Thirty minutes into the line for Voodoo Donuts, it occurred to me that the Portland I grew up in wasn’t nearly as edgy, earthy or hipster as it is today. I texted my sister, who also grew up in the Rose City and then lived most of her adult life on the East Coast.
“Why wasn’t Portland cool when we were growing up?” I asked.
My attention wandered as I waited for her reply. A witty Millennial functioning as line motivator/donut huckster was describing how one uses the pretzel extruding from the trademark voodoo doll-shaped donuts to stab its belly until raspberry goo oozes forth, ensuring a tasty curse.
“Because we lived there,” my sister texted back. Touché. A response worthy of an ad-libbed line from the fame-inducing series Portlandia.
She’s right, of course. But when I was in high school the town was still in the awkward, pre-pubescent stage long before its voice dropped to sexy. Nobody bragged about being from Portland, except maybe Tonya Harding before she reached for her tire iron.
It still rained, but no Grimm TV series had turned the slick street gloom into glam. Athleta and Lululemon hadn’t yet invented attractive outdoor fitness fashion so our galoshes and parkas made us look like lumpy fourth-graders.
Men still wore flannel shirts and sported beefy beards. But those men were your dads. Not confident Lumbersexuals effortlessly lifting their mountain bikes onto electric street trams.
People were still glow-in-the-dark pale when I lived in Portland. But back then Goth wasn’t in and we were embarrassed by our ethereal skin tones. The joke was Portlanders didn’t tan; they rusted.
We still had coffee and beer but they came from jars of Folgers in your mom’s kitchen and from cartons at the back of gas station convenience stores.
The Portland of today is Darwinian in its greatness. People like me and my sister left and only the hippest have survived. There is evidence everywhere that Portlandia has captured the zeitgeist of a new culture.
If you eat out in Portland you will be told the birthplace of every ingredient. On my Saturday morning hike through one of Portland’s forests I passed ferns and wild orchids whose cousins I ate the night before.
When I stopped to see what the asking price was on this cute little cottage in the Northwest quadrant I realized the owner wasn’t displaying real estate brochures but poetry.
Look closely at this mom’s stroller. It’s attached to a skateboard. I looked around, expecting to see Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen.
In this hometown I barely recognize I’m not sure if life is imitating art or the other way around. If anything, Portlandia overemphasizes the “keep Portland weird” vibe and underplays the city’s friendly sophistication.
We were there, for example, for a major fine-art photography portfolio review and month-long celebration of the art form called Photo Lucida. In my day, a photo exhibit in Portland meant landscapes of neighboring Mount Hood printed on canvas. But so many in-the-know Portlanders turned out for the night the photo review was open to the public that the fire marshal had to shut down the Portland Art Museum.
I live in the South now, a region heralded for its hospitality. But it was in Portland that a parking lot attendant saw me wadding the wrapper from my messy, trendy food cart lunch into my backpack and abandoned drivers to show me the nearest garbage can. Then he ducked into his little key shed and reappeared with a roll of paper towels and hand sanitizer.
I knew I was developing a major crush on my new old hometown when I finally reached the end of the line at Voodoo Donuts. The sweet yeasty smell from my freshly baked, over-frosted voodoo doll wafted up to my cold red nose and I must have swooned. I suddenly couldn’t think of anyone to curse. I was so put-a-bird-on-it, tree hugging, never-shaving again happy that I forgot why I was holding the tiny stabbing pretzel in my fist.
Luckily my aunt Ronell, an old-fashioned kind of Oregonian who still drinks beer out of a can and thinks skateboards are for little kids, was by my side. She put down her traditional maple bar and whispered a name into my ear. It was just the spell-breaker I needed and I plunged the pretzel into the jelly-filled belly of the innocent donut. My sister was right. I’m not chill enough to be born-again Portlander yet.
I fell in love with Cuban photography the moment an elderly street photographer in Havana handed me the still-wet, paper portrait he shot and developed inside a wooden box camera painted bright blue with duct-taped bellows. There was something hopeful about the process – a primitive machine that can only produce a negative and an artist who manages to make a positive from a negative of a negative. That an image so fragile and beautiful could emerge from an outdated chunk of history seems prophetic. That I willingly forked over twenty dollars-worth of Cuban currency for my first piece of Cuban photography even more so.
My print hadn’t even dried before the photographer packed up his box and moved further down the street, closer to a crowd of approaching German tourists fresh off a cruise ship. Remember we Americans are the only ones forced to put ourselves through contortions of travel gymnastics to visit Cuba. According to the New York Times, only 90,000 Americans visited Cuba in all of 2012 and 2013 combined (compared to the 21 MILLION of us who visited Mexico last year alone or the 12 million Americans who traveled to Canada) The rest of the world has a huge head start on exposure to, and appreciation of, Cuban photography.
Which is why the photographer I had planned to visit in Havana was on his way to Germany, via Brazil, when we stopped by the Havana International Photography Gallery. Here’s the video that got my attention –
Brayan conveys the street-savvy sense of a new generation of Cuban photographers, influenced by the iconic images of their revolutionary forerunners but eager to move beyond documentation. But the Internet being what it is in Cuba means his gallery doesn’t have a working website. He has no Facebook page to follow. He has to rely on foreign galleries to get his images in front of American eyes.
A relative of Brayan’s was on duty when we arrived. The rest of the family lived in the upper levels of the gorgeous but dilapidated building. Some images are framed and hang, slightly tilted, along the cool, crumbling plaster walls.
But most are loose eight-by-tens, clumped together in bins or suspended by plastic clothes pins. The humidity inside the non air-conditioned gallery is palpable; the prints tacky to the touch. I shudder to think of the condition of the negatives, wherever they’re stored.
We buy a print for a ridiculously low price. This isn’t about sophisticated tonal qualities or limited editions likely to increase in price.
It’s about sending a signal to young Cuban photographers that yes, Americans will support their work. When we’re free to travel without the encumbrances of “people-to-people” tours or special purpose visits with over-managed itineraries we will wander through the galleries and talk to the artists. We will learn. We will listen to the stories their photographs share. We will be inspired. We will buy. And we will spread the word.
Starting here. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about Cuban photography, beginning with a piece on collecting vintage revolutionary photography before it becomes unaffordable. Stay tuned.
There’s a Southern art exhibit opening in Charleston SC next Thursday, but don’t expect the two featured artists to drop blessed hearts or gardens and guns into their art speak. In fact, don’t expect art speak at all. Both painter Tom Nakashima and photographer Gary Geboy would rather discuss just about anything than how you should interpret their work.
It’s not that they’re shy about it. Nakashima exhibits internationally and has work at the Smithsonian and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Geboy’s work has shown from London and Barcelona to the CD cover of a Czech Republic country band.
“If I could put what it means in words,” Nakashima says, “I’d try poetry instead of painting.”
Actually, poetic might be the best way to describe both artists’ work. Geboy’s wet plate collodion and platinum palladium photographs are haiku: formal in their sparseness. The complexity and nuance in each work on handmade Japanese paper is evident only up personal and close – in the textures he creates as backdrops, the elegance of the shapes and the nuance of the tones.
Nakashima is more free verse: an Allen Ginsberg howl of color, collage and rhythm. He sees what ordinary people see when we pass a pile of up-dug trees, even hops out of his car and takes photos of them. But then he paints layer upon layer of interpretation, repetition and abstraction until the image is reborn as something only he could see.
Geboy and Nakashima will meet each other for the first time on February 12th, the opening night of their joint show “Organic Legacies.” Geboy lives in Beaufort, SC and Nakashima is the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts at Augusta State University. Geboy says his work is most influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith and Matt Mahurin, where Nakashima returns to Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. They both come from practical, 2nd generation immigrant fathers who couldn’t imagine their sons becoming professional artists and both have spent more years in Washington D.C. than the Deep South they now call home.
So why the pairing at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, curated by a Southern art historian who describes her gallery as focusing on contemporary painters, sculptors & photographers from the American South? Because the South is more than Paula Deen, shrimp boat docks and carefully pruned azaleas. It’s also the burning mattress from which sprung Flannery O’Connor, the muddy Mississippi that floated up William Faulkner. In Nakashima and Geboy, she found seekers of that deeper South.
“Neither artist grew up in the South so both Nakashima and Geboy tend, by default, to strip the nostalgia and find treasured, celebratory beauty in the landscape and architecture in an objective way,” Jacob says. “They highlight and preserve the natural beauty that makes the South so unique: abandoned houses, tree piles, foliage. But they do so with intellect and exploratory richness. Artists who don’t have their intellect and artistic skill-sets could never get what they get.”
In the art-buying world that translates into a shared collector base — those who have wide knowledge of art through collecting and global travels yet have some connection to the South. And most likely a sense of humor. Both Nakashima and Geboy have poked fun at what it means to be a “Southern” artist. Geboy uses quirky, dark narratives to accompany images in his decidedly unsentimental “Carry Me Home” collection.
“Some of these things actually happened,” Geboy insists. “The stories have just been changed to protect innocent names.”
And when Nakashima set out to make his first deliberately “Southern” painting, he picked a dilapidated building he imagines the Devil would call home.
“It’s a big hit in Georgia,” Nakashima says. “Smart people like to laugh at themselves.”
In less than 24 hours I feel like a celebrity in Myanmar. I’m drenched in sweat, my hair is haphazardly clamped up off my neck and I’m sporting none-too-sexy cargo pants yet natives keep taking my picture.
I am walking around the docks of Yangon with my photographer husband who is happily capturing the magic hour of golden light when it first happens. Gary always asks permission of the people he approaches. So I’m not surprised when the young man squatting on the prow of a motorized dugout canoe nods a casual yes. Or that Gary instantly offers the camera’s viewfinder up so this man who ferries chickens, bananas and street food vendors across the river all day can see his own portrait.
In most third-world countries where we travel and shoot, the subjects of Gary’s digital street photos grin or giggle when they see themselves in a monitor, possibly for the first time. But this barefoot young man in a traditional longyi cocks his head, checks out his look and casually shrugs his shoulders. Then he whips a cell phone out of top fold of his longyi and snaps a picture of us.
I’m shocked. I thought Myanmar was right down there with North Korea in cell phone penetration. We’re talking about a country of 65 million people who up until a few years ago were suppressed by a military junta. I’m sure on a Burmese Facebook page somewhere there is a shot of two jet-lagged Americans, mouths gaped in astonishment.
The next time I get the paparazzi treatment is as I step out of a boat to check out a 170-year-old monastery on Inle Lake. Again, I’m caught completely off guard. I’m surrounded by an architectural and spiritual beauty revered for centuries and yet cell phones are emerging from longyis and snapping photos of me. I feel like a specimen, a cultural curiosity suddenly on the other side of the camera.
“Is it that I look American?” I ask Gary. We do come from a country that only recently lifted travel embargoes and we’ve yet to meet another American tourist on this trip. Maybe I should enjoy the brief period of novelty before this country begins a predictable love/hate relationship with U.S. tourism.
“And that would distinguish you from German, Swiss, Canadian and Australian women how exactly?” Gary responds.
It isn’t until two policemen guarding our newly built, Chinese hotel in Mandalay take my picture that the truth occurs to me. Spoiler alert – it isn’t about me.
This is simply a country full of people who have just entered the cell phone age. Mobile giants from Norway, Qatar and Japan pounced on government contracts in 2014, getting in on the bleeding edge of connectivity.
Here’s a picture from one of those company’s Facebook site the hot August day they started selling cell phones in Mandalay. The cops taking my picture with their phones right now were probably in that line somewhere.
The number of mobile phone users in Myanmar is expected to reach up to 80 percent of the country’s population during the fiscal year 2015-16, according to Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology. Even if that number is wishful thinking on the part of the military government, the fact that it is wishful is illuminating. The military could have followed Kim Jung-un’s lead and kept the country disconnected, in the communications dark ages. But before I get too impressed with Burmese political altruism I read this in the Financial Times.
For the new rulers of the state still known to many as Burma, a mobile-phone network is precious because it’s a rare way to make a demonstrable change to people’s lives before the polls.
I knew it wasn’t my fashion sense. And my Americanism is not so intriguing that my every step is documented by the natives. My would-be paparazzi are just Burmese people suddenly connecting to the rest of the world. Myanmar is a ten-year-old girl with her first camera phone. She is obsessed with a new toy. Watch out world. Next will surely come the avalanche of Burmese selfies and photobombing.
As a liberal, feminist, left-coast native who was probably a Latina in a former life, I know what it’s like to feel like an ex-pat in my own country. I’ve adopted South Carolina as my home, it’s where I’ve put down roots and intend to stay. It’s a hard choice to explain to friends who haven’t been here. So when I found these words on the website for the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference I just transposed the words South Carolina for Mississippi:
“When you are in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn’t seem real; and when you are in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn’t seem real.” – Dr. Robert “Bob” Moses, Program Director 1961-65 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
I’ve driven through the Mississippi Delta. I have always been fascinated by the music birthed there, but it wasn’t until a fellow transplant to South Carolina encouraged me to drive the Blues Highway that I began to understand why those songs got written.
Now that same friend, Mississippi native Jane Hearn, has taken my education one giant leap further – she’s curated a photography exhibit debuting at Tougaloo College tomorrow for the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
Curate isn’t nearly a descriptive-enough word for what she’s really done. She was married to a photographer named Jim Lucas (another reason we’re kindred spirits) and got stuck with 50,000 negatives when he died in a car accident on the set of a movie back in 1980. She’s lugged those boxes of negatives around for more than 30 years, unsure of what to do with them until news of the anniversary conference. It was a perfect time and place to honor her late-husband’s legacy – because among the 50,000 negatives were 4,000 documenting the civil rights movement from 1964-1968.
A lesser woman would have turned to bourbon facing that big of a challenge, but before Jane ended up in Beaufort with her second husband Terry she founded and directed an art colony at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. To say she’s got an eye for art and composition is an understatement and she comes from a long line of civil rights activists. She joined the Beaufort Photography Club to learn about negatives and processing and enlisted the help of a Florida-based photographer named Red Morgan to help her cull through the images.
Sometimes it’s a really good thing to live in a town so small all the artsy types know each other and become good friends. Jane’s husband Terry Stone threw a party at their house last weekend so we could all get a sneak peek at Lucas’s images before they begin a four-stop tour of the Delta.
It would be tragic if this show doesn’t make it to a museum here in South Carolina too. Lucas was witness to a movement not restricted to Mississippi, a history no Southern native or transplant can afford to forget. The photographs are truly documentary – he captured history as it was happening. Some images are still shocking, fifty years later. Newsmen waiting at the bombed out churches. The hastily-covered bodies Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner being wheeled into an autopsy. The fierce eyes of Wharlest Jackson Jr at his daddy’s funeral.
But Jane took care to include images of hope as well, so that this 50th anniversary doesn’t pass without acknowledging all that was accomplished as well as lost. Her young husband captured an even younger Marian Wright before the world knew her as the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She’s leading her forehead into her fist, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee Hearings in 1967 – weary beyond her years. She’s the one who led Robert Kennedy into the sharecropper shacks to witness abject poverty first hard. She watched as he tried, for five minutes, to tickle and engage a baby too malnourished to respond.
Which is ultimately why Jim Lucas’s photographs are so important. They force a response, even fifty years later. I’m reminded of a quote from the late Maya Angelu.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Shock. Despair. Anger. Hope. These images, and those captured by so many other newsmen and even the freedom riders themselves, still make us feel.
When you grow up in Oregon, as I did, the Civil War is just another date to memorize for history tests. I was functionally illiterate in “The War Between The States” when I moved to South Carolina in 1989 – stunned at the degree of relevance it still seemed to have in my adopted home town. This was before Ken Burn’s series on PBS and all I knew of the war I knew through photographs. The faded, sepia-toned images of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner fixed my understanding of it as a distant madness.
Civil War Era Photography is the subject of a talk tonight at the Beaufort County Library’s Special Collections room – a place near and dear to my memoirist heart. Dr. Robert Lisle will explain the tools some 300 male photographers used to create the images that captured that distant madness. It’s part of the library’s month-long commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial called “One County Reads The Civil War.” Lots of libraries use history to lure in readers – but no other library has a Grace Cordial leading the charge. I counted nearly 40 programs, lectures, readings, showings and tours listed in the library’s brochure – and that’s only the adult section of events.
I plan on going to several, starting with the photography talk tonight. Images capture history in a way that never feels archaic or wordy. The power of photographs to change public perception of war is undeniable – who can forget images like this?
But for me, the photographs of one photographer in particular, go deeper than documentation. They explain why the war mattered. In my PBS documentary “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water,” I used the archival photographs of Henry P. Moore extensively. He traveled to visit the Third New Hampshire Regiment camped in South Carolina in 1862 and 1863. But when the day’s work of documenting soldiers was done, he turned to the plantations of St. Helena, Beaufort and Edisto Island.
I’d seen the shocking photos of the backs of slaves, criss-crossed with the slashings of whips. What Moore’s photographs showed me was the Gullah strength of character, the grinding everydayness of survival, the power of faith and promises when there is nothing else. In the end, photography isn’t about tools and equipment – it is about having something to say.
Art can transport you to another place. It can pause time. But it can’t stop it. Yes, I’m on about time again, because on our New Mexican ramblings I got to see two places I assumed art had immortalized.
The first was the site of the adobe church in Hernandez where Ansel Adams famously captured a lonely moonrise. It’s my favorite of all his images because I’ve always imagined this desolate, remote place as protected, looked over each night from above. I’m not religious but this photograph explains why people have faith. It reminds me of the aloneness I felt as a kid living on the road with nomadic parents. No matter how far from home we traveled in our dilapidated camper the same moon still rose and set above me.
Ansel Adams could not make his photograph today. The dirt road where he set up his tripod to capture the moonrise is now a four-lane highway, minutes from a sprawling, dusty city called Espanola. Even under the glow of a rising moon you couldn’t see the church’s cross from the road’s high vantage point because it is obscured by ordinariness. Its foreground is subtracted, diminished by squatty buildings, power lines, unloved yards and broken down cars.
We drove down to the church anyway and I asked Gary to take this picture in the dog hours of the afternoon. He didn’t have a wide-enough lens to document the surrounding squalor so this shot makes it look better than the harsh truth. The sun felt like it was peeling back my skin, branding me with disappointment. Even the graves to the side of the adobe church seem abandoned and overrun by time.
The same disappointment washed over me when we stopped at Francisco de Assisi – in Rancho de Taos. The view of this church that Georgia O’Keefe painted was never meant to be photo realistic. She isolated the lines, blended colors and smoothed shapes into the weathered strength she saw in all of New Mexico. But it had always been real to me, my favorite of all her paintings, until I saw it in person. It’s hemmed in by Taos now, buildings so close on three sides it feels claustrophobic.
It was under renovation when we arrived — the patched up adobe still wet and the smell of straw filling the air. In a way the construction debris made me feel better – this place is still revered enough for periodic face lifts. I have no right, I realize, to demand that time stand still for my benefit alone. I don’t even worship in these structures built by those who do. And that’s the crux of it. I’m clinging to an aesthetic while those for whom Hernandez and Assasi were intended experience it as a living house.
It was less unsettling, in a sad way, to find these ruins on our way to Georgia O’Keefe’s studio and house in Abiquiu. This once beautiful adobe outpost of faith is returning to a state of rest – dust to dust, literally. There are telltale signs that it will be missed – a giant handmade cross leans into a patch of dead cactus and someone tacked a rosary to a crumbling wall.
Perhaps, when it is gone, its absence will be more present than famous churches, forced to coexist and change along with us.