New law, regulation mean slow start for commercial drone industry

August 30, 2015
This photo was pulled from high-definition video taken by an Unmanned Services Inc. drone camera high above Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo by Unmanned Services Inc.

This photo was pulled from high-definition video taken by an Unmanned Services Inc. drone camera above Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo Provided


MIDWAY — Standing beside South Elkhorn Creek with a remote-control device, Manfred Marotta uses joysticks and a video monitor to guide his small flying drone over and around a bridge, a waterfall and historic Weisenberger Mill.

The light is turning golden on this late-summer afternoon, and the tiny camera anchored to the drone’s belly captures stunning high-definition video.

Marotta is one of many people who think there is money to be made producing this kind of aerial imagery for a variety of clients, including utilities, real estate brokers, farmers, tourism promoters and news organizations.

But, so far, on-the-ground maneuvering with aviation regulators and government policy makers has been more complex than anything drone entrepreneurs face piloting their unmanned aircraft through the sky.

Marotta is chief executive of Versailles-based Unmanned Services Inc., which last month became the first Central Kentucky commercial drone operator to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A drone operated by Midway-based Unmanned Services Inc. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Sky Drone Studios, owned by Lexington-based Post Time Productions, soon expects to get its FAA certification, known as a Section 333 Exemption, said Jeb Smith, one of the owners.

The field is likely to get more crowded, because of the growing popularity of relatively inexpensive drones and small video cameras. More than 1,300 FAA exemptions for commercial operators have been issued nationwide so far, including more than a dozen in Kentucky.

Aviation policy and privacy laws have struggled to keep up with drone technology, which has made big leaps thanks to military research and development investment during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Drones are limited to low-altitude flying, generally considered 400 feet or below. Ironically, though, commercial operators face far more FAA scrutiny than hobbyists, who usually have less skill and experience.

The FAA plans to announce new drone pilot training and certification rules in January. Currently, hobbyists flying small drones don’t need certification. But people flying drones commercially must have a civilian license to pilot manned aircraft.

Military drone pilot certification doesn’t count, although Unmanned Services has applied for an exemption until the new rules are issued. Until then, the company must hire a licensed pilot to do commercial jobs, but not free demonstrations.

150813Drones-TE011Marotta, 35, said he spent five years flying drones in the Navy and another three as a government contractor. Chris Stiles, 30, president of Unmanned Services, said he has a decade of drone pilot experience, as a government contractor and before that flying Army drones for battlefield surveillance during two tours of duty in Iraq. They said that, combined, they have logged more than 7,500 hours of drone flight time.

Marotta and Stiles met while they were government contractors. They started their company in 2011 and moved two years later to Versailles, where Marotta grew up before moving to Pennsylvania. His father, Manfred Marotta, played football for the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s.

Their business partner, Weston Amos, is learning to fly drones, but has no military or commercial drone experience.

“For the past two years, we’ve spent a lot of time building up potential clients,” Marotta said. “In the past month, we’ve been able to go out and actually have customers.”

So far, Marotta said, they have done commercial jobs for real estate agents and a television station. A typical job costs clients between $150 and $500.

In addition to high-definition video, from which still images can be made, Unmanned Services’ cameras can do video downlinks for live television broadcast and infrared and thermal imaging, which are useful in utility line inspection, field and crop analysis for farmers and search-and-rescue operations.

Marotta thinks a big market can be developed in utility line inspection, which must be done annually.

“We don’t believe that the drone can take over the entire market,” he said. “But it can sure save them a lot of money and save them a lot of time rather than using manned aviation.”

The Unmanned Services partners also are spending a lot of time meeting with government policy makers to try to prevent legitimate concerns about safety and privacy from resulting in what they would consider bad laws and regulations.

“Talking to the right people and finding those right people has been a lot of our workload,” Marotta said. “We’re trying to protect the industry and ourselves.”

Chris Stiles of Unmanned Services Inc. caught a videography drone as it came in for a landing. It was being controlled by Mickey Marotta, right. They were filming a demonstration video at Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Chris Stiles of Unmanned Services Inc. caught a videography drone as it came in for a landing. It was being controlled by Mickey Marotta, right.  Photo by Tom Eblen


Mickey Marotta of Unmanned Services Inc. flew a drone shooting video high above the Weisenberger Mill near Midway. The control device is visible at lower right, and the drone at right surrounded by trees. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Mickey Marotta of Unmanned Services Inc. flew a drone above Weisenberger Mill near Midway. The control device is  at lower right, and the drone at right surrounded by trees. Photo by Tom Eblen


Mickey Marotta of Unmanned Services Inc. controled a drone that is shooting video high above the Weisenberger Mill near Midway. Photo by Tom Eblen |

Marotta operates the drone controls while standing beside South Elkhorn Creek.  Photo by Tom Eblen


Demonstration video by Unmanned Services Inc.

‘Dead Poets’ journey leads to grave of murdered Lexington poet

July 28, 2015
Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven his white Dodge “Poe Mobile” to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, uses his iPhone to look up lines from poet William Wordsworth carved on the headstone of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. Photos by Tom Eblen


When Walter Skold quit his teaching job to write poetry, he didn’t know that his personal journey would become as literal as it was metaphorical.

While studying at The Frost Place, an educational center on poet Robert Frost’s farm in New Hampshire, former state poet laureate Patricia Fargnoli read her poem, “Visiting Frost’s Grave.”

“I had just visited his grave, and it and her poem intrigued me,” said Skold, 54, who lives in Freeport, Maine. “On a whim, I started researching poets’ graves and I was just completely fascinated by the uniqueness of them — their design, their epitaphs. It turned into this sort of pilgrimage.”

He is now six years into that pilgrimage, having driven his “Poe Mobile” van on four major road trips to visit the graves of more than 520 poets in 46 states.

Skold, a former journalist, takes photos and videotape for a planned book and documentary film. He also promotes his idea for a new national holiday: Dead Poets Remembrance Day on Oct. 7, the day in 1849 when Edgar Allan Poe died and James Whitcomb Riley was born.

I met Skold Tuesday at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street. He had come to visit the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black poet, lawyer, newspaper editor, minister and activist who suffered a tragic death.

Robert_Charles_OHara_BenjaminBorn in 1855 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Benjamin first came to Kentucky in 1879, possibly to teach school. Then he moved around the country, practicing law in California and Rhode Island and becoming a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Benjamin moved to Lexington in 1897, got involved in politics and edited The Standard, a black newspaper. He wrote books, pamphlets and poetry and became involved in early civil rights struggles.

On Oct. 2, 1900, Benjamin got into an argument with white precinct worker Mike Moynahan, who was challenging blacks trying to register to vote. Moynahan followed Benjamin outside and shot him in the back at the corner of Spring and Water Streets. An inquest ruled it justifiable homicide.

“I had never heard of Benjamin,” he said. “But I was so amazed when I came across his story.”

Skold examined a marble monument that a fraternal organization erected at Benjamin’s grave on the 10th anniversary of his death. And he read aloud the faded epitaph, an 1834 poem by William Wordsworth: “Small service is true service while it lasts; Of friends, however humble, scorn not one: The daisy, by the shadow that it casts, protects the lingering dew drop from the sun.”

Skold placed at the base of the monument a pebble from Mount Parnassus, Greece, which ancient Greeks believed to be the home of the Muses. Then he poured a bit of Cognac on the grave, from a bottle almost empty from moistening the graves of dead poets throughout the South over the past seven weeks.

After taking photographs and video, Skold was off to Lexington Cemetery to visit the graves of two more forgotten poets, James Thomas Cotton Noe and Catherine Ann Warfield. I suggested he also look up writer James Lane Allen while he was there.

Skold had already spent seven days traveling around Kentucky in the Dodge van he calls the Poe Mobile. “It’s a big part of my shtick,” he said, pointing to the Maine license plate that says, “Dedgar.”

The van is a conversation-starter, and for Skold, this pilgrimage is mostly about starting conversations.

“Every day I learn so much, just from meeting people, friends and family of dead poets, archivists, other poets,” he said. “It’s like a journey of discovery.”

This is Skold’s third trip to Lexington, which he said has “a special place in my heart.” On his first trip, in 2009, the Poe Mobile broke down. He spent a few days in Lexington and got to know poet Eric Sutherland, who introduced him around.

On this trip, he met several more living poets, including Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Jeff Worley and Richard Taylor. Skold’s next stop is the annual writers’ workshop at Hindman Settlement School to meet even more.

“This whole project seems a little weird, even to me, but what has really kept me going is people’s responses, their enthusiasm for my project,” he said.

Skold thinks most people understand the value of poets, and why it is important to remember them long after they are gone.

“They speak to the deepest beliefs and questions and concerns of the people they write among,” he said, citing as an example the beloved Kentucky poet Jesse Stuart, who died in 1984. “By reading him, I can enter into the culture and history of Kentucky.”

Walter Skold, whose project is called the Dead Poets Society of America, has spent six years traveling in a Dodge van to the graves of more than 500 poets in 46 states. The license plate from his home state of Maine is in honor of "Dead Edgar", the writer Edgar Allen Poe.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Skold’s Dodge van honors Edgar Allen Poe.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who driven his white Dodge "Poe Mobile" to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. His grave is in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Skold poured a bit of ceremonial Cognac on the grave of Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote

Walter Skold, who has traveled to 46 states over the past six years visiting the graves of more than 500 poets, read a quote from the English poet Robert Wordsworth on the tombstone of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried at African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Skold read a quote from the English poet William Wordsworth on Benjamin’s tombstone.

Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet, was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote. He is buried in African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Benjamin’s monument was erected by a fraternal organization a decade after his death.

Walter Skold of Freeport, Maine, who has driven this white Dodge van to visit the graves of more than 500 poets over the past six years, came to Lexington's African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street to visit the grave of Robert Charles O'Hara Benjamin, a black lawyer, activist and poet who was shot in the back in Lexington in 1900 while trying to register blacks to vote.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street.

Fan photos from early in a beautiful Kentucky Derby day

May 2, 2015
Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. "I always wanted to go to the Derby," she said. "I don't care where I sit. I just wanted to be here." They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Bob and Susan Syphax moved to Science Hill, Ky., from California seven months ago and were excited about seeing their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday. “I always wanted to go to the Derby,” she said. “I don’t care where I sit. I just wanted to be here.” They sat in the infield, watching a big-screen television. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O'Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Ohio State University students, left to right, Daniel LeHue, Elliott O’Flynn, Nicholas Kobernik and Kara Neff cheered for an undercard race in the infield Saturday before the 141st Kentucky Derby. This was their first Derby Day at Churchill Downs. Photo by Tom Eblen

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Damon Williams, left, of Stockton, Calif., and Zach Miller, right, of Austin, Texas, studied the racing program Saturday with James Roberts of Grand Junction, Colo. Williams and Miller were among six friends of Robertson from around the country who gathered in Louisville for his early bachelor party. He is getting married Aug. 1. It was the first time any of them had been to the Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. "We're all about the hats," Simpson said. "But we love every bit of it. We'll be back."  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Cathy Dewberry, left, and Norline Simpson of Dayton, Ohio, attended their first Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the infield. “We’re all about the hats,” Simpson said. “But we love every bit of it. We’ll be back.” Photo by Tom Eblen

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Fans began gathering in the infield early for the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Soldiers assisted with security in the infield at the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday. Photo by Tom Eblen

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville on Saturday.  Photo by Tom Eblen |

Infield fans watched undercard races before the 141st Kentucky Derby. Photo by Tom Eblen

New crop of ‘community supported art’ on sale this week

April 21, 2015

Central Kentucky’s farmers are just getting their plants in the ground, but a new crop of local art is ready for harvest.

For the fifth season, the Lexington Art League is selling 30 CSA “shares” of “community supported art” using a similar model to what local farmers have been doing for years with “community supported agriculture”.

csaThe 30 shares will be on sale through Thursday for $400 each. Each share includes an original piece by nine local artists: ceramics, paintings, leatherwork, screenprints and photography.

This year’s artists are Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press, Matthew D. Cook of Borderstate, Elizabeth Foley, Lennon Michalski, Joe Molinaro, Nadezda Nikolova, Brandon C. Smith and Melisa Beth.

The artists were chosen by the league’s curator, Becky Alley. Each artist is paid $600 for their work. Since the program began, the league says its CSA program has sold 1,890 pieces of locally produced art, providing $37,800 in income for local artists.

“CSA is a celebration of local talent and an investment in the artists whose creativity and unique abilities distinguish and enrich our community,” said Stephanie Harris, the league’s executive director.

Shares can be purchased online at or by calling (859) 254-7024. Shares in future CSA “seasons” also are for sale.

The Lexington Art League, headquartered at Loudoun House in Castlewood Park, also sponsors the annual Woodland Art Fair each August.

Photo fun with buildings, fading light, the moon and a flock of birds

January 5, 2015

While trying to come up with a good photograph to go with today’s column, I spent some time walking around Cheapside on a cold New Year’s Eve. I thought there might be a good shot with fading light, the old Fayette County Courthouse and the 21C Museum Hotel construction site, which is now lit up inside every night. While there, I discovered a few bonus elements: a flock of birds that kept circling the area, a rising moon just over the old Courthouse dome, the statue of John C. Breckinridge and the CentrePointe tower cranes. I only needed one photo for the paper (which, unfortunately, cropped out the moon) but I thought I would share some others, too. Happy New Year.






Kentucky workshop for photojournalists shows power of storytelling

October 28, 2014

141029MtnWorkshop02 copySophomore Mackenzie Alexander is one of four girls enrolled in agricultural power and mechanics classes at Madison Southern High School. To keep the girls’ hair clear of flames during welding instruction, teacher Brent Muncy will often french-braid it for them. His skills impressed another student so much, she asked him to braid her hair for the homecoming parade. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week in Berea, photojournalist Melissa Ripepi of Blacksburg, Va., did a photo story about Muncy. Photo by Melissa Ripepi. 


BEREA — Each October, I spend a week in a different Kentucky town with three dozen of the nation’s best photojournalists. We help 75 or so students discover and tell the stories of people who live there.

I got back from Berea on Sunday after five days of hard work and little sleep. The amazing results of those students’ work are gradually being posted on A 116-page book was produced on-site and will be published next year.

I keep volunteering for this nonprofit educational enterprise because it’s my annual reminder of the power of storytelling — and of why honest and intimate photojournalism still matters in a media-saturated world.

The Mountain Workshops began as a class field trip in 1976, when I was a freshman at Western Kentucky University. I didn’t get to go, because I was studying to be a writer, not a photographer. But several of my friends were among the small group of photojournalism students who accompanied two professors to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to document the state’s last remaining one-room schoolhouses.

The next year, the project focused on a poor neighborhood in Bowling Green. Then it began traveling to a different small town each year. WKU started bringing in top professionals as photo coaches. The workshop was then opened to photo students from other universities, as well as professional news photographers who wanted to go beyond daily assignments and learn to tell deeper visual stories.

I joined the workshop faculty in 1995, when writing coaches were added. Workshop organizers realized that even the best photographs need well-crafted words to complete the story. Since then, workshops in picture editing, video storytelling and time-lapse photography have been added.

This year, there was a new workshop in data visualization — print and online techniques for turning complex sets of numbers into graphics that help people understand information.

141029MtnWorkshop01 copy

Mary and Neil Colmer own Weaver’s Bottom Craft Studio in Berea. A shared love of art and craft have been an important part of their long marriage. During the 39th annual Mountain Workshops last week, their story was told by photojournalist Marc Ewell, who lives in Hong Kong. Photo by Marc Ewell.

Coaching at the Mountain Workshops has allowed me to get to know many of the nation’s best photojournalists, people who work for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, MediaStorm, the Washington Post, Time magazine and National Geographic. The all-volunteer crew frequently includes Pulitzer Prize winners, some of whom have unglamorous behind-the-scenes support roles.

One of my most memorable fellow coaches was the late Charles Moore. He made those iconic Life magazine photos of Birmingham police arresting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and turning dogs and fire hoses on civil rights protesters in 1963.

The 39th annual Mountain Workshops in Berea was headquartered in the former Churchill Weavers factory, a light-filled 1920s complex that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Now called Churchill’s, it is being renovated into a beautiful event space. Thanks to the workshop’s corporate sponsors, the building was temporarily filled with computers and camera gear for everyone to use.

Workshop organizers had identified and contacted dozens of potential story subjects in Madison County, and participants literally drew them out of a hat. As they got to know their subjects over the next few days, more complex and interesting stories emerged, as they always do. By Saturday morning, the photographers had told those stories with candid images made as they tried to blend into the background of their subjects’ daily lives.

An award-winning photojournalist from New York City and I coached a team of six participants. They all found stories richer and more complex than what was on the slips of paper they drew from the hat.

An assignment about a beauty school turned into a story about the school’s only male student. The young man’s mother had recently been killed in an accident, prompting him to focus on achieving his dream of becoming a hair stylist.

A story about a couple with a craft shop turned into an intimate portrait of a long marriage nurtured by a shared love of the arts. Another participant profiled a high school farm mechanics teacher who is the kind of mentor his students will remember for the rest of their lives.

For nearly four decades, the Mountain Workshops have created an unparalleled documentation of small-town Kentucky life. But its impact has been much broader.

Each year, instructors who years earlier were participants talk about how the workshop changed their lives and careers, and how it continues to influence the way they photograph big stories around the world.

They talk about having become more thorough, accurate and compassionate storytellers, all because of an intense week they spent focused on “ordinary” Kentuckians who turned out to be anything but ordinary.

RIP Howard Baker, the kind of politician we need more of today

June 30, 2014


While I was on vacation in Knoxville last week, riding bicycles with a group of friends, I heard the news that former Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr., 88, had died at his East Tennessee home. He was one of the classiest politicians I ever got to know as a journalist.

I interviewed Baker many times as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the years I lived in Tennessee, 1980-1988.

Baker also was the subject of one of my favorite portraits, shown above. I had gone to the Knoxville Zoo to write a short AP story about Baker donating a baby elephant. After the press conference, I stayed until after the other reporters had left. Baker’s hobby was photography, and it didn’t take him long to retrieve his Leica M from an aide and start taking pictures of his symbolic gift.

Baker was a Republican, through and through. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both of his wives had Republican pedigrees. Joy Dirksen was the daughter of the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen. Three years after she died of cancer in 1993, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor who was the GOP presidential nominee in 1936.

But Baker was nothing like the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress now, who would try to stop the sun from rising if they thought it would cast President Barack Obama in a favorable light. In fact, Baker’s rise to fame and respect began during the Watergate hearings when he famously framed the central question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The answers to that question would drive Republican Richard Nixon from office.

As a reporter, I always found Baker to be honest, straightforward, friendly and more interested in what was good for the country than just what was good for his party. We could use more like him in Washington today.

Photo exhibit explores friendship between Merton and Meatyard

June 14, 2014

140615Merton-Meatyard0001Thomas Merton, left, in his monk’s robe, poses in his garden at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County with Guy Davenport, a writer who taught at the University of Kentucky.  Photos courtesy of Christopher Meatyard.


They would seem an unlikely pair, the Catholic monk and the optician. But through their shared interests in photography and Zen philosophy, these two creative spirits of mid-20th century Kentucky became close friends and collaborators.

Thomas Merton was a trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County, and much more. He was a best-selling author of more than 70 books, a poet, an artist and a proponent of interfaith understanding who would gain international fame.

Eugene_Meatyard_Neg1967_Print1990_17_Spotted_CMYK_FLAT_150dpiRalph Eugene Meatyard earned his living making eyeglasses in Lexington. But he would later earn fame in the art world for his original, haunting photographs that often depicted masked or blurry models. His much-collected images are still published in books and shown at the nation’s most prestigious art museums.

The all-too-brief friendship between Merton and Meatyard is the subject of a photography exhibit that opens Wednesday at Institute 193, the tiny, non-profit gallery at 193 North Limestone.

The opening reception for the exhibit, Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton, is 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, during Gallery Hop. The free show runs through July 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

This exhibit includes 17 of the 29 Meatyard photographs that were shown in Louisville in May 2013 during the visit of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism who also was a friend of Merton.

The exhibit was originally organized by the Institute for Contemplative Practice and the Center for Interfaith Relations. Fons Vitae, a Louisville-based publisher of academic works about spirituality, produced an accompanying book, Meatyard/Merton, Merton/Meatyard: Photographing Thomas Merton ($20.)

The Institute 193 show is partially sponsored by Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, which has a Thomas Merton study group. The group plans to meet in the gallery while the show is up.

140615Merton-Meatyard0006“I think it creates a lot of opportunities for us to engage a different audience,” said Phillip March Jones, the founder of Institute 193. “And it probably does the same for them.”

Jonathan Williams, the late poet and publisher, introduced Meatyard and Merton in 1967. They immediately hit it off and visited together several times with other artistic friends, including Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s elder statesman of literature, and the late Guy Davenport, a writer and University of Kentucky professor who in 1990 received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

“Jonathan Williams, Guy Davenport and Gene Meatyard were here yesterday,” Merton wrote in his journal on June 18, 1967. “The one who made the greatest impression on me was Gene Meatyard, the photographer — does marvelous arresting visionary things, most haunting and suggestive, mythical photography I ever saw. I felt that here was someone really going somewhere.”

Some photos taken during their visits are classic Meatyard: dark and sometimes blurry images that include props and old buildings. Merton appears to be an eager subject, posing symbolically in various costumes, from work clothes to his Cistercian monk’s robe. In one set of pictures, he goofs around with a thyrsus, a decorated stick that was an ancient symbol of pleasure.

But some of the photos are just snapshots of friends enjoying each other’s company, much like we would take today with our smartphones and post to Facebook. Merton sips beer at a picnic, or poses outdoors with the late poet Denise Levertov and Berry, who holds a coffee cup. Merton also is photographed using his own camera.

In addition to writing and photography, Merton expressed himself with drawings and hand-inked prints he called calligraphies. Meatyard exhibited them in the lobby of his Lexington optical shop, Eyeglasses of Kentucky, and bought some to help finance Merton’s trip to Asia in 1968.

While on that trip, in Bangkok, Thailand, Merton was accidently electrocuted by a fan while stepping out of his bath. He was 53. Within four years, Meatyard also would be dead, a victim of cancer eight days before his 47th birthday.

“A lot of people don’t realize that they had this relationship, which unfortunately lasted slightly less than two years,” Jones said. “For me these are really portraits of friendship and of a time and a place that no longer exists in the same way.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

From kidnap at 6 to Olympic glory, Lomong tells story at Alltech

May 19, 2014


Lopez Lomong, right, received the Humanitarian Award at Alltech’s 30th annual symposium today in Lexington from the company’s founder and president, Pearse Lyons. Lomong told of being kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at age 6, escaping and after 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp coming to America where he became a two-time Olympic runner and carried the U.S. flag at the 2008 Beijing Games. “Don’t be afraid of failure,” Lomong told the symposium’s 1,700 attendees from 59 nations. “Failure is just a challenge to succeed next time.” Photos by Tom Eblen


Out & about in Lexington: March snow showers cover the flowers

March 25, 2014

140325GratzParkBW copyA dog-walker takes shelter beneath an umbrella in Gratz Park as a brief snow shower Tuesday afternoon gave Lexington a light coating. Below, jonquils in my yard. Photos by Tom Eblen



Lecture highlights camera club that produced photography stars

March 13, 2014

Coke1Van Deren Coke (1921-2004) made this photo in 1952 in Lexington’s old Union Station, which was on Main Street where the Helix garage, Lexington Police Department and Fayette County Clerk’s office are now located. Photo: UK Special Collections.


Before there were pixels and iPhones, back when photography required film, darkrooms and chemicals, almost every American city had a camera club. Most members were hobbyists who wanted to learn how to make pretty pictures.

The Lexington Camera Club was different.

From its founding in 1936, Lexington Camera Club members, who included doctors, lawyers and businessmen, were unusually serious about developing their craft and exploring artistic expression.

By the time the club disbanded in 1972, it had produced two major figures in the art photography world and many more accomplished photographers.

James Birchfield, the retired special collections curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky, will give a free lecture about this remarkable camera club at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Presidents Room of UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts.

“It was not a provincial outlook,” Birchfield said of the club. “It was a big vision of the history of photography and what contemporary photography was doing. This particular cluster of people seemed to generate an extraordinary flowering of fine photography.”

Birchfield’s lecture is in conjunction with an exhibit at the university’s Art Museum of prints from an impressive photography collection it has assembled since the 1990s, thanks to one of the camera club’s members.

When Robert C. May died in 1993, he left the museum 1,200 of his own photographs and his collection of original prints from some of photography’s greatest names. He also left a substantial bequest so the museum could purchase more photography and create an annual lecture series that brings major photographers to UK’s campus. Eugene Richards, the noted documentary photographer, speaks at 4 p.m. Friday in Worsham Theater in the UK Student Center.

The museum exhibit, Wide Angle: American Photographs, continues through April 27 and features prints by famous photographers including Ansel Adams, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Weston, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Harry Callahan, Russell Lee, Doris Ulmann, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

The exhibit also includes nine photographs by Lexington Camera Club members, including its two biggest stars: Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972) and Van Deren Coke (1921-2004).

140316CameraClub-a2The club began in 1936 with monthly meetings that included formal critiques of each member’s prints. Guest speakers included Ansel Adams, America’s most celebrated landscape photographer.

Many early club members were interested in landscape and travel photography, while others focused on historical and documentary pictures. Among the documentarians was lawyer and historian J. Winston Coleman, who photographed throughout Kentucky and collected nearly 6,300 historic images that are now at Transylvania University.

The club took an artistic turn under the leadership of Van Deren Coke, who was then president of his family’s Van Deren Hardware Co. on Main Street. Coke’s early photographs of Lexington scenes soon gave way to abstract, artistic images.

Coke got to know many celebrated photographers and became one himself. After graduate school, he went on to be photography curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and director of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.  He taught for many years at the University of New Mexico and started its art museum.

Meatyard was an optician who joined the club in 1954. He became famous for his unusual photographs, which often involved people wearing masks or posing in abandoned Central Kentucky farmhouses.

Over the years, his images were acclaimed for their unique expression. He also was a major influence on other club members who became well-known photographers, including Robert May, James Baker Hall and Guy Mendes.

Meatyard was president of the club when he died of cancer at age 46 in 1972. The club disbanded within a few months.

“Meatyard fostered exploration and discovery within the Camera Club,” May wrote in a 1989 essay. “As photographers, the members did not look just for new things but for new ways of seeing.”

Meatyard’s photographs are still published frequently in books, and his prints command big prices at galleries and auctions. As recently as 2005, the International Center of Photography in New York mounted a major retrospective of his work.

Mendes was one of the club’s youngest members when he joined in 1968. A retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, he remains an active photographer.

In an interview last week, he recalled that writer Wendell Berry introduced him to Meatyard. “Gene was something else,” Mendes said, adding that Berry’s young son told him: “He makes really strange pictures.”

Mendes accompanied Meatyard and May on weekend photography outings in the countryside around Lexington. He said they and other club members showed him how photography could do more than record reality; it could express feelings and be a medium for artistic experimentation.

“They taught me lessons I still use today,” Mendes said. “For all of the changes photography has gone through, the basics are still the same.”

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Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014


An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering


Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”


If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information:,,
Read more here:


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New book showcases Kentucky’s antebellum decorative arts

September 15, 2013

Gigi Lacer

SIMPSONVILLE — When journalists Genevieve Lacer and Libby Howard began collecting Kentucky antiques more than a decade ago, they were surprised by how little information was readily available.

A few monographs had been written and some museum catalogs published. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, N.C., had collected some scholarship. The Magazine Antiques had featured Kentucky pieces in special issues in 1947 and 1974.

But there were no comprehensive books about Kentucky-made furniture, silver and textiles, even though they were some of the finest produced anywhere in antebellum America.


Libby Turner Howard, left, and Genevieve Baird Lacer. Photo by Tom Eblen. Photos from their book by Bill Roughen.

What the friends soon discovered was that considerable scholarship had been done on early Kentucky decorative arts, but most of that knowledge resided in the heads and notebooks of a few dozen passionate collectors.

That prompted Lacer and Howard to write and publish Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860. The 360-page book is detailed and exacting, yet readable and beautifully designed, with 600 illustrations by Lexington photographer Bill Roughen. State historian James Klotter wrote the forward.

“The book gives you a visual entryway into things you’ll never see, because they’re in private homes,” Lacer said, and only a few pieces from historic house museums are included “because we literally ran out of room.”

The book’s 270 “subscribers,” who paid $275 early in the process to get leather-bound special editions, receive their books Sunday at a private reception. A $75 “collector’s” edition goes on sale Monday at bookstores and antique shops around the state (for more information, go to

Lacer, who lives in Shelby County, wrote an award-winning 2006 biography of Swiss artist Edward Troye, who painted America’s greatest racehorses in the mid-1800s. Howard, who lives in Henry County, is a former editor of Kentucky Homes and Gardens magazine.

In approaching their book project, Lacer and Howard wanted to document Kentucky antiques and explore their histories, relationships and craftsmen. They also wanted to explain the goals and objectives of serious collectors they knew about, all of whom live in Kentucky.

“These are people who have spent 30, 40, 50 years refining a viewpoint about their collections,” Howard said. “They all have a focus. We became fascinated with how, visually, they are telling the story of antebellum Kentucky as they understand it.”

Book Jacket w-flaps_cmyk.inddTen major collections are profiled in separate chapters. Objects from 40 more private collections are gathered by object type in an 83-page “archive” at the back. Between each chapter is a small essay that tells an interesting story about an object, its maker or the time and place in which this work was created.

Only one collection is identified with its owners’ names, because it is the only major collection now in the public domain. Over three decades, Garrard County natives Bob and Norma Noe assembled one of the most impressive collections of early Kentucky antiques. They recently donated it to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

The Speed is now closed for a major renovation and expansion. But when it reopens in 2016, the Noe Collection will be the foundation of a new Center for Kentucky Art, the first permanent museum space devoted to Kentucky works.

Bob Noe encouraged Lacer and Howard to write Collecting Kentucky as both a primer and a reference book, and he said in an interview that he is pleased with the result.

“I think the book will do wonders to add context in an area too often neglected,” Noe said. “Kentuckians need to know more about our early culture.”

The six decades covered in this book were exciting times in Kentucky. After statehood in 1792, Kentucky transitioned from America’s frontier to being a prosperous and influential region of agriculture and trade.

Prosperity created demand for decorative art and utilitarian items that were both beautiful and functional. Because Kentucky had little colonial tradition, early decorative arts often featured motifs of patriotism, and native flora and fauna.

Craftsmen in all parts of Kentucky produced remarkable work. Some, such as silversmith Asa Blanchard and cabinetmaker Porter Clay (brother of Henry), created pieces as fine as anything then being made on the East Coast.

The book features many outstanding examples of chests, cupboards, desks, case clocks, tables and chairs made of native cherry and walnut with poplar inlay, as well as imported mahogany. The authors tried to pull together available research on the craftsmen who made these items, linking pieces to regional styles.

Early Kentucky silver, often made from melted coins, has long been prized. Lacer said one of the most fun experiences in compiling the book was when several collectors brought more than $1 million worth of silver to her home to be photographed. Roughen was able to create images comparing large groups of work that had never been brought together before.

The book includes a section about one of Kentucky’s most famous products of the era: the long rifle. Kentucky rifles were not only accurate and dependable weapons; they often were highly decorated works of art.

Lacer and Howard said they hope their book will spark more public interest and scholarship in early Kentucky decorative arts.

“We just scratched the surface,” Lacer said. “We left out big collections we know about, and I can only imagine the ones we don’t know about. This is a lot bigger idea in our state than I ever dreamt.”

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Photos from today’s ‘I Love Mountains’ rally in Frankfort

February 14, 2013

I went to the annual “I Love Mountains” march and rally at the State Capitol today to gather material for my Sunday column — and to take photos. Here are a few of them:


Kentucky author Silas House, center, led the annual “I Love Mountains Day” march down Capitol Avenue to the State Capitol. The event was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in opposition to mountaintop-removal and other destructive forms of coal mining. Several hundred people attended. Many marchers this year were advocating for two pieces of proposed legislation: one would limit coal mine waste dumped into streams; the other would require more use of renewable energy by utilities in Kentucky.

Many children brought homemade signs. 

Eric Sutherland of Lexington, center, was among those cheering the rally’s speakers.

Writer Silas House, on the steps of the State Capitol, urged citizens to “clean this house” of politicians who do the bidding of the coal industry at the expense of Appalachia’s people and communities. 

Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, shares a laugh with disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who spoke at the rally.

Ella Corder, a student at Meece Middle School in Somerset, waited for applause to die down so she could read the essay that won her a contest sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Kentucky writers Bobbie Ann Mason, left, and Ed McClanahan were among hundreds who participated.

Daniel Mullins, 10, of Berea, makes his feelings known.

A Valentine’s Day reminder 


Tempur-Pedic headquarters taps inspiration from local artists

February 11, 2013

Don Ament’s photo of a dogwood tree in his front yard was enlarged to 42 feet wide by 11 feet tall to cover a folding wall that separates an employee cafe from a meeting room at TempurPedic’s new corporate headquarters building in Lexington.   Photo by Don Ament


Many artists dream of landing a big commission. For photographer Don Ament, it came from Tempur-Pedic, the Lexington-based mattress company.

Representatives from Tempur-Pedic met Ament last March at Kentucky Crafted: The Market. Then they saw an image on his website of dogwood blossoms in sunlight. The website has images Ament made all over the world, but this one was shot in his yard in Lexington.

The company was furnishing its new headquarters building near Coldstream Park, and executives thought Ament’s photo would be perfect for a folding wall that separates the employee café from a meeting room.

This commission was challenging because it literally was big. The image, taken on a 2.25-inch square piece of film, needed to be enlarged and printed 11 feet tall by 42 feet wide.

Ament scanned the film to create a high-resolution digital file, then, with help from friend and fellow photographer Frank Döring, manipulated the image to sharpen edges and preserve color vibrancy. A company in Maine printed the photo in sections, and last week it was installed like wallpaper. The result is stunning.

“They could go anywhere for art,” Ament said of Tempur-Pedic. “But they seem really dedicated to local.”

Indeed, as Tempur-Pedic settles into its new 128,000-square-foot space, much more local art will be purchased, said Patrice Varni, a senior vice president.

The only other pieces now are two Italian glass and stone mosaics designed by Guy Kemper, a Woodford County glass artist who has done installations all over the world, some as big as airport terminal walls.

Kemper’s mosaics for Tempur-Pedic are abstract evocations, roughly 10 feet square, for the fourth-floor executive area.

One is called After the Storm. “It recalls the feeling of a Kentucky forest after a summer storm, when a steamy sun comes out and everything is dripping wet,” Kemper said.

The other mosaic, called Daybreak, is “a shot of color to energize the work environment and promote creativity,” he said. “A reference that you’ve had a good night’s sleep.” (On a Tempur-Pedic mattress, no doubt.)

Kemper said Tempur-Pedic executives and their interior designer, Gary Volz of Champlin Architecture in Cincinnati, approached him after seeing two mosaics he did for elevator lobbies at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the pieces by Don and Guy,” Varni said. “I’ve really been struck by the positive response from employees.

“There was a steady stream of people stopping by to watch the installations.”

Tempur-Pedic built its new headquarters, which has large windows and expansive views of the Bluegrass landscape, to replace a former warehouse that had evolved into offices and become overcrowded as the company grew.

“This building was designed with a particular focus on collaboration and integrating the various work groups, and engendering creativity and innovative thinking,” Varni said. “Art is a big part of that, that is meant to showcase and inspire creativity and innovation.”

Varni said the company has budgeted purchases of more art during the next few years, as its 360 employees settle into the building, figure out what would complement the space and learn more about the work of local artists.

“We feel very much a part of the community, because the company was founded here,” Varni said. “In our support for the arts, we felt first and foremost we should support local artists.”

Varni said the Kentucky Arts Council has suggested several local artists whose work might be a good fit.

“Art is such a subjective, personal taste kind of thing,” she said. “We like things that have some sense of nature and that run the range from more literal to more abstract. And we’re interested in a different range of mediums.”

As part of its mission to help Kentucky artists be able to earn a living from their art, the council sponsors Kentucky Crafted: The Market, which returns to Lexington Center from March 1 through 3.

Kemper and Ament hope more Kentucky companies will follow Tempur-Pedic’s example because the arts flourishes only in places where artists find good patrons. Plus, when that investment is made in the community, it help’s Kentucky’s economy.

“You don’t have to run to New York or Chicago to look for something great,” Ament said. “There’s more good work being done here all the time.”

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The gift of photography helps ease parents’ unimaginable loss

November 7, 2012

Michele Carlisle, a Georgetown portrait photographer who volunteers with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, took this photo of Amy Buckingham holding the hand of her infant son, Myles.

Amy and Tim Buckingham are the first to say that, at the time, it seemed awkward, even a little weird.

Their twin sons, Hagan and Myles, were born premature and spent nearly a month in the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit. Hagan finally grew strong enough to go home to be with his 3-year-old sister, Joleigh. But Myles just got worse.

“When a doctor tells you the strategy is hope, wait and pray, it doesn’t look good,” Tim said.

Myles’ lungs had not developed properly, and he could not survive off a ventilator. He died on Feb. 4, 2011 after 28 days of life. Only when he died did someone think to tell the Buckinghams about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit organization that provides free professional portrait photography to the parents of infants who will never get the chance to grow up.

Within four hours of a nurse calling the organization, Georgetown photographer Michele Carlisle was at the hospital. Myles was cleaned and dressed, and his parents held him as Carlisle made photographs that have become some of the Buckinghams’ most cherished possessions.

“This was the only opportunity we had to photograph him without tubes and wires,” Tim said. “We felt kind of weird about it, but it gave us some closure.” “It was awkward, but it’s what felt right as a parent,” Amy added. “I can’t imagine not having those photographs.”

Tim and Amy Buckingham, with children Hagan, left, and Joleigh, in May. Photo by Tom Eblen

The Buckinghams asked to share their story because they want more people to know about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the comfort it can provide to families in situations such as theirs.

Colorado-based Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was created in 2005, soon after Maddux Haggard was born with a condition that prevented him from breathing or swallowing. Before he was taken off life support at 6 days old, his parents asked photographer Sandy Puc´ to come to the hospital.

Cheryl Haggard and Puc´ realized that such photographs could be comforting to other families, so they started the non-profit organization they named for the children’s bedtime prayer. The organization says it now has more than 11,000 professional photographers in the United States, Canada and 38 other countries who volunteer their time and services to families that are losing or have lost an infant.

Photographers typically donate a CD of 30-35 black-and-white photos, along with a DVD slide show of the images. Carlisle, who photographed the Buckinghams, is one of three Lexington-area photographers who volunteer. She also is the organization’s area coordinator.

Before she opened her Georgetown photography studio seven years ago, Carlisle said she worked as a hospital X-ray technician, so she had some understanding of what these families were going through. Over the past six years, she said she has photographed several hundred families for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

“I know these images are powerful,” Carlisle said. “I know they can help when so little in that moment can.”

Usually, when Carlisle arrives at a hospital to take photographs, all but the parents and infant will leave the room. For some parents, it is the first time they have gotten to hold their child.

“It’s hard for everybody, and very emotional; just walking into that room and knowing what to say,” she said. “But if I can create that safe place for them to have that moment, it often can mean as much as the pictures.”

Although the organization provides training and support for volunteer photographers, the emotional nature of the work makes recruiting hard, Carlisle said. Still, it is such a rewarding form of service that she wishes more professional photographers would apply to volunteer (

With two active children and busy careers, the Buckinghams have a full life. Amy is a pediatric dental hygienist, and Tim is a staff member for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and an active volunteer at Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop. Still, Tim said, “Sometimes the grief just creeps up out of nowhere.”

That is when they pull out Carlisle’s photographs, look through them and remember Myles.

“Although it was the hardest moment of our lives,” Tim said, “it has also been captured as one of the most beautiful and peaceful moments that we will remember forever.”

My many National Geographics find new homes

April 4, 2012

I touched a nerve in many readers when I wrote a column last month offering to give my 600 or so National Geographic magazines to anyone who wrote in with a good reason for wanting them.

It isn’t that I don’t love my National Geographics. It’s just that there is no good place in my new house to store 17 linear feet of them. There is also no real reason to store them, because their well-researched articles and stunning photographs are now easily accessible in digital format.

But I just couldn’t bear to throw out National Geographics. Neither, it seems, can anyone else.

Perhaps three dozen readers wrote, called or stopped me around town to talk about that column. Some told me they could still recall a long-ago National Geographic that sparked a lifelong interest in some aspect of science, history, culture or travel. Some commented on the historic role the magazine’s photographs of scantily clad natives in warm climates has played in the anatomy education of American boys. (Several women said that, as girls, they found the magazine just as educational.)

More than anything, though, readers told me that they shared my dilemma.

The first email I received was from a colleague, who attached a photo of his own “yellow wall” — shelf after shelf of National Geographics dating to 1957.

“I’ve moved this collection five times,” reporter Greg Kocher wrote, “and I don’t think I could do it again.”

Bob Calhoun wrote me to speculate that if the world does end this year, as some people think the ancient Maya calendar predicts, it will be because the weight of stored National Geographics in North America throws the Earth off its axis.

“The only reason I am safe from a ceiling collapse,” Joyce Hahn wrote, “is that I have my National Geographic magazines stored in my basement.”

Unlike many antiques and collectibles, National Geographics have little resale value because they all still exist — somewhere. It also isn’t easy to give them away.

Zachary Davis, a senior at the University of Kentucky, wrote that he once had a huge National Geographic collection dating to 1918. The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, wrote an article a couple of years ago about his desire to give away the magazines, but he had no takers until a classmate finally agreed to take them off his hands.

Later, Davis said, a man from Pakistan emailed wanting his National Geographics. The cost of shipping, however, was out of the question.

Several readers asked for names of people who wanted my National Geographics so they could give them theirs.

“My husband will not get rid of close to 40 years of National Geographics,” Doris Stilwell wrote. “I’d be willing to give mine to the second runner-up.”

In fact, only three people wrote wanting my magazines. They all had good reasons, so I plan to pack them into enough boxes that I won’t throw my back out and make three deliveries.

Whitney Withington collects National Geographics so she can cut out pictures of women from around the world. She hand-embroiders those pictures onto paper she uses to make covers for blank books, which she gives to friends.

Through her art, Withington said, “I want to show what women go through around the world.”

Stacey Kindred, a teacher at Estill Springs Elementary School in Irvine, wanted my National Geographics as material for reading folders she makes for the school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes.

“The students are required to take the article home and read it with a parent, then return it to school and choose another one,” Kindred said. Each student must keep a log of articles they read and answer questions about each one.

The rest of my National Geographics will go to the Family Care Center, an alternative high school for teen mothers that is run by the city and Fayette County Public Schools.

“They would be a wonderful resource for our students,” teacher Laura Zimmerman wrote, “and we have space in the library to house them.”

When I called to follow up, Zimmerman sealed the deal with this offer: “You’re welcome to come by any time and peruse them if you miss them too much.”

Take my old National Geographics, please

March 20, 2012

Moving from one house to another comes with many challenges and anxieties, but one I had not expected was the Yellow Wall.

This was the wall of bookcases in my basement. They were filled with several hundred National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s.

Every American knows it is a sin to throw away a National Geographic. If you are a journalist who comes from a family of librarians, it is a mortal sin.

But here’s the thing: I do not have a good place to put them in my new house. I rarely go back and read them. And, back at the dawn of the digital age, I bought a set of CD-ROMs containing every issue of National Geographic from 1888 to 1995, plus a two-volume index. This digital archive is no bigger than a bread box.

I have no good reason for keeping almost six decades worth of National Geographic magazines in all of their heavy-coated paper, perfect bound bulk. So why do I hesitate to pitch them? It’s complicated.

Like many boys, I first became aware of National Geographic in elementary school. A friend discovered that the magazine contained photographs of women wearing much less clothing than we were accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t pornography; it was anthropology.

But I didn’t fully appreciate National Geographic until a friend of my father gave me a box of them. He was moving and, well, just couldn’t pitch them. During the many hours I spent thumbing through those magazines, looking for anthropology, I found so much more.

Before cable TV and the Internet, National Geographic literally opened the world to a young mind. Each magazine was filled with fascinating reports about history, science and culture. As an adult, I have traveled to many exotic places that I first saw in the pages of National Geographic.

One well-thumbed issue was August 1965. It included a tribute to Sir Winston Churchill and coverage of his elaborate funeral. There also was some cutting-edge technology: a thin, plastic phonograph record I could tear out of the magazine and put on my record player to hear excerpts of Churchill’s speeches. I wore it out.

That issue also contained a classic example of National Geographic photojournalism: William Albert Allard’s picture essay about Pennsylvania’s “Amish Folk.” It is one reason I have always been awed by the power of documentary photography.

National Geographic has always set a standard for journalistic excellence, despite some now-laughable culture and class bias. The magazine has suffered from cost-cutting in recent years, as most publications have, but it continues to do work that no other magazine does.

National Geographic has a longer shelf life than most magazines; many of its stories are timeless. Still, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, even the best print journalism becomes clutter.

Back issues of the magazine have little value as collectibles, probably because nobody ever throws them away. Wherever you find a flea market, downscale antique shop, used bookstore or charity book sale, you will find stacks of National Geographics.

Some people leave their old copies in barber shops and doctors’ offices. Others give them to schools so children too young to know any better can cut them up for classroom projects. The rest of us just keep accumulating them, despite our best intentions. We cancel our subscription, then buy a box of old copies at a neighbor’s estate sale.

One of these days, I fully expect to see this newspaper headline: “Couple killed in bedroom ceiling collapse; police blame National Geographics in attic.”

In the weeks before we moved, I agonized over the Yellow Wall. Becky would ask for a logical reason why we should keep so many old magazines. I had none.

Faced with a decision, I ducked it. I filled six big boxes with enough National Geographics to make my muscular movers groan. They stacked those boxes upstairs, where they have sat for a month and a half.

But now is the time to act. I will save the Churchill issue and a few others, but the rest of my National Geographics must go. Here is my plan: I will give them away to the reader who emails me by April 1 with the best reason why he or she wants them.

The recipient just can’t blame me the next time he or she moves.


Photo book documents roadside memorials

February 23, 2012


Impromptu memorials to traffic crash victims have become a common, if rogue, element of the American landscape. They linger for years, often well tended, in the no-man’s land between highways and private property.

Most people speed past them, paying little attention. Mowing crews take care to go around them. Vandals and thieves rarely bother them, as if acknowledging the spot’s special significance to loved ones of the departed.

For the past six years, Phillip March Jones has been stopping, looking closely at each memorial, taking a Polaroid photograph and recording the location’s GPS coordinates. He has done this from New York to California, and, because he lives in Lexington, all over Kentucky.

Jones has collected 139 of these photographs in a book, Points of Departure (Jargon Society, $40). He’ll sign the book Saturday at The Morris Book Shop.

“I had always been interested in roadside memorials on several levels,” said Jones, an artist, writer and curator who started Institute 193, a non-profit contemporary art space at 193 North Limestone, and who is director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, which promotes appreciation for vernacular visual arts of the black South. “These memorials speak to a basic human need to create in response to death.”

Jones said he has always been interested in art created by people who might not consider themselves artists. Jones doesn’t consider himself a photographer, either.

“I wasn’t trying to study them as art objects,” he said, or even to make great photographs of them. Jones said he just wanted to document and catalog the memorials in a way that readers, who might otherwise speed by them at 60 mph, could slow down and take a look.

Jones chose to use Polaroid film, a pre- digital technology for creating “instant” pictures. It seemed appropriate because police once used Polaroids to create unalterable images at accident scenes as evidence.

Points of Departure is the 114th book published by the Jargon Society, a press started by two poets, Thomas Meyer and the late Jonathan Williams. Over the years, the North Carolina-based press has specialized in avant-garde works of literature and photography, although its most famous title was the 1986 best-seller White Trash Cooking.

Meyer wrote an introductory essay, but other than GPS coordinates showing where each photograph was taken (except for one, left out by mistake), there is little more explanation. Jones said he wrote an essay about the project, then decided not to include it.

“I wanted the images to speak for themselves; I was never trying to inject meaning into them,” Jones said. “It’s in the spirit of Jargon. There’s a bit of poetry in it all.”


Phillip March Jones signs ‘Points of Departure’

When: 2-4 p.m. Feb. 25

Where: Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

Learn more: (859) 276-0494,,


Back from the Mountain Workshops in Somerset

October 24, 2011

Workshop participants, faculty and staff pose after the 36th annual Mountain Workshops concluded Saturday in Somerset. Photo by Nina Greipel

I wasn’t in the paper Sunday or Monday because I was volunteering last week as a writing coach at the Mountain Workshops.

This was my 14th time since 1995 to help out with the annual documentary photojournalism workshops, which Western Kentucky University has sponsored for 36 years. As always, it was an amazing, exhausting experience.

Here’s how the workshops work: About 60 students from WKU and other universities from across the country, as well as working professionals who want to broaden their skills, assemble for a week each fall in a different small town in Kentucky or Tennessee. This year, it was in Somerset, Ky.

Workshop organizers from WKU’s photojournalism program bring together an amazing group of more than 100 professionals to be the participants’ coaches and support staff. The faculty and staff always includes some of the nation’s best visual journalists. This year’s coaches included several Pulitzer Prize winners and other top professionals who work, or have worked, at places such as Time, National Geographic, MediaStorm, NPR, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Over the course of five days, the coaches and support staff help students find stories in the community to tell through still images, video and words. It is an intense educational process that requires a lot of creativity, hard work and the ability to get by on little sleep. The results are always amazing.

To learn more about the workshops and see the amazing work this year’s participants put together in just a few days last week, click here.