The President and the Press

But for a humble secret agent, [death is] an everyday thing, like whiskey. And I’ve been drinking all my life.~ Lemmy Caution

Today is the day that the Boston Globe has encouraged American newspapers to pen opinion pieces about the necessity for a free press and to protest President Trump’s attacks on the media. I might not be a journalist, but I am an American, and I feel that it’s time for all of us to speak out against these attacks. 

While many opinions have been written about the role that the press plays in keeping the often-nefarious other players in check, my favorites come from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a book that one hopes every president since Andrew Jackson has read. However, I also deeply appreciate Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville, and as I worked through this piece, I realized that I want to focus on the character Beatrice; she represents so many players in the current political environment: immigrant parents who have been separated from their children; the press; and, significantly, the majority of the electorate in America who didn’t vote for the current president.

The film opens with a bright pulsing eye, one which previsions Stanley Kubrick's HAL, blinking on and off, leaving the viewer with the impression that we're being surveilled through our television screens. The pulsing eye belongs to the Alpha 60 computer, which runs the city. This is a city that appears to have fully mastered constant surveillance. Unlike Bentham’s panopticon, whose victims are left to wonder if they are being observed, Alphaville’s residents appear to be under surveillance at all times. We soon learn that this is a city that is run on order, logic, and efficiency, and is, culturally, essentially an ant or termite colony. Illogic is considered a capital offense, and suicide and state-sanctioned murder are common. 

Secret agent Lemmy Caution drives a Ford Mustang into the city, the only one of its kind that we see in town, signifying his individuality. He arrives pretending to be a reporter, and as he approaches the city, he sees a sign saying “Silence, Logic, Safety, Prudence” - Alphaville’s motto. From his car alone we know that Caution, named ironically, is a contrarian force in Alphaville. We also know that this isn’t a healthy environment. 

Through Caution, we're shown the citizenry. They’re restrained, uninspired, anesthetized automatons. Each knows their role, but none exhibit passion. They function simply as extensions of the Alpha 60 computer.

The anesthetization of the citizenry becomes apparent when Beatrice, a third-level seductress, escorts Caution to his hotel room. As they walk, he insults her repeatedly, yet she doesn’t respond. No anger, no offense, nothing at all. Instead, she asks him the same questions that we later hear other seductresses asking: “Are you tired, sir?”, “Would you like to sleep, sir?”, “If you’re tired, you can rest, sir.”

Upon entering the room, Beatrice immediately checks for a Bible. Caution asks if she believes, and she says of course. We are led to believe that Caution is asking if Beatrice believes in God, though her affirmation doesn’t mean what he thinks it does. Later, we learn that the text she seeks isn’t religious in any sense a modern viewer could relate to, but a dictionary of all the words authorized for use in Alphaville. Words are regularly added and deleted. This Bible functions as an artifact to keep the citizenry on script, to control their minds and their behavior. That Alpha 60 is the author of the Bible elevates the computer to godhood. Alpha 60 is the god that Beatrice believes in, worships, and would never betray. I believe that this scene is a poignant metaphor for current events in America.

We similarly see the White House trying to control the narrative presented to the world. While presidential manipulation is common, never have our commanders in chief approached Alpha 60’s level until now; from the president’s use of his Twitter account, to Sarah Sanders’ refusal to answer press queries about specific topics, to the whole administration’s readiness to seize any opportunity for attacking reporters when they ask the “wrong” questions, control is the order of the day. As a result, the news and the people, like Beatrice, become more alienated from the doings of the powerful, and we descend more and more into Beatrice’s helplessness.

While there have been many books written about how controlling language controls how we think, my favorite is Mark Dunn’s epistolary novel, Ella Minnow Pea. Due to a series of events, the use of certain letters of the alphabet is outlawed on Nollop, a small, independent island nation off the coast of South Carolina. Its citizens worship Nevin Nollop, author of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy brown dog” and bestower of their nation’s name. The residents have gone so far as to erect a shrine honoring his sentence. However, the glue holding the holy panagram’s tiles weakens, and letters begin falling off. The leadership takes this as divine guidance from Nollop to eliminate these letters from the citizenry’s vocabulary. So the islanders begin changing their language to remove the fallen letters. As more letters fall, their speech becomes simpler and simpler, as do their thoughts, and Dunn compellingly explores the effects.

Even more than the residents of the island of Nollop, Beatrice’s thought processes have become so simple, so inculcated, that she is devoid of any emotion or true desire. She “wants” to seduce Caution, but only because that is her job. When he fires his gun at a pinup she’s holding above her head, both shots hitting the pinup’s breasts, instead of being angry, she compliments him on his excellent aim and attempts again to seduce him. When he strikes her, she doesn't respond. That is her script and her life.

In America we are experiencing this sense of resignation more and more; this belief that things can’t be changed, that our very thoughts and desires are scripted.  The president describes the Russian probe as fake news, and we shrug. What else would he say? He denies having affairs, and we shrug. What else would he say? He assails veterans, and we do nothing. What else would he say?

But compliance doesn’t always come easily. Before leaving Caution, Beatrice places several bottles of tranquilizers beneath his bathroom mirror, swallowing some herself. This isn't an unusual act in Alphaville. Throughout the film we see the characters using tranquilizers to keep themselves anesthetized. We too anesthetize ourselves, but our culture’s drug of choice is consumerism. Collectively we think, “As long as the economy doesn’t become too bad, as long as the tariffs don’t affect me, then it’s ok. And when they do affect me, it’s too late.”

But all is not lost, as Alexis de Tocqueville, the writer who first inspired the shape of this essay points out. De Tocqueville argues that the press wrestles power from the minority (leadership) and transfers it to the majority (the people) by keeping the latter informed. Information is power. “One cannot entrust the exercise of local powers to the principal citizens as in aristocracies. One must abolish these powers or hand over the use of them to a very great number of people.” The press, in other words, by keeping us informed, helps decentralize power and allows the many to govern, perhaps through protest, perhaps through other means. The suppression of a free press is an attempt by the White House to circumvent examination of presidential behavior by the electorate. A press that is free of presidential attack is essential for our democracy to function properly.

As John Berger reminds us in Hold Everything Dear, “Any tyranny’s manipulation of the media is an index of its fears.” This administration has sought to demonize the press seemingly at every turn. That needs to stop.

It's Not the Camera...

 Ft. Bragg, CA, July 2018. Taken with an iPhone 8 Plus.

Ft. Bragg, CA, July 2018. Taken with an iPhone 8 Plus.

The photographer Jay Maisel observes that if people see the grain or noise in your photographs, it’s because your images aren’t compelling. I thought of Maisel’s comment while meeting with friends who were offering me travel tips. They had lived for over a decade and a half in one of the countries that I plan on visiting, and they provided excellent suggestions of sites to see and where to stay. 

And then our conversation turned to photography. When it came out that I was going to take pictures with my iPhone 8 Plus, at least at the beginning of my journey, I was subtly chastised. The iPhone, I was told, isn’t a real camera, and our discussion turned to talk of sensors and lens quality, best brands, and a terrific showing of books that they had published from an online publishing company similar to Apple Books. But the most essential discussion didn't occur. 

Because photography is such a technical art, it lends itself to these technical conversations. In the old days, it was 'what film are you using?' 'Which zone are you placing your shadows (if you were shooting black and white)?' Now it’s ‘what camera are you using (because the sensor matters)?' 'What software for post?' 'Which printer?' That’s because these discussions are far easier than ones of aesthetics, though far less substantive. It’s far simpler to talk with someone about the specs of their camera, and far harder to share ideas about how abstract expressionism influenced Edward Weston’s photography, or even the effect of Stephen Shore’s oeuvre has had on the explosion of car photographs on Instagram. 

(In fairness, the backdrop of our exchange was a photo project of mine which failed because I shot it on film with a view camera, and couldn't score enough darkroom time to make prints of the quality that I wanted. I had compelling images and prints, both by my and Maisel's standards, but not as many as I hoped for, and improving the mediocre ones required more access to the darkroom then I could secure. My friends were trying to ensure that I didn’t suffer a similar photographic setback while traveling.)

What was missing from our conversation was a discussion of theory. What makes a compelling photograph? What compositions excite the eye? How does one take a photograph that drips with emotion? What is an authentic image? These are the things that matter about creating art, and the point that Maisel is attending to. Forget the camera and take good pictures. If your photographs are exciting, no one will notice the flaws.

I may find, as my travels unfold, that the iPhone is an inadequate camera for the task, though I doubt it. I’ve photographed enough with it to know what the 8’s strengths and weaknesses are. The advantages are too many to mention, though clearly, I love its portability. The shortcomings are that it oversaturates color, pincushions a bit, and the telephoto lens doesn’t have as much reach as I’d like. The strengths far outweigh the weaknesses for my needs, and I remain astonished by a device that allows me to carry my reading library, music library, camera, video, and more in my pocket. In time I may find the iPhone inadequate, but that doesn’t feel likely.

Minimalism II

 The Mystery of the Singing Serpent was one of my favorite childhood books. It's hard not to enjoy a book with a cover like that.

The Mystery of the Singing Serpent was one of my favorite childhood books. It's hard not to enjoy a book with a cover like that.

 Recently, I made a quick return to Sonoma County to deal with my storage. You’ll remember that last post I discussed how I’m preparing to travel with only my 40L backpack, and that I saw no reason to keep all the STUFF that I have accumulated over these past decades. While eliminating things from my micro-apartment has proven easy, clearing out my storage is much more complicated because those possessions are attached to memories, and emotion often confuses rationality.

I had hoped to be granular in choosing what to keep and what to discard, but I arrived at my storage with a headache, one approaching but not quite achieving migraine status. I was functional enough to load the truck but still cognitively impaired. This impairment proved to be a panacea because I couldn’t triage my storage as I had intended. Instead, if a box looked like it needed to go, it went. I’m sure that I scrapped things that I would have kept had I felt better, and I’m equally sure that eliminating more than planned is a good thing.

By the time I finished for the day, I had taken a half-ton (not .49, not .51, but a half-ton exactly) to the dump, and given eight bankers boxes of photography books to friends. Not only is that a half-ton of stuff removed from my storage, but also a massive weight off of me. I hadn’t realized the psychic toll that maintaining this detritus all these decades has taken.

Unfortunately, I didn’t finish. My headache overwhelmed me after the second truckload, and I had to stop. Remaining are several more boxes and pieces of furniture. I’ll knock those out on my next quick visit.

So what did I keep?

Books from my childhood, such as my Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, as well as my Hardy Boys books. Both are series responsible for igniting my passion for reading and writing. Both have changed over the years. The last time I’d looked Alfred Hitchcock had been excised from the Three Investigators, presumably over licensing issues (several books of The Three Investigators, including The Mystery of the Singing Serpent, are available on the Kindle store, but not Apple Books), while the Hardy Boys have experienced numerous revisions, each time dumbing them down further.

Soon after I began reading the Hardy Boys, I discovered while browsing a used bookstore on Main Street in Sebastopol the earlier original series which started publication in the 1920s and predate the blue binding. The books in that series, which was the basis for the books I had originally started reading, were longer, darker, and more sophisticated than the new books I was then buying. I immediately switched to these far more interesting books and enjoyed them immensely.

I’ve also kept the original “Great Books” series, which although mostly unread, represented to my parents the value and potential of knowledge and education. This series has come under attack on several fronts in recent years, for being European based, for relying on poor (read old and therefore out of copyright) translations (translations age as quickly as computers, and these translations seem positively archaic), and for having small type, making them very difficult to read. Despite these flaws, I find the promise they hold inspiring.

And my hardbound copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, given to me by my parents on my tenth birthday.

Aside from books, I’ve also kept art, including things from around the world that my uncle, who was a merchant marine during WWII, gave us. He must have collected these things as he traveled and distributed them throughout the family. 

By the time I’m done I’m sure that I’ll have discarded a ton of stuff (literally). I’ve just, a moment before I began to write this post, given my bookshelves to one of my favorite baristas, and look forward to eliminating the rest soon.

Minimalism

 One of my favorite Hermann Hesse covers

One of my favorite Hermann Hesse covers

In preparation for my departure from Portland, I’ve needed to evaluate which books, furniture, etc., are essential and which aren’t. A friend, who has just finished his self-described world tour, advised me to “travel light.” Until then, I was trying to figure out how much I could mule around, not how little, and that comment completely reversed my approach. Would it be possible, I wondered, to travel with one bag?

I contacted a more experienced travel friend and asked if she thought that my ambitions were possible. She said yes, and then shared a photo of a 36-liter pack and its contents which a friend of her's carried through Southeast Asia. Even more inspiring was the narrative attached which spoke of just taking, and living with, only the essentials. 

Considering her gear, and looking at her pack, I realized that there is so much in my life that’s superfluous and should be discarded. Rather than travel with a 36-liter bag, I’m going a bit larger with a 40L Osprey that I expect to meet my needs better.

But what to do with my possessions that I won’t need while traveling? Honestly, I’m getting/have gotten rid of most of them. Many things were easy to discard, such as furniture, kitchen goods, computer scanner, etc. Other items, such as books hold a deep attachment for me and are harder to part with. 

Realistically, I think that I’ll travel with one small, thin edition of poetry by David Whyte, which isn’t available as an ebook, and use my iPhone for all my other reading (I’ve even sold my Kindle Oasis since it would take up unnecessary space in my pack). 

Discarding books is difficult for me, but I've hardened my resolve and sold bankers boxes of texts to the local bookstore. I thought that I had eliminated all I could, but, after looking again I found another box’s worth to discard. With the box full and waiting by my apartment door, I sat for meditation. Just as a voice came to Socrates and told him to make music and work at it, a voice came to me, telling me to release my attachment and get rid of more books. Like most bibliophiles I know, I have a love of gorgeous covers and make a point of finding a handsome edition rather than the cheapest one.

So in deciding which books to eliminate, I let go of editions of Hermann Hesse with the cool ‘70s covers, along with my Penguin Nietzsche’s, with these very attractive images. The books I kept were ones which I read with a friend (and had strong feelings attached to them), read in a college class or ones where I knew the author. And naturally, I kept a few that aren’t available as ebooks.

It wasn't easy, and I continue to winnow away at my possessions and expect to own about a tenth of what I once did very soon. And I’ll travel with even less.

Portland, OR 2018

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One of my favorite scenes in Portland is of a food truck, adorned with manga characters, not far from where I buy groceries and drink hot chocolate. The characters may be generic, or they may be famous, I don’t know. Despite a brief flirtation with Japanese anime, my interest in manga has never strayed beyond reading Takehiko Inoue’s epic series on Miyamoto Musashi entitled Vagabond. So, if these characters on the food truck are famous, I’m oblivious.  Regardless, I find them fascinating.

Walking around with my new (to me) Mamiya RB67 and breaking it in, I glanced over my shoulder while jaunting down Burnside, at the food truck and was struck by the light. This light, gentle and even, emphasized the whole scene, not just the trailer. I’ve photographed this scene several times previously, and never successfully. Likely that's because my photos focused on the restaurant rather than the whole scene. This time, from my position the iPhone billboard hung menacingly above, impossibly large and filling much of the frame. A bystander stopped to ask if I was documenting Apple’s advertising campaign. No, I said shaking my head. Apple is one of the largest companies in the world. They don’t need me to document their advertising. In fact, I was feeling the opposite. This image was coming together to seem more like a tale of David v. Goliath, of the story of small America v. large, of the little food truck, hoping to survive, literally in the shadow of one of the world’s wealthiest companies, represented by this billboard. 

Up the street used to hang a smaller billboard of a nude Alicia Silverstone, declaring that she’d “rather go naked than wear wool.” 

I recomposed my camera, locked up the mirror, and waited for the traffic to clear. Across the intersection, a gentleman walked up and placed his hand on the light post. His profile mirrored those of the manga characters and the billboard, and I knew that I had my image.

My Thoughts on Bergger Pancro 400 (120) Film

 New York, New York

New York, New York

My first experience with Bergger Pancro 400 was a complete disaster. Several years ago I tried a box of 8x10 film, which I developed in BTZS tubes, and all the images were irreparably scratched.  That’s because Bergger has two emulsions, one silver-bromide, and the other silver-iodide, coated on each side of the film base. Those two emulsions are said to give Pancro 400 its creamy quality, but, because the emulsions were on different sides of the film base, one of the emulsions came into contact with the inside of the tube, shredding the images when I pulled them out. I swore I’d never use it again.

Never is a long time, and my memory is a bad one. Recently, while visiting the camera store, the salesperson recommended the Bergger Pancro 400 in the 120 size. Since I’m now developing in a Patterson tank on reels, I decided to give the film another try.

My first results, using Kodak’s HC-110 dilution B, were surprisingly grainy. After some research, I learned that a complaint about Pancro 400 is that the grain appears in the highlights, as evident in my high-key images. Bergger's website says that each of the two emulsions gives a different amount of grain, and it appears that the emulsion activated by the higher zones is more pronounced. But I loved the film’s tonality, so instead of giving up, I decided to experiment.

 The Very Moving 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Note the grain in the sky.

The Very Moving 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Note the grain in the sky.

With some adjustments in exposure and development, I no longer find the highlight grain objectionable. In fact, it's hardly noticeable. What I’ve learned is that Pancro 400 isn’t a film that likes to be over-exposed (unless you want a lot of grain), or over-developed, at least not in HC-110. Most other films don’t relish overexposure or overdevelopment either, but Pancro 400 seems particularly averse to either, with such pronounced grain that it looked like I’d photographed with a 35mm camera instead of medium format. Bergger recommends developing the film for 9 minutes at 68 degrees, and I’ve scaled my time back to 8.5 minutes to great benefit, and may pull back further to 8 minutes. While processing, I continuously and softly invert the tank for the first 30 seconds and then perform two gentle inversions every minute, which is less aggressive than my previous agitation. With this new approach, I’m happy with my negatives.

More importantly, I’ve realized that this is a film, again at least when paired with HC-110, that loves the low values. So there’s plenty of rich differentiation in the tones below zone 5. That’s a little different than I’m used to, but I’m coming to love it more and more. In my case, I meter at ISO 400 or even a third to two-thirds of a stop less, which brings the film alive. 

 New York, New York. Note the rich tonal range in the bricks.

New York, New York. Note the rich tonal range in the bricks.

Pancro 400’s rendering of those delicious darker zones is what has kept me returning to the film. 

I've also returned to this film because of the price. Bergger is more affordable than many other films, such as Rollei, at least in America. People were critical of the cost when Pancro was first released because it was so expensive. That's changed, and this lower price makes Bergger even more enticing to shoot. 

Next, I'm going to develop it in Ilford ID-11 to see what happens.

 New York, New York

New York, New York

 New York, New York

New York, New York

Sawyer’s News, Santa Rosa, CA 2018

 Sawyer’s News, Santa Rosa, CA 2018

Sawyer’s News, Santa Rosa, CA 2018

I began visiting Sawyer’s News in high school. My favorite bookstore, Merritt Book Center, which was located in downtown Sebastopol, closed down while I was a sophomore in high school. At Merritt, I bought photography magazines, as well as books. These weren’t just mainstream magazines like you’d find at Safeway such as Pop Photo, or Modern Photography, but more creative photo magazines.

Along with magazines Merritt had an extensive book selection. I spent hours there, browsing the fantasy and science fiction section, admiring the covers by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta. A friend of mine’s mother worked there, which made my visit doubly fun.

With Merritt closed, my nearest deep shelf where I could buy magazines was Sawyer’s News in Santa Rosa. Sawyer’s offered an even broader selection of magazines than Merritt. Sawyer’s offered newspapers from other cities, such as Sacramento and New York. It was a block over from Unruh’s Photo, which was everyone’s favorite photography store in Sonoma County, so I often visited both on the same trip. At Sawyer’s, I could find photography magazines imported from Europe and other countries outside of the US. Zoom was one of my favorites, and one of the most expensive.

For decades I shopped there, even during a period when I’d moved away from Sonoma County. I've never found a store like Sawyer’s. Not Barnes and Noble, not Border’s, no place.

As time passed, Bill Unruh retired, and a new owner took over Unruh’s cameras, though it closed not long afterward under dark circumstances. And later, during an economic contraction, Sawyer’s also closed, in part I suspect, due to the competition of the Barnes and Noble down the street. 

I’d thought that all record of Sawyer’s News had disappeared, but on a recent visit to Santa Rosa, while wandering the streets, I came across this outline on the back of the former store. Ivy had covered the wall, and once it was removed fascinating patterns on the wall were exposed as well as the old “Sawyer’s News: Since 1936” sign painted near the top.  

Was the wall black and the ivy somehow created these white imprints? Perhaps, though I suspect that the wall was once light and years of dirt and soot accumulated, hidden by vine, to be exposed once the ivy was pulled down. This image captures my feelings about Sawyer’s perfectly.

Manhatten, New York

 Manhatten, New York, 2018

Manhatten, New York, 2018

My second visit to New York was far different than the first. There was no snow, no rain, no inclement weather at all. Rain threatened on my arrival, but it proved only to be a threat. During my first trip, I was nearly trapped in New York by a snowstorm.  On the day of my departure, my airline canceled my flight, and I was moved to an earlier one. I fell asleep almost immediately upon boarding the plane and awoke an hour later to find us still on the tarmac, waiting to take off, which we did after the plane's wings were de-iced. I believe that we were the last to leave JFK before the airport was shut down. 

As a traveler, I may not enjoy bad weather, but as a photographer, I love the moody lighting it creates and was dismayed by how clear the forecast mostly was this second trip. As before, I visited the museums with a friend, who did a fabulous job of showing me the city. One place we visited was the Whitney, where we saw the paintings of Jasper Johns, amongst others. As we moved from artwork to artwork some travelers asked me to photograph them standing next to a piece of art about women’s' empowerment, each of them standing on a different side; arms flexed above their shoulders as if they were Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was the perfect #metoo moment.

While at the museum we lunched in their cafe. Sitting by the windows, we looked out upon the terrace, watching the other museum-goers enjoying the sun. The hostess forbade us from eating outside, so we waited until after finishing before walking out onto the patio.

To say that the New York skyline is exhilarating is an obvious understatement. The buildings, some old, some contemporary, are things that I grew up seeing in photographs, and to see them in person was a delight. I spent a good deal of my visit looking upward, with an ant’s eye view, taking in the architecture of the city, and now I was able to look downward.  It is as if I were looking at a jigsaw puzzle, seeing the buildings thrown onto the ground like dice. These weren’t structures that were likely to make the travel logs, and I loved them. They had personality and history. The artist’s job is to piece together the puzzle in a way that inspires the eye.

On this trip, I was breaking in my Hasselblad. I walked from terrace to terrace taking photographs while my friend patiently waited. A few clouds were in the sky, but not many. Across the river, I could see Jersey. 

As I composed, a woman stepped out onto the floor below me. I included her in the composition, adding a human element to the abstract-expressionist feel of the scene. 

I photographed from all three terraces, exploring all the hidden corners for a better perspective. It was a great trip.

Peculiarium, Portland, OR, 2018

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Growing up in California’s Bay Area, I would spend Saturday nights watching the now famous Creature Features on television. Creature Features was a show hosted by Bob Wilkins (and later John Stanley) that showed some of the best, and worst, horror shows available. Wilkins, with his gigantic cigar in hand, is reputed to have quipped during the break of one, particularly lousy show that he was going to sell the film at a garage sale in Vallejo the next morning.

Although I remember being disappointed at times, it’s not the bad movies that I recall, but the good ones. Two, in particular, stand out. One was of a hobby horse that under the right circumstances would come to life and terrorize people. I can remember the whinnying of the horse, and shots of it taken from ground level as it reared up, hoofs at the ready, to attack. Another was of space aliens who crashed in a forest and made their homes in the trees. From there they let their tails hang down, electrocuting unsuspecting passers-by, and presumably feeding on them. The fog in the forest and the sound the aliens made are both sensations that stay with me. I don’t recall the names of the films, and I haven’t made an effort to locate them, mostly I suppose, out of fear that the adult eye will ruin the child’s experience of wonder. I want those aliens and that horse to remain safely in my mind, scaring me as they have most of my life.

Although it’s not scary, each time I pass by the Peculiarium in Portland, with its oddities and homages to the horror genre, I’m reminded of Creature Features. This image was taken during a cloudy day when the light wasn’t too harsh, which reduces shadows and reflections and allows you to view into the globe and onto the creature’s face. At the same time, I love how parts of the environment reflect in the top of the sphere. But mostly it’s the chills that get me, the creepiness of the statue, the same sensation I felt with Creature Features.

Ft. Bragg, CA, 2017

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The city of Ft. Bragg is my favorite layover as I enter California from Portland. Whereas Mendocino is too busy for my liking, Ft. Bragg, despite being a tourist destination, manages to emit a peaceful, small-town feel. Not too small-town, which is its charm.

 I arrived at Bragg mid-afternoon the day before making this image after traveling through the snowy remains along the hills of HWY 1 and descending into perfect coastal weather. I don’t like perfect coastal weather. All the pictures I take in that sort of weather look like postcards, and the photographs I took that day were all boring and predictable. It’s hard to photograph beauty and make it inspiring instead of trite.

The next morning, as I prepared to leave the town, I visited Glass Beach. There’s a rock at Glass Beach, a bowl really, that’s always filled with water that reflects the light in a remarkable way, reminding me of Alice Through the Looking Glass. It’s magic. I arrived early, and the beach was empty, though a man waited in the parking lot, sitting in his truck reading the newspaper. The sun had not yet risen. Clouds spread across the sky like saguaro arms, bringing life to what would have been a tedious, blank sky. I took several pictures of “The Bowl,” and stepped closer to the sea to photograph the rocks made visible by the low tide. Ft. Bragg, CA, 2017 is one of those photographs. Along the right, a small portion of “The Bowl” can be seen, which enlivens the photograph. 

Pebble Beach, CA, 2017

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There are, I’ve learned, more than one Pebble Beach on the California coastline, one accessible and one less so. Having seen photos from other photographers of Pebble Beach, I decided to visit and photograph it. Of course, I went to the wrong one. My maps app took me to the famous Pebble Beach Golf Course where my worn out Ford Focus, with its chipped paint and cracked windshield looked distinctly out of place in the parking lot of the country club. Fog hung over the area that the employees assured me had some photogenic rocks, where I could safely photograph. I’d found other rocks to photograph, but I risked being beaned by golf balls. While interesting, this wasn't the Pebble Beach I was looking for.

Several years later, on an early morning driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, enjoying the light from the rising sun as it changed from black to muted grays, to soft pastel colors. I stopped to photograph a beach I’d visited previously (though I couldn't, and can't, remember its name). This time, as the sun continued upward, I wandered a bit more north than usual, and viola!, the Pebble Beach I’d been searching for years before. The beach isn’t large, but the rocks were inspiring. The tide was beginning to return, and I found plenty to photograph. Because it was early morning, there weren’t many visitors in the cove, and I wandered in peace. Instead, they were walking along the bluff, where a path leads from beach to beach.

One rock, in particular, kept grabbing my attention, the one at the top left of this photograph. It reminded me of a duck’s bill, and I spent much of my time on the beach exploring different compositions which included this rock. Pebble Beach, CA, 2017 is a favorite of mine.

Portland, OR, 2018

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The rain tickled the window of my apartment as I peered outside, trying to decide whether or not to take my camera on a jaunt. Throughout Portland, trees were in bloom, and there was a particular group along the waterfront that I wanted to photograph. But the wind was heavy, and I couldn’t be sure that the blossoms hadn’t already been blown off. With more rain and wind forecasted, I decided that if the blossoms were still on the branches they wouldn’t be there for long, so I grabbed my camera and headed out.

The rain came intermittently as I walked for the waterfront, sometimes light, sometimes heavy, and as I stopped along the way to take other photographs they took on an eeery feeling. In one, a lone Canadian Goose stood upon a river piling meditating on the water around him. 

When I arrived at my destination I saw that all the blossoms had blown to the ground, perhaps ruining my chance to take those images until next year. I wasn’t the only one disappointed. A couple in tuxedo and wedding dress were having their photograph taken under the trees, right in the middle of where the blossoms would have been, the bride playfully holding a clear umbrella, one that wouldn’t block the light. Pedestrians clapped as they walked by.

I continued into China Town. Across the street was a bronze trailer with no windows. I’d never seen a bronze trailer before and it was striking, the way the soft light embraced it. Waiting for traffic to pass, I raised my camera and took Portland, OR, 2018.

Salt Point State Park, CA, 2017

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In October 2017 a firestorm struck Sonoma County, CA proving to be the most expensive disaster in California history. I happened to be briefly visiting Sonoma County at the time. On the morning of the fires, I left Ft. Bragg, having found ash spread upon my car which was in the motel parking lot. With photography on my mind, I hadn’t checked the news and didn’t know how significant the ash was. 

From Ft. Bragg I traveled to Salt Point. The light was an eerie red, which made the Point seem even more otherworldly than usual. Actually, in the nearly 20 years I’ve spent visiting Salt Point, this was the strangest day I’d ever seen there. As I walked along, the wind would seem normal one moment, and then I would suddenly be pounded by a hot torrent of air that felt as if it were coming from a generator’s exhaust.

I took advantage of the strange light, slipping in and out of coves, photographing my favorite spots, which now looked entirely foreign from I’d come to expect. While standing near "The Pedestal," I captured Salt Point State Park, CA, 2017.

The fires that started that day were so devastating that, more than six months later, Sonoma County hasn’t finished cleaning up, let alone significantly rebuilt. Officially, 40 people died, but there are more victims, those not counted, such as my friend Steve Jacobson. Steve was experiencing health issues when the fires struck, and his evacuation from his home at this delicate time sent him into a spiral from which he couldn’t recover. 

I first met Steve and Ellie, his wife, back in 2006, and they lived the greatest, most inspirational, love story I know. Having attended school together in New York, they went their respective ways after graduation, Ellie to teach and Steve to become a doctor in the Air Force, where he specialized in hematology and oncology. They met again at a high school reunion and soon were inseparable. Steve had married and divorced twice, while Ellie hadn’t settled in with anyone. After all that time they found each other and were indivisible while I knew them. Not only did I get to see pictures from their travels, but I also listened to stories of their families and of their friend, Babe, whom Steve had known since childhood. They would give me tours of their backyard garden, where Steve was always planning on adding a new fruit tree or flower plant. Ellie, a tremendous cook, would serve dinner, and introduced me to heirloom tomatoes. 

He was one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met.

Today, as I pen this, would have been Stevie’s 82 birthday, and it’s a damn shame that he’s not here to celebrate it.

Veterans’ Alley, San Francisco, CA, 2018

 Veterans’ Alley, San Francisco, 2018

Veterans’ Alley, San Francisco, 2018

A man stands at a bus stop at the far end of the alley, watching me with a seemingly confused manner as I saunter along Veterans’ Alley, reading what must seem like graffiti to him. But the alley isn’t filled with graffiti. It serves as a canvas for well-considered paintings that directly reflect the experiences of veterans. 

It’s early morning, and the sun hasn’t risen yet, so I’m looking at these paintings under the artificial green glow of street lamps and tungsten apartment lighting. I arrived early at Veterans’ Alley to avoid the 101 traffic from Sonoma County to SF, which would add hours to my trip if I had departed even 30 minutes later. I’m seeing these images at pre-dawn.

Some paintings invite hope for the future, some raise awareness of current crises the world faces - genocide, famine, and the like -, and some are for friends lost in war. Some spots are empty waiting to be written when the time is right.

Once I finish taking photographs I walk to a restaurant up the way. It is pleasantly homey and doesn’t even take credit cards, something I thought was an impossibility in San Francisco. As I eat my omelet I ponder where I’ll go next.

The day after visiting Veterans’ Alley a combat veteran killed three workers at the Yountville Veterans’ Home. Because I’ve been to the veterans’ home to visit the Vietnam Memorial that sits outside of the campus chapel, this killing strikes more personal than others I’ve read of. I feel a connection of place. The veterans’ home is described as bucolic in some newspaper articles, and those articles describe the nearby golf course and museum as evidence of the peacefulness that inhabits the facility.

To me, a finer example of peacefulness is that Vietnam memorial, a bronze statue of two hands palms up, open in receptivity, asking to be touched. Are they the hands of a god, a soldier, or society welcoming the visitor back? I don’t know, and it’s up to each viewer to create her own interpretation. Grabbing the adult fingers of the statue are children’s hands, each delicately attached to the larger appendages in a sense of wonder. That wonder and receptivity (to borrow a phrase from Ed Mooney) is what I’ve always felt when visiting the memorial. On my next visit will my perceptions change after this violence? I don’t know.

Just as Yountville’s Vietnam Memorial invites interpretation, Veterans’ Alley, San Francisco, CA, 2018, asks us to unpack its meaning. What does 6:33 signify? Why so many clock faces, and a lone peace symbol? Is the peace symbol the key to understanding the mural? Why white on black? I could email the founder of the project and learn the significance of 6:33 if I’d like, but that would defeat the purpose. It’s better I ponder, consider what the possibilities are, and allow the signifier to float over time. 

The Valley of Fire, NV, 2017

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Friends often tease me when I visit Las Vegas because my biggest goal is to leave the city as fast as possible and roam the landscape nearby. The area surrounded Lake Mead has some of the most stunning rock forms that I’ve encountered. I was so captivated by the Lake Mead landscape that it took me years go to The Valley of Fire.

The Valley of Fire, so-named because of the bright orange/red rocks that inhabit it resemble a flame, is as gorgeous as Lake Mead’s landscape, and it’s more popular, which makes shooting there more difficult. But The Valley of Fire does share a problem with the other areas around Vegas; there’s almost too much to photograph. Everything that the eye falls upon is exciting, and it’s easy to become overstimulated. Distilling the forms to their essences, getting the light right, and capturing the emotion is hard in areas like this because there are so many shapes to work with, and they overlap over and into each other. I find that I need to walk around quietly until I can become receptive, and the stone begins to speak to me. In these moments of solitude and meditation, my best images are made.

The Valley of Fire, NV, 2017 is an image that came after sauntering silently around, listening. Honeycombing, known as tafoni, is inlaid throughout the dunes, resembling lace. The shapes remind me of old bones that are piled upon each other and have somehow learned to stand vertically. This quality of the rocks impersonating bones is what keeps me returning there to photograph.

I'm Not Returning to Color

 Humboldt Lagoons State Park, CA, 2018

Humboldt Lagoons State Park, CA, 2018

Last post I wrote that I was returning to photography, and shooting color. Then I had an email exchange with a friend where I considered my aesthetics related to architecture. I described myself as a modernist and was asked whether I was a contemporary modernist, as in a minimalist, or a modernist as in mid-century modernism. Both, I answered. With architecture, I prefer minimalism and cubism, but with furniture, I’m a mid-century modernist. 

What do both modernism and mid-century modernism have in common? An appreciation of clean lines. Especially with furniture, I love elaborate, well-defined lines, and I prefer the mid-century look to industrialism or other schools which appreciate graceful design.  

That exchange led me to think about what I love about creating photographs. The answer, perhaps apparent now, is a love of clean lines. While I didn’t start out that way, I’ve evolved. My compositions are welded together by the blacks in my images, which is why black and white photography expresses my vision so well.  After acknowledging my aesthetic values and while working with images in Lightroom, I realized that I needed to continue shooting black and white. It’s wonderfully fun and inspires my imagination differently (not better or worse, just differently) than color does.

One image that has inspired my imagination is Humboldt Lagoons State Park, CA, 2018 which I took on my way home from a trip through California. I’d left Eureka earlier in the morning, where my car was still wet from the late-night rain. Highway 1 was bathed by the beautiful dawn light as the sun was coming over the earth’s brow. The clouds glowed orange in the lagoon's water as I drove by. By the time I returned to take a picture, the sun had risen too high, and the orange reflections had disappeared. Nature waits for no one, and images often appear and disappear within moments. I continued north and came across a pullout that overlooks the sandy beach separating the Pacific Ocean and lagoon. The clouds hung in the air like grazing sheep, waiting for me to take their photograph. There was a slight wind and, as always, I delighted in the smell of salt in the air, and the sound of the waves hitting the shore.

Afterward, I continued on my way to Portland.

Returning to Color Photography

 New York City

New York City

In high school photography class, back in the really old days where everyone shot film and used the darkroom (actually, access to the darkroom was why many people took photography), I met a friend who developed his transparencies and printed Cibachromes. I was instantly smitten. Ciba prints had this garish pop to them that rivaled the later Velvia film, and the colors just seemed more alive than prints made from any other process. They were also more archival. Oddly enough, I tended to print my Cibas down, so that the colors softer and more sedate, which gave them a contemplative feel.

In those years I was influenced by Robert Farber, Art Kane, Jay Maisel, Pete Turner, David Hamilton, Joel Meyerowitz, and others known for the highly saturated colors in their images or the grainy look. Farber was my strongest influence, particularly his book Moods, which was my bible. I started shooting with a UV filter coated with hairspray and pushing my Ektachrome two stops to achieve the same painterly look that he had. I loved the look.

 New York City

New York City

With the passing of time, I moved away from photography. When I returned, I shot black and white large format film in the Group f/64 style, an entirely different approach from my high school years. This approach continued for some time until it was no longer tenable. The large format camera acted as an invitation for people to interrupt me while I worked, and I found it nearly impossible to mentally focus and photograph, even when photographing in remote areas. So I gave up photography, sold my large format gear, and walked away.

But I didn’t walk far. Photography remained on my mind, and I continued to shoot with my iPhone 8, which is a surprisingly competent camera, though seeing the screen to compose in bright sunlight can be a challenge, and I thought that snapshots with the iPhone would satisfy me. Then I saw exhibitions by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore (the first time I’d seen original prints by either), and I knew I needed to return to photography. Eggleston’s dye transfer prints glowed on the wall, while Stephen Shore’s C-prints had a matter-of-fact quality to them that wasn’t matter-of-fact at all. I couldn’t help but see the brilliance in both artist’s work, and it was at that moment that I knew that I not only would return to photography but return to color. 

 The Museum of Natural History, NY

The Museum of Natural History, NY

Of course, contemporary photographers don't have to choose color, since digital cameras give the option of outputting in it or black and white. But I’m always guided by Brett Weston’s notion that too many choices create, rather than solve, problems (he was speaking specifically of lenses, but I think the broader principal also applies. He was always a fan of keeping photography as simple as possible). So, to learn or relearn color, I knew I had to commit to color. 

How long will it take me to find my "color eye"? I don’t know, but I’ve already started.

 Glass Beach, Ft. Bragg, CA

Glass Beach, Ft. Bragg, CA