When you look at a map of Alabama, you see it has a little tail at the bottom. It is where you find the city of Mobile, and where you find Baldwin County. Mobile is to the west, Baldwin County to the east of the vast Mobile Bay.
My daughter, Susie, worked for years at the Mobile Register — she is the third generation to become a journalist — but lived across the causeway in the county.
The two are very different. Mobile is urban, with shipyards and warehouses, high rises and traffic.
The county is rural, with farms, fishing shacks and at least one high-end bayside resort: the Grand Hotel at Point Clear.
When we lived in Phoenix, Ariz., we visited Susie and our granddaughters once or twice a year and I managed to circumnavigate the county pretty thoroughly.
I would sometimes make day-long excursions with my camera. I was a photographer before I became a writer. For six years, I taught photography at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, Va.
But that was back in the days of Dektol, D-76 and Kodabromide. Cameras used film and gave us negatives to print. I was trained at a time when for most of us, photography was black and white.
That tended to govern how we approached our subjects. If color meant nothing, we had to focus on form, on darks and lights.
As a result, my eye was attuned to shadings rather than hues.
And so, my first forays into the back of Baldwin County were seen in black and white.
What I had in mind, more than anything else, were the photographs of Walker Evans, who made some famous Depression-era photographs in Alabama. Old service stations, abandoned farmhouses, agricultural towns with raw main streets. Evans was wonderful.
When you see a boatload of his work, you can’t help seeing how many times, on the same day, he made multiple images of the same subject, trying to capture it from different angles and distances, later choosing the one image that said what he wanted to say.
So, as I drove through the backside of Mobile and the county, I sought out similar things, and made multiple angles, too.
One day, when the womenfolk were out shopping for clothes, or shoes, or whatever it is that the female gender tends to focus on, I took my camera out and drove up and down County Route 13, which runs north to south in the County.
In a single day, I finished a project that I printed up and displayed under the show title: “Southern Baroque.”
I found ruins,
and weeds, lots of roadside weeds.
And at the end, Weeks Bay, an offshoot of Mobile Bay, which opens onto the Gulf of Mexico. Hundreds of pelicans bobbed like decoys in the water and scattered in the air.
In all, I wound up with about 50 good images to show in the exhibit.
On an earlier trip, I tried to capture Mobile.
I found oil tanks,
downtown iron-rail balconies,
and restaurants on stilts along the causeway, safe from storm tides.
But Tri-X and Photo-Flo went the way of the mastodon, and I eventually had to take up digital photography. Turns out, it was a revelation.
I was never happy with color film. Kodachrome was too garish, Ektachrome too grainy. Some photographers, such as Ernst Haas and Eliot Porter, managed to make stunning color photos, but they had the advantage of dye-transfer, a process way too expensive for a mere teacher.
So, over the decades, I had worked at training my eye to see in textures, shades and shapes. My sense of color had begun to atrophy.
But using the digital camera, I began to relearn color. I began to see in color. I hope I have been able to blend that with the lessons of shape and light I had already learned.
And then, when I traveled Baldwin County, I had an eye for color. It screamed out at me.
And instead of traveling down Route 13, I followed the Fish River, a few miles to the east (and also ending at Weeks Bay.)
I began where the river is not much more than a rivulet. It was crowded with multiple greens, and the rich tawny stream bottom was delicious in contrast.
It was early fall, and leaves had begun to turn, and those that hadn’t were drying out.
I wandered down the road by the river, stopping once in a while to catch a patch of grass,
or a tangle of branches,
or a great tree
or a beautiful tangle of old oaks.
But I cannot credit merely the change in technique for this awareness of color. It seems to be something that has come to me with age.
When I was young, I tended to see the world in starker terms. I was cocksure of myself, and so often wrong. But the black and white coincided with that black-and-white worldview.
As I got older, I grew softer. I became more attuned to my insides — how I felt, and aware of how others felt.
I imagine this has something to do with a decrease in testosterone — and thank god for that. I am a kinder man than I ever used to be.
It may also have something to do with having a family made up almost entirely of women: daughter and two granddaughters. I can’t say I learned empathy — that implies a will to do so.
But rather, that an empathy has pupated in me and emerged in my senescence, fully colored.
Whatever the cause, color now delights me no end. Sometimes when driving, I will choose a color and make an especial notice of it and how often it appears. It’s surprising how much yellow there is in the world.
And like so much else I’ve learned over the long span of years, it is paying attention that matters. Live slower, notice more, enjoy more.
Click on any image to enlarge