2022 11 19
Giving up control

No one I spoke to about my trip to Washington, DC this summer told me July was a good time to go.

It was incredibly hot but I had photographs to take, a place to stay, and got to see ‘American Silence: The Photographs of Robert Adams’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The exhibition was as terrific as I hoped would be, showing all his major work from the mid-1960’s to the present.

Photo: Robert Adams, Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Moved by the exhibition and later on listened to a talk Adams had with Sarah Meister for the Aperture PhotoBook Club. When she asked Adams why he photographed the way he did, Adams replied that he used art, seeing and photography to find, and discover, hope and beauty. Or has he put it, in order “to survive in a hostile world.” Photography as a lifeline to hope made a lot of sense to me.

His exhibition was an inspirational prelude to my shooting plan. I would spend several weeks photographing city and landscapes within the DMV - what locals call DC, Maryland, Virginia. Incredibly, the three states are all within an hour’s driving distance from each other. Each morning I would pick a spot on the map and drive to it later in the day. I was pushed to the outer edges of the city and beyond by earlier memories I had visiting my aunt and uncle in DC. They had six children, just like our family, and we were close, one big sprawling family, visiting each other often between DC and Boston. Washington and its suburbia felt vaguely exotic to me then. My shirt would stick to my skin on really hot days and there seemed to be an unseen way of behaving I wasn’t quite sure of.

I was happy to be back. Most days, thick dark clouds would predictably sour the sky, followed by sheets of unrelenting rain. This slickened the roads and made the hillsides lush and green, a different look than the parched summer tans I had photographed all summer in California. I had been thinking a lot lately about how I take photographs. I felt my picture-taking had become too architected, too aspirational.  Now that I was back I wanted to recall that uncertainty, to lean into it and cede more control of my picture-taking to the weather, my memories, my mood. I wanted to see everything as it was, not for the photograph I wanted it to be. That meant more taking of pictures, with less prejudgements on subject, form, or style. Or to paraphrase a well-worn hockey saying, “I didn’t want to grip the (hockey) stick too tight.” I’m not sure if I was successful  - these few pictures hint at what I’m trying to achieve - but it’s a way of seeing and photographing I plan to explore more.

2022 10 15
By Tomorrow 

I was parked behind a welding shop in Queen Anne, Maryland when the rain lashing my car windshield turned to hail.

My cousin, who pointed me here to begin with, was gleefully sending me weather updates that showed I was in the direct path of a tornado. I could barely see through the fogged-up windows but the sound of the hail and wind buffeting the car told me I needed to wait it out a bit longer. When the hail and rain finally stopped, the sun quickly jutted through the clouds, falling on the soaked green landscape. I got out of my car. A woman across the street from me was looking for damage the storm left behind so I asked to take her picture. 

Afterwards, I drove several miles to Hillsboro, the next town over. I parked on the banks of the Tuckahoe Creek next to the original brick home of Fredrick Douglas, who described his life and torment as a slave in three best-selling books and was a leader of the abolitionist movement. The creek was quiet and still after the storm, much like the town itself. Returning to DC, I planned to take US 50 over the Memorial Bay Bridge which spanned the eastern bay of Maryland. By tomorrow morning, the river bank and the backyards of homes in Hillsboro would be dry again.

2022 09 18

So much of photography is subtraction.

What to include, what to exclude in a photograph. Which photographs you take that deserve attention, an edit, a second look and which photographs are best left unattended. Everything is a constant process of elimination, a paring down to arrive at the purist essence of what you’re trying to capture and communicate. If there are elements in your photographs that don’t contribute to this essence, it’s best to leave them out.

Life is that way too. For a long time, I was focused on acquiring new possessions, activities, and friendships. Now I’m in a constant state of reduction. If there’s a shirt sitting unworn in my closet for a year, there’s little chance I’ll wear it next year. A chilled Stella Artois on a bar top had a totemic importance for me well into middle age. When I left alcohol behind for good, it created a huge space for me to double down on what was essential.

However subtraction brings new challenges. As a late career photographer, I struggle with the craft’s careerist aspects. The ability to take a good photograph is a lifelong pursuit. How to get it out to the broader world is a whole other matter. I spent my working life, before photography, in marketing but knowing what to do doesn’t create the will to do it. Many of my photographs end up like orphans, ignored in a folder on a hard drive, stuffed into the drawer of my desk in my studio.

The mental clearing needed to create and realize a good photograph is far removed from the marketing of it. When I try to combine them, even for a moment, it feels deleterious, an impingement on the essence I was originally after. Or maybe, more likely, it’s just me being lazy, my handy rationale to not bother. The equation is simple after all: every creative person must decide what they’re willing to do to showcase their work. I’m still figuring it out.
2022 06 18
The Russian River

We had been on our road trip for more than a week when we got to the Russian River Valley north of San Francisco.

Up until then, the landscape and weather had looked familiar. But suddenly the dusty tans of Southern California gave way to dark green mountains covered in gray clouds and a delicate mist. It felt abrupt, almost mystical, as if we got dropped unwittingly into a very colorful topographical board game. I liked the change. Sunny skies look great on a postcard but are a challenge to photograph especially when shooting digital. Extreme light overwhelms mid tones, shadows go black. Nothing is subtle.

This afternoon in the Valley everything seemed special and inviting. The soft filtered light, the deep greens and changing shades of brown and red more pronounced. It was miraculously beautiful. An occasional stray spill of sunlight struggled to poke through the clouds. What could I bring to these vistas that hadn't been captured already by lucky tourists before me? I wrestle with a variation of this question every time I take a photograph, which is unhelpful. So I tucked the question away and continued to drive down the valley past the sloping fields of wild grass to the ocean. I could imagine people living in cities but couldn't imagine why.