I recently went to the Museum of Fine Arts again, for the first time since the covid burst onto our shores. The place is much the same but somewhat different, which I guess is sorta the pandemic world now.
I grew up going to museums and I have always liked them. Doing photography the way I do, I’m always looking for new ideas for composition and color story. There’s also something great about just being around so much beauty, like we find in a place like the Museum of Fine Arts.
Walking through the museum though I had kinda a funny thought. What if I was looking at a forgery? What if some of these paintings weren’t actually painted by the old master it said they had been painted by? I wonder why I had this thought.
Years ago, I happened upon a piece on 60 Minutes about a man named Wolfgang Beltracchi. As Bob Simon says in the piece, the name isn’t familiar. Beltracchi??? Well, you get the meet the man in the piece and he is, well, interesting. And kinda an evil genius, if you really want to get precise about it. On the screen, you see this sorta aging hippie with some pretty long hair giving the funniest interview you have ever heard with what is in essence a criminal. Now you see Beltracchi was an art forger. Well, I guess more of an artist inspired by other artists? I’m not sure. But he sure had a lot of fun doing what he did.
What Beltracchi did was to look for historically accurate materials to make paintings out of, like canvases and paints. Then he figured out what great painters would paint if they had the time and had felt like it. Oh and he made up a story with his wife that the paintings belonged to her grandfather and that he hid them during World War II from the Nazis. I mean genius.
I mean you can look at this as a conventional sort of crime story, were it not for Beltracchi’s hilarious demeanor throughout the whole thing. He could not care less about what the art experts and the museums thought of him, before he was caught. More on that later. Yeah, my paintings are in all those museums. Ya ya. And then he just laughs slyly to himself. The best scene, my favorite scene though is with his wife, Helene, when the interviewer says — you were really the Bonnie and Clyde of the art world. Beltracchi responds by saying — oh yes, Bonnie and Clyde but without weapons, only with pencils. You can tell at that moment, you can really tell Beltracchi is extremely impressed with himself being able to pull this one over on the stuffy art world. It seems that it’s Beltracchi’s world and we’re just living in it.
One day though, Beltracchi was tripped up by a pigment in one of his paints. It seems the titanium white in one of his paintings wasn’t made when the actual artist would have painted and Beltracchi was caught. He was thrown in prison and lost all of his money. But the funniest part of all of it is that he doesn’t seem sorry or to care about what he did. Yeah, he’s a criminal but you have to love him for this.
Wandering through the Museum of Fine Arts, I really thought — these are beautiful works of art, but am I maybe looking at a real life Beltracchi? Those Dutch masters so precise in all of their details, the ruffled collars so precisely drawn and filled in, but maybe those were forgeries. Was I there looking at a Beltracchi or was I just looking for Beltracchi? I guess only that evil genius really knows for sure.
Some of the beauties I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts:
I saw this line as a book title once, and I thought it really fit how I’ve felt so many times in my life. It all seemed important at the time. It’s not really important now, but it did really seem important at the time.
I think about that line a lot when I think about my college. Not my graduate experiences, which were each great but also extremely difficult at the same time. Now that I teach graduate students, I tell the students that if they don’t cry at least once a semester during graduate school, they’re not doing it right.
Undergraduate was a different story. I saw this list recently that asked what marks you as an American, and one of the things was that you say the words “college experience.” I mean that is drummed into you from the youngest age. College experience. College is the best four years of your life. The friends you make in college are the best ones you’ll ever make in your life. After that four years of college, nothing will ever top that. I mean that’s what we’re sold after all. Is that actually true? I’m sure it is for some people for at least a little bit of time after college but eventually the real life sets in and everything changes and flips around a million times.
At 18 though, you’ve been sold this and told this a million times. It all seemed important at the time. I worked extremely hard in high school at getting good grades but I didn’t end up going to the college I wanted to go to. I now work as an instructor at the college I had wanted to go to. But that’s all for another entry.
I graduated from the University at Albany in Upstate New York. I met the person who has been an extremely dear friend to me for almost 27 years at college but no one else in my life currently is from that time in my life. With very few exceptions, the people in my life are people I’ve met in the last 10 to 15 years and in the past five years, I’ve made some very close friends. When I mention where I went to college, if I ever even mention this to people, I say I went to college in Upstate New York. I hardly know anyone from New York, so this is usually sufficient.
Last weekend I went to visit another very dear friend who lives near Albany. I had taken the train through Albany and had wanted to poke around to my old haunts from 25+ years earlier. My friend was game, so off we went.
I always had a strange relationship with Albany, the university and the town. I had to live there for college but I wouldn’t have chosen to be there if it really had been up to me. I so thoroughly hated where we lived when I was in high school that the only solution I saw for that was to leave and any place was better than that place. Valhalla, New York, best seen in the dark or in the rear view mirror of your car.
I was ready to leave at 18. I mean I was ready to leave Valhalla five minutes after I started junior high school, so I was REALLY ready to leave when I was 18. The whole time I thought — I hate where we live and Albany doesn’t seem a whole lot better but at least it’s not HERE.
I remember the day it was time to leave for college really vividly. I don’t remember the drive up but I remember getting to this dorm I would be living and us just wanting to get my stuff up there and the people there saying that no, we’d have to wait a few hours. Finally we got everything up there and I met my roommate. I’m not going to write her name up here and I’m sure she’s gone off to have a new life but we were total opposites. No friendship really sprung up, but we were two strangers put in this room by some random system. She though already seemed to have a big group of friends up there. I didn’t really know anyone yet. Us sharing a room never really stopped being awkward.
That first night in the dorm was particularly hard. I remember that the phones in our dorm room had gotten hooked up incorrectly and we had to get extra long cords to correct the whole situation. I remember going to whatever Kmart or whatever large kinda box store retailer to get these phone cords. I remember going back to that dorm room really upset.
It was that time when wanting to be with your family wasn’t cool and wanting your parents to help you with things really wasn’t cool either. I guess that became my attitude too and was my attitude for a long time. Who needs your family for anything, anyway? I was 18. I had it all figured out.
Or maybe I didn’t. Certainly the people around me did. I was in a lot of ways still a child but I had a definite plan for myself and I really knew what I wanted out of life, what I wanted my life to look like.
Now if I’m really honest, I really did need my parents. The other thing that was always dragged was returning home from college. You went to college and stayed there. You didn’t wimp out and go back home. Only weak people do that.
Again, if I’m really honest with myself, I really would have just left or gone back to my parents if that had been a safe place, where they lived, if that place were even safe. I did not like having to share space. And I needed my parents a lot of the time. That made me seem weak at the time, but now I think asking for help is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do in your life.
College for me though was a tough couple of years. Academically, I was taught by some fantastic people, professors who really set me on the course that I’m on now and was after I graduated from college. But socially, I had an extremely hard time. My first year, I kinda fell in with a group of people who weren’t like me and kinda turned on me after a while. They were doing their own thing and I was alone. I inherently felt like I had really done something wrong in my life or that there was something wrong with me. My first year, my dad was paying my college tuition and he would toss me a few bucks to live on, that averaged out to about $7 a day. The people I fell in with got this strange idea that I was rich and I was ridiculed for this. It fed into how I felt, that life had just screwed me. I was cursed. My parents had too much money for me to get any kind of merit based financial aid at the colleges I had wanted to go to but here, I was much too rich. That was the great irony of it. I went to college with a radio and a not very fancy laptop. I didn’t even have a television until I was a senior in college.
I never really felt comfortable in that college culture, if I’m really honest with myself. To me it seemed really strange to party constantly and not to pay attention to your studies. One of the first times I took the bus home to see my parents from college, a woman on the bus said that the college experience would go by so quickly and it felt like an instant later, I was getting my diploma. All the partying and the drama seemed important at the time. To me though, it didn’t resemble real life in any way. No one in their real life abandons their responsibility to get drunk and party all day and then shames people who actually do care about their studies. No one does that. Engaging in that kind of behavior outside of college marks you as having really severe problems. I never understood why it was acceptable in college.
I spent a lot of college feeling like I was the only one who was lonely and confused and who really had nothing figured out yet and it would probably take me a long time to figure anything out. The message is always that you have to have it all figured out by your 20s. Once you hit 30, everything becomes impossible and forget your 40s. If you don’t have it all figured out by age 40, you may as well crawl into a hole and die.
No one tells you that the “college experience” is kinda just marketing hype and even if you have an “amazing” college experience, you will be confronted with the reality of having to go out into the world and having to manage all of that. Those friends you make in college, they may not be your friends five years later and you are probably not even going to live in the same city after college. Life is long with a lot of chapters and college, when it’s all said and done can be just this four year addition to high school if you go when you are 18, like I did. Through a lot of it, it felt like high school without parents.
Now getting back to Albany. I remember being truly intrigued by the place. It seemed to have a lot of history in it and some of places truly did look interesting. There were all of these signs of the old Albany, when it had been an industrial hub of sorts, when the city had been at its peak. There were all of these things around that said “Empire State” and had all of these plaques on it. It did seem like a place worth checking out or exploring. But at that age, at that time, going to downtown Albany to look at architecture just wasn’t done. I remember going to this noisy, smelly rock club in Albany called QE2, at the behest of a friend’s boyfriend at the time. I hadn’t yet picked up a camera or learned how to use it and I remember up the street where the club was, I saw a moderately tall building in the nighttime and I thought — that looks like such an amazing photograph. My friend’s boyfriend and his little friends were talking about some band being on MTV at midnight and how they had “sold out” and I was off staring at a building. I remember Bill Cunningham saying that he would go to church on Sunday and look at women’s hats. I was off kind of staring at photos I might take one day.
Right in downtown Albany, there’s this sort of manifestation of I guess you’d call it governmental hubris. New York’s governor in the 1960s was a telegenic fellow by the name of Nelson Rockefeller, of the oil baron/philanthropy/banking/world order controlling Rockefellers. Rocky, as he was called, had a lot of grand visions for the Empire State. He built the uptown campus of the college I went to, this sort of 1960s version of a futuristic space craft that looks sorta weird and dated now. Rocky’s first big project though was the Empire State plaza, a cluster of state office buildings in any area in Albany formerly known as “the Gut.” Rocky had cleared it out through imminent domain after a Dutch royal had visited the area. It’s kind of a sad story about what happened to that area, the old residents kicked out for this concrete bit of governmental hubris.
Again, I didn’t go to college with many people who would have wanted to discuss 1960s New York State politics with me.
Last weekend though, I finally got to poke around the plaza a bit, the entire town for that matter. I visited my freshman dorm and my dorm for the rest of college. It all looks exactly the same.
So you’ve stuck with me this far. Congratulations. Here are some pictures to reward you. I made Albany pretty. Thank me later.
I’ve realized lately that there are just times when I need to be alone and creative. It sounds corny or pretentious or whatever, but it’s really true.
When I have moments like this, sometimes I put on this documentary I watched about New York City by Ken Burns, from about twenty years ago. The documentary has this quiet, somber tone to it, with this gentle music and these sepia toned pictures of the city.
The entire last episode is about the World Trade Center, which had unfortunately met its sad fate a few months after the documentary had gotten made. In the documentary, they interview Philippe Petit, who I have written about before on this blog.
Petit is a guy who probably could use an entire documentary all to his own. A person who would just hang a tightrope between two towers or buildings and just walk between them, for fun, well, this is definitely a person who is worth getting to know, at least in my book. In the documentary, they trace the history of the construction of the World Trade Center. A man named Guy Tozzoli appears in the documentary. He’d spearheaded the building of the trade center and was a character all his own. He talked about having to fill 2 million square feet of office space when the towers were built and a guy with a French accent who kept visiting him, posing as a journalist, who asked him how much the towers swayed in the wind. Tozzoli recounts how he got a call on his police radio that a man, who turned out to be Petit, was walking between the two towers one day in 1974. “If he doesn’t fall off, don’t arrest him.” That’s my favorite quote from Tozzoli.
Petit speaks in the documentary in this absolutely incredible way, recounting his experiences during his walk. He intellectualizes what he experienced but in an understandable way. He married the two towers. It was an intimate performance between him and the towers. The elements were getting annoyed at his persistent vagabondage. Whenever other worlds invite us, whenever we are balancing on the boundaries of our limited human condition, that’s where life starts. I absolutely love those words.
My friends always say that I am adventurous. I don’t agree. I don’t jump out of airplanes but Petit’s quote sticks in my head all the time. They are almost words I live by. Other worlds invite us. We are frequently balancing on the boundaries of our limited human condition. When we enter these other worlds, life starts. I think about this a lot when I’m skiing. Skiing is this complete other world. Complete. We are as humans bound by gravity. We seek reasonable temperatures. We do try not to hurtle ourselves down sloped ice surfaces, attempting to as fast as we possibly can. But this other world invites us and while I’m skiing, I do feel like I am balancing on the limits of my limited human condition. I’ve said many times that I have a relationship with each of the mountains I ski at. I really do feel like I’m married to some of those places.
Last weekend I attended an event that I consider one of the most sublime things that a person could ever attend. The Red Bull Cliff diving tour is back in Boston after a nine year absence. The divers dive off of an eight story building into the water below, doing flips and twists along the way. Heady stuff. I looked at the divers during the event and thought — you really are balancing at the boundaries of your limited human condition. You really have accepted an invitation from another world. Do you feel like you actually marry the places you are diving off of? Those people absolutely amaze me. I often wonder if the diving really is an intimate performance between them and the thing they are diving off of, in this case the Institute of Contemporary Art. How do we all respond when other worlds invite us? Do we go or do we remain in our limited human condition. I’ll say one thing. I would go and I’d do some flips on the way down.
There will be philosophizing and then pictures. If you aren’t here for the prose, or aren’t in the mood for it, scroll down for my myriad of 2021 Boston Marathon images. If you are in the mood for some choice prose, simply look downwards.
Here is where the prose will begin. So in September, it will be 13 years of living here in Boston. I mean I guess 13 isn’t a momentous number. I guess 15 or 20 or another multiple of 5 would be more noteworthy. But for me, 13 is a big number because it’s the number of years I spent in and around New York City. I lived there from age 5 to age 18 so I guess that was the place I had spent the most time in before this. I’m at the point now in Boston where I remember when this place was here and that store used to be here but it’s gone now. What’s crazy is that the school I worked in for almost seven years, the original building it was in is gone, not even a speck of it left and the school is out of business. It’s really sad to think it isn’t there anymore, even though when it happened, I already hadn’t worked there for four years.
The bigger thing here though is that when you live in a place for so long, it’s almost like everyone knows everyone. I was watching this documentary about the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and one of the people said — in Boston, everyone knows everyone. That part is true. I have this sort of odd friendship with this guy who helps me with rides to places. This cantankerous individual picks me up at 4am to get on my ski bus in the winter. Pronouncing Rs??? Yeah. Forget about that. That doesn’t exist. Don’t even get him started on our new lady mayah. Don’t even go there. But what’s so incredible about him is that not only does he know everyone in this city, I’m talking both Bulgers, the comedic, autocratic little Irishman from Southie and the crime lord, but his uncle worked the Green Monster at Fenway in the 1940s and met Ted Williams. Insane.
That’s the thing about this city. No matter what, you are near friends and never really alone. Case in point. I went to the marathon on Monday. I didn’t feel like roping any friends into it. I mean I was there, festooned in camera equipment, photographing the proceedings all day. I had my mega sonic digital firing cannon and my Holga, a tiny film wonder that has no electronics in it and is light on the wallet, $35 a pop. I’m usually there with my mom or a friend but this year I just went alone.
First, there’s the atmosphere. Everyone is cheering everyone on. Everyone. A guy is running and his shirt says “Bob” on it??? Well, everyone is ringing their marathon bells and cheering on “Bob” on his last mile in marathon. People are out with their dogs. Random people strike up conversations with you. That’s how my marathon day went. I was there with my giant camera and I ran into one of my students from my amazing summer class at Boston University, where we discussed such deeply academic topics as where to get the best cannoli in the city and the curse of the Bambino. We had a fun catchup. Two women from the Mormon church approached me to ask about my Holga. We chatted for a bit and I told them I am good for the God, having joined up with my local Baptists recently.
No matter if you don’t even know the people, you are among friends. They aren’t strangers. And the city keeps you company.
Oh and it was amazing to have marathon day back after three years of not having the marathon on Marathon Monday. A dose of normalcy in a couple of years that have been anything but normal.
Ok enough prose. Here are my ton of pictures from Monday. Enjoy:
Bill Cunningham gets quoted a lot on this blog and it’s not by accident. Obviously he’s my favorite photographer but really the man had my dream job. He people watched all day long and took pictures for a living. I do that, but just for fun, for the diary/chronicling aspect of things.
Cunningham said famously that clothes, fashion are the armor that we all wear against every day life. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. We are all blank canvases and we paint ourselves before we go outside to interact with the world. Recently when I went skiing, on one of those four hour interminable bus rides, I realized I was wearing plaid sweats, my BU sweatshirt with my Killington Mountain sort of Grateful Dead hybrid t-shirt and LL Bean boots. I was struck by how New England preppie I looked. New England preppie is basically the style I identify with the most. I love those knitted sweaters and the boat shoes. I love that kind of varsity stitching on things. I started thinking too that I don’t consider myself to be a fashionista but I do choose what I wear every day really carefully. I have an array of t-shirts from ski resorts, all of my weird animal and Godzilla t-shirts and just my general tendency to use my simple clothes to say things. We all make choices in that category, whether we admit to it or not. For me too, it’s kind of funny to walk into class at the university wearing some ski resort t-shirt with an animal on it. Yeah, usually the t-shirt is underneath a pricey preppie looking sweater or sweatshirt. I do work at a university after all. I don’t have one of those tweed blazers with the leather elbow patches. Yet.
I’ve done my fair share of street style photography. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I spent years running from one side of Boston to the other and I saw A LOT of people. Now I’ve switched gears a bit, and I carry my Holga camera with me and I snap what I think would look good in black and white or if I turn the camera upside down. That’s kinda where I am with things. But I know I’ll get back to shooting street style again. The best fashion show is definitely on the street, always has been always will be, as Bill would say.
Here are some of my favorite street style moments from over the years, from my COMPREHENSIVE archive:
I’ve been stuck inside of late. Well, of the past few days. I had a suspicious cough that I thought might turn into a cold or worse, the dreaded covid. It turned out to be a side effect from a medication I take for one of my middle aged person ailments. I’m negative for covid as well, thank the lord.
Well I did kinda think I was a disease vector and I had a bit of extra time, so I decided to cocoon myself at home and watch a bunch of things. One thing I watched was about Andy Warhol, an artist who had a major impact on me.
I guess it’s easy to say you have been inspired by Andy Warhol. I think anyone who has ever attempted to create art has said this. He’s a mass pop artist and in a way, the creator of the world we live in now. I bet that’s a dash of overstatement, but not by much. Warhol obsessively documented his life with films, painting, photography, all manner of things. Now you just open up that lighted rectangle in your hand and boom, your image goes out to a billion of your closest friends.
The other thing that always happens when I watch something about an artist, I want to create something. Yeah, I steal ideas a lot. A LOT. I have a book at home about my beloved Bill Cunningham that I keep at the ready all the time but I barely ever open because I get the biggest photography envy of all time when I do that.
Warhol also stuck in my mind because we crossed over in New York. Sure, he was in his 50s when I was about eight years old but we were around New York at the same time in the 1980s. He was a huge celebrity by then. I was using my allowance to buy Hello Kitty things at Bloomingdales and concerned about keeping my gymnastics leotard neat for my classes at Sokol, but yeah, I mean basically we were the same.
I was watching this documentary on Warhol and one of the participants said that New York was amazing in the 1980s and absolutely it was. It was everything people said it was. As I’ve mentioned up here before, I’m an only child and we didn’t have a lot of money then. We lived this nice contended life, my dad working at his university on York Avenue, us living across the street and my school across the street from that. My parents didn’t have money for a babysitter, so off I went with the adults. There was this insane electricity about the city then. I remember seeing guys in those Adidas jackets with the gold chains and the boom boxes walking around. You’d see these yuppies in these pin striped suits with red handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. The city just pulsated with this insane energy. Something was happening. Some kind of cultural shift was taking place.
You also saw vestiges of the old city. B. Altman was still open as a department store and that was roaring 20s New York, ladies mile New York, Mad Men New York. Finger sandwiches. The time when department stores sold everything, from food to stereos. There are still things in my parents house bought at B. Altman in my parents house, including an intact in the box selection of Christmas ornaments that still has the B. Altman price tag on them and were made in West Germany. Interestingly, B. Altman and West Germany went out of business about a year apart, some 30 years ago. But the ornaments remain.
Checker cabs still ran in the city and it was a thrill to ride in them. It was like riding in a horse drawn carriage. My favorite thing was these weird little stools inside the cab that were meant to fit more people into it. Again, I’m a tiny child in this cab. This would never be allowed now.
Even as a little kid, I remember wanting to see all of this, experience all of it. My parents are kinda proper and formal. I just found this world utterly fascinating but again, being a little kid, running away really would not have been in my best interest. But even then I remember wishing I had a camera to capture it all.
Most of all, I remember wanting to document all of it, like Warhol did. Oh and I forgot to mention. We used to run into him on the street. There were a lot of those famous people around then but Warhol was probably the most famous at the time. He loomed large in the city. He passed away in 1987 at New York Hospital, when we were still living in the city. New York Hospital was right behind where my parents worked. I also remember going to Sotheby’s auction house after he died where they had this huge display of his person effects. There was a ton of stuff but what I remember the most were the unopened cookie jars. There were hundreds of them. He was eccentric. That’s for sure.
We left Manhattan in 1989 to live in this rather mediocre place in this rather mediocre area north of the city, just north, a place better seen in the rear view mirror of your car. I remember when we moved there thinking — what are we even doing here? I mean we’d been at the center of the universe and now we’d moved to this hole, this mediocre hole. I remember thinking — people escape places like this to move to Manhattan. Why had we gone in reverse? We’d go to Manhattan most weekends almost in a way to go home, back to what we really knew. Even now when I’m in New York and I start walking towards the East River, I think “I’m on my way home.” If I see movies that show the Queensborough bridge, or as we call it our family, our bridge, I slow it down to try to find our old building. In my mind, we’re still that family living in that apartment in New York.
After we left in 1989, I felt like the city lost some of its energy. In the 1990s, the city got cleaner, safer but also the energy died down. I mean you could actually go to Times Square because it wasn’t full of porn theaters anymore but the place wasn’t the same. I still see the vestiges of the old city when I’m there, periodically but more and more of them are disappearing. To me now the city is way too corporate with those giant, cold, anonymous condo towers. I do still miss the dollar slices, good bagels and the very efficient yellow cabs but I’m a Bostonian now, clam chowder, extensive sports opinions, lobster and the occasional dropped R. I’ve lived here as long as I lived in Manhattan and in that hole so I’m equally both places now. Up until I moved to Boston though, Manhattan was the place where I had lived the longest in my life and therefore, it was my home. In as much as I actually had one.
Anyway, most of you come here for the photos. I’m done with my Fran Lebowitz/Isak Dinesen type of memoir thing. As I searched for the proper images to illustrate this entry with, I thought — I’ve photographed a lot of people over the years in the city. I think they’d be perfect to illustrate this entry. I mean of course I would love to have a big record of what I saw as a kid in the 1980s, but I guess that just has to live in my head. But as soon as I was old enough, I started documenting the people of the city, August Sander or Bill Cunningham or a general love of sticking my camera in people’s faces. Take your pick. Most of these images have never been seen on this blog, so this is a premiere, of sorts.
I guess that is a rather strong title for a blog entry, but it is what it is.
I’ve had this blog for almost 16 years and it’s gone through a number of iterations. I’ve been a photographer for 25 years, in that I really started taking pictures with an all manual camera that year. As any story of a photographer starts, I borrowed my dad’s Canon AE-1. “Borrowed” in that I kept the camera for over 15 years, dragging it across continents and into any place that I wouldn’t get kicked out of for carrying it. And some I was kicked out of.
I know this is going to sound profoundly self important and pompous, but I’ve recently started to think about my “work,” my body of work as a photographer. What defines the photographs I take? I think two things profoundly affected me. The first was growing up in New York in the 1980s and seeing all of it. I saw the rise of rap and hip hop culture, the yuppies on Wall Street and that arts scene in New York. I would walk around New York with my parents and we’d see Andy Warhol. That stays with you. The other thing was going to museums growing up. A lot of museums. I’m an only child and babysitters were expensive, so I went where the adults went. Even as a kid, I remember going to those museums and thinking — I want to go create something. I want to be a part of this, but here’s the thing. I am absolutely terrible at drawing or painting. I just seemed so far away to be able to create the way those people created.
I was drawn to photography way before I ever picked up a camera. Way before. I absolutely had a vision of what I wanted to photograph but the technical skill to actually do this??? That was way off in the future. I never actually took a photography class. People always asked me if I did, but I never did. I did though take a class called “History of Photography,” which I absolutely loved. I mean LOVED. It had nothing to do with the good looks of the instructor and his luxurious head of hair. LOL. But in all seriousness, it was comprehensive look at a century and a half of photography, from Nadar to Cartier Bresson to the present day. I remember one day, the instructor asked us how many of us thought of ourselves as photographers. At the time, I had a point and shoot Ricoh camera that I took a lot of out of focus pictures with. I wasn’t going frighten Richard Avedon with my photography talent. A lot of people raised their hands. I remember thinking that I just love looking at those images and just getting inspiration. I also had no idea how to make any of them. Another thing the instructor said was that a lot of photographers start by imitating other people and then come up with their own style. Maybe that’s the way I would go. Imitate, then innovate.
I went through a whole period where I would try to imitate what I had seen other photographers had done. Slowly though I did start to develop a style of my own. I always want the photographs to be infused with a lot of life and excitement. I always loved a huge sense of movement in my photos. This is crazy to admit, but I watch old gymnastics routines for inspiration on how to photograph movement. I mentioned in these entries before that I always had this need to document my life. I kept diaries growing up, but photographs were so much more immediate and interesting. For a long time and still to some degree, I still seek out opportunities where I’ll be able to see interesting things but for a long time, the idea of photographing the same place over and over interested me. When I started working in Downtown Crossing in Boston, I photographed my path to work incessantly and what went on in that area. And A LOT went on. A LOT.
I guess I would boil it down to, my photographic manifesto is the following. Carry your camera with you everywhere. You never know what kind of crazy things you are going to see in a day. Photograph, document, infuse the images with life but at the same time, transmit how you felt when you were photographing that particular scene. Amazement, excitement, sadness, heartbreak, put it all in the photograph. Chase every possible opportunity to take pictures. Stick your camera in the faces of every unsuspecting person, famous or not. And always remember, the best photograph you ever take is always the next one. If you hit a creative block, go sharpen pencils until you come up with an idea. Well for me, it was to pick up the film camera after having put it down for 15 years. Thanks Covid. I can never thank you for all the fantastic opportunities you have presented me. Nah, I’m kidding. Just leave already. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.
So here’s a carefully curated selection of my body of work. And by that I mean I randomly searched by insane archive. They’ve been taken in such exotic places as Sweden, the Cayman Islands, Florence, Venice, Copenhagen and of course, Albany, New York and Providence, Rhode Island. Some of these pictures, I have published before and others, they’ve never seen the light of day, so this is a premiere of sorts.
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.
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:
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.