A Russian Assignment

The art of lacquered papier mache´ goes back to the 13th century in China. It eventually came to Russia in the 18th century by way of Japan, Persia, India and western Europe. Today’s miniatures may be found in museums and private collections worldwide.

Generations of skilled Russian miniaturists having worked through the centuries on icon painting shaped the art today known as the Russian lacquered miniature. With the Revolution of 1917 came the decline of hand-painted icons. The skilled artisans turned from sacred themes to the rich heritage of Russian folklore and legend.

Four villages represent four art schools that produce this ancient art each one with a distinctive style. The villages of Palekh, Kholui, Mstera and Fedoskino are northeast or north of Moscow. The beauty of Palekh is known throughout the world for the masterful and inspired work of its artists who’ve carried on the glory of an artistic tradition for five centuries.

In January of 1991 the premier artists representing each of the villages came together in a dimly lit and dusty room in Moscow. They each brought with them their finest works. I joined them along with my client to photograph these wonderful samples of the best of Russian artistic culture. We were to prepare a book that would accompany the American exhibits in New York, Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco.

While shooting for two days in the crowded room with the artists, interpreter, client and my Russian assistant it became clear to me that an art cooperative isn’t always so cooperative. In fact, as the days progressed, the conversations got louder and more tempestuous with each artist clamoring to have his work featured. I vividly remember one artist holding one of his boxes in front of my view camera’s lens and trying to remove a competitors box already in place. Either one of those treasures could command a place in one of the world’s finest museums. I was astounded by the egos displayed by each of the artists and even more surprised that we were able to avoid fist fights.

When the shoot was finished we all shared a celebratory meal and exchanged gifts and vigorous hugs. It was a memorable exploration of the warmth of the Russian soul.

About Fisherman and Fish by Vladimir Bushkov, 1990, Palekh Casket

About Fisherman and Fish by Vladimir Bushkov, 1990, Palekh Casket

The Snow Maiden by Nina Lopatina, 1990, Palekh Casket

The Snow Maiden by Nina Lopatina, 1990, Palekh Casket

Russian Troykas by Boris Kukuliyev, 1990, Palekh Casket

Russian Troykas by Boris Kukuliyev, 1990, Palekh Casket

Ruslan and Lyudmila by Alexandr Gelishev, 1990,Palekh Casket

Ruslan and Lyudmila by Alexandr Gelishev, 1990,Palekh Casket

Russian lacquer miniature

Russian lacquer miniature

Lid of Box by Oleg Dukhanin, Palekh

Lid of Box by Oleg Dukhanin, Palekh

 

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Squirrel Thoughts


One of our neighborhood’s black gray squirrels has so far survived the cold, the owls, foxes, coyotes, traffic AND the red-tail hawks. There’s a lot to worry about if you’re a squirrel.

Yesterday one of his “buddies” was devoured by a red-tail hawk.

I think Frederick Buechner speaks to this when he says,“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

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Thoughts For a New Year


I’m loving some Frederick Buechner today.

“Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day’s chalking.”
― Frederick Buechner

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Remembering John Connally Too


As the Kennedys and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife got into a limousine fifty years ago today, Connally’s wife said to the President, “…you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.” A happy, noisy crowd greeted the car at the airport.

Kennedy’s assassination holds a unique space in “public memory” for those of us coming of age in 1963. Not always as well remembered was Governor Connally, sitting in the front seat of the same car severely wounded.

In March of 1977 John Connally visited Wheaton College to speak with students. At the time it seemed to me that it was a pretty small group of students that showed up considering his stature as a witness to such a significant historical event. Maybe history is not important to a lot of 20 year olds.

I took a few photos of Connally speaking in what was then the dining hall at Wheaton. I guess it was just good to see someone who had been so close to Kennedy on that day.

John Connally who was injured during the Kennedy assassination speaks to Wheaton (IL) College students in 1977

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Very Special Tree People


It was difficult to bear the removal of our very large, old maple tree. I think this video was the only way I could make sense of it. (You’ll need to follow the link to view this.)

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Organic Coffee and Organic Babies

coffee from Finca Los Nietos in its unique "tipica" cloth bag


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Our older daughter was born in our home on the small Maine island where we lived decades ago. Over the years we lost contact with Christina, the young midwife who attended Sarah’s birth.

Today is Sarah’s 30th birthday. My wife’s and my thoughts and memories go back to Sarah’s middle-of-the-night birth in which we shared coffee with Christina and her assistant as we waited and Cindy labored.

Google and Facebook made it easy for us to find Christina again. We were thrilled to discover that Christina and her husband still live in Maine but spend most of their time working on the organic coffee farm they bought several years ago in Guatemala. Finca Los Nietos (The Grandchildrens’ Farm) is not only a place where coffee is grown but also a vacation destination where you can watch the process and “relax in our spectacular gardens, watch birds, sip coffee and visit our plant shop.” The Wall Street Journal says, “this tiny coffee plantation caters to those looking for a more intimate experience than a big coffee factory tour.” I want to go just to see their worm farm.

A few days ago we got a bag of Christina’s coffee in the mail wrapped in its unique “tipica” cloth bag. Sarah, now in Los Angeles, got a bag too. How nice that we can again all share coffee after thirty years.

Christina (left) and Cindy checking Sarah just after her birth thirty years ago today

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My Trips Down the Rabbit Hole

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For a child, wonder and amazement is a gift and there is little distinction between fantasy and reality. Time can stand still, a girl can have underground adventures and a rabbit can sing.

For some children, however, reality can take a cruel form that rivals fantasy. I saw little people.

As a child I took it in stride when the world around me suddenly shrunk and moved away from me while sitting in our living room. Everything I saw became tiny and far away. This happened quite often in my childhood and usually while I was watching television with my brother. I came to look forward to these episodes as an enhanced dimension to my tv-watching experience. It was Ding Dong School with a Lewis Carroll twist.

During these periods conversations with my brother usually went something like this:

Me: “Well, here it comes again. Superman looks really tiny and so does mom.”
My Brother: “How ‘bout me?”
Me looking at My Brother: “Yep, you’re about the size of a hamster.”
My Brother: “Go get some more popcorn. I’d go but I guess I’m too small.”

To anyone that would listen I compared this to looking through the wrong end of binoculars.

These occurrences diminished as I grew older but lasted through early adulthood. I’ve had no symptoms for nearly forty years.

While in my early twenties Cindy and I took a long road trip with her parents. We did a lot of driving at night so we could enjoy our days. One night while I was driving between two small Maine towns I began to feel a familiar transformation. Everything began to shrink. My tiny wife was sleeping next to me and my own hands that tightly gripped the steering wheel looked like they were twelve feet in front of me.

What had been for me a quirky but pleasant hallucination as a child quickly became a terror as an adult. Trying to reconcile what I saw with what I knew to be fact made me feel like I was threading a needle with a Buick at 60 mph in the dark.

My initial thought was to wake up my wife or even my in laws in the back seat. I needed some help. But what would I tell them that could possibly make sense? How could they help?

It seemed like a good idea to pull the car over and ask someone else to drive. I thought that would be an easy solution. I would simply say that I was tired. But that wasn’t going to work. No spot on the side of the road was nearly big enough to park what I knew was a very big car in what I saw was a tiny space.

I realized even when I was a child that these episodes were only about perception, not reality. My brother was not really the size of a hamster and the car really could fit on the side of the road. Seeing isn’t always believing.

Then I drove by a small strip mall with a good-size parking lot. Nope… not big enough.

At this point I was sweating pretty heavily and my grip on the steering wheel was causing some serious cramping. I was certain we were all going to die.

Then I remembered something from my childhood. I had developed a way that I could sometimes undo the hallucination or “break the spell” as I called it. If I illuminated the room in which the aura was taking place, everything would begin to return to normal.

I turned the dome light on in the car. Within two or three minutes my perceptions were normal. That also woke up my wife who turned to me and said, “I’m glad you’re driving. I’m so tired!”

Just a couple of weeks ago I was watching an episode of House, a television medical drama that features rare and quirky maladies. It featured a man that had episodes quite like my own. At one point Dr. House looked through the wrong side of binoculars and said, “That would really suck.”

It turns out that the man had Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, a rare form of migraine aura that can present with a number of body image disturbances. Lewis Carroll probably had this and I probably did too.

As a photographer I am in the business of creating and sometimes altering perceptions. I can assure you, however, that I will always do so without the aid of a fish-eye lens.

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My P.S. on Our Flashes of Hope Shoot

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I recently wrote about our shoot for Flashes of Hope. The purpose of these sessions is to create portraits of some of the 12,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year. For families of terminally-ill children it is particularly important to preserve through photography the bravery, grace and dignity of their child. This is done using volunteer professional photographers as well as sponsors such as WHCC, the professional lab that donates photographic prints to the families.

Though most Flashes of Hope photo sessions take place in a hospital, we photographed at a picnic hosted by Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. A forest preserve provided a much more relaxed atmosphere for these kids than a hospital setting. It was an afternoon of ice cream instead of IV tubes.

The same day that I photographed 15 children and their families, I read the following in the New York Times: “RIGHT now cancer care is being rationed in the United States.” There is a severe shortage of cancer drugs. In fact, in “Shortchanging Cancer Patients” Ezekiel J. Emanuel reports, “If you are a pediatric oncologist, you know how to cure 70 to 80 percent of patients. But without these drugs you are out of business.” Apparently, the shortages seem to be the results of corporate decisions to cease production because of low profit margins.

This is just ONE thing that these kids and their families face on a daily basis. It’s not hard to see bravery on their faces in the photos.

If Flashes of Hope “changes the way children with cancer see themselves through the gift of photography” as they say on their web site, I think quite possibly they’ve changed the way photographers see themselves as well. If drug manufacturers could see some of these kids there might also be some changes in how they see their mission.

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Flashes of Hope Shoot

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Cindy & I have looked forward to this since shooting this event last year. Flashes of Hope is a non-profit organization dedicated to creating powerful, uplifting portraits of children fighting cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. In the photo here, sisters enjoy a moment at the Peds in the Weeds picnic sponsored by Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital near Chicago.

Politics, medicine and finances were set aside for an afternoon of fun, food and remembrance. What a joy it was to photograph these kids and their families!

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I Use the Wayback Machine… and Return

Norway maple tree trunk

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I met Mrs. Stevens around 1970. I was 20 years old and living with my parents in a small apartment while I attended college nearby.

She was a small, elderly lady that lived on the floor above us. I have no idea what sparked our conversation or even where our unlikely meeting took place. Quite possibly my mother invited her for coffee or we may have met in the laundry room. I do remember that our discussion very quickly turned to grizzly bears.

The moment Mrs. Stevens mentioned that her son-in-law was Frank Craighead, she had my complete attention. Frank and John Craighead were in the midst of a groundbreaking 12-year study of grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park. I was very familiar with their numerous National Geographic articles and television specials. Few who had seen these would forget the images of the Craighead twins tracking grizzlies over the mountains carrying enormous antennas.

If Frank and John Craighead captured my young imagination with their bear exploits, it was their sister, Jean Craighead George, that had already lit a fire in my soul. When I was ten or eleven years old I read George’s My Side of the Mountain, a story about a young boy that leaves his home to live in the mountains where he learns to live off the land. The book so affected my sense of independence and adventure that it inspired me to run away with my brother to a state park determined to live in a hollow tree just like the boy in the book. Though our incautious wilderness adventure did not last long, the influence of George’s book remains with me.

Yesterday I contacted Ms. George to tell her about my single conversation with Mrs. Stevens and to tell her that I was a fan. I had also hoped that she could provide confirmation that my memory had been correct.

I was thrilled this morning to receive an email from the 91-year-old author. She confirmed some information and clarified even more. Yes, Mrs. Stevens was John Craighead’s mother-in-law and she lived in Wheaton, Il during that period. And “she was a splendid woman.”

She ended her note with evidence that her book was, as I suspected, partly autobiographical. She said, “…I did write MSM after years of trailing behind my brothers and Dad living off the land, making lean-tos and fish hooks.”

Perfect.

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