How you see the world is all about where you stand.
I don't see much graffiti in Madison County, which might serve to explain my fascination with it. Italians, at least those in the cities, seem to believe every available surface is just another pallet, made to carry a message. Often, the language is political and speaks to dissent; there is clearly a sense of darkness somewhere below the surface. I wonder who paints them, and mounts these posters, and why? And I marvel at their existence alongside the Italy of light and color, that of gelato and high fashion.
Italy is a Catholic country, having become the official religion of the Roman Empire in AD 380 under Emperor Theodosius. It's been here a long time. And while most everyone identifies as being Catholic, few people actively practice the religion. They might go to services once or twice a year, but otherwise go about their lives in a most secular fashion. But there is also a deep and sincere love of the rituals and symbols. And I sense people take comfort and security from the knowledge the religion is all around them and has been forever. Images of Jesus and his friends and family are quite literally everywhere.
I made a lot of photographs on our recent trip to Italy. Some were bad and immediately tossed, others were nice and coherent and offer a good record of our visit, and some are quite good. I made photographs on my iphone, which were pretty immediately uploaded to instragram and facebook. I made many more images with my camera that I am just now uploading and editing and preparing to publish on my blog since I know many of my blog readers don't subscribe to instagram and facebook.
I'm not going to post these in any particular order, no running, chronological commentary of our four weeks in Italy. These will just be pictures I like, pictures that ask questions, pictures that maybe communicate some of the utter enthusiasm I was feeling while photographing in a new and visually-stimulating place. I haven't been this excited about making photographs in some time.
Some of the pictures will have writing with them,
Here's one of the last I made.
It's our last day, the last few hours really.
Soon, we'll be on one of those planes,
heading west, back to reality, in a sense.
We booked a room in a fancy hotel in a fishing village
near the airport.
The village itself is small, well-placed
at the conjunction of the Tiber River and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
A balcony overlooked the harbor and jetty with boats readied for their morning run.
I vowed to see them off.
Our last night. We stayed up late.
Our last taste of wine on Italian soil,
the last pasta with fish.
Walking along the jetty.
Taking full advantage of our well-appointed room.
Free wifi, hot shower with great pressure, quiet,
a big comfortable bed.
I rose at six.
The boats were long gone.
So, I walked.
Wanting the air, and the morning light,
thinking there may be a final picture to be had.
I see two men on the jetty casting lines into the sea.
They're far away and it's not a very good picture,
but I raise my camera anyway.
Inexplicably, with his back turned, one senses me.
And he's not happy I'm there, camera in hand.
He's yelling in Italian, I don't know what,
but, of course, I do.
this is the age-old issue between locals and
tourists who see them as visual objects,
memories to be captured.
he believed my presence would impede his fishing
and ruin his beautiful morning.
But I wonder,
if this is not a simple clash of civilizations.
An invasion of tourists with cameras, and luggage,
and big hotels, and money.
Wanting what the locals have had for centuries.
At least a memory of it.
I turn and walk away,
embarrassed by my insensitivity,
but also pissed at the man's hyper-sensitivity.
The walkway is littered with all manner of
cigarette butts, plastic, broken glass, clothing, garage.
It struck me as an act of defiance -
no, we will not clean up for the tourists.
I see another fisherman. He sees me.
I stop. He ignores me.
A plane flies by.
I think, that's me.
Leaving, but caught on the end of his line.
For followers of my blog, I have been absent from my site for the last 3 weeks. Leslie and I have been in Italy and I've been unable to post images on the blog. I have been posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram for those of you interested. I will resume blogging when we return home next week.
Thank you all for your kind support.
In 1978 my friend John Rountree and I made a canoe trip the length of the French Broad River. We called it The River Trip. We started just outside of Rosman and ended at Lake Douglas in east Tennessee. John had received some monies from the Tennesse Valley Authority and Mars Hill College to do a photographic survey of the French Broad and I was along for the ride. The French Broad was a mess in those days. We passed numerous industrial plants dumping raw effluents, cows wading, defecating, and dying in the river, and remote areas used as community dumpsites. In Madison County in those days many families straight-piped directly into creeks that emptied into the river.
This problem of water pollution wasn't isolated to the French Broad. Rather, it was a national issue and most everyone remembers stories of the Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio spontaneously catching fire one summer day from all of the industrial waste. So, in 1972, under Richard Nixon's administration, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, which establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Altogether, this has been a good law for the land that has benefited all of us. In Madison County, over 50,000 people raft the French Broad River annually and trout fishing is now estimated to be a $384 million dollar industry in western North Carolina. The River Arts District in Asheville is now a nationally-known destination for art lovers and beer aficionados. All made possible by the quality of our water.
So now I read that the new Administration, especially the EPA director, wants to roll back regulation and eliminate the Clean Water Act. They want to make it okay once again for industries to dump their waste into our rivers and streams - places where we take our children and families to picnic, get cool on hot summer days, and fish.
They say this is about Freedom and jobs. But for me, the reasoning behind this way of thinking is pretty evident - it's about money, more money in the hands of their benefactors, their industry cronies, and their friends. They act like they are populists, working for the good of the common man, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Every common man knows that only a fool would foul his own nest, yet that is exactly what this new administration is preaching, or selling. Our nests get fouled while their nests get feathered.
Hanging around in Sodom in the mid-1970s, one was sure to meet Morris Norton. He was in his early 80s at that point, cantankerous, not working much, but fit enough to wander around the community dispensing wisdom and opinion. I thought of him as the unofficial Mayor. He fathered many children, ten or twelve I think, mostly boys, most of whom were the nicest people you'll ever meet. Morris played at music, picking a banjo and playing harp. He could flat-foot dance pretty well for an old guy. He also made and played tune bows, an instrument I had never seen before, similar in sound to a jews harp. It's old and basic, but in the hands of a skilled player could put out a rollicking lick and keep people on the dance floor.
Two or three years after first coming to Sodom, I was in Maryland visiting family and took a day trip to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Wandering through the numerous and incredibly detailed displays I came to one on early American music. There was a section on instruments and there in front of me was a tune bow, accompanied by a tag that read: Tune bow made by Morris Norton, Sodom, North Carolina. I remember thinking, "Wow. I know this guy." But with the thought came an understanding that History isn't just the grand events, the things and people we know from books and the classroom, but also involves the lives of everyday people.
One of Morris's sons, Emmett, is a singer/songwriter who regularly plays on Friday nights at the Depot in Marshall. Not too many years ago, he approached me and handed me a tune bow. Identical to one his father might have made, he offered it as a gift to me, his signature on the inside face - a piece of local history and, for me personally, something that evoked memories of a photograph, a man and his family, and an instrumental time in my life.
In 1978, I was the recipient of a Photo Survey Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal Agency begun in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Programs. For a young photographer like myself, the small grant was an opportunity to spend time making pictures in the entire county without the pressure of selling the images. I could shoot what interested me. Many of the photographs from that year made it into Sodom Laurel Album and others will be included in my next project, Little Worlds.
In 2000, I was awarded a Independent Research Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete photographs and writing on I-26, for what became my book, The New Road. NEH, another Federal Program, was begun at the same time as NEA, and both are part of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act.
Between 1965 and 2008, NEA awarded over 180,000 grants, totaling $5 billion. These grants not only funded small projects like mine, but also larger projects in bigger places. NEH was much the same, sponsoring programs like Ken Burns' monumental endeavor, The Civil War, and The Treasures of Tutankhamen, an exhibit seen by over 1.5 million Americans. NEH also sponsors initiatives such as the Bridging Cultures Initiative, which explores ways in which the humanities promote understanding and mutual respect for people with diverse histories, cultures, and perspectives.
The new president and Congress have earmarked NEA and NEH for elimination and with them the thousands of music and dance programs, projects in underserved inner-city and rural communities, and countless performances that serve to teach us something about who we are as a people and society. Both agencies have budgets of approximately $150 million dollars, a mere pittance compared to the entire federal budget. By way of contrast, we taxpayers are presently paying about $1 million a day, $365 million a year, in rent and security so Melania Trump can stay in New York, rather than move into the White House like every other First Lady has done.
I wonder if and when we will get our priorities straight again and spend our money on projects aiding our children and communities rather than gifting it to the gilded few.
You think about someone, almost forty years ago,
and what they're like now and
you look for comparisons.
And maybe you can say.
"She hasn't changed a bit," or,
"She's always had that smile and laugh."
But, I don't know if that's true, the comparisons.
It's far easier to recall the memory of a day
with a happy child in it.
Yesterday, February 20, was Ecko's twenty-sixth birthday. When we first met Ecko five years ago she was traveling the country with her pet white rat, Figs. Needless to say, Leslie and I were both intrigued and since that time she has become part of our family. Figs has moved onto a new location and Ecko is now a permanent part of our community. She has a two-year old daughter and provides us with valuable time with Leslie's mother. You'll see her sometime.
Wish her a Happy Birthday.
Photographing the Cahaba River Society for the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. The Society is a 30-year old non-profit with a mission to preserve the last free-flowing river in Alabama.
It was 1984. Someone, I don't remember who, suggested I go over to this farm in Spillcorn to photograph some Mexican farmworkers picking tomatoes. That there were even Latinos in the county was news to me so I went. Spillcorn, back then, was about as remote as you could get in Madison County and the creek I followed was stereotypically Appalachian, littered with junked cars, appliances and all manner of plastic. I turned off the main road and forded the creek into a little holler, which opened to a beautiful, contained cove. At the lower end was a field of ripening tomatoes.
At the edge of the field was a lone woman, squatting over an open fire warming beans, meat and corn tortillas for the workers. There was a tape player blasting mariachi music to the hills. The men, six or eight of them, were picking the tomatoes into five gallon mud buckets, which they then transferred to shipping crates.
I had picked tomatoes for my neighbor McKinley for a couple of summers and I knew what the men were dealing with. Hot, the tomatoes wet with dew and coated with chemical residue. You stayed stooped over, each bucker heavier than the last. It was work I was glad to no longer be doing.
Since that time I've had the good fortune to meet many Latino workers across our state who do jobs that are scorned by Americans - hanging sheetrock, building fence, cutting and hanging tobacco, picking the food we eat. My experience with these people as workers, neighbors, and photography subjects has been only positive.
The fear and hysteria surrounding this group of kind, hard-working, family-oriented people are totally misplaced. They are not our enemies. They are not here to harm us. Rather, if we are looking to place blame, or find a cause for our fear, we should look to the politicians and their supporters who seek to turn us against one another.
We often hear we are a nation of immigrants and with the exception of our Native American citizens, it's true. My family migrated from Italy and Germany, my wife's from the British Isles. All were seeking freedom from oppression or poverty in a place that promised a new life. And they found it here. We should let others find it, too.
For much of the last two weeks, I’ve heard the phrase, It’s Not Who We Are,” used in response to the Executive Orders signed by the new president: The banning of Muslims, The border wall, Eliminating health care benefits for veterans and others, The gagging of government agencies, The refusal to separate from his businesses, The Nepotism, The ignoring of Federal Courts. The phrase rings true for me and for most people I choose to be around. These hideous actions are not who we are. I’m proud of that.
However, those of us who are not supportive of these edicts, and many more yet to come, do ourselves no favors when we ignore the reality that, This Is Exactly Who We Are. Not me, or us, per se, but millions of people around us, citizens of this country like you and me, are in complete agreement with these new principles and policies. And they are now in a position to bring many of these ideas to fruition. Many people simply wanted a change from the way things were and I can understand that. But for a significant number of the new President's advisors and supporters, the nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and bullying are exactly who they are and what they want. Those people scare me and I fear will take us to places none of us want to be.
Anyone paying attention understands our country has always been divided, which at various times in our history has erupted into civil disobedience, bitter dissension, and violence. Mostly, the antipathy has been kept under wraps. But, encouraged and emboldened by our present administration, the divisiveness is growing more intense and deep. The distrust, ridicule, anger and outright hate on both sides of any issue are far more extreme and unyielding than in the sixties and seventies. People are lining up in a way we've not witnessed since the 1860s. I fear for our present and future, things will get much worse .
The day was overcast, not cold.
The crowd electric and engaged.
Showing up in numbers unexpected.
The kindness of people on full display.
And also their fear, anger, and disgust at
what our country was becoming.
For me, a product of the sixties,
it was reminiscent of rallies past.
Efforts to end a war,
marches for Civil Rights,
rallies to move our society forward.
Most heartening for me, and
I suspect others my age,
was the overwhelming number of young people.
It gave me hope.
A couple of times this week, I've revisited Deja Vu,
the Cosby, Stills, Nash and Young album from 1970, and the song,
Teach Your Children.
Now, forty-seven years later,
the song, especially the last verse,
rings true and prophetic.
Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.