"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Monday, September 29, 2008

new year

Here it is again – my favorite time of year.

Leaves crunching underneath my cowboy boots.

I always take stock each Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year.) The holiday begins today when the sun goes down. I am in Kentucky with my father, and tonight the two of us will eat slices of apple dipped in honey, hoping to usher in a sweet new year.

We Jews look hopefully toward the future at this season, while we also look back at what we could have done differently in the past.

Mostly, though, we begin to think about forgiving those who have hurt us and asking forgiveness from those we have hurt. Ten days from now, on Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday of the year, we will implement that task.

It’s a pretty simple concept, really. And a nice exercise to go through.

As I take stock here in my childhood home, it’s easy to see my life from an expansive vantage point. I can rummage through my bedroom drawers here and read notes I passed with my girlfriends in 5th grade. I can thumb through stacks of family photos going all the way back to my first birthday. Toys I played with when I was little still sit on the shelves in my father’s basement. My piano lesson books, complete with gold star and notes from Mrs. Huddleston, are piled in the piano bench. It’s all here.

But my thoughts turn more to my own children, my sweet and happy children. I think about what lies ahead for them in the coming year, what lies ahead for them in the coming YEARS and what lies ahead for their children even further down the road. With the shaky financial situation and with the uncertain upcoming election, the divisiveness in the country coupled with an undue amount of mean spiritedness...

I think I’ll eat a few extra slices of honey dipped apples tonight.

Happy New Year to all!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

keep on shooting!

It's as important as doing crunches and cardio, you know.

After I left Columbia, I made my way to St. Louis. I stopped to stretch my legs at the Arch. And get in a little shooting exercise, as well.

(Ha! You'll notice I actually CROPPED these images! Helen Levitt has freed me up!)

Friday, September 26, 2008

visions 2008

I was privileged to serve as the juror for the 13th Annual Visions Photography Exhibition in Columbia, Missouri. Not only did I get to meet some really nice people, I also got to see some really good photographs. It’s always inspiring to get a glimpse at fresh work being made by people of all ages, backgrounds, levels of experience and walks of life. There were professional and non-professional categories for adults – and believe it or not there were two children’s divisions: 13 – 17 years old and 12 and under.

I gave an award to a three-year-old photographer for this still-life!

Here are some of the impressive entries, images that managed to show me things in ways I had not considered before.

Thank you to the photographers who entered the show and who attended my talk, as well as the staff who made “Visions 2008” such a pleasant experience for me.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

marissa handler

Below is an edited transcript from an interview conducted by Britt Bravo, a writer and blogger who offers strategic consulting, social web empowerment and career coaching that teaches individuals and organizations to realize their big vision. Here Bravo asks Marissa Handler, author and spiritual activist, about discovering what our role is in changing the world by being open to what "calls to us."

Marisa Handler: "Essentially, I feel strongly about what Joseph Campbell meant when he said, 'Follow your bliss, ' which is that in order to discover our destiny, to discover who we are in the deepest and truest sense, we really need to go in the direction that speaks to us. To me, that means following the direction that represents beauty, and represents heart, and truth, and all of these grandiose words that essentially mean that it is something that moves us and that gets us excited.

I believe if we go in that direction, and our intention is to be true to ourselves, and also to remember our own interconnection, and the state that the world is in right now, that it will guide us to a place where the work that we are doing is actually helping, and has an application.

I think that there are as many different ways to be an activist as there are human beings on the planet right now. Your way may be starting an organic catering company, or painting about issues that are important to you, or getting out on the streets and protesting, or maybe working with policy; there are all kinds of different work.

Essentially it means that we don't always all have to do the same thing, and actually, that if we all do the same thing, that's not going to necessarily save the world. I think that in an age where what we're facing often seems very vast and faceless - huge institutions, corporations, or undemocratic governments - I think that the real answers don't so much lie in, they can, but not always, intricate solutions. I think the real answers lie in the small, diverse, creative solutions we come up with ourselves in our communities, by ourselves, or with our friends, or with a global group. It may be a bigger group, but the emphasis is on diversity and creativity.

If we follow what speaks to us, we're going to be true to ourselves. We're also going to be true to what the world wants of us."

Here's the entire interview, which is definitely worth a read.

kindness + homeruns

Some very generous and athletic lawyers from a firm in New York decided to name Change the Truth as their "beneficiary” on a charity softball league. Many bruises, beers, double plays and line drives later, "The Cream" finished second in their division! This meant that they got a handsome check to give to Change the Truth, which is exactly what they did when Lynne and I were in New York with Carol.

First, we had a very fun happy hour on a west side rooftop.

And then, the team captains presented us with the check.

They have their eyes on first place next year. Go team!!

Monday, September 22, 2008

speaking of lions

Each fall I photograph kids from Operation Breakthrough for the materials used to promote the annual fundraiser. This year the theme of the April event will be "Over the Rainbow." My studio was filled with, well, you know, a scarecrow, Tin Man, Dorothy, ruby red slippers, Toto, Glenda and this little guy who really got into playing his part.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

publications, exhibitions and lectures (lions, tigers and bears)

Check out the latest issue of New Letters Magazine! Editor Bob Stewart has served up, as always, a sumptuous collection of poetry, fiction, essays and reviews in Volume 74, Number 4. He features some great photos by Deanna Dikeman on the cover and has sprinkled work by Deanna, Willis Barnstone and yours truly throughout the issue. New Letters is published quarterly by the University of Missouri – Kansas City.

One of my new “Sea Series” pieces will be included in this year's "Urban/Suburban." The annual exhibition/auction benefits the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom in Overland Park, Kansas. It is a project of the Kansas City Jewish Museum Foundation. The show includes work by nearly 100 KC area artists, including many of my faves like Jane Voorhees, Marcus Cain, Rita Blitt, Peregrine Honig, Linda Lighton, Deanna Dikeman, Shea Gordon, Ellie Kort and Susan White. The work may be previewed at the gallery, 5500 West 123rd Street, until Ocober 24th.

The “Streetcar Series” continues be a work in progress for me, but I did enter one of the pieces in the juried exhibition called “State of the Arts” at the R.G. Endres Gallery in Prairie Village, Kansas. Low and behold, it made its way in and will be included in the show, which opens October 10th. The gallery is in the Prairie Village municipal offices at 7700 Mission Road.

This Thursday I will travel to Columbia, Missouri to be the juror for the annual photography competition “Visions.” The show is sponsored by First National Bank, which has an impressive art collection of its own. I will be giving a talk about my work at the bank on Thursday at 5:45 PM. For those of you who happen to live in Columbia, it would be great if you came by and said hello. The bank is located on the NE corner of Broadway and 8th.

(Oh my!)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

helen levitt: part five

I asked Helen is she had ever thought of herself growing so old.

“I thought I’d live forever! When you’re young, who thinks of dying? Do YOU ever think of it?”

“I had breast cancer this year. I kind of thought about it then.”

“I had that, too.” She puts her hand on her right breast. “It still hurts sometimes where they did the lumpectomy.” She paused. “I’ll kick off one of these days.”

I have never been terribly fond of any of the usual terminology regarding death: passing, passing on, passing away. I have now officially adopted Helen’s vernacular, “kicking off.” It makes the event sound a lot less passive, more like something you might do at Mardi Gras.

“Did you travel outside the country much?” I asked her this after I told her about my trips to central and Eastern Europe to do the concentration camp project.

“Only to Mexico. I didn’t have the money to travel when I was younger. I can’t now because I’m old. Everybody knows how old I am. I’m old. Too old to travel.” (She pointed a crooked finger upward and lowered her voice.) “He is not a good organizer. And he is mean. When I was able to travel and could not afford it, I was stuck. Now that I can afford to travel, I cannot because of my age and health. There is something very disorganized and unfair about that.”

We looked at each other. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes. What she said made so much sense, and I could think of so many other people I’ve know who have experienced the same bad luck.

“Where would you like to go now?”

“I wish I had a place with a porch. Just a porch, that’s all. Like we had back when I was a kid. A place to sit and watch... and listen.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

helen levitt: part four

Helen told me that she would not hold back if she hated my photographs, and that she probably would hate them. I told her I would brace myself, that I could handle it.

But, here I was, getting ready to show my stuff to “one of the great living poets of urban life” “New York’s visual poet laureate” “one of the greatest of the photographer’s photographers” the “grande dame of street photography” etc, etc.

My fingers trembled a bit as I tried to select the pictures that would surely bring on the onslaught of disagreeable and nasty comments.

We sat close to one another, and I brought up some of the Africa work.

First picture. I chose one that a literary magazine editor had told me could win a Pulitzer.

“Too much shit on the sides there. Don’t need all that. You should have cropped it closer.”


I bring up the next picture, not really sure I should be putting myself through this, thinking the night sweats I’d had the night before had been far more pleasant.

“I can’t tell what that’s supposed to be. It’s too dark.”

“OK. Yeah, well, I see what you mean.”

I was thinking I’d rather be at Carnegie Deli, diving into one of those obscenely large corned beef sandwiches.

After three or four more pictures, she asked me to go slower. She lingered on the images for a long time then and made some guttural sounds that I didn’t know how to interpret.

Then every now and then, she said things like, “You know, that’s not a bad picture!”

Or, “Now that’s a good one.”

Or, “If you had moved the girl on the right slightly more into the frame, this would really be a winner.”

Though she dismissed many as misses (and used some choice words to let me know why), I must say that there were just as many that she proclaimed successful, and well… that was better than any corned beef sandwich I could have ordered up, no matter the dimensions.

Near the end of my little slide show, she announced that she had just seen my very best image, and she told me why it worked so well for her. I told her that it was recently purchased by a museum. Her lips curled into a girlish grin, she looked at me with a sidelong glance and said, “See, I’m pretty smart, aren’t I?”

In the end, her favorite picture happened to be one of mine, as well. It is one that has always made me think of her and, in way, is a loving nod to her work. It made me happy that she not only approved of it but actually really liked it.

I felt a nice connection to Helen by now. We continued our conversation about things like the state of fine art photography, breast cancer, being Jewish, travel, family and dying. I’ll conclude with snippets from this discussion in my next post.

Monday, September 15, 2008

helen levitt: part three

Helen and I spent a great deal of our time together talking about photography. She has not made any new pictures since the early 80’s.

“I do not miss it. I would not like it now. There are so many aliens on the streets now. They surely wouldn’t let me take their picture. It’s different now. No, not the same at all.”

She told me that when she shot, she left the apartment specifically for that purpose. In other words, she was not one to carry her camera with her wherever she went. She frequently used a special attachment for her viewfinder (Cartier-Bresson told her about it, though he never got one himself) that allowed her to point the camera in one direction and actually take the picture in another. “I would set my camera for a distance of twelve feet. Then I would go out on walks to take pictures. I would walk and walk… all day. When I saw something that looked interesting, my camera would be ready and I would quickly take the picture. I never talked to anyone. One man threatened to throw boiling water on me if I didn’t stop taking pictures on his street. Most people didn’t care, though.”

I asked if she thought she a voyeur.

“I was not a voyeur. I never looked at anything I wasn’t supposed to look at.” She narrowed her eyes as she looked me squarely in the face.

Helen told me she hates cameras. She has never seen a digital one.

“Do you want to see mine?

“No!” (She straightened her house coat and readjusted the way she was sitting.)

We talked about cropping and composition. I told her that one of the things I love about her pictures is the juxtaposition of shapes and forms and the way she used the edges of the frame. “What happens with picture taking – it’s all luck, you know.” I told her I have studied with Mary Ellen Mark, who absolutely forbade us students to crop. We had to compose in the frame.

“That’s nonsense!” She waved her hands above her head. “I always cropped. There is too much going on at once. You can’t possibly see it all when you take the picture. So you crop it later. That is when you really see what is going on.”

“Were you always looking?”

“No. Actually, my ears have always been more important to me than my eyes.”

“Do you prefer your black and white work to your color work?”

“No, I don’t have a preference. Color is easier than black and white, though.”

There are boxes of prints stacked all over the place in Helen’s apartment. She also has pictures stuck on the walls and the closet doors. Some are by her; some are cut out of newspapers and some are by others photographers. She showed me a print she traded for with Cartier-Bresson and a Saul Steinberg drawing she received from the artist as a gift. “He’s the greatest American artist.” In the bathroom are some faded and yellow newspaper photos of basketball and baseball players. I asked her if she was a sports fan. “No. They are just good pictures, that’s all.”

We sat down on the bed and looked through a box of her color pictures. I made comments; I think she liked watching me look at them. Every now and then, she’d say, “Yes, that’s a pretty good one.”

By now, she had warmed up to me. She asked me if I had her latest book. When I told her no, she went on a scavenger hunt throughout the entire apartment looking for a copy to give me. Her house coat flapped behind her as she moved about from room to room.

Then she asked a lot of questions about my life and family and work. She wanted to know if I had brought any of my prints to show her. She motioned for me come sit next to her. That's when she began conducting a critique - right there on the sofa, both of us staring into the monitor of my laptop.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

helen levitt: part two

Helen lives on the top floor of a four-story walk-up. She’s lived there for thirty-five years, and nowadays doesn’t go out except for doctor’s appointments. Her daily routine? “It takes me a long time to go down the stairs to get the mail each day and then a long time to come back up. Then it takes me a long time to go through the mail. I hope they dusted the hand railing today.” (She wears a faux leopard skin glove just in case.)

She feeds her cat, Binky. “I had a cat named Benny for thirteen years. He died. I got another one and I knew I couldn’t call it Benny. So I call him Binky. Everyone is allergic to cats it seems, so no one comes over to visit.” (She hands me a box of Kleenex as I begin sneezing.)

She reads (there are stacks of book everywhere) and she sometimes listens to music. She receives visitors, food delivery folks and an occasional massage therapist. Of course, gallery owners, collectors, curators and her photo assistant/printer come by regularly.

She gave me a tour of her apartment. I did not know that her darkroom had been in her bathroom. There are still trays on top of the towel cabinet. Her enlarger has been given away. She used to wash prints in her claw-foot bathtub and hang them to dry on the little clothesline that is strung across the room. Then she would flatten the photographs in books.

She offered me some tea, then we sat in her living room. “May I take your picture?” I asked. “No, no pictures. I am very vain. I do not want to be photographed as an old lady.”

(I honored that by taking pictures only from the side or back.)

Helen was gruff, cold and cautious at first. But that changed once we settled into our conversation about photography, our families, her memories and her life.

Friday, September 12, 2008

helen levitt: part one

Helen Levitt’s work has long been an inspiration for me as a photographer.

When I had my gallery I did a show of her work (it was a Levitt/Cartier-Bresson/Waker Evans exhibit that I put together) and brought in an expert on her work to give a lecture. Back in the day, I arranged for a couple of collectors to visit with her when they were in New York. But I never have met her.

I figure now that she is ninety-five years old, I ought to.

So the other day I gave her a call, and she agreed to let me come up. I asked her if she needed anything. “Arnold’s whole wheat bread. If you can’t find that brand, get another. Just no seeds. Make sure it doesn’t have seeds. And I will pay you back for it. No gifts. Come at 1:30.” Her voice on the phone was strong and deliberate. No frills. No wasted words.

It took me a while, but at the third food market I checked out, I found a loaf of “Arnold’s.” I bought some flowers, even though gifts were not acceptable, and I made my way to her walk-up on 12th Avenue.

What will follow in the next few posts will be photos of my afternoon with Helen, as well as thoughts she shared with me. As I told her, of all the photographers whose work I have studied and enjoyed over the years, hers has probably had the most profound impact on me.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


This morning Carol and I rode bikes down to the World Trade Center site and then on to Battery Park. It was quiet and peaceful, kind of like being at a giant outdoor memorial service. Lots of news crews, cops and onlookers. But it was serene, and people were respectful and seemingly emotional. There were many folks clutching flowers and flags and pictures to their chests. I approached one woman who was standing by herself, away from the crowd, her eyes fixed on the place where the buildings used to be. She was holding a photograph of her friend Michael who had died there on this day seven years ago. She was also holding a rosary. When I told her I was sorry for her loss, she said, "We all lost something on that day; I am sorry for your loss, as well."

Monday, September 08, 2008

the three musketeers

The evening was a HUGE success! Wish all of you could have been there with us! More later...

new york

Lynne and I flew out of stormy Kansas City early this morning headed for the Big Apple.

Tonight we, along with Carol, will host a Change the Truth fundraiser in mid-town Manhattan. Carol invited her friends, family and colleagues to view Lynne’s film, to learn about the children at St. Mary Kevin’s and the work we are doing there. We are expecting close to sixty people.

I can’t help but think how far we’ve come in twenty-one short months! The children at the orphanage will be turning somersaults when they hear that they have made so many new friends.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


I have been named an everyday super hero. The award will be presented to me before 2,000 people at a gathering called “Speaking of Women’s Health” in early October. Yikes.

Although I am thrilled and extremely honored, I can think of many far more qualified people. Right off the top of my head I think of firefighters, search and rescue people and soldiers – people who put themselves in the line of fire in order to serve, protect and often save others. (By the way, my fellow award winner is a firefighter. I don’t know… firefighter, photographer… hmmm… seems like there is something wrong with this picture.) I am far from a super hero. I stole make-up a couple of times at Woolworth’s when I was a teenager; I have sworn in front of my kids; I inhaled; I have told lies; I am often lazy; I get impatient in traffic jams and have been known to yell at other drivers.

After doing some online research, I found these to be the common traits of super heroes:

"Extraordinary powers and abilities, relevant skills, and/or advanced equipment. Although superhero powers vary widely, superhuman strength, the ability to fly, enhanced senses, and the projection of energy bolts are all common. Some superheroes, such as Batman and the Question possess no superhuman powers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences. Many characters supplement their natural powers with a special weapon or device (e.g., Wonder Woman's lasso, Captain America's shield, Spider-Man's webbing, etc.)

A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one’s own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward.

A motivation, such as a sense of responsibility (e.g. Spider-Man), a formal calling (e.g., Wonder Woman), a personal vendetta against criminals (e.g., Punisher, Batman), or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service (e.g. Superman).

A secret identity that protects the superhero’s friends and family from becoming targets of his or her enemies, although many superheroes have a confidant (usually a friend or relative who has been sworn to secrecy).

A distinctive costume, often used to conceal the secret identity.

A supporting cast of recurring characters, including the hero's friends, co-workers and/or love interests, who may or may not know of the superhero's secret identity."

Yesterday I sat down in front of lights and a camera at the local public TV station to be interviewed about my super hero award. (I did not like this, was not good at it and feel a bit sick to my stomach each time I think about what I said and what I forgot to say.) My costume consisted of the usual: blue jeans and cowboy boots. No cool weapons or gear, no displays of superhuman strength. Darn. The interviewer was fabulous, though. She had done her homework and asked great questions.

The questions that have stuck in my mind have to do with this whole hero issue. I think it’s worth considering, I realized, who really are our heroes.

She asked who mine are. Immediately, I said, “My parents, my kids, my husband.” (The thing about doing interviews is you don’t really have a lot of time to mull over the questions – what comes out comes out, and you have to then be prepared to back that up.) I was surprised and informed by many of my answers yesterday, but not by that one.

She asked me, “Why them?” I simply said, “Because they hold me up.” (That takes a lot of sacrifice and strength. Maybe not lightening bolts, the ability to fly or to use special weapons, but many, many things of equal importance and coolness.)

Again, I had never really thought about it that way before. Still, I was not surprised by what came out of my mouth.

The more we talked, the more specifically I was able to define my super hero views. The conversation turned to my friend and Holocaust survivor, Bronia.

Bronia’s main goal in life has been to shed any anger, hatred, bitterness or resentment she might have developed after losing her family, being humiliated, deprived, starved, worked to the bone and nearly murdered by the Nazis when she was a young woman. She told me once that she had had no intention of being under further imprisonment once she was liberated. To harbor anger and bitterness would have cast her into a life behind bars. She vowed not to let that happen. Not only did Bronia succeed; she has also managed to teach this lesson to thousands.

Now, that’s a super hero.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

guest writer

Today is my birthday! I asked my father to be a guest contributor to the blog and share a little bit about about that day I was born.

"Happy Birthday. You asked me to reminisce on this day fifty-four years ago, so here goes. You have always been told that it was a hot day. I will confirm that again. We might have had window fans at home, but the hospital had one window and that was it. I remember it being over 100 degrees every day your mother was in the hospital. Your brother had been delivered 58 minutes after we reached the hospital four years earlier, so your mother was prudent as to not waiting too long. As I remember, we went to the hospital at the first sign that she might be ready, the night of the 3rd.

I was told to go to the waiting room for fathers. The hospital had a special room for waiting fathers with chairs and benches. I remember stretching out on the bench and trying to sleep. At that time members of the family were not allowed in the delivery room. A nurse came for me early in the morning and told me that you had been born. I was so thankful that everything had gone smoothly. Anita had a relatively easy delivery so she was ready to go home.

As opposed to today's hospital customs, at that time women generally stayed in the hospital for six days after giving birth. I took floor fans to her room, but it was so hot that Anita stayed drenched. We campaigned for her early release, and on the third day we were freed.

Most of your mother’s friends used a baby nurse whose name was Manning. When you let Mrs. Manning in the house you had a real tyrant. She really took over. I think we had her for two weeks. I was glad to see her leave, but Anita missed her.

Before we married, Anita and I discussed having four children. She said that she wanted to have four years between the children. You came on schedule, and we were so happy and thankful to have you."

Here is a picture of my parents at my baby naming ceremony. Dad was 33, and my mom was 31.

A friend sent me this poem, along with a a brief intro:

"I hope it won't seem too maudlin for birthday thoughts and thinking, but think of this Clifton poem as a celebration of what we evolve into! Clifton's poem alludes to all we leave, but there is all that we run toward also! (and embrace!)

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twentysix and thirtysix
even fortysix but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

- Lucille Clifton"

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

vroom, vroom

As you know, Change the Truth board member Carol went to St. Mary Kevin Orphanage a few weeks ago. She met with Joseph, Rosemary and Joan (the young woman who is being groomed to take over at some point.) Besides spending time with the children, Carol’s primary goals were to hammer out ideas for future projects we might fund AND to make sure the purchase of the motorcycle went forward.

Carol succeeded on all fronts. (She also managed to then climb to 17,300 feet on Mt. Kilimanjaro in celebration of her 50th birthday!!) All of us – the orphans, the teachers and directors there, the board and friends of CTT - are so lucky to have someone as caring and engaged as Carol in our corner.

Thanks to everyone who has made donations to CTT. The motorcycle is a gift to the orphanage from all of you! It will be used primarily as a moneymaker. One of the most common ways to get around in Uganda is by boda-boda (my personal favorite mode of transportation while there), which is a motorcycle taxi. St. Mary Kevin’s is going to use this little beauty for that purpose; the hope being that is will become a daily source of income.

It will also be equipped with a basket so that Rosemary can use it to gather small batches of food items from the market. An extra seat will be added so that, when the need arises, a child can be transported to and from the nearby medical clinic.

When I saw this photo of Rosemary with the new bike and the Change the Truth license plate, I got goose bumps all over.