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.

sunday — this beautiful world

Sunday morning, early October, chilly but sunny, not a cloud in the sky, very little wind. Who wouldn’t want to go for a bike ride? Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “Greg, old sock, you always want to go for a bike ride.” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, well, yeah.

My brother-in-law, who’ll I’ll call “Jeff” (on account of that’s his name) and I started our ride in a little Iowa town called Mingo. I am NOT making that up. It’s an old coal-mining town, named after the Mingo tribe of the Iroquois nation. The Mingos, by the way, didn’t call themselves Mingos; that’s what the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them. It’s a corruption of the Algonquin term mingwe, which apparently means ‘sneaky’. But they weren’t sneaky enough to escape the notice of ‘progress’. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, any remaining Mingos in Iowa were required to shift themselves to Kansas. Why? As President Andrew Jackson said at the time,

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?”

Andrew Jackson was more fucking savage than the Mingos, and a LOT of us would prefer a country covered with forests. Anyway, Mingo now is a sneaky little town of about 300 white people and a small biker tavern (as opposed to a cyclist pub). We did NOT have a beer at the Greencastle Tavern because 10:30 in the morning is too early to drink. And besides, the tavern wasn’t open yet.

Just outside of Mingo.

This bike trail is called the Chichaqua Valley Trail. You might assume that’s because it runs through the Chichaqua Valley. Silly rabbit. There is no Chichaqua Valley. There is, however, a 25-mile-long series of oxbows and bottomlands called the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. The oxbows are the isolated remains of the South Skunk River, which coal companies ‘straightened’ in order to facilitate barges transporting coal from mining towns like Mingo. More ‘progress’.

That straight line is the current channel of the South Skunk River

The Skunk River got its name a couple hundred years before the Mingo arrived in this part of the country. The French voyageurs, exploring and trapping beaver, asked the local Meskwaki tribe what the river was called. They were told the river was Chichaqua. The natives were referring the smell of the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the riverbanks. They’d also used that term to describe skunks. So we can thank the confused French for the Skunk River.

Like so many Iowa bicycle trails, the Chichaqua Trail follows an old railroad line. This was the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, originally built in 1885 to haul coal and livestock throughout the Midwest. You can actually gauge your progress along the trail by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City. Unlike most rails-to-trails bike paths, which tend to be incredibly straight and incredibly dull, this trail is full of curves and turns. One bicycle trail guide describes it as ‘serpentine,’ which may be a tad too elegant, but isn’t entirely wrong.

One of the many bridges.

It runs mostly through farmland and woods. It’s a quiet trail. Even on a perfect autumn Sunday afternoon, we saw very few other cyclists. For the most part, all you hear is the wind and the sound of your tires on pavement or rattling over the many wooden bridges. There are a LOT of bridges–some small, some extensive. The trail crosses over creeks, drainage ditches, oxbows, and the South Skunk River. I don’t know how many bridges there are; I forgot to keep count after the first nine.

Another bridge.

We tend to think of bike trails on old railroad lines as being flat–and they generally are. When there are hills, early railroad builders tended to rely on long slow inclines. Really long inclines. There’s a section of the trail that winds uphill for just about four miles. And I mean it winds. You can only see a few hundred feet in front of you, so you have no grasp of just how close–or how far away–you are from the top. It’s not steep, but it’s fucking endless. You start to believe…to hope…that you’ll be able to see the top around the next bend in the trail, And each bend in the trail crushes that hope. You won’t see any photos of that hill, because there was no way I was going to stop.

Bridge over the South Skunk River

After about 15 miles, we reached the town of Bondurant, named for the first white person who settled there (Alexander C. Bondurant–I don’t know if he did anything worthy or important other than being white and deciding he’d gone far enough west and decided to just stop traveling). Eventually the Chicago Great Western Railway Company built a depot there–which has been reproduced as a rest area for cyclists. It’s very nice. Bathrooms, picnic tables, repair station, drinking water. All very pleasant, but Jeff and I made straight for Reclaimed Rails–a bike brew pub just off the trail.

One of the best things about cycling in Iowa is the advent of the bike brew pub. Beer and bikes are a natural pairing. The sugars and salts in beer help you absorb fluids more efficiently than water alone; you’d have to drink a lot more water to get the same hydration effects of beer. No, I’m serious. THIS IS SCIENCE, people. Beer also has almost as many antioxidants as red wine, and that helps your leg muscles recover. And hey, it’s cold and it tastes good.

Along the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, a man fishing.

After hydrating and dosing ourselves with antioxidants (mine was a nice malty Märzen), we set off again. After a few miles, we turned off onto the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, named for the advocate who came up with the idea of a series of bike paths and trails through central Iowa. Unlike the rails-to-trails bike paths, which were based on direct routes for transporting goods, the Gay Lea Wilson trail weaves in and out of semi-rural areas and suburbs. It’s designed to transport people, making it easy for folks (and families) to access the trail and travel by bike to places they want to visit. Places like libraries and parks and picnic areas and playgrounds and…well, brew pubs.

Another 15 miles or so took us to our final stop: Brightside Aleworks, a fairly new craft brew pub that has a relaxed vibe closer to a coffee shop than a beer joint. We’d ridden about 33 miles altogether. Aside from the brutal four mile uphill stretch, it was a nice way to spend a day. It was fun. And the beer was cold and welcome (I had a biscuity, slightly sweet Irish red).

That’s the thing about cycling. It’s fun. Sure, it’s good for you. Fresh air, healthy exercise, all that. But mostly it’s fun. That’s why I ride. Bugger exercise; I ride because it makes me happy. Because it’s one of the best ways to see the world you live in. You get to meander along at whatever pace you want (well, fucking hills excepted) and be a part of the landscape, rather than just passing through it in a car.

Dr. K.K. Doty (who doesn’t seem to exist on the internet other than as the author of this quote) wrote: Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to. Most ills. Not all ills. But most. It’s a bicycle, not a miracle machine.

Well, maybe a miracle machine. Small miracles in a big world. It’s enough.

beer & bikes, bikes & beer

A couple of days ago I posted the following photograph on social media. The photo was taken at the halfway point of my bike ride. In the description I casually mentioned there was a bicycle brew pub just out of the frame.

Bondurant, IA — cyclist stop.

That comment sparked a question:

“A bicycle brew pub? Do tell. Is this a punctuation thing? Or are there really bicycle brew pubs? ‘Cause I’d be down with that!”

I was sort of surprised by the question, because of course bicycle brew pubs exist. I mean, bikes exist, and pubs exist, and a number of those pubs exist along bicycle trails, and many of those pubs either brew their own beers or at least serve locally brewed beers. Bicycle brew pubs are a natural pairing. I guess I assumed there are bicycle brew pubs scattered along bike trails all over the US. I assumed–and still assume–they’re scattered along bike paths all across the entire globe.

Down the former railroad track…

In fact, back in 2013 I wrote about the creation of the shandy–a mixture of beer and lemon-flavored soda tossed together in 1922 by a desperate former railway worker who ran a bicycle pub/inn in Deisenhofen, Germany. In some places, this style of beer is called a Kugler after Franz Xaver Kugler, the innkeeper who ran short of beer and decided to stretch his inventory by adding lemonade to it. Another name for this type of beer concoction is Radler, the German term for ‘cyclist’. Beer and bikes go together like spaghetti and meatballs, like Scooby Doo and Shaggy, like Netflix and chill. Sort of.

…past the marsh…

Herr Kugler may have had a railroad career before serving beer to bicyclists, but he had nothing (to my knowledge) to do with the Rails to Trails movement in the US. Still, I think the logic of converting unused railroad lines into cycling trails is undeniable. Railroad lines tend to be fairly straight and largely flat, which makes for easy cycling and easy conversion. Yes, they’re also prone to long gradual inclines that aren’t particularly noticeable to the eye, but make their presence known to a cyclist’s knees and thighs, but that seems a small sacrifice to make. If there’s a problem with rails to trails bike paths, it’s that they often put railroad lines on raised banks to protect them from flooding. That means IF you happen to have a mishap and go off the trail, you may find yourself (and your bike) tumbling down a steep 15-30 feet incline.

…along groundhog central…

One of the great things about former railroad lines is that they pass through the countryside and through less developed areas–areas where train noise wouldn’t disrupt the lives (and traffic) of city/townsfolk. That means you get to ride through farmland and semi-industrial areas, and that means you get to see a lot of animals. Not just livestock like cattle and sheep, but wildlife that’s adapted their habitats to modern human life. I’ve seen everything from foxes to turkeys to snakes on my rides. One of my favorite parts of the path I took a couple of days ago is a stretch of about a mile that’s heavily populated with groundhogs. Big, fat, lazy bastards who are accustomed to bicycles and in no particular hurry to get out of your way–unless you stop to take a photo. Then the shifty buggers retreat.

…through the Valley of Warehouses…

Groundhog Central is in the middle of what I call the Valley of Warehouses–an area between the satellite community where I live and Des Moines. There are dozens of massive brutalist structures that act as distribution centers for the mass transit of goods. The newest of these mega-warehouses are being built in what used to be farmland. I think the structure in the photo above is a new distribution center being built for Amazon, the devil-king of interstate commerce. The best thing about these facilities–possibly the only good thing–is that bike paths are incorporated into their infrastructure design.

…over the bridge…

Another advantage of rails-to-trails paths is that railroads built LOTS of small–and sometimes not-so-small–bridges over the multitude of rivers, creeks, and brooks that would otherwise make cycling through the Midwest awkward. They needed these bridges in out of the way areas because many small railroad lines were created to carry coal from coal mines to the cities and towns. Coal was so often discovered in generally inconvenient locations–troublesome for railroads and coal producers, but in the end it’s worked out well for bicyclists.

…and eventually into a small town with a bicycle brew pub.

That brings me back to bicycle brew pubs. We have a lot of them. Hell, we have three in my small community. The Iowa Beer organization released a map in 2019 showing the location of 85 bike trail beer pubs. It’s a tad out of date, of course. Although the pandemic was hard on most taverns and restaurants, it had the effect of making bicycles increasingly popular. If you have a bicycle, you often want to ride to a destination; small town bicycle brew pubs seem to have weathered the pandemic fairly well. I suspect there may be a few more bike brew pubs now than before the pandemic.

Iowa Beer Trail breweries in 2019

The path I took yesterday follows most of the route for the upcoming Beer 30 ride–a 30-mile round-trip cycling event that starts at the Uptown Garage Brewing Company then follows the trail to the small town of Bondurant, Iowa and the Reclaimed Rails Brewing Company, which is located just out of the frame of the photograph at the top of this post. The Beer 30 ride then returns to the Uptown Garage. Dozens of organized beer trail events like this take place in Iowa. Some are annual events, some are weekly.

I’ve no idea how many riders will be attending the Beer 30. At least a hundred. Maybe two or three times that number. I’ll be one of them.

seven white balusters & a cat

I’ve been accused (more than once) of overthinking everything. That accusation is often valid. I tend to overthink some stuff because it’s amusing to me and because it reminds me that everything is connected.

For example, this photograph. It’s just a cat sleeping in a patch of sunlight. Nothing significant, nothing particularly interesting in itself. But if you overthink it, it links together a series of at least ten seemingly unrelated facts.

FACT 1: I belong to an online global collective of photographers called Utata. This group, which has over 30,000 members, creates a variety of photographic ‘challenges’ or projects for its members to participate in. One of the current challenges involves photographing a collection of seven related things.

FACT 2: Pomegranates originated in a historical region called Mesopotamia which occupied the ancient Near East and Western Asia.

FACT 3: The cat that lives here likes to sleep in patches of radiant heat. On winter days, to please the cat, I open the front door to allow the sun to shine in.

FACT 4: For more than three thousand years, Aramaic was one of the prominent languages of the ancient Near East, which included regions of Mesopotamia.

FACT 5: A balustrade is a railing, often ornamental, supported by individual short posts or columns, which are called balusters.

FACT 6: Near the front door, where the cat likes to sleep in the winter sunlight, is a stairway leading to the basement; the stairway is protected by a balustrade.

FACT 7: The earliest examples of balustrades are found in sculptured Assyrian bas-relief murals, some of which have been dated back to a period between the 13th and 7th centuries B.C.

FACT 8: Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian empire.

FACT 9: The term ‘baluster’ comes from the Aramaic balatz, which refers to the flower of the wild pomegranate. Balusters in the bas-relief murals had double curves, which resembled a half-opened pomegranate flower.

FACT 10: I noticed the cat sleeping in the sunlight from the open front door. The light illuminated seven of the balusters supporting the balustrade, meeting the requirements for the Utata photo challenge.

Does knowing those facts make this a better photograph? Nope. It’s still just a photograph of a cat sleeping in a patch of winter sunlight.

But surely you’ll agree there’s a certain delight in knowing that the cat is sleeping in a patch of sunlight beside a railing supported by posts that were originally named in an ancient almost-forgotten language because of their resemblance to the flower of a fruit that first grew in an empire that no longer exists.

i have a blue plaid shirt

I suppose by most metrics, this is a bad photograph. It’s dark, except for where it’s maybe a tad overexposed. There’s nothing special about it, it’s not terribly attractive. It’s just a blue plaid shirt hanging on a stairway post. But I was drawn by the narrow band of December light and the way it slid through the transom over the doorway and sidled up against the shirt.

I saw it originally from another angle, and was captivated enough to go fetch a camera. An actual camera, not my phone. I moved to this angle, squatted down to get the perspective right, shifted over just enough so that the windows in the neighboring house seen through the kitchen window were balanced, and made the shot.

It probably didn’t take more than 15-20 seconds. It’s a semi-casual shot of an utterly ordinary moment. Eggleston might call it a ‘democratic’ moment, though I didn’t photograph it in a democratically Eggleston way. I probably took 14-19 seconds longer than Eggleston would have. You can jam a lot of pretentious formality into 15-20 seconds. He was all about the unpretentious impermanence of everything, after all, and the revolutionary notion that art existed everywhere and anything was worthy of being photographed. I believe in that approach, but haven’t liberated myself from the tyranny of composition. There’s always, always, some level of thoughtfulness in anything I photograph.

After I shot the photo, I chimped it just long enough to see if I got what I was after. What was I after? The light, obviously. But also the darkness–the nothingness of the stairway in the center. There’s really not much to see in the photo; there’s the shirt, the window, the handrail, part of a closet door. What’s not there is as important as what is. I was pleased with the photo.

Then I put the camera down and basically forgot about the photo until yesterday. Yesterday I bought a new card reader and uploaded the half dozen images from the camera. Most of the images were crap and immediately deleted, but this one sparked the memory of the moment I’d shot it.

I don’t often spend time looking at the photos I shoot. I shoot them, review them at some point, process a few, delete most of them, then I post some of the few I’ve processed. That’s it. I’m not very interested in seeing the photo after I’ve finished it. But I looked at this one for a bit, thinking about Eggleston and the democratic eye and the way the light fell and the enigmatic darkness…and I realized I was being a pretentious dick. It was just a murky photograph of a blue plaid shirt.

Self in a blue plaid shirt with occasional cat, 2013.

I’ve had that blue plaid shirt since 2001. I didn’t buy it; I sort of inherited it. It belonged to one of the guys who worked for the moving company that shifted my stuff from a small apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an old farm house in rural Pennsylvania. The shirt got left behind. I probably should have returned it, but the movers also walked away with my antique shepherd’s crook and a walking stick topped with a hand-carved morel mushroom made by my brother — so I figure they got the better end of the deal.

I’ve been wearing that guy’s shirt for two decades now. It’s a comfortable shirt. It’s a sort of utility shirt–a useful shirt, a practical shirt for knocking around in. I wear it around the house, I wear it when I go mushrooming in the Spring, I wear it like a light jacket when it’s chilly or breezy, I wear it to do yard work. It’s a shirt I don’t have to worry about; I don’t care if it gets snagged by thorns, I don’t care if it gets dirty, I don’t care if it gets stained. I don’t care because I didn’t buy it and even after two decades I tell myself it’s not really MY shirt.

Photo by Jody Miller, 2015(?)

But clearly, it is my shirt. After looking at that photo, I realized I’d taken other photographs that included that shirt. Of me wearing that shirt. Other folks had photographed me in that shirt. I realized how much time I’ve spent in that shirt. I realized I’ve grown fond of it. I realized I have a relationship with that shirt. I didn’t really know that; not until I stopped being a pretentious dick, thinking about that photograph as a photograph.

Which brings me back full circle to being a pretentious dick again. Howard Nemerov, the poet (and brother to photographer Diane Arbus) once wrote, “The camera wants to know.” I can’t really agree with that. I’m more inclined to agree with the Eggleston approach; the camera just wants to see. But sometimes the act of seeing helps the viewer to know.

This is what I know: I have a blue plaid shirt. It’s my shirt. I didn’t buy it, but I own that shirt. It belongs to me. Now that I know that, I’m going to try to forget it. Because if I think about it, it might change the way I wear the shirt, and I don’t want to do that. It’s a lived-in shirt, and it deserves to be lived in. I want to wear that shirt the way Eggleston shoots photographs.

See? Full circle.

the trump presidency in 4 photos

Somebody once said photography makes us all tourists in another person’s reality. If that’s true, and I suspect it is, then…wait. You know, if I had to guess, I’d guess it was probably Susan Sontag who said that. I mean, she was always offering some weighty opinion about photography, and she had the terribly annoying habit of generally being right. Anyway, regardless of who said it, let’s acknowledge the truth of it. There’s absolutely no way to accurately depict four years in anybody’s life in four photographs, let alone the life of one of the most powerful people on the planet. So this is really just a tourist’s…wait. I had to check, and yes, it was Sontag.

The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.

Okay, back to my point, such as it is. My point is that this is basically a tourist’s quick view of the Trump years. It’s not meant to be anything more than a sketch of the guy’s presidency, written mainly for my own amusement. Still, I hope it makes a few valid points about the type of person Comrade Donald J. Trump is and what sort of president he’s been. Which, yeah, is a lot to ask of four photographs.

So let’s start with this: Trump, at age 74, is a spoiled, petulant, selfish child who insists on getting his way. When he can’t get what he wants when he wants it, he pouts. Or he throws a tantrum. Or he finds somebody to blame. Or he claims he was deprived of what he wants because of someone’s personal animosity or jealousy. Like every peevish, impatient child, Trump is thoughtlessly, carelessly rude. It’s more than just a lack of courtesy; it’s an inability to consider the wants or wishes of others. He’s been indulged his entire life. Until now. Now he’s being denied a presidency he only wants because he enjoys the attention and because somebody is trying to take it away from him. He seems incapable of understanding why his pouting/tantrum routine isn’t working anymore.

Infantile, over-indulged, selfish, sulky, and obstinate.

Trump is an angry person. He’s resentful, petty, and vindictive. He assumes everybody else is equally angry, resentful, petty, and vindictive. He’s easily offended, and when offended his first impulse is to strike back, to offend the offender. Trump holds onto a grudge like a leech. Even if he eventually gets what he wants, he remains bitter and spiteful toward anybody who either opposed him or who wasn’t, in his opinion, sufficiently supportive. He has no sense of loyalty to others, though he expects unquestioned loyalty to himself. Worse, Trump is cruel. Deliberately cruel. He wants his ‘enemies’ to suffer, to be humiliated. Their humiliation and suffering makes him feel powerful and justifies his anger, resentment, pettiness, and vindictiveness. This makes him a bully.

Constantly prepared to be offended, constantly resentful, constantly cruel, constantly full of rage.

Trump is tacky. He’s vulgar. Crass. It’s not just that he’s personally gauche and physically graceless (though he is), and it’s not only that he lacks any grasp of art or any appreciation of artistry (though he does). It’s that he has a profoundly shallow concept of beauty. His aesthetic sensibility is limited to the surface of things; he is taken by the gaudy, the glittery, the garish, the bright twinkle of tinsel. He is trapped by the belief that bigger is better, that more expensive is better, that extra is better. This flashy sensibility applies to everything from home furnishings to women (which, I suspect, he also views as a home furnishing).

If his tastes were lowbrow, that would actually be an improvement; there’s honesty and integrity in lowbrow tastes. For example, I believe he genuinely enjoys fast food and junk food — fried chicken from KFC, Diet Coke, a Big Mac with supersize fries, Doritos. Most of us have some lowbrow tastes (confession: I’m a sap for the sweet chemical taste of Orange Hostess Cupcakes). Many people may be horrified by the way Trump likes his steak prepared (well done, served with ketchup), but the fact that he insists on having it served that way suggests he truly likes it. His taste in food is perhaps the only area of his life in which he seems totally sincere and authentic.

Junk food from a junk person.

Trump has no friends. I find this terribly sad, but revealing. He has followers, he has servants, he has sycophants — but no friends. It appears nobody, with the possible exception of his children (and I’m not convinced about them) really likes him as a person. People may want to spend time with Trump the Businessman, or with Trump the president, but there doesn’t seem to be anybody who actually wants to spend time with Trump the person.

He’s a hollow man. He has no human warmth. It’s impossible to imagine him playing with children, or tossing a ball with a dog, or having coffee and a chat with a friend. It’s impossible to imagine Trump sitting back in a chair, relaxing, reading a novel. It’s impossible to imagine Trump hanging out with a buddy. It’s impossible to imagine Trump having a hobby — a simple, regular activity done purely for his personal enjoyment during his leisure time. Golf is probably as close as he gets, but he’s a well-known golf cheat. You only cheat to win, and winning involves a desire to beat others.

Most people would help a stranger who had toilet paper stuck to their shoe.

This, in my opinion, is the saddest, most tragic, and most revealing photograph of the Trump presidency. One of the most powerful persons in the world climbs the steps to Air Force One with toilet paper stuck to his shoe. The president travels with hundreds or thousands of people attending him — members of his administration and all their aides, Secret Service agents, medical staff, communications staff, hospitality staff, the news media. Not one person was willing to tell him he had toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Not one. Everybody around him was either too afraid of him to mention it, or they didn’t regard him enough to save him from this moment of embarrassment, or they simply disliked him enough to let him appear in this humiliating fashion in public. The President of the United States — and they let him climb those steps with toilet paper stuck to his shoe.

That’s shameful. But that’s who he is. Donald Trump is the sort of person who, at the end of the day, isn’t respected enough or liked enough for somebody to say, “Excuse me, but you’ve got toilet paper stuck to your shoe.”

That’s the sad but appropriate epitaph of his presidency.