Photo Story: The Curtain

Blonde in a bar with lipstick

The camera is my curtain. I am behind it. On the other side, on the grand stage of the world, the theater of life plays without intermission. I wait, listening to the dialog and watching the players move through the certain. Then comes a moment and I open the curtain, quickly and with such delicacy that the actors and the audience don’t recognize my presence. When the instant is gone, so am I, but I leave with the moment wrapped in my curtain.

Photography teaches me patience, me, someone who is anything but patient. The moment will arrive when it happens and if I am ready, if I am looking and listening, and if I have been able, through stillness or persistence, to remain close even as I become bored or nervous or frightened, then I will have a chance to make a picture.

 Without patience, I have no chance. Without waiting, good pictures don’t happen – at least for me. Without the curtain, I am exposed and cannot wait. You see the circle now. The curtain protects. The protection comforts. The comfort makes me patient. The patience brings the photograph.

Recently, I was in a bar in Bolinas. For a long time I just talked with the others who were there – with the bartender, with a woman who had brought home-made cheesecake, and with a pool-player who had one eye filled with blood, the consequence of a mountain bike mishap.

The bartender invited me behind the bar. I faced a young blond woman, thin, animated and dressed in a spring party dress. She posed for the camera again and again. When she became bored, she stopped and slid a lipstick tube out from her purse. She lifted her gold iPhone and, using it as a mirror, refreshed her face.

 My waiting was over. The curtain opened.

Photo Story: Empty

Stinson Beach, Surfer's Grill

On those days when my glass drops below half-empty and I can’t seem to refill it no matter what, I pick up a camera and leave the house. Often I walk the neighborhood looking for snapshots of life. Other days, times when I need to keep myself away from me (thank you Adam Durwitz), I go farther.

 One such journey a couple of years ago took me to Stinson Beach. It was mid-March, the second day of spring. I arrived late and it was after 5 o’clock as I walked the dark sand under the gray sky.

 The wind and salt stung my eyes. Tears softened my focus. Emptiness was everywhere. I walked south, climbed the dunes and found shelter and stillness inside the small snack shack at the end of the beach.

 Out of the wind, there was warmth. I sat at a table, enjoying the absence of what I had escaped. I thought about when i was a boy and sought and found similar solace alone in the house with my books.

 I have always been this way, I thought. This is me, alone. I looked it my emptiness, photographed it and brought it home.

On the Job: The New Supervisor

Damon Connolly

Damon Connolly, a San Rafael attorney, is  the newest Marin County supervisor. I photographed him recently for Marin Magazine inside the county’s distinctive Frank LLoyd Wright-designed Civic Center.

I’ve photographed several local politicians inside the building (here’s Rep. Jared Huffman) and each time I try to use differently the variety of shapes and shadows it contains. Before Connolly arrived, I’d decided I was going to use only one light and work with the darkness as much as I could.

I also knew the  type of photograph the magazine prefers — something not too dramatic, rich in color and vertical (to fit the page format). I wanted something more stark.

The day was warm and the Civic Center, because of its glass ceiling, holds heat. Connolly was also wearing a dark suit. I worked fast, first making “my” photos, shooting into the afternoon light and keeping Connolly in the shade. Many, such as the horizontal below, I thought would work for the magazine.

Damon Connolly

After a few minutes, I changed directions and asked Connolly to sit on a circular bench in the middle of the corridor and using the same strobe  (this time positioned more full on to soften its effect) made a series of verticals that I thought the magazine would prefer.

I was right.

Here’s the image the magazine chose:

Damon Connolly

And here’s how the art director used it:

Damon Connolly Marin Magazine

My choice — the top image on this page — was one of several I took while Connolly and I were still talking and before he started posing. In post, I converted it to black and white and bumped up the contrast. The picture is a simple one, a man alone in a corridor, and, for me, the gray tones emphasize the simplicity.

On the Job: Filmmakers

Donna LoCicero, Robert Campos, Three Still Standing

Photographers like alleys in the same irrational way that cats like empty boxes. We can’t pass one up. So, of course, I was purring with excitement when San Francisco filmmakers Donna LoCicero and Robert Campos told me they  lived in a South of Market alley.

I was photographing them for Marin Magazine in connection with their film, 3 Still Standing, a documentary about three comedians — Will Durst, Johnny Steele and Larry “Bubbles” Brown — who were contemporaries of Robin Williams and Dana Carvey but never achieved the success the latter two did. The film is opening at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

As I parked down the block from their home (parking in Soma!!!) I was already looking for places to make the picture, but LoCicero and Campos — being both visual pros and busy people — already had scoped their neighborhood. The next alley over, they said, had a couple of options, one dark and one lighter.

We schlepped the gear — one light, a heavy battery and a C-stand — set up by a black corrugated wall, shot for while and then moved up the street in front of the yellow wall you see above. Couldn’t have been easier — pre-selected backgrounds, subjects who schlep and two people with a good sense of humor.

In 30 minutes, we were done.

The magazine used the shot below against the black wall. I like the yellow one above a bit more. The vertical (in the slideshow) is a behind-the-scenes snap for those of you who like to see that thing.

Donna Lo Cicero, Robert Campos, 3 Still Standing

On the Job: Arrested

SimonJames_Arrest

A few months ago, I interviewed and photographed cheery, avuncular, 70-year-old doctor named James Simon (below) who was the flight surgeon at a small airfield in Marin, Gnoss Field in Novato.

Today, Dr. Simon found himself on the front page of the local paper, the Marin Independent Journal, as the lead character in a tale of what police said was road rage gone bad.

Simon was arrested after allegedly shooting a man who had followed him and his wife home in Corte Madera after some sort of altercation on Paradise Drive, a two-lane, tree-lined road that leads to some of Marin’s tonier homes..

The victim, whose name was not released, apparently tried to drive into the Simon’s garage as he was closing the door. According to police, Simon went in his home, returned with a .357 magnum, fired a warning shot into the air and then two bullets into the victim’s abdomen.

The victim survived, Simon was arrested and we await the story behind the story.

Corte Madera Mayor Michael Lappert, a reserve cop and one of the first officers on the scene (and coincidentally a one-time patient of  Simon’s), summed it up:

It’s a bad thing all around. If there’s anything to learn from this, it’s that road rage can only have a bad ending.”

(Here’s the Marin Magazine piece I did on Simon).

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Mary Ellen Mark, Me & Mexico

Oaxaca, Tlalixtac, charro, rodeo

I returned to Oaxaca this year to take a second photography workshop with Mary Ellen Mark. Here is an account of that trip — and its impact on me — that I wrote for a local magazine. It is an updated version of the story of my first workshop a year ago.

***

No Bull!
Discovering charros and more in Mexico with Mary Ellen Mark

By Tim Porter

The bull had been chased at survival-of-the-fittest speed by a charro on horseback, grabbed by the tail, and then flipped nose first upside down into the dirt, where its rolling bulk created a sideways tornado of dust and grit that hid all but its whirling hooves and horns.

Now, it was coming my way — one ton of off-the-hoof, out-of-control hamburger on a collision course with me and my Nikon. My options were few. A brick wall behind me. A cluster of horses, ridden by wranglers waiting for the bull to come out of the spin cycle, in front. A flimsy metal gate to my left.

I defied the complaints of aging knees, muttered a silent namaste of thanks to my yoga teacher and leapt for the gate.

A second later the bull gained its footing, arose from the ground like a drunken frat boy who had been ejected from a hipster bar, and looked for something two-legged on whom it could exact revenge. Its eyes, angry and aflame, found mine, doe-like and frozen, in my perch three feet above him on the gate. The bull swung his heavy, bony head into the gate, rattling my nerves and my bones. Then the charros, emitting whoops and wielding lassos, chased off the beast.

I checked the camera, noticed bull spittle on my jeans, moved back down along the wall and waited for the next animal.

Just another vacation day in Mexico.

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Years ago, I worked at a newspaper in San Francisco with a British reporter who had done several stints with the London tabloids and he liked to say of a hard-to-believe yarn, “Hey, it’s a great story even if it’s true.”

This bull story is no bull. But there are greater truths to be told here.

My nose-to-nose encounter with the bull happened while I was photographing the second day of a charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo that took place about 10 miles south of the city of Oaxaca in a town called Tlalixtac de Cabrera. There, teams of charros, the iconic Mexican horsemen whose tight-fitting suits and wide-brimmed sombreros remind tourists of mariachi bands but whose history is rooted in the horse culture brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, competed for the state championship.

I was in the lienzo charro (the arena) because of one woman, Mary Ellen Mark, the iconic photojournalist who has worked for Federico Fellini, and Life  and Vanity Fair, but is best known for her lifelong pursuit of documenting those who inhabit society’s fringes — street kids, circus performers and prostitutes.

She was a hero of my youth, the reason I became a photographer. My two days with the charros were part of a 10-day photography workshop she led in March in Oaxaca.

***

I first learned of Mary Ellen when I was in my 20s. The ’60s had come and gone and I was living in the wake of the period’s wanton indulgences. I’d gotten a low-level job in a swanky Nob Hill hotel and returned to college, but I had no plan. School was merely a way out of a life I could no longer live.

One day I saw two photographs in a magazine, both taken in India. In the first, a boy sat at table in a cafe. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy-eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window. The second photo showed a hippie couple resting on a beach. They wore white, wispy clothes. The boy’s hands rested on a harmonium, an Indian hand organ. He and the girl gazed languidly toward the sea.

In those lost children, I saw myself. The images embodied the untethered wandering that defined the era and that had led me, unwittingly, down shrouded paths from which many never returned. I’ve never forgotten those two photos.

Mary Ellen Mark was only 31 when she made those pictures, but she was already accomplished — assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, her mind and her camera  focused on the social trends of the day. She has said of those years, “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

Her desire inspired me, a confused young man who had passed from adolescence into adulthood along those same edges. I bought a camera. I learned to develop film, found a job in a darkroom and began shooting on the street, joined the community college paper, and started shooting news. There was plenty of that in those days — kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. I used the camera to both open the world to me and to shield me from it. In journalism, I’d found a purpose. I freelanced and hoped for a career in photojournalism .

But it wasn’t to be. My work wasn’t that strong. I was too timid, too distant. More than that, I allowed insecurity to ride roughshod over passion. To stay in journalism, I started writing, which came more easily than photography. Ambition took hold and I followed the opportunities — editor of this, editor of that, editor of whatever came along.

Then it was over. That’s too long a story to tell here. Suffice to say that 30 years after finding myself, I was lost again. Time passed. One day I took out my old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban marshes. Just like that, it all came back.

My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I learned the software. I bought a bigger camera. I found work with a local magazine that needed someone who could both shoot and write. Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio. I became, at last, a photographer.

Happy ending, right? Boy wants girl. Gets rejected. Wins over girl years later. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Hold the Hollywood moment.

There was still that itch, unscratched — the edge, the margin, the harder truths. Don’t get me wrong. Living and working in Marin is a good life that many would like to have. But edgy it ain’t.

Then, 18 months ago serendipity struck. I learned of Mary Ellen Mark’s workshop in Oaxaca (where my wife and I had built a house). So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible — Mary Ellen (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my adopted city) all combined.

I joined the workshop last year. I met Mary Ellen (an extraordinary woman of relentless authenticity). I photographed in garbage dumps and garlic fields and the bedrooms of transvestites. I jabbered all day in Spanish. I came home with several good photos and a vow to return — which I did in March.

This year, when I returned home from Oaxaca, a friend asked, What did you learn?

I didn’t have a thoughtful answer at the time and instead something about getting closer with my camera. Since then, I’ve considered the question more and here is what Mary Ellen taught me:

  • That photography soothes me with its seeing and excites me with its engagement.
  • That I am moved by the tenacity and spirit and generosity of those who struggle daily for survival. I wish I were more like them.
  • That I remain, after all these decades, hesitant in the face of challenge, overly self-critical on the verge of success and easily distracted from the pursuit of the long-term by the gratifications of the short.

Good lessons, yes, but truthfully I knew all of those things before I went to Oaxaca in March, so you might say I learned nothing. You would be wrong.

What Mary Ellen Mark taught me most of all was to trust who I am. In that sense, I learned everything.

Texas, the Throw-away State

Other than serving as home to several members of my family, there’s not much I like about north Texas.

One of the state’s more sad characteristics is its emptiness. I don’t mean the vast openness of the Texas landscape — which is alluring — but rather the pockets of  nothingness that mark the cities and their suburbs.

These are spaces that Texas has abandoned its rush to rebuild and rebrand itself as the Dubai of the American southwest.

Once they were strip malls or factories or farms. Now they are vacant storefronts, rusting hulks or fields given way to seed.

Amid the glassy gleam of Dallas and Fort Worth’s new downtown towers lie the discards of yesterdays dreams, tossed aside, left to rot and lacking — ironically in a state so obsessed with religion — a proper burial.

These photos are from Fort Worth, made on Christmas trip to Texas to see my Mom.

Muertos — a Day of Life

Sister Mary Timothy Simplicity
Death is a lot of work. The dead are gone in a minute, but their survivors need hours and days and weeks to prepare a celebration for them.

In Garfield Square yesterday, El Día de los Muertos, the sons and daughters and widows and widowers and friends and colleagues of the dead devoted the afternoon to building shrines of all sizes and complexity to their mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and partners and fellow members of the Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence who have died, some years ago, some just the other day.

All around them, as they laid out orange marigolds and family photos and precious possessions, and erected boats crewed by skeletons and created fanciful trees of wire festooned with clay creatures crafted by schoolchildren, life went one, life that had nothing to do with the dead.

In the center of the square, on an iridescent carpet of green artificial turf separated from the more muted verdure of the actual grass by a chain-link fence, teams of young girls played soccer. Their voices, exuberant, and those of their coaches, urgent, provided a soundtrack for the day.

Along 25th Street, occupying the concrete lip of park’s northern edge, where a shaft of western sunlight warmed the block, drunken men clustered in boozy amiableness, alternately ignoring and suffering the transgression on their turf by the altar-makers.

In increasing numbers photo-tourists arrived. Their baggy old man jeans marked them immediately, too clean, too blue, and too suburban for the dark grit of the Mission and the bright colors of Muertos. Politely, their pointed their big cameras at small children who face painters had transformed from angels into ghouls.

I confess to interloping myself. I am now a tourist in the city I once called mine.

Decades ago, I lived a few blocks from Garfield Square. Rent was cheap – and for good reason. Drug dealers and gang bangers were much more plentiful than children. There was no outcry over forced evictions in the Mission because there was no line of people waiting to move in. Sadly, I have not walked this neighborhood for many years.

Despite my long absence, I felt at home. The streets around the park were familiar in shape, sight and sound. The long views along Bryant – to faraway downtown and to nearby Bernal – resurrected mental albums of similar images I stored away long ago. The preponderance of concrete, uninterrupted from stoop to stoop, recalled my years of walking those streets – for work, for drugs, for sleep, for lack of anything else to do. On those streets of San Francisco, in the Haight, in the Mission, I died many times and I was reborn just as often, resurrected by luck or coincidence or the helping hands of others.

More than all that, though, I felt at home among the people making the altars.

They were urban, meaning they were accustomed to living among other people, used to being stared at and open to having an instant conversation with a stranger.

They were gay, meaning that at some point they broke from the path their parents hoped they would travel and found themselves, either by intention or instinct, living in a community of others who had done the same.

They were artists, meaning that they created for the sake of creation and they found no lack of sense in devoting an immense of time to build honor a friend or a loved one with a shrine that would last only a few hours. They found meaning in the doing.

I am a tourist among them as well. I left the city, I lost my intentions, I sought reason for creativity.

Saying this another way, on the Day of the Dead in the Mission I found parts of the life I left behind and now hope to recover.

I left Garfield Square at dusk. Dinner with friends – out of the city – waited. But, I was more interested in the people building the altars than those who come in the night to view them. And I had no desire to photograph the after-dark parade through the Mission, which, in addition to the Latinos an of the city and beyond Muertos is a connection to their roots, draws thousands of young anglos who know see the event as just another hormonal opportunity to drink and act out in public. But that’s life, too.

Below are a few snaps from the day.

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The Mission on the March

Anti-gentrification protest in the Mission.

If San Francisco’s Mission District were a wild animal, it would be on the endangered species list.

The neighborhood is hunted by predatory real estate developers who toss out longtime tenants like last week’s garbage, encroached upon by relentless and City Hall-sanctioned gentrification, undernourished by new immigrants (who can no longer afford to move there), and infected with an invasive species of screen-staring clones who seem so culturally unaware that one wonders if they realize a real world exists outside of their digital lives.

Yesterday, those who prefer to keep the Mission ethnically diverse, affordable (for San Francisco) and cross-culturally vibrant gathered at 24th and York streets to march and to protest the attack on their home turf and, hopefully, ignite a broader, citywide effort to preserve working-class San Francisco’s neighborhoods in the face of increasing upscale development and what is essentially the legal deportation of anyone who cannot afford $5 coffees, $200 jeans and $4,000-a-month rents.

What is happening in the Mission saddens and enrages me. I came to San Francisco poor and damaged,  a refugee of the Sixties. San Francisco welcomed me with affordable housing in its then-fringe neighborhoods (Precita Park, Bernal and the Outer Mission), hands-on jobs that paid the rent (delivering newspapers, hotel banquet work) and an opportunity to drop back in via a low-cost city community college that itself now borders on extinction because of neglect and incompetence.

Without any of those things, I would not have been able to have the journalism career I did, to buy the houses I did, to pay the taxes I do, and to contribute, as I can, to the world around me.

Those opportunities will not exist in a San Francisco that eats its own culture, that destroys itself by driving out the very people who make it unique, that chooses development over diversity. The City — as we called San Francisco in my former newspaper — will become just a city.

The 24th Street march, as demonstrations go, was small, but the message was big. Sadly, San Francisco’s last remaining full-size newspaper,  the Chronicle, couldn’t be bothered to cover it (it did find the means to report on a skateboard contest that happened at the same time — shame, shame, shame).

However, Mission Local, the local news project of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, was there and live-reported the event. And, much has been written about the gentrification of the The Mission and increasing use of the state Ellis Act to force evictions citywide —  by Tim Redmond, by El Tecolote and, yes, by the Chronicle.

My pictures are below. In them you see the faces and energy of The Mission — and the soul of San Francisco. Let’s not allow them be wiped out.

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On the Job: Psychics

Zorica Gojkovic

Not all psychics are alike. But then some of you already knew that, didn’t you? It was a lesson I learned when I recently photographed several psychics and tarot card readers — they prefer the term “intuitives” — for Marin Magazine.

When I got the assignment, I was thinking flowing robes, lots of jewelry, candles, you know, exotic. Except for Jetara Sehart, below, who does tarot readings under the name of Angel Counsel and certainly looks the part (complete with crystal ball), that’s not what I found.

One psychic was selling real estate (“Wouldn’t you want a real estate broker with good instincts?” she told writer Calin Van Paris) and another worked in a bookstore in San Rafael.

Then there was Zorica Gojkovic, above, who has a Ph.D. in English, provides counseling under the name The Time of Light, and loves to read mysteries and Westerns when she’s not gazing into the future. Zorica looked like my Aunt Helen, as “normal” as could be. I did my best to add a bit of mystery to her with the photo (which is not the one the magazine used).

Here’s the story. Take a look.

Jetara Sehart

On the Job: Marin Housing Debate

Aging vet pleads for affordable housing in Marin County

An aging veteran whose lost his home asks the Marin County Board of Supervisors to approve a plan authorizing more affordable housing in the affluent county.

I dropped by the Marin County Board of Supervisors yesterday to photograph the newest board member, Katie Rice, for Marin Magazine. After I made the pictures I needed of her, I hung around to take in some of a contentious hearing on a countywide affordable housing plan.

There’s no need to go into details about the plan here (much ink and many pixels have been devoted to it), but the debate struck me as a common one — a liberal plea for housing for residents and workers who aren’t hedge fund managers or lawyers vs. a NIMBY-esque argument that low-cost, high-density housing would mean more traffic, not enough tax revenue from the news residents to support local services and environmental dangers.

The crowd — on both sides —  didn’t fit the Marin stereotypes. There were no yoga pants, few facelifts and more than several walkers. It was not the haves vs. the have-nots. It was the have-less vs. the have-no-so-much. Those who feared the new housing lived in Marin’s more middle-class neighborhoods — Marinwood, Tam Valley and Strawberry (well, not so middle-class for the latter). Those who argued for it lived in those locales as well, but also in Marin City and Hamilton.

For me, it was a chance to put faces on an abstract argument, which is always a reminder that all these policy debates in the end effect the lives of real people.

The meeting opened on a high note — several of them actually — with an a capella song about “there’s a lot of love in Marin” by local sax player and singer Richard Howell. That was the last sign of love for the afternoon.

There was no vote. That’s scheduled for next week. (More photos here).

On the Job: Gavin Newsom, the Light and the Dark

July 23, 2013 – 365:15:204 – DUI Stories

I recently photographed Gavin Newsom for Marin Magazine and took advantage of the opportunity to make some images for myself after I’d gotten what I thought the magazine needed.

Newsom, the current lieutenant governor of California and a former mayor of San Francisco, was pushing his book, Citizenville. I’ve photographed him before at several public events and he is photogenic and very camera aware so it is difficult to capture him even momentarily out of character.

During the interview with writer Stephanie Martin in a bright corner of Murray Circle, the restaurant at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, I used the strong daylight streaming through a pair of large windows and the rich warmth of the walls. Those are the images the magazine used and you can see them below in the slide show or on the pages of the article. The color was so intense I had to take out quite a bit of the yellow.

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For myself, though, I wanted something darker, so in the five minutes I had with Newsom between the end of the interview and his departure I photographed him with the harsher light of a single oct0box hung over his head. Later, I converted one of my favorite frames into black and white, which you see above. The other black-and-shot shot (below) was lit with the window light and I think it works better in monotone than in color.

Ever since returning from the Mary Ellen Mark workshop in February, I’ve been working more with black and white conversions and very much liking the effect. As much as I love the excitement color can bring to an image, I feel that it can also distract from the subject.

With Newsom, a man who knows he is working the camera, black-and-white seemed to penetrate his shell a little deeper. What do you think?

An aside: Last year, I photographed Newsom’s wife, Jennifer, in my studio. Here’s a video of me doing the shoot.

Gavin Newson, lieutenant governor of California

On the Job: Farm to Table

State Bird, corn pancakes

I had the opportunity recently to photograph two of my favorite things — farms and food. Writer Mimi Towle put together a feature on San Francisco restaurants that use the organic food of Marin County to create their menus, and I photographed both ends of the food chain. (Here’s the story).

The story featured four farms, four restaurants and four dishes. Today, I’m posting the shots from the restaurants. Later, I’ll follow up with those from the  farms.

The restaurants and their dishes are:

  • State Bird — Sweet corn and chive short stack (above), topped with melted Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese. (I ate three of these after the shoot!)
  • Slanted Door — Manila clams with green garlic puree (garlic from Allstar Organics).
  • Michael Mina San Francisco — Early Girl tomatoes and grilled octupus (tomatoes from County Line Harvest).
  • Ristobar — Fresh summer salad (strawberries from Fresh Run Farm).

All the food was photographed on location.  I love shooting in restaurants because they — and their crews — remind me of my newspaper days. Both restaurants and newspapers operate under deadlines, are staffed with idiosyncratic people who are drawn to pressure and shut it all down at the end of day only to start fresh the next.

(Be sure to take a look at my cookbook, Organic Marin, Recipes from Farm to Table, which celebrates the organic growers of Marin.)

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Running Free

Golden Gate Bridge

One day not long after 9/11, I fell victim to the fear infecting the country and stayed away from the Golden Gate Bridge after the government warned of a possible attack against the span.

I felt cowardly and ashamed afterward. To erase those feelings, I did a run over the bridge — a small act of personal atonement for giving in to fear. In return, the magnificence of the bridge gave me inspiration and belief in the possibility of mankind when I needed it most.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the experience. It’s long (and over-written), but seems apt today in the wake of the horror on Boston.

***

Nov. 10, 2001 — On a bright, brisk morning, suspended on a hanging roadway 22 stories above high tide, even the winter’s glare cannot mask the glorious view — San Francisco Bay, its deep blue surface eddied by current and interrupted by islands Angel and Alcatraz; the rim of hills near and far, golden in the last days before the rainy season; the urban uprising of San Francisco itself, rolling unbroken from the Financial District westward to the beach; and, out beyond the Gate, the absolute beginning of the Pacific Ocean, stretching into an unfathomable distance.

I am running on the Golden Gate Bridge, running for the beauty of steel, running for the audacious imagination of architects and engineers, running to honor the American belief in the possible. When the California governor said terrorists might bomb the Golden Gate, I betrayed the bridge and abandoned it to whatever destructive fate might come its way. I canceled a dinner with friends in San Francisco. I had had enough of heightened alerts, of armed men in airports, of the barrage of bad news. For at least that one night I wanted no more. Now I am ashamed, and my atonement is to run the bridge.

Continue reading »

Venezuelan Face-off

Venezuelan election at the Venezuelan Consulate in San Francisco

On Sunday, Venezuela held a presidential election, choosing between Nicolás Maduro, the hand-picked heir to Hugo Chávez, the U.S.-taunting strongman who died of cancer in March after 14 years of rule, and Henrique Capriles, a state governor who, under the flag of an united opposition, ran against and lost to Chavez in October.

Maduro won, but not before hundreds of Venezuelans converged on the country’s consulate on Mission Street in San Francisco to vote and to loudly proclaim their allegiance to one side or the other.

Capriles supporters, most clad in some form of red, yellow and blue, the colors of the Venezuelan flag, far outnumbered the chávistas, who used bullhorns to compensate for their lack of mass.  The chávistas, wearing red, included an assortment of other left-leaning demonstrators, whose banners proclaimed support for socialism in Mexico, the Bolivarian revolution  in general and, of course, Che Guevara.

Until recently I would have not devoted part of a sunny, spring Sunday to standing on a San Francisco sidewalk amidst a crowd of vociferous Venezuelan expats, but the small Spanish school  in Marin where I engage in my own revolution against the demands of  the subjunctive is run by a couple from Caracas and the current state of their native country is a frequent topic of conversation.

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On the Job: America’s Cup

John Kostecki, America's Cup

John Kostecki is the brains behind the boat. As the tactician for Larry Ellison’s 2013 America’s Cup team, the 48-year-old world champion sailor is the guy who will be plotting the course when the team’s 72-foot catamaran races this summer on San Francisco Bay.

I photographed Kostecki at Oracle Team USA’s headquarters off lower Third Street in San Francisco. When Kostecki told me to meet him at the team “shed,”  I envisioned some shanty-like building sitting dockside along the water. Wrong. The “shed” is massive warehouse on Pier 80 whose size dwarfs the 44-foot hulls of the catamarans team used last summer for preliminary races.

As I usually do, I had little time to make a picture, and went with one light and a wide lens. I wanted to highlight Kostecki, of course, but also show the spaciousness of the shed.

Here’s the interview by Stephanie Martin of Kostecki in Marin Magazine.

A Community Blooms

Canal Community Garden, San Rafael

Food fosters community. I used those words from a young Bolinas farmer to start my book on organic farming. On Saturday, I saw them come to life again in the opening of the Canal Community Garden.

Located on what was a vacant quarter-acre of city land where the butt end of Bellam Boulevard collides with the salt marsh separating San Rafael from the Bay, the garden represents a successful collaboration between the Canal Alliance, the Trust for Public Land, local government and a clutch of private donors and volunteers. (Marin IJ story.)

With 92 plots of soil, a modern greenhouse and a composting complex, the garden gives its urban farmers the chance to  bring fresh, local, organic food to one of Marin’s poorest neighborhoods. But more than that, it does what all farms do: Promises that today’s effort will bring tomorrow’s harvest — a message of inherent hope in a community where life is challenging.

Farming is always an investment in the future. The soil, the seed, the crops, the weather, all are unknowns that the farmer — whether in Iowa or Marin — must cope with and curate through the season, believing that work, nature and a bit a luck will fulfill the cycle of land to table.

There is dignity in the dirt. Weathered skin, encrusted fingernails and achy backs are badges of honor. Thanks to the Canal Community Garden more of us will have an opportunity to wear them.

(Here’s my post from last November, when volunteers were installing the mosaic centerpiece for the garden.)

(Buy: Organic Marin: Recipes from Land to Table).

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On the Job: Cleaning Up Your Mess

Conservation Corps North Bay, CCNB, picking up litter on U.S. Highway 101

Many of us are pigs. Sadly. We toss our plastic bottles, takeout containers and other trash out of our cars, inconsiderate of the environmental damage it does, the aesthetic blight it causes and the cost to to clean it up.

I spent some time walking a section of U.S. Highway 101 in Marin County with a crew from the Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB) for a story in Marin Magazine about how, even in the wealthiest of the Bay Area’s counties, motorists use public roadways as their private dumping grounds.

The CCNB crews consist of young men and women who were born into challenging lives and, with the help of the Corps and the sweat of their brows, are turning them around.

Next time you’re about to dump your double-decaf-mocha-grande cup out of the car window, think about who has to clean up your mess.

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Spring Training with Style

Arizona Biltmore

A bunch of us gathered in Phoenix over the weekend to take in some desert sun,  celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday and catch some Giants-ball at Spring Training.

Our ticket package came with great seats, hats, T-shirts and a stay at the Arizona Biltmore, which until I read this Wikipedia entry had always thought – along wth the rest of the uninformed masses — was designed by Frank LLoyd Wright.

It wasn’t, but he was the initial consultant on the hotel, which opened in 1092 and as designed by one of Wright’s protegees, Albert Chase McArthur.

Even minus Wright’s name on the finished product, the architecture is captivating — angular, etched facades reminiscent of the Zapotec temples of Oaxaca;  nooks, crannies and walkways that open onto round, green lawns bordered by concrete cottages; placement that pitches one building against another, creating depth in every direction.

Here are a few snapshots from a walk around the ground one day after a ball game.

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On the Job: Seniors for Peace

Seniors for Peace, Mill Valley

For 10 years, a group of elderly residents of Northern California’s hippest retirement community, The Redwoods in Mill Valley, have gathered every Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock on the street corner in front of their complex to demand peace over war.

Mill Valley Seniors for Peace, as they call themselves, began the weekly demonstration in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It has continued without interruption, through the winter’s rain, the summer’s fog and the inevitable deaths that occur in a group whose members include several who are well into their 90s.

Seniors for Peace, The Redwoods, MIll Valley, Bill UsherAs street theater, they are rowdy and spirited and impossible to ignore, yet, reflecting their generation, they are also respectful, polite and welcoming to strangers (and strange photographers) who stop to chat with them or take their pictures.

Led musically by Rolly Mulvey (above), an 85-year-old retired paper salesman who strums a 12-string guitar that is short a few strings, the group gathers for hour, some standing, some sitting, some in wheel chairs, to sing songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, to applaud passing motorists who honk in support,  and to remind all of us, in a greater sense, that passion, commitment and action are not the provenance of only the young.

I’ve photographed these folks several times over the decade they’ve taken to the corner, including once for a Marin Magazine feature on The Redwoods. (Here’s a PDF of the story).

For that ariycle I not only photographed the weekly demonstration (see the photo below), but made portraits of the seniors themselves (left.).

Bill Usher, the grandfatherly-looking gentleman in the upper right, is one of the group’s founding members. He was 91 when I took that picture. Today he is 95 and still out there on that corner. He told Marin Magazine, which ran a one-pager on the group to mark its 10th anniversary: “We live right here. And we’ haven’t missed a Friday since January of ’03, when Bush talked about a war against Iraq.”

Earlier, in the 2008 story, Usher said,

“I feel strongly about it. If I could talk to President Bush, I’d tell him 9/11 was justification for invading Afghanistan but our going into Iraq was wrong in the first place. We took our eye off the ball. It was a terrible, terrible mistake.”

For the photograph this time I tried something different. I brought my Profoto pack with me and hung a beauty dish above the group as they sang, beat drums and waved signs. I wanted a photo that was as bright and animated and full of life as the Seniors for Peace are. I was happy with the results.

Seniors for Peace, The Redwoods, Mill Valley