Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dear girls...

This is a picture of my father in his room at a local nursing home.

I imagine that sentence, illustrating that picture, brings a wave of reaction. Some of you, I hope, are going to give me the benefit of the doubt here, and wait until you read the rest of this. As for those who've already made up their minds, well I dunno.' You can only think what you think.

He's 89, a retired college professor and president. He spent 30 years working for higher education groups in Washington, DC, before moving with us to Lexington to enjoy a quiet retirement.

Unfortunately for him, the move also came shortly after my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He spent 16 years caring for her in ever greater ways, until finally moving her into a local nursing home for 24-hour care. Then he visited every day, sitting with her for hours. It was only at the very end -- she died in 2007 -- that he began to reduce the time he spent there, as she had essentially ceased to react at all.

Now, nearly 90, he's begun to show signs of dementia. Still functional and alert, he nonetheless lacks short-term memory. I explain to people that he seems on a 30-minute reset.

He focuses his attention, his hopes, his anxieties, his desire for attention, his dependency on me, an only child. Time passes quickly for him, or not at all. For me, it is on an infinite loop.

It's a truism that as one ages, gains responsibility, becomes a parent, one learns how ignorant we all are in childhood, in youth. I never really understood how much stress my father drove himself under until now. It's not that as I deal with the stresses of earning a living, of parenthood, of caring for elderly parents, I sympathize or understand. He seems to carry more.

"Mae," he said to me recently, referring to my mother, "always called me a worrywart." When he lived with us, as his symptoms increased, he would continuously wander about the house, fretting and moving things in an effort to "help" or "tidy up." Sometimes it made sense, as when he would move the children's toys from the living room to their playroom. Sometimes not. Interesting things would sometimes end up in the refrigerator or freezer.

He complained of being "lonely" and feeling trapped. He would appear, like the ghost of unconfessed sin, hovering about in some sort of expectation at regular intervals. When he stood one night after dinner and turned to Jennifer to announce, "My legs won't work," it was almost a relief to check him into the hospital for observation.

Now, in a local nursing home, I visit daily. At first, he complained of elaborate conspiracies in "the administration," forcing him to be careful what he said. Questioning revealed Byzantine details of competing forces between groups in favor of rigid rules and others wanting a more open approach to education.

Yep, education. It took a good hour of listening, in between demands that I bring him home immediately and accusations that I didn't care, before that came up. Turned out, in his mind, he was forced to chair any number of committees, committees he didn't really want to work on because they were dealing with such delicate, stressful issues. Anything he might say would alienate or infuriate some faction. He had driven himself so long, so hard, constantly under such stress, that he now can't function without it. Now in a place where nothing, literally nothing is required of him, he has to create stress.

With this comes a form of blackmail. At irregular but frequent intervals, he puts on his most reasonable face and asks in his most appealing tones if, perhaps if it's possible and it wouldn't be too much of a disturbance, he might join our family and maybe, but only if it wouldn't be too much of a problem, live with us. Often this escalates to a moment much like that in the picture, teary and childlike, convinced that he is "unwanted."

This picture is agonizing to me. Oddly, this is one of the reasons I really like it. It generates a visceral reaction in me; it summarizes the personal pain, the intense desire to do something, while simultaneously understanding that there is little I can do. To bring him home means to take on a full-time job of caregiving, one I do not have the time to do with a full-time job to earn an income (insufficient as it is) and to care for two children. I just do not have the time to entertain that hovering figure of unconfessed sin, let alone deal with physical emergencies on the scale of that night we went to the hospital.

But it makes me think. It makes me think I should write a letter, a real letter like we used to write. I'll use one of my old manual typewriters, address it to my daughters, and begin it: "Dear girls."

In it, I hope to explain that I understand what it's like to care for an old parent, to feel the pull of obligation to do whatever it takes at whatever cost, no matter how hard the contervailing pull of job and family and of all the other demands of daily life. I know about the juggle, and I hope that I am a help rather than a hindrance, as I know my father once hoped to be a help rather than a problem. I think he still hopes that, as he says it, in his way.

But here's the point: I absolve you. I don't want you, no matter how pathetic, manipulative and demanding my words at the time are (and I know they will be; at 5 I was a narcissistic, self indulgent little brat, and I'm positive that's who I'll become again) you should feel free to ignore me, lie to me and otherwise shove me to the back burner. You have your life to live. I had mine. I won't drag you down.

Afterword: It's taken a remarkable amount of time to write this. Despite the date it's marked with, I've only finished on October 11. Much of it is from the time consumed as I describe it here, but much also from the need to compose well, to think about just what I wanted to say and how exactly to say it. In a way, I want to be understood. However, I also can't explain why I want to write this in the first place. Why do I care if others know this?

Here's a theory: it's because I do really like that picture.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Of all kinds of birds, of all kinds of beasts, and of all kinds of creeping things, two of each shall come into the ark with you, to stay alive. Moreover, you are to provide yourself with all the food that is to be eaten, and store it away, that it may serve for you and for them." This Noah did; he carried out all the commands that God gave him.

-- Genesis 6:20-22

Later, we learn that Noah was afloat 150 days or so. One hundred and fifty days worth of supplies for eight people (Noah, his wife, and three sons and their wives) and all the animals of the earth. Now the ark was a damn big boat, but can you imagine what it was like on Day One, with all that stuff stacked up everywhere? I'm beginning to sympathize.

We moved recently, and it was as usual a panic. No move in my adult life has been organized or calm. They're always planned to be, but in the end there's inevitably a house full of stuff still, and I find myself tossing things into any box available in the middle of the night before the morning I have to be out. Then there comes the phase we're in now: living in a warehouse.

All those boxes, all that stuff, has to go somewhere, and as we have been downsizing with each move lately, there's more stuff than house right now. Hallways, porches and living areas are stacked high with boxes. Business files share corners with delicate china, boxes full of random kids' drawings sit atop ... well, I'm not really sure what's in that one, but it seems to be very carefully wrapped in newspapers.

The other day, as I slid sideways between to towering walls of boxes in the central hall, it occurred to me that this was like being on a boat at the start of a long journey. Nuclear submarines, for example, gain headroom in their gangways as their months-long deployments go on, as supplies are stored under the removable deckplates. As the food gets eaten, the deck lowers.

But this seemed more than that to me. (And, yes, I am putting the best mental spin on this I can -- I have to stave off the depressing knowledge of how this came to be and what I have to do yet somehow.) It seemed to me to be the chaos of the ark, when the supplies to feed every creature on the earth for an unknown period had to be stowed on a primitive -- big, but primitive -- ship.

Seriously, picture the situation. Bad enough to have every sort of creature pooping and just generally stinking the joint up (I try to imagine the smell of a barn or a zoo, enclosed), but also all the supplies, stacked everywhere. It helps me pretend things aren't so bad...

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Short One ...

So I'm out the other day with Bob Grebe shooting a short feature on the nearly 100-degree weather. We go to the Mill Mountain star, which has an overlook providing a perfect view of the haze hanging over Roanoke below.

On the deck, among other signs, there's a small one giving the address for a webcam attached to the star, which provides a view of the deck. Bob calls his Mom in Pennsylvania, who goes to the site. As I'm shooting the view, I hear this in the background:

"No, it's just me and my photographer ... Yes, he's wearing a jacket ... No, I don't know why."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Way I Live Now ...

So I'm in Cy Twombly's studio, but I'm forbidden to make any pictures. I think my head might explode.

Twombly, if you don't know, is one of the great artists of the 20th Century, friend and equal of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He died July 5 in Rome, his home as far as many knew, but I knew differently. Twombly spent about half the year here in Lexington, Virginia, his home town.

I knew he had friends here, a house and a studio. He did many paintings here, and sculptures. He was a regular in local restaurants, and visited openings at local galleries, including one for a show by my wife. He signed the book, and returned later to tell the gallery owner of his particular affection for one of her photographs. (It now hangs at the local hospital, having been bought by the art committee there...)

When I heard of his death, I knew that this was the opportunity to do something right, and I put out a Facebook appeal and started making calls. Eventually, they led me to Butch, Cy's assistant here in Lexington. He painted backgrounds, and did financial stuff, and drove him around (most think Cy never learned to drive), an generally maintained him when in Lexington.

Butch describes himself as a typical Rockbridge redneck, and I think he's not far off. I take real joy in the simple honesty that describes, and Butch is a good symbol for it, even at 62.

He took my call, as he took the call from the local newspaper, and he agreed to meet in the studio itself for an interview. But he said the lawyers had forbidden any pictures of the studio itself. We shot in front of a blank wall, spattered with paint obviously run over the edge of canvas. Naming a local journalist for the weekly paper, he laughingly noted how they would kill to be where we were. "That's not gonna' happen," he said.

It had been a dentist's office in the old days, basically two rooms -- one in front and one in back. In the front, behind tightly shut venetian blinds, roughly eight sculptures stood, painted white like all the others. A large piece laid on a table, painted gold, resembling a tribal mask about --what -- two-and-a-half-feet tall? On one wall, four elevations of a museum in Texas that features Twombly's art.

It was almost more than I could grasp.

Tables filled the remaining crowded space in the front room. Jars of paint of various colors covered the tabletops, about three deep. A palate with paint smeared on it. In the smaller back room, an Indian (?) wardrobe, still in its dark, natural wood color. And the wall where I interviewed Butch, clearly the place where ... well, let's just lay it out there. It was where the Great Man made his Art.

White, it was splattered with paint of various colors. Sharp edges marked where the canvas had been. This was where he painted the giant canvases.

Butch was generous with his time, as everyone who knew Cy had been. And it made for a nice little piece.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

"I do exist"

So this will show me for not writing things down right away, not to mention not posting on the blog more often...

I wake up last night from a dream, a dream I cannot remember now. It was in the early morning hours, the room was dark, but I didn't open my eyes. I hoped that, if I could stay in that soft, comfortable sleepy place, I might drift off again right away. But nonetheless I was very much awake.

I lay with my head at the foot of the bed, because Janey, 5, lay between my wife and me. Down in the empty space beyond her feet, there was more room.

I wish now I could remember the dream. I know it was something extraordinary, in the literal sense, something supernatural if you will. It was one of those dreams where you feel the world beyond the world of cold, waking reality.

Often there's some stress (at least for me) to those dreams, a tension that forces me to seek solutions outside the normal, like in a ghost story. I think there was stress last night, but there was also resolution, a divine rescue, but as I say, I don't remember the dream now in any way but the faintest of emotional echoes.

But I do remember this:

As I woke, I heard Janey's voice. She spoke normally, and I must note that this isn't unusual. A week or so ago, I woke to the charming sound of her giggling with delight in her sleep. Arbitrary words are often spoken. But this morning, I heard her voice in the darkness clearly say, "I do exist."

I knew, as I lay there, conscious but still sleepy and hoping for sleep, that the two were connected, even as I also knew that from outside the words could be as random as the giggle, the product of her dream about, what, some game with her sister? (And a word like "exist" is in her vocabulary, especially as it turns up in video games.)

For me, it was a clear signal, a message that in this time of stress far beyond some spooky adventure in a dream, there is more ...

"Be still and know that I am ..."
-- Psalm 46:10

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Let Us Dance ...

Rehearsal at the Lexington School of Dance in anticipation of the recital in April. I really like this -- shot with the Zeiss 21 on my Leica M4-2, using Kodak BW400CN film -- mostly because I think it has a Robert Frank aspect to it.

I loaded the Leica with some old 800 speed color film for the performance. I was backstage because the show included and Father-Daughter dance, an anecdote-filled experience that perhaps I shall tell later. Here, however, we see a tap number some time before mine, viewed from the wings.

Caty's tap number viewed from backstage. She had to rush off from this for a costume change for our Father-Daughter number later. Caty is to the right, in the rear row, or perhaps best described as second from the left.

And, finally, Caty and, in the shadows to the left, Janey reaching out to her sister. Another dancer has caught me making pictures...

Two performances were scheduled, but on the second night the weather closed in with heavy rain and wind triggering tornado warnings and flooding. The lower level of the theater was flooded, eventually flooding the electrical room and forcing a postponement. I proceeded to claim God had decided one performance by the Daddies was enough, but we have been rescheduled for May.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

There Was A Mighty Wind ...

Meteorologist Jay Webb in the weather center at the station. This is one of the very few times I wish I had shot in color; around him are radar displays in bright reds, yellows and greens, indicating dangerous thunderstorms in the area.

Earlier, a line of storms had generated tornadoes to the south, in Pulaski County. The morning after, reporter Chris Hurst and I were dispatched there for a live report from the scene for the morning show.

The aftermath of the storms left the entire valley shrouded in thick fog. We drove for an hour in a blanket of dawn-lit white. The center of Pulaski proper seemed fine. But for the heavy police presence, one might have thought the town escaped unharmed. We set up by a state police roadblock.

After the morning show, we set out to find the scene of the damage. Local police with the aid of state police had thrown up roadblocks to seal the area off, but we knew more or less where the tornado had struck, and found a road that was open. The scene was devastating.

The white stuff (pink and yellow actually) is household insulation, shredded and blown across the neighborhood when roofs and walls were peeled away from houses.

A teddy bear -- just one of an uncounted amounts of personal possessions scattered about. In the news business, there is a certain standardization to this sort of thing, a regularity to the randomness of disaster. You can count on the unbroken window in the only remaining wall of a destroyed building, or the yard chair tidily deposited in the tree branches. But perhaps the cruelest thing of all is the casual smearing about of the flotsam of life, all that stuff either tidily packed away or perhaps thoughtlessly tossed in a drawer. Now it's everywhere, covered in mud, pitted and bent and soaked with rain: a picture of Mom here, a towel there. And there's always a teddy bear.

Unfortunately, even in color, the brown bear didn't really pop against the muddied background, making it hard to figure out what it was in a short look, so the shot didn't make it to TV. I'm not sure that it's that good a still, either, but I cling to it for some reason...

After filming in Pulaski proper, we headed out to Draper, a small town out in the county. Chris had been out there the night before, when the storms were still raging (he was operating on about two hours sleep as we worked). "I want to show you something," he said insistently as we drove out of town. We went to the Draper exit from the interstate, where a hollow (pronounced, as a general rule, "holler," around here) had been hit by the storm. Trees all down the hillside had been sheared and pushed over.

But now it was a tourist attraction, with a constant series of cars pulling up to stare, people parking to climb out, gawk at the scene, and take pictures with their cell phones. Across the highway, a gas station had been utterly destroyed, but it didn't draw the attention of the cutoff trees in the tiny valley.

We parked the car at a sheriff's roadblock and walked in to the scene of a trailer home that had been lifted from its foundations, reduced to its component parts, and then deposited some 20 feet away.

It's hard to wrap your head around a loss at this scale. Fortunately, the owner was out at dinner when the tornado struck, and was left unscratched. But everything he owned, all of his physical life, had been crushed, scattered and soaked.

I often try to put myself in the place of story subjects. I think we all do: How would I have escaped the killer? Where would I have taken shelter from the flood? How could I cope with the loss of ... everything? I don't know. Oddly, it reminds me of the challenge of cleaning an out of control, cluttered room. I often find myself paralyzed by the enormity of the task; where to begin? Where does this guy begin?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Once Upon a Time...

Ronald Reagan waves to the press as he leaves Marines One on the South Lawn of the White House in 1984. Reagan here is returning from a trip, surrounded by aides (Press Secretary Larry Speakes is at far right, Michael Deaver walks toward the President, third from right) and Secret Service agents. A return from Camp David was a much simpler thing, with fewer people, no briefcases and suits worn rarely.

Scenes From the White House

Some time ago, when I was still on afternoon shift, I was handling the arrival of the President from Camp David, as I did each Sunday. It was a particularly quiet week, and nothing was pending in the news, so few reporters showed up to watch the regularly repeated scene.

On schedule, Marines One, the President's great green and white helicopter, swept around the Washington Monument and down to the White House grounds. As usual, the President stepped down and walked towards the Diplomatic Entrance of the mansion. However, unusually, the press had nothing to ask. The smaller than average crowd of journalists milled about, uncomfortable with having nothing to worry about, yet enjoying the fall sun.

Nonetheless, the President assumed questions were being shouted, questions he couldn't hear over the whine of the helicopter's motors. So, as he always did, he gestured with his hand to his ear, then shrugged. All in response to no questions whatsoever. It seemed almost Pavlovian.

BKY - 7/25/85

As indicated by the date above, this was written some 25 years ago, when I worked in the White House Press Office as a low lever staffer. I took to writing accounts like this as well as practice news stories to ensure my writing skills remained, as well as to document my experiences before I forgot the details.

I'm glad I did in this case, as I have told this anecdote often since, but over the years the details changed in my memory. I recalled the day being cold and dreary, the press pen filled with sullen photographers and only one reporter, dripping with drizzle, only there because they had to be. Turns out to have been a very pleasant day.

I think my writing form has changed little over time, and I'm not sure if I find that reassuring or disturbing. However, I think it lacks some descriptive flair, and in some places is too florid.

The picture was shot with a model III Leica and 90 mm lens on Tri-X. It was the first Leica I ever owned -- bought from it's first owner, an NIH chemist who bought it in Germany after World War II; I still have it.

(CORRECTION: In the caption on the top, I say Reagan is waving to the press. As I look at the image in large display, I can see his eyes are actually turned up to the Truman Balcony of the White House. Whenever he returned from traveling alone, Nancy would come out on the balcony to greet him upon landing. He is obviously waving to her.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do I Care?

It's contest season. Now's that time of the year when, if you're lucky, your employer is pushing you to review your year's work -- because your employer is so pleased with your product, of course -- and enter as many contests as you can ... not because they want the publicity and implied compliment to their product, oh no. It's because they think you deserve a hearty pat on the back. If you're not so lucky, you're ponying up the entry fees yourself, in hopes of creating some buzz and a hot reputation so you'll get a (or some, if you're a freelancer) better job(s).

Most of us fall in between. At my job, they've been reviewing stories and newscasts for the past month or so to enter in various contests, and they suggested that we, as individuals, could also enter whatever we thought also needed to be entered, mostly in individual awards -- like best photographer.

I used to enter in the White House News Photographers Association contest when we were in DC, and even volunteered for the stills contest committee regularly in hopes of better understanding the judging process, so that I might better my chances. (Sad result: it remained incomprehensible; there was no consistent system.)

Eventually, I became jaded, and stopped entering in contests altogether. I said it was more about being trendy and hitting the random style of the year -- especially if the pictures were about some fashionable subject, like gay, ethnic mental patients suffering from AIDS as a result of genocide -- and the whole thing was getting too expensive, and frankly it was a lot of work preparing those entries according to whatever exacting standards were demanded. That's what I said...

But, as I said, the station is pretty supportive. So this year I have to decide: Do I care?

Meanwhile (jeez, these blog entry thingies seem to take longer and be harder than I expected), I was listening to the radio the other day. NPR, of course -- it's the only place I can get news with any frequency. And they, also of course, were in the middle of the "beg-a-thon." One voice explained that she had come in early that morning to work on her daily blog ... and at that moment I'm thinking, "DAILY blog?!" I heard nothing more of her appeal for funds. My mind was once again thrown to the difficulty of finding anything I believe is worth saying here.

I mean, this is not Twitter, where it is perfectly acceptable to simple recount the mundane activities of the day. I believe that there should be something here actually faintly interesting, even if there are only about ten of you reading it.

However, I also believe, as I have said before, that the very point of a blog (or any internet activity, even including plain old websites) is to be fast paced, changing often. You can take years to produce a book, which remains there, unchanged for all time, and a newspaper takes a day, and retains its value about as long, but the internet is ever changing, updating by the second. A daily blog would be about right ... if I did something worth writing about every day.

But instead, I've been plugging away at this for days. I had the initial idea ... but then didn't know where to go with it. I heard the "Daily Blog" comment, and thought that could be folded in. Time passed, and the Oscar telecast came and went, and that seemed relevant. After all, it's a contest of sorts, isn't it?

And so, I must confess, I do watch that show with mixed emotions. After all, it's basically a joke now that everyone knows (or think they know) what kind of speech to give after winning the Oscar. (And, incidentally, isn't it funny that -- no matter what the profession and its award, like a Grammy or Emmy or Clio or whatever -- we always go right to the Oscar as the apex of awards. Why not the Nobel? Anyway...)

So I naturally imagine my speech, and frankly it's a bit more poignant, because I'm actually in the business. I mean, in a long (very long) shot sort of way, I theoretically could, one day, make a documentary so good that it must be shown in theaters so that it is eligible for an Oscar. So, yeah, I'll admit it: I've thought about it. I've given the speech in my head.

And that's the thing. Really, I've about as much chance of finding myself at the Oscars as winning the lottery. (Yep, still buy the occasional ticket. Depending on the game, by the way, that's a chance of about one in 20 million or so. Perhaps God will provide, but I'm not holding my breath.) But I still think it's out there. Is that why I do my stuff? No. Much of what I do would never even rate consideration. I'd have a better chance if my subjects were gay African crack babies driven from their inadequate asylums by genocidal Republicans. Naw, I do stuff like VMI cadets walking to New Market. But I still ... dream?

So, do I care about prizes? Well, I guess on one level: Hell, yes. It's nice for an entire industry to stop for a moment and say, "You're really cool." I want to be the greatest guy in the room. Really, who doesn't?

Then, on the other hand, No. I didn't care about he cool kids table in school. (Actually, that's a false analogy, as I went to an all-boys Jesuit high school, so the whole cool kids thing was ... different there. But the point is valid.) A lot of these contests and stuff (like Oscar and Grammy) are about trends and fashion and who'd the trendiest one this year, not who's doing the most interesting work or what's really, really important. Check out, sometime, the number of people who didn't win Oscars, like Alfred Hitchcock.

So after all that buildup, I have to hope you're asking: did I enter. Well, yeah. Two entries in the AP Broadcast contest, for feature photography. I would have entered in NPPA's contest and WHNPA's, but my dues are not paid up. Maybe next year.

Do I think I'll win? Have I won the lottery yet?

So ... do I care? Well, welcome to my world....


I learned yesterday (March 18) that one of the stories I entered -- the Ferrari one -- has won either a first or second in the AP contest. So I guess I do care.

Also saw the judging results from NPPA, dominated by repeat winner Darren Durlach. His stuff is excellent ... I doubt I would have had a chance. More inspiration to work harder, do better; maybe there's a good reason for bothering with these contests...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Meanwhile, in -- well, in Virginia at least...

More pictures ... because I can ...

Volunteer firemen from Buena Vista, Virginia, in the final stages of a house fire. I happened to have the camera from the station with me that night in anticipation of Lee-Jackson Day ceremonies the following morning (more on that, more or less, in a bit).

The firemen had gotten the thing under control -- it started as a chimney fire, they said later, and spread quickly. When the firemen arrived, there were flames shooting out the windows. It was a surprisingly large house, up a private road named Hound Haven Lane. I could actually hear bloodhounds braying in complaint as I approached. The eight people who lived there moved in with relatives; the house was completely destroyed.

The owner was none to happy to see me when I arrived, and it is to the credit of the fire policeman -- and older fellow named William (I fear I've forgotten his last name) -- that he moved me on past the dismayed fellow, pointing out that my TV coverage was probably to his advantage. "I told him you're his best friend right now," William explained when he rejoined me.

This is an awards ceremony -- officially a "Freedom Salute" -- for the 1-116th Infantry Battalion, a unit from the Virginia National Guard that recently returned from a tour in Iraq. They all received a service award from the governor and an Army Commendation Medal, as well as a campaign medal and, in some cases, an Infantry Combat Badge.

Each name was read after the various speeches and appearances by important people -- plaques were presented, wives were thanked -- and then after each name, the number of tours of duty, and the awards being presented. It was humbling as, following name after name, "Three tours," "Two tours"...

As with all wars, the soldiers were young men, and the room was full of young wives and small children. It allowed the comfortable like me to remember their sacrifice can be more than just wounds and death...

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonell is interviewed by local TV after making an appearance for Republican candidate Greg Habeeb. It's the same day, actually -- convenient to schedule the rally because the governor was in town for the Freedom Salute.

Yes, that is the camera I'm supposedly running at the moment on the right. However, as you can see, there's not a lot of movement in this situation (and I actually had a reporter to ask the questions), so I felt safe taking this one picture.

That's Habeeb, on the right, talking with his campaign manager before coming down the hall for his own interview. This is the back hall of the small office building in Salem, where the rally had just been held. Habeeb won handily on election night, taking the seat formerly occupied by Morgan Griffith, who was elected to the US House in November.

This is not Lee-Jackson Day, as the participants would be quick to tell you. The Sons of Confederate Veterans had applied to fly Confederate flags on Lexington's Main Street for the Saturday parade from Stonewall Jackson Cemetery, where Jackson is buried, to Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee rests with his family in the basement crypt.

The SCV was denied permission to fly the flags on that Saturday -- part of the weekend leading up to the Monday Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. However, they were allowed to put up the flags for the week previous.

This shows a second pattern Confederate flag in front of the steeple of the Presbyterian church on Main Street, the church Jackson attended when a professor at VMI.

That Saturday -- the morning after the fire -- I covered the ceremonies, eventually putting together a "nat sound" piece. (That's for "natural sound," or a story without any narration. Usually, as it was in my case, it's because a reporter doesn't even come along.)

I don't do weddings. At least, I don't normally do weddings. Or, rather, I never did weddings in the past. This, however, is the wedding of a friend, and Jennifer and I did the photography as a gift.

The bride is seen here in that moment after getting dressed, her bridesmaids having headed out to their places, her father not yet arrived to take her downstairs. It's not even a few minutes, but it's one of those moments that seem to last, hung in time.

Maybe I will do weddings. It was pretty fun...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

About Sargent Shriver...

I guess I'm old enough now that, like every Washington journalist, I feel the need to reminisce about some important figure when he dies. It proves we're important too, you see, because we actually knew him ...

Recently, it was Sargent Shriver, once "dashing and handsome," the vigorous expediter of JFK's noble goals through the Peace Corps, now 95 and suffering from Alzheimer's. I remember him from the mid 1990s.

I had just covered a ceremony marking the anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination. Every year, a delegation of Kennedys and others would visit the grave in Arlington, spend a contemplative moment looking into the eternal flame, and then move on with their day. At a discreet and respectful distance, photographers were allowed to document the little ceremony. Needless to say, Shriver was a regular, and he was there that day.

We went through our motions -- the Kennedys at the grave, the photographers silently making our pictures -- and then all climbed into our cars and drove back into the city. Of course, packing up gear and all, I left later than the participants, so I was somewhat surprised after I crossed the bridge and started down Constitution Avenue to see ... Sargent Shriver. He was standing in the road, next to his car after a minor fender bender.

There's a moment as a journalist and especially as a photographer (because we can't recover the picture by getting on the phone and collecting descriptions after the fact) when you see something like this. I guess you could call it news, or perhaps a feature -- something that the NY Daily News might put on Page Six, showing that the famous and important are just like us. I though about pulling off, jumping out and getting a picture. But then I realized what I saw there was a befuddled old man, standing there with that hopeless look that the elderly can have, that look when the speed and complication of life has overwhelmed them. And on that day of all days...

No, I just couldn't do it. I drove on to the bureau, dropped my film and didn't mention it, even after word came down later in the day that he had indeed had a minor accident. I guess after 15 years, I can't get in trouble for that now...

Saturday, January 8, 2011


And as I sort the film, I get to this:

What am I supposed to do with these?

Friday, January 7, 2011

I Dream a Perfect World...

I had the most remarkable dream the other day. It wasn't unusual in its form -- just one of those false awakening dreams. Surely you've had one, where you dream you've awakened in your bed ... only to then really awaken, surprised to find the previous was only a dream? I've had them often enough that I frequently have a moment of questioning the reality: Is this really waking up, or just a dream? How do I know? (And, no, I've not seen "Inception" yet, though I know there's something about a top involved...)

So I woke up, and rolled to a sitting position to look out the bedroom window. It was hard to see out -- the shade was pulled over sheer curtains, though the fuzzy outlines of the buildings outside could be seen. I looked down at the dark narrow plank floor, then tried to see better out the window, to get oriented in the flat, pale dawn light. My wife still slept by me. Our parents were in the small houses nearby, where we'd moved them from our old house in Lexington. There were a few other houses visible through the shade, not as silhouette, but as obscured, fuzzy impressions. It felt real. Totally real. "Well," I said to myself, "It might not be the idealized Lexington, but at least it's Lexington."

Perhaps that needs explaining. I've come to realize that, in dreams, I have idealized or compacted versions of places -- a Lexington with fewer streets, a DC with the areas I frequented all pushed together so they abut -- basically places with all the irrelevant details edited out. Sometimes they're idealized; my dream Georgetown more resembles a set for a production of "Oliver!", with texturally aged, brick townhouses with dark wood porches made of thick, craggy beams, all pushed together over quaint alleys and the canal, than it does the actual neighborhood. Anyway, the point of my thought was that I'd decided my morning felt real enough, even when I looked past the foot of the bed to the large, glass doors opening out to a balcony, a town on the hillside below resembling something in Italy more than southwest Virginia. And that's when I really woke up...

And that all pretty much serves as preface to my organizing my film -- as in the stuff I put into my still cameras -- because I've been doing that around the edges of work and family care lately. You see, as we abandoned our old house, we let the utilities go, including electricity, which in turn allowed the refrigerator in which I kept my film defrost. What ice that had caked into it then, of course, melted, soaking all the film boxes. So now, I have to go through all the film, dispose of the boxes to wrecked by water to save (as well as get rid of what film was ruined), but first get the expiration dates off the boxes and write them with a Sharpie on those little plastic film cans.

Okay, that's a lot of background to get to a moment of revelation...

I walked into my room in the midst of the extended process the other night, I looked down on the sea of film canisters ... and felt an odd pleasure. As I later told a colleague at the station, if you had come to me in college, and said that, in 30 years or so, you will be sorting through scores of film canisters on an Afghan war rug, your Leicas nearby, I would have taken that as a promise of absolute success.

A part of a documentary including Larry Burrows, one of the greatest war photographers. Note about 1:34, the scene of him pulling film canister after film canister out of the box to carry with him into the field with his Leicas. This still gives me a unique thrill, to see an idol doing something so similar...

As with so many things, this seems like the story of the genie: I get exactly what I wished for ... but not really in the way I wished. I don't know whether to be ecstatic or depressed...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Layers Upon Layers ...

I sometimes bore my friends (and generally bore my children) by seemingly being unable to answer a simple question with a simple answer. "Well, that depends ...," is as likely to be the way I start as any. Today, there was an article in The New York Times that makes me think of that.

Headlined "Scenes Cut From Film Find New Role In Court," it seems rather straightforward at first. Lawyers for Chevron, suing over a documentary about the company's actions in Ecuador, demanded outtakes from the film. Naturally, the filmmakers said no. And frankly I think they're right.

A documentary is -- or at least should be, in my opinion -- an act of journalism. It is reporting on something factually, telling the viewer information that is truthful and accurate. That information may be 100 years old, or about some ongoing issue, but an effort should be made to tell some fact-based truth.

However, to be clearer, I'm not so sure a documentary has an obligation to be objective. A filmmaker does not, I think, have to ensure he gets every side or tell every part of a story. It's still a documentary to, for example, tell the story of an activist for or against something and be sympathetic to his point of view, and not feel any need to include the opinions of the people he's an activist against.

It's fair, I think, to have an openly declared point of view -- to say, for example, that I set out to make this film because this issue bothered me. Ideally, say with this past year's Oscar winner, "The Cove," if you have a point of view, you also have an array of facts on your side.

On the other hand, I'm reluctant to call Michael Moore (despite his Oscar in the category) a documentary filmmaker. He does make films on issues of import, and he is very clever, but he is also fast and loose with the facts. He is not, I think, engaging in journalism, or even activist or "concerned" journalism. His is a work of propaganda. Fair enough -- especially if you agree with him -- but not documentary filmmaking.

So, having dispensed with that aside (see what I mean about boring the kids?), a true documentary should be treated in most ways like reporting. That means sourcing and sources are a critical -- and often closely held -- part of the process, especially in any sort of investigative work ... like, say, exposing what the filmmakers believed was wrongdoing by Chevron in Ecuador.

But here the question gets murkier. The Times reports that the judge let Chevron have the outtakes. (Again, a mistake in my opinion, undermining the capability of future filmmakers to do long-form exposés and get access; who's going to let you to unguarded moments on a "trust me" basis when that trust can be overruled by a court?) And in the outtakes we find ... the lawyers fighting against Chevron in Ecuador engaging in all sorts of questionable practices themselves.

So how did Chevron know to ask? Apparently, they saw a version of the film shown at Sundance that included a scene revealing a technically nonpartisan expert attending a planning meeting with the anti-Chevron lawyers. In the final release of the film, that shot was gone. So what does this tell us? Well, that the lawyers were skewing the "neutral" testimony to their side, and that (most importantly) the filmmakers knew this was a bad thing.

So now the Chevron guys get to work their way through the outtakes -- 500 hours of footage -- and they're finding all sorts of questionable stuff. Says The New York Times: "The clips ... 'have sent shock waves through the nation’s legal communities,' one federal judge said in an opinion. Another court last month called them 'extraordinary evidence' that suggests that lawyers 'presented false evidence and engaged in other misconduct.'" The filmmakers' lawyers say this is all a smokescreen, and we should get back to the point of all the nasty stuff Chevron did.

And now I'm wondering:
1. Why did these guys film all this in the first place? I know it's great to have access, and planning meetings with lawyers are just the sorts of things a documentary wants -- showing something important but otherwise hidden from view. But just who's malfeasance were they trying to document? And if you're on the side of the people you're filming, is it a good idea to actively film them engaging in questionable practices?
And 2. If they did it in all innocence (not realizing until the edit, say, that having the expert in the meeting would look bad), why didn't this become part of the film?

And hence, we return to Point One: Documentary filmmaking (especially about contemporary issues) is an act of journalism. These guys ceased to be any sort of journalist when they consciously concealed these significant facts. (Not being a lawyer, I won't go into the question of what kind of lawyers are involved here.) Truth and reporting are about going where the facts take you, and the facts here took them to a someplace else -- a place they weren't planning to go, but one they found themselves in.

One might argue that the film was about what Chevron did, not the legal case and its conduct, and that's a fair point, except they were busy filming the legal case, weren't they? If they were simply going into the jungle and out to sea, showing what Chevron was doing, well that would be a safe point. But now the film is also about the legal process, isn't it?

To take it somewhere I've worked, let's say I'm doing a film on Robert E. Lee, and let's say I am working on it from the point of view that he was a tragic figure, a fine fellow dragged reluctantly into defending slavery, an institution he abhorred. And finally, let's say I get exclusive access to never-seen-before, very private letters from Lee to his wife, Mary. (All of this is plausible enough -- I had been working on a Lee film, and there are recently released Lee letters, with more to come.)

But now let's say I come across one letter in which he says he finds the services of his slaves delightful, and he wouldn't eliminate such a grand institution for all the lives in either the Federal or Confederate armies. (NOTE: This is not true; it is an example for debate purposes only.) Now, I can tell myself that this is just one letter out of hundreds, and many of those other letters speak to feelings exactly the opposite. Maybe he was just in an odd mood, or I didn't understand the context -- perhaps Mary had sent him a letter lost to the collection, in which she asked what he thought other Southerners believed. Maybe he was drunk (though a noted teetotaler). But, you see, that is all rampant speculation and wishful thinking, elaborate logical constructs to allow me to cling to my initial premise and ignore an inconvenient and uncomfortable fact. I cannot deny that the (fictional, for the sake of debate) letter exists.

So I think there are a couple of ways to go. My first inclination is to simply shift the focus of the story and make the film about making the film. We set out to do Robert E. Lee the gentleman, but found this letter -- what does it mean? My second thought is to make the film planned, but integrate the new information. At no time do I seriously think: Let's just ignore this thing and do what we'd always planned because that theme is a Greater Truth that overwhelms this difficult, little detail.

So what's my point? Well, I guess I have two. One is that a documentary's outtakes are sacrosanct, part of the process, as much as a reporter's notes and a lawyers memos, and should be so protected. And the second is that, whatever "Crude" is, it has wandered into a gray morass in which telling the whole truth seems less important than making its point ... a very dangerous place.