return of the sunday salon

I’ve been shooting photographs for most of my life. I’m a competent photographer. But for most of my life, I was also pretty ignorant about the history and culture of photography. Oh, I knew the names of some of the Big Hats in photography and could probably recognize some of their photos. But I had no real understanding at all of what had been done in photography, or who had done it, how they’d done it, or what they were thinking when they did it. I was the Jon Snow of photographic culture. I knew nothing.

So I set out to correct that. I decided to educate myself. I did it in a fairly haphazard and casual way– picking a photographer who’d caught my attention for some reason and doing some research on them. I also decided to share what I’d learned. At the time, I was the managing editor for Utata, an online collective of smart, creative, funny, curious people who enjoyed photography and discussion in equal measure. So I wrote a short essay on the photographers I studied and used those as a foundation for discussion in the group’s online forum on Flickr.

It was fun at first. I did an essay every week. Then after a while, it was every other week. It was still basically fun, and I learned a lot. But after a few years, it became a chore. A pleasant chore, for the most part, but still a chore. And like one does with a chore, I began to find reasons to avoid doing it.

And then I stopped.

I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I continued to read about photographers and think about their work, but the idea of writing an essay about them…well, it was simply too much unpaid labor. The last Sunday Salon was published in July of 2017.

A year or so later I learned a change in Flickr’s API (I have no idea what an API is, but it changed) had essentially gutted the Sunday Salons; they were no longer available online. Nobody could see them. I was okay with that. I didn’t really care. The salons had been a personal project, after all, and I’d accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. If they were gone, they were gone.

A few years went by. A few folks would occasionally mention something they’d learned from the salons, but I gave them little or no thought. Until about a year ago, when I got the urge to write another one. But I didn’t do it. I mean, why write an essay for a site that couldn’t display them? But I got in touch with Utata’s tech ninja, David Winkinson, who is one of the most thoughtful, generous, and considerate tech ninja’s ever. Would it be possible to resurrect the old site? The answer was ‘Not entirely; not the photos.’ But he said he could restore the text and establish it on his personal server. And before I could say, ‘Don’t bother’ he went right ahead and bothered.

And there it was. 170 or so essays. Somewhat buggered up, to be sure, but all the bones were there. They just needed to be collected, put in order, and fleshed out with photo examples from each photographer.

So I’ve spent the last few months sporadically noodling around, rebuilding the damned thing. I have absolutely NO skill at graphic design. I’m not even sure ‘graphic design’ is the appropriate term for what I’m talking about. But I cobbled the Sunday Salon together after a fashion. I’d have spent more time trying to figure out how to make it more presentable and more useful, but last week Adolfo Kaminsky died.

Violinist, 1945, by Adolfo Kaminsky

Odds are, you’ve no idea who Adolfo Kaminsky was. But you should. So I wrote a Sunday Salon about him (yes, I know today isn’t Sunday, but c’mon, let’s not get fussy at this point). Click on the link if you’re interested.

So here you go. The return of the Sunday Salon. You can find them all right here. Or just click on the Sunday Salon link at the top of the page.

drive-by

I went for a drive on Thursday.

No, wait. It would be more accurate to say I went for a ride; I didn’t do any driving, I was just a passenger. It would be even more accurate to say four of us decided to visit a small town and have lunch in some local cafe (or diner or bakery or brewery or whatever passes for a lunch spot in that particular small town), and while we were out, I shot some photos. This is something we do periodically. After we eat we tend to tool around fairly randomly and see what there is to see. We may tour the town (if it’s big enough to actually tour), we may wander along the surrounding back roads.

I generally sit in the front passenger seat and shoot photos. Sometimes we stop and I shoot photos, sometimes I shoot photos out the window, sometimes I convince the driver (my very patient and obliging brother) to stop, turn around, drive back to something I thought might make an interesting photo.

My point, if you can call it that, is that on Thursday we…well, we did that. It was a chilly, occasionally breezy day with a steady fall of exceedingly fine snow. I don’t mean fine in terms of high quality or excellence (although as snow goes, it was pretty fine); I mean fine in terms of texture and delicacy. It was mostly a light, powdery sort of snow; it made the world look like it had been dusted with a sprinkling of powdered sugar.

Two things. One, I used to bring one of my cameras on these ventures, but for the last few years I’ve mostly used my phone for this sort of photography. Two, in winter I tend to shoot in black-and-white. I know it makes more sense to shoot in color and convert it to b&w; you have greater control over the final image. But there’s some weird trigger in my brain that says, “Hey, old sock, if you’re going to make black-and-white photos, commit to it.” It doesn’t make any sense, but there it is.

Over the years I’ve used half a dozen different dedicated b&w phone apps. So far, I keep gravitating back to an app called Vignette, which is a very flexible app that allows you to create a number of different camera profiles. I bang it around until I get a b&w setting that meets my general needs and aesthetic, then save it. Every time I buy a new phone, I sort of recreate that setting (although the recreated version is never quite the same as the previous, I’m okay with that).

All of the photos here are drive-by photos. They were shot through the passenger side window (which, of course, was closed because it’s fucking winter here). There’s always a part of me that wishes the window was perfectly transparent, and a conflicting part of me that likes the fact that the window conditions change and the photos change accordingly. The window might be a tad foggy with condensation, or it might be streaked with water or melting snow, or even spattered with mud or road grime. It all finds its way into the photo.

Drive-by photography is ridiculous. It’s all about predicting an image–seeing what’s up ahead and visualizing what it might look like when you get there. If that’s loopy enough, you then have to anticipate what’s coming and try to time the shutter release (okay, there’s no actual shutter in a cellphone, I know that, but you know what I mean) to correspond with what you hope will be a proper composition. That’s another issue with the Vignette app: the shutter lags. Just a moment, but it’s a fairly predictable moment. Which means if you’re using Vignette to shoot a drive-by photo, you have to factor that lag into the equation.

Half the fun of drive-by shooting, of course, is not quite knowing what you’re going to get. You make a number of guesses and predictions based on your experience and intuition and your understanding of the technical concerns, and hope for a good result. Most times, you guess wrong. But sometimes you guess just right and the photo is what you hope it will be. I guessed right (or close enough to right) on the photos you see here. None of them has been cropped, but most of them have been rotated slightly to straighten the horizon line.

The snow helped. Not just because it was pretty, but because we were driving more slowly. That gave me more time to evaluate the shot and a larger margin of error.

There are few finer ways to spend a weekday, when all the normal employed people are at work and out of the way. Good company, good food (usually), good drink (usually), and the serendipitous exploration of some place we have no real reason to visit other than whim. I count myself very fortunate that I get to do this.

riding slowly on a bike, looking around me, enjoying myself

Half of the US on fire–unprecedented wildfires are destroying homes and businesses and live in the west. Half of the US is under water–unprecedented flooding is destroying homes and businesses and lives in the east and south. And half of the US is suffering from an unprecedented heat wave.

So I went for a bike ride.

The early part of my ride was through the woods…

For some perverse climatic reason, the local weather has been absolutely gorgeous this week. Temps in the shallow end of the 80s, low humidity, light breeze. It’s like we’re in a pocket of beautiful weather surrounded by nightmare climate change. It’s temporary, of course. I know that. Assuming the weather forecasters are correct (hush, it could happen) next week promises to be miserable.

So yeah, on Thursday I went for bike ride. Didn’t feel at all guilty about the good weather. It wasn’t a long ride. Just under 20 miles. And I took my time, stopping periodically to shoot a photo or take a drink or indulge my curiosity. In other words, it was a nice, leisurely ride. I didn’t have any destination in mind; I just wanted to be on the bike.

…and then through a semi-industrial area that was home to lots of groundhogs…

That’s my usual approach to cycling. I don’t ride for exercise or to keep fit; I don’t ride to save gas or limit my carbon footprint. I ride because it’s fun, because it makes me happy, because it makes me feel like I’m twelve years old and skipping school. That’s why I like to ride on weekdays, when all the decent, employed people are hard at work.

Riding on weekdays also means I often have the bike paths and trails all to myself. When I do encounter other cyclists, they’re usually folks like me. Relaxed, lackadaisical riders who are maybe retired, maybe unconventionally employed, maybe skipping work. Only occasionally do I encounter stern cyclists wearing spandex and riding serious road bikes, putting in the grim miles in the name of…I don’t know, physical fitness or time trials or something that is amenable to measurement. I’m confident they’re also riding for the pleasure of it, just like me–but it’s a radically different sort of pleasure. I slow down and let them zip by me.

…then into what I call the Valley of Enormous Warehouses, a favorite hunting ground for hawks…

It’s not that I believe my approach to cycling is better than the serious cyclists. Well, maybe I sorta kinda DO believe that, but only because I personally find more value in connecting with the world at large rather than focusing primarily on yourself. I’ve been a serious, spandexed cyclist; I like to think I’ve outgrown it (which I recognize is arrogant as fuck). I had a good road bike and I rode it seriously, as fast as I could, focused on the road ahead of me–sometimes just a few yards ahead of me, sometimes a more expansive view. But I gave little attention to what was on either side of me. Part of that was because of the way road bikes are designed–the rider leans forward in an aerodynamic pose, which limits your vision. It was also partly because road bikes are designed for speed, and the faster you go the more you have to pay attention to the road.

…and along a marsh, where I saw herons and red-winged blackbirds…

Then, many years ago, on a whim, I bought a mountain bike. The riding posture was more upright, which allowed me to…well, look around as I rode. And I had a moment of clarity. There was stuff happening around me as I rode. And that stuff was interesting. Birds and animals. Buildings and people. Scenery. Colors. The whole damned world, right there all around me all the time, and I’d given it no attention at all.

I started riding more slowly. I started looking around. I started smiling and laughing when I rode. Riding became more enjoyable, more fun, more pleasant.

…and I came across this abandoned building for sale; I rode around it a couple of times before stopping to peek in the windows, but some wasps encouraged me to get back on the bike…

I got rid of that road bike. Now I ride a massive fat tire electric bike. It’ll go fast if I want it to, but I’ve little interest in going fast. I generally just cruise casually along, probably around 10-12 miles per hour, looking at stuff. Sometimes I just enjoy the motion of the bike, and I’ll glide along as long as I can without stopping. Sometimes I stop fairly often. To look at something, or to sit on a bench and drink some water, or to feed peanuts to crows (yes, I have a bag of raw peanuts in a pannier for those times when I encounter crows–and yes, I also keep a crow caller in the same bag in case I don’t encounter crows but want to). Sometimes I stop to shoot a photo or buy a cupcake or pet a stranger’s dog.

…then I stopped by a pond and for a few minutes sat on a bench; I had a drink while watching an old guy fishing with (I presume) his grandson…

Frances Willard, the 19th century women’s suffragist, wrote that learning to ride a bicycle helped her find the courage and determination she needed to lead a movement. She said,

“I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed. She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.”

I agree with her that cycling is a great teacher, though I think the notion of trying to gain mastery of life is a mug’s game. Cycling is fun, but it hasn’t given me mastery of anything. What it has given me is genuine pleasure and moments of joy. There’s a certain purity in the joy and pleasure that comes with cycling. It’s unalloyed pleasure, undiluted, uncontaminated and unblemished because it’s so simple.

…and near the end of my ride, I stopped at the Wade Franck Plaza, named for a cyclist killed by a negligent driver. It has bathrooms, maps of local bike trails, a bike repair station, and fresh water.

A couple of weeks ago I rode my bike through a gaggle of Canada geese. These large birds gather around the many ponds here; they’ll casually step aside as you ride through them, but they are completely unimpressed by bikes (or cars and trucks, for that matter). As I was riding slowly through them, some of them took flight. For a moment–probably no more than six or seven seconds–the geese and I were moving at the same speed. I was surrounded by half a dozen flying Canada geese. It was glorious.

That will probably never happen again. It only happened because I was riding slowly on a bike, looking around me, enjoying myself.

840 thursdays

On April 20, 2006–a Thursday–a friend issued a very minor challenge in the Utata group on the photography sharing site Flickr. She said, “I’m going to go for a walk and take a few photos; join me.” And what the hell, we did. Virtually, of course, since the membership of Utata is scattered all over the globe. We went for a walk, we took a few photos, and we shared some of them in the group.

That was 840 Thursdays ago. Utata has been walking–and shooting a few photos–every Thursday since. That’s just over sixteen years of Thursdays.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Sixteen years of people walking and shooting photos. Sixteen years. Not everybody in the group walks on Thursdays, of course. And of those that do walk, we don’t walk every Thursday. But every Thursday, somebody in the group is walking somewhere and taking photographs.

Of those 840 Thursday Walks, I’ve participated in nearly 300 walks. I’ve walked on other Thursdays, but I haven’t always submitted a photograph to the project.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

My favorite thing about the Thursday Walk project is that it’s so flexible. There are no rules, no guidelines. You take a walk, you see something that interests you at that moment, and you photograph it. Subject–doesn’t matter. Aspect ratio–doesn’t matter. Color or b&w–doesn’t matter. DSLR or mirrorless camera or point-and-shoot of Polaroid or cell phone–doesn’t matter.

Walk. See something. Photograph it.

Thursday, February 1. 2018

I often combine my Thursday Walk with an errand. A run to the market, say, or a trip to the Post Office. But the flexibility of the project extends way beyond that. A bike ride can also be safely included as a Thursday Walk. A visit to a fair or an amusement park, perfectly legit. A bus ride, close enough. It’s not the actual walking that matters; it’s getting out and looking at stuff.

As far as that goes, since the membership of Utata is global, we’re flexible in terms of time zones. For the purposes of the project, Thursday includes Wednesday morning to Friday night–because somewhere on the globe, it’s Thursday.

Friday, March 20, 2015

So my Thursday Walk images are a hodgepodge of color and b&w, of alleyways and farm fields, of interiors and exteriors, of cityscapes and landscapes, or people and trees, of bike paths and bridges, of mornings and nights, of floods and dry creekbeds, of rainstorms and sunny days, of strangers and friends and selfies, of small towns and deep woods and suburbs and ice cream shops and market shelves and lawn ornaments.

The only thing that unites them is they were taken on the extended Thursday of Utata. And to me, that’s much of the joy.

Thursday, February 19, 2013

It’s such a simple thing, and yet it’s completely wonderful–and I mean wonderful in the old sense of the term. It leaves me full of wonder. There’s no logical reason for people all over the world to do this–and yet they’ve continued to do it for more than sixteen years. I should say we have continued to do it for more than sixteen years.

I have to stress the we because I stepped away from the group for a while. For a couple of years, in fact. I’d been the managing editor of Utata for most of its existence, and I ran some of the group projects–until I became burned out. Then I stepped back a bit and let others step up. Then I stepped away almost completely.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

But now I’m beginning to miss the group again. I miss the people and I miss the interaction and I miss walking on Thursdays. I can’t say I’ll be actively engaged with the group again, because I probably won’t. Certainly not like I used to be. But spending time with smart, creative people–even virtually–is a treat.

However, here’s the thing: what I need to do, if I want to engage with that group again, is make photography part of my ordinary day again. I have to make it habitual behavior. I have to start thinking about it again. Which is why I’m writing this. If I say it in public, I’m more likely to follow through.

Probably.

good morning and welcome to the waffle house

I woke up around 0530 this morning. I don’t sleep as much as I used to, though I generally sleep better. I have fewer nightmares, which is good. Fewer and less intense. And I seem to be better at remembering good dreams. This morning I remember dreaming about ordering breakfast at a Waffle House.

I’m sitting here in the kitchen in the heart of the American Midwest, drinking my cold brew coffee, craving hash browns, covered and chunked. Unless you’ve spent some time in a Waffle House–which is to say, unless you’ve lived in the American South–that won’t mean much to you. It’s probably been twenty years since I’ve set foot in a Waffle House, but I know in my bones I can walk into any Waffle House in any town and ask for hash browns covered and chunked, and they’ll know exactly what I want. It’s not code, exactly; it’s culture. I could make my own hash browns, of course. I could add some diced up ham and cover it all with melted cheese. But it wouldn’t be the same.

It’s 44F this morning. Unreasonably and unseasonably chilly, so I’ve been forced to put on socks and sweat pants–which I sorta kinda resent (I mean, c’mon, we’re three weeks into May, for fuck’s sake) and sorta kinda enjoy (it’s not so much the warm feet, although I like that; it’s that brief delicious pleasure of sliding my feet into warm socks). It feels like a late October morning in the South. The cat clearly thinks the chilly weather is bullshit, so is seeking extra attention this morning. I’m okay with that. Cats are warm.

The cool weather and the Waffle House dream have me feeling particularly nostalgic and Southern today. I enjoy the quiet too much to put on music, but in my head I’ve been hearing Mahalia Jackson, Mattie Moss Clark, and Tennessee Ernie Ford singing gospel music. I’m not even remotely Christian, but that was the Sunday morning music I grew up with. Snatches of Just a Closer Walk with Thee will drift through my head for a while this morning. As the sun comes up and the coffee disappears and the cat retreats to some quiet spot where she can curl up and sleep undisturbed, that music will gradually fade away again.

There. I’ve rinsed out my coffee mug. I’ve done today’s Wordle. I’ve read all the news I want to read (it’s still to early to read the news and pay attention; I’ll come back to it later, when I’m more willing to deal with reality). The sun has come up enough that I can turn off the kitchen lights. I’d say it’s time to start getting on with the day, but that sounds like I have some sort of plan or agenda to be accomplished. I don’t. I’ll read a bit, maybe go for a bike ride, give some thought to what to prepare for supper, do a few household chores. Since I woke up early, at some point I may take a nap.

There’s a verse of the gospel song Just a Closer Walk with Thee that rarely gets included in the more popular covers. It goes:

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?

I know the lyric is meant to suggest the Lord cares, but since I don’t believe in any lord, I like to interpret the lyric as more tolerant and forgiving. It’s not a license to fuck up, but it acknowledges the universality of fucking up. Everybody fucks up. And everybody is welcome at the Waffle House. Doesn’t matter what you’ve done, if you ask for your hash browns chunked and covered, that’s what you’ll get.

just to explain why i took a photo

Last week while out noodling around I came across a tank. When I say ‘tank’ I mean a decommissioned military tank. An M60 battle tank, to be exact. It’s fairly common when the military starts scrapping old tanks, they offer them to small towns to use as memorials, or to ‘decorate’ public parks or town squares or wherever the hell a small town would like to park one. The US military stopped deploying M60s in 1997.

But this isn’t about the tank, really. It’s about how I photographed it. Which was like this:

A friend asked me a couple of questions about the photo. First, what the hell is this a photograph of? Second, if it’s a photograph of a tank, why didn’t I include the whole tank? Those are valid questions. But they’re difficult to answer.

They’re difficult to answer for several reasons. The primary reason is that I’ve been shooting photos for so long that I rarely actually think about composition. I just kind of know what I want in the frame. Another reason it’s difficult to explain is because shooting a photo seems like it’s just a matter of releasing the shutter (or, with a cell phone, poking the whatsit that initiates the photo). But that moment is the result of a fairly complex process.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the process when I shot this, but I’ll try to recreate my thinking. Obviously, it began by getting out of the car to look at the tank because…well, there was a tank and I wanted to look at it. As I walked around it, I was attracted to that cascade of squarish shapes made by the building–so many different-sized squares of different textures. Then there was that white circle that sort of balanced the round rear tread wheel of the tank. And then there were those sweet vertical lines of the chimney and the light pole. And then I was drawn to that tiny splash of red, and that diagonal slant of the roof of the shed, and even the spade leaning against the light pole. All of those things appealed to me, both individually and as a collective.

I’d be lying if I said I noted all that stuff in that order, but when you’re lining up a shot it’s like your brain is ticking off boxes in a list. That works, that works, that doesn’t–so move a bit, that works. And then there’s some point when your synapses seem to agree that you’ve got all–or most–of the stuff you want in the frame, and you take the photo.

I’d probably have taken that photo even if the tank wasn’t there, because the light and the geometry appealed to me. But it was the tank that drew me to that spot and to me, that wee bit of tank is important to the composition. So, to me, it’s still a photo of the tank. The rest of the tank is implied.

Wait…I think I can explain this better. That same day, I took a photo of an old, rusted out Ford panel truck. Three photos, in fact, but only one photo mattered. Here’s the first photo.

There’s nothing wrong with this as a photo. Again, I composed it intuitively, without a lot of thought. It’s got good lines. The curve of that tree is nice; it sorta kinda follows the shape of the truck. There’s a decent balance to the composition. It’s a perfectly adequate photo, a decent documentation of an old, rusted out Ford panel truck. Nothing wrong with it, but not terribly interesting.

So I got closer. Changed the perspective.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this photo. Again, the composition was casual but deliberate. However, you’ve probably seen ten thousand photos almost exactly like this. A rusty wreck of a vehicle–an artifact of an outdated civilization cast aside in a living environment that will continue to grow while the artifact slowly degrades into nothingness. The best thing about this photo is that it places the panel truck in a larger landscape, which emphasizes how out of place it is. But basically, there’s nothing new to see in this photo.

So I got closer and changed the perspective again.

This is the photo that mattered. I took a bit more care with the composition. I knew I wanted the rust, I knew I wanted the suggestion of a large landscape through the windows, and I knew I wanted the lines of the shattered window and those bubbles formed by the thin layer of ice.

The actual old, rusted out Ford panel truck wasn’t really important; it’s the idea of the old, rusted out Ford panel truck that mattered. It’s a photo of an abandoned vehicle in the same way the first photo is a photo of a tank. The old, rusted out Ford panel truck is implied; you only need to see enough of it to hint at its existence.

The photo of the tank and the final photo of the panel truck are both photos of things that don’t belong there. Was I actually thinking of that when I took those photos? Nope. But after you’ve shot enough photos, a sort of algorithm develops in your brain. It’s like you know at the cellular level that everything in the frame matters, so you become very deliberate about what you keep in and what you keep out.

What you choose to include and exclude is grounded on why you’re shooting the photo. And that’s the thing. You may not be consciously aware that you’re shooting a photo of things that don’t belong where they are, but there’s some chunk of your brain that’s is actively registering that fact. If the tank or the panel truck were what mattered, you’d just photograph the tank and the panel truck. But you keep looking and moving and shifting around until your brain is at least semi-satisfied. Then you take the photo.

Okay, I’ve made the mistake of re-reading this (which I generally try to avoid in these blog posts). It sounds to me like I’m talking bullshit here (which is why I generally avoid re-reading these blog posts). But I’m still convinced that this is how I shoot photos. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve approached something that I wanted to photograph–that I felt was very photographable–and then walked away without taking a single shot because I couldn’t get what I wanted in the frame. There was something in the frame I didn’t want, or something I wanted but couldn’t include. My mind knew it, even if I wasn’t immediately aware of it.

The photographer Marc Riboud once said, “I photograph the way a musician hums.” That makes sense to me. Musicians, even when they’re just idly humming, know without thinking which notes work and which notes don’t. The wrong note ruins the composition.

And there it is.

saturday, noodling around

I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I drove 75 miles to the small former coal town of Humeston, Iowa. Why? Because there’s a tiny cafe. Almost every small town has some sort of tiny cafe or diner. But this one–the Grassroots Cafe–serves a grape salad that’s so good you want to lie on the floor and kick your feet in the air. And the bread pudding would make angels weep that it exists for mortals on the earthly plane.

The Grassroots Cafe

Humeston is a really small town. Population: 465 in 2020. It was the home of the Humeston and Shenandoah Railroad, which in 1881 ran 113 miles from Humeston to (guess where) Shenandoah, Iowa. In its glory days, the H&S RR ran 14 classic 4-4-0 steam locomotives, hauling mostly coal, grain, livestock and occasionally passengers to the slightly larger town of Shenandoah, where the railroad joined up with the Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Railway system. (You may be wondering, “Greg, old sock, what is a 4-4-0 locomotive?” I wondered the same thing and I googled it. You can do the same thing. Don’t be lazy. And stop calling me ‘old sock’.)

This is Humeston.

By the late 1920s, the H&S RR was beginning to fade. The advent of the automobile (and, more importantly, the truck), combined with improved roads, the gradual decline of local coal, and the beginnings of the Great Depression, strangled the small railroad business. The railroad died slowly and in sections, but by the mid-1940s, during the Second World War, it was essentially gone. As the railroad died, so did the town’s population.

Humeston, near the cinder bike path.

Although the railroad is gone, the track left behind became Iowa’s first rails-to-trails bike path. Thirteen and a half miles, from Humeston to Chariton. Unfortunately, it’s also Iowa’s worst-maintained bike path. About half of it is gravel and cinder; the other half is…well, just grass. Sometimes overgrown grass. It’s doubly sad because it’s one of the few bike trails with covered bridges.

Humeston

On arrival in Humeston, I gave in to an impulse. Sometimes you just have to give in to your impulses. You know how it is. You’re on the road, you see a train, you pretty much have to say, “Train” out loud, even though anybody with you can see the damned train. Same with horses and cows (and, I don’t know, maybe sheep? Yeah, probably sheep). Even if you resist saying it aloud, there’s a part of you that’s thinking and wanting to say “Cow” when you see a cow. It just happens.

The photographic equivalent of saying “train” or “cow” is shooting your reflection in a window.

First photo in Humeston

Obviously, I gave in to that impulse. My first thought was that Humeston should be photographed in black-and-white (why yes, I DO have an app I use just for b&w photography–doesn’t everybody?). But the day became so sunny and bright (though still brutally cold) that I quickly abandoned that idea and shifted to my standard photo app.

Selfie with Humeston bench.

And my first photo was, yes, a reflection selfie. There’s no point to it; you just have to do it sometimes. Usually, you do it once and that’s enough; you won’t have to do it again for weeks or months. The impulse has been fulfilled and you can get on with your life. But there are occasions when the itch just doesn’t feel properly scratched until you’ve done it a few times.

Yes, three (3!) reflection selfies in Humeston.

So I wandered around on the streets of Humeston briefly (briefly because 1) it was savagely cold and 2) there isn’t enough of Humeston to wander around at length). It feels like a small town, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a small town in decline. Sure, some of the shops are empty, and some are a wee bit worse for wear, but everybody I met was cheerful and there was a sort of bright enthusiasm to the limited commerce. The aisles of the general store (yes, there’s a general store) were so exuberant that they were almost hallucinatory.

Tripping in Humeston.

As much as I love to visit small towns, I always find myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in one–and deciding it would be awful on so many levels that you’d need an abacus to count them. I have absolutely nothing to base that on, and the people I know who grew up in small towns generally have nice things to say about the experience. But damn.

On the way home from Humeston, we passed through the town of Lucas, Iowa, where we saw this charming little brick building. Of course, we decided to stop and look.

Lucas is so small it makes Humeston feel like a metropolis. Before it was a town, it was just a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad line. The station was established in 1866. A decade later, the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company sank a mine near the station. There was a rich deposit of coal, and by 1880, they’d opened a second coal mine and created a company town. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a company town, it’s basically a town in which practically everything–all the stores, the housing, the local services–are owned by a single company that’s also the sole (or at least the primary) employer. If you wanted to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread, if you wanted to have a boil lanced or a tooth extracted, you paid the money you earned from the company back to the company, before returning to the house you’ve rented from the company.

Lucas selfie with optional shop cats.

By 1890, there were 1300 people living and working for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company in Lucas. But here’s the thing about coal. Once you dig it up, it’s gone. A coal mine without coal is just a big fucking hole in the ground. The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.

Dr. Bell’s office.

There were three antique/craft stores in Lucas. None of them were open during our brief stop, nor was the John L. Lewis Mining Labor Museum (union organizer John Lewis apparently got his first job as a coal miner in Lucas). I doubt that Doc Bell is still in business, but his office is still standing. If you look, you can recognize the bones of the old company town that existed here a century ago.

That was my Saturday. A day spent not doing much of anything–just noodling around in small towns, thinking about stuff, shooting shop-window selfies. In other words, a day well spent.

are bure bampot

Okay, Instagram. As some of you know, I have two IG accounts–one under my own name (or something like it) for the sort of snapshots everybody shoots and another under the pseudonym Knuckles Dobrovic for photo projects (I wrote about my introduction to the devil of IG here).

The first project was more an exercise than an actual photography project. It was basically my way of learning how to use Instagram. I put a thing on a patio table and photographed it. Almost every day for about a year, at different times, with different things, in all sorts of weather. It’s just as ridiculous as it sounds, but it was fun. That project (cleverly titled Things On A Table) started in 2013 and ended in the summer of 2014. At the end of that project, I wrote this:

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

Portsoy

The Knuckles account sat idle for about four years. In January of 2018, I started a second project, which was more pretentious than my first, but equally ridiculous. During my daily walks, I’d stopped periodically and photograph something at my feet–some leaves, a crack in the sidewalk, a lost glove. I decided to layer two or three photos taken on the same day to create a single image. It was weird fun, and it made me happy. That project lasted for about ten months. Then I put Knuckles back on the shelf, where he sat for about four months.

The third project took root while I was playing the game Geoguessr, which involves Google Street View. The game basically drops the player somewhere in the GSV world and you’re supposed to figure out where you are–rural Finland, suburban Arizona, a forest in Brazil, a street in Thailand. I loved the randomness of it; I spent most of the game just wandering around and looking at stuff. So I decided to appropriate images from GSV, modify them a bit, and turn them into black-and-white images. Because it was an art project and art projects are famously pretentious, I decided to limit the project to 100 images–sort of an homage to Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e series, One Hundred Views of Edo (which is actually 119 paintings, but let’s not get fussy). It was the only Knuckles project I was sorry to end.

Maryport

The fourth project was sparked by the onset of the pandemic. The world seemed isolated and a tad disjointed, and I wanted to express that feeling of social dislocation. So I took some of my daily snapshots, diddled with the color a wee bit, digitally sliced it in thirds, then re-arranged the pieces. The result was a photo that didn’t quite make sense, so I called the project Slightly Dislocated. It was fun at first, because the process could be applied to almost any photo style–street photos, landscapes, still lifes, anything but portraiture. But after a few months, it felt forced. The project lacked energy and passion and I just stopped doing it. The last photo of this project was posted in March.

North Queensferry

Now I actively dislike the project. I’ve considered deleting it, but that seems somehow cowardly. If you make a mistake, you should just accept it and move on, not try to hide it. However, even though I haven’t posted anything to the Knuckles account in months, I continue to get notifications about it. It’s like a constant reminder of how much I dislike the last project. The only non-cowardly way to resolve that is to start a new project, one I’d actually enjoy, something to get rid of the bad taste left by the Dislocated project.

A few days ago, when it was cold and windy and my knees hurt, I sat at the computer sliding back and forth between social media, the Geoguessr game, and the work I was supposed to be doing. Three things happened. First, I read a comment about Daidō Moriyama in a forum devoted to Japanese photography. He’s basically the godfather of the are-bure-bokeh style of photography. Are-bure-bokeh roughly translates as “rough, coarse/crude, out of focus.” The style developed in post-war Japan, and it conveyed the way Japanese society was fragmented and alienated and shocked following two atomic explosions and a military occupation by a radically different culture. We’re talking about high contrast black-and-white photos, sometimes savagely abstract, sometimes ordinary but with a sort of leaden feel, sometimes almost frighteningly hallucinatory. It’s a style I’ve been drawn to, but I’ve never seriously attempted to recreate.

Dumbarton

The second thing–almost immediately after seeing the Moriyama comment, I came across a comment in another venue in which somebody was called “a total bampot.” That’s a Scots term, which means “an idiot, a foolish person, a nutcase.” For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, the phrase are-bure-bampot sprouted in my mind, and stuck there.

Flimby

The third thing–after doing a bit of work, I turned back to Geoguesser and found myself someplace on the coast of Scotland (it turned out to be Portsoy). And hey bingo, there was the burr of an idea for a project. An idiotic idea, but still. What if I applied the are-bure-bokeh approach to Google Street View images from Scotland? Are-bure-bampot.

It’s…well, it’s idiotic. A post-war style of Japanese photography applied to Google Street View images of Scotland? Madness. But it would allow me after a fashion to return to the project I’d enjoyed the most, and it would still fall well within what I consider the Knuckles Project Parameters. It would 1) be simple and grow out of something I’d do in an ordinary day, 2) include an element of randomness and serendipity, 3) maybe not be entirely original (how many project are?), but the result would still be uniquely mine, and 4) wouldn’t require any extraordinary effort.

Pitlochry

So what the hell, I tried it. I’ve only made a few images–and only posted three of them on the Knuckles IG account–but so far it amuses me. They’re clearly not in the classic Moriyama style, but I’m okay with that. I’ll keep at it for a while and see what happens. Are-bure-bampot. Rough, coarse/crude, idiotic. Yeah, that has a certain appeal.