Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Art isn't easy. But come on!

Marjorie’s Porch, 2012

A month or so ago I mentioned the new Annie Leibovitz book, “Pilgrimage," a collection of photographs of the homes, working places and belongings of famous people who are deceased. In an interview when the book was released Leibovitz talked about how difficult it was making photographs that capture the essence of people without showing the people. In my blog post I expressed amazement that such an accomplished photographer could be surprised by this challenge.
After that, I thought my curiosity about the book and Leibovitz’ comment had been sated. But now the plot thickens. Leibovitz has donated a set of prints from the book to the Smithsonian Institution. This is a wonderful and generous gift to “America’s Attic,” as the Smithsonian is sometimes called, and as a seasoned PR person might note, a wonderful way for Leibovitz to begin restoring a reputation tarnished by media attention to her embarrassing financial problems.
An Associated Press account of the Smithsonian gift and the exhibit of the photographs noted that Leibovitz is “still learning about new technology and about herself.” The account goes on to make it sound as if Ms. Leibovitz was waging a great and risky artistic battle in taking on this photographic project.
The same AP story quoted the dean of one of the nation’s prestigious schools of art and design dean saying, “Leibovitz is presenting cultural history in a new way…She's trying to convey a sense of people without the people actually being there in front of the camera…bushwhacking through our cultural legacy and figuring it out as she went along."
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
All I can say is that art school deans must live very sheltered lives. Elliot Erwitt took one of the most famous photographic portraits of all times in 1955—and also one where the subject is not present—when he photographed Pablo Casals’ cello in the great master’s home. The picture’s an icon of Twentieth Century photographic portraiture.
Casal’s Cello, by Elliot Erwitt, 1955
Heck, on any day of the week on Flickr one can find many fine examples of amateur and professional photographers “presenting cultural history in a new way” and, as I see it, recording the meaningful and meaningless ephemera of daily life in this world. And I’ll bet none of them would cop to the pretention of describing their work as “bushwhacking.”
Art isn’t easy, or at least that’s what Georges Seurat says in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sundays in the Park with George.” Sometimes it takes incredible perseverance to capture or birth the image you want. But for crying out loud, let’s not make it into brain surgery. There’s all that actual bushwhacking to be done in the woods behind my house and I can’t be worrying about it when I’m out taking pictures.
As for Marjorie’s Porch (above), if you knew Marjorie you wouldn’t have to see her in this picture to know it’s her porch.

Monday, January 30, 2012

One Less Worry

Swee Pea, 1981

My 91 year-old mother, who has at least for the moment tilted back from death’s doorstep, is getting to be one for surprises.
When I walked into her room at the nursing home the other day she looked up and announced that she’d been thinking about having a baby, but had decided against it.
Now, I don’t know how you handle an older person with dementia. I’ve learned, though, it’s best not to dispute such comments as this, no matter how outrageous they might be. Rather, I just play along in the hope of enticing a little more conversation.  So instead of pointing out several obvious obstacles to this conception, I merely answered, “That’s interesting. Why did you decide that?”
A response like this will usually leave my mother a little confused. Just enough time will have elapsed between the time she says something and the time I respond—really, this happens in less than a minute—that she’ll have completely forgotten what we were talking about and instead chuckle at the realization of yet another lost thought. This happens a lot.
But this time my mother instead looked at me as if I had three ears. “Well can’t you see?” she snapped back at me. “I’m in my nineties!”
I should mention that since she entered her eighties my mother has relished the idea that she is the oldest person around and should therefore be accorded the attention and respect given to, say, visiting royalty. It only upsets her when I point out that there are several people right down the hall from her who are more than one hundred years old and who are up and walking and feeding themselves and anxious to get out and go places.
Anyway, we had a chuckle at the silliness of my comment and continued on to another conversation. I stuck around for a little while, checking laundry and tending to a potted plant in the window. I thought the whole baby thing was over. But just as I was preparing to leave, she looked up from her bed with an air of contempt and said, “So I guess that means I wouldn’t be able to count on you to babysit?”

Friday, January 27, 2012

No Homemade Pies Today

Homemade Pies, 2012

One of the sad things about photographing old places is that when you go back again some of the places you photographed before will be gone. Or closed, as is the case with the bakery above.
I first photographed this bakery in 2003. It probably had a name, but I never knew what it was. I was photographing the church across the street and looked over and noticed people coming and going from the bakery. Once I noticed it I also noticed that sweet smell that hovers around bakeries.
I’ve been back to the neighborhood on a number of occasions since that time. But it was only this past Saturday that I happened to walk by the old bakery and discover that it had closed several years ago.
It looks like all the equipment a baker would need to re-open the place is still in place. Even the glass display cases looks no more than a little dusty for having been last wiped in 2009. The signs touting “Homemade Pies” and “Best Coffee in Town” are still in the window.  It’s not a big place. Lots of people live nearby. You’d think someone could make a go of it.
But the truth is this is probably not a neighborhood that can support an artisanal baker selling $9 loaves of bread. So the bakery will probably join the list of other businesses—the grocery store, the book store, the bike shop and so on—that were once a lively part of the social fabric of this neighborhood but now serve no one. There are no homemade pies today and the coffee urn is cold.
Bakery, 2012


Closed, 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Free to Shoot

Bistro Vivienne (at mig cover, 2006

It’s funny. There are places I know not to be casual about taking pictures, or at least not to be conspicuous when taking pictures. You don’t get close to or take close-up pictures of U.S. Navy ships. Airports security people are touchy, too. Some museums don’t allow the taking of pictures. You don’t take pictures inside retail stores.
The military stuff is defense-related. I figure the museums are just trying to get you to buy art cards in the gift shop. The retail stores, on the other hand, are concerned about industrial espionage, which is a fancy way of saying that retailers don’t want their competitors taking pictures of their store layout, displays, merchandise, prices, employees and all the other kinds of “intellectual property” that make up the art of their retailing. This might seem inconsequential. After all, you’re not photographing something that isn’t already being viewed by thousands of shoppers every day. But seeing something and making a photographic record of it are two different things.
You get the picture; you have to be mindful not just of what there is to photograph, but where you’re doing the photographing. It never occurs to a lot of people who are new to photography that a lot of the places where you might see things you want to photograph are private property.
Most businesses are pretty reasonable if they realize you’re not trying to be unlawful. But some are. A friend who recently carried his camera into a local mall was asked to leave because, so the security guy said, “our store managers are complaining.” There’s an antiques shop in Smithfield, Virginia, that asked me to leave after I tried to take a picture of a window display I’d admired. Last summer a private security guard intercepted me on a public street in front of the New York headquarters of JP Morgan Chase and told me I couldn’t take pictures of the building.
I mention all of this because there are other places, many of them commercial, where I don’t think twice about taking pictures. It almost never occurs to me to give a second’s thought to taking pictures in restaurants, though when you think about it they ought to be just as concerned as retailers are about their competitors coping them. The picture above, for example, was taken in a restaurant in Paris.
This past Saturday I had lunch in a pizza place in Portsmouth, Virginia. It’s a small place. There were other people dining when we walked in. I saw a few interesting photo angles and started taking pictures without it occurring to me that anyone would have a problem with it. (The other diners wondered what I was doing, but didn’t object and weren’t, in any event, in view.) It was the old guy with the gray hair who wouldn’t get out of the way.
Portsmouth 42, 2012

Portsmouth 54, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rainy Day Lines

Scott’s Creek 13, 2012

This past Saturday was cold and rainy. It’s easy on days like this to just roll over in bed and catch a few more winks, or get up and read by the fireplace. This past Saturday, though, I instead decided to get out and take some pictures. That’s the attitude you’re supposed to have if you’re a halfway diligent photographer. Photographs don’t take themselves and light and weather conditions wait for no man (or woman).
Besides, rainy days are great for certain kinds of outdoor photography. The even light of a rainy day can be great for photographing things that have detail that gets lost in the contrast on a sunny day
Rainy days also beg black-and-white. In the old days black-and-white was the default, your starting point. Now you simulate it digitally after you’ve taken the picture “in color.”
By late morning I found myself at the end of Constitution Avenue in Portsmouth, looking at some of the old piers on Scott’s Creek that have been heaved around by storms and ice.  The combination of gray sky, marine timber lifted asunder and water made for some greats lines.

Scott’s Creek 17, 2012

Scott’s Creek 20, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Where You Least Expect Them

Cow, 2012

A friend who’s recently taken a greater interest in photography commented to me the other day that this new interest has made him much more cognizant of his surroundings. This comment was a bit surprising to me because the aspiring photographer is also an illustrator who, when he isn’t tilting at windmills with his editorial cartoons, is thought to be a pretty observant person already.
In any event, unless you’re one of those photography enthusiasts who just wants to fiddle with dials and argue over f-stops, photography’s all about noticing things.
It’s not like pictures just reveal themselves to you. No, I’ll take that back. I have met people who only take pictures at official “scenic overlooks” where some expert has previously determined that “approved pictures” can be taken.
I’m not one of those people. Rest assured, too, I would never argue with you about f-stops.  And as for taking pictures at Scenic Overlooks, I’m one of those people whose car will be pulled over to the side of road blocking traffic somewhere farther up the mountain where you’re not even supposed to park if that’s what it takes to get a more interesting picture.
Unless you’re one of those tortured souls who’s got some original artistic message to get out into the world through the eye of a camera or you’re doing this for a living, the whole idea of photography is to have fun. The neat thing is that you can have fun every day because there are opportunities for pictures everywhere.
Don’t believe me? I had to take something to the city dump a few weeks ago. Taking something to the dump isn’t as easy as it used to be. At the outer gate, they check your driver’s license to make sure you’re actually a resident of the city. Then you have to go to another area where you drive onto a truck scale to assure another attendant that you’re not dumping off a load of radioactive anvils. Then you’re directed to yet another shed further down the road where they assess exactly what it is you have to dispose.
Eventually you find yourself further down the road in a place so muddy and desolate that it looks like something out of Mad Max or maybe a place where the thugs in a Guy Richie film would take someone who couldn’t pay his gambling debt to be eaten by feral pigs.
Speaking of farm animals, just as I was finally headed to the section of the dump where they accept old tires, I happened to look over toward the landfill and find this cow.
At first I marveled at how out-of-place this plastic cow was in its carefully mowed circle at the side of a landfill. But then I grabbed my phonecam and chuckled at the realization that this was just another example of how there are picture opportunities even where you least expect them if you keep your eyes open.