Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Talk on the Hill

Thanksgiving, 2012

It seems to be our lot in life at the moment to be in a vortex of death and dying. None of it is wholly unexpected. Most of the people involved have had long and full loves. Still, the confluence of so many loved ones on watch at the same time—a perverse bit of natural economy, if you ask me—is a test of one’s fortitude.
When families are separated by hundreds of miles, it can be tough to have frank discussions about the kinds of things families have to talk about in such circumstances. Besides, nobody wants to have these “final” discussions, as if they’re an admission of the mortality of people who’ve been such constants in your life, and whose personalities, appearances and genetic markers explain so much of why you’re you.
All of my wife’s siblings, their spouses, all but one of their children and a favorite aunt and uncle gathered in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia last week to share Thanksgiving with my mother-in-law and her husband, both of whom are in the final stages of terminal diseases.
It was a wonderful gathering. Since everyone was traveling some distance to be there, a local supermarket prepared the food. Outside of a few traditional dishes that no one in the family was willing to go without, preparation consisted mostly of heating things up. It was likely the first Thanksgiving meal since her childhood that my mother-in-law did not have a big part in preparing. This bothered her at first, but she soon settled down to enjoy the pleasure of spending time with her grandchildren while her children did all the heavy lifting.
After dinner there was a furious bit of dishwashing and cleaning up before the ritual turning on of the television to watch football.  Those of us who don’t follow football closely decided to go out and take a walk. My mother-in-law lives on a foothill opposite Tinker Mountain. It’s a beautiful site and it was a warm and clear day.
After a while some of the walkers decided to take a break and sit in the sun. There was small talk at first, punctuated by the kind of laughter than comes from recalling both poignant and embarrassing moments in family history. But conversation eventually turned to the serious matters at hand. Decisions and plans were made. Responsibilities were divvied up.
Eventually the sun dropped behind the mountain and everyone wandered back up to the house for dessert.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Belle Bereft

Belle, 2012

When my brother-in-law passed away recently, he was mourned not only by family, but by an extended community of contemporary friends, friends dating back to his childhood and thirty-four years’ worth of former students and colleagues whose lives he’d influenced as a high school teacher, coach, mentor and class advisor.
One grieving companion, though, who might have easily been overlooked in the crush of events following his death was his dog Belle.
My sister and brother-in-law had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary not long before his death. They always had at least one dog in the house, so many of them altogether that I can’t remember all their names. Many were beagles that served as both hunting dogs and family pets to my sister, her husband and their three children.
Belle, though, has been a bit of a skittish dog, prone to excessive excitement and the occasional snip at visitors to the house. For reasons I can’t remember now she was excused early in life from hunting. But she remained attached to and protective of my brother-in-law. As his condition worsened, she stayed at his feet or, when he could bear it, crawled into bed with him.
Because of her unpredictable proclivity for nipping at people, Belle was often sent to stay with another family when my sister and her husband entertained or hosted occasions when large groups of people were at their house. However, when family and friends gathered last week to remember my brother-in-law, Belle stayed home, grieving along with everyone else.
When I walked into the house and reached down to pet her—something I do instinctively with most pets, but only tentatively with Belle—rather than barking and snapping at me she nuzzled against my leg and whimpered as I rubbed her soft ears.
Part of the process of getting over the death of someone close is getting past the stage where you walk into a room and still expect to find that person sitting in his or her usual place. For much of last weekend Belle sat faithfully by the couch where my brother-in-law spent a lot of his last months, keeping watch should he return and need her companionship.
When loved ones die, it’s common for someone to invoke that familiar phrase from the Book of Matthew: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Those words certainly fit my brother-in-law.  
They also fit Belle.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Thanks

The Fall View, 2006
(Originally posted 11/23/11)
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.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rime Time

Rime Time, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

How in the world could a guy who grew up by the ocean be expected to know what rime is? I don’t even think the word was mentioned in any science class I took. To be honest, though, science and I weren’t on the best terms. Still, I think I’d remember a word like that.
While we’re at it, virga’s another term they didn’t mention when I was in school, but which apparently became part of the curriculum when my daughter was in middle school. It refers to rain that starts to fall from clouds, but evaporates before it hits the ground. (I swear, sometimes I think they make this stuff up. If it evaporates before it hits you on the head how in the world are you going to know it’s even happening?)
The jury might still be out on virga. But I’m here to tell you that rime is for real.
Yesterday morning my wife and I were driving down the Genesee Expressway in upstate New York. It’s a beautiful highway that hugs the sides of mountains for much of its length. One moment you might be looking over the edge of a deep ravine. The next your eyes will be looking across a wide valley and up to a five mile-long line of giant wind turbines atop an opposite ridge, their blades looking like pinwheels dancing across the tops of mountains.
We’d just come down a few hundred feet in elevation near the town of Avoca, where I noticed off in the distance what looked like the proverbial “winter wonderland.” The trees and the ground were covered with what looked like snow. Only it wasn’t snow. It shined like ice. But it wasn’t ice in the usual ice storm way.
My quick thinking wife, who apparently paid more attention in school, immediately speculated that what we were witnessing was rime, which if you were asleep in Earth Science as I must have been, is “an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud.” (It's also known as hoarfrost.)
Yep, that’s what it was, for sure. Click on the picture below and you’ll see how this wasn’t just rain that had frozen. It didn’t coat the branches of the tree so much as stand on them like whiskers. The strands looked almost like something you’d see in a photograph taken by one of those fancy microscopes that make items from everyday life look like something you'd immediately want to wash or at least douse with Purell. 
Rime, 2012

This sighting being near the beginning of an eleven-hour drive, I didn’t prevail upon my wife to let me stop and photograph the scene at Avoca. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was thrilling. When we drove through the town of Bath a few minutes later, the entire town was covered in rime and indeed shrouded in a “supercooled fog or cloud.”
We did pause at a rest stop a little further down the road, during which time I had a moment to grab the camera and take these pictures for you.
You just never know what you’ll learn here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Regaining Sight

A Moment on the Porch on Sunday, 2012
(Click on image to see larger)

I want to believe I’m coming out of a dry spell, photographically speaking. There've been serious distractions lately, most of them the kinds of low points we all experience from time to time. Still, they’ve kept me from being as observant as I’d like to be.
I’ve learned over the years that although there are things one can do to combat dry spells, sometimes the better choice is to recognize that these may be the times when our brains are catching their breath, recharging and making space for new ideas and, if that’s the case, give them some space.
I’ve also learned, though, that putting down the camera for too long allows muscles and mind to atrophy. Many times when I go out to explore and take pictures I find it useful to fire off a lot of stupid frames right off the bat. The pictures are throwaways.  But the process of mindfully looking around, holding the camera up and releasing the shutter is my way of telling my brain that it’s time to get in gear.
When I’m looking to break out of one of these spells I'm reminded of an observation attributed to the late photographer Ruth Bernhard:
“If you can’t find anything worthy to shoot within forty feet of where you stand, you’re not looking.”
To wit: the other afternoon I was taking advantage of an unseasonably warm fall afternoon and the fact that I was sore from having taken down, cut up and moved two large trees the day before to catch up on some reading on the back porch. Normally our porch is full of colorful pieces of glass, rocks and other things that provide interesting light, reflections and textures. But because we'd packed all that stuff away during our recent storm prep there were just a few things left out.
One of them was a little red glass container with a clear glass stopper in the shape of a fish. I happened to look up at one point and notice the scene shown above. It lasted just long enough for me to catch this picture with my iPad camera. Seconds after I snapped the picture the light changed and the moment was history.    
I don’t know if this picture broke the dry spell. But it did cause a little stirring in a part of my brain that might have been dozing lately.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cathedrals of Commerce

Monticello Arcade East Lobby, 2012
(Click on images to see larger)

Three years ago I wrote about my love affair with theMonticello Arcade, in Norfolk, Virginia.
I like to visit the Arcade when I’m downtown. It’s smaller and less ornate than the great gallerias of Milan and Naples. But it’s still a grand public place precisely because of its relative intimacy compared to those magnificent cathedrals of commerce.  
There are a few places like the Monticello Arcade left in the United States. Cleveland has one. Providence, Rhode Island, too. Because of their age and because they were built before the automobile became the dominant form of transportation, arcades like these do not have the cache of modern office building, what with their covered parking, gyms and faceted windows. But for smaller businesses—the Monticello is occupied mostly by law firms and shipping agents—these old arcades are wonderful space.  
 Monticello Arcade East Detail, 2012

During the daytime the Monticello Arcade has a wonderful light. Many of the offices on the upper floors make heavy use of incandescent light, which give the atrium a wonderful warm glow.
Through the years I’ve photographed the Monticello Arcade with different cameras and lenses and in color and black-and-white. When I was there the other day there was scaffolding in the atrium, so I didn’t take pictures than show the whole space. Because I was concentrating on making images that give the viewer an impression of both the detail, style and lines of the structure, it also seemed appropriate to process these photographs in black-and-white rather than have their composition distracted by color.  

Monticello Arcade Railing, 2012

Monday, November 5, 2012

In the Style of Strand


In the Style of Strand, 2012
(Click on image to see larger)

I recently watched a documentary about photographer Paul Strand. I should say I endured the documentary because the best and worst part of it was that it moved painfully slow. The slow pace was appreciated when you were observing Strand’s work or when they showed enough of his motion picture work for the viewer to gain an appreciation of his style and skill in that medium. It wasn’t appreciated, though, when it begged for narration or to move along.
I’ve known of Strand’s work as long as I’ve known anything about photography. He got into photography at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when most photographers were shooting softly focused landscapes to demonstrate, as this documentary points out, that there was artistic choice involved in photography and that it was not just a matter of mechanical reproduction.
Strand took some of his work to show Alfred Stieglitz, arguably the country’s most prominent fine art photographer at the time. Stieglitz chastised Strand for photographing in the soft focus pictorial style and told him to go out and do something different, something that could be his own.
It’s Strand’s work that stems from that encounter that we know best. He abandoned the pictorial style and moved in a direction where strong graphic elements and vivid contrasts between light and dark became his style in both is still and motion pictures. When asked later in life for advice from younger photographers, Strand always started by stating,  “The important thing is, you have to have something to say about the world.”
I don’t know if Paul Strand was a likeable person. He had three wives, all of whom quickly realized that they would always come second behind Strand’s photography. His friendship with mentor Alfred Stieglitz ran hot and cold through the years.
What I do know is that I share some of Strand’s experience with photography. Strand realized during a high school field trip to Stieglitz’s gallery in New York that, “…this is what I want to do.” When I was that age I was introduced to work that showed me how still photographs could tell whole stories about people and places. Strand started in the pictorial style. I started in the pictorial style. Strand got challenged by Stieglitz to “do something different.” I got told by a respected photography curator to avoid the “expected.”
The difference between us are that Strand was a lot younger when he got this advice, and he made it his life's calling. I’m still catching up and back when I was smitten I didn't realize it could be anything more than an avocation.
[By the way, in the course of looking for a link to the Strand documentary to share with you, I stumbled across this cool documentary about Sally Mann. I’ve not always been a big fan of her work. But I’ll confess that I was charmed by her in this documentary.]

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Bonney Bump

Mother & Daughter, 2012

If you’re a regular viewer of The Colbert Report, you’re familiar with “the Colbert bump,” the boost host Stephen Colbert says being on his show gives to whatever enterprises—movies, books, records, political campaigns, etc.—his guests are promoting.
It seems my daughter has the same power. I posted a picture at Flickr yesterday that shows my wife’s and daughter’s pocket books left against a wall at my daughter’s office. I thought the contrast between the two bags was interesting. (I’ll let you guess which bag goes with which lady.) I didn’t think, though, that it would attract much attention at Flickr.
So you can imagine my surprise when I happened to notice about an hour later that almost eight hundred people had looked at the picture. That’s a lot more people than usually look at my pictures by a factor of…well, let’s just say a whole lot.
At first I didn’t know where this traffic was coming from. Most of it came from an Internet domain I didn’t recognize. By mid-morning the count was almost to a thousand. When I checked back in later in the day the count had just crossed 1,300 views.
It took a little sleuthing, but I finally traced all the attention to a brief post and link by my daughter at her Twitter feed. It seems the Design*Sponge “bump” is pretty powerful.  I sure hope I don’t get on her bad side.