Documentary Photography

Reliving my past dark days

 

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

Halloween is approaching. I have never been a fan of this holiday.

Perhaps I don’t like it because I feel during my life I had enough real-life scares and unsavory characters to make a holiday that makes light of horror seem absurd. Or maybe I just don’t feel the spirit to dress up and change my identity to escape from my reality. It could be that too. I have been this way most of my life, and it is OK.

With the holiday approaching, I was thinking about a real place that was my personal place of unpleasantness. That would be Huntington, West Virginia, and Chesapeake, Ohio, just across the Ohio River.

This region, on the edge Appalachia, remains trapped in intergenerational poverty. Huntington today is as impoverished as it was in the years I spent there, periodically, in the 1970s. The city today has a poverty rate of a whopping 30 percent, with median income just below $30,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It feels as if good times have still never come.

I came here for years after my parents divorced, spending weeks at a time. My sister and I would visit my father, who lived in Huntington and then across the river in Chesapeake. Those are not pleasant memories for me. I briefly describe them in my memoir, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, which I published in May this year.

All of the places captured in these pictures have a special meaning for me. They are part of my memory of unhappy times, when I had to get tougher than I thought I was, and do that much quicker than I thought I could. I came back here in 2015, in order to revisit those many swirling memories as I wrote my memoir that tracks my life through bad times and good.

So to honor this holiday, with tens of thousands if not more drunken revelers cross dressing, wearing zombie outfits, play acting as if they were cast members of fantasy shows, or perhaps becoming something fun even, I give tribute to All Saints Day on the Catholic Calendar and Día de los Muertos on the Mexican calendar. Here are some black and white shots, from 2105, reflecting on that time when I confronted those things that frightened me and likely should have beaten and broke me.

Read my book and learn how well things came out in the end. Trust me, I did well when one measures success and fulfillment in the span of one’s lifetime. You can order my book today and learn how I did it.

Advertisements

The landmarks and urban landscape of South St. Louis

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

During my last trip to St. Louis this month, I did not find time to do as many photo trips in the city as I had planned. Because my activities took me between south St. Louis County and University City, I limited my picture-taking to neighborhoods of South St. Louis.

St. Louis, as long as I have been alive, has been one of the most divided cities by race I have ever seen. There is a long history of redlining, federally supported programs like the Interstate Highway System, and private lending practices that have contributed to entrenched racism in how residents of this great city have been segregated.

Historically, the north side of St. Louis, north of Delmar, has been the home of the majority of African-American residents. South of Delmar and south of Forest Park, one finds a larger concentration of white residents. Neighborhoods like the traditionally Irish neighborhood of Dogtown or the Italian-American neighborhood of The Hill are two of the more famous areas in South St. Louis.

University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon’s masterful book on the racial and economic history of St. Louis, Mapping Decline, provides an in-depth look at this history and its legacy that is now visible throughout this fallen American metropolis that I still love. (You can see his maps of these racial divisions here.)

These photos have no central theme other than highlighting noticeable landmarks, including the former St. Louis County Insane Asylum, also called the Missouri State Hospital, which housed the institutionalized mentally ill. I also found an array of small businesses, my favorite frozen custard shop in the universe called Ted Drewes, some landmark bars, and the brilliant Turtle Playground (known also as Turtle Park), which sits across Highway 40 from the St. Louis Zoo.

While taking these photos, I met a property manager and groundskeeper by the major mental health facility that sits on the highest point of land in the city. She asked me what I was doing. We had a great conversation how she constantly sees photographers coming to properties she cares for, taking pictures of decay. She said she didn’t understand why they kept coming. I laughed. I told her that I loved St. Louis and felt attached to its fate. I told her I took pictures because every building and every business had a story, about people and a community that are worth remembering. I think she appreciated learning my passion. We are now connected. That is the power of telling a story.

Forest Park in dawn’s early light

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

Forest Park in St. Louis remains the crown jewel of the greater St. Louis area. A visitor will find an incredible array of amenities that are not found in most U.S. cities, or even in great cities of the world.

The park features a world-class art museum, an excellent history museum run the Missouri Historical Society, a popular public golf course, miles of trails for bikes and pedestrians, the world-class St. Louis Zoo, nature areas, festivals, lagoons, and occasionally visiting wildlife. I saw a snowy egret on one of my morning runs last weekend.

A nonprofit organization called Forest Park Forever now provides strong organizational and fiscal support to steer the park’s development and strategic planning needs. Given the fiscal challenges facing St. Louis, this approach likely will pay strong dividends for the entire metro region, which collectively benefits from having a free and accessible public park of this stature.

As a former University City resident (raised there) and longtime visitor to the St. Louis area over the decades, I cannot separate my love of the park from my concern for the metro region. The park’s current success in fulfilling its mission remains at odds with the prolonged pain of the City of St. Louis’s decline and de-urbanization. One needs to keep in mind the larger challenges facing the city, and its many residents who are struggling and whom the park serves, if you come and enjoy it any day of the year.

I took all of these pictures on a three-mile stroll along Lindell Boulevard to the Missouri HistoryMuseum, to the St. Louis Art Museum, through the wildflower savannah off Skinker Boulevard, and back to my starting point. You cannot beat a St. Louis morning walk like this in Forest Park!

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.

 

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.