Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the Spam Dept.

No One Has to Know It’s Not a Diamond, 2011

One of the nice things back in the days when we changed our e-mail addresses every time our Internet service providers changed ownership or domain was that you got to evade all the e-mail spammer who sent stuff to your old address. Unfortunately, we don't change e-mail addresses as much as we used to, and it doesn't take long for spammers to find their way back to you, especially if your e-mail address is out there in the business media.
 I'm at the point where I get as many as five or six hundred junk e-mails every day. Most of them get caught by my spam filter. But I still have to scan through them quickly to make sure client mail hasn't gotten sidetracked into the wrong place.
Some spam is silly, some truly dreadful. Some is simply boring, and some is clearly intended for people with, let's just say, different tastes. It’s like those “starving artist” art shows they used to have at hotels; one gets the impression that there are sweatshops in Romania where there are hundreds of men and women sitting at keyboards trying to come up with spam e-mail titles that people will find intriguing enough to open.
Some of the titles clearly get lost in translation. But one thing you can’t fault them for is burying the lede. Here are just a few from a single day, the mere variety of which makes me wonder just how I ever got on some of these people’s radars:
“Christmas Pre-Approval”
“Customized countertops”
“Claim your Social Security check”
“Butts that look awesome”
“Literally put a glassy shine on any surface”
“Compare moving companies now”
“Obama endorses herbal remedies”
“Maria invites you for a chat”
“See the desire in her eyes”
“Find effective psoriasis treatments”
“With the education comes the uniform”
“You have changed”
“Propecia linked to bad injuries”
“This is not a myth”
“Get more out of your love rod”
“Wonder pills for thrills”
“Jailed because of skimpy wear”
“May God almighty be with you if you read this message”
“Want to do Betty Crocker?”
“Thanksgiving…Not easy”
“MPazar Öğretmenler Günü Kampanyası”
“400th anniversary Starbucks coupon”
“1o Things women hate”

A crafty person could have a lot of fun mixing and matching all these titles. I’m too tired, though, so I’m going to bed and drift off to sleep wondering just what Betty Crocker would think of my “love rod” and worry about whether it might be one of the “10 Things women hate.”
I won’t be using any Propecia, by the way. One can’t be too careful.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Overheard in the ER

Treatment Pod 36, 2011

At 2:15 a.m. this past Saturday I received a call from my mother’s nursing home. Her condition was dire and they were preparing her for transport to the hospital a few blocks away. I met her in the hospital emergency department a few minutes later and tried to stay awake and alert for the next three hours while a serious team of physicians and nurses addressed her declining condition.
It was, all things considered, a relatively quiet night in the ER. Doctors, nurses, aides, custodial and administrative workers were going about their business methodically and professionally. There were twenty or so patients in various stages of diagnosis and treatment. At one point a police officer herded in a cluster of young men with bloodied faces, their hands safely cuffed behind their backs. But there were no raised voices. The intercom was quiet. The young men were more anxious to be treated than to continue whatever dispute had called for police intervention.
Every now and then I was asked to leave my mother’s treatment area while things were done that a more conscious woman might have found undignified in front of her son. But mostly I just sat in a stiff chair at the entrance to her treatment area and listened to the sounds of ER life.
"We're going to draw some more blood."
"Sir, were you hit with a bat, a bar or just someone's fist?"
"I don't remember."
"Are you warm enough, Mam?"
"I need to run some laps, or something. I'm starting to nod off."
"Blood pressure is 64 over 29."
“Anyone going out for breakfast when we get off?”
"That sure looks like a purse, man."
"It's not a purse. It's a backpack."
"Sure looks like a purse to me."
"I just came out the door and they started coming at me. Dude, they were everywhere. I didn't even know who they were. They were just out there swinging at everyone."
"We've partied there for months. Never had a problem."
“I hear there were a lot of fights in that neighborhood tonight.”
"I was just back on a boat from Antarctica. It was great."
"BP is now 71 over 34."
"Dr. _____ said all this, and the patient's husband was standing right behind him. RIGHT BEHIND HIM! The doctor didn’t even care. He was so rude."
"72 over 27."
“Polar bears are the coolest!”
"When I was a kid in North Carolina they had a soft drink called White Lightning. I liked Tab. But I really liked White Lighting."
"We're not even from here. Our house is rented and we're staying at the KOA campground."
"Sir, let me put you in a wheelchair. We don't want you falling and knocking out your other eye, as well."

Monday, November 28, 2011

Living at the Edge

Surf Series #9, 2009

I've long maintained that the real gestalt of living by the ocean isn't just a matter of surf and sand, but rather something bigger and more important. I've just not been able to articulate very well what that larger thing is.
I have always looked at the ocean as something that's bigger and more powerful than man, and that in being this way it keeps us humble against the world. A good romp in rough surf or an upending on a wave will remind you that you're not nearly as powerful as even the energy of the smallest wave.
But even more than that, the value of the ocean to me is it's openness, its limitlessness and it’s uncertainty. One day it’s calm, flat and lapping quietly at the shore. The next it’s standing up tall and dangerous and pounding anything it touches. An enduring part of the soundtrack of my youth is the roar of the surf on windy winter nights.
But on even the roughest of days there's still nothing but the curve of the earth to limit your view across the ocean to the horizon. It’s like a giant infinity pool with nothing ever on “the other side” to interrupt your view.
I like to think that the ocean is the great psychological expansion valve for those of us who live year it. When things seem tight and close, the boundless expanse of the ocean is there to let our minds wander and be free. I've wondered if the ocean is to us today what the American West was in the 1800s, a great, wide open expanse of new things and opportunity.
I’ve lived within a few miles of the ocean for most of my life. I once considered a job in St. Louis. But standing under Eero Saarinen's magnificent Gateway Arch and beholding the mighty Mississippi made me realize that even a great wide river does not an ocean make.
Now comes some more considered research that suggests that there's something to this "psychological expansion valve" theory of mine. In Dan Beuttner's new book, Thrive - Finding Happinesss the Blue Zones Way, a Danish school principal explains the exceptionally high level of happiness in Denmark, compared to other countries as follows:
"I think that part of the Danish happiness is that we're never more than 60 kilometers from the sea. That creates the sense that there are no obstacles and reinforces the freedom we Danes feel over our lives.“
Well said.  Maybe I was switched at birth with a Danish baby?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On Thanks

The Fall View, 2011

Isn’t it interesting how over the last several years Thanksgiving has picked up a little additional energy? People who used to reserve their appreciations and best wishes for the new year for sharing at Christmas, Hanukkah or on January 31st now send their sincerest greetings at Thanksgiving.
I like this. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. It doesn’t have the baggage of Christmas and Easter. It's not a birthday. You don’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s religious rituals. In some families you might have to monitor the booze and stifle smoldering domestic tensions. But so far as gift giving is concerned, the only gift is the giving of yourself, and what could be cheaper and yet bigger than the fellowship that comes from that? All in all, arguably the most anxiety-free of the holidays.
Well, maybe a little anxiety. Thanksgiving 1963 marked my debut as a boy soprano. I stood up in front of the congregation of the First Lutheran Church in Norfolk, Virginia, and sang “We Gather Together.” I don't remember much about it other than that both of my parents were there, that both encouraged me to just relax and go with the music—they were both  accomplished singers—and both claimed afterwards that I'd done a good job.
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;He chastens and hastens His will to make known;The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

Every now and then I come across someone who doesn’t have it in them to be thankful. Such people are easy to dislike, but more often than not I end up feeling sorry for them. Maybe I’m just a sucker. I’m reading a book about the elements of happiness, from which I’m learning that one of the most important elements of happiness, regardless of the nation or culture, is the sense of being connected to other people. In my experience, people who can’t be thankful tend to be socially isolated.  I suppose this could be one of those chicken-and-egg quandaries: are people without thankfulness that way because of isolation or are they isolated because they are so without the capacity for thankfulness?
All I know is that I have much to be thankful for in my life. That includes being sincerely thankful for my friends, including those of you who follow What I Saw. I wish you all a wonderful day of thanksgiving. Whether you celebrate as we do in the United States or as it’s celebrated in Canada on a different day or whether it’s not even on the calendar where you live, I appreciate you and the richness you bring to my life.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another Look at the Zone

Smithfield Alley, 2011

Early on in my study of photography I read about the Zone System. No matter how I approached it, though, I never quite got the gist of it. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it took me a long time to figure out how to make good exposures in my photographs.
Ansel Adams and Fred Archer developed the Zone System in the late 1930s as a way for photographers to learn to recognize all the shades of light in any given scene and use this knowledge to make exposures that accurately reflected the way the photographer wanted to interpret the scene.
That's a very simple way to describe a much more thoughtful and complex system. It goes without saying that photographers always have to be cognizant of light and shadows. The value of the Zone System is that it conditions the photographer to be cognizant of not just the direction of light and purest blacks and the purest whites in any scene, but to recognize the eight other gradations, or zones, in between. There are ten zones in the Zone System, with each step in the process not coincidentally one f-stop more or less than the one before it (depending on whether you’re going from light to dark or dark to light.
I understood that much of the Zone System. But photographers like Adams were famous for being painstaking in setting up their shots. They’d spent hours setting up their giant box cameras. They’d wait weeks for the weather or clouds to be just right. They had all the time in the world to think about the light. Unfortunately, that wasn’t at all like the observational and street photography I was doing.
I wasn’t the only one to find the Zone System cumbersome and time consuming. Lots of photograhers felt that way about it. Instead, they "exposed for shadows and printed for highlights," which means they set their exposures for the darkest part of a scene in order to capture details in the dark areas and then adjusted the exposure of printing and alternately dodged and burned to accomodate the details in the highlights. The beauty of this system was that if you did it correctly, you not only had good exposure, but also excellent balance of light.
These days, between intelligent cameras and tools like Photoshop, it’s a lot easier for the layman to get a good exposure. The automatic exposure features of most cameras take reflected exposure readings at a number of locations in the frame. You can still play with exposure manually, but most people don’t. The technology covers a multitide of sins, and I have the sneaky feeling that photography teachers who tell their students they’re slackers if don’t do everything manually are just being pretentious, making something that should be fun and enjoyable into something that only makes you feel bad about your performance.
Still, I do believe it’s a good idea and a fundamental aspect of getting good exposure—whether you do it in the camera or in Photoshop—to be aware of the lights and darks and all the gradations inbetween. I took the picture above with the idea that there might be a story in it. But it turns out the only story is about all the shades of light and dark in it. How many zones can you identify?

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Fall Day in Smithfield

A Fall Day in Smithfield, 2011

It's fall, which means that we observational photographers are obligated to do something with colorful leaves.
I love fall. Growing up as I did near the ocean, where pines were about the only trees that would thrive in our sandy soil, I didn't really experience fall at its fullest until I moved a hundred miles west for college. It's safe to say I was smitten by all the things leaves do in the fall. I even made spending money in college raking leaves for people who lived near the college campus. So you could say I not only enjoyed watching the leaves change colors and carpet the ground when they fell, but made money picking them back up again. 
It's always seemed ironic that nature puts on one of its most colorful shows as a prelude to moving all the action under the ground. While roots stretch out and make plans for next spring's rebirth--there's even a fair bit of literature about how what draws so many people to gardening is the annual cycle of birth and death--for the next several months it'll be nothing but bare limbs. In photographs trees will become dark, densely patterned shapes  to use as contrast against gray/white winter skies. Tree trunks will be photographed in hundreds of photography classes in response to assignments about “texture.”
But for now many of the trees around here are still full of colorful leaves and we photographers will just have to cope with that. I make it sound bad; colorful leaves can be so awe-inspiring that you'd wonder why I might look upon this as a problem. But the truth is, most photographs of fall leaves are so hackneyed that after that first second or two of awe, you'll forget you ever saw them because they look just like the thousands of pictures of colorful leaves you've seen before.
A situation like this ought to be the inspiration for taking pictures of fall leaves that are new and interesting. But sometimes, like this past Saturday when I was taking a walk in Smithfield, Virginia, while my wife was doing some Christmas shopping nearby, I came upon the scene above and couldn't begin to think of doing anything more interesting or unexpected than letting my jaw drop at the sight of nature's glory and capturing what I saw.
So if you happen to follow my daily picture posts at Flickr, you're just going to have to endure some cliche shots of colorful leaves until I get this bout of "expected" pictures out of my system.
Cue the falling leaves! I'm ready.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Grand Night

Grace & Steve, 2011

As some of you know, my daughter has been traveling back and forth across the United States and Canada since September promoting her book, Design Sponge at Home. Grace and her managing editor Amy have visited twenty-nine cities so far. That’s a lot of early morning flights, tight connections, smarmy morning talk show hosts, afternoon craft events and evening book signings.

@ Prince Books, 2011

The twenty-ninth city in the schedule was Norfolk, the closest she’ll come to home. Last night a whole flock of family, friends, Design*Sponge readers and even a few stray people off the street stopped into Prince Books to take part in an hour of crafting followed by an hour of Grace signing their books.

Crafting with Design*Sponge, 2011

Needless to say, my wife and I are very proud of our daughter and enjoyed this chance to watch her enjoy a little of the limelight.
My daughter has described these events around the country as a series of “big hugs” from her readers. The Design*Sponge community is congenial and supportive. Many thanks to those who you who were able to attend: Barbara, Zeinoun, Holly, Sally, Sonja, Kristen, Emily, Jean, Jan, Beth, Margarita and more than a hundred others whose names I didn’t know.

Yum, from Just Cubcakes, 2011

Special thanks to Carla Peay Hesseltine of Just Cupcakes, who provided custom-decorated cupcakes for the evening, and to the couple that traveled more than seven hours from western North Carolina to bring the pop-up photo booth. We’re especially grateful to Sarah Pishko and her staff at Prince Books, whose hospitality, flexibility and patience made for what we believe was a grand night for everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Cartman of Venice

The Cartman of Venice, 2011

You take pictures for a lot of reasons. Some are deadly serious. Some have stories. Some are just beautiful. And some, like this picture of a plush toy version of Eric Cartman, the rudest of the potty-mouthed scamps of South Park, you take because they strike you as being so funny at the time that you hope they’ll give someone else a chuckle when they see them.
I happened on this scene while walking along the canals in Venice, California. Famous people live here. Multi-million dollar houses nestle along side of…well, other multi-million dollar homes. It’s not a neighborhood for the likes of most of us unless you bought in decades ago when the canals were swampy and the housing less chic. Today, though, it’s mostly one-percenters, I expect. When someone opens a garage door as you walk by you’re more likely to see a vintage Bentley than a VW Beetle.
Most of the houses that line the canals of Venice reflect a laid back air of affluence. Some are a little showier than others. But nobody has a lot of room and most try to maximize their privacy.
They’re not without whimsy, too, some of them. But Cartman?
As I said, sometimes you see something that gives you a chuckle. I hope this did it for you. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011



Cast Iron Fireplace Faces, 2011

 When my wife and got married, we didn't have any money to spare. Our only furnishings were a few castoffs from relatives. We didn't have a dresser for the longest time. Our first "dining room" table was a rickety wicker affair with four flimsy chairs that had served duty in a variety of model homes until the developer concluded that they were too dangerous to risk having small children climb on.
What we didn't have I made out of found materials. Bookcases from recycled lumber. Lamps made with cheap lamp kits and chimney flue pipes painted bright colors.
Going to the Pleasants Hardware Store on Broad Street was one of my favorite Saturday morning pastimes. I'd wander the plumbing, heating and electrical aisles looking for cheap materials I could fashion into lamps or other practical necessities.
We loved that first apartment. It was on the second floor of an old three-story apartment house in the city. It had a covered porch on the front where we could find relief from the heat in the summer, grow tomatoes on the iron railing and have cookouts with friends.
When we finally started making a little money we could afford to replace the hand-me-down furnishings with new purchases, some old and some new. Saturday mornings at the hardware stores were replaced with Saturday afternoons at antique shops.
Sometimes we would head across the James River from our West-of-the-Boulevard pied a terre to the South Side and Caravati's salvage yard. In a warren of sheds, lean-tos and dark storefronts, old man Caravati kept hundred of old doors, staircases, fireplace surrounds, mantles, windows, wood paneling, floorboards and all manner of other architectural relics salvaged from the demolition of grand old homes all over Central Virginia.
Balusters, 2011
I might come home from Caravati's with a piece of leaded glass or an old sconce from a church or, on one occasion that completely confounded my wife, a long mahogany bannister. Like the newel post I brought home on another occasion, we didn't need any of this stuff. But that didn't stop me. I'd sand the old paint off, put some stain and polyurethane on them and prop them up against the wall.  
We carried this stuff around with us through a succession of apartments, a condo and then our first house. Over time, my wife's design tastes changed and most of those old pieces of history got sold at yard sales or given away.
After we moved away from Richmond, a fire destroyed Mr. Caravati's salvage yard. A few years later I heard that Caravati's grandson had decided to re-open the family business in an old warehouse down by the James River. The first time I visited the new Caravati's, I was taken aback by the prices. Old man Caravati had prices that reflected the shabby salvage yard. The grandson's place had two sprawling floors of the same kind of stuff, but prices reflected the intention to serve a more gentrified clientele.
Window Sash Weights, 2011

Still, every now and then if I’m in Richmond I’ll make a trip across the river to Caravati's. The once desolate and flood-prone industrial neighborhood is now home to a lot of hip start-ups. Even if I don’t buy anything, Caravati's is still a great place to wander around and imagine what I could make out of old doors, windows, wood paneling, recycled hardwood floors, cast iron railings, sinks, tubs and hundreds of other old fittings. They're just leaned up against the wall or piled up on the floor. It’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon.  
Comparing Tiles, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Original and Not Touched

Inside the Doll’s House, 2003

Earlier this month I mentioned an interview I’d read featuring Annie Leibovitz talking about her new book, “Pilgrimage.” I haven’t seen the book yet. But while walking yesterday morning I heard Leibovitz being interviewed on a podcast of the NPR program Talk of the Nation. It turns out she had another interesting thing to say.
Actually, she said two interesting things to say, the first of which is that while she may have a superb eye for visual art, Leibovitz admits to having a weak command of words. Also participating in the interview was historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote the introduction to “Pilgrimage.” Kearns was her usual articulate self. But whenever Leibovitz would jump in to make a comment, her observations frequently ended quickly in a series of pauses, dangling adjectives and incomplete sentences.
The thing she said, though, that really caught my ear, though, was a comment about the cover photo of this new book. It’s a photograph taken right at the edge of Niagara Falls.
Leibovitz explained that she’d taken the picture during a visit to the falls with her young daughters. The girls were in a state of wonder at the sight of the powerful cataract. Leibovitz, too, found herself unexpectedly drawn to the euphoric power of the deep green water rushing by and over the falls. Here’s a picture of the cover of the German edition of the book.

 Pilgrimage, by Annie Leibovitz

It wasn’t her comments about the falls that caught me. Rather, what caught my attention was Leibovitz observing that one of the remarkable things about this cover photograph is that it is “original” and “not touched.” By which she means that this photograph was essentially “straight out of the camera.” 
Leibovitz is known for the careful lighting, styling and composition of her photographic portraits, and described how many are also the result of considerable post-production retouching. The photo on the cover of “Pilgrimage,” on the other hand, was subjected to little or no retouching. 
When you reach the point in your pursuit of photography that you make the investment in Photoshop or software programs there’s a very normal tendency to want to try out all the bells and whistles. So for a while all of your pictures look gimmicky, over produced and unnatural. Their defining characteristic is that the viewer notices the tricks and gimmicks before noticing anything else.
If you’re smart, you recognize the errors of your way and pull back on this manipulation until your photographs return to a more natural appearance. You want your work to be noticed, not diagnosed.
Just as a few weeks ago I was surprised by how genuinely amazed Annie Leibovitz was that she could make insightful “portraits” of people long deceased just by photographing their work spaces and personal items, I am again surprised, but also pleased, that she has chosen to feature a photograph so untouched on the cover of her latest book.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Alpha & Omega

Jet Trail, 2006

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to exchange a few e-mails with a friend regarding the disappointing state of an industry in which we both once worked and about which we continue to care a lot. (We’re both crazy optimists, too, in our belief that there are solutions to this industry’s problems if someone would just listen to us.)
Toward the end of our conversation my friend noted that her daughter has decided to pursue a career in the same industry. “How’s that for faith in the future?” she wrote.
As parents, there are many things that can give us reason to have pride in our children. A lot of it's vanity, I know, and it’s no mystery that one of the reasons we look at our children as such beautiful beings is because, well,  they look like us.  
But there is perhaps no greater pleasure than when we see something in our children that reflects a deeper transmission of the better parts of our own minds and souls. These are the moments that give us special hope and pride.
This weekend I also had one of those modern experiences that I couldn't have had until a few years ago. Facebook reminded me that Sunday was the birthday of my friend Hal.
I like this feature. Remembering people's birthdays on Facebook may be a superficial gesture. But for one, before Facebook you probably had no idea when most of your friends' birthdays were. And two, until Facebook develops an a feature that writes your birthdays notes for you, a quick greeting and thought are still personal expressions, no matter how prompted.
The only problem with this particular birthday reminder is that my friend Hal died last summer.
This modern world of social media raises many interesting questions. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you can have, rekindle and enjoy deep, soul mate-like friendships with people you haven't heard from in years, who are connected to you only because they are the friend of a friend or who, in any event, you've never actually met in "real space."
But I have been wondering for a while what happens when these people go away? Hal died last summer. I'm sure his widow and children have far more serious matters to deal with than worrying about Hal's Facebook page. But until they do, Hal lives on, or at least continues to have birthdays in the virtual world.
There was a interesting little conversation yesterday among friends at my Facebook page about this. A few clarified Facebook’s protocols for dealing with such cases. (Yes, there is a Facebook protocol for family members who wish to terminate or memorialize a Facebook page.) Some like the idea of having a page and an annual birthday reminder for the deceased. I suppose it’s like having a virtual cemetery plot to visit for those who like to do such things. Some found it a little creepy.
Whatever the case, I do wonder what happens when our online friends experience illness, accidents or death. Do they just not show up one day and we don’t know whether they’ve died or just thrown us over for a classier group of friends? If it’s the former, do we ever get to say goodbye?
I guess I’d better start thinking about producing a goodbye video to stick up on YouTube for when my time comes (not any time soon, I trust). Maybe it’s the Southernness in me, but it just seems rude to disappear without telling anyone.   

Friday, November 11, 2011

Another Roadside Attraction

Another Roadside Attraction, 2011

Yet another reason to always have a camera handy.
I was driving along Richmond's Chamberlayne Avenue the other day. A hundred years ago Chamberlayne was a respectable commercial thoroughfare, a main drag for prominent Richmonders commuting back and forth to downtown from their stately homes in Ginter Park. 
Lewis Ginter specifically  rejected the traditional east/west orientation of many cities—well-to-do neighborhoods situated west of town to avoid prevailing winds that blow industrial smoke and odors to the east end—and designed Ginter Park and the two main avenues between it and downtown on a north/south axis so that residents would not only have clean air, but no sun in their eyes as they drove downtown in the morning and back home again in the evening.
Clever guy, that Lewis Ginter. (He made and lost a mercantile fortune during the Civil War and then was a founder of the American Tobacco Company.) By the time I moved to Richmond in 1970, though, Ginter Park was still a nice neighborhood. But the north side of Richmond was no longer the city’s most prestigious residential area. Chamberlayne Ave was a sorry and decaying mixed light industrial and empty commercial buildings peppered with the kind of seedy motels you only read about when hookers get murdered in them.
Fast forward to 2011. Lower Chamberlayne Avenue is still a little seedy around the edges. But it appears that there might be something of a Rennaissance going on and that part of the area is becoming a design and decor district.
I wasn't in the neighborhood for design or decor. I'd gotten lost trying to find a place I was certain I knew how to find and had fetched up on Chamberlayne Avenue looking for a place to make a U-turn. It turns out there are precious few places on Chamberlayne Avenue where you can make U-turns. I decided to make a left turn into a dead-end street so that I could turn around and go back the other way.
I was so focused on doing this that when I drove through a warehouse parking lot to get back out onto the street I almost didn't notice all the stuff out on the sidewalk in front of the warehouse. In just one quick scan I saw giant fake potted palms, an upright player paino, a scaled down reproduction of the big railroad clock in the Musée d'Orsay, masks, mirrors and all sorts of other stuff.
With the benefit of hindsight, I realize now that this was a place that sells old store fittings. At the time, though, it seemed like I was peeking into the storage closet of, say, John Waters. My first inclination was to just drive on. But then I saw this lady with the blue hair standing next to the gold column. I knew I had to have her, if only in a photograph.
If my camera had been in the back seat I’d have probably not thought this scene worth stopping for. But because the camera was right beside me in the front of the car, I quickly grabbed it and without even bringing the car to a complete stop took this picture, put the camera back down and continued to roll out onto the street and head back in the right direction to town.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pedestals Tilted

The View from Edo's Window, 2011

Yars years ago I went to a lecture given by an award-winning photojournalist. This Famous Photographer was well known for a number of powerful news photographs, including some taken during what were in those years periodic floods of the James River into the lower lying precincts of Richmond, Virginia.
The people who filled the auditorium that night oohed and aahed as the slides clicked by. We remembered the pictures and the events shown because, as in the case of the floods, they combined a dramatic portrayal of nature’s fury with human interest.
It’s a given in photojournalism that you don’t pose pictures. You avoid what the AP Style Book refers to as “mindless documentation.” But you don’t use the tricks of the photographer’s trade to change lighting, improve sight lines, removing distractions and otherwise edit scenes. People get fired for doing that kind of stuff.
At one point in the presentation, the Famous Photographer was asked about a photograph that showed a group of National Guardsmen lazing across the top of a sand bag dam holding back the flood waters from downtown. It looked almost as if they were working on their tans.
“Did it bother the Guardsmen that you caught them sunning when they should have been looking more productive?” an audience member asked.
“No,” the Famous Photographer said. “I actually posed them there. They didn’t want to be photographed that way, but I talked them into doing it.” He even grinned at the memory of having charmed the soldiers into going along with his photo idea. And then he proceeded to explain how a good half of the pictures we’d seen that night had been posed to achieve his desired dramatic effect.
I don’t know how many people in the room that night changed the way they thought about the Famous Photographer or about the integrity of the awards he’d won after hearing this admission. Did the judges know the Famous Photographer had staged his “news” shots? Did his editors? (I do know that one of his editors once published a front page, above-the-fold photo of a man dressed as a woman thinking the person shown was an authentic Southern belle.) This revelation hit me hard, which I suppose happens a lot when you put people up on pedestals and then learn that they’re mortal like everyone else.
I’m not a photojournalist, so I have no such ethical standards to worry about. The other day I was having lunch with a friend at Edo’s Squid in Richmond. Just as I started to eat my lunch (penne all’Amatriciana, very good) I happened to look at the next table over and notice the light spilling across the tabletop and refracting through water glasses left askew by earlier diners. Just as I was lifting my camera to take a picture, a waitress came by and started to clean the table. When she saw that I was taking a picture she stepped away. But the damage had been done. She left the glasses in a slightly more orderly pattern that didn’t refract the light in the same way and removed a cloth napkin that had provided a nice element of texture in the scene.
I initially cursed at myself for missing the original picture. But then I realized that like the Famous Photographer I could recreate the orginal scene. I tossed my own napkin over onto the table. But the effect wasn’t the same. I didn’t like the result, even with my attempt at styling. Instead I turned back to the table and took the picture above.
 At The Next Table, 2011

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

She Did What She Could

She Did What She Could, 2011

I have written before about my habit of reading the obituaries in the newspaper to see how different people describe the act of death and tidy up the loose ends of their loved ones’ lives. Ancient honors are dragged out. Dull careers become valiant quests. Strained relationships  are brought to loving conclusions. Death triumphs eventually, taking the courageous, the long suffering, whose lives were not yet fully realized and those whose lives were lived fully and well.
A natural adjunct to reading the obituaries is hanging out at graveyards. I don’t make a habit of spending a lot of time at graveyards. But when I’m close enough to one that might hold interesting stories I do try to at least stop by and take a quick walk around.
This past Monday I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes at Richmond’s Shockhoe Cemetery. It's one of several in the Richmond area where Confederate soldiers, their wives, families and descendants were buried. A lot of people who were prominant in Nineteenth Century Richmond are buried here. Mayors. Business owners. Preachers. Slave owners and  abolitionists, side-by-side in eternal rest.
Shockoe Cemetery is located on one of the most forgotten of Richmond's "seven hills." It’s across the street from what was during the Civil War a Confederate hospital, was later an alms house and is now a residence for low-income elderly persons. The sadness and isolation of its location is compounded by the fact that the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s neatly cut off the old alms house, the Confederate cemetery and an adjacent Hebrew cemetery from the rest of downtown. They’re all within view of the highway. But one has to be familiar with old back streets to actually get to them.
Cemetery headstones don't offer the kind of space that obituaries provide for telling life stories. The deceased are typically described on the basis of their relationships to the people who are buried around them. Faithful husbands and wives. Loving parents. Loyal children.
But what headstones lack in detail they make up for with endurance. Some of the headstones at Shockhoe Cemetery are worn smooth from a hundred and fifty years of sun, rain and air pollution. The engravings on others, though, are as deep and articulate as they were when the stones were delivered to the cemetery in the 1800s.
This brings us to the headstone of various members of the Winston family. I’m not sure whether Judith and Belle are wives of the same man, sisters in law or mother and daughter. What drew me to the headstone, though, wasn’t the Winstons, but rather the resigned lines at the bottom: "A servant of Christ. She did what she could."
What does a line like that say about someone? And to whom does it apply, Belle or Judith?
“She did what she could.” Did she help out in the hospitals of the Civil War? Did she just try to make the world of her family and her surroundings a little better? Did she see herself as a Christian missionary?
We'll never know the answers to these questions. My guess, though, is that she probably lived a difficult life in difficult times. Her youth and young adult years would have been experienced during the height of the Civil War, a dangerous and destructive time in Richmond. I can only imagine that she must have been a pretty dour person.
How else, then, could her survivors have felt that the most enduring message about her life would be the futile words, "She did what she could"? It's so sad.