Shaffers Crossing

Shaffer's-CrossingIt is no exaggeration to say that the Norfolk and Western Railroad was once the very heart of Roanoke, Virginia. It was a major employer, its headquarters building was located in downtown Roanoke, and numerous rail lines and yards transected the city. One of the most significant symbols of the presence of the railroad in the city is the Shaffers Crossing yard.

Shaffers Crossing was once an important yard where loaded and empty rail cars from the six lines that converged in Roanoke were organized into trains and sent to their destinations. Dozens of tracks were built for these switching operations, encompassing acres of land in the middle of the city.

The N&W and Southern Railroads merged into the Norfolk Southern in the 1980’s, and most of the “classification” operations have been moved to other locations. But the tracks remain, although often empty. The 10th Street Bridge provides an excellent “aerial” view into the yard, and I drive across the bridge frequently, in search of a previsualized image of late afternoon sun glancing off the the vacant rails and causing them to glow against the darker ties and ballast.

I visited the bridge one recent afternoon, and was pleasantly surprised to find these two lines of new coal hoppers built by Freight Car America here in Roanoke, staged and awaiting delivery. My interest in line and form was aroused, and I set about making a composition that would emphasize the receding lines created by the tops of the cars, the empty rails on either side, and the line of locomotives just visible at the far left of the picture. But what intrigued me most was the empty set of tracks between the cars, punctuated by the sets of switch tracks. I could not have made a stronger composition if I had been able to place the cars myself, so I gratefully accepted the gift of serendipity and made this unexpected but satisfying picture.

Glenwood Horse Trail in Fog

glenwoodNear my home in Blue Ridge, Virginia is a little-known and seldom-used corner of the Jefferson National Forest called the Day Creek Use Area. The stream after which the area is named works its way down the mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway, falling over ancient rocks and the occasional small cascade, then enters a lovely valley of farms and meadows. A National Forest Service trail called the Glenwood Horse Trail crosses the creek in several places here before climbing back up the heights of the Blue Ridge.

One recent day dawned with heavy fog, an atmosphere in which I love to photograph. For lack of a better word, I find being in the fog a mystical experience. The landscape is transformed: what was sharp and harsh becomes soft and supple. Trees gently fade into nothingness in the distance. The forest is quiet and calm on such days; even the birds seem to appreciate the stillness.

It seems that near the end of winter I lose the inspiration to go out and photograph. That feeling was complicated this year by an injury that has kept me less active than I would like. I find that sometimes I just have to go out and make photographs as a way to get the creative juices flowing, and I knew that a foggy day in a place I like to be was a good combination. So I loaded up my gear and drove to the trail, then followed it up a rather steep hill where I found this scene. As part of my exercise in generating creativity I wanted to follow through to producing a finished photograph: developing and proofing the negative, adjusting development on the “B” side, making a final print, and finally inviting other people to view it. It is the first of what I hope to be many new photographs I make this year.

Near my home in Blue Ridge, Virginia is a little-known and seldom-used corner of the Jefferson National Forest called the Day Creek Use Area. The stream after which the area is named works its way down the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, falling over ancient rocks and the occasional small waterfall, then enters a lovely valley of farms and meadows. A National Forest Service trail called the Glenwood Horse Trail crosses the creek in several places here before climbing back up the heights of the Blue Ridge.

One recent day dawned with heavy fog, an atmosphere in which I love to photograph. The landscape is transformed: what was sharp and harsh becomes soft and supple, and even the birds of the forest seem to sing more quietly on such days. I had not photographed for several weeks prior, so suitably inspired by the fog, I loaded up my gear and drove to the trail, then followed it up a rather steep hill where I found this scene.

– See more at: http://www.articents.com/Dan-Henderson/listing/Glenwood-Horse-Trail-in-Fog#sthash.bFLIgrTg.dpuf

Near my home in Blue Ridge, Virginia is a little-known and seldom-used corner of the Jefferson National Forest called the Day Creek Use Area. The stream after which the area is named works its way down the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, falling over ancient rocks and the occasional small waterfall, then enters a lovely valley of farms and meadows. A National Forest Service trail called the Glenwood Horse Trail crosses the creek in several places here before climbing back up the heights of the Blue Ridge.

One recent day dawned with heavy fog, an atmosphere in which I love to photograph. The landscape is transformed: what was sharp and harsh becomes soft and supple, and even the birds of the forest seem to sing more quietly on such days. I had not photographed for several weeks prior, so suitably inspired by the fog, I loaded up my gear and drove to the trail, then followed it up a rather steep hill where I found this scene.

– See more at: http://www.articents.com/Dan-Henderson/listing/Glenwood-Horse-Trail-in-Fog#sthash.bFLIgrTg.dpuf

Near my home in Blue Ridge, Virginia is a little-known and seldom-used corner of the Jefferson National Forest called the Day Creek Use Area. The stream after which the area is named works its way down the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, falling over ancient rocks and the occasional small waterfall, then enters a lovely valley of farms and meadows. A National Forest Service trail called the Glenwood Horse Trail crosses the creek in several places here before climbing back up the heights of the Blue Ridge.

One recent day dawned with heavy fog, an atmosphere in which I love to photograph. The landscape is transformed: what was sharp and harsh becomes soft and supple, and even the birds of the forest seem to sing more quietly on such days. I had not photographed for several weeks prior, so suitably inspired by the fog, I loaded up my gear and drove to the trail, then followed it up a rather steep hill where I found this scene.

– See more at: http://www.articents.com/Dan-Henderson/listing/Glenwood-Horse-Trail-in-Fog#sthash.bFLIgrTg.dpuf

Escalera a Paladar La Guarida

This picture is a metaphor for how life in Havana is experienced by many Cubans. The stone floors, stair and railing of the building, the decorative column, the wrought iron on the stairway, the stained glass windows, and the now headless statue attest to its former opulence. It was surely built and occupied by a wealthy person, likely a man who did business and lived here with his family when Cuba was a Spanish colony.

escalera

But as time and circumstances changed, so did the occupants and condition of the building. Its many rooms became apartments for families. Lack of money and building materials led to a slow but inexorable decline of its beauty and splendor.

Even though communism has existed in Cuba for over a half century, the building reveals the unsustainability of that form of government. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, so did the financial support provided to Cuba by the USSR. The island nation entered what is called “The Special Period,” an ironic name for a prolonged economic crisis. Food, medicine, petroleum, and other things taken for granted in many places could no longer be found, or required waiting hours in line to obtain.

In response to this crisis, the government began allowing its citizens to start small businesses in certain sectors, one of which were restaurants called paladares. The first paladares were family operated businesses in every sense: they were in the homes of their owners, could only seat a very small number of patrons, and they could not employ people outside the immediate family. The paladares earned a reputation for providing authentic Cuban food at reasonable prices, and were so successful that larger, more restaurant-like paladares were authorized. They seat more people, have employees outside the family of the owner, and are indistinguishable from the state owned restaurants. All of the privately-owned paladares pay taxes to the government for the privilege of operating, and they look a lot like the germinating seeds of capitalism to me.

One of these larger restaurant-style paladares sits on the top floor of this building. As I worked on my composition, patrons walked past apartments on the ground floor and on the level on which I was working, and up the winding stairs to Paladar La Guarida. The noise of residents going about their daily lives served as  “muzak,” children played on the stairs, and someone’s laundry dried on lines stretched in front of the open windows behind me. Such is life in Havana.

Mural; Edificio Lopez-Serrano

muralOne of the many pleasant surprises of my trip to Cuba was the number of art deco buildings I saw there. But after learning that Havana experienced a building boom during the height of the art deco period, it made sense to me.

Edificio Bacardi, the pre-revolution headquarters of the Bacardi rum distiller, is probably the most spectacular and best preserved example. I failed to make a photograph befitting the beauty of the Bacardi building, so this story is about Edificio Lopez-Serrano, another great art deco building in Havana.

Edificio Lopez-Serrano is credited as being the first high rise building in Cuba. It is an apartment building that was constructed in 1932. One source claims it is modeled after the Rockefeller Center in New York, while another says it looks like the Empire State Building with “the bottom 70 floors chopped off.” But these sources can’t even agree on how many floors the building has! What I think is that its designer was influenced by the art deco movement, as were the architects of Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building, but that it has its own unique characteristics that set it apart from either of those buildings, such as the subject of this photograph.

Learning of my interest in art deco architecture, my new friend and guide for the day, Chino Arcos, took me on a long walk from Havana Vieja to the Vedado section of the city. We walked into the lobby of the building and I was immediately captivated by the mural, which was flanked by a set of elevators. The dark paneling and dim illumination made framing the composition time consuming and challenging, but being a photographer, Chino understood and patiently waited. During this time an elderly woman who apparently lived in the building stopped and exchanged some words with David, Chino’s stepson and our and English-Spanish interpreter. Chuckling, David told me that the lady asked if we were there to repair the non-functioning elevator in the building.

This conversation made me realize something about traveling. I think that to be more than a tourist; to be a traveler in another land, and to experience things directly instead of through the filter of others, a person should speak the language of that nation. I am working very hard to learn Spanish, so that the next time I go to Cuba I can interact with these wonderful people person to person. Oh, and next trip I will properly photograph Edificio Bacardi!

Apartamentos y Lada; Plaza del Cristo

Sometimes you find the pictures. Other times, if you let them, the pictures find you. On the day that I was supposed to spend being shown places to photograph by my new friends Chino and David, the pictures found me. When we failed to connect I spent the morning roaming Havana Vieja on my own. I wandered into Plaza del Cristo, which is bordered on one side by Iglesia de Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, which my guide map said is one of the most architecturally significant churches in Havana. Buen Viaje translates as “good trip,” which I was certainly having physically, photographically, and mentally!

The remaining sides of the plaza were bordered by other buildings, some of which were being renovated, producing a pile of construction debris in the middle of the square. But it was the side occupied by this building that commanded my attention. I have read that during the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean islands, many buildings were constructed by wealthy Spaniards who used the ground floors for business purposes, and lived on the upper levels with their families. After the Cuban revolution, privately owed buildings were appropriated by the the new communist government, and people were assigned to live in them. As their children grew up, married, and had children, they often could not find homes of their own. Family units became extended and larger, and the assigned spaces were progressively subdivided into smaller and smaller living units.

The arched entrances on the street level, the balconies with their wrought iron railings, the decorated pilasters on the top floor, and the stone parapet bordering the roof all hint at the building’s former elegance. But the cockeyed television antennas and the laundry drying on the railings suggest that the building now provides shelter for many people, even as it slowly falls victim to time, the elements, and gravity.

ladaI knew that I needed to photograph this building as part of my series on entropy. Fortunately, its location on a plaza meant that I could set up my camera far enough away to use my favorite lens. I ended up being next to the pile of construction debris, and as I worked on my composition, a dump truck full of Cuban workmen pulled up and began loading the debris. As happened so often in Cuba, the workmen gave me curious glances, but didn’t bother me as I worked. Having photographed in Detroit, Cleveland, and other sketchy places, it took me awhile to appreciate that Havana might be the safest city on the planet for a photographer and his equipment.

I have evolved to like simple compositions. When I see something that compels me to go through the rather laborious process of unpacking and setting up my camera, I have learned to think about what that “something” is, and to concentrate my composition on that element, eliminating or minimizing other things that might detract viewers from what drew me in. The building was the reason for this picture. But sometimes there are other elements that add, rather than dilute, interest, such as the car in front of the building.

Although I did not walk over and look at the car closely, I am pretty sure it was a Lada. The former Soviet Union provided economic support to Cuba after the revolution, buying the sugar that used to be exported to the US, and replacing some of the things that could no longer be brought to the island nation because of the economic embargo, such as cars. In place of the Fords, Chevys, and DeSotos that once migrated like tourists to Cuba on ferryboats from Miami and Key West, the Soviets sent thousands of their Ladas. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the cars were apparently left behind as parting gifts. Not only are Ladas not nearly as stylish as their 1950’s vintage American counterparts, they are notoriously unreliable as well.

But this one had survived, and was parked in front of the building I wanted to photograph. I liked the tension it created when I framed it very close to the corner of the picture, and despite my desire for simplicity, I was glad it was there. I made one picture, and while reversing the film holder and cocking the shutter for a second exposure, two men came out of the building, raised the trunk, and placed something inside. I made the second picture during this activity, and soon after the men and car left. The composition seemed incomplete without the car, and I packed up my gear grateful for whatever led me to that plaza at just the right time to make a satisfying picture. Ansel Adams once said, “sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.” I am certainly not comparing myself to Adams, but like him, I will take all of the help I am offered.

Verado; La Calle Brasil

The first few days of my trip to Cuba were spent walking with my fellow photographers, doing handheld photos of people, places and things, not really my forte nor my reason for traveling there. Good for snapshots with a DSLR, but not really conducive to my style of contemplative, tripod-supported, large format, black and white film photography. But these sojourns were invaluable because they helped connect me to Havana. I began to see that Cubans enjoy life as much as anyone on the planet, despite being deprived of so much that so many of us take for granted. I saw places and things to which I could return with the camera I use for serious work. And I met Chino, Ishmael, and Lacy, the three talented Cuban photographers who led us on these expeditions.

After a couple of days of this I needed to start finding my own pictures,  so I arranged to spend a day with Chino and his stepson/translator David. I went to Cuba to work on my long-term project entitled Entropy; or what begins to happen the moment man stops maintaining his creations and nature starts to reclaim them. The economic embargo imposed on Cuba by the US government in the 1960’s, and the “Special Period” of shortages beginning in the 1990’s when the Soviet Union disintegrated and no longer supported Cuba, has made the country in general, and Havana in particular, a laboratory for Entropy. I knew I would have no trouble finding subjects, but I also thought that a Cuban photographer could guide me to the best examples.

The precise day of our excursion apparently did not survive translation, because after one hour and two cups of café con leche, Chino and David had not arrived. The rest of the group was on a day trip to Matanzas, so I was on my own, which to me is not a bad thing. I remembered seeing a couple of abandoned cars on Calle Brasil not too far from the coffee shop, so I struck off in that direction.

Prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959,  free trade existed between the United States and Cuba. Many “norteamericanos” visited the country, some lived there, and US businesses operated in Cuba. Car and passenger ferries ran between Havana and Florida on a regular basis, populating the island nation with US automobiles as well as people.  As the revolution unfolded, most of the US citizens, along with many Cubans who were not supportive of the new communist government, needed to leave the island quickly, usually without their cars.

The embargo, as well as the economic hardship that followed the imposition of communism in Cuba, meant that no more of the favored US-produced automobiles could be imported. The 1930s, ’40s and ’50s vintages that had been left behind were, of necessity, kept in service, many as taxicabs. The embargo also meant that repair parts could not be imported either, so resourceful Cuban mechanics figured out how to make new parts, borrow parts from other cars, and adapt things that were never intended to be a part of an automobile. I was most impressed by the finish of many of these vehicles. Daily they run up and down the Malecón, a roadway and seawall that separates the city from the sea, and are constantly exposed to salt spray. Yet the ’35 Fords and ’57 Chevys gleam like they are fresh from the showroom floor.

verado

But this poor car, whatever it had once been, had apparently given all that it could. It was stripped of its badges, every other usable part, and even its right rear tire, and was then abandoned on the street. The thick, graffiti-marked layer of dust suggests the time it has languished there. It reminded me of a ship that has been stranded on a sandbar, so that became the title of the picture.

The next day I was able to reconnect with Chino and David, and we spent a great day walking and photographing and becoming friends, which is one of the things I enjoy most about traveling.  When a friendship must survive the challenges of language and culture barriers it become more special.

A Mural of Che Guevara

During my time in Havana I frequently walked through an alley to get from the waterfront, where this picture was made, to the hotel in which I was staying. Every time I passed through, the same guard sat on the same chair in the alley. I could never quite figure out exactly what he was guarding, and I suspected he didn’t really know either. But, it was his job, a job that the State provided for him, a job that put at least some food on his family’s table, and he took it seriously. One day I stopped in the alley to look at a plaque on the wall of an adjoining garden that bore the likenesses of several people regarded as heroes in Cuba. Noticing my interest, the guard rose from his chair, walked across the alley, and with some pride told me a little about them.

Heroes are important to all societies, but it seems to me that they are even more significant to Cubans. Some of Cuba’s heroes, such as Jose Marti, fought to free the country from centuries of Spanish occupation. Others opposed the corrupt regimes that followed Cuba’s independence, and yes, some like Fidel Castro fought against the influence the United States exerted on the country.

Ironically, one of Cuba’s most revered heroes is not Cuban at all, but instead was born in Argentina. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a physician who believed that communism was the answer to what he saw as the capitalist exploitation of Latin America. He joined forces with Fidel and Raul Castro and played an important role in the guerrilla war that overthrew the Bastista regime and brought communism to Cuba.

che

This image, from a photograph of Che taken by Alberto Korta in 1960, is the very definition of an icon: it is, almost literally, seen everywhere. It adorns a billboard along the exit road from Jose Marti airport outside Havana. There are a number of murals of the image, some monumental in scale, decorating various buildings in the city. I even saw it burned into the back of some kid’s guitar in Mexico. But this one, painted many years ago on the facade of one of the old passenger ship terminals along Havana Bay, spoke most strongly to me. The building bears the scars of neglect, and the faded and chipped paint of the mural has obviously not been maintained or retouched in many years. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for the inability of socialism to sustain itself.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting evaporation of support for Cuba, the state has been less able to provide for its people and has allowed some citizens to become capitalists of a sort. Havana Vieja is full of tiny shops, some simply set up in apartment stairways, that sell souvenirs to foreign tourists. Buttons, pins, and T shirts bearing Che’s visage, as well as his ubiquitous beret, seem to be big sellers. This, to me, was the most poignant of ironies; I could not help but wonder what Che would make of it.