Shadow Dancing

One of my favorite quotes on photography comes from Julia Margaret Cameron, the 19th century British portraitist who took up photography late in life and said of her first experience:

“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”

That quote is the inspiration for my Instagram tag, tender_ardour, which of course is also the name of this Blog.

I have to laugh when I think of the first time I held and used a camera myself. I was 8 or 9 years old and I was thrilled when my dad let me try out his old 110 camera. These were introduced by Kodak in 1972 and the technical quality wasn’t great. I didn’t understand why the scenes I composed in my mind weren’t fully realized in the final prints, but I was getting a taste.

When I was 10, my best friend, Andrea and I borrowed her dad’s 35mm camera for the day and took turns photographing in her neighborhood. I was getting hooked, and I longed for a camera of my own.

My older sister, Eve saved up her babysitting money and got one of the first Kodak Disc cameras that came out in the 80s. On a family trip through South Dakota, she let me take a few shots with it. We hiked together in the Badlands and I photographed our shadows cast on the side of one of the towering buttes at dusk, its spire still glimmering orange and purple hues as the sun light softened in the distance. The scene was ideal for a camera of any quality to capture something wonderful.

Our parents had the film processed at a drug store somewhere along the way and we got to see the pictures the next day. My father was a man of few words, which is why some of my most vivid memories from childhood are moments when he spoke directly to me. He told me that if I ever entered a photography contest, I should submit that picture of my sister and I shadow dancing in the Badlands of South Dakota.

When I was 15 and entering 10th grade, I signed up for photography courses through a program called Career Center, which was offered through the Omaha Public School system as part of the high school curriculum. My parents lent me the money to purchase my own 35mm camera for that program. It was a Pentax K1000, and I used it throughout much of my time as a BFA student at the Kansas City Art Institute as well. Then I started experimenting with medium formant cameras. The first one I acquired was a Yashica mat 124 and later, when I started grad school for photography in Buffalo, I purchased a Pentax 67, and eventually a Hasselblad 500c.

I now shoot digitally almost exclusively, and I’ve owned numerous DSLRs. The technology is vastly different than when I was tinkering with my Dad’s old 110 camera as a kid, and it continues to evolve. For me, the feeling of excitement when holding that camera for the first time came more from the creative possibilities brought on by a new tool, than from the tool itself. All these years later, I still get that feeling when I set out to take pictures wherever my camera leads me.

Home for Christmas

With my niece, Penelope and Nephew, Luke

For most of the year the temperature in Buffalo, NY where I live, is cooler than Omaha, NE where I was born and raised. Surprisingly though, the winter months in Buffalo are slightly warmer than November – February in Omaha. As I type, it’s zero degrees in Omaha and 11 in Buffalo. Including four years I spent in Kansas City, MO attending Art School, I’ve now lived away from Omaha almost as many years as I spent there during my formative years. Every year around this time, I travel to Omaha for Christmas, spend a few days with loved ones, then turn around and head back to Buffalo to greet a brand new year. Buffalo is home now, but Omaha is where I return to reconnect with the people and places that raised me.

In Buffalo and in my other travels, I’ve grown and changed in many ways, but I’m still the same person I always was. I long for the sound of thunderstorms that roll in from the high plains of Nebraska and shake you from your sleep. I listen for the familiar voices that reassured me as a child. It is colder in Omaha this time of year, but I have come to search for the warmth of home. Thank you to all my family and friends who love me for who I am and welcome me with open arms.

Words are not the thing – Illegal Pete’s

Theo Stroomer
Pete Turner, the owner of the Mexican-style restaurant chain. Credit Theo Stroomer for The New York Times

This New York Times article from Sunday brought me back to 1998 when I took a road trip across Nebraska to Colorado to visit the Royal Gorge Bridge in Cañon City, stopping at numerous points in between. One of the highlights of that trip was a meal of black beans and rice at Illegal Pete’s on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. It was so good (and cheap, I was a poor art student back then) I actually had two meals there during my short stay in Boulder before continuing on into the mountains.

All these years later, Illegal Pete’s is now a chain with 7 locations, the most recent of which just opened in Ft Collins.  The owner, Pete Turner, has found himself in the midst of some controversy over his use of the word “Illegal” as part of the business name.  It’s a layered set of circumstances concerning the power and context of words.

My feeling is that if Illegal Pete’s didn’t serve Mexican fare, it might not be as much of an issue.  It seems the choice of Ft. Collins as a location is also problematic.  According to the article, “In opening a new locale here — the chain’s seventh — Mr. Turner seemed to have stumbled on a political tripwire he had not known existed, drawing ire from local and national immigrant rights groups that say his use of the word in connection with a person’s name is derogatory and offensive.”  They want the name to be changed.

The thing is, Turner claims that undocumented immigration was the furthest thing from his mind 20 years ago when he founded the business.  He shares the story of how he got started in great detail on the restaurant’s website.  The main inspirations for the name were a novel he read in college as well as his father, who was known to have a bit of a rebellious streak.  When I visited in ’98, I took the name to be in the spirit of sayings like, “This food is so good, it should be illegal.”  But that was long before the word “illegal” had the stigma in context with US immigration issues that it has today.

What interests me about all of this is that it’s not cut and dry and it’s difficult to take sides.  Language is complicated.  The name was never meant to be derogatory towards any group, but it has come to mean something very hurtful to the relatively sizable minority population living in Ft. Collins as well as advocates for immigration rights all over the country.

In a letter to Turner inviting him to attend a meeting of concerned citizens in Ft. Collins, Colorado State University assistant English professor Antero Garcia wrote,“The restaurant will be located in the same area that current Fort Collins residents remember often seeing signs saying ‘No dogs or Mexicans.’ It is under this legacy of American racist practices that the name Illegal Pete’s becomes unacceptable.” (from an article by Josie Sexton, The Coloradoan)

Turner expresses dismay about receiving a great deal of support from anti-immigration advocates, whose thinking he is in no way aligned with.  He has met with the protesters, and has given the entire matter a lot of heart-felt consideration, but at the end of the day, he has decided not to change the name of the business.

Because I’m familiar with the history of the restaurant and I’m aware of Pete Turner’s pro immigration activities outside of this matter, in the end, I support him.  But as indicated earlier, I don’t believe it is cut and dry.

One of the more interesting comments from the NYT article is as follows:

Uga Muga

Miami 3 days ago

“The comments are overwhelmingly pro freedom of expression, find the issue silly or see misplaced passions on the immigration issue.”

“I note a country where imagery drives motivation. It may be the case across humanity. Exerting or attempting to exert control over opinion is what advertising and propaganda are all about. There are innumerable examples; I don’t know which are the most stunning. Liberty cabbage, freedom fries….. how about the Peoples “Republic” of China?”

“Words are not the thing but the thing is often about words.”

Tour de Neglect featured in the Guardian!

When I first moved to Buffalo for my MFA in photography in 2000, I spent a lot of time photographing all over the city for a project I was working on about abandoned toys.  I found plenty of subjects for my project on Buffalo’s run down East Side and I became very familiar with the area.

Recently, when I saw a facebook invite from David Torke, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in his September edition of Tour de Neglect.   David is a Buffalo photographer, blogger and community activist whose efforts to bring much needed love and attention to the East Side have been getting some impressive press lately.  I’d read about past tours in various local publications and I was excited to get involved.

David’s efforts were recently featured in the Guardian and I am honored to have a couple of snaps I took on that ride included in the article by Ethan Powers.

Here’s a link to the article – The Tour de Neglect: a cycle ride through Buffalo’s deprived East Side.

Thinking of Dad

Father’s Day was Sunday and I spent much of the day traveling home from Morganton, North Carolina where two friends were married over the weekend. Reunions took place and numerous introductions marked the occasion of their wedding. We managed to stretch the merriment out over several days, by spending some time in Asheville walking around, shopping and seeing the sights.

One of the many shops we visited was Paul Taylor Custom Sandals and Belts, where they’ve been crafting beautiful sandals, belts and other leather goods by hand since 1965. They sell their goods to the many tourists who frequent the Haywood Street area of Downtown Asheville. I was reminded of my father as soon as I approached the shop window. Paul Taylor’s also features the largest collection of vintage sterling silver and solid brass belt buckles in the country. I’ve always associated these belt buckles with the many timeless old men I’ve encountered throughout my life who never quite grew up to be cowboys. My father was one of those old men. He was born and raised on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. He moved to Omaha to work as a draftsman for a cabinet maker, but eventually ended up employed in various jobs over the years at auto parts stores in the area. He did this for the rest of his working life until retirement.

There were many things about my father that never changed; like the flat top buzz cut he sported long after his days as an enlisted man in the Marines. I remember him as somewhat tall and alarmingly thin, slightly hunched and always smoking. He usually wore jeans and a button down shirt tucked in and cinched tight with an old leather belt featuring one of his prized belt buckles.

I have no clear memory of my father as a young man. He was 43 when I was born. By the time I was able to comprehend the complexities of age, he was approaching 50. Even in his early 50s, years of heavy smoking and under eating gave him the appearance of an elderly man. As children, my sisters and I were accustomed to correcting friends who assumed he was our grandfather.

Throughout his life, my father was a man of few words. Chain-smoking was his only apparent vice. He spent long weekends reading cheap science fiction. This is where he seemed to find the most happiness. He worked hard at his job. At home he relaxed in front of the television set. His heroes were, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan and God.

After his death, there were small squabbles among the sisters over his possessions. Nothing had any real value beyond whatever importance we may have assigned, each in our own way, to the objects as tokens of love from our father. As the only sister living away from Omaha, I settled on three small items that were easy to pack and take on an airplane. Each object I chose came from one of his numerous collections. Each of his collections was made up of small treasures that, at one time or another had tickled his quiet heart in some way. A pearl handled pocket knife from his knife collection was my first choice. Next I selected a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western from his assortment of DVDs. And finally, as if he were there to see, I grabbed one of his many belt buckles, this particular one fashioned in the shape of a locomotive. I wanted to remember the love of trains I shared with my father when I was very small.

Walking into Paul Taylor’s around Father’s day was fortuitous for me. I’ve been thinking about Dad a lot lately.