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I sit across the table from my brother at the seafood restaurant in Virginia and he doodles on a napkin with a Sharpie.

My brother is an artist — primarily a printmaker, but more recently a painter. And while he isn’t terribly prolific, he is constantly drawing. His mind is always coming up with visual ideas and he jots them down. Most never go anywhere, but he just cannot stop himself from playing. It is his way of processing experience: What he sees he transforms.

Lee Friedlander

It reminds me of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who describes his addiction to making photographs as “pecking.” Like a hen darting at cracked corn on the ground, he clicks his camera — peck, peck, peck. Some of the results of his pecking turn into finished photographs he displays in galleries and publishes in books. But there is an improvisatory quality to his work that comes — like a jazz musician woodshedding — from constantly working his instrument.

Among the images caught by pecking, Friedlander will periodically find something he hadn’t considered before, and thus his body of work takes a new direction, constantly refreshing his art.

In part, the importance of this kind of sketching is that it is not art — or rather, not meant as art. It is more the flexing of an esthetic muscle. One can become intellectually paralyzed if all you aim at is writing deathless prose, or painting the museum masterpiece, or composing the next Eroica. Not everything needs to be The Brothers Karamazov. There is great value in just pecking. It keeps your senses alive.

Mel Steele

I periodically visit my brother-in-law, Mel Steele, who is also an artist, a very accomplished artist who regularly sells his paintings to clients both private and corporate.

I often spend a portion of my time doodling — pecking — with my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. We would sit on their patio talking about the things one yammers on about with one’s relations — old times, where former acquaintances have gone, the horror of recent politics, the joys of fishing — and I would distractedly point my camera around me at the things one seldom notices.

I wasn’t thinking of making art. I barely paid attention to what I was doing with the camera, but I pecked. The result is a kind of notebook of the things we lived among, seen in some different way, so as to lift them from their context, to suck them out of the everydayness they languish in.

 It reminded me of an assignment I used to give my photography students, some 35 years ago, when I taught the subject at the same school where my brother also taught. “Make a photograph of something so I cannot tell what it is.” I made sure they understood I didn’t mean to make it out of focus or poorly run through the darkroom, but to find something we see everyday, but pay so little attention to, that when faced with its presence, we might be baffled until that moment when, the proud student, having fooled us all, tells us what we’re looking at and we all let out a gasp of breath and say, “Of course, now I see it.”

Try it: 

Quiz photo No. 1 (Answers at the end of story)

These pecked pictures are mostly details. 

Quiz photo No. 2

They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. 

Quiz photo No. 3

Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.

Aime Groulx

Many years before, when I taught photography at a private art school in Greensboro, N.C., the artist Aime Groulx, who ran the school, made a photograph he called Doorknob to the Doors of Perception. I still have my copy. It was his version of “pecking.” 

Doorknob to the Doors of Perception

Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.

(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)

Side panels of a pickup truck

Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.

So, when I gave my students that assignment, it wasn’t just to be clever, but to make them pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.

The mental view of the world is telescopic. It zooms from the blue watery globe in the blackness of space, down to the map of the U.S., to your state, to your city — each step focusing on closer detail — and then to your street, to your house, to the room you are sitting in to the armrest you are tapping your fingers on, to the hairs on your knuckles. Always more detail. 

Turn from the tapping hand to the floor and see the woodgrain in the flooring, or the ceiling and see the cobweb you had not noticed before. The clothes you are wearing has a texture and a color. The wrinkles in the shirt of blouse are replications of the drapery in Greek sculpture. 

Each of these details is a microcosm, worth looking at — it is your world, after all. What did William Blake write? “To see the world in a blade of grass. And heaven in a wild flower. To hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” 

Or, as he scribbled in annotation to the pages of Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is alone the distinction of merit.”  

The general is the world of politicians and businessmen, of carnival barkers and evangelists. Dogma, ideology, commercial advertisement, are founded on generalizations, while what genuinely matters in our lives is the particular. It is generalizations that permit the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha statues, the bombing of synagogues, mosques and Sikh temples. The stoning of homosexuals. It is generalizations that lurk behind the Shoah. It was generalization that justified the enslavement of a race of people. 

To know any individual is to know the stereotype is a lie. The world, and its peoples, are infinitely complex and varied. So much so, that no broad statement can ever be anything but a lie. And so, there is actually a moral level to this paying of attention to detail, to the minutiae, to the individual. 

And so, you peck. Finding this bit or that bit, that shape, that texture, that precise color. This is the context of your life. 

You can focus your attention on color. How much yellow is in your field of view at this moment. Look around. Single it out. Or blue. How many different blues can you spot right now? Paying attention is being alive; paying attention is reverence. Attention must be paid. 

Duck eggs

Your life is not made up of the broad swathes, but of the minute details, and when we pay too much attention to the big picture, we are likely to miss the particles that give that picture its character. 

And when you come to make your art, write your novel, dance your dance, that detail means there is a truth to what you do, a reality behind the fantasy that gives it depth and meaning. 

Exercise makes your muscles strong. Pecking keeps your senses alive and alert. Peck Peck Peck

Click on any image to enlarge

Answers to quiz: No. 1 — the twill of denim jeans; No. 2 — dried coffee stains on a white table top; No. 3 — garden hose on patio tiles. 

“Which way to Millinocket?”

“Don’tcha move a goddamn inch.” 

Maine jokes — an acquired taste, perhaps. So many of them are built on city slickers asking for directions. “You can’t get there from here.” (Say it with the accent: “You cahn’t get they-ah from hee-ah.”) Lost travelers always seem to find farmers willing to guide them: “First, you drive up a mile, mile-and-a-half maybe, and turn left where the old church used to be.” 

“Used to be.” It is a familiar refrain in the more rural and forgotten areas of the state, and along the coast north of Acadia National Park, where few out-of-staters are likely to venture — an area known as “Down East.” 

There is much that “used to be” in Sullivan, Maine, a small community on Taunton Bay about 15 miles beyond where the tourists turn off U.S. 1 to Mt. Desert Island and Acadia. With a population of about 1200 spread over half a dozen townlets between Hancock and Gouldsboro, it has been home to my best friends from college for about 30 years. Over that time I have visited them often. 

They have an old farmhouse (I call it a farmhouse, although there is no farm) in North Sullivan along the road that parallels Taunton and Hog bays. Like much in the town, it is weathered and steeped in character. 

Sullivan has changed over those decades, although you might not notice it if it were your first visit. It still looks quaint, as if it were some Down-East Brigadoon. But there are many things that “used to be.” 

The Singing Bridge

For me, the most notable is the loss of the singing bridge from Hancock to Sullivan over the narrows between Frenchman’s and Taunton bays. The old bridge had a steel mesh roadway and every time a car ran over it, it roared like a banshee. That steel-truss bridge was replaced in 1999 by the “silent bridge,” made from prosaic concrete. 

Taunton Bay

The singing bridge was opened in 1926, replacing, after many years, the original wooden toll bridge that was washed away by winter ice a few years after it opened in the 1820s. Between bridges, a ferry ran from south shore to north — a flat boat that held one carriage at a time and charged a dime for a crossing. The Waukeag Ferry went out of business when the singing bridge opened. 

Stuffy

You get attached to something and then, it’s gone. When we first started going up to Sullivan, there was, just across the bridge, a small, wooden roadside ice cream stand called “Stuffy’s,” which also sold lobster rolls and the best lobster bisque I ever ate. We went back there for lunch many times. Of course, it is now gone. 

Abandoned quarry

So are the granite quarries that used to support the town, and so are the silver mines that made the town viable in the first place. 

According to A Gazetteer of the State of Maine, published in 1886, “There are now eleven incorporated companies owning mines in the town, most or all of them being operated. Work has been done also in five or more unincorporated mines. There has been completed in the vicinity a concentrating mill and smelting works for reducing silver ore.

“On the various streams there are two saw-mills, two stave mills, one shingle-mill, and one grist-mill. … A steamboat touches at Sullivan Falls three times a week.”

All gone. 

The Native American name for the area was Waukeag. It was first settled by the French in the early 1700s, but was given to English-speaking settlers by the colonial government of Massachusetts in 1761, when it was called New Bristol. It was incorporated in 1789 under the name of Sullivan, one of the original settlers. At the time of the Revolutionary War, there were just 20 families in town. By 1870, the population was 796. In 1880 it was 1,023. It is not much bigger than that now. 

Schoodic Mountain

As you drive north on U.S. 1 through Sullivan, you can often spot Frenchman’s Bay to your right, a vast tidal flat at low tide, a lake at full. In the distance to the south you can see Cadillac Mountain and Mt. Desert Island. Just north of the highway is Schoodic Mountain, 1,069 feet high, and Tunk Lake, where Rear Admiral Richard Byrd used to have a vacation home. 

On the peninsula just south is Sorrento, a resort town a bit more upscale than Sullivan. 

Reversing Falls

And at the mouth of the inlet, where Taunton Bay dwindles to the narrows that used to be called Sullivan River and opens onto Frenchman’s Bay, the tide creates what is known as a “reversing falls,” where the rising tide creates a dangerous rapids heading into Taunton Bay, and with a falling tide, creates the same rapids in the opposite direction. The current is fierce, up to 13 knots. 

But it is Taunton Bay Road that is what I am most interested in. Just after the silent bridge, there is a left turn that takes you through West and North Sullivan along the eastern shore of Taunton Bay. It continues out of town along Hog Bay and into Franklin. The road is beaded with old homes, usually clapboard with front porches and foundations or stoops made from granite once quarried locally. 

Across the water, Taunton Bay opens up into Egypt Bay and the town of Egypt, made famous — or notorious — by Carolyn Chute’s 1994  book, The Beans of Egypt, Maine. 

Among other losses in Sullivan are Jerry’s Hardware and, while Gordon’s Wharf is still extant, the busy fishing business is gone. There are a few family cemeteries, an art studio where stone sculpture is made, and a ceramic studio. 

 

This last time I visited, I attempted to make a “portrait” of this end of Sullivan, the way Alfred Stieglitz made a portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe — hundreds of photos that I hoped would, in aggregate, give a sense of the place. I can only share a tiny fraction here. You can find a more detailed portrait of a single house at (link here). 

There are three reasons to photograph something you care about. First, simply to capture it so as to possess it, for the sake of memory, the way you keep old snapshots of family birthdays and vacations. Second is to create art, that is, to make an image out of shapes and colors in a design that has graphic interest. But third is to see.

We look over so much at every minute of every day, but seldom see it. Looking closely, paying attention to details, absorbing character, seeing relationships — these things come with seeing with purpose. Seeing is engaging. Engaging is being alive. 

Wandering through Sullivan, I wanted to gather albumblätter  for my scrapbook; I also wanted to make something that might be, in its tiny way, considered art; but most of all, I wanted to use my camera as a way of focusing my sometimes wayward attention on something I want to know more deeply.  It is a way of expressing affection. Photographing, done this way, is a means of caring.

To collect snaps, or to frame art are fine in themselves, but using the lens to focus the mind and heart is infinitely more rewarding. It creates meaning.

Click on any image to enlarge

humboldt redwoodsAt a pull-off along the Highway of the Giants in the Redwoods of Northern California a lumbering, topheavy RV pulled to the side of the road and stopped. Its driver got out, walked to a spot about 25 feet behind the vehicle, raised his camera, snapped one picture, got back in and drove off.

I’d seen many people line the wife and kids up against a scenic backdrop, or ask Aunt Emily to smile in front of the Grand Canyon, but this was the first time I’d seen anyone take a picture of his truck.

In a way, it made sense. The redwoods are notoriously difficult to photograph. They seem like they’d make wonderful subjects: They are green, tall, impressive and make their own weather. But they only grow in the lowlands and river bottoms and are surrounded by dense hills. There is no way to step back and get them all in perspective. Heck, there is no way to step back and get them all in the viewfinder. One has to be satisfied with bits and chunks of tree trunk surrounded by ferny growth.redwood ferns vertical

And even that is disappointing photographically. I set up my camera at an especially impressive trunk, maybe 15 feet in diameter, covered in green moss. In front of it were the biggest ferns I had ever seen in my life, with fronds that were six feet long. I looked at them carefully in my viewfinder, with my camera set on a tripod. I groaned. Since everything was of the same immense scale, the picture looked like an ordinary patch of ferns in front of an ordinary tree.

The only solution is to put something whose size you know in front of the tree, something like the wife and kids — or your RV.

As an aside, I want to mention the obsessive proclivity of the West Coast states for naming every Department of Transportation speed bump in memory of someone. The Muriel O. Ponsler Memorial Wayside was little more than a widening in the road so cars could pull over and see the ocean. There is the Joseph and Zipporah Russ Memorial Grove in the redwoods. The habit is essentially harmless, but it helps if you pay attention to the name you are commemorating. We soon passed over a bridge named for Elmer Hurlbutt. The Hurlbutt Bridge: Someone was asleep at the switch when that got named.zion tourists

But what I meant to talk about when I started writing this column was why people make photographs when traveling. The answer seems simple at first: They make pictures to help them remember the trip, or so they can show their friends that they were, in fact, to the redwoods or the Grand Canyon.

But after years of watching people raise their Nikons to their eyes, I am not so certain anymore that the pictures are always aids to memory.

Because the pictures are made so offhandedly, and their makers so quickly jump back in their RVs and drive off to the next natural wonder, I believe they must use the photographs instead as a substitute for memory.

Instead of really experiencing the woods, with its dripping humidity and spongy forest floor, its green smells and muffled silence, they use the camera to arrest a slice of vision that they can take home and dissect, using the image rather than the trees as their primary experience of the redwoods.

It may be that we have become so acculturated to the television reality that the aromatic reality of primary experience no longer retains its validity. It must be transmuted into a Kodak moment — metamorphosed from sense experience to media experience — before it is taken seriously.

But, more likely, people have always done the same, zooming past the magic to chalk up another name on their life list of scenic destinations.

In 1937, long before television became the central fact of American life, photographer Edward Weston was using his huge, cumbersome 8-by-10 camera to photograph Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. A car pulled up with three German couples, among them were six cameras — “One woman had none, but one man had two.”

“The five enthusiasts lined up, focussed on the same view, decided on the exposure, made the picture. Four of them lined up at the other side of the turnaround, made a second picture in unison. Then they climbed back in the car and drove away.”