Monday, July 14, 2014

The Octopus' Garden

 At the Lake Bottom (detail), 2014

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I'd like to be under the sea
In an octopus's garden in the shade
He'd let us in, knows where we've been
In his octopus's garden in the shade

Beatles lovers will recall these lyrics from Ringo Starr’s The Octopus’s Garden. Grammar apparently is not Ringo’s strong card, but maybe the additional s after a plural possessive is one of those British things. In any event, I borrow them here because they’re the first thing I thought of when I saw the view above. 
[You might want to click on these images to see them larger.]
A few weeks ago I happened to find myself in Keystone Heights, Florida, a small town in North Central Florida that appears to have had nothing major going on for it but a location among a variety of spring fed lakes.
One of the biggest of these, formerly covering nearly 650 acres, is Lake Brooklyn. Local lore has it that the lake’s named for the many Northerners who came down and settled around its shores.
I say formerly because over the last sixty years Lake Brooklyn has been emptying. Most of pristine white sand beaches are well above and hundreds of feet away from the nearest water. The man resting his feet in the scene above would have in days past been fifteen feet or so under water. Now the deepest place he can find in the lake isn’t even deep enough to submerge his beach chair.

At the Lake Bottom (full view), 2014
Hydrological analyses blame evaporation, diminished rainfall and Florida’s famously porous limestone foundation for the lake’s demise. Locals, on the other hand, believe Lake Brooklyn was the victim of progress and politics; namely, that a state water commission diverted water from the aquifer that fed Lake Brooklyn to industrial users and to the booming Orlando/Kissimmee metropolitan area to the south.  

Save Our Lakes, 2014

If this sounds like something out of Chinatown, it’s because that’s how some people in Keystone Heights talk about it. When a local resident burning some trash in the former lakebed saw me taking pictures, he was so convinced I was a state employee that he ran indoors to get a gun with which to threaten me. We eventually got things cleared up, but that gives you an idea of the intensity of feelings about the lake.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Interrupting the Divine

 The Pond, 2013

I should stipulate that I don’t have a problem with frogs, squirrels, raccoons, birds, muskrats, rabbits, turtles and snakes that live in our yard, although I’m sure most of them would agree that we’ll get along better as long as we do so out of each others’ sight.
Nature’s been having something of a folly in our neighborhood lately. Some of it’s nothing short of majestic, as when a bald eagle lands in a tree in your front yard. Some of it’s a little scary, like when a coyote shows up at the light cast from a neighbor’s fire pit.
My concerns are more mundane. Takes the foxes, for example. The first ten years we were here it was a major event if we saw one. Now they show up most every day. Coming home from a dinner out one night last summer we came upon a half dozen or so fox kittens frolicking in the street, their mother standing guard at the corner to make sure no one ran them over. Just the other morning while we were sitting at the breakfast table we watched a fox pounce on a squirrel.
Little Foxes, 2013

Twice in the last several summers I’ve had to rescue the frogs that live in the little pond in our back yard from snakes. Both times I arrived on the scene just as the snake had attacked the frog. Both times the frog emerged alive and went on to croak another day.
The most recent slaying was last week. I came upon a young otherwise harmless water snake trying to swallow a frog about five times as large as his mouth. It was a classic standoff. The snake, which would have normally slithered into the bushes upon sensing my approach, was fully exposed and wouldn’t move lest he lose the frog. The frog didn’t have much say. His head was in the snake’s mouth.
I gave the snake a chance to let the frog go. But if you know snakes, you know there’s no talking to them. He wouldn’t let go. I had a shovel. The snake became history. Like the earlier encounter, as soon as I severed the snake’s neck, his mouth went slack, the frog jumped out and, shaking himself off, hopped away.
I was telling this story last week to a friend who is very religious. He sat quietly for a moment and then said, “So how’s that going, interrupting the Divine and all?”
Well, I thought, I saved the life of a frog. All things considered, I value any creature that helps keep the mosquito population under control more than I value a snake. (If the snake would work on some of the voles in the garden I might be willing to change his status.) And if we’re going to be all biblical about it, isn’t the snake the metaphor for all things evil?
That didn’t satisfy my friend. And I suppose I did interfere with the natural food chain and kill a creature that otherwise posed no harm to me.
For now, though, I’m still siding with the frog.

Monday, May 19, 2014

At The Castle

 The Castle @ Tarrytown 6, 2014

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If you were to have a few thousand bucks to blow in the New York area and wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, you could do worse than to fetch up at the Castle Resort& Spa in Tarrytown, about an hour north of the city.
The Castle started out in 1897 as the rural retreat of a respected New York businessman and his family. The owners entertained lavishly and made additions to the castle—apparently 45 rooms was not enough—as the events they hosted became bigger and more people were invited to attend them. Over the years the castle passed to different owners and eventually became the posh hotel and spa of today. 
While out looking around Tarrytown one morning recently, my sister and I happened upon The Castle. It’s actually hard to miss since it sits atop one of the highest hills in town. We parked the car and walked around the grounds a bit. At one point we walked into the lobby, hoping to get a quick glance at whatever grandeur we might be allowed to see. Two cordial front desk personnel greeted us and welcomed us to look around.
We saw enough to conclude that we’d probably have to take our second mortgages to stay at a place like this. And I have to admit it was just a bit creepy to look over our shoulders as we wandered around and notice that there was just about always a hotel staffer either trailing us or watching us from a window. (Maybe they’ve learned not to be trustful of people who arrive in Volkswagens?)

The Castle @ Tarrytown 8, 2014
The Castle’s actually a very nice place, even in my pictures make it look a little foreboding. If it’s important that you uphold a certain image, they can arrange the rental of a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley or Mercedes if you want to explore the local towns. Or, if you’re feeling especially flush, why not rent a helicopter? Round-trip fares from lower lower Manhattan start at $1,750 (tips and taxes not included). This may sound high. But heck, you’ll be in Tarrytown faster than you can say “My hedge fund is doing better than your hedge fund.” 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Further Self Examination


Self-Portrait @ 16, 1968
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I’m afraid you’re going to be seeing a lot more of me.
You can blame this on my artist friend Ellen. In the course of my “week of self-indulgence,” Ellen commented:
You are having fun with this idea, aren't you? I would be, too. Carry on! You will have quite the collection before you know it.”
You can also blame Ken, a poet and esteemed professor of poetry. Seeing this series of self-portraits, Ken recalled Edward Arlington Robinson’s poem Rembrandt to Rembrandt
I’ll confess that I probably haven’t read anything by Edward Arlington Robinson since high school. But I did track down and read Rembrandt to Rembrandt, even the obscure parts about Samson, Apollo’s house and the matter of some fifty Dutch florins. You can read it here. It opens with these lines:
And there you are again, now as you are.
Observe yourself as you discern yourself
In your credited ascendency;
Without your velvet or your feathers now,
Commend your new condition to your fate,
And your conviction to the sieves of time.
 I’ve neither velvet nor feathers. If I ever did they were probably metaphorical and I probably squandered them because I didn’t recognize them for what they were. Still, the encouragement of Ellen and Ken compelled me to go back through my archive of photographs and discover that my self-portraits aren’t just a recent phenomenon, but instead date back to my youth. Seen in sequence, they trace an interesting path of life.
This shouldn’t surprise me. If you hang around photography long enough, there are any number of themes you’ll pursue. Some you’ll recognize and some you won’t. The observational photographer will quietly, and sometimes without even noticing it, make vast series of photographs around specific themes or ideas and not discover what he’s been doing until the critical mass of images falls off the edge of his desk (and that’s no metaphor).
There’s no magic to my trove of self-portraits. Some were exercises in artistic curiosity or technical experimentation. Some are the result of being the designated family photographer, especially the designated family travel photographer, which means that when you travel you bring home lots of pictures, but you’re not in any of them.
When this happens, you start looking for reflective surfaces so that you can document that you were there. I took hundreds of pictures of Rome when my wife and daughter and I went there years ago. I’m pretty sure the only visual record of my presence on that trip, though, is a partial reflection in a silver coffee pot. 

Biannual Self-Portrait on Vanderbilt Ave, 2010

But seriously, you’ll just have to bear up with these images until they run their course. I don’t know if I’m trying to find something in them or something about myself or perhaps some higher artistic expression for them. All I can say for now is that I won’t know until they’re all out on the table.
I thank you for your patience.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Week of Self-Indulgence. No, make that "Art."

Self-Portrait in Ring Light, 2014

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Where is the line between art and narcissism? Or should it be between narcissism and art?

Most photographers make photographs of things or of people. But some have made names for themselves by instead making photographs of themselves. Just recently The New Yorker magazine did aninteresting feature on photographers’ self-portraits.

I can’t think of anyone who’s taken self-portraiture to such  heights as Cindy Sherman, who dresses and changes her appearance to masquerade as different personas. Sherman’s work is widely admired and collected as high art, while most other self-portraits are not.

To be honest, it’s taken me a while to come around to seeing Sherman’s work as anything more than novelty, albeit extremely well done novelty. But then again I didn’t attend art school and frequently find myself giggling at a lot of the MFA-speak used in high photographic art and criticism circles. 

But having made fun of that, let me show just how shallow and inconsistent I can be by sharing some of my own self-portraits. My contributions to this oeuvre are not exactly “selfies,” though they are in many cases impromptu. But neither are they high art in the “Let’s reach into the makeup drawer and dress-up box” context of Cindy Sherman.

Mine are experiments. They’re technical exercises, rather than conceptual explorations of self. Some are about place and others are about lighting. In New York recently I found myself taking a lot of pictures of myself in reflection of other people’s art. That’s about as high concept as it gets with me right now. 

I’m presenting these in the interest of displaying my experimentation. If you’re inclined to see these images as self-indulgence or, more seriously, the onset of a serious narcissism, you’ll just have to bear with it. The practical fact is that on most days I’m the only model I have. So you’re going to see a lot of me.


Self-Portrait in Mark Rothko, 2014


Self-Portrait in Donald Judd, 2014


Self-Portrait @ Christie’s, 2014


Self-Portrait @ ICP, 2014

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.