30 May 2009
29 May 2009
28 May 2009
27 May 2009
26 May 2009
SAD146 :: Pentax K1000 :: 28mm/f2.8 SMC :: Fortepan 400 :: Summer, 2005
Took a break from the darkroom to buy fireworks. Crossed the state line to find all the fireworks stands deserted. It was like a zombie movie or something.
Cpt. Destructo was not pleased. But all was not lost. In fact, it was there on that hot summer day just across the South Carolina line, that I took the picture that would elevate DarkTopo to the height of Art. Finally, after all these years, I'm posting a poorly exposed nude.
25 May 2009
SAD145 :: Pentax K1000 :: 28mm/f2.8 SMC :: HP5 :: June, 2005
The problem with a documentary course is that you have to have something to document. As the start of class approached, all I had were vague notions of the kinds of things I should document. You know, social issues with poignant human interest stories. So I went downtown and started shooting pictures of the homeless.
One bright day, late morning, I met Johnny. He was standing on the brick circle in front of the Vance Monument, in a slaughterhouse apron, a black leather jacket, and heavy plastic gloves, singing "Enter Sandman" at the top of his lungs. Welcome to Asheville.
So, of course, I started shooting pictures of Johnny. He immediately began posing, miming a microphone and increasing his volume. Passersby gave us a wide berth. Finally, he took a break, and said I should pay him for the photos, because I was going to sell them for a million dollars, and he aint got nothin.
I told him I didn't have any cash, but that I would buy him breakfast. This was back when Beanstreets was still open, and we made our way one block north. It was a long, long block, because Johnny had to stop and accost every woman under 70. And now that I think about it, we didn't pass any women over 70.
"Johnny, you can't do that," I told him after he explained to a woman in the crosswalk that his prowess in bed was unequaled. "That's not right."
"I'm just making friends, man."
We walked into Beanstreets, and the girl behind the counter immediately looked at me like I was insane.
"He can't come in here. You can't bring him in here," she said, in front of a line of customers.
"Johnny, you better wait outside," I said, and took my place in line. The other customers stared at me as if I had obscenities written on my face in Sharpie. Turning away from them, I looked outside. Johnny had resumed his recital for the coffee drinkers on the bench in front of the shop. They were rapt.
Finally, I made it to the counter and ordered two bagels with cream cheese. I took one to Johnny.
"Man, this isn't what I wanted," he said.
I was just opening my mouth to say, "I wish you could have ordered your own bagel, with your own money, but you're banned from the coffee shop because you're crazy as a shithouse rat," but Johnny seemed to catch my drift before I could verbalize those particular thoughts.
"But that's cool, man, that's cool."
I never saw Johnny again. Of course, I don't go downtown as much now that I have that million bucks I got from selling these photos.
24 May 2009
SAD144 :: Pentax K1000 :: 28mm/f2.8 SMC :: HP5 :: June, 2005
Larry White is a slave driver.
After two 400 level photo classes and the big, bad photo award, I realized that I had probably better graduate soon. This was a tall order; I still needed something like 40 credits, because, as Larry told the entire art department, I hated everything about school but photography.
I also knew that I was going to be shooting photos all summer, and figured I might as well get credit for it. So, with all that in mind, I signed my lazy ass up for summer school for the first and last time in my life. Oh, how I rue the day.
Documentary Photography is meant to be a sixteen-week course. We did it in four. Easy enough, right? The first problem was that Larry expected the same level of in-depth reportage as he'd get from the sixteen-week time frame.
The second problem was that, during week three, the school decided to have the darkroom re-plumbed. So what should have been an intense four-week course became a nearly impossible three-week course with a break in the middle.
I have never worked so hard before or since.
We met every day but Friday, at eight in the morning. It was me and a bunch of girls from Western who were trying to graduate at the end of the summer and needed one last "easy" course. I bet they rue the day, too. Whole lotta ruin' goin' on.
One particular day, Larry took us on a field trip to Marshall. I think he wondered why we were so pale in the middle of summer.
I was still pushing film. And it was a good thing I had learned to do that, because my documentary project became what is now Declare Arms, and I pushed every roll to ISO 800. But I didn't know that when we took that trip. And now I kind of wish I had some good fine-grained shots of Marshall, though I can't go back. Every time I drive through that town, I smell fixer and Red Bull and hear Larry White cackling in the background.
23 May 2009
SAD143 :: Nikon FM2n :: 50mm/f1.8 AF-D :: Portra 160NC :: May, 2009
Time for some color on the blog. It's so dreary with all these pictures of Destructo setting himself on fire and headless wolves. Or, as my buddy Shane says, wufs.
I was buying mat board the other day, and while I was waiting at the sales counter I picked up an issue of Artist's Magazine. I opened right to a quote by some famous artist that said, and I'm paraphrasing, that artists are people who trade comfort for vision. The price of all those pretty pictures is that you will never again be comfortable.
That's pretty much accurate. If you pursue something with passion, it eventually pursues you. I think of Reza, who said in our interview that he always had a camera with him. And to read it, you'd think he said it in a positive way. The tone in his voice was not so easy to read.
I am dog tired. Or wuf tired, as the case may be. Way, way back in the old blog I mentioned a couple of low points: First, the time I woke up on the floor of the photo studio, after spending the night in a brutal matting session. And second, losing my artist's statement at 3 a.m. the day of my exhibit at the Wedge.
Today was another one of those points at which you realize how far you've been pursued. Took a long walk. Weighed some things in my head. Ended up asking myself if all this is worth it. The answer to that question is: Worth what? The big payoff at the end? The fame and fortune?
Of course it's not worth it.
Glad we got that settled.
On my way to the gallery to look at my prints under their lighting, I was stopped on Pack Square. And I look over at the Merrill Lynch building, and there's this hot girl posing in an evening gown. At noon. "Wow," I thought, "this famous photographer thing is really paying off."
Unfortunately for my ego, she was posing for a photographer I couldn't see. Fortunately for my otherwise whiny SAD post, I had my Nikon on the passenger's seat.
22 May 2009
21 May 2009
20 May 2009
SAD140 :: Pentax K1000 :: Pentax SMC 28mm/f2.8 :: HP5 :: October, 2005
As Photo Eye II drew to a close, Larry insisted I submit work to the juried student exhibit, and further insisted I actually show up at the reception. For some reason I went, and even took Jes. As part of the festivities, the annual art department awards were presented. Larry got up to present the Ryan Patrick Jones award for excellence in photography, and started rambling on about how this particular recipient had a great distaste for academia, and school in general, and was motivated solely by photography. About halfway through his speech, I realized he was talking about me.
I had no idea what to do. I knew I had only a few second before he said my name. It seemed like there must have been a way out, a way to stop what was about to happen. I had never even heard of this award, but I knew I did not want it.
But it was too late. People were clapping. And in that long walk across the gallery floor, I realized I was 100% wrong about not wanting it.
I squirreled the money away. Larry told me he expected it to be spent on paper. Har har. My months-long inner turmoil over the decision between medium format and 35mm has been well documented in SAD029, but these two images represent the moments that sealed the deal.
I had spent five years using manual focus Pentax-mount cameras. After buying and returning the 645, I decided it was best to hang on to the money and put it toward my show. I did not want a fancy camera. I was a purist. I wanted to be close to the light.
But one brilliantly gorgeous fall day, I found myself in a corn maze with my brilliantly gorgeous wife, and the above shot is all you'll see, because it's all I got. The more brilliantly gorgeous the woman, the harder she is to photograph. Anticipating fleeting moments, I had mounted the trusty 28mm and let hyperfocus do its work, as I had all summer at the shooting range.
You know how this turns out. Any shot close enough to be a portrait is distorted enough to be in a fun house. A longer lens would require much more precise focusing, slowing me down and letting subtleties escape. If only they made a camera that would focus itself, really quickly, so that I wouldn't have to make such compromises. Maybe they could power it with batteries. Maybe it could even judge exposure, too. And they could hire a gerbil to run in a little wheel and wind the film between shots, so I could get a decent frame rate without getting carpal tunnel.
It was the first time I ever felt limited by my gear. I ordered an F100, using all the award money and all of my savings, and literally doing without food for a few weeks. It arrived in December, with a 50mm/1.8 and a 28mm/2.8. I still wasn't ready for zooms.
The first day I took it out, Madame Rex and I went to the boneyard. On the way back, it started pouring snow. I would never have gotten this shot with the K1000.
SAD140a :: Nikon F100 :: Nikkor 28mm/f2.8 AF-D :: Delta 100 :: December, 2005
And that's how I forgave myself for autofocus.
19 May 2009
Exhibiting work teaches you very quickly what you're capable of. For example, I am capable of making two 10-mile hikes to a ghost town on the Nolichucky River, because that's where the pictures are. What I'm not capable of is doing that alone. Enter Cpt. Destructo.
I've never blogged about Lost Cove, because, to be honest, Lost Cove is not a place I ever wanted to go. The idea of it--a burned-out town five miles from the nearest road, abandoned for fifty years--is haunting in that dual sense of the word: Alluring, and at the same time unsettling. I never wanted to go there. I had to go there.
There will be, at most, one picture of Lost Cove in my exhibit. But I had to have that picture, and I can blog about it now because the film is developed and safe in a binder, and if I ever go back to Lost Cove, it will be because I want to, not because I have to.
There are two buildings left intact by vandals and a forest fire. The rest is empty woods and burnt foundations. And even when the wind doesn't blow through Lost Cove, you can hear it, how it must have sounded to the last resident back in 1957, how it would sound now if you found yourself there alone.
It's remote, it's empty, and it breathes with the lives that were lived there. But there are plenty of resources about the Cove's history and how to get there, so I'll say this and nothing more: Lost Cove is the place I think of every time I hear Doc Watson sing the last verse of Tom Dooley:
"Yeah, this time tomorrow, boys,
where do you reckon I'll be?
I'll be over in the hollow,
hanging from a white oak tree."
It took ten years for Destructo, SMAN and me to work up enough courage to make the 10-mile hike to Lost Cove. I'd heard about it from a friend in high school who advised me to stay away: When he came upon Lost Cove, he'd found candles burning in the houses and a book laid face down on a bed, and no sign of a living soul.
But last summer we made three trips in, and nothing creepy happened. Of course I took pictures, and I even took one of the same subject I went back twice this year to re-photograph. But it wasn't good enough.
Photography drags you into situations you wouldn't normally enter. Good photography drags your friends there, too. So this week Destructo and I went back, taking the "short" route through Tennessee via the railroad.
Less than a mile down the tracks we saw vultures in the distance. Never a good sign. Dead deer are common, but every time we start an excursion I always wonder if this will be the time we'll find a body. And then I'll finally learn the truth about myself: Will I call the cops before or after I've gotten all the photos I want?
But it wasn't a body, or a dead deer. It was a beheaded wolf. I am not making this up. Its body was long enough to span the space between the rails, even without its head, which we couldn't find. I have never seen anything like it.
Nothing says "bad omen" like a headless nocturnal predator in your path. But where would Princess Zelda be if Link had given up at the first rock-spitting octopus? So we pressed on, and three miles later we were at the trail head. We had not gone 200 yards into the woods when Destructo spotted a bear.
Apparently, it spotted us first, because it was gone before I ever saw it. Lost Cove is in bear country, so it's not like we didn't know they were out there. But seeing one for real is . . . for real.
So do we turn back and give up two hours of hiking just because the fear we already had was now concrete? More importantly, do I suggest we turn back, since I'm the one who drug us out there in the first place? If Destructo gets eaten by a bear, or some crazy floating wolf's head, it will be all my fault.
By the look of him, Destructo was having that thought as well.
"Great," I thought. "If we go back now, that means I'll have to come back with someone who has even less sense. Like SMAN." At least we hadn't seen a snake. Destructo is to snakes as Superman is to kryptonite.
Not another ten yards, and a huge snake glided into our path, smelling us with its black tongue. It was just a king snake, but with Destructo, "just" does not modify "snake." I decided to fore-go the usual "dude, hold my pack while I get pictures" routine, because I was worried about carrying Destructo out after he'd had a seizure. We threw a stick at the snake, and it very politely went away.
I have loyal friends. Plus, I had the car keys. Another mile up a washed-out creek bed, and we were in Lost Cove, safe and on schedule. The schedule part was very important, because I had told my smoking hot and incredibly patient wife to call the search and rescue folks if we were not out by dark. Though I reckon if you're in Lost Cove after dark, there's not much rescuing to be done.
Lost Cove is accessible only by rail. The first few trips we made began with crossing this trestle, a feat that is simple, but takes some nerve.
When trains come, a quick choice needs to be made: Right or left? Above, the choice was easy. Sometimes, though, it's a choice between a granite wall and a lengthy drop to the river.
The black and white photos were taken last year, when I somehow smashed my 28mm into a rock. That was a good, but unsuccessful trip, in which we walked to the trail head but could not bring ourselves to believe that the town itself was another hour's hike up the mountain. The above photo shows "The Wall," a portion of track on which there is little opportunity to escape a train. Got caught there once. Not fun.
What's left of most of the town.
My "Lost Cove" face.
There were three of us on the first trip. SMAN, Destructo and me. For some reason, I was intent on documenting the unsuccess of our journey. Here we are back at the trestle.
Home sweet home.
None of us pack light, least of all me. A normal person carries a pack full of extra socks, trail mix, and water. A paranoid person carries a pack full of weapons.
If there are two things I do well, it's paranoia and photography. So in addition to the usual KA-BAR, four-cell Maglite, and a Glock with two extra mags, I packed in my Pentacon Six. At damn near four pounds, the P6 is not in the running for the best backpacking camera ever. But if I wanted to be comfortable, I'd go to a museum and shoot flowers.
So it's a rare thing to hike for three hours, carrying all that weight, just for one photo. So rare that I didn't really know what to do when we got there. Photographic success is evaluated in front a computer screen in a dimly lit room, not through the ground glass of a 20 year old camera, in the woods, with bugs crawling over your eyeballs. How can you know the trip has been worth it?
Almost as a reflex, then, I shot three rolls of the one image I wanted. Bracketing exposures, slightly different compositions. Handheld, tripod-mounted (oh yeah, forgot to mention the five-pound tripod).
When I couldn't think of any more ways to shoot the photo, we ventured further into what's left of the town. At one time, there was a church and a schoolhouse, as well as a sawmill. Now there are burned out foundations and one intact house.
The house has three rooms, and doorways shorter than 6 feet. Last year, we took shelter there in a pouring rainstorm, and there was not a single leak. It's amazing to think about the type of person that would build a house so well, so small, and so far away.
I'm not interested in history for its own sake. In fact, I found a master's thesis on Lost Cove, and sent it to Destructo without reading it first. I don't care about the economy of the times, or the way of life. The answers to those questions, and all the questions of history, are just clues to the answer of a large question: Why? What motivates men and women to live apart from the world, as isolated as Noah on his ark?
And who am I to deny them that?
The photo I wanted was a picture of a girl's grave. Her name was Bonnie Miller, and she died at 16, in 1938. I don't know, but I think it's likely that she never left Lost Cove.
I hope that she does not haunt me. I don't believe in ghosts, but if I had chosen a life of isolation, and some hot shot photographer took a picture of my grave and smeared it on a gallery wall in the middle of Asheville, choked with the tourists of Bele Chere, I'd be mighty angry.
But did she choose that life? At sixteen, did she dream of getting out? Did she fear the wind through the trees, the certain death of a snakebite, the space between a bear and her cubs? Did she know anything of the larger world, other than the howl of a freight train running along the river?
And if it was anonymity she or her family desired, why leave a gravestone at all? It is likely the people of Lost Cove were backwards, outlaws, or Confederate deserters. I don't know, I didn't read the thesis. But on this girl's grave, someone has scrawled, separate from the hand-cut dates of her birth and death, Matthew 5:8: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God."
If purity is the independence from outside influence, the integrity of an original, precious gift, it is hard to imagine going to greater lengths to protect it than building and living in a place like Lost Cove. I believe I can show this picture without diminishing that effort, and I believe it's something we should see.
It's also hard to imagine a place whose topography is darker than that of Lost Cove. With nothing around for miles but woods and river and rails, there is not even the light of knowledge, which we take for granted in the modern world. But if Matthew was right, there are things you can see through that kind of darkness.
From the house, we venture out into the woods, searching. There is an apple orchard, two diverging trails, a stone wall. On a steep incline, Destructo disappears over a hill. I know he is there, but I wrestle with the most basic of fears. I saw him walk over the hill. Every ounce of logic I possess tells me he's still there. But I don't know. And when I speed up and crest the hill, seeing him there is less like a reassurance than a discovery.
The light is perfect. But this isn't some teary-eyed photo moment--it's perfect because it's late. We have lost track of time, and it's now six in the evening. It took three hours to get in, and we are on the far side of the Cove. I have no doubt my wife will call for help if we are not out by dark. There is no cell service in Lost Cove.
I meant to bring flowers for Bonnie Miller's grave. In the stress of life six weeks before an exhibit, I forgot. I scramble for anything I can find; a pine cone, some common wild flowers. It takes another ten minutes for me to return to the cemetery, ten minutes we can't spare, but I want to leave some sign that my intentions are good.
In front of her headstone, in the waning light, there is the shot. I've used up my fine grain film, and the P6 is deep in my pack. I cast aside the tripod, shoot two frames, and go. My decision now, sitting here in front of the computer, is which of those two frames to print; the three rolls I had shot earlier contain only near misses.
The last thing we saw upon leaving Lost Cove, the lumber town that sprang up and died without the world taking notice, was a new, modern bow saw, hanging from a tree branch. The blade was shiny in the evening sun.
Morals of the story:
1. I have the best friends in the world.
2. Never let a headless wolf stand in the way of good photography. Or lay in the way.
3. Signs that say "Bear Sanctuary" are not talking about church.
4. We found Lost Cove. Now it's just Cove.
5. The last frame is always the best.