Monochrome Mondays

Reflection. It is one of the most exciting and frustrating aspects to photography. It is difficult to get the balance just right. To have the camera positioned so one half of a photo is ‘above’ while the other half is ‘below’. It is also hard to get the clarity of the reflection just right. But when it is done right, the results can be very satisfying. I remember taking this shot last year in Cape Cod. I took the same shot in color and monochrome, but when I viewed them both, the monochrome shot had that little bit of ‘magic’ for me. Something about the reflection in this case seemed much more pleasing. Let me know what you think in the comments, and do make sure to follow me on social media. Links to the right or below the photo. Until next week!

Cape Cod Reflection

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Take Back This House

Originally written in December 2016, not long after the U.S. Election. Oysterband just released a new song called My Country Too last week. Once I heard it, I knew I had to add it to this post. Though written from their own perspective living in the UK, the words are relevant to our world in general. “We don’t blame souls that good luck missed, being sick’s a trick, being poor’s a crime. We don’t deal with rape by putting women down, We don’t guard our land by letting children drown.’ The words floored me and the song deserves to be heard. If you like it, please share it!

Soundtrack Of A Photograph

Early on in this blogging journey of the past three years I made a lot of mistakes. It is inevitable that it should happen of course. I had not done any writing since college some 30 years before after all, and even then it was not my strong suit. It is still a learning process and as I go on, I still learn more every time I sit down and put these posts together. The biggest thing I have learned is to be more focused and succinct when I write. I have thought about re-working some of my older and longer posts in this manner the same way an artist or a band revisits a song from the past. But much like a 1980’s song awash with synthesizers and drum beats that sounds painfully dated, it is sometimes best to move on and write something new instead.

Which is not…

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Monochrome Mondays

Well after a week off for a business trip to Las Vegas, Monochrome Mondays is back again. I’ll have to make this one shorter than normal in its description, owing to the fact that I came into about 200 emails in my absence. Not to mention the remnants of a raging cold which kept me home almost the entire weekend. On Friday as I made my way home early in the morning-by monorail, subway, then taxi, the closer I came to our neighborhood, the more I could not wait to see the first signs that I was really home. Coming up out of the subway not feeling well, tired and bedraggled, bags straining at their seams I caught my first sure sign that I was almost home. Like most places in New York City, one only has to look up to know where you are. It is no different in my neighborhood, and in any direction I can see distinctive buildings, smokestacks or water towers to guide me. But coming up out of that subway the other day and while wearily hailing a cab to take me the rest of the way, I saw the slightest glimpse of the Queensboro 59th Street Bridge. And that’s when I knew I was home for sure!

Queensboro 59th Street Bridge

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Mexico-Color & Passion

 

It will be Cinco de Mayo in a few days. Before you drink that margarita, before you have those guacamole and chips or enchiladas with delicious mole, I want to tell you about my love of Mexico. Well I should actually say my love of Mexican culture (which includes the food!). Other than a quick trip across the border to Tijuana when I was eleven, I have not actually traveled there, though I hope that will change in the near future. Much like what St. Patrick’s Day has turned into, Cinco de Mayo has seemingly become co opted as  an excuse for 2 for 1 bottles of Corona and taco specials, though of course it actually commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle Of Puebla in 1862. Not Mexican independence as some wrongly believe, but an important military victory.  Despite the misunderstanding  it has become in some places a defacto celebration of Mexican culture along with those 2 for 1 Corona’s. Regardless of the misunderstanding, celebrating Mexican culture is never a bad thing, and  there is an awful lot of it  to go around.

If I were to describe Mexican culture using only two words I would simply say ‘colorful’ and ‘passionate’. From the richly dyed and beautiful textiles woven into blankets and clothing to the often subversive art bright colors dominate.   Mexican art somehow seems more visual than in other cultures, and I think it is precisely because of those bright colors used throughout. There is a lot of representation of death and religious themes utilized, but there are also a lot of satirical ones too. Art in Mexico seems to be everywhere, be it simple folk art or street murals. Even the masks worn by professional wrestlers there have a distinctly Mexican flair to them. I may not always understand the meaning of it all, but I admire it deeply for the appearance and style. Art can sometimes be unapproachable, and even exclusionary, but I do not get that sense from the Mexican art I have seen.

The passionate side comes out partly with a strong devotion to soccer, but especially in the music, and there are a bewildering number of styles throughout the country. In my opinion, when one thinks of the music of the Americas, certain countries jump to the front of the line. The U.S. of course with Rock, Country, Blues, Jazz and more.  Brazil has Samba, Bossa Nova and Forro, to name just a few. Cuba has Son, Mambo, Chachacha and the Rumba.  Jamaica is the birthplace of Reggae but there are so many sub genres like Dancehall and Rocksteady that make that island one of the most musical places in the entire world. But I think Mexico should be right there on that list too.  Just a partial list includes Ranchera, Norteno, Mariachi, Huapango and Cumbia. And that’s before you even get to contemporary Rock, Pop and Indigenous styles. One country, with lots of very different sounds.

It can be difficult to understand them all as an outsider but fortunately there is at least one singer I can think of who has attempted to weave her way through the maze. Mexican American singer Lila Downs has been a fixture on the world music circuit for years now. I first became aware of her from an appearance singing in director Julie Taymor’s inventive biographical film about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Lila Downs also featured heavily on the soundtrack to the film. It isn’t just that she explores Mexican music, but she also freely incorporates other sounds in to the mix, from Hip-Hop, Jazz, Indigenous styles and beyond with her staggeringly powerful voice. She is intensely passionate (see, there is that word again!) about the music, and you can clearly hear it whether you are a Spanish speaker or not.

I decided to feature two songs in this post.  One of the first songs I heard Lila Downs sing, the sublime Paloma Negra (Black Dove) appears on her album Una Sangre. At first I did not know it was actually a well known song performed by other greats like Lola Beltran and Chavela Vargas, but I sensed something hearing Lila Downs perform the song.  It isn’t just that you can hear her classical voice training in this song. It isn’t just that you can feel the devastating sadness of this song of heartbreak- ‘my eyes are dying without looking into yours’. It is so much more. The tempo, the buildup to that long mournful note just shout that Mexican passion to me. Other countries have their own ways of expressing pain and sadness in song, but I doubt many do it with as much raw feeling.

The second song here is the title cut to Lila’s most recent studio album-Balas y Chocolate (Bullets & Chocolate. The song cleverly balances between the real- ‘There’s bullets flying in our world, in our world. There are those who duck the bullets, on the ground, on the ground’ with a simple bit of escapism- ‘Gimme mami chocolate, You are my chocolate, My life my sweet. The rap in the middle of the song goes even further-

If a bullet don’t kill me, a hijacking, or assault,
if I don’t choke on the volcano’s ashes,
From diabetes, cirrhosis
Neurosis psychosis necrosis or from an overdose
If alcoholism doesn’t get me
Or egotism, stupidity, or partisanship
an earthquake or boredom from the soap opera
I’ll take off and toast my cocoa beans
There are dreams that are born in the pueblos and for the people
There are people who live those dreams each day,

Yet despite the harsh reality of those words, the video for the song, filled with those wonderful colors and folk art coming to life, with children dancing to the happy sounding  music portrays something else. Like the passion that exudes with Lila Downs singing Paloma Negra, it is the vibrancy of Mexico coming out. Despite the real life issues and  headlines about Mexico, there is much to admire and celebrate. Whether that is on Cinco de Mayo or any other day of the year, celebrating a country and culture as rich as Mexico is always a good thing.

Paloma Negra-Written By Tomas Mendez

Balas y Chocolate-Written By Lila Downs & Paul Cohen

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Monochrome Mondays

Well today is May 1st and spring is well and truly here. Which of course means that summer is not too far behind. Which also means it will soon be time to go to places like the one shown in this photo-Coney Island. Though much has changed there over the years, for a lot of people, those two words signal the start of yet another summer of the beach, boardwalk, amusements the Cyclone (and for baseball fans, the Cyclones), Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, freak shows, and lots of people watching. There is something so unique about Coney Island. When you get off the usually long subway ride out there, you just get a feeling of letting it all go,  and all the worries and problems disappear. Pictured is the famous Parachute Jump ride, which has sadly been long shut down to the public. But the unique structure still stands towering above the area, a reminder that whenever you see it in the distance, good times are near.

Coney Island

A heads up for everyone, due to a business trip to Las Vegas next week, Monochrome Mondays will return on May 15th!

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Monochrome Mondays

Well yesterday was a fabulous spring day here in New York City. My wife and I took a stroll around Flushing Meadows Corona Park and enjoyed the sunshine, glorious weather, and all the beautiful flowers and trees in bloom. For those unfamiliar, the park was twice the site of a World’s Fair, first in 1939 and then again in 1964.  It was a great chance to see the icons of this park standing up close and personal such as the Unisphere, the NY State Pavilion, and the Queens Museum. My favorite is definitely the Unisphere, designed for the 1964 World’s Fair by Gilmore D. Clarke. Though it looks impressive every time you drive by on the highway, up close it really takes on a new meaning. Representing the budding space race at the time of construction, to me it takes on an entirely new meaning these days. The entire borough of Queens is probably the most diverse area not just in New York City, but all of the United States. Perhaps even the world. Walking around on a beautiful spring day seeing people from all corners of the world barbecuing, riding bikes, skateboarding, playing soccer or even cricket reminded me that the planners of that World’s Fair chose very well indeed when they added the Unisphere to remind us we all live on this one planet.

The Unisphere

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Lark Rising-A Tribute To Flora Thompson

Mower In The Field

‘The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.’

So begins one of my most favorite books-Lark Rise To Candleford by Flora Thompson. Originally written as a trilogy in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s the three books were eventually unified as one title. What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the American prairie in her Little House On The Prairie series, what Lucy Maud Montgomery did for Prince Edward Island in Canada with Anne Of Green Gables, Flora Thompson did for her own little corner of England. Ironically, all three women were roughly contemporaries, and all three became known for writing about their own lives growing up. Wilder’s and Montgomery’s stories were originally marketed as successful children’s books (though plenty of adults still admire and read them to this day), Flora Thompson’s series  however was probably more of a slow grower in terms of popularity and importance, and definitely not a children’s book.

Together the three parts of the book-Lark Rise, Over To Candleford, and Candleford Green describe life at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth in a rural corner of England.  Lark Rise being a small hamlet where the protagonist Laura Timmins and her family grew up. Candleford being the slightly larger village, and Candleford Green the market town. The names are fictionalized, but very much based on real places. Using the character of Laura, Thompson was able to weave much of her life growing up, from school and seasonal rituals, to her work as a postmistress in the area. The wonderful thing about this book is though the distance between the three places was not so great, Flora Thompson manages to convey instead a vast landscape, filled with flowers, trees and wildlife.

She also told the story of the people that lived in that area. From her own hardworking parents and her favorite brother Edmund to memorable characters such as Queenie,  Twister, Cousin Dorcas and Zillah, Thompson imbued them all with the spirit of the era. What makes the books still so special today is that they are a living, breathing history of the time period. Flora Thompson wrote them later in life while thinking back on those years. Not purely for nostalgia, but also I think a fair bit of pride for how she and the other inhabitants of the area lived. When she described how a trip to the neighboring village required ‘more than turning over the leaves of a bus time-table’ I do not think of it as being a complaint in the difficulty of planning the excursion. Instead it was just how it was. Nothing more.

I think I have said on these pages before that there is the history that you read about in  books, and the history of any given person during the same time.  What the history books miss in the telling of general trends are the day to day lives of people. People scratching out a living however they could. As Thompson wrote- ‘Lark Rise must not be thought of as a slum set down in the country. The inhabitants lived an open-air life; the cottages were kept clean by much scrubbing with soap and water, and doors and windows stood wide open when the weather permitted.’ They sang songs throughout the year, went to church on Sunday, gossiped about one another, and talked politics at the pub. The charm of the book is in giving life to normal tasks such as the way the houses were decorated, the gardens and animals most households kept, or the archaic rules of children’s games.  In Thompson’s world, these were the historical events, not what was going on in the world around them necessarily.

I could go on quoting many more passages from the book, but I will leave it to you to read for yourselves some day to discover its charms. Revisiting its pages over the last few days  reminded me that  as a photographer when I am looking for interesting things to take photos of, I sometimes stumble upon an artifact from the past. An old barn on a country road or a vintage sign for example. Rather than viewing it as a museum piece or antique, I often think about what that artifact has been witness to. Take the photo I am using in this post. I took it on the little farm my mother grew up on in Ireland. It is one half of a mowing machine and would have been pulled by a horse. It sits in the field, rusted but built so well one could almost imagine it working again.

Perhaps because it is not in a museum or in an antique shop, but was actually used by my grandfather, I felt more of a connection to it. Like the world Flora Thompson recounts in Lark Rise To Candleford, the machine feels relevant still because it represents part of a life that is gone, replaced instead by modern machinery. I think a large part of why Lark Rise is considered such a gem is that it did not lament the inevitable change. Thompson herself once remarked of desiring  ‘a combination of old romance and modern machinery’. Lately with the world moving  faster than ever, when I read the words of writers like Flora Thompson, or when I take a photograph of something I know to be very old, it is my way of linking to the past. Similarly, the world of traditional music has a hand in preserving the same life that Thompson recounted. Bands like The Albion Band did that quite well in fact.

When bass player Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in 1969, he eventually formed the group Steeleye Span, and later The Albion Band. The Albions…as fans generally refer to them as owing to a bit of an open door musical policy were a true extension of Hutchings desire to explore the English folk traditions in full. Not just the traditional ballads, but also the various dance traditions encountered throughout the land. He has explored the work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp, he has performed both with very large groups of musicians and smaller acoustic based ones. He has done obscure concept albums, and more commercial sounding folk-rock.

In 1978, Hutchings and The Albion Band were asked to take part in a stage version of Lark Rise To Candleford. It was a theater in the round type of performance-actors became musicians and vice versa. Later, a studio album comprising some key moments was produced, which is where the music in this post comes from, two traditional songs very much in keeping with the themes of the book.  This album was my introduction to Flora Thompson’s world. The play was perhaps the first real push to present her work as being special. Just a few years ago, a very popular BBC television series went on air, and Thompson’s work is now seemingly on par with those of her two contemporaries.

Inevitably, whenever I play The Albion Band’s album, I find myself pulling out my battered copy of Flora Thompson’s book. Something about the leisurely approach to her story, lends itself to opening up random passages to read at will. I began writing this post as a way of introducing people to the book, but now in conclusion I feel something else happened along the way, and it has to do with that same leisurely approach. I do sometimes fear that the times we are in now really do move too fast. Not only is the technology changing, but we are too. Flora Thompson’s own life was not completely idyllic and was certainly not without hardship. But later in life, she wanted to recount those times, the good and the bad. When musicians like The Albion Band perform old traditional songs they do so to present something similar. When I take a photo of something like an old piece of farm equipment I am doing the same thing. Three mediums keeping the past alive in the present. My fear is that in the fast paced world of today will we collectively recount our pasts the way Thompson did? Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are!

Lemady/Arise & Pick A Posy-Traditional, Arranged By The Albion Band

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