my ongoing relationship with phytoncide

It’s pre-morel mushroom season in my part of the world. Pre-morel season is that brief period before the brief period of actual morel season; it’s that interval when common sense, experience, and science all agree that it’s still too damned early for morels to appear, but you go hunting for them all the same because hey, you never know and why the hell not. Actual morel season probably won’t start until — who knows? Later this week? Ten days? It’s a damned mystery.

But let’s face it, for a lot of us, there’s no meaningful difference between pre-morel season and morel season. We find the same amount of mushrooms in both. In other words, none at all.

I’m okay with that. Finding morels is the other reason for hunting morels. The primary reason, for me at any rate, is to get out into the woods. Deep into the woods. As deep into the woods as possible, because the deeper into the woods you get, the more the world becomes slow and quiet. Not silent — just quiet. Between wind and wildlife, the woods are rarely silent. It’s just that the sounds of the woods are subtle and usually indirect.

If you spot one morel, there are usually others nearby.

Subtle and indirect — that’s how you find morels in the woods. You walk slowly, scanning the ground for small disruptions in the pattern of the dead leaves. You walk for a couple of minutes, you stop and search for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you walk. There are dozens of tips suggesting the best conditions for finding morels — near dead/dying elm trees, old creek bottoms, south-facing slopes, areas of mottled sun, areas of bright occasional sun, shady areas — but the difference between spotting a morel and missing one is often just a matter of a few feet in one direction or another. So you sort of meander semi-aimlessly through the woods, guided by 1) the wisdom of your morel-hunting ancestors, 2) the terrain itself, 3) maybe a deer track, and 4) a sizable dose of bullshit folklore.

dead elm in an old creek bottom during actual morel season

Hunting morels is weirdly meditative. That’s why folks who talk about hunting morels sometimes sound like students of Zen. Be aware without concentrating, be focused without any objective point of focus. Morels can be masters of camouflage; you can carefully study a few square feet of woodland for a couple of minutes, suddenly realize there are two or three morels right there in plain sight, look away to tell your friends, and then struggle to find those same morels five seconds later.

But here’s a true thing about hunting morels: you can find them just about anyplace. Abandoned lots in town, roadside ditches, suburban yards, in sand, in mud, along farm fields and pastures. Another true thing: a morel you gather from a rural roadside is just as tasty as a morel you gather from the deep woods. One more true thing: there’s always delight in finding a morel anywhere at all.

Actually on a south-facing slope

Still, most of us hunt them in the woods. The tick-infested, thorn-ridden, spiderwebbed, bramble-thick woods. That’s partly because the odds of finding a morel are somewhat better in the woods. Not a lot better, but better — just like the odds of winning the lottery are only slightly improved by buying a ticket. Still, I think most of us hunt them in the woods because getting deep into the woods is…well, it’s nice, isn’t it. It’s pleasant. It’s deeply relaxing. It’s…I’m going to say it…therapeutic.

I’ve seen lots of online references to ‘forest bathing’ lately. That’s a notion developed in Japan (where it’s called shinrin-yoku) back in the 1980s. Forest bathing sounds silly, but it’s become a rather trendy form of therapy. I recently read that it can increase a person’s “capacity to communicate with the land and its species.” I’ve no idea what that means, but it doesn’t sound any less absurd that some of the medical claims in support of forest bathing. For example, this:

[M]any trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.

Completely ridiculous, right? Well, actually, no. It turns out trees and plants actually do emit compounds called phytoncides. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the violent death of phytons. Phytoncides help prevent trees and plants from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals. And hey, when you go into the woods, you breathe that shit in. And guess what? It turns out, it’s actually good for you.

This what pre-morel season looks like — nothing but you, some ticks, and an invisible cloud of phytoncides.

Seriously. A few years ago the New York Times acknowledged studies demonstrating that walking in the woods for a couple of hours can actually increase a person’s white corpuscles (those ‘NK’ cells mentioned earlier) for up to a week. There have been a number of highly respected medical researchers writing in highly respected medical journals all highly agreeing that despite its absurd name, forest bathing (and therefore morel hunting) is good for you.

This video is from a couple of years ago, during actual morel season. It may look like a lazy stroll down a deer track. But no! In fact, this is me madly forest bathing and soaking up phytoncides like a damned sponge.

I’m always a tad alarmed to discover that something I enjoy is good for me. I suspect I’ll now be accused of hunting morels for my health, which would take a great deal of the fun out of it. Well, it would — except that, as I said, finding morels is the other reason for hunting them. Sometimes the point of morel hunting is coming home with a sack (mesh, naturally, so the spores can be spread) full of morels. I don’t mind doing something healthy if it delivers the occasional mushroom.

So for the next few weeks — once pre-morel season morphs into morel season — I’ll be out there as often as I can, forest bathing like motherfucker. I don’t care if it’s good for me or not. I’ll be looking for shrooms; my white corpuscles can look out for themselves.

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…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.

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.

where the light is

I noodled around the Des Moines Art Center with some friends a couple of days ago. It had been a while since I’d visited the art center, and I’d forgotten just how visually engaging its architecture is. I’d brought a camera (a real, actual, no-nonsense camera), thinking I might shoot some photos of the artwork. And I did. I shot three frames with the camera — all of the same Calder mobile. I spent far more time shooting quick black-and-white snaps on my cellphone. And very little of that was of the artwork; almost all of the photos I shot were about the building.

Stairs in the Meier wing

The history of the architecture of the Des Moines Art Center is sort of interesting. Well, it’s interesting to me. The original design was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. He’d won a competition in 1939 to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. But Congress being Congress, they decided to deny funding for the construction. Happily, the folks in charge of creating a new art museum in Des Moines saw Saarinen’s plans for the Smithsonian and said, “Dude, slide on over here and build us a museum.” And he did. He cobbled together a structure that was an esoteric combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. They finished construction in 1948.

What made it unique, though, was the decision NOT to construct a standard museum gallery. Saarinen’s design also included spaces for practice and instruction, making it both an art gallery and a teaching center. And hey, bingo — we had us an art center. Pretty cool idea.

Sunlight through a curtain (with incidental Giacometti bronze)

In the late 1960s, the art center folks decided to expand the building to include a space large enough to hold an auditorium and display really big sculptures. They got I.M. Pei to design it. It’s hard to do better than Pei. But his design revolved around a sort of massive block building that would tower over the existing structure. It was necessary, of course, but the design would have clashed with the low, ground-hugging Saarinen design. So Pei said, “Dudes, not to worry. I’ll sink the block into the landscape, easy peasy, lemon breezy.”  And hey, bingo — we had us a fine addition to the art center.

I.M. Pei window (with incidental Debora Butterfield painted steel horse)

By the 1980s, the art center needed another new extension — a space to house more contemporary works. This time they landed Richard Meier as the architect. Meier is one of those Pritzker Prize geniuses whose work is fairly idiosyncratic. The guy is totally smitten by structures designed around very white geometric patterns. Nothing at all like the designs of Pei or Saarinen. The advantage of being a Pritzker genius is nobody’s going to force you to adapt your aesthetic to fit in with your predecessors.

Meier’s addition to the art center is basically what he’s known for — white geometric patterns. It sort of looks like it was designed by a member of the Borg Collective who’d gone to an architecture school in Minecraft. That sounds more harsh than I mean it to. It’s really a very smart, clever, and very very clean design. Just different from the rest of the art center. But hey, bingo — we have us a space for contemporary artwork.

It speaks to the design, I think, that the only time I felt the need to shoot a photograph in color was in the Meier wing.

Mobile — Calder, Meier wing.

The fact is, I really didn’t make any thoughtful, considered photographs. I just walked around and took quick, square format, b&w snapshots using an app I’ve configured for black-and-white photography. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos (there were only 18 of them) that I realized most of the photos were of the building itself rather than the art it houses. Art figured into some of the photos, but they were accents incidental to the photo rather than the subject of it. If that makes sense.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the art; I did. I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I’d often put on my glasses and get really close and try to figure out exactly how some of the work was done. I mean, how did George Wesley Bellows manage to paint a human face (it is, I’ve decided, humanly impossible — maybe Bellows was an alien)? I looked at the sculptures and admired the sketches and appreciated the paintings and watched a couple of works of video art. By the way,  some of the video art? Incomprehensible and (is there a polite way to say ‘stupid’? — no, I don’t think there is) stupid. But then there was this piece by Michael Najjar. Sublime.

Spacewalk — Michael Najjar

I looked at just about everything and I enjoyed most of it, but in the end the primary reason I’d shoot a photograph had most to do with the way the building interacted with the light. The way the light and the structure worked together seemed to infuse some sort of extra meaning to both. For example, I was very much taken by a chair (based on an Eames design) partly because I mistakenly thought I was in the Saarinen wing (the Eames brothers were students of Saarinen). I was actually in the Pei wing — irony gone awry.

Unironic Eames chair

Some of these photographs, I know, probably won’t appeal to anybody but me. Like the chair above. It’s just a chair the guards sit in. Or this view out a window to the street. What’s that about? There was something about the geometry that appealed to me, though I couldn’t say what.

Looking out on Grand

I actually spent more time on this stupid photograph than all the others combined. I wanted to get that tree in the right spot, and the reflection of the window’s crossbar just the right angle. Then I probably stood there, trying to be still and hold that view, for a couple of minutes, waiting for the passing cars to line up properly. Silly, I know, but it seemed worth it at the moment. Still does.

It’s a wee bit embarrassing to visit the art center and return home with nothing but a handful of black-and-white photographs. All that amazing art, and here’s me with some photos of curtains and stairways and chairs and random views out of windows.

Some random curtain

But what can you do? That’s where the light was.

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

i took a walk a couple of weeks ago

I like to walk. I like to walk without any purpose, without any goal or objective, without any particular destination. But occasionally I walk with the idea of shooting photographs. Most often that happens on a Thursday (largely because I belong to Utata — an international group of photographers who walk on Thursdays; I’ve written about this before: here, here, and here).

So it wasn’t unusual for me to take a walk on Thursday, the 11th day of November, 2016. I needed a walk that day. I needed it because Donald J. (for Jackass) Trump had just been elected President of These United States. A quiet, contemplative walk on a gray, chilly day that seemed to hold the promise of a gray, chilly future.

And that was how I felt even before I got stopped by a police officer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

tire-swing

I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot photographs, so I didn’t bother to take a camera. Just my cell phone. It was this tire swing that first made me pull out my phone and open my favorite black-and-white camera app. It seemed a perfect metaphor for my mood. Sort of sad, sort of nostalgic, sort of pathetic. Lost innocence and all that.

I was near a semi-industrial commercial area, so wandered over there and strolled along behind the various shops. You know, that area where the shop owners keep their trash and deliveries get made and isn’t meant to attract customers. I’ve always liked the lack of pretense in alleyways and the backs of shops. And, again, it suited my mood.

fence-and-trash-can

This wasn’t an actual alley, though it served the same purpose. I’ve wandered along behind these buildings before; it’s always remarkably tidy. The morning light gave it a certain shabby elegance that contrasted well with the bright, functional geometry of the buildings.

At some point I’d stopped thinking about Trump and started to enjoy myself. That’s the thing about photography, isn’t it. It draws you outside of yourself. And that’s especially true, I think, of black-and-white photography, since you’re paying more attention to shape and line and structure.

bollard

Everything gets reduced to what’s in the frame. Not just what’s in the center of the frame, but what’s on the periphery. A step or two to the right, and that bit of shadow from a vent disappears. A step or two to the left, and the bollard disrupts the lock on the electrical whatsit, and the ramp is no longer obviously a ramp.

I know this because I actually took those steps to the left and the right before deciding this was the composition I wanted. (I learned to shoot with film, and since film was expensive and processing it was pain the ass, I learned to pay very close attention to composition; get it right the first time, shoot one frame — maybe two — and move on. I’m a stingy photographer.)

broken-adirondack-chair

There’s usually a sort of fuzzy area between semi-industrial commercial shops and the more comfortably suburban, well-groomed neighborhoods — an area where the houses might need a bit of paint, where the lawns aren’t quite as tidy, where the kids’ toys haven’t been picked up, where the cars and trucks are a few years older and are showing a bit of rust. It’s the Almost American Dream zone. I grew up in that zone.

Remember that police officer I mentioned earlier? This is where he shows up. I was just about out of the Almost American Dream zone when he arrived.

packers-fan

He was very polite. Young white kid, buzz cut, nice smile. He rolled down his window, said “How’re you doing?” I considered telling him I’d voted for Hillary, so how the hell would I be doing. And that’s basically what I said, though I moderated the last bit. He nodded and said he couldn’t believe it either. Then he said something to this effect: “We got a call about somebody walking behind the shops and taking pictures with a phone. That you?”

I admitted it was. He said one of the shop owners was concerned that somebody might be casing the joint (he actually said “casing the joint”), and then asked if he could have my name.

A short digression here. I worked as a criminal defense investigator for about seven years. I’ve been stopped and questioned and actively harassed by police officers more times than I can count. I know my rights. As a pedestrian legally walking along a public way and minding my own business, I’m not required to identify myself to the police. However, if the officer is investigating a possible crime it becomes a tad tricky. And given that there might be some dispute whether the area behind these particular shops is a public way, it becomes a tad trickier. So I told the officer I was going to reach into my pocket and get my wallet (as a white guy, the odds that the police would shoot me for reaching for my wallet are really really really slim — but still).

I showed him my driver’s licence. He asked the obvious question. “Why were you taking pictures behind those shops?” So I told him. Thursday walks, Utata, light and shadow, alleyway geometry.

hoop

Then he asked the really difficult question. “Can I see your photos?”

The obvious answer is no. No, you can’t see my photos. No, because you have no legal right to see them, and I have no obligation to show them to you. The fact that he’d asked to see them rather than issuing a command didn’t matter. The fact that he’d asked politely didn’t matter. Courtesy counts, but it doesn’t trump civil rights.

On the other hand, I didn’t want a fuss. Hillary had just lost the election; I didn’t have the energy to make a passionate civil liberties argument. So I offered a compromise. I told the officer I was reluctant to show him the photos as a matter of principle, but I understood why he wanted to see them. I said “If you agree that you have no legal right to see the photos, I’ll show them to you.”

I got lucky, probably. This guy had a sense of humor. He laughed a bit, then agreed he had no legal right to see the photographs. So I showed him the photos. More than anything else, he was surprised to see that the photos were actually shot in black-and-white. He wasn’t aware there were black-and-white apps. He wasn’t aware you could shoot square format with a phone.

So I took my phone back, turned and shot the photo of the basketball hoop and shadow, and showed it to him. He asked for the name of the app. Then I asked if I could take his photo, and he said this (or something like this): “You have the right to take my picture so long as it doesn’t interfere with the performance of my duties…but I’d rather you didn’t.”

So I didn’t. I thought about it, but I didn’t. As he drove away, I wished I had. Sort of.

Postscript: I began to write about this on the day it happened. But the sad fact is, I was still too discouraged about the election to write more than a couple of paragraphs. I’ve noodled around with this post off and on, but I’m still pretty gutted by Hillary’s loss — and seeing these photos reminded me of how grim I’ve felt since the election. It reminds me of how much stuff I’ve put off, how many things I’ve been procrastinating about, how much normal stuff I’ve been avoiding.

I had a good encounter with a police officer — something positive happened to me — and I just couldn’t maintain that feeling. That sucks. It has to change. Maybe finishing this and publishing it is the spark I need. And now I suppose I have to append the ‘confessional crap’ tag to this. I hate confessional crap.