…and took the photo

I took a walk yesterday. I take a walk most days if the weather isn’t completely hostile. Walking on Thursday is usually a bit special, though, because (as I’ve written before, and before that) I belong to Utata — an international group of photographers and other reprobates — and Utata walks on Thursdays.

The group has been doing this for 619 consecutive weeks. That’s very nearly 12 years. We walk and we take a few photos of whatever we see. Not everybody in Utata does this, of course, but there are always a few people out walking with their cameras. This week, for example, we had people walking in Vancouver, in Switzerland, in the U.K., in Indiana, in Austria, in Ontario.

Normally during a walk I’ll shoot maybe half a dozen photos. Well, probably a few more than that now that I’m consciously shooting a Knuckles Dobrovic project. Yesterday I only shot a single photograph. This one:

I’ve been noodling around with cameras for a few decades now, and I’m familiar enough with whatever equipment I have with me to compose and shoot without a lot of conscious thought. I usually know the geometry of the composition I want before I bring the camera (or cellphone) up to shoot the photo. But with this particular photo, a process that normally would take moments ended up taking a few minutes.

I’d actually walked a few feet past that structure before my brain registered that its shape echoed the shape of the shed in the background. So I stopped, walked back, started to take the photo…but there was a distracting bit of playground in the back yard of the house. Couldn’t have that, could I. So I shifted my position a couple of steps to the right…only now the trees were out of balance. So I shifted again…only now a tree partially blocked the shed. So I shifted closer…but the top of the structure no longer aligned with the roof of the house. So I squatted…only now it cut off a corner of the damned house window. So I unsquatted a bit…only now there didn’t seem to be quite enough of the fucking sidewalk. So I shifted back a couple of steps and re-squatted, then re-unsquatted a bit…but some cruel, heartless son-of-a-bitch pulled a goddamned car into the drive of the neighboring house and left its ass-end hanging out just enough to intrude into the fucking frame.

So I said ‘fuck it’ and took the photo.

Advertisements

the return of knuckles dobrovic

I’ve already written about my slow conversion to Instagram, so I won’t repeat myself. Well, I won’t repeat myself much. I’ll repeat that my original IG account was meant as an experiment–a test or sorts. I designed a stupidly simple project idea: I put things on a table and photographed them. I didn’t expect it to come to anything and I didn’t really want to be associated with it, so I created a pseudonym: Knuckles Dobrovic. The whole thing was meant to be easily cast aside–project, alias, and the entirely of Instagram.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. I learned to love Instagram and the stupidly simple project idea turned into an actual project (though it remained stupid and simple). And as silly as it sounds, I love the name Knuckles Dobrovic. Here’s one more thing I’ll repeat: this bit in which I considered what I’d do when the project ended:

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.

The Things on a Table project ended in August of 2014. I put Knuckles Dobrovic out to pasture, with the idea that some day I’d–okay, I actually wrote I’d haul his ass back and put him to work, as if Knuckles Dobrovic actually existed.

Here’s the thing: I write and teach fiction, so I’m fairly used to thinking of characters in terms of their internally consistent integrity. So are you, for that matter. You have a fairly good idea how Sherlock Holmes thinks, what Princess Leia believes and would fight for, what Hannibal Lecter wants for supper, who Elizabeth Bennett would like to dance with and why. You have a fairly solid grasp on these fictional characters.

Me, I know what Knuckles Dobrovic would like to photograph. So despite the fact that Knuckles doesn’t actually exist, there are still certain Knuckles-based parameters that I knew would have to apply to a new photo project.

  • The project had to be simple, grounded in something commonplace. It had to grow fairly organically out of an everyday occurrence.
  • It needed to be something that didn’t require much planning or forethought. It had to be open to spontaneity. It also needed a certain–let’s call it ‘temporal economy’, meaning I didn’t want to have to spend much time fussing around with it.
  • The project didn’t need to be entirely original (how many projects are?), but it needed enough flexibility so I could make it uniquely mine. Or, rather, uniquely Knuckles’.
  • The project had to be something I’d find interesting–or at least something I wouldn’t mind doing–over the course of several months, regardless of the weather or season.

I confess, that’s largely bullshit. It’s not like I actually thought about it enough to make bullet points. I didn’t actually articulate any of this until I sort of stumbled onto this project idea. Over the past four years I’d occasionally consider project ideas, but they were all too fussy, or too complicated, or too much bother, too esoteric, too stupid, too something. Until last week.

I walk a lot. Most days, I try to take a lazy two or three mile walk. During that walk I’ll occasionally shoot a photo or two with my phone. I usually delete them. Last week, as I was deleting photos, I noticed I’d taken two shots with similar framing–looking straight down at stuff near my feet.

Nothing out of the ordinary there; I’d guess almost everybody who’s ever held a camera has taken that same basic photo. On a whim, instead of deleting the photos, I used a simple app to lay one image over the other–a sort of faux double exposure. And I liked the result.

January 29, two locations

I liked it enough I almost posted it on my Instagram account. Then it occurred to me that the photo had Knuckles potential. It met all the criteria. Walking was a commonplace event; it required no planning at all to notice stuff near my feet; it’s not an original idea, but it’s flexible enough to allow me a different take on it; and it was dead easy to layer one photo on top of the other.

So I decided, what the hell–I’d do it again on my next walk. See if the idea had legs, so to speak.

January 31, three locations

Again, I liked the result. I figured I’d repeat this for a few days to see if it was actually a viable project concept.

For the most part, I walk in my neighborhood, which is pretty suburban. There are some newer middle class areas, some older working class homes, a few small parks, some bits of light industry not too far away, a handful of strip malls and small shops fairly close by. It’s not particularly visually interesting. But there’s always stuff on the ground. Always and everywhere.

February 2, two locations

What I like about this idea is the element of randomness. You never know what you’re going to find on the ground. But there’s also an element of intentionality and deliberation that I find appealing. You have to make deliberate, intentional decisions on HOW to photograph the random stuff.

The biggest surprise was discovering I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. You’d think it would be easy to photograph random stuff in such a way that they’d blend together in an aesthetically pleasing way. But it ain’t. At least not for me. At least not yet.

February 6, two locations

I really like the fact that I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I like the fact that a lot of what I think will work as a double exposure turns out not to work at all. I’m pretty comfortable with the flawed and fickle nature of this gig. I’m okay with the fact that some days nothing I photograph will produce anything interesting.

I suspect that over time, I’ll get better at it–but I’m in no hurry. There’s always another walk tomorrow. There’s always going to be random crap at my feet.

February 7, two locations

The best thing about this gig (for me, at any rate) is that — well, there are two best things. The first best thing is that I get a ridiculous amount of enjoyment out of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. The second best thing is that this encourages me to walk with anticipation but without expectation. If that makes sense.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk who advocates a form of walking meditation, says this about walking: When you walk, arrive with every step. I’m not a good enough Buddhist to do that, but I try to be open to arriving. There’s just something pleasant and satisfying about seeing something on the ground — a leaf, a shadow, an oddly shaped stone, a bit of paint– and stopping a moment just to appreciate it. To arrive at that leaf or stone. I do that even if I don’t take a photograph.

So I think this project idea might work.

death of an innocent accidental photo project

The first thing I do every morning is…well, the first thing is I get dressed. But after that, the first thing I do every morning…well, okay, I usually make the bed. Some times I’ll make the bed before I’m entirely dressed. You know what? It turns out there are maybe have a half-dozen picayune things I do first thing every morning, including stretching and putting on socks in the colder months and greeting the cat, who is usually waiting for me. None of those things matter for the purposes of this blog, honest.

August 31, 2014

Here’s what matters. The first thing I do every morning is check the perimeter. When I say ‘check the perimeter’ I basically mean I look out the back door. I don’t know why; it’s a habit. The cat almost always joins me for that. She stands beside me and we look out the door for a long moment. Sometimes I’ll step outside for a better look. The cat may step out with me, or she may not. I’ve no idea what her criteria are for this decision.

February 18, 2015

Once we’re certain the perimeter is secure, we go about our day. Coffee for me, stink food for her, reading the news for me, going back to sleep for her. Every day, we do this. And every so often, I’ll pull out my phone and take a photo of the cat beside me. Again, I don’t know why. It’s basically the same photo, with minor changes, over and over. Most of the time the cat shuffles off before I get the phone out, so a lot of my photos of the cat checking the perimeter end up as photos of nothing except my feet. Sometimes it’s just my feet and a cattish blur. Usually I delete the photo as soon as I’ve taken it. Usually. Not always.

October 8, 2015

It occurred to me yesterday morning that the cat and I have been doing this for three or four years. Every day, me and the cat checking the perimeter. And I realized I might have created a photo project without being aware of it. I’m not terribly fussy about backing things up on my computer, I’m afraid, but I figured Google Photos would likely have saved some of those photos I shot with my phone in the cloud (at least the ones I didn’t delete immediately). And hey, bingo, what do you know, they did.

February 10, 2016

Eighteen photos altogether. My feet, the cat, the door. I’d have guessed there would be more, but as I say, I usually delete the photos immediately — even before Google has a chance to back them up in the cloud (I hate saying ‘the cloud’). I delete them because I’ve shot the same photograph so often. How many photos does a person need of his feet, a cat, and a doorway? Fewer than eighteen, probably.

July 21, 2016

Actually, there were a LOT more than eighteen photos of my feet, the cat, and the door. Google Photos is pretty damned efficient. But there were only eighteen in which the cat wasn’t moving or that didn’t include distracting crap like the edge of a dustpan or the intrusion of the leg of a stool. So let’s just say eighteen ‘acceptable’ photos, shall we?

December 4, 2016

Some of the photos are in color, some in black-and-white. It all depends on which camera app I happen to choose to open on a given morning. I’m the sort of guy who has (okay, I had to stop typing to actually check and count them) six camera apps on his phone. Six. Two of which are dedicated black-and-white apps. Oh, and a video app that I’ve never used. Why so many camera apps? Damned if I know. I’m sure I have a good reason.

January 2, 2018

It turns out there’s a flaw in the whole innocent accidental photo project. The flaw is this: it’s innocently accidental. Which, of course, is also what makes (to me, at any rate) interesting. It’s a flaw, though, because the innocent accidental quality means I didn’t save a single photograph of the cat, my feet, and the doorway in the entire year of 2017. Lots of photos of the cat, of course, and an alarming number of photos that include my feet, plus a few photos that include the doorway, but none of all three together. None. In all of 2017. And yet I already have two this year. Go figure.

January 23, 2018

Knowing I was going to write this, I intended to make another photograph of the cat and I checking the perimeter this morning. I thought it would be fitting to end this post with a photo taken today. The cat, being a cat, didn’t cooperate. Which seems oddly appropriate.

I could try again tomorrow. But I probably won’t. Now that I’m aware of it, the innocent accidental project has lost its innocence and its accidental nature. I’ll almost certainly shoot more photos of my feet, the cat, and the doorway, but when I do I’ll be more conscious of what I’m doing. It’s kind of a shame, isn’t it.

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.

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