♦ ♦ ♦
We were fresh out of high school (except Jazelle; she was a couple of years ahead of us, and old enough to have changed her name). It was late August, after dinner, and our little neo-hippie, vegetarian, anti-sugar, art and music “commune” needed a group portrait.
“Dressed up,” it was agreed.
So we all ran to our rooms and changed, and I got my camera and tripod. When we came back downstairs, we were each in various degrees of costume: Mark squeezed into his eighth-grade graduation “Johnny Carson” suit, matched with white sneakers; Leonard (later to be “Bix”) dressed completely down, in his filthiest attire; Jazelle was pure peasant girl formal; Allan clomped down the stairs in his scuba fins; and I went for vest, bowtie, and hat, plus—like Paul from Abbey Road—barefoot. None of us coordinated with the others, but it seemed perfect.
With a slow shutter speed in the dim light, I instructed everyone to hold very still for the relatively long exposure.
True to personality, Leonard did the po-go. (Hence, his ghost-like blur.)
Cliiiiick: “House Portrait.”
When I see today’s academically minded youth going through such excruciating process to choose their colleges and, in turn, pick out housing, I think back almost embarrassed by how lucky and lackadaisical it was for me and my friends in arriving at our destinations.
Roz decided it for us.
Roz Duncan was like an eccentric aunt for several of us who were friends with her son, and part of a larger group of devout counter-culturalists from Alhambra High School in Martinez, California. She was a former teacher, children’s book author, and amateur art historian from New York City, whose smocks and sandals, thinning hair, hand-made jewelry, and stained teeth gave a beatnik counterpoint to her society diction. She regularly held salon-like “tofu parties,” in which the then-very-new (-but-actually-quite-ancient) Japanese soybean curd was served up in some manner as a novelty main course, complimented by all variety of melted cheese casseroles that only teenagers could concoct as gourmet. We were practicing vegetarians. That is, we weren’t fully vegetarian (except for Jazelle), but we were practicing on it.
Roz cultivated our interests. (She once told me that she hadn’t understood an “epic poem” I’d written about the solar system … until she had read it aloud in the bathtub. That’s all a budding poet needs to hear.) She had art in every crevice of wall that wasn’t covered with bookshelves. She did her writing upstairs in what she called her “scribble room.” Her husband, Tom, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts, was a collector of 78-rpm jazz and old-timey music. Every year, they made a “Christmas Sculpture” out of scrap wood, dead branches, and found objects that served as a tree, and had everybody over—including some of our reluctant parents—to help decorate it.
It was Roz’s house in Oroville (from her previous marriage)—a big 1890 Victorian on First Avenue, with a two-storey, wrap-around, screened, “sleeping” porch. And it became available just as a plurality of us we were readying to graduate from high school. Oroville is about 130 miles northeast from Martinez, up in the Sacramento Valley, and it managed to make our former fishing village refinery town seem downright cosmopolitan. Nevertheless, Oroville is “only” 25 miles from Chico, which boasts of a California State University campus.
“Wouldn’t that be grand?” Roz declared, with a flourish of her cigarette wand (then blowing away the smoke from us anti-tobacconists). “Start an art commune! And you could all attend the university there.”
We had just been decreed by someone who knew us and the world equally well that we were old enough—and ready (with the necessary means)—to form our own commune. Better than grand, it would be totally far-out.
(Her son, Eric, ever the contrarian, rebelled in his own way by joining an existing commune, the U.S. Army.)
Making the grand far-out happen would require transportation solutions. But that was the only hitch, really. Us four guys bought old Honda motorcycles; Jazelle already had a Volkswagon Bug (but I don’t think she actually enrolled in the university). My brother Tim, Jazelle’s boyfriend, had only lived in the Oroville House for a short period over the summer. He, the hippest-most artist of all of us—and our group’s natural leader—was dedicated to bicycle transportation, so he moved into a house in Chico with two other young artists who had advertised for a third.
And that was how we made our decision of where to go after high school, and how to live our lives.
Things were less complicated then.
♦ ♦ ♦
AROUND THE FOURTH WALL
The puppeteer took the transfixed boy around his small set, until they were on the opposite sides of the theater’s “fourth wall.” The boy seemed aware of the puppeteer’s mesmerizing power over him, but couldn’t help himself. The puppeteer was in control of both his marionette and his audience.
But isn’t that the way all theater is supposed to operate?
The event was the weekly Sunday street fair in the character-driven San Telmo district of Buenos Aires. The puppeteer had an ingenious package: a puppet theater in a suitcase, and a small sound system with canned music. He and his character wore the same costume, and the theater set was in the old cobblestone style of a San Telmo street. So, presumably, there was some alter-ego element in the act. But the dramatic narrative was almost lewd: the character was in a dark, drunken stupor. As the music played—loopy, warbly music—the puppet stumbled across the stage, from wall, to lamp post, to mail box, to gutter. Hilarious.
I shouldn’t be sarcastic. Like any good theater, it drew the audience (me, for sure) into the conceit. As with the boy, I found myself captivated by the eight-inch-tall character. If you click to enlarge the image, you can just make out that he (the puppet) has a bottle in his left hand, marked with “xx” on the label. Throughout the act, the poor, sad alcoholic keeps throwing the bottle up to his mouth for long draws of the demon drink. He won’t stop. You wish for him to quit, to go home to his family, or whoever would take him, or just get some food, water, and sleep. But, no; he won’t stop. He continues his self-destructive downward spiral. To the music. Hilariously. (I never really got the story arc, though; it seemed merely episodically picaresque: “Another Chapter of the Drunk, Drinking His Warbly Way Down the Street.”) (A modern version might be, say, a series of movies about buddies blacking-out during successive bachelor’s parties.)
As for the boy: he was a neighborhood child, out on his own, taking in the entertainment his street has to offer (every minute of the year). Were he to be set down in almost any other place, he would be confused: where are the classical guitarists, the singers, the sidewalk tango orchestras, the dancers, stray dogs, and drunken puppets? I assume that the puppeteer knew the boy, if they both occupy the same general place and time in San Telmo. At first, though, I didn’t think so—the way the boy was so thoroughly immersed in the puppet show and able to be hypnotized by the action, as though for the first time. But then, when the puppeteer had finished, he indicated that it was time for the boy to be on his way. But it wasn’t with, say, a W.C. Fields’ tone (“Get outta here, kid; you bother me”). Rather, it was in a gentle, protective, village manner of shared child-rearing.
And the boy was off to watch the cotton-candy maker spin sugar into magic.
Meanwhile, I was taken by the whole process: how such simple, relatively crudely constructed elements could be brought to life on the stage of an opened suitcase, with string, on a street. In art, there is virtuosity, for sure—sometimes with intense complexity executed at a mind-blowing (or, at other times, mind-numbing) level. But much of what is art in the course of humanity is a simple allowance of the senses to be tricked—by a line or a sound, a movement, or a shadow—into believing that it is life itself.
♦ ♦ ♦
When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the marriage licensing bureaucracy to same-sex couples on February 12, 2004, a wave of elation swept over the city for a brief few weeks, during which the basic human right of choosing ones partner without government approval flourished—before outside forces shut it down (for the time being).
The first wedding ceremonies on the twelfth (including that of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, a lesbian couple of 51 years) took place without much prior notice and, hence, with relative quiet. But, after word got out, City Hall was swarmed the next day, a lucky Friday the Thirteenth. I headed down there from where Linda and I were living on Waller Street (ourselves, legally married), with my camera and several rolls of film, ready to witness and document history.
Ceremonies between men and men and women and women were taking place all over the beautiful Beaux-Arts building, officiated by every available judge, city council member, city official, and deputized clerk. City Hall was radiating with incredible emotional warmth, good cheer, and a dazzling energy. It was like nothing I’d ever witnessed. And, as an incurable romantic who loves weddings, I spent the whole day photographing ceremony after ceremony, capturing expressions of love and dignity.
And, yet, it was also fairly sad: here was this overnight outpouring of adult couples, anxious to get married, forming a line out the building and around the block, with little preparation for the event (except for, often, “only” many years of experience in their committed relationships), but in a hurry now, on this day, to get it done … before “they” shut it down. (Which they did, for the time being. Why? Because such relationships didn’t conform with the gender equation that—at the time—a majority Americans elsewhere deemed the correct one.) That combination of joy and love in full force, versus a hurried rush to beat outside forces, combined with the historic sense that This Is It: maybe this is the end of this form of sanctioned discrimination—all of that kept my eyes moist, and my mouth dry, and my voice catching for most of the day.
But in the face of all those emotional swirlings, was humor—the dry, droll humor that comes so often from “outsiders” living within a hegemony. It forms as a defense mechanism against sustained oppression and suppression, and a sense of disdained resignation that, I, too, shall have to live through this.
The couple pictured here typified so many of those getting married that day: two middle-age adults who had been companions for maybe half their lives.
The partner on the left—the one with the beaming smile—had just placed a ring on his partner’s finger. The woman officiating then asked the partner on the right—the one with the architect’s round spectacles—”And do you have a ring?”
She had actually caught him deep in thought, holding on the moment.
There was a pause, and he found himself. He reached into his pocked, looked to her and, holding his ring up coyly, asked with perfect deadpan, “This ring?”
♦ ♦ ♦
THE BRIDE AND THE PHOTOGRAPHER
I’m not a wedding photographer, but I love photographing weddings.
Linda and I were in Old San Juan, staying at the Hotel El Convento. We booked there partly because this converted convent sounded beautiful and interesting (dating back to 1646 as The Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San José). But also because Linda and I—but especially Linda—were childhood fans of the Sally Field television show, The Flying Nun, which was sort of—possibly, partly, roughly—set there. Maybe. On the show, you remember, they called it Convent San Tanco.
But that’s Hollywood. A lot of The Flying Nun was shot on a sound stage or around southern California; and various location exteriors were composites of different particular San Juan spots that were not necessarily connected geographically. But, most definitely, the wide alleyway staircase on the left side of the Hotel El Convento was, without a doubt, the stairs that Sister Bertrille strolled up, stopped, and looked back coyly to the camera in the show’s ending credits. And I’ve got pictures of Linda posing in the same manner in the same place, to prove it.
There were other aspects of Old San Juan that I loved. But, frankly, I’m not a tropical weather guy. So mostly I wanted to sit in the miniature park in front of the hotel, under the tree, and admire the splendor of the San Juan Cathedral across the street. It’s the oldest cathedral in the western hemisphere. Mid-day, the cruise ships would dock at port and release their hoards between meals. They would race up the hill in rented electric golf carts, pause through a rolling stop, point their pocket cameras at the cathedral, and, click. Then back for dinner with their new friends from Charlotte and Cleveland.
But one afternoon, with bells ringing, we realized that weddings were held in the cathedral on Saturdays.
“Well, let’s go see.”
Assuming the best, I changed into my laundered white dress shirt (and actual pants and shoes); and, of course, I brought my camera. Because, I love to photograph weddings.
Wedding photography, of my sort, is just like photographing tourists or majorettes. The prospective subjects simply expect it; photography is what happens at weddings. Plus, better than tourists (but not as good as majorettes), the prospective subjects are dressed up and perky. Previously, all of the weddings I’d photographed were those of friends, almost all done with an actual wedding photographer hired to get the expected stuff. My method is too informal and mixed with conversation and dancing. But photographing the weddings of strangers, uninvited … well, as I’ve said, “Let’s go see.”
It was Marie and Ricardo’s big day. The guests were still arriving. Ricardo looked tall, dark, and handsome, standing at the entrance—maturely greeting both guests and tourists, alike.
The Cathedral was not closed to the public for Marie and Ricardo’s big day. So, even those in their tropic-moist t-shirts, cargo shorts, and flip-flops (what is it about people?) were allowed to mingle through the entry and into the nave, with their pocket cameras out. Click.
I made a point of introducing myself to Ricardo. “A travel photographer,” I might have fudged a bit (rather than “traveling photographer”) (or, maybe, even, more properly, “tourist photographer”). Oh, well. But I also congratulated him on his big day, told him my love for weddings, that his wedding would add a perfect bit of local detail to my “images of Old San Juan,” and, “Would it be all right if I took some pictures from the sidelines?”
“You’re welcome to,” he said, beaming, and shaking my hand. “I’d be honored.”
What a guy, that Ricardo.
So I also cleared it with the photographer, James Perez, boldly growing my title to “travel photographer who captures local color.”
James was also seemingly flattered, and incredibly gracious, as I calmly made note in my reporter’s book and gave him my business card (which, it should be said, even amateurs can buy and have made).
Thus granted permission to interject myself, I tried my best to honor their brave naivete and remain as deferential as I possibly could: out of James’s way while he did his professional work. I had experience with this; after all, most of the weddings I’d photographed were in such circumstances (though as a formally invited guest). But the tug is great when I’m in photo mode so, as with past weddings, I had to consciously remain out of sight lines, avoid hovering around the primary subjects, and pull myself back when I found myself reflexively creeping into the scene (here, with too much assumed familiarity). Yet, as I sampled James’s disposition through regular eye contact, before, during, and after the ceremony, never did he project an annoyance with my “team work.”
But for me, it wasn’t work. While I was adding local color to my travel photography, James was the one working that day. (And he would do so for countless hours over many days thereafter—pulling together his product for his anxious clients.) So while maybe you thought the subject of this post was Old San Juan or the convent or the cathedral, the bride and/or groom, or the wedding itself (but, hopefully, not Sally Field and Sister Bertrille)—my apologies for this circumlocution. No, my subject in this post is photographer James Perez—and all professional, talented, detail-oriented wedding photographers everywhere.
I had promised James that I would send him a set of my photos. We communicated later when I got back to Oakland, and I actually mailed him a disc of all my images from Marie and Ricardo’s event. But I got the address wrong, and the package was returned. By that time it was pointless.
And, frankly, all along it was merely a matter of courtesy—as an acknowledgment for his generosity, rather than something that he might want to include in his package of photos. That would be silly, no matter what kind of photographer James was. But, it turns out, James is an accomplished master of his craft: check out his website at www.byjames.com and see.
Still, on the coming fifth anniversary of Marie and Ricardo’s wedding, I want to thank him once again.
♦ ♦ ♦
ON THE VERGE OF YES
Disguised as a tourist photographer, I photograph tourists. The famous sites are settings for the non-famous to be observed observing.
But sometimes the tourists aren’t observing—not the sites, at least. Sometimes their observations are inward and intimate, out in the world in a cocoon of private emotions.
On this day, Saturday, July 20, 2002, I was circling the base of the Memorial to Queen Victoria, out in front of Buckingham Palace, not finding much in the way of interesting architecture worthy of capturing for my own posterity. (There is plenty of that to be found in books and postcards.) Rather—as always—it was the people, from all over, who had made their way to where the Queen sometimes resides (She wasn’t there on this day: no “Royal Standard” was flying on the flag pole, came the murmurings of the more knowledgeable tourists at hand.) They were mingling and ogling, checking their view against their books, pointing out details to their bored kids … photographing each other with the famous attraction as their backdrop, as I photographed them. Click. And romantic couples held and hugged, as the late afternoon mid-summer sun threw nice light and long shadows across the scene. Click.
Around the turn, on the rim of the base, ignoring the Palace and the Memorial statuary, a young couple seemed deep in conversation. They were attached to—but detached from—a group of maybe college-age students, on a field trip to London (seen there in the background). A beautiful pair: he, mocha and slim, trim and handsome; she, lithe and long-haired, sandy and sweet.
So I lingered and cast my attention outward, beyond them, to the house without the standard, feigning interest in what they ignored. Peripherally, with eyes and ears, I couldn’t quite make out the details or, now, quote actual statements, but I was getting a strong sense that this was a moment unfolding.
He seemed to be making a case—not for himself, but for them, as a couple. Had they yet initiated a romance—maybe on this trip? Or was it a classmates’ friendship that was suddenly growing, away from home? Those seemed to be the two scenarios most probable—from that ephemeral language which I was receiving, as though on a signal not for my reception.
In truth, it was they who were not receiving me, as I moved in closer, camera up, as though to the distant palace.
A question had just been posed. I heard him say (my only quotable line), “Well?” in a friendly, coaxing, hopeful way. He was looking for an affirmative.
And she thought, as I framed, knelt, and drew in close.
And there I was, in the midst of their romantic consideration, the answer not yet given.
So I confessed: the palace was not the subject of my interest and, by way, interjected my favor to his standing inquiry: “You two are such a cute couple!”
His face lit with popular recognition—understood by an outside party, and he gestured to her with a beaming smile the proof of his conviction. And together they laughed and she adopted his smile, and they turned it at me. With it, they gave note of both: a) the absurdity of my action, and b) the truth of my judgment.
And I continued on my way, but I was not finished with them. I photographed several more people, interesting and engaging, rounding the monument. And then to return. By this time, the answer seemed to have been arrived at mutually, as they sat closer, upright, face to face, wiping cheeks of tears, and offering a confirming greeting to me.
The answer appears to have been yes.
♦ ♦ ♦
Happy birthday, gorgeous.
Linda’s exactly two-weeks younger than me, but I almost always feel like I’m the old man when it comes to mustering the energy to keep up with her. So, for her birthday, I present a rare sight: Linda napping, while on vacation.
How we approach travel is starkly different. She: multiple guide books already read, then re-read on the plane, with lists and specific ideas of where to go, before we even get there. Me: show up with my camera.
I pretty much like to wander, picking up on situational cues. I love to walk a lot. That’s something we both have in common. But I love to walk just for its own sake, and because it aids in random observation. Linda walks routes, worked out from maps and Rick Steves’ directions, with specific points of interest all along the way. And then, always (or almost always), we defer to the other, so we end up with a happy blend of thoroughness and serendipity.
But as much as I love the physicality of walking (at home or abroad), I also like taking it easy. And Linda doesn’t mind me opting-out a couple of hours, maybe in the middle of the day—especially in the middle of the day, when my blood sugar (or whatever it is) starts to make me a bit cranky. I go back to the hotel, strip down to my underwear, have a cookie and some coffee, read the Herald Tribune, and take a nap. I’m big on napping.
Occasionally, Linda will succumb to the tug of a long hot day and join me on the hotel bed, using my captured blue jeans for a blankie.
That’s when I get to admire her petite form, graceful arms, and Anatolian features—my favorite person on the whole earth, there on the bedspread, Paris outside, here is my camera.
♦ ♦ ♦
Having arrived the evening before, we kept awake our new friends, young Calum and his older brother Miles, beyond Calum’s needs for a rested 8:30 a.m. bowl of Weatabix, prior to starting the day. The boys and their mom were going to show us around their home town.
Linda and I were visiting old friends, Elizabeth and John. They had fallen in love in graduate school, got married, then became academics in Great Britain, scholars of European Union political and economic issues, based out of Edinburgh. Elizabeth was one of Linda’s college roommates at Chico State. And we knew John through a mutual friend, from his brief post-college career as disc-jockey in Los Angeles.
Now their kids are Scottish.
Funny, meeting growing children of old friends for the first time, hearing them talk, and recognizing the power of place on a voice. They have a brogue, and refer to elevators as lifts and trunks as boots, and say any manner instead of all kinds. They even have Scottish-appropriate names. And, yet, to their friends they’re the Americans, with a love for baseball and annual visits back to the relatives, where they pick up slang and say, “Howyadooin?”
We were heading to one of their favorite places—Our Dynamic Earth—the science museum out by the castle. (Calum’s older brother is the subject of “Miles Explores Dynamic Earth,” a photo in my book, Relationships.) But, right now, Calum was barely stirring.
Funny, too, how travel brings out the camera for ordinary moments that, at least, I so often neglect to record at home. But, for reasons of here-and-only-now urgency, I find that I can count on doing it far from home. I’m glad it happens someplace, at some time and, in this instance, with old (and new) friends: capturing the quotidian.
Good morning, Calum. Howyadooin?
♦ ♦ ♦
Linda and I were traveling with friends Rick, Strawberry Steve, and Robert K., plus two big bottles of Bekerovka—a potent wormwood liquor that’s a specialty of the region—on the overnight train from Prague to Krakow. And that was just the start of it.
It was a late afternoon October train out of Prague, so we hung out in the narrow passageway of our carriage with the doors to our sleeper rooms open, sipping Bekerovka and enjoying the bare golden brown of the Czech countryside rocking by.
On the train, first we got drunk off the Bekerovka. Early on, it tasted horrible—like witch hazel, maybe. But then it tasted alright—like maybe witch hazel that wasn’t actually poisonous. I believe that our intent was to bring at least one bottle back home with us. Then, somehow, we acquired from the walrus conductor (an actual walrus) an assortment of almost cold Czech beer. (I never quite figured out how the acquisition came about. But Rick, Robert, and Steve had the will to: first, decipher what the walrus conductor was all about; then, to befriend him; finally, to engage him in the grey-market commerce he was running. Basically, the walrus conductor sold what little booze he could spare from his own consumption needs to select passengers from his secret stash.) The short of it, we got more drunk than we already were—even Linda (poor thing)—and a lot more drunk than any of us desired, or imagined, before our start.
And then we passed-out to the jiggly ride through the Polish frontier.
However, our sulfuric unconsciousness was broken semi-regularly through the wee hours by border guards with Kalashnikovs, knocking on our cabin doors, entering without greeting, examining our passports, examining our sallow faces—seemingly unconvinced—but then leaving without stating judgment. Why it happened more than once (or, even, say, twice: like maybe once on the Czech side and then again on the Polish side of the border), I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it happened a hundred times that night. (I lost count at eighty-something.)
We arrived at Krakow, finally, at 6:30 a.m.
Our hotel, “a short walk from the station,” was: a mile in one direction, then a mile and two blocks in the other, past the huge, hard-edged, Russian embassy’s grounds—and its beady guards on watch—twice.
Poland was putting on a super-bright version of Indian summer for our visit, not being nearly the cold, “eastern front” that we’d packed and dressed for before leaving Prague.
By 7:30, when we pulled up our luggage (in a heel-hitting tumble) to the entrance of our hotel—the Soviet-era Dom Turysty—we found an eastern-European smokers convention in full swing (already going, or continuing from the night before, we knew not), in which the requirement was that: everybody had a least one lit cigarette between their lips, another between their fingers, with extras smoldering in the ashtrays, all mixed with some sort of ground-bark filler that made them smell like a coal fire that was not yet hot enough to boil turnips.
Our rooms would not be ready until we’d died. So we checked our luggage down a long linoleum hallway, with a woman sitting on a stool at the entrance of an unlit room, who—not astonishingly, at this point—was our very same walrus conductor from the night before in an ill-fitting peasant’s dress and head scarf, and who spoke at us past her cigarette in the backwards language called “Polish.”
Luckily, the Dom Turysty hotel was on the edge of the Planty.
Here things do get better. The Planty is a big, wide, tree-filled park that encircles the city’s central castle. And it has benches.
That’s where we spent the first morning of our hangover.
Here is Rick with his (surrounded by a soft blanket of beautiful autumn leaves).
I took his picture—CLANG!—and my brain split open right there.
♦ ♦ ♦
MORNING ROADSIDE WASHUP
Tom called, inviting me to join him in flying out to New York to help drive his sister Sue’s car from Poughkeepsie to Martinez, assisting in her move back to the Bay Area.
It was June 1988, I had a brand-new master’s degree, a temporary part-time community college teaching job set for the fall, and nothing else really planned until then, so a small adventure in the meantime was welcomed.
We decided to take the northern route across the U.S.: Canada’s Highway 1.
We had been college roommates eight years earlier (and, before that, suddenly best friends in my last semester of high school), but Tom and I hadn’t spent a lot of quality time together for a few years, so the trip would allow us to revisit our days of living in tight quarters, enjoying endless rambling conversation.
Our travels took me on my first-ever “foreign” adventure, as we skimmed past Montreal, through Ottawa, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, around the top of the Great Lakes, and through the great, broad provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (before dipping down into Montana). It was my first experience spending another country’s currency and buying Cuban cigars (which we used nightly, as we camped across Canada, and found that mosquitoes form a stable state after sun hits thawing soil. Our presence each night merely represented an attempt to displace existing mosquitoes. And: Cuban cigars work for some things, but not dis-attracting mosquitoes from airspace that includes capillary-rich young skin.).
This picture was taken the morning after the summer solstice, somewhere in Saskatchewan at a roadside rest stop—a remarkably few short hours after we got to experience our highest latitude sunset yet-to-date (about two hours later than what I had ever witnessed in my Californian life). It was a night that we “slept” in the car on the highway median (with mosquitoes proving that cars aren’t air-tight). (If they were, you’d die from carbon dioxide, rather than mosquitoes.)
Having spent the night stimulating our scalps’ oil glands through scratching, we needed to coif our road-head hair. So we took turns shampooing and rinsing with glacial water pumped from the last Ice Age.
Good Morning, Canada!
♦ ♦ ♦
MISS MARGARET ADVISES REV. DENNIS
Just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, there it was: “Margaret’s Grocery & Market, The Home of the Double-Headed Eagle.” It was a classic rural southern property, consumed in “outsider art,” loaded with improvised architectural add-ons and hand-painted signs declaring both God’s love and Biblical supremacy.
“Uh-oh,” I uttered.
I was driving, and not yakking, which is why I saw it. Why the foreboding was because I was traveling with Linda, of course, and a good friend of ours, Julie. The two of them had nicknames for each other: Julie was “Dange” (short for “danger”) and Linda was “Dare” (short for “daring”).
Yes, I know: their nicknames were ridiculous exaggerations. But, acting as their driver, and being who I am, I saw myself as the mild-mannered foil to those two impetuously curious women. And that had me worried. What I was driving was a rented Cadillac. We were on Highway 61, traveling from New Orleans to Memphis. It was May 1993, and we would be in each city for their respective Jazz and Blues festivals. So that was pretty exciting. It was all that rural Deep South in between that had me worried.
A liberal white Yankee secular humanist metro-sexual atheist from San Francisco in the heart of, ironically, the very cultural mother lode that informs almost every note of music I listen to, can find much to be self-conscious with—such as simply using the term “informs” within this sentence in this region of the world.
But, sometimes the mild-mannered among us are self-aware enough to recognize the benefits of putting aside our nervousness and following others who have a better sense of fun and adventure.
“YESSSS!!!” screamed Dange and Dare, as they stopped talking for a moment and witnessed the object of my foreboding. Well, having signed-up for embarrassment and discomfort (“fun and adventure”), I plunged into quick action, overriding my instincts, cut against oncoming traffic, and brought the non-pink Cadillac to a dusty stop in Miss Margaret’s parking lot.
Nevertheless, instincts have their own voice, and mine voiced skepticism. I wondered out loud if someone, such as myself—who was definitely not seeking the salvation offered in the signage—would be welcome.
“Ah, come on,” Dange said, “it says, ‘All Is Welcome’!”
Ugh. But Dange and the sign were right.
It might have been Miss Margaret who owned the grocery, but it was the Reverend H.D. Dennis who made the store a church and marketed its religion. Miss Margaret was mostly quiet and, I would say, circumspect; Rev. Dennis was garrulous with folk wisdom and citation of scripture.
He invited us in.
Miss Margaret agreed: “Come in.”
Then the Reverend gave us an excited, fascinating, and even warm, sweet, and friendly tour of his holdings. All of his holdings. Most of it was odd, disconnected objects—religious and otherwise—painted and decorated in the classic manner of outsider art, with lines of misspelled text, and grand statements of God, admonitions about sin, and instructions for salvation everywhere. After a physical tour of the art and signage—with him reading aloud much of it—he pulled out a huge scrap book of news clippings about himself. (That was pretty interesting—and impressive—as it included some human-interest pieces from national magazines.)
But the primary focus of his whole religious enterprise was a banker’s box-size, painted wooden “ark,” that was gilded with Christmas tree ornaments and hobby store appliques, fabric, and plastic trim. Inside, the walls were lined with white “silk” and mirrors—both attached with double-stick tape—containing two plastic plaques inscribed, simply, with the Roman numerals I through X.
“Those represent the Ten Commandments,” I announced brightly.
“These ARE the Ten Commandments,” the Reverend corrected me, with a certitude sounding not at all metaphorical.
After about an hour, I was fascinated and charmed, and sincere in my admiration for the world he has created for himself and his curious visitors. But I had not become a convert to his odd mix of Judeo-Christian and Masonic beliefs. Nevertheless, I did find him to be a welcoming individual, and Miss Margaret seemed proud of him in her non-effusive way. So I asked if I could get a picture of the Reverend and Miss Margaret.
That’s when, on Miss Margaret’s insistence, he began fixing his tie and collar.
And—click—that’s when I took this picture.
I remember wishing that I could—right then—announce, “Thanks! Got it. Great picture!” and put my camera down—because I knew that this would be the picture. This was the authentic moment.
But I knew that a side-by-side sit-down pose was expected. After all, I had asked them if I could take their picture. (Miss Margaret supervising the Reverend Dennis fixing his collar—that’s no picture.) So I did. And that second shot—with them sitting next to each other, posed—lacks both photographically and emotionally.
In life, I resist movement away from the comfort of familiarity and patterns of habit. But with a camera, I seek un-posed moments.
And, so—a cash contribution made to their church—we were off, heading back up Highway 61, seeking more danger and daring … which, I can now admit was all pretty mild-mannered stuff. But fun to imagine before it happens.
♦ ♦ ♦
STARTLED NEAR SPITALFIELDS
I used to love this photograph. Now it bothers me.
When I loved it, I had it printed as part of my series of photo greeting cards, and found that this one worked particularly well for any occasion in which one needs to express surprise to the recipient. (“It’s Your Birthday! Already?!!”)
Ha-ha. That’s great. And it still works for me on a compositional level, with all the lines crossing diagonally through the frame to enhance the startlement, the guy’s spikey hair, the third girl’s eyes peering through the fingers, and the middle ones bobby helmet. Add to that the mobile phones being thumbed, the empty pint glasses, and the Fromer’s Guide to Great Britain (visible, on close inspection, to be en français: “Grande Bretagne“; so that makes them French, or French-speaking, which is funny, too, non?).
But what has made me turn against this image is the little twinge of guilt that I felt right as they were making these expressions and I—Click!—caught them startled. That twinge has grown into a generalized state. Every time I look into their innocent startled faces, it takes me back to how I got this picture.
I startled them.
I saw them from behind, as Linda and I were walking through London’s East End, having just wandered around Old Spitalfields Market. It dates back to the days of King Charles I, from 1638 (a troubled period, I might add, immediately post-Elizabeth/James “Golden Age” greatness). I had been having an exceptionally good day of street photography … but with one small run-in: a middle-age mother and teenage daughter whom I photographed standing next to a folding table with some jarred pickles they were selling. Click. They immediately flashed me a look of desperation—like, “These are all we have to sell, we’re on the brink, and you happily snap our picture … next to these pickles?” Okay. That hurt. I get it. But I had regained my confidence, a few comical street performers after that, and was back in my game: photographing people I don’t know, semi-intimately, without asking, in natural or candid moments. Which is when I saw these three.
It was the bobby’s helmet, which I recognized from all the tourist shops.
Even from behind, they just seemed to have that certain, oh, je ne sais quoi of a trio of young friends in a foreign land, enjoying a pint and some crisps, engaging in what was then an exotic act of using a phone with their thumbs.
(The young man’s neckerchief clinched it.)
I set my camera, pre-focusing at 3-feet, lots of depth-of-field for forgiveness, with still plenty of shutter speed in the mid-day light. From behind, I swooped around and, as their faces responded to the suddenness of my appearance, clicked this picture.
What followed was tremendous French gufaws from them, and a big backwards wave from me as I continued on, as though we were old friends sharing a laugh, gotta go.
So, from their immediate apparent appraisal of my gag, they seemed to have granted approval. And I don’t doubt that. Hey, whatever; that was nutty. You sure caught us!
But, then, that sad woman and her daughter with the pickles, King Charles getting executed for grabbing what wasn’t his (power from Parliament) and, later, the general unfairness I always feel when someone startles me—that all began, from the very first moment until nearly a decade later, to work against my general good feelings I’ve had for this image.
Am I being too mopey in my middle-age? What is fair and unfair in street photography? With tourists? With French tourists with a bobby’s helmet?
For me—within this area of self-assigned personal journalism, and having a built-in sensitivity for fair play toward others (especially strangers)—this is something I grapple with in what I do.
♦ ♦ ♦
YOU’RE ABOUT TO BE PHOTOGRAPHED
Oh my fourth graders!
I spent six school years as a volunteer classroom assistant, mostly with fourth graders, in two schools, in San Francisco and then Oakland. Fourth graders are my favorite because—by my observation and preference—that is the peak level for intelligence to co-mingle with cuteness. You can have real conversations with fourth graders, get to know them as friends, really teach them things, and not come home everyday feeling like you’ve been beaten by the cunning ruthlessness of hormones in awkward bodies.
Fifth graders should all be sent to a deserted island, with a conch shell to fight over.
As a photographer, fourth graders are fun—maybe too fun. (Third graders, in fact, might constitute the sweet spot in which character matches compliance. After that, consciousness of fame and/or privacy take over.) But, like I said, fourth graders are very good people, so very shortly they’ll will allow you to photograph them on a regular basis during the course of the year without too much mugging or hiding on their part.
Here is a pre-Winter Break party in action. The subject is Gabriella, who was eating snacks in profile as I knelt next to her, eye to viewfinder, waiting for her to give a look to the camera. But Gabby was oblivious to my being there. Funny. Meanwhile, her desk mate, Katia, was on the other side, looking past Gabby to me, enjoying the humor of Gabby not realizing what I was doing, right there! Several excellent instances of Katia’s mischievous expressions went un-taken, because I wanted a good shot of Gabby. She doesn’t look as good in profile as she does face-on (or, especially, not when in profile while eating). The two of them, looking my way together, was what I was anticipating.
“Gabby,” I cooed.
Nothing. (Except, Katia.)
“Gaaaaab-bee,” I repeated.
Nothing. (Except, id.)
Finally, Katia was losing patience with her desk mate and all that camera time being wasted. And even Shaina, two kids down, was aware that I was awaiting Gabby’s recognition. All the kids around us were watching me point my camera patiently at Gabby’s temple, as she sat oblivious to me—but amused by whatever it was that everybody else seem amused by.
“You’re about to be photographed!” Katia said, playfully getting up and turning Gabby’s face to the camera, as Shaina got up to watch, and everybody else looked our way—which snapped Gabby out of it, like waking from sleep.
At which time, laughter—shared laughter—ensued. And Gabby loved it—which wasn’t guaranteed, because she could be sensitive about things like being caught unaware. (Can’t we all?) But, even as a surprise, with me taking the picture, Gabby knew what she’d be getting: a fair portrayal—by someone she’d known, admired, and entrusted, daily, for weeks—of her looking good, with her classmates having fun with her (but not against her) in a lighthearted moment of fourth grade.
♦ ♦ ♦
WE WERE THERE
If you’re like me (American; never attended a professional soccer match in a foreign country), you’ve got nothing to compare my experience at El Cilindro to.
But I’ll try to help: The shrill din of the stadium was like a subway train, curving through a tunnel, continuously, for nearly two hours. I’ve never been in a major World War II-style battle—but if you have, my hunch is that the noise was closer to that.
Linda and I were there for the Buenos Aires equivalent of the New York Yankees playing at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets. But not really. I hedge, because—not being futbol fans—we’d never heard of either team, the Boca Juniors (Yankees) or Racing (Mets), which are local cross-town rivals on the international circuit. So we were really there simply to experience a big Argentine event.
The event was a celebration of Racing’s 40th anniversary of their 1967 world championship (à la the Mets of 1969). Several of the old stars in warmup suits jogged out onto the field to cannon fire of confetti during the pre-game hullabaloo. (Sentimental me, I got all choked-up seeing them for the first time.) And, like the Mets, Racing really only had one year of glory through mediocre decades; whereas their visiting cross-town rivals, the Boca Juniors, were ever ascendant, in the manner of the Yankees.
What struck me—slugged me in the gut, punched me in the face, knocked me down, and bludgeoned me—was the combined superlative levels of: volume, sustain, and collaboration of the crowd, with each component greater than I’d ever experienced from any American sports (music or political) crowd. And this wasn’t even a sold-out event (again, to note, they were playing at the equivalent of the Met’s Shea Stadium). Nor was it even a close match.
The Boca Juniors (Yankees) dominated every minute of the entire competition. And yet the home team Racing’s fans were relentless in their gusto (unlike Mets’ fans). More scarey: the segregated fans of visiting team Boca Junior’s one-quarter strength numbers were fearlessly savage in their barrage of taunts to the home crowd. Swirling, lengthy, chants in Spanish from one side of the stadium were met with a gale of whistles from the rest. Continuously. Even during the pre-game ceremonies and the half-time break. How could they hold such elevated sincere extreme emotions in the face of what seemed to me (albeit, an untrained viewer) a mis-matched foregone result, arriving closer with every additional minute that the visiting team kicked around the ball? How? And why were the fans so rabid that they needed to be physically separated from each other by 20-foot high fences (that were inevitably scaled—by the requisite shirtless young man on this frigid windy evening—with a frenetic pummeling received upon landing)? (It’s more than that: click to enlarge the picture: see the fence and the concrete mote surrounding the playing field? Yes, that’s a mote. And it is filled with water … but no crocodiles.) (Also: at the end of the match, the home crowd had to wait fifteen full minutes while the victorious visiting crowd were given a head start out to the parking lot and away from the neighborhood.)
I would’ve been scared, except that all the guys around us (Racing/Mets fans) were having such a sweet time contributing to the ruckus. Look at them: they’re downright charming. They weren’t there to kill anyone, despite their chanted claims. They were there for the historic event and, while there, to get a commemorative picture.
Well, photographing people photographing themselves in commemoration with a camera phone is the easiest thing there is.
From the aisle above, as you’re wandering the stands amid the roar, hoping for such moments: as the arm goes up with the phone—around his best buddy—and stretches out into the aisle to include the whole gang, bend down and forward with your wide-angle lens, meeting the phone at the side of the frame, while catching their attention from the sudden closing of personal space, and let your beaming grin—of “sharing this great moment in history”—serve as your ambassador, and you will be met with a giddy inclusiveness, as the guy with the camera phone smiles like an old friend back at you. And …
You’ve made their own commemorative photo better.
(Even if their team lost, two-nil.)
♦ ♦ ♦
THE ALVIN PURPLE EXPERIENCE
Luck is opportunity seized.
“Sounds like live music,” Linda and I said simultaneously.
That was the opportunity identified.
We were unloading our rental car into our motel room, for our last night in Ireland on my first trip overseas. We had just driven several hours across the island, from Dublin, back to the magical west-coast town of Ennis, where we’d begun our trip nearly three weeks earlier (see: “Pom-Pom Girls in the Rain” lower on this blog). And we were looking forward to a quiet evening and a good night’s sleep.
“Well, let’s go!”
And that was the opportunity seized.
Lucky us. Two blocks away, opening the doors, came the blast of our kind of music: a pub-perfect rendition of “Foxy Lady,” with the band climbing out of the song’s break and heading into the coda:
“Here I come, baby … coming to get you!“
The crowd and the band, on first look, seemed all wrong for each other. It was a sports bar packed with guys—mostly guys—plus their very-guy-oriented girlfriends, set to drinking and smoking and reliving the day’s Gaelic football matches, with lots of loud talk—and even the playing of video arcade games—with very little apparent attention to the band set on the floor in the corner.
The band, however, turned out to know their audience. This was, in fact, a festival crowd, there to see the greatest band ever: straight back from world tour: The Alvin Purple Experience!
Wow! Linda and I took our pick of empty tables between the band and the long, packed bar, as affable star, Alvin Purple, thanked the crowd.
“Thank you, thank you.”
There was a smattering of applause but, otherwise, no discernible change in the pub’s seemingly distracted volume.
“That was, of course, one of our greatest classics ever,” Alvin continued. “Thank you. Thank you. You guys are one of the most appreciative crowds we’ve ever played to. This next song … Thank you. … This next song—more pompous and glamorous rock-n-roll, which we’re proud to present to you kids in Ennis—is something we wrote whilst residing in a Hyde Park squat, on heavy chemicals, wrapped with toilet paper to keep warm.”
With that, they sawed into a grinding rendition of “Jean Genie.”
During the break, I interviewed the band. They hailed from Limerick (the next county over), and included: Alvin Purple (aka Paul Molloy), vocals; Sammy Sparkle (aka Ian O’Farrell), guitar; Gary Slitter (aka Niall O’Connor), bass (introduced to the crowd as “solid as a pound of cocaine”); and Ricky Slick (aka Steve Lynch), drums.
Performing “since 1954,” Alvin told me that they wrote all their songs. Through the course of the evening those included, in addition to “Foxy Lady” and “Jean Genie”: “Ziggy Stardust” and “All the Young Dudes”; “Voodoo Child”; “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”; “Ballroom Blitz”; “Spirit in the Sky”; and “I Love Rock and Roll.” In fact, when someone in the audience yelled for them to play “Whole Lotta Love,” Alvin Purple responded with great disdain: “We don’t do covers.”
After the break, Alvin announced, “We’re recording our seventh album here tonight, so if you make enough noise you might hear yourself preserved on vinyl (or CD, as it were).” Then, without referring directly to us (but we knew who he meant), he told everybody, “This next song goes out to a couple of dudes here from San Francisco, who really know how to rock!”
“Cha-Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes/ Turn and face the strange …”
I took that as advice, lucky to be there to receive it.
♦ ♦ ♦
With only a do-rag for head protection, walkin’-around diapers under his pull-up shorts, and a muscle-man Mets shirt over his ripped abs, the Daredevil takes on the KiddyKar Track, solo, at Coney Island. Leaning into the turn, look how cool he keeps it. Plenty of others have burst through the cage in a disintegrating mass of flesh-cutting steel to the horrors—and worse—of onlookers.
“Centrifugal force is not to be played with, absent banked curves,” the Daredevil warns would-be imitators.
♦ ♦ ♦
THE BATTLE FOR ST. CATHERINE’S
“The Battle for St. Catherine’s” (Martinez, California, 1976)
I was in St. Catherine’s Cemetery on the outskirts of Martinez, trying to make some artistic compositions of headstones. But my mature, sixteen-year-old’s contemplation of the graphical possibilities of chiseled text on stone was suddenly interrupted by these kids, who were not so reverent.
They were playing war, running around, blasting away at each other, raising an awful racket, and didn’t seem to pick up on my haughty disapproval. In fact, this particular boy ran my way and slid onto the crypt next to me, taking cover behind its large granite cross.
Could not an artist find peace, even in a graveyard?
About to suggest that he quiet down and show some respect for the place, instead he turned to me and—breaking the fourth wall of theater—held a finger to his lips, indicating that I should be quiet, so as to not give away his location.
With that, I was suddenly brought into his world—a player in this game of war—maybe as my favorite combat photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith on Saipan.
Now I had two loyalties: one was to not give up his position; the other was to not lose a great shot.
I deftly pivoted and shimmied to better situate myself in line with him and the granite cross. Tension and danger hung in the air like kerosene, as he assessed his options and I framed my image.
The next moment, he launched his deadly attack, only to quickly then pay the price with his own life, writhing in a spastic dance of machine-gun fire.
♦ ♦ ♦
“Alhambra’s Royalty” (Martinez, California, 1975)
Queen and King, Rhonda Jones and Paul Jester made their way from the selection line to the processional path for their coronation. Seeing an opportunity, I impudently ran to the front with my camera, and then back up into the pathway, under the canopy of batons and flags. There, to great laughter from the astonished crowd, I became part of the spectacle, walking backwards in a crouch, snapping away, leading the newly anointed royalty through to their crowning glory. And, as a sudden and unwitting supporting player (in a show-within-a-show during the Homecoming Rally) I maybe hammed it up a bit more than my original impulse—which was to simply get a great shot on my first big assignment for our school’s yearbook, the Alhambra Torch 1976.
In that moment, I consciously switched from “yearbook photographer” to “paparazzi” for sheer comic effect. But then something happened, and from then on it was how I’ve done it: By acting the part, I captured the image.
Note: with its appearance in the Torch, “Alhambra’s Royalty” became one of my first published images, and one that I would continue to showcase, as here.
♦ ♦ ♦
THE RETURN OF GLAMOR
That thing clicked in my brain as this group of girls and a mom paraded toward us in Prague.
They were returning from a special outing, having shopped at Tesco and dined at McDonald’s. And, with swag bags in hand, crowns on heads, balloons aloft like scepters, they were buoyantly satisfied, glamorous in their return.
Swag bags, crowns, and scepters … They were obviously some sort of fashion/celebrity/star royalty.
So, just as I had done as a fifteen-year-old when photographing the Homecoming Queen and King (see “Alhambra’s Royalty”), I became their paparazzi. I rushed the entourage, crouching in a backward track, and popped off this shot.
Now, I am lucid enough to know that all of this is in jest. The girls never really thought they were a posse of Czech-fabulous celebrities, commanding the streets of Prague (with their handler deferentially taking up the rear). I never actually saw them as anything but girls, having a kid-girly time, with a fun and loving mom. But, still … there is something about those moments in life when acting and performance tricks our conscious minds into a heightened state of possible reality.
And, as I had done in high school, and many times since, I witnessed that my actions as a photographer influenced the outward state of the subject. Treated like movie royalty, they became it. For the instant of my shot, they seemed to brightened up—more than they already were before our chance encounter. It would only be later that I’d realize: those aren’t crowns on their heads; those are some cartoon creature’s googly eyes. But I saw them as crowns; they wore them as crowns. And, for the moment, they were crowns.
I call the image “The Return of Glamor.” But that’s from the viewer’s perspective, for our benefit—as if these girls represent the heralding of a new age. For the girls—a traveling paparazzi suddenly on the scene—the glamor was bestowed upon them. They had been recognized, affirmed, and elevated by an actual photographer of glamor’s royalty. My own take became an image for my book and, here, on the web. But it is also, hopefully, a memory for the girls: That time that man thought we were famous! And, to a degree (a small degree, granted), now they are.
If so, the shared conceit became the truth.
That’s my favorite thing about reality.
♦ ♦ ♦
DEW ON WIRES
“Sunny days are the worst days for great photos!”
Mr. Martin was haranguing us. We were his Introduction to Photography students, and none of use wanted to go out to do our assignments.
This is my first photograph that I still consider really good. I took it when I was fourteen. Prior to that, I had figured that this quality of visual communication was going to be flying out of my camera with every roll. Like most young people (and adults), I spent a lot of time fantasizing and pantomiming what I was going to do when I grew up. For me, being “a professional photographer” preceded my actually taking pictures by nearly a couple of years. By the time I arrived at Alhambra High School as a ninth grader, with not a camera (and certainly not a photo) to my name, I was about as well versed in my chosen field—if not better—as any other aspiring adolescent professional in his or her own field: oceanographer, veterinarian, firefighter, pediatrician, airline pilot. I was a fan and knew many of the great photographers by name and could identify which pictures in The Family of Man were theirs. I had read my library’s copy Andreas Feininger’s The Complete Photographer cover-to-cover (a 1966 classic in its field that I’ve since acquired; reading it now, I find it to be frighteningly thorough and detailed).
I had a four-year plan to get on the staff of The National Geographic and, of course, that included four years of high school photography. But, when I arrived, I was shocked to learn that our amazingly good photo program was not open to freshmen. So I met with the instructor, a gruff 1950s throwback, Mr. Parm Martin, and explained to him how the policy was was wrong, particularly for me and my plan, and how I was right for his class. Petition heard, exception made—amazed, I was admitted with high expectations (at least on my part).
Then we spent the entire first semester going over all of the fundamentals that I’d already book-learned from my obsessive independent study. (And yet, don’t get me wrong—I was always a good and chipper student, eager to review, with actual hands-on experience, stuff that I’d only read about.) It wasn’t until the spring semester that we were actually allowed to take pictures at-will, for pure artistic self-expression.
And I was growing worried.
My self-image was not finding bolster from images made by myself.
Adding to my worry, was this gloomy day.
“Gloom is good. Fog is good. … Now, get out there and get some gloom!”
Earnest as ever, I took Mr. Martin on his word and really thought about what he was saying. It made sense. Gloom is good. Right? I was going to find out.
Alhambra High in Martinez sat against several miles of ranch land in the rolling hills of what was still a fairly rural Contra Costa County. (We were only sixty years and a short walk from where John Muir had lived.) This was the view from the school’s upper parking lot. The barns and fences and cows were frequent subjects for our cameras. But I’d been coming to terms with getting closer to the subject, framing the background with the foreground, isolating detail, and actually putting to use principles of composition and timing.
“Dew on Wires” came when I finally pulled these concepts together.
I shifted the focus to as close as the lens would allow (about 18 inches), and waited for the drops to cycle through. I picked one drop (the middle-right) as the lead, and waited for it to fill to capacity again. I used Mr. Martin’s counter-intuitive advice for steady hand-held shots: exhale, and hit on the bottom of the exhale—that’s when your body is most stable. The drops and my breathing were synchronized, alternating. And that’s when I caught it, nice and steady, right before the drop fell.
It was a moment in time, though as calm as a still-life. My first really good photo.
♦ ♦ ♦
PRISCILLA, WINDOW HUNTING
Priscilla was a shameless flirt with me, my grandmother Elizabeth often declared. That was the summer the four of us lived together—including Priscilla’s brother Pumpkin.
I was between colleges, as a transferring sophomore, from Chico to San Francisco State, nineteen, and adoring of my grandmother.
Elizabeth was actually my step-grandmother—who had married my dad’s dad, Michael Carroll, just prior to my birth—but she was my closest grandmother, by far. Easy to adore, she herself was a big flirt, which is one of the things I adored about her. Not wealthy, she was classy, with educated tastes and manners, maintaining the all-important veneer of civilized respectability, while allowing for occasional harmless earthiness—properly delivered, of course. Men—straight and gay (but, especially, gay)—were always made to feel the center of her attention when she needed their assistance: waiters, salesmen, grocers, mechanics, and priests. I can’t recall ever being served by a woman when out and about in the city with my grandmother Elizabeth. It was always men, always smiling, always blushing, always feeling like they were the most handsome, smartest, expert men since Adam.
My grandfather—grandpa Mike—died during my first semester of college, leaving Elizabeth a widow, just shy of sixty. A lifelong professional (who taught nursing at UCSF) she never had children of her own; she married my grandfather as a grandfather, when she herself was already a mature woman.
One of the first things her friends did to help with her sudden loss was to give her two litter-mate kittens, Priscilla and Pumpkin. Then I offered my own help:
“Would you like a roommate this summer?”
“Why, Terrance … that would be wonderful!” (She was the only person who ever called me Terrance. My mom did sometimes, when she was angry, but it always included my middle name, “Terrance Michael!”)
And so we spent the summer of 1979 together, sharing her small apartment on Clifford Terrace, off of upper Ashbury. I lived in the study, on the sofa bed; got a job as a busboy at a new restaurant (The Hayes Street Grill, an early leader in the Bay Area “foodie” revolution); and I helped with errands and meals, and generally gave her company.
She kept me cultured. We went to theater, music events, and museums. We caught the pre-Broadway production of Evita at the Orpheum Theater; attended an outdoor symphony performance at Stern Grove (however, I went without her to Civic Center Park when the Ramones played a noon-time concert); and we saw The Fifth of July at American Conservatory Theater. We also went on a picnic outside the town of Sonoma with several of her nursing friends and a gaggle of the aforementioned gay priests. That was an odd eye-opener for a nineteen-year-old: an afternoon of tipsy volleyball and rollicking innuendo, which also included a small ceremony of prayer and communion (complete with a portable alter, wine—sacramental wine—wafers, and a collar). As an atheist, the sudden interjection of religion into an otherwise perfectly secular day made me a tad uncomfortable.
But the big cultural event of that summer—of that era—was the King Tut exhibit at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. This was one of the first blockbuster traveling exhibits that brought a mania to America which included a hit comedy song by Steve Martin. Of course, iconic to ancient Egyptians were cats—stately, wise, calm, feline offspring of Ra.
Back at the apartment were Pumpkin and Priscilla, hair-brained teenagers. Okay, maybe that description is only fair to lay on Pumpkin. He enjoyed surfing the white-knit curtains—as they swirled in and out of sliding glass door over the white plush carpet—then suddenly wiping out in a frothy tumble. Priscilla was much more poised. Strolling through the apartment, with a carefully laid single track of invisible paw prints across the carpet, Priscilla had to face the indignity of her brother, who would launch from behind the hallway bathroom door, then dart into the living room, over the sofa, and nearly knocking over the table lamp.
“Idiot,” she would hiss.
Priscilla identified more with the Egyptians’ cats. “Goddesses,” she would murmur.
The Egyptians domesticated and valued cats for their control of vermin in granaries, as they developed agriculture—the key to civilization. “Vermin,” Priscilla would repeat, appreciatively, while continuing her walk outside and onto the handrail of the deck, scores of feet above the street. She had never seen a rodent, nor granaries—being so far removed from any dirt not found around a potted fern. But she was observant of the flight of pigeons. “Squab,” she would say.
Besides pigeons, Priscilla was interested in me. (She loved my grandmother, too—like a mother; but she seemed to take a special interest in men—like my grandmother.)
“Terrance,” she would meow, slipping her head and body through my room’s door every morning, or whenever I had it closed. And she would hop up onto the sofa back, to the window sill, above where I’d sleep. She was interested in my day, what would be on the menu at the restaurant that evening, what I was reading. But mostly she wanted to know what the flying vermin activity was outside my window.
Listening to me, but not really (“Mwoma wwawa mwwawama,” I would be saying), she never even shifted her attention. Instead, she’d simply declare, “Delicious.”
♦ ♦ ♦
In photography, as with most endeavors, it’s usually good to know your subject.
Driving out of the town of Cefalù, on the northern coast of Sicily, Linda and I headed uphill into the regional park of Le Madonie. Hailing from the Mediterranean climate of Northern California, there is much to recognize in the Mediterranean climate of the Mediterranean.
The mid-October heat slipped away with each turn up the road into the oak woodlands, where the yellow light refracted through the evergreen of laurel, olive, and cork. I wasn’t ready for this; I had thought Sicily would be more uniformly arid. But it was as though we were in the Alhambra Valley of Martinez, which Scotsman John Muir would readily recognize as his adopted California home. The occasional carob or fig would be very familiar to Muir, as would the oleander bushes, the grape vines, and the plumb trees. But also the cork oak. Martinez has a few cork oak—such as those shading Susana Street Park—though not groves of them; but even a single specimen, among the dominant, indigenous “coast live oak” variety, would have no doubt captured Muir’s attention. Certainly, Muir’s other fellow immigrant transplants—the families of Sicilians, Italians, and Portuguese, who helped transform Martinez from a village into a town—would have recognized the cork oak of Le Madonie; they were probably the agents of the trees’ presence in my boyhood.
Into our tweens, whenever there would be a birthday pocket knife—before losing it or having a mother confiscate it for misuse (or stitches)—we would take turns trying to cut a hunk of cork (actual cork!) from one of those Susana Street Park trees. It wasn’t at all like in The Story of Ferdinand the Bull, in which the corks hung, bottle-ready, like acorns. This was a thick, dense, craggy, shell of cork as bark, that was really, really, really hard to cut with a little folding knife (“Ouch!”).
And here they were, in the Madonie of Sicily: tree after tree along the road and up the hillsides, in active cultivation, their sides stripped half-naked of bark. They are a sustainable source for cork of upwards of two centuries per tree.
Overlooking all this familiar (and unfamiliar) landscape is the Santuario di Gibilmanna, a Benedictine monastery, dating from 1624.
Around the premises and in its parking lot were, of course, cats. Welcome to Sicily, Land of Cats. Two in particular took to getting to know us. And that paid off for them in morsels of cheese, crackers, and salami, which I sliced with my Swiss Army Knife (and resisted the temptation to then go to work on the cork bark).
Unlike this Mediterranean bio-zone, I didn’t grow up with cats. I came to them first in college, living with my grandmother for a summer (see the post immediately below, “Priscilla, Window Hunting”). And then I arrived at cats more fully and permanently through Linda, right after college. With her, I married into cats—as Linda comes from a long line of cat fanciers, both men and women. It is her heritage: as Armenians—a fierce tribe from the region between Turkey and Iran—they’ve been gentle hosts to felines since the dawn of domesticity.
These two—most likely a brother and sister pair—demonstrated the sort of physical comfort between a male and female that I’ve never seen in anything but among litter mates. They sputtered and purred (in Sicilian-accented Italian—to no surprise—though they lacked the anatomy that would allow them wag pinched thumb and fingers in front of their chins) (wouldn’t that be funny!), expressing how wonderful we were for sharing with them our pranzo al sacco. (Which means “sack lunch,” but I feel that these feral monastery cats misunderstood the provenance of our store-bought road food.) And they did so in apposition, intertwining their bodies and tails, slipping fur against fur, quazi-amorously. “Ah, molto bene! Molto bene! Grazie.”
And up onto the brick wall, to continue. I pulled out my camera and snapped a couple of duets of them, with the Madonie as their backdrop, the sky cooling with moist sea air, the boy getting more and more exuberant in his appreciation: “Questa torta è squisita!” (But that means “The cake is delicious,” and we weren’t serving cake, so I don’t know what he was talking about.) All the while, he continued his body rubs with sister. But she was no longer interested in continuing this show for the tourists—whether they hailed from another Mediterranean climate or not—when it was clear that the food service was closed and this was all just a photo op for the pink man with the graying hair and his nutty wife who was uttering “cat” in an absurd cross between Italian and Armenian: “Gattieg, gattieg, gattieg” (imitating her grandmother, unbeknownst to our Sicilian sibling kitties).
And I knew what was coming. Like I said up top, “know your subject.” And if I’ve learned nothing in all these years with Linda and cats, it is that cats throw off subtle and less-than subtle cues right when the mood is changing. Ears and tail go down, the stance shifts to a right angle from the object of irritation, and … then, the next part happens fast … ready?
Did you get that?
♦ ♦ ♦
June 21st in 2003 fell on a Saturday.
It was only our second Saturday in Paris, so we didn’t have much to compare it to. But if we’d taken note (even without Linda’s usual thorough reading of her guide books), we would have realized that, from our first stepping out into the market that morning, musicians were performing everywhere. A young woman on accordion, singing broad cabaret tunes for the children in front of the cheese shop, was joined by a strolling bearded man on recorder. And then he continued on, now playing her tunes.
June 21st … June 21st … Why, it’s the Summer Solstice! And (consulting Linda’s guide books) every year in Paris on the Summer Solstice, it is a Fête de la Musique.
(That’s “Festival of Music.” If there’s one thing I learned from my crushing single semester of college French it is that when you see a hat on a vowel, it means an “s” used to appear next. Just ask your host at the hôtel where you’re staying.)
The Festival of Music wouldn’t officially-unofficially begin until sundown—which launches a city-wide street party until dawn. But, this being a Saturday—and a bright sunny one at that (prior to what would be one of the most oppressively bright sunny summers Europe would experience in modern times), we were in for a full-day treat. Musicians on street corners, at Metro entrances, next to fountains, keeping cool.
In the early afternoon, we wandered into the Luxembourg Gardens. And, of course, there was music. An orchestra performing Beethoven?
But then it stopped. Just the opening notes of the Fifth Symphony.
And laughter, and applause.
We followed the sounds, sifting through the brilliant green canopy, along the shaded pathways, to the park’s gazebo, where there was a crowd—an audience—and, yes, a symphony orchestra. At first, it seemed like a monstrously large orchestra, but it was only that the gazebo was merely the size of a house. Musicians were spilling out the sides and onto the pathways and in and among the audience. The audience was similarly large and, in turn, broken, comprised mainly of a single, seated area—in rows of those chairs that are ubiquitous in Paris parks (where do they come from; why have they not all be stolen?). Also, like the spillover musicians, the audience was scattered all around the area, among the musicians and clinging to the rails of the elevated gazebo.
The conductor was presenting snippets of music from his orchestra for the audience to observe, with lots of between-piece patter. He was very funny, engaging, and instructive, pointing out all kinds of interesting things for everyone to listen for. All in French. In turn, like a pre-speech toddler laughing at all the family jokes, I joined on cue. (Funny how verbal and physical delivery, tone, cadence, and context, convey content in language—any language. It is as though physicality is the true lingua franca of the world, if you will.)
So what was this?
Posters stated that he was Hugues Reiner (whom I’ve since learned is a significant musical director, born in Budapest, my contemporary–1960—who has conducted many important orchestras across Europe, the over-achiever). His performers were “Musiciens Amateurs” from the European Symphony Orchestra. This was like one, big, European-wide community orchestra, with widely varying ages and skills among the performers. Later that evening they would be performing inside the Senate, at the other end of the park (Luxumbourg Gardens is actually the grounds of the French Senate) (so civilized).
Linda and I wandered around the perimeter of the gazebo, among the off-stage percussion section and some stray cellists and a bassoon player. I climbed the sides, here and there, of the gazebo, to stand on the ledge with others from the audience. Leaning over the rail, I could take pictures from practically within the orchestra. The informality of the performance, and permeability of the membrane between audience and performers, made this the best, most-memorable classical music “concert” I’ve ever attended, regardless of language. More than that: as an amateur traveler—a new and brief visitor to a fabled city (with more than its fair share of amateur critics)—this event, accurate in translation or not, was crystallizing into a moment for me. This moment was becoming my Paris.
As Maestro Reiner led one section of musicians to illustrate a point for the educational benefit of his audience, a violinist in my section considered a related point.
♦ ♦ ♦
THE LIBERTY BELLS SALUTE YOU
Why do we love to watch kids perform? I know I do, especially in plays and parades.
I’ve mentioned before that I was in a drum corps when I was a kid (only a scooch older than the Salinas Liberty Belles—and Beaus—here).
It was the Concord Blue Devils …
Okay, so maybe you don’t follow the Drum Corps International circuit. If you did, you’d shout, “Holy, what?!” Because the Blue Devils were, and remain, the dominant world force among drum corps (which is not to be confused with high school or college marching bands). And they’re right out of Concord, California—a couple of towns over from Martinez, where I grew up.
But I wasn’t in that Concord Blue Devil group—the one of world domination. I was part of their Drum and Bell “Junior” Corps, which was lower than the Drum and Bell “Senior” Corps, which was the feeder for the Drum and Bugle “B” Corps, which was the training group for the Drum and Bugle “A” Corps—for which the Concord Blue Devils are famous.
One step below my “Junior” Corps group was the hilarious Cadet Corps, which my little brother and sister were in.
And that’s partly my point: the Cadet Corps were adorable to me, even when I was ten and eleven. My little sister Brenda was basically the mascot of the entire Blue Devils contingent, starting as a three-year-old, teetering along in her little uniform to warm the crowd, ahead of the color guard and banner carriers. My little brother Brian was hilarious for maybe the first year. He was in the Cadets simply because he was too young (and, frankly, immature) for the “Junior” Corps. (As a drummer, though, he was on fire, and was quickly kicking my ass—me, two-and-a-half-years older—learning the “Hell on the Wabash” solo before I could even do a paradiddle.)
(We took personal drum lessons from a guy named Terry Shalberg. He was only couple of years older than me, still in junior high. Adults probably thought he was admirably precocious. We would go to his house behind Sun Valley Mall once-a-week after school, and us two brothers would split a one-hour session. I liked Terry because he was one of the few guys I knew with my name in an era of invasive girl Terries. Also, he was nice—patient and helpful—and he would dazzle us with his stick work before commencing our lessons. Then? In a few more years, that admirably precocious adolescent would go on to be one of the monumental legends of international snare drumming. Just ask any Drum Corps geek.)
When we were in the Blue Devils, 1970 & ’71, world domination was merely a fantasy. Back then, the Santa Clara Vanguard was among the dominant outfits (as well the legendary Madison Scouts of Wisconsin). But the Blue Devils were quickly building and growing in talent and intelligence. For a couple of years in elementary school (before my parents divorced—and that was the end of that), I got to be in an organization’s environment that set my sense of how personal and group excellence is achieved—even if I didn’t quite have all that formulated in my head just yet.
And that’s the context through which I see these young Liberty Belles. Sure, the Liberty Belles aren’t the Blue Devils; they aren’t even a marching band. They’re a precision marching group. Their whole deal—especially the older groups—is to do formation marches, basically using the feet, etc., as percussion instruments. Me, I got into the Blue Devils not because I wanted to march, per se, but because I wanted to be a drummer. (Prior to Terry Shalberg, I was trained by Ringo Starr, going back to the release of Help! when I was five.) But I think my parents—pre-divorce—recognized the whole package: personal discipline and unit cohesion (and back again); social interaction; family travel; fun (but also stress; see: family travel); and instruction in, and an appreciation for, music other than what we were beginning to listen to, post-Beatles break-up. All of that, including their rhythmic marching, is what these kids in the Liberty Belles are getting.
But this is the young group. These are the really cute ones.
I had no idea how cute my own Junior Corps group was to those older than me. I thought we were all laughing at the Cadet Corps. But that’s my point: The Liberty Belles salute you, but, truly, they are in the fog of childhood. They are not yet present in the moment. They are marching out of step, not all looking in the same direction, and really only saluting pro forma. Which is a big part of their charm—but they themselves are not in on the act. Still, they have great uniforms; their older siblings are in the bigger groups, and they are all part of a larger organization; their parents are proud of them; the crowds adore them; and they get to march in a San Francisco parade! after traveling up from dusty Salinas (and maybe go to Pier 39 afterwards. Please?). More importantly, without quite seeing it in the moment, they are developing a muscle memory for all those creative rhythms and regimental formalities of marching, maneuvering, and saluting. In a word: poise. For me, the Blue Devils interplayed with my already developing counter-cultural sensibility—without irony. But when I took ballet in college, that poise was built-in. And good posture and timing to the beat still holds me in good stead. So I see these kids, only a little younger than I was, and I just beam.
Liberty Belles, I salute you.
♦ ♦ ♦
FENCE POST AND BARBED WIRE
Rounding up over the top of the ridge, we saw it together: the vista opened before us, magnificently. Yes, another magnificent vista on a cloudy hike in the hills of Martinez.
This was early 1977, the winter before I turned 17, out on this particular day hiking with Anthony Trujillo and my younger brother Brian.
They were not two of my closest friends, nor ones whom I have particularly strong memories of, hiking these hills. Going through my negatives, decades later to make a higher-quality digital file of this photo and considering it for a story (here), I was, to tell the truth, disappointed that this—one of my favorite images from the hills of Martinez—was not taken alongside Allan or Mark or Leonard, or my older brother Tim. Those guys are nowhere to be seen in any of the other shots taken on that roll. Only Anthony and Brian. But in some ways that almost says more about my whole extended group’s general relationship with these hills. It was where we went when heading out of the house on a Saturday or Sunday, or a summer day, or any other day-off during the year, or even after school, and into the evening—when the weather and light permitted, regardless of weather or light.
I had been hiking these hills since fourth grade, when my best friend was Billy Long. He came from a rough-hewn hunting and fishing family, hailing from the Arkansas Ozarks, and lived at the end of town on the edge of the hills. From his house, we regularly spent whole days in the wild rolling grasslands and tree-filled valleys that Don Ygnacio Martinez previously claimed as his land grant, and parts of which John Muir would later manage as orchards for his father-in-law. But Billy wasn’t unique in his attraction to going upward out of the house. Through the years, changing friends, going more liberal arts and ecological in my appreciation for the setting, I came to realize that most kids growing up in our town had some degree of independent intimacy with the surrounding hills.
And as I became a photographer in high school, my camera became a regular item to take on our hikes. Loads and loads of my photos from those years are filled with images from these hills. The visual quality of this particular environment long ago became hard-wired in my mind’s eye.
So sometimes I ask myself: why not landscape photography?
I respond well to the work of others when I see really great landscape photography, with Ansel Adams being the most obvious master. But I never pursued it as a serious subject of my own.
I’ve never had the patience for landscape photography. For me, hiking is about walking. Walking, walking, walking … out with friends: talking, talking, talking. The few times I’ve put the effort into carrying a tripod with me on photographic hikes—even when only shooting with a small-format 35mm camera (certainly not a proper medium- or large-format landscape camera)—I have found it too burdensome, the process too tedious, and whole enterprise kind of lonely. Most of my pictures from the hills of Martinez are like my pictures generally: caught moments of personal reportage.
And that’s how I took this picture.
There it was before us: a vista we admired and recognized as iconic to our experiences. But as a photographer—of my sorts of pictures—I saw the fence post and barbed wire as the subject; the vista as the setting.
So I moved in close, set the fence post with its weathered surface to the left third—my favorite place in the frame—and allowed the rusted barbed-wire to tangle its way rightward to its vanishing point, hovering the whole way below the horizon. Near focus, but with a small aperture for plenty of depth—meaning a slow exposure. So: elbows in, exhale, and hit on the nadir of the breath (the steadiest point) … Click.
Then continue on our way.
♦ ♦ ♦
RAIN BUCKETS AT THE OAKLAND MUSEUM
A severe drought gripped California during my late high school years. When the rains finally came—in the winter of my senior year—I was in one of my favorite places, the Oakland Museum of California.
Actually, the rains came over weeks and months (not a single afternoon), but this is my memory of when the drought broke. That day, I was on a field trip to the Oakland Museum and the Berkeley Art Museum with my girlfriend Peggy, my older brother Tim, and Tim’s girlfriend Jazelle.
The four of us did a lot of things together for about a year, when I was seventeen. I was the youngster of the bunch, thirteen months’ Tim’s junior and a full two years younger than Peggy. The three of them were studying art at Diablo Valley College. I don’t know what Peggy was doing with me. She and Jazelle were best friends, and both were triply-talented: as illustrators, poets, and musicians (but Jazelle was on a whole other level as a singer-songwriter). Tim and I were like best friends, too; so I guess Peggy just felt that, okay, as long as the four of us were spending so much time together, maybe I could be her boyfriend. But two-years’ difference at that age is a big span, especially when it’s the boy who’s younger. It was a big ego boost for me, certainly, and I learned a lot from her; but even then I sort of felt sorry for her—dating a high-school kid while in college.
I remember feeling awkward at Peggy’s house, especially when we retreated to her bedroom. Peggy’s mom would lurk in the hallway, and Peggy would get up and ceremoniously close the door. We listened to music a lot, while drinking jasmine tea. She had good taste. She preferred the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, a choice I admired (even though I came from a Beatles household). She made Joni Mitchell important to me, and deepened my love for Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. But she couldn’t win me over on Bruce Springsteen. (And Leonard Cohen? Forget it.) Usually, Peggy sang along with everything. She had an expressive voice, and she knew all the lyrics. She’d enunciate particular lines with with great literary appreciation (“I felt unfettered and alive”). At other times, Peggy would read to me beat poetry—Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (or the original beat poet, Walt Whitman); then she would read me her own poetry from her intricately illustrated journal.
Sometimes she said stuff to me only in French, for as long as her vocabulary would take her.
I was enthralled.
Eventually, we’d emerge from her room, so that Peggy could drive me home in her VW, leaving our tea cups in the sink. We would glide quietly through the house, as her grandfather, the Holocaust survivor, slept in the recliner in the family room off the kitchen. I’ve always been well-mannered around parents, but Peggy’s mom wasn’t providing me an opportunity. She avoided eye contact or addressing me by my name. I was this lanky, long-haired teenage boy, with crooked aviator glasses, and lacking independent transportation. So I understood her concerns. I wanted to tell her: “It’s okay, this is just temporary.”
And I would have been right.
After seeing Harold and Maude at the Orinda Theater, I felt better about Peggy being nineteen. So I told told her I loved her, as she was unlocking the passenger door.
“No you don’t. You just saw a movie.”
As for Jazelle—you might remember her: she was one of my housemates in our Oroville “commune,” featured in my photo, “House Portrait.” I had always liked Jazelle—or Carol, as I knew her before she changed her name. (This was a big name-changing time. Tim started signing his art, Adrien, which I thought was dorky, and glad when he knocked it off. Peggy was going by Pegasus, which I understood because she didn’t like how similar Peggy was to Piggy. But she always spelled my name Terré, pointing out that it was based on the Latin root for earth, and that Pegasus was a star constellation—which was an appropriate duality for us. But I had already long gotten over my distress at being named Terry, which was a girl’s name when I was a kid, and glad that I hadn’t taken my mom’s advice and simply gone by my more common middle name, Michael, or the more formal Terrance.)
(Where did it all come from? I believe the names all derived from our time as volunteer “extras”—townsfolk—at the Renaissance Faire that prior autumn. That’s when the four of us helped populate the Fairegrounds and generally entertain visitors with our “Elizabethan English,” our wit, and our mystery—in exchange for free entry, space in the campground, and a couple-of-dollars-a-day in food and/or drink tickets. I hated it, except for the part about living there for successive weekends in a four-person canvas tent, the four of us in sleeping bags. That made me feel like an adult. I also enjoyed the workshop we attended, to master the language differences between our own and Shakespeare’s English. Learning that his was considered “early-modern English” and not “Olde English” was a linguistic revelation for me. But I never used it—not at the Faire. I’ve never been good at assuming some witty or mysterious persona and staying in character. So I pretty much went as I was, Terrance, a lanky, long-haired teenage boy, with crooked aviator glasses, in a simple, gray, belted kaftan, over my first pair of dance tights, wondering what was going to happen in the tent that night.) (And, no, we didn’t have sex—though that’s what you were wondering, too.)
Aside from close personal habits of tent living, I learned pretty much all I knew about art from Tim, Peggy, and Jazelle (along with Roz Duncan, who would later be the landlady of our commune). Them, and: David King. He taught the contemporary art lecture course at Diablo Valley College. That was my first college course, which I signed up for with Tim, Peggy, and Jazelle. It was a night class in a lecture hall, where we got to drink coffee and watch David’s slides. (That’s what everybody called him—David.) His slides were of works of various contemporary artists, many of whom he was personal friends with, or had personally interviewed and photographed. A lot of those artists had works right over there, in Oakland and Berkeley (and even more across the bay at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—another regular destination for us).
So the four of us drove over from Martinez to Oakland and Berkeley in Peggy’s VW to see the examples of Richard Diebenkorn, Mel Ramos, Wayne Thiebaud, and Peter Volkos. It was another of those gratifyingly adult days for me. Seeing art in a museum that you already know about from a college professor who’s friends with the artists is head-swelling when you’re seventeen.
Breaking California’s drought—which forever shaped my sense of water usage, and which directly led to the phenomenon of empty swimming pool skateboarding, at a crucial time in both my personal development and the development of a new youth sport—the otherwise welcome rains found leaks in the award-winning architecture of the Oakland Museum.
To remedy the problem—created by Kevin Roche’s design of tiered slabs of concrete in homage to Mies van der Rohe, and not in deference to water’s allegiance to gravity—the museum staff arranged buckets on the acres of carpeted floors of the museum’s galleries, along with jerry-rigged heat lamp contraptions to help dry the carpets where there had been no buckets. The bucket arrangement had the visual quality of a contemporary art installation. I wasn’t the first to notice that. But upon being told that that’s what it looked like, I decided to photograph it.
And then Jazelle entered the scene.
Ah, the human element.
I kept her in my viewfinder, at the top of my frame, with the buckets zagging up from the lower-left corner. I held level the horizon for the verticals—so crucial for Roche’s architecture in this composition.
She turned to look across into the next gallery, held rapt … and …
♦ ♦ ♦
CUP OF COFFEE AND A PAIR OF LEGS
I’m a big chicken, sometimes—mostly when it comes to unnecessary confrontation. A beautiful young woman gives me a steely gaze. I smile meekly. Her gaze doesn’t soften. Not one bit. I’m just an easy-going guy (short of some flagrant ethical violation). Is it ethical to just sit there, in front of ones vintage clothing shop on a Brick Lane Saturday morning in London, as a middle-aged American, easy-going guy, wanders distracted up the center of a public street?
Sipping coffee with a long show of gams. Knees knocking. Hair in blond dreaded braids. Not ethical. No, not ethical at all.
And so I must make my stand, meet unnecessary confrontation with a necessary … something. Still smiling meekly. Pink, turning to red.
(I have a camera.)
Across from the middle of the street—where I wasn’t bothering anybody—I walk straight up to her.
Still, she sips, and gazes. Coolly.
Directly in front of her. (If I were to lie prone right now, my ears would be wedged beneath her high-heeled sandals.) (That close—is all I’m saying.)
Still, she sips, and gazes. Brutally.
(But I have my camera.)
So, instead of lying prone, I kneel. Lift my camera.
Still, she sips, and gazes. Exquisitely.
And then she smiles.
♦ ♦ ♦
VIEW OF EDINBURGH
I love fog.
Genetically, I’m pre-disposed to it, with my mostly Irish roots. I was born into it at San Francisco General Hospital, and have lived nearly all of my life within the inner Bay Area fog bank (San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland) or along the river of fog that flows upstream over the Carquinez Strait of Martinez, pulled thirstily by the parched Central Valley. Fog is good for the skin, easy on the eyes, and great for long walks. As a black-and-white photographer, it’s nice that it’s got built-in grays, diffuses light against shadows, and makes surfaces richly dark and glistening.
When Linda and I are driving home from inland locales, sweltering from the insufferably sunny California weather (that so many misguided songs have celebrated), we drive up Highway 24, through Orinda, approaching the Caldecott Tunnel, which breaches the Oakland-Berkeley Hills—the rim that holds the wonderful fog in, facing the frigid Pacific Ocean (upwelling at the coast from its darkest depths) and San Francisco Bay (where the Pacific blends with the snow melt from the Sierra Nevada)—and we rejoice at the sight of the billowing white blanket that tumbles over the top. Through the tunnel, we emerge into our beloved cool, moist air, with the Golden Gate hidden in the distance, completely socked-in.
Nothing is better in life than a soul mate who shares your climate preference.
Nevertheless … is there anything less useful than a coin-operated telescope atop Edinburgh Castle?
Directed outward to the thick Scottish mist—the haar of the Firth of Forth—it stands next to an illustrated plaque that identifies the landmarks (real or imagined) of the Edinburgh skyline (and, somewhere, out there, is the North Sea). The pairing had enough irony to capture my photographer’s attention.
But when the wet, slickered, tourist stepped into the frame to take her own picture (and, yes, it is a young woman), that’s when I knew that, suddenly, I not only had a better-balanced composition but a moment of empathy. And empathy always trumps irony.
And of course with the sound of my shutter she realized that she was “blocking the frame,” and apologized for “just wandering in without consideration.”
Ah, yes: The Inconsiderate Brit.
After telling her that it was no problem at all (and wondering if it would be worth explaining how her presence actually transformed irony into empathy), she picked up on my accent, and stated with wonderful self-deprecating appreciation, “Of course, it’s not like the views you have in America.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Having been a member of a marching band in my youth (tenor drum with the Concord Blue Devils Drum & Bell Corps, 1970-72), I know that the two most interesting places in a parade are at its beginning and its end, where everything is less formal and you can mingle with the participants.
The staging area at the beginning of a parade is a nervous place. Everyone looks tired after morning’s travels from far-flung homes around the region or from a bad night’s sleep in cheap local lodgings. The parents are stressed, the younger siblings are bratty, and the participants are pensive. One can get introspective images in the staging area—but not too many, because nobody’s in the mood for an intrusive photographer.
The post-parade gathering, on the other hand, is a festive celebration: photographers welcome. Flush from the invigoration of marching and performing, the competing groups assemble for sound-off and awards, reveling in success—whether winning, placing, or just finishing. (I think that most civilians are unaware that parades are actually competitions, judged at the grandstand for musicianship, showmanship, and martial precision.) I love post-parade celebrations, but this particular gathering in Rome, on Sunday, October 21, 2001, was like nothing I’d every experienced.
To begin with, the whole event came unexpectedly.
Linda and I were in our final day in Rome, the end of our first venture into my newly and forever favorite city (more about that elsewhere). We were wandering the neighborhood near our hotel after breakfast, wondering how to best spend our last day, maybe a bit blue knowing that the merely week-long visit was ending early the next morning. From a short distance on another street, we heard a marching band. So we cut through an ally and down some stairs, emerging on Via Cavour to find—yes—a marching band! with baton twirlers! and a light rain to give the street a gorgeous sheen! It was part of a long parade of groups marching for some celebration unknown to us. (Also part of the day’s celebrations was an athletic skating festival that included an in-line skate marathon race and competitive acrobatic skate jumping.)
We followed the parade all the way to its destination: the Monument to Vittorio Emannuelle II (or “Il Vittoriano,” as many refer to it).
With the end of the parade, and prior to the commencement of skating competitions, all the marching bands assembled on the vast marble concourse of Il Vittoriano’s mezzanine level, beneath the massive pillars of its curving balcony. Each group was crowded with handsome, beautiful, and/or photogenic characters of good cheer from towns up and down the Italian peninsula, none of whom was shy around a camera.
A great example of the ready subjects overflowing the mezzanine of Il Vittoriano is this group (seen in the inset), whom I call “Majorettes for Peace.” These performers, with the crooked teeth and straightened hair, wanted to know if I was “Anna Merican Photo Grapher.” I denied being her, but when I lifted my camera they swarmed to let anybody who might see this image that they are all about good will to all and fun for everybody!
(Right there, as a photographer, that’s my main reason for loving Rome. I adore these girls. Ciao, bellas!)
And, in turn, our featured group of musicians was also particularly outstanding. (Outstanding was the norm on the mezzanine. The embarrassment of photographic riches I got from working a single acre of marble requires that I dole out the images only occasionally, lest I be caught as having an entire photo archive based on a single hour in three decades of shooting.) I was mingling around this group, trading smiles when, suddenly—their names must have been called—they burst into their sound-off. (A “sound-off” is like announcing “here”—only, with instruments—when the officials call attendance at the start of the awards ceremony.) A sound-off can be a good way to judge a group’s self-assessment before the officials weigh-in: the louder, more sustained, more confident, the better. But it is also a psychological game of bravado.
And with me photographing them, they kept going as long as I kept snapping. I’m playing a role in this moment: that’s them playing to the camera, as I’m egging them on, crouching at their feet, camera pointing upward, instructing them in the international language of photographers, “Oh, yeah, you got, give it to me, give me more!” This picture was actually early in my series of images of them during their sound-off, before they—we—really started playing it up. The young snare drummer even got so wild and nutty that one of the older musicians had to tell him—and me—to knock it off.
They didn’t win in their category. But they won in mine.
♦ ♦ ♦
ASLEEP IN THE BACK SEAT
The monumental event isn’t always the most photogenic moment of the day.
On this day, Monday, February 26, 1979, I was traveling with a small caravan of vehicles from Chico State (California State University, Chico) on a field trip north to the Oregon-Washington border to see the total eclipse of the sun. We were all in our first year of college, in a special program called General Studies Thematic.
GST has been an ongoing special course at Chico State since 1972, in which approximately thirty-five first-year students take a full-year’s general studies course work together, in one class room, within a broad, multi-disciplinary, historically oriented, unified lesson plan, team taught by five professors. It was almost like a graduate program for freshmen. Because of its cohesion, we could do things like pack up several cars and drive overnight to see a rare solar eclipse.
As a “veteran” photographer at that point, I took my camera and two rolls (all that I could afford) of Kodachrome film, ready to document the big event.
And during the event, I did document a lot of important-looking activity. Our destination was a Stonehenge replica on the Washington side, up river from The Dalles, Oregon. There, I photographed news crews in safari attire, neo-Druids in hooded capes, amateur astronomers with telescopes, all sorts of students, scientists, and the generally interested public. I photographed the graphic strength of the faux Stonehenge (built by a Quaker named Samuel Hill, from 1918 to 1930, as a memorial to the fallen of World War I). However, I failed to actually photograph during the eclipse, partly because it was so very awesome to witness (through special U.V.-shielding smoked glass, of course), but also because it was too dark.
(If you’ve never actually witnessed a total solar eclipse, it is hard to imagine and even harder to convey: the sun and the moon are—through pure celestial coincidence—sized and positioned in their distance relative to each other and to the earth, such that when the moon travels exactly in front of the sun—relative to the viewer—the sun doesn’t simply disappear; rather, all but the sun’s corona disappears. The corona—suddenly exposed without the blinding bulk of the sun to obliterate it—leaps from behind the moon, like psychedelic dancing fire. Further, the daytime sky—moments earlier going from fully bright to merely dimmer—suddenly goes dark. The stars shine like midnight. The highway lights activate. It is truly scary and would absolutely induce a fear of the gods were not the astro-geometry understood.)
But it was earlier in the day, after spending the night on the gym floor of a high school in Portland, as we drove east out along the Columbia River Gorge (magnificent, even without a Stonehenge replica or a total solar eclipse), that I looked back to see three of my classmates sound asleep.
Even at the time, receiving the slides back from the processor (shot in color, presented here as a black-and-white image), this was obviously the standout photo of the trip. I wanted any of the other Stonehenge/Eclipse-related images to have this kind of strength (so that I could include them as part of my portfolio that I could eventually present to the editors of the National Geographic as a basis for hiring me). But willing them to be better photographs didn’t work. Through the years, this one continued to stick out, not only from that trip, but from that era.
The story maybe helps, but it isn’t at all necessary. I think that, unlike the topical images from the trip, this image tells its own story. “Asleep in the Back Seat” is universally understood, regardless of its specific, odd narrative details.
♦ ♦ ♦
In the Spring of 2011, I had finished a show, Hanoi Family Transport, at Rockridge Barber Shop (January 29 – April 1, 2011). All of its images featured children as passengers on scooters. This was not one of the images on display. But because I have a photo blog, I can display it here, and also discuss the editorial process.
Hanoi isn’t that different from many places in the world where the motor scooter serves as the primary mode of transportation for families. Levels of caution, intricacy of rules, and ones expectations for safety rise and fall around the planet according to economic comfort. Hanoi, and places like it, are daring and sometimes crazy to an American at first blush. And, yet, as Vietnam makes strides toward arriving in this world, economically, helmets have come to be required … for adults.
Children ride free—as many as can be fit on board, and are expected to hold on. Why wouldn’t they?
I present these images with an ironic nod to the audacity of parents and grandparents traveling on crowded streets, with kids practically heaped onto the seats (or standing, and frequently reading), zipping along at 30 mph, and the strange inconsistency of only adults wearing helmets.
But while the humor of these images (from our First World perspective) is what I use to draw the viewer in, my deeper message is an embracing of love and utility in action. Here we have whole families in motion together, getting to where they need to go, making due with the means available, within the cultural calculations of what is safe and what is practical.
I shot these pictures during a three-week stay in late 2008. Most of them I got while riding on the back of a hired scooter (wearing a helmet, of course), shooting with a slow shutter speed and a wide-angle lens.
The walls of Rockridge Barber Shop (5409 College Avenue, Oakland, CA 94618) has proper space for seven prints displayed in 16 x 20″ frames. But I put together eight photographs, matted and framed, which I brought to the barbershop/gallery for hanging, hoping that the mounting process would help me with the final edit.
I had taken dozens of images from the back of a scooter, amid morning and afternoon commute traffic that portrayed, generally well, what I found to be lovely and crazy about the great city of Hanoi. My editing began during my shooting, as often happens. I quickly shifted my subject selection from any and all scooters that were carrying more than what we comfortable Americans would consider “normal,” to recognizing the sweet weirdness of un-helmeted children riding happily on board, engrossed in the wackiness of an American man on the back of a scooter with a camera, photographing stuff that was so ordinary. As is so often the case with my photography, the children became my entry to the scene.
So all (almost all) of the selected images for my show featured children prominently, often making eye contact with me. This image, though, was the most subtle of the batch. The presence of a child in the scatter of scooters is only visible in its small hands, darting out into the air. I hesitated to include it in the eight, from which I was to hang seven, because of how subtle the depiction was—worrying that it would get lost in an array of prints that were generally more alike. But I loved this image for more than how it fit, or didn’t fit, with the show’s selection.
That’s not good for good editing.
Good editing involves “killing the babies” (which is such a harsh phrase, especially when actual babies are in the selections to be excised). Sometimes “lesser” individual parts, on a complimentary basis, fit better within the bigger whole. Standout “gems” don’t always do well in groups—be they paragraphs, photographs, or scenes from movies. And yet I went forward, actually hanging this image first among the eight, hoping that one would reveal itself as unfit for the show as I went.
And it did.
This photograph, hand-printed, -matted, and -framed, signed and cleaned, couldn’t hold within the group; its knotted wire slipped its grip, and down it went, smashing to the floor. Breaking glass & wood & tangling wire marred the print, so even it couldn’t be saved for another frame. Editing lesson over, lesson learned.
Sometimes you’ve got to kill the babies. Thank goodness for blog consideration.
♦ ♦ ♦
Sitting for a duet portrait, this amiable fellow’s girlfriend has just gotten up from her half. And there he is. Nothing yet has been added to the drawing of the girl, smiling blond and cute, on the easel next to him.
This image combines several of my favorite elements. I love situational visual jokes or puzzles caused by point-of-view juxtaposition. I like my jokes to be gentle; they should be sharable with the “victim.” I enjoy combining three-dimensional and two-dimensional elements in the same picture. I like depicting process. Performance is a “process,” and sitting for a portrait in public is a small performance. And I particularly love photographing tourists.
Rubes among the jaded, they walk slowly through our public spaces. (They are actually looking at their surroundings!) They buy ice cream, give change to performers, and pay to have their portraits done. They keep afloat an intangible economy that we’d all miss were there no tourists to support it. We often speak ill of tourists, for all their awkwardness. But they are us. All tourists are locals from elsewhere. They are any of us who have ever traveled … when we’ve allowed our protective egos to drop. That’s when we’ve engaged as the participating audience, with generous understanding that cameras are for pointing and shooting. It’s when we’ve allowed ourselves, wide-eyed and good natured, to be lovingly humiliated. And, always, we’ve return from our travels with hilarious stories—in which we are always the butts of the jokes.
As a photographer, it is that personality displacement that makes tourists so easy and interesting to photograph. So whenever I travel, I shift my camera from the tourist attraction (here, the Spanish Steps of Rome), to the tourists within the attraction. As fellow tourists—photographer and subject both—we are sharing in our giddy defenselessness, finding comfort in our shared otherness, regardless of where we came from to be there.
♦ ♦ ♦
CIGARETTE AND SWORDFISH
I love what you can do, where you can go, and what people will show you, when you wander around with a camera in hand. Despite being a forever-amateur photographer, I’ve long known the secret of acting like a professional to gain access and engage subjects.
At the Saturday fish market on Via de Benedictis in Ortigia, Sicily, I was having a wonderful time photographing the people and the scene—especially the guys working the counter, who rely on their personalities to bring in customers and increase sales.
Another trick to expanding ones photo subjects is, ironically: not knowing the language. When the locals are hitting me with a playful stream of beautiful syllables … I find myself moving right through, obliviously ignorant of the rules, stated or not. From the counter, I spotted this fabulous icon of what exactly a Sicilian fish market man should look like.
Actually, it wasn’t like I spotted him. He was in the background, singing and gesturing to the customers and crew, letting everyone know that what he was preparing back there was beyond all our imaginations (or something). I looked up from my camera and he caught my delight. I was his. (Unlike the regulars, I had never heard his aria of grandeur.) And so I took his attention to be an invitation to wander behind the counter, around a corner, and into his workspace.
I had read him exactly. He further gestured eagerly for me to come closer, letting me know that I was not merely welcome, but that I was his greatest customer ever, and that this swordfish he was dedicating to me, and only to me, my good friend! (I’m pretty sure.)
With his wide, machete-like, rectangular knife, he slapped the carcass, flipped it, and—with a cigarette beneath that swooping mustache, eyes squinting—he told me all about what a grand bit of swimming perfection a swordfish is, and how its speed and strength in the water is what makes its steaks so tremendously delicious and nutritious, flaky and firm. (Which is also what makes the swordfish such a tragically dwindling species. The “great catches” of his father’s day are gone. This one is barely more than a juvenile. He didn’t tell me that. But that’s what I was thinking, while not trying to show any less enthusiasm for his performance.)
As Linda and I were staying in a hotel, and not a home with a kitchen, we couldn’t oblige our new friends with purchases of flesh from the sea. But that night, in a local family restaurant, a short walk from the fish market, I ordered the trancia di pesce spada in honor of my maestro, despite my misgivings of habitat depletion. Sorry, Mr. Swordfish. (But you sure taste great!)
♦ ♦ ♦
ACCESS TO THE POLLS
Linda and I happened to be in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s 2007 presidential election, bringing to office their First Lady, Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (At the time, our own former First Lady, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, was the assumed front-runner for the President of the United States. In turn, local porteños were all excited by the prospect of our coming coincidental leadership profiles.) We didn’t go to Buenos Aires specifically for the election, but realizing that we’d be there during the election made the trip more exciting.
This photo was taken at an educational building used as a polling station. What struck me—throughout our whole trip in this sophisticated city—was how little access there was, generally, for those with physical disabilities, from sidewalks to doorways. The only way for this gentleman to access the polls—in a presidential election at a government building—was for officials on duty to come out and carry him and his chair up the stairs.
Despite being physically nimble myself (“for now,” it should be noted), I have long had an awareness and empathy for those with restrictions, partly because Linda is significantly involved in disability rights advocacy. When curb cuts and stair ramps were first being mandated against widespread derision in our country, I recognized that the benefits for a few in a humane society benefits all—indirectly and, oftentimes, eventually, directly. Parents with baby strollers, shoppers with carts, toddlers & the ambulatory infirm elderly, all benefit from making our shared world more accessible for everyone. (And who would now go back to the “good old days” without curb cuts?)
A slow shutter speed with a steady hand allowed the flow of able-bodied voters to swirl through the frame against a static subject, looking less-than-the-equal of those who enjoy the same “right” to participate in their democracy. The barred gates of the building helped accentuate the “barrier” that the stairs presented.
Given the man’s age, he had lived through a period in his country’s history in which, regardless of the strength of his legs, he and his fellow citizens had been denied any and all access to the polls. That doesn’t make it okay now. Progress comes in spurts and, even as the country goes from merely democratic, to a progressive nation electing a female senator as its president, this gentleman shares the bureaucratic and architectural predicament with yet another new symbol of their nation: a mother with a child in a stroller (seen behind him and his attendant), who also waits for the universality of a modern democracy.
♦ ♦ ♦
EDUCATION AT THE ORSAY
This is probably unfair to the girl portrayed—quietly viewing a reclining nude, carved life-size and life-like in marble, on a stair-step platform in the magnificent Musée d’Orsay in Paris. But I couldn’t help it. The juxtaposition was too delicious.
What the girl is hearing on her audio-guide listening device is that the sculpted lady before her is “Woman Bitten By A Snake” (1847) by Auguste Clésinger (1814-1883), done in a meticulous neoclassical style (reminiscent of the great Italian master Bernini). Many at the time found the piece to be scandalous in its explicit erotic realism, based directly on plaster casts made of the era’s greatest (read: “most notorious”) model and muse, Apppolonie Sabatier.
The girl is maybe nine-years-old, in jeans and a t-shirt, with scholarly wire-rimmed glasses, a lank of her shoulder-length black hair tucked behind an ear. Her left wrist—wrapped by the strap of the listening guide—and her half-clenched hand, mimic the sculpted woman’s, whose “bracelet” is a small poisonous snake; and where the woman’s right hand extends up her to right ear in agony, the girl’s does so in study. Together they share a calm, flat expression. The girl is all-but alone with the dying woman, focused and mature.
Would that the photographer were so mature.
I have a rule about jokes in my photography: the subject can’t be a “victim” of ridicule or of un-shared irony. Here, I believe the irony and ridicule is back at the photographer. I find this image humorous—a delicious juxtaposition—because of the nudity and, well (as his contemporaries claimed), the eroticism in the portrayal of Appolonie Sabatier’s phenomenal bod … mmmmm … versus the untainted respect the girl is giving this masterful depiction of tragedy.
She is educating herself, here at the Orsay. And, in the end, she is educating me.
♦ ♦ ♦
Erika and Dave, whose wedding day provided a setting for the above, are here receiving last-minute advice from two matrons in attendance, Dave’s grandmother and his Aunt Fran. I know that Dave is listening, sincerely accepting the Gift of Wisdom. It is, after all, Dave’s sincerity that brought Erika to this life-changing day. He is smart, practical, and creative; more importantly, he is self-confident enough to be openly and fully sincere. That’s why Erika fell in love with him.
And, Erika … do you see her trying to keep a straight face? (It’s only a few hours in this costume … at the center of everybody’s attention. The Bride! I can’t believe I’m the Bride!) Erika is simply one of the smartest smart alecks around. She can’t help it: she sees abstraction better than most. It’s what makes her so fun, and it’s the thing that caught Dave’s sincerity. Erika’s got spark; exactly what Dave needed. And Erika’s now got Dave (the Sincere) to keep her from getting in too much trouble.
That’s what the message being delivered at this moment is all about—appreciating complimentary traits—as Dave will later explain, when Erika is not making him roll with laughter in her retelling of the day’s events.
♦ ♦ ♦
POM-POM GIRLS IN THE RAIN
The town of Ennis, in County Clare on Ireland’s wet west coast, holds an annual music festival, the Fleadh Nua. Mostly it seems to be about filling its pubs with continuous live music in exchange for emptying kegs of Guinness. But also included in the week’s festivities is a Sunday parade.
I love parades, and this was a great day for a parade. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, but the parade was late. Set to start at noon, it was already approaching one.
Finally, the skies darkened and, at last, the parade commenced! Soon, it was pouring.
Most of the marching groups handled the weather with dignity (except for the local Cub Scouts, who took off running). But these pom-pom girls were making the most of it, by far. As they were winding their way down O’Connell Street, even from a distance their enthusiasm was obvious. And one girl in particular was setting their attitude.
At times like these my camera becomes a percussion instrument, and I subconsciously get into the rhythm. I stepped into the street and, as she entered the foreground, I marched backwards with her for a few beats, keeping her in the sweet spot of my frame (slightly off-center). Then, as she threw the next pom punch, up and away from her face, I didn’t even have to think—my right index finger was already there—and I hit on the apex, as she sent a load of rain water into the air, to march through it with a big wet smile.
For me, on a technical level, this was a photographic moment that I anticipated, tracked, and captured.
On a cultural level, this is my iconic image of Ireland.
♦ ♦ ♦
CONTENDING WITH SNOW MONKEYS
I love this image (it’s one of my all-time favorites), partly because its setting is very famous. It’s not widely known by its geographic name, but known to almost all for its iconic images of macaque monkeys bathing in thermal springs amid the snow. “Snow Monkey Park,” northeast of Nagano, in the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Valley of the Japanese Alps: this is that place. Or, rather, off to the left of the frame—to where the photographer is pointing his camera—is the spot where all those pictures are taken. And I’m photographing the taking of yet another of those pictures. Except, this one has “extra” snow monkeys on the scene. They’re showing themselves to be a bit too familiar with yet another of those human photographers.
The park and its traditional Japanese country inn is accessible only by foot from a turnout on the road, requiring a long hike with luggage and gear on a trail through the snow. Along the trail, getting closer and closer to the inn and to the thermal springs, the presence of the Japanese macaques (the world’s northern-most primates, aside from humans) increase and grow bolder. At first, they are seen as distant travelers through the snowy woods across the valley. Then they become trail mates, greeting arrivals, gesturing flatly for donations of fruit or nuts. (“Don’t look them in the eyes,” we joked with each other, as their boldness grew with proximity to our destination.)
The inn was lovely and warm and rustically elegant, and very traditional, with only a handful of hearty guests. (Linda and I and my brother Tim, who used to live in Japan, were the only visiting westerners at the time.) And, despite this scene in the picture, our stay was quiet and contemplative; an overnight snowfall had insulated the sound and the light. But the snow monkeys were so blase about the park’s guests that they were never far from anybody trying to do anything meditative and worthy of such a majestic setting.
A few minutes prior to this picture, I was also taking some of those familiar images of the snow monkeys bathing in the thermal springs, partly because I had to (we had come all this way; how could I not?). But, alas, with no fresh snowfall on their fuzzy woolen heads, I realized that nothing I was getting hadn’t already been gotten better by decades of photographers prior to me. (I believe the first iconic images of the scene in western magazines were by Co Rentmeester for Life Magazine, 1969.) So I went wide and faced backward from the scene, photographing the photographing of the scene.
For me, it is a “lifted curtain” image, showing the messiness sometimes had in getting art. I am particularly fond of the setting, with the snow-blanketed, rocky, forested hillside traversing the frame. That part is gorgeous. And the railing (installed to keep the people from disturbing the monkeys) also has a nice geometric role in the composition, angling through and out. Then, the three monkeys pictured (with the photographer’s wife forming almost a fourth in the background), disregarding (or even making use of) the railing, investigating the scene, the gear, and seemingly critiquing (or inquiring about) the photographer’s methods. The photographer’s face is disrupted from attempted concentration, to fluster, as his wife looks on with an appreciative grin. In actual fact, I’m pretty sure that she is grinning at me, as I photograph her husband—who is contending not only with snow monkeys but with me, as well, the final, unseen layer in this picture.
With tragic irony, I was composing this post at the very time that the northeast region of Japan’s Honshu Island, off the coast of the city of Sendai, was jolted with its largest-ever recorded (9.0) earthquake, resulting in a horrific tsunami and nuclear chaos, affecting the whole nation. I was making some edits, looking up the exact name of the valley where the snow monkeys reside, when I came across the news post of the earthquake that had just happened.
♦ ♦ ♦
When I photographed this staircase, and for years thereafter, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was, in fact, a very popular object in this world to photograph. Prior to arriving upon the scene—astounded—and then, almost secretly, composing this shot (like I’d hit on a hitherto unknown treasure), I had been completely unaware of this wonder of modernist architecture. It was designed by Giuseppe Momo (1875-1940) in 1932. The brilliance of his conception is in its intertwining double-helix: one spiral goes up, the other goes down. The effect is a visual doubling of its density. As you can see, it is stunning. And, with the addition of humanity wending their way down, the photographer can add “unique” elements to his or her 2-D depiction of the true artist’s 3-D design and execution.
A core credo of my photography is, indeed, to capture unique moments (hence, my emphasis on “people not things”). However, there is “unique” and there is unique. This, for me, is not a unique photo. I had no idea at the time. Now, though, I slap my forehead with how obviously popular a photographic subject Momo’s Stairs must be. I mean, it’s in the Vatican Museum, for Christ’s sake! (Forgive my French.) But for more than half a decade, I considered this shot to be one of my really great ones. I was all set to place it as the concluding image in my 2008 book, Relationships.
That’s when I did some online research to learn more about it. Go ahead, type into a search engine “Giuseppe Momo Vatican stairs.” Bingo! THOUSANDS of images almost exactly like this one pop up. (By my own biased taste and pride as a photographer, I would say that mine is one of the better versions. But, alas, not the best.) Suddenly, this image becomes nearly worthless to me as a photographer. Photographing popular objects of architecture or natural scenes is merely a marginal commodities venture into “stock” photography, in which one’s “unique” take is merely a version. That’s not what I want to be doing.
Nevertheless, I got a story out of it. So I can present it as “worthless,” discuss its worthlessness, all the while still presenting it, and really loving it. Good work, Giuseppe!
♦ ♦ ♦
For the past few years I’ve been going back to my old high school (Alhambra, in Martinez, California) to guest lecture the photography classes of Miriam Fabbri. I use my book, Relationships, as a tool to take the students through my images, talk about my particular style and technique, and to give some of the stories behind a handful of my personal selection. (Maybe I should do a blog about it.) Then I open up the discussion for any questions the students might have about any other images in the book. Invariably, this is the photograph the students want to know about.
It’s a tranny performer who has tumbled on stage and dropped a purse-full of prescription pill bottles, which she is now scrambling to recover. Any other questions?
I neglected to keep note of the performer’s name, but she arrived at this San Francisco show from sleepy Sacramento (90 miles inland from the City by the Bay), and blew everybody away (not literally, but maybe that too). The event was a fundraiser, “Work Is a Drag,” put together by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to raise money to advocate for greater access of the streets for bicyclists, ostensibly about bicycling to work, but with a “drag” theme.
I was doing voluntary photography for SFBike, both as pre-event publicity and live-action documentation of the show itself. (That’s one of the things I always tell students: offer your photo skills to non-profit organizations for free; you’ll get interesting access, valuable experience, your work will enjoy almost guaranteed marketing and publication, and, in turn, you’ll build a name for yourself.)
There were a number of drag and non-drag acts performing that night (including for me, a favorite, the Oakland band Rogue Wave—later made famous by the kidney-transplant documentary film, D-Tour). (Another great one was the guy who did a strip-tease while bouncing on a po-go stick. But that’s another story.) This being San Francisco, the drag acts were substantial. So in came this girl, with a full-size, gym-quality treadmill. The performance narrative was about being obsessed with getting into shape, and then over-doing it. I forget what Madonna tune was being used to lip-sync over, but, as you can see, she had on a “Betty Ford Clinic” t-shirt (only party visible), possibly 8-inch platform heels (you be the judge), and a blood-stained bandage wrap headband. She was hooked to an I.V. bottle on a stand, while running and dancing on the treadmill, and popping “pills” ferociously. Meanwhile, the treadmill sped-up faster and faster, a la The Jetsons.
At the very end, right before the big crescendoing tumble from the treadmill—through the air, and smack right down in front of me at the edge of the stage—she was racing on that thing, in costume, at what must have been 6- or 7-miles-per-hour. It was a stunning act of frenetic physicality like I’ve never seen in three minutes.
My point to the students is: get involved, anticipate motion (it was obvious where that treadmill was going to send her), be prepared, and hit on the telling moment (when the face contorts in anguish, with eyes fixed on the need to preserve the stash). Also: keep an open mind, let the actor tell his or her story, and have fun while you’re doing it. Now, go out there and volunteer!
♦ ♦ ♦
GOATS LIKE CELERY. DO THEY LIKE LITTLE GIRLS?
This image—taken with my back to a fence, from the perspective of a bottomlessly hungry penned goat, about to be fed by an anxious child—is from one of my favorite places: Berkeley’s Little Farm in Tilden Park, which is currently without its goats.
The other day I took Linda’s aunt Alice and uncle Eddie (both in their mid-80s, visiting from New York) on a field trip to see “one of my favorite places.” Little Farm was established in 1955 as a demonstration farm for city kids to get some hands-on relationships with barnyard animals, and the like. Going there with Alice and Eddie was meant as an easy and entertaining activity while Linda was at work. Plus, it would be meaningful to me, while revealing of me to them.
We … or, rather, I was disappointed to find that the goat and sheep pens are currently closed for remodeling. Alice and Eddie didn’t know what they were missing. But the goats are what specifically transform the place from being simply sweet to being full-on nutty-sweet. Nevertheless the cows were hungry. They gladly grasped our hold of celery stalks with their palm-like tongues, delivering them quickly to their mighty molars, and down. The chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese were active and mingling and noisy. And, best of all, the big mama sow had four football-size black piglets running around her in their white, knee-high boots. They were twirling their tails, seeking sweet teats, as she rolled lazily from side-to-side. The day was beautifully crisp and clear after a flurry of cold February rain.
But it is the goats—especially the Nubian breed (from North Africa, seen in the photo)—that I get goofy about. Is it a trend? Or is it just that, as I only very recently came to recognize the admirable and wacky qualities of goats—of goat milk and goat cheese and goat yogurt; of goat intelligence, inquisitiveness, and independence; of goat’s world-wide (non-arctic) relationship to humans; and of goats as the revived modern method of clearing brush in urban open spaces, to mention only a few—that I suddenly came to see and read about goats everywhere?
That is, everywhere except for Little Farm … for the time being.
♦ ♦ ♦
A BENCH FOR EACH
The sky was gray and, at times, roiling with wind, mixing river and rain into flocks of wetness, threatening a big storm that … never … quite … materialized. Wonderful. I love that sort of weather—much, much more than a hot, sunny day, which overheats my temperate metabolism, making me disinterested in motion. Fortunately, for a successful marriage and good traveling, Linda fully shares my aversion to heat, she nearly similarly loves a cool gray day (and she, at least, appreciates my wistfulness for drizzle and my affection for wind) (but she would prefer to stay inside during a horizontal rain).
We were five hours in Uruguay, all of it spent in the tiny town of Colonia (a UNESCO-designated historical site), having taken the ferry across the broad Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. I don’t know if I would have so thoroughly loved Colonia on a “good” day. But during our visit it was nearly tourist-free; cafe chairs were tilted forward onto empty outside tables, as flags and awnings whip-cracked with the gusts; and almost all of the town’s trinkets and souvenirs and gaudy commercial activity had been thoughtfully brought indoors (giving me reason to love my favorite weather further). All that was left on the streets were a few fellow hearty travelers, a field trip of drenched fourth graders, and several local dogs, wandering the pier and the parks, never really taking a day off from their particular trade.
Here is one such dog, who joined us as an usher, leading Linda and me to two empty benches sharing a scenic view. Then he wandered off.
♦ ♦ ♦
NAN AND KITTY REMEMBER …
Life and the universe are too complex for there to be pre-ordained events, in my belief. What would the mechanisms be? How many pieces within the universe—animate and inanimate—would have to fall into place, or arbitrarily change course, for a specific event to eventually occur? And toward what end? And why? For whom?
Nevertheless, I am always tickled when a pattern of pieces does fall into place to result in an astonishing outcome. And Nan Wilkinson and Kitty Donnelly (pictured) represent one such challenge to my world view.
Linda and I took our first overseas trip (that is, my first overseas trip) in 1995, as thirty-five-year-olds. Destination: Ireland, my ancestral home. Specifically, Ireland was the boyhood home of my paternal grandfather. And though I could also trace additional roots through my other three grandparents back to Scotland, Holland, and elsewhere (in addition to Ireland), it was the Irish in me that always dominated.
My grandpa Mike and his younger siblings, Maura, Tom, Bernadette, and Kevin, all came over from Ireland as kids with their newly widowed mom, Agnes Bridget, in 1924, settling among their Irish relatives in San Francisco’s Mission District, the neighborhood where my dad and his brothers were born, and where I and my brothers were born. Consequently, with all this coming and being born, we were Irish all the way, not Scottish, not Dutch, and sure the hell not British—which none of us had a drop of blood from, certainly.
My grandpa, Michael Joseph McCarroll, was born a British subject in 1914 in the small farming village of Fintona, County Tyrone, Ulster, near the county town of Omagh. The area was ripe with Catholics, a hotbed of Irish Republicans, seeking to wrest control of their country back from the dirty stinking Brits and their Orangemen Proddy stooges. Or so I heard.
That was the talk when I was a kid. And in 1974, when I was fourteen, the whole Carroll clan (whose “Mick” identifier was dropped upon arrival in San Francisco, to the everlasting chagrin of those who had no say in the matter) held a big “Coming to America – 50th Anniversary” party in the community hall of St. John of God Church on Irving Street. It was “Erin Go Bragh” this and “Erin Go Bragh” that, all day long, plus lots of Bushmills being consumed (a Protestant whiskey, but a Northern one—which is why), especially by my Great-Uncle Kevin, who was all of age three upon arrival, pissing up a storm about his forced removal from the homeland.
And, so, with my grandpa Mike finding an early death only four years later, the pull to “go back to Ireland,” to see where he grew up, tugged hard on me through college and young adulthood. Finally, when Linda and I made the voyage, it was a big multi-point driving trip around the Emerald Isle, with several days spent in Ulster, during a thaw in the Troubles, visiting Belfast and Derry, the northern coastline, as well as Omagh.
From Omagh, we drove eight miles south to Fintona.
Despite all the ethnic tugging that was pulling at my soul all those years, I really hadn’t made many actual arrangements or investigations before heading off to my paternal hometown. (Proof, maybe, of my dominant Irish identity: unable to make plans or inquiries for hospitality—simply show up on the door step with a rucksack and all your belongings, asking indirect questions.)
So we arrived in Fintona, a very small town, on a Sunday morning. All quiet. Everybody in church or at home.
My great-grandfather, Michael Joseph McCarroll, Sr. (known as “Mickey”), had owned a pub. When he died in 1924, the pub was sold to Francis McAtee. We had been told by my great-aunt Maura that the pub was still in the McAtee family, and recognizable by its sign, purposefully reversed, as though looking at it in a mirror.
Well, there it was, “McAtee’s,” reversed, as though looking at it in a mirror. Closed on Sundays.
Above it was an apartment, which had been home for the McCarroll family, with five living children (a sixth, Patrick, had died three days after birth), all under the age of ten.
I looked up and down Main Street, stood back, took a picture of McAtee’s. (It’s a great gag, that sign, but not really translatable in a picture, which simply looks improperly printed.) And Linda and I walked up Main Street, the few blocks through town, off to where the old houses gave way to the new, and back again.
Everything was so quiet. Church bells sounded in the distance. For me, they rang not of hope, but of disappointment.
The only thing open was a news agent—a small shop selling newspapers, magazines, and snacks.
“You should go in and ask,” Linda said.
“Ask what?” I responded.
“Just tell him. Tell him about your grandfather. He might know something.”
I felt irritated and put-upon in my moment of failure. Very Irish, in other words. But there wasn’t much else I could do. It was time for the traveling American to proclaim his roots to the native.
“Um, excuse me, um.”
“Yes,” he said, eager to help, not at all buried in a racing form like I’d imagined.
“My grandfather was born in this town in 1914. Michael McCarroll. He and his family moved to San Francisco when he was ten, in 1924, and they sold their father’s pub—who had died that year—to Francis McAtee,” I said, pointing down the street, in case he didn’t know where McAtee’s was.
“You’re a McCarroll?”
“Well, ‘Carroll‘ now. They changed it. That used to be our family pub.”
He looked truly marveled. But then disappointed. “I’m afraid its closed on Sundays.”
“I know,” I said, dejected.
Then, wanting to reassure him, I told him, “It’s okay. I just wanted to see where it was. See what Fintona looked like. I’ve heard about Fintona all my life. And now I’ve seen it. Here it is …”
I wasn’t being very reassuring; I sounded dejected.
“No, no,” he said, coming from around the counter to help. “Let’s see.”
We went back out onto Main Street, with him anxiously scanning the horizon.
“You’re in luck! That’s the lady you want to talk to!” he said, referring to a late-middle-age woman walking up the street in the distance.
It was Peggy McKernan, daughter of Francis McAtee.
“I was heading home from church,” she said. “I almost never walk, but today I just felt like I needed the exercise.” She said that her brother Vincent McAtee and his wife Jean would be hosting a special Sunday brunch later, and that we should come. But, meanwhile, we should go back down to the pub, because her eldest brother, Tony, who runs it, was going to be stopping by for something after church. As we were merely two blocks away, she could see that he wasn’t there yet, but “Hurry,” she advised.
We ran. And then waited out front.
A man older than Peggy, and wearing a bad toupee, parked out front and came to the pub’s door. We descended on him breathlessly with the full history. After a start, digesting our message, he greeted us like old family.
Bringing us in, he showed us around, poured us each a glass of Guinness (and himself a Bass Ale), while I took pictures. The pub was fairly modern in its decor, with neon beer signage and placards, sports memorabilia, a video game and an ATM, as well as a television mounted to the wall. I tried to see past all the surface to imagine what it looked like in Mickey McCarroll’s day.
Tony gave us a rundown of the pub’s history. His dad, Frank, died in 1931, when Tony was was only 19, and Tony had been running it ever since. “Thinking of selling it, someday, though, so that I can retire.”
Though my great-grandfather had it for only a decade, and now it had been in the McAtee family for two generations (with Tony running it for his entire adult life), he, nevertheless, regularly made reference to the establishment as “your grandfather’s pub.” (He meant my great grandfather.) That was so touching for me, whether out of purposeful courtesy or sincere sentiment.
Then Tony took us up the hill to his brother Vincent’s house. There was a slew of young people running around, kids playing, teenage boys watching sports on television, and a couple of much older women there, as well. In the parlor was a huge Sunday spread. Vincent’s wife Jean was very warm and hospitable, treating us like honored guests. And she and all the adults present, were amazed at our story—with Peggy and Tony excitedly contributing details—all toward the conclusion that this was a pre-ordained miracle. And that’s when the universe started working against my belief system.
Because the whole purpose of this Sunday brunch was to honor the elderly women present, Nan Wilkinson (nee Caldwell) and Kitty Donnelly. Nan and Kitty grew up in Fintona. Kitty had remained, but Nan long ago moved to South Africa when she married, and was only in town just now visiting.
“We knew the McCarrolls well!”
“They went to our school!”
“My godmother, Annie Kelly, used to look after Maura when she was a child!”
“I remember Maura. She was the one with the fringe!” (referring to Maura’s bangs, a hairstyle that she wore her entire life).
“We attended the ‘Going to America’ party!”
“We was just kids!”
“Mrs. McCarroll served a cake with white frosting!”
“Delicious! I remember …”
♦ ♦ ♦
Emerging from his haircut on a Friday afternoon in mid-autumn Rome, his barber sees him off with a big smile and a bow tie. I almost didn’t get this picture, even though I feel like I fully anticipated it when I came across the scene.
From the lane, admiring the setting, I saw inside the shop the customer’s cape being released and furled, his shoulders getting brushed, and then I saw him slipping on his jacket and paying his cash, exchanging final remarks with the barber. I figured I knew what was coming (see photo above). But … the customer and his barber continued their conversation next to the door. And continued. And continued.
I then found myself loitering, where Via dei Pianellari crosses Via dei Portoghesi. So I made use of my time and setting by taking several shots of people crossing in front of the shop, from different angles, thinking that maybe one of those would do–but none of them were the one.
I know that “street photography,” which is my primary style, is a quick method of grabbing what comes. But it isn’t always. In fact, while it usually involves an equal mix of luck and reflexes, it also almost always includes anticipation. Sometimes what one anticipates is coming within the two beats that it takes to frame the scene and trip the shutter, but other times … it is longer than that.
Eventually, the customer did emerge, and my two-beat technique served my anticipation exactly… Snap!
For the picture, the body language tells the moment, informing the relationship between the two men.
But for me, it was the wait. The stretch of time between payment and exit informed the body language. Their ongoing exchange of family updates, political speculation, and/or hopes for Roma vs. Juventus in the upcoming football season was what was holding up my picture taking, but also making the outcome better.
That’s what I was waiting for.
I dedicate this photo to my own barber, Marty Hatton of Rockridge Barber Shop (5409 College Avenue, Oakland). Marty is a big photo fan. His shop—with its long, well-lit wall across from the chairs—is an informal gallery for the several quite good photographers among his customers (including, notably, landscape photographer Nicholas Pavloff). It’s the primary venue for my shows. One of which—with the launching of my book Relationships—included a nice big framed print of this very image. And this image, “Friday Haircut,” is exactly why I always get my own haircuts on Fridays.
♦ ♦ ♦
Today, at this posting, is Conner’s 13th birthday. (Happy birthday, Conner, and welcome to teenage-hood!)
When I took this picture, Conner was only four. He’s the son of two good friends. (His dad, Brian, and I met on the day before our first day of college, in late August 1978.)
Photographing kids is easy, because they have a much lower level of self-consciousness than more complicated adults. My archives are full of pictures of children, on streets all over the world, who give my camera their full attention, gazing calmly or responding exuberantly, in ways that only insane adults would.
In this instance, though, while visiting his family at their home, Conner was not making it easy for me. It was all in good fun, but he “insisted” that I not photograph him, forcing me to make chase. And so I did. He loved it, as he ducked around corners, behind furniture, and, in this, the finale, above and below a sideboard table. Giggling madly, he dropped under the table, and I followed, so he poked his head up, then back down.
Sensing the pattern, I made a quick manual focus, anticipating where we’d be from each other, and followed him up for a second time, eye to viewfinder, ready. As we were emerging together to the surface, he was peeling vocalized anticipation, but he didn’t know that I knew how to get such a quick shot: Snap!
His eyes are maybe not even a single percent of the entire picture frame, yet they make the image and tell the story. But to physically describe what is happening–his lifted brow line, his lower lids grinning upward, a glistening sheen across his eyes–it is seemingly impossible to state, exactly, why it is what it is. But we know: it is joyous, self-induced “fear,” of the friendliest sort. It is a game of knowingly setting oneself up to be surprised, something that all kids and kittens (and adults, as well) love to play:
♦ ♦ ♦
(Originally posted February 17, 2011)
This post is in memory of my father-in-law, the great and marvelous Joe Dardarian, who died eleven years ago today.
Here he is with his granddaughter (my niece), Arielle, back when she was just a cute kid (not the impressive college graduate she is now). Joe was a full-time amateur entertainer: a boogie-woogie piano player, stand-up comic, dancer, storyteller, and constant observer and thrower of zingers. Arielle had just taken up the clarinet as a nine-year-old (an endeavor that didn’t quite make it to her 10th birthday), and here she is giving her first recital to family, with Big Joe perched ever-appreciatively by her side. Squawking through what was probably a rendition of “B-A-G Spells ‘Bag,’” the viewer can almost hear the splitting of notes. But not her dear old Baba. He knew clarinet well, as a boy prodigy from the early Big Band era (who led his first combo, The Joe Baron Orchestra, as a 14-year-old in Detroit), and damned if his granddaughter, “Swelly Arielly,” wasn’t pitch-perfect to him.
Big Joe was pitch perfect to me. As his odar (“outsider”), non-Armenian son-in-law, married to his youngest daughter, it took a while for him to accept me. But I was a big fan from my earliest, as I was in love with his biggest fan, that same daughter. (Actually, she shared “biggest fan” title with her siblings.) Eventually, he came to call me, affectionately, “Sonny Boy” (or was it “Sunny Boy”? I never really knew). And I was there through his last days, as his big living came to take him short in a blustery life.
His manic nuttiness remains a well-loved staple of hilarity among his family and all who knew him, more than a decade gone. As he would say, “You got that right.”
(The biggest thing missing is how incredibly proud he would be if he could see his now-non-musician granddaughter as a gorgeous and intensely educated young adult, quite successful without a clarinet.)
♦ ♦ ♦
(Originally posted April 23, 2011)
I took this picture about a month before I turned 15; and today I turn 51.
It was March 1975. I was a freshman at Alhambra High School in Martinez, California. Photography and writing were my two passions. I was raring to go in each. What I didn’t know was that I was in for a long gestation.
♦ ♦ ♦
FUNERAL AT THE RECOLETA
So what do I open with?
It’s how I opened my book, Relationships.
But when you’ve got a nice picture of a final goodbye, where do you put it? At the end? That would be a drag. Anywhere else would have a similar deflationary effect.
So I decided, as with my book’s opening image plate, I would do it here with my “opening” post: start from the ending, as a nod to the big circle of life.
The photo was taken at the historic Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires. Linda and I stayed in a hotel just a couple of blocks away from the cemetery for three weeks (The Loi Suites Recoleta—much recommended), so we visited this fantastic public space several times, while walking past it even multiple times a day. We got to know many of the well-fed feral cats who live among the granite and marble mausoleums (feeding on cat food left by kindly elderly matrons, not living on whatever you might be thinking). We also befriended a couple of the local street dogs who live in the surrounding park and depend on the kindness of strangers. It’s a peaceful, beautiful, informative space that lends its quietude to the whole opulent neighborhood. The cemetery is mostly historic (with graves dating to the early 1800s, including some of Argentina’s greatest figures), but some families maintain exclusive mausoleums and continue to inter loved one who pass.
A local waiter we got to know spoke wistfully of his family’s misfortune in having to sell their mausoleum. So, even though the cemetery is limited to only 4800 vaults, the rotation of its ownership ensures that it continues as a “living” space.
I did a lot of photography in the Recoleta. But my visual emphasis has long been on “people not things.” Nevertheless, I obligingly photographed the architecture and its details—which I almost always find doesn’t carry through with the kind of artistic satisfaction that capturing the telling moments of character from photographing people does. So I also took tons of pictures of the resident cats (recognizing that my “people not things” credo includes non-human people. Of course.). Still, I didn’t seem to find an entry point in photographing human people, other than the occasional goofy shot of tourists photographing each other in front of famous mausoleums.
Then, we found ourselves entering the cemetery yet again, only this time through a mash of somber people in formal wear. And a casket on a pull cart! What luck!
Er, … so sad. So sad. (¿Cómo se dice en español, “Sorry for your loss”?)
Ah. A problem: I’d never photographed a funeral. Generally, I don’t photograph grief, or tragedy, or hardly ever, even, melancholy or displeasure—times when people aren’t obliging to the act. It really isn’t an aesthetic choice on my part. I’m just chicken. I am the unintrepid photographer. My images are all just so happy because that’s when people are the most amenable to getting their picture taken by strangers.
But then again, I had never found myself at a funeral with a camera at the ready. Maybe, with discretion …
Right away, within the assembled mourners, I knew that I couldn’t possibly do my usual thing: photograph people within arm’s length, at conversational distance, within the scene; intimate.
Down the lane, toward the far end of the cemetery, I could see where the departed was destined. It was where the flowers were piled up around an open mausoleum. So I knew what the path to the afterlife would follow.
So I excused myself from Linda, who was similarly enthralled with our good luck in finding ourselves in this pool of sobriety as anonymous interlopers. (Despite my revealing to you the, possibly inappropriate, feelings we were experiencing and sharing with each other through the secret eye-brow communications of an experienced couple, Linda and I can be very respectful and outwardly appropriate in our moments of cashing in on a rare cultural trove of deep seriousness.)
I headed down the lane, at a proper dirge-like pace, and ducked into an ally next to a mausoleum, behind a tree—ready, in anticipation of this moment.
And along came the the casket, pulled by a cemetery worker, like a single horse pulling the cart of a fallen soldier or president in a military or state funeral. I felt sorry for the man. But then I realized that were it anybody who knew the departed, the singularity of his role would be too fraught with meaning, too difficult to cast. (Casting the six or eight pallbearers of a “normal” funeral procession is hard enough!) His body language was perfect—practiced in the art and the action of delivering a casket at the head of long line of those for whom the act means so much. And the line was long. I can’t imagine a small affair at the grand Recoleta.
But leading the line was the immediate relatives of the departed father: his widowed middle-age wife and two young adult children, male and female. The relative youth of the surviving family should be noted. Whoever this man was, he had not lived out a long life that would be easier to celebrate than to mourn its early passing. What a heel I am, I thought, from behind my tree. Click.
I don’t know. But here it is. I think it’s a good picture, unique among my collection, important in the telling of the story. Here is the story: This is life, as I see it. Or, at least as I photograph it (chicken). Maybe this life was ended early, but that’s the breaks sometimes, and then life goes on. And I want this image to represent the beginning of the cycle—not right after dusk, but right before dawn.
If you are here at my new blog for the first time, upon my initial invitation, with this post as your first view of what I do (except, however, if I’ve e-mailed you an invitation, 90-something percent of you all ready know my photography pretty well), I want to assure you that what I do with images and words is to celebrate.
I am consciously shaped by a period and culture that came from mid-20th century aspirational United Nations America, new to the world stage, embracing Humanism and Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man—with maybe a wee-bit too much optimism. But I’m not an optimist in the macro-meta sense. There, I find reason—maybe irrationally in that, too—for gloom. However, on an individual level, getting to know people one-by-one, even if only for a fleeting passage through my viewfinder and captured by an instant shutter, I believe that you, and you, and you are good and want to let it be shown, and told.
That’s what I’m trying to do here with small vignettes of photos + words.
As could have been said that day at the Recoleta: Thanks for coming, I hope you return.
♦ ♦ ♦