Finding Truth

According to Dictionary.com, triangulation is:

The location of an unknown point, as in navigation, by the formation of a triangle having the unknown point and two known points as the vertices.

When I studied history in college I had a professor tell me that the only way to discover the truth behind an event is to read three completely different interpretations of the same event. Somewhere in the middle of all these interpretations, you’ll find the truth.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to only listen to one viewpoint, one interpretation.  Listening to those who are like-minded and speak with one voice is less disruptive than seeking the truth.

DoS Attacks on Servers

flooded back yard

Linode, the company that provides the server I use for my sites has been under constant DoS (Denial-of-Service) attacks for days. Right at this moment, I can access my site and the Linode manager, but the London servers are supposedly all down. Tomorrow, the Dallas servers may get hit, again.

We haven’t heard why there’s such a persistent attack against Linode. The company maintains status updates, but isn’t providing any details.

I’m not leaving Linode. That would be like giving assholes a win. However, access to my sites may be erratic for a bit.

In other news…we didn’t get flooded because of the Missouri rains, though we did lose access to our plumbing capability for a few days. Our back yard was a wet and soggy mess, and our personal river and waterfall, River des Powers, was flowing freely. We were very lucky compared to many surrounding areas, where homes were flooded and freeways and roads shut down. House Member’s co-workers had commutes that hit 3 hours, one-way, last night.

Right now plumbing works, ground is dry, floods are receding, and I can write to my site again. Not a bad way to end 2015.

Happy New Year!

New Incarnation

flowers

I always make major site changes during the Christmas holiday. Traffic to my sites is at its lowest, and it just seems a good end-of-year task.

I wasn’t quite expecting that the Linode server where my site lives would crash right in the middle of the upgrade, but life isn’t exciting without the little challenges.

I decided to switch from Drupal to WordPress about the time when I decided I no longer had time to pursue PHP and CMS software tweaking, since my tech interests are focused on JavaScript, Node, Internet-of-Things (IoT), mobile, and DIY (microcomputers and microcontrollers). WordPress requires less time when all you want is a site where you can publish your writings.

30 Years Ago: Mount St. Helens

Thirty years ago I was living at my Dad’s in Yakima, going to college. That Sunday was a beautiful day, and Dad was outside in the garden as I was getting ready to go to work. I worked for a photographer, who had a studio in the Yakima Mall. I liked working Sundays. Sundays were always quiet, especially when the weather was nice.

I heard a loud boom but didn’t think much of it. Yakima was right next to a military training center, and it wasn’t too unusual to have a hot dog pilot break the sound barrier. Some minutes later, my Dad yelled for me to come outside. I ran out and saw this ugly dark brown/black cloud rolling towards the town. We knew that Mount St. Helen’s had erupted.

We ran inside and quickly shut everything up, as fast as we could. My boss called to jokingly tell me that I didn’t have to go into work. Little did we both know that the Mall didn’t shut down the air intake system quickly enough, and when we were able to get into the studio three days later, all of my employer’s cameras would be ruined.

The day suddenly begins to turn into night. The ash started falling all around us. It was quiet, except for the ash, which made a slight hissing sound when it fell—like a snake who is only going through the motions. We turned the TV on, finding it interesting to see our quiet little town being the top story for most of the major networks. The President flew by. We waved.

My cat was still outside. Well, I say “my” cat, but Bonzo was really Dad’s cat—a case of love at first sight between those two. I thought he would come back when he saw the cloud, but evidently, the ash must have panicked him. I told my Dad I had to go find him. Dad was torn between wanting to keep me inside, and being worried about Bonzo. Go find him, Baby Doll, he said, But don’t stay out too long.

Yes, he called me Baby Doll. Dad’s been dead a few years now—I don’t mind telling you he used to call me Baby Doll.

I put on a plastic raincoat I bought on a lark, once, and never wore. It ended up being a perfect cover for the ash fall. I wet a handkerchief to wrap around my nose and mouth, though it didn’t work as well as I hoped.

Walking through the streets, looking for my cat, was like walking on the moon. The ash was very fine but so persistent. It covered everything, though it slithered off the plastic of my coat. After about half an hour, I couldn’t handle the ash anymore and came home— hoping Bonzo would be smart enough to find cover.

During the day, the ash cloud would sometimes thin out, leading us to hope the worst was over. Then the ash would thicken, the day darken again. I must admit to being more than a little worried about how long the ash would fall. Would we be evacuated if it fell for days?

Were we in danger?

Towards evening, we heard a faint meow at the back door. I opened it, and there on the step was a mound of ash with two brilliantly blue, and really pissed off eyes. Bonzo had made it home.

The ash fell throughout the day and into the evening. The darkness was oppressive, the acrid smell overwhelming at times. Sometime during the night, though, it finally stopped. When we woke the next day, we woke to another world. Ash covered everything.

I used to smoke in those days. I had run out of cigarettes, and we also needed milk and some other odds and ends. We couldn’t drive because of the ash, but there was a neighborhood store a couple of blocks away. I knew the store would be open—you’d have to bury that store under lava for it not to open—so I again donned my plastic coat and set off.

If the walk during the ash fall was unnerving, the walk the next day was surreal. You could see tracks of animals, including that of a bee that had become so weighted down, all it could do was squiggle along the sidewalk. Bird tracks, cat tracks, other small critters—no people though.

People were out and about, primarily shoveling ash off roofs, because the weight was enough to cause some real concerns. Others, seemingly indifferent to the effects of mixing ash and engine, were out driving, and their cars would send up clouds of acrid dust. Some of our more enterprising neighbors built a speed bump of ash mixed with water, which worked pretty good until the street crews knocked it down.

For the next three months, we cleaned up ash. In the beginning, we wore a lot of masks, and some folks took off for ashless climes. Silly, really, because bad stuff happens everywhere. If you’re going to leave a place, you leave it before the bad stuff happens. Otherwise, you’re just moving from bad stuff to bad stuff, like a ball in a pinball machine.

My Dad used some of the ash from around our place to mix into cement for a new sidewalk. Other people created souvenir statues from the ash. I bought a t-shirt that said something about the mountain and Yakima, but I can’t remember the words now. Probably something that seemed clever then, but would be stupid, now.

A day by day account at the Yakima Herald Republic.

St. Louis Today photo gallery.

Walker Evans: I am a Writer

I am not a Walker Evans expert, but from my recent readings about him, I sensed there were three significant events in his life that shaped the man, and subsequently, the photographs we’ve come to cherish.

One of the events I briefly mentioned in the last Walker Evans writing, and that was his search for a particular style of photography. Rejecting the existing photographic styles of the time– which either disregarded the strengths of the camera in favor of artificially created scenes, or sought to tug emotion from the viewer–Evans sat in a library looking through all 50 issues of the photographic journal, Camera Work until finding what he was looking for: Paul Strand’s photograph of a blind woman, shown below.

strand_blind.jpg

In this picture, Evans saw an uncompromising realism unfettered by any emotional hooks. There was no attempt to make the woman into something either to be admired or pitied; nor was there an attempt to make a ‘pretty’ picture, or a noble one. Combined, this realism and lack of emotionality formed the basis for Evans’ own style of photography: unsentimental, realistic, and unstaged. In other words: objective.

A search for objective truth in art wasn’t unique to Evans–many of the creative people of that time shared this philosophy about their work. But objectivity was almost an obsession with Evans, and we can trace the roots of this to his upbringing and the second pivotal event in his life: the separation of his parents when he was in his teens.

Evans came from a relatively affluent family, and his father was a prominent marketing and advertising man, a profession Evans was later to term one of the bastard professions. His mother was from a wealthy family and liked nothing more than to be a figure in society.

Evans had a relatively happy childhood until they moved from his home near Chicago to Ohio when his father got a new job. It was in Ohio that his father began an affair and subsequently left his mother. Evans, already lonely from the loss of his childhood friends was left confused and unsure, and the previously outgoing boy began to draw inwards, away from his contentious family.

His mother, whose world was drastically upset, begin to live vicariously through her children, determined that they were going to have happy, prosperous lives (with her a central part in each). She was, in many ways, an outwardly sentimental woman, but at the same time, she was not demonstrative or terribly affectionate.

Within the Evans family, before and after the separation, sentiment was both an artificial promise and a means to an end. Through his father, Evans saw sentiment used as a tool to lure people into buying a product or service: after all, what better way to build a successful advertising campaign than to incorporate images of cute babies, small puppies, and happy American families. From his mother, Evans perceived sentiment woven into a complex fabric consisting partially of denied security and affection, a great deal of manipulative guilt, and even some frustrated sexuality.

Though it’s not as fashionable to lay praise for a person on their early childhood experiences, it’s difficult to deny the impact Evans’ parent’s separation, and their behavior both before and after, had on his search for both objectivity, and anonymity, in his work.

walker1.jpg

To get a better understanding of Evans’ objectivity, compare his photographs of sharecroppers during the Great Depression with those of another very famous photographer of the time: Margaret Bourke-White.

A month before James Agee and Walker Evans took off on their trip that would result in the book, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, Bourke-White took off for similar reasons with the well-known writer, Erksine Caldwell.

Margaret Bourke-White was not a person who waited for a photograph to happen. Whenever they arrived at a potential scene, she would direct the people, telling them not only where to stand but what type of emotion to display on their faces. From Belinda Rathbone’s biography of Walker Evans:

White relied on Caldwell to guide her to the people she wanted to photograph, but once there she went to work “like a motion picture director”, remembered Caldwell, telling people where to sit, where to stand, and waiting for a look of worry or despair to cross their faces. Under her direction, passive, weatherbeaten, and cross-eyed sharecroppers were turned into characters in a play, playing themselves.

Bourke-White even went so far as to arrange objects in a scene, for which she was scolded by her co-author (and husband), Caldwell. Unusual behavior considering the following quote:

I feel that utter truth is essential,” Bourke-White said of her work, “and to get that truth may take a lot of searching and long hours

peddler.jpg

Bourke-White would enter churches during services and start taking pictures, once going so far as to climb in through a window one time when she found the door locked during a service.

Evans, on the other hand, was reluctant to intrude. Rather than ask to enter a church, he would take photos of the outside. He wouldn’t touch any objects within a scene, and when taking pictures of people, he would allow them to pose themselves, or he would wait to take the picture until their initial stiffness from being in front of the camera wore off.

More importantly, he refused to make the people into objects of pity, which, after all, would imply sentimentality. If Bourke-White’s photos inspired one to want to change the fate of the people, Evans inspired no such humanitarian impulses. One never feels guilt, when looking at an Evans’ photo. Or pity, or humor, or desire. All one feels is interest, admiration, sometimes astonishment…and a little envy, but that doesn’t arise from the subject.

walker2.jpg

So what was the third event that was so significant in Evans life? Well, in actuality it was a non-event.

When Evans was a young man, he convinced his family to send him to Paris to study the language and literature. At that time, photography was only a hobby for him, he wanted to be a writer. And there was no better time for an aspiring writer to be in Paris, with the likes Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Parker, Ezra Pound, and someone whom Evans admired above all others, James Joyce, living there.

Evans would hang out at the bookshop where Joyce would appear every day, watching other young men and women seek Joyce’s company, to shake his hand and try to engage him in conversation–an impossible task with the monosyllabic Joyce. The shop owner offered an introduction between Evans and Joyce, but Evans shied away from his chance to meet his hero, something that he’d talk about for many years into the future.

When Evans returned to New York at the end of the year, photography gradually overcame his interest in writing, inspired in part, I believe, by James Joyce. After all, what could Evans write that had not been written by others such as Joyce? And how could he shine in a field as luminous as this? All those who write experience these moments of doubt when we read another’s writing that is so brilliant that we are left feeling humbled and inadequate. Humility, not to mention being second, third, or even tenth best, is not something that Evans would have lived with, comfortably.

But the camera, the camera now, was fresh territory. And with the camera, he could grab his quick sketches of life, in pictures rather than words. Whatever interest he had in writing could not be sustained alongside his growing passion for photography.

Evans would later say:

Oh yes, I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily, because I thought that this is a substitute for something else, well for writing, for one thing. But I got very engaged and I was compulsive about it too. It was a real drive. Particularly when the lighting was right. You couldn’t keep me in.

I can agree with Evans, that photography can quickly become a substitute for writing. One image can so easily convey information that may take thousands of words to do, and less eloquently.

A few weeks ago, when I started digging more deeply into Walker Evans’ life, I was asked by a magazine to provide a portfolio of photos, including any better quality digital ones. I asked Charles, a photographer who has worked with magazines in the past to give me advice on printing the photos, which he was very generous to provide. He also shared with me anecdotal stories about photography students preparing their portfolios, each professionally printed and bound

But I looked at my little digital images, all of them at 72 DPI, and my slides, and my nice, but not great inkjet printer and asked myself, “What the hell are you doing, Shelley?” just about the same time I read, …I was a passionate photographer, and for a while somewhat guiltily, because I thought that this is a substitute for something else—well for writing, for one thing….

And it is thankfully, and with relief that I gave up the nonsense about being a stock photographer for magazines, or an art photographer, or any kind of professional photographer, and return to what I love: writing. Because I am a writer.