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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Monochrome Mondays

Normally Mondays are not so happy for most of us. Today however is a good Monday, since I am off today and tomorrow! But I still have some work to do…such as share with you a new Monochrome Mondays. In the case of one thing leading to another, the other day I changed my profile photo on Facebook to one from Ireland last summer. After selecting it, I scanned through some of the other photos I took, when I came across this one again. For all the natural beauty of Ireland, it is also a place where you are easily reminded of it also being a place where people work hard, and the landscape often shows evidence of it. Piles of turf, or hay bales abound. So do little boats, which seem to be everywhere near the coast. I walked one day down to a tiny little pier in Kilcar, Donegal. By no means was it a beautiful scene, and with the tide in it had that not so attractive smell! But the contrast of this little boat, leaning to one side, while looking towards the town was too appealing for me not to take this photo.

Low Tide, Donegal

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Under The Sun, Moon And Stars

‘Let happiness run under the sun, moon and stars’

There seems to be something universal about the symbolism of the above line. Despite all the distractions of life we inevitably suffer through, the imagery of being connected to those celestial objects is compelling. It does not matter where you live, or what year it is, the lure of the energy they provide has a strengthening  power. Whether it is waiting for a day off to ‘catch some rays’, or to get out of the city to more easily see the moon and stars, these ancient forces are a part of our life. They tend to bring us happiness, and for some people they even provide healing powers.

I suppose I am no different in that regard. After the darkness of winter the longer days go a long way towards re-energizing my soul. And boy have I needed that lately. I have not been writing as much as I want to here lately, and my music related posts seem to be scarcer. The cause has not been for a lack of musical inspiration on my part. Over the last few months I have acquired lots of new music I hope will make its way on to these pages soon. It also has not been because I am uninspired with my photography. A new camera and lenses have given me lots of toys to happily play with.

This blog has always being about making a connection between music and my own photography, but I have not been able to pull that off too much recently. Like the last time it happened though, instead of feeling pressured, I just waited until I felt I had something to write. And like some of the best moments I have had since I started writing, it was when a song hit me at precisely the right time.

While enjoying a day off from work yesterday I sat on our balcony reading and relaxing. I had some reggae music on by one of my favorites- the sublime Jimmy Cliff. A year or so ago I wrote about his classic song Many Rivers To Cross here. It is hard for me to adequately express how much his music means to me. He sings of Jamaica.  Of hardship and happiness.  Peace and poverty. Love and hate. No matter the subject it always comes from a place of love. Live he frequently ends his songs with the words ‘Give Thanks.’ A reminder of what is really important to him and his music.

One perception of reggae music is that it is all about chilling out on a beach with a beer and Bob Marley singing Buffalo Soldier, or Jammin’. I have certainly been guilty of that offense myself. It is easy to get lured by that beat and groove to a state of relaxation. So often though, when you read the lyrics to songwriters like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff the truth really comes out. The songs are quite often very powerful political statements.

Take the Bob Marley songs I mentioned for example. In Buffalo Soldier- ‘Stolen from Africa, brought to America, Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.’ Or Jammin’- ‘No bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor we won’t bow.’ When you really learn about the music and the atmosphere it was created under, those good time beach vibes don’t quite feel the same. So while I was sitting yesterday, I realized that the words to Jimmy Cliff’s song Under The Sun, Moon And Stars are no different.

The music might have that relaxed vibe, but the song is actually a bit of a plea and a statement about not living life the way his forefathers did and not accepting it either-

‘My forparents worked, from sun-up, ’til sun-down
Peace could not be found now they’re under the ground

I’ve heard them complain and cried out in pain
Seeking peaceful gain under the sun, moon and stars

Won’t happen to me, I’m not blind, you see
I’ve got to be free, I want it right here on earth
Got to have some fun, ‘for my life is done
Let happiness run under the sun, moon and stars’

This idea that I started off with, of a universal symbolism to the sun, moon and stars comes perhaps from my own (mostly) happy life. Once I really listened to the song, I realized that even though we all live under those same elements, our worlds can be vastly different with people not so happy or fortunate. Just like so many other reggae songs, the message comes in an uplifting way however. When Jimmy Cliff sings, even though he sings of hardship and poverty he reminds us we all live under the same sun, moon and stars. No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what our situation is. We all need to remember that. Give Thanks.

*A note about the photograph. Moon photography is something I have always wanted to try my hand at, but to really do it justice, you need a lot of patience, and some special equipment generally speaking. But one morning a month or two ago, as the sun was coming up, the moon was still in clear view, and the contrast of the dawn colors and the bright moon was too tempting not to take a photo. I’m happy I did! Now how about ‘one more’ from Jimmy Cliff?

Under The Sun, Moon And Stars-Written By Jimmy Cliff

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Monochrome Mondays

Spring is officially here! Well I hope it is for most of you anyway. After being cooped up for much of the winter it is now finally time to get outside and enjoy the nice weather. I love going for long walks with my camera in hand. Where I live you never quite know what you will see. Old buildings, interesting signs or architectural details, or waterfront scenes. I love discovering all sorts of scenes like that. On one such walk a year or so ago, I found a little waterfront view near Astoria Park, in Queens. What made me grab my camera was the way the big clouds were slightly obscuring the sun, which caused some great sun beams on the water, together with the streak of sun glinting off the water and the silhouetted skyline of Manhattan in the distance. But sometimes happy accidents happen just as you are preparing to press the shutter release. And so it was that the two birds came swooping across on the left hand side, giving the photo a real sense of movement and life.

Hope you all are getting some nice weather wherever you are and taking advantage of it!

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Monochrome Mondays

As a general rule, when I want to ‘go’ somewhere I prefer to go to a place near water of some sorts. That might be the ocean, or a lake or river. Being near water just makes me happier I guess. Occasionally though I might find myself on a hiking trail in the woods, marveling at the strength and resilience it represents. Old trees and young saplings. The conversations among different species of birds. Dense undergrowth of grass and wildflowers. There is a real sense of life in the woods-both the seen and the unseen.

Strangely enough though, I took this shot last fall in the woods….right next to the ocean as it happens. Cape Cod is a nature lover’s paradise. Though most people rightly associate it with being on the ocean or the bay, there are also dense areas of woodland. This photo was taken on the Atlantic Cedar Swamp Trail, within the Cape Cod National Seashore, mere steps away from the relentless Atlantic Ocean. A perfect place to go when you like being near the water…or the woods!

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Light Study

Water Tower #36

For a photographer there is nothing more important than light. Everything about photography relies on it. Too much and a photo can become overexposed. Too little and it is underexposed. Composition, structure, texture all rely on light. Tricks of the trade such as aperture and shutter speed can manipulate that light. Freezing motion in place or utilizing shadows only works well with an understanding of light. It is the one aspect of photography that I continue to learn about every time I pick my camera up. After all  light is never exactly the same on any given day or situation so it is a constant learning process.

Consider too the masters of paintings who created their own light studies by painting a series of still lifes. Usually by way of a bowl of fruit, a vase of flowers or in the case of Claude Monet, with a  haystack.  Painters have  long used these types of studies to hone their craft. When I studied art in college we learned why this sort of simple subject matter was so important.  Along with shape and form, the subtle difference between light and shadow may drastically change the overall effect depending on time of day. Experimenting with the same subject matter reveals new textures and nuance.

Lets use the example of Monet’s haystacks for instance . A simple cluster of hay stacked in a field is by no means a particularly exciting subject. But in capturing the different looks to the haystacks throughout the day Monet made it intrinsically more interesting. Playing with the light such as that comes with careful observation and analysis. Is the light more pleasing at noon, or does it give off more of a glow at sunset? Does the halo of light over the entire field look best at sunrise, or at mid-afternoon? Is a summer sunset more vibrant than one in fall?

I was thinking recently about how important light can be to our mood.  The occasional dreary rainy day at home sipping tea or a glass of wine  gazing out the window can be very enjoyable.  Too many of those sorts of days in a row start to weigh on me however and I find myself eventually craving light.  That might be the first hints of sun in the morning, with golden light rising and reflecting over the buildings of my neighborhood or the clear blues of a bright and sunny day.  Or the soothing tones of sunset-red, pink, purple and orange immersed in the clouds. Even the glow of the city at night or the light from the stars can be pleasing.

I don’t know about other people but I have favorite times of the day. Times when I feel most at ease and happy. For some that might be morning, for others it might be quitting time from work. Thinking about this further, I came to the conclusion that the real reason we have a favorite time might just be about the light one expects to see. We feel energized when we get a warming sunrise or a calming sunset. As if the very qualities of color variations that occur on a single day make us feel connected to that light. I started to wonder if that was why painters and photographers are so drawn to capturing the shifting of light. Perhaps artists feel the need to study light as a way of seeing our response to those shifts.

In deciding to do my own light study, I wanted something that I could take a photograph of on a regular basis, at several different times of day over a period of time. I chose a water tower perched above my favorite old brick building in our neighborhood. I liked the contrast between the brick of the building and the wood of the water tower.

I was not methodical about this. I did not take a photo at 6:47 every day to compare. Instead I tried to hit key times of day. Sunrise, midday, late afternoon, sunset, night time.  I tried to take it more or less from the same position each time. I experimented with the tools at my disposal-shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I made adjustments each time. Some I deemed right away to be unacceptable. Others I put in the maybe category.  In the end I probably took about 50 photos of this water tower and only sat down to write these words when I felt satisfied with my final choice to feature. *

Thinking of how to fit music into this equation I gradually came to realize an artist works on variations of a theme in a light study and tweaks them by altering the approach and final look as desired.  So too does a musician go into a recording studio with a song, and adjusts it. You start with the song. Perhaps it was written with the idea of  being a fast paced rocker. Or maybe it was written solo on a piano. Maybe it was meant to have only one singer. Yet so many times the song, the instrumentation, the tempo, the vocals change when the approach to the song gets altered. That rocker becomes a ballad instead. That solo piano becomes an electric guitar riff. Or the song intended to have only one singer now has a 20 piece Gospel choir and a horn section.

At their peak, REM were arguably doing all of this sort of experimentation, and quite successfully too. The early albums especially were rife with this sort of tinkering around, such as the song Time After Time (Annelise) from their second full length album- Reckoning. It may be dark and a little bleak, yet it is quite captivating precisely for that darkness. The recording of Reckoning apparently happened quickly, but choices and decisions still had to be made for each song, much like the moment a painter commits brush to canvas, or a photographer makes adjustments before clicking the shutter release.

The end result may not be satisfying to everyone. An artist or musician might consider it their best work while the general public rejects it outright. Some may consider it a step back while the artist considers it a step forward. In R.E.M.’s case Time After Time is viewed both with a mixture of  regard and disdain among fans. Regardless of how it ultimately plays out, artists experiment in the hope that it will push their work further. I realized in doing this light study that this was the common thread running in art and music-the desire to continually challenge oneself and find new ways to express ideas. For musicians it comes in the studio, recording a song several times and making adjustments. For me it comes from being patient and really thinking about what I ultimately want to present. In taking a series of photos of the same exact thing I learned what works and does not work for me aesthetically.

*In the gallery below are some of the shots I liked, but did not quite satisfy me in the end. The photo at the top of this post however is my favorite of the series. I took it as the sun was rising one morning. Ironically 15 minutes later the day turned out to be cloudy and overcast, but for that brief moment, the sky had contrast and the rays of sun shone vibrantly on the water tower and the building.

Time After Time (Annelise)-Written By Bill Berry, Mike Mills, Peter Buck & Michael Stipe

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