Monday, December 30, 2013

@ Patchin Place


Patchin Place, 2013
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In New York City near the intersection of West 10th Street and 6th Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) are two little glimpses into mid-19th Century life. Milligan Place, entered through a narrow gap between two buildings on 6th Avenue, and Patchin Place, which runs off West 10th Street, are both small gated residential enclaves. They’re extremely desirable and expensive addresses in today’s real estate market because of their location, quietness and quaintness.
But it wasn’t always that way. Milligan Place and Patchin Place were both built around 1850 to house servants—mostly Basque immigrants—working at a nearby hotel. 
Throughout much of the 1900s, Greenwich Village was a hive of creative and bohemian life. The apartments at Patchin Place were popular with artists and writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Djuna Barnes and John Reed. (Today, Patchin Place is famous for the number of psychotherapists who live there.)
A close family friend of my parents when I was growing up, the painter, illustrator and author Shane Miller, lived for many years with his wife at Patchin Place. Shane Miller was an easy-going self-described elf of an Irishman. In his lifetime, Shane pursued many spiritual paths, and along the way also illustrated cartoons for Warner Brothers (where composer Hoagy Carmichael was his creative partner), painted portraits and wrote and illustrated books about the history of New York City, Rome and Athens. Shane was serious when it came to his work. But as a friend he had a wonderful humor and a smile that warmed all who knew him.
Everyone, that is, except for his Patchin Place neighbor, the poet e.e.cummings, with whom Shane and his wife shared a fire escape that was also the passageway used to take their garbage down to the street.
For most of us, e.e. cummings is best known as a poet whose work is immediately identifiable by its exclusive use of lower case letters. As a neighbor in Patchin Place during the 1940s and 1950s, though, cummings was best known for his hard drinking and general crankiness, which is saying something considering that just about everyone living at Patchin Place in those days was known for his or her excessive and idiosyncratic behavior.
e.e. cummings didn’t have much to do with his neighbors at Patchin Place. He and Shane never shared a social drink, a nibble of food, a war story or complained about publishers.
The only time cummings ever spoke to Shane occurred late one night when the two men found themselves taking out the trash at the same time. Shane greeted his neighbor on the way down the fire escape, but got no response. On the way back up, cummings paused only long enough to touch Shane’s shoulder and tell him, “Your wife’s sure got a big ass.”

Monday, December 2, 2013

Of Thee I Sing Sing

 Welcome to Sing Sing, 2013
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In the pursuit of physical fitness, something interesting to photograph and the opportunity to take my daughter’s dog for a walk, I have once again run afoul of the local constabulary. Only where in the past it’s been US Navy sentries in gummy boats racing across the harbor to keep me from photographing submarines or Homeland Security agents stopping me from photographing scenes that hundreds of tourists photograph every day, this time it was the screws at Sing Sing prison.
We spent the Thanksgiving holiday with new friends and family who live in a historic neighborhood on the edge of Ossining, New York. (If that name rings a bell, it might be because the fictitious Don and Betty Draper of Man Men lived in Ossining.)
You can’t be in this area and not know there’s a big prison in the center of town. And not just a big prison, but a famous one. Sing Sing, if you haven’t heard of it, is a maximum-security prison just north of New York City. It was built (much of it by inmates, presumably under careful supervision) during the early 1800s. Sing Sing's so famous in American correctional lore that, as the historical market at the entrance proclaims, it's the place that inspired terms like “up the river,” “big house” and “last mile.”
Even by the serious standards of prison architecture, Sing Sing’s a pretty bleak place. It’s gray stone and brick buildings ramble from the top of a bluff down to the Hudson River shoreline. The cement wall that surrounds the prison is tall and as intimidating on the outside as it must be on the inside.

No Parking. No Escape. 2013

My crime, such as it was, was that Hope (the dog) and I didn’t realize that as we walked purposely down Hudson Street through a quiet residential neighborhood we’d unwittingly, and without any warning or further ado, stepped onto the prison grounds.
I photographed the historic plaques mounted outside the prison wall and walked a good mile or so around the eastern perimeter of the prison, stopping occasionally to photograph guard towers or interesting textures in the prison wall. It wasn’t until I’d gotten around to the northern side of the prison that a guard stepped out of a watchtower and yelled down to me to stop taking pictures.
Under normal circumstances I might have protested that I was standing on a public street photographing a scene that is visible from dozens of neighboring homes and two or three major local streets. But the guard was standing thirty feet or so above me and had a shotgun in his hand. All I had was a camera and a dog.
And as it turns out, I wasn’t even standing on a public street any more.
A more observant guy would have noticed that there were several signs posted at the entrance to the prison grounds indicating that it’s illegal to make unauthorized photographs on the prison grounds. I, on the other hand, was too focused on some of the famous people—e.g. mobsters “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Ruth Snyder, Willie Sutton and “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz—who’ve resided on the other side of the wall.
Let’s just say I put the cap on my camera lens and walked back to the house by another route. Wouldn’t have been any fun to get tossed in the big house. 
The Illusion of an Escape Route, 2013

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ashes to Ashes


At Home in the Park, 2013
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In thinking about her death, my mother was adamant that her body not be subjected to embalmment and burial. She’d hoped her remains or some parts of them might be recycled or used for medical research, and although every kind of paperwork imaginable was in place for such arrangements it did not turn out to be possible for either of those wishes to be honored. This sent us straight on to Plan C, which was cremation. Having jumped ahead so unexpectedly to this outcome, my sister and I realized that we’d never found out what our mother wanted done with her ashes.

It was a certainty, though, that neither my sister nor I had any desire to keep those ashes in urns on our respective mantels. This left us thinking about the Elizabeth River, beside which our mother was born, and the Atlantic Ocean, close to which she lived for most of the rest of her life. 

Disposing of human ashes, or cremains, as they’re politely called in the trade, is a far trickier matter than I’d expected. For one, you can’t just wander down to the shore and toss them into the surf. That’s not legal, it turns out, just as it’s not okay to do a lot of other things you could think of that would seem appropriate and respectful.

Clearly some subterfuge was called for, which means mainly that anything goes and that the important thing is to not draw attention to yourself as you do it.

[How many of you are already recalling this cautionary scene from “The Big Lebowski”?]

My sister and I finally decided that our mother’s ashes should be scattered in the state park located at the end of the street where we spent much of our childhood. Our mother loved to walk there, especially in the fall and winter when the park’s thousands of acres of tall dunes, live oaks and swampy bottoms were a refuge from the ocean winds at the other end of our street. She’d come home cheerful and unburdened by whatever stresses she’d carried into the park. Sometimes she’d come home with interesting leaves or twigs or bayberries with which to replenish the dry floral arrangement she always kept on top of the piano in the living room.

If you’ve never handled cremains, let me tell you that they might surprise you a little. One relative warned me that her late son’s cremains had included pieces of bone several inches long. My mother’s ashes, fortunately, held no bones and to the uninitiated could have passed for a bag of finely sifted flour, a little on the grayish side.

The day I distributed my mothers ashes was sunny and chilly, just the kind of day Mother would have loved to walk in the park. I naively thought that as I tipped the bag the ashes would be so light as to float elegantly into the air and return to nature as little more than a dusty cloud. But in fact they’re kind of heavy and leave a distinct trail. So instead of tossing her ashes into the air, I took a long walk and left her ashes atop dunes and under the low limbs of live oaks. I left some in the empty crooks of trees, where maybe they’ll keep a few squirrels warm this winter or give next spring’s snake nests a soft cushion. I made sure some of them made it to White Lake and to the inland bays. I hope some of them have drifted out into the Chesapeake Bay by now or have even made their way around to the Atlantic Ocean.

As Moses, or whoever wrote the book of Genesis said, "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." 

Monday, October 28, 2013

To See, Perchance to Sit


Ossining 026, 2013
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Landscape architects tell me that although outdoor seating areas are actually designed to be used by people and that great attention is given to layout, views and the design, comfort and durability of the seating itself, many are never used that way. Some of this is because the design isn’t good or the seating isn’t comfortable or appropriate for the needs of people. But some of this, I’m told, is also because sometimes it’s okay if the outdoor seating is only seen and not used.

Huh? It’s okay to have a beautiful seating area that no one uses?

The answer, I’m told, is “yes.” In other words, a park bench or comfortable chair in the garden or on the lawn is more an illusion, a visual cue, a fixture that reminds you that you could sit there if you wanted. The mere imagination of that use is enough to create a momentary illusion of the tranquility, privacy or whatever you would have hoped to have achieved had you actually gone outside and used the bench or chair.

The benches shown in the photograph above are in a quiet little neighborhood park overlooking the Hudson River north of New York City. I don’t know if anyone ever sits there. They’re affixed to the ground and are arranged in a linear way that discourages conversation. Much of the river view, too, has become obscured by trees and the most direct sight line to the river requires that you ignore the guard towers at the nearby Sing Sing Prison that stand in the intermediate distance.

We recently had a chance to visit a very lovely home just up the hill from this park. The home has a wonderful lawn and shaded garden at the back. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to find an excuse to use the word “sylvan.” The property is at the bottom of the steep wooded hill. There are several levels to the garden, some with their own comfortable seating areas and lots of stone walls to keep everything in this elevated landscape in its place.

The main public rooms of the house look out onto that beautiful scene. The owners are very busy professionals. After a long day of work I could easily imagine them wandering out into the garden with a cool drink on a warm evening and sitting in one of the seating areas to talk or just listen to the wind blowing through the trees. When I asked the lady of the house whether they do this, she chuckled and responded, “[Husband] creates these little ‘views.’ We don’t ever actually use them.”   

To see, perchance to sit. That’s not exactly what Hamlet said. But aye, there’s the rub.

#   #

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Knights

The Knights 76, 2013
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This past weekend was the wrap-up of Virginia Beach’s annual Neptune Festival, an event created, depending on who you talk to, to either drum up some fall tourism business, or, as I’ve heard some say, so that “we” can take back our beach, “we” being local residents who feel snubbed by the summer tourists who pump a billion dollars or so a year into our city’s economy.
Whatever the case, the Neptune Festival can be fun. There are parties, sandcastle contests, a regatta and a parade. There’s an art show and 5K, 8K and children’s “crawl” races. There are funnel cakes and, for reasons I don’t understand, people who sell bathtub liners and house gutters. There are bands, seafood and beer.
This year’s parade featured something like a hundred floats and other attractions, including your usual fire trucks, school bands, Star Wars re-enactors group, Shriners in go karts, baton twirlers, cheerleading squads, dance schools, antique cars, horses, Special Olympians and stern looking young boys and girls from local high school ROTC troops, a great many of whom, I’m sorry to report, haven’t learned how to keep in step to the same rhythm yet.  
I took a lot of pictures. But to be honest, I didn’t really care to document the parade. Instead, I was more interested in looking for my “little moments,” patterns in light and dark and color. And wouldn’t you know that for all the color of the parade some of my favorite pictures from the day aren’t of the cheerleaders, brass bands and the like. They’re a small group of pictures of the robes and sashes of a group of Knights of Columbus. Go figure. 

The Knights 78, 2013

 The Knights 77, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

When the Only Model You Have is You


Flash 137, 2013
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Regular readers will wince at the thought that I’m going to once again mention the photography workshop I took in New York in August. Yes, it stretched my comfort zone. Yes, it made it hard for me to “see” photo opportunities that seemed limitless before. And yes, now I can’t seem to see a photograph of a person—almost any kind of existing light portrait, really—that couldn’t be improved by a little supplemental artificial light.

So I’m either ruined or off on yet another tangent. Rather than admit defeat, I’m choosing to interpret this as “skill exploration.”  Last year’s workshop sent me off photographing anyone who’d stand still long enough. This year it’s all about supplementing environmental portraits with artificial light.

The thing about doing environmental portraits—and by this I refer to any photographic portrait that’s done not in a studio, but rather in some sort of situ—is that you need someone to photograph. My New York friends can find models all over the place. Here’s anice one from Adam Buteux. I mean, it’s as if there are people just walking the streets of the city waiting to be asked to be photographed with, say, an Irish wolfhound, a Fendi bag or a lush Oscar de la Renta ball gown.

There are no super models wandering my local streets. No Fendi bags, Irish wolfhounds or de la Renta ball gowns. No, I’m left with the only model who’ll agree to sit for me, and that would be me, graying hair, wrinkles and all.

This is probably not a bad thing. There’s a lot I’ve yet to learn about lighting before I turn my camera loose on real people. Shooting with supplemental light requires a lot more thinking and planning than I’m used to doing. There are a lot more variables, which is great once you’re confident is flexing them.

Before I can do that, though, I have to learn a basic checklist for doing basic things with lights. When I get that “muscle memory” firmly implanted in my mind, I’ll be able to stretch some and play with the variables.

Using artificial light for the first time is like using Photoshop for the first time in that it’s a matter of subtlety. At first you over-do it. Then you learn how to tone things back so if you need such software to further process your images they don’t look so over-processed.

As the series of photos below shows, I’ve a lot to learn. The one above is the most recent, and I think the best so far. I may be slow, but I’m getting there.


Flash 015, 2013

Flash 113, 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

Fez Season

 MASA 065, 2013
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It being September, that means it’s Shriner season in Virginia Beach.
I’ve written about the Shriners several times in the past and even published a book of photographs from their parades. One, and sometimes two, of their regional conventions are held in Virginia Beach each September. At the end of the week they put on a parade on Atlantic Avenue in the oceanfront resort area. I’ve been photographing their parades long enough to know just about all of their floats and long enough for a surprising number of the Shriners to recognize and remember me.
This year it was only the Mid-Atlantic Shrine Association that came to Virginia Beach. So the parade was a little shorter, which was good because I was unable to stay for the actual parade. But I was able to wander among them as they assembled in all of their glitz and flourish before the parade.
MASA 059, 2013

MASA 141, 2013

MASA 046, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013

Humility Along the Gowanus

Gowanus 027, 2013
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There’s nothing that’ll put you in your place faster that seeing someone else publishing photographs of something you thought only you’d been prescient enough to photograph.
During my recent stop along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn my eye was drawn more to things above ground that in the canal itself. There’s a bridge and all sorts of interesting trestle steel for an elevated subway bridge and station.
The Gowanus Canal is famous for its polluted waters. Even though great effort is being given to cleaning up the canal and even though it may look pretty decent from a distance, it’s still pretty bad off.
But being the thorough kind of guy I am when I’m determine to mine every bit of photographic potential from a place, even the mundane parking lot of a Lowe’s home improvement store in Brooklyn, I did eventually turn my eyes to the canal itself.
What I saw was fascinating, even if it wasn’t something into which you’d necessarily want to dip your toes. Looking down into the canal was like looking into an abstract mural on which Marc Chagall and Claude Monet might have collaborated. Really, the colors you see in the photograph above are the colors of the…well, I don’t know if really qualifies as water. But whatever you call the fluid in the canal, it does look like this.
Now, here’s where the humility comes in.
I didn’t take many pictures of this petroleum-infused waterscape. I shot a few frames and them moved on. I figured that once you’ve seen one shot of the Gowanus waterscape, you’ve seen them all.
So it was with more than a little irony and humility that I opened my e-mail one afternoon a few weeks later and found a link at the aCurator site to photographer Bill Miller’s take on the Gowanus.
Sure enough, he’d done like I had. I’ll bet he even stood at the edge of the Lowe’s parking lot just like I did. And I’ll bet he, too, photographed the many other things there are to photograph around the Canal before he ever turned his eyes to the water.
But when he did look down to the water, he didn’t take the same casual attitude to it that I did. He stuck around for a while and captured a number of interesting views of whatever it is that pollutes the Gowanus Canal. If you didn’t catch the link to Miller’s Gowanus series in the paragraph above, here is it again.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Brooklyn Point of View

 Manhattan Graphics 362, 2013

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People think New York’s an expensive place to visit. And it can be.
But like many internationally oriented cities, if you’re traveling on a budget there are still a lot of places you can go and things you can see for free. New York has something for everyone, no matter where your tastes lie on the highbrow/lowbrow spectrum. A four-block walk in any direction will expose most visitors to more interesting sights than you see at home, and if you’re willing to venture a little further afield there’s so much live entertainment on the street and in the subways that you could easily wonder anyone would pay to get in anyplace. 
New York’s a city of magnificent architecture. It’s ethnic enclaves offer the visitor a reminder than not everyone lives like you do. It’s also one of just a few American cities where the art of window display is still treated like a serious art form by retailers.
For outdoor views, there’s Central Park, of course. One of my favorites, though, is the Staten Island Ferry, which you can ride back and forth across New York Harbor and get tremendous views of the Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island and lower Manhattan. I suspect the people who use the ferry to go to work take it for granted after a while. But I can’t imagine a more civilized commute than one that includes at least a boat ride each way.
One of my favorite vantage points is the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The Promenade’s a narrow park that hangs out like a balcony over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, diverting traffic noise and offering one of the best views of lower Manhattan. Off to your right are the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Directly across the East River are the canyons of Wall Street. To your left is Governor’s Island. In the distance are the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Staten Island and the soaring Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (which is as high as I ever want to be without being in an airplane).  Really. You can stand in one place and see all of this and more.
Manhattan Graphics 577, 2013

The Promenade’s a most civilized place for a walk. There are gardens and fancy apartment buildings and townhouses on the east side. There’s plenty of seating if you just want to watch the passing parade on the East River.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to walk along the Promenade in the early morning. It was a wonderfully clear and crisp. I could have spent an hour taking picture just of the Promenade. But instead I used a long lens to make these pictures of some of the buildings on the Manhattan side of the river.
Brooklyn Heights Promenade 004, 2013

Monday, August 26, 2013

Skin in the Game

 It's All About the Tattoo Art, 2013

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I broke one of my rules for these pictures.
I’ll do a lot of things in the name of getting the picture I want. I’ll trespass. I’ll ask the subject to move into a better position. I’ll use Photoshop to clean up my mistakes.
But what I won’t do it pay someone on the street to let me take their picture.

This is a practical matter. Once you pay someone to sit for a street photograph, 1) everyone expects to be paid and 2) you become a target for every beggar and ragamuffin.

There are more than enough interesting looking people in the world to photograph. If someone insists on being paid for a street photograph, I politely decline and move on until I find a more willing subject.

Up until a week or so ago, this rule of not paying had extended to not paying exorbitant tariffs to get into places where I’d like to photograph people. I’ve paid, say, $5 or $10 to get into an event where there was photographic potential. But that was it.

Then my friend the eminent illustrator Walt Taylor insisted I go with him to a tattoo convention. Walt and I sometimes wander around the local scene on Saturdays, me looking for things to photograph and him looking for inspirations for illustrations.

I didn’t have anything against going to a tattoo convention. People with tattoos can be intimidating to some people. But they’re also among the easiest people to get to sit for photographs. I thought there might be some interesting people at a tattoo convention. Besides, Walt’s been threatening for several years to get a tattoo. I thought this might be the day.


In This Man's Navy, 2013

What I didn’t reckon on was that there’d be a $25 admission fee to get into the tattoo convention. But in the name of friendship and photography, and after making sure they’d allow photography, I went ahead and agreed to this inky excursion.

The convention center where the event was held was a sea of booths containing lots of tattoo art and chairs and tables where people could sit or lie down while a tattoo artist did his or her work.

There’s a curious intersection of themes in the tattoo art world I hadn’t anticipated. The fifties-style pin-up girl look is big. So is anything steampunk. The real surprise, though, was the number of exhibitors that had taxidermied animals in their displays. Can someone explain this for me?


Framing the Art, 2013

In the end, I didn’t take as many pictures as I’d hoped and wasn’t very pleased with what I did take. Walt, by the way, didn’t get a tattoo, either. But he did buy a tattoo convention t-shirt. That might qualify you as hip in Norfolk. But from where I sit that doesn’t count as real skin in the game. 


Taxidermy and Tattoos, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Wrong Turn Turned Good

 Gowanus Canal, 2012
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I was leaving New York to return home to Virginia one morning recently and made a wrong turn. Actually, after reviewing the map I’ve determined that I didn’t make a wrong turn so much as fail to make the correct left turn when the route took me briefly off one expressway onto local streets so that I could get on another expressway.
But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that instead of getting an earlier start on the drive I found myself headed downhill toward Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. It was a gorgeous morning and barely 70F. In other words, excellent conditions for a quick walkabout.
The Gowanus Canal is probably second only to Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in the notoriety of its environmental degradation. It’s been the dumping site for industrial and other wastes for more than a century. I’m told copious efforts have been made to end dumping, clean the Gowanus Canal and open the area up to more modern uses that allow people to get closer to and enjoy the waterfront. However, as the picture below demonstrates, I’d advise you to refrain from sticking your toe in the Gowanus Canal just yet. Even the birds seem leery of it.
Gowanus Waters, 2013
But that doesn’t matter either. I wasn’t going for a swim. And it turns out the area around the canal is ripe for the kind of graphic industrial photography I sometimes like to do.
Gowanus 017, 2013

Gowanus 022, 2013