The city as a living entity with it being an environment for—and in turn, an environment being created by—the people who give it heart and pulse. I will observe, with intimate photographic scrutiny, these individuals as I encounter them during participation in the daily life of the city. (Yet, I will respect their ethical right of non-invasion of privacy.) Unlike other essays of mine, such as The Nurse-Midwife, I will not, this time, (photographically) know any individual as a complete person. For the individual, in my present essay, is a part of the teaming into the teeming whole that is the city, singular, and—Pittsburgh, the City of, is my project and is the individual to be known.
(From W. Eugene Smith’s 1956 application for a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for his Pittsburgh Project)
Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit for three weeks during the end of summer 2016.
September 12, 2016, Monday
I wrote a long letter yesterday to S and will rely on that to bring my journal up to date:
this may be my last email to you until I’m home (or maybe one enroute on the train). i leave tues evening, arrive wednesday evening, inshalla, as they say, god willing (or the train and its staff willing and able).
weatherwise, i think you’ve been spared the hot weather that has afflicted detroit and southwest michigan. your region [in New England] apparently continues to suffer drought but here there’s been ample rain all summer. I’m mindful of this because 1. i love weather and once aspired to become a meteorologist, trained at mit, 2. I’m a gardener with paternal “roots” in iowa farming families, 3. food quality and prices and farmers in new england have suffered, and 4. i worry about climate generally….
my last days in detroit have been frustrating. today, for instance, i was to have photographed johnny, my next door neighbor, in his buffalo soldier uniform from the civil war on his horse (he’s a re-enactor). but at the last minute, after days of delay, he announced, a friend of mine, a vietnam brother (johnny is a vietnam vet) is in hospice and i need to visit him. plus, my neighbor across the street, anthony, known as “little anthony” to distinguish him from his father, never showed up for our appointed portrait-making session this afternoon. i’d photographed him and johnny on previous trips. there’s still tomorrow and tues.
Johnny, my next door neighbor, 2011
counteracting these disappointments, S, this morning at a quaker meeting we commemorated the 15th anniversary of 9/11. movingly, simply, with personal reflections by two people.
on my mind was faith, what it is, how to gain it, how to express it. for some individuals and for our society and perhaps the world, 9/11 was a pivot point. one might argue that it set off the catastrophe we now face with the mideast wars and the refugee crisis, perhaps the major debacle of our century (and we refuse to hold the perpetrators accountable, adding to the debacle). but out of this tragedy sprang large scale resistance, first noted in 2003 when millions flooded the streets thruout the world to say, stop the war, stop the violence, be civil, be human. i was among them in nyc, maybe you also made your stand. the climate march in nyc that you and i attended 2 years ago is another example of worldwide action. let’s not forget the arab spring and the occupy movement, and now black lives matter. [and locally in detroit, massive resistance to water shut offs and the pollution in flint]
where does faith come in? i believe we may be on an upward trajectory and that widespread, international resistance with a call for renewal can be effective. textron [manufacturer of cluster bombs and components of nuclear weapons in wilmington ma, near my quaker meeting in cambridge], which you remember our meeting vigils at monthly for going on 7 years, recently announced they will end the manufacture of cluster bombs (next march). i have faith that our little vigil series affected this decision, along with many other larger, louder groups protesting textron. ditto, for now at least, about the north dakota pipeline, resisted by thousands of native people and their supporters. i have faith; i believe that such actions can be productive.
well, S, enough from me. i wonder what you think about faith, in your life, and generally. see you soon i hope.
A mouthful, for sure. Perhaps I intimidate her or perhaps—my hope—I inspire her.
Other than the disappointments yesterday and the grand Birmingham Quaker Meeting (in Berkeley—a strange confusion of place names, not Birmingham Alabama but Michigan, and not Berkeley California but Michigan) with the subsequent business meeting that I attended for the first hour only (to return home for the assignations that never occurred), I’m still uncertain about the quality of this trip, the photographic quality. Is Billy correct in writing, “safe,” meaning not too digging, not too provocative? I need to ponder this.
One example of safe might be my experience yesterday riding home. Al at the meeting, keeper of the gate, an old wizened limping black man, showed me the kits that Song and Spirit folks, a Franciscan Brothers’ facility rented by Birmingham Quakers for their Sundays, distributes to homeless persons. Consisting of cap (fleece or baseball, depending on the season), gloves (light or heavy depending on season), and toiletries, I took two, and later gave them to 2 black men who I thought might need them. The older of the two accepted the kit gratefully, extending his hand in thanksgiving, the younger said, I don’t need this but I will give it to someone who does. Both were very appreciative.
Why didn’t I photograph them? I might have, and they might have agreed, in part because of perceived obligation. But I didn’t. Was I too timid, or did I respect their humanhood and in the case of the older man did not want him to feel obligated nor chosen because of his condition. I carried the camera over my shoulder, in plain sight, and they might have noticed and asked to be photographed. Which happens periodically (as at the bike store recently, which led to what I hope are some decent photos).
I might have photographed Al. This case differs from the above. No obligation to say yes, and not picking him because of his dire condition. But I just never found him in the correct light or position or setting. Leaving I thought, a photograph of Al in front of the building?, but it never happened. Instead I photographed what may have been the safer choice, the large garden behind the building that he told me about. Was this a good choice? Too safe, in Billy’s estimation?
Such are the choices facing me regularly.
D-Town Farm, a cooperative farm in Rouge Park
To be continued