Sunday, March 31, 2019

Aging Ungraciously

The sprightly lad in the bathroom mirror each morning is very different than the hunched gnome I see in photographs of myself in social settings. Especially in profile. In my mirror version I behold a man fifteen years my junior and the mortifying, digital me is a man in late stage elderliness. And that’s just appearances. Which are, after all, paramount.

Often I see an article online that asks the burning question, “What is your real age? Then you’re led to a questionnaire that asks stuff like, “How tall are you?” “How much do you weigh?” How much do you exercise?” And so on. The premise is that based on certain measurables you can be older or younger than the typical, say, 77-year-old. Based on the metrics I’m maybe 62. I’m guessing. I've never completed one of the quizzes.

I’m just taking a stab at the tally the questionnaire might yield and I'm sticking with the 62. 100 push-ups, ten pull-ups, a 10K in under an hour. Gotta be better than average. Or am I simply full of myself? Well, yes, I am full of myself.

More important, I’d say, is how you feel. And, truth be told, I feel okay. “Only okay?” you ask.

Uh huh. I can do all that self-indulgent crap listed above, but I still want to take a nap. I’m all about naps if you must know. And my back aches one hundred percent of the time. Between the double curvature of the spine, the scoliosis, the osteoporosis and rest of the osises I’m a freaking mess. Oh, and the arthritis. Can’t forget the arthritis.

All of that is why I’ve gone from a 5’11-1/2” Homo Erectus at 45 to a bent 5’9-1/2” relic in late middle age.

The subject of aging and longevity comes up frequently in my circle of geriatrics. Come to think of it, I’m the guy who brings it up. Preoccupied by life and death? No, I’m obsessed by the life part. If I die, I die.

I always tell people that I’m more interested in quality than longevity. Most folks seem to understand that in principle but would opt for maximal length even if it means being severely limited. I’ll have to get back to you on that.

And back on the vanity front, how one looks carries some weight. I do not look forward to being a cute, little old man. If I have already reached that stage of decrepitude don't tell me. Please.

Then there’s acting your age. That’s a concept that's overrated if you want to know the truth. I’m prone to wearing clothes two generations younger. Skinny jeans, white linen shirts and orange or olive sneakers that first saw daylight in the early sixties. Flipflops, too. I usually wear black tees that display my bod. I have young hair. As my college pal Jim Walters used to say in those halcyon days of surf and sun, “There’s nothing sadder than a middle-aged hipster.” True enough unless you are the aforementioned hipster in which case it’s perfectly acceptable. When Peggy’s friend Sue noticed my jeans and sneakers combo for the first time she exclaimed, “You’re such a dude!” Thanks, Sue. I am.

A few weeks ago, we were having dinner with dear friends and being introduced to new ones. During the conversation, the distaff member of the new couple declared that the sight of Jeff Bezos in his form fitting black tee-shirt, “……creeps me out.” Bezos is only 55 years old for heaven’s sake. Do you know how self-conscious she made me feel when I was flexing my biceps?

And to that point, if you can do it why shouldn’t you? At some point you are old. Done deal. But is there some law that says you have to act your age till Doctor Doom confronts you? I thought not.

When I start embarrassing myself, I know you’ll tell me.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Black and White

Margaret Bourke-White

From where I sit the most memorable photographs are decidedly photojournalistic. That they are predominantly black and white is certain. When I asked in a recent blog, “Do you prefer the color of black and white version of the same image” your responses were all over the map. Most of you leaned toward black and white but preferred one or two of the photographs in color. One respondent was ambivalent. How is that possible I ask you.

Margaret Bourke-White

August Sander

My take-away is that people either prefer black and white or prefer color and that’s that. It’s about as polarized as American politics. In fact, during Friday’s Spanish group our peerless leader Linda Thompson said. “I just prefer color.” Whether that’s a function of living with an outstanding color photographer, her husband Terry Thompson, or a deeper-seated affliction I can but wonder.

Gary Winogrand

Lewis Hine

Linda asked me, “Why do you like black and white?”

“Well, I said, “Black and white strips the image down to its essentials and reveals the design of the picture. And black and white lends gravitas and importance to a photograph. It’s richer and timeless.”

Chuck Fawns across the table nodded his agreement and added, “That’s especially so if there’s an historic element to the image.”

Elliot Erwitt

Dorothea Lange

Since I was in the throes of deciding what to post this week, and also needed a subject for the next issue of Shadow and Light magazine I began examining the photographs that resonate with me. In revisiting the images I’ve revered over the decades I found that they are in the photojournalistic vein and hew to environmental portraiture and street photography. When an image makes the leap from reportage to “Art” it joins the pantheon of giants. Just how that happens is a mystery. It simply does.

W. Eugene Smith

Here are but a few. In a few hours, I identified dozens that are unforgettable. Many you will recognize though I left out the most obvious examples. And, yes students, they are all black and white.
Andre Kertesz

All are about people in places. All tell a story. All are beautifully framed. All have or will stand the test of time. There were worthy images so dark I couldn’t bear to display them. So grim they’d send you down the rabbit hole of despair and into a lifetime of therapy.

All capture human emotion. They are of people. They are of the human condition. They illuminate. They are forever.

Walker Evans

Lewis Hine aimed his lens at the depravity of child labor. Margaret Bourke White, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans and others captured the Depression era in wrenching human terms. August Sander photographed workers in Germany between the World Wars. All of them and many more who are equally worthy told us their stories.

All capture the human condition with insight and precision. They illuminate. They are forever.

And finally,

Martin Parr. And to think I said all black and white

All but Elliott Erwitt, now ninety, and Martin Parr have departed. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Comparative Religion

I post to Instagram most days though it’s been spotty the last couple of weeks. Taxes are a bitch. When I post on Instagram I share through Facebook, too. On back to back days I posted photographs of an ancient gas pump that I spotted at the Overland Sheepskin complex just north of Taos. To my surprise there was a lot of feedback in favor of the color image and being a committed back and white shooter that piqued my interest. First, I agree this time that the color image is better and that made me want to look back at my various portfolios to see how side by sides of color and black and white photographs would look. While I remain devoted monochrome, sometimes even I might prefer the color shot. The look back was not quite as easy as you might think since the vast majority of the images are black and white and often I didn’t save the color original at all. That's something I need to change.

So, for your viewing pleasure here some side-by-sides that I could find. Up top is the rusty gas pump. It’s not the exact same shot but you get the drift.

There's something for every taste: landscape, still life, portraiture and street. Give me some feedback. It's time for me to learn something.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

No Tomorrow

This darling is 24 hours old. Gotta lead with a heart tugger.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve reconnected with the Abeytas of Mogote, Colorado. I might want to collaborate with Aaron Abeyta, a college professor, author and poet, to complete and publish the long gestating book, The Last Shepherd. I’ve begun to think I’m not going to make it happen without a partner in crime, though I’m not fully committed to that direction. I would still prefer to write the book myself. Then again maybe he’s a better writer and the project would be leant luster with his name attached. To paraphrase, we might be able to get the book published at no cost to me if he's aboard. The University of Texas Press and the Trinity University Press are thought to be players right now. The University of New Mexico Press is out of the game.

This one is five minutes old. Mom is licking off the afterbirth

Anyway, one thing led to another and I found myself with Andrew Abeyta at the Abeyta Ranch Saturday to photograph another day of lambing. It had been three years. As I edit the images, I’m not convinced I added anything to the story. One can hope. 

Hay is the only option till the sheep head to the prairie for free forage
Andrew Abeyta pulling off flakes of hay. Each monster bail has 45 flakes.

I did however see and photograph elements of the process that I missed in the six years I’ve been working on the sheep story. And, more importantly, I clarified some facts like when Victor “Cuba” Hernandez really came to the United States. I’ve been off by 8 to 13 years depending on who I believed at the time. I’ve been reporting that Cuba fled Cuba in either 1967 or 1972 but Andrew set me straight. Victor sailed to Florida from Mariel sometime between April 15 and November 31 of 1980. He’s confident that’s the case because it happened when he was graduating from high school and Jimmy Carter was president. It also tracks with Victor’s story of picking oranges in central Florida before picking fruit in California and finally making his way to the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and his nearly forty years with the Abeytas.

As far as I know everybody who subscribes to this blog will remember the Mariel Boatlift in which 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida during 1980's onslaught of refugees. Although some were imprisoned when arrived, and indeed some had been prisoners in Cuba, they were granted legal status in 1984.

I'm delighted to report that Victor is still herding the Abeyta sheep despite annual threats to retire. But he turns 80 this year and Andrew is painfully aware that Victor’s run can’t continue forever. Already he’s having a hard time walking ten miles a day and has finally started riding a horse part of the time. And he may be losing a cognitive step, as well. Andrew estimates that he lost thirty sheep last season and that it may be due to Victor’s inattention. Whatever the cause it’s painful hit to the bottom line. Thirty sheep at 100 pounds per lamb times $1.50 is a big loss to a small operation. $4,500 in fact.

I asked Andrew if plan B is still to hire a foreign herder since nobody in the Valley will do the job. He said that’s the case but it’s really expensive for a small operation. By law he’d have to pay the worker $1,500 per month for the whole year while he only needs one for seven months. And he’d have to provide housing and travel expenses to and from South America.

It’s prohibitively expensive and he’d have to increase the size of the herd from about 350 to 600 just to cover the additional costs. I asked if he could increase the herd to 1,000 head and make out on the deal. I thought I saw a dawning in his eyes. But his grazing permit is for 350 sheep. He’d have to buy somebody’s permit. Oh, and now he’s being taxed $10,000 a year for well water for his sprinkler system. That’s a new cost of doing business. Ranching isn't for sissies.

I’m afraid Andrew is hoping that tomorrow never comes. He's denying the inevitable. He’ll do what he has to do when the time comes. Go big, get a herder from Peru and grow his herd or downsize and keep 200 head at the ranch. But that means buying hay. And that means there are no easy choices.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Something less than forgiveness

Friday night we ran into The Epsteins at a favorite restaurant. Actually, it would be more of a story if we didn’t run into them since nobody eats out more than Jules and Georgia. We’re a poor second. I didn’t notice them till I turned to the door to look for Peggy. She had stopped to visit their table, so I walked back to say hello. Jules apologized for not asking us to join them saying, “My dad’s been in the hospital in Albuquerque the last three days and I haven’t really seen Georgia.” I said, “No problem. I understand completely.” I said that I was sorry about his father and that I hoped he was getting better.

Later as Peggy and I were polishing off our steak frites at the bar Jules and Georgia came to say good-bye. Jules expanded on his dad’s ordeal. “His blood pressure was off the charts, but they have it stabilized now and he’s back home. The man’s 99 after all so there are going to be setbacks.” I told him how fortunate he is to have his dad in his life. And just because it’s a platitude doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it. Quite the contrary.

With advancing age, my own, comes a measure of introspection. For a guy like me whose relationships don’t extend past immediate family and friends and who barely knew his parents, never mind his grandparents, these long-lived connections are a wondrous fiction. I can’t relate. It occurs to me that I have no memory of my maternal grandparents. I left Ohio for California when I was too young to remember. And I recall seeing my father’s father and mother on just one occasion at the age of seven. Nothing before and nothing after. That’s the whole enchilada. That’s quite a void I suppose but deep and broad family ties reaching into the past are beyond me. I can appreciate them in the abstract at best. It may be that you can’t miss what you never had.

Because my estrangements from my mother and father date back sixty years and almost fifty years respectively my son will not have known his grandparents either. Just for different reasons. “Like father like son.” A somber symmetry.

In fairness, and I have never thought or said this before, my parents died without their only child being part of their lives for half a century. My mother never met her grandson. My father last saw him when he was four. They left this planet alone, one in a Masonic Home in Ohio and the other in an assisted living complex in California. I learned the former from my Aunt Ruth, my father’s sister, who died surrounded by her loving family at the age of 101. The latter came from a death notice I found on the internet many years ago.

For the first time I have grudging sympathy for Glenn and Rachel Immel. Sympathy, I have to note, doesn’t equal forgiveness but it’s something.