Photography & Me

Photography & Me 2011 (Incomplete)


Photography is my earliest love. I came into this world with that purpose. It got sidetracked, I got distracted, but it was always there. This photo below… I remember this very clearly. I am about three or four. For months I’ve been trying to get my hands on my dad’s Minolta SR-T 101 35mm camera.

One day, late in the fall, he comes home with this junk store, Lomo Diana F+ (a legendary plastic camera that has enjoyed a resurgence in the past five years). I’m thrilled and I call out “twi-pod!”. He sets it up, I hold my camera on the mount, and click away. No film. Film is expensive and my parents are, as the state of my hair might suggest, living outside the “social construct of materialism”.

We are somewhat “nomadic” and in fact, after the 1940 Dodge truck, and my parents’ Raleigh bicycles, the Minolta SR-T 101 is the most valuable family possession. Time moves on and so do my mother and I. She gets a job at a hippy commune cum boarding school in Oregon and my dad remains in California. In the second photo below, you can see the split coming….

In Oregon I’m wild and crazy, living in the woods 14 hours a day. When I’m about seven or eight that’s cut back to six hours and the realities of classrooms start to hit. I don’t care for math and science, but I’m, possessed of a preternatural understanding of government and politics. I have a ready knowledge of history and US politics from the 30’s into the early 60’s and can name world leaders, their country of origin, and their years in office or the period of their reign when shown their photograph. I do impressions of some too. I love encyclopedia, LIFE magazine, National Geographic. Every summer I go to California to stay with my dad, and at 13 I start working. The money I earn mowing lawns or crawling in attics to run electrical wire for burglar alarms (my dad’s business), buys color Kodak film and I’m shooting with the old Minolta and eventually I piece together a Polo wardrobe. Politics….

By about 14 I have a roommate in the school dorms and he’s a photographer. I shoot photos for fun trying to understand what makes an image that gets into LIFE or National Geographic, but he’s really into the art of it. His name is Chris. I’m still deep into government and politics and I want to be a politician…. It shows in the photo below. That’s me on the right, and on the left my roommate Chris. He goes on to earn a degree in photography from The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. 

For three years I’m shooting black and white for the school yearbook and spending a lot of time in the darkroom - mostly rolling my own film, developing it, but also learning a fair bit about girls and anatomy. There was a blond girl from Missouri, “J. M.”. Said her dad would write me a letter of recommendation to law school. I should have taken her up on that and other things she was offering. My roommate Chris teaches me how to use the enlarger and now I’m also printing photos from my negatives… and I continue study female anatomy. 

It’s good to be on Yearbook: all the film you can shoot and print, and access to the darkroom.

I graduate still thinking about politics and I spend two years interning at a lobbyist office in Sacramento for what was the most powerful lobby in California, The Association of California Insurance Companies. Boring stuff, but in the early 90s the insurance industry is in the crosshairs of California politicians. 

Day to day I deliver press releases, gather copies of  bills at the Capital, read eight news papers and clip any stories on the insurance industry and learn the ins and outs of government, business, and politics. So many “outs” in politics. It’s a dirty trade. It predates prostitution and is lower on the evolutionary totem. 

Years later my wife has a political consultancy as a client. The stories of debauchery, lecherous behavior, bag men, back room deals are true. If you can imagine it, it’s happened. Power and ideals suffer in the hands of many politicians and their consultants. Party affiliation doesn’t matter. For example, story of an early morning, brown-bag delivery to a Central Valley sheriff to spring one of the state’s most powerful consultants, his impounded Porsche, and to scrub the books of a DUI…. Did it happen? You might think that, but  I couldn’t possibly comment. (The original BBC version is superior)

Through various run-ins and brushes with political staffers and other interns, I soon learn that I lack the requisite ratio of reptilian to human blood to successfully survive in the chambers of government, or in a law office - something I see as another option. My mentor, Tom Coneely, the head of the lobby group, offers to write a letter of recommendation to law school. It doesn’t phase me and I thank him, but no. I kick around in and out of college for a couple years. Mostly out.

Still, I’m shooting photos, along with video - another story with a similar time line. I decide to try college in New York City, so I move there with my high school girlfriend. Political culture shock - I’m a strange mix of early 60’s ideologies, some conservative, a fair amount of what used to be called liberal, overall a good balance, that remains in me. Easy access to The Met, MOMA and so on is the best part of my time in New York. After struggling a year in the city and more lost than ever, I decide to take the easy way out and return home to California. Artists still seem to exist only in dreams, in a world beyond the one I think is most important - politics. How wrong I was.

The idea that I can pursue photography as anything more than “just something I love to do” does not exist for me. My world revolves around all things political. I start working for my dad’s construction company to make money. In retrospect, I’m just too cowardly to make a go of life myself. Four years later I’m deep in it and I get my contractors license. In that moment I feel that I’ve achieved something marginally important as one of the youngest contractors in California and that I’ve shut important doors simultaneously. I still have not “made money”, my original intention in doing construction.

My girlfriend becomes my wife, too young. I build up my own construction company and buy cameras and continue to shoot. I continue to build and remodel people’s homes. I’m largely unhappy with it, but I come alive when I’m doing fine wood working or interacting with my clients. I buy an autowinding, autofocus 35mm film camera and I think I’m in Heaven. We travel to Honduras to visit my wife’s expat grandparents who moved there in 1975. I feel like a National Geographic photographer or photojournalist. It’s the 90s and the Contras are camped just 30 miles from where we are staying.

Honduras is like the American west 100 years ago. Most people walk or ride horseback, machetes hang from their belts and some wear pistols. I see my first murder victim and lifeless corpse of a child in Honduras. The first, a black form floating down a river we’re riding up on horseback.  The next day I shoot a photo of the accused murderers, peering out the steel cage door of the tiny blockhouse jail on the town square. The second as I round a high mountain curve driving to the Maya ruins at Copan. A boy’s body lies twisted, his side split open like a struck deer. The mother, convulsing, face buried in hands. A cattle truck parked roadside 100 feet up, it’s cargo mooing. The driver standing near the body. Matter of fact. A mob waiting for a bus - like this mother and child - stare on. Unmoved. Matter of fact. Life unvarnished.

The sun is dipping back of distant mountaintops that backlight vibrant cotton dresses in many hues. A grief-choked mother. A twisted young corpse. A soccer ball came to rest in a ditch. The driver… matter of fact. Remorseless. I reach for my camera. I pause. I skip the shot. It feels predatory. I drop the Toyota into gear and press on toward the Maya ruins at Copan.

To be continued….

The Best Mistake

Winter 2010

This starts with that hackneyed question. “If you had it to do over, would you?” I bought this watch on the 30th of October 1994.  I was 24 years old.  How do I know this? I still have the receipt, the case in which it came, and the related paraphernalia.  Aside from these physical reminders, the moment of nervous acquisition is etched in my memory, stored in the area reserved for sexual conquests, bullies bested, and victories at sport.  

It’s all there. The jeweler, Ted Grebitus, almost confused removing the watch from the locked case and passing it to a round-faced, young man. The raging internal battle between desire and good sense. And there’s what I was wearing. A zippered, red, wool jacket lined in a soft cotton Blackwatch (Polo of course), an aging pair of 501’s (29w x 36l), well-worn brown Sperry Topsiders and a white t-shirt.  We were called Preppies.

From my early teens I wanted few things more than I wanted a Rolex.  Not a gold President, not the Air King. Too soft, not enough muscle and purpose.  No, it had to be a GMT Master or a  Submariner.  It had to have a use.  A reason for being strapped to a man’s wrist.  I wanted a companion in Honduras, the Caribbean sea, deserts, mountain tops, and in Paris, Manhattan, or Miami.  I wanted something I could pass down to a son decades on.

How is it I found myself in Grebitus and Sons Jewelers in Sacramento, California, just before closing of a Saturday evening, buying a watch generally reserved for men twice my age?  I had no business there, but like many things in my life - Rolexes and girls included - I jumped the line and grabbed the prize perhaps a little sooner than would have been prudent.  But my life, like my Submariner, has the scratches, nicks, and dents incident to a life lived.  

So, the answer to that hackneyed question? Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Honduras in the Early 1990s

                                                                A Note from Honduras (1995)

Honduran summer mornings are heavy.  The heat of the day carries deep into the night and consequently morning brings no relief.  Seeking cooler weather in high mountain valleys, we rent a small Toyota van and set out from La Ceiba across the littoral plane thick with palm oil and pineapple plantations for the Mayan ruins at Santa Rosa de Copan.

What passes for paved road in Honduras is something of a crap shoot. We encounter smooth stretches that linger for tens of kilometers, only to be confronted by bus-sized maws that would swallow a vehicle were it not for the safety cones and easels placed 3 meters from their hungry edge.

On heavily traveled routes, approaching a village is hazardous.  An otherwise well maintained road turns to potholes and gravel several hundred meters from the first house.  It’s a sort of “toll road” set-up.  Maybe “banditry” is a better descriptor. Boys stand roadside with shovels, tossing gravel in a disingenuous public works project, filling potholes they themselves created. They exhort in staccato Spanish, hands out for money, “Tips? We are paving your way!” I thought them sincere and charming the first time I saw this. The first time my head hit the roof of the Toyota van, thanks to the potholes.

Bouncing along I offer propitiating smiles to the boys, but after the third village, the same racket and the second time my head collides with the roof, I realize the sham of it all. From now on, eyes forward, grinding gears, and mumbling “fuckers…”. Through trial and error I find that 70kph is a smoother ride over potholes than 20kph. So I work back up through the gears to hit a respectable 110kph on the other side of the village until we approach the next one.  This time though, I tap the brakes dropping to 70kph and its “all business” through the rough patch. Glibly to myself, “I’m a local now.” No sympathy. You can kindly fuck off with your disingenuous road works….

Roads like these take us out past San Pedro Sula and up the mountains and to the distant monumental Maya ruins near the border with Guatemala.  We’re lucky today, only two military check points slow our progress.  The army is hoping to nab a gang of Kalishnakov-brandishing, roadside bandits. The gang (self-described rebels) stop buses and passenger cars demanding cash and jewelry.  It’s the real deal here.  Highwaymen and stagecoach robbery. These things still happen in much of the world. We forget that in the US.

Hondurans raise their cattle in the mountains where it’s cooler.  Hot cattle need lots of water to maintain weight because weight means money. Thus, cattle ranching in high mountain valleys. Castro encountered this problem when they tried dairy farming in Cuba to produce milk for ice cream. Tropical heat is not conducive cattle raising.

The mountain roads hair-pin and jostle and to this you add the danger of hard-charging cattle trucks. They run wide-open on straightaways and blind corners alike. The squeal of hot brakes is the only warning you get. They appear in violent bursts of rust, oxidized paint, and great, rumbling billows of sooty, diesel exhaust. 

Mountain peasants gather in mobs at makeshift bus stops - precarious, cliff-side turnouts. Approaching one of these my naive eyes fix on a colorfully clothed gathering that glows gold in the dropping sun. One of many opium visions that lull the Western mind to fantasies of lions and lambs dwelling in Biblical harmony.  Honduras doesn’t allow of such foolishness for long though. 

Minutes later, rounding an outside turn on a mountain top, harsh reality.  I ease the Toyota van to a stop. In the middle of my lane is a split and twisted corpse.  A young boy of maybe seven years. His mother stands over him, head buried in hands, stomach convulsing, chest heaving.

A cattle truck sits quiet in a pull-out 30 meters on, its cargo mooing anxiously.  The driver in a dirty, short sleeve dress shirt, wrinkled slacks and worn dress shoes engaged in matter of fact conversation with a man from the group. By way of explanation the driver casually motioned back toward the curve in the road. There is no argument. The facts of the matter are plain. The child chased after a ball on a blind curve. The mother was too late.

Thirty people in a backlit glow stand expressionless in the dropping sun. I don’t struggle to comprehend. These things make sense to me. Cold realities speak to me. No rising anger in this matter of fact world.  

No sympathy from the bystanders either. Rusting steel and hot asphalt. Real. Fast. Heart-breaking. For all her wild beauty and lulling balms, Honduras has an intensity that grabs doughy Westerners by their fat rolls and shakes them to life – a sticky, uncomfortable awareness. 

No excuses, no second chances, no dreams, and sadly for peasants… no way out.

I dully fumble for my 35mm Minolta.  This opium dream has me as the unlikely winner of a Pulitzer for photojournalism.  Light of the Golden Hour; a hushed crowd; a mother sobbing for her son; soft in the background, the detached conversation with the boy’s unfortunate killer.  A photograph on the order of the nude Vietnamese girl fleeing her village in driving rain in the aftermath of a napalm attack. Or a vulture biding his time as life slips away from a distended-belly, African boy.

The child’s mother, in her tender twenties, and the boy she’d devoted seven or eight years to feeding, loving, and admonishing, was gone. Simple. Plain. A cascade of tears. Gone to the fading sound of laughter and grinding brakes.  Eighteen skidding tires and a diesel motor choking to a stop that break a heart for all time. And still the crowd stands detached, silent, betraying no emotion. 

In much of the world there are no screaming sirens, no attending police officers, no horror stricken by-standers, or “sympathetic” attorneys. That is death in my decadent Western world. On a lonely Honduran road 90 kilometers from San Pedro Sula, the Reaper comes with the dropping sun and mountain air whispering of sweet flowers in verdant canyons below. No tears for a mother saying goodbyes too soon and too late. I leave the moment sacred and abstaine from the camera.

I ease out the clutch on the Toyota, murmur the better parts of a prayer for the departed, and mentally cross myself out of some distant, familiar habit.  Humming tires and cool, heavy air in the closing light.  Las Ruinas Copan and her Mayan mysteries sing with lyrical word of mountain valley mists, full-breasted native women with coy, toothy smiles eager to please, and some of the better tobacco this side of Pinar del Rio, Cuba….

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