José María & María José
Saturday, December 21, 2013
|Bronwen Marsden & Michael Unger|
Having no photography business left to
worry about I can safely say that as Christmas Eve nears (Nochebuena) I can
already feel that Christmas feeling of not having to take off sleep wear during
the day to replace it with go-outside kind of stuff. Those wonderful lazy days
between Christmas and the day after New Year’s have begun early for me. I have
no urgent slides to scan for a client or worry about finding contacts in the
New Year to justify the keeping of my studio (long gone). In short I am doing
nothing and feeling quite smug about it. I am a photographic version of that
fading general, Douglas MacArthur.
But I would like to be clear that I do not
hold Richard Nixon’s attitude that you will not have me to kick around anymore.
I will be around in this world of instant communication that is not. The phone
will not ring and no Argentine Spam, only the other will clog my email program.
In short I can stare at my wife and be happy that she is there instead of my
reflection on the mirror.
With these long night days where nothing
much happens I have time to listen, full blast, in this very living room where
I am writing this, four of Bach’s Toccata & Fugues for organ including
D-minor MWV 565 or to think about such useless fact as the one I am sending your way.
This is that one of the most manly names a
man can have who comes from a country where Spanish is the official language,
is José María. The same applies to
women. One of the most feminine of all names is María José. Those names come from a world that is disappearing.
I would like to divide
the world in two. There is the world of those who were mature enough to
understand the April 8, 1966 Time Magazine cover, Is God Dead? And there is
that world of people born long after who would not understand the shock wave
that one cover caused around the world. Perhaps the only other shock wave of
similar comparison was the introduction of the birth control pill. Men no
longer had to worry so much whose offspring his wife’s child was. A great chunk
of the world’s religious morality rules were no longer applicable.
I will not reveal to
anybody reading here what my views on God are. This is personal.
But I decry that with
the loss of the magic of religious “magic”, all its pomp and circumstance, a
film like The Hobbit and stupendous special effects cannot help a child mature
into a human being of some worth. I believe you have to believe in order to
then not believe. If you do not believe how can you believe in anything?
In 2010 my wife
Rosemary, our two granddaughters Lauren, now 11, Rebecca, now 16, and I drove
in our Malibu all the way to south Texas. On the way we
stopped to visit Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. in Austin. We saw him at St. Joseph Hall across
from the large Neo-Gothic Old Main in which I boarded and went to school in the
50s. As we were entering St Joseph Hall I spotted the campus priest, Father
Rick Wilkinson, C.S.C. I have no idea why at that moment I heard myself say to
Father Rick, “Will you bless my granddaughters?” I was able to corral Lauren
but Rebecca insisted on going inside to get on facebook in the St. Joseph Hall computer room. Father Rick placed his
right hand on Lauren and uttered beautiful words while with his index finger he
gently touched both her eye lids.
Since that day I have
regretted not being more forceful with Rebecca. I even wonder if her terrible
16s might not have been ameliorated by Father Rick’s gentle hand.
I don’t believe in
Santa Claus. I don’t believe in special effects and I eschew Tolkien, magic
swords and rings.
What I believe in I
won’t tell you. You will have to guess. And that might have something to do with Father Rick's hand.
A Christmas Card Today From Many Christmases Past
Friday, December 20, 2013
Except for the fact that Rosemary now has a
very good and new laptop (purchased last year) and that my 16 year-old
granddaughter, 16, is giving us tremendous problems, our life in 2013 was pretty
I wrote about it here and I don’t think I
can top it. Lauren is now 11 but she still acts like a little girl even though
she understands that Santa Claus does not exist and that her father is really
the Tooth Fairy.
It is snowing outside so I can almost
celebrate a white Christmas looking out of the window into the back garden as I
There is a smile on my face because while
Christmases change from year to year (and we think not for the better) there is
one most pleasant constant. This is a Christmas card from my friend the illustrator
Dick Allen and his wife Susan.
I know Allen because many years ago he did
paste-up work at Vancouver Magazine. With the then art director Rick Staehling
and animator Marv Newland they had attended the prestigious Art Center
Allen, I sometimes think, lives daily in the
past but when he emerges from his house he does so in a time machine that brings him to this present. I like Allen's past. Perhaps there is less
evil (even if evil was always with us), it is a world of many colours but pastels, too. It is pleasant to admire a Christmas
card, one that has come in an envelope with a stamp and addressed in very nice handwriting. I like to think that the envelope, in spite of its contemporary
digital coded date really came in Allen's time machine and that he hand
delivered it one evening when I was not looking.
Thank you Dick Allen for this real
Christmas cheer. And a very Merry Christmas to you and Susan.
That Tactile Experience
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Since I can remember I can remember the
tactile nature of my being. My mother would smell me behind the ears and say
“You smell like an Englishman.” She would then blow gently into my ear and say
“Un secretito para el nenito.” (A little secret for the little boy).
My father would pick me up and when he
hugged and kissed me I felt the roughness of his shaved face. The roughness
that rasped on my cheek came with a bonus, a pungent mixture of cologne,
Player’s Navy Cuts and Old Smuggler Whisky.
Since then the tactile always accompanies
scent. Or the scent brings me memory of touch.
I do not like the smell of plastic or
whatever material that is used on modern cameras. Few ever notice that metals
smell. When I hold my Nikons, my Pentaxes, the Mamiyas and most recently that
Leica IIIF the smell of metal nicely dovetails with the heft and smoothness of
these wonderful instruments of the pictorial.
My old Pentax MX has a shutter dial with
one stop. You go in one direction and you cannot go further. Its purpose is that
without having to look you could count the clicks while lining up your shot and
know at what shutter speed you were. The sound of a shutter, a sound that no
photographer can forget or ignore will rapidly tell you if you are at 1/15 or
at 1/1000 second. Unlike the modern back screens of DSLRs this method is not
It doesn’t take too much daydreaming to
conjure the feel and smell of fisting a well-used baseball mitt, or the almost
(that dust from the home plate to absorb the hands’ sweat) smoothness of the bat, the
smell and giving nature of a blown up red balloon when squeezed, a recent purchase of a theatrical cap gun
came with memories of drawing my Gene Autrey peacemaker and dropping Mario and
Miguelito on their tracks with the nifty smell of gunpowder, that odd warmth on
the tips of my fingers that comes from picking up a South American ostrich egg
on the Pampa, and of course that first time, before the idea of sex ever came
into my head, of holding her hand and finding that my gentle pressing is reciprocated,
a proof that Newton was not only right but also that he was a romantic.
Many years later I thrilled dancing the
Argentine Tango with Indiana
and knowing that the variations of my right hand’s fingers pressing on her
middle back would result in instant abeyance followed by a rapid following of
my body’s movements.
A week ago in my darkroom I placed an
exposed sheet of photographic paper into the developer tray. I wanted to take
it out with my fingers once the image magically appeared, but I learned long
ago that prints dried with stains. Once the photograph was washed I placed it
on my drying glass and squeegeed it with a windshield wiper and from there on a
blotting paper. I cannot imagine comparing this with the digital work "flow" (most dry) on a computer monitor.
That blotting paper brought me memories of
my desk top inkwell of my second grade class and having to use a papel secante
(blotting paper), and its unique texture, on my juvenile squiggles. I can still
smell the ink and the chalk on the bottom of the real black blackboard.
In my darkoom, after years of practice and use,
when the lights are out, I can find anything with the tips of my fingers after
I stretch my arm in the desired direction. I have a string hanging from the
middle of the ceiling’s electric light. I wave my hand in the dark until I feel
the string and then pull it to see what those prints in the fixer look like.
Feeding exposed film, in the dark, into the Nikor stainless steel tank reels is
as tactile as anything can get. But I am ready for that little noise that tells
me that there is something not right and I have to fiddle to unkink the film.
To make things easier I keep a pair of scissors (to cut off the film leader) in
my back pocket, a bottle opener (to open the film cassette) in the other and in
my front pocket I have the extra rolls of exposed film. A darkroom, in spite of
the safelight (but never on when loading film into the reels), is a fully
I remember with heavy fondness the days I
would take Rebecca to UBC
Botanical Garden or
VanDusen and take the rhododendron walk. We would stop at every rhodo to check
on our favourite foliage rhododendrons. These are those with leaves that are
densely covered in a felt-like coating of silvery white, cream, fawn or rusty
orange hairs on the surface of the leaf (the tomentum) and its underside (the indumentums).
Some of the indumentums felt like the soft inside of a cat’s ear. Rebecca would
smile and then giggle with joy.
Both my granddaughters know all about the
two species hydrangeas in our garden, Hydrangea aspera subs. sargentiana or the
straight aspera. Both these plants have a tomentum that is exactly like the
skin of dogfish and other sharks. I know this because I have touched the skins
of dogfish in Mexican seafood markets. You can feel an escalofrío (a lovely Spanish word for shiver) when you pass
your fingers. It’s much like premium sandpaper.
From that shark skin I
will move my fingers (right hand) to touch las nalgas of my wife. This word has
a much nicer ring to it than its English equivalent, buttocks. My grandmother
would call this section of the human body “ese lugar donde la espalda pierde su
nombre.” It is virtually untranslatable as espalda in Spanish means exactly a
human back. Where that human back is no
longer a human back you will find the…
Why my right hand? I
must confess that this bit of revelatory intimacy is important if I must
proceed on things tactile. I sleep on the left hand side of the bed. Casi-Casi,
Rosemary’s cat sleeps at my feet so I must place my legs in a diagonal towards
the centre of our queen size bed. Plata, my female cat sleeps on Rosemary’s
right side and close to the edge of the bed. My wife sleeps with her back to
This means that with
my right hand I can gently place it on her… and feel a warmth and a smoothness
that is sufficient, at my advanced age, to calm all the stress of the day and
plunge me into a deep sleep in which only faulty plumbing will lure me away
from the comfort of our bed.
Objective Subjectivity - Mathew Brady - U.S. Grant
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
|Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor Virginia, 1864, Mathew Brady|
For anybody who has complained that the
internet has spoiled everything (and I am often one of those) there are some
good things going for it. Consider how it can expose us to history in a most
There are many who say that history can
never be objective. One man in particular that I remember very well was
Santiago Genovés, a Spanish
anthropologist who was part of Thor Heyederdahl’s crew in three trips on a
raft across the Atlantic. The third one was
with a crew of men and women and the purpose was to find out if such a crew
could get along in a trip of length and of isolation from the rest of the
Genovés in his Mexico City lecture I attended sometime in the late 60s
said, “Even Herodotus was aware that no historian could be purely objective in
the recounting of history. After all objectivity is a subjective invention of
Of late I have taken
that to heart and I have come to accept the idea that novelists can tell truths
that would be hidden or distorted in non fiction which would have to be
subjective no matter how closely its author would follow the dictates of good
One of the events of
my childhood that has been left firmly in my memory and may have channeled me
into becoming a portrait photographer so many years later was the glimpse of a
book or magazine of American Heritage in the USIS Lincoln Library on Calle Florida in Buenos
Aires in the beginning of the 50s. I was struck by
pictures of the American Civil War in startling sharpness and in black+white.
These men, officers and soldiers, stared at me from the pages of the book and I
instantly realized that while they had been alive for the picture they were
long dead. That comprehension of one of the elements of death (incomprehensible
as death is) made look at the faces of those who walked on Calle Florida when I left.
They all looked alive but I knew that some day every one of them would be like
the soldiers and officers of the pictures taken by Mathew Brady, Timothy
O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner and others.
As I read this
wonderful book, Mathew Brady - Portraits of a Nation, which I found at the main branch of the Vancouver Public
Library (I had previously read the glowing review in the NY Times) I have been
pleasantly shocked by information about Brady that suddenly has become revealed
to me. The author Robert Wilson is a thorough researcher and he seems to have
all the facts about a man that few ever really knew. Brady left few letters
and we don’t even know the exact date of his birth or the exact location.
Two interesting facts
immediately caught my eye. One is that inventor/painter/artist/photographer
Samuel Morse went to Paris
to try to sell the idea of his telegraph. He failed but he met up with Daguerre
and brought knowledge of Daguerre’s photographic process so that the Daguerreotype
was just about instantly adopted in the U.S.
The second fact is
that Brady (who might have been an artist apprentice to Morse) understood the
problem of taking portraits in his portrait gallery when exposures were long
due to the low sensitivity to light of the process and of the primitive optics
of the time. He installed, like many other portrait of his contemporaries in
the early 40s, a large skylight. But Brady did one better. Without knowing of
the existence of UV light he was aware that light sensitive chemicals were more
sensitive to UV (i.e. blue light). Brady tinted his skylight glass blue.
Furthermore, Brady who had bad eyesight wore blue-tinted glasses. Might he have
been an inventor of sun glasses?
I cannot remember now
if one of the images I saw at that library may have been the Brady portrait of
Ulysses S. Grant taken at his Cold Harbor, Virginia tent in 1864. I have
always had a fondness for this photograph.
Thanks to the internet
many (as in many) of those US Civil War photographs are available on line in
very large resolving files. For the first time it is startling to see that the
cropped picture of Grant so familiar to me is not the whole of the picture.
As I look at this
picture of a man who by the time I was 15 I was reading anything I could get my
hands on to the extent that I remember writing a book review on his performance
at the battle of Shiloh, it seems fresher than
ever and paradoxically less familiar.
I have read Grant’s
memoirs a few months ago so perhaps that is the reason for thinking that the
photograph shows me a man (with no distraction in either muted or lurid colour
of contemporary times) whose timeless look, the clothes aren’t all that
different, or that the b+w journalistic look of a newspaper photograph (NY
Times Cold Harbour Journal, perhaps?) makes it indeed seem like the man is
There are those who
would dream of having lunch with Dickens or share high tea with Jane Austen. I
know that if I had my chance I would choose to drink heavily with Ulysses S. Grant.
His stories, as objective as a man who
sent so many to their deaths would be as interesting as all the stories that
Brother Hubert Koeppen, C.S.C. and Brother Francis Barrett, C.S.C. told me as
Making Blogs Sexy
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
For many of those geeks that like to write those essays that Green gently lambastes thusly: “Writers
such as myself now can move into this gated community and the anxious
concern is ‘how long will it be long until puerile “top 10…’ posts creep
in and the editorial standard drops inevitably?” you
might just take a little lesson from this man. If you should Google
fetishisation you will get many hits defining the word. If you then
Google Green’s choice of spelling fetishisasion you will get his Medium
essay up front!
I sort of get Green’s drift in only slightly obfuscated by this concept of making a fetish of the word. But
I am not obfuscated on how to make a blog sexy. I believe that the
purpose of a blog must in some way be based on the idea that a web blog
is simply a person’s diary on a screen as opposed to that erstwhile
diary on an opened but always closed book.
To me I am
not out there to write a blog to teach someone something or to make an
orderly list on how to cook a chicken. As the photographer that I am my
blog has given me the opportunity to put order in my mind of my
extensive collection of photographs that I have taken both commercially
and personally since I started taking pictures in 1958. My family,
principally my daughters find that they get answers to many family
questions in my personal blog.
I am not out here to
teach people how to write. I am a photographer who writes and writing
every day is perhaps the only way I know how to learn to write. I will
not presume to tell others that my method is the correct one.
I think that Green might have wanted to say that in the
de-fetishisasion of the word we must remember the importance of telling a
A blog, I believe must tell a story.It cannot just be “how to” lists. Only in a novel like Walter J. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz can a delicatessen shopping list be the centre of the story.
my blog consists of a single photograph with no words. This happens
when I believe that the photograph, a strong one, a dramatic one, a
sensitive one, will suffice. A photograph can tell a story. But often
that marvelous symbiotic relationship between words and pictures can
give us more than the sum of their parts.
I am not in
the least concerned how many people might read my blog nor am I bothered
by what they might comment if they were allowed to comment (I don’t
allow comments). I find the exercise of writing the blog, the pleasure
that I expect and nothing more do I expect.
stats tell me that there are many who glimpse into my life, mostly by
random accident. There are many who say with that sort of readership I
should consider the placement of ads. Somehow, after a career as a
magazine photographer and writer I think this would cheapen my intent.
finally to how can one make a blog sexy? Green might have missed that
intimate relationship that the written word (be it on print media or on
the net) has always had with the photograph or the illustration. Medium
allows contributors to easily place these photographs and illustrations
to head the essays and to illustrate within the copy. And yet how many
who write in Medium take advantage of this? How many illustrate
fascinating essays with a boring image?
a world of up-front pornography something can be said for an
understated photograph that can help round out an essay and make it
sexy. But then words can be sexy, too.
That Empty Glass Is Full
Monday, December 16, 2013
I can remember vividly that day sometime in
1956 when our religion teacher, Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. brought a pitcher
with water and two glasses into our class. One glass was small and the other
big. He filled both glasses and asked us which of the glasses was fuller. We
all immediately pointed to the large glass. With a small smile on his face he
asked us again which glass contained more water. We correctly answered that it
was the big glass and some of us at that point caught on that both glasses were
Brother Edwin told us that the glasses
represented our capacity for happiness and that two very happy people could
have different capacities for it but once full, neither would be happier than
Since that time I have come to somewhat
modify Brother Edwin’s lesson by thinking that if two people of equal capacity
have different approaches to happiness there can be a crucial difference.
It was about a year when I invited my
wayward granddaughter, Rebecca, then 15, to a chat at Starbucks. I told her
that two people could have two different approaches to life. One could seek
happiness while the other contentment. I further told her that those who seek
contentment can be satisfied with less and suffer less stress. And because
their goals are smaller they may achieve contentment. Those of us (I include myself
in this category) who seek happiness must compete, fight, study, perfect to
excel. We suffer stress and disappointment. Our goal is almost always not
reached. I asked Rebecca if she wanted to be happy or content. She answered
that she wanted to be happy. I told her that I was not sure which of the two the
“better” goal was.
Of late Brother Edwin’s glass has suffered
a further modification. I see the glass as the glass of memory and experience. We
are born as an empty slate or, why not, an empty glass. We fill it with
experience, skills, memory, failures, remembrances, passions, love and, yes
moments of contentment and despair.
Then when we die, when the glass cannot be
filled any more, death picks up the glass and shatters it against the wall. Christmas can be happy. And
it is. But it is also a time to reflect and in particular to think of
friends gone and of moments that can only be shared with one's memory.
Those who are left remember the moments
had, figuratively, picking up the shards from the floor. But the glass cannot
ever be put together again nor filled with its original contents. Finally all memory is no more.
Of late I have posited to myself the
justification, as an example, to spend $50 to go to a wonderful concert of
festive Bach cantatas when one is so close to filling the glass. Would it be
better to stay at home? Why am I reading
books every night, watching films, and wondering how my roses will survive more
years of shade?
Perhaps the answer is a question that the
newborn babe (the empty glass) cannot ask, "Should I live and learn or speed, as
of now, to that inevitable end and make it all that much easier?"
Unfortunately Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C.
is dead and I cannot consult him to weigh in. But I think he would say, “Alex,
read that book.”
Pitched At 415 & Set In Werkmeister III Temperament
Sunday, December 15, 2013
|Byron Schenkman taking delivery of his Craig Tomlinson harpsichord|
It is not often that one can go to a beautiful
home to listen to beautiful baroque music being played on a brand new Italian
Style harpsichord by an accomplished and erudite harpsichord player. His name
is Byron Schenkman.
And it is not often that one gets to listen
to an Italian baroque composer whose name does not end in an i. If you take a
peek at tonight’s programme note that's composer Ana Bon di Venezia. Of her my Seville grandmother would
have said, “En su casa la conocen.” (They know who she is in her home.)
While her music was most pleasant and according
to Schenkman it had a definitive air of Vivaldi as she took lessons (she paid
we were told) in his Venetian school, Ospedale della Pietà I was particularly
enamoured by another Italian of whose existence was unknown to me until
tonight. That would be Domenico Zipoli who by the time of his death was only
38. In 1726 the man who had studied for a short time under Alessandro Scarlatti
went to Seville
and from there to Córdoba in what was then the Virreynato del Río de la Plata. He
was made a Jesuit but never became a priest as there was no bishop to ordain
him. He worked with the Guraní Indians in Paraguay and died of an unknown disease
back in Córdoba.
Since the Jesuits of his time promoted the
idea that the Guaranís should grow and harvest Ilex paraguariensis from which mate
is made and brewed I am certain that both Zipoli and I indulged at length in
the refreshing hot drink!
Going back to the purpose of this blog
which is to rave about a wonderful concert of new music. New because while I
may have heard or know a tad about
Frescobaldi, Purcell and Bach, all the pieces were new to me with the
exception of one of the Bourées in the Back Suite in A Minor BWV 807. Of the
Bourée I know since I have a 1964 recording of the Swingle Singers where they
sing that very piece.
Much is said and written about new music. But
music that you have never heard, heard for the first time on an instrument that
is brand new is music that almost redefines what new music is.
And when you add to that the intimate
surroundings of a salon that happens to be a living room of the Schenkman's harpsichord maker, there is something
even more special. And I must mention all the goodies to be found in Tomlinson's wife Carol's kitchen after the performance.
Byron Schenkman has in the few concerts I
have had the luck to hear him play convinced me (he changed my mind in fact as
I used to hate the harpsichord and considered it an inconsequential instrument
about as useful as the triangle) that indeed it is a wonderful instrument with
many possibilities in spite of not having a piano’s pedals. I like Schenkman’s
Glen Gould style of playing, with face close to keyboard and sitting on the
edge of his chair. When you combine his erudition with his enthusiasm (and he
played without sheet music) you may understand why I have converted.
Byron Schenkman’s new harpsichord, made by
our Canadian treasure, Craig Tomlinson, is of the Italian Style. This means
that all the metallic works including the strings are all made of brass. While
I am no expert on these matters Tomlinson has told me that the sound of an
Italian Style harpsichord is special because of its brass works. Since Tomlinson somehow manages to convince those who pick up their new instruments to play in his salon, I can attest to the lively sound of this harpsichord.
There is something that Schenkman might not
have noticed. This is that his harpsichord while it was being built in
Tomlinson’s workshop, shared a space with a very large motorcycle.
That reminds me of an article (yes article)
I read in a Penthouse Magazine back in the early 80s. In the story a Hollywood
agent hires a man who has a time machine to bring Domenico Scarlatti to the
present in Los Angeles.
The agent thinks he will make tons of money promoting Scarlatti as a composer
and player of the virtuoso harpsichord. Unfortunately, Scarlatti abandons his
harpsichord, drops out, and takes up with a rock band and is mesmerized by a
If instruments should have souls and
Tomlison’s instruments most certainly must have them, then this particular
Italian Style harpsichord just might …