Monday, June 24, 2013

Making the Point With Photographs

 Good Civic Engagement Requires 
All us Us Working Together, 2012

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Those of us who are addicted to photography take pictures for all kinds of reasons. We take pictures a lot of the time for reasons we can’t explain. Every now and then I’ll photograph something simply because the scene or the moment captures my fancy long enough for me to consciously think about saving it in a photograph it. In this age of digital photography, pictures cost you nothing but your time. So why not photograph first and ask questions later?
Over the years I’ve built up quite a collection of these stray images that don’t belong in any collection or series. They’re little one-out stories.
Recently a friend and I were asked to make a presentation about civic engagement to an audience of hundred or so of Virginia’s municipal managers. They’re a generally savvy bunch of people of all ages and levels of experience. They come from big cities, small towns and rural counties.
To be honest, my first inclination was to use just a few PowerPoint slides to affirm the big points of our presentation. I’m a big fan of story telling as a presentation technique. Telling our audience about real-world examples of how good civic engagement yields big returns for local governments has a lot more meaning that a bunch of slides. 
As Logical as a Chair Talking to a Fence, 2012
It was my co-presenter who suggested that I bring some of my own photographs into our presentation. He thinks more of my photography than I suspect I deserve. But I liked the idea of juicing up the show with something other than even just a few dull text slides. And I’m embarrassed to admit that it didn’t occur to me first that a single photograph can convey more of story, more emotion and more than my blabbering and preachy words.
But what to use?
My friend thought I’d show a lot of pretty pictures from across Virginia. That seemed too much like vanity to me because the pictures wouldn’t do much to advance our message about civic engagement.
Then I realized that I have this extensive body of stray photographic images that just might help out here. Before the late night hour and fatigue stopped me from looking, I’d turned the presentation into a series of a hundred or so photographic metaphors.
Our presentation was the last in an intensive three-day conference. It was held at an oceanfront hotel. I thought for sure that by this point in the schedule many of the people would have ducked out to play on the beach or in the surf. But low and behold we ended up with a giant ballroom full of fully wide-awake people. They asked questions when the photos provoked them. They laughed when the photos made a point humorously. They hung in for more than ninety minutes. They applauded wildly at the end.
I don’t know if it was our message or the pictures. But I know from their reaction that by using the photographs we informed, influenced and entertained, and that in doing so we just might have achieved our goal of compelling our audience of municipal leaders re-think the way public policy decisions are made.
How Interested People Think Local Governments
Are in Listening to Them, 2010

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Joy of Tickling with Giving


Sue’s Hat, 2013

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We all know the tired bromides about giving:

“tis better to give than receive.”

“It’s a joy to give.”

“Blessed are those who can give.”

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

But let’s be honest. It’s always more fun to receive than give, especially if the gift is unexpected and something that you really value.

On Saturday I was reminded how getting can be giving. Or was it how giving can be getting. Whatever.

I was down at the oceanfront looking for people to photograph. The annual Boardwalk Art Show was in session. There were stylish culture vultures and clueless tourists alike strolling the oceanfront boardwalk.

I hadn’t been there long when I noticed a woman wearing an interesting hat. I told myself I had to photograph the hat and the woman wearing it. But she kept ducking into the various artists’ stalls where the light was bad and I felt like I’d be intruding if I were to ask her for a chance to photograph her hat. 

Eventually she stepped out and agreed to let me photograph her. She was even flattered and, as we say here in the American South, “tickled” that someone had shown interest in her hat. It turns out the hat has a long story. It had been passed among friends and relatives across several generations, with each new owner adding something to it, and actually has intersections with people and places in my life.

When we were done the woman asked if I’d send her a copy of the picture. It was only when I introduced myself and asked for her name and address that it became embarrassingly clear that this woman was Sue, someone I’d known briefly about twenty-five years ago. We hadn’t even recognized each other. But we had a fond reunion all because of the hat. Sue’s so happy she’ll have a picture with all the other women who have owned it.

A few minutes later I was photographing some red glass art against the background of the blue ocean.  The glassblower asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a picture of her booth for her to use in future art show applications. She was tickled, too, that I could do something for her.

Finally, a little further down the boardwalk I happened to notice a lovely woman wearing a shimmering green dress with white polka dots on it. I walked past her several times before concluding that I needed to photograph her, too. It turns out she’s a semi-professional singer who knew of my late mother, who was also a singer. Ms. E was also tickled—I swear she used that very word--that I’d admired her dress and asked to photograph her.

So although I didn’t think of these encounters as transactions, the joy of giving to these three ladies was far greater than the value of the three photographs I got. That I could surprise at least two of them with these small gifts was a joy.
Ms. E in Green, 2013

Monday, June 10, 2013

In the Matter of Judging


And the Winner Is! 2011

One thing I learned right away about entering serious juried photography competitions is that you need to have a sense of the jurors’ values. An image or series of images that seems perfectly appropriate, thoughtful and provocatively eye-catching is wasted if the judge is looking for something entirely different like, say, images made under water through the photographer’s knees.
Preposterous, you say? I once entered a respected national competition without doing research on the judge. It turns out she was famous for her underwater photographs of vaginas. Had I known that, I’d have instead used my entry fee for a nice dinner out with my wife. I’d have known my work wasn’t up to the judge’s level of gimmickry. Live and learn. Seventy-five dollar learning lessons, I call these experiences.
But as the saying goes, “You can’t win if you don’t enter,” and I haven’t been completely unsuccessful in competitions. So I recently succumbed to the allure of celebrity and entered several images in another nationally respected juried competition. I did so because I thought I had several images that were consistent with the theme, yet each somehow different, thoughtful and engaging on its own and also contributing to a unified visual theme when considered together.
It’s true. I waited until the last day to submit my images. I was able to determine that the judge for this competition is a curator at a reputable museum that isn’t known for its collection of photographs of underwater…well, you know. I paid my entry fee and hustled my samples off for review.
I didn’t make it into the show. I have to say, though, that the rejection letter was one of the most thoughtful I’ve ever received.
Of course I wish I’d gotten into the show. But it was far from heart breaking that I didn’t. Since I look upon such situations as learning opportunities, I tried to figure out why I didn’t make the cut by looking at the work that did.
That’s when my feelings got hurt. I really don’t mind not getting in. You can learn a lot about your work from looking at work that’s considered better. What upset me about the work selected for this competition, however, was that some of it was just plain thoughtless, empty and pretentiously banal, if there is such a thing. It told me nothing. It neither engaged nor challenged me. In a few cases, the link between the work and the competition theme was so tenuous as to be laughable. 
There’s a lot of mindless photography that passes for art. A beautifully composed image of a shoestring can be either a work of art or mindless documentation. You can even get away with mindlessness when there’s something else strong going for the image. 
But it still helps to know the judge.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Hydrangea Dreams Run Amok

 The Hydrangea Allée 1, 2013

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I’m told Americans move every seven years, on average. That used to be true of us. After seven years we’d have done what we could do with a house and its landscape and be itchy for a new project. If you’re a gardener, though, this means you’re probably never in a house long enough to see some of what you plant mature, especially when it comes to trees.
Our current home is the culmination of many house dreams. We’ve lived here longer—more than fifteen years—than either my wife or I have ever lived anywhere. We’re under lots of trees. We naively thought that would be good, and it is in some ways, except for when hurricanes knock trees down onto, or into, the house. It also makes gardening more of a challenge if your entire gardening experience up to now has been in sunnier settings.
Nature has helped us some. Hurricanes occasionally blow down giant trees that local environmental regulations prevent us from removing on our own. This allows more sunlight onto the ground until the remaining trees branch out and block the light again.
One of the things we can grow well here is hydrangeas. Inspired by a picture in a gardening magazine, about ten years ago I planted an allée of hydrangeas in the woods on the more densely wooded side of the house. Due to unforgiving soil and competition with the trees for moisture, some years it was a challenge just to keep the hydrangeas alive. But over the years they hung on and formed a pleasant place to walk.
The last major storm that passed through took out a couple of 90’ tall pines and an even taller and more massive oak tree. That seemed like a good thing, too, at first. We were intoxicated by the prospect of what we could plant on that side of the house not that there was more light.
Within a year, though, everything I’d planted along that hydrangea allée doubled in size. No longer having to compete with as many trees for moisture, they doubled in size again the next year. This summer what was once a pleasant path is now an obstacle course.
I’m not complaining, though. Hurricane season is upon us. What nature giveth she can also destroyeth in hurricanes. Of that you can be sure.
For the first time, though, I’m confronted with something I’ve planted having matured to the point that it’s a nuisance. (I can’t believe I’m calling a dozen hydrangeas a nuisance, what with all the poison ivy, briars and phragmites procreating willy nilly just a stone’s throw away.)
I guess I really should be worrying about those two magnolias I planted about eight years ago. They, too, seemed pretty benign at the time. I thought I gave them plenty of room. But if we’re here another fifteen years they’ll probably overtake the house.
The Hydrangea Allée 2, 2013