Paradise Regained: A 2021 Visit to Glen Canyon’s Cathedral in the Desert

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by johnbuckley100

Introduction

This is a story of paradise lost and regained, of man’s folly and nature’s response. For our purposes, the story begins in 1956, when by Congressional appropriation, the most beautiful section of the Colorado River, named Glen Canyon by its explorer John Wesley Powell, was condemned to be drowned under 340 feet of water backing up from a dam built, as we shall see, for a curious purpose. In his 1968 book Desert Solitaire, which would go on to become the ur-conservationist classic of its age, Edward Abbey wrote, “The impounded waters form an artificial lake named Powell, supposed to honor but actually to dishonor the memory, spirit and vision of John Wesley Powell, first American to make a systematic exploration of the Colorado river and its environs.”

Placed in what Abbey referred to as “water storage,” all of Glen Canyon’s marvels — Ancestral Puebloan ruins by the thousands, natural phenomena such as hanging gardens, a veritable phantasmagoria of geologic extravagance — soon sank under water. One such marvel was Cathedral in the Desert, a massive, domed hollow hidden in a side canyon off the Escalante River near where it joined the Colorado about midway through Glen Canyon.

As far as I can remember, I first learned of Cathedral in the Desert some years ago when reading the chapter “Glen Canyon Submersus” in Wallace Stegner’s The Sound of Mountain Water. Midway through exposing the crime, Stegner described the paradisiacal canyons being drowned under hundreds of feet of water. “Often these canyons, pursued upwards, ended in falls, and sometimes the falls came down through a slot or a skylight in the roof of a domed chamber, to trickle down the wall into a plunge pool that made a lyrical dunk bath on a hot day. In such chambers the light was dim, reflected, richly colored. The red rock was stained with the dark manganese exudations called desert varnish, striped black to green to yellow to white along horizontal lines of seepage, patched with the chemical, sunless green of moss. One such grotto was named Music Temple by Major John Wesley Powell on his first exploration, in 1869; another is the so-called Cathedral in the Desert, at the head of Clear Water Canyon off the Escalante.”

From the moment I read Stegner’s description, I wanted to see Cathedral in the Desert. And then a few years after the pictures were taken, I stumbled across a photo essay on a visit to the missing grotto in late summer 2005 when, for some reason, the water level of Lake Powell was low enough that, for a brief and splendid moment, Cathedral in the Desert breathed free air. Like many, I memorized the chart on the Glen Canyon Institute’s photo of a partially submerged Cathedral in the Desert, learning that when Lake Powell’s surface fell to 3605 feet, one could get a boat into the chamber, and at 3557 feet you could put your Chacos on its damp floor. In late July 2021, three months ago, it was announced that all but one of Lake Powell’s marinas were to close for the season, because climate change and drought — if not the actual aridification of the desert West — had brought the level of the “lake” below our magic number. (As of today, Lake Powell’s surface is 3545 feet above sea level.) I called the Glen Canyon Institute, which is devoted to restoring Glen Canyon to a free-flowing river, asked if it was possible to get to Cathedral in the Desert, and was assured it was. If only one could get access to a boat.

I contacted a friend whom I knew was likely to be visiting his son in Las Vegas, and hence would be somewhere in the region this fall, and asked if he and his wife were up for an adventure. They were. My wife and I already planned on a road trip that would take us to Southern Utah in late September or early October, and she was as excited to see it as I was. We tracked down a friend of a friend knowledgable about expeditions to obscure corners of the desert, and she took on the challenge. By October 1st, we were in Bullfrog, Utah preparing to go out the next morning with a white-haired, 80-year old, extremely vigorous boat captain at the Bullfrog Marina, to see what Stegner had seen all those years ago.

Chapter One: The Journey to Cathedral in the Desert

I first saw Lake Powell aboard a flight from D.C. to Los Angeles. It must have been in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and the plane’s course took it directly over the captive Colorado just north of the Grand Canyon. I remember the pilot telling us to look out our window where we could see the remarkable sight of a desert lake upon which people were waterskiing. He was right — out my window I saw the sinuous shape of the Colorado River — I had no idea that’s what it was — widening into a large body of water constrained by rock on either side, and yes, there was the wake from a speedboat, visible from 30,000 feet up, pulling a tiny figure creating its own spray on a bright and sunny summer day. I thought it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen.

It was years before I read Desert Solitaire, years before I learned what price had been paid to have that “lake” in the middle of the desert. Years before I learned the sad, genuinely tragic story of how the most beautiful stretch of the Colorado River was dammed, which is to say, damned. It was a story with twists and turns and ironies. As the madmen behind the Bureau of Reclamation pursued every water storage possibility in the West, with powerful Western Congressional committee chairmen egging them on, at different times there were plans for as many as five different dams along the Colorado between Southern Wyoming and the bottom end of the Grand Canyon. The Upper Basin signatories to the Colorado River Compact — a scheme for divvying up the water of the Colorado between six western states — wanted to be assured that California would not, by its proximity to the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead near Las Vegas, glom onto “their” water. One dam target was Echo Park, just above Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah. A nascent conservation movement arose to protect Echo Park from the dam builders; Wallace Stegner wrote in 1955 a long paean to the beauty of Echo Park, decrying the mere thought of turning it into a dam, and it was an effective piece of propaganda. The Sierra Club, headed by David Brower, learned it had muscles to flex, and did so. Miraculously, the dam at Echo Park was canceled. The tradeoff, however, was that a dam would instead be constructed at the southern end of Glen Canyon. Brower, and the Sierra Club, among others, acquiesced, thinking they were doing a good thing by saving Echo Park. And thus was made the greatest conservation blunder in U.S. history.

In October, when our little party set out from Bullfrog to find Cathedral in the Desert, Lake Powell was nearly 60 years old. Its original purpose, according to Stegner, was to produce revenue through power generation, and in so doing, pay for the construction of two other dams, including one in the Grand Canyon in the feisty area Powell called Marble Canyon.

But neither dam was ever built; plans for the dam at Marble Canyon were abandoned when the Sierra Club ran an ad in the New York Times likening a dam there to one placed in the Sistine Chapel. Which means that Glen Canyon was sunk under water for no good reason.

No good reason.

Edward Abbey advocated for Glen Canyon through his own propagandistic means: his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, envisioned Glen Canyon being liberated by eco-terrorists blowing up the Glen Canyon Dam. The reality in 2021 is that climate change and its henchman, drought, have rendered the Colorado a comparative trickle to what was envisioned when the parties to the Colorado Rive Compact divvied up imaginary future water flows. Mother Nature, not Abbey’s hero Hayduke, has signaled the possible end game for Lake Powell, as it evaporates and is replenished by a steadily diminishing watershed from the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and the various subsets of the Rockies in Colorado.

Two hours out of Bullfrog on a beautiful Saturday morning we came to the entrance to the Escalante arm. On his first voyage down the river, Powell missed this tributary’s arrival from what is now known as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Our boat turned up the Escalante and all of us fell silent as it sunk in that we were getting closer to Cathedral in the Desert.

The channel was calm, the water flat. The bathtub ring bleaching the Navajo sandstone was an indicator of the damage done over the past 60 years’ submersion, but weirdly was also a clear and somehow satisfying measuring stick for how far the lake had dropped.

At last we began to get to the final channel, the boat engine so quiet it barely cleared its throat, Anna and our friends Brian and Julie silent other than the noise of us jostling slightly to get pictures.

I think I must have been smiling as the boat came to where we would be let out. This felt like something out of an adventure movie, but also, on a spiritual plane, like… approaching the Godhead. I can’t really describe it — all I can write is I’ve never felt anticipation quite this marvelous. We got out of the boat and began walking on soft sand — silt from the river that had been washed through, over the course of the summer of 2021, as the monsoon rains led to a series of flash floods. And then, there it was, the Cathedral in the Desert.

I would come to learn that even in June, when a photographer accompanied Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker, who wrote a piece on Glen Canyon that prominently featured a trip to Cathedral in the Desert, this entrance was underwater. In fact, Eric Balkan of the Glen Canyon Institute, who happened to be there the same day as us, later told me that this portion of the entrance to CitD was water-free likely for the first time since the 1960s.

As I walked in, I could hear the sweet tinkling sound of water coming down from a waterfall deep in the cavern. This was a relief because somehow in my mind I calculated that if the water level was low enough for us to get here, surely the waterfall wouldn’t be running. I’d actually been preparing myself for weeks to not be disappointed if that were the case. Happily, I was wrong! While others walked on the floor toward the pool, I ran up on the high pile of silt to get a vantage point on the waterfall I had seen only in pictures, though I had spent hours thinking about it in the intervening years.

And so there it was, the heart of the Cathedral, a thin flow of water falling to a pool below. It was like peering at Mother Nature in the midst of her ablutions, and I was giddy, and honestly stunned. It was, I thought, the most beautiful, meaningful evocation of nature’s transcendence. The image above is a 30-second exposure; for me, it may as well have been exposed for all eternity. Even without the image I would never forget this moment; it is exposed directly on my brain.

Looking backward I could see how massive the entrance was. Again, this entrance has not been this dry since the Beatles and Stones vied for AM radio dominance.

The sand to the left had been deposited, I was told, sometime earlier this summer when a flash flood came through.

For perspective, see the two small figures at the entrance? This cathedral has St. Peter’s dimensions.

I repeat the first image in this story here to reflect what it looked like going down into the bottom reaches of the Cathedral. The waterfall continued to drip, and by now there were others who had joined us from a boat that must have come in just behind us.

Chapter Two: The Family Bounous

The party that had joined us was the family of Junior Bounous, a 96-year old Utah skiing legend who had, at various times, owned the precursor to Sundance, and been the operator of the ski school at Snowbird, just up Cottonwood Canyon next to Alta. He is in the National Skiing Hall of Fame, listed as “A Pioneer in the American Ski Industry.” I heard him talking to my wife and our friends and got there in time to hear him tell how he’d been here before it was flooded. He showed us where there had been vegetation at the edge of the rock wall. He described the waterfall that once fell above the current waterfall. He was amazingly clear of thought and memory, and his stories of what it had once been like here were riveting.

It was clearly very moving for Junior to be here with his family, who over the past few days had all been staying on a houseboat in Lake Powell. They made this journey with Junior to a place he had first taken his children, his son told me, in 1964.

At one point his grandchildren sang “Eidelweiss” from the Sound of Music, and it was gorgeous. The acoustics of the great domed cathedral brought their harmonies to every corner. Junior, whose wife died just this past year, was overcome by the performance, the setting, the moment.

His daughter-in-law, I believe, showed us how just a year earlier her daughter beside her had been married, not quite where we were, but one level up above the waterfall. “The water has fallen 60 feet in the last year,” Junior’s son Steve told me. I believe this was the first time that Junior’s grandchildren had been on this level of the cathedral.

All of us eventually turned toward the entrance and began to make our way back to our boats. But before we did, our new friend Melanie read us a beautiful Ute prayer, and burned sage to commemorate our being here. It was a lovely moment, not a time to take pictures. However, seeing Junior Bounous serenaded by his grandchildren was equally meaningful. We left feeling purified, released, feeling like one does after a good cry.

One of my happiest memories of the journey there was seeing Junior walk out of the Cathedral with his granddaughters. He and I talked for a few minutes about skiing in Utah and Jackson Hole, where I live now, and I asked him if he knew Pepi Stiegler, his contemporary Western skiing innovator, and the founder of the Jackson Hole Ski School. His face lit up as he told me about visiting Pepi, likely for the final time. It was really an honor to spend time in his presence, especially here.

By now we heard the voices of children, and looking up saw that two boats had already arrived with kids under the age of 10. We were fortunate to have been there, first by ourselves, and then with the Bounous family. Boats were coming in and it was time to leave. There is, of course, the natural desire to protect Cathedral in the Desert from being overrun by boatloads of kids, but the impulse is superseded by the belief that the more people are aware of the glories of Glen Canyon, the more likely it will be that people will accept the inevitable: the gradual diminution of Lake Powell, and the ability for Glen Canyon to be reborn.

Chapter Three: Davis Gulch, LaGorce Arch and the Return of Glen Canyon.

We had time for one more stop before heading back to Bullfrog, so our captain steered us up the Escalante toward Davis Gulch. After being within the twisting Cathedral in the Desert, Nature’s sculpting of the sandstone seemed, more and more, like Abstract art. Even as we tried committing to memory every moment of having been in Cathedral in the Desert, we were curious what more could be seen in a revived Glen Canyon, and Davis Gulch, for a variety of reasons, was the perfect place to go.

To begin with, it was close. But it also has a romantic recent history. It was in Davis Gulch in the 1930s that the burros transporting young Everett Reuss, a twenty-one year old besotted by nature and solitary desert excursions, were found without their human, thus creating a persistent Redrock Country legend. And it was up Davis Gulch that an arch, or at least a window in the rock, was “discovered” by a succession of white men who gave it various names — from Moqui Arch to Roosevelt Arch, and finally LaGorce Arch, the latter being the name of the then-editor of National Geographic. After all, Gil Grosvenor, the president of the National Geographic Society, had an arch named after him. Why not an arch named for the magazine’s editor, too?

Another boat was wedged into the mud as we hopped out and walked up the stream. By now it was afternoon and though we were hungry, we didn’t stop for lunch. Within a few minutes it was apparent that we would have to walk in the stream itself if we were to get anywhere, so we took off our shoes and left them on the bank and proceeded to slosh forward.

I think it was when I first “chimped” — gazing at my camera’s LCD to see how this image resolved — that I realized the above image looked like a modern descendent of the pictures Elliot Porter published in the Sierra Club-sponsored The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado. Published as the water was rising in 1963, this collection of essays and images meant to capture Glen Canyon before it was too late was inadvertently telling in its title. Calling the book The Place No One Knew was, in retrospect, a transparent bit of ass covering by David Brower and the Sierra Club, following their assent to the flooding of Glen Canyon in order to protect Echo Park, a few hundred miles up the Green River branch of the Colorado. Saying, “Who knew?” with a coffee-table shrug was a way of absolving themselves of their critical error. This isn’t really to blame only Brower; JFK’s conservation-minded Interior Secretary Stewart Udall declined the opportunity to scuttle the dam. Brower genuinely did not know of Glen Canyon’s charms when he let down his guard. Publishing the Eliot Porter book may have been a way of spreading the responsibility for what happened –“Glen Canyon died in 1963 and I was partly responsible for its needless death. So were you,” he wrote in the Foreword. Notwithstanding this blame shifting to us all, he spent the rest of his life agonizing over his failure to fight for it, and continued to win other battles.

We walked up the stream in an area that only last year was still under water, and the resemblance of this gulch to what Porter captured 60 years ago gave rise to a feeling of joy. Because despite the bathtub ring visible on the sandstone, the fact that this ecosystem was so alive — there was the sound of swallows and canyon wren, there was scat from unidentified animals, the color green was, near the stream, as prevalent as the gold and red and orange rock — meant that Glen Canyon could recover, and quickly, despite the cruel trick of burying it under 300 feet of water for most of my lifetime.

The water was clear, the October Saturday was hot, and Glen Canyon was alive. We sloshed through the water, individually or in pairs, each of us in our own thoughts.

The stream twisted and turned, and at one point we came around a corner and saw a group of photographers sitting under an alcove. I said hello, but was too dazed, too much in my own thoughts to take the time to talk to them. Which is a pity since the party included writer Rebecca Solnit as well as Eric Balkan of the Glen Canyon Institute, who had told me, over the phone, how to pursue the dream of getting to Cathedral in the Desert. I learned from Eric later that the photographers were consciously trodding in Eliot Porter’s footsteps.

I saw a window carved high into the face of rock, but it seemed too small to be LaGorce Arch. A half mile or so later, however, I caught up with Anna and Julie, who were standing underneath the other side of that window, and we knew, for a certainty, that this was LaGorce Arch.

When its base was underwater, people would take their boats underneath the arch itself to swim and frolic. After hanging around here for twenty minutes, we decided to push no further, and to make our way back to the boat. What lay before us was a two-hour boat ride back to our car, and from there, the drive through the Henry Mountains, and through officially designated wilderness as far as the eye can see; then past Hanksville on the long loop to Moab, seeing the San Rafael Swell west of Green River as the sun fell and consolidated its many colors into intense pinks and blues. For now, though, there was a glorious autumn day in a living Glen Canyon.

The last picture I took was of this bend in the river, which admittedly had been precisely where the photographers we’d seen were set up. If they were following Porter’s footsteps, I followed theirs. To the left is the small front window of LaGorce Arch. In the middle is almost comically gargantuan stone, falling like a flying buttress supporting a different cathedral. There before us was sky and redrock and the sound of water. There was rightness to the world. Please let it stay like this.

All images taken with the Leica SL2 and SL24-90 Vario-Elmarit lens. A gallery of these images may be found on Tulip Frenzy’s sister site, TulipFrenzyPhotography.com. John Buckley’s Instagram is @tulip_frenzy.

Leica is Proving the Mark of a First-Rate Camera Company is the Ability to Hold Two Conflicting Ideas at the Same Time

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 14, 2021 by johnbuckley100
Leica M10r and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” I’ve been thinking a lot this year about what Leica Camera is up to.

Leica is, comparatively speaking, a tiny company — they measure revenue in the millions, not billions, and produce cameras and lenses in small batches. And yet they currently have the moxie to produce a 64mp medium format camera system (the S), a professional mirrorless camera system (the various SLs, along with their L-Mount little brother, the CL), their traditional rangefinder system (the M, in color and monochrome variants), and even a certifiable hit product, the Q2, which just spawned a Monochrom (B+W only) twin. On top of it all, in the very same calendar year, Leica released the M 35mm APO-Summicron, which is as precise and perfect a compact lens as exists on this planet, and what can only be thought of as its near antithesis: a “classic” reprise of its 1966 M Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH, a lens whose charm lies almost entirely in the idea that it is *not* perfect.

So yes, in the immense combined brainpower that is Leica’s product team, they are proving Scott Fitzgerald right, or at least proving their first-rate intelligence, as they continue to astound us with a lens roadmap that brings out lenses so astonishingly perfect there are those who call them antiseptic (e.g. the M 50mm APO-Summicron, both the M and SL versions of the 35mm APO, as well as each of the SL APO Summicron primes), while working into the mix modern revivals of some of their most intriguing lenses from decades past, whose charm lies in how their flaws intersect with new cameras housing 47mp modern sensors.

Leica M10 Monochrom and Elmarit R 180mm f/2.8

I’ve been using Leica Ms for long enough to remember the debate in the early ’00s over not whether Leica could produce a digital M, but whether they should. At one point, their largest shareholder, the luxury brand Hermes, purportedly counseled management to stick with film and become the 21st Century equivalent of a Parisian saddle maker, locked into high profits, but decreasing relevance to anyone other than a plutocrat. Thankfully, under the stable ownership of Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Leica, since 2006, has been an absolute font of creativity. Of all the camera systems listed above, only the M existed in that year. And when what became known as the M-240 was released in 2013, by switching to CMOS sensors — which permitted the use of Leica’s R-system lenses — rangefinder photographers could suddenly use virtually every lens that Leica had produced since the 1950s.

The image above, to me, captures something quite magical. It was made using a 41mp Leica M10 Monochrom with a state-of-the-art sensor, but coupled with a 35-year old R-system lens. I think the combination has a timeless feel to it, and could imagine it used in a magazine spread on Jackson Hole, circa 1963. Because the lens cannot remotely draw as precisely as the sensor might receive the captured data, it combines imprecision with precision along a formula similar to the way Leica’s then-state-of-the-art cameras and lenses, from the 1930s to the digital era, drew on film. Evidently Leica thinks such old/new and perfect/imperfect combinations might hold buyers’ interest, which is why they have, in the last few years, released such lenses as a reprise of their 28mm f/5.6 lens from decades ago, and even the Thambar, which can only be described as a willfully distorting, extremely soft lens. Which brings us to February’s release of the “new” 50mm Noctilux f1.2.

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f1/2 ASPH

This past winter and spring, I immersed myself in a street photography project in an historic D.C. neighborhood. Everything was shot using the Leica M10 Monochrom, and for the most part, the 28mm Summicron, 35mm Summilux, and occasionally, the 50mm APO-Summicron. Now, I am a Noctilux photographer with 15 years experience utilizing Leica’s low-light, thin focal-plane lens. But I would almost never consider using my 75mm Noctilux f1.25 on the street, because it is so big and bulky; it’s a physical chore, not to mention negating the stealth aspect of using an M in those circumstance. But the early word, vouchsafed by reviewers such as Sean Reid and Jono Slack, was that the new 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH was about as small as a 50 Summilux, quite light, and while it had nowhere near the precision of the 50 Nocti f/0.95 or my 75 Nocti, it had beguiling characteristics. So, I jumped, and traded in some equipment to buy it. And I found it immediately appealing. I mean, the first time I looked at the LCD on the camera to see what had been captured, I broke out into a grin.

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

I could take my Monochrom with the new Nocti out on the street and remain relatively invisible. And while this lens certainly was soft in its rendering of the in-focus areas, because it also captures that glorious fall off to the out-of-focus area, there was something genuinely exciting about it, at least to me. One of the paradoxes of modern photography is how so many of us revel in the advantages of the digital revolution, which often results in clinically over-precise images, which we then work on in post-production software to render “film-like.” We want all the advantages of digital capture, but harken for the imprecision of classic photography on the far more forgiving sensor of celluloid processed in wet chemicals.

Leica, by virtue of making such incredible fast lenses, has always been at the forefront of a related aspect of visual poetry — the use of bokeh as a dramatizing technique. I wouldn’t say the image above is a great shot, technically. But in terms of creating atmosphere, using a black and white 41mp sensor and a deliberately soft lens with a drop off from the in-focus to OOF area that plunges with a depth and speed of Niagara Falls is, to my eye, fairly special. And I could carry the lens on the street!

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

I didn’t use it exclusively, and the project is better off for it, as there is wide variety between the many images shot at, say, f/8 and fairly small batch shot at f/1.2. (All Noctiluxes are, effectively, single f/stop lenses — you shoot them wide open or not at all.) But man, this lens was cool on the street!

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

There was something about its imprecision that rendered it in a category separate from the other modern Noctilux lenses. Now, you see, I was deep into a black and white project, which right there rendered it in alignment with photography from eras past. But the more I used this lens, the more I could see it helped evoke the fairly gritty neighborhood I was in, while capturing a moment in time: people wearing masks will always anchor these images in our COVID age. I wanted to ensure that if, 50 years from now, people looked at these images they would immediately place a time stamp on them — and for that reason, shooting in black and white was essential. Increasingly, the new Nocti seemed an ideal tool to bring to the mix.

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

The image above, shot in March 2021, to me has the classic feel of an image that could have been shot on an M4 using the original ’66 Nocti and Tri-X Pan. That’s a hard trick for a modern 41mp sensor to pull off, without Lightroom skills far beyond my capabilities.

Leica M10-R and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

When the weather turned warm and cherries blossomed, I deliberately forced myself to take a break from my project to use this lens with a camera that could record in color as well: the M10-R. The result was every bit as interesting to me, the color rendering weirdly compelling.

Leica M10-R and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

In early summer, my wife and I moved pretty much full-time to a small town in Western Wyoming, and I took the Nocti to the 4th of July parade there. To be honest, I think I would have taken more good pictures if I’d used the lens with the SL2, not the M10-R, because I would have been able to focus more precisely. But still, its color rendering with the M10-R sensor is quite nice.

Leica M10-R and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

Having used the lens to shoot black and white on the streets of Washington, and now color at the Jackson, Wyoming 4th of July parade, I think I have an understanding of the 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH’s strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are: small size and weight, making it ideal for street photography, its seductive bokeh, and when combined with a precise modern sensor on a digital camera, its imprecision, soft in-focus area, and characteristic drop off to the out-of-focus area renders the image with a timeless patina. This is, getting back to Leica, redolent of their understanding that we don’t want, at least not all the time, perfection in certain kinds of photography. We want character. This lens has it in abundance.

But what if you do want perfection, or at least sharpness in the in-focus area? Going back to 2012, when Leica announced the original M Monochrom, they coupled it with a brand new lens, the 50mm APO-Summicron. They said, in essence, because we have stripped the sensor of its responsibility to convert pixels to color, it will be a meaningfully more capable sensor than what we have in the then-flagship M9. And then, to illustrate this point, they released their new APO-Summicron lens, and in their nice way, sort of boasted that they had taken optical performance to a new and unheard of level, matching the possibilities in digital sensor design.

Leica Monochrom-246 and 50mm APO-Summicron

What that really meant was that the new APO-Summicron was so sharp in its in-focus rendering, while still maintaining a classical drop off from the focal plane, that a different kind of alchemy was possible. About as expensive as the Noctilux, the new 50 APO was startlingly perfect whether shooting wide open or stopped down. But it strived for a far different gestalt from the Nocti: perfect and imperfect wrapped into one package, which, when coupled with the second generation Monochrom sensor let the photographer achieve things heretofore unimaginable. It was almost as if it was challenging our conception of what great photography consisted of, as if to say, We can achieve optical perfection and, in the camera, the highest quality, and you, the photographer, can make images that will retain the same luster as what HC-B was able to achieve in the streets of Paris in 1938.

Leica Monochrom-246 and 50mm APO-Summicron

I for one bought into this wholeheartedly, and used the 50 APO a lot, whether in the streets or shooting landscapes. Which is why when Leica announced, literally weeks after the 50 Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH, that they were releasing a 35mm APO, my heart beat quickly, even as it sank with the understanding that I would have to sell more equipment to acquire the new reference point in optical perfection. You see, 35mm is my favorite focal length. So it was worth selling other lenses to get my hands on what proved to be a very, very difficult lens to acquire. (As I mentioned earlier, Leica produces cameras and lenses in small batches.) It took a little more than four months.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

On the happy day it was to arrive, I waited a long time for the UPS truck to show up — but one walk in my rural neighborhood showed me the 35mm APO set, as Leica stated, a new standard. Its color rendering was typical for Leica’s APOs, whether M or SL. Coupled with M10-R, it seemed like it would become the lens I would keep on my rangefinders by default.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

The next night, I took it to the local rodeo and, combined with the M10-R, realized I had in many ways as capable a combination as the Leica SL2 and SL 35mm APO, albeit in a package small enough for street photography.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO Summicron

As with the 50mm APO, what was in focus was precise, and where the focus fell off, you could have fun.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

This was a lens for the ages — amazing color rendering and precision, in as compact a form as the 35mm Summicrons from the last several decades.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

Perhaps I shouldn’t fall into the marketing hype of calling this lens “perfect.” I will say only this: in combination with the M10-R, it achieves street photography nirvana. I have stuck with Ms because I am by now so comfortable with focusing manually, or shooting at the hyperfocal distance, that I believe I can utilize the technology more intuitively and just as fast as I would if using, say, the autofocus Leica Q2. I’ll admit to going “wow” when seeing how the Q2 lens and sensor renders images, especially in color, and the new Q2 Monochrom seems amazing. And yet, with the 35 APO on the M10-R, I don’t think the Q system has any advantages.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

So here you have a lens that can be shot at f/4 and retain great character. This is anything but “clinical”, even though it may be optically “perfect.” This is a lens for the ages.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

And if it is a standout given the way it handles color, I must say its B&W rendering is pretty satisfying. It has the added advantage of being so small, and in combination with an M, so light and capable, that I now find myself hiking with just the M and a single lens, not the SL2 and some of those big native zooms. Am I missing anything by not taking the SL2? Well, sure, of course — it’s a more capable, versatile system. But at the same time, nah. And, at the end of the day, my neck and arms thank me for carrying the lighter camera and lens.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

I’ll conclude with this. To me, Leica has proved — over the last several years, but particularly in a 2021 in which it could release, back to back, both the 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH and the 35mm APO-Summicron — that it understands the modern photographer’s love/hate relationship with “perfection.” It *gets* our desire to create images that are half as enchanting as something Saul Leiter or Sergio Larrain would have captured in the 1950s — using the equipment available to them then. (Our skill and talent are, of course, quite different from theirs…)

The point is that the power and raw capabilities of modern sensors and modern lenses can bleed a little of the poetry from the pictures we take — which is one reason why we work so hard in Lightroom to achieve that paradoxical goal of making an image “film-like.”

To their immense credit, Leica — a company owned by a photographer and run by photographers, including the lens-designing genius Peter Karbe — wants to innovate in both directions. With the near simultaneous release of these two lenses, they have achieved making perfection and magic something other than antonyms. They have learned to drain my bank account but give me great pleasure through the tools they offer. They have held two seemingly opposing ideas in mind while retaining the ability to function. Oh, brother, have they ever.

John Buckley is a photographer in Wilson, WY and Washington, D.C. His Instagram is @tulip_frenzy, and his photography website is JohnBuckleyinBlackandWhiteandColor.com. His photobook Pictures of U: Six Months in an Historic D.C. Neighborhood will be published in late 2021.

On “Destiny Street Complete” Richard Hell Gets It All Together

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 16, 2021 by johnbuckley100

For almost forty years, Richard Hell has been in search of lost time, or at least the lost masters to Destiny Street. For it is on the brilliant second and final album by Richard Hell and the Voidoids that, along with nine others, “Time,” his greatest song, lay in what to him was an imperfect state. “We had about three weeks to record and mix the album,” he says in his memoir, “and I was too fragile to come into the studio for one of those weeks.” In the years after Destiny Street’s 1982 release, he was convinced he’d botched it and, ever since, compelled to fix it. He finally has.

Some of us think the original Destiny Street was great as is, and Hell’s compulsion has seemed less than absolutely necessary, even as we understand an artist’s desire to realize the animating vision that produced the work in the first place.

Which makes next week’s release of Destiny Street Complete all the more joyous. In the liner notes Hell writes, “I have to smile and roll my eyes when I think of this, this package, but I was determined to do it. Nobody made me, or even asked me. I take full responsibility for it. Three plus versions of the same album. It’s ridiculous, but I’m glad.”

Destiny Street Complete, released on January 22nd, contains remastered versions of the 1982 original and Destiny Street Repaired – the 2010 reconfiguration that grafted new vocals and guitars atop the primary rhythm tracks – plus the brand new Destiny Street Remixed, containing seven songs from the original plus three from Repaired.  At long last, Remixed satisfies Hell’s ears, and was made possible by kismet: the 2019 rediscovery of seven original 24-track masters in an Upstate New York storage facility. Eleven demo tracks recorded with Voidoids v.1.0 stalwarts Ivan Julian and Bob Quine on guitar are served as a lagniappe, and along with one poignant track from Quine’s 2004 memorial service, you’ve got, yeah, Destiny Street Complete. 

In 2021, Richard Hell (née Richard Lester Meyers) is a novelist, memoirist, poet and critic. For a time in the 1970s and early ‘80s he was a white tern flying out from land signaling to sailors their arrival on new shores, perennially one beat of the wings ahead of where real rock’n’roll was going. 

A founding member of Television, along with his fellow boarding school runaway Tom Verlaine, he went on to play in The Heartbreakers with New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan. It was Hell’s style – badly chopped haircut askew, torn jeans and safety pins – that Malcolm McLaren glommed for the Sex Pistols, and thus was born Punk with a capital P. Hell was, on one level, the archetypal punk primitive who could not really play his instrument yet could still make amazing music, in so doing reviving rock from the plodding and the rococo. On another level, he was a New York street poet as deeply in love with words as Verlaine and his sometime squeeze Patti Smith. Fronting the two versions of his band the Voidoids, Hell was something else again.

The Voidoids weren’t the least bit “punk” if your frame of reference is three-chord wonders from Generation X to the Germs to Green Day. What the Voidoids played in their original lineup on 1977’s Blank Generation and, slightly reconfigured, five years later on Destiny Street, was urgent, desperate music, a skilled combo always flirting with disaster, a revved-up high wire act that did the impossible. Hell was a bad singer like the young Dylan was a bad singer, which is to say he was exuberant and thrilling if not always perfectly on key. With a rhythm section that, so long as Hell was bassist, could only be considered adequate, even as the decent Mark Bell (aka Marky Ramone) gave way to the brilliant Fred Maher on drums, the twin guitars of the propulsive Ivan Julian and the subversive Robert Quine (and later, on Destiny Street, Quine + Naux) made the whole thing swing

Not since Brian Jones and Keith Richards traded leads had a rock band played so fluidly, the dials turned to 11, guitars ping-ponging back and forth so intriguingly the listener puzzled over who played what. While it’s Verlaine and Richard Lloyd that rock critters value most when trading Guitar God player cards, it was Quine and Julian who, behind Hell’s voice and on his songs, sparked absolute revved-up magic. Based on the way they so heedlessly took it to the limit, based on the virtuosic talents of their tandem, the Voidoids had more in common with bands fronted by Little Walter or, say, Charlie Parker than with the Ramones.

Blank Generation came out on Sire in 1977, graduating in the same class as Talking Heads 77, Television’s Marquis Moon and The Clash. Weirdly, it got a lot less attention than its classmates. Label head Seymour Stein soon sent Hell on a tour backing the Clash across 19 dates in the U.K. In his memoir I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp Richard makes the tour sound, well, hellish; in the liner notes here he summarizes the misery as “the record company … didn’t get the album into U.K. stores in time for the tour and ordained the daily torture of multi-hour travel in a mini-car (not mini-van) crammed with five people (four band members and a road manager.)”

Experiences like that, plus Hell’s resistance to fully, you know, master his instrument, led to his resistance to touring, that is, getting his music exposed outside Manhattan. Big in New York and London; in Peoria they absorbed the fake news that the Knack was punk.

One thing about Blank Generation that’s relevant here was that Hell was such a perfectionist, he literally made the record twice. He recounts in his memoir how, dissatisfied with the tracks recorded on an initial foray into the studio, even with an album his record company deemed finished, he moved to a new studio and started all over again.

Such a mindset explains why, after Destiny Street was made with him so untogether he couldn’t even show up for the overdubs, Hell would want to perfect it. Three years after the record was released, having kicked drugs and regained his strength, he set out on the nearly four-decade path that brings us to Destiny Street Complete.

*

Around the time that a sober Hell was beginning to regret what he thought was a mess of a second record, a German scholar named Hans Walter Gabler persuaded the James Joyce Estate that he could “fix” what he claimed were 5,000 errors in the text of Ulysses. As if… Not surprisingly, given that a new edition would re-up their copyright, they went for it. Henceforth, or so was the plan, editions of Ulysses would consist of the amended version – until an unheralded American named John Kidd blew the whole thing up by showing that the original was better than the “perfected” version. 

Imagine that: a work of brilliance that couldn’t be improved upon. Or at least that was better than the subsequent effort to improve it.

When Hell released, in 2010, Destiny Street Repaired, I didn’t like it, and said so. To me, the concept was off. Thirty years after producing the demos, the mature, resourceful Hell had gone back into the studio with New York guitar stalwarts Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell and, atop the basic tracks recorded in ’81-’82, reworked the songs, including, here and there, new vocals. The problem was, to a fan like me, it really didn’t work. I couldn’t hear it as an improvement over its wild, exhilarating 1982 release.

Part of the magic of Destiny Street, like the best elements of Blank Generation, was that the Voidoids sounded like a runaway train. What Richard came back with seemed tamed, not repaired – a 50-year-old man correcting the mistakes of his 30-year-old self. The impulse was understandable — who among us wouldn’t take such a mulligan, such a chance to redirect our 30-year old self to do what we did then better? My first novel was published when I was 31, and sure, I’d like to edit some passages from it — but I’d never be able to match the energy, the anger, the impulses that created it. Rock’n’roll is a young man’s game and, it seemed to me, the results were about what you might expect. I said so then, and definitely hurt Richard’s feelings. I don’t know what the critical reaction was beyond what Tulip Frenzy declared to its vast global readership, but it seemed then that to adore Destiny Street, as some of us really did, was to love the original, warts, warbling, screeching guitar and all. With respect and empathy for the artist, we went back to playing the record we cherished.

*

On Destiny Street Complete, you can hear the original version, remastered and gorgeous. You can hear a remastered version of Destiny Street Repaired, which you should, if only to compare it to its wilder early self. (And who knows, maybe you’ll love it! In this version, I find it far stronger than I remembered.) Both versions are on Disc 1.

What makes Destiny Street Complete complete is Richard’s newest incarnation of the album, which he calls Destiny Street Remixed, as well as his oldest version — the incredible demos made between ’79 and ’81.

Remixed takes the original 24-track masters of seven of the 10 songs and brings them to new life. Because the masters of three of the original 10 songs are still missing, the versions of “Lowest Common Dominator,” “Downtown at Dawn,” and “Staring In Her Eyes” on Remixed are products of the Repaired sessions. Overall, the mix is really good — more expansive, not nearly so compressed as the early CD version of the original sounded. Remixed becomes the definitive version, though not uniformly, as we shall see.

The album opener, The Kid With The Replaceable Head was written by Hell with hit single ambitions. It just might have become one, in a more perfect world. Here, it hits with brute force and humor. Naux (the late Juan Maciel, who replaced Ivan Julian in this incarnation of the Voidoids) takes the first lead, Quine the second, and in so doing he yanks everything into the Strato-sphere. The upgrade to Fred Maher on drums is immediately noticeable. Now it’s not just the guitars that swing. On as catchy a pop song as he could write, Hell sings with swagger and it is pure delight.

Next up: Ray Davies’ I Gotta Move, one of three cover songs on the album. This is a showcase for Naux, and Maher’s drumming is front and center. By taking the Kinks’ ‘60s British Invasion album track and repurposing it as punk, Hell makes his point about links between late ’70s rock’n’roll (or as he would spell it, “rock and roll”) and the music all these bands grew up on. It’s a fun cover, but on all three versions this isn’t one of Destiny Street‘s strongest songs.

In contrast, the sublime cover of Dylan’s Going Going Gone is one of the Hell’s best vocal performances, and as Bob Quine owns the last 30 seconds, the Remixed version is stunning. Richard doing “Going Going Gone” is analogous to Jimi Hendrix’s Monterey Festival performance of “Like A Rolling Stone” – the definitive work, ownership forever stolen from the author… you can see Dylan sitting at his desk signing over the rights as if by treaty. In Robbie Robertson’s Testimony, he writes how he got his amazing solo on “Going Going Gone” to sound as it does, using newly acquired strings on his Telecaster that were made of, I seem to recall, unicorn pubes. Here Quine – a guitarist who could combine the lyricism of Mick Taylor and the pyrotechnics of Jeff Beck — bottles lightning in possibly the best consecutive half-minute of his (or anyone’s) career.

Lowest Common Dominator is the Repaired version. Pretty good! In this context hearing Hell’s vocals recorded in 2009 is a little bit like listening to Jagger on “Plundered My Soul” and those other Exile songs that also came out in 2010 – noticeably different from his younger ‘70s voice, lower and flatter but still effective. I may still like the original version more — especially as remastered on Disc 1 — but your mileage may vary: this sounds great.

Downtown At Dawn also uses the track from Repaired, and here we yearn a bit more for the original. One of Hell’s strongest songs, on a theme repeated across his career: what it’s like to be out in Fun City at rock’n’roll clubs in the wee hours. It carries with it the solipsism of partying at the very center of the universe, as if Iggy Pop’s milieu in “Nightclubbing” – “we’re what’s happening” is the boast — has been transferred to New York. Where else — when you’re up late and and stoned — could it possibly be cooler than Lower Manhattan circa 1979, a city as dirty and romantic in the late ‘70s as Berlin. It captures the same mood as Blank Generation‘s “Down At The Rock and Roll Club.” Later, in the demos, “Crack of Dawn” nails it, “Funhunt” too, but “Downtown At Dawn” is the best of the variants. One minute shorter than the original, and muting Hell’s best performance ever on bass, the Repaired version used here misses the crude, ecstatic sparkle of the original, but again. you can decided what you like best.

Time is, by the estimation of Richard Hell and all sentient beings, the best song he ever wrote, a classic, as perfect in its way as “September Gurls”, if what twangs your woogy is chiming American guitar rock. Whether the version served up on Remixed is better than the original is complicated. The mix unearths a Quine filigree in the opening measures that is startling to those whose neural pathways are so well grooved from listening to the original over and over again. From that point on, this mix is pure magic – its sound has expanded like the universe does every second of every day. Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Velázquez “was as good at oil painting as anyone has been at anything,” but I don’t think he’d ever heard Quine play with Hell. A great song that has never sounded better. (Later, the version that Hell and Ivan Julian perform at Quine’s funeral, included with the demos, brings a lump to the throat.)

I Can Only Give You Everything is a rarity – a Richard Hell and the Voidoids cover (of the young Van Morrison’s Them) – that isn’t quite as good as the original. Why? Well — (motions with his hands to emulate a scale) there’s Hell singing and then there is Van Morrison… But still! This is another attempt at rendering a ‘60s “punk” song into an ‘70s/’80s punk song. It could have used a Farfisa to make it a little garage-ier. It’s not the record’s high point.

On Ignore That Door you have the paradigm of a Richard Hell and the Voidoids song and performance. Naux and Quine trade solos – sounds great here! – and Hell’s singing of every phrase is as filled with skronk as the guitars are. The “whoooos” are a ’70s New York rock’n’roll emollient, as pretty as anything Sylvain Sylvain (R.I.P.) might add behind David Johansen on the Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon. Love this. 

The Repaired version of Staring In Her Eyes isn’t the one we’ll play, if only because the original is so strong, and when you’ve downloaded all of Complete on your phone it takes nanoseconds to find it. Fred Maher is a monster, and his drumming steals the show. But the singing here just doesn’t measure up to what was done the first time. I suspect he doesn’t like his singing on the original, but he should!

Okay, we’ve come to the last song from the original, Destiny Street itself, and we need to digress for a moment. The urban funk the Voidoids play so naturally here is a reminder how so much of the early punk rock was a mix of White and Black musical idioms. From the Clash to the Talking Heads, the music was the product of miscegenation. Both incarnations of Voidoids had soul. Ivan Julian, of course, is Black and Hell was perfectly comfortable working in a Black musical artform. This is a strong conclusion to the album, and on Remixed, it sounds wonderful.

If not every one of the Remixed tracks beats the original, it’s okay — Destiny Street Complete has *all* of the tracks from the first two versions, plus a third, plus the demos. I can only give you everything, says Hell, and he has, in a Director’s Cut with extras.

When Dylan HQ released the complete set of every concert from the ’65 tour of Britain, it offered the possibility of going through and finding the versions that the most discerning dumpster-diving fan might like the most. These are the kinds of possibilities open to us here; who cares which song from which version I approve of? They’re all here for your musical delight.

By having Destiny Street complete we can mix and match. My version will be different from yours. I’ll listen to the new cut of “Going Going Gone” ‘til my hard drive wears out. I’ll always return to the first take of Downtown At Dawn.” Always.

*

In the liner notes, Hell reports that “in both the Repaired and Remixed sessions I was going for the same thing, the sound of a little combo playing real gone rock and roll, something like what I grew up on. This despite the fact that the playing and attitude isn’t much like that. It’s in fact redolent of the early ‘80s: a still deeply dilapidated New York in which cocaine and its type of desperation abounded, along with new warehouse-sized dance clubs; the guitars on the tracks often sound almost like synthesizers. Inevitably it’s an artifact of a specific time and place.”

Photo Courtesy of Rebecca Semyne

By the time Hell was back in the studio with the Voidoids to make this record, CBGB, TR3, the Mudd Club and Hurrah had given way to the Peppermint Lounge and Danceteria. (There was still Maxwell’s, a rumpus room comfortably established across the Hudson in New Jersey, but I can’t really imagine the Voidoids playing there.) For me, then as now, Destiny Street was the ultimate fin de siècle record. Daido Moriyama refers to photographs as “fossils of light and time,” and in this way, Destiny Street is a snapshot of a moment not just in Richard Hell’s life, but in mine – which may account for why I have been protective of it, not wanting even its creator to change it. For it wasn’t just the end of a New York era, it was the end of my era in New York, my personal exit from the louche world of a rock critic staying out late at night, just as I’d worked my way up the food chain from New York Rocker to Rolling Stone. As this album came out, I had already stopped resisting being pulled into, of all things, politics, ultimately leading to a new career in a new town. It’s like this was the album that was playing when the music stopped.

I salute Richard for his monomania, his ethic, his recovery and perseverance in making things right. He recorded Blank Generation twice, to get the sound he wanted. He has now produced, over four decades, three + versions of Destiny Street, all built off of those three weeks in which 10 songs were laid down on analog tape. During one of those weeks, he was too “fragile” to leave his pad. And yet the record got done. And now twice more over. And finally to his liking — though he, and his record label, are generous enough to let us have it all, to let us choose what we want.

This is and always has been a great album.  Destiny Street Complete is a sprawling compendium, and Richard Hell has finally gotten it all together. 

Your Snow Day Soundtrack: Phil Parfitt’s “Mental Home Recordings”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 16, 2020 by johnbuckley100

Phil Parfitt was the leader of the great British band The Perfect Disaster, whose late’80s/early ’90s run produced two of the best post-Velvet Underground albums of the era, Up, and especially, Heaven Scent. While the Perfect Disaster are perhaps remembered more as the band that introduced us to Josephine Wiggs, who went on to play bass for The Breeders, we still listen to them regularly, beguiled as ever we were by their chugging beat, by Parfitt’s vulnerability as a more sensitive singer/songwriter in the spirit of Lou Reed.

In the mid-’90s, Parfitt returned with a solo album under the band name of Oedipussy, and in these very pages, we asked, “Is Oedipussy’s Divan the great lost album of the ’90s?”

We wrote that in early 2009, and nearly 12 years on, we can answer authoritatively, Yes, yes it was. But while Oedipussy’s album may have been lost, happily Parfitt wasn’t, releasing, in 2014, a quietly gorgeous record entitled I’m Not The Man I Used To Be. Now, saying you’re not the man you used to be can either indicate a belief you’ve been diminished or that your character has improved. From a rock’n’roll standpoint, Parfitt’s record was less than his work with The Perfect Disaster or Oedipussy. But in terms of his contribution to the world of music, an argument can be made that his album’s impact was even greater than what came before it.

And now we have, in this year of Covid when so much work has been done quietly at home, away from the hurly burly, Mental Home Recordings. These recordings are, in a word, gorgeous. An entry into the pantheon of quiet, acoustic-based but thrilling music from the U.K. — think Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, the less jangly, dare we say sincere side of Robyn Hitchcock.

These songs may have been recorded at home, but the strings that have been added to the sound of Parfitt and his acoustic guitar attest to a studio. “I Saw There Beside Me” really could have been recorded in Tupelo by Van the Man. There are hints throughout of Big Star’s Sister Lovers, and I don’t mean that in terms of his cracking up, even though the album’s title might allude to tough times. I mean that in terms of the spare, but beautiful arrangements, the little off-kilter touches, such as on “John Clare.” It’s about the British Romantic poet who finished up his years in an asylum, living in his mind — and it’s absolutely stunning and affecting, its afterglow lasting. Only “All Fucked Up” asserts itself as a more up-tempo pop song, for this is an album of quiet gems, gleaming on a velvet pillow. “Bones Cold” may be the prettiest song I listened to this year not performed by Fenne Lily. “My Love” is certainly the least sappy clutcher of heartstrings we’ve ever heard.

Phil Parfitt is not the man he used to be, if by that we mean he’s produced a second solo album to put on while sitting by a crackling fire, and not — as was the case with both his prior bands — an album to dance and dream to, propelled along like the Velvets were by Maureen Tucker’s drumming.

For those today on the East Coast of the U.S., watching the snow fall and preparing to stay indoors, here’s how to entertain yourself: listen to the gorgeous songs from these Mental Home Recordings. Listen to a mature and thoughtful songwriter work in the full prime of his talents.

Fenne Lily’s “BREACH” is Tulip Frenzy’s 2020 Album of the Year

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2020 by johnbuckley100

2020 was a year that hurt to the touch. It was bewildering to go from winter’s bright promise to the abrupt Covid lockdown, and for all too many it was utterly devastating. Calendar years are not supposed to bring their own set of terrors, but this one did, from fears of a stolen election to worries about the health of loved ones. Sitting at home those first few months, I found myself listening to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” over and over, as if repeated listening under teeth-grinding home confinement would lead to figuring it out, finally. In the weeks — in the months — that followed, I could listen only to music with a melodic, jangly aspect, which could account for why the 12th Tulip Frenzy Top 10 list might be, for the first time, satisfactory to people in my age cohort. It was not a year for punk rock.

There were some great re-issues this year. Wire was the last band we saw before the lockdown — crazily going to see them in March in a small club the week their U.S. tour was canceled and, on the home front, we shut down our office, but I was so glad to hear them play “German Shepherds” from their 2011 Strays E.P., which in May was released as part of the 10:20 collection of loose ends. An absolutely unexpected joy was discovering Anthony Moore’s Out, recorded in the mid-70s, released only in the mid-90s, and finally brought to my attention in September — an album that could live side-by-side with John Cale’s Fear and Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, with a band comprising Kevin Ayers on bass and a pre-Police Andy Summers on guitar. It is astonishing, and I urge you — with that same tone of voice that one suggests wearing a mask until the vaccine arrives — to quickly find it. Speaking of Eno, his Film Music 1976-2020 was filled with delights, particularly the track “Beach Sequence,” recorded with the four members of U2. And just last week came a 40th Anniversary release of Young Marble Giant’s Collosal Youth, which hasn’t aged a bit.

I feel compelled to call out an album that did not make it on this year’s Top 10 List. Over at Uncut, they list Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways as Album of the Year, and we get it. It was a great work of Late Phase Bob, worthy of official recognition. But while we yield to no humanoid when it comes to our belief that Old Man Dylan is at least the equal of Young Man Dylan, our actual listening to his 21st Century albums, at least more than a few times, culminated in Tell Tale Signs, that 2009 alternative-arrangement epic our team voted Album of the Year. So, we are not going to honor the 79-year old Nobel Laureate here. But just you wait til we tell you about this year’s winner, the 23-year old Fenne Lily.

On to the list…

#10. S. G. Goodman Old Time Feeling

I listened to S.G. Goodman’s debut album with the same astonishment and wide-mouthed joy that I greeted Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac more than 20 years ago — the last time an alt.country rec seized me like the slow disorienting rush of ingested windowpane. If, like me, you think of modern country as the battle between smug, faux outsiders and the still-wonderful real McCoy, then a lesbian classicist from rural Kentucky could pleasingly harken to memories of ’70s Outlaw Country leavened by the brilliant insights of a Resistance poet in Mitch McConnell’s backyard. The title song was one of the best rock’n’roll rippers of the year. Maybe when the political scientists try figuring out the 2020 election, they can parse these lyrics which kicked it off:

Oh, and my soul can’t afford those city lights
Not with the sickness in the countryside
Not with the wound that we’ve left open wide
Oh, believer, you be the healer
Can’t hear the peace train with that coal train gunning
To keep the peace you’ll keep that coal train running
Or find a way to keep those paychecks coming, ah-ah

One of the fiercest debates we had to moderate in the Tulip Frenzy HQ’s rec room was whether Goodman or Waxahatchee should round out the list, but while we loved the latter’s St. Cloud, the sheer grit of Old Time Feeling captured the final rung of the ladder and would not let go.

We’re not living in that Old Time Feeling, the remarkable S.G. Goodman sang on an album at once sympathetic to the land of her birth without ever falling into simplistic Hillbilly elegies. An astonishing country album by an artist going places even as she refuses to leave home.

#9. Vacant Lots Interzone

By the advent of summer, we were able to listen to things more adventuresome, harder edged than our springtime quest for melody had allowed, but even as Vacant Lots use electronica to establish the mood, they are brilliant and tuneful songwriters, and we welcomed their dark vision, their Blade Runner mise en-scene. In the spiritual rainy day weather of 2020, starting an album with a song called “Endless Rain” hit the spot. They’re the only band I can think of to mix rockabilly, disco and drum machines in a single song, and I find them irresistible either as foreground or background music, which is saying something.

While perhaps a little less gripping than Endless Night, which hit #5 on the 2017 Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List, the Vacant Lots showed on Interzone that they’re just hitting their stride. While their more recent release of odds and ends (November’s first rate Damage Control) revealed just how powerful an influence Anton Newcombe has had on the duo from Burlington, Vermont, Interzone shows just how well they’ve perfected the interplay between guitar and synths, and between dystopia and bliss.

#8. The Proper Ornaments Mission Bells

James Hoare’s band, The Proper Ornaments, rose from the ashes of the incredible Ultimate Painting, which sadly split in a messy divorce. While Jack Cooper recuperates with Modern Nature, who put out their own E.P. of bucolic music early in the summer, Hoare’s Proper Ornaments released another perfect example of quiet British pop. Mission Bells is an album that met the moment, gorgeous, a peaceful interior that occasionally raged with an undercurrent of angst. We listened to it so often during the early Covid lockdown that we began to associate it with sweatpants, sleeping through our anachronistic commuter’s alarm, and drinking coffee while avoiding the news. As pretty a homemade pop album as you will ever find, if you’re one of those people who like to follow up Nick Drake’s Pink Moon by putting on Rubber Soul, then Mission Bells is for you — and the antidote to the year’s disturbing headlines.

#7 Coriky Coriky

Ian Mackaye — he explains to non-Washingtonians — was Fugazi’s leader, co-singer, co-guitarist, co-songwriter. We credit him with quite deceptively keeping the whirlwind tightly controlled: it’s perhaps only in retrospect that the craftsmanship of his songs fully resonate with pop sensibilities — particularly the verse, chorus, nuclear war song structure also embraced by ’80s/’90s acts like the Pixies and Nirvana — revealed underneath the more obvious hardcore armor. Subsequently, with wife Amy Farina on vox + drums, Mackaye followed the breakup of Fugazi with The Evens, a band deliberately constructed for quiet mayhem — nearly as propulsive as his earlier bands, but with the duo able to play in the basement corner of a church, shunning the clinking bottles and boozy talk of bars and clubs with big stages. It has been eight long years since The Evens released The Odds, and so Mackaye and Farina’s return would be news enough. Yet their enlisting Fugazi and Messthetics bass player Joe Lally to join the fun just ensured that Coriky would be absolutely fucking brilliant.

From the opener, “Clean Kill” — which could easily have been on *both* Fugazi and The Evens’ set list — the quiet, understated poignancy of Mackaye, Farina and Lally’s playing blooms into something far more dynamic, and it clutched our heart and brain. When the song explodes, you’ll be forgiven for believing it to be a time bomb from Fugazi’s brilliant exit album, The Argument.

You don’t have to be from D.C. to grasp Coriky’s greatness, though it helps. This is an album that should rank high on every critic’s 2020 list, because like Mackaye’s earlier bands, we’ll be playing their music forever. And yet one of Mackaye’s most admirable traits is ambivalence about stardom, which is a reason you probably didn’t hear of The Evens or Coriky til we just told you about them. Confound Mackaye’s desire to remain subversively unnoticed: seek this album out.

#6. Death Valley Girls Under The Spell of Joy

It’s really hard to do what the Death Valley Girls accomplish on their magnificent Under the Spell of Joy. Since the earliest days of New Wave, or at least since Blondie, literally thousands of bands have tried grafting Girl Group sensibilities onto garage rock, with mixed results. On this album, though, the LA band has created a Phil Spector + garage band richness, even using a children’s chorus to round out the sound of sax, organ and riffing guitar. Like singers in the best Girl Groups, Bonnie Bloomgarden doesn’t have a classically great voice, but she gets the job done. Fans of First Communion Afterparty will recognize some of the psych song structures, and I can imagine Jason Pierce and his Spiritualized bandmates nodding their heads to this ‘un. From dance songs like “Little Things” and “Hold My Hand” to the cosmic verities of “The Universe,” Death Valley Girls are equally catchy and deep — again, hard to pull off. The music is familiar and original at the same time, beautiful and thrilling. The late Alan Betrock, who in addition to founding New York Rocker and producing Richard Hell’s Destiny Street and the first dBs album was a Girl Group aficionado, must be smiling in Heaven. In 2020, a miserable year, we are so glad we fell under the spell of joy.

#5. Kelley Stoltz Ah! (etc)

If any artist could thrive under Covid lockdown, it would be Kelley Stoltz. After all, he’s released 12 albums under his own name (and several others under pseudonyms) with nary a guest backup singer — Stoltz plays every instrument himself* — so adapting to an at-home environment would seem to be easier for him than, say, Wilco, or the far-flung New Pornographers. And sure enough, while earlier in the year he released a hard-rocking gem (Hard Feelings, recorded in 2019), November saw Ah! (etc), and this album recorded under semi-confinement is a delight.

Since 2008, when Tulip Frenzy was spawned, few are the years in which we did not feature one of Kelley’s albums in our Top 10. History has proved there are only two kinds of Kelly Stoltz albums — good ones and great ones. Ah! (etc) is a great one.

What’s the difference? Well, the best Kelley Stoltz albums make ample use of Kelley’s songwriting influences (Ray Davies, David Bowie circa ’70-’83, Echo and The Bunnymen), compounded by his genius for song arrangements, and most importantly his ability to stitch together multiple instruments into what sounds not just like a band, but a great band. Like, a Rolling Stones great band. He is sui generis, nonpareil, a complete original operating inside the confines of the kind of pop music that has always twanged our woogie. While Que Aura shared album of the year honors in 2017, several of his best works have, due to intense competition, just missed the highest mark, as this one does. But give him points for consistency: no artist has been on our list more often (we had an intern check.)

Listen to “Dodged a Bullet” from Ah! (etc) and you’ll instantly see why Kelley’s claimed his customary spot in our Top 5. It sports an Enoesque processed guitar sound, inventive drumming, a solid bass track, and Kelley’s voice. That’s all you need! He never lets you see him sweat even as he casts his hooks deep into the surf. You never know which instrument is going to reveal itself as Kelley’s favorite (on this ‘un, the drums, though pretty often it’s the bass.)

We’re happy to discover that the fella who operates out of Brookyn Vegan‘s Indie Basement shares our mania for all things Kelley. Isn’t it time you did too?

*On Ah! (etc), Stoltz pal and sometimes bandmate in Echo and the Bunnymen, Will Sergeant, plays lead guitar on one track, and adds spoken words to another, thus breaking up, so far as I know, Stoltz’s perfect record of solo album performances.

#4. Woods Strange To Explain

In the early days of the lockdown, there was something weirdly reassuring to hear songs from Woods’ wonderful Strange to Explain, which returns one of America’s cultural gems back to the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List. It wasn’t just that Jeremy Earle’s songs were beautiful and inventive, it was his thematic exploration of dreaming — and particularly, the dream life of his infant daughter. Not just the sound, but the lyrics met the moment. I dunno, it’s strange to explain.

The last outing for Earle and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Jarvis Traveniere was on last year’s release by Purple Mountains — the band Silver Jews leader David Berman formed around the nucleus of Woods to record what turned out to be his final songs. Their album entered the world to accolades — and Berman promptly committed suicide. To go from such trauma to such a gorgeous, beguiling album as Strange To Explain is a testament to Woods’ enormous courage, not to mention talent.

Look, we loved the Woods of Bend Beyond, but by the time they got to Love is Love (2017), it seemed like their need to showcase, maybe even show off their musical growth took them to playing different idioms at the expense of revealing their heart. It would seem the twin events in Earle’s life — becoming a father and losing a friend to suicide — shook them hard. The result is an album at least as satisfying as anything they’ve done before. It still shows off their growth, their enormous collective talent — utilizing synths and mellotron, playing Mexicali music as well as Calexico — but this is an album that works as a whole, from beginning to end.

Given the regrets we have for 2020, we’re grateful to have Woods return, like an old friend, with a new batch of primo, weirdo songs.

#3. Angel Olsen Whole New Mess

Last year, when we put Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors in the #9 slot on our Top Ten List, we wrote, “We don’t think there has ever been an album that has made the Tulip Frenzy Top 10 List (c) that we have played less. Some of its absence from our car stereo speakers is that Mrs. Tulip Frenzy is not a fan, but mostly it’s that Olsen’s album, like her voice and the string arrangements on it, is so intense, one has to lash himself to the car’s hood ornament in order to glide past the Sirens’ Songs contained herein.”

We meant it: All Mirrors had great songs, incredible performances, but there was something about it that was so over the top, we could recognize its excellence without loving it. So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that, as she had promised when All Mirrors came out, Olsen really did intend to release into the world the original version of the album that she had recorded, before going back into the studio to add what amounted to a bucket of gloss.

Whole New Mess isn’t a reissue – it’s an album in the same spirit as Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks, in which the artist allows the world to see the earlier, unadulterated vision. As with Dylan’s release of a less adorned version of his classic Blood on the Tracks, Angel Olsen’s giving us these songs in this form is like walking into the Sistine Chapel fresh from its restoration.

On a song like “(New Love) Cassette” (which on Whole New Mess was called “New Love Cassette”), not too much has changed. But on the very next song, the standout of last year’s album, “All Mirrors” (here called “We Are All Mirrors,”) the absence of varnish, the more understated approach is, to these ears, so much stronger. “Lark Song” minus strings sounds like it could be a cover of a track by the Velvet Underground, so great is the transformation, or I guess we should say, restoration.

We wish more artists had the courage to show us their faces without their makeup. To trust fans, as PJ Harvey just did with the demo release of To Bring You My Love, with the knowledge that sometimes the rawer version of a recording is better than what the record label dictated should go out into the world. Dylan regularly gives us alternative arrangements of songs long since deemed classics. That a comparatively young artist such as Angel Olsen is doing so shows the kind of vision that can make an artist’s career last every bit as long as our Nobel Laureate’s.

#2. Oh Sees Protean Threat

We said that 2020 was not a year for punk rock, so obviously we must have been in a better place — psychologically, if not physically — when, in August, Oh Sees released their brilliant Protean Threat. While it’s not exactly punk — John Dwyer’s combo, whether you call them Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, OSEES or OCS, have settled into very much their own gooey puree of jazz fusion, Krautrock, metal, noise rock and psych — Protean Threat was the hardest, loudest album we listened to this year.

We were glad to do so, though admittedly, we didn’t get it at first. Unlike others who fell down as drooling supplicants before Oh Sees’s 2019 Face Stabber, we didn’t much like it. And longtime readers of this list surely know, that was strange since Thee Oh Sees are one of our favorite bands. So of course we gave Protean Threat a serious listen, and while it took a few tries, once we accommodated ourselves to its complex structure, all the magic of John Dwyer leading the tightest progrock combo on the planet hit us hard. You might even say it stabbed us in the face.

Now, just a few weeks ago, the good folks at Levitation in Austin released a show — originally streamed live — of Oh Sees playing in Joshua Tree (see: Levitation Sessions Live: Thee Oh Sees & Oh Sees), and you can get a sense of just how tight these guys are in the wild: double drummers playing with polyrhythmic perversity, with just a bass player and keyboards behind Dwyer on vox + guitar. In the studio, they are welded.

Just before Protean Threat came out, Dwyer gave us an album by Bent Arcana, his actual jazz-fusion band, with an entirely different set of players. No vocals on that one, just a more reverent take on the genre. It’s so calm and polite compared to the wildness contained herein. Even in Covid year, I guess, we needed an outlet, and the return of Oh Sees to our earbuds gave it to us.

##1. Fenne Lily BREACH

We’re willing to bet boatloads of cryptocurrency this is the one and only time that Fenne Lily and Oh Sees will ever appear back to back — in print, on stage, or anyone’s playlist. For as loud as the latter is, Lily’s music is quiet, tuneful folk pop, catchy as a certain flu from Wuhan, emotionally magnetic.

I dunno, maybe the raw knuckled disorientation of 2020 brought out a latent need to watch romcoms, to care about a young woman’s heartbreaks. All we know is that we’ve never been so drawn into an album where our dominant emotion could be classified as parental concern. When you hear lyrics like, “I gave up smoking when I was coughing up blood/And when I felt better I took it straight back up,” you want to do something about it. With so many of the biting, beautiful songs addressed to an unnamed “you,” we found ourselves wondering whether it was all the same guy who treated her so badly, or a series of guys, and — like any clueless parent — we didn’t know which was worse.

All we know is that this 23-year old from Bristol, England has produced a pop album that is an instant classic. With a quiet, breathy voice — in a completely different weight class to Angel Olsen’s — you strain to hear it. And yet it packs an emotional wallop. In a chorus that goes, “You’re telling me I’m in your head like it’s a good thing/Telling me she’s in your bed like it was nothing,” the vocal tone, melodic impact and devastating words come together like a sealed indictment.

She can rock, too. “Solipsism” is one of the best garage pop songs of this or any era, a softer version of what Courtney Barnett did so effectively on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Our only wish here is that two of the singles Lily released in 2020, “Hypochondriac,” and “To Be A Woman, Pt. 2,” had been included, as they’re clearly part of the same song cycle.

“I Used To Hate My Body But Now I Just Hate You” may be the album’s summary statement and most effective moment.

“I read all of the books you recommended/I listened to your friend’s band all of the time/You justify and satiate my hunger/For not feeling alright,” she tells her ex.

But later, when she gets to her biggest putdown, she reveals more about herself than him: “I heard you live at home now with your parents/It doesn’t satisfy me like it should/I still see you as some kind of reassurance/That someday I’ll be understood.”

If quoting such lyrics seems out of character for Tulip Frenzy, Breach is that kind of album, and 2020 was that kind of year.

My Humble Homage To Stephen Shore’s “Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 29, 2020 by johnbuckley100

The image above is taken on the shore of the Snake River, a few yards from the bike and pedestrian bridge that connects Jackson, Wyoming with the smaller town of Wilson. Wilson Beach, as the swimming area is called, is a section of the Snake with braids and channels that are shallow enough for children to swim safely from mid-summer onward, when the potato farmers on the other side of the Tetons in Idaho have ceased calling for high allotments of water to be released upstream at the Jackson Lake Dam. It is a peaceful, fun, American swimming hole. I call the picture Snake River, Jackson, Wyoming, 2020. There’s a reason why.

The picture above is Stephen Shore’s Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest photographs taken in the second half of the 20th Century. It belongs high in the pantheon of Western United States landscape photographs, but it is so much more.

The “M” of the river bend mimics the “M” of the mountains in the same way that Cartier-Bresson’s man leaping across the puddle in Behind The Gare Saint-Lazare mimics the dancer in the poster on the wall behind him. It presages Stephen Wilkes’ great Day To Night series of images, where, from a position high above the action, he is able to focus in on individuals moving across a crowded scene. Shot with, presumably, a large-format camera using Kodak Portra or some other pale, blue-tinted film of the late 1970s, this image, to me, captures a moment in time so perfectly, it may as well be one of Gregory Crewdson’s staged tableaux.

I love street photography and landscape photography in equal but different ways. The best landscape photography naturalistically captures the sublime. There can be tremendous drama, as in Sebastião Salgado’s amazing Genesis project. But while beauty is more of the point in landscape photography than in street photography, the best landscape images, to me, have beauty as not so much the object but a byproduct of otherwise elevating the Earth and sky as twin actors in a drama that inspires awe.

Shore — the once-young tyro who, along with William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz, elevated color photography to museum status — made his mark capturing the humdrum banality of American towns and cities. His work was only incidentally beautiful. He started, we have grown to understand, as a conceptual artist whose approach to photography could be glimpsed on many levels. His Yosemite picture above was, for me, the key to unlocking, and appreciating — loving — his work.

For years, I have had his image in mind as I’ve spent time in U.S. national parks, particularly Grand Teton National Park. The image above was taken about eight miles south of the entrance to GTNP, but that’s not the point — everything in Jackson Hole can be viewed as part of the Teton park. I walk the levee by the river fairly often when out in Wyoming, and almost always bring a camera. This past Sunday, carrying the Leica M10-R — not a large-format camera, but a capable tool — I walked by this scene and something inside me — that voice that shouts to a photographer that there is a picture worth making, if only you can — directed me to take this image.

It’s an act of conceit to think any image I would take is worth mentioning in the same paragraph as Stephen Shore’s image. And yet, even as it is consciously/unconsciously derivative of his great image, this image stands, to me, as one of the best pictures I’ve ever made. I offer it as an homage to Stephen Shore’s great picture, before which I genuflect.

Concluding “D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 9, 2020 by johnbuckley100

All images Leica SL2, with the 24-90 or 16-35 Vario-Elmarit lenses

It was eight weeks ago yesterday that the partners at the Washington, D.C. firm in which I work told our team that, for the foreseeable future, we would conduct business from home. In the office lobby where we had assembled everyone — in contravention of social distancing rules we would all soon learn — people exhibited a combination of relief, fear and a little bit of excitement at the adventure ahead of us. I told people that we would be apart for “at least the next two weeks.” That seems almost funny now.

Yesterday, Mayor Bowser — proving to be far more concerned about the safety of her citizens than the man in the big white house on 18 acres in the city center — let us know our indefinite lockdown still has some time on the clock.

Keeping a city of 700,000 at home while a pandemic rages is a hard thing to do, especially as the calendar has moved from the late winter cold through Washington’s genuinely epic spring season. We’ve been good about social distancing, Mrs. Tulip Frenzy and I, but as early as March 18th, I began walking around the city — often at dawn or at sunset, after working from home — embarked on a photo project. My goal has been to capture D.C. under quarantine, but in a very specific way we will get to in a moment. Aside from the initial reportage cited above, I have updated this project here once. Today — perhaps fittingly, a blustery, cold day that seems like the clock has been reset to mid-March — I bring it to a conclusion.

The project I embarked on two months ago was to capture the weirdness and beauty of Washington under wraps during its most beautiful season. I probably would have used my Leica SL2 to capture the Tulip Frenzy, and after it, the Azalea Frenzy, but when in the city, as readers of this site know, I am partial to black & white photography — to street photography that reflects the sublime grit of urban life. Under the lockdown, I was, if not shut off from the streets — in which I’d have to keep far greater distance from other people than I’d like — then at least encouraged to stay home, to stay in my Northwest DC neighborhood. And to the extent I went to public spaces, the quadrant I kept in was the D.C. that tourists inhabit — the Mall, the Georgetown waterfront, the Kennedy Center. White D.C. Safe D.C. Perhaps not coincidentally, the city’s most picturesque parts.

Which led to this inversion of my life, and approach. The approach I take when living not in the city but out West — early morning and sunset landscapes — was grafted onto my experience here, and I began to shoot urban landscapes with an emphasis on how beautiful the environment is, flowers in bloom, people mostly absent. It was different and thrilling. At first.

I began looking at the city from new angles, in new ways. And as I posted images on Instagram (@tulip_frenzy), I learned that in the lockdown, many of my friends were spending more time on Insta than usual, and posting color pictures of our city in bloom was cheering people up. And so, for a while there, it seemed I had a purpose — which you need during a lockdown! I resigned myself to deviate from the kind of photography I typically do when at home in D.C., in part due tocircumstances, in part as a social service. Or such was the rationale. My non-work hours were given over to driving to the Mall or other locations and going on walks, camera in hand, in search of good light. The earlier posts linked to above capture that journey. This final collection shows how late April and May progressed.

For a while there, it rained a lot, and one night I went out to see what I could find. I started by going to Ben’s Chili Bowl, on a deserted U Street, the night that Congress voted to replenish funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. Ben’s, a D.C. institution that has brought people together in a racially divided city for 60 years, was reportedly in dire straits, having been shut out of the first round of federal funds. It seemed outrageous that Congress was appropriating trillions of dollars, and yet an institution like Ben’s was dying for lack of access to it.

To drive through D.C. streets on a rainy spring evening with virtually no one visible — pedestrian or motorist — was passing strange. The drive to Capitol Hill was eerie.

At the Capitol, a lone staffer emerged in the rain hours after the vote to fund the PPP (which, happily, as it turned out, was able to provide Ben’s a lifeline.)

On my way home that night, I drove near my office and saw a sight that made me pull over and jump out with my camera. A man who seemed to be having difficulty staying upright peddled a bike in wobbly loops in front of the closed Tiffany’s jewelry store on 10th Street. It was too alluring not to try capturing it, which imperfectly I did.

As time progressed, more and more people came out during the daylight hours. Wisconsin Avenue was far more crowded with cars each passing day. I would drive to pick up my salad from the SweetGreen, usually listening to reports on the radio about the hellish conditions in New York, where people were dying by the hundreds. The journey which in March had seemed like I was the only soul braving such adventures, now had actual traffic. In the evening, when I’d go out with camera in hand, people were exulting in the spring weather.

Of course they were; it was springtime in Washington, which is to say, springtime in America’s most beautiful city in that season. And they had been — all of us had been — cooped up for weeks.

And yet, as the federal response from the White House faltered until they just seemed to give up… and guidance on social distancing and wearing masks seemed to be contradicted every day… until that crescendo of derp in which the president urged us to shoot up Clorox, even in D.C., there were signs that people weren’t taking seriously what needed to be done.

And then came the flyover by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, a welcome entertainment and a lovely thanks to the medical workers, but catnip for luring people out in the kinds of crowds we weren’t supposed to be in.

While my photography is decidedly not aimed at finding the visual juxtapositions and humor that are hallmarks of artists like Elliot Erwitt, Pentti Samhallatti or Craig Semetko, perhaps my favorite image from the entire project is this one below, in which the bird clearly did not get the memo about which direction air traffic control was sending those lucky enough to have wings.

I continued going out, camera in hand, taking pictures of our city under glorious light and bizarre circumstances.

As time went on, though — and it became ever more clear that the lockdown wasn’t for a short spell, but would likely continue into summer — I began missing my beloved Leica Monochrom, and the ability to take pictures in black & white. Mentally, although perhaps not in practice, I began to rebel against the self-imposed prohibition against street photography, because by definition it meant being in contact with people. One night I went to the Key Bridge and took landscape photos up and down the river at sunset.

The moon was coming up over the bend in the Potomac in front of the Kennedy Center. And to the Northwest, the Potomac flowed under the spires of Georgetown University. It was breathtaking, honestly, crossing the bridge as traffic went by, a few hundred feet above the river, staring at the scene below.

A short while later, as I walked back up into Georgetown’s empty streets where I’d parked my car, I took a photo that reminded me of the kinds of pictures I missed taking.

Earlier that day, Peter Fetterman — the great L.A.-based gallerist who has been posting images from his collection since the lockdown began there — had emailed the black & white image Willy Ronis took in 1934 of Rue Muller à Montmartre. It was foggy and mysterious and it made me think of the Exorcist Steps, so I walked over to them just as that woman above was ascending. This seemed like the photography I should be doing.

It has been a strange couple of months, and a highlight has been capturing these urban landscapes in a city I love. But I’ve decided to end the project here, on a high note, and get back to taking photographs in black & white. I wish everyone good health as we get through the pandemic. I’m going to continue taking pictures, just not part of this formal project of capturing DC Under Quarantine, as I’ve called it. It’s fitting that the last picture posted here would be of the U.S. Capitol on a beautiful evening, as the first picture in this project was of the Washington Monument at dawn. A beautiful city. A strange set of circumstances. Please stay well.

The full gallery of John Buckley’s images documenting D.C. under the Covid-19 pandemic can be found here. His Instagram feed is found @tulip_frenzy

Update To “D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2020 by johnbuckley100
All images Leica SL2, daily feed @tulip_frenzy on Instagram

In the second half of March, I began to visually document the Nation’s Capital under the soft quarantine imposed by our mayor after Covid-19 began to spread. It was, at first, a suggestion we stay home, and my office depopulated in advance of the more restrictive order that came a short time later. Mindful of safety, and taking precautions, I still went out, often early, sometimes at dusk, to try capturing D.C. in its prettiest season, and to document life under quarantine.

I became as highly attentive to weather forecasts and the times the sun would rise and set as my wife and I are when we’re out West, and color landscape photography in a mountain valley, not street photography in the city we live in most of the year, is the objective.

The city was, at is always is in spring, amazingly beautiful, as the tulip frenzy progressed to Easter. It was eery to go on walks and see virtually no one, the citizens of the capital city having gotten the message to stay home even as the White House flopped around in incompetence and indecision. I found I was oddly suited for the absence of direct human contact, and the conversion of my urban street photography into something akin to urban landscape photography.

On bright and sunny days, people would go out, but fewer of them, and with masks. Runners along the Mall seemed stunned that, in what typically is our city’s busiest tourist season, there was no one there.

I remembered, from college, seeing that 1950’s horror movie, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and it was like that. You could stand in the middle of the tourist corridors and see just the occasional bike rider.

I get a paycheck, and being at home was perfectly comfortable, but I found myself overwhelmed with sadness as the economy flatlined, and people suddenly lost work, and those essential employees had to risk their lives to go to work.

Do you see the guard above? She probably considered herself lucky to have work to go to, but I remember standing there for a long time, my head a jumble of emotional calculations, sad that she was in our city’s most beautiful museum without the usual run of schoolchildren there on Spring Break visits, happy that she seemed safe, with no one around her. It was a bewildering, emotional, upside down moment, typical of the world under the Coronavirus lockdown. Everything is upside down.

Just the birds were out, as in a typical spring morning. But there was nothing typical about this, and one had to look at things in a new, unfamiliar way.

And then came a magical few evenings when the Pink Moon rose, a super moon, and we rushed to capture it on an empty National Mall.

The moon itself was gorgeous, and as it lifted into the sky, it was so bright it was really hard to capture. It really did cast the sky in pink light. I remember standing there, amazed, and thinking of Nick Drake, whose album Pink Moon tugs at our heart, and when we got home, we learned that even as the moon had risen, John Prine had died of Coronavirus.

The next night, we went down to the Mall, again to try capturing the moon, and on our way, over Constitution Gardens, got a distant glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial in the Blue Hour, and everything was right in the world. We once again brought our tripod, but the pictures we took of the moon paled in comparison to one of the few pictures we’ve captured of what I would deem a street scene, as the bicyclists below on the left side of the image stayed still long enough for a two-second exposure to capture everything, the image I will keep for life as the best depiction of the unbelievable beauty of being in Washington during this horrible period.

I kept going out at dawn and dusk, though I felt my spirit flagging. It was hard to keep thinking of where I might want to position myself to take pictures. It seemed incredibly artificial to be capturing images of pristine, official, privileged DC and ignore all the sections of the city where people actually live. In brief forays into the city’s urban streets, however, I was pretty stunned to see people clustering, some with masks, many not, and it seemed far better to stay in my socially distant world, driving or walking to take pictures where people were few and far between.

Easter came, and the city bloomed, as it usually does at Easter time. But time began to hang heavily as we started our fifth week of working from home.

Walking with a camera in hand remained the essential psychological outlet, but the sense of unreality began to intensify. And all the while, walking from our home or car, after a day spent working, was a reminder of how many people were in absolute bewilderment of sudden joblessness, or, in New York, the horror of the pandemic raging all around them. D.C. officials kept talking about the future peak in cases, but in the city’s Northwest Quadrant, it all seemed far away.

The Earth still stood still, but our stomach churned and head jangled from the blasts of sheer insanity emanating just a short distance away in the White House briefing room. It was hard to reconcile this peaceful, gorgeous city with the unfathomable craziness of the President lashing out at governors fighting the pandemic, at the Supreme Court sending people out to vote in Wisconsin amidst a plague.

Ah, but by now the Azalea Frenzy had hit our backyard, and weather warmed, at least briefly.

We remembered how our documentation of D.C. under quarantine had begun under a cold March sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial, and by now, even as people kept their distance, things were warm, spring was here, and of course our spirits lifted. People were out on the Mall, but appropriately — we had masks on, for the most part, and there was enough space between us and the runners to be able to continue walking comfortably. How long this will go on, and what happens when the weather gets even warmer, we don’t know. For now, as our quarantine continues and news comes that at least New York is past its peak, spring continues, and we look up.

To be continued…

John Buckley’s daily feed of images on Instagram can be found @tulip_frenzy. For the full set of images, head over to our sister site, John Buckley in Black and White and Color.

The Proper Ornaments, Waxahatchee and Arbouretum Comprise Our Lockdown New Music Playlist

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2020 by johnbuckley100

Punk rock should not be your soundtrack for the lockdown. We are playing a lot of Miles Davis, Cluster & Eno, and Philip Glass. To get through being cooped up at home, the springtime view out the window reassuringly normal even as our dreams reveal turmoil, you need music that is at once complex and beautiful, that gives our minds something to hang on to without elevating our blood pressure. We have some recommendations.

For nearly 40 years, when we’ve been in a certain mood, the artist who has filled the bill is Nick Drake, and it of course makes perfect sense that this past week saw a pink moon — a Pink Moon! But there was only one Nick Drake, and he left us Pink Moon and not a whole lot else before his tragic exit. Which leaves us needing… well, here are three albums released in recent weeks that all fit the bill.

It seems like only yesterday but it was actually last May that the Proper Ornaments gave us the brilliant 6 Lenins. Tulip Frenzy ranked it the 7th best album of 2019, and our admiration for it has only increased since. James Hoare and co.’s new record, Mission Bells, is so of-the-moment, playing it seems like it could be a live stream from his own lockdown studio in London.

If, to continue our Nick Drake theme, one could enact a rating system for how closely an album tracks melodic brilliance, quiet authority and mid-tempo thrills, we’d give this record four Pink Moons. We said at the time that 6 Lenins was music for a rainy day, and that we could imagine Woods, the Feelies, Anton Newcomb and Kevin Morby being fans. Mission Bells is music for extended home arrest, and we expand our universe of comparisons for an album that makes us think of the Velvet Underground, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, the Perfect Disaster, White Fence and, of course, Hoare’s previous band, Ultimate Painting. If you are a fan of melodic British pop music, and who isn’t, this one just might see you through the miserable weeks ahead.

We’ve liked Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee alter ego since 2013’s Cerulean Salt. We’ve admired her music even when it morphed into 2017’s Out in the Storm, which sounded more like an update to Juliana Hatfield’s late ’80s power pop than the quirky Southern gothic rock that grabbed us in the first place. On Saint Cloud, though, she’s put it all together. It’s an album that bears comparison to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which even schoolchildren know got four stars from Christgau and comparisons to Born To Run. Crutchfield has a sweet voice, and she really understands both pop songwriting dynamics and how to pace an album. We put this one on, pretty loud, we have to say, when we wish to think of glasses half full, to remember springtimes when we could go anywhere and hang with, like, people. Lest this read like the album is comprised of upbeat pop music — it is certainly bright and melodic — it’s not, you know, Taylor Swift. It’s just an album that never lets you see Crutchfield sweat as she powers through a nearly perfect run of great songs, Americana in the best use of the word. Somewhere we imagine Tom Petty smiling, even as Lucinda Williams, uncrowned, sighs.

Baltimore’s Arbouretum has done the seemingly impossible. Over the eight songs on Let It All In, as beguiling a record as has ever come out of Charm City, they make us think of artists as different as CSN&Y and Can. From the beautiful folk rock of “How Deep It Goes” to the Krautrock of the title track, it’s clear this is a band that, nine albums and nearly two decades in, have learned a trick or two. They get special points in our book for enlisting Hans Chew to play piano on “High Water Song.” Wilco-level musicianship and imagination coupled with respect for the British folk formalism of Fairport Convention makes for a brisk experience, but honestly, given what we all are going trough, this album is a tonic for our troubled times.

D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2020 by johnbuckley100
John Buckley’s Instagram is @tulip_frenzy; All images taken with the Leica SL2

I took my last black and white photograph before the soft quarantine began on March 9th. I actually went to a concert in a small club along the D.C. Wharf, because Wire — a favorite band for more than 40 years — are always worth it, and I was armed with hand sanitizer and instructions on social distancing. Still, though… my last outing, and what was I thinking?

Later that week, we announced to our office employees that we would work from home until the Coronavirus abated, or at least until the risks had diminished. A few days later, before sunrise, I went down to the Lincoln Memorial for MonumentHenge, that wonderful moment when the sun rises and shines directly on Lincoln’s face. It was dark when I parked my car. The guards were out in front of the State Department, but no one else was around, save for those dedicated workers, God bless ‘em, showing up before sunrise at the Federal Reserve.

The markets were in chaos, and people were beginning to die. But elsewhere, not here in this Washington, not yet. We were told to stay home, except surely you go out and walk in the morning, before sunrise, to take pictures. Washington, as always, was beautiful.

Later that same day, when teleworking, our new odd reality, had subsided, I returned to the cherry blossoms before the crowds arrived, as they did in force that weekend. There was a woman taking an iPhone photograph while she kneeled by the water, a mask on her face. It seemed emblematic of the moment.

Within days of taking that picture, the National Guard was shutting down access to the Mall, and those of us who live here were shamed, put in the same irresponsible category as college kid revelers on the beaches of Florida.

I kept going out — at sunrise, in the evenings — but carefully so, when people were distant. Photographs I posted on Instagram were, I was told, cheering my friends up, and I decided to keep at it, Leica SL2 in hand, shooting in color.

I’m going to keep doing this as often as I can, as we get through this terrible moment. There may be a time when I can’t go out, for a variety of reasons. Until then I intend — carefully — to amble along, camera in hand, a flaneur, an urban landscape photographer, intent on staying six feet or more from anyone I see. Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He died taking pictures. I’ll keep my distance.

You can see the progression of time by the blossoms, and as I write this, the tulips are out. One day I saw a couple dancing outside of the Kennedy Center, and I completely understood what was going on: they needed to get out of the house. They weren’t the irresponsible who couldn’t keep their social distance. You can tell they dance together from their shoes.

It is an awful moment in the life of our planet, our country, and soon, no doubt, my beloved D.C. Think of this, then, as a visual diary of the way things were as the sun kept rising each morning, but the progression of the pandemic kept us away from work, and one another.

I don’t know how long I’ll keep the associated gallery up on johnbuckleyinblackandwhiteandcolor.com. I’ll probably stop posting these color pictures when we get the all-clear sign, if ever we do, that we can go back to work in an office. For now, enjoy these fossils of light and time, as Moriyama might call them. I hope they both brighten your day and serve as a visual diary of Washington, D.C. in the time of the Coronavirus. Consider this a work in progress…

To follow this visual journal, go to our sister site, John Buckley in Black and White and Color.

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