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Accounts from my journal, written while I photographed Detroit in June 2017—or writing later. 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

—Chinese proverb

PHOTOS (from another neighborhood near mine)

June 12, 2017, Monday, Detroit

First phase 

The water conference is over. Now I need to develop my own contacts and find my own people to photograph. I can’t rely on intrinsic contacts that the conference provided—the speakers. Today [June 12, 2017] I plan to contact We the People of Detroit, trying Kate first, then Monica, then Kim Sherrobi. This could prove difficult.

Kim Sherobbi

Kim Sherobbi, 2017

Weaving into this photo process, the house process. K., the generous owner of the house I borrow,  texted yesterday evening that she expects to arrive here today “b4 12,” using the language of texting. During a long phone conversation earlier, we had discussed the grass, bushes, plumbing, fans, cleaning materials to buy, etc. The grass remains uncut, the bathroom plumbing is clogged, I repaired one large floor fan by attaching an electric plug, and discovered a loose fan blade on the other floor fan that had caused the rattling. I haven’t found a way to fix that.

I attempt a delicate balance between photography and house, between my Detroit mission and my Detroit residence. The latter demonstrates for me life in Detroit, a comparatively privileged life albeit, but touching lightly on matters many Detroiters face regularly with more severity.

I began my first Lightroom (LR) post production work last night, on the first conference batch of photos. Quickly I realized I apparently hadn’t remembered to reinstall the LR catalog to my portable drive. So I use the old one on the laptop. K.’s phone call interrupted me but I returned to the process. Even tho late in the evening, tired, I managed to import about 25 photos into LR for work today.

As expected, Internet speeds vary greatly depending on location. Near the school, it is upwards of 10 MB/S (megabytes per second). Near my house, about 5. On my porch about 2. Inside the house about 1. So for some purposes I might sit on the porch for Internet.

Logistics and friends

Since yesterday was so hot and an ozone alert was in effect—plus I needed to give my crotch some healing time and I felt lazy—I did not once ride my bike. Not even tempted. W. arranged to deliver her car here tomorrow; I can use it thru Friday. My central hope: get to Flint. Best if thru contacts, but even without I plan to drive the 70 or so miles and roam the city looking for elements of the water crisis. What might be visible? The Flint River, for one.

To check water use I read the water meter yesterday, after my first week here, giving me two more weeks to monitor water use. It reads 134.91, units mysterious.

I also checked the yards for possible seed planting. No luck, also no garden tools. So I scratch that idea. Instead, I’ll tend the tea roses, cutting two sprigs and bring them inside to grace my dwelling.

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My Washburn Street house, Northwest Detroit, 2017

For the first time in this trip I walked this morning around the Noble School grounds, about four blocks away, and maybe one half mile around. I recall other walks when I first thought decided to meet the principal and ask permission to photograph. This process so far has been fruitless. I recall walking in November with snow on the ground. I recall photographing the old dying tree that I photographed again this morning, this time against the rising sun.

C. finally returned my email, writing that he’s been busy with work, family, and house, but he’d like to take me out for lunch, maybe with one of his kids, but he wrote nothing about our movie and photo projects. I suppose I can conclude that they are all off. At least our friendship seems to continue.

Today I promised K. I’d talk with Gloria and Johnny about who can mow my lawn. Who might they recommend? Johnny keeps his lawn well shorn, as does Gloria. I reiterated to K. who sounded desperate last night that by not living here (she grew up in this house when it was an all-white neighborhood), not having someone as caretaker or reliable tenant, increases the burden. She constantly complains about the high cost of maintenance. Altho she has done remarkably well improving and maintaining it—storm windows, fridge, washer, sun room doors, (my favorite room, where I love to sleep on the floor, pilgrim style), and most recently the wooden flooring—she is often despondent about the value of the investment. She also seems to do little to rent it. Only twice in my 7 years, Jimmy, and then some students at a local college.

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Outside my window, Buena Vista Street, November 2014

How would I house myself if not for K.? Or what even with K.’s place available might be better housing? Share with Barbara H.? Ask others? Rent? Buy? Squat?

My neighbor Gloria and local stories

After I’d settled on the porch for lunch, Gloria, my neighbor across the street, sat with me yesterday. She told me the following: young kids have torched the corner house across from mine three times. Johnny once owned it. Her water bill varies between $25-50 depending on whether she is alone or joined by her daughter who has heart problems and her grand daughter. She has cared for a handicapped man who recently bought a house down Washburn across Buena Vista. For 6 months he lived there without water and I presume heat. She brought him food, water, and used clothing. A woman with kids and a mother squatted in a house on our block. They used the backyard to crap, creating a fierce odor that disturbed neighbors who had them evicted. The streets have not been cleaned in recent memory, despite city-installed signs that declare street cleaning is imminent. Trash goes out Monday evenings, tonight, for pickup tomorrow morning. Large stuff pickup is bi-weekly on Wednesdays. The city might fine folks who put out containers too soon. She didn’t know of a plumber to call after I’d mentioned my clogged pipes.

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Gloria, 2011

Gloria is a good source of local info and a reliable and helpful neighbor. I would formally interview her except her style is not suited for an official interview, too giggly and repetitive.

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General area of my neighborhood in northwest Detroit, 2017

Aerial Washburn Bunena Vista close-marked SM

My neighborhood closer, my house marked with a pin, 2017

LINKS

“In northwest Detroit, residents have been revitalizing their neighborhood for years,” by Melissa Anders (September 2017)

“2 shot, killed in northwest Detroit June 2017,” by James David Dickson (June 2017)

“Requests For Proposals for northwest Detroit neighborhood include 100 houses, 257 vacant lots,” by Kirk Pinho (July 2016)

Statistics for my NW Detroit zip code (2015)

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The Tetons & the Snake River, Grand Tetons National Park, 1942 c, Ansel Adams

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Mobile Homes. Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973, Robert Adams

The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.

Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

PHOTOS

Social landscape photography portrays the effects of human beings on the earth; it is photography of the human-built or human-altered landscape. It may incorporate the natural landscape, the usual domain of landscape or nature photography—but it is most distinctly not about the natural world. In the more traditional approach human beings, any sign of human beings like roads and cabins, and any human effects on earth are notably absent. I believe this general attitude is a deliberate absence.

Consider the work of the exceptionally talented—and exceptionally limited—photographer, an American icon producing iconic photographs of the American landscape, Ansel Adams. Despite my love of his photos, Adams rarely shows people (and when he does, as in his Manzanar Japanese-American internment camps series, they look like rocks).

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Dust Bowl, Dallas, South Dakota, 1936, uncredited

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Yakima Washington, 1939, Dorothea Lange

Sharply contrasting with Adam’s photos are those from the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. These vividly and intentionally portray the effects of human beings on the earth—sand storms, fleeing farmers, destroyed farms. This is the crux of social landscape photography—how we human beings interact with the earth. This expanding awareness reflects our larger concerns with global climate change.

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Point de vue du Gras, France, 1826 or 1827, Joseph-Nicephore Niepce

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Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre

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Nelson’s Column under construction, Trafalgar Square, England, 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot

Social landscape photography has been around since the first photographs—or heliographs as they were first called. Consider the first photographs by Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot. All involved buildings and people, implicitly the interaction between human beings and the earth.

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Quai d’Anjou du Matin, Paris, 1924, Eugène Atget

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New York City, 1888 c, Jacob Riis, from How the Other Half Lives

Consider Eugene Atget at the turn of the last century. Recognizing the massive changes on Paris and environs created by the industrial era—and for other reasons, financial in particular—he assiduously photographed “The City of Light.” Likewise, his contemporary, Jacob Riis, newly emigrated from Denmark to the United States, photographed tenements in New York City which resulted in major changes in housing laws and the end of the most dangerous housing.

For contemporary examples, look at the aerial photos of numerous photographers like Alex McLean; Marilyn Bridges with her book, Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes, and the highly popular series called The Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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Fleet of B-52 Bombers at the “Bone Yard,” Tucson, Arizona, 1991, Alex MacLean

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Mesoamerica, 1986 c, from Markings: Aerial Views of Sacred Landscapes by Marilyn Bridges

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Icebergs & Adelie penguin, Adelie Land, Antarctica, date unknown, Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In 1975, confirming the need for an expanded sense of landscape photography, the prestigious photographic venue, The George Eastman House, in Rochester NY, presented the startling exhibit, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Oddly enough, given last names, one of the featured photographers was Robert Adams, no relation to Ansel—a dramatic contrast. Attesting to the importance of this genre, since 1981 various adaptations of the original exhibit have been circulating worldwide. In 2013 Greg Foster-Rice and John Rohrbach edited and published Reframing the New Topographics, which brings the genre up to date.

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In my own work and teaching, motivated primarily by the global climate crisis, I detect a clue to my new direction, long nascent, but now more clearly evident: Social Landscape Photography.

Downtown development

Downtown development in Detroit, 2016, photo by Skip Schiel

LINKS

The New Topographics, on artsy.net

New Topographics: “Landscape and the West – Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography” by Kelly Dennis

Deadpan Geometries: Mapping, Aerial Photography, and the American Landscape” by Kim Sichel

Photos of Boston’s new Seaport district

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Excerpts from my journal as I examine and portray the troubles in the Levant

PHOTOS

May 24, 2012, Thursday, Kibbutz Lotan, Israel

I neared Lotan—I carry multiple maps, happy I do, since no single map contains all the sites or roads I’m looking for or curious about—and so I remembered Rabbi Jan’s suggestion of the environmentally oriented kibbutz here in the heart of the Negev Desert. I phoned, learned they had a vacancy, overnight would cost me 300 NIS (about $75). Seek it, young man, seek it! A childhood dream realized: to experience a kibbutz. Thru the gate, into an oasis in the desert. Green green green is the proper descriptor for this place.

I settled, showered, napped, inquired about tours and meals, enjoyed the rotund young woman at the reception office and her muzzled dog (he eats garbage and gets sick), learned I might meet Rabbi Daniel Burstyn (which I did later in the evening, a cursory meeting, not a very congenial guy, or so he seemed to me), and wandered the site several times, before and after a kosher meal in the dining hall.

The food was bland, pizza and salad, no dessert, no main course, unless pizza serves. The table conversation nil, sitting with a group of college age youth who I assumed were interns or students. They talked among themselves, I overheard, no one asked me whom I was, and I asked no one about their role here. The main feature of this event was an environmental mural which I photographed later. Then the evening walk to enjoy the relative coolness. I discovered a few caravans, probably the same type used by settlers to establish “Facts on the ground.” These were unused. They also reminded me of abandoned trailers on the Rosebud Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Much of the land I’ve explored in the Negev desert reminds me of the land and people of the Great Plains. Then a sort of community house which was a mess, the door open, air conditioner running. I shut the door. But in other parts of the kibbutz I found and photographed stylish homes, much sculpture (Daniel pointed out a collection made by one of the residents over years), gardens (Daniel is not only a rabbi but a landscape gardener, perhaps this is how he earns his living?), hammocks, pathways, walls made of old tires, the “green room” deep down inside the earth, perhaps designed as a bomb or rocket shelter, now used for education judging from the books, sheets of paper, and notes I found lying about.

I wrote M, checked my email, downloaded the day’s photos, examined them, relatively pleased with my work, looking forward to all the post processing I will do when (and if I ever reach, seems so far away, impossible to reach) home, and generally relaxed after a long drive south.

May 25, 2012, Friday, Israeli network youth hostel in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel

Waste water treatment

Compost feces and urine

Parabolic reflector cooker

Morning at Lotan was a big part of yesterday. Guy or Gee gave me a private tour that lasted well over 60 minutes. We viewed and he explained their toilet system (simply collect, drain, let rest, and wallah, compost which they use for shrubs and trees, not edibles because of some people’s perception that this would be toxic—instead he claimed such composting can destroy even heavy metals), waste water treatment (thru rocks, sand, and plants, after settling), organic gardening (not during the summer because of the heat and aridity, too much water needed), solar panels (that generate most of the electricity needed by one residential section, on the grid, they add to it during sun, and take from it otherwise), play space, experiment space, many buildings (straw bale construction over metal, plastered with mud), sheep and goats (used only for milk, as are the cows which we didn’t see, later sold for meat but not slaughtered here), solar ovens and a parabolic reflector stove for fast cooking, etc. The kibbutz of some 60 people (50 is the minimum until Israel reclaims the land, cutting the subsidy) uses 6 vehicles, and many many bikes. They cannot afford any alternatively powered vehicles such as grease cars.

I thought of Agape, thought of Ruah, and thought of M when I spotted an article reprint that details life on this kibbutz. I picked up a copy for each. The place is truly revolutionary, living out a portion of Jewish values. Especially caring for the earth and each other. Exemplary. I’d love to return, stay awhile.

I first met Guy after I’d finished an exquisite breakfast (which I photographed) of omelet, home-baked bread, pesto, various cheeses made from goat milk, Jewish coffee (as opposed to Arab coffee, Jewish simply made by adding hot water to finely ground coffee powder, adding some cold water, stirring and let settle, also called mud coffee), salad with oil and vinegar dressing, topped off with 2 sweet dessert balls. Served by 2 young women in the solar teahouse. I shared the space with a small Israeli family who appear to be visiting. Guy stood out as he rode up to the teahouse on his bike—he wore a wide-brimmed hat he’d made from a large piece of cardboard. He explained, my complexion burns easily. This helps. He volunteers for one year between high school and the army. We did not talk politics. I gathered that he’d like to see the conflict end.

The office worker, Daphna, had offered to throw my dirty clothes in with the laundry so I picked mine up, delivered my key, expressed how pleased I was with the kibbutz and my 24 hours there, promised to publicize it and encourage friends to visit. And joked: it is so far away. Maybe when we can shape-shift or time travel I’ll be able to encourage more friends to come here.

LINKS

Kibbutz Lotan

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Big Trucks

bigtruck5937.jpgRecently, with massive construction projects ensuing at Harvard University just down the street from my home, I’ve noticed a plethora–a veritable swarming–of large trucks, pickup trucks, mostly massive, heavy duty and full size, once called 1-ton and up. I counted some 25 in a two-block span, parked for the day, as their often-burly drivers build new buildings.

Since I am prone to early morning walks, I notice drivers sitting in their parked giants, often doing nothing, not reading papers, not drinking coffee, not on cell phones, simply blank–waiting for what? Have they arrived early to find a parking spot? Do they pay parking fines if not Cambridge residents parked in Residence Only places? Why do they buy such gargantuan trucks? What material goes into making such a truck, gassing the truck, disposing of it when it’s lived its useful life?

Gas mileage ranges between 11 and 17 mpg, with an average of 16 mpg. Prices are between about $18,000 and 50,000. Capacities vary from 1000 pounds to five times that. I’ve not found statistics for the amounts of metal, glass, plastic and energy required to build a truck. There is growing resistance to large pickups, signaled by a sharp decline in sales. Some studies show that only about 35% of heavy pickup trips are for business purposes (decreasing to 9% for light trucks), altho this is a frequent justification for buying such an elephantine vehicle. A full 26% of the heavy pickup trips never actually haul anything in the bed. (Many of these statistics come from Pickup Truck Usage Study for the Environmental Defense Fund, 2005.)

At one point while I was photographing, I noticed a huge tractor-trailer truck rumbling down the narrow Oxford St toward the building site. Thinking yet another male drove it, I was surprised to see a woman driver. A big, heavily muscled woman, but a female nonetheless. This dispelled one stereotype I have about trucks: male drivers. The penchant for trucks, in the age of feminine liberation, might be bruiting.

I’m frustrated by titanic trucks, I freely admit this. Altho I once loved trucks–the first vehicle I bought, at age 20, was a pickup truck, a 1/4 tonner, miniscule by today’s norms–and appreciate their utility, lines, and potential, I find them obnoxious and perhaps immoral. Why? They gobble up more of the earth’s treasures then they deserve. They are ravenous of scarce materials, hogs for space on the road and for parking, pollute more per capita than many other forms of transport or cartage, and leave a toxic trail on and into the earth, poisoning our descendents for generations.

Thus, not persuaded that I should use a violent approach to rid the world of these mammoths, I chose to use my craft, photography, to make a dent in the problem. I try to alert others to the reality I and we all face: desecration of the earth. Based on greed and ignorance

Another response I make to large vehicles–this time SUVs–is to ticket them, a sort of “citizen ticketing,” like a citizen arrest. I use specially designed tickets available on line (www.earthonempty.com) that highlight the many problems SUVs create, similar to problems created by large trucks. Early morning I am out on the streets shoving tickets under windshield wiper blades. I imagine the following conversation, should a driver stop me: “What is this? he angrily shouts, ripping the ticket from his windshield. A “citizen ticket,” I answer, “a message of concern, raising a question–why buy a SUV? Have you considered its effect on the planet, on those who live near your route, breathing in the exhaust fumes, scampering out of the way as you lumber by? And the effect on all of the planet and its population, experiencing the depletion of oil?” I’d like a similar ticket for large pickups.

Another big truck on my site

In 2004, U.S. cars and light trucks emitted 314 million metric tons of carbon-equivalent (MMTc). That equals the amount of carbon in a coal train 50,000 miles long–enough to stretch 17 times between New York and San Francisco. (Sierra club)

American pickup truck drivers would have saved over $16.6 billion at the gas pump, conserved 9.3 billion gallons of gasoline, and eliminated more than 130 million tons of CO2 pollution [in 2004] if U.S. automakers had used existing automotive technology to improve the fuel economy of pickups, according to a report released by the Sierra Club. The full report, which includes average driver and state savings data, is available online at http://www.sierraclub.org/globalwarming.

More photos

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