Little Edie Rides the D6

I know. The title is colorful and I promise, if you keep reading, it shall all become clear to you. I promise. Keep reading. Or don’t. Scroll down to just skip all of this awesome prose I am pouring out here and go right to the photographs.

Great. You decided to stay. Get ready for the (meandering) ride of your life.

Recently I saw that a book called “The Orange Line” had been published about you guessed it, THE ORANGE LINE. Well, which orange line do you ask? The orange line in Boston that is, the area that I live in. I was immediately interested in this. First of course because of the photography aspect, but also because of the nature of the project.

A photographer named Jack Lueders-Booth photographed the old elevated orange line just before the elevated train was taken down in 1987 and the train was taken underground. What Lueders-Booth did was take the pictures with a 8 by 10 view camera. For those of you who don’t spend your spare time spelunking through YouTube videos about historic cameras, an 8 by 10 view camera is one of those old fashioned cameras with that little hood you throw over you before you take the photo. Forget medium format, 35mm or digital. This is a serious commitment. Can’t fit your phone into your jacket??? How about lugging around a camera that is the size of large toaster oven. OK yes, I’m American and yes I will use anything except the metric system. LOL.

Anyway, from this project Lueders-Booth produced this beautiful chronicle of the neighborhood’s and the people on the old orange line. He met the people that lived in the neighborhoods, transit workers, just documented life in those areas before it was all utterly changed. It was a strange experience for me looking through that book because the places look somewhat familiar but at the same time completely unfamiliar to me. The city has changed that much in the 35 or so years since the pictures had been taken.

The portraits in the book are beautiful and this incredible chronicle of a place that was about to change, drastically. Like the photography nerd that I am, I sat there with rapt attention watching Lueders-Booth talking about his book in a lecture on YouTube, hearing the stories of how he had gotten his photos. As is usual in these situations, I was consumed with horrible jealousy. No not really but I thought what an incredible project this would be to be able to do. I always say that if I could have anything in my life, it would be to have a year off to do a photography project. That would be my biggest wish. Me, a fully funded year and my myriad of cameras. That’s all I want.

Kind of though inadvertently I realized I had done my own mini Orange Line photography project, without even knowing it.

After college, as I have mentioned up here many times, I lived on Capitol Hill. My post college life was extremely complicated and full of all kinds of complicated, difficult emotions. I loved living on the hill but I didn’t have a community up there. Once I left, I never really went back. If I had had a community up there, I’d probably still be living there now.

The hill itself at the time was a really fascinating place. Again my complex emotions come into play when I talk about it. At the time I lived in this house that cost $400 a month in rent and believe me, I got what I paid for. There were bars on the windows. Famously, as I have mentioned before, the living room had a hole in the ceiling, a rather sizable one.

My roommate at the time was in this deep denial that she actually lived there. My erstwhile friendship with this roommate of mine is inextricably linked to my complex feelings about Capitol Hill. My roommate at the time kinda styled herself as a rich person, except she lacked the one thing rich people usually possess. She didn’t have any actual money. She’d been raised with by her own telling a lot of money and acted like she still had that money. What I didn’t know at the time, what I could not have known at the time was that her family had experienced a financial reversal. Still she held on to her money loving ways. She was Edith Bouvier Beale, who had been presented to New York society at the Pierre Hotel, little Edie. Except little Edie now had to ride the D6 bus, the one that runs from Union Station to my old house on Capitol Hill. To this decrepit old house on Capitol Hill. She was on the bus and she wasn’t too happy about it.

Capitol Hill Little Edie would come home and point to things on the TV screen and ask why our house didn’t have whatever expensive thing was on the screen at the time. It took me years to realize that little Edie really thought she was still a debutante at the Pierre and not living in that house. Life at the house really did resemble Grey Gardens, the documentary where the world met the real Big and Little Edie, except our house wasn’t full of raccoons and feral cats. I’m also not sure if I was really Big Edie in that place. I think maybe I was more of a Joe Pesci straight talking kinda character trying to knock some sense into poor lost little Edie.

Little Edie though would decamp for her boyfriends most of the time, leaving me to kinda have the place to myself, which suited me just fine. As I said, Capitol Hill was an incredibly interesting place at the time, full of surprises. Being there at the time, you could almost feel that a big change was about to come to the area, that gentrification was absolutely on its way. But first, I was going to capture what the place was like before that all happened.

My usual weekend routine was to grab a camera and kinda just walk around the neighborhood. I’d walk over to Eastern Market or I’d just go over to the little supermarket towards the Capitol or the Safeway that was towards Bladensburg Road.

So I’m going to do my kinda mini-exhibit here and kinda tell everyone about this funny, weird little corner of Washington DC I was so blessed to have called home between the ages of 23 and 26. I have chosen some specific pictures for this entry. I did not curate them. We do not use that word here at the blog.

The Holga Times

Well another entry about my journey back into film, so buckle up. As I always say, scroll down if prose is not your thing. There are some pretty pictures down there. I promise.

So why this title?? What exactly is a Holga and why am I writing about it? Let’s take a trip back in time. Picture it — Albany New York 1997. I had joined the college yearbook, kinda on a whim after talking to a guy about it in our college dorm cafeteria. I had loved photography for a long time and had done some, primarily with an all automatic camera my parents had bought me. I made a lot of mistakes and I wanted to learn but I thought taking a class would be too intense and I really wasn’t sure if I could handle it. Moreover, I had this weird idea that I was still the same person as I was in high school, not the “photography” type. I don’t know why I thought this. Maybe I was just this little academic nerd that on the surface didn’t have an artistic bend.

I loved the yearbook or Photo Service from the get go. The yearbook was mostly an opportunity for the editor in chief to create a portfolio for themselves and for once in my life, that didn’t bother me, at all, even a little bit. I was there to learn without the commitment of taking an actual photography class. I still use a lot of the things I learned in photo service now, the real principles of composition, light and shadow and photographic dynamism.

One day, one of the people I was in photo service with said — the Holgas are here. They had ordered a whole bunch of these cameras. If I had known what they were I would have ordered one. A Holga is this kind of plastic box camera, like a Kodak Brownie. Picture below, if you’ve never seen one of those. I did not take this photo. A box camera is the most basic type of camera available. It is quite literally a box with a hole it in, like an old camera obscura which is not a camera either, rather, you guessed it, a paper with a hole in it projecting the image of a scene with light on it. Ever seen one of those extremely detailed paintings of the Grand Canal in Venice by Tintoretto and wonder how did this man paint that??? Well, with a camera obscura. Kodak brownie for scale:

The Holga is that but the image is recorded on medium format film. It is SLIGHTLY more advanced that the Kodak Brownie but not by much. It has two modes and one shutter speed. The average iPhone has more features. Eh, but who wants that. The thing though is that the Holga is constructed sorta like a point and shoot camera. The other medium format cameras are twin lens reflexes where you have to look down to compose. Don’t get me wrong. My Rolleicord is a beautiful piece of machinery but sometimes you just wanna have some low-fi fun.

The low-fi fun is part of the charm of the Holga. You have to duct tape the sides to prevent light leaks but hey, if they happen, they happen. And yeah, the camera looks like a Fisher Price toy camera. Oh and these are called toy cameras. A picture of a Holga, that I did not take for you to see what one looks like:

Yup. That is a real camera that takes film. Anyway, I spent a few months with my Holga at my side, shooting whatever I saw. I got some light leaks in there. Those aren’t some Instagram “filter.” That is real life. Why do they call those things “filters,” They are effects. UH. My perturbed-ness about that is fodder for another entry. Anyway, Holga Times call for some Holga fun. Fun with the Holga, directly below:

Why So Blue, Iguana?

Yeah, yeah, I have fallen behind with the blog updating. WAY behind, but I’m feeling creative again, so well, the blog writing is restarting.

Last year, we went on our annual family vacation to the Cayman Islands, after a lay off of a few years. Unfortunately the covids closed the island and even getting there last year involved a lot of steps. A LOT. I will not detail them here and I completely understand why the island took such precautions. They’re a small island with comparatively fragile infrastructure, so they were right to be careful.

We did make it back to the island and there was something different about this visit. I think it was because we hadn’t been there for a while. Now we stay in the same resort every time we visit and it’s a lot of fun. There’s this revolving cast of animals that visits us. One day a cat and a chicken came to join us for our evening meal. My mother threw a piece of chicken out for the cat and the chicken came and ate it. I started saying — come on. You could be eating a friend!!!!!

The other thing about the island was that I didn’t have any cell signal there. At first I thought I was going to absolutely go out of my mind. As soon as we left the resort, there would be no cell signal. I would still take my phone with me, for some reason. I would scroll Instagram aimlessly, just to see it never update. Comical, I know.

Something started happening though after a few days. It was almost like I was going through detox. The phone is like constantly staring at a television. I mean that’s what it is basically. Suddenly that television was off. I cannot even describe the clarity I felt. I slept better than I had in years. It was a revolution. Of course as soon as I got off the plane, I went back to my phone staring ways. I do feel like though that I do need that yearly phone detox now.

Ok, we’re all the way down here and no mention of the iguanas. Ok now we’re going to get to them.

So the blue iguana is a miniature dinosaur looking creature that resides in the Cayman Islands. No one is sure why they are blue and no one really knows why they chose the Cayman Islands. I mean I’d live there if I could, so obviously the little guys might be on to something. We first started going to the Cayman Islands in 2012. That’s when we first encountered the blue iguanas. At that time, they lived in the Queen Elizabeth II Royal Botanic Park on the island. I mean more accurately, they kinda hung around the park, while the people who worked there, threw them a lettuce leaf or two.

That’s what always got me. The blue iguanas look fierce. They look like extreme predators but in reality, they are just chill little guys and gals who look like they are wearing wet suits that are too big for them and have little Popeye arms. Even though I do make it out to be slightly comical, the little guys were in danger then. When we started coming to the island, there were 25 of those blue iguanas. Their numbers were dwindling quickly. They had a lot of predators, including cats and you know, people.

The blue iguanas though have some pretty prominent friends. One of the iguanas who lives at the park, who goes by the name Peter, got to meet a certain British prince. I read a news story that Peter got to meet (at the time) Prince Charles at the park named after his mother. I asked one of the park employees about it and she said he showed in a tweed suit not really suited to the tropical temperatures of the Cayman Islands. I was going to include a picture here of the encounter here, but you can Google it. Type in “Prince Charles Blue Iguana” and you’ll see a British prince of a certain age laughing hysterically at the sight of Peter the Iguana wearing his ill fitting scaly blue reptile suit. Seriously, do it. You usually see (King) Prince Charles looking sorta formal and dour, but the blue iguana put him in a good mood or jolly as our across the pond cousins like to say.

So we’ve established that the blue iguana tends to put people in a good mood. So when we visited the last year, the blue critters had their accommodations upgraded. Considering that I once saw a blue iguana hanging out by a trash heap in the park, this was a real upgrade. The blue iguanas became the Jeffersons and if you get that reference, you are probably due for your annual colonoscopy.

The blue guys have experienced their own resurgence. Through the great work of the Blue Iguana Conservation program, the blues are back with a vengeance, as much as they can be. There are 500 or so of them running around the island now and their numbers are growing. Cute, blue and resilient. All good qualities.

Anyway, on our visit in May, the blue reptiles had been moved to their own enclosures, where they could chill and hang out on rocks all day and chase bugs and be predators for leaves all day, as God intended. They seemed quite content there. We met Phoebe and Metzador and Joey, Chandler, Monica and Rachel. Just kidding. I just made those other names up. As I’m walking through that place with my mom, they told us that in a couple of days, it was blue iguana day and we could come back and feed the blue beasts.

So we dutifully returned a few days later to celebrate this most unusual of creatures. I have to say it was a really fun day. You couldn’t really describe what we were doing as feeding them. It was more like they’d give you a cup of fruit for the iguanas and you could toss in their direction and they might take an interest. Some did and some definitely did not. The best thing though that happened was when one of the blue iguana climbed up on a little perch and sorta slid down in this half hilarious, completely ungraceful way. Big cats like snow leopards are beautiful and elegant. The blue iguana, well, they have faces only a mother could love and graceful, they are not. But they do make up for it in pure charisma.

I was there with my standard 30 pounds of camera equipment to capture the blue creatures from all angles. This is definitely my favorite picture I took. I call this one “Blue Iguana Hiding from a Rich White Lady With a Giant Camera.”

Here’s the rest of the blue iguanas photo shoot. Definitely, Vogue is next for these guys.

The Fantasies and The Realities

Yeah, this is a lot of blog writing of late. You know my large blog reading public, let’s not question this. Your hero has not abandoned you. Rather, she has to dwell in the world in which she makes money to keep this little bloggy blog going.

So I’m going to write about New York and my rather complex relationship with that town. In a deviation from my usual gloomy musings, this will be a funny entry. I mean I hope this will be a funny entry. I’m doing my best here.

I recently met up with a friend who recently moved to New York from Spain. We had a great conversation about my hometown, in that I even have one of those. As I have written a myriad of entries about, I have a complicated relationship with the city of New York. Oh no, I am not writing “New York City.” That always smacks of being a non native. So with my friend, we discussed the major points about living in New York — the subway, the perpetually angry people and well, you know, food. Food plays a major part in any discussion of any place. My friend told me he really liked the pastrami at Katz’s Deli, so I know he’s got his priorities straight.

We also got onto the topic of where I grew up in Manhattan. I keep a lid on these sorts of things, but now, now I can openly admit this. I grew up on the Upper East Side. Yes. THAT Upper East Side. No, we weren’t rich. Believe me. I was there. I don’t mean weren’t “weren’t rich” in the way that our summer house was smaller than our neighbors in the Hamptons and our private jet was bought used. We weren’t poor per se but we got to live there because of the giant brain at the center of our story of coming to America. When I told my friend about my well hidden past, semi heading towards New Yorker-dom, goes — you are a Gossip Girl!!!!! Gossip Girl. Look I love a good headband, I try to keep my fashions on point when I’m not wearing sweatpants and I have severe Serena Vander Woodsen hair envy. There, I said it. When my friend and I got onto the topic of Gossip Girl, I told him the biggest secret — he needed to become familiar with this absolutely genius column that ran in New York Magazine for the entirety of the show that started as a simple recap but evolved into something totally, totally genius. It was called the Fantasy-Reality index where the in house NYMag experts evaluated whether or not the things in the weekly Gossip Girl episodes were realistic in New York or were they some kind of fantasy.

Now lemme digress here for a second. Fantasy New York has a good side and a bad side. The good side is when you see the beautiful side of the city, night shots, the remnants of the old New York. And yes, the subway is as bad as people make it out to be. I wouldn’t board unless you are up to date on all of your immunizations. People do randomly yell things at no one in particular in the city. In Coming to America, where African prince Hakeem chooses to live in Queens to find his queen, he opens his windows to greet the city dwellers in the morning and he is met by a native screaming some not family friendly language. Ok that is not fantasy.

Now the bad side. Ok, so out of town trains go to Pennsylvania station, not Grand Central. For some reason, every television and cinematic production feels the need to have people arriving from Ohio de-train in Grand Central Station. So did they switch trains and take Metro North from Wassaic or New Haven? Pennsylvania Station is an ugly little rabbit warren and I get why movies don’t want to film there. But could they put in a disclaimer saying that no Amtrak trains go to Grand Central? Next, people who work regular people jobs usually live in apartments that may have bathtubs or showers in the kitchen. It is not possible to live in a palatial apartment with an amazing view of the city on an intern’s salary, never mind the salary of a person who does something like work in media. I mean it’s possible to live in an apartment in New York on a very small salary if you aren’t really stuck on having an in unit bathroom. I’m not joking. That was a recent headline in The New York Times, when discussing the residential life situation in New York — how important is an in-unit bathroom to you? Next, you don’t meet-cute a guy in the grocery store. Or anywhere else for that matter. Oh and my personal favorite. You DO NOT cross the Queensborough Bridge when entering the city from wherever. For some reason, everyone needs to cross that bridge, whether they are coming from that direction or not.

Ok, enough. Let’s get back to our main point, thesis statement, whatever. So eventually around season 2, possibly three I started watching Gossip Girl exclusively to be able to trace the week’s New York inaccuracies. Then I would compare my list with what was on the NYMag fantasy-reality index. Oh and they called the program “The Greatest Show of Our Time.” Now you gotta understand something. To quote some guy in a funny hat I saw one time in a documentary, everyone in New York, whether you are geographically there or just there in spirit, everyone in that city is some kind of an animal. Nothing much unites us, but the fantasy-reality index united us in a way nothing ever did before. Is this hyperbole? Yeah, maybe.

Now sadly the show went off the air in 2012, and Dan Humphrey was Gossip Girl the whole time, even if a lot of the show’s plot lines wouldn’t have made sense if that were true. But I mean was I really watching the show for the plot lines? No, as is obvious from the paragraphs above. I was watching it so I could read the fantasy reality index the next day. Like a normal person.

Thankfully, the fantasy-reality index lives on in digital form and no word of a lie here, I am surprised that the thing didn’t win a Pulitzer or at the least the Nobel Prize for Literature, which can be awarded for an overall body of work. The fantasy-reality index was an absolute work of genius. NYMag is a total scream but I gotta tell you NYMag if you happen upon this blog one day, about 90% of the reason I even have a subscription to your magazine is so I can re-read the fantasy-realities indexes. After the last episode of the Greatest Show of Our Time, the writers of the index got some quotes from the actors and background people on the show. These quotes describe the index better than I ever could.

Blair had a Polish maid named Dorota and I have a bone to pick with the producers of the show about their depiction of Polish people on the show but Dorota got some choice lines, got to scheme, yelled at Blair in Polish occasionally and was played by an actual Polish person. The actress Zuzanna Sadowski had this to say about the greatest index of the Greatest Show of Our Time — I have actually been known to get to the NYMag site too early on a Tuesday and to have to refresh, refresh, refresh until the recap comes up. I know perfection can’t be rushed. In one episode of the aforementioned greatest show, Serena wore this odd dress that featured a rhombus framing her décolletage. The fantasy-reality index called it a “cleavage rhombus” and yes, I have stolen this and repurposed it for humorous possibilities.

A personal favorite of mine was an episode of Gossip Girl, where Bart Bass, who was you know, dead for a while, suddenly returns and goes to a brothel in Briarcliff. Now those of you in my reading public, Briarcliff is a tidy hamlet in an area called Westchester, where cruel fate deposited me for a rather unremarkable stint as a surly teenager. I played field hockey in Briarcliff and I will tell you this much. I saw no brothels there when I was there swinging a field hockey stick. This was a personal small laugh for me, as my time in Westchester is long over, consigned to the same trash heap as my Trapper Keeper and those Guess jeans I thought were so cool as an eighth grader. I have met in the past 20 or so years, fewer than five people from Westchester so jokes about Briarcliff, field hockey and brothels, well, I had to keep them to myself. Alas though, the fantasy-reality index was good enough to mention the Briarcliff reference and I for a second felt less alone. See, again, truly great literature has the power to unite all of us.

Well anyway, you’ve read down to here and seriously, I commend you because I have gone on for a while. As a reward, here are some fantasy looking pictures I took on a recent trip to the more realistic than fantasy town so nice they named it twice:

Suitcase of Faded Memories

It’s almost funny to write this on March 927, 2020, I mean January 4, 2023, that my return to film has now lasted a few years. At first, the return to film was just kinda a way to pass the time during the pandemic where there was absolutely nothing to do.

Now for me, it’s turned into this new way to be creative. Digital is all about the post production. I call my digital camera “the mother ship.” It’s the central part of my camera ecosystem. It’s the one where the good image is guaranteed. No questions about what is coming out of it. I know what will happen when I press the button. And the digital camera is excellent for a lot of things. The night image is perfect, the moving image is beyond. There is no greater way to deliver a moving image than using a digital SLR. It is superior.

But the film cameras also fit into this ecosystem too. As is true with a lot of things in my life, I like the high and the low. You have your super powerful digital camera. Then, you have a camera that costs all of $35. That’s where the film cameras come in. A lot of them specifically have certain effects. Some just make fisheye images. Other ones split the images. Others produce cool looking squares. There are more expensive versions of these cameras, but this is really not the point. The challenge is to take the pure world around you and to distort it in one way or another. It’s not about dragging this camera to the ends of the earth. It’s all about interpreting your regular world in a new or interesting way.

A couple of months ago, I got my hands on this little camera called an Ektar 35mm half frame. Half frame cameras are interesting, as they split a 35mm frame in half, hence half frame. Yeah, that’s a dumb sentence I just wrote. But splitting a 35mm frame in half does a couple of things. First, it gives you 72 pictures on a 36 picture roll. I put a 36 roll into the half frame at the beginning of last summer and finally finished at the end of the summer. It was a really fun record of my entire summer, start to finish. It was a really cool record of my summer. Film photography is also really intentional. You have to decide to take the photo because it will cost you to develop it and it will cost you to buy your next roll. You forget you took certain images and then you get to see them later.

The most interesting, most remarkable thing though about the half frame is that it creates this old fashioned fuzzy kind of an image. It creates these stretched out, old fashioned looking image. It gives you this faded look that is really interesting. I like to read a lot about memory, how we actually memorize things and how we remember things. The thing is that those pictures do fade in our mind right after we experience things. Faded pictures of things gone by. The half frame really makes this come through clearly.

Here’s some fun from off the Ektar 35mm:

The Wilderness Years, Part the Second

Sorry to have abandoned you, my blog reading public. I didn’t mean to. Getting photos back is a bit longer of a process these days, as I have partially returned to film. And my life has become four square miles. My work commute is short. I’m not wandering around as much as I used to, I guess. I go to work. I come home. Then on the weekends, I hang out in my neighborhood. Pathetic. LOLOLOLOLOL

Me becoming a townie is connected with this entry. I’ve become close friends with this wonderful pair named Amy and Steven Castello. They lead the church in the neighborhood I belong to. Amy grew up in Alaska and Steven in Alabama and let’s say we cannot be more different if we tried. Both of them are stellar people and they’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. I’m a part of a social class that believes that travel is key to development as a human being and people who haven’t traveled, they remain ignorant to the world. But here’s the thing about traveling, I guess the dark side of it. It can also turn into a massive pissing contest about who has been where and for how long. I’ve been to 15 different countries. I have friends who have been to 50 different countries. Are they better than me? I don’t know but I don’t think so but I’ve had it lorded over me at times that I’ve “only” been to 15 countries. “Only.” Steven and Amy though have not had the same kinds of opportunities to travel as I have but they are definitely, definitely, not ignorant of the world.

Once a week we meet for this thing called community group. It’s ostensibly a meeting to discuss the Bible, but really we just sit and talk about food. Church is one endless conversation about food. That’s all it is. I’m only half joking. This whole bible thing is relatively new for me and I’m still learning a lot of things. Recently we were reading about John the Baptist and how he preached in the wilderness. I said to Amy that it reminded me of me wandering in the wilderness. I asked Amy if there were other people wandering around in the wilderness in the Bible looking for answers and Amy goes — OF COURSE THERE ARE. I don’t know why but somehow that was comforting.

Maybe this entry is a bit about this church thing that has gradually taken over my life, which is a good thing. The more I read the Bible, the more I read about people who were lost, who experienced pain and trauma and in a way, I feel less alone in the things I went through. At our community group, I started talking about my wilderness years, my years spend wandering Europe in search of something. Was it answers to what I should do with my life? Partially yes. Was it trying to figure out where I was supposed to live? Also partially yes.

At the same community group night, I was talking about those trips I took during the wilderness years, where I’d basically disappear to Europe, Denmark, Estonia, Russia but Poland mostly for months on end and my parents really didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. At the time, I did not appreciate how unique this was. To me at the time, it just felt like something I had to do and nothing was really going to stand in my way doing it. Now I am grateful that they let me do this. To me it was absolutely not at all glamourous. I would stay with my uncle, sleeping in the bedrooms of his kids who had long moved out. It was him, my aunt and his cat, Bulwa, whose favorite spot was on his keyboard when he was trying to type. I’d go on these trips around Poland with my cousin and her then boyfriend, where we slept in the upstairs of a woman’s house, whose shower was basically a garden hose. Also unforgettable was the time we slept in a utility closet. I don’t remember it being glamorous at all.

Amy though at the community group that night, where I per usual took over with my insane stories, said that sounded really glamourous. She was raising her children while I was getting lost on the streets of Moscow or wandering the docks in Gdansk, Poland. I was also struck by the fact that my stories weren’t met with disdain and oneupmanship. There’s an appreciation amongst those people of other people’s experiences and no need to outdo them or dismiss them, which I really appreciate. And I guess we’re all wandering around looking for answers in a way and people have done this for ages, since biblical times it seems.

There would be no great meandering post like this without pictures. There are always pictures, of course. These are a lot of pictures of Poland that I took in bright color. These are my scans of my pictures from 20 plus years ago. I hate how that end of Europe, CENTRAL Europe is somehow always portrayed in gray tones. Enjoy the splash of color or the prose, or both. Your choice as you also wander the earth in search of answers.

Looking for Beltracchi

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:

It All Seemed Important At the Time

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.

Whenever other worlds invite us, whenever we are balancing on the boundaries of our limited human condition, that’s where life starts.

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.

The brave diving souls from cliff diving. Enjoy:

The City Keeps You Company

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: