Archive for the VCU Category

The History of Instagram Part 1 or The Mitigation of Memory and the Mundane

Posted in Ansel Adams, Art, Atget, Becher & Becher, Christenberry, David McCullough, Eggleston, F-4B, Kodak Instamatic, Photography, Uncategorized, USS Coral Sea, VCU, Vermont, VF-151, Woodstock on June 29, 2013 by smpiv


A little over a year ago I loaded the Instagram app onto my iPhone.  My first image was of David McCullough, Historian,  at the 2012 AIA Convention in DC.  It was an image of an image that was projected on a large screen for people like me who don’t like to sit in the front row. 

His raconteur delivery and distinctive voice were wonderful, the picture is not.


It was my fourth image that made me pause and think that perhaps there was something more to this “toy” than my own narcissistic need to share my meals, my pets, my wife and kid to my Facebook Nation (FBN).  It is a simple, blurry image of a young women, stylishly dressed, balanced on heals waiting for the Metro.


Despite this early triumph of transcendence I continued to stumble along with no real objective, no goal, and no other desire than to share my daily grind with my FBN.  After all that’s what it’s all about—right?

Well somewhere in the midst of all this, either tangentially or parallel or whatever I began to walk to work as often as I could.  I had my iPhone with me for work and I started “seeing” things and I began to photograph these things.

I think it is safe to say that nearly every person who has picked up a camera thinks to take a great photograph they must be as far away from what they know as possible.  What they know is mundane and lacks interest.  Exotic and unknown locales will illicit our greatest effort; the most beautiful result.

Most of these things I was seeing  were surrounded by the mundane.  However as I walked the same route at different times of the day and eventually in different weather the light, the atmosphere, and my mood began to pick things out of the mundane.  I was swimming against the tide.

There is a misconception in photography—from the nascent to the pro—that there is little if anything to photograph in your own backyard (the mundane).  When I taught photography one of the assignments I gave the students was to take pictures around their homes and yards.  Other than taking portraits this was always a difficult assignment and most failed miserably.

In any case my hometown began to reveal itself.  Some things were revealed immediately.  Others were revealed after taking the same picture a number of times, until the time of day, light, and/or weather revealed it more completely.  Others refuse to reveal themselves no matter how many times I’ve approached them.

Yet it is the mundane that can often illicit a more emotional response.  Atget, Christenberry, Eggleston, Shore, Adams, Becher & Becher et. al. are examples of this.  It is what we know, what we are familiar with, when we look close enough and hard enough that lets us in and reveals the wonder of the immediate.

Woodstock, Vermont, where I live and work, is a perpetual postcard.  It’s one of those exotic locales that people visit to overcome what they consider their mundane existence.  It’s a state of mind that allows these people to comfortably put the VT logo on their vehicles with license plates that say otherwise.  It is my mundane.

The familiar often holds the most mystery.


On April 5, 1968 my father’s squadron flew in to Miramar Naval Air Station.  He had been flying from the USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam for close to a year-and-a-half.  It was originally to be a six month tour, but the USS Pueblo was taken off the coast of North Korea and the carrier group sent to relieve the Coral Sea was diverted to North Korea.  The Coral Sea remained on station.

My mother, brother, sister and I were dressed in our finest on a typically sunny and warm California day.  As we watched one and then another and finally the rest of the squadron touched down.  With their canopies raised they taxied to an area of the tarmac where the squadron families waited.  One by one the large and noisy F-4Bs shut down their engines as the ground crews chocked the tires and the flight crews safed various systems.  VF-151 had returned minus a few aircraft and crew that had been shot down during their tour.  The Coral Sea would steam into San Diego harbor minus the aircraft.

I was nine, my brother seven and my sister four.   For my sister this man was a stranger.  For my brother and I he was not that much more familiar.  As a carrier pilot in the Navy, this was the way it was—nothing out of the ordinary.

If not for a collection of blurry Kodak Instamatic photographs this event would be part of my families’ oral tradition.  These square images with dubious color value fill in a lot of blanks and inspire further memory.  I’m not even sure where some of the pictures came from as my mother, Instamatic in hand, is in a number of the pictures.  Who took them?


Memories are like clouds–seemingly substantial in the middle and a bit fuzzy around the edges.  That substantial core dissipates with time and if not for, often blurry, pictures taken by, sometimes, unknown actors they can disappear completely.


In a very roundabout way I came upon the Instagram.

I initially boycotted it for no other reason than I didn’t think it would do what I wanted it to do and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, Instagram or not.  What I did like once I began to use it on my iPhone were the borders and the treatment that came with each border.  What I didn’t like was that I was tethered to my low resolution iPhone.

Another, seemingly, unrelated event  was the purchase of an iPad.  I bought it to allow me to work while at the AIA Convention.  Initially I didn’t load the Instagram app because it is a first gen model with no camera.  What I didn’t know was that Instagram works with any image loaded on the device.

When, how or why I figured out that I could use my “good” camera to take the pictures, upload them to the iPad and then run them through Instagram I don’t know.

It was by trial and error and total happenstance that I found that I could use my DSLR, upload those images to my iPad and then run those through Instagram.  I quickly appreciated the feel of the Instagram and just as quickly adopted the Earlybird border for my images.

Why Earlybird?  It’s the way I see.  It’s how my memories are framed in my mind.  Those blurry, low resolution photographs illustrate a moment long gone and not well remembered.  The square format, sometimes scalloped edges and dates burnt in the margin are historic family documents.  These are the filters that blur and define my past.  It was with that in mind that I set out to find a way to recreate that feeling with digital images.


I can’t say why photography initially intrigued me, but I do remember the first time I saw an image reveal itself in the developing tray.  Way magic.

However, beyond that first bit of magic, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the need to create the perfect print.  The less time spent in the darkroom the better for me.  I did like to kibitz in other people’s darkrooms, but that was social and didn’t involve big decisions about burning, dodging, split toning or poisoning myself with selenium.

Having said that I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the immediacy of the Polaroid either.  I did have a Polaroid back for my 4×5 and I messed with it a bit, but never too much affect.

So that brings me back around to a nagging question—why Instagram?


I keep wanting to go off on an art historical tangent, but I’ll keep this to me.

First, I am a photographer.  There I said it, now I can begin my twelve step program.  Anyone who saw my thesis show, years ago now, at Virginia Commonwealth University would be suspect of this statement (  And I, for quite some time,  was just as suspect.

I have always had issue with the un-manipulated image for my own form of expression—whatever that may be.  My constructions had bits of photography that were most often secondary, even tertiary, elements of the larger work.

Fast forward to today and I’m not as adverse to leaving the image alone.  But, let’s be honest, even the most un-tickled image has been manipulated in some manner or other.  Ansel Adam’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” is spectacular in its purity.  I could spend hours (and have) getting lost in that picture.  But from Adam’s initial exposure selection to an orchestration of burning and dodging, pushing and pulling to fit properly within his Zone System there has been quite an effort to reach that purity.

Now, before you jump on me and my lack of hubris, I am not saying that any of my images are on the level of Ansel Adam’s work, simply that my images are just as manipulated.

As I take my long walks built on short steps I am looking at my world through an Instagram filter.  However, as I mentioned earlier, it is a filter I had used long before stumbling across the Earlybird border.  The border in combination with the very wide angle lens I use is “how” I see.

Secondly, I have an outlet.

Incalculable numbers of images are taken every day, month and year.  The fraction that are actually seen by others is miniscule.  Those of any visual “value” even further towards the fractional.  Again, before you jump all over me, I am not saying that any more of mine are of visual “value” than anyone else’s.  I, like many others, am using my FBN as a rotating gallery.

Finally, I am setting my images free.

And with Instagram I have set myself free.  I am no longer tethered to the hesitancy of film, long hours in the dark room and wondering whom, if anyone, would ever see the images I took.   I now  let my images percolate through the mundane that is my existence and share them for good, bad, or indifferent with my FBN.

Welcome to my world.



The History of Creativity Part I or Men in Black

Posted in Architecture, Art, Capitol, Corcoran School of Art, House Post Office, Longworth Building, Photography, VCU on November 16, 2011 by smpiv


I’ve written this one in my head any number of times.  I’ve written it in my head going south on the NJTP.  I’ve
written it in my head going north through Scranton.  I stopped writing it in my head when I realized I was on 87 vs. 287 and had to be sure I didn’t miss the Cross Bronx.

I thought that I would throw a lot of art history at it and go through some long winded dissertation on the state of art over the last two hundred years, but……

Am I creative?

Well I don’t know, but I think I’ll tell what it means to be creative to me-my own little story.

I build things.  Always have.  I disappear into my creations, I mean way gone.  Models, forts, rubber band guns, rebuilding my bike–anything with my hands.

I’m a perfectionist.  So much so that if it isn’t right–just right–I’ll destroy it.

In a nutshell I am both a creator and a destroyer.  I’ve always had that; it just took time to make it work for me.

I would love to say that I was repressed, that others held me back from my passion, that no one recognized my
genius, but until I was twenty three years old, there was nothing to repress, held back or recognized.  I was your
average, aimless young man.

Most Likely to _________?  I was most likely to do what?  I was so ill defined I didn’t have a clue what I would like to do.  Like most people, I had a long list of things I didn’t want to do, but no real handle on what I could do.

It wasn’t until I was twenty three that I made a move that was of my own volition and desire.

Family, friends and strangers had long said I had an artistic bent and, in truth, through my humility I thought  they might just be right, but I didn’t know what to do with it.

My work history following graduating from college was sketchy at best.  Through the lens of a poor economy and no discernable talent I went from one minor job to another.  A short—eight days—stint in the military would have given me a good foothold into the working world.  However it was there that I made my first Big-boy decision—a career in the Navy Supply Corps was not what I wanted to do with my life.  I dis-enrolled (DE’d in military parlance).

A brief career as a baby photographer (six months) was a first step toward my future—a horrid experience on the whole, but I had a knack for the photographic aspect of the job.

And then one of those odd jobs that leveraged it all—the House Post Office, pitching and delivering mail.  Such a mindless position that I had more than ample time to think about things.  What to watch on TV, what to have for dinner that night, oh and what to do with the rest of my life.

I was living the single DC life in Silver Spring, Maryland, just where East West Highway makes a hoop-di-doo to
avoid going through DC.  It was a short walk to the Metro that took me to the House Post Office in the Longworth Building and then, later, to the Crypt in the Capitol Building.

I don’t remember the particulars, but I do remember my friend David Barnes convincing me to put together a
portfolio of my photographs, drawings and doodles and apply to the Corcoran School of Art.  He was one of those people who told me I had a talent, maybe not a gift, but at least a talent.  He was big into penny-stocks, so he was used to betting on long-shots, but it was enough to motivate me.

And damn if they didn’t accept my application.  I was thrilled for a day or two, and then horrified that perhaps they didn’t look closely enough at my work and had made some egregious error.

I was convinced before I got there that I would be surrounded by young da Vincis, Picassos, et al.  At twenty three I was the old man in the program and probably more nervous than I would have been had I been seventeen.  As it turned out I had more talent in my pinky than most of these darkly dressed pretenders.

As an aside, our culture has this misconception that if you are antisocial, quirky, gay or can’t match your socks
that you must have a creative disposition; that you must need an outlet; that your “problem” can’t be discerned by inkblots, but by creating them.  For this reason I wasn’t surrounded by the aforementioned artists, but by a motley collection of antisocial, quirky, gay, and non-sock-matching people with varying levels of talent.

Just for clarity, except for the gay part, I was a high functioning antisocial, quirky, and non-sock-matching member of the group.  I blame my inability to match socks on my color blindness.

My point is that creativity has no recognizable look.

But there I was, a pig-in-shit.  The Foundations program was one of my more lucent periods.  It was a
moment in my life when my skipping stone touched down.  Everything was fresh and new.  Everything I had imagined I could do with a blank piece of paper, a blank canvas, a piece of clay was all put before me.  It was a door unlocked.

I had entered the program with all intention to continue with photography, but as one new media after another
presented itself I wasn’t so sure.

My walks from the Corcoran to the crypt in the Capitol Building usually included a stop at the East Wing, the Hirshhorn, the Renwick, the Air and Space, the Museum of American Art and the Portrait Gallery—obviously depending on the day, but to that point and since had never spent so much time in art galleries and museums.  Their creative collections are immense and they were washing over me.  It was daunting and inspiring.

While I was at the Corcoran, and later at VCU, I never called myself an artist, but when asked I said I went to art school.  Most of my friends referred to themselves as artists right off the bat.  I had no such pretension.  In a lot of ways I still don’t.

So what does it mean to be creative? I still don’t know. I am now an architect—come to by a very roundabout route, but one that has taken every creative instinct that I’ve had and put it to use.  I think what I’ve done is best summed up by the notion of the creative instinct.

Like any animal that works on instinct I have very little to explain the whys, whats, and wherefores.  So sadly I can’t tell what creativity is or where it comes from.  For me twenty-three was the year I woke up, took my life into my own hands, for better or for worse and walked down my own creative path.   And it is fortunate that I have creative outlets for I could very easily live in my own head at a greater distance than I already am.

So there you have it.  Probably an unsat answer, but at least what it means to be creative to me.