The Slow Lane

Last year when starting this sabbatical I dove right into several gruntwork house projects and had a lot of time to think about what to do with a lot of time. It’s an issue I haven’t had to deal with in decades; like many folks I know, the last time had surplus time was back in college, before jobs and mortgages and all of the stuffs of life. After coming up with a list of things I planned to build in the woodshop, I remembered that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to take roadtrips. I then realized that the last real roadtrip I took was the drive back to California from Illinois (via Canada) after my wedding in 2003, and then came jobs and houses and kids. And that my kids have never been on a real roadtrip.

In college I started taking roadtrips to get places I couldn’t afford to visit otherwise and as a straight substitute for air travel, those early trips were simply a means to get somewhere as quickly as possible. But after just a few of them I grew tired of the visual and cultural monotony of the interstates (especially the food) along the way. At some point I stumbled across a Charles Kuralt quote: “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” Thus began my fascination with the 2-lane highway. From then on, my dog and I spent many hours logging many miles seeing parts of the continent out of reach and long forgotten by the masses mindlessly zooming past on Interstates. The slower pace of the 2-lane highways (55/60mph in most places, 25-35mph in and around the small towns along the way) forces you to take in the scenery and makes stopping or veering off the highway for a closer look much easier. Roadtrips felt once again like travel rather than mere conveyance.

I’ve since traversed the U.S. from coast to coast six times, from top to bottom thrice, across Canada twice, with a bunch of trips and detours around the interior—all of these trips for the most part on 2-lane highways. Among the most amazing / heartbreaking things you see on such trips are the parts of America that are slowly dying off because they are too far from interstates and Walmarts. Towns that were clearly once thriving but where you no longer see any resident younger than 65 years old. You see Native American reservations, roadside tourist traps (or attempts at such) and in this country, anyway, an seemingly infinite variety of landscapes. It’s hard to say how long many of these sights—both natural and cultural—will be around. I’m certain that many of the things I saw on these trips no longer exist.

My roadtrips have taken me through 47 of the 48 contiguous United States and nine of ten Canadian provinces (no Canadian territories…yet). As with my travel anywhere, I eschew itineraries (often designed to accommodate the greatest number of the shallow encounters with the exact same things everyone else has had a shallow encounter) and instead prefer getting lost, finding unexpected gems at my own pace rather than be slave to a schedule. My best roadtrips had a destination (usually) but no specified amount of time to get there, and on one trip I took almost four weeks to reach a destination at which I only spent 2 days. Ah, to have the time to have time again!

Wait…now I do.

Viva La Cuba! (Part III)

The Cuba 2018 gallery and Galleries section debuts. Thoughts on the kind of photography I find most rewarding—street portraits.

I’m happy to report that I’m done processing the top-tier selects from my Cuba photos and as such, can now officially debut the Galleries section of Cuba’s the only gallery in there now but more will be added regularly as I work my way through my image archive. Gallery contents will remain sparse—images and titles only—so that the photographs can take center stage. I’ll use the blog to add pithy commentary and behind-the-scenes context for select images from time to time because blah blah blah is what blahgs are best at.

I don’t have many rules about photography. I think a good photograph can be made with any equipment and that the things people fuss about—namely focus, bokeh and to some degree, exposure—turn out to be nowhere near as important to producing an effective image as people make them out to be. I guess my only “code” in photography is that I don’t take photos of the destitute and pass them off as some noble-minded attempt to depict of the state of humankind—I’m not a photojournalist. I also don’t edit photographs much at all—my edits are mostly limited to global adjustments, cropping and cleaning sensor spots—but this, in addition to trying to get things right “in the camera,” isn’t an artistic or philosophical stance as much as it is a factor of time constraints. In any case, I tend to disregard anyone who gets religious about what “proper” photography is or how it is done. Actually, I tend to disregard anyone who gets religious about anything or who uses the word “proper” as a way to tell me what I’m doing wrong. Which is basically everyone on the Intertubes.


Viva La Cuba (Part II)

Images from Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa and thoughts on the photographic editorial process.

I’m about 50% through processing my selects from the Cuba trip. When I slog through images so soon after returning from a trip, something often happens to me —I’m disappointed in the lack of variety. As regards the Cuba image archive, it’s hard to not feel like I’m drowning in photos of standing or sitting around, of places (and people) flaunting their gorgeous decay, and of old American cars. When I got back from Southeast Asia, I felt like I was drowning in monks and temples. Naples, Italy: alleys and architecture. You can try to not take these cliché shots but it’s futile — these things comprise so much of the social tapestry and visual horizon, perhaps particularly for someone whose synapses haven’t yet normalized the things it’s not used to seeing.

Over time I’ve settled on the notion that it’s best to go through images about 2-3 years after I take them. I’m fairly ruthless when it comes to editing my own stuff. I rarely post more than one photo from a given scene and can revisit a “select” for days and sometimes months. When I return from a trip, I’m still connecting images with memories. On the one hand, this is good because right after a trip the photographic process is still fresh. But in the end I think this hurts the editorial process—what’s meaningful to me about taking an image isn’t always in the image, and if it is in the image it may not be in the image effectively. For me, anyway, it takes some time for the memory of making a particular photograph or set of photographs to fade enough to be able to evaluate the image on its own terms.

Besides, it’s both fun and meaningful to revisit a photographic session—be it a trip or a studio shoot—after some time. Without the crutch of memory, I look at the images on a deeper level for things of interest and often come up with selects that would never have passed muster originally. I notice things in a photo’s background that I perhaps didn’t even notice while taking the photo. I find textures—both literal and figurative—that draw my eye in and make my mind wander. Images that are not executed perfectly on a technical level—i.e. overexposed or focused poorly—can speak volumes. But only after I can get my memory to quiet down a bit.

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Viva La Cuba! (Part I)

One more pin in the map.

I’ve wanted to go to Cuba since I was a little boy. On our family trips to Florida to visit relatives, I’d tag along with my lounge lizard uncle to socialize with his Cuban musician friends. Thanks to my wife indulging my wanderlust and holding the fort down while I made good on a childhood promise to myself—I just returned from an 8-day trip to Havana and several cities in eastern Cuba.

As you may know, if you are an American and want to travel legally to Cuba, it’s not as straightforward as it perhaps should be (and I’ve been keeping tabs on the rules for a few decades now). So a few weeks after a quick discussion with my longtime friend (with whom I’ve recently been reacquainted), Dan Tamarkin, I went with Keith and Amy of Complete Cuba, Dan and four other travelers (most of group was photographically inclined). I’m not a group tour kind of person—I’m barely a person kind of person. But unless you have the time and patience to wade through arcane government protocols (I did not), working through a tour operator familiar with such rules and regulations is the way to go, perhaps especially for your first trip there. Dan, who had already been to Cuba twice with Complete Cuba, had nothing but good things to say. And after having gone myself, I have nothing but good things to say about Complete Cuba as well.

I’ve done a pass through my photographs and a couple hundred of them pull their weight in pixels. That pool will of course be further refined, but here’s a small taste. Two more not shown here (two of my favorites, actually) will be shown at the Rangefinder Gallery in Chicago along with photos from my traveling companions and past Complete Cuba Alums.

I’m not going to try and summarize Cuba in anything but images, nor will I pretend that my photographs capture anything other than the small slice of Cuba I happened to walk through. But here are a few armchair observations:

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