough to notice those opportunities you have to notice and consciously register all of the things before your eyes, not just the things that are pleasant, pretty or easy on the conscious. 
Like the African tribesman, there might be a lot we see that we don’t want to see or don’t care to fully understand. But when you come upon a scene like the one above, you can’t ignore it. The juxtaposition of the homeless man sleeping on a grate in front of the Brooks Brothers flagship store in New York tells a sad story of our modern times.  While the man sitting on the cold sidewalk may not know where his next meal is coming from or where he’ll sleep tonight, each of the children in the poster in the window above is wearing hundreds of dollars’ worth of stylish and well made clothing that will likely be outgrown before it ever frays or the school year ends.
There are many photographers who do an outstanding job of telling these kinds of stories. I’m not one of them. When I see such sights my first inclination is to not intrude on the person’s life lest I be thought to be exploitative. But sometimes you just have to step up and tell the story that’s taking place before your eyes. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lift Up Your Heads!

“Lift Up Your Heads!”  2011

I’m pretty sure the Reverend Randolph Weber had something different in mind when he titled this sermon, something more spiritually inclined, to be sure. But for me, lifting up your head is one of the best bits of advice any photographer can remember. There’s just so much to see above eye level.
In November of 2001, I was asked to make a presentation to the department heads of my city government, an audience that numbered well over a hundred by the time you included the senior managers. It took place on a Friday morning. After the presentation, my wife and I joined friends who owned their own airplane for a flight up to New York City. While everyone else was getting settled into our hotel, I went for a walk around Midtown Manhattan.
I don’t know how it is with you. I’ve interviewed so many thousands of people in course of my professional work that when I visit a big city I feel like I recognize half the people I see. Of course, most of the people I pass on the street are indeed complete strangers. But when you’ve been amassing this backlog of faces in your mind it’s only natural that you look at people and feel like you know them.
As I walked along Central Park South that afternoon, I passed a man whose appearance caught me a little off guard. He wasn’t a celebrity and I couldn’t figure out any reason I should know him. Yet he was strangely familiar. We both looked at each other with the same puzzled glance, but said nothing and continued on our respective ways.
We had a delightful weekend in Manhattan with our friends. On Sunday morning we decided to split up. My wife wanted to visit Ground Zero, which at that time was still emitting smoke and heat. Our friends went off to church at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. It seems the Reverend Weber was a prep school buddy of our friend.
While in church they had an experience like mine. They noticed that the couple sitting next to them in the pew were very familiar looking. After the service was over and people were leaving the church, our friends intercepted the couple and apologized for staring at them through the service. It turns out there was reason for them to have recognized the other couple because they are all members of the same Presbyterian church in Virginia Beach.
It turned out we had all arrived in New York on the same afternoon and were staying at the same little hotel. The kicker of the conversation between our friends and the other couple is that as our friends related that they, too, were in New York with another couple, the husband in the other couple said, “And I’ll bet you’re here with Chris Bonney. I passed him on the street Friday afternoon and he didn’t say a word!”
As it turned out, not only was this guy a fellow parishioner at our friends’ church, but he is also one of my sister’s older friends and, to complete the coincidence trifecta, he’s also the guy who’d been in charge of the presentation I’d made the morning before we left home for New York.
It’s a small world. Life up your heads or you might miss something.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Schooner Days 2011

Schooner Days 2011 - 026, 2011

One of the overlooked pleasures of living where we do is the annual Schooner Days celebration in Portsmouth, Virginia. I’m always disappointed that so few people get into this event. As such events go, this is arguably one of the more authentic parts of living along the Chesapeake Bay.
Schooner Days isn’t just some contrived festival for tourists. It’s actually the culmination of the annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, which can be a pretty thrilling and treacherous sailing race down the Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore to Portsmouth. Last year’s race coincided with a nor’easter storm. Sailors, most of them on big old lumbering wooden boats, battled strong winds, heavy seas and lots of “green water over the bow.” For a race that can last as long as two days—this year’s winner came in at just over twenty-seven hours—last year’s sailors finally made it into Portsmouth later than ever and absolutely worn out.
 Schooner Days 2011 - 035, 2011

This year they had much better weather, more favorable winds and friendlier seas. The thirty-nine boats that took part in this year’s race were all cleaned up and shipshape in time for crew members to get a little sleep before heading ashore for an afternoon of beer, barbecue and camaraderie. (All except, that is, the hearty young sailors from a Maine-based Outward Bound program, who had to watch the party from outside the tent because they are underage for alcohol consumption.)
Neither my wife nor I are very knowledgeable or confident sailors. But we’ve always enjoyed being around sailboats. They’re something intriguing about vessels built to use nature’s winds. Most of the boats in this year’s race were once working boats, hauling cargo up and down coastal waters. They’re the real thing, low, beamy and practical. This year’s race winner, America 2.0, on the other hand, is a thoroughly modern 106’ carbon fiber sailing ship that usually entertains tourists on the New York waterfront. What she lacks in authenticity, though, is neatly made up for by the elegant lines of her deep blue hull.
 Schooner Days 2011 - 033, 2011

I don’t think there’s ever been a boat built that doesn’t require a lot of expense and maintenance. Wooden boats in particular are forever needing sanding, painting or any of a hundred other things done. Very few of the schooners taking part in this year’s race are privately owned. But I give this year’s sailors a lot of credit. Every one of the boats I looked at is in beautiful condition.
Schooner Days 2011 - 036, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

On the Post

The North Gate, 2011

No one blows Reveille at Fort Monroe any more to signal the start of the day or Taps in the evening to signal the end of the day. The parade ground is empty, the lookout towers locked up, the barracks and offices silent.
When the U.S. Army left Fort Monroe, Virginia, a few weeks ago, they not only left the history of almost two hundred years of continuous presence at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the James River, but also left a nearly perfectly maintained slice of small town American culture.
A clergyman acquaintance once told me that one of the most unpleasant parts of his job was attending to the closing of churches. Closing a church isn't just a matter of desanctifying a sanctuary. It's a  formal concession that a community has lost not only population and the wherewithall to support a church, but also a vital piece of its faith, hope and charity.
I don't expect that the military has such emotional anxieties about closing a base. Fort Monroe provided important strategic service from the early 1800s up through World War II. From the top of the star-shaped walls of what was then known as Fortress Monroe, you could have watched the Monitor and the Merrimack fight their fateful sea battle. In the 1940s you would have kept your eyes on the horizon looking for German U-boats anxious to infiltrate the Hampton Roads-based U.S. Navy fleet.
 Quarters, 2011

In recent decades, though, Fort Monroe struggled to maintain a strategic purpose, an especially tough task in a population center that probably has more military presence and individual military bases than anywhere else in the world. Lately Fort Monroe had been the center for training and printing commands, functions that are now more  efficiently handled elsewhere. Hence the closure of the base.
Fortress Walls, 2011

What the Army leaves behind looks like an idealized version of a mid-Twentieth Century American small town. Spread across almost six hundred acres and eight miles of waterfront, its center is the original stone fortress and moat. Outside the moat are almost two hundred sturdy brick structures housing everything a small town would need: offices, homes for personnel of all ranks, mess halls, training facilities, playing fields, a fire station, police department, child care facilities, an officers club, a small craft marina and a theater. Theres even an informal pet cemetery that Ive written about beforeThe streets and sidewalks are lined with lives oaks and neatly trimmed shrubbery.
Now it's all empty, a living example of what we not too many years ago would have called "the neutron bomb effect." Everything looks ready to be used, but theres no one home anymore.
Silent Halls, 2011

When the Army left they turned the keys to Fort Monroe over the Commonwealth of Virginia. A public Authority was created to plot the commercial future of Fort Monroe. It's hoped that the original fortress within the moat will be taken into the National Park System. Everything else, though, will be up for grabs.
 Old Point Comfort Light, 2011

Nows probably a good time to visit Fort Monroe. With just a few exceptions, everythings clean, neat and freshly painted. The streets are clean and the sidewalks are edged. A visitor can go most anywhere on the old base without restriction. But over time, the grass is going to grow and paints going to begin to peel. Its a labor of love and expense to maintain old buildings against the wind, the water and the salt spray of a coastal setting.
The political and social tendency of Virginians is to look backwards. Weve a lot of American history in our roots. Fort Monroe could become static representation of a slice of historynot unlike Colonial Williamsburgor it could become an example of the marriage of history, historic structures and modern design and technology.  I wouldnt bet on the latter. But thats where my hopes lie. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Material Everywhere

In a Hampton Field, 2011

It really is true. If you just keep your eyes open there’s something to photograph most anywhere you go.
Like this chair.
I was driving home from a meeting last week and decided to stop by the site of a landmark home that burned down years ago. I was curious to see whether anything had happened to the site. 
The former home site is now part of a university campus. Nothing’s left of the old house but some of the brick foundation and a whole lot of “No Trespassing” signs.
It usually takes more than a few "No Trespassing" signs to scare off an intrepid photographer. But a work-related phone call intervened and my visit was cut short. On the way out of the site, though, I happened to look across the street and see this chair, complete with a soft cushion.
I don’t have any idea how the chair ended up out in this field, how long it had been there or anything else about it. My guess from the design of the chair is that it probably once belonged to the motel located nearby that was in its latter years used as a temporary dorm for the university.
I don’t know much about chair design. But although it looks somewhat dated this one’s pretty ingenious. Chairs are one of those things that you can easily go through life not paying much attention to. But if you do, you’ll notice that there’s an almost unlimited number of ways that a simple chair can be designed. The seat of this chair is cantilevered out over the back. At first glance, you might think you’d fall out of it. But the back legs lean forward as if to pull the arms and backrest forward. They’re also slanted so that it’s hard for the chair to tip over backwards. The lines of the chair go this way and that. But when taken altogether, the chair’s interestingly balanced.
Just sitting out in the field, this chair was, like it was waiting to have its picture taken.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Prodigal Photograph

Squibnocket Farm, 2010

When you take a lot of pictures it’s inevitable that some will be forgotten. Squibnocket Farm is one such picture. It didn’t make it into my book of photographs from Martha’s Vineyard, and somewhere along the way it got shoved completely out of sight and mind.
About two weeks ago I came across Squibnocket Farm while looking for photos for an architectural photography competition. It was like love at first sight. I don’t know why it got put aside originally. But upon seeing it again it was as if I was back in the moment when I took the picture. I could feel the fresh, cool breeze of the sunny fall day when I took it. 
At about the same time I rediscovered Squibnocket Farm I got my new printer. So I decided to use this picture as my test for setting the black-and-white calibration of the printer. I liked the outcome so much that I decided to frame this picture and hang it in my office. 
Then my wife and I went off for a weekend trip. On Friday night I got an e-mail from a friend informing me of a juried photography competition at a local art gallery. I was interested in submitting something for the show, but was a little concerned that the deadline was just three days away.
Fortunately, when I bought the new printer I also bought a new mat cutter. So when we got home from our trip I set to work matting and framing three pieces of photography that fit the competition theme. Curiously, as someone who’s probably most often associated with color photography, all three pieces I submitted were in black-and-white.
I dropped my photographs off at the gallery on Tuesday afternoon and went on about my business. On Thursday I attended another art show that included two of my photographs.
The opening reception of the gallery show was on Friday night. When I met the gallery manager she noted that as a juried show not all of the work submitted was accepted. I’d found two of my pieces on the wall, but didn’t see the third one. So I jokingly asked where the reject pile was so that I could take my orphan picture home that night.
Then one of my friends noticed that the picture I hadn’t found, Squibnocket Farm, was actually hanging a little further along the hall. The gallery owner asked me to make sure I hung around because “the judge has something to say about your photographs.”
Long story short: Squibnocket Farm ended up winning First Place in the competition. The judge had nice things to say about it. I got a hug from the gallery owner, a prize check and a blue ribbon to hang on the picture.
All in all, not a bad night for a picture that went away and then came back into my life and a week later won First Place!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Variations on a Theme, 2011

When you write a song that becomes so popular that it’s becomes your song and you’re obligated to sing it any time you perform, that song’s bound to get old after a while. The summer amphitheater circuit is full of acts playing the old songs just like they played them thirty or forty years ago.
I find, though, that the musicians I most admire are the ones who can’t endure the drudgery of playing the same old songs the same old ways every night. In her performance here in Virginia Beach the other night, Mary Chapin Carpenter kicked off her show with a few of her most upbeat songs. Then she went into a set of more contemplative new songs that reflected the melancholy and recovery of her recent years. Finally, she slipped almost imperceptibly into a new arrangement of her anthem, The Hard Way, that caught more than a few people in the audience by surprise. Word by word we began to recognize the lyrics of this formerly hard driving road song hidden behind a new, much slower tempo and phrasing. I loved the original version. But I loved hearing a new take on it, as well.
 I’ve noticed that Bruce Hornsby does this a lot, too. He’ll take a hard driving song and turn it upside down, allowing you to see familiar lyrics and the pieces of the original arrangement rearranged into something fresh and interesting.
When I was a much younger adult I took piano lessons. It caused no end of frustration to me that I couldn’t seem to summon the mental and visual coordination necessary to read music well. It also frustrated my teacher that I was able to play by ear and, therefore, didn’t always need to know how to read music.
Her technique for getting around this was to have me learn the notes of something and then play it in another completely different style; say, a Chopin etude played in a reggae style, or a piece by Mozart in a blues style. The idea wasn’t for me to learn to play in the new style per se, but rather to compel me to comprehend the page of music enough to know the music well enough to transpose it to a different style.
Now that I think of it, my 9th grade English teacher did the same thing. He’d have us write short pieces of prose and then have us re-write them in the style of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Time Magazine. This exercise taught us to recognize the style of different writers and to stretch our own style.
I’ve continued this exercise in photography. If I’m confronted with a situation I want to photograph but am not sure how to approach it, I’ll sometimes ask myself, “How would Andre Kertesz or Eliot Erwitt or James Nachtway photograph this moment?”  I don’t have to copy that person’s style to complete the exercise. But just forcing myself to try to see something from someone else’s perspective invariably identifies different options. 

Monday, October 10, 2011


1949 Ferrari Barchetta, 2003

Lines tell stories.
I've never taken a studio art class in my life. But I'd be willing to bet that right after they take the roll and pass out the easels one of the first things they tell you is that lines are important and that the least wrinkle in a line can change the whole meaning and lead to all kinds of artistic mayhem. And who doesn't like kicking up a little dust like an artist? Or at least that's what I gather from my reading of books about the lives of artists; that the ones that weren't syphilitics or drunks or hopelessly depressed or bipolar were just trying to kick up a little artistic mayhem.
I was reminded of the importance of lines the other day when I happened to see one of the new Honda Odyssey minivans. Mind you, I don't usually pay much attention to Hondas or minivans. Both tend to be bought by people who value practicality, simplicity and dependability much more than design, those three first characteristics being things that Honda does exceptionally well and the latter one not. I mean, really, when was the last time anyone got really excited about the design of a Honda?
Nearly all car designs involve using lines to achieve one effect or another, whether it is to convey a sense of speed, class, comfort or durability. The problem with this new Honda van is that the side profile—what auto designers call the "beltline"—makes the Odyssey look like a hearse, which makes me think that this vehicle wasn't designed in the United States or by an American. Or an Englishman, for that matter.
 2012 Honda Odyssey (Honda promotional photo)

Making products for world markets has always been a lot harder in practice than it is in theory. Who, for example, was manning the marketing department at Chevrolet when they introduced one of their most popular models to the world without realizing that "Nova," which I'm sure they selected for it's breezy space age connotations, translated as "No go" in Spanish, Portuguese and who knows how many other related languages.
And how about the Japanese electronics giant that didn't care to hire a good translator and consequently thought nothing of proudly proclaiming in every headline promoting its new line of vacuum cleaners that they "Really Suck!"
I dare you to look at one of the new Honda Odysseys and not be reminded of a hearse, especially if the van is black or in another dark color. The first couple of times I saw these new Odyssey vans I really did think they were hearses.
Lines tell us so much. In every visual art, lines lead us. They give us clues to the intent of the artist. They tell stories.
If you want to talk about some good lines, how about the lines of the red Ferrari shown above. It’s a 1949 Ferrari 16mm (for “Mille Miglia”) Barchetta. Its designer, the late Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni; now there’s a man who knew something about lines!