Longfellow’s Evangeline

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April is National Poetry Month. So, what better way for poetry lovers to celebrate than with this photograph, which has never been printed or exhibited before.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) had a ritual of saving the pencil that he used to compose a poem, which he kept with a handwritten note to document the occasion.
When I was commissioned by the U.S. National Park Service to create an artistic photographic collection of Longfellow’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was given access to these pencils. They are stored in the archives and not typically out for public view. So, it was a rare opportunity to photograph them.

The pencil that remains is a short stub. And no wonder. Evangeline, composed in 1847, was well over 15,000 words. It was a hit in its time and is among Longfellow’s most famous works. Evangeline’s length did not deter readers in an age when there was no internet, television, or the myriad of other entertainment sources we have today.

The poem is a historical romance of an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for Gabriel, her lover. The Acadian people lived in the region of present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and northern Maine. The Acadians were expelled from the land by the British during the French and Indian War (1755-64).

Evangeline is too long to quote here. But you can get a sense of Longfellow’s florid prose from the opening paragraph:

This is the forest primeval.
The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green,
indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld,
with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar,
with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns,
the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate
answers the wail of the forest.

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The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote

unnamedMarch is Women’s History Month, and 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. The movement to win voting rights for women (commonly known as the women’s suffrage movement) had its roots in Seneca Falls, New York, at a convention held in 1848.  Although this was not the first time that politically active women rallied together to drive change, this was the catalyst that caused the movement for women’s suffrage to take off and become a force to be reckoned with.

So historically significant was this convention that on December 28, 1980, Congress established Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls to preserve the site and the history that was created there. So I was honored when the park invited me to present three annual solo exhibitions leading up to this year’s centennial.

My first exhibition was presented in 2018 and centered on Theodosia Ford (1741-1824), an unsung heroine of the American Revolutionary War. Ford opened up her home to serve as George Washington’s military headquarters for which she endured much hardship as a widow with several children.

I selected 12 photographs from a collection of almost 100 that I created under a commission from the National Park Service. Each print was accompanied by a compelling narrative I wrote. The events and dates were factual, but I presented Ford’s story as an imagined diary to dramatize what she might have felt during this very difficult time in history. The exhibition was covered by several media outlets and benefited from the park’s peak attendance during the summer months.

Exhibit Announcement

I then spent many additional months and expense researching, writing, printing, matting, and framing photographs and wall cards for the 2019 exhibition. This one was going to focus on the abolitionist aspects of the women’s rights movement.

Simultaneously, I initiated the research and preparation for the 2020 exhibition, which led me to The Suffragents:  How Women Used Men to Get the Vote by Brooke Kroeger. I was fascinated by the title and the unsung history it presented. Before I read The Suffragents, I knew very little about the history of women’s suffrage. All I knew was that it was a movement for social change that resulted in women earning the right to vote.

I was unaware of the major role that the New York captains of industry — all male — played as both leaders and supporters of the women who directed them. The men began their campaign secretly behind the scenes forming the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. They used their money, their power, and their voices. They worked tirelessly and were ridiculed for the part they played. In the end, their collaboration with the women successfully influenced politicians, the press, and the public.

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George Francis Train – one of the “suffragents.”

Brooke Kroeger’s writing style kept me engaged. Although the book was extremely detailed, it read like a story not like a history textbook. The reading experience turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It was a captivating story with a very happy ending. The book won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize of the Center for Political History. 

Brooke Kroeger is a professor of journalism at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. In 2007, she founded NYU’s Global and Joint Program Studies and is the current director. She is an accomplished journalist and has written five books. Her latest achievement is a volume of essays she co-edited with Linda Steiner and Carolyn Kitch called Front Pages, Front Lines:  Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage.

Inspired by her book, my plan for 2020 was to gather high resolution digital scans of historical photographic portraits of the men she wrote about. Prior to going into photography, I had studied painting in college. So my thought was to combine the two disciplines by digitally painting over the portraits with splashes of color, patterns, symbols, and other expressionistic and abstract touches to bring these dour images to life. Excited by the new dimension this would add to my art, I purchased the necessary hardware and software and started gathering the digital portraits from various archival sources. Unfortunately, this project was not to be.

As I did for my first exhibition in 2018 about Theodosia Ford, I contacted the park to make sure all was set for my next exhibition in 2019. About a month before the installation, their superintendent sent me an email confirming that the exhibition was a go — this one was to be themed on abolition.  The drive from my studio to Seneca Falls is several hundred miles and takes about six hours.  So, when I arrived, I was stunned to be greeted by a confused staff who claimed they had no idea to expect my arrival to install the exhibition.

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W.C.B. Du Bois – another prominent “suffragent.”

To make a long story short, they claimed that the superintendent was on leave and under investigation. Under those circumstances, she had no authority to issue an email on behalf of the park to confirm my exhibit. When I pressed the issue, the acting superintendent corroborated what I heard from the staff. But everyone was mum on details and were not open to working out a solution.

As a lawyer, I know a lot about how investigations are conducted. All of the superintendent’s emails would have been read and my arrival would have been anticipated. Yet, no effort was made to alert me so as to avoid the time, fuel, tolls, meals, hotel, and production expenses that I incurred and that went unreimbursed. And there were several media outlets that had already publicly announced the event. This happened in 2019 and, to date, I have not heard anything further from Women’s Rights National Historical Park.

What is really disappointing, though, is for this to happen during the once-in-a-lifetime celebration of the centennial. This could have been an interpretative goldmine for the park and for the public. And it’s a shame that I was not able to incorporate the little-known history so wonderfully presented in Brooke Kroeger’s book, The Suffragents.

However, we can make the best of the situation — particularly given the extra time and boredom the pandemic has imposed upon many of us — by ordering a copy of this book. It is a fitting way to honor and celebrate the many people — women and men — that have contributed to the civil rights that were established a century ago.

Spectacle Island

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One of the many things I enjoy doing with my photography is to reveal places that are not always very well known. When people think about the National Park Service (NPS), places out west like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite are often the first parks that come to mind.

But the NPS is far richer than that with many other beautiful sites in the northeast. One of those is Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

Many people are not aware that there are over 30 islands in the harbor. Each one has an interesting history and topography.

Spectacle Island was named for its original appearance as a pair of eyeglasses – two hills joined by a spit of land in between. The island has the highest point in the harbor, which can be explored through five miles of trails.

A pleasant ferry ride to this island is rewarded by breathtaking ocean views of the Boston skyline and other islands. Colorful plants and flowers are now part of the scenery.

Before reaching its present state, the island had a checkered past. A gambling site, a horse rendering plant, a trash incinerator, and a dump were among its prior incarnations.

…and if anyone can identify this delicately reddish grass for me, it would be greatly appreciated.

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Sunning Cormorant

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Spring is in the air and my thoughts rested on this photograph I created during a month-long residency at Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve.

I was there for the month of March, which is particularly mild in Florida. Yet, this cormorant seemed to be beckoning the sun and the transition to a warmer season.

Being somewhat of a city slicker, I don’t know much about such birds or other wildlife. So the photograph provoked me to find out more. After diving into the water to hunt for fish and other small aquatic creatures, cormorants characteristically hold out their wings to dry out in the sun.

These birds are pretty big having a wing span of between 18 to 39 inches (45 to 100 centimeters). Seeing this large bird perched upon the top of the seemingly slender-looking limbs got my attention.

This photograph has never been exhibited or published in the media. But it’s one of my favorites. I have a large print of it in my dining room.

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“Hi” from Royalston Falls

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The 215-mile New England Trail (NET) goes through Connecticut and continues north through Royalston Falls in Massachusetts along the New Hampshire border.

Many are familiar with the Appalachian Trail, but the NET is a relatively new addition to the National Park Service (NPS). Now in its 11th year, the trail is yet to be discovered by hikers and casual walkers.

So I was pleased to be invited by the New England Camera Club Council to present a series of talks about the NET at their 75th annual conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The NPS, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Connecticut Forest and Park Association invited me to take on a year-long commission to photograph key areas of the trail.

Having photographed the NET’s southernmost end in Guilford, Connecticut, I worked my way up to the trail’s other end in Royalston Falls, Massachusetts.

I try to avoid the habit of only creating landscapes. There is more to see than just what’s ahead. So I make an effort to stay aware of what is above and what is under my feet.

While hiking through the woods, I happened to look down and spotted this anthropomorphic birch tree limb. This friendly cyclops was just lying there with his arm upraised to greet me during my first visit to Royalston Falls.

Or so I like to think. Perhaps I was disturbing his rest and he was actually waving me away to “get lost.”

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“The Father of his Country”

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March brings an unusual confluence of poetry and politics.

On March 4, 1789, the U.S. Constitution came into effect as the governing document for the newly formed nation.

March 21 is recognized as World Poetry Day and March 24 marks 138 years since the death of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), who was one of 19th century’s foremost poets.

When I was commissioned to photograph Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I decided to train my camera on specific locations that served as sources of inspiration for his writing. As far as I know, this had not been done before.

The house was conveniently located near Harvard University, where Longfellow taught. But, for Longfellow, another key attraction to the house was that it had served as George Washington’s military headquarters during the Siege of Boston (July 1775 to April 1776).

In 1844, the Longfellows acquired the pictured bust of Washington, which is a plaster copy of the one sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Its location by the staircase is no accident. Indeed, the bust and staircase inspired Longfellow to compose the following passage in his lengthy poem To A Child:

Once, ah, once, within these walls,
One whom memory oft recalls,
The Father of his Country, dwelt.
And yonder meadows broad and damp
The fires of the besieging camp
Encircled with a burning belt.
Up and down these echoing stairs,
Heavy with the weight of cares,
Sounded his majestic tread;
Yes, within this very room
Sat he in those hours of gloom,
Weary both in heart and head.

It is rare when one can closely observe such a personal object or location that sparked the creativity behind a world-renowned poem.

The photograph is also rare in that it has never been exhibited or published in the media.

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Fire Island – Wilderness

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March 22 has been designated as World Water Day. The date is intended to raise public awareness about water and climate change – and how the two are inextricably linked.

This got me thinking about the Otis Pike High Dune Wilderness Area, which is part of Fire Island National Seashore. It is deemed to be a “wilderness” because no human “improvements” – such as boardwalks, piers, walking paths, rest areas, etc. – can be introduced.

The High Dune ecosystem includes a salt marsh, which is a critical habitat for fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

It is remarkable to think that one can travel 50 miles east of New York City and be in a seven mile stretch of barrier islands where nature is allowed to take its course without intervention.

Camping is allowed in the High Dune. But to protect its wilderness status, there are no facilities. So campers must bring their own drinking water and all necessary supplies. No open fires are permitted and all garbage must be carried out.

I had arrived at this part of the High Dune before dawn. The colors of the sand, water, and sky changed dramatically as the sun gradually rose. Indeed, the wilderness landscape is in a constant state of change as natural forces sculpt the elements into new and nuanced forms.

By late morning, I was walking toward a marsh area and happened to look behind me. As soon as I saw the serpentine shoreline suggesting a yin and yang, I knew I had to work fast to create a photograph of a fleeting moment in time.

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Olmsted’s U.S. Capitol Grounds

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It is only a matter of time before a new and growing country needs to expand its center of government. Such was the case when Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to design an extension of the U.S. Capitol grounds.

I had the privilege of photographing Olmsted’s home office, which was the first of its kind for landscape architecture. The office as well as his house are open to the public for ranger-led tours.

But I also wanted to photograph something that is not typically on view. Museums are like icebergs. Most of its collections remain unseen underneath. The staff generously brought out artifacts for me to photograph in their archival area. And the hand-drawn plan pictured above was one of my subjects.

The U.S. Capitol had been extended by the addition of the House and Senate wings along with a new dome. This meant that the grounds also had to be enlarged. So, in 1874, Olmsted was brought on to plan and oversee the project.

In addition to the landscaping elements, Olmsted also was responsible for the architectural treatments such as the terrace walls, lighting, fountains, railings, and balustrades.

This image has never been seen outside of the National Park Service, let alone printed or published online.

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“Home is the Starting Place”

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I was reminded of this photograph after seeing that St. Patrick’s Day is coming up on March 17. It’s an image that is published on page 30 of my book Weir Farm National Historic Site (Arcadia Publishing).

My book tells the story of Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), who is one of the founders of American Impressionist painting. It also explains that this photograph is a close-up of an inscription appearing over the front door of his house that reads: “Here shall we rest and call content our home.”

What my book does not explain – due to space constraints – is that the quote is from a letter Weir received from his brother John. It was hand-painted over the door by Weir’s friend Stanford White.

White was a member of the famed architectural firm McKim, Mead and White. The Washington Square arch in Greenwich Village, New York City, and the second Madison Square Garden were among the many well-known structures that he designed. As a friend of Weir’s, he also designed the 1911 additions to the artist’s house.

As Weir’s grandson noted in my book, his grandfather evoked “a gentler, quieter age in which family, friends and colleagues were the core of life….” Indeed, this observation was well summed up by Weir in a letter he wrote to his godson: “Home is the starting place.”

This photograph has never been exhibited or printed. It was created as part of a commission to artistically document the restoration of Weir’s house and other historical buildings on the property. For more information, take a look at this clip from News 12:

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Pennsylvania Station, New York – Harrison Ford

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I love to photograph and can’t always wait for a commission to come along. So I use every opportunity in my day-to-day comings and goings to be creative.

I’m in and out of New York City’s Penn Station pretty regularly. Some time in the 1990s, the station underwent a much-needed renovation. Although it’s still a miserable place to be in, the facelift made the experience a little less like a dark and fetid basement.

One of the first decorative treatments I noticed during this 1990s makeover was this curious looking fellow pictured above. He appears in relief along the wall of the staircase that leads to tracks 20 and 21 of the Long Island Railroad.

Perhaps you may know who he represents. I’m thinking it’s some sort of mythological figure. I haven’t had a chance to find out and, if you can identify his origins, please enlighten me.

But over the past two decades, every time I pass by I keep seeing Harrison Ford – he of Star WarsRaiders of the Lost Ark, and Blade Runner fame.

And for the past two decades, I’ve been meaning to photograph him. Finally, I made up my mind to do it. I had my camera ready and, on the appointed day, I had the misfortune of finding him boarded up and the stairwell closed for repairs.

For the next week or so I would pass by to check when he would be released from his wooden incarceration. Finally, he was freed and I was ready with my camera.

If you’ve been to my workshops, you’ll be familiar with my discussion of the Dutch tilt. And given the weirdness of Harrison Ford silently watching me for over 25 years, I could not think of a more fitting angle from which to photograph him.

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