5-Minute Dance Party | Bitten By The Frost

I live for the lightning

to strike twice.

About a month ago, The Husband and I were watching the replay of final figure skating free skate for the Sochi Olympics. My competition background gives me sharp eyes for mistakes and successes in form and execution. I pointed out a few things to him that I found interesting about the competitors, and, as a result, we got into a discussion about failure and success in high-pressure situations.

Champions, to abuse a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different from you and me.

Well, yeah, you’re saying to yourself in a teenagerish voice. That’s because they’re champions, Courtenay. Duh.

Well, yes and no, y’all. From my background as a competition Irish Dancer and a career journalist, I can definitively that the elements that make a champion ultimately comes down to a list of traits.


Champions and future champions:


    1. learn from failure.
    2. practice every day.
    3. show excellent self-assessment and self-correction skills.
    4. perform consistently in high-pressure situations.

It would be easy to wail on about the advantages of money and good support. Yes, those things do help, but they don’t consistently produce champions. Not to knock the power of money—money can buy you the best equipment and the best training and put forth travel opportunities for competitions, and trust you me those things do help quite a bit, but they aren’t the absolute predictors of success.

You could also posit that past success predicts future success. But that hypothesis fails quickly in messy real-life situations. Besides that, hypotheses of that sort feel flat out ridiculous, don’t they? It’s the snake swallowing its own tail. Q: How do you succeed? A: Well, first you must succeed. (Bullhockey!)

Everyone has seen at least one low-ranked competitor break through to the top level of their competitive field due to some use or permutation of the traits of champions I listed above. My feeling on this phenomenon is that, in the right situation, failure can be a great teacher for a late-blooming champion.

What I don’t know is whether these traits can be learned from the ground up, or whether temperament and tendency predicts the ability to adapt, learn, and thrive in competition. (If you have any thoughts on this, let me know in the comments!)

While these five characteristics show up again and again in sports and competitive dance champions*, traits like this should but don’t always equally apply to accomplished artists in non-performance fields.

Take photographer W. Eugene Smith, for instance.

While Smith proved himself able to perform consistently under pressure and he practiced his profession every day (save the two years after his combat injury), he had that typical high ego-low self-esteem thing that can really throw an artist to the ropes, even one like Smith.

Regardless, this famed war photographer managed to succeed despite fear, to thrive despite failure, and to innovate despite the ridiculous attentions of fame.

I gotta tell you—I’d take a dozen W. Eugene Smiths over a thousand regular champions any day. There’s just more there there.

* Really, any performer whose abilities can be quantitatively and qualitatively measured fall within these margins also. (Like who? Competition-trained classical musicians being a good example here.)

UP NEXT! An Our Sunday Best about photographer W. Eugene Smith’s break from convention, his wife, and his suburban life!

Our Sunday Best is Bluebird Blvd.’s original award-winning feature series. Established in 2011, Our Sunday Best has covered everything from multimedia haiku to fantastic failure to Tenzing Norgay. For the last two years, Our Sunday Best has focused its lens on a history of modern photography.

Accept no inferior substitutes! And don’t take any wooden nickels, you hear?

PSST! And tomorrow being St. Patrick’s Day and all, we’ll have another wild totally CONFIDENTIAL Irish step-dancing story for your reading pleasure coupled with a St. Patrick’s Day 5-Minute Dance Party that’s been a guarded secret for weeks! (EEEEE! I can’t wait! Come on by! I’ll put the coffee on!)

ABOUT THIS SONG/VIDEO: Olly Knights (often misspelled as “Knight”) is a recording artist in the UK equally famous for his solo work as well as his work as part of the music duo Turin Brakes. This song comes from his self-produced release If Not Now When? (also available direct from the artist on the Olly Knights Etchshop. The video is by internet-savvy filmmaker/film tech blogger Philip Bloom.

Our Sunday Best: Truth Makes Contact — The Crossing (A Prologue)


We meet on a transatlantic ship. A designated place, a predetermined time. We will be crossing eras together, and continents, one-by-one. Our goal is to chase down the first photographers to be faithless to the idea of the absolute truth in an image.

These are the strange ones, the hard ones, the ones bitten at the edges by their own pure desires.

You and I stand side-by-side on the deck. We are in our dinner clothes. I’ve altered these past months, and so have you. I am leaner and hungrier, laced with that umbra of a person who wants a thing, and what I want is a story, and the truth.

And you’ve changed too: You stand taller now. What you want is to see it with your own eyes.

That’s why we’re here. Tonight, we’re beyond words on this deck of a pleasant ship cutting through calm waters.

But the white page is never beyond words. Language elbows her way into the margins; footnotes of extraordinary length will be implied in every image we see— especially the photographs due to us on this rough trip. I am your guide.

It’s up to me to pare away the words that calcify on history, those set thoughts always endangering history’s ability to breathe freely.

It’s up to you to remember. To cast us back, to connect history to me and to you.

In silence, you put your elbows on the beautifully turned railing.

I say, I didn’t know if you would actually come this time.

You don’t even turn to look. You know I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to her.

History pushes her curled hair away from her face. She lands a heavy hand on my shoulder.

I shudder from the weight of her touch.

She says, You know what I want.

But I don’t. I never do.

The moon is our witness. We’ve created a pact, it seems.

We’re out to find the truth, you and me. We’re out to find the people who released that truth back into the world, a reflection of a reflection, music sung in a different key, an all-new way of sussing out what’s real, and what never was.

History has left the promenade. She’ll be back. She always comes back to take her due.

USA. California. San Francisco. Ernst Haas. 1955.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS The photograph above features Henri Cartier-Bresson’s first camera, courtesy of Christie’s Fine Art Auction House and Wikipedia. The photograph below is Ernst Haas looking through some sort of viewfinder (?). We’ll be talking about both of them before this series is through.
TO CATCH UP: Try visiting A Smörgåsboard of Posts, which has the entire “modern photography” series in full for you to peruse. I’d love to talk to you in the comments about each of these stories, so don’t be shy!
NEXT WEEK: The first, and wildest, of this wild bunch of photojournalists. W. Eugene Smith! Oh, you and I are going to have a LOT to talk about in one week!

READY TO READ ON? HERE’S PART TWO! Our Sunday Best: {Truth Makes Contact} And Then You Wake, Not Knowing How You Arrived to This Place

Our Sunday Best: The Golden Hour (Dusk Draws a Veil Across All Easy Answers)

Edward Steichen:  Isadora Duncan Dancer

At the little house that overlooks the sea, dusk begins to osmose all hard edges, even our own.

The waves blur, and the trees fade to smoke, and the ghost lights from passing automobiles dip in reverence like pairs of swans.




You and I came back to the sea in order to watch nighttime emerge, to consider the fading light, to turn over and over in our hands these stories of three men who became photographers in a time when two world wars marred the landscape.

Two of them were naturalized citizens who had crossed oceans and ideas to get here.

One of them nearly faded into obscurity.

But all three— Edward Steichen, Weegee, and Richard Avedon— taught us that photography is not one idea, but many ideas that overlap and crash like errant waves in the night sea in front of us.




Because the night has arrived, we stand now in the dark on the porch of the little house by the sea. I do not look at you as I ask this question:

Where do you want to go next?

Here is what I do not say: Because I can take you anywhere in the world. Because we can leapfrog the years and the hours. Because it is time for us to depart again to find out how we got here, how you and I learned to hold a camera and consider a thousand-thousand options for a single photographic image.

I am smiling in the dark.

I am listening to the sea speak, but really— I am standing here, patiently, waiting for your reply.


Our Sunday Best: Fairy Tales of a Balanced Life


Manly Harbour pool, 193-


I have decided that I don’t believe in balance. Rivers run wide, fast and crooked. Birds fly on twisted slipstreams of wind. Human beings torque to and fro across continents with overstuffed luggage. Nature isn’t that regular, and neither is man.

Americans have a special knack, a flair if you will, for the teeth-gritting exercise of over-focusing on maintaining balance. And I, native daughter, exhibit an especial knack for seeking balance where it ought not be sought out.

What’s more— the more I consider balance, I’m starting to wonder if I care for balance as an exercise. I like my stories and my clothes embellished with bright threads. I like a single fig on a clean white plate. I like the extremes and the unexpectedness and the wild ragged edges of everyday encounters. There’s no denying my asymmetrical life; that’s how I’ve been as far back as I can remember.

Finally, balance is one of those ideas that gets overdone to the point of parody in magazines and in books and on television. While I think folks like the idea of perfectly unlined skin and rigorously lined up shoes, most people aren’t that simple. Humans have got complicated unbalancing acts of their own going on at home, full of frills and disappointments and joys that make up the short form of an ordinary day.


THIS COMPLICATED WORLD delights my crooked, well-meaning heart. To that end, please partake from this idiosyncratic and in-no-way-balanced list of four websites that may give you intense pleasure:

The Husband and I have been following the career of artist Travis Louie for years. Travis Louie brings a subtle maximalism to his detailed portraits of men, women, children, and… things. Once you start looking at his highly detailed work, you won’t be able to stop.

One of my great pleasures in life is to listen to new music. On deciding to start Bluebird Blvd. and our signature 5-Minute Dance Party, I had to set aside about ten hours a week to listen to new music. Bliss. Try the website Everyone’s Mixtape to get a quick fix of new music mixed with old favorites, or (even better!) join the community and help to make a perfectly odd mix tape with a bunch of new friends.

Consider me a devotee of Maria Popova’s website, Brain Pickings. Thrice daily, Brain Pickings posts an interesting piece of the internet with additional commentary. Popova posts other new things several times a day on Twitter. Here’s a bit of Brain Pickings genius for you: Did you know that many cities across the world have choirs that sing about local citizens everyday complaints? Brain Pickings explains the Complaints Choir. (Psst! Helsinki is only one of many cities around the world who have a Complaints Choir!)

In fewer than ten years, Design*Sponge has become one of a handful of sites that focus on design— (interior, exterior and more)— in a way that feels absolutely useful and brand new. But! My favorite feature by Design*Sponge is “Living In,” which imagines what items you could assemble (or purchase) to give you the feel of living in your favorite movie. It’s a genius idea right?

The truth is, I never could get the hang of doing more than three or four things, and seeing as I am starting to close out the accounts on my the end of my third decade of this life, I don’t imagine I am ever going to become balanced.

Last night, I sat in a steakhouse designed like an Ace Reid cartoon with my family, celebrating my latest birthday. And while we shouted over the general din of restaurant dining on a Saturday night, I thought to myself, “It’s loud. It’s crowded. It’s confusion. It’s unbalanced. It’s perfect.”

Life is messy, y’all— and I love every minute of it.

Tipping horse for Manly Harbour pool built at Kurraba Point, 193-




* Our Sunday Best: Disguises and Surprises

* Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

* Our Sunday Best: The Lariat ‘Round My Heart


Our Sunday Best: Playing Back (A Brief Compendium)

Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, mountain fiddler, Asheville, North Carolina (LOC)

It is a hot night in July.  I am laying across the bed in the dark with the sheet across my torso, and my hands behind my head.  A shadow breaks, blooms across the wall from a car driving down the street.   I drift alongside the shadow with my eyes only; I am dreaming of stories again.

One of my favorite writer-artists of all time is Lynda Barry (who I have gabbed about repeatedly on Bluebird Blvd.).  She believes that when we were children and we played, there was something there, something real that played back.[i]  Barry juxtaposes this idea against its natural adult opposite— writer’s block (something else I’ve written about quite a bit, here) because writer’s block is that moment when nothing, nothing is playing back.

How do you keep writer’s block, or any lack of play, from happening in your life?  I don’t have any great or smug answers for you.  I do know that when you stop asking “What if” and you start saying “No, because,” you’ve set yourself up to run into walls.  I do know that when you are not intrigued by the world, a little something inside of you begins to suffocate.  I do know that when you are nourished by beauty and kindness that you bloom and grow, and that when you are hampered by sadness and cruelty, even your own cruelty to yourself, you will cease to reach for certain suns.

So, here we are— the two of us, you and me, sitting in a booth at our favorite restaurant.  You say you want to be delighted.  I say you know how to create your own delight.  Dream, my friend.  Dream big and wide and in the light and in the dark, on the page and everywhere, and then give your dreams outward to the next person and the next, ever outwards, ever upwards, ever dreaming.  Just.  Like.  This.


Soda jerker flipping ice cream into malted milk shakes. Corpus Christi, Texas (LOC)



We’ve really been overdue for a brief “best of” Our Sunday Best

Did you know that I’ve written twenty-eight stories in this vein for this Bluebird Blvd. signature weekly feature to date?

Today’s compendium is number twenty-nine! Yippee!

Here are a few specific Our Sunday Bests (with updated notations!) that I think will hit your sweet spot:


*Our Sunday Best: Gorgeous Failure — When I first started the “Our Sunday Best” feature, I thought I would merely be doing a “best of the best of the ‘net” per week, but with a specific theme and a little bit of prose, right? This particular Our Sunday Best came right after I had been Freshly Pressed, but was written while I was on vacation in New Orleans (right before I was Freshly Pressed!), and was conceived with that “best of the best” idea in mind.

*Our Sunday Best: Most Have Their Norgays — But, of course, because I am me, I started to expand on this idea and treat it like a survey of a single cool idea with cool bits and pieces from online sources and offline sources, requiring a lot more research and fine-tuned writing on my part. In this case, I was talking about writing dialogue. This Our Sunday Best (OSB) is written in the model I use more as of late.

*Our Sunday Best: Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? Yes, Yes I Do— What’s notable about this OSB is that it was the first time that I talked about bloggers that I read, at length— I loved writing this piece because a bunch of bloggers I had met, who had not met one another, got to chat for the first time. Plus, this quote from Eliot means a great deal to me.

*Our Sunday Best: Where the Light Captures Us— This is the OSB where I started to go off the rails. I hadn’t written about photography yet on Bluebird Blvd., and photography is a large part of my professional and personal life. So, I started to write a brief history of photography that became a popular on-again, off-again series over several months. It’s now being developed into a full manuscript. (There will be more OSBs in this vein starting in the fall.)

*Our Sunday Best: Disguises and Surprises — Here’s yet another playful OSB that allowed readers to find new and delightful toys and ideas all over the internetses. I love finding cool, silly, uplifting things and sharing them with y’all, almost as much as I love to write original cool, silly uplifting stories right here on Bluebird Blvd.


[i] “I believe a kid who is playing is not alone.  There is something brought alive during play, and this something, when played with, seems to play back.  [What It Is, Lynda Barry]

*This photograph is by Ben Shahn of “Fiddlin’ Bill Hensley”, another one of the FSA artists we discussed last month in Our Sunday Best. Gorgeous, isn’t it? Shahn is famous as a painter and lecturer. Most people don’t know that he worked for the FSA.

The second photograph (added today, Sunday, on a whim) is by Russell Lee, another FSA photographer we touched on but did not discuss at length. This photograph was shot in South Texas.

*FUN NEWS! Starting on Wednesday, August 1st, Buried Words and Bushwa and Bluebird Blvd. will be hosting the first ever Show Us Your Weather! Blog Carnival. Click the link (also located in the menu at the top of Bluebird Blvd.) for details!


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Show Your Cards; Throw Your Doubt Upon The Table (A Small Epilogue)


Jim Norris and wife


We look up.

Somehow, we chose a path.

No, history chose a path for us, down a road that includes three photographers: a woman of chipped flint and fine ethics (Dorothea Lange); a man whose mysteries remained mysteries (Walker Evans); and a gentleman of many talents and bright philosophies (Gordon Parks).

You and I look down the road, forward and then back, contemplating these characters. We’ve gone so far from where we began.

As we walk and talk, there are questions to be considered. What happened to Roy Stryker? How did the FSA become the OWI (Office of War Information) at the start of WWII?

What about the European photographers? Their story takes a different path than the Americans of the same era.

And how about the folks in Mexico in the 1930s? Such a spectacular display of light and flash and talent in a short period of time!

Then, there’s the big one— Edward Steichen, and The Family of Man, a story that draws so many unlikely threads together into a solid, smart knot.

While I have been so focused on the road in front of us, the photographers, the dust devils, the little eddies of tricky research— my own story has been unfolding.

I have started to write a book. And I didn’t know it. What you see here is the first shaping of parts of what will become a manuscript about the modern history of photography.

Who knew? Did you?

There are many possible paths ahead of us, and many choices to be made.

Some of these choices you and I will make together; some will be dictated by the winding direction history takes. Some choices will blow in like leaves on a thrashing wind, and we’ll be blown along with them.

The Family of Man is the turning point; the change of the game; the flip of the wrist where all the ideas are laid out upon the table. Should we go there next?

This how all books begin— with questions. Books end not when we find the answers, but when we find the middle place between the question and the answer. That is where I’m headed.

Would you like to join me on this journey?

A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH AT THE TOP: The photographer of this piece is Russell Lee, who worked for the FSA.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: The Crossroads of the Eye and the Heart: Where the Eye and Heart Meet— Gordon Parks (Part 4)

USDA HIstorical Photos;  Gordon Parks; made available by Wikimedia Commons

    You are up against odds. I bought my first camera in Seattle, Washington. Only paid about seven dollars and fifty cents for it. And I fell in Puget Sound the first day out. I was trying to shoot seagulls.[i]  Gordon Parks


It is August 1942.  Gordon Parks has been in Washington D.C. for less than a month.

He hasn’t taken a single picture.

Today he will.  He is in the hallway with a woman by the name of Emma Watson[ii].  She’s a cleaning lady.

In the last month[iii], Parks’s boss, Roy Stryker, sent him out to run three personal errands that would help the new photographer become acquainted with the city.  He told Parks to go to the movies, to check out a local restaurant, and to buy a winter coat.  Stryker made him leave his camera in the office.

Parks didn’t ask why.  He left the building with Strykers’s instructions in his head— the movie theater, the restaurant, the department store for a winter coat.

Parks went to the movie theater.  This theater isn’t for Negros, said the usher at the ticket window.

Parks went to the restaurant.  We don’t serve N——, said the host at the restaurant.

Parks went to the department store.  You can’t buy a coat here, said the salesman in the Men’s Department.

Gordon Parks went roaring back into the office.  I want my camera, he said to Stryker.  I’m going to go out and—

—shoot what?  Asked Stryker.   Now you see.   Now you tell me what you see.  Sit down and write a proposal.

It took him weeks to hone down his proposal.  Weeks to get past the blind anger of being refused at the door of the simplest places.  Parks finally had an answer.  Emma Watson.

Watson cleans the room of a woman’s office who is a notary public, a woman who has the same education level as Watson does.

Watson stares at Parks.  Parks stares at Watson.

And history stares at them both.


    And so in 1939 I think, as I tell it now, I’m sure that it is true I first became interested in photography when I saw pictures of the bombing of the “Panay” which was a U.S. gunboat and I was in Chicago on a layover and a chap named Norman Allay (?) who shot the picture—  Gordon Parks


Like many of the FSA photographers, Parks is an anomaly.  What makes him unusual is that he the anomaly of an anomalous situation.

Whereas most of the FSA photographers came from places where they had to make their own road, young, as photographers and artists before coming to the FSA, Parks picked up his first camera at 25.

Whereas many of the photographers had to fight the good fight because they were women, or because they came from working class circumstances, or because they were the sons of immigrants—  Parks was African-American.

Parks didn’t have to do anything to fight the good fight.  All he had to do was walk down the street of Washington D.C. looking for a place to have lunch to find himself in the middle of a social crisis. [iv]

FSA-OWI  Official Photographer Gordon Parks; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    —And I just plain thought it was exciting the way [Jack Delano] captured these pictures and suddenly this new medium seemed like a possibility to me and I had been looking for all sorts of means whereby I might be able to express myself. Gordon Parks


What worked in Parks’s favor is that he made his own luck.   The first day that he went out to shoot photographs for the first time, he was so intent on shooting the seagulls, he fell in the Puget Sound, yet managed to salvage some of his film.

Shortly thereafter, he decided he wanted to shoot fashion, so he walked into the nicest clothing store in Minneapolis/St. Paul and asked the owners if he could do some fashion photographs for them.

Mr. Murphey the man who owned the store said, No.  We get all of our photographs done out of New York.  What makes you think you can shoot fashion?

And Mrs. Murphey,  wife of that owner said, What makes you think he can’t?  We’ll have models and clothes ready for you two nights from now. 

Parks shot those photographs with a borrowed Speed Graphic camera.

He double-exposed every single shot but one.

He was crestfallen.   Parks’s first wife told him to print the one picture that worked, and to take it down to Mrs. Murphey, and tell her what happened.

She loved the one shot.  She wanted to see the others.

Parks made his own luck by determination alone, and much like many other people who belong in history because they worked their way into history, great forces with kind faces came to his aid.[v]

    …I [don’t think] was any more sensitive than the rest of the photographers on the FSA, but I certainly had other areas of my own personal problems in rejection and discrimination than any of them did, because I was a Negro and Roy I think taught me to use that disadvantage in an intelligent way instead of striking back with violence any longer, and so I put it into the camera.  Gordon Parks


Roy Stryker didn’t know anything about the technical aspects of photography, but he did know how to pick photographers and get them moving in the right direction.  Because Parks was such a green photographer, he started him out in Washington D.C.  Then, he sent him out on the East Coast.  Finally, Parks was sent into areas where the other photographers of the FSA hadn’t gone yet, for one reason or another.

Parks photographed everyone, everywhere during this period of his development.  It was right before the war  (WWII) when the FSA would become the OWI (the Office of War Information).

In Parks’s photographs, people dropped their ordinary faces.  The workers smiled.  The children opened their eyes.  The women gently posed.  Parks’s eye was a kind eye.  He sought out the dignity of the human experience in a very direct and very forward way.  Just by seeking this quality, it emerged, everywhere in front of Parks’s camera.

    So I went to Chicago in 1940, I think, ’41, and the photographs that I made there, aside from fashion, were things that I was trying to express in a social conscious way. I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, or Negroes, the poor white person or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake. I, you know, thought I had the instinct toward championing the cause. I don’t know where it came from but possibly . . . . Gordon Parks


So, here they are, on a Sunday.  Watson considers Parks.  Parks considers Watson.

They are standing in an anonymous hallway.

The photographer is still angry about his experiences in Washington D.C., but it’s a muted, focused anger.

I thought we could take some pictures in that office you clean, he said.  Let me help you carry your supplies.

She unlocks the door to the office.

Emma Watson looks to Parks for direction. 

They are standing in the woman’s office where she cleans every day.

Parks hands her two of her tools— a mop and a broom.  In a quiet voice, he asks her to stand in front of the American flag.

She does not smile.  He does not smile.

He adjusts his camera and takes a breath.  Emma Watson carries a solemnity with her mop and her broom.  That’s what he wants to capture.  This is Gordon Parks’s America— where people emerge from the background to the fore because they, too, are Americans.


American Gothic.  August 1942.

History rushes out and envelops them both.

FSA photographer; Gordon Parks; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

[i] All of the header quotes come from The Oral History Interview of Gordon Parks for the Archives of American Art by the Smithsonian Institute


[ii] Additional information about American Gothic, Gordon Park’s first and most famous shot for the FSA can be found on Wikipedia. Parks thoughts on this portrait from the oral history interview listed above: Roy Stryker said, “My God, this can’t be published, but it’s a start.” So it was published. I sneaked it out and published it in an old paper that used to be in Brooklyn. It was published in Brooklyn, you probably remember, what was it called? I forget, a Marshall Field paper, do you remember that one?


[iii] I’ve taken a few liberties with time, and the quotes aren’t exact.  That’s why everything spoken is in italics versus quotes.  The resources for this story are from the Oral History Interview of Gordon Parks. (See first endnote.), and two of Parks’s many books— Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective, and A Hungry Heart. Both books were recommended by Donald Ewers. (See notes and links below in italics.)


[iv] Clip from CBS News interview with Gordon Parks.


[v] That’s an adaptation from a quote attributed to reverend and writer Basil King, which feels especially apt in regards to Gordon Parks.


A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHS IN THIS ESSAY: The top and the bottom photographs are by Parks during and around his early years with the FSA/OWI.

The bottom photograph is the famous first photograph I discuss here in this story, American Gothic. (See the second endnote for a link to additional commentary on this shot.)

The middle photograph is Parks himself during the early 1960s. The photographer’s name is unlisted, but it is an official photograph. All photographs that you find here came from the U.S. Government in conjunction with Wikimedia Commons.

Click on this link to the Wikimedia Commons Gordon Parks page to be taken directly to its site in the archives of the Commons.











[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]


Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

C.W.A.Scott Binoculars

I crave books I love the way I crave certain foods.   I will stop cold in the middle of a task during the day with a single line from a novel or poem written in fire over my head, and the craving is so strong that I know, before the day is out, I will have that book tucked open in my right hand as neatly, and as tightly as a well-made bed.

The moment that drives my ordinary reader’s desire into the swerve of a bibliophilic craving is the artistry of the writing itself. (There are stories, and there are stories, after all.) What keeps me turning pages is my fascination with the person (or persons) whose story is being told.

But who is telling the story?

I’m not talking about the writer/author, per se.

(We know s/he is telling the story— sometimes s/he tells us right in the middle of the story— disruptively— but we’ll get into the fiddly bits of postmodern literature in just a bit.)

What I’m trying to ask you here is who is the actual voice telling you the story?

POV, or point-of-view, is one of the most necessary structural details you need to consider as you prepare to write your own stories.

Because, for every story, there are a thousand, thousand ways to use POV as one of the pistons pulling the action and motivation and meaning along.

There are no shortcuts to figuring out the POV question to help you sort out the structural details of your story.   

What should be helpful is to know what your options are in the POV world.   (Some structural details of a novel are setting, plot, tense, time frame and so on. There are many architectural elements necessary to provide your novel with a solid structure, but POV is where we will start.)

Those options may spur you to think of a new, or relatively unused form of POV that will send me, your reader, skidding to the bookshelf to devour the story you tell to sate a mad craving.

The big four points-of-view (POV) in brief — First person  (“I” or “We”); Second person (“You”); Close Third Person (“S/he “or “It” or “They”); and Omniscient Third Person (Reader sees everything narrator, AKA storyteller, reveals.). 

The hot POV right now is Close Third Person because— honestly?  That’s the POV everyone sees on TV.  Some folks argue that Close Third Person encourages strong verbs, but if you are revising your work— which you do, I am sure, because you are trying to create something beautiful and readable— you will tighten and strengthen your verbs when you revise.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-31476-0007, Prerow, Urlauber mit Ferngläsern am Strand

POV is reallyreallyreallyreally important.  Think about it this way:  When your cousin tells the story of the time she got you to eat cat food, that’s one version of the story.  It isn’t the story.   I’m sure that version of the cat food eating story is a BIG HIT on holidays with your cousins.

When your mom tells that story, it becomes a completely different tale about the time when your badly-raised cousin talked you into eating cat food and your pediatrician had to take x-rays to make sure that you hadn’t also eaten the batch of free coupons in the cat food bag.  That’s your mother’s version.

What’s your mother’s sister’s version?  Is it the story of her free-spirited child and her uncontrollable younger cousin who didn’t know how to take a joke?

Ah.  Now you see what I’m seeing!  You are seeing the world as a writer views the world— the ways to tell the story fall out in endless combinations of POV! 

Each person is telling a completely different story using their own viewpoint, remembrance of the facts (dates, times, places), ability to observe, and on and on!
Here are a few imaginative uses of POV to think about today:
First Person POV/Alternating:   Each first person character tells their version of the story.  Jonathan Safran Foer wrote  Everything Is Illuminated with a double-first person POV.  The first part of the book is one part of the story by one person (Jonathan Safran Foer himself) and the second half of the book is the rest of the story told by his guide, Alexander Perchov. 

Popular in the 18th Century was the epistolary novel in which First Person POV/ Alternating narrator is played out in alternating letters between two or more parties.  Les Liasons Dangereuses, (Chonderlos de Laclos) is my favorite example.  It’s a more masterful novel than Safran Foer’s early but ambitious effort.
First Person POV/Gender Unspecified:  In Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body, you never know whether the person telling the story is a woman or a man.  The additional twist— Written On The Body is a compelling love story about the (gender non-specified) main character’s illicit attraction for a married woman.
First person POV/chorus:  The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is written from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys— now grown men— who are fascinated by the Lisbon sisters, even after each girl commits an untimely act that ends in her death. You wouldn’t think this would work well, but the speaking as a Greek chorus of “we” makes the story more heartbreaking and intimate.
Second Person POV:  Although a second person narrator (“you”) is rarely used as a device in an entire novel, it’s often used in pop songs.   Because the directness of “you” can be difficult to maintain, only the most practiced and inventive writers use it with confidence in a longer form like a novel or novella— try  The Things They Carried  (Tim O’Brian) or Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInterney).   

It’s such a rare POV that Wikipedia has a fairly definitive list of instances in novels and short stories where Second Person POV is used as the main POV.
Third Person POV/Close:  Almost every novel you read is in Third Person Close POV, but did you know there are two distinct subsets?

    The first is Subjective Third Person Close POV— that’s the one you know, where you see inside a singular character’s actions and the story is based on what s/he discerns from her/his sensory information.
    The second, Objective Third Person Close POV, is used more in feature stories for newspapers and academic writing— third person is used, but only observable phenomena are described.  (You, the reader, will get no internal psychological discussion in Objective Third Person Close POV.)

Third Person POV/True Omniscient:  You see everything under the sun, but do not know advance information about what will happen to the characters.  Dune  (Frank Herbert), which we will be discussing in about two weeks, is a textbook-perfect example of this POV.  Third person POV/True Omniscient is another common POV for the contemporary novel. Third Person POV/True Omniscient takes a lot of muscle control because the writer has almost infinite resources at her/his disposal with which to tell the story.
Third Person POV/Universal Omniscient:  This POV allows readers to have advance information the characters don’t know yet— of the “Little did Janie Sue know that she would soon fall off of a cliff.  But, you dear reader, know this” school of thought.   Victorian novels used this POV trick beautifully— it invites closeness between the reader and the unnamed (or named) narrator who is not inside the story being told and can jump around as s/he it sees fit.


Let’s talk about the narrator of the story— that’s the person or persons whose voice is heard throughout the novel, short story, et. al.

When I say “narrator,” I’m not talking about the writer. The narrator is the person created by the writer to tell the story. Sometimes the narrator is well defined character, and sometimes you never really get to know who they are. Sometimes they are trustworthy, sometimes they are unreliable. 

Sometimes the “universal” narrator is the author— that’s another trope that postmodern writers liked to employ, and it is similar to “breaking the fourth wall” in theater, where the storyteller is revealed to be a storyteller and you, the readers/audience has “contact” with him/her.  (Officially, these breaks where the writer/author “speaks” to the reader are called “disruptions/intrusions into the narrative.”)

The bigger point here is that when you are reading and when you are writing— someone is being created or utilized to tell the story on the page.

The better control you have over point-of-view and its tricks and tropes, the stronger and more compelling the story becomes.
What people love about narrative and stories has little to do with the events or the action per se— we care about the people in the midst of the action, and one of the ways we learn to care about them is by tuning into the point-of-view that frames the way their story gets told.

For instance, when Andy Griffith retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, we care deeply about what happens to the two younguns’ because Griffith (who used this story in his comedy act first) makes the star-crossed lovers’ tale seem fresh for his audience. It’s a clear use of good POV— the Andy Griffith persona tells us a gripping tale of love and youth straight out of the hills that surround Mayberry.

In those moments when you are reading a story, you can easily get caught up in the moment and forget that a great deal of thought and structure when into the shaping of this tale that you love. The goal of every writer, and storyteller, of note— is to make it all seem effortless— as though the story is floating on a breeze and you managed to catch ahold of it.

And when a story is particularly well-crafted and effortless and created from an intoxicating POV, you’ll find me running towards it in the middle of the day, full-tilt, on fire with the words, enthralled with what happens next— even if I know the story word for word. Good POV unleashes the heart of my cravings, and that, alone, brings me back to the page again and again.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmor_dOtw_E


Our Sunday Best: The Time Ghost Rides the Light— Green Succulents and Tina Modotti’s Hips


Imogen Cunningham: Succulent, 1920. This image...


    In a dancer there is a reverence for such forgotten things as the miracle of the small beautiful bones and their delicate strength. In a thinker there is a reverence for the beauty of the alert and directed and lucid mind. In all of us who perform, there is an awareness of the smile, which is part of the equipment, or gift, of the acrobat. We have all walked the high wire of circumstance at times. We recognize the gravity of pull on the Earth as he does. The smile is there because he is practicing living at that instant of danger. He does not choose to fall.[i]  Martha Graham

Two women stand in the hard light of the countryside on a Santa Barbara afternoon.

The first woman, a photographer, stares intently into the viewfinder of her camera. 

All of the photographer’s emotions ride her face, the muscles jumping as she considers her subject.

The subject, a dancer, shifts her long, languid body half in and out of the shadow of a barn, and the hot California light.

She wears a white bias gown that turns her hips and shoulders into sculptured abstractions.

The light is hard but the dancer’s face welcomes its honesty.

The photographer’s hands are sure on the camera, sure of the light.  Sure of her subject.  She holds up her own hand to signal that they would now begin.

The two artists do not need to speak—  the camera and the dance speak for them both.

The two artists are photographer Imogen Cunningham and choreographer/dancer Martha Graham.

Cunningham shoots her first image of Graham in that sure, firm light of a Santa Monica afternoon.


    The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.  Manifesto of Group f/64


Imogen Cunningham is an anomaly among photographers.

While Ansel Adams was the breakaway rebel, the rewriter of history, the eye that captured the vast imagination of the American West, Cunningham is the American original, the vivid technician, the anti-hero whose photographs are more iconic than Cunningham herself.

But Cunningham always was an original.

From childhood, her father especially encouraged Cunningham to explore her own capabilities in every art medium.

At 17, Cunningham turned with great zeal and capability to the camera— which in her hands will become an instrument as capable as a well-trained dancer’s body.

Her 20s are a blur of university studies in chemistry with a post-graduate stint in Germany where she pioneers a new technique[ii] for darkroom printing.

Cunningham, now in her 30s, shoots the iconic, unembellished images of Graham that land her the occasional work for Vanity Fair in New York.  She also shoots a series of images of Ansel Adams and does a show with up-and-comer Edward Weston.

By 1931, she is poised on the threshold of the next great Zeitgeist— Group f/64.


    The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group. Manifesto of Group f/64


Cunningham is a native daughter of the Northwest and understands, instinctively, the temperament of light.

And temperament is what Cunningham will need to hold her own amongst the seven photographers who have banded together to tell the story of the American West and its possibility— a story of possibility that is becoming ever more popular as the Great Depression deepens and widens across the United States.

The photographers of the West are drawn to all the native subject matter.  

The local plants and succulents;  the vast unrefined landscapes;  even the nudes are touched with this crisp eye and luminous light. 

All of these subjects have an East Coast equivalent.  Most of these ideas have passed through the lilting pictorial lens so loved by Stieglitz and his contemporaries.

In the hands of Group f/64,  the approach to the subject matter is what really changes— not the location.

Images no longer swim on the page in refracted light.  Either you find yourself right on top of the subject— the curve of an arm; the cup of a succulent — or the subject is BIG and VAST and MAGISTERIAL, leaving you breathless in its wake.

But, wait!  It’s still early yet.  First, we must follow Cunningham out of the bright light of a Santa Monica afternoon to the magnificent gray day in San Francisco— November 15, 1932 to be exact— for Group f/64’s first show at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum[iii].

According to limited accounts, droves of people saw the first show. 

Eighty images hung on the walls of this established gallery, representing the seven core members of Group f/64 as well as four other photographers whose work fit the aesthetic they desired.

In addition the manifesto was clearly printed and placed where everyone could see it.


    Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire spectrum of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group. Manifesto of Group f/64


Somewhere in the East, Alfred Stieglitz stirred.

The father of Modern American photography was in the process of examining his own feelings about photography.

He had spent all his energies on creating a distinct place for photography to land among the annals of art— with a special focus on making American photography an art form as good as its European counterpart, if not better.

Stieglitz may have been in this contemplative mood when he mounted a retrospective of his own work in 1932 at his new gallery, An American Place[iv].

Although much of his work reflects this pictorialist aesthetic he helped develop, Stieglitz is quite capable of creating haunting, crisp, close-up images, especially of Georgia O’Keefe.

What makes his retrospective so interesting is that he does not, in fact, hang his breathtaking portraits of O’ Keefe.  (He shot her image so frequently that a definitive and lovely record of her life remains for all of us.)

While displaying older established photographs like “The Steerage,”  Stieglitz also hung recent images of his young, nubile mistress…  right next to less-flattering photographs of his New Mexico sun-baked wife, Georgia O’Keefe.[v]

His friends were stunned at his lack of subtlety.

    Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts. Manifesto of Group f/64


Oh, yes, Group f/64 mean business!   

They intend to “strive to define photography” and they will “show no work… that does not conform to its standards.”    From that first show at M. H. de Young Memorial Museum onward, the gauntlet is thrown down.

Never mind that the gauntlet is made of close-up succulents and vast rock wonderlands of New Mexico and the hip of Tina Modotti— they are reacting to this idea that photography isn’t art. 

That despite the rise and fall of pictorialism in the East— (Remember Stieglitz’s sharp O’Keefe’s and even sharper strikes at his marriage?)— pictorialism is alive and thriving in the West.

Group f/64 is rebelling against the entire art establishment— but they are also rebelling towards a somewhat unified idea of photography as a means and an end unto itself.

The image as the beginning, middle and end unto itself.

Oh, and the museums can go jump off a cliff. 

That’s the big one, right there.  The museums still set the standard for what is, and what is not art. 

Museums don’t give a fig whether it is pictorialism or Group f/64 or some other thing on photographic paper.  They don’t think that photographs are art.  At all.

To the museums, a photograph is a novelty item! 

A novelty item!  Like a bicycle!   


And that’s what Group f/64 lines up in the sights of its camera.  The museums.

Ticking off Stieglitz is an incidental pleasure.  It’s the museums they want.  And it’s the museums they’ll get.


    The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.

    The Group will appreciate information regarding any serious work in photography that has escaped its attention, and is favorable towards establishing itself as a Forum of Modern Photography. Manifesto of Group f/64


Cunningham[vi] is concentrating so hard that she’s sweating.

She wipes her forehead with her sleeve and leans back to her camera, to Graham, who already belongs to history.

Graham, the dancer, leans sideways as if unhooked from the clutching grasp of gravity.

Her arms, her hands, are flowers, are birds, are rivers.

The dancer moves and moves in time and space.

Cunningham, the photographer, takes shot after shot of this luminous woman in a hard light against the black, black shadows of the open barn door.

In a matter of hours in this hot Santa Monica light, Cunningham will shoot over one hundred images of Graham.

Meanwhile, time stands still on firm, scarred dancer’s feet.

Cunningham bends to her camera.  Graham appears to swim in the bold natural light.


It is 1931.



[i] Quote from Martha Graham’s “An Athlete of God.”  (1953)


[ii] What makes Cunningham distinct among her Group f/64 colleagues is that a college professor encouraged her to study chemistry, the technical foundation of darkroom work.  On her matriculation with a chemistry degree, Cunningham’s sorority funded further technical studies at Dresden, Germany’s Technische Hochschule with Professor Robert Luther. “About the Direct Development of Platinum Paper for Brown Tones,” is the thesis that covers her findings.  (Good luck tracking a copy.  I even tried Google Scholar. )


[iii] Lisa Hoestetier of the Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote a brief synopsis of Group f/64’s first show, providing the factual details for my own account.


[iv] Photographs of An American Place and Alfred Stieglitz.  (The Yale Library maintains Stieglitz’s papers at Georgia O’Keefe’s request.)


[v] Stieglitz in a letter to Aline Meyer Lieberman on May 8, 1932— I am herewith sending you one of my photographs of New New [sic] York as appreciation of your helping to make An American Place possible – I hope you feel that the Place is at least not a complete loss.

I must also point out that history has been hideously unkind to Stieglitz— few published biographies exist on the man, and I cannot find— anywhere!— the date of his retrospective at An American Place.


[vi] Edward Weston was fond of saying that Imogen Cunningham had “acid in her blood.”  She was a tough cuss, you all.  T-o-u-g-h.  Much of what I discuss here today is inspired by this oral recording created by, and for, the Smithsonian Museum.



NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST! The break-up of Group f/64!  We FINALLY talk NUDES and Edward Weston!  Great ART and the Great DEPRESSION?!? (What’s the connection?)  And who the HELL is TINA MODOTTI, anyway?  (What’s so great about her HIPS?)  And Courtenay Bluebird, will you EVER give us some photography books we can find at the library to read… for FUN?  ALL THESE QUESTIONS AND SO MANY MORE WILL BE ANSWERED… NEXT WEEK! on OUR SUNDAY BEST!



*ADDITIONAL NOTES: Hey there! A few items to keep in mind. Almost all of Imogen Cunningham’s images are not in the public domain. Her works are maintained by her granddaughter on her website Photo Liaison. You will find all of Cunningham’s published Martha Graham photographs there.

That means the first image of this story is Cunningham’s, and the rest… are Ansel Adams. The same thing will happen next week when we talk about Edward Weston. Why? The U.S. Parks Service owns some of Adams’ work, and that means his works are in the public domain. Weston’s work, like Cunningham’s, is owned by family.










*BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography

As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.


Our Sunday Best: The Myth of the Second Act

X-ray of a Boxer's fractured hand.

Near the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing career, he penned The Great Gatsby, a modern age novel that explores, explodes and exiles every deeply held myth of the American Dream.

Toward the end of his writing career, an ego-bruised and soul-wrenched Fitzgerald is alleged to have scratched the following line in the notes for his posthumously published novel The Last Tycoon:

There are no second acts in American lives.


I know.

You’ve heard this unverified quote or something like it.

It’s a bitter sentence. The meaning behind it is black as peat.

You only get the one go round, Fitzgerald is saying.

You don’t get that next wave where you grow and stretch, do something different.

They like you when you’re new or when you’re young. Both if you can manage it.

There are no second acts in American lives.
Everyone with an artistic vocation wonders whether there are, in fact, second acts in a creative life.

You don’t have to be American to feel fear.

You are/want to be an artist.

Or a writer.

Or a musician.

Or a photographer.

Or an actor.

I can feel you here, next to me right now shaking your head.

You’re here because you are trying to feel your way through your second act.

Where to begin? Where does it go? Is Fitzgerald right?

There are no second acts in American lives.


I do not believe it.

And I’ll tell you why.
Please slip under the ropes in that metaphorical boxing ring of my writing space.

On my rainiest days, writing feels about as good as a punch I caught on the jaw.

I need to get up off of this mat.

I need to get stop getting sucker-socked by language.

Keep finding a way to spar with words.

The thesaurus isn’t working.

The deadline is looming.

On my rainiest days, I know that I’m boxing shadows and the shadows are winning.

I do what any sane Bluebird does—

Bennet's fracture X-ray (1)

I call my mother.

She answers. Thank goodness.

On the phone, her voice is beautiful— soft, full, slightly deep.

She speaks the way people sing— lots of inflection, with a surprising range of tones and moods.

Everyone loves her voice.

My mother steps into the metaphorical boxing ring of my writing space and speaks to me.

I’m flat out, emotionally exhausted, creatively wiped.

I am lying there on the mat. I am refusing to get up.
She says:

— Grandma Moses. Grandma Moses got her start as a painter in her mid 70s.

I lean my head into the phone to get as close as I can to her voice. Writing. How am I—

She goes on:

Laura Ingalls Wilder. First book in her 60s.

—But what if—?

No “what ifs.” You write because you write. Set it aside. This is what you do.

I get my head off the mat inside my mind. That mat smells of old sweat and strong punches. It’s still raining outside.

—But how do I—?

I can’t even finish the sentence.

You’ll find a way. Winston Churchill. Kept failing. Prime Minister. Twice.

—What if it isn’t any goo—

Einstein. Terrible at school. Beatrix Potter. No one wanted to publish stories and pictures about animals.

—But I don’t know where I’m going to go—

No such thing as second acts. Prior to the electronic age, people didn’t get information quickly, nor did they expect to get things quickly. Lots of people didn’t start things until they were 40 and 50, or later.

— The publishing industry likes their young geniuses, Mom. Forty is a pretty big cut-off. I’m coming up on it.

Don’t look over your shoulder. The past is the past.

I stand up. I shake my head to get the blood moving to my shoulders. I bounce on the balls of my feet.

The room is warm with the promise of more rain. My sweat makes a fine sheen on my forearms.

— How? On days like today?

Keep moving. Don’t rely on inspiration. Inspiration is fickle. It’s the muscle of the everyday. Make sure you have strong, clean work.

— Okay, Mom. Okay.

It’s just you. You compete with you. Keep it clean. Keep it up. Keep moving forward.

Metacarpal fractures

I thank my mother and she shoos me off of the phone to go work.

It’s still raining. Why is it always raining when I have one of these days where every sentence, every word I write, is tinny and off? I stare out the window for a moment. The water slides down the glass, blurring my view.

I put the house phone back on the cradle.

I am not here. I am not anywhere. I am there with the words.

I’m up. Blood is moving. The pen is in front of me.


    I love my mother. She’s given me this speech so many times over so many years that I can recall parts of it without conferring with her. (Still, I asked for her permission to write this story.)

    As a bonus, she allowed me to grab a quick interview with her while she was on the fly.

    It’s been a few months since I’ve called and asked her for “the talk,” so I wanted to see what she found recently that she loved.

    At the bottom of the page, you will find a list of Our Sunday Best links based on her recommendations.

    ME: I think of the term “late bloomers” as derogatory, but when you go to look up information on the internet, this is how you find it.

    MY MOTHER: We call them late bloomers, but they didn’t see it that way. I think there are two kinds of late bloomers. There’s one type that does not come into their own for whatever reason until later. This type wasn’t really sure what they wanted to be, and discovered what they wanted to be later.

    (The second type) Some late bloomers deferred their own dreams because they had responsibilities. After they raised their children… then they did what they wanted to after they took care of their responsibilities. For instance, many people quit school in the (19)30s and ’40s because their families needed them, and came back to what they really loved much later.

    MY MOTHER: When you know you’re in your element, you lose track of time. When you love something, time changes for you. And you have one hundred percent of fulfillment.

    If you’re doing a job and you’re not in your element, it’s painful.

    When I see someone coming into their own, it’s amazing how a small amount of encouragement and kindness goes a long way.

    They give more; they dig deeper. They expect more of themselves. They’re blossoming. It’s their time. There’s no late. Just now.


    It’s a Wonderful Life (“He was a late bloomer. He thought he wanted to do something else with his life, and it turned out that what he was doing then was what he really loved.”)

    Miss Potter (“She had to promote herself entirely.”)

    Late Bloomers: 75 People Who Found Fame, Success & Joy in the Second Half of Their Lives by Brendan Gill.


In any life, you must allow what comes next to come next.

An early start in your vocation, your career, is not a ward against failure.

Starting early only means that you will experience the moment of failure a little earlier than some.

You absorb the shock of it. You learn from its shape, and you move on.

In other words, you learn to take a punch.

Even now as I walk towards my office, muscles warm, ready to go, ready to write— I hear my mother’s voice, whispering away:

Isak Dinesen. Jacques Tati. Theloneous Monk. O. Henry. Helen Keller…
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqJL5uSZznU


Our Sunday Best: Disguises and Surprises


Garage mechanic near Newark, N.J. Badge denotes member of Office of Defense Transportation (LOC)


My mother invited me to a charity gala whatchacallit this week, and I had my semi-annual panic over what to wear.

I love to go places with my mother. And I hate to dress up. It’s a real head-shrinker of a problem, I tell you.

After doing a quick mental flick-through of my current clothes situation, I panicked. Was I going to have to wear the one dress I own with the sleeves I loathe? Whattodo? Whattodo?

Would it be possible to cobble something together from other garments I own?

Despite my panic, I managed to mouth-breathe long enough to source a pair of slim black trousers in my closet I forgot I purchased from the thrift store last summer. And a sleeveless grey cashmere sweater, and a silk menswear jacket, all thrifted from the same trip. I slapped some heels on and away we went!

Well, that’s how the story is supposed to go, anyway.

What really happened is that the trousers, in good sunlight, though clean, were coated in dog hair and weird fibers of unknown origin.

(My mother called them my mo’ hair trousers ’cause they got mo’ hair than they’re supposed to have.)

After wearing the four-inch heels for two hours, I started to wonder when I had replaced the heels of my shoes with railroad spikes.

My poppy-toned red lipstick migrated to my forehead after dinner, but before I drank my post-dessert cup of decaf.

To recap: Here’s a mental snapshot of what I looked like by the end of the evening—

I was wearing furry trousers.
I was limping from painful heels, and—
my red lipstick looked quite lovely on my glistening forehead.

The moral of this story?

You can’t take me anywhere. (That’s pronounced enny-whurr, by the way, in certain parts of Texas.)

And so, do you know what I do? Do you know what I did?

I could get embarrassed, oh my good Aunt Sally, I could get really embarrassed every time I look like a fool in public.

But, I’m so foolhardy, so often, I’d walk around with a perpetual flush.

Instead? I laughed. My mother laughed too. We’re quite a pair in public!

Besides, my friends, what’s the fun in embarrassment?

This hilarious debacle of the pants and the shoes and the lipstick got me to thinking about disguises and surprises.

You know what I’m talking about, y’all.

Sometimes you don’t know what your gonna get or who you’re going to be until you get there.

In the spirit of that kind of good fun, let me give you a few goodies that aren’t what you think until you take a good look.

There’s a lot of love and a lot of happiness out there on the internet, and you don’t have to poke much to find it.

Hump master in a Chicago and Northwestern railroad yard operating a signal switch system which extends the length of the hump track. He is thus able to control movements of locomotives pushing the train over the hump from his post at the hump office; Chic


Why don’t you let me take you on a short trolley tour through some of my favorite happy places on the internet?

Some are surprises and some are full of unusual disguises!


Tickets out please!

Pleased to meet you and you and YOU!

It’s good to see you today!

You’re looking rather spiffy!




Our first stop on our tour is my latest de-stressing device, found by my friend Phillip, and courtesy of the Discovery Channel and Sea World.

I give you the 24-HOUR PENGUIN CAM! Your life is never gonna be the same! There are two views: topside and underwater.

To click from one to the other, mash the Multiview button in the bar title bar. (This feature I discovered TODAY. Whoa! Life is good!)

GO HERE and then come back and tell me what you saw! Go on! You’re gonna get happy, I promise!

Do you know what I do? I make up dialogue for the penguins hanging out topside!

There’s one male penguin that stands there in profile near the camera a lot.

I’ve named him Sartre.

He’s the only penguin I’ve ever seen who looks like he’s having some sort of multi-layered deep thoughts moment at all times.

Another unexpected surprise this week is that Françoise Mouly, the art editor for the weekly cover of The New Yorker, maintains a fantastic blog (with the help of Nadja Spiegelman, her daughter) that shows all the covers that didn’t make the cut for the week.

I see that you’re shrugging. So?

Françoise Mouly, Nadja Spiegelman and Blown Covers show the progress of idea to end product of how The New Yorker covers get conceived, created, and chosen.

The ones that don’t get chosen? A slideshow of the week’s near-hits are posted on this Tumblr site with notes by Mouly. Fascinating stuff!

Also? Each day of the work week is devoted to some part of the cover process for the magazine— from discussing past covers, to talking about artist who’ve done covers recently and their processes, to a weekly contest.

Honest-to-goodness, y’all, if you want to see commercial art come alive? Go run off and read some Blown Covers!

Switch lists coming in by teletype to the hump office at a Chicago and Northwestern railroad yard, Chicago, Ill. (LOC)





Oh, you think history needs more oomph do you? (I know that you all love yourselves some history!)

I can think of two blogs right off of the top of my head that will make history come alive (insert jazz hands moment here) for you right now!

The first one is a super-favorite-favorite of some time now— The Retronaut.

This blog is like a living museum of things designed for minutiae-style obsessions.

Do you want to see… a pictorial timeline of Winston Churchill’s life with photographs you never knew existed?

What about Bridget Bardot’s first trip to Cannes?

How about an exploration of the exercise video fad of the ’80s?

Would you like to visit a retrospective of Sea Monkey Ads?

Of course you would! OF COURSE YOU WOULD! Go here right now!

As for the remaining passengers on this vessel. Let’s go farther!

Let’s relive all the straight-up weirdness that is the fabulous 1970s via the prolific blog, Plaid Stallions!

I can see I have your attention now!

My friend Phillip pointed me in the direction of Plaid Stallions last year as I opined my mislaid gigantic Fischer Price Little People collection, which may be in storage somewhere.

And it may not be. (I’ll keep y’all posted on this important issue.)

Plaid Stallion’s subhead is “Reliving the ’70s a Catalogue Page At a Time,” and jeez, Louisiana, they don’t fool around!

This blog comes down to two important main sections— Fashion and Toys. There are other subheads, but they aren’t nearly so full of pages upon pages of ’70s arcana as the two big ones.

The fashion is primarily male-oriented— which I applaud— as so many retro fashion sites are exclusively focused on women’s clothes.

Not Plaid Stallions! NO SIR!

As for toys? Whatever your retro heart desires? Plaid Stallion either has, or will, explore it in the near future!

Prepare for the wild nostalgia ride of your life at Plaid Stallions. (Yeah, Gen Xers! I’m looking at you!)

Your stop is right here!

THE FINAL STOP of this trolley ride

is at the end of the page.

It’s not so much a place as it is a moment with one of my favorite scenes from my favorite movie series of all time— The Pink Panther.

Last week, I left the house looking presentable, and halfway through the night, I resembled a demented limping goat faun with a lipstick-aiming problem.

I am okay with that part of myself.


Because my heroes include people like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

And if Clouseau manages to live another day after failing to get anything right?

I think I can live with my mo’ hair pants.

In fact, I know I can.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jOtVy3t7-Q


Our Sunday Best: Where the Light Captures Us

Geronimo -- detail showing photographer reflected in his eye (LOC)

I did not use a camera until I was in my twenties, my relationship to photography and to photographs still maintains a tint of the newly amazed.

Because I did not enter a darkroom until about the same time, my understanding of the way photography works and what photographs do is flavored by this feeling that every time I enter into that room (wherever that darkroom is), I am about to see a miracle in progress.

Because I had ached to take photographs my whole life and could not due to the expense, what I do have and do with a camera feels fragile and fresh.

I hold my Leica in my hands and I bounce on the balls of my toes: Let’s GO! Let’s GO!

I put the camera to my eye, and the world behind me falls away.

My words fall back.

I have entered a cathedral of silence where I am one sense only— an eye.

The rhythm of the eye and what it sees defies every because I can conjure.

Why shoot on film? Because.

Why this subject? Because.

Why? Because. Because. Because.

Each because is the snap of the shutter. Each because is a visual answer.

I would like to take you where my mentor took me when I started to learn photography, and then I would like to take you to the places where his eye still leads me.

This photographer never stopped being my mentor because he is always teaching me something new. By his example. And his generosity with what he discovers.

The light never fails us. Here. Let me bring you to it.

The first stop on our tour should be to the photographer who trained me. (And I was hard to train. Remember me telling you that I have dyscalculia? Now imagine teaching someone who does not understand how numbers work the matrix of math involved with printing a photograph. Keep in mind there is a healthy dose of chemistry involved here as well. How did he do it? Patience. Repetition. Mnemonics. Visuals. And more patience.)

And here he is— one of the best photographers I’ve ever known: Donald Ewers.

(He is also one of the crispest writers I’ve ever met. His prose is sharp and clean. I hope you get a chance to meander around his blog a bit. He amazes me, always.)

I called him tonight.

I wanted to make sure that it was okay that I mentioned him by name, that I talked about what he taught me, what he is still teaching me. And that conversation led to other tendrils— I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight.

(I did, after a fashion, have them straight. Sometimes I surprise myself, but in this case I should not have been surprised at all because this collection of facts has little to do with the student and much to do with the mentor. Everything he says bears a certain weight, you see.)

But one slight confusion of mine required him to rectify my memory. And once he had rectified one fact, the rest started to stand out as clear as a cliff in an Ansel Adams photograph.

I had to sit down, put my face in my hands for about five minutes, and then, begin again.

While I thought today’s Our Sunday Best was going to be a hotpot of photography, I now know it is going to be a brief survey of the history of *modern photography.

All because of Donald Ewers.

All because he leads me where the light is best.

When discussing photography, especially where it goes, you start with Stieglitz.

Stieglitz who still mystifies me. Stieglitz who terrifies me. He’s so publicly stern.

To make sure I remembered my Stieglitz, Donald Ewers sent me these clips from the American Masters documentary “The Eloquent Eye.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0AE2hUyd0M
Stieglitz in his own words:
“I am an American.
Photography is my passion.
The search for truth is my obsession.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxsgL6QGpVY
More Stieglitz:
“What is of greatest importance is to hold a moment,
to record something so completely that to see it
will be to relive an equivalent of what has been expressed.”

English: Photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe by Alf...

Here we are at the beginning of photography as we know it now.

Stand with me in this moment where Stieglitz comes into view.

There! See his strong face? His strong voice? He is where we begin the story of the pictures that we take today.

Others came before him, and many during his time were trained by his eye, his voice, his hand.

To be quite honest, everywhere you look in photography (and modern art for that matter— ever heard of Georgia O'Keefe?), you'll find Stieglitz staring back at you with his groomed mustache and that hand in his pocket looking intense, brooding and full of words.

He knew what photography could be. It could be an art form equal to painting— that was his mission. To make photography seen as art. And he drove himself to exhaustion in his mission to create this new, equal-to-other-forms-of-art, art form.

He succeeded. But his mission and his photography ruled his life. His obsessions crashed and burned his first marriage, and made his second marriage to O’Keefe a thin thread of two people who loved one another, but loved art more.


When I think Stieglitz, I think truth.

I think movement and I think honesty and I think of Georgia O’Keefe heartbreakingly in love with a man who was heartbreakingly in love with her— so much so that she revealed all her soul to his camera. And I think clouds likes wisps of unspoken sentiments.

If Stieglitz is clouds in sentiment, his legacy as a photographer and visionary begins metaphorically as the trunk of a vast tree.

Modern photography is a rare anomaly in the world of art. You’ll notice something peculiar to this relatively new art medium that does not necessarily occur in other new mediums— one photographer leads to another in a definitive line.

We shall place Stieglitz near the trunk of this tree.

From Stieglitz, two intense photographers emerge from that single trunk— Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

He trained them to consider what is possible and showed their work in his gallery.


Both photography legends are very different in their approach, their subject matter, even their sense of the medium and what it can do.

Edward Weston’s legacy as a photographer influences every aspect of its development. Weston eye carved light in curves.

It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, his eye made the line dance.

To this day, his photographs are printed only by his family, who have carried on his legacy here.

When I think Weston, I think curves and body and new light everywhere. I think dunes and hips and bell peppers. I think fresh.


English: Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake ...


Ansel Adams is the photographer most people know by sight.

Why? Because many of his more famous images were reproduced into not-great posters. (His official website is here.)

Now that I think about it, though, if not him, then who? Even those not-great reproductions remind us of what photography can do.

And when I think Adams, I think “I hear America singing,” as poet Walt Whitman wrote. (A phrase that poet Langston Hughes countered in his own poem “I, Too, Sing America.”)


When I think Adams, I think of vast, vast narratives. The pioneering soul.

But both Weston and Adams have their place on the photography family tree, and they, too, sung American and International photographers into the public consciousness.

And we wouldn’t complete our discussion of the roots of photography without Group f/64, where the roots become branches that will soon become trees.

Group f/64 was the natural next step from the art-driven Stieglitz to his protégés Weston and Adams.

Those two photographers broke from this painterly tradition that Stieglitz had established (by beauty, by great will) and moved into the world of the natural light, the actual object.

Weston and Adams were joined by five others who constitute a who’s who of modern photography. f/64 refers to the f-stop with the greatest depth of field to allow for a sharp, clear, image free of the painterly manipulation style affected by some photographers at the time.


Here’s a quote from their manifesto:

Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

Without Stieglitz’s proselytizing, photography may have stayed stuck in a twin rut of stiff portraits and yellow newspaper images (though somehow, given other images of the time— photography was going somewhere, it merely needed a muscled shove by someone with a strong voice).

What did Stieglitz himself think of Group f/64? Well, the best information I can offer at the moment would be this link to a meaty research selection on Google talking about this moment where Stieglitz and Group f/64 hashed out what was and was not a photograph.

Can you imagine trying to argue what is, and is not, a photograph near the beginning of this technology?

Can you imagine trying to determine what makes a photograph art?

Who gets to call him/herself an artist and a photographer at the same time?

Now, we can’t imagine what it’s like to have to fight, and fight hard, for the next direction of a new art form, a new technology, but this one thing?—

—This one thing determines a great deal of the direction of art in the 20th Century.

This one thing— What makes photography art?— is the question we’re still asking now.

All I know at this late hour as I rewrite this entire Our Sunday Best, because of Donald Ewers, because of Stieglitz, is that we are all, all of us, captured by light.

But I might have given you a much different, less rich story today.

All because of Donald Ewers.

All because he leads me where the light is best.




*A BRIEF NOTE: When I speak of the “modern,” I mean the late 19th Century into the first quarter of the 20th Century. When we talk about art that is happening now, we call it “contemporary,” a word that sounds flat to me, but it is what it is. (Modern sounds racier to me, but I don’t know why.)










*BOOKS & FILMS on Early Modern Photography

As always, all of my work in this area is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers.