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, Morrisbookshop.com, Roadsidebook.com.


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.

Deadline nears for Lex Film League’s contest

January 26, 2011

The Feb. 1 deadline is approaching for the Lexington Film League’s second annual Doers Contest, which asks local filmmakers to profile organizations, people and businesses that are doing positive things in the community.

More than $800 in prize money is being offered. Submissions will be screened March 8 in late February at Natasha’s. For rules and more information, click here.

Last year’s initial contest attracted more than 30 submissions. Click on these links to watch last year’s winners:

Best Overall: “A Place to Call Home,” by Angela Shoemaker.

People’s Choice: “CKRE – Sharing the Vision,” by Leif Rigney on Central Kentucky Radio Eye

Best Student Submission: “The Unpaid Shoveler,” by Griffin F. Sims on Walker Miller

UK collaboration creates high-tech ‘Porgy & Bess’

January 22, 2011

When the curtain goes up on University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s Porgy and Bess later this week, audiences might be seeing more than a grand production of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic American opera.

They might be seeing the future of theatrical stage design.

Behind the 70-piece orchestra and 75 cast members on the Singletary Center stage will be giant backdrops showing historic Charleston and coastal South Carolina. But these won’t be typical paint-on-canvas sets. Lights will twinkle. Leaves will flutter. Water will ripple.

These backdrops will be created with digitally enhanced photographs and video of the actual places. They will be projected from behind onto two giant screens by a high-tech system developed by UK’s Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments, also known as the VisCenter.

“The kind of special effects you have seen in films can now be used in a live theater context, which hasn’t happened before,” said Brent Seales, a UK computer science professor and director of the VisCenter.

Theater companies have been experiment ing with projected “virtual” sets for years. I saw a famous attempt on Broadway five years ago in the short-lived Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Woman in White. The images were ghostly and distracting.

“If you were in the balcony, it didn’t work at all,” said Richard Kagey, an Atlanta-based director and theatrical designer who also saw it. Kagey has worked with UK Opera and the VisCenter to create the Porgy and Bess sets, and he said the effect is completely different.

“I think people are going to be stunned when they see how vivid and clear it is, even when you put stage lighting in front of it,” said Everett McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre.

To create this set, two 24-foot-tall screens were made from a new material that allows images projected from behind to be viewed clearly from many angles. One screen is 15 feet wide, with 18 projectors, and the other is 32 feet wide, backed by 36 projectors. The screen assemblies are on casters and can be moved around the stage easily.

Each projector throws a piece of a high-resolution picture or video onto the screen from a distance of only 5 feet. The heart of the system is “calibration” software the VisCenter developed that blend all of the pieces into a seamless image.

As with movie special effects, the key is to make the scenery believable — not distracting — so the audience is swept up by the music, acting and story. “Nobody wants to be upstaged by a display screen,” Seales said.

The stage will still have physical sets, such as Porgy’s shack and the balcony on Catfish Row. “But we won’t have those huge pieces that we’ve had to build before to make it believable,” McCorvey said.

Three-year collaboration

McCorvey and Seales both came to UK in 1991. Since then, McCorvey has built one of the nation’s top training programs for opera singers. Seales has led the VisCenter in working throughout the university to develop and commercialize audio-visual technology.

But Seales and McCorvey didn’t meet until three years ago, when they both were making presentations to Women & Philanthropy, an organization started by Patsy Todd, wife of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr.

“As I listened to Brent I was just so intrigued with all they were doing,” said McCorvey, who soon arranged to tour the VisCenter. “As I looked at it I saw all the possible applications for theater.”

McCorvey quickly contacted Kagey, who has been working with the VisCenter staff ever since to develop the technology. Once it was ready, McCorvey knew how he wanted to use it first: Porgy and Bess.

“It’s a work near and dear to my heart,” McCorvey said. That is partly because McCorvey met his wife, singer Alicia Helm, when they both were in the chorus of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s first production of Porgy and Bess in 1985.

McCorvey said facilities have always limited his ability to produce operas with large casts and elaborate sets. The Singletary Center has a big stage and orchestra pit but little space around the stage to accommodate traditional sets. The Lexington Opera House’s stage can handle sets but not a large cast or orchestra.

McCorvey’s problem is common, which is why a half-dozen opera companies from around the country are sending representatives to see UK’s Porgy and Bess.

After UK’s last performance Feb. 6, the sets will be rented to The Atlanta Opera for its production of Porgy and Bess a month later. And that could be just the beginning, because this technology could provide cost-saving backdrops for almost any show.

UK expects to more than recoup its $350,000 in development costs by renting this set, licensing the technology and perhaps even creating a spinoff company to produce projection content for other shows.

“Getting this kind of technology into the marketplace is a lot of what this VisCenter is all about,” Seales said.

While McCorvey is focused on future artistic possibilities of the technology, he understands why people such as Seales and Leonard Heller, UK’s vice president for commercialization and economic development, are equally excited about it.

“I will never forget walking into the warehouse where they put it together and seeing it work for the first time,” McCorvey said. “Len Heller looked at it and said to me, ‘This is going to be really big.'”

  • If You Go

    ‘Porgy and Bess’

    What: University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera

    When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 29, Feb. 3, 4 and 5; 2 p.m. Feb. 6

    Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

    Tickets: $45 general public, $40 seniors, faculty and staff, $15 students; $10 ages 12 and younger; available at the Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at singletarytickets.com.

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2010: My Year in Pictures

January 2, 2011

As we begin 2011, a slide show of some of my favorite photos of 2010.

New book gets the picture of Kentucky portraiture

December 26, 2010

Art historian Estill Curtis Pennington likes to solve mysteries, share discoveries and celebrate Kentucky culture. He does a bit of all of that in his new book, Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920.

The book (The University Press of Kentucky, $50) is likely to become an important reference work on Kentucky’s cultural history, thanks to his three decades of shoe-leather research. Lessons in Likeness has been nominated for the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Charles C. Eldredge Prize, which honors scholarship with new insights into America’s artistic heritage.

But don’t let that scare you off. Despite its academic ambition and seemingly arcane topic, this is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in Kentucky history or curious about the often- colorful characters who made the only images we have of our 18th- and early 19th-century ancestors.

The large-format book is richly illustrated and well-written, with many humorous and revealing anecdotes. Many portraits in the book come from the collection of the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

Photography has made portraiture something of an artistic stepchild. But the media can be very different.

“A portrait is not a photograph; it is a likeness, which was the old-fashioned word,” Pennington said. “A portrait is a product of the imagination. It is what the artist saw in his mind’s eye and laid out. It is an interactive process that involved a sitter with expectations and an artist with abilities.”

The first section of Lessons in Likeness is a chronological essay that puts Kentucky portraiture in the context of social and artistic trends. The second section profiles the best and most influential artists who worked in Kentucky. They included famous names such as Matthew Jouett and John James Audubon (who drew people as well as birds) and many artists who have been almost forgotten.

“I love finding artists who are virtually unknown in our own time and bringing them back to some kind of attention,” Pennington said. “It’s cultural archaeology.”

Of course, not all old portraits are great works of art. Before photography, a portrait was the only way to preserve a loved one’s likeness, so there was a market for pictures by less-talented artists. “These painters were the mall photographers of their time,” Pennington said, adding that it was often a point of pride to be “self-taught.”

But Kentucky produced many fine portraitists. Some of the best were born in and near Lexington in the decades around the turn of the 19th century. They include Jouett, who studied under Gilbert Stuart, early America’s most famous portrait painter; and Oliver Frazer and William Edward West, two of the first Kentucky-born artists to study in Europe.

Before the Civil War, Kentucky was the crossroads of the American frontier — an exciting and almost mythical place. Famous Kentuckians such as Henry Clay and Daniel Boone were popular portrait subjects.

John Filson’s colorful “autobiography” of Boone shaped many Europeans’ views of America, and Kentuckians were celebrated elsewhere as raconteurs. Stuart, the Philadelphia painter most famous for his George Washington portrait on the dollar bill, had the same nickname for his student Jouett as West’s friends in Europe had for him: “Kentucky.”

Pennington discusses what Kentucky portraitists learned from one another and how society influenced their work. Even before the Civil War, some painters skillfully addressed the complexities of race relations in works that have been debated ever since. “The key phrase is what informs the object, and how does the object inform us,” he said.

Lessons in Likeness also reflects Pennington’s interest in itinerant artists, who left work scattered around the South. “Piecing it all together was like a giant jigsaw puzzle for me, figuring out where they had been and the impact they may have had,” he said.

Pennington began his work in 1980 after studying at the University of Kentucky and George Washington University and in Europe, and working for the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

As an “itinerant curator,” he traveled the South gathering material as the Archives’ field representative. He later worked as director or a curator of art museums in Laurel, Miss.; New Orleans; and Augusta, Ga.

Pennington gathered much of the material for this book during those years. Perhaps his most significant find was West’s personal papers, which were in the possession of a descendant Pennington tracked down through genealogical research. The papers included West’s hand-written account of painting the last portrait of the English romantic poet Lord Byron in 1822.

Pennington moved to Europe and worked in Amsterdam for nearly a decade. Then, in 2005, he returned to his native Bourbon County, where he lives in a farm cottage he restored.

“Suddenly, I’m 60 years old and want to get this stuff in print,” said Pennington, who published the book, Kentucky: The Master Painters, in 2008.

“My goal is to heighten our awareness of Kentucky’s great cultural heritage,” he said. “I think it’s so important to understand that our antebellum history was so much more dynamic and important than people may understand today.”

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2010 column subjects that would make great gifts

December 15, 2010

It is almost holiday crunch time, those frantic days right before Christmas when you can no longer put off deciding what you will give family and friends.

Rather than buying more generic stuff made in China, many people are searching for gifts that are more local and meaningful. They want to give a Kentucky-made piece of art or a book by a local author. Or they want to make a donation on someone’s behalf to a local group that is making a difference.

How do you choose from so many options? Here are a few suggestions based on people and organizations I wrote about this year. Just consider it a place to start.

Good works

Two organizations used the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to help tackle global problems, and they still could use help.

■ Kentucky Rotary clubs hosted Rotarians from around the country who put in a combined 22,632 volunteer hours at the Games’ concession stands. That work raised $142,000 for Rotary International’s polio- eradication efforts in the Third World. More information: Rotary.org/endpolio.

■ Alltech, the Nicholasville biotech company that was the Games’ title sponsor, responded to January’s earthquake in Haiti by adopting a school and promising to create sustainable jobs in that impoverished nation. It worked with University of Kentucky Opera Theatre to start a children’s choir, which performed several times in Lexington. Alltech is selling Haitian coffee, proceeds from which benefit the effort. More information: Alltech.com/haitifund.

■ Seedleaf is making a big impact closer to home by helping Lexington’s inner-city residents learn to grow and prepare nutritious food. A little goes a long way at this community garden group, so your donation gift can make a big difference. More information: Seedleaf.org

■ Another great grass-roots effort is Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop at East Sixth Street and North Limestone. Volunteers repair old bikes and sell them cheap to people who can use them for basic transportation to become more self-sufficient. The shop also teaches bike repair. More information: Facebook.com/brokespoke.

■ Horses aren’t just for racing or showing; they make great therapists. Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, which has a facility at the Kentucky Horse Park, uses horses for therapy with disabled and special-needs people. A new program will help disabled war veterans. More information: CKRH.org.

Good art

■ Lexington has many fine arts organizations, but in the past year, a new one has made a big impression on a shoestring budget. Institute 193, with a small gallery at 193 North Limestone, is the brainchild of a young Lexington native, Phillip March Jones. His goal is to bring attention to the region’s best underappreciated artists. Among the non-profit organization’s projects this year were several inspired shows and the publication of Lexington photographer Guy Mendes‘ book, 40/40: 40 Years, 40 Portraits. More information: Institute193.org.

■ Larkspur Press in Monterey has a devoted following among people who appreciate fine books and fine Kentucky literature. Grey Zeitz’s handmade books by Wendell Berry and other writers are themselves works of art. More information: Larkspurpress.com.

■ If you attend Gallery Hop, you know Lexington’s visual-arts scene is dynamic and growing. Lexington native John Lackey, a painter and woodblock printmaker, recently opened a studio and gallery in the old Spalding’s Bakery at 574 North Limestone. More information: Homegrownpress.com.

Good reads

This region has many talented writers. Two good local books I read and wrote about this year, from The University Press of Kentucky, would make great gifts for local history buffs. More information: KentuckyPress.com:

How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders by Maryjean Wall. The award-winning Herald-Leader racing writer, who retired to finish her doctorate in history, tells the fascinating story of how Kentucky became the world’s Thoroughbred breeding capital after the Civil War. You will learn a lot from this book, even if you have lived here all your life.

Lessons in Likeness: Portrait Painters in Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley, 1802-1920 by Estill Curtis Pennington. Later this month, I will write more about this book, which shows that fine art has flourished in the Bluegrass longer than most people think.

Now, aren’t these more interesting than some of the stuff you would have found online or at a big-box store?

Goodbye Kodachrome, and thanks for the memories

December 7, 2010

The roll of Kodachrome had been in my desk for so long, I had forgotten what pictures I took with it, or when. The yellow-and-red cylinder became a symbol of mystery and procrastination.

I knew I needed to have that slide film developed, especially after Eastman Kodak announced in June 2009 that it would stop making Kodachrome because almost everyone now uses digital cameras.

Then I heard that the last Kodachrome lab in America — Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan. — would stop processing it at the end of this year. If I wanted to relieve my guilt and solve this mystery, it was now or never.

What were these pictures? They must have been important; otherwise, I would have used a lesser, cheaper film.

When Kodachrome was introduced in the 1930s, it was the first widely available color film. It remained the gold standard for decades. “Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away!” Paul Simon begged in his 1973 hit song, which praised the film’s qualities:

You give us those nice bright colors.

You give us the greens of summers.

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.

By the 1970s, though, Kodak’s Ektachrome was almost as good, required less light and was cheaper and easier to process. Many professionals switched to Fujichrome Velvia in the 1990s. Color print film got better and better. But until advances in digital photography made 35mm film all but obsolete, many photographers still reached for Kodachrome.

I took Kodachrome on my first trip to London in 1992, where I made a picture of a Horse Guard so crisp you could count the stray strands of horse hair on his helmet. When I covered the 1994 Olympics, Kodak was a sponsor, so there was plenty of Kodachrome. It was perfect for capturing Norway’s breathtaking winter beauty.

Some photographers are nostalgic about film. Not me. I love digital photography: It is easier, cheaper, more versatile, makes better pictures with less light and is instantaneous. I would never want to go back to film.

As a roving reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-1980s, I liked shooting photographs to accompany my stories, but it was a pain. I didn’t have a darkroom, so all I could do was put exposed film on a Greyhound bus to Atlanta and hope for the best.

Photojournalism was then done mostly in black and white. Even when I shot color, it was rarely Kodachrome. It was too fussy. Kodachrome required abundant daylight, precise exposure and special processing. If the film was not kept cool and developed promptly, the color quality suffered.

I saw that firsthand when Dwayne’s sent back my Kodachrome, which, it turns out, I had shot in early 1998, just before moving back to Lexington from Atlanta. The pictures were faded, which seemed appropriate given how much had changed in those dozen years.

There were several pictures from my older daughter Mollie’s 16th birthday party. She is now 28 and married, as are several of the giggly girlfriends who were with her that day.

Most of the pictures were from a going-away party my boss gave for me at her cabin in the north Georgia mountains. I had many good friends at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and they and their now-grown children came to send me home in style.

The digital revolution that made Kodachrome obsolete also radically changed the newspaper and advertising businesses. The Journal-Constitution has been hit especially hard. Its newsroom now has fewer than half the 500 journalists who were there when I left.

As I looked at my faded party pictures, I counted the friends who have since retired, taken buyouts or moved on to other careers. Like my Kodachrome, today’s Journal-Constitution is a pale reflection of what it was then. But times change, and we must change with them.

Thinking about those days prompted me to search for more memories. In one box of old photographs, I found several unprocessed rolls of less-fussy black-and-white film. At least I had taken the time to label most of them.

Some were pictures for newspaper stories I wrote in the 1980s. Somehow, they never made it to the bus station. Two rolls were labeled “Shannon 1987” — the year my younger daughter, now 23, was born.

I must get them developed. One of these days.

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