Monday, August 27, 2007

No excuses

Above, Kenyan welterweight Josh Onyango, left, and trainer Mike Skowronski at Teaneck Boxing Club, Training Grounds Gym, Teaneck, N.J.

Josh Onyango left his native Kenya for the United States five years ago. He lives in New Jersey. Josh is a soft-spoken, enthusiastic young man with a terrific right hook.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Realisa tu sueno/Realize your dream

Artist James De La Vega
Shot with Nikkormat FT2 35mm SLR, 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens
East Village, Manhattan

Plain dress, artist's eye

Photographer Lorcan Otway
Shot with Nikkormat FT2 35mm SLR, 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lens
East Village, Manhattan

Neither more nor less

Photographer Bob Arihood
Shot with Nikkormat FT2 35mm SLR, Nikkor 50mm f1.4 lens
East Village, Manhattan

Friday, August 24, 2007

Recurring dream theme

Shortly before waking this morning, I dreamed I was watching the approach of a large World War II-vintage, propeller-driven plane over a clearing in a wooded area where I stood. It must have been coming from an air show, I reckoned.

The plane was a multi-engined behemoth, a B-17 bomber or something along those lines. The plane was majestic in flight, its engines roaring as it lumbered along at low altitude.

Suddenly, there was a bright flash from the right side of the cockpit, the engines sputtered and the plane descended rapidly in a gentle arc, crashing just beyond the clearing amid the trees.

Shocked by what I had just seen, I was torn between running home to get my camera and sprinting to the wreckage to help those on board.

And then I woke up.

Planes falling from the sky has been a fairly common dream theme over the past several years. This is the second dream in recent memory that has involved a vintage plane. I'm sure this reflects my interest in World War II aircraft.

But why? What could be the message?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Girding for war

Pro lightweight Nicky DeMarco of Staten Island, right, and trainer Mike Skowronski
Teaneck Boxing Club
Training Grounds gym, Teaneck, N.J.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Seventh Street walk-up
East Village

Old-school hoops

Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

Four strings of passion

Jason Stuart
Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan


Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

Keith has brain damage suffered during a severe beating that nearly cost him his life at the hands of fellow homeless people in the park. I provide details in the comments section of this post.

"And the Word was made flesh ..."

Mennonite missionary
Washington Square
Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Friday, August 17, 2007

"The sun's going down like a big bald head ..."

Sunset over Hackensack, N.J.

Giving due props

My mentor, friend and co-worker Bill has taught me more about the art of photography than just about any other person.

Through him, I've learned how essential good cropping is to crafting a good photo, and how an effective crop can reveal the picture within the picture, thus opening the door to something that wasn't perceived when the shot was taken.

Bill has also shared with me his encyclopedic knowledge of Adobe Photoshop photo editing software. Bill works digital alchemy with it. To watch him free a photo's hidden potential is to watch a master at work. And he's just as adept in a traditional darkroom.

If this man were paid according to the worth of his skills and his mastery of not only taking images but bringing out their full beauty, he would be vacationing in Hawaii a couple times a year.

He's a damn good photojournalist and technician and an equally good mentor and friend.

I can be pretty cocky and irreverent, but when Bill talks, I just shut up and absorb what he's saying.

Thanks, Bill.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

It's about respect: This ain't no sideshow, this is reality

Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

I had the pleasure of chatting with Carl today during my wanderings through the East Village.

"Hot day," I said as we finished our conversation. "I don't do too well in this heat."
"I'm of Norwegian extraction," Carl answered. "How do you think I feel?"


I love chatting with the people whose photos I take -- time, theirs and mine, permitting. And that leads to my answer to a question posed by my blog friend Jean:

I was wondering if you might say something some time about interaction with the subjects of your photographs and getting their consent or not for taking and publishing the pictures.
To me, photographing people without getting to know at least a little about them is no more than going on a human photo safari. I think one of the things that makes street photography so vibrant is the context into which the images can be put by providing even the sparsest background information to the viewer. Otherwise, the photos sometimes can easily mislead. Sure, it's not always possible to get a person's name or an insight, however limited, into their lives. But usually, when I make the effort, I benefit personally for it and so do my photos. It's very easy to misinterpret the context of a photo's setting, a person's facial expression and so on. Interaction between the photographer and the person photographed can minimize this.

OK, enough of the philosophical underpinnings.

I always ask a person for permission to take their photo. If they say no, I thank them and move on. If they express reservations, I sometimes ask if I can photograph them in a way that would preserve their anonymity. Back in December, I saw two men playing chess in Tompkins Square Park. I asked if I could take their photo. They said no, they didn't want their faces captured. I said OK, can I just photograph your hands, and they assented. I was given lemons, and in this instance I made tasty lemonade:

In June, I approached a man who had similar misgivings about having his photo taken. So I asked if I could shoot him from the shoulders down. I like what resulted:

I'm very lucky, in that I've been turned down fairly few times when I ask to take someone's photograph. For every 10 requests, I may get one rejection. There are days, however, when it seems I can't even pay people to say yes. I accept some responsibility for this, because success lies in the energy I project and the way in which the question is presented. Happily, such strikeouts are infrequent.

As you would expect, when a person feels he or she is being approached for a photo in the same way one would photograph someone in a circus sideshow, that can lead to confrontation. And that's where respect comes in. I have found that if I approach people candidly and sincerely and explain my reasons for wanting to photograph them -- because of the way their face appears in the afternoon light, for instance, or because of an interesting tattoo or the position in which they're sitting -- they often agree. But I've also learned that people have pretty accurate bullshit detectors, and if there's a whiff of insincerity or exploitation to a photo request, people see through it really quickly. Honesty truly is the best policy. I tell people straight up why I want to photograph them -- even if my reasons sometimes aren't particularly flattering to them -- and I explain about this blog and how much recording the places and people of the East Village means to me. And then I offer to e-mail them copies of the original raw images.
And usually, they're cool with it.

I take lots of photos in Tompkins Square Park. And let me make it very clear that there are some people in the park who would just as soon beat the crap out of me or any other photographer and smash our cameras as say good morning. My friend Bob Arihood has alerted me to this danger, and forewarned is forearmed. Sometimes, these confrontations are sparked by unlikely instigators. I've already had a verbal tussle with a fellow photographer who thinks he has proprietary rights to photograph the park's denizens, and who bases his feelings on his disdain for digital photography. I wish this man would let me chat with him so that he could see what I'm about.

But I also have gained the friendship and respect of some rather reclusive people by extending to them the same courtesy and dignity I would demand for myself. And this leads to photographic access that isn't granted to just anyone. And yes, I'm proud of that. Very proud.
And I hope I do justice to their confidence in me by portraying them in ways that highlight their humanity.

Jean, I hope I've answered your question without going off on too many tangents.

Street ball

10th Street
East Village, Manhattan

Reality check

Lorcan Otway, left, and Bob Arihood
East Village, Manhattan

Whenever I get to feeling overconfident about my photography, I look at Lorcan Otway's portfolio and my ego is given a quick and decisive reality check. Lorcan's compositions highlight the capabilities of the human eye to portray beauty and pathos in ways that make me jealous as hell.

Similarly, Bob Arihood has an amazing ability to tell a compelling story through photographs. Sometimes it's a story of beauty. Other times it's an account of injustice and iniquity that makes you want to holler. Always, it's compelling.

I'm very fortunate to have become friends with both artists. My own work can only improve and my own horizons only broaden as a result.

They are my older, wiser brothers in photography.

Trophy dog

Tompkins Square Park
East Village

Wild Thing

East Village

Viva Loisaida (Lower East Side)!

Block party
10th Street, East Village

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The victor writes the history; or, What is truth?

Today, on the 62nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, I got an e-mail from a friend in Japan.
It's a disarmingly sincere letter describing her feelings about the destruction of that city and of the far worse fate suffered by Hiroshima three days before.
Her views contradict what we in the United States are taught about the decision to use those weapons.
Are her opinions more or less "correct" than our own?
I think the real story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lies somewhere between her views and ours.

She also shares her views on whaling, terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Whether or not you agree with her opinions, I think her letter is a great reminder that arrogantly casting aside the opinions of others is what has gotten the world into the series of shitstorms that have rained down upon us over the course of human history.

I think the moral here is that nobody, no nation has a monopoly on the truth.
I believe the question Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus is arguably the most profound question we can ask ourselves: What is truth?

Here is her letter to me, which I have left largely unedited save for some minor corrections and clarifications in brackets:


"There are no warlike people
just warlike leaders"
Ralph Bunche

back to 62 years ago ...
8/6 8:15 a.m. at Hiroshima by Enola Gay (B-29): Uranium type [atomic bomb]
8/9 11:02 a.m. at Nagasaki by [Bock's Car] (B-29): Plutonium type [atomic bomb]

I offered silent prayers ... for each day.

Recently, I knew that Bush thought U.S. was prepared to use nuclear weapons to strike terrorists first. I felt angry to hear that. Whenever he uses words [like] "justice," "terrorist," I doubt what is justice, what is the definition of terrorist. U.S. leaders have often justified their sophisms.

Why do they try to take the mote out of [the eyes of other] countries before trying to take the beam out of their own eyes? For example, whaling. They look disapproving[ly] at ours (nowadays, whaling of ours is very limited, but still we do a little for the purpose of an investigation in the sea) and seem they think us barbarians because we can kill whales who have high I.Q.
But I want to ask them, "Haven't you caught a whale? Whale is no, but cow is O.K.?"
Our ancestors had used almost 100% of their [whales'] dead bodies because we believed that was the least thing we could do to reward their sacrifice. On the other hand, U.S. used 20% of them mainly as fuel [whale oil] and dump 80%.

I can't understand U.S. leaders' double standard at all.

"Thanks to our atomic bombs, the world could stop the WWII, moreover, Japan could save millions of lives [by avoiding a bloody invasion of their nation]. Unless there two atomic bombs [are dropped], Japan would still continue [to fight] ...
It is said that this is American generals' thought.
I disagree.

I admit Japanese [in] those days were brainwashed, but we didn't have energy and resources to fight against U.S. anymore. It was clear that Japan would sooner or later surrender to U.S. without atomic bombs. The real reason to have used them was they wanted to know the power of them.

Try to use nuclear weapons in Iraq, and U.S. will know that they are in a dark and deep labyrinth which [they will] never be able to escape, which only leads to death.

This time the enemy is crazy radical group of Islam. They are different from us "yellow monkeys" [a common racist epithet used against Japanese during World War II era] who try to live [in a ] gray zone. ...

If we Japanese still have "Samurai Spirit," we should protect Iraq's citizens against the hegemony of U.S. Unfortunately, our leaders are faithful dogs of U.S., though.

Today, I have criticized scathingly toward your country, but I write this because I still have a hope in people [who] live in U.S. I worry and wonder the poorest sacrifices are the returnees from Iraq who suffer PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] now. I pray for calmness of their mind.

If we suppose [that the] spirit is permanent and I chose to be born as a Japanese, I should speak out what I have to tell others. I think so.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Back to the source

My new friend Raul held a sidewalk sale Saturday in the East Village. Nestled among the clothing and household goods he had on a small folding table was a 35mm film camera that I zeroed in on from a distance.

Up close, I saw that it was a mid-1970s-vintage Nikkormat FT2, a quality camera made by Nikon to allow photographers on a budget to own a genuine Nikon product at an appealing price. More importantly, it gave such photographers a camera that would accept the dizzying array of Nikon's professional-quality lenses.

Raul was asking a ridiculously cheap price for it.
I thought to myself about the comprehensive 35mm film system -- two camera bodies (one of them a superb Olympus OM-3Ti), assorted lenses, the works -- I had sold last fall. I thought about the investment I made in a great digital SLR with the proceeds of that sale. I thought about how much better the computer-based "digital darkroom" was, compared with the "wet" chemical-based darkroom of film photography.
I put the camera down, thanked him for letting me handle it and started to walk away.
He responded with a price even more ridiculously low than the first.
I couldn't resist.

The camera needed a minor repair that I was able to do in 20 minutes at home, and the roll of film I ran through it showed that it was in good working order, right down to the light meter -- not bad for a camera that sat unused for several years.
The lens that came with it was an old, beat-up Nikon lens that I replaced Tuesday with one in near-mint condition.
A fire was rekindled.

I love digital photography. I love its versatility. I love that the results are visible instantly. I love that it eliminates the expense of film. I love that I can do the same things and more with Adobe Photoshop that can be done in a traditional darkroom, and without the smell, mess and fuss. And, unlike in the darkroom, image editing done on a computer can be reversed if I don't like the result or make a mistake.

But I also love film.
I love the grain one gets with certain black-and-white films such as Kodak Tri-X. I enjoy the ritual I go through in loading the film, composing the shot through manual focus and setting the exposure by hand. It's what a friend of mine in Japan once called "making hand-made pictures."
It's a labor of love that has a more organic vibe than the one I get from my digital camera, even though I'm still setting the exposure by hand and (often, but not always) using manual focus in much the same way as I did years ago, before the digital revolution.

I'm into digital photography for the long haul. I don't plan on completely retracing my footsteps. But I'm going to tote that Nikkormat -- built like a Russian tank, and about as heavy and durable -- in my camera bag next to my digital camera.
I never know when a very special portrait opportunity will require the very special treatment that only a 35mm film camera can give.

Wearing my teacher hat

Staff photo, 1997 or '98
Nosaka Junior High School
Nosaka (now Sosa City), Chiba Prefecture

Where's Waldo?

(The school motto roughly translates as, "If you think for yourself, you'll be stronger")

Monday, August 06, 2007

Love and hatred in Japan

I wrote here Friday that I had a love/hate relationship with Japan while living there, and a friend asked me why.

Before going off to Japan, I knew precious little about the country or the culture and couldn't speak the language at all. And a lot of what I thought I knew was peppered with typical Western misconceptions about Asia in general and Japan in particular.

And so, upon arriving there 12 years ago last month, I was struck by the degree to which Japan had adopted so many elements of Western society and had vastly improved upon them. All the modern conveniences -- the gadgetry and the electronics and all the other trappings of modern life -- were there in versions not yet on sale or even dreamed of in America. Even in the small farming town in the middle of nowhere that I called home, technology reigned (except, curiously, when it came to Internet connections).

And the less-appealing elements of American culture also were abundant, such as the fast-food outlets and the 7-Elevens on every corner and some of the vapid TV dramas that were so laughably dubbed.

In many ways, it felt like being home -- or, more accurately, home away from home. And naively, I expected these similarities to translate into a high level of understanding between the Japanese and Westerners.
Hey, they have McDonald's and dig our music and sports heroes, I reasoned. Surely they must be able to understand where I'm coming from in terms of the many pieces of cultural baggage I dragged along with me.

I couldn't possibly have been more woefully mistaken.

The veneer of modernity was very misleading. I didn't realize at the time that Japan had been a feudal society up till about 130 years prior to my arrival (130 years is a drop in the bucket), and that the same distinctions and mores that regulated people's lives in the old days are still present today, albeit tempered by time and war and economics.

And then there were honne and tatemae.
Tatemae is the public face you present at school, at work, anywhere outside your small circle of family and intimate friends.
With tatemae, never is heard a discouraging word. You may hate a co-worker's guts, but tatemae dictates that these feelings be kept completely in check. You wouldn't give this person the steam off your piss, but to all outward appearances, things couldn't be better between you and her.
Honne is returning home to tell your family what an incompetent, self-absorbed, unreasonable bitch she is.
Honne represents a level of candor only a select few people in your life will ever see.

Of course, something akin to honne and tatemae exists here in the United States. But I think it's diluted and not nearly as intricate, systematic and, to the newcomer, as ostensibly deceptive as it is in Japan.
It knocked me for a loop, and I was never quite sure where I stood with my colleagues in the junior high where I taught or in society at large. I wasn't even sure at times if my friends were really my friends.
I always felt off-balance.
I felt like a vase perched precariously at the edge of a table.

In time, I believe I came to understand honne and tatemae much better. I learned to recognize some of the physical and verbal cues that distinguished one from the other. I learned some of the nuances of body language that hint at a person's true feelings, and how even sounds -- yes, sounds, such as the sucking of air through one's teeth -- drip with meaning.
But looking back on that first year or so, my naivete embarrasses me to this day.

Twelve years ago, I was more outspoken than I am today. I know my friends and family are having a good laugh as they read that.
I was more self-absorbed. I fought for what I wanted, strove to do things my own way.
After all, in the United States the squeaky wheel gets the oil.
But in Japan, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
In time, I learned that a personal agenda could be pursued to a degree if I played by certain rules. I learned that even though potentially troublesome circumstances could have been staring me in the face, there was much less of a problem as long as the existence of these circumstances was not recognized. If I don't acknowledge it and my colleagues don't acknowledge it, then we can do a little two-step around the truth.
Besides, I was a gaijin, and gaijin aren't thought to be sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of Japanese etiquette and protocol.

I taught English in a public junior high school where the students, many of them the children of farmers, fishermen and shopkeepers, couldn't have given a toss about English. It was a subject they were required to study but conditioned to forget as quickly as they could. Many of those going on to high school kept up their diligence until the crucial entrance exams were passed. Many of those going on to a trade or a craft or to freedom from education altogether at age 16 couldn't have cared less about English and I couldn't blame them.

I felt that my role as an assistant English teacher was fairly useless, and over time I came to do just the minimum of what was expected of me professionally while I pursued my photography and my studies of Japan's language, religions and culture.
At first, I pursued this agenda unabashedly. Over time, I pursued it more tactfully, using social cues I had learned to bow out gracefully from certain personal and professional obligations.
Did this strategy work? Maybe.
Or perhaps my former colleagues still talk about that arrogant, opinionated, ungrateful, bull-headed, boorish American who ran roughshod over their feelings, traditions and expectations.

Anyway, the passage of nine years since my return to America has mitigated many of my unpleasant experiences in Japan. I've deconstructed and reconstructed the culture in that span to create in my mind a Japan that hasn't existed in generations.
My Japan is what younger Japanese would derisively call furukusai -- literally, something that stinks of the old.
In some ways, I've built a movie set that looks three-dimensional and realistic from the front, but behind the facade things are held together by strips of plywood that would give way in a stiff breeze.
The Japan of my mind is more a musty old museum exhibit than a living, breathing, dynamic, constantly evolving place. (I wouldn't have it any other way, though. I also pine for the lost America, the America that the gang of criminals in elected office has turned into a mockery, a parody of itself.)

I like to think that I understand Japan far better now than I did more than a decade ago. I like to think that given the opportunity to move there today, I wouldn't repeat many of the questionable choices I made.

Maybe, maybe not.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Guess who's coming to dinner

East Village

This weekend's photos have a dog theme.
Yeah, yeah, I know, it's the dog days of summer.
But seriously, it's just the way things worked out. I didn't plan it that way.
And just who is that camera-toting voyeur reflected in the window?
The dog seems to know.

Friday, August 03, 2007

A dream in more ways than one

Nitta Yoshisada offering his sword to the Sun Goddess for her help in his attack on Kamakura, 1333. Woodblock print by Taiso Yoshitoshi.

During the night Wednesday, I dreamed that I was bidding my friends farewell. I was going to live once more in Japan. (I lived there from 1995-98.)

One of my friends from work responded with an incredulous "You're kidding!" before asking me if my health had improved to that extent.

I answered that it had.

And then I woke up, literally and figuratively.

The rest of my life probably will be spent near Manhattan.
I don't have a choice.
My doctors and surgeons are here.
I don't know of anyplace else where I can get this level of care for my medical situation.

And besides, the Japan that I love (and also hate) seems to exist anymore only in old Kurosawa films, antique woodblock prints and in the minds of dreaming fools like me.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Faded memories of her wedding

Daguerreotype, circa 1851, unknown U.S. photographer

The stars are words ...
Who succeeded? Who failed?

--Jack Kerouac

A wedding somewhere in America, circa 1850

Daguerreotype, unknown photographer

Just another couple of anonymous ghosts from my collection. A lock of the wife's hair has been put under the cover glass as a keepsake. A moment of wedded bliss, frozen in time.