Documentary Photography

Back to where it all began, in Detroit

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Last month, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I was born here and lived in the city less than a year. My family moved to Boston and later to St. Louis. Despite that short period of time, I am forever connected to the Motor City. I was, quite literally, made in Detroit.

I also was relinquished for adoption in Detroit, a topic that I explore in my new memoir on the American adoption experience. More specifically, I was born in Crittenton General Hospital, a facility that was created to serve single mothers in 1929. By the 1940s it had transformed into a maternity hospital that promoted adoption as the most suitable plan for single mothers. Like thousands of other babies born at the hospital, I was surrendered to an adoption agency, placed in foster care, and eventually adopted by my family.

Crittenton General Hospital opened in 1929 to serve the maternal health needs of mostly single women.

My birthplace was torn down in 1975. I examine the legacy of my birth place on the website for my book. The hospital location in central Detroit, a few blocks off of the John Lodge Freeway in central Detroit, is now the location of the Detroit Jobs Center and a nursing home. There is no memorial or marking indicating the building that stood on the property for decades earlier, serving literally thousands of patients, mostly mothers and infants. If a person did not know the story of the hospital and its role in promoting adoption, they would never know the history of this place.

The surrounding area today shows the economic distress that still is prevalent throughout greater Detroit. Some homes are kept tidy, while many others, as well as apartments, are showing decay.

I wrote about my feelings returning to the place where I came into this world more than five decades ago. I felt a mixture of exuberance and also sadness seeing the place on earth when I came into being.

One cannot undo one’s past. It is the foundation upon which one build’s an identity and place in the world. I am glad I have reconnected with my roots after all of these years.

 

Advertisements

Some of my fondest memories of summer

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

This “midsommar,” or midsummer as Americans might call it, marks the 20th year since I first flew to Greenland to explore, pursue some old passions of Viking exploration and colonization of the arctic, and do some serious backcountry travel.

I succeeded on all fronts. I ended up visiting Greenland three summers in a row, in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

I made some amazing treks (Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq, Igaliku to Qaqortoq, Brattalid/Qassiarsuk, to Narsaq) during each trip.

I made friends with local Greenlanders, who invited me into their homes and took me seal hunting and fishing.

I befriended several Danes, including two doctors, who made sure to extend hospitality to me when I visited their country.

I also participated in a celebration of the 1,000th anniversary of Leif Ericson’s arrival in southwest Greenland.

I thought about Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic) this week as we entered that magical time of 24 hours of daylight in the arctic. In 1998, I hiked all night on June 21, 1998, north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun never set and the mosquitos never slept!

Here are a few photos highlighting the magic of that place, its people, its culture, and beauty. I hope they bring you some joy as in the northern hemisphere celebrates the arrival of summer.

So why visit Lansing?

 

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

This week I visited Lansing for the first time. Let’s be clear. The capital city of Michigan is not on most travellers’ A-list for tourism. Lansing is where you go if you are interested in deal-making and crafting legislation in Michigan.

I came for one reason only: to speak to state lawmakers and their staff, in order to promote legislative change to reform Michigan’s adoption laws that deny all Michigan-born adoptees equal rights by law. (See my website for my book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, focusing on adoptee rights issues for more information.) I also brought my sturdy Panasonic-Lumix DC-ZS70 camera, hoping to take a few pictures of a new place.

With just 116,000 people, Lansing is not a large city. It caters, like much of Michigan, to the internal combustion engine in design and layout, except downtown. There, everything revolves around the state Capitol Complex, which houses Michigan’s state government services. The epicenter of that is the Michigan State Capitol, which opened in 1879.

All told I spent two days in the city. I commuted to the capital from a run-down hotel in neighboring East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. The MSU campus surprised me with its stately academic buildings and serious efforts to encourage transportation to the campus by bike and bus.

Lansing is an older Midwest city attempting to revitalize its urban core along the Grand River. Upscale loft style condos have been built near the river in downtown and next to the Cooley Law School Stadium. The ballpark is home to the city’s minor league club called the Lugnuts—and what a great name. They were away when I was in town.

Not far from these gentrifying spots are social service centers on Michigan Avenue helping the area’s homeless. Signs in neighborhoods make clear residents are united in fighting crime and that the city is struggling, with 17 percent of its residents living in poverty. One report from four years ago claimed Lansing was among the county’s poorest capital regions.

I greatly enjoyed my walk along the Lansing River Trail. The trail is actually a 20-mile network of converted railroad lines that link Lansing with the MSU campus and the greenways south of downtown. I loved it.

I also enjoyed the Lansing Brewing Company, next to the Cooley Law School Stadium. I tried one of the local stouts and was surprised by its freshness. It was a beautiful late spring night when I came, and everyone was enjoying the nice weather, bluebird skies, and camaraderie that one finds in brewpubs nationwide.

St. Louis Downtown: Ghost Town at Locust and 21st Street

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Less than a mile west from the state-of-the-art Busch Stadium and Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis, a visitor will find empty streets and an urban environment almost devoid of people on a weekend. This used to be a bustling area decades ago, before urban planners, our interstate freeway system, development, and white flight in cities like St. Louis drew people from historic urban centers to the suburbs.

St. Louis is not the only city struggling to encourage redevelopment in its urban core, to make its downtown a place where people want to live, play and work. But whenever I travel to the city of my youth to visit family, I am confronted, visually, by the permanency of the change that turned once vital urban spaces into practically human-free zones.

I was struck by this sensation during my mid-April 2018 trip to St. Louis. After visiting the historic Old Courthouse, I drove to the multi-block site of the now demolished Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. It is now a giant and fenced-in field of rubble, weeds and trees, decades after the high-rise housing blocks were demolished in 1972 and the complex was acknowledged as a failure in our national public housing strategy. It is also the story of the death of American cities in the 20th century.

Not far from this fenced-in area I found the Schlafly Tap Room, the cornerstone brewpub of the St. Louis area’s premier microbrewing company, Schlafly Beer. The tap room is located at Locust and 21st Street, a mile due west of the Mississippi River. The beautiful old building used to be home of the Swift Printing Co. Across the street you will find the stately Lambert Building, also known as the T.M. Sayman Products Co. building, dating from 1891. It is an example of what is called Richardsonian Romanesque. The structure’s striking red sandstone facade embodies the confidence of the former St. Louis, when it was a major industrial city that was ascending.

At this intersection, I stopped. I got out of my car and walked to the middle of the four-way intersection. Not only did I not see any people on a chilly Sunday afternoon, I did not see any cars driving by. It was as if the whole area in all directions had been given orders to flee because of some imminent threat. I took my pictures and left, leaving the urban ghost town behind.

For a more detailed description of this area of the city, please see this excellent photo essay on the outstanding Built St. Louis website. The essay on this section of St. Louis ironically notes, “The ground-level arches of the entryway can be seen in the 1981 film Escape from New York, posing as part of a postapocalyptic New York City.”

There is no business like dog show business

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

The 2018 Rose City Classic Dog Show in Portland, Oregon, has come and gone. I attended on the last day of the event, which ran from Jan. 17-21, 2018. It is one of the West Coast’s largest and most popular dog shows, where owners and their breeds do their dog-show thing. Non-dog owners like me come to enjoy the fun, entertaining, and at times really odd world of competitive dog showing. I have several friends who compete and have been attending shows for years.

I had not been in a couple of years and had forgotten how much fun a show can be. I love the dog agility/slalom/obstacle course contests the most. I also love the variety of breeds, all gussied up to extreme, and at times absurdly weird levels. You cannot go wrong with even the worst camera at one of these events. I used a new Lumix, consumer-grade point and shoot, and I am pleased with my candids.

Most every dog I met was adorable, particularly the cattle dog bitch I met at a meet the breed session. She was absolutely adorable, and we hit it off (I love cattle dogs and other herding dogs).

The photos are in no particular order and have no particular theme, other than being fun moments for everyone. Woof!!

Abandoned in St. Louis, from the archive

 

 

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

My ongoing photo-documentary project on St. Louis has explored the painful legacy of the city’s historic redlining and racism, de-industrialization, downfall through suburbanization, and slow demise because of a new economy that has seen industry collapse in America’s former industrial centers.

My past essays have told the story, focussing on different neighborhoods, or even streets and bigger thoroughfares like Grand Boulevard.

Inevitably, many pictures never made it into my stories. But I still feel a fondness for these haunting images on the proverbial cutting room floor.

In no particular order, I present random shots of St. Louis’ abandoned homes and apartments. They were taken between 2015 and 2017, in north, central, and south St. Louis. Poverty and decay are concentrated primarily in north St. Louis, the area that has been segregated by housing policies and redlining, harming the mostly African-American residents for decades.

I share these photos because of the bitter irony they represent. Our country is in the midst of a massive affordable housing crisis, particularly in coastal cities. Other cities, like Detroit and St. Louis, are grappling with population loss and abandonment. Every time I visit St. Louis, I think about the amoral reality of supply and demand and how the economy and national economic policies have left older cities behind. Properties like these in St. Louis would fetch a small fortune in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Winter’s icy clutch has come

 

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

The arrival of the winter solstice yesterday made me think about winter, in its most raw, powerful form.

I used to live in a wintry place, Anchorage, Alaska. I spent six years there, meaning six winters. One measures a true year in winters in Alaska. I first feared the cold, and then embraced it after I took up skate skiing. Soon, I found myself skiing almost every day of the winter season on Anchorage’s miles of multi-use trails and its world-class ski trails in Kincaid Park and on the Anchorage Hillside.

In 2008, the winter was particularly nasty. We had a stretch of days below -10 F for almost two weeks. I was sidelined with a bad running injury, and I was unable to exercise like I normally did. The hoarfrost was both beautiful and terrifying, because it signified how dangerous the elements were. To this day I don’t know how the ravens, moose, lynx, stellar jays, owls, foxes, wolves, and other local critters survived such conditions, with no respite from mother nature.

I did love my walks, and I used my period of convalescence to document the icy beauty of the Anchorage area, including some festivals where ice sculptures were installed in a downtown park that was turned into an ice skating rink. It was so cold that year, qualifying heats for the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Team were cancelled at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park because of the potential harm the cold could have to the athletes.

So, on our first day of winter, in the northern hemisphere, I say, all hail winter. May your icy clutch be gentle and memorable.

Scenes from my St. Louis catalog

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I was in St. Louis a week ago for a family visit. I did not get a chance to explore the city like I normally do.

Still, I was inspired to dig up some of my pictures that I took between 2105 and late mid-2017. They show the city as it is.

The areas include the neighborhood surrounding the SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, the Fox Park Neighborhood, and South Broadway, near the Annheuser-Busch factory. It remains one of the most interesting cities I know to explore block by block.

South St. Louis County on a clear fall day

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Normally when I visit St. Louis, I spend part of my time exploring hidden neighborhoods that I know little about or where the city’s history, glory, and struggles are on full display. During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself travelling to communities I barely knew, located southwest of the city.

I drove along the corridor that parallels the River Des Peres, which long ago was turned into a partially buried and open air wastewater and sewage system that frequently floods. My route passed through the communities of Maplewood and then Shrewsbury, which border southwest St. Louis. It is a landscape dominated by this so-called “river” system, a major rail corridor, and industry. The presence of retail outlets like Dollar Tree, Shop ‘n Save, and Wal-Mart reveal the income levels of those who live nearby. You will not find a Whole Foods or Starbucks or trendy coffee shop in this area. In fact, those who are affluent can live their whole lives in St. Louis and never come through here.

While taking some photographs at the end of a sunny day, I noticed a massive church tower in the distance and drove to it to investigate, because in St. Louis and the surrounding area, you will find some of the most amazing religious buildings anywhere in the United States. To my surprise, I discovered the Kenrick Glennon Seminary of the St. Louis Archdiocese, located in Shrewsbury. It is an enormous educational and religious facility, with a single-facility complex larger than any other university in the St. Louis area (a place that boasts many universities).

The seminary, with its brick and institutional design, resembled architecture I associate with public hospitals and mental institutions built in the 1920s and 1930s across the United States. Construction began during the Depression, in 1931. It also has an air of grandeur and confidence, built when the archdiocese could afford to invest the capital to train its future clergy. The seminary recently made news for a fundraising effort, signalling possible financial troubles keeping the massive facility afloat. According to press reports, only 133 seminarians train here, also signalling the church’s facility likely will need to find future uses.

 

Ostia Antica, Rome’s working port city

 

 

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Despite my misgivings about social media these days, I find it is one of the finest places to learn about ancient history and archaeology. I am now following multiple websites that showcase the civilizations of the Mediterranean from about 2,000 BC onward, particularly Rome. One of my favorites, run by Carole Raddato, covers the world of the Roman Empire in the era of Hadrian. On it, you can explore Roman life, history, and historic ruins, which can be found in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

These websites have inspired me to dig up some of my photos I took in 2006 of the ancient port city of Roman called Ostia Antica. I never published these as a series until now.

The city dates from 620 BC, lying at the mouth of the Tiber River. It was once a vital port, supplying critical goods like wheat to the mighty city of Rome. Today, it is a beloved archaeological treasure, a short trip from modern Rome by subway. It is well documented in travel guides, such as those published by Lonely Planet and Rick Steves. If you want to really work up an appetite for a trip, see this drone footage from the regional tourist agency.

I recommend using the links I just referenced to learn about its past and take a walking tour of the great Roman ruins there, reportedly the finest in Italy outside of Pompeii. You will find remnants of a great bathhouse, apartments, the market of the guilds, public bathrooms, tombs, and more. Mosaics are still intact that capture startling realistic renditions of the natural world and charismatic fauna like tigers, bears, and dolphins.

The city is referenced in the HBO miniseries Rome, which is well worth watching to catch a surprisingly accurate view of life in the once mighty empire at the time of Julius Caesar. If you do go to Rome, by all means put this on your list. Of all of the Roman ruins I have seen on three continents, it is among the best to give one a feeling for the lives of ordinary people in a working city more than 2,000 years ago.