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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

In the eye of the beholder

From the very first cubicle I ever occupied, to the relatively palatial office I inhabit now, I have always tried to surround myself with comfortable reminders of life outside of work.

Aside from obvious stuff like pictures of my family, I also have small mementos of places I’ve been and events I’ve experienced… as well stuff that has captured my imagination and never let go.

On my desk sits a prized chunk of Portland concrete from the old Route 66 that I picked up during my 'midlife crisis' road trip. On the closest wall hangs a red wooden Burma Shave sign from the same era. You’ll have to read these two entries (here & here) to understand how profoundly these two items move me.

Further down the wall hangs a pair of wooden plaques with the insignia of the two frigates on which I served (USS Whipple & USS Ouellet). These are bittersweet reminders of a life experience that proved beyond all doubt the old axiom, ‘That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’.

Near the plaques hangs an ancient framed sheepskin page with a hand-drawn/colored chant that originally resided in some long dead monk’s volume of liturgical music. This fragment of church music never fails to conjure voices that have been silent for nearly half a millennium.

On the same section of wall I also have a pair of framed Two Dollar bills issued by the Confederate States of America (one from 1862 and the other from 1864). These are the only example of American currency (that I know of) that contains the portrait of a Jew (Judah P. Benjamin).

The most recent addition to the office came courtesy of one of my two ‘Blogfathers’.

I think I’ve mentioned once or twice that Steve, the main guy over at Evaporation, is a wonderful writer. He writes in self-assured paragraphs that make one think of a master wood carver taking strong, confident swings with a mallet & chisel… hewing out just the right amount to provide contrast and relief.

Well, besides having a nice way with words, Steve is also (perhaps first and foremost) a photographer. Each time he posts a journal entry he changes the photograph on his index page. Go take a look at some of the pictures in his gallery… you’ll be floored by the honesty of the images.

Norman Rockwell showed us life as we wished it could be, and in so doing, made us nostalgic for an era that never was. Steve’s camera reveals life as it is, with all the gritty, hopeful, imperfect, tragic and joyful reality that the eye can possibly take in.

I guess that’s what I love most about Steve’s images.

Unlike Rockwell, who always spoon fed the observer most of the story, leaving only small nuances of back story to the imagination, Steve’s photographs tell you just enough of the story to make you want/need to know (or invent) the rest.

A few months back Steve posted a picture that disrupted my life. I found myself clicking back to his site every few hours just to stare at it a bit more. I can’t even tell you why this one picture - more that any other he’s posted - captivated me.

According to Steve, he took the photograph at a Ventura County meeting of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who were gathered to elect the delegates who would attend the statewide convention in Fresno. When I asked him how he had come to be there , Steve told me that he had been asked to be there to document, as he puts it, "… the actual practice of democracy among men and women who’ve been driven to action by a history of mistreatment, disregard, outright racism, poor working/living condition, and threat of economic ruin or just plain bodily injury."

He went on to point out that "of note was the fact that very few of these people were official citizens of this country yet here was the most kind and polite constituency conducting itself with pride, optimism, and decorum…".

The actual picture is of a farm worker standing in front of a poster bearing the dual image of Mexican actress Salma Hayek in her role as Frida Kahlo (from the 2002 film ‘Frida’). The contrast between the farm worker's weathered features and the actress’ smooth-skinned portrayal of the Mexican surealist was almost as striking as the similarity in their determined expressions.

Each time I clicked back to look at this picure I felt like Dustin Hoffman's character in ‘Rain Man’ (no offense intended to autistic people)… I just couldn’t stop staring at, and obsessing over that picture.

Finally I wrote Steve to tell him about my ‘mild’ obsession.  I was worried that he might think that I was some sort of wacko (OK, we haven't really ruled that out), but he was really nice and seemed to give me the beneift of the doubt.

In addition to describing the confluence of events / people that had brought the photograph into existence… He was nice enough to also give me a little background about his interest and involvement in certain socio-political circles that had called into play both his ethnic background and talent with the camera.

In a generous gesture (that I'll admit turned my head a bit), Steve offered to let me name the picture. I sent him a couple of choices and he informed me that he had chosen "Campesino under ersatz Fridas"*… my 1st choice, as well.

A signed copy of this photograph now hangs on my office wall among my other collected treasures. Whenever I feel the need to escape for a few minutes I simply allow myself to be transported to that little café in Oxnard California where a determined group of farm workers practiced a form of pure democracy rarely seen any more. And while I’m there, smelling the comforting aroma of warm tamales, tortillas, rice and beans, I try to imagine what was going on behind the Campesino's set, chiseled features.

[I apologize... this is a photo of my copy]

I’d be interested to know about the treasures you have in your offices… and what you see when you look at these special items.

* Campesino means simply 'farmer' in Spanish.  However, it has many subtle meanings to Spanish speakers including 'migrant worker', 'subsistence farmer', or even 'peasant', depending on the usage.  It is worth noting that, unlike some of these terms in English, the word Campesino does not have a derogatory connotation in Spanish.


Posted by David Bogner on November 24, 2004 | Permalink


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Another thought-provoking post. The whole thing seems a microcosm of America--tragedy and triumph rolled into one. The perfect spice to this dish was the bit about the Confederate cash.

While the media and even history tends to favor the Norman Rockwell version of America, the version you portray seems a bit more realistic.

Still, in spite of its faults ... I love the good ol' USA. I can tell you do too.

Posted by: Jim | Nov 24, 2004 5:46:06 PM

Hi David,

Oxnard is an interesting place. It is just up the coast from me so I get there fairly often. There are some beautiful homes on the water and then there are the areas that are not as nice.

As you drive up the 101 there are places that you can see workers harvesting the fields on the one side of the freeway. I have always found it to be so interesting to see these people working so hard in the fields and to know that on just the other side of the freeway is the ocean.

The sense it gives me is of freedom being just around the bend.

As for treasures in my office, well I cannot say that I have that many. My treasures are really the pictures of my children. I look at them and they never fail to make me smile.

I also have a little tool that I use to strengthen my hands. When I am lost in thought it is not unusual for me to sit there squeezing it. There is a story behind that, but this is your blog and not mine.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 24, 2004 6:58:54 PM

Hey Dave,
On my desk - the rock/paperweight that has, in glitter, Gilad's name that he gave to me when he was 5 and I've had on my desk ever since. Also a clear nameplate with my name on it that I got in the first year of my employment with GE (1987) and another paperweight given to me by Kim of an NBA player shooting a ball (she couldn't find one with a woman player, but knew I like basketball!)
I also have a Dilbert daily calendar that allows me to laugh at myself putting up with the daily corporate crap!
My favorite item on my desk, though, is the very small frame (2x2) of Sophie that was e-mailed to me in March 2001 (2 months before I flew over to Cambodia to bring her home) and I printed out and framed it. She has a cute outfit and bonnet on and is sitting on a chair. She is wide-eyed and smiling and looking directly into the camera and I feel as though she looks at me when I look at it. When all may be going on chaotically around me, I just have to look at this picture and all is right with the world because she is with me.

On my back credenza, I have many pictures of Sophie, Sophie & Kim, a picture of Ariella taken on the beach in Westport when she was about 6 and one of Liz & Maisie when Maisie was only about 1 taken in Manhattan where both of them look as happy as a mother and daughter can be. The fall lighting, the trees in the background and the expressions on their faces are just beautiful.

I have miscellaneous pictures on the walls of my cube that Sophie has drawn for me. And of course, a GE Calendar!

Sorry I took up so much room, but you asked! ;)

Posted by: val | Nov 24, 2004 8:38:48 PM

Jim... Yes I do. I may live here for the rest of my days, but a big part of my heart will melt at the slightest hint of Americana.

Jack... You should read a little of what Steve has to say about the world in which those workers live. It's an eye-opener.

Val... Yes, I did ask, and that is exaclty the kind of panoramic description I was looking for. Thanks.

Posted by: David | Nov 24, 2004 9:41:33 PM

Well sir, as a shy person I have to say I am humbled and most thankful for your kind and generous mention of my work. It's been taking up a lot of my time these days, mostly with shooting and printing, and that accounts for my own lack of entries in "evaporation." I'm also working on a new website to present the photographic work in a more dedicated way. I'm hopeful that it will be coming to a computer screen near you within the first quarter of next year.

Best wishes to you and your family as you enjoy your Thanksgiving. I've just finished rubbing my own turkey. A dry rub. With spices I mean. To make it taste good. The bird.

Thank you, David.

Posted by: Mr. Amaya | Nov 25, 2004 3:52:46 AM

Steve, er, Mr. Amaya... No, thank you! And, Happy thanksgiving... I hope the turkey enjoyed the rub.

Posted by: David | Nov 25, 2004 4:22:50 PM

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