My status

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Country Living?

Louisiana Cypress - Nikon D2Xs - April 2010

We drove out to the country this past weekend. I miss it. It just smells cleaner, the air just moves easier & the pace perfectly matches my spirit. When I say country in Louisiana, especially south-east Louisiana, strange images probably come to mind. It is not the open corn fields of the mid-west, nor the rocky plains of Wyoming, just part of deep warm South. No, I don't mean gator infested swampland. I mean oak trees, gently rolling green fields & total mixture of diversity so rich it would make Jesse Jackson & Jesse James both equally proud.

Country in south-east Louisiana is mostly this --- the wealthy country with their hundreds of acres of manicured land & 15000sq foot plantations replicas versus the country poor, with their customary cinder-block supported 86 Firebird (faded glory) "hotrods", rusted weightlifting equipment on the porch & colorful plastic toys littering their untidy lawns. The country poor love Nascar, Budweiser, the Saints and to ride around on their 1/8 acre desolate dirt lots on their riding mowers cutting nothing, but holding their kids in absolute pride and accomplishment. The country rich love to savor the good life & pay someone else to maintain it all.

I am stuck in the middle.

In between, you have a handful of nice properties, well-kept with pride --- middle class people with good work ethics, but mostly you have trash. If you can imagine, we drove nearly 300 miles and never exceeded 30 miles from home. We traversed every old highway, backroad, and creek bed looking, exploring our backyard for something that captured us. We returned disappointed, but enlightened.

Strangely, some of the most pristine land containing the most picturesque landscapes were either drastically over-priced or more often marred with the presence of the most downtrodden, desolate & depressing shacks, trailers & their dirt-poor inhabitants.

The frustration and dichotomy of living in the country comes from the inability to control your environment. That is why subdivisions are so popular. You can control your environment & live next to your socioeconomic peers, all protected by those who just simply don't share your morals, interests nor class of living.

It is kind way to say --- hey, "This is where we are in our life. If you are better, go up the street to "Hillcrest Heights" --- if you are worse, keep on moving buddy. We don't need "your kind" here. That and no one wants to maintain 10 acres of land anymore. Tractors simply don't make time away from our Tivo's that enticing.

Again, I am stuck in the middle.

I guess I simply want my land again. I want my antique tractors to restore and my own parcel of Earth to maintain. I desire the rugged sinker cypress barns & the well-appointed country home. Even a nice lake, rolling green lawn, large oak trees lining a shapely driveway & cast-iron gates would be acceptable. (grin) --- I strangely feel very relaxed and at ease, at peace if you will, on old Plantation land. Country life --- It is in my blood, my genes & certainly my spirit.

I look forward to moving on --- away from this glorious Mandeville, LA subdivision to my next place, never to Hillcrest Heights, but to something more reflective of who I am. I am done living in the shallowness of impressing the proverbial Jones family & their 2.2 children. It all seems far too ordinary and rehearsed, almost predictably staged. I just want quiet serenity & some land, acres and acres of land to walk upon & call our own. A place for my children to fish, to run and my border collie to chase a herd of sheep.

Perhaps, we will locate our next homestead soon. Perhaps, I will die wanting to return to the place that sets my mind and spirit at ease. Perhaps, none of this matters, only the present, only today. Perhaps, I long for times that are gone for good reason --- only time & opportunity will ever prove me right or wrong.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Life is a hobby

If anyone knows me, it is that I have an abundance of hobbies that I get serious about then move on, only to return with a focused intensity angled squarely on mastering that one niche. I am not quite sure why I become so involved, so engaged into one whimsical discipline only to abdicate it completely, and walk away.

But I always return even though the process may take years.
Some of my hobbies that tend to keep me busy most weekends are:

-Adventure Racing
-Antique Pocket Watch Repair
-Volunteer work
-Chinese Calligraphy

I like to leave the world of work behind and finally after about 15 years, I am not on-call waiting for the world to melt each weekend. I can finally explore my interests with complete abandon and feel enriched before Monday morning. I believe that you truly need to live before you die & without getting all William Wallace on you, there is something magical in truly appreciating life, each moment.

By leveraging such a diversity of interests, I feed multiple sides of my body, mind & spirit. I feel the tactile history in handling & repairing 150 year old timepieces just as easily as I practice the patience & art of Chinese calligraphy on a 100 year old inkstone. I see God not in church, but I feel God in my photographs. I view His influence in my walk, in nature itself. I marvel at the simple magical moments that some people dismiss as wasteful distractions to a modern life.

Part of what I seek is a common thread that will tie some of this embattled chaos together. I sometimes feel that my life is a constant battlefield for my emotions and my thoughts. Becoming one thing, being known for one talent, one ability is just not important to me. I want to experience as much from life as I can during the proverbial dash on my tombstone.

On the work front, I am blessed. I am humbled by my success at work, that aspect of professionalism which defines my career. I am secretly proud of myself and the fact that I have overcome so much to make something worthy of my life and my ability to make a real difference for a great company. I am thankful each day for the opportunities that I have been given & I have not wasted a single second of those moments.

All-in-all, there is a lot to learn and even more to live in life.
Regardless of your interests or your career, Make enjoying life your hobby.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Roping' & Reality of the Angola Prison Rodeo.

Preface: I did not obtain press credentials before attending this event, so this editorial is entirely from the POV of an actual spectator. I still carry photo credentials from 2 newspapers that are valid, but since I wasn't officially on assignment, plus with guests, I didn't want to "press" the issue. (no pun, haha)

Angola Prison Rodeo --- April 17, 2010

We arrived to the event after sitting in 40 miles of traffic near St. Francisville, LA with road construction still apparently unfinished after 4 years of work. It took over 90 minutes to traverse the last 30 miles, so plan accordingly. There is only 1 road in and 1 road out of this event --- kinda like the view of Angola prison life itself, since over 75% of inmates are in Angola for life and will never be taking a road out.

Upon passing through the entrance gates of the prison, the cold, harsh stares from the Department of Corrections staff was slightly intimidating. Even though each civilian pretends to be there to simply enjoy a rodeo, the added edge & danger attached with being on 18,000 acres of prison land with real hardened convicts is the true draw of this event.

As we are guided acre by acre down towards the rodeo arena, the sheer vast size of this establishment, begins to dawn in on the visitors. Fortified guard rifle towers still stand manned overlooking miles of 25' high double-deep fencing and endless strands of rolled razor wire laying perched to snare the next foolish inmate escape attempt.

The shiny, colorful trucks and cars of the visitor parking areas look completely out of place, yet paint the quiet grass fields and acres of open pasture land. As we get out, like cattle, we all head quickly towards the deep-south Roman rodeo coliseum. The arena itself is actually just a large metal frame with bleachers & metal roofing overhang to shade all of the spectators. The arena seats 10,000 people and today like every other time in its history, the show is completely sold out.

After locating our seats which are quite near the main chute entrance to the dirt-filled oval stage, we settle in for the usual "down-home" commentary and red-neck rhetoric. We are not disappointed in the abysmal grandstanding by the rodeo
announcer. After 30 minutes of prayers, holding holds, few WhoDat chants & the warden announcing the presence of everyone including the kid who cuts his lawn at home, the show finally begins.

The small, but trusted group of prisoners who are allowed to compete are positioned in an area right across from the spectators (civilians) and above the holding chutes for the raging bulls and mustangs who are definitely poised for today's events. Wearing traditional black and white striped long-sleeve cowboy-style shirts, it remains unmistakably predictable, but casually unavoidable to mistake an inmate from a paid professional during the event.

The events go by one-by-one. Bareback horse riding, bull-riding, wild-cow milking, inmate buddy pickup on horseback, & calf wrestling are all on the menu of festivities today. While absolutely exciting in its own right, it is not unique from previous visits to this popular event. In some strange way, all of the events unfold almost with a predictable, traveling circus or "Cir de Angola" type of feel to it. The inmates, the wild animals and the spectators all seem to coordinate themselves to the same dance steps.

The animals unleash their fury with reckless abandon on the helpless inmates and the spectators point and gaggle about the events. The bulls charge and send prisoners flying like penguin-colored rag-dolls. While completely routine, however, it is strange to get the feeling that some people are actually expecting to see a different ending to to these events. However, that could be traced more to the cognitive ability of the attendees and less to do with the mystique of the show.

The spectators themselves run the gamut of social class, but most being classic country black, redneck white & small cross-sections in between.
The slutty cowgirl theme seems prevalent with most of the young girls, as if the girls dress themselves up to tease the inmates & provide them something to remember on those cold, dark lonely nights here at Angola. The majority of the rest of the visitors are essentially very homely, over-fed children and their parents looking for their long-lost fried funnel cake & cream soda, and taking the show in only between trips to the concession booths.

In the midst of all of the structure & predictability, the rawness of the show still shines through. The proximity to freedom and civilian living for the prisoners is clearly apparent, but like true professionals, they never interact, even verbally with the spectators, even while standing just feet away. For a brief moment, I was in a trance wondering why these men who appear to be relatively upstanding, tough, hard-working individuals got to Angola in the first place. Was it just a bad night of drinking followed by a regrettable action to a spouse or bar patron, or something more ruthless? Assuming they keep the Hannibal Lecter type far away from this event, I casually return to the enjoyment of the show.

All things considered, it is truly an amazing circus and should be on everyone's to-do list at least once. Sure, it is overdone, overplayed & part of an elaborate money-making grandstand, but you could say that about most professional sporting events. And at least here, the athletes only get paid for their winning performances and it is actually commensurate with their overall contributions to society as a whole.

So, get your tickets early and enjoy the greatest rodeo on this side of freedom.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

My path with the art of photography

After collecting a multitude of lenses and camera accessories over the years, I have come to the general conclusion that a quote I hear years ago about photography is sadly accurate. "Most lenses are better than most photographers" --- simply stated it is not just the equipment, but more obviously the person behind the glass that will enhance, diminish or maximize the capabilities of any given lens.

The understanding of exposure, composition and good technique still overshadows the average consumer & their ineptitude at understanding what photography truly is --- an art. Sure anyone can press a shutter button, capture light onto a sensor and call that photography --- but is that the epitome of the effort required to join the ranks of those who dedicate their lives to showcasing moments professionally?

I have been humbled throughout my 15 year journey with photography. I have literally run the gamut on equipment and results. I have used early DSLRs that sell for <$300 today with simple kit lenses and landed front-page showcases with major metropolitan newspapers. In contrast, I have used 600mm f/4 lenses on expensive gimbal tripods & ended up with photos that wouldn't make the cut as frame inserts at a dollar store.

I have gone full circle & retro in some areas. In lieu of the latest autofocus, I now use a 40 year old Nikkor AI-S manual focus lens for all of my macro shots. I have taken the time to appreciate the quality of the older vintage equipment that is lost in the mass-market production of today's equipment. I have taken the time to master the proper understanding of light and its affect on the final image.

I have also learned that photography is as much a journey as it is a destination. What I mean is that I have set out numerous times with a strict time limit and an agenda only to realize that life is not on my time & not at my whim. I have learned that beauty is subjective & observing the everyday moments of life is truly what is worth capturing. Now, what I do is simply set out without an agenda, letting nature & the timeless essence of life unfold on its own accord, hoping that I am lucky enough to be part of a special moment & then capture it.

Some photographers see only what is in front of them, only what the world wants them to see. The white picket fence, the family photo in front of the oak tree at the park, the staged child graduation photo are all good examples of allowing the world to dictate your photographic moments.

Learn to filter out the average to find magic in the shadows. Learn to listen to the wind, watch the rustling in the leaves, take your time to observe the unfolding simplicity of our world & in those things, you will find your true photos worth keeping. It is hard when you literally are on a time limit or on a vacation, but even in these events, make time to see life on its terms --- get up extremely early, get in position when nature wakes up from its peaceful slumber.

Realize that life is as much about experiencing the moments, as capturing them.
After losing over 20,000 photos during hurricane Katrina, I can attest to the fact
that life is indeed precious & sometimes the only snapshots you have left are the ones written on your heart.

Go out & explore life & find the moments you seek.
Then if you are fortunate, those same moments will also capture you. :)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

PBASE Gallery

Loaded my first Pbase gallery --- just some random shots.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sunday Snapshots


We all drove to Fort Pike today, an old confederate fortification on the banks of Lake Ponchatrain build in the early 1820s. It is an open and slightly eerie place --- cold & damp brick hallways full of history & nearly two centuries of decay. My kids enjoyed running around the upper ramparts and relishing in the mild afternoon sunshine. I tried to imagine the sleepless nights spent waiting, wondering & fearing a potential sea invasion. I imagined the citadel in its prime and how it must have felt to live & die within these brick walls.
Posted by Picasa

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tracing my past

Left early this morning with a torrent of rain above me. As I pulled out of the Drury Inn in Meridian, MS --- I could barely see the road, and I quietly determined that this day of exploring my past was going to quickly become a wasted effort.  In this undetermined stillness, I pushed onward recalling from memory, the backroads and pathways to find my ancestor's graveyard site.

I drove up to Eutaw, AL and then Northwest to Aliceville, then Reform, then finally Millport and Kennedy. I turned up a poor rustic neighborhood to find the old city cemetery simply painted along the side of a simple country road. No elaborate fencing, brick pillars, nor gates encompassed this place, just a mixture of old and new headstones.

I parked in the church parking lot across the street and headed instinctively for the back of the cemetery, towards the old graves...those who had some roots down by this time, truly had a story to tell. I marched around in the remnants of some very light rain, trying to locate my family. Then, I found them. I cannot explain the feeling of finding links to the past, tangible markers that help you feel more connected to who you are as a person in this life.

As I located my great-great-great grandfather's monument, a mild sense of pride and peace raced through my veins.  This man, who would never know me nor my existence in this world, set the course for my ability to kneel above his final very ability to breathe & to live was set into motion before his death some 110 years ago.

Our lives do carry us forward and the choices we make certainly affect the future. I could not help from feeling connected & part of a larger, more extended family even by simply touching their engraved stone markers bearing my father's surname. I allowed myself to drift back, to try to feel their presence, to believe that in some small way, they were glad that I was there.

What will my grave say about my life and about those who will visit in the future?

My great-great-great grandfather William H. Smothers