New York’s Burnt Sugar, the Arkestra Chamber played Black Lodge Coffee Roasters in New Harmony, Indiana. Burnt Sugar is a collective of over 30 very accomplished musicians. Last night’s lineup featured Shelley Nicole and Mikel Banks on vocals, Jared Michael Nickerson on Bass, Micah Gaugh on Sax, LaFrae Sci on drums, Leon Gruenbaum on keysand Ben Tyree on Guitar.
Burnt Sugar ‘s music moves in and out of many genres, but generally inhabits a Jazz – Soul – Funk space. And as their name implies, Sun Ra is a major influence, but far from the only one. I had one of their records on while driving the other day, drifted off and thought I was listening to Eddie Hazel era Funkadelic, which actually is one of their other primary influences. But their influences are all over the place. They opened the show with “Lonely Woman” the Ornette Coleman classic from his seminal album “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” which featured incredible drums and sax from Lafrae Sci and Mica Gaugh.
Check out those links, and check out their music. And if you like their music, check out Rebellum, an offshoot band with many of the same members that played the New Harmony show. The Rebellum song, Rockstar Amnesiac, was one of the (many) highlights of the show.
Burnt Sugar made the small town stopover between gigs in Nashville and Chicago. New Harmony, however, is not just any small town. The site of two early 19th century Utopian communities in the early 19th century and the playground/museum for one of the wealthiest women in the world for the second half of the 20th, it has a long history as a friendly place for artists, musicians, skilled craftspeople, intellectuals, and generally interesting folk.
In recent years, a fascinating music scene has been developing in New Harmony. Chris Layer’s annual Music Festival and School brings in top flight musicians from all over, including Mazz Swift, who is also a member of Burnt Sugar, although not part of this particular show. More recently, Marc Chevalier, a longtime Nashville recording engineer and his wife have opened a coffee roasting business and coffee shop and have begun bringing more worldly and alternative bands to town. Marc’s sound engineering took last night’s concert to the next level. World class band, world class sound, world class little town. Nice experience all around.
In one of the more extreme examples of what a small world we live in, and how great New York is, Lafrae Sci recognized my wife and I. Turns out she briefly worked at our son’s school in Brooklyn 10 or so years ago – and was one of his favorite teachers ever – and she somehow remembered us. Lafrae is one of the world’s premiere Jazz drummers. New York is like that. Anyone you meet in the workaday world could be supremely accomplished in some aspect of the art world.
The whole night – great music, talented people at the top of their game – made me really miss the big city. And the happenstance of running into Lafrae did too. You know, lately we’ve been living in a small town of 7000, and it was more common for us to run into people we knew in Brooklyn that it is to run into people we know here. Hell, it was just about as common running into Dennis Leary in New York as running into high school friends in my little hometown. People in New York get out a lot. Here, not so much. I recognized it a long time ago, but I still find it odd. Brooklyn today, and much of New York City, is more like the small town I grew up in than the current version of small town I grew up in.
This photo is from the Flags of Valor: A memorial for hour Fallen American Heroes exhibit in Saint Louis. When I took it, I envisioned it as part of what I consider my Naive Photography effort. For me, Naive Photography is about presenting staged, wholesome events without any kind of irony or ill will. Its purpose is the purpose of the subjects: to make the subjects happy; and some sort of effort to boost community pride. I believe there are deeper meanings to be found in these kinds of efforts, but I admit I’m having trouble finding them. I recently had a hard drive crash that possibly meant the loss of two years of this kind of work, and I didn’t even care.
Anyway, the point is that when I took this photo, I had no ill will towards these gentlemen, nor against the military, the flag, veterans, the war dead, or anything else. I envisioned it as an Instagram photo, and possibly something for the larger Naive Photography effort. I figured the military would encourage their members participating in this kind of thing. It makes them look good in a way they want to look good, and shows them as an integral part of the community.
But when I asked them for their names so I could put them in the captions, they got very weird and defensive and refused to provide them, saying they were afraid they would get in trouble with the Public Relations people. Perhaps that was true, but I got the impression they used that as an excuse, that there was also some deeper kind of fear. A mistrust of the public. A fear they would be attacked.
I found the whole exchange disturbing. I think it’s a bad sign when the military fears the people. And I think it’s a bad sign when soldiers are even allowed to be anonymous.
And I really can’t imagine what they were afraid of? Did they think I was one of those miltary-hating unicorns, and that I might Photoshop them into a porn image, or something like that?
I say “military-hating unicorns” because the only people I’ve ever met who hate the military were people who served in the military. I don’t think I’ve ever known any civilians who hate the military, certainly not the individual soldiers who serve in it. Sure, I know plenty of people who hate how the politicians have used the military, but that’s a different thing altogether. And I know plenty of people who criticize the military when individual service people commit war crimes and atrocities, such as Mai Lai or Abu Ghraib, but again, that’s not hating the military.
Anyway, I notice it’s 9.11, so maybe this is apropos.
The other day I drove by this old fashioned carnival as they were setting up. The mechanical rides, games and concessions were much the same as when I was a kid, so I came back and did a hit-and-run photo project on Saturday night. This is a coal mining region in southern Illinois where, as more than a few people I spoke with informed me, most of the mines have closed in the past few years; several adding something along the lines of “thanks to our wonderful president.” Somehow I managed to keep from saying “Obama caused global warning? But of course he did.”
Anyway, although this is just a quick hit-and-run, and it shows, I think these old carnivals might make for a good project. Maybe next summer?
A friend and I went out looking for a new swimming hole the other day in Shawnee National Forest. On the way we stopped in a little museum located in an old train depot. At first glance, you probably thought the above photo was my desk, but it’s actually an exhibit in the Stonefort Depot Museum.
While I was there I got to inadvertently insult this little Mennonite boy by first mistaking him for Amish and then thinking he might not be allowed to have a camera. Yes, he can and does have a camera and loves taking pictures with it. Stupid English, he probably muttered under his breath. Or do only the Amish use that term?
Above is the museum’s owner and operator, Linda Blackman. Linda gave us a personalized tour and was a great sport posing for photos, even silly ones like this one. We very much enjoyed meeting her and learning about the museum.
It turned out there was a bit of a hike to get to the swimming hole. It appeared to be in a box canyon with sheer cliffs on both sides. Appearances, however, proved to be deceiving. I lagged behind my friend to take the above photo. Then I came to a place where one trail went left, the other right. I could tell that the trail to the right was the one most traveled and I was sure it led to the swimming hole. But the one to the left looked more interesting, and I was sure it would lead to the swimming hole as well, being as it was a box canyon. Turned out that it wasn’t a box canyon, though, and I hiked a long way on a very hot and humid day, and of course kept going long after I was sure I had gone the wrong way, just on the hope that it was right over the next hill. But it wasn’t and I had to turn around and hike all the way back. On the positive side, I ran into some people who had given us directions earlier who were now lost, and was able to send them in the right direction.
I finally got to the swimming hole, literally drenched in sweat, which was great because the water was very cold and diving in was incredibly refreshing. That little swim turned out to be the best I’d felt all summer, and I’ve felt pretty good a number of times this summer.
These photos are from this morning’s hike. Rather than go somewhere I knew would be nice, I chose to explore new lands. I knew odds were good I wouldn’t come across anything very interesting. But you never know until you try.
I don’t do it as much as I used to, but one of my favorite photo exercises is to work a superficially boring place until I can find a way to make it visually interesting. The first time I remember doing that was at a parking lot outside a Comfort Inn in Tysons Corner, Virginia, which has to be one of the more boring places on earth. Over the years, I got pretty good at photographing parking lots in suburban wastelands. It’s a good skill to have. Really makes you think about composition. The lessons learned can be applied in a lot more interesting situations.
Although not nearly as challenging, it’s a good exercise to do in nature, whether you are a photographer or not. You may think you’ve walked a long way across boring fields only to end up at an ugly little stream in a muddy swamp, but if you sit in the same place long enough, interesting things about the place will eventually reveal themselves. Try it. You’ll see.
For extra credit, contemplate the idea that there’s no such thing as bad light.
I am old, very old. The first concert I went to was Jethro Tull in 1972. The ticket cost $6. Through my high school and college years, I went to many concerts, and $6 became $8 became which became maybe $12, but it was always a price a regular working class person or poor college student could afford.
Not so, nowadays. That $6 in 1972 is $35 in today’s money, but today’s average ticket price is roughly $80. In 1972, someone making minimum wage would have to work about 4.5 hours to afford a concert ticket, which btw, would get you a seat, or place to stand, anywhere in the arena. Today, a minimum wage worker would have to work over 10 hours to get the average ticket, and probably a whole week or more to get a place in front.
So what’s a young person without a trust fund or high paying job to do? It’s not like young people are going to stop going to see live shows. Something had to fill the void left by big corporate music.
That’s one of the directions my thoughts meandered during my time at the Beesonstock Music & Art Festival. Beesonstock is a two day event on a rural 10 acres in southern Illinois, just outside the small town of Cisne and not too far from I-64. A two day pass costs $40 to see 20 or so bands, or Saturday only is $30 to see about 12 bands. The answer to the question ‘what’s a young person to do’ in the previous graph is go to “small festivals.” Turns out they are happening all over, As some old guy once sang: my my, hey hey…
The Beesonstock Music and Arts Festival is the work of James Beeson. What has turned into a large festival with 20+ bands and 500+ attendees was born on his 18th birthday with his front porch as a stage and a party of 35 or 40 people.
After a few years on the porch, more than 250 people were showing up, so he found some land in the country and built a stage. After a few years passed at the new venue, and the crowds continued to grow, he acquired a permanent location on a beautiful 10 acres of rolling hills outside of Cisne.
The music at Beesonstock covers a wide range of styles. It leans towards what I’d call hard rock with a lot of jams, but also includes such diverse styles as Reggae, Funk, Singer/Songwriter, and Bluegrass.
“I tell the bands to fire up and play original music,” says Beeson. “I try to culture shock the audience by staggering my sets to where you have really weird music up against each other.”
Growing up, Beeson was one of those kids who was really into music and always playing in bands. His father was a Luthier who made Mandolins.
“I was a 90’s kid,” says Beeson. “In high school I listened to Pearl Jam, Sound Garden, Incabus, and Wilco. After high school, I met new people who influenced my musical taste. I discovered bands like Radiohead, and then Andrew Byrd and more independent artists. I’m also a big classic rock guy. I love Led Zeppelin. I love falsetto frontmen in general. Like Cedric from Mars Volta, Thom Yorke, and Robert Plant.”
Beeson’s current band is Mountain King.
“We like to jam, and we like to play some solos, but they don’t go on forever,” he says. “We may do parts of the songs note for note, but we do extended solos and certain bridge extensions. Last night we were just vibing, but it all worked out.”
Beesonstock is in a musical solar system that includes Saint Louis and Chicago, as well as college scenes in Champagne-Urbana, Carbondale among others. Most of the headliners came from those big cities and college towns. But there were also bands from small towns such as Fairfield, Flora, Olney and Mount Vernon, Illinois. Olney, in particular, seems to be a musical hotbed. Who knew?
“We have the bigger local bands,” says Beeson. “Everyone around here knows who they are. They produce a lot of great original music. They are all artists. Everyone here has something going for them. They may not have been seen by someone big, but they’ve been seen by us and are amazing.”
Cecelia Kushava, who is from the area and has known Beeson since high school, comes all the way from Madison, Wisconsin to enjoy the fest.
“I always come home for this,” she says. “It’s just a great scene where you can listen to music and have a great place to hang out. I’ve never seen a grumpy crowd here. It’s a safe place to come to listen to music where people are into their art.”
Cecelia used to go to a lot of concerts, but now prefers these little festivals. “You get a good group of people together to see a lot of bands and different types of music, it makes it easier for everyone to afford it.”
“We’ve been coming to Beesonstock since James had it in his backyard,” says Ember Harrelson. “It started out small and it’s turned into this awesome thing. You meet new people every year. It’s always a great atmosphere. Everything is just mellow. Everyone makes it work. Everyone comes together and has a good time with their art and their music.”
Live music is not only under siege by greedy promoters and ridiculously high ticket prices. Beeson says it’s a lot harder for bands to get bar gigs these days.
“There are a lot of good bands in southern illinois, but EDM (electronic dance music) and the deejays have driven a lot of the live bands out of the bars. Festivals are about all that’s left.”
Running a festival, however, is not easy. It takes a lot more than getting the land and building a stage. Insurance is a huge hurdle. It is expensive and requires certain security measures, amenities like porte-potties, policies against blatant drug use and underage drinking, and it prohibits certain types of acts such as Rap, Death Metal, or Rave-type electronica.
“The market for festivals is saturated,” says Beeson. “It was almost nothing when I started, but now there’s Ragefest near Carbondale, a couple near Effingham, Down on the Farm in Northern Illinois. It’s tough when another fest takes your weekend.”
“I don’t make any money,” he says. “but I pay the bands straight out. Other festivals give tickets and the bands have to sell them and keep the money.”
But the festival circuit is also something of a family affair.
“I know a lot of people from running a festival,” says Beeson. “We also play a lot of other festivals. You get to know the other bands and people who love going to festivals.”
One night during my first summer in New York, my wife Jocelyne and I heard drums as we were strolling along the boardwalk in Coney Island. As we neared the sound, we noticed quite a few people, dressed all in white, walking backwards from the surf across the sand to the boardwalk. Jos, who has some experience with African secret societies was a little freaked out. She thought it was some kind of Voodoo-like ritual and didn’t want any part of it.
I don’t remember when, but the next time I came across the drums and people dressed in white, I learned that Voodoo had nothing to do with it. I learned that the drums and white-clad people walking backwards across the sand were taking part in a celebration and ceremony in remembrance of the Africans who died on slave ships during the passage from Africa to the New World.
Between the years 1500 and 1866, roughly 12.5 million Africans where enslaved and transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. The journey between the old world and the new came to be known as the Middle Passage. About 15 percent of those in captivity died in transit. That’s about 2 million people. Two million anonymous people, and they did not go gently in the night. They died horrible deaths from violence, infections, communicable diseases, and even suffocation in tightly packed quarters. The Middle Passage was truly a holocaust, likely the most deadly long-distance migration in human history. A holocaust that’s barely been acknowledged, and that few even know about, much less know the extent of the suffering surrounding it.
The event I stumbled upon that long ago summer evening is officially known as “A Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage.” It takes place every year on the second Saturday of June near the Coney Island pier. Although founded and sponsored by Brooklyn organizations, much of the crowd comes down from Harlem, and the event has become a Black Nationalist celebration on top of a remembrance of those who died so horribly during the Middle Passage.
The earliest photos in this essay are from 2005, the most recent from 2013. I always felt conflicted about photographing the celebration, as much of it is so deeply spiritual, and personal for the participants. Many of the years I went, I didn’t take any photographs at all. Others, I took very few.
But there were a few years that I made a serious attempt to document the event. Participants often asked me why I was doing it. My answer was that I felt it was a very beautiful, important event that needed to be documented for history’s sake, if nothing else. I genuinely believed that to be true, which I suspect is why I, who was so clearly an outsider, was allowed to get so close without any static.
Anyway, I still believe that to be true. The annual Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage at Coney Island Beach is an important historical event, that does deserve to be documented. Of course I wasn’t the only photographer there, but as far as I could tell, I was one of two who was there pretty much every year. And I’ve been unable to find more than a few pictures through searching on the web. So hopefully, this will serve as an accurate depiction, both visually and emotionally, of this important, beautiful, and incredibly meaningful event.
It’s been one of the great sadness’s of my life that in the past year, I let my subscription to Harper’s lapse (yes, I’ve enjoyed a privileged, and very lucky, existence). When it last came time to renew, the cost had gone up to over $50, which I’ve found is farther than I am willing to go, no matter how much I love the individual magazine and want to support print publishing in general. But today, I clicked on the subscribe link on the annoying popup that kept appearing while I was reading my free article for the month, and found I could renew for just over $30. Yippeee. I am, again, at peace with myself.
I think part of the reason I was so cheap as to let the subscription lapse was the exit of Editor Lewis Lapham and the resulting drop in interest I had for the Easy Chair column. After Lapham left, Easy Chair has been handled by a variety of eminent writers, all very talented, including Thomas Frank and Rebecca Sonit; but none of whom I found right for the job.
But today, I read Walter Kirn‘s latest go at it, “Atlas Aggregated,” and then his previous two, and hope he gets the gig on a permanent basis. “Atlas Aggregated” is about the website Literary Hub, which bills itself as the Rotten Tomatoes of literature.
In addition to the high quality of the writing, its fit in the Easy Chair, and the overall intent of the piece, there were a few quotes that related to some of my hobby-horses about photography. Namely, critiques, contests, and old-fashioned technical skills.
Kirn on critiquing:
“Book reviewing, as I conceived of it and strove to practice it, was chiefly descriptive, not evaluative, and what it described was not the book itself but my encounter with the book. It tried to make manifest the act of reading in something like the way that travel writing dramatizes journeys. It wasn’t scorekeeping. It wasn’t grading. It didn’t break down into 8’s and 8.5’s.”
Kirn on grading, which I apply to contests:
“The site has many worthy features… but the grading business undermines it all. Works of literature are among the most intricate and elusive of human artifacts, the crudest of which requires more creativity than twenty trillion acts of aggregation. A site created to celebrate them now aimed to reduce them to an alphabetic omega point.”
Kirn on skills:
“Still, the elites, or whatever remains of them — those rare and lonesome worthies of skill and courage — deserve some protection from us, the aggregate. Prestige, irreducible and absolute, has its uses, and the very highest is inducing people to do hard things, things that take a lot of time to learn and exceptional nerve to execute, like building a child a new ear and reattaching it in such a way that blood flows through it and it doesn’t die.”
Put into photo context, I think the descriptive, personal approach as opposed to evaluative is a good direction. And contests inevitably grade, ultimately saying that some photographers, or even one photographer, is objectively better than others. A photograph, or photo essay, as Kirn says about literature, is “among the most intricate and elusive of human artifacts.” And I do believe that technical skill is still important. Oh, I know there are plenty of photographs where it was totally unnecessary, but there are far, far more where the result would have been impossible without the skill, which came from long study and practice.
In a previous post, I said something to the effect that the NYT did not do serious photography criticism. Now I come across this great piece on Steve McCurry by Teju Cole, which argues that the immensely popular McCurry is a hack (I have no position on this, just relating what Cole says).
His argument is the McCurry produces beautiful photographs that cater to his internal prejudices rather than reality, and that the result is “another picture with easy, classic composition,” rather than something more “exciting and discomfiting and grounded.”
Cole continues with some astute explication:
That is just one article in Cole’s monthly On Photography column for the New York Times Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s the only one that offers a negative take on a body of work, and it’s kind of piling on poor McCurry who was getting it rough from much of Photo World at the time over some lame Photoshopping.
But even though he doesn’t do much explaining, outside of the McCurry take-down, why works of particular people are not good, he does a great job of getting at what separates the pedestrian from the transcendent:
“Beginning photographers are often tempted to reduce photography to rigid rules. The rule of thirds — thinking of the picture plane in terms of a grid made of three equal vertical and three equal horizontal divisions, with the points of interest placed at the intersections of these lines — is a common starting point. More sophisticated is the
golden ratio (two quantities are said to be in a golden ratio if the ratio of the larger to the smaller is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger). Imagine a triptych in which the center is about 0.618 as wide as each of the wings. Because this ratio is often found in nature, it is credited as the mathematical logic behind many efficient and visually pleasing phenomena: certain flower petals, or mollusk shells, or spiral galaxies. These codes can be helpful for looking. But the reality is that there is usually a much more improvisatory and flexible mathematical order at play in a successful photograph.
There’s no single right answer, just as there’s no photographic formula. Each successful picture taken on the sly by Cartier-Bresson was one original solution to a set of circumstances he was encountering for the first time.”
Yes, that is very well-said. Each great photograph is an original solution to a unique set of circumstances. On the other hand, I’ve spent a lot of time overlaying the golden ratio on great photographs, and it’s quite often a perfect fit. There are infinite ways to be discomfiting within a classic composition.
Anyway, seeing Teju Cole’s byline on that article seems one of those weird cosmic convergences as I’ve been half paying attention to David Alan Harvey’s collaboration with him on an upcoming article for the NYT mag. A great writer and a great photographer collaborating on an important story. Can’t wait to see what they come up with.