Monday, February 25, 2013

The Accidental Advocate

 Cavalier Impression 1, 2013
(Click on images to see larger)

For much of my life I stayed on the sidelines. My professional work requires that I be seen as a safe, neutral voice, a facilitator of conversations where participants can speak frankly because they know different points of view will be respected.

This doesn’t mean I’m without opinion, of course. The professional mentors in my life have all been highly opinionated people. But like them, I haven’t been very public about my opinions.

About ten years ago some kind of local issue came up that got me all riled up; no doubt some kind of human or economic injustice. I could not simply sit quietly and let it happen. I wrote a letters. I made calls. I don’t remember who or where now, and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I went public with an opinion.

A friend who has long been involved in civic life in another state ribbed me. “So you’ve finally gotten so worked up about something that you had to get involved.”

He was right. I’d finally reached the point of intersection between something that couldn’t be ignored and what I thought were sufficient talents and experience on my part to make a difference.

Since that time, I’ve continued to need to observe basic objectivity and intellectual honesty in my professional work. But I’ve been sticking my neck out a lot more. It’s not like I don’t have enough things to do with my time. But…well, it’s like that old line from Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

A few weeks ago a friend asked how one would go about creating a grassroots movement to support the protection of the architectural and historic integrity of an old hotel here in Virginia Beach. The hotel in question is a local landmark, the kind of place that frequently gets described as a “grand dame.”

I’ll spare you the details and merely say that in short order a mixture of Facebook and word-of-mouth created a community of nearly 3,000 people interested in protecting the old hotel. Members of the group have written letters, shared pictures and memories and otherwise advocated for the protection of this historic landmark. There’s been media attention, even a television interview. If properly channeled, you could even say we’ve become a force.

Because the old hotel is such a fixture locally, I’ve photographed it on several occasions and written about here at WhatI Saw. Most of my photographs, though, are predictable. I was interested in documenting some of the interior and exterior spaces and not too interested in alternative interpretations.


Cavalier Impression 2, 2013

This past weekend, though, I challenged myself to do something different.  The weather was blustery and cold day, with intermittent winds. The rain gave me puddles. The clouds gave me even light. And it turns out if you turn the image upside down the stones in the asphalt driveway look like stars.


Cavalier Impression 3, 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Valentine's Day Story

Hearts, 2013

My wife and I went down to the Belvedere café at the oceanfront for lunch this past Sunday. The Belvedere’s a small place, popular with locals and tourists, with just enough booths and counter space to seat about thirty people. 
It’s not uncommon for there to be a line to get into the Belvedere, especially on weekends. We don’t worry, though, because the line moves quickly as Brenda, who presides over the place, plays the Belvedere’s limited seating options as if they were pieces in one of those Chinese block puzzles where all the differently shaped pieces ultimately fit together perfectly. Brenda’s a whiz at getting people in and out.
Near the front of the wait line was a young man traveling alone. As he waited for a space to open at the counter, one of three attractive young ladies who had just been seated in a booth together before he arrived approached the young man and invited him to join them.
The rest of us in line—most of us older couples who go the Belevedere every Sunday—quietly applauded the girls’ generosity and the young man’s seeming good fortune.
The rest of us eventually found seats and fell into our own conversations. We did happen to notice, though, that the young man finished his lunch earlier than the girls and that when he stepped up to the cash register he paid for their meals as well as his own.
We older diners chuckled at the idea that chivalry is not dead and hoped that the young man might have gotten a few good telephone numbers in return for his generosity. But it turns out he didn’t tell the girls he’d paid for their meals. When they discovered what he’d done he’d already driven away.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Maybe some kind person will invite you to lunch today and you’ll pick up their tab. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

In Praise of Exploration

The Ansonia #6, 2005
(Click on image to see larger)

It can take a long time to get to know any place. For fifty-eight years New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell explored the streets and neighborhoods and life of New York City. He walked, rode buses and subways and frequently combined all three in random ways to start his walkabouts. It’s said he knew every part of New York and its boroughs, from the top of the Bronx to the bottom of Staten Island. He mixed with the swells of the Upper East Side and the poor of Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen. He wrote about McSorley’s, the venerable Lower East Side watering hole, and about the man who tended the African American graveyard on Staten Island.
Joseph Mitchell had intended to write a book about his years in New York, but died before finishing it. The current (Feb 8 & 15, 2013) issue of The New Yorker, however, includes the first chapter of Mitchell’s unfinished memoir. I can’t quote it here for fear of violating copyright law. I also don’t have room for even one of his incredibly lengthy run-on sentences.
But if you value descriptive prose, I encourage you to get a copy of this issue and read “Street Life: Becoming a part of the city.” It’s as grand a celebration of a fully alive city as I can imagine.  

Friday, February 8, 2013

Why We Do This


Witchwood Rocks, 2005

When you reach a certain age it’s not uncommon to reflect upon your roots and your experience with life. You also, I’ve found, spend a lot of time connecting the dots of your experience in ways you never imagined they’d connect, and figuring out who you are, why you are the way you are and why you do the things you do.
I was reading a magazine article yesterday in which the interviewer asked the late portrait photographer Ruth Bernhard why it was that most photographers live a long time. Bernhard’s answer startled me in the clarity of its explanation of what drives me.
“I’ll tell you what I think it is. Photographers have a great lust for life. There are so many interesting things in the world. You cannot get bored and you certainly cannot get depressed because everything is fascinating: every flower and every leaf on a tree. It’s miraculous. If you have that attitude it keeps you very young.”
Me explained. Finally.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ice Water for the Soul

 Super Girls, 2013
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Coney Island has its Mermaid Parade. Places like Green Bay have Polar Bear Clubs whose members jump into whatever bit of icy water is close by on New Year’s Day. In Virginia Beach, we have the Polar Plunge, where in the middle of winter people foolish enough to do so throw themselves into the Atlantic Ocean for the benefit of charity.
When I was a child growing up by the ocean, I knew of adults who swam in the ocean every day, not matter how cold it was. They’d not only jump into the ocean on days when there was snow, but also swim out so far from shore that you couldn’t see them without binoculars. From there they’d swim up and down the coast for a mile or so. And get this? They did it for fun.
They weren’t sleek. They didn’t put on a show. The just threw one arm in front of the other, kicked their legs and pulled themselves steadily along, a testimony to endurance.
I’ve purposely had little experience with icy water. The closest I got was jumping into the St. Lawrence River up on the Canadian border. It was July. We were staying with friends in a summer colony where the tradition is that men bathe in the river and let the ladies enjoy the indoor showers with their limited supply of hot water.
As anyone who’s ever jumped into a cold shower will tell you, it’s not wise to ease yourself into an icy body of water. Common sense will get the better of you and you’ll never make it all the way in. In that spirit, I followed the rest of the guys in our party down the hill, bar of soap in one hand and razor in the other, to the boathouse and out the other side, where they flung themselves one-by-one off the end of the pier.
Like lemmings, they were. And like lemmings, they were smart not to think about anything more than merely following the person in front of them. I now know that if they’d thought about anything else or even about what they were doing they’d have changed their minds and stayed on the pier.
But I didn’t know that then. As I approached the end of the pier I didn’t think twice, either. I just followed the person before me and did my best running broad jump into what I was sure would be a comfortably warm body of water.
Which, of course, it wasn’t. The river temperature was more like 40F. My rapid descent into the St. Lawrence River was followed by an almost equally rapid ascent back out of it. People who were there will testify that I stayed in the river long enough to wash the important places. I apparently even shaved much of my face. But this is all hearsay because I don’t remember a moment of it. It felt like my heart stopped when I hit the water and didn’t start up again until I was back up on the pier collecting by breath while the sun dried me.
All of which is a long way of explaining why I’ve never taken part in Virginia Beach’s Polar Plunge. They do have a costume contest before the big plunge, however, and although I was too cheap to pay the $5 admission fee to get into the big heated test to see the actual competition I did have some time to photograph some of the contestants before it started.
Framed, 2013