Saturday, March 10, 2012

Blogging is so...2008

Just getting caught up with my RSS feed, which I'll admit, I don't check but maybe once every few months. But in doing so, I see that so many of you are really getting on with your lives, publishing books, exhibiting, etc. Me? I've just been plowing through my third semester teaching high school photojournalism, plus my one afternoon a week teaching Photoshop at a local community college (Butler Community College). I recently started an 8-week teaching assignment at a private university here in Wichita, Friends University, and am looking to take on a class at Wichita State University in the fall. So, "adjunct" is definitely my M.O. these days. And Julian is getting big and saying words like "ball" "book" "key" "car" etc. My dear wife Yvonne is suffering massive NYC withdrawal, so we're due for a visit soon. But she's keeping busy working a part time job as well as taking nursing classes. Thankfully this winter has been sublime, I honestly don't think it's gone below 32 degrees at night more than a dozen times. Compared to last summer's record heat, (52 days with 100-plus degree temps) we'll take it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years

Writing down thoughts about the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 is truly a "where do I begin?" process. Most years as the anniversary has rolled around I've paid a lot closer attention to the event, read all the op-eds, engaged in all the latest discussions about the rebuilding, etc. But this is the first year that I haven't lived in NYC during the anniversary and, as a high school teacher just beginning a new semester, I've been utterly swamped with other stuff. But the magnitude of 9/11 is such that you can never not put it away. It has gotten a fair amount of attention here, and I was even the subject of a front-page article about it in The Wichita Eagle yesterday.

When I think about the morning of 9/11, I always think about being on the rooftop of my building on Stanton Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I lived in 11 Stanton, which was identical to and shared a rooftop with 9 Stanton. Thus, I was on the rooftop of 9-11 Stanton Street the morning of 9/11. In those days my living situation was a rotating cast of photographer-friend roommates. I had been roommates with Patrick Witty, then Craig Allen joined us, then Patrick left the nest to go live next door at 9 Stanton. Needless to say we all ended up on the rooftop that morning.


As I arrived on the rooftop I quickly fired off two frames of the burning north tower, then headed for the highest vantage point that I knew of (a chimney). I figure by the time I got to the top of that chimney, turned around and got my third, fourth and fifth frames, I had only been on the roof maybe 90 seconds. Probably less. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the south tower erupted into a huge fireball.


My eye was already looking through the viewfinder, so my split-second reaction was to press the AF button with my thumb, then hammer away some frames with the 5fps motor drive, something I rarely, rarely did as a non-sports photographer.


Later on I would discover that the second plane's approach was captured by my Canon EOS-1n, in my 1st and 2nd frames, as a speck in the far-off distance:


The next 20 minutes was pretty much a blur for me, and it wasn't until I got to Duane or Reade Streets, just a few blocks north of the towers, before I really started taking any more pictures. My whole thought process at this point was "Are they going to be able to fix those towers?" Pretty soon cops were forcing people to move uptown. So I sort of acquiesced, moving parallel to the police lines until I decided to just get onto the Brooklyn Bridge for a picture.


Office buildings had all emptied out and so the streets were filled with people. I remember having the distinct feeling that it all felt like a fire drill, except that the fire was real. Still, it felt under control. Even though I remember hearing people say "Look, there's another person" (referring to people jumping from the towers), my biggest preoccupation was the structures of the towers themselves.


Eventually I got to the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking that it would be a good perspective from which to take a "scenic" shot of the burning towers. It was slow moving at that point, as every worker in the entire Financial District, it seemed, was making their way over the bridge. I remember looking at my cell phone and noticing that somebody from my old paper had called (The Monroe Evening News in Monroe, Michigan), but also that my battery was getting low. I may have tried to make a call but I quickly realized it was futile. The cell networks were jammed.


I hadn't even gotten to the first tower of the Brooklyn Bridge when I heard everybody begin screaming. I turned around and to my horror saw the south tower collapsing. This is the one time during that day where I was overtaken by my emotions. I remember sort of spinning in place, crying and shouting expletives, half wanting to shoot the collapse, and half wanting to run in the opposite direction. I had my 20mm on my camera, so I got a really wide shot of the skyline, and then another quick shot of the people next to me screaming. There were F16s overhead, and I distinctly remember somebody yelling "We gotta get get off this bridge, this bridge could be next!"




After deciding that I didn't want to be stuck in Brooklyn all day with a near-dead cellphone, I decided to turn back against the flow of evacuees and force my way back into Manhattan. Thankfully I hadn't gotten very far across the bridge. It wasn't long before a dust cloud enveloped the whole area. I remember jumping a barricade as a shortcut and nearly getting hit by a speeding undercover patrol car. These were among the last pictures I shot that day. In one, there is one man in particular who I can totally empathize with, it's the guy in the tan pants and the grey short-sleeved shirt (below). He is in a total daze, and I felt I must've had that same exact look many times that day.


In fact, I know I did. You'd think during the most terrifying day in New York City history you'd remember all the details. But I walked for blocks and blocks and I don't remember any of it. Except for these odd little patches of it. I remember being in Chinatown and thinking it was incredible that businesses could remain open, like it was a normal day. What was the point of a store that sold trinkets to tourists? My only other memory is walking up the west side of Bowery and hearing more screams. My first thought was that the Empire State Building had been hit. So I ran across to the other side of the street so I could look uptown and see the ESB. I could see it was fine, but that's when I realized people were screaming because the north tower had collapsed.

From there it was just 10 more minutes to my apartment. I went back up to the roof, where my neighbors were still watching. I remember only a few of their names: Karl Torbey (sp?), Sarah Archambault, Bruce Bingham (sp?) Gavin Creel.


The rest of the day had more focus. I remember getting my film developed, reuniting with my roommates, running up to Union Square and sitting in Marcel Saba's office, then over to Adorama, finally getting through to my dad on the phone, answering emails, etc. I remember people turning up their car radios so all passersby could listen to the updates. I remember people lining up six, seven, eight deep to wait their turn at pay phones. I remember talking to a couple of European tourists who had been completely oblivious to the whole event. But nowhere was TV in my 9/11 experience until later, maybe 1PM-ish. In fact, I can't express this enough. The vast majority of all Americans witnessed 9/11 through a television and were thus informed in an up-to-the-minute manner. But I experienced it entirely through my own eyes and ears, in fits and starts, piecing it together one bit at time.

Do I regret not being in NYC for the 10th Anniversary? Not too much. Not as badly as I just want to just see the memorial, walk around the voids, take in the progress that has elapsed since I left last December. I was speaking to my students on Friday, the 9th, and I was trying to convey to them what it was like to look back on something so monumental and pivotal. I actually got kind of emotional trying to articulate that it wasn't just the place of NYC that I missed so much, but just as much that time in my life. I lived my 27th through 37th years in NYC, an entire decade, 2000 to 2010, perfect bookends. But it astonishes me, looking back, that a quarter of my life so far has been intertwined with ground zero. To look at an aerial picture taken by my friend Mario Tama (below), one that shows ground zero with the completed voids, as well as in the distance the nearby neighborhoods that were home to each of the three apartments I lived in–all of which lay in the shadow of the towers–was pretty cool. To hear myself say for the first time the words, "My son was born in a hospital three blocks from ground zero" is a pretty neat thing. Talking to my students from the safety of my hometown 1,200 miles away and ten years later, it dawned on my how much I've moved on.

Monday, June 6, 2011

No shortage of thoughts


Above is a picture of me in action, taken this past spring as I was about two months into my new job as a high school photojournalism instructor at Andover High School in Kansas. I took the job late last summer and then moved my family out here in December. I began January 4th, and ever since it's been a whirlwind of overwhelming change and trial-and-error classroom tactics. Overall it's been an awesome experience.

Andover is a community just outside of Wichita, my hometown. It's a long story how it all came about, I'll just say that I found out about the opportunity last July as I was back teaching up in Manhattan, Kansas at the Flint Hills Publications Workshop. So from then on into November it was a "slow goodbye" to New York City, punctuated by the birth of our son, Julian, in September [I could have started teaching in August, but the timing of relocating before an impending birth just wouldn't have been possible]. He's approaching nine months old, and Yvonne and I are just as happy as ever to have him in our lives.

Needless to say, I've had no shortage of thoughts to occupy my mind the past several months. My days have become these elliptical orbits where I wake up at 5:45, shower, eat breakfast, gather my materials then set out on an arching, 30-minute commute to the school. I head east, into the rising sun. This spring I witnessed not only the sun rising later and later each morning, but its actual location shift northward along the horizon as the Earth's rotations corkscrew further and further toward vernal equinox.

But upon my arrival at 6:50 AM, that's the last I see of any daylight until around noon. My classroom at AHS is Room 112 and, while spacious, has no windows. But I never really notice because I keep the lights turned off because every day we look at pictures on the LCD projector. Plus, pictures just seem to look better on computer screens than when the overhead lights are on.

I had 81 kids this past semester: 70 spread out into three hours of basic photojournalism and then one advanced photojournalism class with only 11 students. Each hour had its own unique set of circumstances, its own rhythm, its own set of challenges, etc. By the time I had presented material a third time each day, however, I was ready to go home.

(Above: winners of a peer-voted Student Life contest)

And this is the part in that elliptical orbit where I'm at the outermost reaches and I start to head back to home where it was a much different scenario, one of parenting, dirty diapers, play time, a weary spouse, but always some variation of a "Daddy's home!" greeting. Each day when I got home all I could think was "I just want a nap" (usually on the living room floor, it always did the trick), followed by a second wind of "let's go run some errands" or "let's walk to get some lunch."

Before long it was 7:00PM and time to put Julian to bed. Then after that, from about 8-11PM, is the part in my day's orbit I'm being hurled full-speed back behind the sun, trying to get as much done as possible, shooting slides from books, preparing notes, grading, etc. before going to sleep for several hours and being slingshotted back out into the world to do it all over again.

So it wasn't the actual teaching that was hard, it was the preparing for teaching that kept me up until almost midnight every night. But that hard work made it so much easier to go in the next day. Having a good presentation lined up and ready to go was the best feeling. Trust me, there were a few days where I went in with very little planned. I can't wait to start back up in the fall with all this material ready to go. At that point it'll be much more about fine-tuning my material, as opposed to winging it, trial and error, etc.

One of my biggest challenges was the implementation of something I called Critique Journal. The basic idea is: students walk into the room, a picture is projected onto the screen, and students are supposed to come up with 5 talking points about the image. It's something I got from my mentor, Kristin Baker, who came in and taught yearbook, newspaper and journalism in the afternoons. She got it from the photographer I replaced, Kelly Glasscock. But I think I really embraced the idea the most and took it the furthest. By the end of the semester it had gone from single 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with five columns (one for each day of the week) to a 16-page booklet with each page having a different design to foster different types of critique methods. For example, one day the critique journal page was a blank (EOS) viewfinder frame in which the students would have to roughly sketch the projected image's composition, maybe add a Fibonacci spiral or a rule-of-thirds grid. Other days it was much more about writing ("Write down your thoughts about this photo"). I included a "Kansas Photographer Appreciation Day" page in which we looked at the work of photographers like W. Eugene Smith and Gordon Parks. Some took to these "history lesson" type presentations better than others. Some kids wrote really introspective thoughts, some wrote nothing. I was disappointed to read one student's note on Parks. She wrote, dryly, "He's black. He likes African Americans." My favorite was page 14 in the booklet, "Imperfect Photo." The point of this critique exercise was only partly to point out what was wrong with the photo (pole coming out of head, camera shake, bad composition, etc). My aim was always to pick a photo in which the context of the image--always revealed to the students after we had talked about the technical aspects--outweighed any technical mistakes. One example was a picture I shot at 7AM on September 12, 2001 in New York. Once the kids realized the date it seemed not to matter any more the composition of the image wasn't totally perfect, gas prices were cut off, etc.


That is just one small example, and I don't want to give the impression that this semester was all about me showing my work. Far from it. I really combed the internet and my photo book library and showed everything from Abelardo Morell and Michael Wesely, to Farm Security Administration and Magnum, to Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson, to Sally Mann and Cindy Sherman, to O. Winston Link and Harold Edgerton, to Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano, and so on. The point of the critique journal exercise was just to get the students started out each hour thinking about pictures. I spent very little time actually lecturing about stuff, usually less than 10 minutes, it was mostly them out shooting pictures and them editing. By the time we got to May I felt we really had some good momentum going and week after week students were churning out great imagery.
By the time Fall 2011 is over with, I will have my teaching certification coursework completed. That's pretty much what I'm dealing with this summer, it's a lot of reading about educational philosophy, discipline theory, etc. The classes feel like they're largely geared toward grade-school teachers, or maybe high school teachers who have topics such as English and History. High school photojournalism is a pretty laid-back topic, and I feel blessed to be able to teach it. I've also picked up an adjunct teaching gig one day a week at a local community college.

As for my "personal black and white documentary street photography," I wouldn't quite say it's on hold, but I've definitely let up on those reigns. Yvonne and Julian were in Poland for the whole month of April so I did a lot of shooting then. I've got the beginnings of some new projects taking shape, but nothing really set in stone. It'll all come together eventually. As one wise photographer told a young shooter, new to parenthood: “Forget the other stuff for a while. It's just other stuff. Your son is the project of a lifetime.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Looking Back: New York (2000-2010)

Please join me Tuesday, October 19th for the opening of my exhibition at Lunasa, 126 First Avenue (between 7th and St. Marks). The exhibition is the latest in the Lunasa Photo Series, which is a curated program of photography exhibitions. This show will feature one print from each of the last 10 years I've lived here. The opening is from 6-9PM and the show will be up indefinitely for at least the next several weeks. See you there!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Welcome, Julian


Julian Hites Conover entered the world Thursday, September 23, 2010. Needless to say, Yvonne and I are thrilled to have him here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Notes from "The Legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson"


Notes from "The Legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson"
A panel discussion with Jean-Francois Chevrier and Gilles Peress
moderated by Peter Galassi
Celeste Bartos Theater at MoMA, 4 West 54th Street
April 15, 2010

The discussion began by a retelling of a debate that had taken place earlier between Galassi and Chevrier, about whether HCB was better known as historian or an artist. My recollection is that Galassi leaned toward HCB as a historian, Chevrier towards him as an artist.

This lead into a discussion about the 'use' of images and the difference between a good illustration (magazine) vs good picture (wall).

A discussion about HCB's early work, which fell into the latter category of "good pictures." Showed Rolleiflex picture of shirt hanging on a wire.

Prime example of the former was HCB picture from Jakarta, 1949, of men removing the paintings of Dutch governors from the Governor's residence on the day before independence. Good example of an image that illustrated idea, of a photo accompanied by text.

All summed up by the "world within" vs "the other."

univocal vs open-ended

There were a LOT of tangents. Two Frenchman, debating HCB, there were a lot of "statements made in parentheses" At one point, discussing the slight nuances between two similar ideas, GP quips "Where's the whiskey?"

GP at one point early on states that the only reason he was doing this was to pay back the many generous moments HCB offered him, HCB's advice to him long ago, etc. He suggested that later in his life HCB had come to terms about how he had been a "good soldier," traveling often and taking assignments. His words to GP were, "You don't own them [the magazines] anything other than the pictures on time."

The trauma of Africa for HCB
Situation with Algeria perhaps the reason he never returned. Still unsolved for France.

"I needed a tool to formalize my relationship with reality" GP

The ambiguity of art vs history. HCB's work deals with the possibility of reconnecting art to information

The "cult" of Cartier-Bresson in the 1980s, people who dressed like him, carried their cameras around their wrists, wore the tweed jacket, etc.

The "choir boys" in Magnum who tried to please HCB.

Robert Delpire - very "graphical in intent" (according to Jean-Francois) when designing HCB books throughout the 80s. Jean-Francois discussed his frustration of not getting access to HCB's work (why inaccessible?). On one hand Jean-Francois said there was "The institutionalization of the great work of the photographer in France (HCB)" vs "the inaccessibility to the work."

Memory is on both sides of art/history

The Enlightenment - the invention of modern history ("public culture of free humanity")

Jean-Francois: HCB is a "memorialist" (could have said memoiralist)

PROUST - memory and time, "and the structure of time" GP adds

Apparently, HCB told Martine Franck early on in their relationship (PARAPHRASED) "If you want to know why I am the way I am, you must read Proust."

Discussion of Walker Evans "American Photographs" vs "Many Are Called." Jean-Francois essentially said that even HCB's landmark books never quite reached the level either of these two of Evans' books. This lead to a discussion of HCB's endless travels vs Evans working near his home.

GP: HCB had a "quicksilver" quality. He refers to the way HCB would start a sentence and then by the time he'd finished the sentence have already come up with a wonderful contradiction to himself.

GP said something to the effect of (PARAPHRASED) "Later in his career, HCB had retreated to the edges of his pictures." HCB's "castle" was his black frame, full frame prints, the exactitude of his captions.

GP refers to certain shots of HCB's as "mousetrap" shots, shots in which HCB would frame a scene and then wait for somebody to enter. Girl walking up steps in Cyclades, Greece in 1961 and the 1932 shot of the biker whizzing by in Hyéres, France.

Portraits he made throughout his career, it was a constant. GP says it spoke a lot to the wonderful humanity of HCB. Said he utilized a wide variety of tactics in shooting these portraits, mentioning how he photographed the couple Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie, 1945. Immediately as they opened the door to greet him he instinctively snapped the famous shot (which somebody once described as having a "dank, gothic grayness").

In others he utilized great patience (famous shot of Ezra Pound, 1971). At the very end of the discussion, GP talks about HCB's patience and remembers how HCB would be trying to get a shot of him at an AGM or something, arguing a point, talking with other photographers, etc. GP was very aware that he was being photographed and would do everything possible to avoid it. But then 30 minutes later after he'd forgotten about it he'd hear the click of HCB's camera.

Friday, April 16, 2010

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