documentary

celebrating documentary photography

I’ve worked with Glenn Ruga of SocialDocumentary.net for years and in a number of capacities: editing email newletters, hanging art exhibitions, photographing events and lectures. This time, in celebration of their 10th anniversary, I was honored to be included in their exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center in NYC. In addition, Glenn asked me to photograph the opening festivities.

I met some wonderful photographers and supporters of photography. Glenn and his team have built an extraordinary international community around documentary photography. I’m grateful to be counted among them.

Jim Prendergast of Mill Pond Music Studios

I recently remembered this little 2013 excursion, when friend and musician Joe Deleault invited me to join him in the studio for a record he was producing. He, musician Andrew Sterling (who's in the final photo), and I trekked to Mill Pond Music Studio in Portsmouth, NH, to spend the day with owner Jim Prendergast. Prior to establishing this recording studio, Jim was a full-time session guitarist (and more) in Nashville. He still travels there regularly, when not in the studio (as a musician, producer, or engineer) or performing with bands locally.

Natural, indirect light illuminates his studio, thanks to large windows along one wall (extending through multiple rooms)—a photographer's dream. I exposed three or four rolls of film, allowing myself to enjoy observing Jim's process of music-making, not the least of which involves an analog tape deck for audio capture. Brilliant.

And yes, it was just as relaxing and comfortable being there as it looks in the photos.

The Farmer's Dinner at Generation Farm

Between photographing the culinary results of The Farmer's Dinner; enjoying those same results; and, on this particular day, checking in with three of my children, who were among the dinner guests at Generation Farm (and entertaining them with aplomb); I greatly enjoy observing and photographing the process of making these rather remarkable courses. A professional kitchen is a maelstrom of activity; in the case of an outdoor improvised one, it can be trecherous. But achieving a photograph during those few moments where all of the elements converge is compelling to the point of obsession, comparable to a chef's plating a single course.

Kate and Orla: a photo essay about pet therapy

This post is a long overdue: I recently realized that, despite being created and published in 2016, I had never posted the work here. My words here will be minimal, mostly limited to background and logistics, since my brief essay and captions are better read with the photos, as published (link below).

I received this assignment from Parable Magazine to create a photo essay about Kate and her dog, Orla, both of who had been working in pet therapy (via the national organization Pet Partners) for some time. Kate, a practicing Catholic, recognizes this ministry as a way to serve and comfort the sick.

One of the challenges for creating the work was that their schedule only saw them serving once per month: to observe and understand them sufficiently—and to create a body of work broad enough to fill the pages—required planning and working together over four months. Each visit, though, was entirely unique: a private home, a nursing home (in fact, two, but one was visiting individual patients while the other was a group therapy session), and visiting Kate and Orla at home (which is where the final photographs and the cover were made).

These two make an incredibly kind and caring team. I can say easily that I've never met a more gentle and trusting dog than Orla, who knew me and was comfortable with me from our first meeting. That speaks volumes about Kate.

My photographs and words were the cover story for that issue of Parable and can be seen in the magazine's online version. In 2017, the Catholic Press Association gave the work five awards (ranging from the cover and individual photos to the entire published set)—truly a wonderful honor.

I am tremendously grateful to Kate, Orla, and the families and individuals who allowed me to create during these very special moments.

behind the stage for Ballet Misha's "Nutcracker"

I've been photographing the stage production of Ballet Misha's Nutcracker for a few years. Last year, in addition to the performance, I wanted something different, so I asked their artistic director, Amy Fortier,  whether I could photograph what happens beyond the stage. She agreed and gave me full license to explore and visually document.

Given my other photographic duties (i.e., the performances), this work only shows the moments of backstage life before and in between shows. It ignores the hundreds of hours of planning, preparations, rehearsals, costume fittings, moving and setting props, et al.; as well as the general chaos that occurs everywhere outside those few hundred square feet of stage floor during the performances.

As in any performing art, however, the vast majority of work happens off the stage, and here is a tiny glimpse of that life.

PS: Their 2017 production is December 16 & 17.

Deciduous Brewing celebration

I'm always grateful to be hired by friends for photography work, but when the owners of Deciduous Brewing asked me to photograph their second anniversary party, well, that was something else. I've known Frank and Maryann Zagami since elementary school. They've built a wonderful business with a supportive, friendly community in a beautiful space. Of course, their beers are absolutely amazing, full-flavored brews.

They gave me complete freedom to photograph as I wished—a dream! The colors of their beers demand that a few not appear in black & white.

Ingbretson atelier: IV. abstractions

My previous post about this atelier project concerned the Ingbretson Studio as object: the artists' tools, their materials, and the space itself. This final post is related but dedicated to non-descriptive compositions; that is, the studio remains the subject matter, but the resulting photographs provide little to no visual information about it (and thus were kept from the photographic essay proper—the tragedy of page limits!). They are small sensual joys—found abstractions that demand nothing of me as creator or as viewer besides their aesthetic quality.

Ingbretson atelier: III. materials

The artists were my primary interests at the Ingbretson Studio; thus, the first and second posts about this project were limited to them and their work. However, their materials demanded their own attention as well. The space has this ubquituous, even light—a necessary but generous gift to a visual artist. Their palettes, paints, brushes, and pencils—to say nothing of the colorful objects on shelves and in stalls kept for years as potential subjects—rather than being the means to create, become the means to a composition. The space, intended to house the artists and their work, becomes itself the subject matter to a still life.

Ingbretson atelier: II. portraits of artists

In my previous post, I introduced my project about the Ingbretson Studio. Most of the students seemed to tolerate me, and some engaged me in conversation about their work or mine. I asked only these individuals to sit for a brief portrait—something I wouldn't usually do during a documentary project, but the north-facing windows and their scrims always produced remarkable light, and the artmaking always in progress compelled me to ask.

Aware of their tasks, I only made a few frames of each, always in a single setting, always in color.

Ingbretson atelier: I. artists working

A few years ago, my friend David Clayton told me about an art atelier in Manchester: The Ingbretson Studio for Drawing and Painting. I contacted Paul Ingbretson (the master and owner) about spending some time photographing there. He agreed, and I documented the life and work of his students and space.

I carried only two film rangefinders: one loaded with Tri-X (black & white) and the other with Portra 400 (color), using whichever one suited the subject matter and my photographic goal. I had only 35 & 50mm lenses and a handheld light meter. I listened: to conversations among the students, to Paul, and to the sounds of quiet making. I occasionally asked questions, discussed, and debated. Most were open to my presence and work, and I'm grateful to them for the opportunity.

The results, along with an essay, are published in the current issue of Dappled Things. My words there explain much of the studio's practices and culture; thus, I see no need to repeat or expand upon those words except by way of introduction. I will, however, be able to expand greatly on the amount of photographs published, organized thematically.

The first set, then, will show what one entering this atelier would see: students of various ages creating art in their stalls, similar to monks in their cells.

a house concert

I met The Hickory Horned Devils last year when I hosted a performance at Amoskeag Studio; since then, I've also gotten to know most of the band members. So when we were invited to a house concert (hosted by their lead singer, Jen) with other friends and family, we gladly accepted. Located on a hill in Pembroke, their property has a tremendous view and overlooks Concord (we could see the state capitol building miles away).

From the porch, the band performed three sets throughtout the evening before guests with chairs and blankets. The potluck was varied and plentiful, along with the grill and beverages. Dozens of children wandered and played in the yard. Adults strolled in the field past the stone wall. We visited with friends we didn't expect to see there. The band finished at dusk, and we lingered for a couple hours more while our children eeked out as much time in a new house with new friends as they could.

I didn't have a plan for photographing. I relaxed and ate (and drank) first while listening to the music and waiting for the light to improve. The resulting work is an eclectic collection of the day: friends lounging, musicians performing, corn and grass growing, suns setting. They do not convey the high spiritedness of the music, the sounds of conversation and laughter, the smells and tastes of the food, the serenity of a location felt in the midst of dozens of other people. They are moments, scenes worked over (with many failed attempts), and an opportunity to create something different and new.

Fulchino Vineyard for The Farmers Dinner

This dinner was the second for The Farmers Dinner at Fulchino Vineyard (the first being a few years ago), so I knew the chefs would be preparing the courses outdoors. But I (and the chefs, and the owners) were surprised how quickly the darkness came; work lights had to be purchased so the work could finish.

Along with the temperature dropping quickly, the situation was certainly a new one for me. The resulting photographs, made in between courses (I also photographed each dish), were full of contrast and deep shadows.

Élevage de Volailles for The Farmers Dinner

My latest work for The Farmers Dinner brought me to Élevage de Volailles, a small, family-run farm in Loudon Centre, New Hampshire. The event was held entirely outdoors: making the firepits, preparing the food, plating the dishes, and serving the guests. The process, of course, took days, and cooking and smoking the meat over open pits started early that morning. The summer sun was out in full force, with barely any clouds in the sky, so in addition to preparation, the chefs were battling smoke, heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and dehydration—for nearly 12 hours.

Photographing in harsh, late-day sun has its own challenges, but I fully embraced the high-contrast light and deep shadows. I had no doubts that the results would exist only as black-and-white. Seeing the chefs work in these circumstances, tasting (most of) what they served, and hearing the reactions of and appreciation by the guests gave me a further appreciation of the chefs' commitment to their work.

Harmonium Music Festival

I've photographed Harmonium for a couple years. It's a full day of music and fun; of course, I'm working throughout it. The main and community stages themselves are enough to keep me busy; despite this, last year was the first that I decided to work the edges a bit.  Lingering in the musicians' tent, watching load-in and preparations, wandering around the audience--any activity apart from the stage was what I was interested in.

I also decided to camp overnight, which meant I was present for the post-festival jam session. Listening to these musicians--only some of whom knew each other, musically or otherwise--was a real joy. They seemed to have endless amounts of energy.

Openings 2016, an artist residency - part III: photographic impressions

In my two previous posts, I discussed my week at the Openings Collective artist residency, where, among my breaks editing a documentary project, I photographed my fellow artists working and as portrait subjects. I have little more to add to those words (ignoring my primary reason for attending—a project that remains to be finished and will someday receive its own account), except that I had my camera with me at all times. Most of that was habit, but I never knew where I’d find a fellow resident working, so being prepared was essential.

While wandering and visiting, I’d occasionally find a photograph presenting itself. With no human subject, I consider these environmental still lifes as patient subjects. Given all of the other activities occurring throughout the week, I didn’t make much time for this one, and most were discovered by accident. The main guest house—being quite old and large, with unoccupied rooms and even floors—proved most fruitful.

Openings 2016, an artist residency - part I: the work

The strange serendipity of discovery—meeting fellow travellers, finding new (to us) artwork and artists, et al—never ceases to amaze. In this case, I remember sometime in spring of 2016 receiving an email from a friend to a blog post about Bill Cunningham (RIP) written by author Heather King. As the documentary about his life and work is on my regular rotation of viewing material, I appreciate any scraps of critical reflection about him. Ms King, who’s based in Los Angeles, had just seen the documentary and wrote a brief piece about it. That was sufficient to begin a new adventure.

As I wandered around her blog, she mentioned in a post that she was heading east for the summer in part to attend a residency in upstate New York. Openings, an artist collective based in NYC, was founded and is run by Fr. Frank Sabatté, a member of the Paulist Fathers. The Paulists are an organization of Roman Catholic priests who serve in a number of capacities around the world. That a group of working artists had formed a collective with these shared goals was intriguing. Their week-long residency at St. Mary’s on the Lake (the Paulists’ summer retreat in Lake George, NY) was open to anyone. I had never attended a residency, and the thought of focusing my attention solely on art for a week was enticing.

My goal wasn’t to create new work. I had been working on a long-term documentary photography project since 2011, and I needed to edit. I decided to apply and pitched this project in my application, and it was accepted. Months later, I traveled a few hours, bringing about 700 proof prints, to begin a long process organizing this body of work.

That task was arduous, and while I made great (if not slow) progress, I needed breaks from staring at prints for hours a day—indoors, no less, during the beautiful summer days in Lake George. Much of my respite was found seeking out my fellow residents and photographing them at work. I didn’t seek to create anything of a catalog: some artists were more accessible, working in the open, usually outdoors. I wanted to create around my editing schedule, and that meant finding people as they were—a haphazard approach.

I truly enjoy observing artistic process, and the residency offered so many opportunities to see artists working in a wide range of media: drawing, painting, sculpture, woodworking, cyanotypes, and more. I was also intrigued by the variety of impromptu “studios”: indoor common areas, dorm rooms, open air, dockside, utility spaces, various sheds—even the house attic (which, incidentally, was full of old treasures and, more importantly, interesting light). These provided a brilliant variety of environments.

raising a barn (for art)

Last week was filled with preparation for—and participation in—ArtFront's inaugural 3-day pop-up art exhibit. I wrote about my involvement and the results, but now it was time to install the work. While a couple of us were hanging my 6-foot prints, Christina had a team to build structures for her chandeliers. I helped when I could, and I wasn't able to observe this process fully, but I made a few photos as they took form. When it was ready, Christina asked someone to document the "barn raising"; I was happy to oblige.

I posted the short set below on my Instagram feed the next day and, as we were at the exhibit every night, didn't think about it again until now. What I found intriguing especially was the process of building a structure to hold her artwork with pallets as the base and top. She and Vivian had a general plan, materials, and tools, but putting it together to make it functional and stable took a team effort with many attempts: how to anchor the 15-foot posts? these screws? no, try those; the palettes don't have enough depth, so add blocks to the middle of the pallets; we need to stabilize the outside further, so add these metal plates; et al.

Observing the process of another artist—even in as mundane an activity as building temporary exhibition staging for the actual artwork—provides nearly endless fascination for me. It's a reminder that the habit of making at any stage of mastery is not pre-determined or even simple; it demands practical intelligence, the ability to judge the particulars of the object and what it needs, and how to achieve it. To make objects well requires time and practice such that a habit forms, so that when new situations present themselves, the ability to solve them is readily (and literally) at hand. Making art is, to a great degree, solving the problem of creating a whole, integral object.

a Romanian Orthodox ordination

My wife initially met the wonderful Geana family a couple years ago through a homeschool group. The children of both families have become close, too. Their father, Mircea, was already a deacon at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church (part of the Romanian Orthodox Church), and we were excited to hear that he was going to become a priest. Being invited to the ordination was an honor, especially among the small and close community that exists within this parish.

The church was small, and the interior was covered in dark wood and icons, illuminated by low but mostly even light. According to Orthodox (and other Eastern church) tradition, standing throughout the liturgy is expected, so pews are hardly existent. (As a photographer, this would have certain benefits.) With the Church hierarchy (including Mircea's father, also a priest), traveling from Romania, in attendance, the event was sufficiently significant that they had hired a photographer (or at least an advanced amateur was working). I wasn’t planning to photograph, but of course I had my camera with me.

I’m unsure how long I lasted until I was compelled to create something, but I began photographing intermittently. I didn’t want to interfere with the other photographer, or move around too much, but I’ve photographed enough liturgies to know how to be subtle while working. Being over two hours long, I had plenty of opportunities to create at a measured pace.

One of the remarkable elements of this event was experiencing the community’s unity and support for Mircea and his family in this moment. Such occasions are rare in the church, and the joy among the parishioners and visiting clergy was palpable. The day was a true celebration.

Bridgewater Old Home Day, or, Bean hole beans

Last summer I had a brief Saturday assignment about an hour north of my home: create the annual town portrait for Bridgewater during their Old Home Day. It was straightforward: any town residents present will be photographed en masse in front of the town hall.

After we finished, my contact invited me to enjoy their "bean hole beans"--another (very old) annual tradition. Here, on the day prior, pits are dug; fires started; and beans are prepared in large cast iron kettles, covered, and cooked overnight. Every year, after the town portrait, the pits are uncovered and served to the town. According to the organizers, this tradition is the longest running in the state, and they take great pride in it.

I discovered the history and process only after I recognized that—at the very least—this was a unique local tradition. As the townspeople gathered to watch, I started photographing the volunteers uncover the pits, remove the kettles, and begin serving the meal. I finished working just about when the line was gone, and I was invited to have a plate.

Realizing that these traditions still exist and even thrive after over 100 years is rather remarkable. To experience and document it as it has been practiced (except for the wooden structure, which was built a few years ago) since its inception is humbling.

in the state prison

2016 was a Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church, and Holy Doors were established throughout the diocese (at least one in each deanery) for the faithful. One such door was made in New Hampshire's state prison in Concord, upon the request of an inmate while Bishop Libasci was visiting. As it was very likely the only Holy Door in the world located in a prison, the diocesan magazine featured it in an article ("Mercy Behind Bars", Sept/Oct 2016). I was asked to make photographs.

This wasn't my first assignment in the state prison: one of my first jobs for this magazine was a feature on the prison chaplain, who's also a Catholic deacon. That was long ago, and, besides the stresses of photographing a subject, I had to be keenly aware of my surroundings and not wander from my escorts. Even that wasn't sufficient: we had just stepped outside to tour the yard when we were called back over the intercom by the watchtower. So much for that photo op.

While I had some familiarity with the process and environment, this assignment had its own challenges. First, the prison Holy Door was nothing but the door to the chapel with a small sign signifying its status; no other decorations were permitted. So it's a door.

Second, I'd be photographing the weekly Mass held in the chapel. A local priest visits and says Mass there, assisted by the deacon. But, in discussing this assignment with the communications director and the editor, we decided not to show any of the inmates' faces. We could have requested photo releases from them, but with a couple dozen inmates in attendance, that could have quickly become out of hand. Furthermore, my bosses wished to avoid any potential criticism that we were glorifying the inmates. The story was about the Holy Door and the unique opportunity for blessings it brought to the inmates and the prison. We didn't wish to emphasize any individuals there, at least for this article. So not including inmates' faces in the photographs was another limit.

Finally, and I didn't discover this until I was there, but the lighting in the chapel was some of the worst I'd ever seen. Large lamps suspended from the 30'+ ceilings were directed upwards, resulting in dull, flat light. Better yet, the bulbs were old-style fluorescent ones with major color shifts seen from photo to photo (and sometimes even in one frame). The magazine wanted color photos, of course, but I knew the results would be far better in black & white.

Despite all of these, entering this subculture--convicted, imprisoned criminals who are also practicing Catholics--that is far from our daily lives was admittedly surreal. I watched as the inmates prepared for Mass: rearranged the chapel from the previous Protestant service, set up the altar, rehearsed the music, assisted the deacon. I met a few, and while not verbose, they were friendly and pleasant. Most importantly for my working there, they were focused on the Mass and didn't seem to mind my presence. For all of its photographic failings, the space became transformed: for that hour, the reality of being in a prison was forgotten, and the reverence I witnessed there was no different than any of the dozens of churches I've visited over the years. I'd like to think that, unlike these other places, living here, the spiritual can take priority in a peculiar and special way.