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Drone’s Eye View

An old friend recently wrote a piece on her blog about the place she goes when she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep: childhood books. Whether it’s Anne of Green Gables, The Borrowers, Pippi, Harriet, Reepicheep, Lad a Dog, Lightfoot the Deer or Whitefoot the Woodmouse, this retreat into a long ago chapter is an engine of escape, the tool that can finally quiet a restless, adult mind.

I was thinking of Beka’s piece when I opened up the new book Dronescapes and found this image of the place where I go in those quiet hours when I can’t, for whatever reason, sleep:

Romeo Durscher. © 2017 The Photographers of Dronestagram

It’s Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, shot using a drone by Romeo Durscher. It was taken during the Winter Solstice when the sun cuts a particular angle and shines through what looks like a carved doorway in the giant rock just off the shoreline. I’ve photographed this magical spot hundreds of times over the past 20 years, but never during the Solistice. Durscher’s photo has a shamanistic, almost mystical quality, since it captures the figures on the beach in the waning rays of sun as well as the shadows outside them. Is it possible to get such a photo without a drone? Yes, you can clamber up a steep, sandy hill and hope for the best. But there’s something about a drone…

These days, as Dronescapes shows, the size of cameras has shrunk while chip capacity has grown, and suddenly, in the past couple of years, a new form of aerial photography is emerging. But in a weird twist, increased government regulation of drones means that the possibilities are increasing and contracting at the same time. It’s both an exciting and frustrating moment, because the technology is there and prices have come down drastically, but those shots you want to get — of bridges, monuments, cityscapes — are increasingly off limits. Dronescapes is the first coffee table book to give us a look at the state of the art.

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Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, the world’s attention was focused on events overseas. The Nazis had just bombed an English port, and the Axis powers were gaining momentum. On the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition for March 29, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the American people to stand firm in support of its Allies who were blocking “dictators in their march toward domination of the world.” Readers today won’t recognize the political climate; looking back on the recent presidential election, FDR praised his opponent, saying “The leader of the Republican Party himself — Mr. Wendell Willkie — in word and action, is showing what patriotic Americans mean by rising above partisanship and rallying to the common cause.”

Meanwhile, back at home women were buying Easter hats – just $19.95 at B. Altman. The first Peabody Awards, dubbed “Pulitzer Prizes of air,” had just been announced; the Book-of-the-Month Club featured Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls; and a two-room studio at the Chelsea Hotel could be had for $19 a week. Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? was reviewed in the Book Review, and an article in the Magazine explored the question: “Are Movies Good or Bad” for children?

And then there was this photograph, which ran under the headline “Last ‘Cowboy’ Rides Over Tenth Ave. Route; Tracks Now Elevated, Horses Get New Job.”

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy, on March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

George Hayde, the last West Side Cowboy. March 29, 1941. Copyright Times Wide World/The New York Times/Redux. Used with permission

The picture captures George Hayde, age twenty-one, who became New York City’s last urban cowboy with this final ride up Tenth Avenue. He and “his faithful bay, Cyclone” were leading a line of fourteen rail cars loaded with oranges. They were performing, for the last time in history, a unique job created by an 185os city ordinance that permitted freight trains to share the busy streets with pedestrians, dog-carts, bicycles, cars and trucks, on condition they observe a speed limit of six miles per hour and that “a proper person… precede the trains on horseback to give necessary warning in a suitable manner on their approach.” [For rare video of the West Side Cowboy riding up Tenth Avenue, click here.]
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I love the (relatively) new billboard on the High Line, which is part of the park’s great public art program. Joel Sternfeld selected Robert Adams’ black & white photograph of a highway in Nebraska, titled “Nebraska State Highway 2, Butte County” and it will remain on the billboard over the giant parking lot on 18th Street until the end of this month.

The High Line’s website explains that Adams made this image in 1978 “as part of a survey to discover how the grand landscapes of the western United States had been shaped, in ways both subtle and dramatic, by human development.” The empty road makes a strong contrast with our own “grand landscape” of Manhattan, towering majestically above Tenth Avenue where an endless stream of taxis, cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, pedicabs, razors, and dudes on skateboards goes rolling by, day and night.

But I noticed something else when I looked at some photographs I took a few weeks ago: you can see the shadows of people walking along the High Line in the photograph. I have no idea if this was intentional, but Sternfeld understands better than anyone the way the sunlight dances on and around this park.

So there we are, walking along Robert Adams’ deserted Nebraska highway: yet another connection the High Line makes for us between the canyons of Manhattan and the prairies of the American west.


What the Camera Lets us See

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the act of taking a picture — I don’t want to call it “photography” since what I’m doing is so much below the standard of art and more a gesture of observation and record-keeping — can engage a person with a subject. This has been on my mind since I encountered the Hipstamatic app (thanks to photographer Scott Mlyn) which puts a moody scrim around a photo. You never know what the picture will look like because the app itself is moody: it changes from snap to snap, so it’s quite unpredictable. It results in a much more voicey photo because the app expresses its voice alongside yours.

The New York Times just published a photo essay by Damon Winter of pictures taken of the war in Afghanistan with the iPhone and Hipstamatic app. In the Intro. they talk about how gear shouldn’t matter — “few people care about what kind of typewriter Hemingway used” — but Winter chose to use his phone for good and interesting reasons, and the photos are gorgeous. If you haven’t seen them check out the Lens blog. Four of them made the front page of the printed paper — above the fold. (Side note: I’m actually quite passionate about typewriters too, and on another occasion will write about manual Smith Coronas and new-fangled IBM Selectrics.)

Anyway, I just love Hipstamatic, so have been shooting with it every day for a couple of weeks now. That in turn unleashed an ambition to mix things up again, so I co-opted Ann’s Leica M-8 and began shooting in black & white. The Leica relies on a split-image focus mechanism, something I’m familiar with from using my dad’s old Leica IIIf, and that itself is a big change. (Hipstamatic, of course, has no focus; my Nikon D80 — which I’ve used for many of the photos on this blog — has an autofocus, which I now think I rely on too much.)

I don’t know what it is about black & white but I’m finding that it makes everything look more elegant.  Maybe it’s because everything in our culture is so loud, bright, and colorful. Black & white is like the mute button, and it encourages us to contemplate from another, quieter, perspective. In its own way — through unpredictable distortion — Hipstamatic also provides another angle to see and observe.

The High Line is a great place to test out these ideas and play around with them. If I were a better photographer the results would be more satisfying, no doubt. But the technology — the old and the new — opens doors for me, which is ultimately what I love about technology.