And so it was that on the eleventh anniversary of his birth, Ronan MacScottie came at last unto the sea.
August 13, 1993: I woke for my first day in Colorado. I had moved here from North Carolina for grad school. I had a van of everything I owned and barely a penny left after the 1600-mile drive.
It wasn’t the first time I’d put my life in a truck and hauled it across the country to a town where I knew nobody, and as fate would have it, it wouldn’t be the last. Today I sit here surrounded by boxes, taking a break from packing. As I noted a few days ago, I’m now moving to Seattle.
20 years. A generation.
A lot has happened along the way.
- I earned my PhD.
- I have worked for large companies, mid-sized companies, small companies, and for myself. Depending on what criteria you employ, my life as a businessman has either been quite successful or an abject failure. There are things I’m very good at and other things I’m terrible at, and you can draw whatever conclusions you like from the fact that I have not gotten rich.
- I spent an ill-fated year as a professor and have come, at last, to abandon any and all hopes of earning my living in the academy. Ironic, that, since this is why I came to Colorado in the first place.
- I co-founded The 5th Estate on LiveJournal, then co-founded Scholars & Rogues.
- I took up photography and founded 5280 Lens Mafia.
- I wrote a couple books of poetry.
- What else? Oh, yeah – I met a beautiful, wonderful woman and got married. Then divorced. At this point the hard question is which of the two did more lasting damage.
- I moved to Boston for a year, then came back. I moved to New York for a year, then back to NC for a year and a half, then came back. Somewhere in there – I think Columbine was the tipping point – I realized that Colorado had become home. North Carolina will always be the place I grew up, but I rarely refer to it as “back home” anymore.
- And I swore that I’d never leave Colorado again.
In some respects, it’s clear that I have accomplished a great deal over the past 20 years. I was the first in my family to attend a four-year university, so the PhD alone is pretty significant on that front.
But a part of me also feels like I did back in 1993. As I approached my 30th birthday I did a great deal of soul searching and came to conclusion that I had, to that point, talked a good game but I hadn’t done anything. If I died, there would be nothing to signify that I had ever lived. I had made no mark, established no legacy.
I read a lot of Campbell, and this passage hit me between the eyes:
You may have success in life, but then just think of it – what kind of life was it? What good was it – you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.
20 years on I’m still not doing the thing I want to do in life, although in my defense nobody will pay you a living wage for the kinds of things I have historically wanted to do. Also, I have meandered. I am interested in a variety of things, and this has too often resulted in a lack of focus that has not served me well. Recruiters look at the winding path that has been my career and…well, put it this way. You don’t want to confuse HR staffing types, who generally have a hard enough time deciphering the complexities of daily life. Things like where on their computer is that damned “Any” key that instruction guides keep talking about.
I’m an idealist in many respects, but I can admit the ways in which I have failed myself.
It has been clear for some time that my life needed to change. Career change, personal change, change of scenery, and then some. I have made a bit of progress, jettisoning activities and commitments that no longer helped me be who I want and need to be. And I have begun filling my life with new things for which I feel a passion – like photography.
So there’s that, and I also have fantastic friends for whom I’m grateful. Beyond this, well, I feel like the guy I was 20 years ago. Standing by the packed truck and looking around one last time. It was home, and I loved it, but it didn’t really love me back. It was time to go.
20 years on, a watershed moment. Looking west, and hoping.
I’ll leave you with a recent photo that I think says something about my state of mind as I look to the future….
Our buddy Greg Thow (one of the mainstays at S&R’s sister site 5280 Lens Mafia) and I were guests on episode #28 of the E Wilks Show last night. Okay, mainly Greg was the guest. I tagged along because I had nothing else to do. Eric and sound engineer/sidekick extraordinaire Tony are genuinely funny guys and it was an absolute blast.
- Belgian beer (and Greg’s passion for strawberry ale),
- the Zimmerman acquittal,
- the eerie similarities between Al Sharpton and Otis from Andy Griffith,
- conspiracy theories,
- zombie golfers with leprosy,
- my interest in dating Ann Coulter,
- It’s okay, Officer, it’s for charity,
- obscure Christian Slater movies,
- lip replacement surgery, and
- whether or not to tip the attendant in the portajohn.
Then we got around to photography, and Greg – who despite his protestations is one of Denver’s premier shooters – talks about how he got started and offers a lot of insight for those wanting to improve their own photography skills. Afterward Eric and Tony said this was among their 50 best shows ever, so we’re felling pretty good about that.
Serious fun – it took me back to my days in radio. Hmmm. Maybe Rash Dipstique needs a podcast…
We are often told to “think big.” (It’s a formula for success, apparently.)
I choose to think small. As small as possible. That’s my hobby: Bringing to larger life the world of the small. I’ve been doing that for a very long time. In the past year, I have rededicated myself to finding the beautiful and the bizarre in a tiny universe.
My hobby is macro photography. Using a lens designed for the purpose — magnifying the small — I photograph not merely flowers but the interiors of flowers, their styles, stigmas, anthers, filaments, and stamens. (Yes, I suppose the petals of the flowers manage to get into the image, too.)
I photograph water in liquid and solid states. I particularly like to shoot in winter. I’ve captured frost in numerous incarnations. I’ve found round water — dew or rain drops held in spherical shape by surface tension. Often, the background of the photograph is lensed through the drops of water. Or the sun is a starry pinprick in a reflection on the drop’s surface.
Frost is a demanding shoot. Hoar frost forms during very cold, absolutely windless nights next to the stream downhill from my house. I have to time it well: Late enough for the just-risen sun to backlight the frost; early enough so the sun’s rays do not wither and disintegrate the crystals.
It’s always fun shooting fire. And odd things, too: One image accompanying this post is something you eat for breakfast.
Often, after I download the images from my Canon into Photoshop, I’m surprised at what I find. I wear trifocals; my eyes have a collection of floaters. Combine those with staring through a tiny viewfinder to focus and, well, you don’t see every little thing the lens does.
I discovered the world of insects. Now, mind you, I do not like insects. Ick. Bugs. Spiders. Bees, hornets, and wasp, those stinging little bastards. But I bought a guide to insects to try to identify them. (I’m failing miserably; I’m not very good at it.) I still don’t like bugs, but I’m less … frightened … by them. (I have a spider who lives in my office. I now tolerate it.)
And trees! Who knew trees — bark, leaves, stems, seeds, insect inhabitants — could be so wonderfully interesting and beautiful? Last fall, I photographed leaves (often, just fragments of leaves) as they withered and fell. This spring, I choose one leaf bud on a red maple in my yard to photograph from birth to death.
As a macro photographer, I don’t have to travel to dramatic scenic vistas to find landscapes to shoot. Most of images I’ve shot in the past year were in my back yard, at a fishing hole next to a stream in the valley downhill from my house, and on trails in a patch of woods behind a residence hall at my university. I often spend an hour or two inside no more than a hundred square feet of forest or field. Such seemingly limited space is alive with life waiting to be captured.
Such photographic efforts have lent me needed creative and artistic satisfaction. I have longed to create beauty but failed in other media. But the skills and equipment I have now have allowed me to capture beauty in places most people rarely look — in a small world well beyond their daily consciousness.
I discovered grass (no, no, not that kind) this spring. I’ve photographed blades of grass — and found a world of really small insects and seeds through which grass propagates. Grass, it turns out, isn’t actually green (well, I cheated a few times, and over-saturated the color; sue me).
I am a university professor. I teach (or try to) undergraduates how to write and otherwise mature into good, kind, decent, gentle human beings. The kiddies often frustrate me, and I occasionally chafe at their less-than-their best attitudes toward their studies. They require my patience be Job-like. (Well, my patience is usually tested to the point of failure.)
But macro photography reminds me of the need for patience and rewards me when I achieve it. In nature, nothing stands still. Wind moves leaves, flowers, and grass. Clouds obscure sunlight needed for better exposure. Rain defeats all efforts to keep equipment dry. The sun needs an hour to move so a shadow is removed or introduced.
Patience and solace are the rewards of macro photography as much as the satisfaction of the finished images. So, too, is the change of focus from large-scale usual to the small-scale unusual.
It is a wonderful hobby, learning how to see anew even as my vision ages and becomes less acute. Even now, I see more and better than I have in decades.
Try it. You might see better, too.
(Below is more of my work. View my archive at 5280 Lens Mafia.)
WikiPedia’s List of Hobbies page is a long one – over 170 entries. Included are some you’d expect: cooking, birdwatching, knitting, stamp collecting, all manner of sporting activities, etc. There are also some you may not have thought of. For example:
Most of us have a hobby or two, and the intensity of our investment might range from casual to obsessive. Take me:
- I’m a novice photographer
- and blogger
- who spent years as a creative writer
- and played all kinds of sports (mainly soccer and basketball) to the point where my knees are in tatters
- and I’m also a dedicated sports fan (hoops, soccer, and especially Chelsea FC, which routinely finds me up and off to watch the games with the rest of the Rocky Mountain Blues as early as 5:00 or 5:30 on weekend mornings).
- Finally, I try desperately not to think about how much money I have spent on music through the years.
The photography habit has it hooks in me deep, and over the past couple of weeks it led me to inadvertently discover a fascinating group of dedicated hobbyists not far from here. A few days ago I went out to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden to see if I could learn a thing or two about photographing old trains. This, in and of itself, was plenty rewarding.
However, what I didn’t know is that the museum grounds are home to the Denver Garden Railway Society, a collection of model train enthusiasts who have developed an insanely cool complex of tracks and to-scale buildings and towns.
Except that this group goes well beyond just the model train part.
A Garden Railroad is most often a model railroad layout placed outside, usually winding through backyard landscaping. Garden Railroading may be described as the marriage of two hobbies; model railroading and gardening!
Already I’m learning. I knew there were plenty of model train enthusiasts, but I’d never heard of this garden thing before. It’s hard not to be impressed, though. The landscaping and engineering is extensive, resulting in a site that’s both functional and beautiful. Relaxing. Tranquil.
I went back out this past Wednesday morning – they stage a number of events on the weekends, but Wednesdays are apparently the club get-together day – and met some of the mainstays. Alan Olson, the ringleader, is one of those people who knows more than you can even think to ask about. (He’s also a (also a talented kinetic sculptor.) He graciously agreed to let me take some pictures and even showed me around, telling me a bit about the history of the local society (they’re the oldest organization of their type in the US) and helping me understand just how large the garden railway community is nationwide. He introduced me to some of the other members, all of whom were ready and willing to help me set up shots (and also to answer any question I might have). The great thing is that they not only know about model trains, they know a lot about real railroads. For instance, I now know what that huge rotor engine on the museum grounds is for (snow removal).
As I have noted elsewhere, I am by instinct and training a culturalist. Whether we’re talking the kind of working class popular culture that contextualized my upbringing or more intellectual pursuits, such as the arts, I’m fascinated by the things that people do, and in particular the things they do together – the activities, events, histories, philosophies, material artifacts and so on that provide the gravity wells into which we all seem to drift.
So even though I know little about trains and absolutely nothing about the garden railway world, I was instantly fascinated. The machines are beautiful – intricate and detailed engineering marvels – and if you doubt the passion of the aficionados themselves, all you need to do is look around and ask yourself a few questions about what went into the construction of the grounds and how much work is involved in their ongoing maintenance. Then, since you haven’t begun to understand the challenge, ask Olson about the deer eating the landscaping and the raccoons raiding the koi pond.
I have tried to take some shots that convey a bit of the obvious joy and pride Alan and the rest of the society’s members. Enjoy, and please give their Web site a look to learn more. And stay tuned, because my guess is this isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this group.
by Sarah Allegra
It was last Tuesday, July 2nd, that I found out about the tragic deaths of the 19 firefighters in Arizona a few days earlier. At the same time, I discovered my childhood friend, Andrew Ashcroft, was one of those lost. It took a while to sink in. Andrew, who I had played with for years, was gone.
Not only Andrew, but 18 others of Arizona’s finest firefighters were lost. They were called the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew; they’re essentially the Navy Seals of the fire world. They were trained to go into the deadliest, most dire situations and kick the fire’s ass. They went in to make a fuel break for the devastating forest fire when the wind changed and trapped them. There was no escape.
My heart breaks for Andrew’s widow, left to raise their four children, the oldest of whom is merely six, by herself. It breaks for Andrew’s mother Deborah, who has to bury one of her children. It breaks for the 18 others families in the same situation.
Andrew was only 29. He had been named the 2011 Rookie of the Year in the Hotshot crew. He’d had to really work to get into the crew. That was what he wanted to do. He chose to be the best, bravest, most worthy of men. I am in awe.
It’s important for me to state that it had been a long time since I’d seen Andrew… I was probably 13 or so. But he and his brother TJ were a big part of my childhood. Our moms were friends and would frequently trade babysitting, so for years my brother and I saw and played with the Ashcroft boys several times a week. My brother was the oldest of us, TJ was next, then me and Andrew was the youngest, even though only four years separated us all. It was just enough of an age difference that the older two boys would want to go off and do Secret Older Boy Things together (mostly involving GI Joes, as I recall) so Andrew and I were often our own group… which sometimes involved merely of sulking about being left out of Secret Boy Things. But we made our own fun.
One of the clearest memories I have of the four of us is arguing heatedly over who got to be which character when we would play Batman. My brother, the oldest, was naturally Batman. When he and I played it at home, I was Robin, and I felt that was my part. But TJ’s slight age difference made a good argument in the logic of children for him assuming the role of Robin. The debate was settled when we found out about Batgirl, who I would obviously play, leaving Robin to TJ. But poor Andrew was always stuck being Alfred or some random henchman; he never got to play a really good character. I had laughingly told this story to my husband Geoff quite a while ago, not realizing the irony that was to come.
Andrew grew up to be a real, living, actual hero. He lived his heroism more than any person I know of. He went out doing what he loved, with the men he loved, and if he ever felt fear, he never let it stop him. I am so sad his family has lost him. I am sad that the world has lost such an amazing person. And I am sad that I never got to know Andrew at this age, that we lost touch, and I only discovered what an incredible person he was second hand. The world is 19 wonderful souls poorer.
As I cried into Geoff’s chest the day I heard the news, one of the first things he asked was how I was going to work through my feelings photographically. This is just one of the many reasons I love him, because I was already mentally hard at work trying out different concepts. As I was working through my grief and trying to put my feelings into a visual form, I was also talking a lot with Katie, who had recently experienced a similar kind of loss. It was a great comfort to have her and other people in my life familiar with grief to talk to. Katie and I already had a shoot planned in a few days, so I told her to just expect that we would shoot something to honor Andrew and the other firefighters.
This was another shoot done on a non-budget. It took just a few big, yellow smoke bombs and the fresh flowers. Also, HUGE thanks to Geoff for being my human shutter release!
Usually I edit things in order of them being shot, as that seems fairest, but this got bumped way up in line. I really wanted it to be released today, the day of the big memorial service in Prescott. You’ll see that Katie is playing the role of the rescuer, pulling me to safety, but not far from the danger herself. The smoke wrapping around my body and throat actually happened exactly like that, straight out of camera, and seems to want to pull me back and not let go. Katie is carrying 19 large orange, yellow and red flowers, symbolizing the fallen heroes, and I like that there are smaller yellow flowers connected to the stocks; they seem to symbolize the fireman’s family.
When I searched for a title for this photo, I immediately remembered what Jimmy in Boardwalk Empire says before each drink instead of the standard “cheers” or “bottom’s up;” he says “to the lost.” For Jimmy it was about his lost comrades during the war, but it seemed to fit here perfectly. This is also the only time I’ve ever done a square crop on a photo. For the most part I stick very strictly to my 2×3 ratio. This photo just called for something else, so I went with it. There are some detail shots of the photo below.
I hope Andrew’s family heals as quickly as it can, along with the rest of the families. There is nothing I can say or do that can make it better for them. How I wish there was. All I can do is try to honor the fallen heroes, with my words, my photos, and my many, many tears.
Andrew was a badass… but the very best kind, who hasn’t lost his softer side. He was a true hero, like Prince Lir. We didn’t know that Andrew was the biggest hero of us all.
He should have been Batman.
by Dan Ryan
This is a condensed, reworked excerpt from my recent Amazon Kindle photo essay book “Ningenkusai: A Tokyo Panic Stories Mini-book.” I prepared it for exclusive publication by the Japan Subculture Research Center. But, happily, it was then picked up and republished by Zero Hedge. You can buy a copy of the full book at Amazon.
You’ve probably never heard of Sanya. The Tokyo City Government doesn’t acknowledge its existence, and you won’t find it on any official maps. Sanya is more or less Tokyo’s skid row, where people, mostly men, end up when the other parts of this immense, gleaming city have stopped offering comfort and opportunity.
Sanya is where the Japanese outcasts, food animal butchers, leather tanners, and other professions considered “unclean” by Japan’s traditionally Buddhist ruling class, a.k.a. the burakumin, or dowa, plied their trades for centuries. These tradesmen may mostly be gone, and the smell of the blood they spilled long-since drifted away, but the stigma of what Sanya once was remains, and it clings to the many of the people who live and work here.
Sanya is a blue-collar place, where an aging population of day laborers lingers on the fringe of Tokyo society. Many laborers have drinking problems, and they’ve ended up in Sanya to hide their abuses from their families. Sights like this fellow are pretty common, except in rainy weather.
And even then Sanya has a shōtengai dotted with little bars and liquor stores.
For many men in Sanya, government welfare assistance is available but is a problematic thing. Applying for it requires identity verification by contacting an applicant’s family. Most Sanya men who have fallen on hard times and taken to excessive drinking don’t want this. They would rather their families not know where they are or how they live. Revealing this would mean bringing unbearable shame upon their loved ones.
So when you’re down in Sanya and public assistance isn’t an option for some reason, what do you do? You go private, to a small outfit like Sanyūkai NPO, a non-religious non-profit organization. The Sanyūkai NPO and the free medical clinic within it is run by a couple of foreign missionaries who have been doing charity work in Sanya since the early ‘80s.
Deacon Jean LeBeau, the director of Sanyūkai NPO, is a French-Canadian Catholic with the Quebec Foreign Mission Society. Deacon Jean has been in Japan for 41 years, including 28 years in Sanya. He’s a humble, affable man, who would rather speak Japanese than either English or his native French.
Sister Rita Burdzy, head nurse of Sanyūkai clinic, is an American from St. Louis, Missouri who came to Japan in 1981. She is a nun with the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic of Ossining, New York, a Roman Catholic order whose members devote their lives to service overseas in specialties such as medicine and agriculture. Sister Rita holds a Japanese nursing license and is the nurse in charge of most of the activities at the clinic.
It’s a small facility, with only two beds in the examination room. Hundreds of ailing men have passed through this place since it opened in 1984. And somehow it manages to keep doing the job.
In addition to Sister Rita, medical services are supplied by a volunteer roster of over 30 medical doctors and registered nurses. Doctor Kanade Hagiwara, an urologist at a general hospital in Tokyo, is one of those volunteers. She treats patients at the clinic on the fourth Saturday of each month. The NPO is not a religious organization, and therefore does not insist that either volunteers or clients adhere to any one faith, or have any religious faith at all.
Within the clinic, the one concession to spiritual matters is this hand-made banner and the shrine beside it, which is dedicated to recently-departed clients and patients of the clinic.
Since Sanya does not officially exist, Sanyūkai clinic has an address in Kiyokawa, in Taito-ku ward, on a small street that could easily pass for an alleyway. Outside the clinic, unless it is raining or bitterly cold, men in need of clinic services sit on benches and wait, often with Sister Rita and Deacon Jean (whose back is shown) somewhere nearby.
But the men who gather outside Sanyūkai clinic tend to make it more of a social venue than the dreary medical waiting-room scene you might expect. They’re a diverse group, even though most are older day laborers who get less and less work as they age. The men in the middle and the right fall into that category. The guy on the left is a transplant from nearby Asakusa, whose reasons for ending up in Sanya are not entirely clear.
But this man, who died of a brain hemorrhage in June 2012, used to own a bar next to the clinic.
While this fellow is a professional cook who does not always get daily work.
If the men who frequent the Sanyūkai clinic share one thing, it is a quality Sister Rita calls “ningenkusai” (人間くさい), which she says “is a quality of being very human, of smelling comfortably human. Of being full of human traits.” She adds that this is the best English translation she could offer for a concept that she says is uniquely Japanese.
With obvious fondness, Sister Rita goes on to say that despite their backgrounds and personal secrets “these men have a purity of heart and are very charming. There is no guile in these men.” She sums things up by saying when men come to the clinic off of Sanya’s streets and ask for help “no questions are asked. We’re a family.”
And you can feel the truth of it when she says it.
So, there’s no crime story here, and no breaking scandal. It is surprising, and shameful, that a city like Tokyo has had a problem like this for so long. But at least the phenomenon of homeless and chronically drunk and unemployed street men isn’t being ignored. Good people are on the case. People like Sister Rita and Deacon Jean.
Reporting and photography for this story was done in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012.
by Dan Ryan
It was a little like the scenario in that Kinks song “Lola,” but only in passing. I met her in a little place called Seoul Bar, which is in a rundown section of northeast Tokyo called Sanya. At first I thought her was a him, and she sounded like a man but…
The lipstick should have given me a clue, but it was confusing initially, even more so because his, sorry, her English was pretty rusty, and my Japanese was horrible. She took an interest in me because I was American. When she was still fully he, he used to work for Americans in the ‘60s. Or the ‘70s, but doing what I never completely figured out. But we managed fitfully to communicate, and after a few minutes I thought he was a pretty interesting woman.
She’d had the money at some unspecified point in the past to start the process of becoming her true self, to transition from male to female. Her family, which might have included a wife and kids, never understood nor approved of what she needed to be. They disowned her many years ago.
However, it was obvious she was accepted in Seoul Bar, but also treated a bit like an oddity. When another bar patron took a schoolboy jab at her breasts, it bothered me. It was playful, but far from respectful. But it was nearly 13:00, in a bar in a crummy part of town, and everyone was drinking. So maybe my standards were unrealistically high. Hell, she even wanted me to take a feel of her tits. She was proud of them. I declined.
She was also proud of her hands, justifiably I thought, but seemed frustrated by lingering facial hair. My guess is whatever hormones she used to take had worn off some time ago. She also said she still had the male parts she’d been born with.
I left the Seoul Bar when the karaoke was about to start and went out to the shōtengai to take more pictures. After about five minutes, I noticed my ladyfriend walking in the same direction I was. She had bar-snack crumbs on her face, and in the outdoor light I could really see how worn- and shabby-looking she was. Yet as she waved her hands around at my camera, her manicured nails were still noticeable, as were her few female bumps and curves. She looked more like a woman standing up outside than she had hunched next to me in a chair in the dark little bar we’d been in.
She and I walked together for a few minutes. She didn’t mind me taking pictures of her. In fact, she carried herself with a little bit of the vanity some women seem to naturally have, whether their looks entitle them to such vanity or not. But the fact that this woman, this shabby, incomplete woman, carried herself in this a way instantly earned a small measure of my respect. It took, for lack of a better term, balls.
We came to a stop when she spotted a man she knew, a friend I suppose, a guy I had photographed previously. He was pretty goddamned drunk. But she wanted to go talk to him.
Like I said, she was proud of her breasts and not shy about playing with them in public. I didn’t ask her to do this. I don’t know enough Japanese to get that far. But she posed for me a few times out there in the street, and this is where her hands always ended up. You’ve got to roll with these things in some parts of Tokyo street life.
Then she walked over to talk to her friend. It was a short conversation. The guy in the gutter made a slow lunge for my ladyfriend’s crotch. Her response, as I barely understood it, was to offer to show the man that he would have gotten a handful of male goodies if she had let his fingers reach their target. This was a little bit too much for me, the idea that this incomplete woman was prepared to whip out her male equipment in the street.
So I walked away. But you know, I never even got her name.
(Pictures taken on the shōtengai in Sanya, Tokyo in April, 2012)
For the story behind the image, visit my post at 5280 Lens Mafia.
As I’ve noted before, I grew up working class in the South. My neighborhood, my school, my family and friends, it all oscillated between “redneck” and “white trash,” and yes, there’s a difference. I wrote not long ago about the challenges facing those of us trying to climb the socio-economic ladder when nothing in our upbringing had taught us which fork to use, how to dress, how to speak or how to behave in polite society.
These days I’m a PhD working in the world of marketing and corporate communication. You’ll find a lot of companies you probably recognize on my client list, and I am positively wallowing in what French scholar Pierre Bourdieu termed “cultural capital.” I’ll spare you, for now, a lecture on how real capital is of more value when the rent comes due, but suffice it to say that people like me are allegedly respected in society due to our intellect and earned status.
In other words, I’ve come a long way, baby, from my modest hillbilly upbringing in Wallburg, North Carolina.
But you know that old saying: you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. I’m fond of telling people that I’m a “simple country boy.” They always laugh, and I’m not sure they ever guess the degree to which it’s actually true. Yes, I’m smart and highly educated and artistic and thoughtful and enlightened and complex, etc., but in many respects I’m still quite the uncomplicated working class kid. The inner tension, the sometimes oppressive dissonance in my head, can be maddening. It’s as though I live in two distinct worlds. Worse, it’s sometimes hard to know who “I” am. No matter where I go, I’m out of place. From the time I wake up in the morning to the time I go to sleep, and often on through a night of disorienting dreams, I’m in exile.
So there. There’s your self-absorbed existential introduction.
I’m thinking about this because yesterday I went to a classic car show out in Wheat Ridge, the decidedly working class suburb that borders my NW Denver neighborhood to the west. We seem to have a lot of folks here in the greater 5280 who love old cars, and I suspect that’s true where you live, as well. From Model Ts through the golden age 1950s and on into the rise of the late ’60s and early ’70s muscle cars – on any given weekend when the weather is nice you can find people who devote a great deal of time and money to a celebration of America’s longstanding love affair with the road.
The thing is, you walk through these crowds and it’s clear that this cultural experience is defined and bounded by class. Despite the beauty, the sheer artistry of some of the restorations, we’re talking about the people I grew up with. Working class. If they lived in the South instead of Colorado I’m sure you’d call them rednecks, and you may anyway.
When I picked up photography nearly a year ago, it never occurred to me that I had any interest in shooting old cars. Literally – that thought never once crossed my mind. I’m not a car guy. I mean, I like cars okay, but this isn’t and never has been anything more than a “hey, look at that cool old car” kind of passing interest for me. But one day last July I drove past a little roll-in at a bowling alley in Wheat Ridge (classic cars and bowling alleys go together like peanut butter and jelly), pulled over for the heck of it, and accidentally discovered that I’m not bad at this sort of photography.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more it makes sense, I guess. I love design. My dissertation was about the evolution of technology, and a significant hunk of that project was specifically concerned with photography and technology through the middle of the 20th century.
Since then I’ve taken quite a few classic car shots, including one that’s easily the best technical image in my brief photography career.
But walking around that show yesterday was unsettling. I felt right at home, and at the same time I felt so out of place part of me was sure that people were pointing and whispering behind my back. My inner working class boy was completely comfortable with his people. I know them, their lives, their frustrations and their hopes and their artistic aesthetics. I know them because I am them. But they also represent the cultural gravity well I have been struggling to escape for 35 years or more. That guy – the one with all the cultural capital – he’s not at home here anymore and he’s sure that they can tell that he doesn’t belong.
As I walked around admiring the cars, I realized that there is a specific era of automotive design that appeals to me above all others: the mid- to late 1930s. 1936 and 1937, in particular, produced the machines that exert the greatest tug on me as a person and as an artist. And I realized why. When I was a kid, I used to go to Winston-Salem’s Bowman Gray Stadium every Saturday night in the summer to watch the races with my friend Ed Berrier. The main feature was the Modifieds, and Ed’s father Max was a bit of a regional legend in the division. At that point in time a vast majority of the cars were ’30s-era Fords, Chevys and Plymouths. Max, as I recall, ran an iconic ’37 Chevy, and I suppose the power and elegance of those cars imprinted on me in a way that I never quite got over. To this day my sense of design in automobiles is more compelled by graceful, assertive curves that trace their lineage back to 1930s Detroit.
By the late 1970s most of the teams had switched over to Pintos, Vegas and Gremlins, which I thought were kind of cool (especially the Gremlins), but when I think back it’s always the older models that I remember.
The culture of minor league stock car racing in the South in the 1970s? Right – working class. People like those at the show in Wheat Ridge yesterday.
A lot of people have grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and earned their way into some capital, be it cash or cultural. Not all of them are as willing to acknowledge their roots as openly as I do, and I empathize with their inner struggles. As I note in the “which fork to use” article I link at the top, society isn’t always forgiving when it comes to uppity working class types, and if they feel they need to keep the redneck in the closet for their own good, I can’t fault them.
For me, though, there’s something energizing in the tension between the art and material culture of the class I inhabit now and the one in which I grew up. There is a way in which the Wheat Ridge audience contextualizes the beauty of these artifacts that is wholly incompatible with a middle class or upper class aesthetic. At the same time, there is a place in which the two overlap, a shared terrain of essential shape and color, a shared history regarding form and function, and I find myself fascinated by the possibility of finding the artistic moment upon which we can all agree.
I took some shots yesterday that I really like, and maybe I succeeded in extracting from a working class ritual something that an elite eye might also appreciate.
If not, I’m going to keep trying. Happy ArtSunday.
Monday it was in the 80s here in Denver. This weekend the forecast calls for pretty, seasonal weather in the upper 50s. But today is May Day, the midpoint of springtime. What better opportunity for Mother Nature to show off a bit.
Here’s Ronan MacScottie, out for his morning constitutional a few minutes ago.
Happy Beltane, everyone. Here’s hoping your day is as beautiful as ours.
Good morning, everyone. Here’s hoping your ArtSunday is off to a sunny start.
A couple of us with strong S&R ties are entered in the Doors Open Denver photo contest and would really appreciate your support. In order to convince you that we’re worthy, we’re even going to give you some pretty shots to look at.
Up first, me! I have four shots entered (two in the Exteriors category, one in Interiors and one in Building Details). This is “Butterfly,” which probably represents my best chance.
My first exterior is “Janus”…
…and the second is “Treble.”
Finally, my Building Details entry is “Footwork.”
Registration is required to vote, but it’s quick and painless. You can register and view all the entries here.
Vote for my shots at these page links (or simply scroll down on the page linked above and click as you go).
Up next, Greg Thow. Greg is a mainstay at S&R’s sister site, 5280 Lens Mafia, and we’ve also featured his work here a few times, so regular readers are hopefully familiar with him. My assessment of Greg’s entries is fairly simple: the rest of us are playing for second. I’d ask you to throw some stars his way, as well.
The first shot to note is “Red Dawn,” which I expect to win every prize they have.
This is called “To the Heavens.”
And finally, “Taking the Fifth.”
We’re grateful for any and all support, and we’d be even more grateful if you’d pass this link along to your friends who appreciate photography.
See more of Greg Thow’s photography at Denver Digital Photography.
More of my work can be found at Samuel Smith Photography.
It’s become a little too common a story:
- police thugs beating the hell out of a citizen (who may or may not have done anything)
- citizen with camera takes pictures or video of police abuse
- police arrest photographer
- because apparently it’s illegal to record police brutality
The new trend is to make photographing the police illegal, although they will also arrest you for “obstructing law enforcement” – something you can apparently do from a distance. The Ministry of Homeland Security even wants us to view public displays of photography as potential terrorist activity.
But in Boston last week, the authorities were singing a very different tune, begging citizens to review their stills and video from the site of the Marathon bombings for clues to the identity of the attackers. How convenient. And utterly hypocritical. Carlos Miller over at PhotographyIsNotACrime is dead on the money.
After more than a decade of profiling citizens with cameras as potential terrorists, law enforcement officials are now hoping these same citizens with cameras will help them nab the culprits behind the Boston Marathon terrorist explosions.
Adding to the hypocrisy is that these same authorities will most likely start clamping down on citizens with cameras more than ever once the smoke clears and we once again become a nation of paranoids willing to give up our freedoms in exchange for some type of perceived security.
After all, that is exactly how it played out in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks where it became impossible to photograph buildings, trains or airplanes without drawing the suspicion of authorities as potential terrorists.
In fact, the Department of Homeland Security along with the FBI routinely advises that photography in public must be treated as suspicious activity – even after a federal lawsuit forced DHS to acknowledge there is nothing illegal about photographing federal buildings.
I have friends who have been hassled by the police and private security for engaging in perfectly legal activity, and I even had a rent-a-cop try to chase me away from a parking deck once even though it wasn’t the subject of my shooting. Since the authorities are unacquainted with the Constitution and the law, it’s up to us to help them.
So, if you’re a shooter, read this from the ACLU. In fact, print out a copy and stick it in your camera bag. While we’re at it, here’s a nicely constructed one-pager called The Photographer’s Right from Bert Krages, a nationally recognized attorney and photographers’ advocate. If you’re confronted by police or security, be polite, but feel free to assert your basic Constitutional rights.
Thanks to Lisa Wright for pointing me at this story and to Stuart O’Steen for the Photographer’s Right link.
I wrote my first poem when I was a senior at Ledford High School in Wallburg, NC. It was called “Octoberfaust,” and while it wasn’t a terribly good poem, it wasn’t bad for a 17 year-old having his first crack at something brand new. My English teacher, a guy named Jim Booth, whom S&R readers may have heard of, was very encouraging, and a poet was born.
That was in the fall of 1978, which means I have been a poet for nearly 35 years – my entire adult life and then some. During that time I have written four books (none of which are published) containing roughly 119 poems, depending on how you count certain multi-parters. Some have been very short, some have been quite long. A few are fairly conventional, while some are radical in how they challenge our assumptions about form, purpose and content. They cover some predictable subject matter – love and loss, family, life and death, politics, art, literature, poetry – and some less expected topics, like the suite in my most recent book that plays with the hypothetical intersection between trickster tales, Zen spiritualism and quantum physics. They lionize those I revere and savage those I feel have done me wrong. (You know who you are.) Some look hard at the world around me, while many cast a frank eye on the fucked up emotional terrain inside my head.
I think I’m pretty good (although, as you’ll see shortly, this opinion is not unanimously held). The Butterfly Machine, completed last summer, is my masterpiece, such as it is, and the other three books all have something to commend them. A number of the poems have been published: some have appeared in traditional places that are highly regarded (like Cream City Review) or were before they closed their doors (New Virginia Review, Amaranth Review, High Plains Literary Review, Poet & Critic). Others have been pubbed (or are forthcoming) in the small, innovative new journals and anthologies (print and online) that I believe represent the future of poetry (like Dead Mule, Amethyst Arsenic, Pemmican, Poetry Pacific, Manifest West, and Uncanny Valley).
I have also been rejected. Boy howdy, have I been rejected. I’ve been blown off by the biggest journals in all of literature, and I’ve also been sent on my way by small, obscure outlets (and everything in between). I couldn’t really tell you what the ratio of rejections to acceptances has been, but a whole lot to not many. In sum, while I think I’m a great writer and have found a few editors who agree, we are a minority. And not an especially large one.
I’m incredibly proud of my publication credits and am grateful to the editors who saw the value in my writing. To each of them, and to all the friends and colleagues who have supported me along the way, I’d like to say a huge thanks. You have no idea what you have meant to me.
With that said, I’m here today to announce my retirement from poetry. I know, I know – about as many people care that I’m quitting as cared that I was writing to start with, which is to say not many. These are fantastic folks, but if you got them all together they wouldn’t fill up the banquet room at the Sizzler (although, granted, it might be a little crowded if you seated them in the corner booth at Denny’s).
Wait…I’m quitting poetry because I expected to be doing arena tours? No, no. You don’t get into poetry if you’re after a large readership. It’s a quality-over-quantity decision, and if you’re going to be good you have to answer to the call of a muse, not the demands of the audience. Poetry is art, not product, and while we all want as many people to read what we write and to grasp whatever wisdom and beauty is contained therein, as you start worrying about anything but the purest essence of the the whispered insight you will lose the edge that makes you worth reading. Put another way, you have to do what you do and hope people like it. You can’t do what you think people will like.
So no, this isn’t about mass fame, and it certainly isn’t about money. Nobody makes money as a poet. There aren’t any galleries where people walk in, sample your craft and buy a poem to hang on the wall over the fireplace. There aren’t any touring poetry companies that pack the house everywhere they go. Cirque du Poetry won’t be setting up a tent in your town, nor can you go see their tribute to Mary Oliver at the Venetian in Vegas. And while there are recordings of poets reading their work, I don’t think I’ve heard of one going platinum. If you hope to make a living at poetry, the best you can hope for is that you’re good enough to land a professorship in Creative Writing. If it’s tenure track at a major research university, publications will figure into your promotion. But your job is professor, not poet.
I became a poet fully understanding the rules, fully understanding that there would never come a day when I had a large audience or got rich. But I did do so with the hope, and perhaps even the expectation, that I could and would attain a measure of renown within the world of poetry itself. I might not become America’s most famous poet, I thought, but when those who knew and loved the genre talked about who they thought was really good, my name might come up. I would be accepted, if not routinely, then at least occasionally, by our most prestigious literary journals. I would be invited to read at literary festivals. My work would be taught in English surveys and seminars, and if you went to an academic conference – perhaps one like MLA – you might hear professors or doctoral candidates giving papers on my writing. And hopefully, the critical consensus would be that I changed the landscape a little, that I innovated, that I busted up the corrosive banality that has plagued poetry for the last 50 years or so.
This was my dream. This was the plan.
Of course, it never happened. I have bitched plenty about the entrenched poetry establishment (trust me, there is one) and about the prevailing stylistic tendencies that make reading the average elite journal about as compelling as watching mold creep across a slab of white bread. There are external targets galore if I want to blame others. But even if it’s all true, the inescapable fact is that most of the fault is mine. On a couple of occasions – including the moment when I was completing my MA in English/CW and should have been launching out after my first university teaching position – I let my frustration with the aforementioned establishment get the better of me. When I see stupidity – especially broad institutional stupidity – I sometimes have this tendency to say fuck it and walk away. There are other things I can do with my life.
Which is true, but said institutions don’t lament your leaving, even if they notice it, and they damned sure don’t wait for you to come crawling home like some dearly missed prodigal genius. When you decide later that you’re ready to give it another run, you realize that you’ve fallen behind another generation of people. Some are talented, and some are possessed of a near-pathological stick-to-it-iveness, which means that your chances of landing a job are even less than they were before.
Had I gotten past my frustrations, I would certainly have faced rejections and competition and an ongoing battle with the dominant aesthetics of the day, to say nothing of the routine pissant politics that come with working in academia. But these fights…I might well have won a few. Even at my current rejection rate I’d have several more pages of publications, and if it were something other than a hobby, I might have ten books instead of four, 1000 poems instead of 119, a prize or three, and even tenure. I wouldn’t be rich, but I’d be solvent and I’d have good benefits. Would I be happy? I don’t know. Hopefully. I might have met and fallen in love with someone who shared my passion for art and literature. I’d exist in an atmosphere of professional validation. I’d go to work every day in an environment where my art was appreciated, at least theoretically.
All of which is to say that I’m blaming no one but myself. My life and career have been the result of my decisions for the most part, and the hand I’m playing today is one I dealt.
I have been thinking for the last few months, ever since I finished The Butterfly Machine, that I may be done. Not only have I been having this conscious, rational debate with myself, but the book itself ended in a way that seemed to be trying to tell me something. It closed in a watershed, sort of, in a sense that a chapter was over and it was time for something new. Maybe that meant a new phase in my life was beginning, and that it would bring something new to write about. But over time, I have had less and less interest in writing poetry. And less and less conviction that I was ever going to feel differently.
Last summer I bought my first camera. I have long enjoyed the photography of others, and have also wished that I had some faculty for the visual arts. Sadly, I can’t draw a decent stick man. But you don’t have to be able to draw to shoot.
As it turns out, I have some great friends who are also photographers – very, very good ones – and they all encouraged me. They shared tips, answered questions, told me what I was doing right and wrong, and the result is that in less than ten months I have gotten to the point where … well, I’m not great by any stretch, but I’m better than most people who have been at it less than a year.
So far I’ve had one shot featured by Visit Colorado and several more by Visit Denver. The Visit Colorado shot (“Ed,” the horse pic that was also my first sale) got over 2,500 likes and almost 450 shares. I’m not sure that all of the poems I ever wrote have been read by 2,500 people combined, and I’d bet the farm that those who have read them haven’t shared them with their friends 450 times.
Earlier this month I actually sold three of my photos at First Friday. Three people paid money for my photography. That’s a mind-shattering thing to happen to a poet. Somebody walks in off the street and likes your art enough to fork over actual cash so they can take it home and hang it on their wall. I’ll be back in that same gallery for First Friday in May, and the other day a couple of my shots went up in a restaurant here in Denver (with several more going up in a different venue shortly).
The more I have learned about photography, the more I have shot, the more I have honed my technical skills, the less I have cared about poetry. The artist is still alive and kicking in me, but he’s moved on and taken up new tools of expression. He likes being recognized, being validated for his vision. He sees, maybe, an opportunity to have a measure of the personal and artistic reward in this new genre that he dreamed of, but never attained, in the other one.
And he’s keenly aware that every second he spends trying to make words behave in a way that moves a hypothetical reader is a second he can’t spend taking and processing an image that moves an actual viewer.
So this is it: goodbye, poetry. I have loved you deeply and faithfully for most of my life. At some point, though, I have to accept that you simply don’t love me back. Perhaps that’s mostly my fault, but in the end, we have grown apart and I see no path to reconciliation.
I wish you well. I hope you thrive and find others to take my place, people who will love you more even than I do. You deserve it.
I leave you with a poem, the one my last book ends with…
To Be Continued (Ars Poetica)
I expected more from the end of the world. But the
sun came up the following morning. A herd of
pronghorn loiters near Gunnison.
Castle Rock weathers timelessly.
Cars accelerate. Ghost towns
wither in the rearview.
Coyote says: the world ends
more than you realize.
Last Wednesday makes twice
I know of.
The apes we once were
shivered at the howling moon, wove
gods of war from their dread.
The apes we still are
spin plots from mud and iron,
vapor and deadwood,
swatches of tattooed skin.
Raven says: harbingers are shiny things,
strung with hair,
flecked with blood.
Fox says: narratives are either
rationalization or conspiracy.
Something happened. Then
something else happened.
The world ends
not with a bang,
not even a whimper, but
… and a picture. I call it “The Persistence of Time.”
“To Be Continued (Ars Poetica)” originally appeared in Pemmican in June, 2011 and this past fall was anthologized in Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography.