Venice Beach

Venice Beach, February of 2016

I had been a photographer for about 8 months when I took this one. I had almost forgotten about it…until I found myself in a Rizzoli bookstore on Broadway in the Flatiron neighborhood in New York City, looking through the newly published photobook of another photographer. Unfortunately, to my great dismay, I saw this photograph. It wasn’t mine….but it was. In fact, it was a nearly identical copy of the one I had been so proud of, so exact that it took me a beat to realize that it didn’t come off my SD card, somehow mysteriously and inexplicably printed in someone else’s publication. Plagiarism and copying is rampant on social media, and I remembered that the photographer who had so cleverly copied my picture had unfollowed me when I was still in Los Angeles. I know how difficult it is to execute a photo like this one, because the tumbler rotates so quickly as he traverses the length of the assembled bodies that achieving the exact positioning relative to the signage and general background is not a random occurrence. I wonder how many shots it took for him to duplicate my image–did he have to return several times, trying to capture the light (golden hour), the crowd, the general ambiance? An amazing replica, to be sure. And one that makes me feel like a parallel universe Cinderella, one that missed the party entirely. A strange feeling, and one laced with equal parts frustration, pride, disbelief and resignation. That last feeling is the worst, overlaid with a sort of dull surprise replacing the heated anger I would’ve felt a year ago. It’s happened before, and so I am learning how to try to process these occurrences without losing my temper.

When we post our hard won images to our websites and, most especially, social media platforms we are taking a massive risk. Images are routinely used without permission and therefore without compensation for the creator. The worst thing by far in my estimation, however, is plagiarism. Why? Because Plagiarism is theft. To me, it’s just as much a crime, albeit an intellectual one, as it would be if another photographer stuck his or her hand in my bag and pinched my Sony 35mm f 1.4 as I stand on a crowded subway platform.

As I write this, I’m on the 4 train. I will ride to Utica Avenue in Crown Heights so that I can walk with my camera through the crowds at the West Indian festival and parade. I know that in a crowded place on a special day that any images I manage to craft will be nearly impossible to duplicate. I am also aware that there will be someone somewhere that may try, no matter how preposterous it may seem, or how difficult or unlikely or productive. I was slow to realize that there’s no significant downside to doing so. It surprised me for a long time, this lack of respect for the work of others. Because that’s what it is, ultimately: a total lack of respect in the absence of personal responsibility and culpability in the universe that social media immersion has created. It ranges from demeaning and aggressive commentary to outright bullying. Plagiarism and theft of all kinds are not only tacitly accepted, these behaviors are strangely and surprisingly encouraged by the complex set of furtive etiquettes that govern people as they forage online for entertainment and stimulation. There is an odd defense of this habit of theft as well, the idea that once you post an artistic endeavor online, there’s an implied complicity on your part as artist–you’ve posted it or displayed it so therefore you’ve lost your rights. In speaking openly about clear instances of outright duplication I have noted an almost abusive form of chastisement for doing so, commentary completely devoid of the obvious problems associated with copyright, ethical behavior, and respect for ourselves as artists.

It’s critical that we use social media carefully, that we develop the ability to separate playful, artistic abandon from the tension and stress resulting from the inherent competition that a “likes” based system encourages. The resulting desperation from this handicapped system of encouragement from outside, anonymous sources just reinforces this total lack of self reliance, and breeds sameness, and uniformity. Devoid of the professional ethic of the working artist, we find ourselves lost in a jumble of ridiculous commentary, ruinous and frustrating instances of plagiarism that never help us to grow as photographers, and desperately childlike behaviors that reduce us all as creators.

Fade

Janie in July, Geno’s Steaks, Philadelphia

Now it’s late August. I left Philadelphia July 30….and the intensity is gone, replaced by my day to day life in New York City. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and spent part of my adult life living in Center City Philadelphia. So going back this past July was a bittersweet and at times bitter and difficult journey. Janie was a big part of my experience there….she represents to me everything that’s right and wrong about the world I see on the streets as I walk incessantly with my camera. The complexities and contradictions, the necessity to understand all sides of a story to get a complete and honest picture. The rush to judge immediately without taking the time to allow all sides to weigh in.

Here’s the thing. I recently stumbled across a National Geographic short film about a pod of Orcas being studied and filmed by a photographer. The project is long term, and the short video begins by showing us a view of a lone stingray, cruising at a medium distance from the camera. The waters are a calm and a subdued blue, Heaven in the ocean waters. The calm and peace and beauty of the ray as it pulsed through the water was magical and timeless. Suddenly, an Orca appears in the frame. At first it appears as if the animal will do a close and curious pass, and nothing more. It moves along, surges past the beautiful and solitary stingray as it continues on its trajectory through the peaceful waters….and the viewer is tricked into believing that the Orca was just curious and is ready to allow the ray to continue along its life path. At the last moment, just when you think the Ray is safe, the Orca lashes with its tail, giving the ray a punishing blow to the weak, white and vulnerable underside. It’s such a shock to me, this sequence. I had an intense reaction, especially when I learned that the Ray may have been ascending to give birth, common behavior in this species I learned. The totally mismatched pairing is visually and conceptually stunning. The Orcas harassed and tossed the ray, slamming it until it was overwhelmed by disorientation, unable to even attempt to escape the area. The video stopped revealing the blows, and instead resorted to narration. After over an hour of what appeared to the researcher as some kind of display of strength and physical competence by the pod of Orcas, using the ray to project power to the nearby humans, the ray eventually lost its life, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. It was never able to give birth, and the mammals never consumed the ray. The knowledge that it fell to the deep was irreversible, and struck me painfully and harshly, especially after I had seen it swimming so beautifully, its mastery of the waters so clearly stated. It’s impossible not to correlate this occurrence with some of what I see and photograph, this completely random set of meetings and happenstance, whether it’s shooting a picture on the street or witnessing a car accident. Or watching Janie try to make her way through a crowd of people, or attempting finding a safe place to sleep. The difference is that Janie can sometimes fight back, in a way that a creature like the ray couldn’t manage. When Janie does display her coping mechanisms and adaptations made to stay alive in her state of being, she becomes even more of an outcast, teased by insinuating laughter, annoyance and disgust and revulsion mingling in equal parts.

Janie’s Suitcase

Rosary

Looking For A Spot

More Than A Feeling

Janie, 9th And Passyunk

Summertime in Philadelphia. I thought I’d never return….I hadn’t set foot since my son was three. That was twelve years ago, and when I returned it was like slipping on an old and comfortable robe, smelling of home, safety and familiarity mixing with the edgy reality of life in Center City, and all of it scented with freshly baked bread, and fried onions, and garlic and fresh grass and The Reading Terminal.

When I walked through my temporary neighborhood in South Philadelphia ( I was there for one month to circumvent an apartment situation in New York) I was surrounded by memory. It was profoundly absorbing, and I found that I was at first feeling very detached from the city. That initial feeling very soon disappeared, and in its place I found an intense feeling of security.

When I saw Janie one morning on 9th Street, seated on a red metal bench outside Cafe Crema near Geno’s Steaks in the Italian Market, I was immediately and completely captivated by her intensity and her state of lone solitude. She sat, eyes closed, holding a wooden rosary and locked in prayer.

Unknown

Alexandra In Washington Square, New York

It seems more and more these days, as I look at photography and art, I am struck by how ordinary it seems. I recently wandered into a gallery on Bowery, and was fascinated by a striking painting technique. I thought: what a genius…the artist had modeled the figures of his subjects with broad paint strokes, visualizing their limbs as hollow interiors, showing a 3D mastery of subject such as I had never seen. I asked the gallerist and….it seems he uses programs and software to do the visualization, and then……he copies. What had struck me as an individual and exceptional method of personal expression and virtuosity was simply a cheat. As people become accustomed to these over the top, stimulatory cheats, they become progressively more insensitive to natural gradations of subtlety. This issue is prevalent in photography as well….especially my beloved street photography. Simplicity is a keynote that, as time goes on and we march into the future, few people seem to grasp these days.

Mother’s Day

Heaven And Her Mother On Houston Street, NYC

When I met Heaven one day on Houston we immediately clicked. As much as you can with an almost five year old….I understood her immediately. She reminded me of myself, and of a few women I’ve met on Skid Row. She made me realize with extreme clarity that life really can be very unfair and completely impartial at the same time. She’s got what she’s got, and it’s just the reality of her life. She is just another little face in HRA, the welfare system in New York City. Which is the only way I can explain to myself why she is with her mother and stepfather, who were high and dealing drugs openly on the street. To me, her face was distinctive and stood out from most that I see every day. Unfortunately the brutality of social demographics and dismissive thinking by most of us judges her to be nondescript, like so many children who lack resources in neighborhoods all over the world. I mean, it’s the truth, isn’t it? She’s mixed race, and it’s a sad fact of life that children of color get overlooked and ignored and trapped and it happens constantly. As we sat on the sidewalk, me snapping a few pictures and listening to her baby rambles, we listened to her parents, bickering and hollering and arguing with others on the street as they transacted and interacted. Her mother was hard to communicate with, and was openly very high….At one point Heaven whispering to me that it was a little weird….

I was very happy to hang with Heaven. Her mother left her with me….we got ice cream. Anything goes with me….I roll with whatever happens. Was it strange that they just walked away, leaving her with me, as stranger? As I sat with her on Houston I looked for her mother and stepfather. They were gone. We waited, and they finally reappeared. Her stepfather accompanied us to Oddfellows, a too sweet, self important ice cream shop in its newest location on Houston Street. We went in, looking very out of place in the crowd of hipster/uptown downtowner clientele. After she finished her ice cream, her stepfather, in an oddly bold move, stole as many napkins as he could handle from one of the napkin dispensers in the shop. I tried to pretend that I didn’t see this…..but I’m not sure I pulled it off.

I don’t care what people think most of the time….but I was surprised and uncomfortable with his behavior. Heaven loves sprinkles and experienced great joy in Oddfellows, and a week later I returned with her.

She was wise…and knew her situation was not good. She smiled at me many times….and we hugged. I felt awful when I left. I had their contact information and I’ve seen them twice since that first time. It’s hard to stop thinking about Heaven, and what the odds will be for her. It’s harsh and raw and hurtful to say, but I know it well from my experiences in life….sometimes we’re bound to people that just don’t fit or support us. The feeling is like having a foot caught in a commercial fishing net as it’s dropped into the ocean to troll for fish. Once it’s pulled to the surface after the struggle has been long over, the continuing attempts to bargain for a better existence with those in our lives that we’re stuck with is a thing long forgotten.

Forgive me for saying….

Pieces Of Heaven

Heaven On Houston Street And Lafayette, New York City

My first sight of Heaven. Sometimes I see people that I can’t walk away from.

I wasn’t feeling well for many reasons….I had been dehydrated on this day, the only Spring day here in New York that reached into the upper 70’s. Already exhausted by life, I was feeling lightheaded and I stopped to buy some water at a CVS on Houston. I felt awful, and kept walking anyway, stupidly ignoring my need to go home and call the day off. I saw this little girl with the person who turned out to be her stepfather, and they felt authentic and New York and entirely unpretentious and I forgot about my fears for myself and started talking to them…

I have many pictures of Heaven, and her expressions in many reveal that she understands, at nearly five years old, the strange nature of her situation. As I go through her pictures lately, having taken them just over a week ago, I can see so much. I haven’t stopped thinking about her in this situation, and I saw her again yesterday, April 24, 2018.

Everyone was high, except for Heaven.

Ten Months

Towne Avenue, Skid Row, Los Angeles, February 15, 2018

I was gone ten months, and I returned last week to Skid Row hoping desperately to find some of the people I’d photographed before I left California. I found Doreen, and, in my absence, she had found someone.
These portraits and the images from the day I spent with Doreen and Gary speak for themselves….being in love is a a lottery win when it’s for real, and it can happen to anyone, anywhere. These pictures prove some of the trite nonsense that reads as nothing more than tired drivel to the jaded.
To me, these images are intimate, intense, sexual but not pornographic, somewhat graphic without being obscene, and a personal history of a pretty straightforward afternoon spent in the arms of someone trusted.
I’m beyond tired of idealized images of love and sexuality. I’m sick of airbrushed pictures of already unblemished people who represent nothing but a media display or advertising effort. And…it’s just unfair and unfortunate that most images of deep romance seem to star much younger people, leaving an entire population out of the game.
I love that there is obvious acceptance on view here. It’s why I got so involved in trying to adequately record what I was seeing. Between them, Doreen and Gary have nearly a lifetime of incarceration between them. Their hands aren’t squeaky clean, and there’s no blow dryer in sight.
They live their lives at this time in a tent on Skid Row, and they have found each other. They had these intense interactions during a workday, and workmen buzz around, providing contrasting life elements.
I stopped by to say hi, and was invited in to take pictures of these moments. I declined initially, unsure. But after Doreen told me that I needed to step inside to see them, I did so….and I immediately got hooked on the sight.
More in this series coming.