Ghent

Or Gent. Either way, if you’re American you may not get the pronunciation quite right. In this Belgian city, as in most of Flanders, the primary language is Dutch (Ghent). But French (Gent) has a presence here too, and in nearby Brussels, French is the dominant language. Many Flanders residents, especially younger people, speak Dutch, French and English, a lingual multiplicity that reflects a complex, interesting culture.

A doorway in Ghent near the university.

In April we traveled to northern Europe, landing in Amsterdam. We planned to spend time in the Netherlands and Germany, looking up long-lost relatives and meeting blogging friends. Why not circle round and add Belgium to the itinerary? It’s the home of Magritte, Tintin and Django Reinhardt. Its constitution guarantees freedom of language, there are weird political machinations, fine chocolate, a penchant for brilliantly self-deprecating humor…in short, it must be interesting. So I looked for a base for a few days in Belgium.

Bruges came up right away. Frankly, people talked it up so much that I was scared away – my sense was that we’d drown in a sea of tourists in Bruges, straining to see the sights. I settled on Ghent, which also has canals, Flemish architecture and fries, but is a grittier university town and sounded more to our liking. We didn’t even go to Bruges. And because of Ghent’s central location I got carried away thinking about all the places we could visit that are only a train ride away – Antwerp, Brussels, even Lille, France are all in striking range. On arrival in Ghent we studied the calendar and train schedule with more sober eyes, paring it down to a day in Antwerp, a day in Lille (I was focused on seeing France, if only a corner of it), and a day seeing Ghent. Not enough, for sure!

For our day in Ghent I zeroed in on the MSK Musuem, or the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (the Museum of Fine Arts). Along with art museums in Antwerp and Bruges, MSK is part of the Flemish Art Collection, a comprehensive collection of five centuries of Flemish art. As an American art lover who had never been to Europe (when I was young and could have scraped the money together for a trip to Europe I wasn’t interested; later, family and work conspired against it) I valued the opportunity to see an excellent museum that isn’t overwhelmingly large. Over the years I’ve spent many hours at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, the Frick, the Met Cloisters and the Morgan Library. Each one boasts an excellent collection of European art, but it’s just not the same as viewing art inside the country where it originated. To wake up in a European medieval city, sip coffee in a corner cafe, take a tram to the museum, gaze at sumptuous artworks spanning centuries, and then wander through the old part of town and into a cathedral or cafe is to begin to tie it all together. An altarpiece is no longer an isolated piece of art and an impressionist painting gains deeper context, making a sensibility and culture that are decidedly not American a little more transparent.

5. Walking through Citadelpark on the way to Museum voor Schone Kunsten.

6. Adriaen van de Venne (1589 – 1662); Dicing, Drabbing and Drinking Bring Man to Destruction. From the museum’s collection.

So here we are at MSK. Certain things catch my eye. I have no interest in recording consensus-approved highlights; instead, I photograph museum scenes, works of art and small details that I want to remember.

7. It was heartening to see students working intently on copies of paintings. It’s a great way to learn about composition, color, and patience.
8. This student has taken a break. What an interesting choice of painting to become wholly intimate with.
9. The Lamentation; Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482). The message behind Christian-influenced art like this may not resonate with me, but oh, those faces! There is a strange, disjointed and angular awkwardness that is compelling here. Being in the presence of this painting in Ghent, where it was probably made, affected me more deeply than seeing a similar painting hanging in an American museum would. Medieval work in particular was very moving seen in the context of medieval cities. The paintings no longer depicted some far-off people in a far-off era; their time-stopping detail, rich color and powerful expressiveness connected me directly to the medieval world.
10. Detail, The Glorification of Apollo; Urbanus Leyniers et al. There is a room full of tapestries at MSK, some are floor to ceiling in size. This tapestry measures 408 x 330cm (13′ x 11′) The foot is beautifully articulated and the dyes speak of the earth, water and the sky. The skin color is as nuanced as can be and the blue drapery is a color Yves Klein would appreciate. (Leyniers, 1674-1737, was a Flemish wool dyer and tapestry maker in Brussels.)

11. A cabinet of curiosities. Another cultural-historical truism that was brought home to me on this trip was the excitement that grabbed people during the age of exploration when so many new objects, like these exotic shells, were discovered and brought to Europe.

12. A homey, impressionist winter scene by Adriaan Jozef Heymans that interested me because of the riot of colors he used in the sky, all to describe snow, which we normally think of as white. (Heymans, 1839-1921, was a Belgian plein air painter).

13. Detail, The Family of St. Anne; ca 1500. This triptych from a former Beguinage (a lay religious community for women) in Ghent is ascribed to the Master of St. Anne. The somewhat flattened perspective and abundant detail alongside the intense emotion seen in the eyes allows me to relate to the scene intimately. It was the time of Low Country masters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, who created vibrant, extraordinary works which can connect us directly back to a time when the world was very different, and so much smaller.
14. A powerful jolt back to the present, this sculpture (Fluitketel, 1999) by Patrick van Caeckenburgh sits incongruously – delightfully so – in a gallery of traditional paintings. Van Caeckenburgh, b. 1960, is a Belgian artist who obsessively researches literary and scientific sources for his work. He reportedly lives a secluded life in a small Belgian village and is well-represented in museum collections from London to Taiwan.

For more on the fascinating Mr. van Caeckenburgh, see this article.

15b. One more: a portion of THE PICTURESQUE HISTORY OF EMPTINESS, Les Oubliettes — The Oblivions — De Vergeetputtten, 2007-2014.

16. Glimpsed through a doorway, another strange sculpture beckons…
17. It is Panamorenko’s Aeromodeller (1980) and it seems ready to levitate right out of the gallery.

18. A window above Panamorenko’s “zeppelin” inscribes the piece with sunlight and shadow, enhancing the effect of weightlessness.

Panamorenko, born in 1940, died earlier this month. Another eccentric Belgian artist who explored hidden corners of the psyche, he made imaginary flying machines and other constructions which he thought of as more akin to poetry than to sculpture. We were lucky to view this huge, elaborate work in the same room at MSK where it was shown back in 1980.

AND NOW, it’s time to take a walk.

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20. View from the Vleehuisbrug, a bridge over the Leie River in the old section of Ghent.

21. Flemish architecture and a clocktower.

22. Sint-Micheilskerk. There has been a chapel here for almost a thousand years. This version was built in the 13th & 14th centuries.

23. Lost in the old city.
24. Another canal seen from a bridge in the old section of Ghent.

25. What can we see?
26. Perhaps the sun setting on drying laundry….

27. Or a detail on a cathedral.
28. At some point the eyes are weary, the feet have given out, and the belly cries for food. Sit. Enjoy.

Thank you, Ghent/Gent – we hope to be back some day.

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Small Town Parade

Happy Fourth! We didn’t want to miss our local Independence Day parade. Anacortes has a reputation for being a bit odd, and I think you’ll see the evidence here. The town is pretty laid back, too. From senior citizens in wheelchairs to toddlers driving tiny cars – and let’s not leave out dogs dressed as lions – everyone is happy to keep it simple and low key – no self-conscious displays of power or anything else. Let’s just have a good time. And throw me some candy while you’re at it!











I threw this post together quickly….the pictures needed to get out there before it’s over. Those of you in the US are probably already barbecuing by now or on your way to watch fireworks. Some of you will watch from a rooftop, some from a beach, some in the back yard. Those of you outside the US are probably asleep already and won’t see this until tomorrow, but no matter.

A few American traditions have already wrapped – on Coney Island, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest by scarfing down 71 of ’em. Yum. In small towns and big cities the parades are over, ball games are being played, beaches are crowded. We’ve heard from several relatives and friends today. Everyone’s fine.

We’ll skip the tanks, thank you, and we’ll be fine too.

Double Vision/Doppelt gesehen

For almost two years we have followed each other’s blogs. Recognizing that we’re kindred spirits, we soon began sharing observations about nature, blogging and language by email. As ideas were tossed back and forth across a 4900 mile, 9 hour time difference, a theme emerged: we tended to focus on differences and similarities in our environment, both physical and cultural. Plant species, the weather, words and phrases – we compared and contrasted them all. It was an entirely virtual relationship, honed in the realms of blog comments and emails. Then last month I traveled to northern Germany, where I visited my grandmother’s birthplace. That happens to be near the city where Almuth lives, so we had an opportunity to meet in person! A plan developed: we would spend a fine Spring day together.

 

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We met at the Bnb in Hannover where I was staying, then took a tram to Herrenhausen Gardens, an array of historical gardens dating back to the 17th century. The popular Great Garden (Großer Garten) is one of Europe’s most admired baroque formal gardens. Its history is interesting, but we prefer botanical gardens so we bee-lined for the Berggarten (Mountain Garden), across the street. After a stimulating stroll through gardens packed with Spring flowers, we enjoyed treats and coffee in the stylish park cafe. We jumped back on the tram to Hannover’s old town, where we discovered a few offbeat “historical” sights, like the protective wrapping around the facade at the old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus).  We capped the day with a traditional German meal at the Broyan Haus restaurant.

Of course we both took dozens of photographs and unsurprisingly, some are almost identical. After I got home Almuth proposed that we collaborate on a post with our favorite photos from that memorable Spring day. What a great idea, I thought! We quickly realized how many permutations there can be for posting “together.” There are the complications of different languages. Readers might be confused by too many photos. After thinking it through we decided to each create a post about the day, using our own photos, with links to the other person’s post. We sent drafts back and forth so the flow of text and images in our posts would almost match. If you’re using a desktop, try opening two browsers and viewing the posts side by side; on smaller devices we hope you can get the idea by going back and forth.

Here’s a look at the day through my eyes, and here’s a look at the day through Almuth’s eyes.

 

1. As soon as we entered the garden we noticed a set of beautiful shadows on a wall. I’m often drawn to juxtapositions of man-made and natural shapes, and this fits the bill.

2. There’s a great German word, Schattenspiele – it means shadow games. It’s too bad we don’t combine words more in English, the way Germans do.  It’s interesting to think about how language differences influence the way we see our world, but whether it’s Schattenspiele, shadow play, or whatever you name it – photographers everywhere love shadows.

3. I chose black and white to convey the different textures here – a highly textured ground cover, the fine-lined birch bark, and smooth shadows falling evenly over everything.

4. Almuth photographed a naturally landscaped stream with gorgeous birch trees. Of course I like that too, but trees like this one really aroused my interest. Like many trees in Europe, it appears to be pollarded. Pollarding is a pruning practice wherein upper branches are removed, promoting dense growth while maintaining a manageable size. Wikipedia says this very old practice kept trees within the bounds of medieval walled cities. Pollarding is far less common in the US, where space isn’t typically an issue. I always associated it with France, but I found many examples in the Netherlands, Belgium and northern Germany.

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5. While in Europe I made a conscious effort to take more photos of people than I ordinarily do, so here’s a gardener watering a bed of tulips. The light was harsh and I have a lot to learn about photographing people. I think I prefer Almuth’s version.

6. There we are, engrossed in the beauty of Spring flowers. I couldn’t resist playing with the colors in this photo (made by a certain patient someone).

7. We sat down to rest and made friends with this little fellow, who happily devoured all the peanuts we were willing to give away. We have a similar squirrel in the Pacific northwest but it doesn’t have those cool ear tufts.

8. Throughout my travels in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, I was impressed by huge specimen trees in the cities. Over here, trees planted by humans haven’t had as much time to grow. Our giants are more likely to be in the forests.

9. Thick “fuzz” that protects this fern from the cold was sloughing off in an attractive way, another sign of Spring. The horticulturalists wrapped last year’s dried fern fronds into a nest-like bowl for winter protection. See Almuth’s post for a photograph of this intelligently aesthetic landscaping practice.

10. A group of rare Suntel beech trees (Fagus sylvatica var. suntelensis or F. sylvatica ‘Tortuosa’) kept us glued to the path, wide-eyed and smiling. This European native naturally grows in a low, twisting, criss-crossing form, making the trees ill-suited to most commercial purposes. They were called Witch wood or Deveil’s beech in the past becasue people believed the trees were bewitched. Many were destroyed. This old Berggarten specimen gets meticulous care. Cultivars are now sold in nurseries around the world.

11. In the old town we found a few weathered gravestones standing mute among the flowers.

12. This is exactly the kind of sculpture I love seeing in Europe. I don’t know when it was carved but it has the vivid, emotional power of art from the Middle Ages, and it gets the message across, especially when reading isn’t an option.

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13. Wrapped buildings have intrigued me for years, and Hannover’s gothic Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) is a fine example (as long as restoration continues to be done on it). The burning question is whether the color of the wraps was intentional or not, because it sure does harmonize nicely with that old brick! Almuth called it Brick Gothic bagged – I love that!

14. A newer wrapped building provided us with more photo ops just a few blocks away.

15. Construction sites are always good places to see buildings in a different light.

16. My world was jostled and turned every which way on this trip, but everything was as rosy as the paint color on this building (which I changed in Color Efex). Old, new, virtual, real – the categories didn’t really matter.  It was a whirlwind of impressions.

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Readers of this blog know that I feel strongly about place. The uniqueness of each place on earth is worth celebrating. I believe that despite global culture we are still situated in place, that geography influences us more than we realize. I also believe being situated in a particular time and culture influences the way we think; for example, my native language leads me to see the world differently than the way someone who speaks another language sees it. We each construct slightly different realities.

These differences have been part of the pleasure of getting to know Almuth, but we also share a lot. Her approach to life, the way she sees and thinks – those qualities felt familiar to me even before we met. I imagined I would feel comfortable with her and I did. Yet differences persist, and they are fascinating. This is part of what resonates with me here on the internet: we find differences and similarities. Our curiosity is endlessly pricked. We learn, and our horizons expand.

Rough Edges

The streets and back alleys of Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood are rich with texture, literally and figuratively. Worn brick, surprising architectural juxtapositions, and the curious traces left by passers by are all fodder for the curious photographer.

Unlike the cities of Europe or even the eastern US, Seattle’s history began fairly recently, with active settlement getting underway about 160 years ago. A city of wooden buildings grew up on the logging industry, and then the combustibility of wood took the city down, in the “Great Fire” of 1889. It was quickly built back up, this time with brick, and many of those sturdy old structures still stand in Pioneer Square, where Seattle’s moody beauty come into its own.

It was a mid January afternoon and the goal was simply to wander around Pioneer Square, take photos, and enjoy the day. The weather was far from ideal, with dull, overcast skies and glare, so my processing choices were based on bringing more life to the images and involved more effects like infrared than I typically use. Below I’ll describe the “where” or “what” of the photographs and talk about processing decisions.

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The Photos:

  1. A photographer sets up a shot in an alley near Pioneer Square.  Processing: The highlights are blown out in the original, so I recovered some of the overexposed areas in Lightroom first. The image needed more punch, or a more graphic look. Settling on an infrared filter in Color Efex, I chose this off-kilter color style because I thought it suited the surroundings.
  2. A “Cash for your Banksy” poster with an L.A. phone number, posted in a Seattle alley? I’m still scratching my head about that one!  Processing: The original had too much going on and lacked focus. Again, I chose a color infrared effect in Color Efex. The color shift brought out the Banksy flyer and “TOM” graffiti nicely, but blackened the brick, so I lightened up the shadows and blacks a bit in Lightroom.
  3. What’s left of the old brick paving still gathers cigarette butts in this alley.  At the end of the block is Merrill Place, a renovation of a clutch of hundred-year-old buildings into retail space and condos. I bet the young urban professionals who buy a tony 1 -3 bedroom unit (paying mid to upper six figures) are the envy of their peers. We have an influx of new residents, a booming economy, and a construction boom in Seattle. The city was crowned “Crane Capitol of America” for two years running, with 58 cranes stabbing the skyline as of July, 2017.  Processing: The original was so dull that I wasn’t going to use it, but after seeing how well the infrared effect enhanced other images, I tried it again. To further emphasize the dark mystery of the alley I softened the focus, using the Color Efex “Glamor glow” filter. Then I added a vignette in Lightroom.
  4. Share a bike on the fly using the app on your phone, and you’ll help LimeBike and Spin grow their revenue! You’ll be doing good for the planet, too. Your first ride is free, after that it’s just $1/half hour. When you reach your destination, just leave the bike “anywhere responsible” and close the wheel lock. Next time you need a bike, your app will lead you to the nearest one. That’s how shared bikes work, and the trend is growing. Here, the competing company colors of two bikes left in an alley made a nice picture. I didn’t move them an inch!  Processing: A garbage bin marred the original so I cropped heavily to focus in on the bikes and reflections. I should have framed it better in the first place.  To emphasize the wonderful colors I used a film effect in Color Efex: Kodak Ektachrome 400X Pro. I lightened the center of the image slightly, and added a little vignetting in Lightroom.
  5. This photograph brings together three Pioneer Square themes: handsome old brick buildings, hanging flower baskets, and construction. Tarps are a recurring subject in my photography and I’m always on the lookout for them; for me, the tarp in front of the building doesn’t hurt the picture.  Processing: Silver Efex was used to convert to black and white, using the “Full Contrast & Structure” filter, Ilford PanX Plus 50 film simulation, and selenium toning. Back in Lightroom, blacks were darkened a bit and a slight vignette was added.
  6. Seattle Steam’s old smokestack is a welcome interruption in the cube-based skyline. When Seattle’s “Great Fire” of 1889 destroyed much of this area, companies like Seattle Steam took advantage of lucrative opportunities to rebuild the infrastructure. Over the years, Seattle Steam has gone through several owners and iterations, but the company still provides steam heat to many businesses and residences. Coal and oil are fuels of the past here; natural gas is preferred, and recently the company’s carbon footprint was reduced by 60% after installing equipment to use biomass – wood waste! – to heat the boilers. That’s coming full circle for a logging town!  Processing: Silver Efex was used to convert to black and white, using the “Fine Art High Key” filter, a Kodak 100 Tmax Pro film simulation and selenium toning. In Lightroom I cropped, darkened the exposure a little, increased the clarity, and sharpened.
  7. Perhaps there’s a restaurant in this old brick building, given the serious exhaust duct work.  Processing: This image is all about that beautiful duct, the way it contrasts with the brick, and its curve. I converted to black and white in Silver Efex; I don’t remember which settings I used. Back in Lightroom, a few minor adjustments included smoothing the tones on the duct slightly.
  8. I like the way these two older buildings follow the bend of the street and I’m surprised they haven’t been torn down (yet).  Processing: This poorly lit image went through several versions before I decided the sepia tones (a Lightroom preset) worked best. I adjusted the tone curve, opening up the shadows, then lightened the garage door and street, and darkened the upper right. I cropped to eliminate extraneous “stuff” and used Lightroom “Transform” to straighten building edges that appeared to lean.
  9. There’s that photographer again, framing a shot of the rail tracks that feed freight and passengers into and out of Seattle.  Processing: For consistency with the first photo of the photographer (actually my son) I used one of the colored infrared filters in Color Efex, which turned the green-leaved tree into a pink-blooming winter wonder. I added a lightened vignette in Lightroom.
  10. A heavy scrim of tree branches obscures one of Seattle’s landmarks, the building with the peaked roof line. Finished in 1914, the Smith Tower is the oldest skyscraper in town, and was for many years the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.  Processing: The photo was taken with my phone because I was traveling light, with just one lens. It wasn’t wide enough to capture what I wanted here, but the camera lens is. I cropped somewhat on both sides, decreased exposure and contrast, and made adjustments to saturation and luminance of each individual color. Because it was getting dark when the photo was taken, noise reduction was needed along with sharpening, both in Lightroom.
  11. A dock at the Seattle Ferry Terminal, where passengers walk or drive onto ferries to West Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Vashon Island or Bremerton, a town on the Kitsap Peninsula. It’s a pleasure to walk over to the waterfront from Pioneer Square and take in the views, where the skies over the water are ever changing.  Processing: The blue-toned, contrasty look comes from converting the photo to black and white first, then adding a color infrared filter in Color Efex to the black and white image.
  12. The shiny newcomer wedging itself into Seattle’s skyline is the F5 Tower. Each floor is a different size. Rainwater collection, rooftop solar power, and glass similar to that used at One World Trade Center in New York that both absorbs and reflects sunlight, are Gold LEED certification features. The offices will house F5 Networks, a tech company.  Processing: The original photo was all about the mix of old and new buildings with the F5 Tower in the background, but the composition was just too crowded and needed to be simplified. I cropped a lot out, zeroing in on the tower’s facade. Unfortunately, I have forgotten how I made the rest of the changes!
  13. Late afternoon sun sidles through the storm clouds over Puget Sound, seen from the ferry terminal. That could be the ferry from Bremerton coming in. The rugged, snow-covered Olympic Mountains seen on the horizon lie between Seattle and the coast, to our east. With the Cascade Range to Seattle’s west and Mount Rainier rising up to the southwest, mountain vistas provide a majestic frame for the city…when they aren’t obscured by clouds!  Processing: This photo just needed subtle adjustments in Lightroom, such as softening the clouds at the top by using the graduated filter to reduce contrast, using it again to slightly darken the upper corners, and adjusting luminance in most of the colors, individually.

I don’t use filters in Color Efex as much as I did for this batch of photos, and I don’t convert to black and white as often as I did here, but I enjoyed using the effects to add interest to many photos that tended to be flat, due to overcast skies. At the waterfront, conditions improved, and the final shot’s colors stood well on their own. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Odds & Endings

Here is a miscellaneous group of images taken this year that have not been posted. The emphasis this time is urban. I’m going to attempt to tie them together with a bit of whimsy.

So: out with the old, in with the new, as cranes of all colors tear out a concrete building in downtown Seattle, exposing the upside-down, curvy underside of its neighbor.

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That’s a lot of work! I doubt those guys do anything exciting on their breaks, but if you’re setting up a silo for a new brewery at Pike Place Market, lucky you! You get to watch Mount Rainier bask in the glow of the setting sun.

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Just to the south a jumble of vents atop a building creates yet another oddball urban composition.

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Farther south in Seattle’s old Pioneer Square neighborhood, handsome brick buildings compose themselves against a clear blue sky – yes, blue sky happens in Seattle – in fact, the sky is blue here all summer long.

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A museum staircase provides another opportunity to enjoy architectural design.

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So does a 1929 Art Deco tower backed up by a newer building in downtown Seattle. In your eyes, the newer building may or may not have succeeded in taking its cues from the past. But like it or not, it’s fun to wander the city streets in search of patterns.

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At some point you have to give it all a rest, go out to the back alley, sit a spell. The cigarette buts tell me someone’s been doing just that.

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Maybe they daydream about the holidays and colorful toys from the past…

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Or maybe their reveries center on sunny days running through candy-colored gardens….

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And treats, yes, let’s not forget that. Here’s to all of you having as many treats as you want in the New Year!

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Whether you prefer Christmas red and green, Hanukah blue and white,

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or something else altogether,

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I wish you oodles of cheer, and lets make it ordinary cheer, like this fellow spreads down at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Sure, he has dreads down to his knees, his scarf is awry and his jacket frayed, but that’s what ordinary looks like, and maybe we need a little more of it.

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I thank you for your presence here. It’s meant a lot this year. I’ll see you again very soon, with photographs from a warmer place…pleasant dreams!

An Idiosyncratic View

Here are 25 images from 8 days in New York City, where I lived on and off through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 2000’s. My view of the city is never the same two days running, but it’s likely it will be in line with this:

“There is no surrender of beauty, only an effort to find beauty by going past the typical and arriving at the common. I do not love the travel pages. I look past them and go to the substratum of the visible environment. What I love about Bali is what I love about Sao Paulo, Nairobi, Seoul and Reykjavik: the material evidence of human life, which goes on in spite of the world’s enmity. In this search, the intense attachment to the beautiful remains. The sun pours itself all over the world and the world’s things. Things are being built, or repaired, or broken. Things sit in the street, free of use. Things are on the verge of speech. Ladders rise, angels invisibly ascend and descend.”

“Assemblages inhabit their own complexity and color. What I visit less often is what has been labeled beautiful ahead of time, what has been verified by the tourist board. I want to see the things the people who live there see, or at least what they would see after all the performance of tourism is stripped away.  I love these places that are not mine for the underground channel of perception by which they are connected, the common semantics of used space, the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.”

Teju Cole, from the book “Blind Spot.”

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1) A Long Island Railroad crossing in a town just outside New York City

2) Graffiti sticker at historic Fort Totten: Queens

3) A photographer in the garden at the Noguchi Museum in Astoria: Queens

4) One World Trade seen through a scrim of Sycamore branches: lower Manhattan

5) Waiting to cross the street at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street: uptown Manhattan

6) Overgrown ammunition magazine at Fort Totten: Queens

7) One seat left at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: uptown Manhattan

8) I wore silly shoes, I dropped my scarf

9) The residential buildings, Toren Tower and Avalon Fort Greene: Brooklyn

10) The W train (elevated subway) in Astoria: Queens

11) Two crab escapees at the fish counter at a Chinese grocery store in Flushing: Queens

12) Looking up Broadway near Wall Street at rush hour: lower Manhattan

13) There’s always construction: lower Manhattan

14) There’s always construction: Queens

15) Ductwork and fire escape, vicinity of Church Street: lower Manhattan

16) Texting in a cafe in Chelsea: Manhattan

17) “All is Not Lost Too” when texting while walking in Astoria: Queens

18) A high rise seen through ornamental grasses in Battery Park: lower Manhattan

19) One World Trade Center seen through trees in Zucotti Park: lower Manhattan

20) Pedestrians at rush hour in Zucotti Park: lower Manhattan

21) The Oculus at the World Trade Center: lower Manhattan

22) Train tracks outside the city: New Hyde Park, Long Island

23) A woman rests her gaze at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: uptown Manhattan

24) A migrating Monarch butterfly on Verbena: Battery Park, lower Manhattan

25) The Throgs Neck Bridge seen through Black locust tree seed pods at Fort Totten Park: Queens

 

 

 

 

 

The Three Graces

Ever since I first saw a reproduction of a statue of the Three Graces, I’ve been drawn to the idea and manifestation of Three Graces. In mythology the three graces are Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance). Who doesn’t need more of those qualities? Who would foolishly turn away from them?

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I walk though the Greek and Roman Galleries on my way to see another exhibit, and I’m stopped short by the vision of my old friends, the Three Graces. Full size, the hover above me but are not out of reach. The galleries are crowded with visitors but the familiar form burns into my retina, cancelling out everything else.

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The three women connect with each other, joined in a relaxed stance that belies the importance of their work: bringing joy and beauty to the world. Facing, not facing, facing, they include everyone in grace. Fellowship and power – the power of grace – are embodied in the feminine.

(Also called the Kharities (Charities), they attended Aphrodite and Hera. Dance, song, joy, goodwill and adornment can be added to their virtues. Cults worshiped them in southern Greece and Asia Minor, and many artistic renditions of them sprang up in pottery, on coins, in sculpture, etc. At first they were clothed, later they were shown naked. From Botticelli to Niki de Saint Phalle, artists continue to work the theme.)

The 2nd century AD statue was purchased in 2010 with the help of, among others, Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer. Mr. de la Renta, famous for clothing women elegantly, helped the museum keep these unclothed beauties in the public eye.

 

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Upstairs I noticed another rendition:

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The painting (titled “Meeting (The Three Graces)” is by Manierre Dawson, whom I hadn’t heard of. An American born in 1887 to an art-loving family, he studied civil engineering and worked in an architectural firm. In 1910 he traveled to Europe, where he looked at lots of art and attended a soiree at Gertrude Stein’s. What an education it must have been!  After returning to America he was producing innovative abstract paintings, one of which Stein purchased. He supported himself and his family by working a fruit farm at his family’s summer property in rural Michigan. The contradictions artists often live within:  Dawson purchased a Marcel Duchamp painting at the Armory show in 1913; on the farm he mastered orchard skills: what trees need to bear fruit.

In a 1913 journal entry he writes, “Why not stay here on the farm, add a few acres of level land … and earn a living from the soil, with every spare hour devoted, at times to the pleasures of married life, or at times to the pleasures of painting, sketching or carving.”  “The pleasures of” – the Three Graces’ whispered message is heard, and heeded. The farm became successful and Dawson devoted more time to making art, finally achieving recognition late in life with shows in Florida, and later New York.  He is considered an American pioneer of abstract art.

The day after visiting the Met, I was in Chelsea and again I was stopped short by a vision of Three Graces.

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A water offering sits at the base. Traffic streams down Ninth Avenue. The women are a counterpart to all that rushes and flows around them and I’m drawn in to the warm, sensual feeling emanating from gray stone.

One more image from New York seems to fit the theme:

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A tree mars the composition but you take what you can get when you’re taking pictures on the street. The women are part of a wedding party gathering for pictures on a Friday afternoon in Battery Park, in lower Manhattan. There are more than three people and they’re not all women, but Beauty, Mirth and Abundance are embodied here, on this October afternoon.

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Besides seeing various versions of the Three Graces, I made other connections on this trip, connections that are inevitable if you think about what you see, and unfetter your mind. There was the work of two Japanese American artists who were interned during WWII, Isamu Noguchi and Ruth Asawa. I don’t know if they ever met, but I saw connections in their experiences as Japanese Americans with complicated identities, in their mastery of materials and in the simplicity of form in their work.

Trees were a running theme, whether at an old African Burial ground in Queens or a busy downtown park. Monarch butterflies too, because they were flying at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Battery Park. Bamboo, featured in a Metropolitan Museum exhibit, also drew my eye at the Noguchi Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Architecture and ordinary buildings held my attention everywhere. The sensory overload was intense, but my eyes were hungry.

It felt good to return to the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BACK AGAIN

I went back again to

my beloved

New York City

now

I’m back again, in

my treasured

Pacific Northwest.

*

And needless to say, there are many photographs to look at, think about, process and share. There are more in my inbox; the backlog is eleven days old. Today I’ll begin catching up with what everyone is doing.

On this trip, we spent a lot of time in the outer boroughs – five days of seeing sights and lively, often raucous, get-togethers with family and friends in Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island – leaving just three days in Manhattan. New York is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.  Manhattan is at the center, the others are the outer boroughs. When people say “New York City” they usually mean Manhattan, but a city resident could spend their entire life in the Bronx and never go into Manhattan.

As we traveled from borough to borough by car, glimpses of the Manhattan skyline captivated me, just as they have for many years. I first came to New York as a five-year-old to visit my grandparents. We went up to my grandfather’s office in a building on Park Avenue, and looking out his window, I was transfixed by all the yellow cabs, the activity, the color and movement. The view up Park Avenue and the energy on the streets and sidewalks of New York became focus points driving a deep longing to fully experience life in the city. By the age of 18 I was living in Manhattan. A photo from that early trip:

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Here are a few views of Manhattan from the elevated BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), a notorious traffic nightmare. It wasn’t too hard to grab shots of the skyline as we went from Queens to Brooklyn at a 20 mph clip, which is decent for the BQE.  The old Kosciuszko Bridge over Newtown Creek had just been demolished, leaving sections of the roadway angled wildly into the air like a sculpture John Chamberlin or Mark di Suvero might have done back in the 60’s. That’s the kind of eyeball-popping excitement I expect from New York, and I’m never disappointed. There are always surprises in New York, especially when you’ve been away for a few years…

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How about that? The iconic Empire State Building and Chrysler Building stand proud behind a foreground lush trees and a cemetery. Not your average NYC skyline view.

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The Chrysler Building is on the left, and to the right is the soaring, skinny 452 Park Avenue, said to be the western hemisphere’s tallest residential building. The East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens, can’t be seen here. It’s between the high rises and the older buildings.

 

 

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Pieces of the old Kosciuzko Bridge roadway, seen from the new one, after the bridge was demolished. The center section of the bridge was cut off, lowered towards the water and barged to a New Jersey scrapyard, then sections of bridge roadway on either side were VERY carefully detonated. Watch the demolition here and here. I think the sections I photographed are farther from the main bridge, so they haven’t been fully demolished yet – but if anyone knows better, I’m all ears.

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This view shows Newtown Creek in the foreground. It separates Brooklyn from Queens, and has been a busy hub of industrial activity for decades. It’s a Superfund site now because of copious amounts of raw sewage and industrial waste dumped there over the years, along with 30 million gallons of spilled oil. How placid the polluted estuary seems!

In my mind, the old smokestack echoes the new residential tower in Manhattan, tying together two very different sides of New York – the glitzy world of high-price Manhattan real estate and the workaday world of heavy industry and sewage disposal. Just two days ago an 8-acre residential site went up for sale on Newtown Creek, in the middle of what has been an industrial wasteland for many years. Someday, this could all be gentrified…

I’ll be back soon with more from New York….where just five miles from the places pictured above I saw this magical sight – a group of hungry Monarch butterflies feeding on asters at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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ODE TO STATEN ISLAND

Three years ago I posted about New York City’s Staten Island, the borough New Yorkers love to hate. As I said back then, I had lived in the city on and off for four decades – on Manhattan’s Lower and Upper East Sides, the Bowery, the Upper West Side, Brooklyn, the Bronx’s pretty Riverdale neighborhood, and other city locations. In 2008 I worked in Lower Manhattan and commuted from Connecticut – a four hour round trip by car, train, and subway: pure madness.  At the time I couldn’t afford Manhattan or Brooklyn rent, so I decided to look on Staten Island. I found a big, rambling apartment on the north end of the island, a pleasant ten minute walk to the ferry to Lower Manhattan. After the ferry ride, I could jump on the subway or walk the last bit to my job, in an office building next to the old World Trade Center site, then under construction.

On weekends I explored my new back yard: the somewhat wild and very weird Staten Island. I found it to be an endlessly fascinating mashup of the sublime and the ridiculous.

I’m grounded this month – I can’t drive, I can’t use my camera. I can pick away at the keyboard with my left hand though, so it’s an opportunity to dredge the archives and see what surfaces.This handful of images from New York’s forgotten borough has waited long enough.

As I said in that last Staten Island post, when I lived there I found plenty to hate – noise, traffic, pollution, rudeness, stupidity – but I also found lots to love, and much to wonder about.

This too, is New York City:

Great egrets stalk prey in a flooded park next to a Staten Island beach, after a September hurricane ripped apart the thin margin separating ocean and lawn. Like New York’s other boroughs – Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx – Staten Island has an abundance of bird life. It offers good habitat variety and sits right on the Atlantic flyway, one of North America’s main avian migration routes.

The beaches also attract island residents, who migrate here from all over the world.

Our favorite stretch of beach for walks was off the beaten track and boasted a series of cairn sculptures that grew into an elaborate installation, transforming a good half mile of coastline into an ingenious wonderland.  A dedicated local zookeeper named Doug Schwartz was behind this obsessive labor of love. We ran into him once. A quiet man, he seemed to be a typically eccentric Staten Islander. Every piece of the stone monoliths was found on site, hauled and stacked by hand. Beach walkers, captivated by the impressive effort, would sometimes lend a hand, or add their own touches in typically spontaneous New York fashion.

Powerful storms washed the sturdy cairns away several times, but Doug kept at it. Then, unbelievably, he was ordered by the Department of Environmental Conservation to remove all the sculptures. I thought the sculptures were an intelligent, attractive solution to the problem of debris that continuously washes up on Staten Island’s none-too-pristine beaches. The DEC guys thought otherwise.  Here’s a story about that fiasco.  It exemplifies the bloated, inhuman, bureaucratic side of New York, which was partially responsible for my leaving the state.

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Beach debris is so tempting, isn’t it?  The day I took this picture, we were sorely tempted by these rusted artifacts, but the car was too far away – a photo had to suffice.  In the background are migrating ducks and Brant geese.

Speaking of debris washing up, while exploring the industrialized north shore one day, we noticed a promising dirt road leading towards the waterfront.  OK, it was private property – but no one was around and the gate was open, so I insisted on checking it out. At the end of the narrow, overgrown road we came to a sliver of sand littered with debris. Looking closely, I realized that dozens of small, old potsherds and bits of glass were scattered about, and were still washing up in the gentle tide.

It was an amazing find – everything was quite old and seemed to have originated in the same place – maybe Britain circa 1920, or even earlier. A shipwreck?

I was unable to ferret out any clues as to the origin of this small bonanza. We returned once more that summer to collect more artifacts. The following year we returned again, but a tall fence blocked access to the road and property. A younger, braver member of our group tried to scale it, but he couldn’t. That was the end of that.

I wonder if old fragments of forgotten lives still wash ashore there, and if anyone notices.

Inland on Staten Island, the greenest borough, there are many parks and preserves – over 12,000 acres. Some are still fairly wild, considering you’re in a city of eight million souls.

But wildness attracts the “wrong kind” of New Yorker, too, and Staten Island has plenty of those. This park was beset with rusting car wrecks, tires and garbage.

In another park nearby, a sweet statue survived relatively unscathed at an open air shrine. Perched on a bluff overlooking the water and dating to 1935, the shrine is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. People leaves flowers, crosses, hand written prayers, photos of loved ones, rosaries…and during the four years I lived in the area, the offerings remained undisturbed. An old broom leaned against the wall, ready to tidy the shrine.

You can see the figure take the weather in stride – the second photo was taken a few years before the first one.

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Staten Island is a famously Italian borough. Besides the shrine at Mount Loretto and fabulous Italian food, a local cultural center boasts a pretty little Italianate building and reflecting pool, built a few years ago for weddings and receptions.

A few steps away, the center (Snug Harbor) offers a charmingly overgrown botanical garden. It may be a poor cousin to the well known New York Botanical Garden, but I came to love it more, for its simple charms and air of subtly elegant neglect. I must have a thousand pictures of the gardens and flowers at Snug Harbor. It became my go-to place for R & R after long weeks of working for the state department of health, monitoring services for people with brain injuries.  My office in a building adjacent to the twin towers site was a stressful place to be during the reconstruction, and Snug Harbor provided respite.

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There is a Chinese Scholar’s Garden at Snug Harbor, too. Other than a nominal charge to enter the Scholar’s Garden, the grounds of Snug Harbor are free to all.

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Surprises are a dime a dozen on Staten Island – turn down a side street in a residential area, and you may find something like this next to a modest home.  Explore back roads in sparsely populated neighborhoods, and you’ll see the occasional rooster scratching in a side yard.

Here’s Superman atop a business that makes awnings. Around the corner in this mixed use neighborhood was a dignified, if dilapidated older home, with interesting curtains on the door.

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The island was (and still is, I hope) a rich hunting ground for oddball attractions. One sunny Saturday we ventured warily through an open chain link gate in a post-industrial wasteland just off a highway. Someone had been living in an abandoned trailer on a concrete-covered lot that was quickly reverting to weeds. It was hard to tell how long ago they last used the space, but they certainly left their mark. Behind the trailer, hard by a marsh and winding creek, sculptures constructed from waste dumped at the site dotted the rough landscape.

This is REAL outsider art! Who else ever saw these? Anyone? What impulse moved the artist – you’d have to give them that – to create these?

On the trailer wall, a broken plastic candy cane played visual tag with a series of stencils. I couldn’t decide whether it was creepy or poignant.

I think the latter.

Staten Island offers quotidian delights like magnolia blossom-strewn sidewalks as readily as the strange sights of less traveled roads. This was on the block where I lived.

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And sunsets – I remember sitting alone on the sandy beach and watching the sun go down on this beautiful April evening, reveling in that brief, glowing meld of color that settles in once the sun is below the horizon. How about wild deer on an island in New York City? Staten Island has that. Folks say they swam over from New Jersey. (We were in a car, when I took this, exploring back roads again).

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The flora of Staten Island is what a botanist would consider degraded, since it is overrun with alien species and invasives. Still, I enjoyed my regular wildflower forays each summer and fall. I explored every back road I could find on that island. Pretty soon I knew exactly where I could go to put together a bouquet.

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I drew maps to remember where I’d been – and how to get back.

If the weather didn’t cooperate, there was always the view from my window. Looking west, the old St. Peters clock tower is just visible during a winter ice storm. A neighbor is burning cardboard and trash in his old furnace to get warm – just don’t inhale too much!

To the northwest are the busy ports of Bayonne and Elizabeth, New Jersey, just past the Kill van Kull’s busy shipping lanes. I never tired of watching the ships and tugs. I would google a container ship name to learn where it came from and where it was going.  Here, a barge is pushed out the Kill van Kull by a local tug as another tug returns to port. Dramatic skies vie for attention.

There are too many window views to include here – they deserve their own post. Another day.

Parting shot: sunset on the Kill van Kull with the Bayonne Bridge in the distance. A curve of neglected rail track glints and a trio of gulls soars west past the ubiquitous chain link fence – a typical meeting of the mundane and sublime, on Staten Island.

How a Phone is Changing Me

The phone camera provides a very different experience than a digital camera does. It has far fewer opportunities for control – no aperture or ISO setting, no special lenses to choose – just that oddly flat rectangle to hold up to a scene, turn this way and that, and lightly touch.

It’s less calculated. I find I’m more spontaneous when I use it. This adaptation to the technology at hand – it’s almost Darwinian!

Here we are, in the car-wash again, floating in a colorworld…

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A few days later, during a brief respite between appointments. Downtown Seattle:

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I’m not going to switch from digital to a phone camera, but I’m glad I have the phone with me all the time. It opens up other paths.

Life is busy lately so I’m looking forward to getting away next weekend for a road trip I’ve been wanting to do ever since I moved here: a big loop east on Washington Rt. 20 (north of Seattle) through and over the Cascades. This very scenic road is closed much of the year because of the snow and avalanches. We’ll turn south at the little town of Twisp on the dry, eastern Cascade slope. Finally, we’ll head back west on Rt. 2 or I 90, depending on our energy levels come Sunday. There will be two overnights, one at a countryside airbnb north of here, the other at a rather pedestrian hotel in Winthrop – one of the last rooms available in the area when I booked the other day. Hopefully I won’t forget the SD card or the battery charger!