Tag Archives: back roads

A Movable Feast

Railroad Crossing and Barn, Highway 17, FL 2013

Railroad Crossing and Barn, Highway 17, FL 2013

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” Buddha

My personal approach to making photographs has always been to poke around the back roads of the South to first see what there was to see, and then to photograph. It has been this way since the late 1970s when I moved to North Carolina and fell in love with the landscape. In many ways, photography is an excuse to go out for a day of wandering. Even on those trips where I do not make many, if  any photographs, the fact that I am out in the world seeing things makes any time traveling  fulfilling.

Yesterday was pure joy, as a friend and I went out for a day of seeing what there was to see and to photograph. The air was cool and clean. The sun was bright and the light was good for making images. Rather than coming home tired, I came home refreshed.

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Under the Boardwalk

Boardwalk, Daytona Beach Florida 2013

Tilt-a-Whirl, The Boardwalk, Daytona Beach Florida, 2012

While I often go back to areas that I have photographed before, the Boardwalk at Daytona Beach is one that I have not been to in a few years. In the mid to late 1980s, when I was studying photography at what is now Daytona State College, I would often come to the Boardwalk to do what I thought of at the time as Garry Winogrand inspired “street photography.” I could count on the Boardwalk to offer a menagerie of people ranging from bikers, to college students, to retires, to homeless people, and to tourist. In the week after Bike Week and the week before Spring Break there would be bikers in the southern, older end of the boardwalk. This was popular with them as the pizza was cheap and the beer flowed freely. As you went north there would be an infusion of college students who, flush with their parents’ money would be staying and playing at the higher end hotels located toward the amphitheatre where there would be an assortment of contests including the ever popular, (at least with the males, but with the willing participation of the females) wet t-shirt contest. Both of these groups took advantage the warmth of spring and the fact that they were far from home.

Over the years the Boardwalk at Daytona Beach had gone through several upgrades. It has long ago, even before I started to go there, lost it’s wood planking, replacing it with colored concrete imprinted with relief sea gulls and pelicans on the walkways that took you from the pier to the south and the amphitheater to the north. Despite these occasional upgrades, there was always a sense of tackiness and history to the place. Over time I photographed unsuccessfully the famous diving woman that was atop the swimsuit shop. There, as it had been for many years the saltwater taffy machine churning, what I can only guess, the same blob of taffy as I saw all those years ago. Many windows would be covered from floor to ceiling with tee shirts printed with sayings that one would not wear in public, except in Daytona Beach. Then there were the arcades with games that were so old they were last popular before the days of video games, offer tests of skill and manliness to those looking for an ice cream, hot dogs and a beer. However, for all its tackiness and questionable cleanliness, there was also a sense of tradition and history to the place. So despite its rather sorted charm, it was a popular location for both grizzly bikers and families with kids.

The boardwalk always seemed somewhat sad to me. Here was a place to be a haven for fun in the sun, but no one seemed that happy. Workers seemed bored, fathers and mothers where short with their children, and teenagers trying to look cool in this somewhat seedy environment by trying to look both hip and aloof. Still it is my guess that they will go home happy with stories of time in the waves and with t-shirts that they cannot nor will not wear when they return home. I too came home feeling happy that I was still able to get some photographs as I did in 1986. In the end, the Daytona Beach Boardwalk was in many ways like my memory of it, some things the same and some of it missing, but still with a sense of what it once had been.

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Ideas:

Old Dixie, Orlando, FL 2013

Old Dixie, Orlando, FL 2013

In his very worthwhile book, View from the Studio Door, Ted Orland wrote, “When it comes to making art, our intuition is often light years ahead of our intellect.” I know personally that when I am photographing I do not fully realize why I find a particular subject is meaningful. Most of the time when I see something that I want to photograph it is more a reaction to the scene rather than some deep thought about meaning. I feel that I make photographs using two levels of my mind. First is the photographer in me, who is thinking about F-Stops and Shutter Speeds, depth of field, and what direction the light is coming from. There is another side of me when I am making a photograph that recognizes something of the importance of what I am photographing. While in the act of making the photograph I do not think about why something is important, I just feel it and I have long go learned to go with those feelings. I may explain the meaning of a photograph later in writing or at a lecture, however the act of making a photograph is somewhat on auto, and I have to trust it. Trust is a good thing when you are an image-maker, because trust is, in many ways, the road to truth. It is the truth of an image what makes it both a personal expression and a universal one.

This past weekend I passed by a place that I had photographed before but wanted to again. The chicken restaurant opened in the early 60s. The name, Dixie Chicken alone might be enough to bring to mind some strong feelings about the dichotomy of a being proud of one’s heritage versus what that heritage means to some people. The chicken is wearing a Civil War era forage hat that has on it’s flat top the stars and bars that again represents a proud heritage to some, and the oppression of a people to others. It is that difference in the symbolism that defines the differences in the culture that I find interesting and why I was attracted to the sign. The symbolism of what signs means is deeper than what the sign says. If there is a connection between the two cultures it is cuisine and maybe that is the universal truth in the sign.

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The Myth of Sisyphos

Tommie Carrol, South FL 2012

Tommie Carrol, South FL 2012

Last night I went to an opening and saw the wife of a friend of mine who had been through what might have been a serious illness and she sat next to me on a bench outside the gallery. Knowing that I fairly recently had my own scare, (I don’t want to sound gloomy, or worse yet, silly, however in my mind the possibility of my premature demise seemed possible at the time) she wanted to know how I was doing.  Glad to say that we are both doing well. Though she said something that I related to when she mentioned that she was worried during her illness because she felt that she was too young to die. Thinking about it now, I am not really sure if that was what she was really saying or that was just what I was hearing, but that thought hit home to me. We are about the same age. When I was in the hospital, I had thought that I too am too young to die. While I am steadfastly tumbling towards 60, I don’t feel that old, even with the aches and pains. Thirty-five years ago, 60 seemed so painfully elderly, but now I feel that I am in the prime of life, even with its occasional pain and uncertainty. But lying in my hospital bed, I was thinking that if it was my fate to die, I could have no complaints about not being given my chance at life. Not that I was ready to die by any means, I just felt that I had no complaints. I have been reading more and more about those of my generation and even younger who have passed on, some of them had done great things and maybe would have done more if they had the time. While now such thoughts seem a little silly and premature, it was not really all that bad to sit back and contemplate. Not to dwell, but OK to contemplate.

When my friend Jon and I went out on that last weekend of 2012, I photographed a headstone in a cemetery in West Palm Beach. The stone was old but the age of the person buried there was young, no more than 20. I think that he or his family had some money as the stone was ornate in its carving and at the time of his death a young banyan tree was planted near his grave. Over the years the tree got bigger and bigger and the trade mark root base of the tree began to envelop the stone to the point that in time the head stone will be in the tree more than beside it. This did not distress me, nor did I feel it to be disrespectful, but thought of it more as nature reclaiming its own. While we might feel that we are above nature, and it is ours to control, the fact is that we are part of nature and the cycle of life and as such we are the ones who serve nature, not the other way around. In time we have to submit, like Sisyphos, to nature’s inevitable control.

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Time Travel

Alligator Farm, US27, south Florida, 2012

Alligator Farm, US27, south Florida, 2012

Yesterday, a friend and I spent the day out looking for things to photograph. It had been some time since we had been to South Florida, especially on the east side of Lake Okeechobee, so that was the direction we headed. Our idea was to head down Highway 441 around the great lake and then catch Highway 27, over to somewhere north of Miami where we would then return north on Highway 1. I have written before about the trips that my father and I made to the western side of the Everglades to fish, but when we first came to Florida in the late 1950s we often took day trips to various parts of the state, including the east side of Lake Okeechobee. There was one trip to this part of the state that we made when I was maybe six or seven, where we stopped at a gator farm. There were many of these gator farms, especially near the Everglades, where male Seminole Indians would be on hand to wrestle alligators and the women would sell Seminole handicrafts.

Unknown to me at the time, the gators were kept very well fed and were most lethargic and in truth the man wrestling them was in little danger. But that was not how it seemed to a six year old. My brother, who at the age of twelve, I am sure was worldlier. The man would get on the gator’s back and pull it’s head up from behind. The gator’s mouth was wide open and one, if positioned in the right spot, could see deep down the gator’s throat. To me I was looking down the abyss, to what would be my final resting place if the gator decided to break through the seemingly flimsy chicken wire fence that separated the tourist from the predator. While all this was happening my mother and grandmother were off to the gift shop where they bought dresses for my mother’s nieces. My Grandmother, who owned a fabric store bought Seminole made fabric and was interested in how the dresses were made. My mother bought handmade crafts for my father’s brother who was a collector of Native American artifacts. Now, more than 50 years later, I remember those trips clearly, almost as if they had happened yesterday.

Yesterday while driving down Highway 27 from Belle Glade we past an old building almost hidden among the weeds. We stopped, as we tend to do when looking for “rusty gold.” While I have no idea if it was the one that we went to all those years ago, it had a very familiar look to it. A heavy growth of weeds and trees kept us from exploring deep into the property, but the front was fairly typical of what I remember as a kid. In some ways it was like looking at a ghost. The front building was all that was left for the most part. The words painted on the front of the building told of its glory days as a pre-Disney Florida roadside attraction, the “Finest Collection of Everglades Animals.” The animals are now gone, as are the wrestlers and the women who made the crafts. Gone too are the tourists. The building, at least for now, still stands as a reminder of a not too distance past in Florida’s history. I am glad that we stopped to make a few photographs and when days like this happens I am glad to be a photographer and time traveler.

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The Nature of Creativity, or How I Fill My Toolbox, Part One:

Warning, Peace: Melbourne, FL 2012

Note: The idea of the toolbox is from Stephen King’s book On Writing. It is a good read.

Between several things that I have been reading, talking about and thinking about, I have been mulling over the idea of what is the nature of creativity. The subject is more in-depth than the space that I can give it here, but it might be interesting to begin to talk about. The first thing that I want to say is that whatever I write here is not the beginning and the end of the subject.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about an uncle who had a toolbox and used that story as a metaphor to help his readers have a mental way to organize themselves so that they can write more efficiently. Like most of what he wrote in that book, what he said about toolboxes also applies to any creative endeavor. His toolbox had several layer, or drawers to store all the things that they use to create their art. The idea of the toolbox allows us to have a place for all that we need to be able, in my case, make expressive and meaningful photographs. The overall idea is that the most needed and most used items are on top, and as you get further down into the box you keep those things that are pretty handy when you need them, but don’t used them all the time. The good thing is that you can organize your toolbox as you wish, and I will be talking about mine only as an example.

My Top Drawer: In my top drawer is my sense of craft, what King said was in the case of being a writer, grammar. My understanding of craft drives what the possibilities are. For example, if I do not know how to create depth of field, then I cannot access it when it is needed and may not even know that it is an option. Craft, like grammar, is one of the first things that we learn in photography. Unfortunately, the camera manufactures try to tell us that the camera will take care of all things technical, but do not believe it for even the slightest moment. Craft gives us a variety of tools to make our photographs more interesting if we can just think of them, and that is why they should be in the top drawer. Thinking about how you can link the technical possibilities to making a photograph can really bring your images up a notch.

Also on the top shelf is your point of view. Having a personal point of view is very important because if you do not have one you will be forced to imitate other work that you have seen. This may be OK when learning your craft, and it is OK to be influenced, but it is a cheap way to have a point of view. Throughout the time that we as a species have been making images, there are certain subjects that have been done over and over again. Why do we need another nude? Why do we need another landscape or a portrait, those boats have sailed, haven’t they? The thing is that, point of view is a good deal of what makes all those different images of similar subjects different, even fresh! I am reminded of something that Diane Arbus said, that went something like, “I have some slight corner on the quality of thing, I mean that it is very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but there are things that nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”  Each of us are individuals, different from everyone else who has ever lived. Ergo, we can make a photograph of a nude or a landscape and they will have the possibility, if we learn to listen to our personal voice, to be different and bring something new to the genre. The good news is that our point of view is something that is wired in us, it is already there. The bad news is, that we do not always know what it is, especially when we are new to making art. But in time it will become apparent and until that time, it is best not to think about it too much, but endeavor to make the best and most honest images possible and vision will take care of itself, for worse, but usually for good.

I also want on my top self my muse, though I have to say she never there all the time. Throughout the history of art, artists have had an inner voice that guides and inspire them. By the way, mine is female, but it is not required that they are. She is really my connection to my subconscious. She sits on my shoulder and tells me to do things that otherwise would not occur to me. For example, she will tell me to stop where I would not have stopped because she saw something that I did not. Or she may tell me to turn down some road that I would have otherwise passed. She also often ties together unrelated things that I have experienced or that I have been thinking about and shows me how to make it come together to give my new image uniqueness.

The last thing that I would put in the top drawer is Story or why is the picture is taken. Have a good reason to take the photograph then the answer to everything else becomes more apparent. All photographs should tell some sort of story and all the technique applied is in the service of story. Many, if not all of the rules of composition are based in the idea that those rules are used to help direct the viewer to where the image-maker wants the viewer to go. Story provides the reason.

You may have your own things for the top drawer that are different than mine, and if you think that I would disapprove then think, it is your toolbox. Soon I will post my thoughts about my second drawer, so keep looking back. I welcome any thoughts that you may have about what I have written.

A suggested reading list:

On Writing by Stephen King

Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

The View from the Studio Door by Ted Orland

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

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Through the Looking Glass

Window, Ft. Christmas, FL 2012

Window, Ft. Christmas, FL 2012

Over the years I have been photographically fascinated with doors and windows. Looking at my entire body of work one will see many window and door images. While most of these photographs have signs or at least words in them, there are still a number of times where the sign is framed within a window or a door. Sometimes, like the photo above, I find something interesting in just the door or a window. Looking at this image it might be assumed that there is a special interest in texture. It is there to be sure. However, there is something more. Doors and windows allow one to travel from one plane of existence to another. When either looking into or out of a door or window there is a feel that there is something going on, on the other side. What can be seen from either side will often ask more questions than they answer. There can be mystery!

There is also a pleasing way that the shape of a door and or a window will create a frame within the composition. There is formalism to the way that the series of rectangles and squares work within a space. Anyone familiar with the French painter Piet Mondrian will see something of his work in a space that is visually divided with windows and doors. While Mondrian deals with issues of abstraction, when we look at a window the impact of the image is the formal structure, however in the image of a window or a door there is the added dimension of what lays beyond. My door and window images are often very simple. I believe the simpler they are the more they can say. It may seem like a contradiction in terms, but I believe that in simplicity there is complexity. Sit back, look and enjoy.

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