An Bang Beach, Viet Nam

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I went to the river with friends for lunch, and we sat in their back yard visiting, and watching the fishing boats pull up and down the water. Some were loud, some quiet, and the ones that interested me the most were small and didn’t have any visible motors. These were boats that were too big to be rowed, and too small to be used overnight. I later learned that they had compact V6s positioned near the center of the hull, and out of site from people like me viewing from the shore.

As we sat drinking tea, some travelers from France wandered along the river and into our area. Although it wasn’t an unusually warm day, they were drenched with sweat and complaining of the heat. Later I learned that they were headed to Saigon, and I had to warn them that it’s usually at least 10 degrees warmer there. Who knows if they went. 

On our way back to Hoi An proper we stopped by An Bang Beach, and I walked around. It was my first visit there, and only the second beach I’ve been to in Viet Nam. The other beach wasn’t interesting photographically, but this one was alive. Surfers and swimmers were out in the water, laughter came from the restaurants, round basket fishing boats rested on the sand with fishing tackle inside, and lounge chairs waited under grass roofs. 

I had just finished photographing some acrylic storage tanks full of invertebrates, who in the backlight looked quite menacing, and stepped onto the beach. The boats, the tower, the people stumbling out of the water - the composition was right there waiting for me. So I took this shot.

Children’s Train, Hoi An, Viet Nam

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The new year plowed through with a bang. Not just the pop, thump, and flash of fireworks, but with a motorbike accident.

I was sitting outside of a friend’s spa, chatting while eating chicken and rice when there was a loud boom behind me. Before I could turn around, a young man, wearing a blue rain poncho, came sliding on his chest across the sidewalk. He crashed into my friend’s business stand, that stood outside her spa, listing her manicure, pedicure, massage, etc. prices, and finally stopped. Luckily he wore a black helmet for protection. Unluckily, he also wore flip-flops, which were nowhere in sight now, and he had circles of flesh missing from his ankles and feet.

We ran over and helped the dazed rider. About 15 or 20 feet back lay his motorcycle, and next to it a green cab. The cab had been making a U-turn and hit the motorcyclist. Strangely, the cabbie didn’t come to the motorcyclist or us and ask about him. Instead, he waited by the motorbike. A long gash stretched from the front bumper to the back of the front passenger-side door. The cabbie checked his door several times to ensure that it still opened. 

A crowd formed, and friends of the motorcyclist brought him ice to put on his wounds. When I asked if an ambulance or the police would come, I was told that his family had been called and that they would take him to the hospital. 

Someone from the cabbie’s company arrived and began taking pictures, and from the cabbie’s face, it was clear that he was worried about his job. The motorcyclist finally got to his feet and was given a cigarette by (who I assumed to be) his brother. He walked over and examined the damage to his motorbike, picking up pieces from the ground. 

As the crowd dispersed, I returned to my chicken and rice. This was the second accident that I’d seen in Hoi An. The first was the next block over, just a few evenings before. Luckily, that collision caused even less damage than this one.

Hours earlier, I celebrated the first day of the year by going out and making photographs. Children’s Train, Hoi An, Viet Nam is my favorite of all of them.

Wrapping Up 2018

This morning is the first day of 2019, and I’m pleased to celebrate it on the road. Upon reflection, I’ve realized that there are many images taken this last year that I haven’t shared, so here’s a post on this new year of pictures taken in Hoi An that I find exciting. They’re in no particular order.

Switching from a Paper Journal to Bloom Built’s Day One

As I approach my fourth month on the road, I continue to refine and optimize the gear that I carry with me. My rule, which I’ve slightly modified because I now also bring a camera bag, is that everything that I have must fit in my 40-liter pack. That means that each item that I carry is scrutinized for its efficacy and long-term value. Some things I keep with me, while others like my paper journal, I discard. 

Before I bought a camera in Ho Chi Minh City, I always took my Midori Traveler’s Notebook in a tiny shoulder bag. That way, it was always at the ready whenever I wanted to write, whether in a coffee shop, a street bench, over lunch, wherever. But my camera displaced my notebook bag since I found carrying them both to be too cumbersome. As a result, I found that I only journaled in my hotel room which wasn’t good because most of my inspiration comes while walking, and is long gone by the time I’ve returned.

Paper journals also take up space and add weight. Along with my leather journal cover, I have six months or more of heavy paper inserts. I’m surprised at how much these things weigh. 

So I’ve switched to using Day One

Since my iPhone is always with me, Day One is always with me. That allows me to journal whenever, and wherever, I want. Initially, I feared that the iPhone’s small keyboard would prove problematic since I type with it using one finger, but I’ve found a rhythm that helps bring flow to my thoughts. Because of that, my writing output has increased, and I’m capturing more memories and ideas than ever. 

Day One also allows me to add photos to journal entries, which is something that I couldn’t do promptly with my paper journal (and in practice never did). Often, while I’m at a coffee shop, I’ll transfer photos taken on my walk from my camera to Lightroom, and edit them on my phone over tea. With Day One I’m able to add my favorite pictures into a journal entry and write about them. Or I can attach a screenshot of a favorite quote I’ve found online that I want to remember or write about. 

And, although my journal needs seem rudimentary to me (I’m not worried about voice transcription, IFTT, or so many of the other features that I’m sure more advanced users love), I particularly love Day One’s interface. It’s clean, intuitive, and invites writing. Interface is king, and so many other journal apps I’ve looked at just haven’t cracked that nut. I don’t want to spend my time hunting around trying to discover new features, or even wonder how to add a new entry; I want to spend my time writing. 

Day One isn’t perfect. I’m particularly displeased by their subscription model. While I’m on their “Plus” plan, for which I paid a one-time fee for upgraded functionality, their current subscription model of $24.99 a year feels too expensive to me. Don’t misunderstand, I recognize that software publishers need a sustainable business model, and I support that, but $24.99 per year is steep. I would transition from being a “Plus” user to the subscription plan for $14.99 a year (the price I pay to subscribe to Bear) not because I find the feature set of Day One’s subscription plan more compelling, but because I would like to support the publisher. Or I would be happy to pay for new releases, such as the transition from version 2 to version 3 of Day One for iOS. But the current subscription plan feels too expensive. 

I’d also like Day One to add a feature that allows me to save web content to my journal. Not save a link, which it does now, but keep the website content. To me, this is a crucial feature to using Day One as a commonplace journal. I journal about articles that I’ve read (such as this one on the discovery of African-American graves in Texas and America’s history) and hate that there’s not an elegant way to capture the webpage. Sites disappear, rendering their links inert. Easily adding online content to my journal entry would be a big win for me. 

Despite these two minor quibbles, I’m happy with my transition to Day One. It is allowing me to capture my ideas nearly instantaneously, while also saving room in my backpack by eliminating my paper journal and six months of inserts. That’s a huge win. 


The Temple of Confucius, Hoi An, Viet Nam

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I came upon the Temple of Confucius while walking along an unexplored road after finishing my morning tea. The temple (actually a compound) lay recessed back from the street, and I crossed over a lotus pond to enter. 

Although there was activity on the street all about me, the compound was quiet and seemingly deserted. Peace abounded. The temple sat lower than the road, and as I walked, I could see where much of the wooden walls were leached from past floods.  The waterline testified to the compound’s steadfastness. 

Farther back near a corner was a birdbath full of rainwater and algae. Peering inside I was reminded of Paul Caponigro’s photograph of the apple: the whole universe lay right before me. 

As I turned, I came across two clusters of wiry palms, their stalks reaching from the earth like tentacles,  and made this image. 

Abandoned Children’s Train, Hoi An, Viet Nam

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I rushed from my hotel early in the morning, hoping to beat the rain. We’d been experience storms for nearly a week, but things had slowed enough that there were breaks, and I was able to photograph. The best part is that the heavy overcast gave my favorite light, the type that comes hugs objects, creating soft sensuous shadows and drawing out the texture of objects.

As I walked around, I stopped at an intersection and waited to cross. As I waited, I realized that I always turn left towards the river. Habit is the enemy of creativity, so instead of left, I turned right. Before long I was lost, though when I later located myself with Google Maps, it turned out that I wasn’t far from my previous explorations, I’d just found a pocket that somehow I’d missed before.

Across the street, I spied some abandoned children’s rides. But the rides looked like they were on government property. While in Ho Chi Minh City I’d been stopped from photographing a gate by some military officers, for reasons I don’t understand. Since then, I’ve always been a little worried that I might inadvertently shoot something that’s restricted.

As I walked, I discovered an entrance to the rides from a park that seemed to invite guests, so I walked in. There was no one about as I photographed. Although it was a merry-go-round that had initially gotten my attention, it was the train track and old cars that excited me.

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After I finished, I continued on my saunter. Further along, I came across the highest climbing wall that I’ve ever seen. Like the children’s carnival rides, it was a surprising, surreal, discovery. I almost walked by it, and then decided to enter the parking lot and photograph it. I was lucky to arrive early enough in the morning so that no one was climbing on it yet. The wall, without climber, and stripped of any sense of scale, almost appears to be a chess board sprinkled with sand…

Boat Hull, Hoi An, Vietnam

Boat Hull, Hoi An, Vietnam, 2018

Boat Hull, Hoi An, Vietnam, 2018

I came to Hoi An intending to visit the ruins of My Son, but the weather has proven too unpredictable for me to hire a car and make the hour drive. Instead, I've photographed this beautiful town daily. There are fewer scooters and people in Hoi An than Ho Chi Minh City, and it's considerably smaller, yet I find it as engaging. The town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is filled with temples, colonial architecture, galleries, and great tacos.

Thunderstorms attacked yesterday, trapping me inside stores during the downpours. Despite the rain, prayer sticks were smoking along the streets all day, and food and cigarettes were sitting on platters for the dead. It was a special day to remember friends and family who have passed, and the town felt especially holy.

This morning I walked along the Hoi An river, looking at the lanterns swaying from the river and wind rock the boats. As is my want, I went a direction that I hadn’t been before, looking for something new. I came upon a man paddling his boat across the water, people exercising, temples, the clacking of palm fronds that reminds me of the sound a Mantis Shrimp makes when it punches, and a thin boat turned upside on stands along the walkway. Of all the scenes that I saw it was the boat that interested me the most.

Bleached moss or seaweed fingered out across the hull, creating pattern after pattern, harmony after harmony, rhythm after rhythm. As I stood close in taking pictures, a woman ran her hand across my back and pointed at the boat, as if to approve of my photographic taste. Across the hull, a man stood watching me, seemingly mystified by why I would take a picture, move a few inches, and then take another picture. Finally, perhaps sensing that I was beyond help, he walked away, mystified.

I, however, wasn’t mystified at all, just in awe of how something so simple and easily overlooked as this hull could have so many images etched upon it.

Circus Tent, HCMC

Ho Chi Minh City, 2018

Ho Chi Minh City, 2018

Despite loving Ni Chi Minh City, I’d grown weary of dodging the scooters each day, and the constant attempts by the street vendors to sell me something. So I decided to leave. My month photographing HCMC yielded plenty of memorable images, so it was time to see more of Viet Nam.

On my final morning, I sat over tea, and considered going back to my hotel room rather than prowling the streets, looking for images. I’d probably gotten all the good pictures the city had to offer already, so why waste my time looking for more? I’d had this discussion with myself before, and oddly, those seemed to be the days that I found the best, and most unexpected, photographs. So I picked up my camera, kicked myself in the butt, and started walking.

As always, I walked with no predetermined route or destination. I just walked, right by a theater that I’d passed by the previous day. Then, I had considered asking the street vendor for permission to enter and photograph the giant green circus-like tent that draped over the stadium chairs, but I feared being turned away. This time, realizing that I may not get another opportunity, I asked for permission, and with a shrug, the vendor let me in.

One flap of the tent tumbled to the ground like a broken tree branch. It was that flap and the symmetry of the rows upon rows of chairs that caught my eye. The chairs were different colors, which added a sense of depth and drama. I circled the tent for about a half-hour making the most of my time and expecting to be ejected by someone at any moment, but I never was. I did receive a few odd looks as I exited, but nothing more. And, as with the previous times that I’d felt reticent to go out photographing, I found some exciting images.

Michael A. Smith 1942-2018

One of my photography mentors, Michael Smith, has passed away at 74. The next morning when I heard the news, I sat down and wrote a blog post, one that mistakenly included lots of stuff from his CV. Then I realized that what I really wanted to write about was Michael’s, and his wife Paula’s (my other mentor) impact upon me.

I met Michael, and his wife Paula, when I flew to Ottsville, PA to attend a seminar given by them on marketing your photographs. I learned of the class from an ad in Black and White Magazine, whose editor Henry Rasmussen would later publish my essay about Jack London’s photography. I was familiar with Michael and Paula’s work from B&W and, having had photos published in magazines such as Popular Photography and Photographer’s Forum, books like The Best of Photography Annual, and a prestigious photo contest, I thought I was ready to market my work.

What I discovered was that I had a lot to learn as a photographer. Michael and Paula’s photographs were the most extraordinary I had seen. Having grown up about four hours from Monterey, which is the home of straight black and white photography, I thought that I had a grasp of the history of the medium. While at Michael and Paula’s I came to realize that there was a whole school of straight photography in the eastern part of America whose compositions are more complex and, to me, more engaging. Through them, I gained an appreciation for Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer, Harry Callahan, and others.

After completing their class on marketing photography, I attended their Vision and Technique symposium in Monterey (which involved visual theory but no darkroom work), and then, several years later, their full class in PA. Michael pulled me aside while in PA to let me know that I was the only person who had taken the course twice. All I can say is that I’m a slow learner.

During those classes, Michael and Paula both were indefatigable supporters of all the attendees. They didn’t care what anyone’s skillset was; they wanted to help and encourage them to grow as artists. I felt that they considered it their obligation to give back to photography. And their classes didn’t end once the weekend was over. They were always there to offer more support. I mailed them some pictures of rock formations that I’d taken outside of Las Vegas for feedback, and they let me know they were kind of boring. While I didn’t like the verdict, I loved that my prints came back with a little jelly on the back. I could easily imagine them looking at the photographs over breakfast, which was so humanizing.

Michael and Paula taught me to compose for the edges of a photograph, and in doing so, the center of the image would take care of itself. I also learned not to identify or define what I saw on the ground glass (and now in the viewfinder), but to instead see how objects related to each other. So a road that ran through my composition wasn’t a road but a line, and as a line, it either contributed or detracted to my photo — that proved liberating. What a photograph is of is irrelevant. How it’s composed is everything.

Michael and Paula’s photographic mantra is that the only rule is that there are no rules, and they may believe that cognitively. But when I looked through their oeuvre, I realized that they lived by one rule: never embarrass or shame someone in a photograph. Each of them has a full body of work that includes people, and everyone I saw depicted by M&P was portrayed with respect and honor, and it is clear that they maintain tremendous empathy with their subjects. In a time when paparazzi try to get upskirts of starlets, and shooters are trying to make their careers off of photographing the homeless without actually getting to know their subjects, M&P’s approach remains a breath of fresh air.

Not long ago I was able to buy a photograph by Michael that was taken early in his career. It’s an image that I don’t recall seeing the day that I examined all of his work. The photograph is of a nude woman laying on a couch, taken in 1975, and one can see hints of Michael’s love of Edward Weston in the image. It was Weston, who died eight years before Michael seriously picked up a camera, who inspired Michael to become a photographer. Michael saw the documentary by Willard Van Dyke entitled Edward Weston: The Photographer on television. Seeing that documentary was what I call a “Saul of Tarsus” moment for Michael - he experienced immediate life-changing insight and realized what photography could be. From that moment he embraced taking photographs as a way of life, soon moving from 35mm to the large format camera and exclusively making contact prints.

I spoke with Michael by phone several months ago after he’d returned home from being hospitalized for a series of strokes. He was still Michael through and through, though he talked of being tired and spending much of his day sleeping, but with each day he was improving. And, in true Michael fashion, he didn’t sugar coat his situation.

I had hoped that I would be able to visit him in person again. Now I know that I won’t.

Damn.

Typhoon

Sai Gon, 2018

Sai Gon, 2018

From my journal:

A typhoon is hitting Sai Gon, the 9th this year. The other districts are warned of possible flooding, especially at high tide. District 1 appears to be safe from the flooding, though I can’t be sure. Yesterday I bought water, tea, and potato chips just in case the electricity goes out. The potato chips may be unnecessary since I’m fasting today, but better safe than sorry.

I don’t know what to expect. While at Subic Bay I was in a typhoon or monsoon (I don’t recall which) and marveled at how the wind could bend the palms until their crowns touched the ground. I hope that the wind isn’t that severe in San Non. So far I note no wind, though the rain is falling and thunder sounds.

The facade from my favorite building has been removed. Is the building's face being redesigned, or were the tiles pulled down in anticipation of the storm?