Category Archives: On the Road

Washington, D.C./14th and T


Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, Washington, D.C. — © Brian Rose

I stayed in Washington with my family at a hotel on Dupont Circle. We walked up 18th Street through Adam’s Morgan, an ethnically diverse area I lived in briefly in the ’70s. Afterward, Brendan, my 12 year old son, insisted that we return to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington icon that he and I visited a couple of years ago. This being the 4th of July, a line of tourists formed in the adjacent alley.


14th and T, Washington, D.C. — © Brian Rose

From Ben’s we walked down to the intersection of 14th Street and T, a corner mentioned in my song Open All Night. Today, the area has greatly gentrified–a sidewalk cafe and a high end furniture store occupy two corners. But the other corners remain partially empty and somewhat bedraggled. So, despite the upscale incursions, 14th Street still feels like it’s on the edge between one thing and another–which in D.C. usually means between white and black. The t-shirt above says I Am DC, I Demand the Vote, a reference to the fact that citizens of the District of Columbia are not represented in Congress, an inexcusable disenfranchisement of approximately 602,000 people.


14th and T, Washington, D.C. — © Brian Rose

Open All Night

Smoke blue breath in the window
Harsh lights and watery eyes
Burnt out butt out and out of sight
The deal goes down at moonrise

A newspaper blows through this tunnel of love
A tumbleweed in the city blight
Pissing neon in the pouring rain
Open all night

Skin green splitting in the back room
Still praying to God above
Dim names left back in the diner
All for a thimble full of love

There’s news of a murder up at 14th and T
And the waitress shivers with fright
As two cops tell a fish story
Open all night

She wipes the counter and she sweeps the floor
She makes the coffee and she asks do you want some more
She looks in the eyes of a desperate man
She can’t say much but she can understand
Another aimless loner
Another brittle voice
Another ghostly goner
His head in his hands
Open all night

And outside the street is a minefield
To the ex-soldier with the tattooed arm
A cigarette stuck on his lower lip
He thinks of his mom back on the farm

And thick thighs snicker behind him
She says boy you don’t have to fight
Come on home with me baby
I’m open all night

(© Brian Rose)

***

Here is my song:

Open All Night

***

Although I’m proud of my version of the song, go here for Lucy Kaplansky’s stunning performance.


14th and R, Washington, D.C. — © Brian Rose

From 14th and T we walked back to Dupont Circle, and ended the day watching the fireworks on the Mall.

Washington, D.C./Mt. Vernon


Mt. Vernon, Virginia — © Brian Rose

I drove north from Richmond to Washington, D.C. with my family. It’s the 4th of July weekend, so no escaping the crowds in D.C. We rented bikes and cycled down the Potomac to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s plantation. It’s about 18 miles, the terrain not too difficult, but the temperature was well above 90, and about 3/4 of the way there I started to lose it. I’ve played enough summer basketball in the past to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion, and that’s what was happening. I walked up the final hill to Mt. Vernon–that’s why it’s called “mount” said my son Brendan–and got the necessary liquids into me.

We decided to take a tour of the house, but had to wait a couple of hours before a timed ticket was available. So, we found a shady spot under an immense elm tree at a distance from the other tourists and lounged on the grass. I got stung on the foot by a bee–another little setback–but it wasn’t too bad. After resting a while I roamed around the grounds and took a series of pictures.


Mt. Vernon — © Brian Rose


Mt. Vernon — © Brian Rose

At 5pm, our slot, and the last of the day, I asked a ticker taker how many people went through Mt. Vernon that day, and he said about 8,000. The tour is brief and they keep you moving, but the interiors are beautiful–no photos allowed–and worth seeing. Immediately afterward we mounted our bikes and headed off for the 18 miles back to D.C. My legs were tired, but I experienced none of the earlier day’s difficulty. As we approached Alexandria, to the south of D.C., menacing clouds and bolts of lightening moved in. We almost made it to the city, and shelter, but were caught in a crashing deluge and swirling winds. We managed to take partial shelter under an entrance to a parking garage in an apartment complex, but we were soaked through, and pretty much through all together.

More storms were headed our way. So we ditched our bikes at the Alexandria location of our bike rental company, and took the subway back into the city–wet, cold, exhausted, but pretty happy.

Richmond, Virginia

Richmond, Virginia — © Brian Rose

I went to Williamsburg, Virginia for the third time in the past month and half to see my father who is recovering from surgery. He will be 90 on July 16, and it seems pretty clear that he will make it.

On the way north, traveling with my wife and son, we stopped briefly in Richmond, a city I’ve spent a good deal of time in years ago. Some of my earliest color photographs were taken in the area around Main Street Station, the historic train depot in downtown Richmond. For a long time the area was largely derelict with empty tobacco factories and warehouses, but many of those have now been converted to apartment buildings.

Nevertheless, there is still a richly gritty aspect to the market area near the train station as seen in the photo above. The station is the structure to the left. We stopped here briefly, and I got out to snap a few pictures.

New York/Williamsburg, Virginia

Vegetable garden, Williamsburg, Virginia — © Brian Rose

I am back in Williamsburg, Virginia tending to my father who is now in a rehab facility recovering from surgery. He is almost 90, but hanging in there.

The weather has been impeccable, and I’ve made a couple of walks down the Duke of Gloucester Street, the former main street of town. It is now closed to traffic and part of the historic restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. The street remains open to the general public, however, and one sees lots of joggers, some from the nearby College of William and Mary.

I took a  number of photographs of a vegetable garden across from the Bruton Parish Church. It is actually a serious demonstration of agriculture as practiced in the 18th century, though I tend to look at it more for its formal visual elements. One might think it out of character for me to photograph this idealized historical setting, given my images of urban grandeur and desolation on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But remember, I grew up here in Williamsburg, performed in the fife and drum corps for nine years, and took many of my first photographs here in the restored area. I doubt that I would be a photographer were it not for the influence of this place.

 

Williamsburg, Virginia


Duke of Gloucester Street, Williamsburg, Virginia — © Brian Rose

I am in Williamsburg, Virginia visiting my father who is in the hospital. He appears to be doing fine after surgery, but is still unsure where he is and what is going on.

Last night I took a walk down the Duke of Gloucester Street, the original main street of the 18th century town. The light was beautiful.

New York/Cairo, Illinois


Commercial Street, Cairo, Illinois, 1989 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

With all the news about Osama bin Laden, less attention is being paid to an ongoing drama in the heartland of the U.S. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers are running extremely high, threatening multiple locations, but especially the historic town of Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was once a bustling trading center at the confluence of the two rivers with its own custom house and 15,000 people. There were hotels, theaters, and fine mansions. As river transportation fell off, Cairo slipped into decline, which was exacerbated by racial segregation leading to riots in the ’60s, and wholesale white flight. Today, much of Cairo is a ghost town, its main street a ragged line of crumbling buildings interspersed with rubble strewn lots.

In 1989 I traveled with my view camera along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo–another of my unfinished projects–due to lack of money. After two or three weeks of shooting, driving southwest along the river, I finally made it to Cairo having no idea what to expect. It was then, as now, a shocking tableau of abandonment.


Commercial Street in 1989, Cairo, Illinois (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

Along with the abandonment there was a palpable whiff of danger in the air, a few pick-up trucks pulled up at bars, solitary individuals drifting about with no apparent destination. Despite the menacing atmosphere I managed to take a few photographs as the sun went down, and then returned in the morning. Things were much less scary in broad daylight, but equally devoid of activity. As I wandered about with my camera I was approached by a middle aged who turned out to be the head of the chamber of commerce. The fact that an out of town photographer was interested in the place was reason enough for him to invite me to lunch at a nearby diner. He wanted to bring Cairo back–a middle-aged white man in a largely black city–but his blue-suited boosterism, seemed out of time and out of step in this scene of desolation.

That was in 1989–and almost nothing has changed in 22 years except that much of  Cairo’s extraordinary architecture has further decayed or has disappeared altogether. In the intervening years some of the historic mansions have been preserved as has the old custom house. But the downtown remains spectral, made all the more so by fancy brick paving stones and retro lampposts on parts of Commercial Street, a superficial attempt at revitalization.


Google Street View of the same stretch of storefronts as above.


Commercial Street in 1989, Cairo, Illinois (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose


Google Street View of the same building as above.


Commercial Street in 1989, Cairo, Illinois (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose


Ohio River levee in 1989, Cairo, Illinois (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

The reality is that Cairo is a doomed city, a wedge of river sediment between the Ohio and Mississippi walled in by levees. A desperate fight is underway to save the city as the river water threatens to top the flood walls and ground water pressure builds underneath. The city’s 3,000 residents have been evacuated. Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers blasted an opening in a levee to the south flooding miles of fertile farmland to relieve the pressure. As of this morning, the levee breech seemed to be working, the water subsiding, but Cairo remains vulnerable. It may survive this season’s flood, but how long can a sandy spit of land withstand the uncontrollable force of two mighty rivers?


Cairo, Illinois in 1989 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

Birdhouses in the form of barge tows, a thematic reminder of why Cairo exists where it is. But the river transit that once made this a thriving small metropolis faded like the car industry faded in Detroit, another symbol of American decline. Or if not decline, then abject neglect, a too easy eagerness to shift attention to the next boom town, to the next  swath of exurban frontier. Detroit may yet rise from the ashes, but Cairo sits betwixt and between, imprisoned by its history of racial strife and its impermanent geography.

In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and the runaway slave Jim float down the big river on the lookout for Cairo, where the clear Ohio water meets the muddy Mississippi. Cairo is Jim’s gateway to the Ohio River and freedom, but they missed their landmark in the fog and drifted on south into slave territory.

There warn’t nothing to do now but to look out sharp for the town, and not pass it without seeing it. He said he’d be mighty sure to see it, because he’d be a free man the minute he seen it, but if he missed it he’d be in a slave country again and no more show for freedom. Every little while he jumps up and says:

“Dah she is?”

But it warn’t. It was Jack-o’-lanterns, or lightning bugs; so he set down again, and went to watching, same as before. Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom.

 

 

New York/Solar Panels


Fair Lawn, New Jersey — Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

I read with some amusement an article in the New York Times on New Jersey residents complaining about solar panels mounted on utility poles in their neighborhoods.

“I hate them,” Mr. Olsen, 40, said of the row of panels attached to electrical poles across the street. “It’s just an eyesore.”

Some residents consider the overhanging panels “ugly” and “hideous” and worry aloud about the effect on property values.

Yes, looking at the photograph above there clearly is a problem. The street is cluttered with old wooden poles festooned with transformer boxes and draped with telephone and electrical wires. The solar panels merely add to the visual cacophony. This is how residential streets look all over the country–and I am sorry to say that most people have become blind to it. Moreover, in the current political and economic climate there is little hope that this design cancer will be addressed.

Tassafaronga Village, Oakland, California (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

Recently, I photographed Tassafaronga Village in Oakland, California  for architect David Baker. It is comprised of low income and middle income housing. In the shot above I am looking over an undulating green roof toward townhouse apartments with solar panels mounted on stanchions and on the roofs. Utility lines are invisible–only the solar panels remain exposed. Imagine the street in New Jersey with a series of new appropriately designed poles mounted with solar panels. The panels would be plainly visible, of course, but the overall look greatly simplified. It could be done elegantly.

Tassafaronga Village, Oakland, California (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

Here is another view of the project looking toward a larger apartment building containing community rooms and support offices. The previous view was shot from one of the narrow vertical windows on the second floor. Solar panels face south along the street.

As a society we are neglecting the public commons. Our communities are visually polluted with all kinds ill-considered utility structures, cheaply built municipal buildings, and unregulated strip developments. Present day political discourse is all about what we can’t do rather than what we can do.

New Jersey: require the utility companies to bury those lines.

 

New York/Wyoming


Somewhere in Wyoming, 1981 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

First some disappointing news. My application for a grant from the Graham Foundation to photograph the New Religious Landscape, a project focused on Megachurches and their surrounding areas was unsuccessful. At this point, it is just about impossible for me to take on ambitious projects like this without external funding.

I’ve spent the last two days writing an article for a special edition of the Fast Folk magazine dedicated to Jack Hardy, the late songwriter. Scroll down for earlier posts on Hardy. It is basically the story of my relationship with Jack from 1977 to 1984 during which time we hung out in Greenwich Village folk clubs,, traveled across country together and established the Fast Folk, a monthly LP/magazine of the latest songs from our weekly songwriters meetings. I may post the article here later, but I don’t want to preempt the Fast Folk, which will be available online–probably through the Smithsonian Folkways record label. Stay tuned for that.

The photograph above was taken while driving with Hardy through Wyoming in 1981. There are many other pictures from that trip, and none have ever been printed. A slight light leak in my view camera caused streaking on about half of the images making them near impossible to print–the old way in the darkroom. The defect is easily remedied with Photoshop. So, stay tuned for a series of images taken all over the United States in the early ’80s.

New York/Mohonk


The Shawangunk Ridge from Skytop — © Brian Rose

Here are a few more photographs of the Mohonk Preserve just west of New Paltz, New York about two hours north of New York City. It’s amazing that such a landscape exists so close to one of world’s largest cities. Stay at the Mohonk Mountain House if you’ve got a few bucks to spare. It’s expensive, but refreshingly unhip, even a bit frayed at the edges. The hotel architecture is fairytale eclectic–turreted castle here, Swiss chalet there. The grounds are dotted with small pavilions nestled on rocky outcroppings, a throwback to the 19th century concept of the romantic landscape.


Skytop Reservoir — © Brian Rose


Mohonk Preserve — © Brian Rose

New York/Mohonk


Mohonk Preserve, New Paltz, New York — © Brian Rose

I spent the New Year’s weekend Upstate with Renée and Brendan. We hiked and did a little cross country skiing. I began reading Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This morning the snowy ground and warm temperatures created a swirling fog that plunged us into a colorless world as we walked the trails of the Mohonk Preserve near New Paltz, New York.

New York/Trenton

A photographic impromptu done while documenting the Louis Kahn bath house and day camp pavilions. The series starts with a view of the pavilions and then takes in the grove of trees, sheds, and various objects that dot this nondescript, but oddly compelling landscape.


© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

© Brian Rose

New York/Trenton, Kahn Bath House


Louis Kahn Bath House, Trenton, New Jersey — © Brian Rose

As I suggested in an earlier post about the Kahn bath house, there is more to the project than the cinderblock changing rooms that most people are familiar with. The photo above shows the central courtyard of the bath house with floating pyramidal roofs resting on hollow piers, which act as separate spaces–as baffles for access to the changing rooms, and as storage and mechanical spaces. The complex is rigidly symmetrical. Four square rooms and a square central court with a circle inscribed in the pavement.

Kahn was originally hired to create a campus for the Jewish Community Center, which was to include a pool/bath house, a community building, and a day camp for outdoor activities. Only parts of it were carried out. In the plan above you can see the bath house and pool in the upper left. At the lower left is a collection of small pavilions that comprised the day camp. These were built, and despite falling into disrepair, survived to be restored as part of the overall project headed by FMG Architects of Princeton.

Here is a historic view of the pavilions in use. The columns were made of terracotta pipe material filled with concrete. My understanding is that the outer material soon cracked and was stripped off leaving the bare concrete pillars. When I photographed the bath house last February the day camp pavilions were in ruins.


Kahn day camp pavilions, February 2010 © Brian Rose


Kahn day camp pavilions, October 2010 © Brian Rose

The day camp stands perhaps 100 yards from the bath house, and the four rectangular pavilions are arranged asymmetrically inside an earthen circle. The pavilions were meant as open air and indoor space in which various activities could take place. Today, there is an amphitheater adjacent, and a collection of small sheds or play houses. The terracotta columns have been recreated.


Kahn day camp pavilions, October 2010 © Brian Rose

The pavilions while made from utilitarian materials with a very prosaic recreational purpose, evoke an ancient temple complex set  in a clearing, raised slightly on a plinth. Moving through and around the pavilions provides a constantly changing series of spacial and visual relationships.

Around the pavilions, the day camp has built a collection of small huts, which I imagine are club houses, or play houses for kids. Their toy-like presence echoes and contrasts with Kahn’s serious temples of play nearby.

The Louis Kahn bath house, now restored, consists of two groupings of buildings–the pool complex and the day camp–juxtaposed across an open field. In these two extremely modest constructions, Kahn, early in his career, experimented with the architectural elements that would serve as the basis for his most ambitious work. For the first time in many years, these two pieces of Kahn’s unfinished site plan can be viewed together, in relation to one another.

New York/Kahn Bath House


Louis Kahn bath house, Trenton, New Jersey — © Brian Rose

Here are a couple of before/after photographs of the Louis Kahn bath house in Trenton. The older pictures were made on a cloudy day in February 2010 while being shown around by Michael Mills of FMG Architects, the firm heading up the restoration of the bath house.

One of Kahn’s earliest commissions, this small project–changing rooms and showers for the adjacent swimming pool–served as an opportunity for Kahn to try out ideas that were later incorporated into his major projects. The bath house, originally built in 1955 for a Jewish community center, had fallen into disrepair, and eventually came into the hands of the local county government.

The entrance to the bath house was through an unobtrusive opening marked by a mural of Kahn’s design. It, too, had deteriorated and was painted over. The mural has been repainted based on Kahn’s drawings, a splash of color and decoration in an otherwise austere structure.


Kahn mural and bath house entrance — © Brian Rose


Louis Kahn bath house, Trenton, New Jersey — © Brian Rose

Most of the original structure has been retained in the restoration. The cinder block wall to the left had to be replaced, but the pyramidal wood roofs were in excellent condition and needed little work. The circular shape at center echoes the complex’s original pebble garden, which was later paved over. Michael Mills speculates that Kahn may have had some kind of water feature in mind for the circle, perhaps a fountain for rinsing one’s feet. Whatever the case, a circle inside a square is typical of Louis Kahn architecture, and returning it to the center of the bath house–even as a wheelchair accessible flat surface–is an important move.

New York/Trenton


Photographing the Louis Kahn bath house in Trenton, New Jersey
Photo by Meredith Bzdak

Wednesday I photographed the newly restored Kahn bath house in Trenton. The building itself is done, but the landscaping is far from finished. So, this will be an interim set of pictures–there are magazines anxious to do stories about the restoration–to be completed in the Spring.

I will be putting up photos shortly of both the exterior and interior of the project. Many of the interior pictures–this is actually an open air structure with walls–are fully finished. As I was shooting, the landscapers were cleaning up some of the weedy raggedness around the building, and it was amazing how much better the structure looked when set off cleanly.

But there is more to the story of the Kahn bath house than the bath house itself, which I will get into in a later post. A separate ensemble of structures that was part of the original site plan had fallen into ruin has also been restored. Stay tuned.

New York/h2hotel, Healdsburg, California


h2hotel, Healdsburg, California — © Brian Rose
(mouseover the image for evening view)

Photographs like the one above (day and night versions) are fairly straightforward to make, but there is nothing wrong with such simple compositions. Architectural photography is first and foremost about the buildings, not necessarily the photographer’s vision. I believe the latter comes through, but it is often only discernible by looking at the photographer’s overall body of work.

That said, a straightforward shot like the one above can get pretty complicated. The hotel I was shooting faced east, meaning the main facade was sunlit only in the morning. Locals in Healdsburg told me that the mornings had been foggy for days, the mist not lifting till noon, which would be too late. I needed some luck. Sure enough the next morning was pretty much socked in, but I set up my camera with my assistant, and we waited. As you can see, I got lucky. I even got a couple of bicyclists in front who were heading out for a ride.

The photograph has one car in it–a Mustang parked there since the day before–but during the couple of hours we were out in front of the hotel, numerous cars and trucks attempted to park or make deliveries. My assistant had to run across the street repeatedly to negotiate with the drivers. In small town California, dealing with people is pretty easy. In New York City, fuggedaboutit.

The evening shot was much more dynamic. The street was busy and the bar and restaurant were opened to the sidewalk and full of people. I set up my camera at least a half hour before “magic hour.” It’s considerably less than an hour. As the moment approached, a waiter from the restaurant came across and informed me that two of the patrons sitting at a table directly on the sidewalk did not want to be photographed. A potential deal breaker.

Fortunately, the architect and hotel owner were present and also sitting in the restaurant. I asked them to intercede and gave them a 4×5 instant print to show the diners how insignificant they were in the composition. Problem solved. Later, I spread the day’s prints out on the bar for the architect to look at and discuss, and take home. A lost practice when shooting digital.