Essays / s /

On My Photography

If I had to give myself a label, I would call myself a “street photographer,” since that’s the term for guys who take candid shots of people in public places.

The honorable citizens (and not-yet-citizens) of my oceanside city seem to assume that a person with a big camera and a lens with a hood is some kind of professional. Luckily for me, that usually grants me acceptance of my photographic voyeurism. It’s clear that not everybody likes to have their picture taken, some for very good reasons in the age of Trump. Sometimes (also with good reason) people look askance at this old hippie-looking guy pointing a camera at them. Might he not be a pervert? Why is he taking pictures of children? Teenaged girls? What does he do with them?

I’ll tell you what I do with them.

I bring these people home. They live on my computer now. Of course, only tiny fragments of their lives are there, but that’s enough for my pleasure, interest, and observations — looking at them as a writer or sociologist, and as an always-learning photographer with an eye on the history as well as the present of the craft. Once I capture these exposures, what can I do with them in this digital age? Process them in color? Black and white? Cropped or in context? Sharp? Fuzzy? Grainy? Smooth? With the look of a certain film stock (faithfully recreated thanks to software geniuses blessed by the photography gods)? How do I get the tones and colors to express what I think the picture says? There’s no end to the technical and aesthetic possibilities.

I will unabashedly state that I put myself in a tradition that usually falls in the “art” category by people who care about such things. I don’t saunter into the world of my photos with notions of Edward Hopper or Cartier-Bresson, but my work is more than a hobby, more than voyeurism, more than the activity of a writer manqué who finds the quicker gratification of photography more appealing to his lazy nature. My photos are narratives of the life of my city in the early 21st century as much as they are attempts to be artful. Take them both ways. I am far from the first to observe that people read their own meanings into photographs, and anyone can zoom far enough out of a scene to view it as a sociological document. Both the personal and the cultural are important to me.

The other night I succumbed to my obsession and went out to see what I could shoot in low light. I was rewarded: A wedding party was posing on Red Rock. Before that, I was trying to shoot some guys playing soccer. I wanted to frame them in the notch of a tree but couldn’t get the shot. When I gave up, I noticed one of the players running toward me excitedly. I thought: Oh, shit, here it comes. Before he could say anything, I blurted: “Look, this is my hobby. The pictures go to my computer —” The young fellow gave me a worried look. “No, no, no! I saw you trying to frame the shot. I’m from Iraq. I went to the School of Fine Arts. You’re a photographer.”

I gratefully accept his affirmation and ignore the dirty looks I get from other people (the best I can). Yes, I am invading their privacy. But, insofar as they embody a time and a place and universal qualities as well, I want their pictures to record it.

Now let’s descend from lofty realms.

Lynn’s City of Angels

Pine Grove Cemetery

I never knew there were so many angels in Lynn. Sure, I see a few strolling by the water, but most of them are found in Pine Grove Cemetery, a lovely, well-kept, municipally-owned resting place dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.

Scanning the stones, monuments and mausoleums in its extensive grounds, a Lynner will recognize the names of city streets: Breed, Newhall, Estes, Chase, Buffum. Many dignitaries and businesspeople lie in this hallowed municipal ground, as well as passionate abolitionists and temperance advocates. One of the most important innovators has an eye-catching stone but no street named after him (however, he does have a bridge now) — Jan Ernst Matzeliger, a man of mixed race who invented the lasting machine that turned the city into a powerhouse of the shoe industry. Lydia Pinkham, Lynn’s most famous female entrepreneur (and ardent abolitionist), born in 1819, concocted a tonic to “cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints.” Its 27% alcohol content proved a sovereign cure indeed (for some Complaints at least), and her pioneering marketing methods and patents brought her fame and fortune.

Yes: many prominent citizens repose in Pine Grove as well as many common ones.

“City of the dead” is a serviceable cliché almost impossible to resist; yet after traversing even part of the cemetery you can see that Pine Grove might also be described as a gated community with sections of grandeur for the notables and shady lawns for most of the rest, as well as military enclaves for those who fell in service.

The cemetery comprises approximately 250 acres, 82 of which are developed, and houses between 88,000 and 90,000 remains. Call it a city, call it a community, call it even a paradise — a landscaped, nineteenth century Yankee sort of paradise in its picturesque sectors, with street signs and avenues and rows upon rows of stones snaking intestinally up and down hills, as the earth breathes in and out.

Pine Grove was laid out by one of the greatest exponents of the rural cemetery movement of the mid-19th century. Visitors to the older parts of the cemetery will not be surprised to learn that they were designed by Henry A. S. Dearborn, the man who made Mount Auburn Cemetery one of the glories of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Trees and plantings harmonize man-made artifacts and nature quite well. While the memorials may be status symbols and not much to contemporary taste, they are a fascinating glimpse of the culture of their times, especially the Gilded Age. I discovered at least one symbol I had never seen before: it looks like a dollar sign with three vertical strokes. In fact, it’s a religious symbol made up of the first three letters of Jesus’s name in Greek. You will also find the odd swastika, a symbol that predates the Nazis by hundreds of years.

The preponderance of religious memorials, with their formidable crosses and dour inscriptions, tends to weigh me down, but there are a number of homier designs that are genuinely touching and not a few memorials for children that are downright heartbreaking. At Pine Grove you’ll find several fine Celtic crosses with intricate work. And, while not common, you’ll come across grand mausoleums, tombs for the worthiest. At first glance they look like ornate subway entrances in bronze and marble (at least to me).

Pine Grove has sections for its war dead, crowned with appropriate statuary: the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), whose Civil War dead inaugurated the military sections not long after the cemetery opened; the Spanish-American War vets, soldiers of both world wars and later “conflicts,” most with a representative in stone or bronze to mark the era. And there’s a dandy, time-worn statue of a fireman from 1918, hose at the ready. On the feminine side, a variety of angels, maidens, and wives decorously watch over and ennoble their loved ones. One wonders if this kind of sculpture was regarded as fine art or as a special kind of funerary art, stepsister to museum pieces. The technical skill of their execution seems to be comparable to familiar civic monuments — say, the Benjamin Franklin statue at the Old City Hall in Boston or Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to Robert Gould Shaw in the Boston Garden — though the creative spark may have flashed a little less brightly. But then, schlepping souls to heaven is hard work.

We also see much lettering of interest. Greek and Armenian script is inscribed on stones in their respective sections. The closing quotation marks of scriptural citations provide proof that highly-kerned punctuation preceded phototypesetting. I found relatively few photos embedded in the stones — I guess this was not a custom among people of Anglo-Saxon descent. There’s some nice relief carving (my favorite being of Harry Agganis but there are strong specimens of a more religious character), and what must be a new technique in gravestones — a photographic engraving (by laser?) of the deceased on a smooth, polished surface. We don’t need angels anymore! I cannot say that I find this in the best of taste and do not show an example here, though I do include a picture of a stone using the technology for artwork. Like decals that commemorate the dead on the rear windows of cars, I see these portraits as a reflection of our Facebook culture. Then again, it could just be the modern version of an embedded photograph and my traditionalist tendencies are clouding my judgment.

I am much indebted for information on Pine Grove to a comprehensive booklet prepared for a guided tour on September 28, 2014. It was published under the auspices of the Trails & Sails program of the Essex National Heritage Area and the Lynn Community Association and in collaboration with the Lynn Historical Commission and Pine Grove Cemetery Commission. 

More info on the cemetery can be found on the web:

Pine Grove’s Wikipedia page

Pine Grove on the City of Lynn’s website

Pine Grove has a Facebook page, of course. I did not detect any tweets from the cemetery.

And now, dearly beloved, the photos.

Shooting What’s Out There

I don’t go too far afield for my photos: there are people everywhere, and they are my primary subject — washed, unwashed, tattooed, or plain. Even for the lazy observer they’ve got a story to tell, though they may not always want to tell it. Sometimes people with strong folk traditions don’t want you to steal their souls with your camera. Sometimes tough guys don’t want their tattoos photographed because the cops know them too well. Sometimes parents don’t want a hairy old guy taking pictures of their kids. Or sometimes, seeing a big camera and an intense focus, people (always young) will beg to have their picture taken. In any case, you gotta shoot.

I want to document the life in my city. I want to show humans (and dogs) in all their spontaneity. Here is our seaside park in the summer — the kids careening; the teenagers on their urgent missions; the old folks savoring the moment; the care- or work- or passion-driven wage earners taking a break. I want to freeze their souls for an instant and store that one slice here.

Other venues I shoot include the venerable me&thee coffeehouse, where you can hear live music every Friday night from the fall to the spring; the Museum of Printing in Haverhill, Mass.; the City of Angels (aka the magnificent Pine Grove Cemetery); a RAW Arts exhibition; and, indeed, the entire city and environs, from above. Not to mention the most colorful place of all — my old neighborhood.

These pictures were taken over the last five years with a Canon Rebel XSi or Canon EOS 7D, and a Canon 50mm 1.4 lens or a Sigma 17–50mm 2.8 zoom. I learn as I go.

Cliff Garber

Notes on the High Rock Tower Shoot

On September 2, as the light was fading, I found myself at the top of a tower on the highest spot in the city of Lynn. Most of the visitors were there to view the moon through the city’s nifty telescope. That was fun, but for me the learning experience was finding the right exposure for the cityscape below. It took me a while to realize that the only way I could keep the camera steady for a long enough time to get a more-or-less-in-focus shot was to wedge it between the bars atop the wall surrounding the viewing deck and try to keep it straight. (The real way to get a sharp shot at night, of course, is to use a tripod, a low ISO, and a very long exposure, but my tripod couldn't clear the high stone wall.)

Many of the shots are almost the same, but note the difference a slight shift of focus and tonality make. I was mostly shooting at f/2 or f/2.5 @ 1/5 sec. at ISO 1600 with a fast Canon 50mm 1.4 lens, which becomes a short telephoto on my Canon 7D. This is why the distance between buildings seems compressed.

Take a look.

Thanks to the City of Lynn for opening the observatory. For more info, visit http://www.ci.lynn.ma.us/attractions_highrocktower.shtml.