October, 2013 Archives

The Mountain Workshop For Dummies

October 16th, 2013

Wherein I wax eloquently about some stiff deadlines.

Kentucky Historical Museum 1

Grant Swertfeger, Carrie Pratt, Tim Broekema and Justin Winter discuss photo options under the watchful eye of Kentucky Governor Wendell Ford and his family.

My photojournalism career has taken me through a passel of papers, but never in all my time have I had to share work space with so many dummies.

Each year I get the opportunity to invade a different small Kentucky town with the prestigious Mountain Workshops. Sponsored by Western Kentucky University, we parachute into a ready-and-willing city with 100 or so professionals and students. Less than a week later, we’ve photographed, videotaped and written about that town, up one street and down another. We leave them with a new website featuring their burg, a host of multimedia projects about their people and, incredibly, a beautiful and slick black-and-white photo book portraying a slice of their community frozen in time from that October week.

In the process, we teach the students how to document the town as unobtrusively as possible, taking only pictures, leaving only memories. Students and faculty have been taking part in these workshops since 1976, back when they traveled Kentucky photographing the disappearance of one-room schoolhouses.

This year, in Owensboro, we were asked not to disturb the dummies. We’ve set up shop at the Museum of Science and History.  The museum features racecars in a “Speedzeum,” as well as a “Playzeum” for kids.  And, speaking of being frozen in time, there’s a replica of an ice-age Mammoth, parts of which were dredged from the Ohio River, which borders the town to the North. I learned the real-life model probably weighed more than all of us workshoppers combined, at least before we ate the cooking made for us by two incredible volunteer chefs.

But back to the dummies: they stand around here doing absolutely nothing. Well, that’s not precisely true. They stand, stopped in time, depicting an earlier era of Owensboro life. There’s a family eating breakfast, plastic eggs sunny side up, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford giving a speech and a barbershop tableau with Ronald Reagan on the wall advertising the health benefits of smoking.

They help the museum tell Owensboro’s story, but I would be lying if I said they didn’t creep me out. At least I don’t have to work with them staring over my shoulder, second-guessing my photo choices.

By Sunday, most of us will be gone; Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers, writers, editors, two guys working on time-lapse photography and all of the “labbies” who helped us pull this traveling road show together. If we’re lucky, we coaches will have learned as much as our students.

Only a dummy could be left unchanged by this experience.

Kentucky Mamouth

Award-winning photographer RJ Sangosti takes a snap of the Mammoth replica to send to his five-year-old son Nick — who loves dinosaurs — back in Colorado.

Gray Weeds

October 5th, 2013

“Cos this winter looks like it’s gonna be another bad one
But Spring’ll soon be here,
Oh God I hope it’s not late.”

The Roof Is Leaking by Phil Collins

autum weeds

I could feel it sneaking up on me.

On days like today, too, where it’s 17 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun cashes in its chips and heads south early, as if there’s something even he or she would rather be doing than warding off the darkness. October fades to winter and we here in the North can’t do a darn thing about it.

Vague, un-formed emotions poked at me from the edges or scampered through my dreams. Little things became enormous bogeymen. Ambiguity about self and future continually phoned my land line, offering to sell me their narrative. The weeds flourished. My funky heirloom tomatoes were a bust, ergo, I suck at everything.

I thought maybe it was the government shutdown that was making me gray. Other misguided guesses were my lack of new and original writing, an emptier house, too many caffeinated milkshakes, the end of Breaking Bad or some of the really lousy new fall TV shows. But no, it was simply the season itself.

Then everything happened. Playoff baseball, our football teams started winning, my wife and I clicked our relationship back into place, our house filled with my daughter’s friends, my cousin and I had a tremendous conversation about living as 50-year-olds. And suddenly I remembered that the autumn shutdown happens every year; the GOP has nothing on Mother Nature.

Even the DVR proved helpful as we watched one new sitcom that held a bit of promise (Mom, starring Anna Faris and Allison Janney deals with multi-generational addiction and even has a Breaking Bad actor on its cast — Badger plays Baxter.) Brooklyn Nine-Nine is another show that’s still pretty funny after several episodes.

I can now walk outside and not try with all my might to hold onto something as fleeting as summer. Winter’s coming but it brings reunions, holidays, birthdays, warm baths, excuses to stay in bed and best of all, the promise that Spring is sneaking up on it, ready to kill it with the kindness of flowers, sun, warmth and hope.

It’s only just begun and Winter might do a number on me yet, but hopefully it will also work its evil magic on all those weeds who chose late September to attack.