Don’t Need Much

Lake George, NY

There are places in this great big world of ours that just scream for silence. I know…that is a contradiction of course. You don’t actually scream when you want silence unless you are reprimanding someone. Conversely  when it actually is silent the last thing you want to hear is a scream. But when you really need quiet the most, when you need the world to be still, and all its nearby inhabitants calm and peaceful, that phrase really is the most fitting way to describe the situation. Almost as if you could will it on, magically stopping the world and all the noise of our modern age. Every car horn blaring, every cellphone notification chirp, every intrusion silenced. It seems harder to find such places and moments these days as a city dweller short of sailing to Tristan da Cunha or trekking across the Sahara,  but my wife and I just returned from one such place this weekend, the beautiful Lake George in the equally beautiful Adirondacks of New York.

I was almost tempted to make this my first travel post, full of details about where to go and what to see, but there are many fine bloggers doing that already like my friend Danielle at the wonderful blog The Thought Card. I will just say that in the last 10 years or so we have made occasional trips to the Adirondacks and it always just makes you take a step back and soak it all in. Other than breezing through it a few years ago for a quick lunch, I had not actually visited Lake George since I was a child. That is a mistake that will not happen again.  In the days before leaving for the weekend I was dreaming of having the sort of calm and serenity one might expect in the Adirondacks. It was ironic then that when we got there, we realized we were in the middle of a popular Hot Rod Show, and the first two nights were punctuated by revving engines, tire burnouts, and car exhaust. Instead of spoiling the moments of quiet and calm I had built up in my mind, I actually enjoyed it. Because as it happens, I realized that when it all comes down to it, you don’t need much.

I realized that even with all those noisy hot rods and horsepower, it does not take a lot to find those moments of quiet. I may have been screaming for silence in my head before I left, but once there, I realized I just needed a few moments of it. Maybe that is what modern society has come down to, but a few moments lakeside early in the morning with my camera in hand gave me the sensations I was seeking. Even in the middle of the afternoon with the lake teeming with activity and all manor of small boats moving about or the booming horn and the steam driven put-put sounds from the paddle wheeler Minne Ha Ha in the distance there were moments of that sort of calming silence. I started thinking about all the ways where the words ‘you don’t need much’ applied. Diet and food proportions was probably the first thought! Clothing and other luxuries was another. But I also thought about it in a musical sense. How sometimes you don’t need much to get a message across. A singer with a guitar and a well written song is the most obvious example. And someone who has been quietly doing that better than almost anyone for over 40 years is Kris Kristofferson.

Though he might be more famously known for writing songs that others covered such as Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, Help Me Make It Through The Night, Best Of All Possible Worlds, and for co-writing Me And Bobby McGee, there are a slew of lesser known classics like Here Comes That Rainbow Again, and Nobody Wins. I came to his own music on the late side myself. Sometime in the 1990’s, I happened to see him perform at a small club just outside of New York City. Other than those hit songs, I have to say that the rest of the evening did not enthrall me. I just did not feel the songs.  Fast forward to a few years ago when I saw Kris perform at a festival. I was now fully immersed in the culture of the music of his peers-Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others. I looked forward to a second chance to hear him and this time I am happy to say, his music immediately grabbed me. He was by himself. No band, just him, his guitar and harmonica. The songs and arrangements stripped down to only the bare necessities. It was a powerful performance and the crowd felt his presence and seemed to be hanging on to every word. I won’t say what well known headline band performed the closing set after him, but once Kris was done, most people started packing up as if to say, there is no way you can top that.

I know the song that did it for me, and gave me that lump in the throat moment was his song Here Comes That Rainbow Again. But exploring some of his other material not long after, I came across his more recent song ‘This Old Road’.  Musically it has shades of Bobby McGee and Here Comes That Rainbow Again. Lyrically the song reveals so much without actually saying it. I was drawn to it by its opening line ‘Look at that old photograph, is it really you?’ I have mentioned before here how much power a photograph can have. That has been what I have writing about for almost 4 years here of course. How a simple photograph can bring you back in time and conjure up the memories of the time it was taken. Maybe something long forgotten. Maybe something you can relive in your mind like it was yesterday.

Skilled songwriters like Kris Kristofferson play on those moments. With a few chords on a guitar and exquisitely written words they embody that other phrase- you don’t need much. I guess that is what I hope for in my photographs sometimes. I don’t utilize a lot of trickery. I don’t spend hours editing photos. I want them to speak for themselves. To say something without ‘saying it’. That is what keeps that camera gripped to my hands. Maybe years from now that is what I will think about when I see the photo at the top. You don’t need much…

This Old Road-Written By Kris Kristofferson

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Monochrome Mondays

They say New York City is the city that never sleeps. This is true of course, but there are times when it is pretty quiet. Which is usually when most of us are sleeping…or getting ready to. In the last year or two I have developed a bit of an interest in night time photography. I tend to just take the photos I find interesting, and don’t focus on too much setup.  A few weeks ago while coming home from a free Los Lobos concert at Battery Park, I decided to meander towards the subway to take me back to Queens. Walking down the concrete canyons near Wall Street at night is a stark contrast to being there in daytime. There is an eerie quiet actually, and though I am aware and careful of my surroundings, there is a real sense of being able to capture things that looked vastly different a few hours before.

Case in point this building. I have walked past it many times. On the one hand it isn’t particularly interesting architecturally, but there is something about the symmetry of it that has always struck me. Problem is, I always seem to see it in the daytime, so when I saw it at night I had to stop. That is when I realized that the clusters of lights (most off, a few on) gave the photo a sense of life. I also took a color photo of this which I put on social media at the time, but in hindsight, I think I like this one slightly more. The monochrome makes it feel like it could be 1949, 1963, 1977, or even 2017. That is a big appeal of monochrome to me.

Monochrome Mondays

Most everyone knows that there are five Boroughs that comprise New York City-Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island. Most everyone also knows that the city as a whole has a unique and large amount of water surrounding it. There is Jamaica Bay, a surprising little ecosystem in the middle of so much congestion.  Then of course the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers which  bend and shape the rest of the land, dividing the city from New Jersey and wrapping around to make Long Island a true island. The other thing all that water has done is to have created several smaller islands scattered about. I’m willing to bet only a few of you know how many islands officially comprise Manhattan however! I’ll put the answer below. This scrap of rocks is not one of them sadly, but I think these birds sunning themselves on a sunny afternoon deserve official island recognition don’t you? It never ceases to amaze me how wildlife can look so relaxed with helicopters buzzing around and all manner of boats zipping past. They certainly made this rock their home!

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*The Borough Of Manhattan comprises- Governors Island, Liberty Island, Ellis Island (shared with NJ), Mill Rock, Randalls & Ward Island, U Thant Island, Roosevelt Island, and the island of Manhattan itself.  Photo shows rocks just off the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

 

Monochrome Mondays

One thing I like about monochrome photography is that it conveys a sense of calm to a subject matter. Even if the subject is not calm and quiet, a monochrome photograph just seems to freeze the movement and noise in place. It must be a sensory thing deep down. Sure, some color photographs are able to capture the same feeling, but I think the way we perceive the scene we see in a monochrome photo feels different somehow.

I took this shot a few years ago, on a cool late November afternoon as my wife and I were heading out of NY Harbor on a cruise to the Bahamas. We had a room with a small balcony and of course you know I had to take lots of shots as the ship pulled out and we steamed out to sea. For anyone who has left New York Harbor by water knows, you really only feel you are on a journey once you go under the Verrazano Bridge (which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island). Once past that bridge, the ocean seems to open up wide before you and the noise and congestion of city life are suddenly behind you now. I knew that day that the shots I might get of the Verrazano just before and just after passing it would be my final ones of the day. And though the big cruise ship was blasting its horn, and helicopters and airplanes were buzzing over the harbor high above and cars driving across the Verrazano, when I look at this photo I just get that feeling. A sense of time being momentarily frozen, tranquil water,  the sun setting on the horizon and a sense of peaceful calm.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge

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Monochrome Mondays

Summer is progressing here. Long lazy days where you don’t want to move around too much. Just find a shady spot somewhere and watch the world go by. Here in the big city there are lots of places, and lots of things to look at of course. Since we moved to Queens I have one favorite spot called the Anable Basin, or as some call it, the Eleventh Street Basin in Long Island City. It is an artificial inlet built in the 1860’s for industrial use. When much of that industry dried up, the area went through a period of decline before being re-purposed in the 1990’s as Gantry Plaza State Park. The park as a whole offers a lot of activities and people watching, as well as an amazing view across the river to Manhattan. But tucked away on the side of the park, runs the basin. As I have said here before, I love old buildings, and things like a ship wharf or an old brick building have a natural appeal for me. I love sitting there under the trees reading or people watching and imagining what the same view must have looked like 100 years ago. Which is just something your mind seems to do on a long lazy day in the shade.

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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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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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