Essay, Photography, Travel

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

First published 3 June 2016. I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury┬átheir dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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Tall angular building

Tall angular building
Canon PowerShot S95
2016

I’ve made a lot of photographs this year, but few that please me, or that I think are good.

I’ve been doing a lot of camera therapy this year. It has felt good to make photographs, or it did until recently. The disappointment I’ve experienced with my compositions is now greater than the pleasure I feel when I press the shutter button.

I’ve been making photographs while I’ve been doing other things, mostly taking bike rides or walks to help me lose these 15 stubborn pandemic pounds. I’m not out primarily to make photographs; I’m sneaking photography in along the way.

I’m also bored of my subjects. I’ve shot them all a hundred times now.

It’s possible to make great photographs while doing other things. I made this one in Manhattan while there with Margaret in 2016. We made photographs as we walked to wherever we were going. But Manhattan was largely new to me, and exciting.

I think I need to make some photo walks for their own sake, at places that are new and exciting to me.

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single frame: Tall angular building

Looking up at a building in NYC.

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NYC after dusk

Central Park
Canon PowerShot S95
2016

As someone who has always lived in flyover country, my only contact with New York City, specifically Manhattan, was in movies and on television. It wasn’t until I visited the city for the first time in the late 1980s that I started to get a feel for the place. It hardly matched what I had seen on the screen. That Manhattan was either clean and pretty, or dangerous and gritty. The Manhattan I met was just a very large city. A confusing city — it took three or four trips before I started to get a sense of direction in it, and was able to find my way without a guide.

I didn’t visit Central Park until my most recent trip there, in 2016. I wished I had not waited so long. It’s better than what the movies make it out to be — a well-designed, manicured, peaceful oasis right in the middle of this loud and busy place.

One evening on our last visit, we enjoyed a cocktail hour on the top floor of our hotel. This was the view from up there. It’s impressive just how large Central Park is, how much Manhattan real estate it claims.

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Photography

single frame: Central Park

A view from on high of New York City’s Central Park.

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Photography

Learning documentary photography from Berenice Abbott

I have made thousands of photographs of the places I’ve visited, especially along the old roads. Does that make me a documentary photographer? Probably.

I’m not sure I care much about being labeled. But as I’ve shifted this blog’s focus to photography, I still want to write about the old roads and the places on them. For those posts to appeal to you photographers in the audience, I want to step up the quality of my documentary work.

Additionally, I recognize that in so many of my photos from the road, I’ve focused either very narrowly, such as on a building or a bridge or their details, or very broadly on sweeping landscapes. Very little about my work would help you feel like you know something about the place or would recognize the place as you approached it. And that feels like a miss to me.

That’s where the label becomes useful: some accomplished photographers shot documentary work, and I can learn from them. About the time I realized that, I came upon this 1938 photo of New York City by Berenice Abbott. It wowed me. Just look at all the great detail she captured there, in such an interesting way! It allows for detailed study of this place. Even though half of the street scene is visible only through the foreground sign, enough of it is visible that the photograph gives a sense of this place. If I could be transported to 1938 and dropped on the ground here, I would recognize it because I had seen this photograph.

Columbus Circle, Manhattan, 1938
Columbus Circle, Manhattan, 1938

I have been to this place. It’s Columbus Circle, at 59th St. and Central Park West. Except for the statue in the center, it looks nothing like this today. But the statue and the shapes of the streets gives enough context for me to guess, probably correctly, that the street on the left is Broadway and the street on the right, visible through the foreground sign, is Central Park West.

It certainly helps that Abbott got access to the right rooftop to make this composition. When I’m on the road I lack the connections that grant access to interesting vantage points — I’m relegated to the ground. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a few things from Abbott’s work that I can try in my own work.

It turns out that during much of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration hired Abbott to document NYC. So I bought a book of Abbott’s photographs from that project, New York In The Thirties, and studied her work. (You can, too, without buying the book. Many of her New York photographs are cataloged this site at the New York Public Library.)

Here are some things I noticed.

Back up and get in some context, especially if that context is interesting. So much of my work fills the frame with the subject. It’s a fundamental principle of photography. But does it always serve documentary photography well? Abbott’s work suggests that it does not. Just look at how seeing this building with the skyscrapers behind it communicates so much about the environment in which this building stood.

Vista from West Street, 115-119 West Street, Manhattan, 1938
Vista from West Street, 115-119 West Street, Manhattan, 1938

Look for contrasting elements to make a compound subject. The low building is clearly from a different era than the warehouse building behind it. This composition gives a sense of 1930s NYC that filling the frame with the low building would not.

Broome Street no. 512-514, Manhattan, 1935
Broome Street no. 512-514, Manhattan, 1935

Intersecting planes create interest. Three planes is a good start, but here Abbott managed to frame at least five: the building at right, the Brooklyn Bridge’s deck, the tiny bit of the bridge’s pier peeking out above the building, the building under construction, and the New York skyline in the distance.

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn, 1936
Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn, 1936

Photograph buildings at an angle to get a little life into the frame. When I photograph buildings, I tend to shoot them straight on and fill the frame with them. But over and over again Abbott approached buildings at an angle and showed some of what was going on in the spaces before them. This also gave her photographs depth. It helped considerably that Abbott shot a large-format view camera, giving her great control over depth of field and helping her heighten the sense of depth in her work. But I can adapt these ideas to my smaller 35mm and medium-format frames.

West Street Row, I. 178-183 West Street, Manhattan, 1936
West Street Row, I. 178-183 West Street, Manhattan, 1936

Even when photographing detail, it can help the image to grab some context. The ornate building at right is Alwyn Court, which I also have photographed (see it here). But I tended to focus on its details, and even when I photographed large portions of it I ignored the building’s surroundings. The buildings at left in this image heighten the viewer’s understanding of just how interesting and unusual Alwyn Court is.

Facade Alwyn Court, 174-182 West 58th Street and 911-917 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, 1938
Facade Alwyn Court, 174-182 West 58th Street and 911-917 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, 1938

Seeing through is wicked cool. I saved this one for last because it is so interesting, but also because I have no idea how I might use it in my own work (yet). But seeing the New York City skyline through the masts and rigging of this ship gives a sense of really being there.

Theoline, Pier 11 or 12, East River, Manhattan, 1936
Theoline, Pier 11 or 12, East River, Manhattan, 1936

Goodness, if I can help you feel like you’ve been there when you look at the photos I take of the places I go, I’ll have really accomplished something!

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Waiting for the bus in Harlem

Waiting for the bus in Harlem
Apple iPhone 6s
2016

This photo is blotchy. That’s what happens when you zoom with an iPhone. But I’m happy to have it at all. My good cameras were packed, as we had ridden the subway up to Harlem and were waiting on a bus that would take us to LaGuardia. We were headed home after our trip to New York last spring. When I saw we were a block from the famed Apollo Theater, I just had to have a snap, even though that box truck blocked the view.

Photography

Photo: Waiting for the bus in Harlem.

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I made a few thousand photographs in 2016. These ten satisfy me the most.

Dublin at golden hour
Dublin at dusk. Canon PowerShot S95.
The Pyramids
The Pyramids, a landmark in northwest Indianapolis. Konica Auto S2, Kodak Gold 200.
Leaves on the iron bench *EXPLORED*
Leaves on the iron bench. Canon A2e, 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF, Fujicolor 200.
Guinness
St. James Gate, Dublin. Nikon N2000, 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor, Kodak T-Max 400.
Ballinrobe, Ireland
Red door in Ballinrobe, Ireland. Canon PowerShot S95.
Garfield Park
The conservatory at Garfield Park, Indianapolis. Olympus Stylus, Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 (expired).
Golden fence
Golden fence at Saddlebrook Golf Course, Indianapolis. Minolta AF-Sv, Fujicolor 200.
Mass Ave and a light leak
Massachussetts Avenue, Indianpolis. Kodak Six-20 Brownie, Kodak Verichrome Pan (expired 9/1982).
Brooklyn Bridge
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Canon PowerShot S95.
In motion
Packard hood ornament. Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M, Kodak Tri-X.
Photography

Ten favorite photos of 2016

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