Water Pictures? Five of ‘Em?

“Sittin’ On the Dock of The Bay”


Your assignment this month is to make five (5) good photographs that involve water in some way or another. Let’s think about water-essential for life, becoming less available each year, being polluted by corporate interests (think fracking and coal ash), refreshing, beautiful, and restorative. Nothing beats a good swim or a nice relaxing shower. In the battle between humans and water, it is inevitable that water will win. It already owns 70% of the planet’s surface! According to writer Tom Robbins water only needs humans for one thing-water uses humans as a container to transport itself from one place to another. So how about five photos? Look how water changes the color and texture of the river bottom!



Let’s see—one or two waterfalls, a good reflection, several droplets on leaves or flowers, perhaps a fountain which can be a source of all sorts of images-frozen or flowing in white flumes and foam, either way or in between, there seems no limit to what can be done with water. Remember Frankie Laine singing the song written by Bob Nolan?

All day I’ve faced the barren waste,
Without the taste of water:
Cool water. (Water.)
Old Dan and I, with throats burned dry,
An’ souls that cry for water: (Water.)
Cool, (Water.)
Clear, (Water.)
Water. (Water.)

Water exists in three states (or more): solid-ice, gas-steam, liquid-water. It can be distilled, de-ionized, and de-salinized; and, best of all, made into good Scotch whisky. It separates the continents. Water seems to have a mind of its own. It has debarked from California leaving a drought behind. It has moved to the mid-west where there is flooding. Rain can be a metaphor for disaster- as a flood, it kills. It can also be beautiful creating rainbows, making grass and other plants greener and standing taller. In the song “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival John Fogerty sings a song about the difficult times facing the band because of its internal dissension and its impending breakup. One line asks, “I want to know – have you ever seen the rain comin’ down on a sunny day?” That question has followed me about most of my life. But it is a good question because sometimes a sunny day is just the ticket, other times a rainy day is the answer to a problem., and at times they do occur simultaneously, we just may not see it at the time.

Walker Evans gave some advice to Ben Shahn just before he left for the South Seas. Shahn was begging for just something, anything to better understand photography. Evans said, “Well, it’s very easy, Ben. F9 on the sunny side of the street, F4.5 on the shady side of the street. For a twentieth of a second hold your camera steady,” and that was all. This might serve us equally well in photographing water. There’s not much else to say.




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“The March” and photography in the Civil War

Just finished reading “The March” by E.L. Doctorow. It is a fictional novel of Sherman’s March from Savannah to just outside of Raleigh, NC. It stopped in Raleigh because Lee surrendered to Grant at that point in the march. The story is fascinating and Doctorow’s fictionalization of this history is gripping. It captures the misery of the slaves and the cruelty of the slave owners while showing that racism extended to the North and many of the Northern leaders shared the racist opinions of the southern residents. Critics have pointed out that one of the more interesting and important characters is Josiah Culp, a photographer from Philadelphia, licensed by the US Army, there being recognition that this war will be photographed widely and recorded for posterity. Culp has a young freed  man (Calvin) who works as his assistant. Culp meets two of the more interesting characters, Arly and Will, and makes their portrait. Will is dead. Culp exclaims that this is even better. He takes a picture of the two friends sitting on a bench with Arly holding Will upright. A day later Culp dies while digging a grave for Will. Arly puts both Culp and Will in the grave and shortly assumes the leadership role in this group of people.
The next day as the entourage is leaving Columbia bound for North Carolina Calvin tells Arly to stop. Arly screams “What is it now?”
“Mr. Culp taught me to look at things, and that is what I’m doing. Most people don’t really look at what they’re looking at. But we have to. We have to look at things for them.” As they continue on with Arly anxious to leave. Calvin feels he must not leave Columbia until he had made as many negatives of the ruined city as his supplies allowed. “Time goes on,’ Mr Culp often reminded him, ‘Time goes on, things change, from moment to moment, and a photo is all that remains of the moment past.”
Later Arly spots Miss Emily Thompson who had become a nurse. He directs Calvin to follow her. They come upon a house where a large number of black children are playing out front. Calvin stops and goes into the yard to speak with Miss Thompson. When he returns with Arly now obviously enraged he says, “I’m doing what I do,which is to see things. I see this woman and these orphan children.
In spite of Mr. Culp’s devotion to his art and his belief in its historical value, it is clear that a photograph has no more ability to preserve reality than a diary, a letter, or a newspaper article. In spite of that, Culp and then Calvin and their wagon loaded with equipment make real the fictional narratives of other characters. This is a terrific bit of writing that gives the entire novel its historical feel.
From my point of view Culp is a true documentary photographer, he believes and teaches that  “Many Look, Few See.”



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