Catching Up, Keeping Up

Down the street from me is a house in disrepair. Sections of the fence fronting the road lie on the ground, and a disheveled assemblage of vines and bramble cover what remains standing. Mold advances boldly across the wood of the garage. Scrap lumber and shards of shelving block the pathway to the front door. Most notably, a small blue car, German in make and of recent vintage, sits abandoned in the driveway, parked sideways so as to not just into the road. Four flat tires anchor it to the ground. A sunroof left ajar allows rain and pine needles and spiders to enter. No one has moved the car for several years.

It is not unusual, even in my over-priced neighborhood, to see a house gone to seed. Some people are just that way, not at all interested in gardening or maintenance or upkeep. The car, though, seemingly discarded and wedged into the driveway, was a mystery. Even the most negligent of homeowners tend to keep their vehicles running. I thought the owner might be dead – or dying – and his or her children cared little about their parents or their possessions. One day, I thought, I will walk by and the car will be gone. But there it sits still.

Not long ago, some of the mystery resolved itself. I saw an old woman, unsteady on her feet, sweeping handfuls of dirt and pine needles from the driveway into a plastic dustpan. Given the amount she was picking up she might as well have been emptying a beach of its sand with a teaspoon. I was driving and I didn’t stop to say hello. I should have because I have questions I would like answered.

I have walked past the house many times since and not seen her again. Then, just the other day it came to me. I knew what was happening. The lady, who I suspect has lived on our woodsy hill for a long time, just can’t keep up any longer. Not that she doesn’t want to. She does. The dustpan and the broom are evidence of that. She just can’t. It’s too much. The house, the garden, the repairs, the car, her health, whatever emotional amusement park ride she is on with her family – or by herself – all of it is just too much. She can’t keep up, so everything gradually falls apart.

Age does this to us. The world moves forward, and we fall further and further behind. The fence rots, the pines drop needles, the blackberry bramble roots into everything. A spouse dies, an organ fails, a family stops visiting. Onward and onward, a timeless parade of every imaginable attraction and horror of life, and our place in it inevitably and inexorably retreats toward the back until one day we find ourselves standing alone in the road, inhaling the dust of the parade as it advances into its endless tomorrows without us.

Being old is about keeping up, an ironic fact because being young is about catching up. We drop out of the chute and a doctor or a nurse practitioner or a midwife whacks us into consciousness, and we immediately begin screaming for what everyone else who arrived before us already has: food, fun, education, career, comfort, maybe even satisfaction over the long arc. We strive throughout youth to be capable of self-sustenance, however meekly or grandly each of us defines that state. We study, we work, we take risks, we fail, we love, we marry, we procreate, we divorce, we celebrate, and we suffer – all to have what we didn’t have at birth. Even as adults, many of us continue. We lust for fancier cars, bigger houses (or second ones or third ones), loftier titles. Others, less material but no less ambitious, reach for personal or social pinnacles. We are working on ourselves, we like to say. If I could just …

We do all that until we can’t. At that moment, we shift from catching up to keeping up.

The past lengthens and the future shortens. A new twenty-year roof on the house seems  unreasonable when the sell-by date on the body is five years off – or less. Physical aches increase, as do emotional ones. Old wounds once thought healed reopen, reminders that the past is inescapable. People go missing, either gone for good or absent because they simply can no longer feign interest in being with us. What once was sensible, even essential – repairing a fence, sweeping the walk, starting the car – fades into an indulgence remaindered for days when energy is high and spirits are strong, moments that lessen as the calendar advances. What matters a flat tire when there is a tumor to be dealt with? Who cares about a messy front yard when there is soul that needs mending? Why do today what you can put off until a tomorrow that might not come?

I saw the woman with the broom one more time, again as I drove by. She swept in small motions with short strokes, the bristle moving only a few inches. She is never going to clean that driveway or move that car or fix that fence. She is just trying to keep up.

A Sense of Being

Then, I lived in a big world. Far-away places. People of all tones. Tongue-twisting languages. Strolls through parks and museums and galleries. Picnics along the river, dinners aside the canal, dessert in the plaza at midnight. Overnight flights. Long holds in airports known by their initials – MEX, FRA, JFK, HND. So many miles, so many smiles.

Now, I walk in a small world. From my house to the park and back again. I move geometrically in squares and rectangles. Around the block and the next one and the next. I leave in the fading dark of the night and return in the grayness of the rising morning. Fog hugs the ground, smoke seasons the air.

I move among my sleeping neighbors in silence. A light shines here and there. Was it left on all night? Some people are not comfortable in the deep. Or is someone up early, as I am? They have somewhere to be, maybe, or they sleep poorly, wakened by age or illness or the most common of nocturnal visitors, anxiety. Do they glance up from their duties in the bathroom to see my shape, ambiguous in the dawn, slip by their home?

The streets are all but empty. Me. A teenage cyclist pumping up the hill I walk down. A dogwalker wearing a black mask that matches the fur of her tiny pet. A woman in a small SUV throwing the local paper, folded and wrapped in a red plastic bag, onto driveways, tossing, with admirable accuracy, the morning news out windows on both sides of the car. Low-tech evidence of the difficulty of the last mile.

In the park, I stop on the far side of the great lawn, where a gang of Canadian geese feasts on whatever it is they grub up out of the wet dirt, and look up the hill for my house. I can’t see it. I never can. Too many trees. Not a good angle. But every time, I look. I want to say: I live there, even though there is no one to tell that to. Proof of existence, that’s all. Since it can’t be found, I settle for circumstantial evidence. I walk, therefore I am. The goose hisses at me for interrupting its breakfast, therefore I am here.

In my small world, I see small things. A tennis ball, faded to gray and bearing the marks of canine teeth, next to a fence, where it has been for weeks. I try to imagine how I will feel when the ball is no longer there. Relieved? Curious? Deprived? A white push pin stuck into the papyrus-like bark of a crepe myrtle tree, a pointed (ahem) reminder of a lost cat or a garage sale. Two beige-colored plastic birds, parakeets, attached to a planter. Three bags of outdated trade books – how to program Java – left on the sidewalk, a lazy solution to household clutter. A blue surgical mask lying on the green grass of the lawn. A white mask hanging from a tree branch. Yet another draped over the rear-view mirror of a rugged-looking car whose license plate reads: FLUVIAL.

The feet of the geese, dampened by the grass, leave webbed imprints when they cross the asphalt path that meanders through the park. Leave nothing but footprints, we said in the bigger world. I turn around. On the street behind me there is no sign of my passing. What I wanted to see was proof of existence. Another phrase comes to mind: a sense of being.

The simplicity of the walk fascinates me. Self-propulsion seems almost miraculous. If the legs held, if the spirit didn’t flag, if the body agreed, the walk could be eternal. There are so many small things to see. Just now I think of the apple tree, laden with pale green fruit, that drapes over the wooden stick fence, and the plum tree at the corner house that young couple bought last year after the death of the old lady who had gardened the land for decades, and the four towering willows whose regal drapery dresses up the block below my house.

Coming and going, coming and going. But rarely being. That is how I lived. By choice. With volition. And certainly not without great discovery, much enjoyment and more than occasional satisfaction. No regret (about that; there are other things). No complaint. No need for a do-over.

On the final uphill turn to the house, the sun yearns to burn through the bank of fog. So powerful in the solar system. Life literally revolves around it. Such an ego the sun must have. Yet, the fog, with its pillowly passivity, thwarts the star’s aggression and it retreats once more behind the gray curtain.  From home to park and back again. The house is as still as I left it. I bend for the morning papers, a tradition, no longer a necessity. I open the redwood gate. Twenty-four steps below is the house hidden from me in the park. In late summer, the big buckeye sullies the red brick of the patio with its debris. As I step toward the front door, I hear the crunch of my footfall on the fallen leaves. Proof of existence. A sense of being.

Day 148: Persistence & Fragility

In order to give the knee a workout and to award myself a change of scenery, I drove to Fort Baker in Sausalito yesterday afternoon. The sun was low when I arrived but still high enough to surmount the western ridges of the coast. Its light spilled softly into the remains of a Monterey pine forest planted by the military garrison that once occupied these last slopes of land before the Golden Gate. I walked among the trees, carrying my little Leica and looking for formations of light and shadow. Now and then I knelt to take a picture and, when I did, a thick, spongy cushion of dried pine needles greeted my knees. I followed a deer path through the trees until the last of the pines yielded to a row of white, two-story buildings that were once the quarters of Army officers and today house well-heeled hotel patrons in $700-a-night suites.

The former parade ground of the garrison remains sown with grass. It is an expansive space that slopes lazily toward a cove of still water huddling in the lee of the Golden Gate Bridge, far enough away from the capricious currents and muscular tides of the strait for yachtsmen to store their vessels in a marina and for adventurous paddlers to launch themselves toward the Pacific aboard outrigged canoes that resemble bisected arachnids. For a day as nice as yesterday was, sunny and awash with a precocious onshore breeze, the great lawn was surprisingly empty. A group of masked tourists, perhaps guests in the hotel, posed with one another for selfies. A middle-aged man, rotund and bald, lay on his side, propped up on his left elbow, reading a book in the shade of a stand of short trees. A young couple, tall and strong of stride, walked with their dog. And me, an aging man, bearded and unkempt with a half-year’s hair growth splaying from the edges of his ballcap, limped toward the sea.

At the speed of a tortoise, but with the heart of a hare, I crossed the parking area next to the Discovery Museum, normally a destination of exploration and learning for children but now an empty shell wrapped in caution tape and studded with signs prohibiting access to its outdoor playgrounds, a reminder of how far from normal we are. Seeing the shuttered buildings deflated the already tremulous exhilaration I felt at striding freely, albeit tentatively, under the open sky after months of household hibernation.

With the knee’s permission, I summited a knoll that supports the hulking concrete of Battery Yates, a stout line of bunkers constructed by the U.S. Army in 1903 that was once equipped with cannons but is now a decommissioned relic. It is a favorite place of mine and over the years I have taken many pictures there, most of them terrible. Still, I like the symmetry of the emplacements and the brutishness of the concrete. I made a few frames yesterday, as I always do, one of them less terrible than the others.

By the time I returned to my car near the Coast Guard station on the edge of Horseshoe Cove, the knee was talking to me in unpleasant tones. It is such a crank. I pleaded for a few more steps and hobbled to the fishing pier that juts into San Francisco Bay across from the jetty. A half-dozen crabbers hung over the rusted railings, tossing their nets into the water and reeling them up, hoping to find a crustacean or two of legal size and species. An equal number of fishermen reclined in unfolded camp chairs with their rods propped against the railings waiting for signs of a strike by perch, jacksmelt or even a leopard shark.

The sun had dropped and, as the far end of the pier fell into shade, the wind became more intent on chilling those in its path. I first came to this place a half-century ago and stood on this very spot, having reached the end of the continent, the last terminal in a flight from all I had known – family, home, the city where I was born and where, en route to coming of age, I lost track of who I was. Unable to go farther, I stayed and here I still am, marveling at how little all of it seems to have changed, taking in the persistence of the bay and the bridge and the breezes, how they continue just as they were when I first saw them, and how their endurance masks the one thing in this scene that has changed irrevocably: me.

What always astounds me about this durable miracle of life is how easily it allows us to forget our own fragility.

Day 43: New Season

The season has changed. When I got home from Mexico seven weeks ago, it was still winter in Northern California, if not by the calendar then by the temperament of the weather. The nights were cold and damp, the days not much better. It rained enough to brighten the grass and quench the thirst of the trees. When I sat on the deck to read, I wore corporate fleece and Pendleton wool.

The wool now mopes in the closet, the fleece drapes over a dining-room chair, both furloughed for lack of work. Eighty degrees yesterday and the day before, sunshine from the first light of dawn to the last of the evening. A t-shirt on the deck. What didn’t bloom in March is bursting now. New leaves, flamboyant with their fill of chorophyll, adorn the decorative maples. The wild grass in the open space aside the house is thigh high, heaven for the deer, paradise for the ticks.

This morning, as I walked the stairs to the street to retrieve the Sunday news, I stopped on a landing to watch how the sunlight sparkled in a wayward spray of water leaking from the irrigation system. It seemed too pretty to repair, so I will leave it like that for a day or two. On the next landing, I walked face first into a sticky grid of webs erected overnight by industrious spiders, work intended for prey smaller, and more digestible, than I. On the third, and last, landing, a swarm of tiny insects danced in the air, their translucent wings backlit by the sun. A fresh hatch. How many days of life will they have?

Before I opened the wooden gate to the street, where the newspapers awaited, the national paper sheathed in blue plastic and the local effort bagged in beige, I thought about all the life that happens around me while I shelter in my place – the blooming and bursting of camellias, azaleas, and magnolias, the nocturnal industry of arachnids, the bomb of insects exploding before my eyes. All of this – and more – in my small slice of the world, a quarter-acre on a hillside. I am but a traveler here, passing through. The bushes bloomed, the spiders spun and the bugs were born before Mother Earth stamped my passport and issued me a visa, and will continue to do so when she denies my application for renewal.

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: 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

Scenes from the Ranch

Chileno Valley Ranch, Mike Gale and Sally Gale

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.

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On the Job: Two Good Men

I saw something rare yesterday, something inspirational not only for its elevation of community service over personal ambition, but also for its demonstration of political hope and good will in a time when both are nearly absent in public life.

That something involved this man, Dr. Curtis Robinson, who I photographed last year for Marin Magazine, and attorney Andrew Giacomini, a member of one of Marin’s most influential political families. They were competing to represent the county Board of Supervisors on the board of the Marin Community Foundation, a billion-dollar force in local philanthropy.

I was at the supervisors’ meeting to photograph Kate Sears, the body’s newest member, and saw the board split 2-2 between Robinson and Giacomini (the fifth supervisor, Hal Brown, is ill with cancer).

After a short recess, the board reconvened. Here’s a newspaper account of what happened next:

Giacomini …  approached the podium … and withdrew, urging support for Robinson.

I don’t think you can make a mistake,” Giacomini said, adding he talked to Robinson during the break.

“I was just going to ask the opposite,” Dr. Robinson quipped. “That’s very special and very kind and will never be forgotten,” he told Giacomini.

In seconds it was over. The board unanimously approved Robinson, and what could have been a moment of rancor and division became one of cheer and unity. One good man had holstered his ambition and stepped aside for another good man, one who had been prepared to do the same.

I suppose it’s sad that such a thing amazed me, but we live in a country where cynicism, negativity and dangerous zero-sum political thinking — victory defined by the destruction one’s rival — rule what remains of public discourse. Yes, of course, this is Marin and, of course, Robinson and Giacomini are much more alike than they are different, but still the swiftness with which they, and the supervisors, acted to resolve rather than inflame a disagreement showed me that the practice of servant leadership in public life is not dead.

At home later, I came across David Talbot’s column announcing his return to Salon magazine, which he founded 16 years ago. As forthright as ever, Talbot wielded a cudgel of outrage over the grim state of national affairs and declared Salon’s dedication to an “American revival.” He said:

“We will cover the people who are rebuilding America from the ground up — taking over their local schools, creating community gardens and food barter networks, launching green start-ups.

We’re inspired by Robert Kennedy, who — after failing to convince President Johnson to end the war in Vietnam — came back to his Senate office in a mood of dark despair about the fate of America. “Oh, to hell with it,” RFK told his young staff, with a new fire in his voice. “Let’s start our own country.”

It’s time to start our own country.”

I read that passage thinking of the sacrifice of ego that Robinson and Giacomini had made, a small thing to be sure, but just the sort of sublimation of self the nation is going to need if Talbot’s sentiments are to become reality.

This is my small part, then, this little story of two big-hearted men. It’s a pebble tossed into a big sea that needs a major change,

What’s your story?

On the Job: The Ranch, Redux

Mike and Sally Gale, Chileno Valley Ranch

One reason I like hanging out with ranchers is the simplicity of what they do: Raise animals, then sell them to the rest of us as food. As a basic business model, it can’t be beat conceptually.

Of course, there’s nothing simple about ranching these days. There’s the ever-rising costs of grain and land and gas. There’s the mega-ranches driving down milk and beef prices so low that smaller ranchers are cashing in good grassland for condo developments. And, there’s the work, the seven-day, crack-of-dawn-t0-last-light, never-ending work, a list of to-do’s that runs longer than the barbed wire around a 40-acre plot.

That means that family ranchers aren’t simple people either anymore. In order to have something more left at year’s end than a promise of another 365 days ahead like the ones just finished, something they can leave their kids with the hope that they’ll stay on the land, many small ranchers are now applying the same effort to expanding their businesses, eliminating the middleman and connecting with consumers as they always have to breeding their herds, compiling their silage and keeping the barn cats happy.

Dairymen are making cheese. Cattlemen are growing organic apples. Ranching families are leasing and to urban escapees who want to try their hands at something new, such as raising water buffalo in order to make mozzarella.

Marin County is a national leader in this sort of agri-innovation and for the current issue of Marin Magazine I had the opportunity to illustrate a story – reported and written by Inverness journalist Jacoba Charles – about how four local families are changing the concept of ranching.

In the course of shooting on the different ranches I got licked by a water buffalo (not so bad), had my index fingered suckled by heifer (more fun than I should admit) and more than once knelt in something soft and warm (hey, it’s organic).

Here are snapshots of the four shoots (the full story is here):

* Mike and Sally Gale’s ranch is on Chileno Valley Road, one of West Marin’s prettiest roads, undulates over 600 acres, plenty of room for the Black Angus cattle they raise and sell directly, butchered and freezer-ready, to grass-fed beef lovers. Since returning to Marin in 1993, the Gales have expanded the offerings of the Chileno Valley Ranch to pork, eggs and organic apples, pears and more.

* Bob Giacomini has been raising Holsteins in Point Reyes Station for more than 50 years, and is part of a sprawling farm family whose Swiss-Italian roots extend back 100 years in Marin and Sonoma counties. Ten years ago, Giacomini’s four daughters – Karen, Diana, Lynn and Jill – launched the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Now, they’ve added The Fork at Point Reyes, a cooking school and event space located dab smack in the middle of the family’s 700-acre ranch overlooking Tomales Bay.

* What the Giacominis are to Point Reyes, meaning iconic and ubiquitous in name, the Lafranchis are to Nicasio. Fredolino Lafranchi, also a Swiss immigrant, began ranching in Nicasio in 1919. Today, his grandchildren still make milk, although now it’s organic, and use it as the base for a line of farmstead cheeses sold through their new Nicasio Valley Cheese Company.  “We looked on it as a chance to allow the ranch to continue, because the dairy business has been really hard for the last 10 years,” said Rick Lafranchi.

* Craig Ramini has traded in the high-tech life of Silicon Valley and software consulting for the decidedly retro world of Tomales and cheese-making. Ramini leases 25 acres from longtime rancher Al Poncia that he’s using to raise Asian water buffalo, whose milk he’ll turn into mozzarella di bufala and sell under the name Ramini Mozzarella. Ramini is living out a new dream and Poncia is finding a way to sustain his family ranch.

Here’s what Poncia told the Marin IJ earlier this year in a story about Ramini’s plans:

“A long time ago, sometime in the late ’60s to mid-’70s, someone who was pre-eminent in the dairy business told me, ‘Al, agriculture in Marin County is dead.’ But I wanted my chance. And I’ve had it. And luckily, because we’ve held on up here, I’m now able to provide other people with that opportunity — including my son, who is working very hard with his grass-fed beef operation (Stemple Creek Ranch).

“And now Craig’s come along with his boutique cheesemaking plans, and I think that fits into where Marin, Sonoma and the whole Bay Area’s agriculture is going,” said Poncia, whose grandfather purchased his ranch in 1901. “Our ranch is now producing diversified products for a local market, which is something we haven’t been able to do for quite some years.”

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Me and My Moon

Moonrise over East Bay hills from Tiburon

I don’t ever want to get to a place again where I spend so much energy working at what I love that I stop loving the work. That road I’ve traveled, and it doesn’t lead to a good place.

Lately, I have been working a lot. In recent weeks,  I’ve photographed restaurants, jewelry, a country inn, a florist, several restored homes, several winemakers, many bottles of wine, a yoga studio (and its owners), lots of dogs, people ranging from a homeless woman living in a shelter to an Elvis impersonator to the founder of Twitter, some politicians, a university campus and more. No complaints about any of this. It’s really more than imagined I could do when a few years ago I made a U-turn from displaced newspaper editor to resurrected photographer.

What I haven’t been doing, though, is taking pictures for myself, images that have no client other than me — and that’s what got me into photography in the first place — so last night I put some effort into rebalancing the scale. Just before sunset, I loaded up the big Domke, slung it and the 300 over one shoulder and strapped the Gitzo over the other, and trudged up to the Tiburon highlands, thanking my yoga legs for the power on the uphills while cursing my ropers for their lack of grip on the downhills. (Boots? Gear? Steep gravelly trail? What was I thinking?)

The southernmost knob of the highlands provides a front-row vantage point for a moonrise over the East Bay hills, and is well worth the walk. I had the place to myself except for a group of graybeard hikers, who used a grassy spot down the slope for me as a place to break out the bread, cheese and port (!) while they took in the lunar show.

As much as I love the personal connection of photographing people, I think I love these moments of solitude more — just me, the camera and no other purpose than to make a picture of what’s before me.

Tale of Two Publishers

Ever since Dave Mitchell, the curmudgeonly, Pulitzer-winning editor of the Point Reyes Light sold the weekly newspaper in 2005 to Robert Plotkin, a Columbia J-school grad and former deputy D.A., the new publisher has been making news as much as he’s been publishing it.

The big complaint from the locals was that Plotkin was a disengaged auslander more interested in self-aggrandizement than covering the prosaic doings of local news and, more irritating, not publishing letters to the paper as freely as his predecessor.

To make matters worse, Plotkin and Mitchell had a post-sale philosophical falling out that end up in court complete with restraining orders.

In response, the unhappy former readers did what hardly anyone is doing these days – launched a new newspaper, the weekly West Marin Citizen. Its publisher is Joel Hack (above), who had run a smaller paper up the coast in Bolinas (best known for being the scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds).

The two papers look quite different. The Light reflects its ambitions for glory with a more professional design and some high-falutin’ writing by the grad school interns Plotkin entices with dreams of being the next Didion or McPhee. The Citizen is rougher, its pictures more snapshot-like and its writing, well, uneven but still informative.

I got an assignment to photograph both publishers for a local magazine, which was going to print a version of a Columbia Journalism Review story done by Jonathan Rowe, a writer from West Marin.

The two men couldn’t have been more different.

Hack invited me out to go on his weekly rounds of delivery and collection on my first phone call. Plotkin quizzed me repeatedly about the story and about my concept for the photo. “What’s your vision?” he asked. It took several more calls but he agreed to the photograph only if I did it in a location of his choice and not show any other parts of the paper’s newsroom, which he said were under reconstruction. Done.

I met Hack first and he fit the description offered by the writer: “… he looks a little like a Joel Hack.” We talked a bit and as he began pulling papers out of the trunk of his car to deliver to stores around town, I began shooting.

The light was full-on sunshine, but I made some nice images with him sitting on the edge of the trunk surrounded by papers. We walked. I shot, but the shadows were terrible. We did the post office, a grocery story and a book store. In the latter, I got some nice frames of him lit by the front window counting money. I had something we could use, but nothing with pop.

Suddenly, Hack says he’s got to go. We’ve been together about 20 minutes and I had been thinking we’d have an hour. One more shot, I tell him, something out on the street. I tell him to get an armload of papers. Then I grab a light stand and an SB800, put a Pocket Wizard on it and have him stand across from local landmark bar with the sun to his back. I shoot 10 or 12 frames and we’re done. That’s the shot the magazine used (1/250, F10, ISO 100).

Plotkin’s office is down the street, so I pack of up bag of lights and stands. At the paper, he leads me up a steep set of stairs to an attic office with angled ceilings so low there’s no room to raise and umbrella. There is a skylight, but the light in the room is dim and without a strobe I’d have to shoot at 1/30 wide open. I set up a couple of SB800s, one flagged, the other snooted on either side of him and start bouncing the light off things – a wall, a refector, etc.

To complicate things, Plotkin has constructed a “set” he wants to be photographed in front of, an artfully arranged group of artifacts and posters that I suppose he believes conveys who he is. He’s got a good eye, though and I like the way it looks. But after 15 minutes of shooting from various angles (and even squeezing an umbrella in very low), I still can’t get the framing and the light to work together, so I move him around and remove some of the stuff.

I turn off one of the lights, come in tight and tell him to hold still (and tell me not to shake). Then I made the shot (1/60, 5.6 ISO 400). The flash is not doing much more than adding some highlight and warmth to his face.

In the end, I’m pleased with the results. I’m learning to make good shots more quickly, a continual challenge for most of my assignments, for many of which I have no more than 15 or 20 minutes.