circles of CONFUSION

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Stirring the pot with analog thoughts about digital photography since way back.

January 3, 2014 at 1:53am
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dropping in on the Big One


I suspect that all of you out there under 40 are pretty tired of hearing us baby boomers prattle on and on about how profound everything was “back in the day”. It’s almost as if we expect you to believe that no other generation in the history of mankind could possibly have had something, anything that beats the historic or cultural significance of whatever happened during our lifetimes. You name it– the Cold War, JFK, the Space Race, the Beatles, Civil Rights, Vietnam, LSD, hippies, Women’s Lib, Watergate, Leisure Suits, even Disco. It’s all bigger, badder and better than whatever you’ve got, and we feel the need to remind you of exactly that at every possible opportunity.

(By the way, photo students. If you don’t know what is going on on the photograph above, and more importantly, who made it, go to jail, go directly to jail. Do not pass go, and do not collect $200.) 

Sure, there have been some pretty earth-shattering, attitude-adjusting and consciousness-altering changes that have occurred during the past half-century. But we’ve fucked up alot of stuff, too, and all you youngsters will have to pick up the tab for a lot of it (thanks, BTW). Folks like me who hit drinking age just after Vietnam (but well before the the poop hit the propeller big time in the Middle East) were too young to get shot at on a college campus or some god-forsaken rice paddy, or even to understand what the heck “in a gadda da vida” meant. And yet to hear us talk about all that 60‘s and early 70’s stuff…    

But just wait. You’ll see. Wait until the wad of hair you pull out of the shower drain each morning starts to rival the one on top of your head. Wait until all that nice firm and perky stuff starts to…uh, just wait.

Wait until the day when, in the weighty words of the philosopher R. Dangerfield, you step on the scale and a card comes out that says “HEY! ONE AT A TIME!!”, or, you stop to get a shoeshine and you have to take the guy’s word for it.

Wait until Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga play a double-bill oldies gig at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, and you rilly want to go, but you don’t like driving at night.

Wait until they take one of those pictures of all the living presidents standing together in the Oval Office, laughing like they like each other, and Obama’s the old guy standing over by himself. Then you’ll see.


The things that we’re exposed to when we’re young take on a disproportionate level of importance as we move through life. The books we read, the music we listen to, the triumphs and tragedies in the world, all that data gets programmed into our read-only memory while we’re still in beta. It’s that way for everybody, it was for me and it will be for you too. It’s why my mother swore that America was so much better back when we didn’t know that Rock Hudson was gay, or why my stepfather’s idea of modern music was listening to Doris Day cassettes on his Oldsmobile’s in-dash tape deck. It’s why my idea of a great New Year’s Eve is sitting at home watching the Three Stooges marathon from start to finish on Channel 38… wait…sorry, that’s a guy thing, not a boomer thing.


Our young memories, even the scary ones, are like comfort food– we hold onto them not because they’re necessarily all that good for us, but simply because they’re an ingrained, familiar part of our fundamental psychology. Us boomers feel the need to involve everyone else in our fundamental psychologies, and it’s not because we just find it impossible to get over ourselves, either. Something happened in our childhood, OK? 

So cut me a little slack here– I want to share a recent experience that you may or may not find interesting, but one that I sure as shootin‘ did.

This past Saturday, Jenny and I toured an ICBM nuclear missile silo at the Titan II Missile Museum just outside of Tucson, Arizona. I even have the tacky refrigerator magnet to prove it.


ICBM, for those of you who either weren’t born yet or who can’t spell, stands for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile

  • Inter-Continental means you can shoot it from one land mass to another, like from North America, where the good guys (us) are, over the North Pole to Eastern Europe or Asia, where the bad guys (commies) are. We don’t worry about commies quite as much these days, but they still have their own ICBMs, by the way, pointed right back at us. Back in the Titan II days, they didn’t have nearly as many as we said they did. 
  • Ballistic means it works like a really big bullet: it achieves distance and altitude by exploding and burning for a while at one end, then falls away leaving the other end, the warhead, to coast at very high speed until it detonates hopefully somewhere close to where you want it to. If it misses, you create something called “collateral damage”. When delivered by plane, like over Hiroshima or in Dr. Strangelove, it’s referred to as “dropping the Big One”, but with an ICBM it’s more like “throwing the Big One”.
  • Missile means it carries a payload, which in the case of an ICBM is a weapon. To kill people. 

But Titan II’s didn’t carry just any old garden variety weapon. In their day, they carried the worst, most frightening kind of weapon ever invented. The nuclear kind. The kind that kills a lot of people all at once, like an entire city’s worth. And then horribly injures many, many more.

Since replaced by the deadlier, more accurate Minuteman ICBM now lurking in silos much further north, the day of the Titan II is long over. The last were decommissioned in 1987 and then either destroyed or distributed to museums around the country.  Of the 54 originally deployed in the early 60’s in silos around Tucson, Wichita and Little Rock, only the one we saw Saturday remains intact and in place, literally a deeply buried time capsule of late twentieth century nuclear brinksmanship balanced on a hair trigger.

That’s what Jenny and I each paid ten bucks for– to peer down through a thick glass window into a hole cut deep in the southern Arizona desert. We paid to gawk at an impotent 50 year old, 100 foot tall death stick perched in its last remaining hidey-hole, a missile that about a generation ago would have been tipped with a 9 megaton city-busting hydrogen bomb. Staring at it from above with its business end pointed right at my kisser actually gave me a bit of a fright. 


It first felt like my six-year-old self coming face to face with Freddy-fucking-Kruger dressed in a Frankenstein suit crawling out from under my bed at 3 AM in the morning with eerie music playing high harmony over a raging thunderstorm outside. Maybe throw in a load of spiders crawling around in my baggy little BVDs just to top things off.


Then it felt different, more like the dull foreboding that people my age carried in the back of our minds for much of our lives, a fear of sudden death from above, a fear instilled in us as ducking and covering Mouseketeers and Leave It To Beavers and then reinforced for decades with every test of the Emergency Broadcast System on our radios and TV sets.

It felt scarier than kiddie dreams of some boogeyman, because there it was, finally, right in front of me. It was real, or at least it had been at one time. This missile’s nosecone was empty, its forever-deadly nuclear warhead no doubt stashed away in some highly secure Air Force warehouse. Its batteries were drained and its fuel and oxidizer tanks were dry. But it looked absolutely apocalyptic. 


Our small tour group descended into the underground launch complex, some 35 feet below the desert surface. We listened intently as Chuck, our rail thin boomer/hippie tour guide (sporting a butt-length grayish brown ponytail, hardhat and Birkenstocks with socks) talked us through the subterranean maze of tunnels, cables, foot-thick steel blast doors and science fiction movie set control consoles, all with great authority. Turns out he wrote the book about the history of the Titan II missile program. 


We watched in fascination as he acted out a mock missile launch with a member of the group, turning and holding the launch keys in unison until a small illuminated rectangle on the control panel indicated that the missile was away and civilization had but an oblivious half-hour left until oblivion. 

We chuckled nervously at the bleak choices he laid out for the hypothetical four-person missile crew, now that their mission had been accomplished and with the knowledge that they would most certainly be on the receiving end of an enemy warhead. However unscathed they might be initially in their bomb-proof underground lair, here’s what they had to look forward to when they let go of those two keys: death by eventual asphyxiation in their control capsule, death by radiation topside, or death by their commander’s sidearm. 

“They knew what they were signing up for”, Chuck said quietly.


The tour concluded at the opposite end of the underground complex, after proceeding down a long, low, tubular corridor painted hospital green. The missile was right there again, at eye level this time and, but for the protective glass portal, just about close enough to touch. Its patchwork metallic skin was uniformly riveted, silver mostly with bronzish scuffed patches here and there. From this vantage point I could only see the US AI part of US AIR FORCE painted vertically in black along its length. I craned my neck to look up at the dark nosecone pointed out at the late afternoon Arizona sky.     


It looked like a corpse, displayed all waxed and powdered in its satin-lined casket for the sake of its mourners. It looked like a once magnificent raptor stuffed, mounted and dusty on a taxidermist’s paneled showroom wall. But mostly, it looked like the empty, desiccated skin that rattlesnakes leave behind in a rocky desert den when they molt. You know it can’t hurt you, but in the dark recesses of your mind, you also know that there’s still that rattlesnake slithering around somewhere.


And it also all looked cool. So dangerously, horribly cool.


December 17, 2013 at 10:57pm
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Postmodern times


As I’ve gotten older, things have started to make a little more sense. Sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good. But I will never, ever understand why some sucker paid over four million bucks for this photograph. Never.

I’m officially on the sloppy side of 50, and when I looked in the mirror this morning, it suddenly dawned on me why, after all these years, I haven’t made much of a splash in what is broadly referred to as the “fine art” photography world. 

Now, some of you might think that it’s because I really haven’t tried all that hard. But that makes it sound like it’s all my fault, like I’ve just been sitting around on my high and mighty hiney for the last 40-some years waiting for Jeffrey Fraenkel to call. 

I haven’t, not by a long shot, but he hasn’t called, either. But you can bet your Andreas Gursky Fan Club Secret Decoder Ring that I’d accept the charges if he did.

I actually think it’s because I’ve always been stuck in the gutter between the Modern and the Postmodern world. Modern is so old-school. Postmodern is so full of itself. I can’t make up my mind which one I am. Just my luck.

I was born over a half-century ago, and came of age at a cusp of sorts, when the Modern era in photography started slouching toward Postmodernism. By the end of the 1960’s, the long accepted notion that a photographer owned some kind of exclusive claim to “the truth” simply by pointing a camera at something and rendering it faithfully (Modernism) was giving way to a sense that the idea trumped the image (Postmodernism). “The Truth” to a Postmodernist is negotiable, gotten at thru ambiguity and fiction, and requiring the interpretation of an individual viewer to adjudicate. 

My problem is, I like both of those ideas.

It could also be because I’ve just never completely bought into the conceit that photography has to be referred to as “art” to be worth paying attention to. That makes me sound like kind of an asshole to folks that do. As far as I’m concerned, it just has to be good. Good photography. 

Maybe I’m dense, but I have a problem thinking of “Fine Art” as a photography genre. To me it’s more of a photography market. It’s either good photography, something that I could see hanging over the sofa in the rec room, or it’s not.

I don’t care whether it’s Thomas Struth or Thomas Kinkade, beauty (and how we define art) is in the eye of the checkholder. If I think it’s good and I need something for the rec room, I’ll buy it, or at least appreciate it. If not, I won’t. I’m oversimplifying things, of course, but really, why should it be any more complicated than that? (And just for the record, I think Thomas Kinkade, the “painter of light”, blows. Or blew, now that he’s no longer with us. His paintings, not him personally, of course. I’m just sayin’).

I don’t think I’m alone in all this, either. Duane Michals, one of the grand poobahs of 20th century art photography, wrote a book a few years ago called Foto Follies: How Photography Lost Its Virginity On The Way To The Bank. It’s chock full of Michals’ raunchy, irreverent humor and skewers everything he feels has gone wrong with contemporary photography. 


"Photography had never been about money, it had always been about photography… Foxy photographers who call themselves ‘artists who take photographs’ and not photographers, are moron oxys. If a photograph is labeled a mere photograph, it is only worth $3000. If a photograph is labeled a conceptual piece, it fetches $300,000- semantic sleight of hand." 

He seems particularly peeved with the fashionable trend toward size over substance, things like “mega panoramas of parking lots in Tokyo… the larger a photograph becomes” he says, “the smaller it appears to be.” Taking particular aim at Gursky’s room-sized extravaganzas, he calls them little more than “billboards with pretensions”, warning the reader to “never trust any photograph so large it can only fit inside a museum”. It all seems like fashion to him, not art. He even invents a term for those who confuse fashion with art:


That’s Duane Michals for you. It’s also a brilliantly hilarious little sendup, but there’s a lot of truth in his humor. It’s just one of the many reasons why I’ve always liked Duane Michals. 

But enough about him. Let’s get back to talking about me, and why I haven’t made a dent in the art world. I’m sure some of you reading this suspect that it’s because I’m just not that interesting. That may be true. 

I have very little direct knowledge of “alternative” lifestyles, unless you consider trying to make a living as a commercial photographer, photography teacher, writer and all-around creative good guy an alternative lifestyle. If that counts, I could write a book- hey, wait a minute…

And while I do look great in a skirt, cross-dressers and drag queens have been largely absent from my life. To the best of my knowledge. 

I don’t take pictures of myself doing mundane or outrageous things around the house, either, mostly because I’m a little sensitive about my bald spot.

But that’s the stuff that so many contemporary photographers do focus on, and so much of it is so good that I can’t help but be impressed by it. I don’t do it, but I like it. Go figure. 

It’s not that I don’t have gender issues- I do, in spades. I leave the toilet seat up, I can be moody and introspective (often contributing little more than grunts of acknowledgement to my end of a conversation), and I always try to solve Jenny’s problems for her instead of “just listening, DAMMIT!” Like I said, not that interesting.

I only ever lived the drugged up, sexed up and occasionally beat up life of privileged bohemia vicariously thru the work of “artists who take pictures” like Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy.  Later, the dramatization of that life in the film High Art made the whole thing a little easier for me to pretend to identify with in a nice, neat, two hour art house feature. Ally Sheedy’s character kept her Leica wrapped up in a hanky, which, curiously, I found to be a bit of a turn-on.


A little shout out for my employer here- Goldin went to NESOP, by the way, even though she doesn’t always admit it.

I don’t shoot nudes, either. Don’t get me wrong, I like pictures of naked people as much as the next guy, but man, do I suck at shooting nudes. Let me tell you how much. 

I dated an artist’s model once, years ago. Professionally, she was a writer, but intellectually, she was way out of my league. She seemed kind of amused by me, and not in a particularly good way. She did enjoy coming over to use my darkroom, though, which led me to believe that she really only liked me for my enlarger. 

When it came to dropping her drawers (tastefully) for art, she was… enthusiastic to say the least. Because she doffed her duds regularly for some pretty significant shooters, she also knew what really good photography looked like. 

She liked some of my pictures, but she knew that nudes weren’t my thing, so you can imagine my surprise one afternoon when she offered to throw a mercy-shoot my way. Of course, I agreed to give it the old never-went-to-college try (what do you think I am, stupid?). 

So there she sat, fully clothed at first, in an old wooden chair by the window so I could take a quick Polaroid to check exposure. As I fiddled with the tripod-mounted Hasselblad, she looked away, lost in thought over something that most likely didn’t involve me. At some point I took a shot, pulled a Polaroid, and evaluated the tiny 2 1/4” square black and white print. Nervously, I told her we were good to go. 

Zip. Showtime. 

"No", she said, as I showed her the next Polaroid, then another, and another. "Corny. Nope. Uh, no. No way. No- wait, maybe, no. NO!" 

Frustrated, I showed her the first one, the exposure test with her clothes on. A little bead of sweat formed on my chrome dome.

"I LOVE that one. It’s like I’m thinking. I want a print!" When I told her that it was just an exposure test and I hadn’t put it on film, in fact, I had yet to shoot even a single frame of film, she said “well, that was stupid. I want sushi. Let’s go.”

I gave her the Polaroid she liked and put the camera away. It turns out that she was right about me being stupid for not putting any of it on film. She died tragically not long after I took this. Here’s the maybe:


Back when giants roamed the main streets and back roads of the earth with cameras, photography wasn’t the narcissistic and self-referential circle-jerk that some of it has become in recent decades.  My heroes were and still are Frank and Friedlander and Winogrand and Erwitt and that whole crew, Mad Men venturing out obsessively with little more than their wits, a world view, and a one way ticket, good shoe leather or a full tank of hi-test. They “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film”, just like Kerouac said about Robert Frank. That’s when image and idea held each other in perfect balance. That’s the point of my own arrested visual development. 

"And that’s photography, baby" I preach to my students. "That’s what my hokey-pokey’s all about!"


And after I say that, after I jump up and down and wave my hands and get all excited, I scan the room. Invariably, a few of my younger students are looking at their watches or tapping into their phones. Something tells me that they’re not googling Frank or Friedlander. They have no more interest in The Americans or America By Car than I do in American Idol. I like to hold onto the thought that maybe they’re checking out the lyrics to an old song my friend Al Stewart wrote, almost over what’s beginning to feel like a lifetime ago.

Oh, it seems you just don’t know

And you just don’t understand me 

I’ve got no use for the tricks of modern times 

They tangle all my thoughts like ivy

But then again, they’re probably not. 

December 9, 2013 at 7:33pm
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I’ve asked my faculty to help me craft a unique message, one that gets at the core of why we all work at NESOP and why a prospective student should consider enrolling here. I’ve asked them to help me answer a very basic question in a way that it maybe hasn’t been answered before. The question is simple:

Why NESOP? What makes this school so special?

Considering the question myself, I came up with my own answer that, in a word, is just as simple: 


But my explanation, as usual, is a little more complicated. Let me tell you a story.

The other night, I was having a beer with my old friend Paul Dube. Paul has run Hotshots, a large, successful commercial photography studio in Salem, for over 30 years. Paul also graduated from NESOP in 1972 and told me about something that happened when he was a student.

Jack Carruthers, NESOP’s founder and the father of our current president and owner (Bill), originally located his school on the upper floors of a nondescript building directly across Boylston Street from the Boston Public Library. One day, Paul and a classmate were poking around in a room that was sometimes used as a daylight studio, but in actuality was more of a junk room than anything else. Buried under a pile of stuff in a corner of the room they found a dusty, handmade sign with the name “John Garo, Photographer” burned into the wood. It appeared to be quite old.

The name didn’t ring a bell to either of them, so they took it to Jack. Jack did some investigating and discovered something amazing about the photographer whose studio had once been part of the space that NESOP now occupied.

It turned out that John Garo had been one of Boston’s finest portrait photographers, but he’s actually best remembered as a mentor to someone else.  In 1928, he hired an eager young Yousef Karsh as an apprentice; Karsh, of course, went on to make a bit of a name for himself as a portraitist. And it all started in a back room at what would eventually become NESOP forty years later.

Inspired by his discovery, the satisfying sense of continuity represented by the old sign in a young man’s hands was not lost on Paul.

After graduation, Paul went through the requisite years of dues-paying that all young photographers must endure. Then, in the midst of one of the worst economic climates since the Great Depression, he co-founded Hotshots in 1980. The advertising and commercial studio caught the first technology wave that swept through Boston in the mid 1980’s, servicing first-generation tech giants like Digital Equipment Corp., Wang Labs, and Data General. As countless other studios and big-name photographers fell victim to fashion, bad luck, bad planning or the “irrational exuberance” formed by three decades worth of feast-or-famine business cycles, Hotshots rode it all out and endures to this day.

Paul has hired and trained scores of freelance and staff assistants since those days, and many of them have gone on to their own successful careers as photographers. I know one of them pretty well, as a matter of fact. Paul gave me my first real break in Boston’s commercial photography market by hiring me as a freelance assistant in 1986. Eventually, after many years spent making my own way in the business, I found myself working with Paul once again, this time as a teaching colleague at another school. Standing alongside side him in a classroom left me with my own satisfying feeling of continuity, because my commercial photography career had started with him.

Yes, the vast majority of our recent students find work soon after they leave school, and that is something to celebrate in and of itself. But for every one of them, I can look back further and see a Nan Goldin, a Kuni Takahashi, a Danny Clinch. I see a Paul Dube and so many more like him. They have all made their mark over many years, and in doing so they have created the continuity that extends their influence to the young students and photographers we get to work with today. And they all started at NESOP.

When I think about the photography business in this city over my professional lifetime, I can see how this school has either directly or indirectly touched so many of the people I’ve met along the way. More than any other institution in Boston, it’s the common link between almost anyone who has practiced this trade for any length of time throughout nearly the last half century, and because I know that firsthand, I know what has always made this school different from the rest:

It all started with NESOP. 

December 2, 2013 at 1:40am
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Storms and Ghosts


I did some advanced math this morning. By my calculations, I’ve made the roughly 600 mile Thanksgiving pilgrimage from New England to New Jersey and back 31 times now. That’s one turkey trip for every year since I moved away from home in 1981. The only exception to this tryptophan tradition was in 1990, when a monster snowstorm forced my ex-wife and me to abandon our southbound sojourn somewhere this side of Natick on the Mass Pike. After plowing ourselves back up Route 128 to our Gloucester loft, we enjoyed a quiet holiday feast at home, but as things turned out, it would be our last Thanksgiving together. By the following November, just three weeks after the apocalyptic late season hurricane that came to be known as The Perfect Storm devastated Gloucester, sank the Andrea Gail and launched the literary career of Sebastian Junger, she had jumped ship and thrown our short, unlikely marriage over the side. What followed was a different kind of monstrous, not-so-perfect storm, and it settled right the fuck in for the long haul on the inside of my rapidly balding head. This one would take years and years to blow over, and the destruction left in its wake was never fully repaired (or so I’ve been told). 

I know, wah, wah, wah.

Things are better now, way better, and I give thanks for that every day. But in my wandering mind, I can’t help but retrace all of the steps and missteps I’ve made over the years that add up to what we call “life”. Thanksgiving is when I punch the big timecard each year, much more so than Christmas, New Year’s Day, or even my birthday. As I try to avoid playing high-speed bumper cars on these long, tedious drives, the storms and the ghosts of the past always pipe up from the back seat.  The closer I get to my childhood hometown, the faster the memories fly by with each familiar exit sign on the highway. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, successes and failures, they’re all right in front of me once again and then, whoosh– they’re gone. As you can imagine, all of this introspection makes me quite a talkative, entertaining travel companion (not). I’ve been told about that, too.  

Jenny and I try to combine these trips home to see my family with a little R&R in the most exotic locales the Delaware Valley has to offer. We’ve set up Thanksgiving camps in places like Cape May, New Hope, Lancaster County, Atlantic City, Reading, Ocean City, Scranton, Ship Bottom, Gettysburg– anywhere remotely interesting that offers a 4-star hotel with a 2-star price tag on Expedia. This year we spent 2 nights at the Omni in downtown Philadelphia, within spitting distance of the ghosts of what feels like another life– the camera store I managed on Market Street, the bridge high above the Delaware River I used to drive subway trains across 16 times a night, and the site of my family’s nearly century-old printing business at 10th and Race. But it was the quick stop we made on the way home this past Saturday that instigated my little trip down memory lane here.

We both love the Jersey Shore, so we spent Friday night at a stately Victorian hotel in Spring Lake, just a few miles south of Asbury Park. Saturday morning found us once again exploring what Bruce Springsteen called My City of Ruins with our cameras. Despite rumors of Asbury’s revitalization and rebirth, most of the surviving boardwalk icons and landmarks from four decades worth of Springsteen songs remain in the same disheveled state they have for years– the stripped-out iron skeleton of the Casino and the empty Carousel House are among the saddest.




The ghosts came out again as I stared down Ocean Avenue at the historic Stone Pony, the music club made famous in the 1970‘s by the likes of Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt, and Southside Johnny Lyons. This time they momentarily whisked me back to a summer night in 1977 or ’78. My girlfriend Joan Davis and I were parked facing the front door of the Pony as none other than Springsteen himself pulled up in a cool old Chevy with a hot young chick. My right forearm tingled a bit as I remembered the twisting death grip Joan applied as it dawned on her who the short scruffy guy in the white T-shirt was. 

Superstorm Sandy clobbered Asbury Park a little over a year ago, and the evidence of the havoc she wreaked is still everywhere. Jenny spotted a particularly hard hit beachfront building and quickly made her way over to it. At first all I saw was the heavily damaged north-facing wall, its vinyl siding mostly stripped away, patched with sheets of 4x8 plywood and surrounded by a rough wooden fence. But as I got closer, I saw what really attracted her. Somebody had scrawled some words across the plywood with black spray paint:

“everything DIES BABY 


It was the refrain from Atlantic City, a stormy, ghostly Springsteen song about another down and out Jersey resort town struggling with its own questionable resurrection. In my opinion, music doesn’t get a whole lot better than Atlantic City. Raising her camera, Jenny shot me her standard “back off- I found it first” look as I repeated the familiar words out loud, then added the absent second line:

“but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back”

“You found it first, but I know what it means” I answered. 

I stood on my tiptoes to frame up my own shot of the wall, pulling a fence board down with my left hand so I could get both lines of the grafitti in the shot. When I peered through the viewfinder and the very wide 20mm lens, I realized that my hand had transformed the image from a picture of the wall to a picture about something much deeper. 

Deeper to me, at least, in my Thanksgiving state of mind.

November 22, 2013 at 1:48pm
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November 22, 2013


For those of us of a certain age (that pretty much means Michael Hintlian and me), the combination of letters and numbers that form today’s date, Friday, November 22, has always looked eerie, ominous, and deathlike on the page.

It has just always looked black.

As do the photographs in Lee Friedlander’s powerfully understated small new book entitled JFK: A Photographic Memoir, published by Yale University Art Gallery. The book contains 48 black and white photographs Friedlander shot between 1960 and 1970, and as a document describing the zeitgeist of Kennedy’s election and the afterimage of his assassination, it does what no literal reportage of the period can. It shows you what it feels like to live with the memory of those events. And he did it at a time when really great photography was simple, but certainly not easy.

President Kennedy’s open air murder on a brilliant autumn afternoon was our generation’s first 9/11, as well as the first national nightmare that unfolded in real time on live TV. We had been told for years that we were all living just a button-push away from nuclear Armageddon, and in those days before terrorist hijackings, school shootings, marathon bombings and the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism and mistrust of government, we all believed it. The shots fired in Dallas that day by an all-too-quickly identified Communist sympathizer sounded like the opening salvo of World War Three, the war to end all wars (and pretty much everything else along with it).

If you wonder why all of us old farts can’t stop talking about the Kennedy assassination, just ask yourself how you felt on that beautiful September morning in 2001, seeing the repulsive horror that that none of us could turn away from. Ask yourself how you felt in the roughly two hour span of time between watching the second plane hit and watching the second tower fall. Ask yourself if you’ll ever forget what you saw and felt. And then ask yourself how you could ever try to explain that feeling to someone who hadn’t been born yet.

I was six years old in 1963, and what happened that day is one of my earliest memories. I now know what 50 years feels like. Even in my limited time on earth at that point, I knew that something profoundly frightening had taken place. And as long as most of my marbles remain reasonably intact, I’ll never forget it.

A Great Crowd Had Gathered, an exhibit currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, features many of Friedlander’s photographs, alongside those of Garry Winogrand and others. Read about the show here, from yesterday’s Boston Globe.

October 19, 2013 at 11:30am
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Ran into Monet last night on my walk home from work. He made quite an Impression on me!

October 2, 2013 at 9:15pm
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Boston photojournalist and filmmaker David Binder was featured on the front page of this morning’s Boston Globe– his recent project portraying victims of violence in Mattapan has been appearing on posters and billboards throughout that city neighborhood. David’s award winning film, Calling My Children, has been receiving international accolades and had its national television premier on PBS in May, 2013. David is a good friend and colleague, and my students should expect to see more of him and his inspiring work in the not too distant future. Stay tuned! 

Boston photojournalist and filmmaker David Binder was featured on the front page of this morning’s Boston Globe– his recent project portraying victims of violence in Mattapan has been appearing on posters and billboards throughout that city neighborhood. David’s award winning film, Calling My Children, has been receiving international accolades and had its national television premier on PBS in May, 2013. David is a good friend and colleague, and my students should expect to see more of him and his inspiring work in the not too distant future. Stay tuned! 

September 28, 2013 at 6:39pm
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tinlantern-photography asked: this is why i will miss having you at CDIA-- while you are direct and to the point-- and maybe coming off harsh--- you will say what needs to be said when nobody else will say it. Even if it hurts. I wish you'd be at our graduation next year to tell my class to get lost. I hope now and then you'll take a look at my work and give me your direct, honest, hard opinion and tell me the truth. Thanks for watching me cry, and being honest. Good luck at NESOP!!!

Thank you, Joanie. Get lost.

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What I said at today’s graduation ceremony

For those of you who weren’t there, or even if you were and simply just want something to hold against me, here is what I said at Graduation today.

I somehow skipped an entire page as I was reading this, so the setup along with a few good lines were missed. I am publishing it here in its entirety. And Craig didn’t post anything negative about his classmates on Facebook, by the way. They were among the nicest, tightest groups of people I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching. It was meant to be a joke and would have been funny in person, but it sounds a little snarky presented like this.

Our Executive Director, Bob Daniels, apparently misinterpreted part of this, and felt it necessary to defend his dedication and commitment to CDIA, which nobody, including me, would ever call into question. It is, in his words, his life’s work.

You’ll notice that in the section that caused Bob to shit a brick (“It’s only business”), I didn’t come close to saying what it sounds like he thought I said (“It’s only a business”). 

I admire Bob and Bob Frazier for creating an incredible teaching and learning environment. But effective communication will never be their strong point, which is a shame, because at its core, that’s what their school teaches. As professional communicators, we all know that the biggest part of communicating is listening. 

So Bob, if you’re out there, give this a read again and see if you understand what I was trying to say this time. 

And thank you for giving me the greatest professional opportunity of my life.

So I was told by a delegate from the graduating photography class (a delegate who shall remain nameless Craig Montague) that if I didn’t promise to say a few words here today, the entire class was going to boycott this ceremony. 

So I said I would, and they’re all (mostly) here today, which is the important part anyway. But guess what? The joke’s on you. I’ve got nothing to say. 

No, that’s not true. I have lots to say, most of it I’ve said to you privately, but I do have a few parting thoughts I’d like to leave you with. 

I thought about the kind of advice people in my job tend to offer at graduation, some of which has already been said today. Stuff like 

  • the future’s bright 
  • if you just work hard, network, and show up, everything’s going to be awesome
  • you were all such wonderful, talented, inspiring students
  • Keep in touch, we’re going to miss you
  • if your certificate folder is empty, please see the financial services office 

that kind of nonsense.

I’m pretty sure the boycott threat was issued because you don’t want to hear that today. 

Craig even posted on Facebook that he doesn’t think any of his classmates were all that wonderful, talented or inspiring. 

You don’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to say it, either. We all know that while it’s all good advice, it sounds kind of empty and obvious. 

We all know it’s not going to be easy to get from your comfortable seat today to that happy, successful place we all do sincerely want you to reach. 

So if you don’t want me to blow smoke up your skirts, what am I supposed to say? 

You’ve all just completed a pretty grueling and hopefully enlightening experience, and if you’re sitting here, it means you completed it successfully. 

I do wish you well, and I do want each and every one of you to succeed mightily. 

But like I said, it ain’t gonna be easy. 

So I figured I’d try to come up with a way of saying something encouraging without sounding like an idiot. 

So here goes. What I’m about to say falls under three basic headings:

  1. Have you been paying attention?
  2. It’s only business.
  3. Don’t let the screen door hit you on the behind on the way out. 

So, have you paying attention? Let’s try a little game here. 

You’re all highly trained visual, observant people. Close your eyes. No peeking, Laura. What color is the ketchup stain on Bob Daniels’ shirt? 

You guys all were exposed to some pretty tricky stuff pretty quickly. 

The school’s philosophy has always been “you can teach anything in 4 days or 4 years”. 

I certainly hope we’ve only been using that line for marketing purposes. 

I can’t believe anybody here actually believes that. I’ve been at this photography thing for about 40 years, and I’m still trying to wrap my pea brain around it. 

All we are able to do in our short time with you is to show you what you need to learn, in small, digestible chunks we call “modules”. 

The assumption is that you will then go out and spend every waking minute for the rest of your lives really learning how to do what we show you. 

Some of you will do exactly that, some of you won’t. 

Look no further than the gallery show that’s up on the wall back at school. You’ll see a lot of really fine photographs, but if you look carefully at some of them, you may rightfully wonder if we bother to teach basic concepts like white balance. 

Have you been paying attention? Have you been putting in the time necessary to own the skills we have tried to expose you to?

Bob Daniels can tell you all about the concept of “deep practice”. Studies have shown that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill. 

There’s a whole book written about it, called “The Talent Code”. 

Don’t bother reading it. I tried. It’s a total snoozer. 

In 300 or so dry, academic pages the author comes to the astonishing conclusion that practice makes perfect. Ever heard that one before?

So I hope you’ve been paying attention. If you haven’t, I hope you start today, and not just to folks like us who have all the answers. 

Try paying a lot more attention to the ones with the questions. You’re smart enough now to figure out the answers for yourself, and hopefully, for the important questions, it will take you a long, long time to do so.

The next part is hard. It’s only business. 

There’s been a 900 pound gorilla in the room lately that nobody seems to want to talk about, so I’m going to talk about it. 

Jackie, try pushing away from the table every now and then, OK?


My students have heard me say that “beauty is in the eye of the check holder” so many times that they’re probably ready to write me a check just to shut me up. 

What I’m trying to get them to understand is that our clients ultimately determine whether what we give them is any good or not by paying us. 

That’s why you came to CDIA, right? To learn how to separate clients with creative problems from their money. 

So guess what? You’re our clients. And we’re not looking very beautiful these days, are we?

Our school is on the ropes. 

The recent financial crisis hit everybody really hard. 

The credit crunch hit businesses like ours particularly hard, and enrollment at both of our campuses has suffered. 

As Boston University winds down their affiliation with career schools like ours, we’re scrambling to find the right fit with another academic partner. 

Despite what some of you might think, I believe that we will. I believe that in some way, shape or form, CDIA will keep on keepin’ on. 

But if the worst happens, and we all have to pick up our cameras and go home, here’s what I need you to remember. 

It’s only business. 

Trade schools like CDIA come and go. 

Teachers like me come and go. 

Business cycles are inevitable and brutal, and every one of you sitting here today will discover that sooner or later. 

My advice to you is to work for the best, but prepare for the worst. 

I know this sounds like a real downer. Not what you expect to hear at graduation, right? How am I doing, Craig?

But here’s the good news, and it is really good. 

No matter what happens to us, you get to keep what you learned here. 

It’s really good stuff, and it’s all yours. 

We did our jobs, and speaking for myself and my amazing faculty, we did it really well. 

We have accelerated you to the starting line of your careers. 

You get to keep all of what you learned from us, but it’s up to you to maintain it. 

You now have to use it, every day, or trust me– you will lose it. 

So that brings me to my closing point. 

Don’t let the screen door hit you on the behind on your way out. 

Because you have to get out now. There’s a big, bad, incredible world out there just itching to have its way with you. 

It’s time to roll up your sleeves, put up your dukes, and get ready to rumble. 

We usually wrap these things up by saying we hope you will all think of CDIA as your “center”, a place where you can return to whenever you need to use the facilities. 

(Just please knock on the door of the men’s room in the basement before you barge in, OK?)

I’m going to say the opposite. 

Stay away. 


Get the heck out there and do something! 

Sure, CDIA is your home, but you know what they say about home- it’s where when you have to go there, they have to let you in. 

I was talking to one of our graduates at the gallery opening last night. 

Jay probably wouldn’t want me to mention his name, so I won’t. 

He was telling me he doesn’t like his job as a digital retouching grunt at a catalog studio and wants to quit to come back to school as a TA. He said he wasn’t meeting people and he just wants to be shooting. 

So I asked him what he thought of Mary Ellen Mark’s lecture down here at BU the other night. 

He looked at me as if I didn’t have any hair. He had no idea what I was talking about. 

He probably didn’t even know who Mary Ellen Mark is. 

(She is arguably the greatest living documentary photographer in the world, that’s who.) 

Jay didn’t go to her lecture, but the rest of Boston’s commercial, editorial, educational and fine art photography community did. 

Many CDIA students and graduates were there, too. He might have met a few people had he gone. 

Seeing her nearly 50 years of amazing photography might have inspired him in a way that no video tutorial ever will. 

Talking to her for a moment or two might have helped him understand that not only CAN he always be shooting, he had BETTER be if he wants to be taken seriously as a photographer. 

Get out there.

Do something. 

Be what you say you are. 

Screw the torpedoes! 

Make a difference while you’re making a living. 

Get lost. You will be astonished at what you find. 

But come up and get your certificates before you leave. 

September 14, 2013 at 10:07pm
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The more things change…

Writing about the fading opportunities for professional photographers, John Szarkowski famously said this:

"Portraits, wedding pictures, scenic views, product photographs, PR photos, architectural views, insurance-claim documents, and a score of similar vernacular functions that were once thought to require the special skills of a professional photographer are now increasingly being performed by naive amateurs with sophisticated cameras. Although for the most part these pictures are approximate and graceless, they answer adequately the simple problem of identifying a given face, setting, product, building, accident, or ritual handshake."

Sound familiar? Like maybe another sad acknowledgement of the death of photography as a career choice, laid once again at the feet of every untrained idiot with better equipment than yours? Like maybe one more reminder about how “good enough” has become good enough?

Here’s the thing, though. He said it in 1978.

Here’s what I say, and I don’t know how many more times I’ll have to say it. It’s always been hard to make a living as a photographer, especially in some of the specialties listed in the quote above. That’s where all the low-hanging fruit is, and where so many low hanging fruit pickers conduct their food fights.  

But what makes it even harder is if you’re a professional photographer complaining about having to compete against today’s “naive amateurs” and you don’t know who John Szarkowski was. Or even who Andre Kertesz was (hint: he made the portrait of Szarkowski at the top of this post).

Because knowledge like that might lead you down the path toward the kind of inspiration that separates you from the herd. Knowledge like that might actually help you learn how to “think different”, or maybe even just to think for yourself.    

Get some context. Learn the history of your chosen medium. Worship some heroes other than the likes of Zack Arias and Bambi Cantrell- they already have enough worshippers, and they’d probably tell you exactly the same thing. 

Read about something other than hot new apps or lens resolution tests. Here’s a good place to start– it’s where I came across Szarkowski’s quote a few hours ago. But there is so much more to know. While enlightening information like this is easier than ever to find, it’s up to you to find it.

If you want to be different from everyone else, start by not being the same. Because the less you change, the more things stay the same.