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Following Josh is the amazing true story of two men going in opposite directions through life while travelling together from China to Europe by rail. It is a memoir of changing from a twenty-something kid into a married adult, and an amusing tour of the countries, cultures, and history they encountered along the way.
How did Ghengis Khan conquer so much of the world...on horseback? And what's that have to do with Beijing's city planning? Why is paintball the perfect game in Russia, and isn't vodka more Polish than Russian? Following Josh does a tremendous job of illustrating history with anecdote, and weaving deft cultural observations with humor, background, and insight. More than a memoir, more than a history, more than a travelogue, Following Josh is a modern adventure story wrapped in a thousand years of history.
The Making of "A Small Town Celebration"Early last year I was thinking about life and dreams and adventures (both a convenience and job hazard of being a writer/artist) and struck upon the hilarious image of myself wearing a top hat floating over my hometown in a hot air balloon, like a New Yorker cartoon born aloft by antique physics and maniacal laughter. There was a time in Victorian England when the rich and haughty would stroll the arcade--before "arcade" became synonymous with "clanging den of children pumping coins into flickering video game machines"--in their finest Sunday attire, taking such conspicuous and leisurely and conspicuously-leisurely time as they pleased, merely to flaunt their wealth in public. My favorite legend from the era is of an artist taking a lobster on a leash for a conspicuously self-indulgent stroll down a main street of London, making quite the spectacle of shameless attention-grabbing, among the shrieking well-to-do who were engage in the exact same thing while (sans crustaceans) oblivious to the irony.
My top-hatted, broke-artist-in-New-Yorker-caricature attire, balloon-enabled image was something of an updated dream inspired by the man, the lobster, and London.
Anyway, it was hilarious to me at the time.
So the thought went, "I can buy a top hat off eBay, I can rent a balloon, but I'm broke, so how can I get someone else to pay for the ordeal?"
I was living in Columbia, Illinois, at the time (for two months on my way to Tennessee, by way of Montana, by way of California, by truck, with wife and camera and gleams in our eyes) and found out that the Celebrate 2009 Committee that was honoring the town's sesquicentennial had just hired a film company to make a DVD covering the year's commemorative events. It made me remember a video from the centennial, of which all I can recall is a beige-tone (were the late 1950s really that brown?) clip shot while driving across the JB Bridge, a Lincoln hood ornament dancing in the foreground as the photographer's hand bobbed in time with the road bumps. There was an image of the town's dance hall, Turner Hall, even more faded in my memory than on that primitively reproduced VHS...and that was about it. I have been assured that the video is spectacular, and wonderful, and just as shaky and strangely-tinged as I remember it, and that plenty of people still have a copy tucked away in their attics and love its memory/idea more than any current utility. What it shows is Columbia, on several ordinary days, during one particular time: the hundredth anniversary of its charter as a town. The modern DVD would focus on the special events, which when I thought about it, was a valid strategy rather divorced from the focus of that original effort: a tape of the town as it was when the photographers had the time to film it, and a DVD of those moments which exist fleetingly among hubbub and bustle and decoration. I felt a surge of love for the tape.
Two other events unfolded in the short time during which I was originally amused by the balloon idea: I recalled that my father had made a little money, and had a lot of fun, doing aerial photography of St. Louis during his halcyon days of working romantic jobs that barely exist anymore (like teaching regular people with an interest in flight, how to fly inexpensive small planes they could actually own, before insurance and liability lawsuits destroyed that market and would-be civil aviators got distracted with more mundane hobbies like cruising the internet). I also happened across a dusty old memory of the town's funeral home, where I saw a few people I knew in uncharacteristic repose and many others in unique states of animation. The walls in their greeting hall and break room have pictures of Columbia through the last hundred fifty years--of saloons long gone and roads since paved and other complementary reminders of the world's habit of moving on without us. I can hardly think of a more appropriate motif for a funeral home, if only because I've never thought about the subject before at all.
The more I thought about those photos--pointedly ignoring related memories of the place--the more of them I wanted to see. There are a few good collections of photographs, in books and calendars and private archives, that show Columbia through the years...but their wonderful historic scope is precisely their problem. At least, it became the problem that vexed my attempts to open those door-like photos and see any farther into their ages. I couldn't, because there aren't more than two or three photographs of Columbia from any one year, in any one collection. To see the home on Main Street that supposedly quartered Union troops during the Civil War, I might find it in the background of a picture from 1884, or front and center in a parade shot from 1979...but not from the 1860s. I couldn't watch the old distillery in town grow up from whatever lot it was before, watch my great uncle get pushed off the roof following a labor dispute, see the main structure burn down, and the damaged auxiliary building eventually reopen as a pizza place, car parts store, Tae Kwon Do studio, and currently, boutique salons and a photography studio. I can see the salons now if I walk down Main Street, of course, but being both greedy for knowledge and lazy, I wanted a premade montage of images from each year to unspool before me...preferably with musical accompaniment to fit the eras.
This, of course, is impossible...and even if I had it, I would want to fast forward through years without change wherein the building looks boringly the same while, just off camera, parts of the rest of town change on uneven and uncoordinated schedules.
And that pokes at one of the central challenges of historic preservation: to be able to search for and find many things, you must document just about everything, which no one ever does because it gets overwhelming and is quite boring. We are biologically programmed to seek interesting stimuli--from the red color of edible fruit in the distance to the movement through the grass of a predator, the same skills updated now to find the McDonald's Golden Arches in the clutter of strip mall neon and the blur of a motorcycle changing lanes into ours. We don't see the grass in the medians, just the signs and the big rigs, and forget even these as we move on, unless something spectacular happens--like a flaming big rig crashing into a McDonald's. This is the kind of thing I want to see in historical montages.
Not endless hours of slow change and creeping evolution, which would be 99% of the content of a thorough documentation of everything.
So laziness and human nature and the understandable desire to do something more productive than repetitively photograph unchanging things on fixed timetables takes over, so that when we take a break from a great-relation's funeral to stare at a picture of a delivery man lowering a wooden barrel out of a horse drawn wagon three blocks over and a hundred years ago, we think "man, what DID town look like back then?" but of course, we can't go farther than the narrow scope of the one picture.
This is another central problem for historic preservation: by the time someone comes along who has a serious interest in some aspect of history, most of the material they would have gorged on--family photos, newspaper clippings--has been lost, forgotten, stored somewhere else, or never preserved in the first place. Troves tend to exist in random places, like birth, death, and marriage records at churches, which are archeological gold for certain pursuits and utterly useless for most others. I don't know how to see the rest of Main Street in the year of that deliveryman, and as desperate as I am to shake that picture left and right, it doesn't work like the camera that took it--I can't shift the focus around to see any more. That's all there is...enticement, lust, no follow through, leaving me to wander unsatisfied back into the viewing room full of broken hearts.
Now the first sign of real trouble like that, the first big setback, would usually send me scurrying to Facebook to make a snarky post or otherwise avoid the problem until I forgot about it and could move on with my day...but that one vexed me. It was rather more important than the banal problems I usually face in a workday notable mainly for its lack of pants (a writer, I have a home office). The problem, as it applied to me, was that it would take far more effort than it should--and still be incomplete--to create anything like that montage of old distillery pictures that I wanted. That interest can be ignored, of course, as can many recreational interests in history, because it wouldn't really serve any purpose beyond the sort of self-gratification that I can get way more easily on the internet or from any of our culture's vast choices in entertainment, edifice, and instant gratification.
But what about those with a legitimate interest in history, like students or civil engineers or academics studying the development of architecture, or fashion, or transportation; those interested in how various transportation revolutions changed the very layout of American cities. There are many theories, lots of maps, and some pictures, but a set of overhead--satellite, airplane, hot air balloon -perspective drawing--images would really help illustrate the point and inform the research. But in towns like Columbia--and we've been blessed by the money and photographers to indulge image making more than many small towns--there is no hope of finding or making any such collection of images of the same thing over many years. Images chronicling these changes can't even be said to be lost--such documentation never existed in the first place.
So, if studying history begins with the art of collecting its remnants in hopes of getting enough material to work with, couldn't we declare some time to be Moment Zero and start a better way of doing things...that didn't involve the mind-numbing business of cataloging everything, repeatedly?
Which sets up a fatal contradiction: you can't anticipate and prepare for all future wants and interests in historic preservation, without preserving absolutely everything...which would be, in a word, impossible. We are the only creatures that bother preserving more of our history than just memories, and in the streamlining effects of this--as anyone who ever cleaned out their attic or basement can attest--perhaps the beasts have something on man.
So, between the poles of not recording things and recording everything, can't we find some hallowed ground to stake, call Moment Zero, and move forward from?
How could we get funding to doing something with it?
And how could any of this get me up in a hot air balloon, wearing a top hat and monocle, drifting over my hometown in an ostentatious sendup of an English rumor?
By talking to John Conrad.
Every town, I'm finding, has a John Conrad; usually several of them, allocated as one per three thousand year-round residents. They are the men and women who grew up locally, sit on just about every board, and tell years worth of stories if you have the time. In the days of Roman architecture, they were called "pillars of the community." They are those who make a town into a community, and they know absolutely everyone.
Columbia's primary John Conrad is, conveniently enough, John Conrad, the co-president of the Celebrate 2009 Committee. I have a modicum of God-given, father-instructed talent with a still camera, which I could angle over the side of a hot air balloon while drifting overhead, snapping aerial photographs that show where the streets go--and don't--and whatever else of future historic merit can be seen from a basket dangling below a glowing orb. If I could pitch a worthy historic preservation idea to John Conrad, he might approve it for presentation to the Committee, who might pay me just enough for the balloon and top hot (I could borrow the monocle).
The above ideas occurred to me rather swiftly, and as momentary flashes of inspiration often do, set me cackling with an unnecessarily evil laugh. I stroked my chin, laughed, and imagined my flight, which would certainly pass over the homes of every teacher who ever fixed me with a patronizing look, which were a few, and every peer who never expected me to soar quite so literally above my humble beginnings, which were many. I wonder how many great achievements were the downrange accomplishments of what began as petty fantasies.
Probably not many.
And the more I thought about it, the more I felt that there really was something here--a rare chance for active historic preservation, which I hold is the act of looking around and trying to document or preserve today what may be of interest tomorrow. It's informed with experience and historic context and precedent, of course, but also involves a lot of guesswork, and takes a sort of intuitive feel that can best be answered by the kind of people who also ask the questions. I wondered what life looked like in 1865. I was able, through my camera and profession, to capture what life looked like in 2009.
So that idea pushed aside the dreams of lobsters and monocles and hot air balloons, as I started wondering what was so worthy today of being preserved for tomorrow...and that gets into a lot of inevitable hubris. Who are we to say that one person is worth remembering, but not another? What is so special about Tiny's Tavern that it should be photographed, specifically this year...other than that it exists, and that if we don't do it now, it won't get done now?
That last part is obvious--what doesn't get done now, won't get done now--but takes on a certain relevance when you think about time's relentless push towards the future. There has always been tomorrow. There always will be tomorrow. We can promise to do all things tomorrow. But we can only do them, actually do something, today. We can't do a blasted thing in the past; plans are not action themselves, and today is tomorrow's history. If we want something done in 2009, we simply must do it in 2009. If we want to have eaten a sandwich, we need to have made and eaten it, and if we haven't yet, can only do so now with apologies for tardiness.
So of course, I could take pictures in 2010, or miss that and do a 2011 version...but there's no time like 2009, to do something in 2009.
Especially when John Conrad likes the idea of taking pictures around town and wants me to present a formal proposal to a committee convened on the singular occasion of the town's 150th anniversary.
Which is what I did. The idea I pitched to them grew out of these thoughts, and used my idea of "active historic preservation" to inform the image of a collection of photographs taken around town that would relatively thoroughly document who the citizens are, where they work, where they live, how they play, what they value, and what they hope for the future. Some of these things are easy, like pictures of homes and schools. Other things, like values and hopes, are difficult--how can you photograph an abstraction?
But we wear our identities quite literally on our sleeves, so I was able to take pictures of hometown pride, t-shirts advertising church affiliation, and the like. The more I saw, the more telltale markers of history I realized exist everywhere--like the "Smoke Eater" air purifier in Gruchala's restaurant, left over from the only-recently-passed-at-that-time days of indoor smoking in restaurants. In confidence, some aspects of the project were too easy--what you're wearing right now is period clothing for whatever age you're reading this...so, I could point out the "period clothing" worn by anyone who happened to be in the frame. The cleverness wasn't in the photograph, necessarily, as it was in the initial realization of what I was actually looking at...and then applying that insight to inform other choices of photographs, like cars (which change every model year, if just slightly), contemporary construction styles on new buildings, and the like. It was a chance to do some visionary work, as I tried to anticipate what future historians would be interested in at some point in the future, based on what I was interested in at the moment...and the kinds of details I realized I was capturing.
That informed a much greater level of conscious approach to the project, where I worked with compositions and juxtapositions and all sorts of nifty things to evoke senses of time and place and importance, but that's the stuff of photojournalism and photojournalistic theory...and one of the rules of art is that you should never talk much about what you think you did, lest you come off as pompous (and worse, both risk being wrong and calling attention to it). So suffice it to say that I immersed myself in images and history, rode great waves of creativity and inspiration, and in all had a helluva lot more fun doing a project of actual merit than I would have from a simple balloon ride.
Though I did take to the air, as such a project demands aerial photography.
My father, long since retired from aerial photography, teaching flight classes at the local aeronautical college, and having anything else to do with flying professionally or even as a hobby, forbade me from renting a helicopter or airplane. This was strange, being an adult, so I blinked at him and waited for explanation.
After a long life spent in and around fixed wing aircraft, losing friends to rotorwing aircraft (helicopters), and crashing at the controls of a military helicopter that malfunctioned during flight training, he has a palpable loathing for and distrust of helicopters. He explained that the sort of passes I would need to make in a light aircraft would be dangerous for any pilot--not for the speed, but its lack, as the camera moving is a bad thing for photographers and the plane not moving is a bad thing for Bernouli's Law--if I could even convince one to try flying that low and slowly over a populated area.
The solution, he said, was that he would get the physical exam required to renew his license, take the (expensive) check rides with an (insultingly junior) instructor, and get his wings back...so he could take me up for the half hour I needed to snap my pictures. It was a huge undertaking for him, at the end of which we found ourselves on the tarmac beside the Cessna 172 propeller-driven aircraft featured on the last page of "A Small Town Celebration." We circled Columbia with the window propped open and the constant whine of the stall warning indicator telling us that we were a mile or so per hour shy of losing engine power and gliding quickly into an urban area...but my father had many years of experience flying exactly at that edge of the performance envelope, and with nary an engine cough or drop of sweat he put me in position after position for great shots. After landing, I asked him about the whining noise of the alarm I actually recognized, and ever the professional, he said with a grin that it was "nothing to worry about."
Those images are in the final version of the book, for which I took over 4,000 pictures of nearly 2,000 subjects and agonizingly culled them to the two hundred or so images you find there today. An attempt was made to be completely thorough; it failed as a matter of course, and necessity. Inclusion, of businesses and people, in that book should be viewed as an honor; exclusion, as nothing at all.
And isn't that a strange nature of blessings--that while they bring no harm, often they are criticized or despised by those who simply were not similarly visited?
The full and "real" archive consists of two identical collections of 150 8x10s each (two, so that over the ages one could be lost or destroyed without the project being lost), with full captions locating the images in time and space--so that years from now, when someone wants to shake the picture sideways to tilt the angle and reveal more, as I wanted to do, they will at least be able to read about the world just off camera and find on a map where the image was taken. The archive also contains a number of big pictures, mainly aerials, that are mounted to acid-free Gatorboard foamcore so that their tiny details might be more easily seen and their perspectives not crushed, wrinkled, or warped by time. These will be on display wherever the Powers That Be want to store or display them...but I created a book to put most of those images into the hands of folks who care about Columbia's history, or small town photojournalism in general.
That book is what I invite you to check out at http://www.blurb.com/books/1405999 Along with the captions and a postscript much shorter than this prologue, the book contains the images I spent 2009 capturing, along with something of the essence of our community.
I invite you to flip through the digital preview of the book, and if so moved, buy a copy through them or by calling my mother (she does Columbia-area local delivery; 618-281-7742). And if you really like it, I'd sure appreciate if you take a moment to vote for it in that website's People's Choice Awards Shameless Popularity Contest, for which there are no prizes, only a clever marketing scheme for them and a desperate hope to be loved for us.
In any event, thanks for reading "The Making of 'A Small Town Celebration' ~ The Essay About the Book." I hope you laughed until you cried and then coughed breakfast all over your keyboard.
Buy a copy directly from the author! This includes $2 shipping charge for within-Columbia-IL delivery by the author (or his agent).
I report on sports, travel, and local news. I'll cover anything, anytime, anywhere. Let me know how I can serve your publication.
My fine art photography is on permenant display at Cuban Pete's in Montclair, NJ, and is represented in numerous private collections. I do commercial, documentary, fine art, and other photography by commission.
I write commissioned biographies and other works of any length (from short narratives to full length books), and have several book-length manuscripts currently under consideration.