Where NOBODY knows your name

There’s a wonderful little documentary called New York made by Ken Burns. I put this documentary on when I kind of need soothing. It’s as you may have guessed, the history of New York, told by academics and historians with wonderful old pictures of the city as it was. It’s quite an old city, older than most people realize because next to nothing of it’s really historical buildings remain, lost to time and expansion.

There’s an episode about the history of the World Trade Center. It’s probably my favorite episode because it features a great hero of mine, Philippe Petit, who in some fit of madness swung a tight rope between those two towers and decided to walk between them. The episode of course culminates in the horrible and sad destruction of the towers on September 11. One of the speakers in the documentary says “”Whether you grow up in Beijing, Bilbao or Bombay, everyone has a New York in their heads, even if they have never been there,”a quote from Timothy Garton Ash, great historian. I think about this quote a lot and I was especially thinking about it on my last visit to the city when I snapped this picture:

I think it’s how a lot of people see the city. I mean it’s even how I see the city, as a person who grew up there.

I have a rather uneasy relationship with New York though. I spent my childhood there, a wonderful childhood, very normal and warm. Then we left when I was 12 to a hostile region just north of the city. New York was our safe place in that time, where we returned to go “home” whatever that means. If there was any wish I had had in those years was that we could leave where we had moved and we could just go back to the city, where we belonged.

Growing up though there was another place that was kind of MY New York. New York is an anonymous, rather impersonal city at times and I remember watching a show growing up where people hung out in a bar and formed a community of their own. That show of course was called Cheers. There was a place where everyone knows your name and they’re always glad you came. That really appealed to me growing up for some reason. Most people have a New York in their mind. Maybe fewer have a Boston on their mind. Not to mention, never in a million years did I ever imagine that I would be working as an instructor at the university up the street from the bar where Diane Chambers had matriculated and where her boyfriend occupied a chair. I also now occupy a chair at the same university, in that I have an office with a chair in it.

I’ve now lived in Boston for 12 years, longer than anywhere I have lived in my entire life. Am I a Bostonian now or a New Yorker? I am never sure. The New York of the 1980s, the Fran Lebowitz New York lives in my mind constantly. But on this past visit to New York, I realized that New York is the city where no one knows your name. I mean Boston, we ALL know each other. We are all two degrees of separation from each other. When I walk around in Boston, I always think — I’m with people I know, even if my fellow commuters are actually strangers. In New York though, I always feel like I’m surrounded by strangers. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived in the city for a long time. I mean it’s New York, full of wonderful, amazing things but I can’t help it think that I do want to go back to the place where, corny as this might sound, everybody knows your name.

On every trip, I realize how much less of a New Yorker I am. I still cannot stand the subway. The subway stations are still after all of these years, absolutely disgusting to me. I really dislike the trains. The heights of the buildings overwhelm me. The number of people has started overwhelming me too. I have become what I fear most — a small town person. Boston will never be a big city to me and that is how I will always think of it.

On this past visit, I went to a place called Summit One Vanderbilt. It is a new observation deck behind the Chrysler building. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been to in my entire life. I thought — how are they going to sell the New York skyline to jaded New Yorkers or even visitors? They found a way. The friends I visited as well in New York live in Long Island City, with an INSANE view of the city right out their window. No matter how many times I see that skyline, it still takes my breath away. That will never change. Have a taken a million shots of the skyline? Yes. Will I take a million more? Yes. Will I ever get tired of the skyline? Well, no. Probably, more than likely not.

My Bridge, Our Bridge

There’s an old joke in New York about having a bridge to sell someone. When someone says something particularly unbelievable, people say — if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. They were trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Now that is a lovely bridge but in my mind, the loveliest bridge in New York is the Queensborough Bridge. If I were in the market for bridges, I would buy that one, although I really don’t think it’s for sale.

The Queensborough Bridge though has always been my bridge, our bridge when it comes to the family. Our house growing up, our apartment faced the Queensborough Bridge. It was the sight I looked out at from my bedroom window.

I never really thought that the fact that I grew up in Manhattan was unusual or remarkable in any way. Doesn’t everyone grow up in New York? I mean that’s a strange thing to say but when you grow up in a jungle, you think everyone else grows up in a jungle too. It never struck me as unusual or strange that I had grow up there. Now I think though that it is really remarkable.

It didn’t really hit me until a couple of years ago when I met a lovely man who had grown up in a small village in the Swiss Alps. He also probably thought that everyone grows up in a village like he did. I remember he was quite embarrassed about the fact that he had grown up in a place like that. I remember telling him — everyone is from somewhere. I mean really could I try to one up him on this? No. It wasn’t my place and I’m not the type of person to do that anyway.

We spent a lovely evening together then, just talking about our lives. I told him about what it was like growing up in Manhattan, with the constant din of the city outside and our bridge sort of stretching off into the distance, across the East River. I also told him about when my elementary school took us to Central Park to teach us about ice safety and how we had to form a human chain across the pond next to the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. I still don’t really understand why the school thought a bunch of kids who had only ever seen Manhattan would need to know this valuable piece of information. Our exposure to nature, I laughed that night. Well we both laughed at that.

Even though we haven’t lived in that apartment in Manhattan in over 30 years, I still consider it my home. I still walk through New York and when I start heading towards 1st avenue or York Avenue, I still think — I’m on my way home. I often think of this quote I once heard about how everyone has a New York in their mind, in their imagination, even if they’ve grown up on the other side of the world from the city, maybe for example in a small village in the Swiss Alps.

The bridge was a constant feature of my childhood, as was the Pepsi Cola sign on the other side of the river. I stared at it a lot growing up. These two things meant home to me and still somehow mean home. The bridge appears in movies a lot and I always pause them or slow them down to see our old apartment building. Signs of home, I guess.

This weekend I finally got the chance to see the Pepsi Cola sign up close and photograph the bridge from an incredible new observatory I visited next to Grand Central station. That entry is currently percolating in my mind. But for now, the Pepsi Cola sign with our bridge in the background and our bridge from up high in the building:

The Insistent Documenter

Last weekend I was packing up to go on my yearly church retreat. I was particularly looking forward to it this year, as it didn’t happen last year, because of well, we all know. The church retreat is our time to form community and really reach out to God. Oh and we totally hang out, play games, laugh with the kids and generally have a lot of fun.

As I was getting ready to leave, my biggest decision was not what I was going to wear or what shoes to bring. It’s New Hampshire. I brought my finest LL Bean. My biggest decision was which cameras to bring. Yes. Cameras. Plural. I settled on my trust Canon D-SLR monster machine, my delicately elegant Rolleicord and a dark horse, a camera called a Holga which I acquired for the princely sum of $35. Two of those are film cameras, so those pictures will be up here. Eventually. Eventually. LOL.

Maybe it was being in the New Hampshire woods that got me thinking about this, that I have been obsessively sort of documenting my life since I was very young. I was 10 when my parents gave me a camera. It was a camera with four settings on it that came with their Time Magazine subscription but a camera nevertheless. It was kind of like — go. Start photographing.

Even in high school, I had a small Ricoh camera that I got to use on class trips. I had a little all automatic Nikon as well, the only Nikon I have ever owned. When I went to college, I decided to take the leap to finally follow my long interest in photography. I dragged my Canon AE-1 everywhere. I have pictures in buses, classrooms, the school library, around campus. Oh and then I dragged it across half of Europe. There was that.

If I’m really honest, I prefer two cameras. One for the formal stuff and the other for the casual, weird stuff. In Washington, I had a Lomo LC-A, a strange little spy camera that I took everywhere with me, into rooms where photography really wasn’t allowed. Then I moved on to a small waterproof digital camera as my daily carry. Now that I’m back to film, I’ve experimented with regular point and shoot cameras, a Sprocket Hole camera and now this Holga thing, which I still have no idea how the pictures look from. I wonder a lot of the time — do I really have to take this picture? I mean is this really necessary? I mean I’m probably late but I do it anyway. Insistent, incessant documenting, I guess.

So here’s some of my documenting from the past few months from the Rollei, Holga, film, sprocket hole and digital going through Florida, Georgia, Vermont and well, up the street.

The Mirrored Light

Yeah I photographed a Waffle House on the side of a Florida road. Yes I am about to wax poetically about my photographic inspiration in these images. Yes.

I have always loved photorealism, this sort of heightened, mirrored reality. There’s especially something about that light right before sunset. It’s so beautiful. Anyway, here are some photorealist looking shots of a Florida Waffle House:

The Zbig Show

Warning. A big VIP, well, actually VIPP flex is coming.

So I’m Polish. I always feel funny saying that, but it’s true. My last name has very few vowels in it. I put butter between the cold cut and the bread when I make my open faced sandwich. I love a good pastry, especially this Polish delicacy called pączki, which is a jelly filled bun of joy. I can be cynical. I think tea is a panacea for any health related ailments. Oh and wigilia, our traditional Christmas celebration with sałatka is sacred. My grandmother made the best pierogi. No, no need to question. This is just true.

But that’s about it for me being Polish. Poland doesn’t get a lot of play in American culture. Coach K, aka Mike Krzyzewski, Pope John Paul II and Rob Gronkowski. Sometimes. He’s on the bubble with being Polish. Just kidding Gronk. I love you despite the fact that you left us.

Growing up though, there was one person who kinda broke through, was sort of seen among the political grandees of this nation. This was Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish born diplomat who was National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter. I remember growing up and seeing Dr Brzezinski on tv and thinking — look. That’s us. I mean Poland. Are we really represented in the media??? In the movies, we’re either maids or scientists. Slightly eccentric linguistics enthusiasts who love skiing and photography and teaching the TOEFL exam are not really represented in the media. We should be, but we’re not.

Anyway, back to Brzezinski. On my great American southern road trip, I visited the Jimmy Carter presidential library in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s quite an interesting place. It gives a really comprehensive look into the life of the peanut farmer from Georgia. No matter what your political leanings, Carter is an impressive man who has done a lot of good in the world.

What struck me though throughout the exhibit was how much Carter relied on Dr Brzezinski, or as Carter pronounced it, Dr Brez-in-ski, which ok silver medal for pronunciation because our names are crazy hard to say. There seemed to be a really close friendship and mutual respect between these two men and Brzezinski seemed to be a trusted advisor of Carter. My little red and white heart sorta swelled up with pride when I saw how close these two men were.

It kind of brought back to my meeting with Dr Brzezinski. It was when we worked together in the White House. Ok TOTALLY kidding. The man was about 50 years my senior. My dear friend Andrea Kirk was working on a benefit where Brzezinski was going to get an award and hey, she needed a photographer and she happened to know this weirdo who would stick her camera in anyone’s face. Anyone’s. So I got the job. I also needed the evening off to go and see Brzezinski. My boss at the time goes — you need the night off to go to the Zbig show? Ok.

The night was really funny. It was a crowd of Washington grandees, sub grandees and normal folk. Everyone SWARMED Brzezinski when he came in. I was so nervous that I couldn’t speak to Brzezinski. I went up to my friend Andrea’s mother and got her to introduce me to him. I had prepared some Polish to speak to him. Oh and when you speak Polish and you are speaking to a person who is older than you and way more accomplished, you must say “Mister.” You do not call a man like that “you.” I nervously rehearsed these lines. He was a gracious and kind man and it was a very nice meeting. We even snapped a photo together:

Look at that fresh faced child. Oh and I got my own photos of the Zbigniew:

Oh and here’s a couple of snaps from the Carter library, a very worthwhile place to visit to go full politics junkie:

The Fight

I’m going to try to not get too philosophical, political, what have you in this entry. TRY.

Some years ago, no matter how many, I got a call to work at an institution called Boston University. To work there as an instructor. Exactly 23 years after NOT becoming a student there, as I had wanted, suddenly I was asked to work there. So every day happily I take the BU shuttle to work, staring out the window. We always pass by Marsh Chapel, in front of which there’s a statue of a dove made of doves dedicated to Doctor Martin Luther King, proud BU alum. Dr King’s dissertation is even on view at the library.

The version of the fight for civil rights in America we get is a very sanitized one. There were peaceful protest. Dr King spoke gently and eloquently. Of course the rights were turned over. But that’s not how it was. Not at all how it was. I studied political science long enough to know that and to have realized that, but that didn’t really resonate with me until I went to the Civil Rights Center in Atlanta.

For me, the first sign I saw in the Civil Rights Center was very familiar. There was the red script logo of Solidarność, the Polish trade union that rose up against the communist Polish government in the early 1980s, spurring change and the ultimate collapse of a political and economic movement that ruled half the planet for 50 years. Oh and the reason why I grew up in the United States and not Poland. It was amazing to see it featured along with the US civil rights movement, side by side.

As you walk through the Civil Rights center, immediately you are struck by something. This is not a dry representation of artifacts of the civil rights struggle. This is a live museum where you actually feel the way that the people doing the protesting felt. This is a very different experience than being a bystander or just a museum goer. At the center, you hear the speeches but also the yelling, the screaming, the gun shots and violence the protesters heard. You can if you want sit at a lunch counter and experience what the protesters did as they sat at lunch counters in the south. They put headphones on you and for three minutes, you are pelted with insults. It’s harrowing. At first I thought — ok, this isn’t so bad but by minute two, the insults got worse. There were death threats in there. It was terrifying. I’ve been to so many museums in my life but never one where you got to feel exactly what people were going through, like in that place in Atlanta.

What struck me was that this was a center dedicated to people who just wanted the same rights as everyone else in their own country. The right to sit anywhere on a bus. The right to attend the same schools as their white counterparts. The right to be treated equally under the law, things that so many of us take for granted. I had never really understood what people had gone through just to have that. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, the work is far from done.

In one of the exhibits at the center, I spotted a picture of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister of Poland and a close friend of my uncle, who was part of the Polish anti-communism movement. Again, it was incredible to see him included there but I also thought that I wouldn’t be standing there were it not for the work of this man. The course of my life was fundamentally changed by the actions of that man.

We’re all recipients of the legacy of what the people in that museum did. We can never lose sight of that.

Classical Photography

Don’t worry. I promise not to be boring. But this will be an entry about some deep photography musings, thoughts really.

I’ve spent the past 15 or so years going through a series of digital SLRs. At first, the digital SLR was a wonder. You could have an autofocus lens and set everything to automatic and just shoot away??? I mean that sounds like heaven, right? Coupled with the fact that I dragged my camera to the ends of the earth with me, I got really good at photography. I thought about it last year that I can now produce a perfect image with little trouble. I mean yeah, this took hundreds of thousands if not millions of bad images to happen but I was there.

Then covid hit. Suddenly, there was NOTHING to photograph. And for the first time in almost 20 years, I wasn’t out taking pictures constantly. Strange, I know. I still probably take more pictures than the average person but not as many as I used to. But this strange thing happened over covid. I picked up the film camera again. I don’t even know why this happened. Maybe it was because nothing was going on. Or maybe I kind of wanted to go back to my old way of doing things. Considering the pictures I was taking. Being careful about what I photographed.

Then I became the owner of an amazing little machine called a Rolleicord. I DREAMED of this camera since I started photography. Big sensor, beautiful rendering of details. A dream. It’s been fun lately taking this thing around with me. Recently, I thought I had actually lost a roll of film because I hadn’t seen the images yet. Then I remembered that the images were actually still in the camera because I only took two or three on average when I was out with the camera. What a difference from the usual digital shooting of a thousand images to find three good ones.

The verdict: I’m really in love with the little Rollei. That’s the great thing about hobbies. You get really good at it, plateau and then discover you have other things to do, look at, explore.

Here’s some recently production from the Rollei:

Journeys with Rollei

Well, here we go. Two entries in two days. But I got a lot of ground to cover. So let’s just dive in.

I’ve mentioned in previous entries that most of my photography is influenced by one thing — jealousy. No seriously. If I see someone take an insanely great photo, I want to go out and do it. That’s what keeps me motivated in terms of photography. I cannot stand the thought that someone took an amazing photo and I didn’t. I usually use that photo as a goal that I want to reach as well. It might take a long time and I might not exactly achieve what the other person has photographically but I keep trying until I do it.

This is the genesis of the pictures that will come with this entry. A long time ago, I saw an amazing set of photos taken during the Depression that were in color. They were taken with color film. I’m not exactly sure if it was color slide film or color roll film. Both were scarce and expensive back then, so I am sure this was not doled out haphazardly. The pictures are so interesting. The colors are sort of faded but it’s a look into another world, a world usually seen in black and white. People were just living their daily lives while the country went through what it went through. One day people will look back on covid times and feel the same way. I thought about putting one of the images in here but I think they’re copyright protected or something. I am not sure. But you can Google “great depression color photos” and it will come up.

When I took the road trip, I was trying to decide what cameras to take with me. Cameras. Plural. I fixed on the digital SLR, just to get immediate results and my Rolleicord, which I have fallen hopelessly in love with. It’s a true waist level TLR. The pictures are super sharp and when you use medium format slide film, the results are insane. So beautiful. This was my chance to at least try to reproduce the pictures I saw in the set of the Depression era ones. So I dragged the Rollei through five states, 1200 miles. I shot five rolls of film, a tightly edited 60 photos. I was really happy with what I got. The camera is tremendous fun and you see these insanely saturated colors. The iPhone camera can go jump in a lake compared to what comes out of the Rolleicord.

So here’s the stuff off the Rollei from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Enjoy:

The Light

Hello my blog reading audience. Yes I have slacked off here a little bit. Nothing bad happening. Was just working and gathering up some material for a new entry. As luck would have it, I now have both images and inspiration. Buckle up. This is going to be a long one.

Sometimes I feel like Isak Dinesen writing these blog entries. I had a farm once in Africa…. Well, I had no such farm but I did sorta embark on a journey of self discovery recently. Ok maybe that’s a bit too high falutin. I went to the South. I ate some really fire food. I saw friends I haven’t seen in ages and well, I made sorta a few discoveries about myself.

My best friend and I did a road trip to Florida in 2008 and every summer, we’ve talked about doing it again. This summer, I finally got some time to do it, so off we went. My best friend lives in Falls Church, Virginia. I hadn’t been to Washington DC for many years. I kinda wanted to go up there after what happened at the Capitol building earlier this year, which at this point feels like it happened a thousand years ago. Eventually we travelled to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and finally Florida.

I went two days before the trip to kinda poke around DC for a couple of days, as I hadn’t been there for ages. DC loomed in my mind for many years as a hard, painful time in my life. But something happened when I went to DC. I kinda saw the light about that time in my life and realized it was actually quite a good time in my life. DC was so different than what I remembered, more vibrant, more new and just more beautiful than I had remembered. I was also seeing it through clearer eyes.

I bought a ticket to visit the Hillwood Estate because I saw that they had a great collection of Russia imperial artifacts and the place absolutely did not disappoint. It was funny too when I walked to the museum because I almost forgot I was in DC. There was a random sign for an embassy nearby. I’ve just gotten used to random signs pointing to universities and not embassies.

I did do one thing in DC that I had wanted to do for a long time. I went to see my old house on Capitol Hill. I lived in this legendary pit in DC after college that had bars on the windows and a sizable hole in the ceiling. On the first floor, as the place had two floors. It wasn’t a hole in the roof of the place. See that would have been insane. Anyway, that’s where I lived a few difficult years after college. I remember always sitting on the couch wondering when my life was actually going to start. I remember always thinking that people were off somewhere having the time of their lives and I was there, sulking. Much later I found out that a lot of people do that in their 20s.

There was always the feeling too that if you didn’t do everything by the time you were 25, you fell off a cliff or something and your life was over. Here I am, very far removed from 25, still learning, growing, meeting new people, having new experiences.

As I stood there though across from that house, kind of thinking about everything that had happened since I’d last been there, it struck me that I felt like I had never lived there. I took a quick picture for the ‘gram. It struck me that smartphones didn’t exist the last time I had been there and I didn’t know the vast majority of the people that liked the picture on social media when I posted it. Oh and FB was the twinkle in the eye of a computer nerd in a dorm on the Charles River. After I left though, I felt like I had really accomplished what I had wanted to. I guess it was a kind of closure I had to get.

From there, my best friend and I drove south. I charted this course by the amazing food we ate along the way. I’ll just say it. The North has plenty of wonderful things but OH MY GOD the food in the South was amazing. I had a seafood boil in South Carolina with some kind of magical sauce and garlic butter. Then I ate a magical pulled pork sandwich. Oh and the pulled pork sandwich, I ate in a place called Buccees, which is like a 7-11 on steroids but the food is INCREDIBLY good. Eventually we ended up hitting three big cities — Charleston, Atlanta and Orlando, with a myriad of stops along the way. We ended up at the Sugar Tit distillery in Reidville, South Carolina and the Peachoid in Gaffney, South Carolina. In Atlanta, I went to Coca Cola World and the Civil Rights center. Oh and I ate a mythical chili dog. Mythical. I dream of this chili dog I ate. I’m only half joking.

Along the way though I literally and figuratively saw the light. In the south, the light is somehow brighter, clearer, the colors more beautiful, everything shinier and clearer. I saw the light too about my past and came back invigorated and grateful. Grateful to have the amazing friends I have, grateful that I got to take a trip like that and kinda ready for the next bit here.

Well, you got this far. You deserve some photos and photos you shall have:

The Russia Obsession

Confession time. I am a history nerd. Ok I said it. History is kind of a hobby for me. One day I was talking to a dear friend about how I was watching a documentary about Russian history. She asked if I was preparing for class. I said — no. I was just watching them for me. I didn’t say that I was watching the documentary for the hundredth time because I wanted to memorize what was in it.

I don’t remember when the obsession with Russia quite started. It was probably when I was a kid. I’m a child of the Cold War, with my family directly affected by it. We live in the United States because of the Cold War. I grew up with the images of the military parades in Red Square. I am a huge gymnastics fan and for many years, the Soviet Union had the best gymnasts in the world, wearing these intimidating red leotards, with this Soviet crest on it performing so much better than anyone else, proof positive that socialism was the superior system.

It personal for me as well. My grandfather was born in Russia, in Pechora, a town near the Northern Urals. My grandfather had to leave Russia because of the revolution in 1917, when he was five. The family made their way to Poland. Then his daughter emigrated to America. People move around. Always have, always will.

One time I saw a picture of Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra and Queen Victoria. I thought about how these two people controlled almost the entirety of the Earth’s surface at the time and how each of them had affected the fate of my family. The Russian revolution and the Czar’s abdication would fundamentally alert the course of my grandfather’s life, while his granddaughter would come to live in the United States, in the city where another revolution would be sparked to break free of Queen Victoria’s ancestor, King George III.

Fast forward to 1989, when it all fell apart. In 1991, the Soviet Union became Russia and its republics. My obsession continued. In 1997, I got the opportunity to travel to Russia.

It was almost destiny that I would visit this place that was the site of such an obsession for me. I remember the first night I was there, when we had settled in our hotel when someone said we should walk to Red Square. I remember just spotting Red Square out of the corner of my eye and thinking — that cannot be real. I am not actually walking over there right now. That cannot be real. But it was. Just two and a half years earlier, I had been walking across a stage getting my high school diploma, ready to leave behind the podunk town I went to high school in and then there I was in Red Square. Russia remains without a doubt, the most amazing place I have ever visited.

Russia is also known for its icons. The icons play a huge role in the worship that takes place in the Russian Orthodox Church. They have a specific style to them. There’s also something very haunting about them. The figures also look very sorrowful and in pain.

There’s a museum of Russian icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. Kind of a little random corner to have a museum, but it is a lovely place. You can learn about the icons and how they are made and how they are part of the worship in the Russian Orthodox Church. I jumped at the chance to see them, what with my obsession with that corner of the planet.

Here are some icons from the museum, in all of their glory.