Monday, March 31, 2014

For Today, I'm Harry


Harry, for Today, 2014
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To set the stage: I’m in New York on a Saturday morning, walking from the West Village over to Little Italy to see a friend’s photography that’s on temporary exhibit at a very fancy men’s clothing boutique.
The venue shouldn’t be a surprise. My friend’s a fashionable guy. The boutique is the kind of place where, were I to shop there, your impression of me as a stylish guy would skyrocket in direct proportion to the drain on my checkbook.
Rather than ducking along the more colorful side streets, as is my usual habit, I instead took the more direct route across lower Manhattan on Houston Street. Houston’s not as multicultural as Canal Street. It’s not as touristy as Broadway. It’s a busy thoroughfare with seven lanes of traffic. But there are street vendors along its southern side and it still has a bit of a raffish edge, having not yet attained quite the same gentrified status of nearby Soho.
There are lots of interesting looking people on Houston Street. If I hadn’t been conscious of the time—I was trying to see four photography exhibits in one day—I’d have stopped and photographed a lot of them. The neat thing about New York is that you can stand on a street corner most anywhere in the city and you’ll have more than enough material to keep your camera busy.
But as it was I only seemed to notice this guy smoking a cigarette outside a barbershop at the corner of Houston and MacDougal.
Harry’s Corner Shop looks like a clean enough place for a haircut. There are no old men cutting hair, no pictures on the wall of dogs playing cards, and I’d laid odds on there not being so much as a whiff of Vitalis in the air.
I walked by the guy at first. Then it occurred to me that he might be worth photographing. I turned around and walked back and asked him if he’d mind. He said, “Sure,” and invited me to have a haircut. “I do all the Morgan Stanley guys,” he claimed. (Do I look like I work a Morgan Stanley?)
I did need a haircut. But I wasn’t going to do it at Harry’s. I made several photographs of the guy. In my haste I forget Rule #1 of the Harvey Stein School of Street Portraiture, which is to make sure the subject looks directly into the camera. Doh!
That’s only partially true. I did have the guy look directly at the camera once. But that’s only because he insisted I take a photograph of him in front of the shop to demonstrate to his boss, who’d been yelling to him to get back to work, that he was busy drumming up business.
Before I continued on, I asked whether Harry’s is his. “Are you Harry?” I asked, hoping to engage him long enough for a few more pictures.
He hesitated for a moment and answered, “For today, I’m Harry.”  
Harry Out Front, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Age Trumps Death

This is 62, 2013
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I am here to assure you that the ravages of age are apparently more appealing than death.
How do I know this?
It’s simple.
It used to be that one of the most viewed images at my Flickr page was a photograph of the old electric chair at the Texas State Prison Museum. Smoldering death must be pretty engaging because “Old Sparky” has been viewed by more than 10,000 people.
But it turns out death is not as engaging as the ravages of advancing age.
My birthday was the other day. It wasn’t one of the big momentous ones. But I thought it might be a good day to roll out a self-portrait I did a few months ago while working on my environmental portraiture technique.
When you don’t have a model to work with, you have to be your own model. One of the challenges in this is that if you are acting as both model and photographer, it’s tough to get proper focus. But I like how I lighted this image and the focus, while not tack sharp, is passable enough that it made the point I wanted to make about myself at this time of life.
I thought my friends might chuckle over the picture. I was unshaven. My hair was tussled. I didn’t smile because I’m not a fan of smiling portraits and because I was aiming for a serious guy look and for truth. Nothing kills truth and serious guy like a smile.
Friends did rib me about the picture. Marjorie said I could have at least combed my hair and shaved. Julie said this looks like the “book jacket photo of a celebrated novel by a war hero.” Old classmates suggested that I appear to be living up to all of the worst curmudgeonly possibilities of my new age. I’m okay with that, though. Besides, some of the classmates have preceded me into this new age by a few months. They understand whereof I speak.  
What I didn’t count on was that Flickr’s Explore page would find this self-portrait worth highlighting. So while my wife cringes at the thought of such a slovenly photo of myself cast out into the world, as of this writing more than 30,000 people have clicked on the image to get a closer and larger look. (If you’re numerically challenged, that’s three times as many people as clicked on “Old Sparky.”) Many have wished me well and several whose opinions I respect have discerned the presence of truth and serious guy in the portrait.
And if that isn’t enough, there’s a woman from the Middle East (whose comments I had to consult Google to interpret) who thinks I look like George Clooney. I don’t know if that means Clooney’s looking haggard these days or that I’m looking younger. But I’ll take it. Given that to have drawn that connection means she must be writing in from some very culturally bereft place, it just seems cruel to deny her that fantasy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sporting the Green


  Happy St. Patrick's Day, 2014
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I grew up in a household where the only formally acknowledged holidays were Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. (Birthdays were noted, but without much fanfare.) Anything beyond these was considered either patently frivolous or unworthy of attention because it was probably a contrivance of the greeting card industry.
This is probably why I showed up at the 47th Annual Ocean View St. Patrick’s Day Parade without so much as a stitch of green clothing on me.
One afternoon in 1967, so the story goes, a couple of guys sitting around at the Ocean View Knights of Columbus clubhouse wondered:
"Why don’t we have a parade to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?"
And so they did. This past Saturday’s was the 47th Ocean View St. Patrick’s Day Parade. (Yes, I know Saturday wasn’t really St. Patrick’s Day. Ocean View residents, though, are working people. On Monday they’ll be back at the shipyard, the Navy base or any of a thousand other jobs where you don’t get the day off.)
 The Grands, 2014
 Over the years I’ve photographed at a lot of parades. The first thing you need to know about this one is that it’s not about the parade. Sure, there are the predictable flags and floats, princesses, clowns, police and fire vehicles and Shriners in their go karts and hillbilly jug bands. And in this case you add in robed Knights of Columbus, Hibernian heritage claimants, step dancers and even a group of Scots playing bagpipes. 

 The Family that Wears Green Together, 2014
It’s the pride of the people who come to watch this parade, though, that makes this one special. It’s their parade, not something the tourism or economic development folks foisted on them. Virginia Beach’s Neptune Festival Parade has fancier floats and more music. Downtown Norfolk’s Christmas Parade has more lights. The Greening of Ghent probably has more hipsters. But for unabashed pride of place, it’s hard to beat Ocean View.
Ocean View gets a bad rap sometime, especially if your barometer of civic health is the police blotter. It’s true that it’s more desirable sections along the Chesapeake Bay are getting gentrified. But the people who come out for this parade are mostly long-time residents, people who raised their kids there and are proud to stand up for their community.
Hours ahead of the parade’s starting time spectators start staking out places along its route. Tailgaters fill the grassy median between the lanes of Granby Street. Residents along the route set up chairs and tables on their porches or lean out their second floor windows with cameras.
And no matter how rich or poor or young or old or black or white, they all come decked out in green. 
 Bring on the Irish Men!, 2014
 I’d never attended this parade before. When I first thought about photographing the parade this year, I thought I’d be shooting pictures of floats and bands. But in the end the photographs that I enjoy the most are the photographs of the people.
As for all the color, a day spent here could put you off green for while. 
 "I'm not Irish. But I like beer and jugs." 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

When Does Interest Become Obsession?

Beatrice Homestead, 2005

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After I commented the other day that I always try to have some kind of camera with me, my Flickr friend Jen asked:

“Why do we always wish we had a camera? Why is it so hard to enjoy [the experience of seeing something] just for the experience it is? Is it our desire to share, or maybe to remember, or just to capture the beauty of nature and the nature of beauty?”

I can only address Jen’s questions from my own experience, which, the more I think about it, the more I question just how mentally healthy my response sounds.

But here it is:

What I tell myself, at least, is that I don’t want to miss a chance at what might be a meaningful photograph.

You know how it goes. You find yourself faced with conditions that make for a transcendent visual moment. But you don’t have a camera. #^$@!!**^!

Here’s where we venture into the realm of the obsessive. I sometimes get very frustrated, even unable to enjoy the experience of something, if I don’t have a camera.

If I don’t capture some artifact of that transcendent visual moment—and, to be honest, it doesn’t have to be all that transcendent—there’s a very good chance I’ll forget it. My brain’s a crowded place. I need notes and pictures and recordings.

The nice part of this is that when I see those notes and pictures or hear those recorded sounds again, I’m back in the moment. The sound of swallows will always take me back to Florence. The smell of a roasting chicken covered with garlic will take me back to Los Caracoles in Barcelona. A photo of the rugged California coast will recall the wind against my face in Big Sur.

If I don’t have those artifacts to jog my memory, it’s as if I wasn’t there. I won’t forget I was there. It’s just that I won’t have much command over the details of those memories that made those experiences so rich.

As a child I experienced a lot of unhappiness and depression. I developed ways of compartmentalizing unhappy experiences and feelings. This willful forgetfulness protected me. But it also made it very hard for me to be open to the full richness of experience until I was well into my twenties. Only then, and in the company of new and trusted fiends, could I let the walls down between experience and me.

Many years later now, I’m slaphappy about experiencing simple things. To answer Jen’s question, I can be mindful and enjoy “the beauty of nature and the nature of beauty.” But I still feel I’ve missed out on something if I don’t bring home some of that moment with me.

As for the photograph above, when the camera I had with me in Beatrice, Nebraska, when I first tried to make this photograph broke, I went to the closest store and bought another one. How’s that for obsession?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Looking at Up from Down

Let's Dance, 2014

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Back in 2007 I made a series ofphotographs of things “at my feet” when I took my daily walk. I normally walked before sunrise in those days and only noticed when one Saturday morning I started my walk later in the day that the seemingly quiet suburban streets in my neighborhood were teeming with various utility markings.
I don’t walk that early any more. But most days when it’s over 40F I do get out at some point during the day and walk at least five miles. The actual time of day varies according to my work schedule, travel, etc.
I’m a proponent of always having a camera handy, even if it’s just a cell phone camera. Every now and then, though, I forgot this and almost immediately regret it as soon as I hit the street.
Last Saturday afternoon I didn’t have a camera with me when I walked. It killed me when I didn’t have a way of capturing images of some of the things I saw, particularly shadows on the street. So you can be sure that when I walked the next day I had the iPhone and its camera with me.
A lot of people getting into photography start by looking up at the sky. To be honest, an empty blue sky can be boring. But clouds are so available and so interesting when you start paying attention to them. Photographers know there’s nothing that will add drama to a landscape photograph quite like a dynamic sky. 

 Walking Hand in Hand, 2014

Sunday was one of those days where the sky was clear and blue. But that was okay because what caught me eye was what was happening in the ground at my feet; namely, the shadows cast by the sun. 
The idea with recreational walking is that it’s less harmful to aging joints than, say, running. But you still want to build up enough steam to get some cardiovascular benefit. What I do isn’t to be confused with race walking, that silly looking strut where you keep your hands up by your chest and swivel your butt back and forth like a duck. I look ratty enough when I walk. I don’t need any additional reason for people to confuse me with a duck. 
 They Went Into the Storm Wide and Came Out Thin, 2014

To move things along, let’s just say that after loosening up I build up to a purposeful pace. But on Sunday that was hard to do because I kept stopping to photograph shapes and shadows I saw on the street. I’d get humming along and then come to an abrupt stop to capture the image of something I saw on the street. In other words, not much momentum or steam being built up. This went on for a good forty-five minutes, and I must confess that it was actually a relief when the phone’s battery died and I couldn’t take any more pictures.
I like the images I caught. But I tell you this: being an observational photographer is hell on your health.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, 2014