20 December 2011

Buy A House

I'm a little blue. Circumstances have conspired so that I must leave a house that I love. We have all been there. And of course, the consolation is that this is a great time to buy a house, or so they say. I want to stay in New York State, and Westchester is too expensive, so I am looking north. There are some great places on the market: nice houses, large properties, old farms. I look at the listings and imagine myself there - a beautiful picture. Then I look them up on the map, and my heart sinks, as I cross-reference each location against a map of the existing gas drilling leases in New York State. The sad fact is that much of New York State has been leased for gas drilling, and as a prospective buyer of property, there is no way I would buy something that might have hydro-fracking near it.

Admittedly I have a good understanding of the process, and thus the risks inherent. But even for the layman, all one needs to know can be summarized in this editorial by an environmental engineering technician: “Hydraulic fracturing as it’s practiced today will contaminate our aquifers.” Why would I, as a home buyer looking to invest life savings in a property, buy something that will have poisoned water?

The question arises whether I should believe this technician or the glowing industry reports (from an industry that has wheedled exemptions from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and hopes to get in and profit and get out). I will err on the side of caution, thank you very much. And of course I feel badly for those who were duped into signing leases for their land, and even worse for those that live adjacent to leased land. Caveat emptor.

01 December 2011


No battles are fought alone, least of all mine. Aside from the fantastic team that works with me on a daily basis, there are the resource partners, and the project-specific partners. In the former category are the environmental groups, engineers, scientists, and lawyers that give me background and breaking developments on the various issues on which I'm working. So much of my work depends on information: technical details about the industries and the specific public health issues related to each, and changes in technologies that affect them. There are images for which there is no explanation, which leads to a mystery needing diagnosis, and others for which the obvious explanation does not quite fit. And there are the legislative angles: looming battles in which the friends of polluting industries are subversively working to enact or repeal laws for special interests that will significantly undermine public health.

Some of the most important partners are the pilots that volunteer their time, expertise, and equipment, most notably SouthWings, LightHawk, and Motorfluggruppe Grenzland. Recently, after an exhibit in Amsterdam, a Dutchman named Leo Westerkamp called asking if there might not be a project for which he would be essential. As Germany was next on the itinerary, a revisit to the giant open-pit brown coal mines at Garzweiler seemed to be in order.

So many have questioned my grip on the slippery concept called reality, that it's rare for me to doubt another's grip must mean they are in an extreme. Leo flies a kite. With a big fan. In the winter. Somehow I let him talk me into it.

I had to run from my exhibit at Flo Peters Gallery back down to Nürnberg to teach at Städtische Berufsoberschule für Sozialwesen, and we agreed that I would then train it up to Dormagen where he would meet me. On the internet I located rooms at Nikolaus Kloster for a reasonable rate where we were blessed by the Pater. The next morning broke clear and blue, but a little windy. Turns out the kite can only fly in very still air. So we spent much of the day driving around through the ghost towns slated for demolition prior to removal from existence for access to the coal below.

This woman was one of the last residents of Frimmersdorf, but in true German pride, was still sweeping the street in front of her house. Finally, the wind subsided enough to allow flight, but only for an hour plus before sunset.

On each flight, I usually find at least one answer, and in this case it was the disposal of the ash from the trio of power plants fed by the mine. Regular readers of this rant (and other properly concerned citizens) know too well about coal ash and its threats to our health.
As I suspected, the lovely power provider in question is dumping it right back in the mine, unlined from the water table, thus allowing the lead, arsenic, uranium mercury, selenium et al found therein to leach into the groundwater. Glad I don't live near there.

When doing these projects, the faithful, ancient GPS always accompanies, and a quick mark of the point of departure seems a sensible precaution. Nothing like a trail of bread crumbs. As the sun was setting and the cold intolerable, I called for home, and Leo averred that he had it under control. In good faith, I allowed him to set the direction, but always the dubious, I cast a glance at my bread crumbs, which oddly went the other way. Upon query, Leo assured me all was under control, but when the mine appeared through the haze in front of us, I knew that my suspicions, though founded on crumbs, were credible. Visions of spending the night in some field huddled next to Leo, wrapped up in his giant kite were not comforting. Fortunately, Mr. Magellan, old as he is, guided us straight back to the air field, though I could hardly get off the kite when we finally bumped to a halt.

04 October 2011

Reflections on A Concentration Camp

I'm visiting Auschwitz with a friend whose father survived the horror to move to the USA and start a new life, after which my friend was born. He has felt a need to connect with this part of his history, and I, as one who is so often disconnected from my personal history, am glad to accompany him.
Of course, as modern Americans, most of us have known no real hardship: our parents lived through the Depression, and though the recent unpleasantness has been just that for many of us, those who are really impacted are out of sight.

Krakow is the closest major city, so we base ourselves there.
It is one of the most beautiful, preserved, and vibrant cities I have seen. The Poles have been abused, traded back and forth, and almost seemingly forgotten. But they have produced some of the greatest intellectuals, artists, and scientists the world has known; one need only mention Chopin.

In touring the camp, I can't help but be bombarded by multiple thoughts: how could people do this to each other? How could one person do that to another person? What is modern Germany's relation to what happened here? And then there are more prosaic thoughts as an artist and journalist: What remains of what was here? Should this place be declared off limits due to the fact that we are literally walking on the ashes of thousands of people? Can we learn the proper lessons from this place?

Entrance of camp: "Work Makes You Free"

The Nazis attempted to destroy much of Auschwitz once it was clear the jig was up for them. And the Poles built up the museum in the 50's, and of course any restoration is not the same as the original. Millions of people have passed through this place since, and they have all left their mark. I found myself looking for original things to photograph: manhole covers, locks, rusted hinges that looked of the period, the chimneys that remained from the destroyed bunkhouses. Some of the interesting things that I wanted to photograph (and did) seem suspiciously as if they might be relics of the tourists, not prisoners: ashes in the heating stoves, graffiti scratched in to the plaster walls.

Prosthetic limbs stolen from Jewish prisoners
It's well known that regular people can perform heinous acts on their fellows, especially when told to do so by a superior. And the greater the “us/them” dichotomy, the easier it is for an individual to justify, witness “gooks.” I have many German friends (admittedly, most are intellectuals); they all carry a burden of guilt from the Nazi days. That said, we have all read about the resurgence of Nazism, especially in the East.

Mostly, I reflect on the meaning to myself and my country. While Germans have undergone deep soul-searching due to this horror, I do not sense the same at home where we have perpetrated our own abominations. Let's begin with the treatment of the first Americans: willful, methodical slaughter, genocide, and theft of their lands. Then of course one thinks of the slavery issue, primarily associated with the South. But these are nightmares far in the past, and not likely to be dredged up for consideration. On the other hand, our contemplation of Vietnam rarely, if ever goes beyond the domestic impacts of “The American War,” yet estimates of the number of dead range from 1.5 to over 3 million. Our application of hebicide defoliants alone fills me with horror. According to Wikipedia, the USA sprayed 12% of the total land area of South Vietnam at concentrations far greater than the “manufacturer's suggested application.” We targeted food crops, causing mass starvation and population migrations, and poisoning the entire ecosystem to this day. The effects persist to the present. I have been there and have seen the birth defects in the present population. Interestingly, I did not encounter any animosity.

Then there are our current wars: It's a safe guess that over a million Iraqi civilians have been killed in our foray, maybe 25,000 in Afghanistan. Civilians. But we will never know. And we don't seem to care.
And we haven't even discussed our torture policies which continue to this day.
Land of the free, home of the brave?

06 September 2011

Branded at the Bienale

Venice is the city of commerce, of conspiracy, romance, and art. It is also one of the most picturesque and expensive cities in the world. Every second year, the Bienalle brings the world's most important contemporary art together in the Giardini, on the east side of the city, for exhibit. Each nation has a pavilion which represents their most unique, talented, or possibly beloved artists to the art cognoscenti.

The weather was perfect, warm, not too humid, with a lovely breeze blowing from the ocean. Alas I had but 36 hours there, which I started by taking a walk with the lovely and dynamic Marjorie Gordon in Piazza San Marco, where the renovation of the cathedral was in its final stages. The mosaics above the doors were breathtaking in their revealed beauty. One can only imagine the mastery of the artists that created them. The detail and textures rendered were unbelievable, and to see them freshly cleaned and shining in the morning sun (we were up before the crowds) was a revelatory experience. We then proceeded to Due Mori, a famous watering hole where Marjorie insisted we have a prosecco (at 8 in the morning).
Having done all of her art browsing before my arrival, she gave me a list of “must sees” and proceeded to the beach for a day of leisure. I rousted my good friend Dietrich Petzold, the renaissance man from Berlin, and we proceeded to the Bienalle.

Our first stop was the Swiss Pavilion, which was a tremendous assortment of smashed and obsolete consumer items, many wrapped in plastic, beginning with a plethora of mobile phones, proceeding to stacks of monitors and televisions, and so on.
Anyone who knows my work would know that the message of consumption and disposal is one of my most treasured themes. My criticism with what I saw was the apparent lack of craft involved here. Perhaps it's not possible to make something of beauty out of piles of consumer detritus, but in so doing, one would create an irony that becomes much more effective than piles of garbage emitting a miasma of ozonic sickliness.

Next was the German Pavilion, which celebrated the recently deceased Christoph Schlingensief, a filmmaker whose subject matter was the the rise of fascism in Germany, another extremely resonant subject, especially as this pernicious incursion of personal liberty is ascendant worldwide, especially in the USA. But here again, my feeling was the exhibit lacked subtlety. The main room was styled to resemble a church, with macabre decoration- and of course I don't speak the language, though I am a big fan of German film. So I left dissatisfied.
Shortly along we came upon the USA pavilion, which seemed to be focused on the addiction of our culture and economy to war- again, a reverberant theme for me, but... Outside was an upended tank with a workout treadmill on one of the treads- kind of cool, but really just a demonstration of what a conceptual artist can do when someone puts a few hundred thousand dollars in the hand. Where was the craft? Inside was a weapon-bearing statue of liberty lying down in a tanning machine, and a cash machine connected to a set of organ pipes. Is this the best art my country can produce?

By this time, I was being overwhelmed by the surfeit of Swatch logos. Of course, any venture in today's world must find sponsorship, thanks to the fascistic cutting of nationally supported arts (can't cut the military due to all those enemies of the state), but the headlong indulgence of our societies to be branded amounts to a theft of personality that I resent.
One of the other brandings was by Enel, the Italian energy producer (one wonders how much mercury and carbon dioxide they are putting into our environment). The other thing that struck me was the amount of trash being produced by the whole production (here was the irony lacking in the Swiss exhibit).
Everywhere one looked was branded garbage.
Alas I had made the decision not to carry a camera, having checked them at the airport before venturing into Venice.

We then ventured to the Arsenale section of the event, at an old warehouse building where weaponry and munitions were stored, and workers housed. My impression here was much the same as before, much gimmickery and reliance on the latest techno-philia, but very little craft and meaning.

For me, a true artist has mastered her chosen field such that it becomes secondary to what the artist has to say.
At the end of the Arsenale was a refreshing exception: a film titled "The Clock," by Christian Marclay, in which he had edited together segments of many films which followed the progression of real time, showing a watch here or clock there, in some the mention of a specific time: fantastic. Impossible to imagine the amount of research and editing involved. I did not watch but bit of it, assuming I would go back later and see the whole.

The other priority on Marjorie's list (that I had time to see) was the Palazzo Grassi, which contained a group exhibit of renowned living artists. What a relief, to see this collection of thoughtful, well-executed pieces. The highlight for me was Zhang Huan, the Chinese artist who does giant portraits using incense ash from Chinese temples. Words don't describe. This is art. Beautiful, sublime, masterful. This man will hang next to history's great artists through time.

30 June 2011

The Names Have Changed

The report on the “Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster” (the WV mine “accident” in which 29 miners died) has been released. The list of violations found is long, but more telling was the discovery that the company has kept a second set of books, hidden from regulators, that listed all of the various issues. Of course, this tragedy is a legacy of the corporate welfare mentality of the previous administration. Like all welfare recipients, those corporations are screaming at the possible recision of those goodies. Exemption from safe workplace and environmental regulations is simply another handout to those producers, and thus their shareholders.

Meanwhile, back at the mine, the almost comic director of Massey (the mine owner) Don Blankenship, has resigned, much to the dismay of those who try to leaven these deadly topics. And Massey, in the great tradition of corporate 'Amerikan' escape from liability, has been acquired but another company. Of course, Blankenship and other execs have refused to testify, so as not to incriminate themselves.

And we go about our daily affairs, most of us not even aware of the Upper Big Branch and the 29 people that died in the underworld to bring us that black gold that powers our computers. Try to remember their loved ones and turn off the lights when you leave the room. And unplug the TV and cable box while you are at it, one of the largest electricity hogs in your house.

09 June 2011

El Paso

From a pilot's perspective, flying in El Paso, Texas is a stressful event. It is literally surrounded by restricted air space: Mexico to the south, and Fort Bliss military base to the north. So, one either approaches from the east or the west, talking to the controllers and watching carefully for other air traffic continually. And be careful not to hit the giant ASARCO smokestack, the phallic remains of a superfund site that dominates the El Paso skyline. The smelter that it served poisoned the air, land, and water for the 70 odd years of its operation, and is still in bankruptcy. Smeltertown, where the predominantly Mexican labor force lived, was razed by the EPA due to its staggering contamination, the residents relocated, leaving only a tremendous statue of Christ looking over the site. The border with Juarez, the notorious Mexican city across the river, dominates life in El Paso.

Mexico provides labor, an escape for corporations from American environmental regulations, and fuels an industry of border security. Copper was the primary product of the smelter. Nearby in New Mexico, are several large copper mines owned by a mining giant with an environmental record less than pristine.

When my friend the writer Roger D. Hodge mentioned he was going down to work on a book about the border, I immediately asked to accompany, and called LightHawk, that great organization of environmental pilots, asking if they had anyone in the area. Merry Schroeder from Santa Fe volunteered, and agreed to fly down and pick us up in El Paso. In spite of the forecast for high winds, which make flying and aerial photography quite difficult, the day broke calm and clear. Due to the stress of flying in and out of El Paso, Merry wanted to fly from the left seat, which has the opening window, but we agreed to touch down when we arrived at Silver City, NM and change seats. Shooting through a window is highly problematic for numerous reasons: reflections in the window, loss of contrast and resolution shooting through the plexi window, and the inability to look down. At the airfield were several fire fighting craft: a large helicopter and plane, undergoing maintenance from their duties fighting the wildfires in New Mexico. In spite of my entreaties, Merry insisted that the air space was restricted, and that we could not fly there and photograph. So we changed seats and proceeded to the nearby mines and smelter.

Open pit mines are possibly the most visible of “industrial scars” and the trick for me is to take these disasters, inherently ugly detritus of our consumer culture and create images that captivate the attention of the viewer. Ultimately this is about using the rules of color and composition, and, in that five seconds of attention, stimulate interest and curiosity, and tell a story.

By this time, the wind was picking up, which makes positioning the plane quite difficult. The details I'm interested to shoot are very specific, and in a plane, one has but a second, literally, to get them. Merry is a very skilled pilot, and was able to put me in the proper place repeatedly. Between the bouncing plane, and the wind tearing at the lens, getting that tight, exact, composition ain't easy, so
around and around we go. Thanks to exemptions in the clean air and clean water acts, mining wastes are exempt from reporting, so the real impact of these mines is unknown. Art can somehow fill that gap, as a picture does not lie (like a politician). And only through the collaboration with people like Merry and LightHawk can these stories be told. We photographed two mines and the accompanying smelter, then headed back to El Paso where we were interested to see the border fence. The fence, so imposing from the ground (and such an environmental barrier) is hard to photograph from the air. It becomes a demarcation line, an effect that is very visible. The other quite visible effect is the traffic queuing up to come in to the USA. So much money is being spent on an intractable situation that will only be remedied when the underlying causes are addressed: economic disparity and drug use in the USA. Until that time, the fence is but a monument to futility, not to mention a repeat of a similar mistake. Fortunately, the Mexicans we are trying to exclude don't have the same intent as the Germans did.

19 May 2011


Last week, I had the great pleasure to photograph the Emerson String Quartet, one of the great music groups of our day. Confession: I have never heard them play live. With good humor they endured my imperious bullying, and we got many great shots which will soon be seen on their new CD for Sony.

It’s such a joy to work with people that are masters of their craft. I think it’s what I like best about my job. And of course, gentle teasing is also a great part of the day. Playing a little country music for the Juilliard mafia is always a must. And of course these things only happen when the real work is done by someone else, in this case, Dirk, Susan, and Katherine.

It turned out that the group was playing at the Met Museum the next night, joining the pianist Menahem Pressler. Only a small amount of begging was necessary to obtain a ticket. The evening opened with Mr. Pressler doing a Beethoven sonata and ended with him and the Quartet playing Dvořák. It is a great joy to see a group of artists that have been doing their thing for decades get up there and so clearly enjoy themselves, and play the pieces as if they had never been played. I was transported.

The complete program:
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110 ~ Beethoven
Estampes ~ Debussy
Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 ~ Dvořák

Upon arriving home and digging in my CD collection, I found a version of Schubert played by Mr. Pressler and the Beaux Arts Trio. This is one of my long time favorites, probably due to Kubrick’s adroit use of it in Barry Lyndon.

Who said this music was aging?

03 May 2011

Just Say 'NO' for Earth Day

Earth Day events in New York have traditionally been the result of many concerned citizens voicing their fears about the damage done to our life support system, a bit like the raucous 60s we all like to remember so fondly. The centerpiece event at Grand Central Station has always had the same manic feel that we associate with “the good old days.” And of course, it’s difficult to maintain momentum in spontaneously organized, issue-based grass roots organizations, especially as they accumulate staff and equipment.

Strolling around the Earth Day exhibit at Grand Central this year, I was struck, not so much by the environmentalist fervor of the event and participants, but by the mercantilist nature of the event. Leggy, breathless blonds touted the efficiency of washing machine/dryer combinations (as if a dryer were not the most earth-unfriendly device made). A life-sized mural of models, photographed in a “life-style” manner, urged us to buy some brand of apparel “for the good of the planet” (buying organic cotton is good, as cotton is the crop on which the most pesticides are sprayed). Toyota was there with the Prius, which is unavailable, due to the seismic sea wave (not tidal wave) and accompanying nuclear disaster. And there were a few moms and kids milling about with crayons and happy faces. But the overarching message (maybe I’m a cynic) was: buy Buy BUY!

I’m the first to believe that we can change the world by careful choices of what we buy; as a matter of fact, I think it’s ultimately the only effective vote the individual has. Our real problem is heedless consumerism, on every level, whether it’s buying the new iPhone or leaving the lights on, it’s our consumption binge that is the problem. That means you and me.

15 March 2011

Sing A Different Tune

Even when traveling to speak, I want to carry an image recorder. And if I’m going to spend the time to make the images, I want the result to be worth printing and keeping. Of course, to carry the good quality digital means a mule-load of equipment, batteries, drives, chargers, zoom lenses with vibration control, and other such indulgences. Our impulse these days seems to be for the “does-it-all” solution, which of course speaks for the HD video camera that shoots the nice panorama still (if you remember to bring the screw-on wide-angle adaptor). But ultimately, it does not satisfy. If you shoot video, the audio doesn’t make it because there is no sound man, and the stills are too low-res for large applications. The answer is so obvious as to require an apology with its revelation: shoot on some of the film in the fridge. Which, of course, is all about pulling out the M6.

I’m someone who loves things well-made. Anything. Even if I don’t like that category of object. And I’m a photographer, who ultimately still loves the mystery of a photon hitting a light sensitive surface. I will admit I still sometimes pull the old Leicas out of the safe and run through the shutter speeds, several times on each one. That’s what I was taught to do to spread the grease in the shutter. The Leica M series is a wonderful, well-designed, lovingly-made celebration of the human’s ability to craft something that is both machine and artwork.

I hate the contemporary practice, inevitable with technology, of taking the picture and looking at it immediately to decide if that was what you wanted. Confession: I do it too. But how craven.

So to have the result of the evolution of knowledge of camera-making in hand again, and respond to the rigor it demands, is quite a joy. Of course, for the big jobs, it’s not possible not to digitize... between cost and schedule.

And let’s not forget, film has a tremendous footprint.

My hope is that Leica will someday produce a digital reflex camera that uses the wonderful lenses I have kept in pristine condition. Hard to slow the march of progress.

03 February 2011

Thank God, the Ice is Melting...

...otherwise, how would we get all that oil that we know lies under the Arctic? It’s a bit of a nuisance that the northeast has to suffer from such a rotten winter for it, but believe me, and ice-free North Pole will be better for everyone. Of course, we might have to fight the Russians for the mineral rights, but we’ll kick some commie butt just like we did the last time.

Our hunger for petrol and dwindling supplies are driving exploration farther afield, and the Arctic is the next on the list for extraction.

The recent spill in the Gulf Of Mexico taught the world much about oil spills and response. Fortunately, the spill happened in the spring within 200 miles of some of the most well-equipped ports in the world for offshore oil operations. In the Beaufort Sea, where Shell is preparing to drill north of Alaska, there is not a deepwater port for a thousand miles, and that one is a one-horse harbor in the middle of the ocean. The water in the area is only navigable a portion of the year, and periodic storms with “sustained winds may reach 65 to 70 knots; significant wave heights can climb to 40 to 50 feet” occur every few years.

A recent European study on Arctic weather forecasts "large increases in the potential for extreme weather events" and warns that "commercial activities in the North (e.g. fisheries, oil industry, shipping) will become increasingly vulnerable" to severe Polar low-pressure systems, described as the "Arctic Cousins" of tropical hurricanes.

Of course, as the weather gets rougher, accidents will increase and remediation becomes more difficult.

Until recent years, technology limitations and low oil prices have kept this vast repository of hydrocarbon wealth essentially out of reach of extraction. Those limiting factors are rapidly diminishing and oil companies are rushing to get a stake in the action. Logically, disasters, delays, and cost overruns would be directly proportional to severity of site conditions and distance from logistical support.

Some recent developments in Arctic petroleum exploration/extraction:

-The Norwegian national oil company Statoil has been producing gas from its Snøhvit drilling site above the Arctic Circle since September 2007. The ambitious project is completely sub-aqueous, and has been plagued with delays, overruns, and un-permitted greenhouse gas releases since the beginning. Statoil is one of the biggest players in some of the dirtiest hydrocarbon projects in the world, including the Catskills hydro-fracking controversy.

-BP has recently signed a deal with the Russian state-owned Rosneft to explore the Arctic areas off Russia’s continental shelf. Neither Russia or BP are known for their attention to the environment or safety record.

-Shell has received permits to begin exploration off the north coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, and is moving equipment, including a drill ship and a newly built spill response ship into the area in anticipation. When one remembers that thousands of vessels were involved in the BP Deepwater cleanup, and one specialty disaster response ship seems inadequate. Shell has a record of environmental destruction and governmental manipulations in their projects around the world.

-Cairn Energy began drilling off the Arctic Coast of Greenland this summer, but had to stop after GreenPeace activists suspended themselves from structure of the drill rig.

If you were hoping that peak oil would arrive and provide the restraint that we seem to lack as a species, vis-a-vis our carbon addiction, think again. The dirty oil sources (like the tar sands) will allow us to continue to push up the atmospheric CO2 meter at an increasingly accelerated pace. Of course, when all of the ice has melted, the oceans will only rise 220 feet, so if you are in the mountains you’ll be fine, except for the sunburn...