Monday, July 29, 2013

The Wreck Tree

The Wreck Tree, 2013
(Click on images to see larger)

I’ll be honest. I don’t usually pay too much attention to those roadside shrines people set up in memory of the friends and loved ones who were killed in accidents at those spots. They seem such simplistic expressions of grief for people whose lives were more than the few stuffed animals or ribbons tied around trees, signs and little white crosses.
The other day, though, I stopped to photograph such a roadside shrine, the first time I’ve ever done that. I did so mainly because I was desperate to shoot something and this shrine seemed to be the only thing in sight.
It was along a country road in the rural southern part of our city, along the North Carolina border. This is a low area, much of it swampy, good for raising corn, soybeans and big water snakes. I don’t have any anxiety being around corn or soybeans. But I do shy away from big water snakes, and the area where I saw this little scene does happen to be home to the only kind of venomous rattlesnake we have in our immediate coastal area.
Still, there was something that compelled me to stop. Maybe it was the two crosses, one made from lumber, the other from broken limbs. Or maybe it was the little plastic bicycle or the snack bag that was nailed to the tree. Or maybe it was just that the tree into which the young man whose life this shrine celebrates stuck out at the edge of a little bend in the road, the kind of tree of which anyone who drives past it regularly probably says, “Someone’s going to run into that damned tree some day if they don’t so something about it.”  

You Were Such a Good Kid, 2013

Fastened to the top of the cross is a plastic bag containing a marker pen. I wondered initially whether the deceased had been, or wanted to be an artist. But then I realized the pen had been placed there by someone who hoped the deceased’s friends would leave messages. And indeed they did. The cross was covered with heartfelt messages of grief and hope for a better life in the hereafter.
I don’t know what the circumstances were of this accident. I can tell from the notes written on the wooden cross that it was a young boy named Ian and that he was a student at a local high school. It’s not too hard to imagine a teenager driving too fast, maybe under the influence, maybe even showing off driving in the dark with no headlights on, cutting the curve a little too close, his tires catching in the ditch and…well, the predictable result. Godspeed, Ian.

Can't Believe You're Gone, 2013

 Evidence of a Life, 2013

Monday, July 22, 2013

Camera Snobbery

 Subway Sleeper, 2012
(iPhone Photo)

I admire Brandon Stanton’s web site, Humans of New York. Stanton posts wonderful photographic portraits of interesting looking people he encounters on the streets of the city. Sometimes he even tells a little of the story behind the people.
What prompts me to bring up Humans of New York is that Brandon posted a picture the other day and apologized that it was taken with an iPhone camera. As if an apology was necessary.
Last week I had lunch with a photographer friend who’d recently recommended to another friend that she take a “real camera” with her on a trip to Italy rather than use her phone camera.
I find it interesting that even as they continue to insist that toy cameras like Holgas and Dianas are serious artistic tools, many serious photographers look down on phone cameras.
The early phone cameras were pretty weak. But so were the first “real” digital cameras.
Over time things have changed. These days the worst phone cameras offer equal or better quality that many recent point-and-click digital cameras. I’ll bet the proliferation of smart phones with built-in cameras has pulled the rug out from under the cheap digital camera industry.
Phone cameras don’t offer all the features and flexibility serious photographers demand. But for 99% of the public, they meet basic needs and can be fun. And most important, they make photography relevant and a regular part of people’s lives.
Along the way, they’ve also become popular in the artsy set. David Hockney published a book of iPhone photos, and he’s not the only one to take to the phone for some artistic fun.
When the chemistry of photography was first being worked out, 19th Century photographers used this new medium to document the world. They scattered around the globe and brought back photographs of the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China.
Next, they turned the cameras on themselves and on other people. We learned what cowboys and Indians and Chinese and Laplanders really looked like. That you had ever existed could now be documented in an affordable photograph that lasted long after you did.
So what’s the beef with phone cameras?  I get the impression the purists resent that phone cameras make photography accessible to people who “don’t understand good art,” as if taking bad pictures undermines the integrity of good pictures. I think they’re jealous that almost anyone can now take decent pictures without having to know and understand all the arcane chemistry and process we once had to know to make and print photographs.
So, Brandon, I hope you won’t feel the need to apologize in the future if the best camera you happen to have handy is the one in your phone. It’s not the camera that makes the difference. It’s what you do with it that matters. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Mountaintop Soliloquy

 Morning Soliloquy, 2013

Our recent trip to the Catskill Mountains of New York State began smoothly enough, but evolved into a high stress situation when my car broke down just short of our isolated mountain destination.
I’m usually pretty good at handling stress. If something serious comes up I get right to work sorting it out. Once I’ve figured out what my options are, I consider a few strategies and make a plan.
A big part of this process is identifying the “outside” risks; that is, what’s the worst that can happen and how will I deal with that? Even if I don’t expect it to happen, I find it a lot easier to at least be mentally prepared.
When I say “worst,” I don’t want you to think I walk around in a perpetual cloud of worry and anticipation. I’m not thinking asteroids falling on me or, in the case of this weekend in the Catskills, my family being set upon by bears. (There were bears around, but I didn’t seriously think they’d attack us in the house.) Being stranded in the mountain house, miles from anyone, was a concern, but far from the worst thing that could happen to someone. And even if the worst case scenario played out—the one requiring me to buy a new car—this is still, when all’s said and done, one of those embarrassingly insensitive “first world” problems that shows how little you know about true deprivation if this is all you can complain about.
The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t do anything immediately. It was night and late. Any business I needed to reach was closed. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere and I couldn’t do anything about it until the next day.
I didn’t sleep well. A mind that needs to get things sorted out doesn’t rest well in the absence of information.
Fortunately, the breakdown occurred on a Thursday night. Businesses would be open the next day. I got on the phone the next morning. By late afternoon we’d have replacement wheels and by evening my car would be on the way to someone who would know what to do with it.
I could relax. I knew we’d no longer be any more marooned than we wanted to be. I slept well that night. 
The next morning I woke just as the sun was rising. I went outside and walked up a path that led away from the clearing and sat on a stone outcropping. My predisposition would normally be to keep walking and looking for things to photograph. But instead I sat on the rock for a while. I listened to the birds. I looked across the peaks of lower mountains and watched the fog and rain roll across distant valleys.
Before I knew it, thirty minutes had passed. I didn’t have any great moments of revelation. But my mind was clear and open again and free of stress. I knew I’d found what I’d hoped to find on this trip.

Monday, July 8, 2013

In Another Photographer's House

 Overlook Porch, 2013
(Click on images to see larger)

I’ve always found it a little strange to rent someone else’s house. It’s a vicarious adventure, whether you look at it just from the standpoint of living in a different setting than you normally live, or from the standpoint of living among the furnishings of someone else’s life.
The Mid-Atlantic oceanfront is dotted with houses built and furnished just for the rental market. They tend to be conspicuously impersonal, with furnishings designed for durability rather than comfort, and so universal in their features that anyone who rents will know how to use the dishwasher.
We’ve rented places like this through the years and I’ve always found them a little too impersonal and uncomfortable for my taste. More and more they’re being designed for people who prefer air conditioning to fresh air, indoor/outdoor swimming pools to the ocean that’s just steps away and for people who simply must have home theater systems and media rooms. There’s nothing wrong with these features, of course. They’re just wasted on me. I place a high priority on a good book, a comfortable chair and a screened porch where there’s a good breeze. 
Side Table, 2013
To find this you frequently have to find a rental that is actually someone’s home. The house we’ve rented in New England in recent years belongs to a friend who only lives there during the cold months when she can’t cruise the coast in her yacht. I know she removes a lot of personal items from her house when it’s rented. But the basic furnishings and art are what’s there year-round. So it’s like visiting Margaret, only without Margaret being there.
A week ago we were in a rental house in the Catskill Mountains that belongs to a well-known photographer of rock musicians. It’s a comfortable house, very much a family house with furnishings that reflect the owners’ tastes and the needs of their young children. There’s even a little screened porch with a settee just long enough for me to stretch out on and read if I don’t mind my feet hanging over the end.  Like any good rental, there are notes from the owners that include instructions for things that you might need help figuring out and requests—like please don’t wear shoes in the bedroom that has white carpet—that you’re happy to accommodate in return for staying in someone’s personal retreat.
There aren't a lot of clues in the house to the owner's vocation. There's an absolutely primo record collection, however, including many first pressings autographed by the artists themselves. We never did figure out, though, why there’s a little jar in the bathroom containing a pickled baby shark.
The Kitchen View, 2013

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Stupids Step Out

Birch, 2013
(Click on image to see larger)

When our daughter was a toddler one of her favorite storybooks was “The Stupids Step Out.” It was about a family—hippos, I believe—that caused mayhem whenever they left their house.
Whenever we Bonneys have experienced mayhem in our travels, particularly that of the Clark W. Griswold National Lampoon Family Vacation variety, we’ve looked at each other and giggled that we were the Stupids stepping out.
We’ve just returned from a long weekend in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York. I know they’re beautiful because I spent much of the weekend traveling up and down roads from one lovely Catskill town to another trying to get to or away from one car or another.
I also know now how thin the line is between a peaceful family retreat at a lovely house in the Catskills and the certain horror of a Stephen King story.
The black bear that ambled across the road in front of us as we approached our destination in the rain on Thursday night probably should have been an omen.
Long after we’d pass the bear and the last bit of civilization and headed into the mountains a warning message signaled that my car needed coolant fluid. It took a while to find some, and by then apparently it was too late. The car overheated. The engine sent me terse messages about reduced capacity and refused to go any further.  It was dark. It was raining. It was all I could do to coast down a hill into the parking lot of a mini mart in Arkville.
As luck would have it, two NY State troopers happened to be stopped at the mini mart. They took pity on us and ferried the three of us, plus my daughter’s dog and all of our stuff, up the last six up a steep, winding and rough mountain road to our house.
We were stranded. Left miles from anyone or anywhere with no wheels or cell phone service.
That said, the house is lovely, a regular Eden. With nothing but birds and deer and bears and a gorgeous view across the peaks of several mountains to keep us company.
Fortunately, the house also had a working landline, which became our lifeline the next morning as I started calling around to find service for my car, a rental car and someone who could take me to either of the above. The local mechanic couldn’t take our car for almost a week. The Rent-a-Wreck guy had no cars and suggested I walk fourteen miles to the closest roadside Trailways bus stop to catch a bus to somewhere bigger.
Eventually we found a reliable rental car agency in a town forty-five miles away and a cab company in that same town willing to come out into the woods to carry me to it. My car, on the other hand, would by nightfall be winging its way on the back of a tow truck to Albany, New York, seventy-miles in the other direction. 
I have no idea what all this is going to end up costing. When you’re stranded on top of a mountain, even one as beautiful as this, you’re not in a position to bargain.
But all things considered, I suppose we’re better off than the rock star photographer who owns the house we were renting. His family got stranded up there once the night before they were scheduled to catch a plane from New York to Europe. He paid $3,000 for a limousine to drive the 149 miles up from New York City to pick them up and take them back to the airport.
At least we dodged that one, we Stupids.