time insists on change

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” Brecht was right about that. Time insists on change. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome.

Corning’s Cash Store

In 1893, the International Order of Odd Fellows established Lodge 576, apparently named for General William Tecumseh Sherman — the Union general who famously (or infamously) inflicted total war on the Confederate states during the U.S. Civil War thirty years earlier. The Odd Fellows held their meetings upstairs and leased the ground floor to Corning’s Cash Store.

At some point in the 1940s, the grocery store was sold and Fairground Hardware opened. Mike (I don’t know his last name) bought the place about twenty years ago. In a couple of days, everything in the store will be auctioned off, and Fairground Hardware will become…something else. Possibly a bistro.

Fairground Hardware

The fact that Fairground Hardware lasted as long as it did is something of a miracle. Small, local hardware stores have been failing for more than a decade, driven out of business by big box ‘home improvement’ enterprises and giant retail chains. Online shopping drove the last nail in the hardware coffin.

Fairground Hardware’s survival was due in part to its location; as the name suggests, it’s located directly across from the Iowa State Fairgrounds. During the ten days of the state fair, the hardware store saw a lot of customers — drawn in more by the store’s appearance and its peculiar inventory. A lot of people enter the store just to look around.

That was certainly what first attracted me to the store. I occasionally eat at a working class diner on the corner opposite Fairground Hardware, and I always found myself intrigued by the store. Not so much the structure itself, but by the fact that it was called a hardware store, and yet the shop windows contained an assortment of cowboy hats, old radios, oddly shaped tin canisters, and ancient advertisements for products I’d never heard of before.

The interior of the shop makes the shop windows seem almost normal. Yes, there are some of the things you’d expect to find in a hardware store — wood screws, paint brushes, wrench sets, replacement parts for water heaters and toilets, mallets, cold chisels, shovels, crank-neck gouges, screwdrivers. But scattered throughout the store are things you do not expect to find in a hardware store — things that have nothing to do with hardware at all. Things that have nothing to do with normal reality.

Stepping into Fairground Hardware is like stepping into a set for a David Lynch film. The mix of normal and not-normal is wonderfully disorienting. Above a display of sockets for wrenches, you’ll find brightly colored fishing lures hung on a line like holiday ornaments. A plastic lobster is affixed to a ceiling water pipe, under which is a selection of coils of industrial wire. An old leather horse collar hangs from a peg-board along with some gardening tools.

Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods? Those can’t be actual canned goods. Can they? Can they?

Maybe the shelving made sense at one point in time. But it seems clear that in recent years none of this stuff was placed where it is as part of a merchandising strategy. It’s equally clear it hasn’t been placed simply to astonish the customers. I can’t say how Mike decided to put anything where he did, but walking through the store it feels more like he simply had a thing in his hand and saw a place without a thing, and so put the thing in his hand right there. And that’s where it stayed.

Mike himself, the owner, you couldn’t call him a ‘character’. Not really. I’ve probably gone into Fairground Hardware once or twice a year for the past few years. He can probably tell I’m just there to look, not to shop — and for the most part, he’s remained quiet and reserved. But when he decides to talk, he talks. You can’t get him to stop. And he’ll talk about almost any subject. The Old West, his childhood traumas, Donald Trump (he’s a fan), clowns, the inevitability of change. You can try to ease your way out of the conversation, you can say, “Well, I should probably be goin…”, and he’ll start on another tangent — his issues with his foot, why he prefers baseball caps to other hats, the history of camouflage.

You get the sense that he spends a lot of time alone in that shop — and that he’s been okay with that. He’s not reconciled to the fact that Fairground Hardware is going to close. He’s obviously a tad skeptical of the plan to turn the building into a bistro — you can tell simply by the way he says bistro, as though the term itself smells like bad cheese.

Time insists on change. Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. Because things are the way they are, the authentic weirdness of Fairground Hardware will likely give way to a trendy bistro. In a working class neighborhood. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome. And it’ll be a sad day when Mike has to turn off the ‘Open’ sign for the last time.

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walking thinking plotting shooting photos

I wanted to take a walk yesterday morning. However, according to my weather app, it was only 26F outside (23F with the light breeze, which really isn’t a great difference, but still). Here’s a true thing: I lack the moral fortitude required to force myself outside when it’s that cold. I’ll generally do it, but sometimes it takes a lot of persuasion to convince myself that it’s worthwhile. Sometimes I have to trick myself into it. Which is what I did yesterday.

You know how your ex will sometimes ask you if you want to ride along while she runs and errand? And sometimes you do, and sometimes you really don’t, and sometimes you say “How about if I ride along part of the way, and then you drop me off somewhere so I have to walk home?”. Which, again, is what I did yesterday morning. You may find this hard to credit, but my ex was surprisingly willing — I might even say eager — to drop me off somewhere along the way in the 26F cold so I’d have to walk home.

Which is why I found myself on foot on a bike path — one of those long, straight, unforgiving bike paths that used to be a railroad track — at nine-something in the morning. My weather app was correct; it totally felt like 23F.

I like to walk. Not as a form of exercise; I resent the entire notion of exercise. I like walking as a form of meditation (I totally suck at sitting meditation, but thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh walking meditation works for me). I also like walking as a vehicle for clear thinking. Yesterday morning I wanted to think about the ending to a story I’ve been working on. Like a lot of writers, I don’t even start to write a story until I have a general sort of ending in mind. Knowing the ending gives you a lot more control over every other aspect of the writing process.

That said, I rarely use the exact ending I envisioned when I began writing. The act of writing almost always opens up other potential endings. I’ve reached that point in the story where I need to solidify the ending. So that’s the primary reason I was out there, walking on a bike path in the cold. I was thinking and plotting.

I say I don’t walk for exercise, and although that’s true it’s also a little less than true. I have a knee injury that benefits from…well, exercise. I could do all that lifting weights and grunting business, which can be enjoyable. But all I need to do is keep the muscles attached to my knee in fairly decent shape. Walking is low impact, as they say. Which is ironic, since it was impact that caused the initial knee injury.

I used to be a counselor in the Psychiatric/Security unit of a prison for women. I had an inmate — a short, round woman about 5’5″ and probably 260 pounds that was mostly muscle — who suffered from a whole constellation of emotional and psychological issues, all of which were exacerbated by the fact that she also suffered from a form of temporal lobe epilepsy that’s associated with aggression and violence. She was in prison for basically destroying a house. Mostly with her bare hands.

When I accepted the job, she was being housed in an old-school St. Louis cell — one of those classic jail cells you see in the movies, with the iron bars and a metal bunk bolted to the floor — in a separate part of the prison. The first time I went to see her they handed me a raincoat, because she tended to hoard her urine in cups and throw it on the staff. Every couple of weeks they had to replace her mattress because she literally ripped them up. Again, with her bare hands. And then she’d urinate on the remains.

Eventually I was able to get her treated for the epilepsy and moved into the general population, but during the first few months on the job I insisted on being present and helping the security staff whenever they had to physically interact with this woman. On one of those early occasions I decided to help replace her mattress. They unlocked the cell, I rushed in, and made a lovely Errol Flynn leap onto the metal bunk. There wasn’t any mattress on it, since she’d ripped it up and peed on it. But the metal bunk was also soaked in urine. Urine, it turns out, makes a metal bunk slippery, so my Errol Flynn leap turned into a mad slide, which resulted in my leg getting semi-trapped between the bunk and the wall. By itself that probably would have been okay, but the inmate grabbed me by my hair (and yeah, I wore it long) and proceeded to yank my head down and bang it against the floor. That made my knee bend in an unfortunate and unnatural way. Which is one of the reasons I need to walk. You know, exercise.

It’s also why I tend to hobble a tad when I begin a walk and hobble a tad more at the very end of a walk. The middle bits, though, are usually pretty enjoyable. Yesterday’s walk home took me through a sort of semi-rural area, into a semi-industrial area, and eventually into a suburb with a wee little park. By the time I left the park — still maybe half a mile from home — my knee was moderately painful. But at least it didn’t seem so cold.

I’m still going to claim insist that exercise is a secondary reason for the walk. The primary reason was to work on the plot resolution. The story is about a pipefitter who supplements his income with the occasional spot of burglary. In one of said burglaries, the guy came into possession of an expensive camera — a Leica M Type 246, which is a purely monochrome digital camera. You might think expensive camera gear would be a dream come true for a part-time burglar. It’s not. That stuff is actually hard to move. Pawn shops won’t touch it without some proof of ownership, because folks who own a camera body worth around US$7000 tend to have insurance, which means the serial numbers have been registered, which further means burglary squads will be nosing around. Camera stores that stock used gear won’t touch it for much the same reason, not to mention they hate camera thieves. You might be able to sell a hot Leica for a few hundred bucks it to a buddy — if you happen to have a buddy who only shoots in black-and-white. Most part-time burglars don’t have that sort of buddy. So the character in the story decides to keep the camera and play around with it. He gets in trouble shooting photos in a park where there are kids playing.

There’s more to the story than that, of course, but that’s the McGuffin that sets the events of the story world in motion. I’m basing it in a very small way on a personal experience. I was never a pipefitter or an occasional burglar, but I did once get in trouble for shooting photos in a park where kids were playing. I hadn’t taken any photos of any kids, but one of the parents apparently thought I might have, so he decided to front me off, demanding I show him the photos on my camera.

Here’s another true thing: I’m a firm believer in civil rights, which includes the rights of photographers. On the other hand, I dislike fuss. So I tried to stand up for my rights without creating more fuss. I told the guy I’d let him see the photos IF he admitted he had no right to see them. He got angry, continued to demand to see the photos, and threatened to call the police. I told him I’d wait for the police, and said I’d only show the photos to the police under the same condition — an admission they no legal right to see the photos. Eventually the guy agreed he had no right to see the photos and I showed them to him. There were, of course, no photos of kids. He walked away without any sort of apology. It was an ugly situation that could have become even uglier. Which is always great fodder for a story.

That business about refusing to show the photos on my camera (or cellphone)? I’ve actually had to do that a few times. On rare occasions I’ve been stopped — usually by a suspicious civilian or occasionally it’s by a security guard — and questioned about why I’m shooting photographs. I was stopped once by a plainclothes Homeland Security agent because I was shooting photos along a railroad track that happened to be by a building used by Homeland Security. And almost exactly a year ago I was stopped by a local uniformed police officer. The Homeland Security guy was mostly concerned that I might have taken a photo that included the license tags of vehicles in the parking lot. The uniformed officer was responding to a complaint. Both of them were professional about it.

I don’t blame folks for wondering what the hell I’m up to when I’m shooting photos. But at the same time, I refuse to abandon my civil rights. Offering to show the photos in exchange for an admission that I’m not legally obligated to do so is my compromise. I suspect the only reason it works is because I’m a white guy. I may look like a thug, but at least I’m a white thug. That radically reduces the odds that I’ll get arrested. Or shot.

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. I’m properly thankful that I can live a life that allows me to just take a walk on any day I feel like it, that I don’t have to worry about getting shot for exercising my civil rights, that Philippe Kahn invented the cellphone camera, and that despite years of neglect and abuse my knees still work.

and the farmer’s market has begun

I have a fair amount of work to do today, so as usual I’ve been procrastinating. Read some reviews of electric bikes, checked out Comrade Trump’s latest rants, did some research on Chromebooks, skimmed a half-dozen or so political blogs, realized it had been maybe two or three years since I’d read Dinosaur Comics, rectified the hell out of that situation (and learned that lightning will mess up toast ), watched two short videos about octopuses and sinkholes (clarification: one video about octopuses and one video about sinkholes, though now I kind of wish there’d been two videos about octopuses IN sinkholes, because that would be epic), and processed a few photos I’d shot at the local Farmer’s Market.

Downtown Farmer’s Market

We have a big Farmer’s Market. Nine city blocks. Forty thousand people showed up on the opening day. We have a free shuttle that runs through the city to ferry folks to and from the market. There’s also a bike valet service if you choose to cycle to the market. This year there are almost 300 vendors. There’s the standard fresh produce, of course, and the farm fresh eggs, and locally raised chickens and goats and all. And there are the usual homemade jams and jellies and salsas and artisan breads and pastries and local cheeses and infused olive oils and fudges.

“Market Management encourages pet owners to leave their dog at home as the environment is not conducive to dogs.” Sure.

But we’ve also got folks who specialize in caramels and caramel products. You like lavender? We’ve a vendor that does nothing but lavender stuff. We have folks who make various types of nut butters. We have a couple of mushroom vendors. There are some women who sell an astonishing variety of dog biscuits and treats. You need a hand-crafted leather duffel bag or maybe a saddle blanket? We’ve a guy who makes them. There’s a vendor who deals in chocolate freeze-dried aronia berries and freeze-dried aronia powder. I don’t know what that is, but he’s there selling it. We have mustard specialists, and a booth that sells a half-dozen different types of Gouda. Lots of places that sell soaps and lotions. We have picklesmiths (which probably isn’t really what they’re called, but I like the term) and a vendor who sells dips and spreads made with goat cheese.

And lawdy, the prepared food. There’s a booth that sells Andalusian street food — a sort of Arabic/Spanish fusion. There’s a ridiculously popular vendor who does nothing but various grilled cheese sandwiches. Hand-crafted root beer and ginger beer. We’ve got folks who serve Hmong cuisine (during and after the war in Vietnam, Iowa took in lots of Southeast Asian refugees — it was, oddly enough, a kinder times). You can buy borscht and perogie and cabbage rolls, you can get falafel and babaganouj, you can get sarma and ćevapi, you can get Salvadoran pupusas and Laotian sien savanh, You can eat yourself into a damned coma.

Everybody puts their trash in the trash cans. Hey, it’s Iowa — we’re nice.

Forty thousand people, mostly getting along. Mostly. I mean, there are some serious live musical conflicts. They tend to space out the different musicians in an effort to reduce that, but inevitably you’ll find yourself halfway between the women singing feminist folk songs and the blues band, and that sparks some dissonance. Or the guys playing the Peruvian flutes (I’m okay with about five minutes of Peruvian flute music, then I begin to hope Comrade Trump decides to invade Peru) will occasionally disrupt the old guy in the seed corn ball cap playing the fiddle. But none of them seem able to drown out the street preacher who insists on telling you loudly that Jeebus loves you while hinting that you’re probably not remotely worthy of it. But somehow that seems to fit right in with the Market ambience.

I love the Farmer’s Market, as much for the sense of theater as for the food and produce. I love the energy and the confusion and the way everybody totally disregards the official plea for folks NOT to bring their dogs. All manner of dogs — from Newfoundlands large enough to pull a tractor out of a ditch to dogs so tiny they hardly qualify as squirrels. It’s a constant source of astonishment to me that the dogs almost never seem to fight. They sniff, they occasionally bark, they bang into each other, and now and then you’ll see one piss on somebody’s shoe — but by and large the dogs just add to the delightful chaos.

This will continue every Saturday until the end of October. That means no matter what madness has overtaken the world at large, there’s always going to be a more appealing madness to be found at the Farmer’s Market.

Personally, I’d advise trying the butterscotch peanut butter. It’s heavenly.

 

 

cows and weird-ass giant ice cream cones

I live a quiet life these days, and I’m glad of it. For years my professional life was busy and important, sometimes a tad risky, often very strange. Now I mostly deal with words and images. Now I take walks.

Last week I had breakfast at a favorite joint directly across the street from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, which is one of my favorite places to walk. There’s usually something going on there — a gun show, a llama/alpaca event, a swap meet for car enthusiasts, something. Last week it was a cow thing.

guy-with-a-bull

This is where I confess to being almost completely ignorant about farm stuff. I know this is a Hereford bull. I know it’s a Hereford because 1) people on Facebook told me it was a Hereford and what the hell, I’ll take them at their word, and 2) I have another photo of this creature in a stall with similar animals, and there’s a small sign identifying them as Herefords. I know it’s a bull because this guy had massive cojones that were the size of cantaloupes. I declare, I don’t know how he was able to walk.

I spoke with the guy for a while. He was quietly pleased. This particular bull had just been sold at auction for enough money to buy a used Harley Sportster.

guy-inna-barn

Here’s a thing I’ve learned about farm folks. They tend to be quiet and sort of shy around strangers, but if they find you’re really interested in them (or in what they do), they’re incredibly friendly. They’re also pretty tolerant of the odor of large mammals and large mammal shit. I mean, they clean it up right quick; farmers are not lazy people. But when you have that many cows lounging around and being moved through the building, you can just count on getting some cow shit in the treads of your sneakers.

While I enjoy the agricultural stuff, that’s not why I walk the fairgrounds. I do it because it’s quiet, and because there’s always some sort of unintended beauty to be found. Like a lot of photographers, I find something attractive in the gradual degradation of buildings falling into disrepair — abandoned factories, old barns, decrepit houses. But there’s something different about the way a fairground degrades.

plywood-and-chait

It’s different because the disrepair is mostly temporary. The fairgrounds is active all year long, but it really only comes alive for a couple of weeks around the end of summer. A few days before the fair begins, folks arrive and start tidying up and re-asserting their footprint on the grounds. Then, of course, you have a week and a half of the fair. After which there are a few days when folks are breaking down their businesses and moving on to the next fair gig.

Then for eleven months things slow down. Eleven months of wind and rain and snow and heat and cold and storms and hail and all that leaves its mark — temporarily. For a photographer, it’s like renewable decrepitude.

closed-for-season

The thing about a fair is that it’s meant to draw the eye and ear. Every corndog stand and deep-fried Twinkie booth and beer emporium and barbecue joint is competing for attention. We’re not talking about gentle competition here. This is a sort of economic combat. It’s a tawdry affair, all flashy color and noise — survival depends on it.

But when it’s over, the bright, garish, vulgarity starts to fade — and it fades quickly. This is a big part of what I love. The visual memory of cheap glitter, and the chance to look behind the make-up and see the bone structure. There’s a surprising amount of beauty to be found.

Some places — not many, but a few — manage to withstand the onslaught of neglect. Even though they’re closed for the season, some places remain loud and gaudy and weirdly attractive. Jalapeno Pete’s, for example. I’ve never been inside JP’s during the fair; it’s always much too crowded. I’ve never had a margarita in their rooftop cantina. But the sheer audacity of the colors, and the name itself — Jalapeno Pete’s — makes it impossible for me to walk past the place without wishing I had.

rooftop-cantina

We won’t see Jalapeno Pete’s open again until August 10th. When it does reopen it’s unlikely I’ll be willing to bang my way through the crowds. But I can enjoy it now.

It’s still February; the fairgrounds is empty except for the farmers and their cows — and the occasional guy wandering around with a camera. It’s February, not as cold as it should be, and quiet. But the fairgrounds offers constant reminds that it’ll eventually be hot enough to warrant ice cream.

But in truth I don’t really care. I’m not here for the ice cream, or a margarita at Jalapeno Pete’s, or the Hereford bulls with their astonishing testicles. I’m here for the weird-ass giant cone.

Like I said, I live a quiet life these days. And I’m glad for it.

cone

there’s a photo, right there

I’m out taking a walk, right? I had an errand to run in a part of town I’ve never been in before, and when I’m done with my errand, I say to myself ‘Dude, long as you’re here, why not take a walk, look around.’ So I do. But the business area turns into a generic suburban neighborhood, and I decide I’m going to take the next left and head back to the car.

Then I see this garage door. I’m thinking to myself ‘Dude, there’s a photo, right there‘, and what happens? Garage door goes up, car pulls into the drive and directly into garage, and a woman gets out and begins unloading groceries.

What am I supposed to do? I can’t just stand there watching this woman unload groceries. That would be totally creepy. I can’t really offer to help her with the groceries, on account of that would be mega-creepy. So I have to continue my walk. I tell myself ‘Dude, you know where the house is — you can come back when nobody’s home‘ which would sound super mega-creepy if folks could hear what I was telling myself, but they can’t so I turn on my heels and start walking again.

I’ve gone maybe twenty-five, thirty yards, and I hear that garage door sound. You know that sound; it’s sort of a mechanical murmur. Anyway I turn, and hey, the garage door is going down again. Only now my brain is caught in the don’t-be-creepy loop, and I start wondering if I go back and photograph the garage now, will anybody in this suburban neighborhood who happens to be looking out their window see me back outside the house and call the police? Which would be understandable in a suburban sort of way.

van-gogh-garage

Then I say to myself ‘Dude, won’t nobody be looking out the window — and even if there IS somebody looking out the window, they probably won’t call the police — and even if they DO call the police, won’t nothing happen on account of all I’ll have to do is say ‘Officer, cast your eyes upon that garage door’ and the officer would say ‘Dude, there’s a photo, right there’ and everything would be cool‘. So I turn around and head back to the house.

I shoot two quick frames, chimp the photos real quick, then I’m back on my way. No police were alerted. No neighbors were alarmed. No grocery-toting woman was creeped out. I call that a good walk.

LSotY

I belong to this odd collective of photographers called Utata. I’ve written about the group and some of its projects before, so I won’t bother you with a description again. I mention it because one of our elastic traditions (by elastic I mean sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t, some of us do it, some of us don’t) is to post the last selfie we took in the year to our Flickr group.

Yesterday was the last day of 2016, so I went searching through my files (I say ‘files’ as if I actually have some sort of organized system of storing photographs, which polite folks would suggest was an exaggeration) for the last selfie I shot. Turns out that was June 20th.

img_20160620_144116

It’s a perfectly acceptable selfie (at least by my fairly low standards), but June 20th was six months ago. And let’s face it, the photo is more about the cat than me. Still, it’s technically a selfie so I figured it would do.

If I had a lick of sense, that would have been it. But no. I decided I should probably take a new photo — a current photo, a photograph that is more clearly a selfie, a photograph with less cat. Did I prepare this in any way? No, I did not. Did I change clothes or shave or even bother to comb my hair? No, I did not. Did I even look in a mirror first? No, I certainly did not. Why didn’t I do any of those things? Because I am, on any number of metrics, a fucking idiot.

Here’s more proof of my idiocy: I picked up my tablet (okay, you’ve almost certainly heard folks say you shouldn’t ever take a photo with a tablet because the cameras suck; turns out that’s true, and it’s even more true when it comes to taking a selfie because the front-facing camera (or is it the rear-facing camera? I don’t know) sucks even more), stepped into the middle of the room where there was the most light, and hey bingo at 5:09 Central time on December 31st, I took a selfie.

dsc_0678-01

It was what you’d call a ‘tactical mistake’. I looked at the photo and thought ‘Lawdy, what the hell was I thinking?‘ It has been pointed out to me on occasion that I often look like a thug in photographs. I think we now have to amend that to ‘an aging thug’. Or maybe ‘a confused, aging thug’. Because, c’mon — just look at that. It looks like I’m concerned the camera is going to eat my soul.

I started to delete the photo, at which point I realized ‘Dude, THIS is the last selfie of the year.’ After a brief moment of horror, I realized I could comb my hair, put on different clothes, find some good light, take a selfie with an actual camera, and then THAT photo would be the LSotY.

But that would be sort of a dick move. Now, I’m perfectly capable of making dick moves. Mostly I make them without thinking. Deliberately making a dick move amplifies its essential dickishness (witness Donald J. Trump’s New Year’s tweet). I couldn’t really do that to Utata, could I. So I was stuck with this photo.

And then I thought of Prisma. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an application created by some Russian developer that doesn’t just apply a filter on top of an existing photo; it actually scans the digital data and uses that information to apply a ‘style’ to a photo. I’ve had the app on my tablet for a few months, but never really bothered to play with it. This seemed like a good time to try it.

Prisma - Udnie

Udnie

Prisma must have around thirty different styles (yeah, I could count them, but really, how likely is that?). The style above is based (loosely, I’d say) on Francis Picabia’s painting Udnie (Young American Girl, The Dance). I don’t see it, myself. But hey, it’s an improvement on the original photo.

It’s much easier to see the connection between the Heisenberg style and the famous Heisenberg drawing of Walter White from Breaking Bad. I like this style, although I have to say it’s a wee bit alarming to see that a Breaking Bad-based style makes me look LESS like a thug than in the original photo.

Heisenberg

Heisenberg

Some of the Prisma styles don’t seem to have any relationship to — well, to anything at all. For example, the Colored Sky style has a lot of color, but I don’t see much sky in it. Unless you’re hallucinating. Or maybe on another planet. The shark eyes are sort of cool, though.

Colored Sky

Colored Sky

And the Aviator style? Seriously, what does this have to do with aviation? It should have been called the Braveheart style. It’s got Mel Gibson as William Wallace splashed all over it. Well, except there isn’t an implied claymore in the photo, and there’s no hint at all of consuming “…the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.” So okay, maybe less Braveheart and more Pogo the Clown.

Aviator (seriously?)

Aviator (seriously?)

The Urban style doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘urban’ unless you’re defining ‘urban’ as ‘scowling like a motherfucker’. Really, I don’t understand where that scowl comes from. I’m a nice guy. Honest. A harmless guy. I’ve never once been convicted of a felony.

Urban

Urban

I suppose it’s appropriate to end this with the Mononoke style. I’m not sure if Prisma named the style after Princess Mononoke, the 1997 anime film by Miyazaki, or the 2007 Mononoke television series about an itinerant medicine seller, or the Japanese term for a supernatural spirit that can inhabit or possess…well, just about anything, it seems. It’s appropriate to end with this style because that’s sort of what Prisma does. It doesn’t lay a filter ON the photo; it digs down into the photo’s data and sort of inhabits the photograph. This is probably the closest approximation of the original selfie; it transforms the photo while still retaining its essential confused, aging thugness.

Mononoke

Mononoke

In general, I’m not a fan of apps like Prisma. I just can’t take them seriously. I certainly don’t believe Prisma’s claim that their app “transforms your photos and videos into works of art.” That’s fundamentally bullshit. You don’t create art by picking styles off a menu. That’s not making art; that’s shopping.

But you can have fun shopping with Prisma. Watching the transformation is a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be. And that’s the thing about Utata — it’s all about having fun. So I legitimately took my last selfie of the year at 5:09 Central time on December 31st. But I don’t think anybody can fault me for spending maybe twelve minutes on January 1st shopping with Prisma.

the humanness of things

“I don’t believe in coincidences.” You’ve heard that line spoken in every detective show that’s ever been on television. It’s ridiculous, of course, because coincidences exist. I mean, that’s why we have a word for it.

For example, about a week ago I was shooting a photograph of some yellow bollards at the very back of a massive and nearly empty parking area of a big box store. I was using an old Polaroid Spectra 2 camera, trying to get a feel for what the camera could do, using Impossible Project color film, trying to get a feel for what the film could do. In other words, I was experimenting.

family-of-bollards

Before I took the shot, however, a car pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. He was an old guy (and as I say that I realize he was probably around my age — maybe even a bit younger), and he grinned at me and my Polaroid camera and asked “How do you use your camera?”

I’d had a similar question from a police officer a couple of weeks earlier (there’s a coincidence for you — and coincidentally, one of the photos I shot before the arrival of the police officer was of a yellow bollard). With that encounter in mind I launched into an explanation of how I used the camera as a descriptive tool, a device designed to record a small but precise rectangle of the reality in front of the lens. I was prepared to elaborate on that idea — to spell out how the decisions of what to include in the frame and what to exclude from the frame were expressive decisions, and so even if the final image seemed mundane — like, say, a group of yellow bollards — there were still aesthetic aspects to be considered, as well as the notion that mundane objects and structures can be interpreted as a manifestation of humanness. In other words, my decision of what to include in the frame is, in part, a reflection of some other person’s past decision to…

“No,” the old guy interrupted. He said, “No, I mean, the camera. The camera. How do you use that camera? I thought they stopped making Polaroid film.” So I told him about the Impossible Project. Then I shot the photo.

That photo, coincidentally, sparked a brief discussion on Facebook because apparently relatively few people were aware those posts are called bollards. And coincidentally, this morning on Facebook I learned that William Christenberry had died.

Just over a decade ago I admitted that although I’d been shooting photographs for years and I knew how to operate a camera, I was pretty ignorant about the history of the craft. I had only the barest notion of what had been done in photography in the past, or who had done it, or what they were thinking when they did it. So I decided to educate myself, and I decided to share my education with a group of friends in a Flickr group called Utata. I’d pick a photographer, do some research, write a short article based on the research, and we’d discuss it in the group. We called it the Sunday Salon.

christenberry1

One of the first photographers I picked for the Sunday Salon was William Christenberry. Why? Because I came across his name somewhere and liked it. I didn’t know anything about his photography, and when I began to look at his photographs, they didn’t make a lick of sense to me. I saw an old black-and while photo of a dilapidated juke joint somewhere in Alabama. Then I saw a photo of the same building, only this time it was in color. Then another photo of the same place, and another and another — all of the same building.

I began to get it. This guy wasn’t just photographing the building; he was photographing the history of the building. Christenberry wasn’t trying to make art — at least not at first. He was just creating a document, a description of how particular structures evolved and devolved. He went back to the same places year after year to record how things change.

christenberry2

A building may be static, but the world around it is dynamic. What happens in the world is reflecting by the changes to a building. Wind and rain have an effect, the settling of the structure into the soil has an effect. Paint fades, shutters have to be replaced, buildings begin to tilt. Humans very obviously have an effect; they do the painting, they replace the shutters, they repair the damage.

Over time, Christenberry’s simple documentation process became deliberate, thoughtful art. His first photographs were shot using an old Brownie camera given to him when he was young, but as the project progressed, so did his use of technology. He eventually began to shoot with a Deardorff 8×10 view camera. Christenberry even began to take measurements of some of the buildings and recreated them as sculptures.

christenberry3

“What I really feel very strongly about,” Christenberry once said, “and I hope reflects in all aspects of my work, is the human touch, the humanness of things, the positive and sometimes the negative and sometimes the sad.”

There it is. The humanness of things. Those half-dozen yellow bollards? Somebody deliberately put them there. Somebody designed the shape of that small area, somebody chose to plant a tree in the middle of it, somebody decided what type of tree to plant. Somebody designed that parking lot. The humanness of things is always there.

I believe in coincidence. I love coincidence. I enjoy the weird, improbable chain that links an encounter with the police to an old guy in a parking lot asking about an old camera to a discussion on the etymology of the term bollard to the work of William Christenberry to a photograph of yellow bollards. I believe in coincidence and I believe in the humanness of things, and wouldn’t the world be terribly dull and uninteresting without them.