2017: A Year in Review

Wow, what a year! To say it was a roller coaster ride, or any other bad analogy, would be an understatement.

Early in the year I left my job to "pursue other interests." My goal was to do more writing, more photography, find my inner artist and maybe figure out what I want to be when I grow up.  Instead I wrapped myself in politics and went down the depressing drain of trying to fix things. Spoiler alert: I'm not very good at it.

While I have heard some of the most amazing, life affirming, frustrating, glorious, and tragic stories . . .

"Tuesdays with Toomey" -  Philadelphia, PA

"Tuesdays with Toomey" -  Philadelphia, PA

And met some of the most extraordinary people. . .

"Malcolm Kenyatta @ Tuesdays with Toomey" -  Philadelphia, PA

"Tuesdays with Toomey" - Philadelphia, PA

And participated in events far beyond my expectations . . .

"Womens March" -  Washington, DC

It was not sustainable. (Self care is seriously underrated!) I discovered the cold hard truth that I do not have the capacity for this long term. While I remain engaged, and will continue to support my sisters and brothers out there fighting day in and day out, I have stepped back to find my inner happy. I need more moments of Zen.

Since this is the end of the year, and time for reflection, I decided to look back on my year in another light. To see other "wins" as it were. I am sure I have grown and learned things outside of politics, right? I simply need to review and examine this year from a different perspective. This is where photo archives come in handy. As I review my archives I realize that I have accomplished a lot more than I thought I did.

This year I had another great trip to Eastern State Penitentiary (thank you Carla!). It is a must see historic place in Philadelphia.

"Eastern State Penitentiary" -  Philadelphia, PA

"Eastern State Penitentiary" - Philadelphia, PA

This year also treated me with an outing accompanied by Karen Commings who came to Philadelphia to do some street shooting. This is not something I normally do, neither is is it something with which I am very comfortable, so this was new and fun and an overall great day out!

"9th Street Markets" - Philadelphia, PA

"Kimmel Center Lobby" - Philadelphia, PA

"Wedding Photos on Broad Street" - Philadelphia, PA

My first photo tour this year was to The Palouse in Western Washington. A place that sometimes defies description. This was a special trip for me as I was able to convince my husband to join me to learn iPhone Photography. So it was a win, win, win! I was able to tour a new place, share it with Andrew, and increase my iPhoneography skills. What an incredible place and what a glorious time!

"Palouse Tree" - Western Washington State

"View from Steptoe Butte" - Western Washington State

"I know not where . . ." - Somewhere in Western Washington State

"Cloud Cover" - Somewhere in Idaho

"This is the Palouse" - Western Washington State

iPhone Abstract - Columbia River Gorge

"iPhone Fun" - Columbia River Gorge (I don't remember which waterfall this is. . .sorry.)

"iPhone Landscape" - Western Washington State

A year would not be complete without at least ONE adventure with "Lucy and Ethel!" This summer we did a little weekend away and checked out Howell Living History Farm. If you have not been and are in the area you should give it a look. Especially if you have children who like animals. From there we did a wander around Historic Bucks County. We ran into an historic place, that I did not document so I can't tell you what it was or where it was, but we were able to see some great old structures circa 1776. Overall, our adventure was more about two gals out and about being goofy more than picking up our cameras, which is really what it should be about, right?

"Porch" - Historic Bucks County

"Side of House" - Historic Bucks County

"Horse" - Howell Living Farms

"Cutie Pie" - Howell Living Farms

Another summer solstice brought us Art All Night in Trenton. This is becoming an annual volunteer gig for me. The Trenton Photo club, of which I am still a member, sends out a number of volunteer photographers to help document this amazing night. And it is what it says! 24 hours of art, music and entertainment. The daylight hours are family friendly. And the overnight hours are whatever they are. (It's way too late for me so I know not what happens at that time.) From the sublime to the ridiculous  . . . it is all good fun!

Art All Night - Trenton, NJ

"The Barbers @ Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

"Glass Blowers @ Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

"Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

"Smitten?" - Trenton, NJ

"Mural Painter @ Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

"Budding Artist @ Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

"Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

"Art All Night" - Trenton, NJ

My second photo tour was to "The Wilds" in Ohio. So cool!!  This previously strip-mined land has been turned into thousands of acres of land for wildlife conservation by Jack Hanna (you know him as the guy that brings wild animals onto TV shows like Johnny Carson and Good Morning America . . .) We were able to get into a tour that brought us up close and personal to Giraffes, Rhinos, and other wildlife not normally seen outside of zoo enclosures. From there we went to Amish country and surrounds It was a wonderful and unique tour. Again, a lot of iPhone photography and fun exploring this new medium to make art. A great tour that brought all kinds of new and fun into my life.

"The Wilds" - Ohio

"The Wilds" - Ohio

"Amish Horse Auction" - Ohio

"Amish Horse Auction" - Ohio

"The Wilds" - Ohio

"iPhone Art fun" - Ohio

"Discovering iPhone Art with Mail Pouch" - Ohio

"Learning iPhone Macro" - Ohio

"Horse Auction - iPhone" - Ohio

And the final tour of the year was Cape May, New Jersey. I lived in New Jersey for 10+ years and never found myself in Cape May. Now that I have found it I'm never going to let it go!! What an adorable ocean side town. We explored the sun rise, sun set, and what the ocean looks like with 40mph morning winds. We also got to see old abandoned cars, trucks, and gas stations. Lucky us, the town of Cape May was getting decked out for Christmas. It was a lovely outing, complete with the infamous Carla, and a cure for what ails me.

"Flag on the Beach" - Cape May, NJ

"Sunset" - Cape May, NJ

"Sunrise" - Cape May, NJ

"Abandoned Car" - South New Jersey

"Sunrise in the wind" - Cape May, NJ

"Christmas" - Cape May, NJ

"Lace Curtains" - Cape May, NJ

I look back now and realize what a great year it was. I have learned so much about myself, my community, and my world. Added to the internal I have learned new things in photography and art. I have discovered methods to express myself. As one of my mentors, John Barclay likes to say, "find those things that make your heart sing." I think I am moving in that direction. But mostly I have learned these things.

Greed is despicable. I will choose sharing.

Destruction is ugly. I will choose beauty.

Hate is exhausting.  I will choose love.

May your 2018 be filled with love.

"Hope" - Western Washington State

Candid Conversations: Rad A. Drew

Rad A. Drew

Rad A. Drew

Rad A. Drew
Professional Photographer / Teacher
Indianapololis, Indiana


Personal Facebook
Business Facebook

I started these conversations awhile back so I could get a better understanding about “why” we do this crazy thing called photography. I wanted to get into the psyche of photographers to understand the need to create art in this manner. It is rarely, if ever, my intention to ask about “how” their art is created. So many interviews, blogs, or conversations revolve around “what’s in your bag.” I don’t care about your equipment. I care about what you see and how you see and the reasons for capturing that image. What are you trying to say to the world when you make that image?

This time around is a little different. A few months ago I was lucky enough to join in on an extraordinary photo tour of the Smokey Mountains led by John Barclay and Rad Drew. John helped the “traditional” photographers (those of us with SLR’s) and Rad led the team of iPhone photographers. Whhaaaatttt??? I didn’t realize it was a thing!

We have now entered into the world of iPhoneography. And it is, indeed, a thing. There were a few people on this trip who have shed themselves of their “big girl” and “big boy” cameras and are strictly focused on using an iPhone for all of their captures. Everything is done right in your hands. You capture, process, and post; all from one location. And it’s light and dreamy. I have been completely and utterly astounded with the images created on this little device.

It became very clear to me, after this trip, that I would need to corner Rad and convince him to sit down with me over skype and have a talk about this new, well to me, way to make art. Rad is someone I liked from the moment I met him. It may have something to do with his "Midwest nice" (he's from Indiana), it might have something to do with his deftness at teaching (he spent the better part of his career in corporate America creating learning tools), but mostly I believe that it is just his nature (he has a kind and gentle soul which I believe comes through in his quiet and beautiful art).

In my conversation with Rad I had another lightening strike. While most of the professional photographers I have spoken with lament the advent of the iPhone, Rad has a completely different take on it. Many pro photographers rue the day of the iPhone because it means everyone with an iPhone believes they are a photographer therefor a photographer’s professional services are no longer necessary. Rad comes from a different place. He celebrates this as a way of allowing everyone to have access to create art. To get out of the world where we were told, “You can’t. You aren’t good enough.” And to join in the world of, “Yay! I am creative! I, too, can do that.”

Perspective. I love that!  Here’s more about Rad Drew.

Morro Castle across Havana Harbor [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography?
It was probably looking at my father's images. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, and my father was in the service and stationed at Ladd Air Force Base. He took beautiful wilderness landscapes and things like that. When I was really little I remember looking at those images and thinking, "This is for me. I want to make pictures like this."

We went on lots of vacations as kids. We had a little trailer and my parents would traipse us all over the country. I had a little box camera of some kind, I think it was a Brownie, and I took a photograph of this valley. For the longest time I believed that it was the Grand Canyon. I talked to my mother about it years later. She told me that we had never been to the Grand Canyon but, for me, I knew I had taken this picture of the Grand Canyon and I kind of built this myth about me and photography as a kid.

What is it that you look for? What do you try to communicate when you're shooting?
I'm not sure I even know.  It’s a way for me to put myself out there for people to know who I am. I love the outdoors. I grew up with a family that spent a lot of time in rural areas of our state [Indiana], which are beautiful, and I love that. There's nostalgia about going out and photographing a landscape or a little barn that thrills me.

I love to build nostalgic feelings into the work I do with tonality and lighting and textures, so I guess what I'm trying to convey is an emotion. Whether it's a feeling of bygone days with some of my vintage scenes and vintage images, or it's trying to help share the experience of what I'm feeling when I'm standing on a hilltop in the Palouse looking out over a field of golden grain, so I don't know.

Hoosier Barn, February [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

While I don’t like asking about the “how” you make an image I would like to know what is it about the iPhone that has you so intrigued?
It's a complicated thing to answer. When I was young and starting in photography I loved it, but I was also intimidated by the technology and by people around me who were total techno-geeks (said with the deepest affection!), and I'm talking back in the '70s. There were people out there who technically understood everything there was to know about f-stops and apertures.  I learned all of that over time but early on in my life, before photography was my career, I was turned away from it. I didn't feel adequately capable to participate in photography because it seemed out of my reach, technically. I think had I not had that experience I probably would have stayed with photography, gotten deeper into photography earlier, and made it more of a career for myself earlier in my life.

I realize today that it’s not a valid thing. Not that my feelings weren't valid but a lot of what I thought about other people wasn't valid.  I looked at others who had this technical knowledge and assumed they knew something I would never fully understand and so I didn't have the confidence to pursue it. I say that because even though I continued with photography and learned what I was doing, in 2010 when I got that iPhone what I saw was photography suddenly became accessible to everybody, it wasn't just for the technically-oriented anymore.

It was for everyone; the soccer mom, the young, the old. It was accessible to anybody who had an iPhone and wanted to have some creative outlet. They've learned it's very easy to do with your phone. You didn't have to have a lot of technical knowledge. You didn't have to know what an aperture was; it didn't matter. You needed to know how to point the camera and push the button and you got a picture. To say that photography's been ruined somehow by this is completely the wrong way to look at it. I believe that photography has now become accessible to more people in a very wonderful way.  Sure, we see loads of forgettable photographs, but in that heap, are many that are wonderful and might never have been made were it not for the iPhone. Even those “forgettable” photos are part of someone’s learning process, so, in my way of thinking even these are still of value.

We've all had that experience of, or many of us have, where you're back in second grade and you do something and your art teacher criticizes you in a way and tells you, "You just don't have any talent," or "Don't pursue that," and people shut down and they never do it again. I've watched people acquire an iPhone and they begin slowly to experiment and to play and to realize, again, that they are creative beings and they find an outlet for that creativity through this magical device. Some people go on and learn a lot more technical things about it but you don't have to. You can learn just enough to pursue what you want.

I can point to a number of wonderfully creative photographers who will be the first to tell you that they are not technical in terms of understanding photography and yet, they're creating some of the finest artwork being done in digital media today. To me, it's a wonderful thing that photography has been made as accessible as it is.

Rural House, Daddy’s Still Story [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

Upon seeing the old place I felt a tug inside, and the metallic taste -- the one that comes just before you wretch -- filled my mouth. I had to swallow hard. Although it had been more than thirty years since I'd set foot on the old homestead, I could hear the crackle of the flames under Daddy’s still, and smell the pungent sweetness of corn mash. How many times had Lila and I hidden in the corn crib out back as Daddy railed at imagined foes while under the spell of his White Lightning?

Why Photography as a medium?
Actually, I still write quite bit. In fact, one of the books I'm working on is a collection of things that I've written that were inspired by a photograph. Most of them are pure fiction.

I had this old rural-looking shack in the woods and I wrote this thing about "Remembering how my dad used to make moonshine," and people on Facebook wrote me with sympathy for my upbringing. I had to write back and say, "It's fiction!” [Brilliant!]

As far as why photography, I guess because it's what I'm familiar with. I grew up with photography. I can't paint, I can't draw, but I love working with light. I love using light just to reveal what's in a scene and playing with that and then particularly manipulating it after the fact, either combining it with another image to create something new or adding textures and tones and things like that to give it a certain feeling.

Are there any subjects or any things that you find yourself shooting that get you into the zone more than others?
I live in Indianapolis, Indiana, and we have a cemetery here, of all places, called Crown Hill Cemetery, and it's one of the oldest in the country and the largest cemetery in Indiana and it's a park; it's gorgeous.

It has trees that you wouldn't find anywhere else. It has the most beautiful collection of European Weeping Beech trees of any place in the world. I go there and photograph by myself. Talk about the zone! I can just lose track of everything. I go in and I walk around and I look for familiar locations and sometimes discover new ones. In that case I'm looking at landscape, I'm looking at the trees, I'm looking at tombstones that might have an interest to me. Sometimes I do close up work of redbud trees, flowers. It varies.

Sentinel, Crown Hill Cemetery [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

How do you keep your work fresh? How do you keep it new and inspiring?
I hear others talk about being stuck or not feeling creative and I don't know that I usually feel that way. Sometimes I do get a little stymied. All it takes for me is to go out on my own and open my eyes and be present in that space that I like to be in. For me that's the cemetery or rural Indiana. I go out and photograph barns, abandoned farms. It brings me back to something very fundamental in my life that's important.

The best way to break the doldrums is get out and shoot. I'll go out and put my 10-24 wide-angle lens on my camera and not bring anything else. It forces me to be creative with that tool. I'll do the same thing with my iPhone. I won't take my other cameras with me so I don't have choices to make about which camera to use. I have other choices to make about what I'm doing so that's another way for me to ground myself and get back to fundamentals.

What do you think is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
You know the more I learn, the more I'm aware of how little I really know. [I think that’s our challenge as humans!] I think, for me, the biggest challenge is not spreading myself too thin if that makes sense. There are so many different aspects of photography.  There are so many different ways to process images today. There are all kinds of things I can find myself excited by, but sometimes I have to rein myself in and say, "I really need to remain focused on those things that are most important to me." That doesn't mean I don't try something new now and then and expand my horizons; I'm doing that all the time.

A few years ago I started shooting infrared again. I used to do it back in college days with film. There was a time where I had to make a decision of; do I want to learn this? Again, the more I find out about how this technology works, the more I realize I have an education in front of me. Part of what I thrive on is learning new things but I'm also very conscious about what I take on.

Long Tree, Palouse, Infrared [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a professional photographer?
It has nothing to do with photography and everything to do with marketing. It's crazy, I feel like I have a good product in terms of what I know and how I can teach. I have a good product in terms of the trips that I've arranged and how well I put them together.

Marketing to my audience as a businessperson is a challenge. There are so many different technologies with multi-media options. It's a full-time job trying to keep up with it.

Most everything I do for my business, I do myself. I don't hire out a whole lot of work. I built my website, for better or worse. I'm at a place now, after two years, where I'm starting to look at some of that. I may professionalize my website a little bit this year and I'm looking at marketing and how I might engage a professional to help me reach the clients that I think would appreciate what I have to offer.

Many of the photographers that I've interviewed say that their biggest challenge, as a professional photographer, is the fact that the market is so saturated with images that they have to find new ways to sell their images. It seems to me that you've come in to the industry as a professional at a time where that is already understood so you've immediately jumped onto the teaching track rather than just selling your images. Is that a fair statement?
Teaching and instructional design have been a part of my repertoire for years. I had a long career doing instructional design in a corporate setting. With the teaching I do today, I simply apply those skills to a new topic and so it feels like it's an area that I'm capable in and I understand how psychologically to put things together so people learn and retain. A lot of that stuff's sort of second nature to me so it makes sense. Plus, selling images has never been a main source of revenue for me. I love it when an image sells, but that is not what keeps the lights on!

Patricia, Dancer with the Cuban National Ballet [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

I'm going to back up a little bit. You started your career as a photojournalist, which is a very specific type of photography. Now, looking at your work, it's very much fine art. How did that transition happen and why do you think it happened?
I think it happened because of the iPhone and the ability to take an image and manipulate it very easily, relatively easily, compared to Photoshop. It gave me not only the permission, if you will, but it also gave me the technology to do things that only a very skilled Photoshop wizard could do and I'm certainly not that.

 Do you miss photojournalism at all?
The answer to that is, "Yes I do," and that's why I'm starting to do more writing. My photographs of Cuba, a lot of what I'm doing in Cuba now, and more recently in the UAE and Oman, I would classify more as photojournalism than just fine art. I was listening to a podcast the other day and this fellow was talking about travel writing and he was saying, "To be a storyteller and use only your camera would be like being a carpenter and only using a hammer." I really resonated with that and I love writing and trying to convey or supplement the images with words so I'm doing more and more of that.

Desert Camels near Abu Dhabi [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

So who inspires you? Who's your muse, or what is your muse? What gets you up and going?
I had two instructors at Indiana University and I really credit the two of them with helping me clarify my love of photography. They were renowned photographers and they were not ivory-tower professor types. They came from the field of journalism. One was the late John Ahlhauser who died in March of this year.  He was beat up at the Democratic Convention in '68 and really active in a lot of what was going on during that tumultuous time. The other was the late Will Counts, who died several years ago. He photographed Civil Rights events in Arkansas. One of his most famous images is of a white teenager screaming at a black teenager as she enters the school and it's one that went around the world. It's a famous image. These two guys were my photo teachers and they really inspired me and made it something that I knew was going to be a part of my life going forward.

Over the years there have been many others.  I love the work of older photographers. Imogene Cunningham, Duane Michals, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. 

[At this point we had an almost comical exchange trying to remember the names of artists gone by. I’m so glad it’s not just me that has difficulty in that memory department!]

Edward Steichen who has the famous image of the Flatiron Building in New York, and Alfred Stiglitz. Some of those guys and some of those from the old world, are the people that I go back to every now and then and look at.

Other people that have been an inspiration to me are more contemporary photographers. One of my friends, Arthur Ransome. Arthur is a black and white photographer. His work is fascinating as well as his thoughts on photography.

Dewitt Jones. He’s been a mentor and an inspiration both as a photographer and as a philosopher. There is an iPhone photographer by the name of Gianluca Ricoveri. Gianluca is from Pisa, Italy, and his landscape photography is all done with an iPhone and it is absolutely beautiful and consistently so.

Robin Robertis. Robin, is an artist, there's no doubt. She was put off by the complexities of big cameras and when the iPhone came out she embraced it completely and she is doing some of today’s most incredible iPhone photography. Karen Messick is a Baltimore photographer who I've been friends with. She's a wonderful traditional photographer and iPhone photographer. Tony Sweet, another mentor and great friend over the years and John Barclay, of course; it's a dream to work with him. And I’d be remiss, if I didn’t mention photographer, Dan Burkholder. He is one of my first teachers and is one of the most knowledgeable photographers I know. I don’t know of any photographer who embraced the iPhone as early as did Dan.

Afghani Camel Man  [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

Afghani Camel Man [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

You're married to an artist, Nancy, right?
Yes. She is a metal smith.

[Yes! Yes she is. Check out her work here: Nancy Lee Designs]

Does her work inspire your photography or vice versa?
Nancy's a constant inspiration. Her creative capabilities blow me away every day. What's exciting about watching Nancy and being close to what she's doing is that not only can she envision this stuff and sketch it out and come up with incredible designs, she can then take metal and stone and make it. That's the part that just blows my mind.

I'll tell her what I like, or what I like more than other things, but she is very independent in what she does. She doesn't tell me what to do either, but she likes some stuff better than others and sometimes I listen to her suggestions and sometimes I don't. However, having an artist under the same roof with me and being able to share those kinds of things and even talking about the business and running a business space in art is really helpful.

If you could go back and give the young you some advice, specifically when it comes to photography, but any advice at all, what would it be?
If you have the drive to pursue something that moves you, do it but balance that against understanding what you're getting into and learn what you need to learn. It takes work whatever endeavor it is you're doing. It takes a commitment and it takes work to learn the things you need to learn.  It can be fun, but fun does not mean it's not work too.

Right, there's effort behind it. People look at an image and they think, "Oh, that's so easy," but what they don't understand is that there are a lot of years and a lot of experience behind making that.
I think Facebook and Instagram and all these places sort of fuel this need to have acknowledgement for what you're doing. We all strive for 'likes,' and we want comments, and we want praise and all of that, and that's great but I would say, "Don't be influenced by that. Listen to your own inner voice about what you like and just because somebody else doesn't like it doesn't mean it's not valid for you, and just because they do like it doesn't mean it's any good."

Edison Concept House, Gary, Indiana [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

This is a question I think I should start asking because it's a theme throughout my life. I'm just very curious as to what makes something good and valuable? Why is it that this image made by Ansel Adams is so brilliant but my picture of the same thing, that looks almost identical, is not? In your eyes, what makes something good?
You're asking the question about what is art? Gosh, I've heard many discussions about that and I can't give you an answer. It truly is in the eyes of the beholder. You’ve got to wonder, too, what would have happened had Ansel Adams been around today? He was doing photography at a time where he was carrying around a real load of equipment up into the mountains and it was the only way for him to do what he did. I think a lot of people, also, gave him credit for the effort he went through. My friend, Dan Burkholder, constantly reminds me that just because something is hard to do doesn't make it good in and of itself. Just because it's easy to do doesn't mean it's not of value. Honestly, I don't really know. I wonder if Ansel Adams was doing photography today if he would just be one more photographer in the sea of photographers, or would he have had distinguished himself?

The Questionaire

10. Color or black and white? — Black and white
9. Film or digital?  Digital
8. Traditional dark room or digital darkroom? Digital darkroom
7. Objects or people?  People
6. Urban jungle or pretty landscape? Landscape
5. Weddings or root canal?  Root canal
4. Would you rather be kitted out with a big load or have a Holga? – Small
3. Commercial or fine art? — Fine art
2. Tell me about the one that got away. —The last time I was in Cuba is one I chose to let go as opposed to shooting the scene. I don't regret it but there's a part of me that wishes I had made the picture, or better yet, I wish I could paint, because I would paint this image. I got up early one morning and was walking toward the Malecon. I was by myself, none of my group wanted to get up that early, and day was breaking.

As I walked toward the Malecon, there was a park bench and on that bench were two old people, a man and woman, probably in their 60s or 70s, and they were asleep in each other's arms on this bench. They were obviously homeless and they were intertwined. He was lying on her lap and she was lying on his back, like sitting up but leaning over embracing each other, asleep. I actually walked by them and thought, "I can't take this picture." Then I walked back; I changed my mind and I decided I really needed to make this photograph.

As I was about to shoot, someone else walked by and they had a dog and the dog ran up to the couple and woke them up, played with them, so I didn't have the opportunity to take the picture. Instead I walked by them and greeted them and I gave them what money I had left. They just were so grateful. I feel like that was a hard experience to let that image go, but I don't regret not having the photo.
1. Wow, so tell me about the one you're still chasing.  — Oh, gosh, my wife has a Christmas cactus that is gloriously blooming right now and I tell myself every time I walk by it that I'm going to take some photographs of those blossoms and I may do that yet today or tomorrow.

The Parting Shot

Don't be intimidated by what you haven't learned yet.

Heifers, Indiana Farm [Photo Credit: Rad A. Drew]

“Lucy & Ethel” go to the Lonaconing Silk Mill

For many years I have been hearing about, and seeing images from, an abandoned silk mill in the Western part of Maryland. I won’t tell you how I thought it was in the Eastern part up until the time I set my GPS, but that is for a completely different blog. One that is for people who have no sense of geography or direction . . . but I digress.

October 1957


And, as you can guess from the title, it was an outing with the infamous Carla. She was organizing a trip with her camera club and just happened to slip me in on the email. (It’s good to know people in high places!) Well, I couldn’t say no, could I? If you are into abandoned buildings for any reason, this is a MUST see. The mill is a complete time capsule circa 1957 complete with broken windows, cobwebs, and dust.

Bottles in a window

Number 146

When I walk around the mill I see the images in my head that were made by Lewis Hine of child labor. At the same time the song from the musical "Working" played on a loop of these lyrics: 

"Millwork ain't easy, millwork ain't hard,
Millwork it ain't nothing
But an awful boring job.
I'm waiting for a daydream
To take me through the morning
And put me in my coffee break
Where I can have a sandwich and remember

Then it's me and my machine
For the rest of the morning
For the rest of the afternoon
And for the rest of my life . . . "

Dick Tracy and Kennedy

The story of the mill, in my opinion, is more of a tragic tale of small town losing their economic base than that of a shocking find on the trail to abandoned buildings. The mill opened in the small town of Lonaconing Maryland, population around 1,500, in April of 1907. The location was perfect as the transportation infrastructure for the small town was already in place. Local iron and coal companies had built railroads in the 1840’s in order to connect with the B&O and the Chesapeake and Ohio canal railroads.




It’s interesting to see the diversity of industries represented in this area, as at the time it seemed to be more aligned with coal than fine silk, but hey if it’s going to add some jobs then why not? Here is an excerpt from the Abandoned Online website that describes the mill:

In the early years of the mill, raw silk and Douppinni, an expensive silk that was used in the production of wedding gowns, were thrown at the mill. The throwing process involved the twisting and winding of silk into a yarn that was then used by knitters and weavers. Occasionally, the silk thread was broken due to the twisting and winding of the thread onto four-inch bobbins and the operator would tie the broken strands together with a silk knot. Other employees were involved in the steaming, dying and stretching of the silk, while others worked in the shipping department, sending the processed silk product to market.



As can be expected, the great depression had an impact on the industry and the mill went through a lot of ups and downs through those years. Unfortunately when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor their actions directly affected the silk mill as the raw materials were shipped in from Japan and clearly that source would be cut off at the start of the war. What was left of the raw silk in the mill was used to produce parachute thread for the war effort.

In the basement

After the war, even though trade had opened up, the raw silk was still difficult to source so they switched to rayon which was a synthetic material much cheaper to produce. (Makes me a little scratchy just writing that . . . but I’ll try and keep my personal opinion out of this.)

Broken Windows

Inner Workings

And with the rayon, and I’m sure it wasn’t just because of the rayon, began the decline of the mill. Again, from Abandoned Online:

Employment had ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century. In September 1920, Klotz employed 359 with an average payroll of $8,491.6 That had decreased to between 70 and 80 by the summer of 1941 and just 27 by August 16. It dipped to just five workers by the end of the year. 

The number of workers increased to 30 by February 15, 1942 and 94 by late March, and with it, came the power of bargaining. Workers had requested a nickel increase in wages  to bring it up to those of the nearby Celanese textile factory, and when it was denied, the employees went on strike, prompting General Textile to close the mill on June 23, 1957. 

Only six workers remained on the payroll by the end of June. On July 7, with just five employees remaining, General Textile closed the Lonaconing mill.  A skeleton crew of four employees remained on site for several years after to maintain the building and equipment.

The impact of the mill’s closure was devastating. Lonaconing, once the center of early industry in western Maryland, was in shambles. Deep underground coal mining had all but ceased and glass factories that once employed hundreds had begun to close.



Now, when you enter the doors, you can see how it was left. The bins where employees left their personal items still contain things like shoes and containers of noxema skin cream. The dust and mold remains intact and just covered with additional cobwebs. There are oil drums, manufacturing machinery, as well as spool after empty spool.

Noxema & Shoes


The mill was purchased in 1978 by Herbert Crawford. He purchased it with the hope of bringing it back to life, but that never happened. It is now listed as one of Americas 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. It is described as “the only remaining silk mill in the US with its machinery, company records and workers personal effects remaining unchanged from the time that the factory ceased operations.”

Mill Operations

The Mill

Well, that last part isn’t quite true since Herb now opens it up on occasion to looky loos and photographers. And if you know photographers you know how much they like to re-arrange things for the perfect composition.

Prince Albert in a Can

Oil Cans

It is an extraordinary place. And I can’t stress enough what it’s like to stand in a time capsule like this. I hope Herb is able to get the funding he needs to repair the droopy roof because if he doesn’t get it done soon a roof collapse probably means no more entry and that would be a very sad day for many photographers. Me and Carla included.


Ellis Island : Memories of a Kinder America

This summer I was very fortunate to take a photography tour of Ellis Island. Not the clean and shiny museum that hundreds of people visit daily, but the crumbling back lot of Ellis Island that’s held together with cobwebs and mold. 

It was so exciting to have access to areas not open to the public. It’s where I met John McInnes, one of a small but mighty group of people who are working passionately to keep this part of our history alive.

I learned much more from him than I had ever dreamed. Who knew that in 1998 Ellis Island was officially divided in half? One half went to New Jersey and the other half to New York. (It’s complicated.) And there were no Green Cards. A passenger who got off the ship and passed legal and medical inspection was just sent off to be a happy worker bee. No strings attached. 

Forty percent of the 12 and a half million people who came through Ellis Island lived right in New York City. Most of those people ended up working in the factories. Others went to cities like Chicago, Detroit, or Pittsburgh. They built our cities. They worked in the mines and the factories doing the hard, dirty jobs that many Americans didn’t want .

The closed area of Ellis Island, where I spent my day, was home to the Immigrant Hospital, the first public health hospital in the United States. It was one of the most extensive public health systems in the world, treating a range of diseases such as tuberculosis, trachoma and diphtheria. (Cholera patients, I learned, were quarantined at Hoffman or Swinburne islands off the Staten Island coast.)There were 22 buildings and during peak years more than 300 staff people, many of whom lived on the grounds. You’d think there’d be ghost stories, but John wouldn’t tell.  

Today, when Immigration is such a touchy subject, it was refreshing to sit down and learn its history. It’s sad to see how welcoming we once were and how forbidding some people want us to be today. No, the system was never perfect. But it seems to me that there was a time when we did the right thing. 

John expresses it beautifully on his tours:

 “These people came here, our hospitals restored their health, and then we sent them off to do the nastiest work available. And for this, they gave up everything.  Friends, family, even their language, just to come here.  They’d been told that the streets in America were paved with gold, but they learned three things, fast.  One, the streets weren’t paved with gold. Two, many streets weren't even paved at all. Three, we expected them to pave the streets. It’s important to honor these people, to go to places like Ellis Island and see what they had to go through, just to get work. They didn’t ask for anything beyond that. They weren’t that different from people who sneak across the border today, to find work. Some Americans think they’re here to get handouts and welfare benefits, and I’m not saying there aren't people who do. But many of them quietly live in the shadows and do the work that no one else wants to do.”

The question of immigration, like all things political, is not a simple black and white picture. It is murky, gray, and difficult. And I think this little man-made island that sits on the border of New York and New Jersey has some history lessons for us. I truly believe that we need to preserve this place and these stories of the past so that we can learn from them.   

Here’s more of my conversation with him.

Ellis Island Hospital

Can you give me a broad history of Ellis Island?
Before Ellis Island opened in 1892, immigration was a state responsibility. The United States government decided to make it a federal operation so they moved all immigration out of New York City, first to Castle Garden in lower Manhattan, and then to an island in New York harbor called Ellis Island. They built the immigration station in 1892 to be the primary entry point for people from Europe, Africa and South America. Although many people did enter through Boston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, the vast majority came through Ellis Island.

From 1892 to 1954, 12 and a half million people were processed at Ellis Island. In 1924 immigration laws became stricter, mostly because of political pressure from Americans who believed too many southern and eastern Europeans were arriving. Now, you’d have to apply for a visa and have your health inspection in your home country before you came here.

So, from 1924 until it closed in 1954, the Ellis Island mission changed from immigration to deportation. It became a barbed wire enclosed camp for processing detainees and deportees.  

When it was a detention camp in WWII, who were they detaining?
Some of the detainees were German merchant mariners, seamen captured on the high seas. The majority were German- and Italian-Americans who were sympathetic to the Axis powers.  Most of these people had families, so our great hall, where all immigrants had been processed, became a kind of a day room where people could relax and have a sense of community. Ellis Island was actually a barbed wire enclosed camp from the mid 1920’s until it closed in 1954.

Ellis Island Hospital

Were there any German-American, Italian-America, or Japanese Americans who may have been suspected for espionage held there? 
Anyone who was suspected of espionage would have gone to a federal facility. Ellis Island was really for low-level individuals considered to be undesirable because of their sympathies to, say, the German Bund. Hence many of the families were deported after the end of World War II. It's kind of shocking to realize that children who had lived in the United States their entire lives were deported back to Germany, a war-torn and unfamiliar country. 

Ellis Island was the largest Immigration center at the time it was in operation. Why is that? 
It just made sense. New York was a large city that could accommodate the huge influx of Europeans and had a complex train system that could move them south and southeast. And New York needed immigrant labor to keep the city growing.

Ellis Island Hospital (Laundry)

Ellis Island was where the third-class passengers were processed. The first and second-class stayed on the boat, were processed on the boat, and then sent on their merry way. Can you talk a little bit about that process?
The Bureau of Immigration was in the Department of Commerce and Labor so everyone who came to the United States was expected to find work here. If you could afford a second or first-class ticket, the belief was you could likely find a job, that you’d been successful in Europe and would continue to be successful here. The third-class passengers, often farmers and low-skilled people, were assumed to need legal and medical screening. They had to show the physical ability to do manual laborer

Legally, passengers had to have at least 25 dollars with them, and have a good idea of where they wanted to go. Processing time could be three to five hours. You spent most of that time sitting and waiting for an inspector to hear your family's case.

Ellis Island Hospital 

What about the medical exam?
It was somewhat cursory. The doctors checked for illnesses that could be determined just by looking at the face. Typically that would be runny eyes, red eyes, runny nose, cough. They didn't try to diagnose you. They just gave you 6 seconds of assessment and then they'd move you one way or the other. They might send you to the hospital for further inspection, basically a physical. From there, they determined whether you were suffering from the effects of your journey or were truly sick.

Ellis Island Hospital (Mattress decontamination)

Then what happened?
They would try to cure you, or at least try to assess the treatment you needed and its cost. In the early years, the immigrant was expected to pay for treatment, and if you couldn’t pay you’d be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Art Installation)

How would a poor immigrant be able to pay for that type of thing?
Typically, the immigrant would sign a bond. Ellis Island authorities would say, "To treat your disease, like trachoma, you may be in the hospital four or five months for $2 a day." The family would then sign a bond, kind of a loan to say, "We will repay this." If the immigrant couldn't pay, Ellis Island authorities would lean on immigrant aid societies for help. If they expected the immigrant would never be able to pay the bill, he or she would be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Art Installation)

Are there any statistics on how many people actually paid back that money and how much money was paid back?
No. Record keeping was poor. Often, authorities would waive whatever bill was due. In other cases, they would ask Congress to eliminate the debt.  Sometimes the immigrant disappeared. Finally, in 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that the government would pay for healthcare for all immigrants.

Ellis Island Hospital

How generous of us!
We were profiting from their labor. We needed them to do the work. And there was certainly a limit to what was acceptable. If you were going to be at Ellis Island for months, the government wouldn't pay, but if they thought you'd only be hospitalized for three weeks with diphtheria,
they would.

We’ve seen an eye ward and a psych ward, and there was a general ward and autopsy room. What did they do with people who died?
No one was buried here. Often they would just wrap the body in antiseptic liniments and return it to the family or immigrant aid societies like Catholic and Jewish charities. Or the bodies might be sent to potter's fields around the New York area. There was a potter's field in Jersey City and one in Hart Island in New York, which is still New York City’s potter's field. Some bodies were sent to a cemetery in Queens. 

Ellis Island Hospital (Autopsy Room)

Ellis Island Hospital (Room off autopsy room)

Ellis Island Hospital (Room off autopsy room)

What did they do with psychiatric cases? 
If you were determined to be feeble-minded, you would find yourself in a deportation hearing where your family had to prove they could care for you. If you were classified as a low-level feeble-minded individual, or moron, they might let you immigrate to states that needed laborers, say in the south and the southwest, but you had to show you could likely find work, and it would help if you had family there. Otherwise, a feeble-minded young man traveling alone might be deported. If you were an older individual without family, you would be deported. If you were a woman without family, you would definitely be deported.

Ellis Island Hospital (Stairway)

They used the words feeble-minded and moron?
Yes. There are actually 3 classifications of feeble-minded. Idiot, imbecile, and moron.

It was the science of the day, when you think about it. These intelligence tests were developed in Europe and brought to the United States, where Congress wanted a scientific method to determine who should be allowed in. They would test children. They would test teenagers. They would test all individuals at all ages levels if they suspected someone might be feeble-minded. Then they would classify you as idiot, imbecile, or moron and determine whether or not you could enter the United States. 

This system did lead to eugenics and certainly Adolf Hitler took advantage of these kinds of tests. So it evolved badly. But it was the science of the day.

Ellis Island Hospital

Were people tested in their own language? 
Yes. Often the translators would just answer the question for the immigrant because they knew the tests were culturally biased.  An immigrant couldn’t identify a cup or a saucer out of a bunch of pictures because most likely they've never seen a cup and saucer, or an iron, or an umbrella. 

Our most famous translator was Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York. He said he answered questions for the immigrants all the time. He thought the tests were a ridiculous assessment of a person’s merit or capacity to work.

On our tour, someone mentioned a rumor that a prominent New York family was trying to get a family member into the hospital. Do you know who that was?
No. I’ve heard that story too. A lot of people did this, because they knew the doctors here had treated just about every disease known to man. 

Ellis Island Hospital

What determined a person’s immigration point?
Some cheaper steamship tickets would take you to Baltimore, but most immigrants wanted to go where they knew they were going to find work, so they came to New York and worked their way west.  Once in New York, they tended to collect in the small ethnic communities that are still here today.

Did people send letters to their home countries, encouraging others to come here, and coaching them on how to make it through Ellis Island?
Yes. The steamship companies also worked with people to make sure that they understood how to behave during immigration processing. Immigrant aid societies also helped. Typically, though, a factory owner would turn to some of the better employees and say, "Don't you have a brother-in-law in Italy? We're looking for workers. Would you think about bringing your brother-in-law over?"

Ellis Island Hospital

So people were really working together. There was no conspiracy to keep you out?
No.  Newspapers back home would often publish stories about local people who’d come to the United States and were making it. Readers got a sense that it would just work out, and you’d feel at home. Steamship companies would plant many of those stories to encourage immigration.

Did immigrants go home again?
Many people did go home because they had either made enough money to live comfortably there, or they just didn't like the United States. But typically, the third-class berth compartments on a passenger ship would go back to Europe filled with freight.

You mean third-class passengers were good for the exporting process?
Yes, in a way. Steamships were used to ship exports to Europe. With third-class passengers to fill the bottom of the boat, steamship companies had a commodity to bring into the United States, and other commodities to ship back. They made money both ways.

Ellis Island Hospital

What else would you like us to know?
Many people don’t know that during World War II the Ellis Island hospital was actually a psychiatric hospital. These were soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress, combat fatigue, and shell shock. When you go into some of the pavilions, there are hydrotherapy wards, electroshock therapy wards, and restraint rooms. This was the infancy of psychiatric work.

Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution came to help. They had no idea how to help these men with the psychological wounds of war, so they had the soldiers do a lot of creative things, like knitting. When you go into some of the attics, you still see piles of yarn from the isolation wards. It was very well intended work. The soldiers made handbags and pocketbooks and oven mitts and the DAR would sell them. Just imagine coming back from your war experiences, and someone's asking you to knit.

Ellis Island Hospital (Hallway)

Did it work?
There's no real documentation of the work that was done. Just looms left behind. It’s sad that we threw millions of people into battle and then realized we couldn't treat the invisible wounds they would bring home. It makes you appreciate what soldiers go through today when they come back from war. 

Why do you think Ellis Island has captured our imaginations?
America's always had a love/hate relationship with immigrants. We enjoy the story but we have problems with the reality. The myth is that back in the good old days, people all came with their little bags and they were all very humble and earnest, and the inspectors were very good judges of who should be allowed in, and everything was done neatly and properly. But it wasn’t. Immigration was just as messy and political then as it is today. 

We are one of the few immigrant nations on the face of the Earth, but we don’t always recognize that. 

Ellis Island Hospital

Why do we want to make sure that these buildings stay with is? What's the point?
I think for a country to build a hospital that's specifically for immigrants, for third-class passengers, for complete strangers who are the poorest of the poor, is something to be proud of.  The United States chose to spend political will and capital on the poorest of Europe's poor. These people were considered undesirables.  They were Catholics, Jews, Poles, Russians,
Not as popular as the West Europeans who had come here earlier.  Just to know that they built this hospital for these people speaks well for citizens of the United States at the turn of the century.

Today, we’ve moved immigration out of the Department of Commerce into the Department of Homeland Security. This says that we see these same immigrants as a threat to our way of life.  
It’s an amazing turn.

Thank you, John.

One final, compelling thought . . .
This amazing place that welcomed so many of our ancestors–the people who built the America we live in–won’t last without help.  If you are compelled to learn more or to help preserve this historic site for the next generation, please visit saveellisisland.org

Ellis Island Hospital

Creative Crushing

This morning I watched a live Facebook broadcast of producer Kelsey Padgett from Radio Lab give a talk on the “Anatomy of An Episode.” It was a wonderful talk on how they create an episode of the radio and eventual podcast. (If you don’t know the show, run do not walk to iTunes and start listening. You won’t be disappointed!)

Within the process of creating an episode there is what she calls the “Fail Flail.” Essentially, they fail a lot but they keep moving it forward. Fail, fix, fail, fix, fail . . . all the while flailing. I get it. This is my process!

Round and round and round we go . . .

At some point there is a review with the editor. That point where you show off your baby. It’s still in draft mode and very much your baby. You hand over your product expecting some applause, even if it’s polite cocktail applause, and the response is . . . crickets. Not even a resounding, “Hmmm. Not bad!” Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Zero. This is creative crushing. This is the moment you want to take your baby, your red face, and crawl under the closest desk. 

For the past year I have been interviewing photographers. Photographers who are very good at what they do. Photographers who seem, at least to me, to walk with a sense of confidence of their craft. Confidence that the image they just posted on Facebook or their Instagram account is good. Or even brilliant. People like John Barclay, Chuck Kimmerle, Howard Grill, and Louise Shoemaker. In their interviews they all stated that you have to make images for yourself and not others. Their confidence is all inward and not outward.

French Creek Triathlon

That’s where Creative Crushing comes in for me. I hang my head in shame admitting that I don’t take kindly to the “crickets”. While I don’t post something on Facebook and then sit and wait for the “likes” to come in, I admit to disappointment when I do see something I have posted sit out there like a scared baby deer in the middle of a vast empty field trying to find it’s way back to mama. Sometimes I feel like creating art brings out the child in me. Not the fun child where you are free to create, but the whining child crying for some attention and validation.


I remember one of the first photos I took where I was so proud of my accomplishment. Visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial in Taipei we watched a military guard ceremony. This was a time when I was shooting with a medium format film camera. On day one, I saw the image I wanted to make and went back on day two to capture it. Weeks later, when I got into the darkroom, I had goosebumps. I got it! It was exactly as I had wanted. I was bursting with pride. When I finished the print, hours later, and pulled it from the dryer there I stood waiting for the oohs and aahhhsss…


The darkroom was full of people. Everyone looked over everyone’s shoulder to ooh and aah… And nothing. I got bupkis. I wanted to scream, “Don’t you understand? It’s exactly what was in my head! And I did it!”

Cheng Kai-Shek Memorial

Now in the days of social media where there is immediate feedback and gratification through likes, re-tweets, and Google analytics the creative crushing is resounding. A few years ago I did a “Photo A Day Challenge.” We were given a word for the day and needed to create an image based on that word. One day the word was “Odd.” I did a self portrait that I thought was beyond brilliant. I posted it to the group. Nothing. NOTHING! Nothing? Why, this is absolutely freaking brilliant! If this image does not depict “Odd” I don’t know what does!  On my own Facebook page there were no less than 30 comments filled with laughter and knowing nods to the brilliance of it. 


This was still creative crushing for me because the people that I needed to impress were photographers. Not my friends. My friends will like what I do because, well, they are my friends and that’s what friends do. When the jury of your peers turn their back and say “meh” . . . it’s creative crushing.

I continue the quest of interviewing photographers in hopes of finding the secret sauce. In the meantime I guess what I need to do is keep up the fail flail and practice my way to self-confidence.

Abandoned Ellis Island


Candid Conversations: Karen Commings

Karen Commings

Karen Commings
Street Photographer
Harrisburg, PA



My first career was in the theater, and in the theater we had a saying: “There are only 20 people who work in this business and by the time you’re done you’ll have met them all.” I’m starting to believe it’s the same in the world of photography. It’s all about connections, and once connected, well, you’re pretty much in for life. When I put out the call in search of a photographer who did something other than landscapes, and was preferably female, my people did not disappoint!

I am now happily connected to Karen Commings. (Who, as it turns out, is nearly a neighbor!). Karen is a 69-year-old retired librarian, who has had many vocations. She has been a columnist for Cat Fancy Magazine, wrote seven cat books, one dog book and is also a short story writer. Now she can add street photographer to the list. Karen is intriguing to me for a few reasons. For one thing, this is an avocation that she found later in life. (I love late bloomers!) And she is a street photographer. An activity I love to look at from afar but don’t partake in because it scares me to no end. (People . . . scary.)

 It fascinates me why individuals pick up photography either as a hobby or as a profession.  My personal observation is that if it is not a profession from the start people pick it up later in life. They dabble through their early years, possibly through their middle years, but all of a sudden it becomes an obsession in the post -50 years. Some of it may have to do with having the available time or money, but I think there is something else to it. I’m not sure what, but I’m determined to find out. (Maybe I’ll make it a new series. Photographers who are late bloomers!)

In the meantime I’ll keep working on the unresolved question that plagues me. Why do we do this thing called photography?

Eat It [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography?
I had a Brownie box camera. When I was in 7th grade I took photos through a microscope for the science fair. My Dad built me a stand so I could put the camera on it and practice how long I had to keep the shutter open for various things. It wasn’t a very powerful microscope. I would take photos of things around the house like fabrics and thread. Just stuff. It was really fun.

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
I have to separate out the street photography from the other types of photography. The street photography I do fairly consistently. I periodically take trips to New York because it’s easier in New York than it is here. I try to make it about telling a story. It’s not enough for me to just take a picture of someone crossing the street or using their cell phone or other common activity.   There has to be a narrative or emotion associated with it. I ask the viewer to try and figure out what is happening or ask the questions in their own mind.

I like photographing architecture. I have a whole series of photographs of industrial sites.  Many of my photos I convert to black and white because I think there is more of an emotional impact. With color you are looking at the color and thinking “oh,  gee, that’s a pretty picture.” Black and white images seem to force people to look at something else. You look at the patterns; the shapes, the lines, or the creases in someone’s face. It seems to elicit more of an emotional response.

What is your process? When you take a photo, do you think, “This is going to be black and white?” And / or in your post processing, what are you looking at to determine this warrants black and white process as opposed to color? When you are talking about eliciting an emotional response what is going on in your mind when you are making these processing decisions?
When I go out to do street photography, this is going to sound really weird, I am not thinking about processing. I am not thinking about photography. I’m really not thinking about shutter speed or aperture. I set those things  beforehand based on light conditions and I go out with a clear mind so I can respond to what is happening. If you are thinking about all of those things, the different decisions you have to make about taking a picture, you miss the moments. Those moments occur in a nanosecond. You have to be able to predict that something is going to happen even a few seconds before it does. If you wait for it to happen, the moment will be over by the time you get the camera to your eye.

I just see street photography in terms of black and white generally. I do have some color work, but the color work I do is more on the order of Sally Davies. She does slice of life street photography.  It’s a block on the street or a storefront on the street and people walking by. Nothing particular is happening, just life. In a fluid sense it’s simply the street and what’s going on, but it’s not the kind of story telling or emotionally impactful photo that I like to take. So I tend to leave those in color. She works in color too and, like I said, it’s slice of life.

With my black and white street photography I feel there has to be a narrative. I could probably describe it more when looking at certain images.

Three Faces of Steve [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

How did the street photography come about?
I belong to a camera club and one of the things our president does is schedule field trips to view other photographers’ work. I was on several field trips where I saw street photography and the one in Washington DC was a turning point.

It was in 2014 that I saw the Garry Winogrand exhibit and I had made up my mind before we went on the field trip that I was going to do some street photography. I spent about 4 hours in the afternoon at the mall shooting. It just grew from there. It wasn’t really a conscious attempt to become a street photographer, it just piqued my interest and then one thing led to another. In September of that year, I attended a 3-day street photography workshop in New York conducted by the In-Public Group. That was really helpful.

Lost Souls [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Why photography as a medium?
I haven’t stopped writing. And I was painting for about seven years as well.  It’s been all of these different outlets. When you are writing or painting you are sitting in your studio or your room or office by yourself. You aren’t having people over while you are writing your novel.

Doing things with the camera club has been so great! I get out. I’m not cooped up in my office all day. I’m out with other photographers and we have a blast. It’s social as well as artistic. In fact yesterday three of us went to an antique mall to photograph and then had lunch. It’s fun. There is nothing deep or heavy about it. It’s just fun.

Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others?
Street photography is pretty much it.  For other types it’s more of a conscious effort. Like my series of Industrial sites.  I have to stay alert when I’m doing that. I try to do it on Sundays when the places are closed. I don’t know how well I would be received photographing these places. Several of them are featured as a Merit Portfolio in the current issue (#116) of Black & White magazine. That was a special award for me. These things offer me some credibility when sales may be lacking.

I have to say that street photography is about it. If I were a landscape photographer I might feel that way being out in the field, but I don’t do landscape photography and I don’t enjoy studio photography that much either.

I like observing people. I feel I can do it by staying inconspicuous and without immersing myself in what’s happening.

He's An Asshole [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

I generally don’t like to ask technical questions but I think for this it’s important. How do you prepare yourself and your camera before you get out to the street?
I shoot manually with one exception.  I use auto focus because the camera can focus faster than I can. I generally set my ISO when I go out. I want an ISO where it’s not overly grainy but will give me the fastest shutter speed.  I may change the aperture periodically depending on where I am and how much background I want in the photograph.

In New York when you walk block-to-block it can be in complete shade or complete sun. With the camera I am using now, a Fuji  X100S, all of the dials are on the outside with numbers on them. I don’t have to look at a screen to see what the shutter speed is changing to. Same with the aperture.  As I’m walking I’ll change those settings as I’m moving. If I have doubts I’ll just point the camera somewhere, take a picture, and then check to see if it’s right.

Are you self-taught as far as composition? Is it something you studied or does it come naturally?
Partly natural. I have a degree in Art History. I’ve studied it. I tend to look for balance. And I think I’ve always done that.

When I see street photography that is really compelling and tells a story it can often times be compositionally “incorrect” or technically poor quality. My question to you is, why is okay for a street photographer to have these things that are not perfect but it’s not okay for the landscape photographer to have things that are a little off?
It is okay for the landscape photographer. Fine Art Photography, or Art Photography, as opposed to photojournalism really tells what the photographer is seeing. It’s not to tell you what the landscape looked like or what the street looked like. It’s how the photographer views it. So if the photographer wants to skew a landscape or have things out of focus, well, go for it. I’ve seen landscapes that aren’t perfect. I think you’re right, though, that there is more of a tendency with landscape photography to show what’s there, but I’ve seen landscapes that are blurred to a point where they become an abstract. John Barclay related a story during the camera club workshop about Ansel Adams getting hate mail from someone who visited the national parks and was disappointed that they didn’t look like his photographs.

No Takers [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

When you are out there, are you thinking about these perfection things? Are you thinking through all of those compositional things?
No. You should be experienced enough to understand composition, but you can also break the rules of composition. Maybe you want the background in focus or maybe you don’t. If I go out and shoot a parade and someone is coming down the street on the float. I may or may not want the people on the other side of the street to be in focus. When I am doing street photography I am not always conscious of these things. 

There is a photograph I took in New York on Halloween. What attracted me about this gentleman was his funny hat. Behind him were these two posters looking at me. I didn’t realize it until I got home and  uploaded  the photo. It must have registered in some way because I included them in the composition. I arranged the image so it included all three faces, but I was surprised to see them when I uploaded the photo. I think it happens a lot. I’m not thinking about camera settings and composition. A lot of it is gut instinct.

Blow [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

How do you prepare mentally or emotionally?
That’s an interesting question. Because I have had at least one trip to New York where I was going with high expectations and it was a total bomb.  I got no photos that I really liked. So the next time I decided I was going to go and have a good time I’m not going to expect anything. Whatever comes along comes along and that’s fine. I’ll just deal with that.  And it was so much better. I ended up crisscrossing Manhattan for four and a half hours. I got some interesting shots. So it’s just better for me not to have expectations and to just go with the moment.

Do you ever ask people permission to take their photos? Do you run into people who are aggressive with you? What is that experience like?
If people are in a public place there is no expectation of privacy in this country. I’ve only once had someone be aggressive about it. I photographed a guy on the NY streets selling clothes to a woman from a suitcase, probably hot merchandise. They both started yelling at me so I just continued walking. I knew he wouldn’t follow me because he would have probably had his stuff stolen. I have had people who have been surprised, and I usually start a conversation with them. Most people are flattered. I do have some photos where people are actually giving me the evil eye. There are times when I ask and if I photograph kids I usually will ask the parents.

There was one image I happened to look at this morning. There was a Culture Fest here in Harrisburg. There was a woman walking around with a dog on her shoulder. I asked her if she minded getting her photo taken. People with dogs seem to love having their photo taken. She said it was fine so I took a couple and then she finally turned away from me and the dog’s tongue came out and I took the shot in profile.  And that was the best one I got. When she wasn’t aware.

There have been times when someone says no and I will respect that. Typically I try to be inconspicuous. The times that I’m taking “street portraits” I will ask them first. But if there is an event unfolding I just try and get the shot.

Untitled#1 [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Did that come easy for you? To approach strangers and ask them?
It comes easy. Sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable depending on what the event is. I’ve chosen to not photograph certain things, such as homeless people and just walk away.  Sometimes you take someone’s picture and it startles them, so I will usually say something. Compliment them. “Oh, I love your hair,” or “I love your outfit.” And then, a lot of times, they will pose for me.

Most people are nice about it. And in New York, especially, everybody has cameras and everybody is getting photographed all the time. I’m probably in some photographs somewhere too!

How do you keep it fresh?
In this area, where I live, my friends and I typically go to First Friday celebrations. And we often go to Lancaster. Sometimes we go down there and there’s nothing. And then there are other times we find a lot of things to photograph. And sometimes it just has to do with your own mood.  How well you are seeing. You can’t always control that so you just have to keep going.

I’m not one to stop. I hardly got out to photograph this winter because it was so cold. But I feel like if I don’t get out and shoot I’m losing my touch. That’s actually what gets stale. I have to keep going. And I’m a person who just doesn’t give up easily. So I can make trips to a half a dozen places and if it doesn’t work out I go to a half dozen more. It’s just what I do.

What do you do on those days where you do go out and just don’t have it?
I usually go out with other people unless I’m specifically doing street photography. That I like to do by myself. But when I do go out with people, we will go out and split up and meet in an hour or so. If nothing is happening you shoot what you can and then maybe something comes out of that. Because sometimes it does. When you’re feeling your worst and you get a shot that you really like it will change things.

I don’t know that I have ever gone out and said, “Ugh. There’s nothing,” and then come home empty handed. You have to find something. You have to keep your eyes open. You can’t wait for something to present itself. Look in the corners. Look at the textures.  Photograph something. Take away something. It’s digital. It’s not costing you anything.

This comes out of a “Photo a Day” project I did for a year. I had heard John Barclay speak at one of our camera club workshops. He was so inspiring. The next day I was out at a pet sitting client’s house and happened to have the camera in the car. It was spring and her magnolia tree was in bloom. I took a photo of the magnolias. It’s common. Everybody photographs them. It’s like “so what?” It was just so pretty! And I thought, “I’m going to do this every day.” And during that year I took more than 20,000 photos. Every day I either went somewhere or if the weather was too awful I did something in the house. A lot of those days were really uninspired. A lot of those photographs were really bad, but it was the best learning experience I ever had. I learned so much during that year.

Nighthawkers [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

So, what did you learn?
Well, do you want a list? [Hell, ya!] You learn how to shoot. You learn about exposure. You learn about depth of field. You learn how your camera works. You learn about lighting. You learn about all of the things a photographer puts together to take a picture. And the more you practice it the better you become. And I just learned that practice is what it takes. But I think the most important thing I learned was how to see, how to look at something and see a photograph in it, not of it but in it.

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer?
Keeping up with the software. Oh my god! I post-process in Lightroom and am comfortable with that, but don’t use Photoshop. I have Elements but some of that escapes me. Specifically layers. Which is not something I do with street photography. I think that’s why I haven’t really pursued it. Because the photographs I take are not ones you would use some of those advanced techniques for.  The software and the technology is my biggest challenge.

Do you sell your work?
Yes. I try. While I was out in Death Valley earlier this year, my street photography was on exhibit at the Harrisburg Art Association. People don’t typically buy Street Photography. It’s usually what you put in a book. I do have work in a gallery in Harrisburg and I’ve had work in other galleries in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Every Memorial Day weekend there is an arts fest in Harrisburg and our camera club has a booth so we can sell our work there.

What do you find is the biggest challenge facing professional photographers today?
I don’t know that I can speak to professional photographers. There are a lot of people taking  a lot of photos. It seems like the market is saturated. Everybody with a cell phone can take photos and some of them can be very good. I think the challenge is that there is not as big of a market for the amount of photography that is out there so finding a market niche is what’s challenging if you want to sell your work.

Also, I looked into doing books and what it takes. When I was writing, I was writing non-fiction books, you would get an advance and people wanted to publish them. But it seems like it’s difficult to get a publisher to do a photography book.

Untitled#2 [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
There are particular street photographers I like. If we go back to this photo-a-day project that I started, it was John Barclay’s presentation to our camera club workshop that inspired me to start that.  And he’s a landscape photographer. But he wasn’t pedaling landscape photography. It was about being creative and following your passion.

Chuck Kimmerle has been my favorite landscape photographer. In fact, the year I was doing the photo-a-day project I saw an article in one of the photography magazines specializing in black and white photography and he was featured. That’s where I first came into contact with his landscape photography. I loved the minimal works.

As far as street photographers I guess one of my biggest favorites is Joseph Koudelka. He emigrated from the Czech Republic and I got his book Exiles. The first thing that popped into my head was that all of the photos that need to be taken have been taken. You can just stop now. It’s dark and grainy work, but impactful emotionally.

Vivian Maier. I love her work. Also, Alex Webb who actually does a fair amount of color. Robert Frank’s The Americans. Boy there are so many – Trent Parke who does wonderful things with light and shadow. I read Erik Kim. He posts a lot of things on his blog like 10 things that “so and so” taught me about photography. He deals with different photographers and they are always interesting. I think it’s important as a photographer to become familiar with the history of photography and those whose work lives on.

One For the Money [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

I want to go back to your statement “Everything that needs to be taken has already been taken.” How do you get over that hurdle and tell yourself, “No. I have things to say and my things to say are also important.” How do you jump that hurdle to go out and continue?
I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. You just go out and do. I don’t quit. That’s all I can say. Okay, I’m impressed with those photos and I’m awestruck, but I have a voice too and I’m going to keep going and see where it goes. And I think that’s part of it. Just not knowing where it goes. I don’t know what the end result is. I don’t know what the end goal is. There seems to be none. It’s the journey that makes it interesting.

Have you surprised yourself?
Yeah. One of the fellows that came to see my exhibit at the Art Association said, “You really crop in unusual ways. It’s not the typical way to crop but it really works.” I started going through my photos and it’s not the typical way to crop, but, yes, it does work. Sometimes a viewer can offer insights that you miss about your own work.

I hadn’t realized that there was a continuum of that. I try to crop in camera. I’m not opposed to cutting off the top of people’s heads to get the focus and to get the viewer to see what I want them to see. It was surprising to hear someone notice that and then see it in so many photos in the exhibit because I hadn’t noticed it as a characteristic of my work.  Others have commented on the layers in each photograph (not layers as in Photoshop, but visual layers). It’s a result of me wanting the photo to tell a story. The presence of background or foreground activity separate from the main subject is what gives the photo a narrative. It’s nice when people see that.

Laughter Is The Best Medicine [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be?
It would be the kind of advice that John Barclay gave everybody in his keynote. Don’t stop believing in yourself. Follow your passion. Keep doing what you love to do in spite of what everyone tells you not to. I was constantly told when I was a kid, “Oh, artists are a dime a dozen you want to go into business.” I heard that over and over and over again from my father so that’s what I did. I regret that.

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White? – Black and White
9. Film or Digital? – Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? – Digital
7. Objects or People? – People
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Urban Jungle
5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Root Canal (colonoscopy, speaking in public…)
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Holga? – Neither (fixed lens Fuji x100 s 23 mm lens)
3. Commercial or Fine Art? – Fine art
2. Tell me about the one that got away.  – There have been lots. One occurred in Philly. I had parked myself at a street corner to photograph and was looking around. While I was gawking, a group of 8 or 10 young women walked across the street all wearing the same white sunglasses. It was really funny but I couldn’t get myself in position in front of them fast enough to take the shot. I kicked myself for the rest of the day. I can still see them crossing the street even without a photo to remind me.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – Well, one of the things is a project involving amusement parks, but I don’t want to go into any more detail than that. [Editors note: We’ll be waiting!]

The Parting Shot

If you only go out once a month or do photographs only when you are in a certain place, like traveling or something, you don’t grow as a photographer. You might get some good shots, but to grow you have to practice your art.

The Party's Over [Photo Credit: Karen Commings]

Candid Conversations: Nancy LeVine

Nancy LeVine

Nancy LeVine

Nancy LeVine
Professional Photographer
Seattle, WA


Senior Dogs Across America (Available at Amazon)

When I started doing interviews with Photographers I wasn’t exactly sure what I was after, but it only took a few to understand that what I wanted to get out of these conversations is not the “how” but the “why.” I am not interested in how these photographers achieve their success on a technical level. I don’t care about “what’s in their bag.” What I want to find out is the “why” of it all. What is it about taking a picture? And what is the difference in the “why” of me going out and shooting some landscapes as opposed to my friend “Jane” who loves to take photos of herself and post them on Facebook. They are all images, but they clearly have different meanings and, to some degree, different values. (I promise this is not a jab at “Jane.”) 

I have had many conversations, but I think this latest one has me turning a corner. I still don’t have the answers, but for some reason I feel I am closer. To say I am very excited about this interview is an understatement! This conversation was also a little personal for me. For those that know me, you know about our dear departed Winnie. Our dog of 15 ½ years, that was our faithful companion, and is now gone. Through her golden years I began to really appreciate Senior dogs and what they mean to us. Nancy LeVine is known for her work shooting Senior Dogs. Being able to talk to her about that project was worth every moment. (I'm excited to say that her latest book has just been released by Schiffer Publishing!)

When I called her, thinking our conversation would mostly revolve around her photographs of dogs, I was surprised at the depth of her work. (I shouldn’t have been, as I knew Nancy when she was an adviser on my Thesis Project at the Photographic Center Northwest a few years back.) Nancy has an amazing background and body of work. And what is most compelling is that she exudes a confidence I rarely see in women. She is not arrogant by any stretch of the imagination, but she knows who she is and what she brings to the table as a professional photographer.  What I wouldn’t give to have some of that. 

Red 12 years oldNew Haven, Connecticut [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography?
I had a camera in my hand from a very early age. My dad was a serious hobbyist so I grew up with cameras and photography.  He gave me my first camera when I was about 5 or 6 years old. 

Did you study photography in school?
My major was Film Studies and Photography. But I decided that I was better suited for photography because in film, back then, there was a hierarchy of so many people that it seemed difficult to navigate. With photography you are just yourself. That was a comfortable place for me. 

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
There is a term I have used and it’s “Recognition of the Other.” Whatever you are photographing, whether it be another person or a dog or a tree or a still life of a building, the people who are brilliant about it have a deep resonance with whatever it is they are photographing. They are not just seeing their subject in that two-dimensional sense. They are seeing it, feeling it, and they are imbuing it. It’s hard to put a finger on it in language, but something happens and it’s trans-formative. What I want to do is to find the voice of whatever it is I am photographing so it feels palpable and not just a thing that you are looking at on a piece of paper.

How did that translate to your Fashion Photography?
When I was doing catalogs, they were catalogs where you make lovely pretty pictures and make sure the clothes look good. When I was doing editorial work in Paris, I shot it almost journalistically. I would look at the clothes and get the right face, the right location, and make it seem almost real or documentary-like so there was some authenticity there. Yes, I was creating, but it felt real. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, she’s wearing a pretty dress and she’s standing on the corner and she’s looking ‘whatever’.” It was more like there’s that woman on the corner and I just happened to capture her. Everything I have done has been done in the same way. I shoot dogs in the same way I shot fashion. It’s just the way I see.

And what was the catalyst that brought you into the Fashion Industry?
Something just clicked after I got out of college. My mother had a strong fashion influence in my life. She had a store in St. Thomas. I grew up in the Virgin Islands. She always had great taste and an excitement about fashion that she shared with her kids. My dad had the photography thing. I guess I made the decision one day that this is what I could be doing. I moved to New York City, went out on my own and did it.

You did Fashion for 18 years. Did you ever experience burn out?
There was never burnout in the fun and the interest of doing it. The burnout occurred when the times started to change. There was a time when I worked in New York that it felt like a small village. I could see everybody and everybody would meet you. Not only would they meet you, but they would say, “Oh, you should go and see so and so!” And you would pick up the phone and call that person and they would actually answer the phone and you would go see them. There was all of this networking that was possible to do.

As the years went on there were a lot of consolidations and changes in the industry, and there was not as much accessibility as there had been in the early part of my career. The work itself I love. I have not burnt out at all as a photographer, but the marketing components to it have become increasingly difficult. I love the people and the face-to-face contact. That was a large part of it when I was starting out.  And sadly it’s such a small part of what we do today.

L'Officiel de la Couture fashion [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing professional photographers today?
There are not a lot of small jobs out there for people to get started with because potential clients with their own camera do it themselves. it's just good enough and they don’t really care for it to be better than that. They will spend multitudes of money to create a good website and typically not spend very much on the content.

But that’s not really my issue. I have always worked and I think that the hindrance for me simply is that I have a profoundly difficult time getting in to see people and to have people answer their phone. To even have a conversation. The advantages in the past were that it was perfectly okay for someone to say to me on the phone, “Oh, I can’t see you now. Call me in a couple of weeks.” The advantage to this, was by the time I did see them we had already built a small relationship formed through the phone calls and when I showed up it became even that much richer.

And now you can’t really get anyone on the phone. And then with email, it’s just hit or miss and it’s so impersonal. There is just no vibrancy in marketing for me. I really cherished and loved meeting everyone and enjoyed that part as much as I loved the photography part. It was social. It was very social. And with the system we are in now I can’t get that.

I really believe people hire you not just because you’re good (and of course you have to be good) but secondarily, as important, they have to like you. They have to want to spend time with you. I have found that to get face to face time with anyone, you have to pay money to do photo reviews. And that’s a whole other story altogether and that’s very pricey for people who are getting started.

At this point, Nancy turned the tables on me and asked me what I thought. I told her what other people were saying in interviews and also that in my industry clients no longer do their own video and photo shoots but turn to stock photography. It was a conversation with many twists and turns and we certainly did not solve the challenges in the world of the photographic professional, but this is my takeaway.  Because of social media and the world wide web, access to photography is, well, world wide. We no longer have to contend with the local competition but competition that seems like it comes from a bottomless well. And that competition includes professional and non professional as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are inundated with it all and have no easy way to filter out the bad, and the ugly to get immediate access to the great. It’s a tough nut to crack.

When you are out on assignment what do you do if you get stuck?
It doesn’t happen. (much laughter from me.) It just doesn’t happen. I always get it. (that heavy sigh was from me) I make it look very easy because I have a lot of experience. I can walk in just about anywhere, no matter what the light looks like (of course it helps to be digital) and I can figure things out and make it happen.

Not everything is called out to be brilliant. Some things call out to be descriptive or whatever they may be. There is always going to be a good photograph from the situation.

Compositional form comes naturally to me. The best training in the world is being a fashion photographer. You’ve got casting, lighting, location, weather issues, and expectations of how much you have to get done in a day; there are so many pressures. So many things you need to learn about that go into a photograph. If you can do fashion you can probably do most anything, in my opinion. It taught me so much that I am able to walk into an examination room in a hospital and figure it all out.  I see the people and know how to extrude all of the business from the situation. I learned how to do all of that from fashion. And back then with film there was very little latitude and you had to get your exposures just right. You had to do everything just right. And you could never screw up because the expenses of models, makeup and hair, location vans, and catering was so high that you could not NOT bring it back. And you had to do it all the time.

L'Officiel de la Couture fashion [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

What do you do to prepare?
I just show up. (God love her!) I have my cameras, my back up equipment. I learned this in my fashion days. You make sure you have double of everything you need and you make sure everything is working.  God forbid you have a technical glitch.

You have to imagine that I have over 30 years of experience. That’s what I am bringing to the table. I’m walking in and using everything that I have learned. Classically trained and tons of experience. I can walk in and most people might not see anything because sometimes it doesn’t seem that there is much. But when you are really well trained you can see deeper. You start observing certain things like how people are interacting and you just wait for those moments to arise because they always do. Then you simply try to create good compositional form that works with busy situations and backgrounds. Or you bring someone into a situation where there is better lighting. If you can, but sometimes you can’t and you just do it. I hate to say it, but this is where experience comes into play.  Digital allows for so much more latitude.

 You have a broad range of work from Fashion to Senior Dogs (my favorite). Can you talk a bit about your project “Art: The Moving Thread”? 
I picked the first person on the Thread, a nationally recognized woman in the arts. She would then recommend me to the next nationally recognized woman in the arts whom they have worked with and who was a friend or cohort or someone they really admired. That would then lead to the next person and the next and so on. I would get this virtual salon with all of these women. There are 18 to 20 women on each Thread. And it was amazing to meet all of these artists and learn about the extraordinary work they were doing.

In all of your work is there any particular subject or thing that you do that really gets you in the zone? 
First and foremost I think if what is in front of your eye is compelling to you then that moves you into the zone immediately. But sometimes it requires work. Sometimes you don’t see it right away. You just keep trying things and you do what I call “coverage.” So, for example, I photographed this woman in New York City in the freezing cold. We were up on a roof and there was snow coming down. We were trying different things with this material that she works with and it’s sort of okay but it felt a little forced.  After some time trying new things all of a sudden something happened and we got it. Being in the zone has a magical quality to it. I just think if you are in front of something that moves you in some way then it’s a lot easier to find it.  I think getting into the zone is making a deep connection to your subject, whatever it may be, you just feel it and it’s so exciting to get that photograph.

Do your subjects ever get exacerbated while you are trying different things?
No. It’s always collaborative. It’s amazing the enthusiasm. Especially with all of these amazing artists that I photograph.  New Yorker's mostly. Not only were they available and cooperative, but they were willing to do what we needed to do to get a great photograph. It was astonishing. I was surprised at how effortless it was to work with everybody. They were really invested. I was impressed.

Most of the dog work I have done recently are seniors and they aren’t super active so it’s easier to document them when they aren’t frisky puppies. Sometimes you see a situation where the dog wants to walk all over the place and you have to follow the dog. You just have to let the dog go into a flow and see what happens.

Champ 9 years oldButte County, South Dakota [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

So, let’s talk about the dogs. Again, this is after my own heart. How did you get started with your project, Senior Dogs Across America?
That came about through my own dogs. Watching how my own dogs were growing older. It was so poignant and interesting how they lived each day, unlike us thinking about the past and the future and what it all means to age, they are just plodding through each day. It was sort stunning to see.

I helped my dog, Babe, years before who was a paraplegic and used a K9 cart. And it was one of the most purely extraordinary periods of my life that was completely about love. It was so special.

At some point I decided that I had not visited America since I had been a teenager and I had an inkling to see our country. And I thought, well, this is the time to do it. I’ll shoot Senior Dogs Across America. I’ll get to see the country, I’ll get to meet the people, and I’ll get to do something interesting. I embarked on the project based on that.

What are the logistics of doing something like that?
I produced it ahead of time based on the region of the country. I would plan to go out for about a week at a time. I would contact veterinarian offices, different people in the dog world, a friend of a friend that knows someone who lives in this town and they would know someone who was there. It was very word of mouth. People networking within the dog world. That’s how it spread and then I met people in rescues and sanctuaries. It was a real range of people that introduced me to extraordinary dogs.

There were definitely some moments that I didn’t expect. Like a time I was flying to New York. I don’t know how long it took me to look up, but I was sitting in the bulkhead seat and I look across the aisle and there was a dog. The most beautiful Whippet.  It was some type of service dog and I asked, “How old is this dog?” And it was ten or eleven.  Here I was able to photograph “Senior Dogs Across America” on an airplane!”

Riley 10 years old  Somewhere over New Jersey [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

What inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
Over the years I have had a couple of muses. One by the name of Lisa. She was a model I worked with a lot when I did editorial work. She could be really transformative depending on what she was wearing.

And then LuLu was my muse for my first book, ‘A Dog’s Book of Truths’. In my mind, she was the Meryl Streep of the dog world. She could imbue every location with a different mood. And that’s where the recognition comes in. Some people would just see a dog and I would see something else.

As a teacher what do you say to your students who want to become professional photographers?
I don’t really teach business. What I do when I teach is to try and help people find their own visual voice. And have them be able to articulate it more and explore it more and become who they want to become as photographers. That’s what I do.

Gussy Sue 15 years old Laurel, Montana [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

And how do you go about that?
It’s a lot of conversation and looking at their work and talking about why they did what they did. I call all of their photographs sketches so I ask them why they sketched this and why they sketched that. And why this works and why this doesn’t. What did they really want to say.

I like to do a lot of one on ones with students. The class I’m teaching now I get a chance to do that. “Storytelling with Photographs.” We meet as a group for the first and last class and then each student gets two classes with me one on one for an hour. Each person is on a different journey.  

I think photography can attract very impatient people because it feels like it should be so easy because all you do is click a button and the camera does all the work for you. You have to remind students that people in the arts are putting in their 10,000 hours. Look at a dancer! How many years has a dancer been dancing? Everything takes a huge amount of effort and focus. At the end of the day, photography is no different to be really masterful at it. Some people forget that. Unlike a paintbrush or a violin, you can pick it [the camera] up and start using it. But to be a professional you need technical knowledge. You have to know what an F-stop is. You have to know what a shutter speed does. You have to know these things.

If you could give people starting out advice, what would it be?
A complex question because it is all so different today. Back when I started, I could walk into anyone’s fashion show and sit next to the stage and take pictures. The access was phenomenal. Now it’s all changed. But back then there were fewer stumbling blocks. There were challenges and I had to be very tenacious. Actually, somebody I met at Gray Advertising said that. “You are very talented, but the people who are going to make it are the tenacious people.” And I’m naturally very tenacious. I got braver about contacting people and meeting people for appointments. The more you do something the more comfortable you get. I was very shy and that part of me had to grow up when I had to market myself.

There is nothing like a personal relationship built over time with a client. If you are really good at what you do and you have a great relationship with your client, then you have a great time doing the work. 

Rosie 13 years old, Princess 14 years oldHileal, Florida [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

When I look at your website and at your body of work it seems rather diversified. Did this happen by chance or was your career carefully crafted that way?
There are a few questions that you have posed that are related to planning. [Note: I make a living as a project manager]  I was doing fashion and I was ready to explore other subjects and that’s when I started doing the dog work. Sometimes I would bring that work in when I was showing my fashion portfolio and people loved looking at the dogs. That was something they don’t usually get a chance to see. And then over time I decided I would see if I could develop this body of work into a book. You have to be a self-starter. You have to feel that you care enough about something that you can push it through.

Maybe not so much push it through but allow it to form and allow it to become something that it needs to be and then be patient when you are looking for publishers. Nothing happens overnight and it shouldn’t. It’s okay that it doesn’t. Because when you are with it longer you can make more photographs and you can deepen your feelings about it. Lots of things can occur so you don’t want to rush anything.

Whatever you have a visceral response to, pay attention.  And spend the time.

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White? – Black & White
9. Film or Digital? – Both are great
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom?
– Digital
7. Objects or People?
– People
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Urban Jungle

5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Weddings
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Point & Shoot? – Point and Shoot

3. Assignment or Fine Art? – Both
2. Tell me about the one that got away. – I can’t really think of any.

1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – I want to photograph people who have lived awhile. I’m interested in middle aged and older people. That inspires me. How they do it, how they live, how they create.
The motivation beyond the photograph is being able to meet people who have lived very interesting lives. That’s the pearl for me.

The Parting Shot

A lot of it is just being present. I think that’s the best part of photography. It’s observational, it’s emotional, but you are completely present to it.


Bottom to top - Phyllis 12 years old, Englebert 9 years old, Loretta 12 years old, Eeyore 14 years old; Behind - Enoch 5 years oldDenver, Colorado [Photo Credit: Nancy LeVine]

"Lucy & Ethel" go to Amish Country

This has not been the year of the blog post. It’s been a very busy time getting oriented to our new home and new city, but it’s nice to be back and thinking about photography.

I find it very fitting that I enter into the summer season with antics from the most recent “Lucy & Ethel” outing. AKA: out shooting with the infamous Carla. For those of you who have read a few of my posts this should not be surprising.

Birch Tree

For this round, it was my turn to do the planning. And let me interject that I have a newfound respect for those people who lead, or have led, photo tours. Holy cow, what a job! Finding the right places and knowing the right time of day to get that exact light … Oy. Respect.

We decided that we were going to head to Amish Country in and around Lancaster Pennsylvania. Because this is Carla and me, and we are always plagued by poor conditions, we had multiple plans. Which essentially amounted to no plan. We got out our maps, GPS, and the attitude that we couldn’t get lost if we didn’t know where we were going in the first place. And off we went!

Center Line


It was a two-day adventure. Day one gave us a flat overcast sky with a lot of glare. Not fit for shooting, but hopefully we would be able to find something in the beautiful rolling hills. We had two big challenges. The first is that the people in these areas are the most fascinating subjects to shoot, but they don’t want to be photographed. The second challenge is there are not many safe places to pull off the road and set up a tripod. So we opted to pull off, shoot quickly, and not use a tripod. (Let’s just say there are a lot art shots in post processing!)

When in doubt, make art

On day two the forecast looked grim. We got our maps, pointed the car in the opposite direction, and brought our fun with us! (Dan and John, you taught us well!) We got very lucky, however, because after a few minutes of driving the rains stopped for the most part. It would trickle on occasion but it allowed us to get out and shoot. 

Horse & Buggy 

Because our plan was to have no plan, we just drove until one of us would say, “hey, did you see that?” Sometimes we would stop, sometimes not. We are a bit lucky in that it seems we are pulled by the same types of things. And every now and then we would say things like, “Wow, Chuck would love that one!”  (And we did try to get a few of those for ourselves.)


It was a beautiful area to shoot. Challenges aside I will want to get back there. Perhaps find a guide to help us do some scouting. And the autumn would be stunning with the change in color.

Weeping Willow


All in all it was good. It’s been a long time since we have had an outing and there is a reason I call it a “Lucy and Ethel” adventure. There is laughter and fun for sure. And for all of those photos we may not create we most certainly create memories and in the long run they generally turn out much better.  

Covered Bridge



Monkeying Around in Japan

We were fortunate during our latest trip to Japan to take a day trip to the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. (Wow, that's a mouth full!)  While they are called "snow monkeys" for us they were more like mud monkeys because, sadly, there was no snow. 

The story, as it was told to us by our very chatty California born guide, is essentially this. Many years ago, perhaps late 1800's early 1900's, someone built a lodge up in the mountains of this area to take advantage of the beautiful Onsens. (An Onsen is a naturally occurring hot spring and these are very popular places for the Japanese to go to be rejuvenated.) Once the lodge was built, hot water from nearby hot springs was pumped in through a maze of pipes to create the idilic Onsen up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.

People who would visit would need to be rather fit as it's quite a hike and at a bit of a steep pitch, but it is a very beautiful area so I can understand the pull. At any rate, as time went on, local tribes of Monkeys started to become attracted to the warm pipes. So during winter months would come out from the densely wooded areas to find the pipes and warm up. Slowly but surely they were able to follow the paths of the pipes to the pools near the lodge. 

In the beginning both human and monkey were rather curious about one another. Through the years they got closer and closer until finally the monkeys started to share the Onsens with the people. As word spread of this oddity, more and more people would travel to the lodge to see what in the world all of this Monkey business was about. As one can imagine, over time it started to become a bit over crowded with both human and Monkey. 

Then the cute Monkeys became a nuisance. Nobody was really sure what should be done about it. The first thing they did was to build a second Onsen further away from the lodge just for the Monkeys. It took a generation or two to get them to finally figure it out but soon the Monkeys had their watering hole and the people had another. They also began strict rules about feeding the Monkeys. (By not feeding them they stayed to themselves and were a little less combative with the humans). But over time even that became a bit much so they created the Jigokudani Monkey Park. 

The Park is not a park in the way we know them. The Monkeys, when they are in and around the pool, are protected. Park rangers put out some grains a few times a day to feed them, but that is about the extent of the human intervention. The Monkeys will come out of their own habitats in the afternoon to go have a soak and then return to their homes in the evening. During the warmer months they stay away from the springs. 

Someone around the park must be watching and keeping track because someone knows the counts and they are in the know of who the Alpha is at any given time, but most of that information is in Japanese and, well, that's not a language I am familiar with. 

Whether you are into wildlife or history of parks or not, I would recommend a side trip to see the Monkeys if you are ever in the neighborhood. It's quite extraordinary how they just do their thing and pay no mind to the looky-loos and the camera bugs. And while it is a bit on the stinky side, it is manageable for the over the top cuteness of it all (except when they fight . . . not so cute.)

You Can't Have it All . . .

Or better put, you can have it all, you just can't have it all at once. So was the hard lesson learned on a recent trip to Japan. We were very fortunate to be able to take a side trip to Hiroshima and hire English speaking tour guides to bring us to Miyajima Island and the Hiroshima Peace Park. We were all set! Andrew had notified tour guides that I would want to take photos. I had packed all of the appropriate gear. I purposely did not look at any images from either site so that I could make the images that spoke to me. I was set!!

NOT! The best of all laid plans, right? 

Here is a lesson for all of you.  If you are a photographer going to a new place that has rich and important history you have two choices. And only two. You can take photos or you can listen to the tour guide. You can't have it all. Period. End of story!

Needless to say I did not come home with what I would call the most brilliant photographs (or the greatest knowledge imparted to me by the local guides!). But what I did come home with are memories of an amazing trip, a new stamp in my passport, and a lovely Christmas with my family. 

And with that may I bid you all a safe, festive, and most Happy New Year!

Gojunoto Pagoda

Miyajima Island

Itsukushima Shrine on Itsukushima Island (More popularly known as Miyajima Island)