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Category Archives: Personal
What do you do when you realize you haven’t become the person you once hoped to be? What can you do? What should you do?
Age complicates the answers. If you are young and unencumbered with life’s baggage, you can – and should – make the changes that will take you where you want to be. If you are older, or even simply old, your options are fewer. You have obligations, many of them, financial and emotional. You have exchanged innocence and belief for experience and doubt. The road ahead is short, the time for a mid-course correction was long ago.
What can you do? What should you do?
These questions are in my head as I step out of the Rubin Museum onto West 17th Street during a recent visit to New York. A harsh, pre-winter wind fails to penetrate the sobriety of the moment, one focused on the exhibition I had just seen – more than 100 photographs made in post-World War II Asia by the pioneering Magnum photojournalist Marc Riboud.
With a Leica loaded with black-and-white film, Riboud inserted himself into the transition points of China, Japan, India and other countries during periods of often tumultuous political and cultural change. His work is direct, honest and, at times, both intimate and grand – everything good photojournalism should be.
Of course, I’d seen Riboud’s photographs before and even studied them in college, but collected together and filling room after room in the museum, the scale and the scope of his accomplishment was impressive and inspirational.
It also – selfishly – saddened me. This is the photography I yearn for and this remains the photography that eludes me. I am working on it, but I am not focused enough. My effort is scatter-shot, diffused by lack of direction.
A friend, a photographer I love and admire, urges me to find a story and tell it. I had dinner with her in New York and over steaming bowls of chewy udon she repeated her advice. Coincidentally, the next day, at the Riboud exhibition, I come across a letter written by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a 33-year-old Riboud in 1956, when the younger man was struggling with his photography.
“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story,” wrote Cartier-Bresson, who then counseled Riboud to look for the “means” of telling a story, to find the pieces and put them together one by one until the larger narrative is complete. (A larger excerpt is below.)
I have no illusions of becoming Marc Riboud. In fact, at this point of my life I have no illusions of anything. Still, I treasure clarity for it can lead to conviction.
What can I do? What should I do?
(When in New York, I walk – a lot. The photos below are snaps from a couple of Manhattan walkabouts.)
“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story. I’ll quote what Max Jacobs says about literature in a letter to a friend: ‘Look for the “means,” a work of art is a gathering of means to achieve an effect. Artists are not penitents displaying their sins, they are creators working towards a goal, they have a skill and a story gets made like a suit, with cutting and patterns. Whatever of ourselves we put into it, fine, but it’s necessary to learn how it’s made: what a situation is, how to bring it along, how to resolve it.”
– Letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Marc Riboud, March 19, 1956.
43 estudiantes. 43 jóvenes secuestrados en la noche. 43 hijas t hijos asesinados por las manos de la corrupción. 43 cuerpos descartados y quemados como la basura de la casa. 43 oportunidades perdidas por un futuro mejor. 43 más razones para llevar luto por México.
Los 43 alumnos universitarios asesinados murieron debido a que el 26 de septiembre apropiaron unos urbanos y bloquearon una carretera, una forma común de protesta política en México, y al hacerlo se metieron en las planes de la esposa del alcalde de Iguala, una de las más corruptas y violentas ciudades en Guerrero, uno de los más corruptos y violentos estados en México. Ella estaba en rumbo a dar un discurso, encontró la calle bloqueada, hizo una llamada a tu esposo. El Alcalde, José Luis Abarca ordenó a la policía local atacarlos. La policía entregó los alumnos a una pandilla criminal asociada con los narcos que controlan la región. Y los jóvenes desaparecieron.
Todo esto sucedió con la misma impunidad por la parte del alcalde, la policía y los narcos que infecta todo México y literalmente ha permitido asesinos de todos tipos para irse sin miedo de ser castigados por décadas.
Desde el comienzo de lo que ha venido a llamarse la guerra contra el narcotráfico en México, que se emprendió en el 2006 por el entonces presidente Felipe Calderón contra la red de los carteles que generan hasta $500 millones de la venta de drogas ilegales anualmente y controlan 90 por ciento de la cocaína que entra a Estados Unidos, la cifra oficial de la violencia entre los carteles, entre el gobierno y los carteles y entre los carteles y los ciudadanos inocentes de México – como los 43 estudiantes de Ayotzinapa — ha alcanzado 60,000 muertos. Eso es el numero oficial. Extraoficialmente, observadores de los derechos humanos calculan que el numero es 120,000.
Para poner esa cifra en perspectiva, hay que considerar que 58,220 Americanos murieron en la guerra entre Estados Unidos y Vietnam, un conflicto que incitó a la generación mía a llenar las calles de la capital estadounidense en protesta y eventualmente causó cambios vastos en la sociedad Americana.
Por supuesto, Vietnam era una guerra Americana y existía un reclutamiento que fomentaba más resistencia contra el conflicto, pero todavía se puede imaginarse que una guerra de letalidad similar que esta ocurriendo en un país visitado por 6 millones de Americanos cada año achisparía un poco de rabia aquí.
No es asi.
Hasta ahora, la posición oficial de Estados Unidos ha sido poco más de una tracción de hombros. La administración del Presidente Obama ha descrito el destino de los 43 alumnos y la respuesta insípida del gobierno del Presidente Enrique Peña Nieto como “preocupante.”
Eso puede cambiar. Las manifestaciones callejeras que comenzaron en Iguala después de la desaparición de los estudiantes se han extendido a lo largo del país y se han vuelto violentas en el D.F. Peña Nieto, que ignoró los secuestros por muchos días antes de mencionarlos públicamente y luego salio del país para una conferencia de comercio en China, ha regresado a escuchar a un número cada vez mayor de gritos pidiendo su renuncia (avivados en parte por la revelación que él y su esposa, una estrella de telenovelas, tiene una casa secreta con un valor de $7 millones en un enclave adinerado de la capital.)
Los medios de comunicación estadounidenses están reportando cada vez más el escándalo y las comunidades mexicana-americanas en Estados Unidos están organizándose y marchando con la esperanza de incitar más atención publica. Una de esas marchas ocurrió el sábado pasado en San Francisco, cuando 500 personas se encontraron en la esquina de los calles 24 y Mission, el corazón de la comunidad Hispana en San Francisco, para caminar al centro. Más manifestaciones están planeadas, una en coordinación con una huelga general establecida a ocurrir en México el 20 de noviembre, el aniversario de la revolución Mexicana, y otra en diciembre en 43 ciudades estadounidenses.
¿Que puedes hacer? Muchas cosas. Ya sea poco o mucho.
Escribe o tuitea a tu congresista. Dile que estas enojado, que estas harto, que quieres que el gobierno estadounidense reclame que su segundo mayor socio comercial limpie su casa. (El comercio entre México y Estados Unidos que suma en total a $6,000 millones en 2013.)
Si fumas marihuana o usas cocaína (¿y porque lo haces?), para. Casi toda la cocaína y mucha de la marihuana que los Americanos consumen viene a través de México. Tu diversión apoya los carteles, que a su vez corrompen el gobierno más, que engendra un estado de la impunidad, que permite crímenes de todos tipos – desde la evasión de los impuestos a la matanza en más – para continuar sin ser castigados.
Marcha. Camina en las calles con los Mexicanos que han venido a nuestro país, legalmente e ilegalmente, para escapar la misma corrupción que ha causado la muerte de los 43 estudiantes. Con más de 33 millones de persones que tienen origen Mexicano viviendo en Estados Unidos, esta guerra es tan nuestra come es de México.
43 students. 43 young people kidnapped in the night. 43 sons and daughters murdered by the hands of corruption. 43 bodies discarded and burned like household trash. 43 chances for a better future lost. 43 more reasons to mourn for Mexico.
The 43 slain university students of Ayotzinapa died because on Sept. 26 they commandeered several public buses and blocked a highway, a common form or political protest in Mexico, and by doing so interfered with the wife of the mayor of Iguala, one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent and corrupt states. She was en route to give a speech, found the road blocked and called her husband to demand he do something about it. The mayor, José Luis Abarca, ordered the local police to attack them. The cops handed them to a criminal gang associated with the narcos who control the region. And the students disappeared.
All this happened with the same impunity on the part of the mayor, the police and the narcos that infects all of Mexico and has quite literally allowed killers of all political and illegal persuasion to get away with murder for years.
Since the beginning of what has come to be called the Mexican Drug War, launched in 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderón again the web of cartels who generate between up to $50 billion in illegal drug sales annually and control 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United State, the official death toll of the violence between the cartels, between the government and the cartels and between both of them and the innocent citizens of Mexico – like the 43 students of Ayotzinapa – has reached 60,000. That’s the official number. Unofficially, human rights observers put the estimate at 120,000.
For some perspective, consider that 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War, a conflict that compelled my generation to fill the streets of the U.S. capital in protest and led to vast changes in American society.
Of course, Vietnam was an American war and a draft existed that pulled those who could not dodge the conflict directly into it, but still one might imagine that a war of similar lethality occurring in a country visited annually by more than 6 million Americans would spark a modicum of outrage here at home.
Thus far, the official U.S. response has been little more than a shrug. The Obama administration has described the fate of the 43 students and the insipid response of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto as “worrisome.”
That may change. The street protests that began in Iguala after the fate of the students was learned have spread throughout the county and turned violent in Mexico City. Peña Nieto, who ignored the kidnapping for 33 days before speaking publicly about and then left the country for a trade conference in China, has returned to hear a growing number of cries for his resignation (fueled in part by the revelation that he and his wife, a soap-opera star, had a secret $7 million house in a wealth enclave above Mexico City).
American news media are increasingly covering the issue and Mexican-American communities in the United are organizing and marching in the hope of galvanizing more public attention. One of those marches happened Saturday in San Francisco, with 500 people walking from 24th and Mission, once of the heart of the city’s Latino community, to Powell and Market streets. More protests are planned, once in conjunction with general strike set to occur in Mexico on Nov. 20, the anniversary of the Mexican revolution, and another in 43 U.S. cities in December.
What can you do? Many things. From a little to a lot.
Write or tweet your congressional representatives. Tell them you’re outraged, that you’ve had enough, that you want the U.S. government to demand that is second-largest trade partner (U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $600 billion in 2013) clean house.
If you smoke dope or do coke (and why do you?), then stop. Nearly all the coke and much of the weed comes through Mexico. Your high supports the cartels, which in turn corrupt the government further, which engenders a state of impunity, which allows crimes of all sorts, from tax evasion to mass murder, to go unpunished.
March. Walk in the streets with the Mexicans who have come to our country, legally and illegally, in order to escape the very corruption that lead to the deaths of the 43 students. With more than 33 million people of Mexican origin living in the United States (and that’s not counting second-, third-, fourth-, etc. generations of Mexican Americans) this is as much our war at it is Mexico’s.
“You have to come,” she said. “It’s weird. You’ll like it.”
I had been in Reykjavik for more than a week photographing homeless people, alcoholics, Elvis freaks and massive gym rats known as power-lifters. Mary Ellen Mark was leading a workshop and after assurances from her that Iceland offered enough oddities to suit my visual tastes I’d made the trip.
Mary Ellen was right, as usual. Beyond the ubiquitous blondes, behind the unrelenting civility, and underneath the itchy woolen sweaters, there was plenty of weird. I found all I could of it and made some decent photos in the time I had. I was doing what I often do while traveling: looking for interesting people and ignoring the tourist attractions.
That’s all well and good when I am in New York or Paris or Oaxaca, places I have the good fortune to visit regularly, but Iceland might have been an once-in-a-lifetime trip and the people I’d met and photographed could have lived anywhere in the world. After all, an alcoholic who lives in shipping container resembles similarly broken people in the U.S. – even if her name is Sigrun. I had been photographing Icelanders, not Iceland.
The country is a geologic amusement park chock full of glaciers, fjords and fumaroles, none of which I had seen. Nor had I walked on lava, slid on ice or dunked myself in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon.
And that is how, in an 11th-hour effort to fill that gap two days before my return flight to San Francisco, I found myself on a gray, blustery Sunday riding in a small station-wagon being driven by Ellen Inga, one of the workshop’s photography interns. She was taking me on a fast-forward tour of the volcanic landscape east of Reykjavik.
With Ellen’s young son buckled into the rear seat, a serpentine road carried us out from the city through an uplands studded with dark, magenta-tinted cinder cones. A spongy mat of green lichen covered the lower reaches of the rock. The colors, vibrant in then sun, were muted by a heavy mist. For photography, especially the drive-by variety I was doing, the day didn’t look promising.
We stopped several times so I could click off some frames. Even though I doubted the capacity of my computerized camera to capture the natural complexity before me, I marveled at the rawness and freshness of the landscape. The rocks, in geologic years, were newborns. The water, sitting deep in glacial lakes or running rapidly through basalt-rimmed rivers, was untainted by man. The air, moist and moving, quenched a deep pulmonary thirst.
At Þingvellir National Park, where the great tectonic plates of the mid-Atlantic ridge collide, I walked in the mist and followed a boardwalk through the rift valley to a promontory. I recorded the volcanic hills in the distance and the lake below. The gray swallowed the color, but I wanted the photo anyhow, as a memory and as something that might compel me to come back and devote more time to this landscape.
I can’t say I will return to Iceland. I would like to, though. There are good people there I would like to see again. There are amazing places – such as Þingvellir – I want to revisit and many more I’ve yet to see. But as my years accumulate, my promises become fewer. There is less time ahead to keep them.
This day, then, this Sunday drive through the hills, around the lake, past the waterfalls and home again, may be my Iceland day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
I was trying to make a picture the other day, but my camera and my computer wouldn’t let me. Sound silly, but it’s true. And it’s making me think my photography has become more complicated than it needs to be.
I had the studio all set. The paper was out, the lights were up, I’d metered front, back and sides. All good. Then I hooked my camera up to my laptop so the pictures would flow into the computer screen as I shot.
Nothing happened. No connection. Without one, no pictures. I was using a new camera, a Nikon D4, and the software – also made by Nikon – wasn’t “recognizing” the camera. No problem, I thought, I’ll download an update.
As I began to do that, the clients showed up, a mother and her daughter. The mom is a dancer, her daughter a middle-schooler. I was photographing them for the magazine, full-length on a white background, hopefully with some leaping and frolicking.
We chatted and I told them where to change. I returned to the computer, thinking I could install the software patch before they came back. No luck.
I found the patch, but it wouldn’t install. Nikon wanted the original registration number, which was home on my other computer, plus it required me to install every version of the software between the current one on the laptop and the latest fix – and there were three of those. No time for that.
I opened another piece of software, Lightroom, and configured it to capture the pictures coming from the camera. This was an unreliable workaround because Lightroom sometimes quits in the middle of a shoot, causing me to lose pictures, but I had no choice.
OK, I said, to the mom and daughter, I’m ready. But I wasn’t. Even thought I’d metered the lights, the first shots looked terrible – the light was muddy where it should have been sharp, overblown where it should have been no more than bright. I’d used this set-up at least 100 times previously and had no idea why this was happening.
I fiddled, I fussed, I moved things around and I changed settings on the camera. Things improved. I’d learned over the years that different lenses can produce different exposures under the same lighting conditions, but now I was learning that moving from one pricey Nikon model to another could do the same.
OK, I said, to the mom and daughter, I’m ready. But they weren’t. The 30 minutes I’d spent hacking at the software and moving gear dampened the enthusiasm they’d walked in the door with. But they were gamers, so they perked up, posed a half-dozen ways and I made some decent shots, enough, at least, to get the job done.
The weirdness with the computer and the lights ate up half the time they had. The shoot felt rushed – because it was. Their faces showed strain at times – because their patience was running out. The resulting images were good, but limited – because there was not time to try other things.
The shoot wasn’t a failure, just less of a success than it could have been. My fault. I should have checked the software compatibility with the new camera. And I shouldn’t have used a new (well, I’ve had it six months, but haven’t used it in the studio) camera on something that had to be done right the first time.
This is me falling on my sword. Ouch.
With the pain out of the way, I can say this: It shouldn’t be this hard to make a picture. Oh, I know, I can hear Michael Corleone saying in The Godfather, “That is the price you pay for the life you choose.” I get it. I just don’t have to like it.her workshop in Oaxaca (here’s the story of my trip), I rented a Mamiya 7, a boxy slab of a camera that focuses manually, uses film and, because it is a rangefinder, requires whomever is using it to remove the lens cap in order to expose the film (something it took me several frames to remember).
Other than the lens-cap thing (Photography 101, folks), the Mamiya is simplicity embodied. I spent a few hours with it, walking around empty buildings near the ocean, framing windows and doorways and chairs. The roll of black-and-white film in the camera only held 10 exposures, so I devoted more time to looking than actually shooting, making the experience much more about seeing the world rather than capturing it. That patience, yogic-like mindfulness, was intensely relaxing.
Then there was the camera itself – no electronics other than the meter, a body made of smooth, heavy metal that always felt cool in my hand, a lens silent and smooth as my fingers adjusted its focus and a shutter that just whispers its acceptance of its role, no ka-chunk of a mirror, just an affirmative, soft click to acknowledge the making of the picture.
The Mamiya does demand one more thing – faith. Since it isn’t a digital photo factory, there is no immediate playback to look it, nothing to verify whether the picture is exposed correctly or framed adequately or has any other additional merits as a photograph. It is up to the photographer to have faith in the judgment he or she exercised with the press of the shutter, and then wait hours or days for the film to be developed to determine whether that faith has been rewarded.
Here we have a camera – and a way of making photographs – that is not only mechanically simple, but encourages patience, faith in your vision and technical knowledge (sorry, no histogram, you chimpers).
These are attractive qualities in a world like mine, which is dominated by technology, subject to the demands of deadlines, and often less focused on taking the picture than on remaking it later in the computer to satisfy the whims or needs of clients.
I’m already trolling eBay with a boxy, black slab in mind.
Years ago, after the ‘60s and all the wanton indulgences of that time, I’d regained enough of myself to return to college. I had no plan, no major, no desire to be anything in particular. School was an escape, a way out from a place I could no longer be and still stay alive.
I had a job, my first in years. It was a hotel, a new, fancy one on Nob Hill. I set up tables and chairs for meetings and cleaned the rooms afterwards. I swept, I vacuumed, I emptied trash. I enjoyed the orderliness after a long time of disarray. The job was union and paid decent. After rent and food, there was enough to buy things.
One day I saw two photographs in a magazine. Life, I think, but I’m not sure now. In the first, a boy sat a table in a café. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window or open door. He was in Bombay. He was me, a blond version, untethered, ungrounded. In the second, a young couple, also hippies, rested on a beach, also in India. 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. They, too, were me, looking searching, in between places.
They were the first pictures I’d seen that captured the disconnection I felt during those years. I’ve never forgotten them. Nor the name of the photographer: Mary Ellen Mark. She was young then, just past 30, but already accomplished – assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, lens focused on all the social trends of the day. Later she 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.”
She inspired me. I bought a camera, a Pentax. I learned how to develop film, got a job in a darkroom and started shooting on the street. I was terrible, too timid, too afraid to approached people. I joined the community college paper, started shooting news. There was a lot in those days, kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. Plenty to point a camera at. I got less terrible and used the camera – now a Nikon – to hide behind and overcome my timidity. At once, it opened the world to me and shielded me from it. I’d found a love. I wanted to be a photojournalist.
It never happened, though. And why that was is too long a story to tell here. Here’s the short version: I did freelance. I chased the little jobs at little magazines. I did PR work. I made money. But I didn’t commit and that showed. My work was distant, a long way from terrible, but just as far from great.
Small newspapers offered me jobs. First one in an oil town, then another in a farm town. I said no. I worked part-time at a big San Francisco daily, the Examiner, as a gopher, and I saw the bright lights and that’s what I wanted. I got an interview. It went badly. The head of photo told me I didn’t have it, not the talent nor the desire. Best get out of it he said.
Dejected, despaired, defeated, I took his advice. I left town for one of those small newspaper jobs. I shot pictures, but I also began writing. The editor was a redneck, a cowboy and a grind. Writing came easily to me, more so than photography, and when an editor’s slot opened I took it in order to move up the chain and get more leverage.
Ambition hooked me. The photography stopped, then the writing and I moved where the opportunity led – editor of this, editor of that, editor of it all. Lots of work, even more stress.
And then it ended. Another long story. Here’s the short version: Thirty years after finding myself, I was lost again. Years went by. I moved out of the city. I was working, but had time on my hands. One day I took out an old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban woods and the marshes. Just like that it was there again, the rectangular image, the clarity of the prism, the reassuring clunk of the mirror, and, most of all, the precious instant of seeing, the moment the image became mine with the press of the shutter button.
My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I returned to photography. I learned the software. I bought a digital Nikon. I found work with a local magazine that needed who someone who could shoot cheap and also write. (That’s me: under-priced and multi-talented). Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio (shared). 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. One thing went wrong: the boy got the wrong girl. I didn’t get Mary Ellen Mark; I got a version of Real Housewives. Not quite. But I do spend an awful lot of time making good-looking people and good-looking places look even better. It’s a good life. Many would like to have it, but there’s that itch, still unscratched.
Then, serendipity struck. A few months ago I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I built a house (here’s that long story). I saw a poster touting a documentary photography workshop led Mary Ellen Mark. So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible – Mary Ellen Mark (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my new love) all combined.
I signed up. I went. And I’m back. What happened during those 10 days in Mexico is yet another lengthy narrative I won’t relate here. For now, I can say what I learned. And that is this:
I love photography. I am fascinated by the imagery, with its patterns of light and shadow and shape and color. I am addicted to the capture, to the preservation of the moment. I find peace in the seeing.
I am drawn still to journalism and documentary, especially as tools for social change and justice. I am moved by the tenacity of humans whose lives are a daily struggle for survival and I am heartened by their humor, spirit and generosity toward others (even those, like me, who have much more than they). I admire those who celebrate this humanity.
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.
I relish the company of smart, creative, genuine people. I want to be one myself.
Truthfully, in my heart I knew all these things before I went to Oaxaca, so you might say I learned nothing. Still, the workshop – and Mary Ellen Mark (an extraordinary women of relentless passion and authenticity) — taught me to trust what I know, so in that sense you might say I learned everything.
I finally found photography. Now I need to put it to good use.
A longtime friend who works for the U.N. is on break from her duties in South Sudan and enjoying the verdant wonders of West Marin while ranch-sitting in Chileno Valley. The other day, she invited us out for an afternoon of hiking, chores and chili.
The day was sunny, the air crisp and the chili chunky with grass-fed Angus beef raised in pastures that straddled Chileno Valley Road.
I took a few snaps during the walk, which you can see below. The most memorable scene of the day eluded my camera, though — a newborn calf, still slick from the wetness of its mother’s womb, unsteadily testing its earth-legs for the first time as mama cow munched nearby on a post-partum snack of winter grass. They were too far, the sun was too low and my lens was too wide to record the scene digitally, but I have it my head, an unforgettable image of the continuity of life.
One of the treats of working with Marin Magazine has been meeting Dan Jewett (right), who by day is the magazine’s managing editor and the rest of his time is the guitarist for The Hollyhocks, an Oakland indy band that also includes Dan’s wife, Yuri (bass, vocals), Jason Silverio (drums) and Kristin Sobditch (guitar, vocals).
The Hollyhocks new CD, Understories, came out this week and tonight it officially debuts at the Makeout Room in San Francisco. Critics are loving the CD, as they should. It’s bright, it’s smart and it rocks – just like the people who made it.
I had the opportunity to photograph The Hollyhocks a couple of times, including once in Dan and Yuri’s home as they were working on some of their new songs, and again for a group shot of the band. For the latter, we fence-hopped onto Caltrans land beneath a freeway maze in Oakland. The picture above came from that session.
I love photographing musicians, in part because I get caught up in the emotion of their music, but also, truthfully, because doing so enables me, a man who couldn’t carry a wounded tune to a hospital, to vicariously share the stage with them. (See my new Music section in my portfolio.)
The gallery below has more of my photos of The Hollyhocks. Take a look.
Marin Open Studios kicked off its season last night with a packed party in the Town Center in Corte Madera. Painting, photography and sculpture from more than 200 artists — and, of course, plenty of wine, food and dessert — drew several hundred folks to the event on a warm, perfect Marin evening.
The exhibition and party was put together by a group of local artists — co-led by ICB Building painter Kay Carlson (above) — who came together after a brouhaha involving Open Studios’ longtime sponsor, the Marin Arts Council, threatened to cause cancellation of the 19-year-old event. (Here’s the background story.)
The exhibition will be up through May 13. Go visit.
I’m showing photographs at Open Studios this year for the first time, with much thanks to Kay, who encouraged me to participate. Come see my new work May 12-13 (11-6) at The Image Flow in Mill Valley.
I’m participating in Marin Open Studios this year, and thanks to the good folks at The Image Flow in Mill Valley (401 Miller Ave.) I’ll be hanging out in its gallery space the weekend of May 12-13 from 11-6 showing new work, talking photography and having a good time.
Find the event on Facebook here.
And, don’t miss Open Studios opening night gala at the Town Center in Corte Madera, this Saturday (4/28), 5-8 p.m. — wine, food and all the art your eyes can feast on.
Winter didn’t come to Marin until Spring had already arrived. Barely a week into the new season, the rain is playing catchup, greening the pastures of the west county, soaking the marshland along the Bay, and dowsing the slopes of Mt. Tam with more than enough fresh water to fill the gullies with gushing streams, babbling brooks and carousing cascades of white water.
it’s good weather for a walk, a good time to carry a tripod into the hills, and just the right moment to straddle a stream — carefully now — and point that big, black camera down at the froth below.
This little rivulet is one of hundreds available for instant view right now on Mt. Tam. You can find this one, if you choose, on the Dawn Falls Trail above Ross. Enjoy.