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

July 25, 2014 at 4:36pm
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Michael

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I met Michael Jackson Ingleman last night, at the Providence Park Max station in Portland. I was doing my thing, shooting moving trains at night, minding my own business and trying not to draw attention. The shots were looking like they always do, and each one reminded me that it’s probably time to come up with a new idea.

He approached me from behind, disheveled just enough to not be mistaken for some regular guy in jeans and sneakers and a ball cap.  Slurring his words and carrying a mixed sixer (three bottles of Coors Light and three cans of something I didn’t recognize), he asked me if I was a photographer.

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July 15, 2014 at 9:57am
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Brick and Mortar or Dog and Pony- Photo education in the age of internet gurus.

Stop the presses.

Sometime last year, internet photo guru Scott Kelby switched from using Nikon cameras to Canon. Seems he liked the autofocus system and the higher frame rate on the top of the line 1DX that Canon loaned him last year better than Nikon’s D4 for shooting NFL games. And he thinks it feels like it was “designed by Apple” to boot. 

To his credit he admits that, coincidentally, Canon is among the many sponsors of his many business ventures, all built around teaching digital photography and software.

I guess it’s very old news to those who pay attention to such things, but it seems like the Kelby announcement was something of a big deal. From what I can tell, the internet was ablaze. The reason I’m just hearing about it now is because I’ve been busy trying to teach photography the hard way- face to face, in a studio, lab and classroom. I’m one of those anonymous chumps toiling day in and day out trying to get students ready to compete as photographers in a world where everybody else already is. I try to stay current with what’s happening, but the Kelby announcement must have slipped by me while I was reading Ken Rockwell. He swaps cameras like the rest of us change our socks, maybe even more frequently than some.

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June 19, 2014 at 7:57am
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Students Teaching Students

New England School of Photography (NESOP), Urban Achievers, and The Take 5 Foundation announce a new joint education initiative focusing on arts training for underserved youth. 

Beginning this week, NESOP is hosting 10 extraordinary young photography students from Dorchester’s Epiphany School to help inaugurate our first summer Practicum program. The kids come to NESOP in partnership with Urban Achievers’ Executive Director Lino Sanchez and The Take 5 Foundation’s President and founder Brenda Bancel (a NESOP graduate). 

A volunteer team of 2014 graduates from NESOP’s Professional Photography Program have designed a two week course in photography expanding on basic training provided by Take 5’s offerings at the Epiphany School. Led by NESOP alum Alyssa Jaffe Minahan, 5 pairs of NESOP graduate instructors are presenting two day modules focusing on camera, workflow, studio lighting, Photoshop and traditional darkroom skills.

Demonstrating NESOP’s commitment to career training, Practicum provides the framework for our students to practice their skills on real projects for real clients, with well-defined deliverables completed within a fixed time frame. As a model for positive community impact, it also contributes a valuable service to a non-profit organization in need. A number of this year’s graduate instructors are already exploring ongoing involvement in Take 5’s activities after Practicum is complete. 

NESOP’s curriculum is evolving to meet the requirements of a kinetic industry, but the experiential education our graduates gain through Practicum helps build a vital foundation in professionalism and community service.

2014 NESOP graduates participating in Practicum are: Colette Aboussouan, Bren Barden, Christine Chang, PJ Couture, Cori DiPietro, Liz Ireland, Michelle Jung, Laura Knapp, Jill Medugno, Andy Moran, Jenna Stebbins and Alyssa Minahan.

In preparing our children for future success, Urban Achievers (http://urbanachievers.org) focuses on teaching the basics of self-sufficiency, and in so doing, increasing their opportunities to explore options and make informed decisions regarding their futures. Based out of Dorchester’s Epiphany School, UA uses news, social media and other creative means to raise awareness of and attention to poverty and its devastating effects on children’s development and their ability to learn. For more information, contact Executive Director Lino Sanchez at lsanchez@epiphanyschool.com

The TAKE 5 Foundation (http://take5foundation.org) believes in the impact that can be made on children’s lives when they are coached in a small group. Following a proven formula that really works in life (Education + Hard Work + Passion = Success) the Foundation’s mission is to change kids a handful at a time by dedicated mentorship and specialized learning. For more information, contact Founder and President Brenda Bancel at bbancel@yahoo.com

Photography is a passion for some, a profession for others, and NESOP (https://www.nesop.com) helps students make both a life and a living in photography from our campus in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Over the course of two very intensive years, students receive a comprehensive education in the traditional and contemporary art and craft of image making. For nearly half a century, NESOP graduates have built the photography industry in Boston and beyond. For more information, contact Academic Director Randall Armor at rarmor@nesop.com

June 15, 2014 at 8:44pm
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It all starts with NESOP

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Our retiring Dean of Students, Marty Hassell, asked me to say something at my first NESOP graduation on Friday night. “Keep it short”, she said, “5 minutes, no more”.  Maybe she heard about some of my earlier commencement manifestos, maybe not.  Anyway, I timed myself at 5 minutes and 2 seconds. Not bad for my debut act.

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May 25, 2014 at 2:30pm
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What you know

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Students have heard me say a crock full of seemingly incongruous things over the years. While I’m aware of the head scratching and confused looks shooting back and forth in the classroom whenever I start “speaking outside of the box”, those little gems always make perfect sense to me. I’m also aware of the fact that that probably says more about me than it does my students.

One of those ditties was particularly relevant during my time at CDIA, where there no longer exists an amazing opportunity for photo students to rub shoulders on a daily basis with those working in design, animation, digital filmmaking, and sound. Pity.

I used my directorship at CDIA to drive home the widely acknowledged point that the new media world that my students were attempting to enter was no longer photo-centric, that convergence had happened while we were all out “taking pictures” and that theirs would more than ever be an integrated role in a digital food chain that is now known as “content creation”. They would either have to learn to work with or for other media artists or, what’s becoming more and more likely due to expanding expectations and shrinking budgets, learn to incorporate many of those skillsets into their own. I implored them to understand that it would be in their best interest to learn how critical it is to at least be conversant with what other creatives are up against before they got out of school and had the lesson taught to them the hard way. Then I built a program that gave them a taste of what I was talking about. 

So we integrated students, faculty and projects between programs so that photo students were formally exposed to the challenges faced by graphic and web designers and videographers (and vice versa). I believe it prepared all of them to better compete for the types of clients available to them, not the types of clients their older instructors like me used to work with back before electricity.

It was a privelige to be able to drag career design and video professionals like Peter Kery or Howard Phillips into my classroom to back me up. Sadly, with the collapse of the business that provided a (leaky) roof over our creative collaboration, that privelige is now history.

But the fact of convergence remains, and career-focused students everywhere are beginning to get the message.

Then there’s the issue of authenticity. So many rookie photographers say that they don’t know what to photograph, they don’t have any ideas of their own, so they simply copy what’s already been done. Don’t get me wrong- imitation is one of the ways we learn. Like almost every other photographer who came of age in the 60s and 70s, I wouldn’t have spent my working life working with a camera if I hadn’t first seen the work of Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, and then spent years trying to reshoot their pictures.

Imitation is like the steady parental hand on the bicycle seat that helps us learn how to ride a two-wheeler. But eventually, big boys and girls tell mom or dad to let go so they can ride off in their own direction. And while the direction may not be so unique, what each of us see, feel and experience on the ride is.

As a matter of fact, Henri Cartier-Bresson, among the most copied photographers ever, said it this way about 40 years ago:

"I don’t know what it means to be dramatically new. There are no new ideas in the world, there are only new arrangements of things. The world is new every minute…it’s falling to pieces every minute."

and

"Life is once, forever."

Statements like those are what keep photographers like me out on the street, out in the world, out on the hunt. Pictures are everywhere, all the time, and when we let them in, they can be filtered through our world view and our state of mind. They can be ours, uniquely. 

But when a student hears that and is still looking for ideas, my first advice is to start with what writers have always been told:

Write (shoot) what you know. 

It’s always been a good place to start- by limiting a student to the seemingly tiny, insignificant box called “your own experience”, most are amazed at the infinite potential within.

Sure, they don’t come out of the gate making the kinds of important work that raises awareness of serious things like illness or homelessness, unless those issues touch their lives in some way. Those pictures come later. But it does give them the access and experience necessary to dig deeply into a subject with which they are uniquely and intimately familiar.

Then, a couple of days ago, I downloaded a book I’ve been meaning to read for years. It’s called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and it’s written by Stephen King.

And every one of you reading this should read that next.

Because he has a better take on it. And whether or not you care for Stephen King, or about writing (or even reading) every idea in the book is as pertinent to photographers, designers, filmmakers, artists, as it is to writers. And there are alot of big ideas in this small book. 

“The dictum in writing classes used to be “write what you know.” Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? How does the writer square either of these, or a thousand other fanciful ideas, with the “write-what-you-know” directive?
I think you begin by interpreting “write what you know” as broadly and inclusively as possible. If you’re a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; the heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.”

“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”

There you have it, boys and girls. I’ll let go now so you can ride off on your own.

Shoot what you like, but add what you know.

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.     

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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.

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

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December 17, 2013 at 10:57pm
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Postmodern times

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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. 

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"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:

Fartster.

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.

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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:

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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!"

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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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Why NESOP?

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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: 

CONTINUITY.

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

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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.

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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 

THAT’S A FACt”

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

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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.