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
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
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
Ran into Monet last night on my walk home from work. He made quite an Impression on me!
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
jmjasset-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.
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:
- Have you been paying attention?
- It’s only business.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
September 12, 2013 at 3:59pm
An open letter to all my friends at CDIA
To my colleagues, faculty, and most especially, students:
Today, I have resigned from my position as Photography Program Director at CDIA, a job I’ve loved since the day I was hired in 2009. I have accepted the position of Academic Director at New England School of Photography (NESOP), and will take charge of their professional and evening workshop programs beginning October 7. My last day at CDIA will be Saturday, September 28, and my last official responsibility will be to help celebrate the graduation of yet another group of extraordinary young photographers and other media professionals.
NESOP, as you probably all know, has been a strong, influential and consistent presence on the region’s photo education landscape since its founding in 1968. NESOP is where I reinvigorated my career as a teacher in 2005, and as long as I don’t screw things up, it’s where I hope to continue to help train and inspire students until Social Security kicks in and takes me gently into my geezerhood.
Trust me- the people closest to me know that this has been one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. But it’s finally time to move on, and the timing, right at graduation, seems right. I’ll be able to sell my old car, walk to work when the weather’s nice and stuff myself onto the Green Line when it isn’t. I might even learn to be a better Red Sox fan since I’ll be forced to look over the top of the Green Monster every time I’m in the big glass-walled classroom on the third floor. I only hope that the F-16 pilot who stepped on the gas and broke the sound barrier over Fenway the last time I taught in that classroom on Opening Night has been promoted to a desk job by now.
Most importantly, though, I’ll be able to threaten to fire my pal Heratch whenever I feel like it, just for kicks. He’s been teaching there since the CITGO sign next door was lit by candles, and he’s already looking over his shoulder.
Even though Boston University will be ending their deal with CDIA next May, they have stepped in to shore things up and to help us through the transition to a new institutional partner. They are nice folks who are impressed by what we do, and with their support and advocacy, (and a little luck) there will be new faces, new ideas and new energy to move the school toward a brighter and more secure future.
I gave CDIA everything I had, and I believe I leave the program in better shape than I found it. The fundamentals have never been stronger, and the curriculum is more relevant than it’s ever been. Our remarkable faculty delivers it brilliantly, and our students are doing more with it than even I could have imagined. CDIA graduates own a huge chunk of the local market.
Now I get to try to roll the boulder up the hill a little further at another great school. From Kenmore Square, I look forward to growing a good, strong, fair and friendly competitor to the program I helped to build and grow out in Waltham, and if I can pull that one off, we’ll all be better for it. I’ll be sure to let you know what’s going on with me from time to time, and please do stop by to say how-do if you’re in the area.
I’ll close here with one last sappy but heartfelt thought that just occurred to me: the same river that runs behind CDIA also runs behind NESOP. For what it’s worth, you’ve all got a friend, a supporter and an admirer just a little further downstream.
July 23, 2013 at 10:04am
Adobe Educator Summit, Day 2
Well, they said we’d be busy, and they weren’t just a-whistlin’ dixie! Yesterday kicked off the weeklong intensive training session with Julianne Kost, Tom Hogarty, and the management team for Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC.
Breakfast started promptly at 7:30, a really nice dinner ended at 9:30, and in between came 8 solid hours of classroom instruction, a 90 minute roundtable discussion, and another hour or so to wander around downtown Portland to start shooting my individual assignment.
Then came more shooting, this time more of my “Outbound” project centered around moving trains. Out for an evening stroll with me was Wilson Hurst, Assistant Professor of Photography at University of Central Missouri. An hour behind the computer took me up to just past midnight, then I was out cold until about 5:00 this morning (jet lag is great for morning people like me, not so much by 4:00 in the afternoon).
Today starts agin at 7:30, with classroom instruction taking us through lunch. We’re heading out for our shooting trip this afternoon, then back to the hotel for dinner and wrapup. I’m sure I’ll be out again with my camera afterwards, since I saw a few more scenes last night that I didn’t have time to shoot.
Notes from Day 1, minus the neat little technical tidbits:
- Much of the discussion yesterday focused on the Creative Cloud. Individually, everyone seems to love the idea. Institutionally, however, we all agreed that there are significant issues for our schools to switch to the subscription model. I’m afraid that CDIA, unfortunately, will be particularly challenged, but we’re not alone.
- It’s pretty humbling to be in the room with so many top shelf educators from some of the best schools in the country- RIT, Syracuse, SVA, Brooks, Parsons, etc. I’m trying to keep my mouth shut and my ears open.
- I said it last time I was here and I’ll say it again– I love Portland!
- And Julianne Kost, Adobe’s Principal Digital Evangelist for Lightroom and Photoshop, is absolutely hilarious! What a goofball, and what a pleasure it is to learn this stuff from such an entertaining woman!
Happy July 4th from the Jersey Shore!