Explorers, Egmont Key, Florida



This image was recently selected by Brett L. Erickson (@brettlericksonphotography) as juror’s choice for PhotoPlace Gallery’s Man in the Landscape Exhibition.

Brett wrote of his selection in his juror’s statement:

“Joyfully, many of the images submitted to this show were in that fraction of the whole, for they moved me deeply; selecting the show, online gallery, and best in show image was extremely challenging. A good deal of them will stay with me forever. The best in show image, that of four boys trapped in the geometric wasteland of fecund runoff and concrete, their gazes trapping me within the image, haunted me most. It asks questions of humanity and progress, of inheritance, and of exclusion. And yet it is beautiful in its balance, its forms, and its color. It is truly Poetic.”

It is quite an honor to be written of so highly by such an esteemed photographer, and writer, as Brett. I encourage everyone to seek out his work as it expands on the history of American photographer in a unique way.

I would also like to narrate my personal journey with this image, Explorers, Egmont Key, Florida. It began with location. The historic Battery McIntosh, which once housed coastal artillery is situated on Egmont Key, a small island off the coast of Florida. The structure seen in the picture was the first thing to strike my attention — its stripped down quality appealed to me in the same way many other ruins have, their archaic quality illustrating a past in which constructed objects are designed in such a way as to reveal curiosities of shape, and mystery. It’s a highly geometric structure, including not only rectangular entrance ways but a circular opening which, when placed next to the boys, softens the image. In my photographs I often depict structural subjects which have what I call a “hard edge”, usually very angular and defined by their shape. And certainly, this image without the boys would affect a harsher, colder, and more austere relationship, yet the inclusion of the children softens this edge, elevating the picture beyond the documentary and into the poetic realm.

My original intent was to photograph this image without the human element, since its design intrigued me and the flooded floor’s reflective detail seemed to be enough to carry the impact of the picture, but as I set up the 8×10” camera, I felt something was missing. So I waited. As I did so, several other people visited the location in front of my camera and as I observed them my discontent with my original rendering grew  — this image needed a human element to complete it. I continued to leave my camera set up, ready to expose a sheet of film. All I needed was to find a subject not only willing to be in the picture, but one that would help reinforce the meaning which I was hoping to convey. A counterpoint to the harder architectural element.

The battery is connected with another fortification on the island with a long brick path which runs in a clear line for about 150 feet. It was down this line that I peered for the arrival of a subject to complete the scene. After about an hour waiting in the Florida sun, four boys arrived at the southern end of the fortification and were intrigued with the building. They started to climb inside, and were wary at first before stepping into the flooded ground, but soon fear gave way to curiosity and they walked through the tadpole-laden water with nonchalance. I saw in their excitement my own curiosity for this place and so there was a certain empathy between myself and the subject here.

Empathy with a photographer’s subject is not to be underestimated when creating personal work.

So the counterpoint, my subject, arrived in the form of four boys, all around the age of 12. I introduced my purpose there, that I wanted to take their collective portraits. There wasn’t much positioning of the boys required. In a way they fell naturally into the scene, because it is a place where they were engaged, and in wonder.

I exposed the scene on an 8×10” sheet of Kodak Ektachrome film, thanked the boys, and off they went, as quickly and spiritedly as they arrived.

Instant Gratification

  1. a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
    • something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
      “Sutton Place is a palimpsest of the taste of successive owners”


I feel a little dirty.

I have abandoned my large and medium format cameras and have come to question my long-held beliefs in the principles of pure photography as laid down by the titans of the West Coast Photographic Movement. I haven’t touched any of my other cameras since I started shooting with a Fujifilm instant camera in November. Not my Mamiya C330 or my Arca Swiss view camera.

Setting aside the hyperbole…

Instant film is sweeping the nation; Instax film was the highest selling camera item on Amazon.com during the holidays.

And I’ve been trying to figure out why I caught the instant film bug.

Up to this point, I have couched my work in a term that photographer Edward Burtynsky coined — “the contemplated moment” — in contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” Burtynsky means to describe the slower process with his 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras. Because of the camera weight and numerous steps involved before exposing film, one is habituated into a state of accumulated photographic intentions. That is, tending to do a lot of the compositional, conceptual and camera placement deliberations “in the mind’s eye” as Ansel Adams would say, prior to photographing.

I have been working with large format film cameras since 2005, and felt that I achieved  competence with their technique in 2009 during a trip to the Midwest to photograph industrial architecture and create portraits for my American Traditions project.

Despite my attention grabbing in the beginning of this post, I’m by no means abandoning large format, but my reaction to using the instant camera is illuminating the motivations behind my practice and opening up new means for expression.

Additive is Addictive

Additive Instax image by Lewis Ableidinger.  Lew lives in North Dakota and works on film and digital

Here the photographer has added his Instax print over a surface and photographed it.  This creates a dialogue between the subject of the picture and the material with which it is combined, or overlaid. This additive technique is interesting me because of my background where the conceptual framework of a photograph lies between images within a series rather than a dialogue between two different picture elements within a single frame. Below are a few of my additive overlays:


IG_Huber Coal Breaker
Torn Flag and Abandoned Coal Break, John Sanderson

I’ve long held that reinforcing meaning in one’s work to be the most direct route towards effective meaning, and this additive technique with instant prints is a valuable tool in exploring how two picture elements can interact within a single frame. Whether or not you agree with Gary Winogrand’s assertion that pictures don’t tell stories, it would be hard to argue that pictures don’t describe things well; and I’m enjoying demystifying the surface of my pictures (for some I am drawing from the public domain) and breaking the temporal wall between two separate pictures.


IG_Highway Arbor
Trees, West Virginia and Shelter Island, John Sanderson

Photography, often neither an additive or subtractive art form, is usually a three fold process: Capture the picture, edit it for impact, and place it within a series.  The identity of the original solitary picture is rarely altered. But when I modify the surface with another image, the additive element often reinforces meaning, and the white border found in the Instax material proves to be a simple and effective element to indicate duality.


“Let reason govern thy lament.” -Marcus, Titus Andronicus






Deconstructing Layne Staley and… Hamlet?

Striking similarities! Kenneth Branagh in 1996’s Hamlet and Alice in Chains front man Layne Staley.


In 1993, Alice in Chain‘s magnum opus — Dirt — was released amid the other bellowing grunge albums of the era.  Lyrically it was a heavy album, in song after song front-man Layne Staley questioned existence and confronted his addiction, which consumed him until his death:

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

-Would? Alice in Chains. Dirt.

Musically Jerry Cantrell’s guitar and Sean Kinney’s punctuating drums clarified the peaks in Staley’s singing:

Ain’t found a way to kill me yet
Eyes burn with stinging sweat
Seems every path leads me to nowhere

-Rooster. Alice in Chains. Dirt

Two years after Dirt was released, Alice in Chain’s introspection became more nuanced in their penultimate offering (of the Layne Staley era), Jar of Flies.  It’s a refreshingly quiet album considering the high pitch of not only Dirt, but the rock soundscape at the time, where derivative bands such as Stone Temple Pilots and Foo Fighters were leading the transition into the radio friendly post-grunge era.

Staley’s final album with the group was released in 1995 and the group appeared together one last time on MTV’s Unplugged.  Soon after, Layne Staley retreated into isolation and passed away in 2002 after years of substance abuse.


Thrust into circumstances beyond his control, Prince Hamlet reflects on his situation through a series of soliloquies interspersed throughout the play.  Here we see a series of arguments between life and death, action and inaction.  The intimacy and revelations in these moments are ineffable because Hamlet, much like Staley, is speaking directly to the audience and himself, not other characters in the play.

As Hamlet’s mother and uncle — who has murdered his father in order to enthrone himself as King of Denmark  —  attempt to console the young Hamlet, he immediately questions, like Staley, his mortality:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

-Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2

In Act III, Hamlet’s “love”, Ophelia, at the urging of her father — the King’s closest friend — confronts Hamlet and returns their letters and ‘remembrances’.  As he scorns her for this, I can’t help but think of Staley’s lyric:

Is she ready to know my frustration?
What she slippin’ inside, slow castration
I’m a riddle so strong, you can’t break me
Did she come here to try, try to take me?

Rain When I Die.  Alice in Chains.  Dirt.

Here we see a question and response within four lines of song lyrics…  To be, or not to be?  As we all know, Hamlet dies young along with most of the characters in the play.  He’s remembered, much like Staley, as seeking to find respite in the midst of unfortunate circumstances.  In Staley’s case it was self-inflicted, in Hamlet’s it was forced upon him.

But they were both, metaphorically, in a nutshell:

O God, I could be bounded in a

nutshell and count myself a king

of infinite space, were it not that

I have bad dreams.


We chase misprinted lies
We face the path of time
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home

-Nutshell. Alice in Chains.  Jar of Flies.



Molly Kass, Chandelier, Poughkeepsie Train Station

Art on the Tracks : Nostalgic for the Future

As we are preparing to exhibit our student’s pictures created during the Art on the Tracks workshop, I’m thinking back on our three sessions and our final trip to Poughkeepsie, New York, and looking forward to the exhibition.

Establishing Art on the Tracks in conjunction with the exhibition Railroad Landscapes, Janina McCormack and I sought to bring together a group of young photographers to explore what social geographer John Stilgoe calls the Metropolitan Corridor, or as I have adapted it visually, the Railroad Landscape.  Our goals are twofold: photographic education and an exhibition of the student’s work created during the workshop.  We brought together a group of ten teenage photographers from a variety of backgrounds.  Some are enrolled in photography programs in their respective schools, others enjoy railroad photography as a hobby and a few others are new to photography.   

Over 400 pictures were taken over three sessions.  In emphasizing the divergent and unique perspectives of each of our student’s work, the exhibition’s aim is to display a composite portrait of the locations we visited.

Note: Thanks to photographer Jeff Brouws for his mentorship in introducing me to John Stilgoe. His writing helped reinforce the meaning in my own work.  I must also thank the Center for Railroad Photography & Art for their support.

Our final trip to Poughkeepsie was crafted to give the students a perspective of the railroad environment outside of New York City, since our prior two workshops were both within city limits: the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the abandoned Long Island Railroad Rockaway Beach Branch.

Much of my work depicts the railroad in context, and many of the views include architecture — tangentially I often feel that railroad tracks architectural in their own right.

At the Brooklyn Army Terminal the students experienced the visuals of rail in the context of constructed space.  The binary quality of images below, taken by our student Isabella Reyes, stood out to me.

Much of the army terminal has been re-purposed for commercial or artist’s studios.  The idea that many of these spaces surrounding the railroad continue to evolve, whether or not the actual tracks are in use, has resonated with me over the years.

During our penultimate workshop day we explored a section of the Metropolitan Corridor that has not been re-purposed like our prior location, except that it has been reclaimed by nature.  This section of rail once connected the Long Island Railroad’s mainline to the Rockaway Beach section of New York and has been inactive for over forty years.  The thick cover of foliage contrasted with the steel and concrete of the army terminal.

In traveling by rail to Poughkeepsie during our final workshop, the program gelled visually and topically: nature, railroad, architecture, and industrial infrastructure.  The town of Poughkeepsie, about a two hour trip from New York City by train, sits on the eastern shore of the Hudson River.  Its most conspicuous landmark is a former railroad bridge that spans both sides of the river.  Much like our first location, the bridge has been re-purposed in the last few years and has been renovated to carry pedestrian traffic.   The views from the bridge include two active rail lines: the Hudson Line on the eastern shore and the Riverline on the west shore, the latter being exclusively for freight trains.

Poughkeepsie concluded the point that the railroad is still an omnipresent factor in the American landscape.  Despite not being the object of folk mythology like yesteryear, the American railroad today is a rich source of visual material to describe our shared history.

Tom Grayson, Walkway over the Hudson

Stay tuned for more information on the upcoming exhibition of the student’s work at the New York Transit Museum.



Theme, Variations, and Sequencing

      As much as photography has influenced me, so too has literature, and music.

     I was introduced to Brahms at the age of 18 during a Music 101 class.  His Variations on a Theme by Haydn took me somewhere I had never gone musically, emotionally, intellectually.  Musical structure appealed to me.  A Theme and Variations is a medium length piece consisting of several sections.  At the beginning, the composer introduces the Theme, what follows are numerous re-iterations of this theme (usually a recognizable melody) in various soundscapes and development.

      A contrast to Theme and Variations might be Maurice Ravel’s Bolero which consists of a theme without development, only a gradual increase in pitch over the work’s average 16 minute running time.

     The nomenclature surrounding these compositions lasting for thirty minutes or more seemed to create a cartography of sound.   Symphonies in particular followed the idea of exposition, development, repetition, cadenza, coda and a myriad of other diminutive structural elements.  I was attracted to the names of these sections, as they clarified the function of the musical elements within the larger work.

     What followed Brahms were revolutions in sound by such composers as Mahler, who shunned the traditional four movement Symphony and added sections as he saw fit.

     Now begs the question, can these structural ideas of music be adapted to photography?

 Over a half century ago Minor White wrote of sequence:

 “With single images I am basically an observer, passive to what is before me, no matter how perceptive or how fast my emotions boil. In putting images together I become active, and the excitement is of another order—synthesis overshadows analysis.”

Minor White

     A sequence of pictures is no more canonized than in Robert Frank’s The American’s.   His street views from across the United States during the 1950s served to be a portrait of the country at its most crucial crossroad since the end of the Civil War.  Frank’s views of vibrant city life and small town America included such subtexts as segregation, politics, and life on the road.  As I said in an earlier post about O. Winston Link, America’s social landscape changed in the 1950s as small towns dwindled and suburbs overshadowed the city center as a hub of activity.

      If we look at the musical terms mentioned previous, such as repetition and recapitulation, we can draw comparisons with work such as Frank’s.  Much like a reoccurring a melody, in The Americans we see certain themes recur often — such as flags, roadways, and signage.  Flags seem most prominent as they often unfold new sections within the book.

     Delving into contrasting art forms and discovering their functions may help us learn to reinforce meaning in our own work.

Hamlet, the Photographer

During a screening of the National Theater’s latest production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch at Symphony Space on Sunday, I was reminded of a few lines where Hamlet advises his actors, prior to the ‘play within a play…’

He begins with “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…” as the speech progresses, Hamlet the Life Coach suggests…

…you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and

Seemingly directed towards actors playing a part, these lines are universal.  In so short a text, Shakespeare cautions us to beware our own eagerness of showing and not telling.  He is putting us in control of presenting our work, be it poetry, acting, photography, and betting that we will see our audience as a discerning group.  They will most certainly be aware of our attempts at deception through over-editing or cliches.  In other words, play to the finest.

Photography’s ability to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ runs a wide gamut.  To begin with I will use an obvious, and some might say vulgar, example (apologies in advance). The subject of HDR photography came up with a group of students during my Art on the Tracks workshop with Janina McCormack.

In HDR Imagery we see an attempt to maximize detail throughout the tonal range of a picture — and while I will leave the ‘Issue of Taste’ to another post — these images often sacrifice the very things they aim to maximize, impact through contrast.  What is often created is an image that is essentially all mid-tones.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but if we are looking at scene encompassing deep shadowed areas and bright highlights, employing techniques such as this might make things look a bit… o’erdone?

In contrast, I recall standing before a print by Amy Lamb in a private collection in New York City.  Here are pictures that clearly define their subjects. As she says:

“I noticed that the forms I observed in flowers were found throughout the universe in spiral galaxies, branching rivers, layered rock formations, beautifully symmetrical organisms, and more.”

The beauty is in the order with which these objects fall.  Lamb doesn’t have to overstate her subjects for her photographs to have impact, but she understands how to accent their natural elements so that one may see the thing as clearly as possible.  Within the studied restraint of her work, lies power.

… the mirror up to nature.