These landscapes were made in the seventies, after a near-fatal exposure to the wonder of Lee Friedlander’s work. Photographers of the “New Topographic” movement, such as Robert Adams, John Gossage and Lewis Baltz also attracted my attention. I loved how the plainness of the nearby world was revealed by these photographers to contain a rhythm, pace, profundity and grace that escapes most of us when we don’t look hard enough.
Almost all of these images were made with hand held 35mm or 2¼ square camera. I can see both how derivative they are, and how some basic elements of my own vision are starting to emerge. They are familiar because they are from the neighborhoods I lived in at the time, and foreign, because I hadn’t figured out how to show this world in my own way.
As a young Catholic boy, I got very used to gazing up at a form, recognizably made of trees, that carried great meaning for me and for the world. Sometimes I would feel hopeful (I was, after all, saved). Sometimes I would feel guilty, because though I was saved, I was still sinning on a regular basis.
Though my beliefs changed, my habit of looking up at tree-like forms did not. I noticed that trees were frequently truncated, and left to stand for what seemed like a very long time. So long that the electric company secured telephone poles to to them. People would use them as clotheslines or nail a basketball hoop to its surface. Sometimes, they were simply left in a prominent space, with no utilitarian purpose, as if a symbol of something beyond our ken.
Since people are meaning-seeking animals (and likely, meaning-creating animals), these tree forms and my imagination came together, melding to form a new object of contemplation, at least in my mind. Years after I started noticing these tree forms as meaningful, I started photographing them. It was as if I belonged to a new church, and it was everywhere.
In the early 80’s, I moved back to Western Mass., to Greenfield. Greenfield’s funky next door neighbor was the marvelous village called Turners Falls. It was the site of a horrific massacre of Native people led by a Captain Turner, and as is so often the case, his name lives on, not in infamy, but as the name associated with the zip code.
In its heyday, it was a thriving paper mill town, using the Connecticut River tumbling over its falls as a source of power and water and waste removal. In more complicated times, the town was the center of the Renaissance Community, a group led by a charismatic figure knows as both Michael, and as Rapunzel. There were many businesses in town that were Renaissance based, including a restaurant I used to love, The Noble Feast.
In the early 80’s, the paper industry was greatly diminished, and the Renaissance Community was also starting to fracture. It was a town that was in transition, and yet had long time residents who loved the place, and fought for it (and still fight for it). An artist colleague of mine, Penné Krol, and I received an Arts Council grant to both research and print glass plates and negatives (Penné), and to photograph the village as it looked then (me). These are a sample of the images I made with that grant.
For many photographers, the first place they aim their camera is smack at their own heart – their family. I was around twelve when my dad introduced me to photography, built me a darkroom and handed me a camera. Naturally, my parents, siblings, grandparents and cousins were the first subject matter that got my attention.
I was seventeen when my grandparents had to go to a nursing home. I never visited them without crying about their decline and living situation, though I knew that my father and his siblings had done all that they could to keep them at home. Some of the photographs included here are from that time. I learned that I cried less if I bought a camera with me, turning my beloved family members from tragedy into subject matter.
Since then, to the everlasting exasperation of my family, I have aimed my camera and clicked at the big moments like Christmas, and all the little moments that really make up a life. My parents have gone through all the stages of my grandparents were when I photographed them, and have since passed away. I still am trying to figure us all out. I thank all my family for their patience.
I have always photographed things at hand, as a matter of both illumination and of convenience. I like to make a lot of images, and it is harder to do that of something far way. I have found that nearby things do not reveal themselves any faster just because you see them a lot. In fact, their familiarity is probably their best camouflage.
Route 199 is a stretch of highway between the Taconic Parkway and the small village of Annandale-on-Hudson, home of Bard College, where I was working on my graduate degree. I chose this 14-mile stretch of road for my graduate thesis for the reasons cited above – interest in the raw subject matter and sheer accessibility. While I am a native New Englander, nearby upstate New York seems strange and exotic, especially in the Hudson Valley. Even the insects look like they are made of different parts.
The camera was a Deardorff View Camera, the film 4 X 5 Kodak Tri-X pan. The light and the road and the guardrails and buildings are strictly Hudson Valley.
My exploration of a 14-mile stretch of road (Route 199) got me into a linear landscape groove. I decided to elongate my travelway, change the medium to liquid and take on the 410 miles of the Connecticut River. I was making my home in the Connecticut River valley in Western Massachusetts, and the school at which I taught had a dock right on the river.
The river starts as a series of small ponds on the Canadian border and empties into Long Island Sound. At its beginning, I could straddle the river as it ran between the ponds, and at its conclusion I could watch ocean vessels traverse its mouth. Everything in between was so plain or so odd that it never failed to captivate me. I bought a kayak and a canoe so I could get to where I needed to be, and over the five years that I photographed the water, I developed a close, strangely personal relationship with it. The Connecticut River is the longest in New England, and used to be wild, with Class 5 rapids and waterfalls and spirit. Now it is dammed up and down its entire length. Sometimes I could sense the real river under the seemingly placid lake humans had made. I’m not sure that version of the river made it into my photographs, but it was never out of my mind.
The camera was the Deardorff with a 5 X 7 back. The film was Kodak Tri-X pan.
Somewhere in the middle of the river, I decided that I wanted to make this landscape series a trilogy – Road, River, Rail. I chose the rail line that ran behind my house in Northfield and Gill Massachusetts. I set the limits at about 75 miles, from Holyoke, Mass. to Bellows Falls Vermont. I’m not even sure that I was always following the same line. I got some help from a friend who worked on a train that traveled that way, and from a group of men who stood on a bridge overlooking the Deerfield, Mass rail yard and lamented a time gone by. They were very dedicated to the history of the railroad in that area, but always in a sad, wistful, occasionally angry way. I’m sure their attitude got into my images.
My attempt was to stay true to one set of rails, but I doubt that it happened. The Rail was appropriate as a coda to the series, as it seemed like the end of a sound, an echo of what was.
After spending many years on the Road, River, Rail series, I thought I needed a break from black and white landscapes of travelways. I decided that I would photograph four local landfills in western Massachusetts. These were in the towns of Amherst, Northampton, Greenfield and Montague. I also decided to try color film, the first time I had tried it in a serious way.
There were at least two gifts from this relationship with our waste. One is that I could see that each town had a collection of “Dump Guys” who hung around the landfills and socialized amidst the garbage, trash and groaning of the big tractors burying it all. You could see that these folks were happier here than they would be in any local pub. If I were a different kind of photographer, they would be my subjects.
The other is that I clearly saw that we discard way more stuff than we can safely handle, and despite the technology employed, from special liners designed to protect the water table to large and numerous vents intended to siphon off the methane gas the waste produces, it will someday bury us.
I also found that I am not a natural color photographer. I love the work of artists such as Joel Sternfeld, but I still see the world in shades of gray, and have to struggle to make sense of its color.
During a period of significant personal difficulty, I found that the well-hidden metaphors of my landscape work weren’t as emotionally direct as I needed them to be. I wanted to evoke an emotional and psychological landscape that could express what was going on in my head and heart. Years of Jungian analysis helped with the content, and seeing Renaissance alter pieces on my first trip to Italy helped give me the form.
I allowed myself to photograph any subject matter that caught my imagination, and used many different camera formats. I made hundreds of work prints, and scattered them on the floor. I would then pick one up, place it on a board, and then let intuition guide me to find the next one. I would search for a third, and the image may then be complete. Or one of the images may not quite fit, and I would search for the missing piece. Eventually, the piece would seem “finished,” making some kind of sense to me.
I decided that I would use titles to lead viewers towards a particular meaning, but I was always pleased when a viewer came up with an interpretation that I had not considered. That new interpretation would sometimes feed the next group of images I would make and then use.
I wanted to break out of the formula that the Triptychs imposed. On a visit to my parents’ home, I looked on the wall and saw a few of those “collage frames” that one can buy from the local department store. Under a mat of many different sized openings lay pictures of my family. I realized that many families keep this non-verbal documentary of their lives on the wall for all to see. The images commemorate big moments such as weddings and graduations, and the many small moments that seem to designate a real or imagined state of family happiness and accomplishment.
I was fascinated by what happened when these loaded images bumped up against each other in that collage frame, and wanted to see what would happen if I exaggerated the dimensions of the mat and frame, and filled them with images that had a different kind of content. The process was similar to that of the Triptychs, but the added dimension of many openings, and the size, shape and placement of them, provided a significant challenge. I like what happens with the images as they speak to and amplify each other. I find the graphic design problems interesting and challenging.
The enclosed images are sourced from a group of small photographs that were mailed to a South Vietnamese radio and television personality known professionally as “Mai Lan.” For hours every day, Mai Lan broadcast to American troops stationed in Vietnam. She also spent much time visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals all around the country. English was her second language, but she was able to communicate very directly with her audience.
She encouraged the soldiers to send her photographs, and they did, by the hundreds. Often they were inscribed with simple, touching and sincere declarations of appreciation. She was clearly a small place of soft kindness in a very harsh, frightening and unfamiliar place.
The images ranged from the 2" X 3" size that accompanied a high school portrait package, to 3" X 3" color Polaroids, and 3" X 5" black and white snapshots of life around the base. The soldiers seemed to consider carefully how they wanted to be seen. Often, they would pose with a weapon, or show themselves at work surrounded by the visual clues of a soldiers’ life.
Mai Lan had to leave South Vietnam in a hurry as the North overran the South. She had but moments to decide what objects to take with her. She chose a small box of photographs to bring along, necessity forcing her to leave hundreds more behind.
The images were not stored well, and I would guess that many were not processed well at the time of their creation. Many have suffered serious deterioration. In the year 2000, 25 years after she fled her home country, Mai Lan was a colleague of mine at a private school. She showed me the images, knowing I was a photographer, and that I might appreciate them. She looked right past their crumbling surfaces to see the faces of the soldiers whose morale she was charged with lifting.
I could see those faces, but for me, the power of these objects was in the way they were disintegrating, barely holding on to the original image while becoming something else entirely. They were now less specific to the individuals depicted and more about war and hope and a peculiar, distant “love” that sustained these men in impossible circumstances. This new form was what I wanted to share.
I made digital copies of all the images, front and back, leaving the potential restoration of the images to others far more expert in these matters than me. With her permission, I photographed a couple dozen that I found most powerful in their present state. I used only the digital equivalents of the conventional tools of the trade—exposure and contrast, burning, dodging, color balance and saturation. I neither added nor deleted any lines or shapes to the image, except for “spotting” dust marks and artifacts of the photography process. I am very new to digital processes, and I am not expert enough to alter the images in any but the basic ways stated above. It was my work to emphasize certain aspects of the image—for example, raising the contrast to spotlight a certain area of the degradation, or increasing the color saturation to highlight the stain running through the center. All of these decisions were emotional and aesthetic. Ansel Adam’s analogy of the score and the performance would be apt here, though in this case, amateur photographers, chemical disintegration and time are the composers.
After living in western Massachusetts for 20 years, I changed lives and moved to the South Shore of Boston. Even though my part of Western Mass. was only about a hundred miles from the ocean, the landscape there was both vastly different, and a little bit the same. When I moved to the coast, I wanted to get to know it by exploring it with a camera.
Some of the South Shore is a place of privilege and exclusivity,and that includes signs that tell you where you cannot go. But most of it belongs to working people, or to the state in the form of parks. When I first made these images, large storms were starting to change the landscape, taking down houses and covering roads. That has only increased in the time that has passed. The ocean is like that, I’ve found. Humans once altered the landscape, and now the sea wants it back.
The camera is a Deardorff with a 5 x 7 back. The film was Kodak Tri-X pan.
Wompatuck State Park touches the Boston South Shore communities of Norwell, Hingham, Cohasset and Scituate. It is very well used by campers (over two hundred sites), mountain bikers, hunters, hikers and assorted nature lovers.
My backyard borders the park, and I have spent a lot of time walking my dogs, mountain biking, and generally making use of the 3500 acres. I always think of it as the best feature of my current living situation.
I did not know of Wompatuck's history until I had made many trips deep inside the park. On an early mountain bike ride I came across an open concrete structure, covered in graffiti and vines. The walls were 3 feet thick and clearly intended to withstand significant forces, from the outside in and the inside out. Adolescents had made their marks, sometimes benignly celebrating their favorite rock or rap bands, and sometimes creating something uglier, using swastikas and employing the language of hate.
The park really is beautiful, and the staff clearly works hard to maintain its appearance. But the pristine views are dotted with the remnants of more than 100 ammunition bunkers. During WWII, Wompatuck was used by the Navy for mine production, munitions storage, and the research and production of rocket engines. One park employee told me that the world's first atomic bomb was once stored there and showed me in which bunker it was supposedly held.
At the Visitor's Center, the deeper history of the park is described. In 1665, Chief Wompatuck deeded the land to the local settlers, apparently out of affection for the struggling Europeans. That land had been used in many ways over the centuries, until the military took over a large section of it. Unfortunately, the military left behind enough toxic waste for portions of the park to be declared an E.P.A. Superfund Site. An extensive clean up of the park's toxic areas was conducted during the 1980's and 90's.
I guess it is possible that a powerful local native willingly gave thousands of acres of land in the mid-1600's. And one can decide that during WWII, things had to be done to support the cause of defeating Hitler and Nazism. All that complicated history finds a visual analog as one walks or rides or skis in this landscape. Seeing a swastika painted on the very bunkers used in defeat of the ideas it carries was more than jarring. That it sits in a landscape filled with flowering trees and coyotes and deer reinforces how complex our world is when its layers are exposed.
Letting the subtle and not-so-subtle contradictions wash over me, and recording those layers with my camera was my goal. I have to imagine that my interest and vision were influenced by the fact that I had been working with the images in the “Soldiers” series as I started to explore Wompatuck. That one is feeding the other is obvious, just as history of the park as a component of the warmaking machine may have led to the violent and disturbing marks made decades later.
Sometimes I want to be random. I don’t want to stake out a landscape with defined boundaries and only photograph within them. Instead I want to pay attention to where my eyes are drifting, and simply capture that. Simple notes, rather than a long essay.
So, over the course of a few years, I kept small digital cameras in my pocket, and without much thought or fanfare, aimed and clicked. After a while, I had thousands of these random images, and then decided to add even more random to the mix.
I used a program that was geared to make a large coherent images out of smaller images of the same place. These days, that kind of “image stitching” programs is included on our phones.
But the program struggled when the smaller images were not really part of a whole, but instead utterly unrelated. But being an algorithm serving humans, it did its best with with what I gave it. I would place maybe 10 random images into this image stitching program, and see what it gave me as a large single image. Usually, it was a mess. Sometimes, it was startling. Always, it was a place to start.
After I saw the large assembly the image stitcher gave me, I would start to work into it somewhat. I might create circles out of different densities, or change or invert the color relationships, and even occasionally, move one image from one spot to another.. The idea was to not overthink, but to play spontaneously.
The effect was not a slick example of surgical Photoshop virtuosity, but more like the collage of magazine images I was assigned to do in the third grade. The titles give a hint of what I felt from them, but I’m not sure they matter that much. Some of these work, and some don’t but I think they were useful to my visual thinking.
At some point, it was pretty clear that this would be the final year of my mom’s life. My dad had died five years earlier, and my mom’s heart was simply giving out. I would visit her from the Boston area at least two days per week (and I was blessed with two caring siblings who also spent a lot of time with her). Because she was in a Assisted Living situation, her days had rhythms that I was careful not to interrupt. If I arrived too early to visit, I would bring my camera and photograph what was nearby.
My folks had chosen to spend their entire lives in Leominster, Massachusetts. They went to the local schools, worked either in town, or right near it, and tried hard to contribute to the community. When they had kids, we were woven right into the fabric of the town, just by being Millie and Elio’s kids.
I decided to follow The Monoosnoc Brook as it wound its way through the city. I might have an hour or so before I could visit my mom, or I might stay an hour or two after, just trying to follow this often inconspicuous stream. I would walk from the reservoir in which I skinny-dipped as a teenager, to the little brook near our house that my sister and I caught pinheads and salamanders and pollywogs when we were maybe five or six. The brook went near the high school, and a friend’s backyard was adjacent to a swelling of the brook on which we played hockey all winter. My Irish grandmother worked at Kingman’s Plastics along the brook in the early part of the 20th century, making combs and other plastic goods that earned the Leominster the title of “The Plastic City.”
The brook emptied into the Nashua River, which when I was a child, was a chemical dump, changing colors every day, depending on the dye they were using in the paper plants in Fitchburg. Today it has recovered, and it was heartening to see how lovely it now looks.
This little brook either derived from, or fed, or wound through almost every part of the landscape of the town I loved. I knew that when my mom passed, my connection to the town would be less vital, and so I just walked through neighborhoods and areas recording one thing, while remembering something else entirely. My current life, tinged with sadness for what was passing, was fighting my memories of an old life long gone. That was the state in which I made these images.
After I would come in from photographing, I would hang out with my mom, and photograph her while we talked or watched Judge Judy on TV. I thought that at some point, I would mix these two groups of images to form one portfolio - The Where, and The Who. I haven’t figured that out yet.
The winter of 2014-15 had the greatest snowfall on record. The city of Boston was completely at a loss about what to do with the snow. Streets were shut down, and plowing was redundant. Bucket loaders were used to move snow to new locations far away from the city proper. The same was true for the lovely small town in which I work, Norwood.
An unused field near Rt. 1 was borrowed by the town to dump truckloads of the stuff, and vertical was the only way to fit it all in. Soon, a mountainous landscape, at 1/100 scale, began to form. The winter didn’t really start until February, and hard snow was still falling in May. It was June when the mountains of white (actually, pretty darn gray by then) had melted.
I had my knee replaced in the fall, but the surgery didn’t go as planned and walking was hard (the replacement would be replaced some months later). Then I needed unexpected back surgery. I wasn’t moving very well, and all that snow wasn’t helping.
I was using a cane, and so a view camera was out of the question, and any tripod-bound camera was not going to work. I purchased a good quality, but small and light digital camera. I walked around the periphery of the Snow Farm, as I could not follow my usual inclinations and climb up to look around. I had to stay at ground level and look up and at this oddly imposing, beautiful, temporary landscape.
The climate is clearly changing, and the weather is acting crazy in response. I am grateful I am not photographing the aftermath of fires and hurricanes. So far, just too much snow, and an ocean that occasionally wants to take my neighbors homes from them. The landscape will keep responding to these changes, and our anxieties and art will have to as well.
When I was a kid living in Leominster, Mass, we would watch the Boston Bruins hockey games on channel 38. At almost every break in the action, a voice would be exhorting us to “Come on Down!” His name was Ernie Boch, and he wanted us to go to Norwood, and buy cars from him. I think it is he and his family that sort of invented the idea of the Auto Mile, located on Rt. 1. It has grown to become a few miles of dealerships that sell, repair, and rent that all-American icon, the Automobile.
On the Auto Mile, the humble and the not-so humble are neighbors. The Ferrari/Maserati dealership is not too far from Don and Wally’s Repair Shop. Other businesses live amongst the auto industry, but you have to look harder to find them. The outside of dealerships are festooned with flags and balloons and other eyeball attractors. And the American flag is almost always alternating with the dealership flags. At one point, it seems our national psyche combined the notion of patriotism and automobiles, as if buying and selling cars was a kind of heroism in which regular people could participate.
I photographed the Auto Mile for about a year, usually during my lunch breaks (though occasionally at night, as well). To the eye, the dealerships seem to be thriving - the year that I spent walking up and down the Mile, at least four new dealerships were built. They seemed to be the upscale companies (Audi, Porsche, etc), while the old camera store, a liquor store and others struggled and had to close. The Auto Mile seems to be a good barometer for how the current economy supports those at the top, and how those in the middle and below have to scrape. That, I think, is different (at least in scale) than it was when I was watching the Bruins as a boy, and Ernie Boch wanted us to Come on Down.
The landscape is influenced by Meadow Brook, a lovely but occasionally polluted stream that goes through and under the Mile. The pollution is not caused by the Auto industry, as much as it is from old industries and sewage overflow. Many parts of the landscape are wetlands, filled with the flora of you would expect, but not exactly where you would expect it. The stream meanders through the car lots and makes for an odd partnership of ultra man-made and some vestige of nature trying to hang in there.
Like most things, The Auto Mile is complicated, involves uneasy dominion over the landscape, and speaks to the skewed economic times in which we live. I’m not sure these photographs capture much of all this, but it was what made me want to spend time with a camera in that space.
Ernie Boch Jr. now asks us to Come on Down, as his father before him. I did. I bought my car from him shortly before I started this project. Works fine.