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Evocative photos of men who were around for the American Revolution. They make you imagine those times, before pretty much everything we now see around us even existed.

Fast-forward 200+ years. I look around and I see a nation of flinty, hard-working, well-educated, modest people. Who are proud of their nation’s gains but constantly work together to improve, resulting in a country ranked at or near the top of most quality of life surveys. Who have civilized, highly-advanced, safe, cultured cities, which people enjoy yet also crave the rustic life of their rural cottages, where they can get their hands dirty and enjoy the simple, even austere, pleasures of their ancestors. You can really sense the thread back to our early founding fathers in these people, and appreciate the fine results of those long-ago sacrifices.

Then I remember I’m in Finland.

Then again, they’ve only been independent for almost 100 years, so still time to make a mess of things. But it’s impossible not to notice how Finnish society gets so many hard things right and we seem to get even the easy stuff wrong these days. Of course I understand we are infinitely different countries, and the complexity and size of America makes everything more difficult.

On this 4th of July abroad, I think about what I love about my country and wouldn’t trade for anything. But being away also gives quite of bit of perspective. Yes, many things have improved in the big picture over our long haul, not least the situation for minorities and women compared to past generations. And I know what you’re thinking, yes, the US even with its flaws can be a pretty exciting (ahem) place compared with the sometimes bland perfection of the Nordic countries.

Yet we are up to our eyeballs in so much that shames the legacy of those who created this country. I don’t have to list our ills. Frankly we probably wouldn’t even agree about what the ills are, though that would be a helpful first step.

Instead of (or at least in addition to) an annual spectacle of mindless whoosh-bang-bang, I wish we could use the 4th of July as a annual reminder of the need for self-improvement, for reexamining priorities, shedding petty baggage, and renewing our internal sense of the social contract. Not to be a buzzkill, but it would be great if we could get in the habit of remodeling ourselves as worthy heirs to this country. I used to think of the US as innately tending toward continual, almost compulsive self-improvement.

We certainly seem to have gotten away from that in many regards, to put it kindly.

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At an intersection in DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood that I pass through practically every day, where now there’s a rather bland bank-and-plaza combo, there used to be the largest cinema in the city. The Knickerbocker was built by a theater magnate by the name of Harry Crandall (no relation as far as I know). For you Washingtonians - from this angle, looking northeast toward 18th and Columbia, notice the BB&T bank building in the background. The building a little to the left, next to the trolley, has the current Starbucks.

In January 1922, a snowstorm collapsed the entire roof of the Knickerbocker during a packed screening of the comedy “Get Rich Quick Wallingford”, killing more than 90 people and injuring more than 130 others.

Today, 91 years later almost to the day, as a light snow fell on DC, the Washington Post had a great series of images from the snowstorm and the theater tragedy:

How the Knickerbocker Storm Got Its Name

Here’s a nice shot of the Knickerbocker Theater in 1917:

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Harry Crandall went on to build the Lincoln Theater, which still stands at 12th and U Streets, and the Tivoli Theater in Columbia Heights, which after many years of decrepitude is restored and an anchor of the revitalized neighborhood. My dad said he remembered going to see movies there when he lived in Mt. Pleasant in the late 1950s.

Harry Crandall committed suicide in 1937.

One and a-two

Today I was giving my photo classes their new assignment, “Two-fer” - basically instead of looking for *a* subject, look for two subjects and try to create relationships, contrast, or juxtaposition between them. I pulled some of my own pictures to give them ideas, turns out I do the two-fer thing myself more than I realized. Some are more obvious than others, and we talked about playing with the two components either roughly in the same visual plane (side by side), or using them more as layers (front to back).

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One (non-)example was a picture from my book The Waiting Room - Photographs from Belarus. I had gotten on a trolleybus in Minsk with a friend and quickly made this shot of a girl standing at the rear:

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I felt at the time like I got the shot, and she didn’t seem to mind or maybe didn’t know I took it. But my inner photo nag wanted more, as it tends to. I remember how I thought - like I’m asking my students to think - ok, good, that’s one nice element, but how do I add another, relate her to something else, some kind of contrast… maybe to an older person on the bus for example. So I quickly moved back a bit, trying for that two-fer. Found the older guy like I wanted in the seats but, alas, my friend happened to be standing there in the middle (to my friend AK, it’s ok :))), you couldn’t have known!). It’s not a bad picture, but not the simple duality that I wanted.

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The scene changed a moment later anyway. So the two-fer didn’t quite work out, but the first one made my book in the end.

I hope this is helpful to anyone looking for ways to mix up their compositions. One subject is ok, but think about going for two!

Apocalypse. Now, Please.

I have a hunch. (“Yeah, yeah” you’re thinking. But, if I may say so, my hunches are often pretty reliable.) Just because there was no great cataclysm on 12/21/12, the Mayans may not have been wrong.

We tend to think of the dreaded word ‘apocalypse’ as an ending (end of the world, i.e. asteroid hitting earth) but it is also a beginning. Condensed from good old Wikipedia:

An apocalypse, translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. In religious contexts it is the ultimate victory of good over evil and the end of the present age, and that is the primary meaning of the term, one that dates to 1175.

I tend to be an optimist, but I was thinking recently that we certainly seem to be facing quite a number of existential threats (I don’t really need to list them). It’s easy to be discouraged by how - especially in America, the exceptional country indeed - every serious challenge is multiplied exponentially by needing to spend so much energy and time combating what can only be called irrational arguments. See birthers, creationists, climate change deniers, the NRA, House Republicans, et al.

At the same time, despite our historic level of wealth, so much of our pursuit of happiness seems not to lead to, well, happiness. If you doubt that we’re striving for the wrong things, see the film The Queen of Versailles. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, the crash-and-burn of the husband’s extreme wealth and influence or his once-beautiful wife’s compulsive shopping binges and overinflated fake boobs. They had more money than most of us can imagine. If they couldn’t buy happiness, sense, or good taste, then apparently those are not buyable things.

Take a look around the the sprawling strip-mall suburbs of America - or, for that matter, the prefab housing blocks on the outskirts of cities from Paris to Vladivostok, the violent favelas of Rio, the urban hubris of Dubai, etc - and ask yourself if we have the lost the touch for building proper human habitats. Yes, I could list plenty of positive examples as well, but the difference is that so many good cities and towns were designed in earlier generations, compared to the soul-crushing environments we seem to be churning out since roughly the mid-20th century.

Climate change is something we probably won’t get our heads around fully until it’s too late. Well, many of us do have our heads around it just fine, but effective collective action springing from unified consciousness is a long way off. For those looking to get involved, 350.org is doing great work. Climate change is like that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: the inert castle guards watch Sir Lancelot charging from the horizon, running at full speed but, strangely, never seeming to actually come any closer… until suddenly he’s right on top of them. Well, it’s like that scene except not funny.

Why mention all of this? To circle back to my hunch and the Mayans’ calendar-making, is the apocalypse here after all? Maybe, and maybe it’s about time. My (limited) understanding is that the Mayans were a pretty tuned-in lot, and thought of the future as having patterns, cycles. And that right around now we’d be at the end of a cycle. That doesn’t have to mean sudden cataclysm from above and/or below.

Put it this way: doesn’t it FEEL like we’re at the end of a cycle (see all of the above, add your own horseman)? Like what we’re doing isn’t working, the way we’re living isn’t sane and humane enough, what we actually want and need is not the same as what we’re dispiritedly but mightily striving for?

Again, I come back to the definition of 'apocalypse’, condensed further:

A disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. The ultimate victory of good over evil.

That actually sounds alright, just what we need to reignite our imaginations and our hearts. If we can achieve the twin goals of being semantically correct AND having a future worth having, I say bring on the apocalypse, now.

While we’re waiting for that, here’s another classic Monty Python scene to keep up your faith in humanity:

Happy New Year everyone!

Go Live

‘go live’ preview from Jónsi on Vimeo.

Just got finished re-watching the Go Live concert dvd by Jonsi in its entirety. What a tonic for recent events and the endless TV regurgitation. Go Live is immersive, exquisite in music, visuals, production, and spirit. So innovative and original, profound even. Kolniður in particular is astonishing, not just the song but the onstage animation that projects with it.

http://jonsi.com/releases/go-live

Suck on that, Evil. We’ve got Beauty.

Local-graphy

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(photo by Koci Hernandez)

Local-graphy? Loca-graphy?

Maybe it’s too little, too soon, to be called a trend. But we are slowly starting to see at least a few established well-traveled photographers focusing, in various ways and for various reasons, on their home turf. It could be the changing market vaporizing certain footholds photographers once relied on. Or a natural progression for world-weary shooters putting their trained observations on the familiar instead of the far-flung.

The young, very talented Jonas Bendiksen of Magnum took a job shooting for a small newspaper in the north of his native Norway. I think of Chris Anderson’s book Son (great NYT Lens blog post here, on his getting away from conflict photography).

Instagram is clearly a big factor, with its way of getting even pro shooters artfully documenting their day-to-day (hopefully not their lunch). David Alan Harvey’s domestic goings-on are included on his Instagram. Gueorgui Pinkhassov seems to be using it as a kind of luminous sketchbook wherever he happens to be. Ben Lowy has been on a tear on the homefront, most recently in some really nice BW work on his IG feed.

[Update - In a nice moment of serendipity, just as I was posting this I got an email from my Dutch friend and colleague Robert Knoth, whose new, massive, acclaimed book Poppy tracks heroin’s effects from Afghan poppy fields to European streets. He just happened to mention how lately he’s been photographing a story near where he grew up in the Netherlands.]

Of course this is not to imply that they and others aren’t doing plenty of normal assignments etc as well. Just that things sure are shifting around out there. I find it interesting and cool to see photographers trying their hand at shooting where they live, which historically has been a tough task.

I’ve been friendly with Marc Riboud over some years, who once admitted to me that he has trouble photographing in France. As Cartier-Bresson himself put it in a 1973 short film that I showed my students today:

To interest people in far away places, to shock them, to delight them is not too difficult. The most difficult thing is in your own country. When its on your own block, it’s such a routine, its quite difficult to get out. When I’m going to a butcher, well… places where I am all the time… I know too much and not enough and to be lucid about it is the most difficult.

Yet this is precisely what Koci Hernandez - an Instagram photo star if there ever was one - is doing in Oakland CA. He says he gets some of his material on the way to doing other things, running errands etc.

I’m on the bandwagon (no, not the Redskins’ one anymore). Since I started teaching photography, with less chance to travel, I’ve been developing a Washington DC series (@billcrandall on IG) in the nooks and crannies between work and family life. This will likely be my next book, so stay tuned.

The Spring Tune

Brushing off some music I’ve had in my pocket for some time, hopefully I’ll be doing some recording over the winter. This came to mind, poetic words for creativity in general from a children’s book by Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. If you don’t know The Moomins (which means most Americans), you’re missing out:

It’s the right evening for a tune, Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts sadness, and for the rest, just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.

He had kept this tune under his hat for several days but hadn’t quite dared to take it out yet. It had to grow into a kind of happy conviction. Then, he would simply have to put his lips to the mouth organ, and all the notes would jump instantly into their places.

If he released them too soon they might get stuck crossways and make only a half-good tune, or he might lose them altogether and never be in the right mood to get hold of them again. Tunes are serious things, especially if they have to be jolly and sad at the same time.

But this evening Snufkin felt rather sure of his tune. It was there, waiting, nearly full-grown – and it was going to be the best he ever made.

Then, when he arrived in Moominvalley, he’d sit on the bridge rail and play it, and Moomintroll would say at once: That’s a good one. Really a good one.

- from “The Spring Tune”, Tales From Moominvalley

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Nice review of The Waiting Room over on the phot(o)lia blog.

http://photolia.tumblr.com/post/20511639880/the-waiting-room-bill-crandall

Belarus, a post-Soviet country “squeezed between Europe and Russia”. The most common association is probably Chernobyl and current political regime referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe”. No surprise that those few photographers who get to that part of Europe focus on one of those issues. Bill Crandall did something very different. He came to Belarus to document everyday life and he spent one decade visiting the country: observing, learning, reflecting. [S]ome images are just surreal, others are very intimate, many are captivating but all of them create beautiful and intriguing narratives […].

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Excited that my book The Waiting Room - Photographs from Belarus is now available in Prague, at Knihkupectvi Ostrov (Ostrov Bookstore). It’s in Nové Město, near Národní Třída metro. So if you’re in the neighborhood…

Great place I’m told, formerly run by Victor Stoilov who publishes the Fototorst series of Czech photo books. Thanks to Karel Cudlin for hooking me up.

The price is 499 Czech Kč, about 25 dollars (same as the US price).


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