Bob Cullen Photography: Blog en-us (C) Bob Cullen Photography (Bob Cullen Photography) Fri, 26 Jan 2018 23:04:00 GMT Fri, 26 Jan 2018 23:04:00 GMT Bob Cullen Photography: Blog 120 96 Conflicting Narratives on Australia Day The official 2018 Australia Day parade in Melbourne yesterday started off conventionally enough. A navy band dressed in white marched down Swanston Street playing “Waltzing Matilda.” Then came more military types and some kids carrying a large Australian flag. But after that, it got complicated.

A delegation representing Australia’s community of immigrants from India marched by, the women dressed in colorful saris. They carried a big Indian flag and smaller Aussie flags. Then came Chinese associations, including parade dragons. Then Filipinos with parasols, Japanese in kimonos, Solomon Islanders in grass skirts and Sikhs in turba ns.

After them Superman marched past. Actually, he was bearing the standard of the Melbourne cosplayers’ group. He was accompanied by the Flash, Supergirl, Cinderella, ewoks and Imperial storm troopers. Then came Buddhists, Miss Sri Lanka Australia 2017, and a delegation of transgender people and drag queens. By the time a group of people riding antique bicycles and tricycles, the kind with enormous front wheels, rolled by, they looked a little dull.

The parade was a very telegenic display of Australia’s diversity. But it was incomplete. No representatives of Australia’s aboriginal people marched, and that was no coincidence.

Australia Day, January 26, commemorates the day in 1788 when the British flag was first raised over Australia and Britain, as was its imperial wont in those days, claimed the territory for the Crown. This, of course, displaced the existing inhabitants, and it is the original sin of modern Australia, much as the dispossession and near extermination of the Native Americans is the original sin of the United States.

The major difference is that the United States set July 4 as its national holiday, commemorating the Declaration of Independence from Britain. Thus, the Fourth of July can be presented as a celebration of freedom. (There is, I understand, a causal relationship between our national holiday and the Aussies’. After the Declaration of Independence was made to stick by the Revolutionary War, Britain felt the need for more colonies and sent the expedition to Australia.) The date of Australia’s national holiday commemorates colonialization, and therefore every year rubs the noses of the aboriginal people in their historic humiliation and subjugation.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a tradition in Melbourne that right after the official January 26 parade, protesting supporters of the aboriginals march the identical route down Swanston Street. This happened yesterday, and I would have to say that the protesters appeared to outnumber the participants in the carefully orchestrated official parade.

Originally, I have read, the goal of the January 26 protest march was to persuade Australia to change the date of its national holiday, presumably selecting a day not so closely associated with imperialism. However, judging by the chants and signage of the protest demonstration, the grievance goes deeper than that. “Fuck the date. Change the system,” one sign read. “Always was…always will be…aboriginal land,” was the most common chant I heard, followed by “Abolish Australia!”

I’m not sure exactly what would happen if Australia were indeed abolished. Perhaps, all the whites and Filipinos and Solomon Islanders would be deported. An aboriginal government would be established and given the power to decide whom to let back in, if anyone. Or maybe the protesters would want major reparations paid to the aboriginals. I couldn’t ask the protesters, because the same crowd control fences that were used for the official parade were still in use an hour later for the protest.

But it was evident that the two marches presented very different narratives. The official parade was saying that Australia is an immigrant land. In this narrative, the British colonialists may have been among the first to arrive, but they have been followed by many others, and Australia today is a melting pot of respected, equal ethnic groups that allows each of them to thrive.

The counter-narrative, represented by the protesters, holds that the essence of Australia remains white oppression of people of color, regardless of how many ethnic groups the city of Melbourne can recruit to put on colorful clothes and smile for the cameras televising the parade.

I have to say that I find the protesters’ narrative a bit ahistorical. Coincidentally, on Australia Day, the journal Science reported that archaeologists in Israel have determined that some fossils found in a cave there prove that early humans left Africa sometime between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago. That puts the beginnings of humanity’s dispersal from its east African birthplace some 50,000 years earlier than previously established.

If you accept the science, the chant of “Always was…always will be…aboriginal land,” is false.  Australia was uninhabited land (from the human perspective) before the first humans arrived. The aboriginals, if they were first, merely got there before everyone else, just as the people who crossed the Bering Strait and migrated southward were the first to get to the Americas. They may well have killed or assimilated humans or hominids who were there before them, as archaeology indicates Cro-Magnon man did with Neanderthal man in Europe.

But science tends to conflict with the traditional narratives of people who consider themselves the original inhabitants. These narratives usually involve some sort of deity that gave the land to the people. Such narratives are powerful—and impossible to disprove.

So I don’t know what will happen in Australia—or the Americas for that matter. How do we know which people came first to a given territory, since the current claimants may well have obliterated traces of yet earlier inhabitants? If we could determine it, what privileges should come with the claim of having been first? What would justice look like for groups the Canadians call First Nations. Do we organize society on the basis of ethnic groups and ethnic rights or on the basis of common humanity?

Tough questions. You won’t read the answers here. I’m here to watch tennis and play golf.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) aboriginals australia australia day human parades Fri, 26 Jan 2018 23:03:58 GMT
Art, Commerce, and My Australian Cousin Adam I like guidebooks. Before I travel, I like to read about my destination, savoring the reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions, planning itineraries. The guidebooks are too gushy (“Don’t miss the legendary Joyce Kilmer rest stop on the iconic New Jersey Turnpike”), but still an essential part of my pre-trip routine. So when I read about a Melbourne hotel called The Cullen during my prep work for our current trip to Australia, I was delighted. I had to go. Family pride and all.

My wife Ann, who buys my guidebooks and indulges my traveling whims most of the time, and I set out on foot on a beautiful summer morning, walking past the National Gallery of Victoria in the city’s official Art Precinct along a route full of parks and gardens, tennis courts and cricket pitches, till we emerged onto a street called Commercial Road, the heart of a neighborhood called Prahran.

Prahran (an amalgamation of a couple of aboriginal words meaning place near water or some such) was a 19th Century Melbourne suburb that has gone down at the heels and come back again.  According to what I’ve read, it has trod the path of gentrification, including phases as a hippie haven and a center of Melbourne’s gay community. Now it’s an eclectic, cheerful mix of cafes, boutiques, and Chinese massage parlors. It’s got the requisite badge of funky Melbourne chic, which is laneways (i.e. alleys) full of dark, artful graffiti. But in Prahran’s laneways, you can also spot genuine little old ladies who live in the neighborhood, giving the whole thing a certain authenticity that more celebrated laneways in the city center plainly lack.

The Cullen (or as the hotel’s graphic design team would have it, [THE CULLEN]) is on Commercial Road in the heart of Prahran, across from the central market. It’s a newish building, in a modern architectural palette, maybe eight stories high. There’s no doorman at the entrance, but there are a couple of the hotel’s rental bikes parked there in case a guest wants to go for a spin. And next to the hotel’s name is a rather garish portrait of a dog, a smiling dog with tongue hanging out, maybe a collie or shepherd mix, with strangely insouciant eyes. This is no Hilton or Westin, traveler, the dog seems to say.

And indeed it is not. [THE CULLEN] is part of a small chain of Australian boutique hotels called the Art Series, created by a Melbourne company called the Deague Group. The concept is that each hotel is named for a contemporary Australian artist and decorated with his or her work. There are original paintings in the common areas and prints in the bedrooms. The staff not only run the hotel, but act as docents, expounding on the life and work of its eponymous artist.

[THE CULLEN] is named for a man I have decided to call my Cousin Adam. (Some Cullens emigrated from Ireland to America, and some to Australia. I can’t document it, but there’s got to be a little consanguinity somewhere.) That’s a picture of Cousin Adam above right, which I downloaded from a web site that didn’t credit the photographer. He’s standing in front of a portrait of an Australian actor named David Wenham, a painting that won Australia’s Archibald Prize in 2000. Which I believe is a big deal for an Australian painter.

There’s a lot of Cousin Adam’s work on display. You can sit in the small lobby under a depiction of an Australian outlaw named Ned Kelly being arrested by a constable named Fitzpatrick in 1878. As you wait for the elevator, you can contemplate the backside of a bull that he painted after a fellowship in Barcelona in 2007.  His work features bold black lines and iridescent colors and a lot of dripping paint. The charming young woman tending the front desk explained that the drips seem to correlate with Cousin Adam’s emotional state when he created them. The more upset he was, the more paint dripped.

And Cousin Adam, she said, spent a lot of his life upset. He was either a bit of a nut, or a man who understood how to create the persona of a tormented artist in the post-Van Gogh era. In Sydney, where he studied art, he is remembered for a 1980s performance piece in which he chained a dead pig’s head to his leg and dragged it around for a week, till it stank so badly that he was banned from public transport and had to give it up. He had an unfortunate penchant for booze and firearms and he died young, at 46, back in 2012. (You can read more about him here.)

I don’t know what the deal was between Cousin Adam and the Deague Group, but I hope it paid him well. It has definitely paid off for the Deague Group. Its Art Series chain, now up to nine properties, was sold a few months ago for $52 million to a company called the Mantra Group. And our docent told us that Mantra has immediately flipped the mini-chain to a still bigger corporate entity called Accor Hotels. As part of that deal, she confided, the original Cousin Adam paintings are being removed from [THE CULLEN] and replaced. She wouldn’t call the replacement works copies, but the implication was clear. What was once original is being commodified.

I just hope that Cousin Adam’s heirs, whoever they may be, got a piece of the pie. Somehow, though, I doubt it.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) accor adam cullen art art series australia boutique hotels deague group hotels mantra group melbourne prahran Wed, 24 Jan 2018 21:04:07 GMT
Remnants of a Life That Ended Badly I like a story that begins with the discovery of a box full of old, forgotten stuff in someone's attic.

So I was intrigued last week when my friend Dave Kelly invited me to have a look at the contents of an attic in a house he'd purchased in Chevy Chase. Dave is a builder, and he often buys houses from estates. Then he either renovates them or tears them down and builds something larger on the lot. 

The house he'd bought was a beige stucco Tudor with a peaked roof on Maple Avenue. It had last belonged to an elderly widow named Ann McLaughlin. Her heirs had cleaned out the first two floors, but they told Dave they were leaving the attic and he could do what he wanted with anything he found there. The attic, Dave discovered, was crammed full. There were old books, some scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, some old toys. There was an academic gown, perhaps a faded crimson. There was a tattered pennant from Yale. And there was a framed certificate. The certificate, dated January 21, 1961, stated that John F. Kennedy, reposing special trust and confidence in the prudence and integrity of one James M. Landis, did hereby appoint him a special assistant to the president. It was signed by Kennedy and by Dean Rusk, then the secretary of state.

It didn't take long, leafing through old passports, to figure out that Ann McLaughlin was James Landis' daughter. A little more research established who James Landis was. And it also revealed a plausible explanation for why the certificate and other items--like the old newspaper cartoon below right--might have been forgotten and abandoned by Landis' descendants. His was a tale of a brilliant American life that ended badly.

Landis was born in Tokyo in 1899, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. He was a bright and studious boy, and one with a keen sense of duty. When the United States entered World War I, he was too young to serve in the military. So he volunteered for a YMCA organization that served the troops in Europe. (I am cribbing much of this information from a biography by Justin O'Brien that was published in 2014.) When the war ended, he did his undergraduate studies at Princeton. He was a near contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and maybe he caught a whiff of the sense of entitlement that Fitzgerald depicted in This Side of Paradise, the sense that the young men of Yale and Harvard and Princeton represented an American aristocracy that was destined to run the world. He would probably have been a scholarship boy at Princeton, so he might not have felt himself quite a member of that aristocracy as yet. But he might have felt, like the title character Fitzgerald would later create in The Great Gatsby, close enough to feel that he someday could be. (That's a picture of Princeton's 1920 football team below left. I don't know if Landis had anything to do with the football team, but he kept the picture and Dave Kelly found it in the McLaughlin attic. The painted letters and numbers on the football indicate that Princeton tied Harvard 14-14 that year, and beat Yale, 20-0. Those, evidently, were the only games that truly mattered.)

Landis went on to Harvard Law, where he compiled a brilliant record. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. By the age of 29, he was a tenured professor at Harvard. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Landis was one of the people he recruited for his "Brain Trust," the rotating cast of academic advisors who fashioned the New Deal.  Landis, along with Benjamin Cohen and Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran, drafted the legislation that established the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was the New Deal's effort to make sure the Crash of 1929 never happened again. In 1934, FDR appointed him to the commission, serving under the first chairman, Joseph P. Kennedy. That was the beginning of an alliance with the Kennedy family that was to last nearly three decades. He was himself chair of the SEC in 1935, and then became dean of the Harvard Law School in 1937.

Landis was established as one of those men who shuttled between the Ivy League and Washington, lending their expertise to government when Democrats were in power and developing new ideas behind ivy-covered walls during Republican interregnums. During World War II, FDR appointed him head of the Office of Civilian Defense. Then he sent him as an emissary to the Middle East, prompting the editorial cartoon at the right in the Washington Star, which also wound up in the attic on Maple Avenue. Harry Truman asked him to lead the Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration.

But somewhere in the late 1940s, the uninterrupted upward trajectory of Landis' life began to wobble. In 1947, his wife petitioned for divorce on the grounds of desertion. That may have been a consequence of Landis working in Washington while the family residence remained in Massachusetts. But whatever public image of rectitude Landis had was dented the next year when he married a woman who had served as his assistant at the C.A.B. In those days, a divorce was more scandalous than it is now. The desertion accusation may explain why the Landis memorabilia gathered dust in his daughter's attic. 

At the end of 1947, Harry Truman declined to reappoint him. Landis maintained it was because he had earned the enmity of the airlines he was supposed to regulate, and the airline lobbyists got to Truman. Maybe it was.

He fell back on his friendship with Joseph P. Kennedy, who wanted someone to manage his family's financial affairs so his sons could pursue careers in public service. That is evidently what Landis did in the 1950s, along with service in the campaigns of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he asked Landis to write a plan for revamping the various federal regulatory efforts. Landis did. But then disaster struck. During a background check, it was discovered that he hadn't filed income tax returns for the years from 1956 to 1960.

It's not clear why Landis made such a fundamental blunder for a man in public life. There have been suggestions that he drank too much or that he had psychological problems. The lawyers who defended him said that he'd had a technical problem evaluating some stocks he sold, and then just procrastinated about solving it, with no intent to evade taxes. Landis, upon being discovered, paid his back taxes, plus interest.

If Landis had been just an obscure citizen, that might have been enough to resolve his case. The IRS wasn't then in the habit of prosecuting people who acknowledged failure to file and paid what they owed. But Landis wasn't obscure and John Kennedy chose not to absolve his family's old friend. He told deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach that it wouldn't look proper if his administration appeared to be going easy on one of its own while expecting everyone else to file returns. So Landis was prosecuted.

He received a sentence of 30 days in jail, commuted to a humiliating mandatory hospitalization for a month. He was disbarred. His life was ruined, and very shortly afterward, it ended. In the summer of 1964, his body was found floating in the swimming pool of his house in Harrison, New York, a very Gatsby-esque way to go. News accounts of his death hinted that it was a suicide, but eventually there was a finding that he drowned after having a heart attack. His little trove of memorabilia found its way to Maple Avenue, but not to an honored place of display. It went to the attic.

Landis did not disappear from history, of course. Scholars who study government administration and regulation regard him as a seminal figure, for better or worse, in the creation of the 20th Century administrative and regulatory state. They admire his skill in drafting legislation and respect his opinions about the proper relationship between government and business.

It's impossible to know what caused James Landis to crash and burn. A religious person might take note of the transcript of an oral history Landis recorded. In it, he said that he could never believe in the benevolent God of his missionary parents after the terrible carnage he saw in World War I. So maybe it was the loss of faith that ruined Landis' compass. Maybe it was alcohol. Maybe, despite his brilliance, he just wasn't immune to a mid-life crisis.

But it would be a mistake to say that the life of James Landis ended in total ruin. I asked a presidential autograph collector I know, Doug Wertman, if the framed certificate might have any value on the autograph market. Yes, Doug replied. It might even be worth a couple of thousand dollars, which would be not bad for something left for trash in a Chevy Chase attic.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) attic chevy chase dave kelly franklin d. roosevelt harvard james m. landis john f. kennedy new deal princeton securities and exchange commission yale Tue, 17 Oct 2017 15:30:59 GMT
The Stupidity of Abolishing DACA So, President Trump has decided to rescind the executive order that President Obama used to establish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. In other words, he has started the machinery that in six months (barring action by our dysfunctional Congress) will leave 800,000 foreign-born young people vulnerable to deportation.

Trump has done a lot of dumb things in his brief tenure in office, but it's hard to think of any single thing he's done that is potentially more damaging to the country he purports to want to make great again.

I say this because of what I learned in a second career (2006-2011) teaching at Central High School in Prince George's County, MD. I taught a lot of immigrant kids. I never knew their legal immigration status; I never asked. Some of them might have been DACA-eligible. Others weren't.

But I do know that they were, in the great majority, admirable students and  admirable people. They were excited to have the opportunity to get an education in an American public school of the sort that is too often disparaged by people who haven't been in one and would never send their kids to one. Things that American kids take for granted, like air-conditioning and computers, struck them as infinitely superior to the schools in the lands they left behind. 

These kids did not expect anything to be given to them. To the contrary, they expected to have to work their butts off. Many of them started in American schools speaking little or no English. That was okay with them. They worked hard and caught up. They didn't complain about the essay assignments and grammar lessons I gave them. They asked only for extra help mastering things that didn't come quickly to them.

I am not the first to observe that attitude makes a tremendous difference in what people can accomplish. These kids had great attitudes. 

As the years have passed, I've kept up with many of my old students, thanks in part to social media. I have seen them continue to struggle, to strive, and to achieve. They've gone to and graduated from college, often with honors. A lot of them worked their way through, in menial jobs like taking care of the elderly in nursing homes. Some of them have started families and careers. Some have managed to make it into graduate school, where they're working toward medical degrees and MBAs. I've gone back into my archives and found pictures of some of them, which I am posting here. I won't identify them, though, because I don't want to embarrass them, and I want them to represent not just themselves, but all the kids like them whose futures are at risk.

What Trump and his know-nothing supporters don't seem to get is that America needs these kids. It needs their energy, their talent, and their ambition. It needs that attitude they bring to their lives. In their collectivity, they are not going to take jobs from native-born Americans. They are going to create them.

If we throw them out, some other country will benefit. And Joe Trumpist from West Virginia will still not get his old job in the coal mine back. It's a lose-lose proposition.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) daca immigration trump Wed, 06 Sep 2017 01:44:00 GMT
Not Just "Objects of Remembrance" One of the (many) canards I hear in our political discourse these days is the one that says monuments to Confederate soldiers, particularly Gen. Robert E. Lee, are simply inoffensive reminders of history. Bringing them down, we are told, would needlessly deprive people of their "heritage." Just last week in Alabama, someone erected a new Confederate monument and predictably assured the media that it had nothing to do with race, or politics. It was just a matter of respect for ancestors.

If you believe that, you probably believed that Cersei was going to send the Lannister army up north to fight alongside Jon and Danerys. 

The reliably mendacious ("our new election laws are not trying to keep Democrats from voting, they're just trying to stop fraud") North Carolina legislature recently passed this lie into law. It said that local governments in the Tar Heel state were prohibited from removing "objects of remembrance," including Confederate memorials. This was akin to combining baloney with horse manure, because it also exposed another right-wing lie, the oft-espoused principle that conservatives believe that the government closest to the people, i.e., local government, is the one that's best suited to make decisions that affect those people. In truth, conservatives like local government when they control local government. When they don't control it, they'll use whatever level of government they do control to impose their views.

But I digress. The topic is monuments and whether they are merely "objects of remembrance." And the truth is, they are not. Monuments in public places invariably are intended to support a point of view. They silently tell us to respect, even venerate, the person or cause depicted in bronze or marble. If they were simply objects of history and remembrance, there would still be monuments to King George III in the public squares of our original 13 states, and Russia would still have thousands of statues of Josef Stalin. There aren't, and Russia doesn't.

Last week I took my bicycle and a point-and-shoot camera for a ride around Washington to see if I could find even one memorial that didn't fit the "respect-and-venerate" model. I could not.

Washington has lots of monuments to generals who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. (They don't even have to be particularly astute or courageous generals.) These monuments are saying, in effect, that Washington was the capital of the Union and the Union's cause was not only victorious, but just.  You might agree or disagree with that message, but I don't think you can reasonably deny that the message exists.

For much the same reason, you will not, as far as I could tell, find any Confederate memorials in Washington, DC. That's because the powers that be in Washington, whether local or federal, would not approve a statue that said, in effect, "The Confederate cause was noble and it ought to be revered," which is the obvious message of Confederate memorials. 

Because Washington is home to many foreign embassies, it is also home to many foreigners' statues. They, too, have their messages. There's a statue of Winston Churchill near the sidewalk outside the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. The symbolism here is explained by a little plaque on the plinth. Churchill has one foot on British Embassy property (and symbolic British soil) and one foot on American land.  That's supposed to represent both his ancestry (his mother was American), and the idea that Britain and the United States are inextricably linked.

Other countries play this game along Massachusetts Avenue. Directly across the street from Churchill, the South African embassy has a new statue of Nelson Mandela. He is brandishing a fist at Churchill. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the South African government which erected the Mandela statue intended to remind us that whatever else Churchill may have accomplished during his career, he did not end apartheid in South Africa when it was a British dominion.  A little further down the avenue, there are statues of Mohandas Gandhi and Robert Emmett, who also had their issues with the British.

Massachusetts Avenue has a statue and small garden dedicated to Kahlil Gibran, the Arab-American poet and author of "The Prophet." It, too, has a message. The Arab-Americans who paid for it wanted to promote religious tolerance. On one of the stones in the monument, they engraved these words from the poet:

"I love you, my brother, whoever you are, whether you worship in your church, kneel in your temple or pray in your mosque..."

The Gibran monument, by the way, is only a few blocks from the house that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are renting. It would be nice to think that someday they'll be out walking the dog, see the words, and say, "Gee, maybe we should bring Dad here to read this."  Unfortunately, Dad is probably too busy promoting another monumental canard, the one saying that if the Lee statues have to come down, the Washington and Jefferson memorials must be next, because they were all slave owners, right?

Yes, they were. Lee, according to several accounts I have read, was an especially cruel one. His slaves were flogged when they didn't perform to his specifications, and he didn't hesitate to split up slave families by selling some family members to other owners. But to think that Washington, Jefferson and Lee must be treated equally because they all owned slaves is to illustrate the veracity of Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of weak minds." Washington and Jefferson were not saints. They did own slaves. But that must be weighed against their contributions. Washington led the American forces in the Revolutionary War and was our first elected leader. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, made the Louisiana Purchase and founded the University of Virginia.  Lee chose to side with the states rebelling to preserve slavery. He was a traitor to the duly elected government of his country.

And the silent message of Lee statues is that this was all forgivable, because black people aren't really equal. That was the message of the statues erected during the time when Jim Crow rules governed the South. It is the message of the Confederate memorial erected in Alabama last week.

So I don't have a problem of principle with removing Lee statues, any more than I had a problem with the Russians and Eastern Europeans who tore down statues of Lenin and Stalin. To the extent that they have historical or artistic value, the Lee statues can be kept in museums, where perhaps people will ponder what motivated the people who insisted they belonged on the public square. 

I do have some reservations about the tactics. American liberals are prone to spend their political capital on symbols rather than on policies and laws that will actually benefit society. Removing Lee statues will do nothing to help secure people's right to vote, or their health care, or good public schools, or decent jobs. But it will antagonize a certain number of middle-of-the-road voters who still buy the history-and-heritage argument about Confederate memorials. 

Is it worth the fight? I don't know. Maybe it would be smarter to go to every American park or town square that has a Lee statue and erect a distinctly larger copy of the Nelson Mandela statue on Massachusetts Avenue, brandishing that fist.  

(If you've read this far, you deserve a reward, and here it is. The first reader who sends me an email identifying each of the statues in this post, from top to bottom, wins a free portrait session at my studio in Chevy Chase, MD. Use if for yourself or give it as a gift. I'll even give you a hint. The statue at the top honors Kahlil Gibran.)


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) civil confederate donald trump ivanka trump jared kushner jefferson memorials nelson mandela robert e. lee statues war washbington d.c. washington winston churchill Mon, 28 Aug 2017 21:16:20 GMT
A Summer Morning in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens Washington has some world-renowned splendors and some that are so obscure as to be almost hidden. Everyone knows about the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin. When they come out in late March or early April, the tour buses line up and unload, and you have to be careful not to be jostled into the water. I like the cherry blossoms, but, like any good Washingtonian, I relish the places in the city where buses never line up. Places like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the far reaches of the District, by the banks of the Anacostia River.

A Civil War veteran named Walter Shaw bought the land that now holds the gardens back in the 1880s. According to the National Park Service, Shaw was from Maine and he missed the water lilies he used to see in the ponds up there. He started planting tropical flowers, particularly lotuses and water lilies that need to stand in water. For them, he built a series of ponds delineated by raised dirt walkways, almost like rice paddies in Southeast Asia. In the 1930s, Congress bought the gardens from his daughter for $15,000. They came under the purview of the Parks Service, just like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

But though they were in the middle of a growing metropolitan area, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens were not nearly as often visited as the parks in the remote reaches of the American West. One reason, I am sure, is that the neighborhood immediately around the park became black and poor. It is still black and poor, filled with low-rise public housing, auto body shops, and other establishments that marked it as a no-go zone for many white suburbanites. Despite free admission, the KAG remained a bit of a secret. When I go, I usually see no more than a dozen people,

Recently, the numbers seem to have ticked upward. Maybe gentrification, for all its flaws, has made white people more willing to venture into black neighborhoods. Maybe social media and the internet have spread the word of the gardens more than the Parks Service could. For the last few years, the Parks Service has even organized a little week-long Lotus and Water Lily Festival in mid-July, when the flowers are at their peak.

The lotus is a venerated, even sacred object in Hindu culture. The flower, when it opens, sits high above the murky waters from which the stem emerges. It's easy to understand why, for Hindus, the lotus can symbolize the potential for beauty and enlightenment to spring from the turbidity of human nature. The other flora of the gardens, while perhaps not quite as spectacular as the lotus, are all beautiful in their own ways.

As a photographer, though, I prefer shooting the fauna of the gardens, particularly the winged kinds. The gardens abound in bees, butterflies and dragonflies. They're tougher to capture than a lotus blossom (like the one at the top of this post). The lotus blossoms stay where they are, and it's pretty easy to make a beautiful image. The winged creatures dart about, and the approach of a photographer seems often to make them particularly skittish. 

On top of that, they're tough for my auto-focus lenses to capture. I can point the camera at a dragonfly, but the lens and sensor may see a point of greater contrast behind or in front of the dragonfly and fix on that point. I get a blur red dragonfly. Or I don't manage to get my monopod on the ground and my lens pointed before creatures fly away. On a summer morning in the gardens, I will see a dozen interesting pictures of bees and dragonflies in action for every one that I manage to get into the camera.

Still, at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, it's impossible to spend an hour and not come back with some good images.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) bee butterfly d.c. dragonfly hindu kenilworth aquatic gardens lotus lotus flower national park service washington Thu, 20 Jul 2017 08:47:13 GMT
Smith Island Is Vanishing For hundreds of years, watermen and their families have lived on Smith Island, Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay sustained them, yielding its crabs and oysters to their hard labor. But now the island is slowly disappearing, the victim of two kinds of erosion. The bay is slowly swallowing the land. The population is eroding too, as people steadily move away.

I didn't get the name of the woman pictured above. (Sorry; my reportorial habits are slipping.) But I did learn that she is 86 years old, and a widow. She was born and raised on Smith Island, and she used to run a combination general store and crabcake restaurant called Ruke's. But it closed down in 2015, no longer making money. Her children and grandchildren have left Smith Island, finding jobs on the mainland, or "the other side," as I heard it called. She lives on the other side during the winters, too. But she comes back in the summer, because she likes the peace and quiet of the island.

I encountered her as I was riding a rented bicycle on one of the narrow, blacktop roads of the island, near the largest of its villages, Ewell. I stopped to photograph a house that once contained her neighbors. The owners just abandoned it, not even taking the car that sits in the rising weeds of what was once a front yard. Nature is steadily reclaiming the property.

According to Wikipedia, Smith Islanders once did some farming. I didn't see any farmland or even farmable land on my brief tour. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places. But maybe the erstwhile farmland has just been submerged by the slowly rising waters of the bay.

That would leave Smith Islanders the waters of the bay as a source of sustenance. And, indeed, Smith Islanders have always been classic Chesapeake watermen. There are a couple of dozen long, low boats in Ewell's little harbor. They're built that way because watermen have to lean out over the gunwhales and reach down near the water surface to haul in their crab traps or use their tongs to rake along the bottom of an oyster bed. 

But there are fewer boats these days, and I heard a few different explanations as to why. One is that the government, in its efforts to make sure the crab and oyster populations can sustain themselves, puts too many picky limits on what watermen can do and when they can do it. Watermen, I was told, do what they do in part because they can be their own bosses. They don't like anyone telling them what to do. (Doubtless the regulators could make a convincing case that left to their own devices, the watermen might pull so many crabs and oysters from the bay that the populations died off, the way cod was fished to death in the waters off New England. But I didn't hear that case made on Smith Island.)

It's also true that pulling crabs and oysters from the bay is damnably difficult. A waterman's back and legs and eyes tend to give out after a lifetime on the water, leading to a short, painful retirement.  Steady jobs on the mainland, even jobs like being a guard at the state prison on the other wide in Westover, start to look more attractive. That may be why, if you look into what was once a shack for processing crabs on the dock at Ewell, you'll see a only pigeon perched on abandoned equipment. 

Smith Island has one famous food item, a ten-layer vanilla cake with chocolate fudge icing called the Smith Island Cake. In 2008, it was officially designated by the legislature as Maryland's state dessert. But when I ordered a slice in one of Ewell's two restaurants, the Harborside, it didn't taste quite fresh. I learned that a few years ago, the Smith Island Cake Co. moved its production facility to Crisfield, on the other side. It's a lot of trouble to haul things by boat or barge to Smith Island, and since there are no bridges, that's the only way to get something there.

That leaves tourism as a way to make a living, and Smith Island tries. There are a couple of B&Bs on the island. Every day, in the summer, there are a several boats that offer day cruises from Crisfield for about $25 round trip. They depart from Crisfield at 12:30 and they leave Smith Island for the return trip at 4. That gives most visitors time for a meal, a quick look at the little island museum in Ewell, and maybe a souvenir purchase in a gift shop. If you stay overnight, you can rent a kayak and explore the marshes, maybe photograph some herons and egrets, maybe fish a little. And that's about it. (The island is dry, so don't count on sipping a cocktail and watching the sun set.)

Other places in and along the bay, like Tilghman Island and St. Michael's, have lately become prosperous as second-home and retirement communities for the well-to-do of Baltimore and Washington. But they're a lot closer to those cities. Smith Island is a trek-and-a-half from just about anywhere but Crisfield. 

Thus, the numbers don't look good for Smith Island. According to the Bureau of the Census, the population has declined steadily in recent years, from 364 in 2000 to 207 in 2010 to 180 in 2015. If that trend continues, the end is in sight. Anyone who would like to see the people of a traditional American village making their living as their ancestors have done since the 17th Century had better go soon. At this rate, in another 25 years, Smith Island's population will be gone.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Chesapeake Bay Crisfield Ewell Maryland Smith Island Smith Island Cake crabs oysters watermen Fri, 30 Jun 2017 00:51:02 GMT
What Annie Leibovitz Hath Wrought Back in my reproductive years--which came so long ago I can't use the phrase, "back in the day" because they antedate the day--it seems to me that women tried to be, if not modest, at least circumspect about the late stages of their pregnancies. It's not that the times were all that repressed in matters of sex and dress. They weren't. (Look up mini-skirts and sexual revolution on Wikipedia, kids.)

But my recollection is that expectant mothers tended to wear loose maternity dresses--smocks, basically--in the months before they gave birth.  And they weren't often photographed. I have one picture of my wife in the late stages of her first pregnancy. She is seated in a rocking chair, dressed in a blue plaid maternity dress, looking slightly bemused at my insistence that she might want to be photographed. I don't recall seeing any pictures of my mother in pregnancy, though history tells me she was pregnant for much of the early 1950s and my father owned a camera.

The moment the culture shifted on this issue can be very precisely identified. It was August, 1991, when the great Annie Leibovitz photographed a nude and seven-months-pregnant Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair.  The photograph was a bombshell, even though Ms. Moore's hand bra made it safe for supermarket checkout stands. (I will put a download of the image here, on the theory that Ms. Leibovitz's lawyers have got bigger fish than me to fry.) The baby bump had its coming out party, so to speak, and the party has not stopped.

As a portrait photographer, it seems this spring that I've had a spate of clients in the advanced stage of pregnancy who want to celebrate their condition and make sure it's recorded for posterity. I like these women. I wouldn't say that they glow, contrary to legend. I have to pay attention to the way their faces are lit just as I do with any client.  But they have pride and serenity that come through in their pictures.

One client told me she wanted to look regal in her pregnancy portrait. The nearest thing to a regal setting that I could think of was the Bishop's Garden on the south side of the National Cathedral in Washington. So we went there, and I photographed her amidst blooming flowers, with the gray Gothic walls of the cathedral in the distant background. She wore a tight white singlet, white pants, and a floppy-brimmed sunhat, and when I thought I'd gotten the shot and suggested we move on, she said, "Can't I pull up my shirt?"

My first response was, "I don't think so." After all, what might the bishop think? But she looked so disappointed that I said, "Okay, one or two quick ones." She tugged up the shirt and revealed that she had had an elaborate henna design painted on her tummy, an adornment that was matched on the back of her hands.  She beamed while I took a couple of quick snaps. We got out of there before the bishop could see us, I guess. As I think about it, I suspect the bishop wouldn't have minded. I was the only one concerned about whether it was appropriate. (I am blurring client faces in this post, though, just in case the culture shifts back.)

White has been a recurring motif in my recent maternity shoots. Indeed, I find more than a little in common between maternity shoots and wedding shoots. In both, the woman in white is the center of attention. The father plays an important, but distinctly subordinate role. The mother-to-be (and in my experience it has always been the mother-to-be who is the paying customer in these shoots) wants individual shots of herself. She also wants shots starring herself, the baby bump, and the adoring dad. It's not uncommon for clients to ask me to shoot the father on his knees, kissing the bump. But there's never been a request for an individual shot of the father-to-be. If the guy gets any individual shots, it's usually because I want someone to stand in front of the backdrop and let me check the lighting while the mother-to-be is changing clothes or fixing her makeup.

I shot one expectant mother on the opposite side of the cathedral from the Bishop's Garden, in a place called the Women's Entrance. (It's a portico, so it has nice, soft light.) After a dozen shots, she told me she felt light-headed. Visions of premature labor and lawsuits flashed through my mind. She sat down, took some deep breaths, and collected herself, though. As we walked down the granite steps and headed for the cathedral's parking garage, I took her hand. I didn't want her to fall. We walked hand-in-hand into a cluster of kids, probably students at the National Cathedral School. They looked at this woman in her 30s, very pregnant. They looked at the old man holding her hand. They looked again. I tried not to smirk.  

I like doing these shoots. There is an infectious joy in these women, and I think it's healthy that they want to show off why they feel that way. I'm flattered that they trust me to help them do it.






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Annie Leibovitz Bishop's Garden Demi Moore National Cathedral Vanity Fair maternity maternity portrait maternity shoot pregnancy pregnancy portrait pregnancy shoot Wed, 17 May 2017 00:26:35 GMT
Pitchers and Catchers Report In the latitudes where I live, the traditional signal of winter’s end is visual—a robin alighting in the grass, pulling a worm from thawing soil. But for me, the spring of 2017 announced itself with two sounds.  One was the pleasant rustling a warm breeze makes when it flows through palm trees. The other was the solid whap…whap…whap of baseballs hitting catchers’ gloves.

I was in Florida for a golf trip with some friends last week, and the golf ended on the same day that the sports page conveyed some news: “Pitchers and catchers report to baseball spring training camps today.” I’ve always found this phrase very enticing, especially when I was stuck in the snow back home. So I decided to spend a couple of days observing. I would have gone to see my hometown club, the Washington Nats, in their new facility in West Palm Beach. But the facility was so new that it wasn’t finished. A security guard told me that spectators would not be admitted  for several days.

So I motored ten miles up I-95 to Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, joint home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who are the only team in baseball to head north for spring workouts. I knew I was in the right spot when I saw a line of a six or eight Cardinal fans, decked out in team regalia, sitting on lawn chairs by the players’ gate, basking in the sun, hoping for autographs.

Roger Dean Stadium is a complex with a dozen practice diamonds arrayed beyond its outfield walls. The Marlins’ clubhouse and fields are on the third-base side and the Cardinals are on the first-base side. The gatekeepers to this greenery are gray-haired men,  seasonal workers attired in sky-blue polo shirts with floral prints that say “STAFF” on the back. Their job includes wanding everyone for metal, a sad sign of the times we live in.

But it’s a cheerful process. The guy who checked me in also asked female spectators to give him a hug after he’d checked them for guns and knives.  They complied. Perhaps they were too old to know they were being harassed. Or maybe they were just so happy to be in Florida with fellow Cardinal fans that they felt like hugging someone.

What you see inside is grown men doing baseball drills they’ve been doing since they were little boys. On one diamond, a group of five Cardinal catchers strolled in. A woman behind the chain-link fence said, “Hi, Yadi,” and Yadier Molina gave her a smile.  The catchers gathered around a coach who reviewed for them the Cardinal way to pounce on a bunt and throw to each base. They pantomimed the correct footwork. Then the coach rolled mock bunts in front of the plate and the catchers took turns scrambling after them and throwing to first, second and third, where other coaches waited to catch their throws and drop the balls into gray plastic trash cans. Molina, a pretty good bet for first-ballot election into the Hall of Fame, took his turn with the rookies. That's Yadi, at left above.

On the opposite side of the complex the next day, I watched a Marlins coach instruct a group of pitchers on the art of fielding ground balls at the mound and throwing to the bases. “Protect your moneymaker,” he told them, meaning catch the ball in the glove hand and don’t risk an injury to the pitching hand. The Marlins pitchers seemed to take this to heart. I saw a couple of them bobble ground balls, but no one dinged his moneymaker.

On other diamonds, you could see pitchers practicing holding phantom runners on second, or tossing pick-off throws to first.  The players spent a lot of time just standing around, like the Marlins in the top picture, watching one of their teammates practicing looking dangerously at a runner on second. It’s probably good practice for a game where the action comes in fitful bursts and patience is a requirement.

The spectators are part of the show at this stage of spring training.  At the Marlins complex, 86-year-old Jack McKeon, who managed the Marlins’ World Series winner in 2003, was sitting in a golf cart chatting with a woman from Japan. She was a fan of Miami's Chinese pitcher, Wei Yin Chen, who once hurled for her home town team, the Chunichi Dragons, in the Japan League. She posed for me, unfurling a towel with the Dragons’ name it. Exactly how she got to Jupiter I never found out.

A lot of the fans were multi-generational families. You could pick out the grandfather and the grandmother, probably retirees living in Florida, and the visiting parents and grandchildren, down during a winter school break, all standing behind a chain link fence, watching a coach throw batting practice to some minor leaguers. The kids hawk autographs,  even though in some cases they might not know the player or manager their elders prompt them to go after. It doesn’t matter. The kids show off the autographs they’ve collected, showing off gap-toothed grins as well, because they’re at the age when teeth keep falling out.  And baseball renews itself.

 I passed by a trio of much older fans, fans for whom there is no tooth fairy if a molar falls out. I heard the words, “I’ll bet you a thousand dollars,” and I stopped to eavesdrop. The argument was over the way that Joe DiMaggio, in his retirement years, asked the Yankees to have the public address announcer identify him when he took the field at the annual Old Timers’ game.  “The greatest Yankee of them all,” one guy said. “The greatest living baseball player,” another insisted. Somehow it was decided that the second opinion was the correct one. And somehow, no money changed hands.

“But, hey, you know who was great,” the third guy interjected. “Willie Mays. He could beat you so many ways. With his glove, with his arm, with his speed, with his bat…” Heads nodded, and I moved on without finding out if another imaginary grand was wagered on who was better, the Say Hey Kid or Joltin' Joe.

It's easy, I know, to get romantic about baseball. It is in fact a business. I know that the pitchers and catchers, before taking the field for drills, were scheduled to be taking drug tests to make sure they weren't illegally enhancing their moneymakers or other appendages. And I know that the dreams of a lot of the kids I saw in Jupiter will end obscurely in some minor league town when they discover no one wants them any more. I don't care. For decades I have been feeling a wistful pang upon reading that phrase, "Pitchers and catchers report..."  In 2017, the sun was out, the temperature was hovering around 80, and I was glad I was there.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cardinals Florida Jack McKeon Marlins Miami Marlins Nats Roger Dean Stadium Spring training St. Louis Cardinals Washington Nats Yadier Molina baseball major league baseball Sun, 19 Feb 2017 21:40:46 GMT
Venice and the Art of Decline A visitor to Venice, as I am now, cannot help but see lions. They adorn the city flag, the Basilica of St. Mark, innumerable doorknockers, the newel post of a staircase in the Rialto fish market and, in paper form, the occasional dressmaker's dummy. I saw the one pictured above on a stage in the ruins of a hospital for tubercular children on the Lido de Venezia. The lions might seem an affectation now, when Venice is a city with a diminishing population, a city that must accommodate mobs of tourists for its livelihood, a city that some fear will disappear entirely beneath the rising waters of its lagoon and canals in the not-too-distant future.

But the lions speak silently to the fact the Venetians once had reason to think of themselves as kings of the jungle, the superpower of the late Middle Ages. Venice dominated world trade from approximately 1200 to 1500. It was the essential commercial intermediary between the West and the Orient, and it knew how to make that centrality pay. It was an aggressive naval power quite adept at conquest, colonization and pillage.

And then it declined.

Historians ascribe Venice's long, slow fall to several factors, some within its control and some not. One factor was the discovery of new trade routes, pioneered by Portuguese navigators who demonstrated that Europeans could import the riches of the Orient by sailing around Africa. In this way, traders could save themselves the middleman's charges and taxes levied by not only the Venetians but the Islamic empires that lay between Europe and the sources of silks and spices. This competition seriously eroded Venice's comparative advantage in world economics in much the same way that the internet has eroded the comparative advantage of newspapers.

There was also the classic dynamic between the rich, status quo power (Venice) and the hungry, up-and-coming, disruptive power (the Ottoman Turks). The Turks were willing to do whatever it took to conquer. The Venetians, not so much. They developed a fatal tendency to want to enjoy what they had. So, in the late 15th Century, under Mehmet II, the Turks slowly and persistently conquered most of Venice's trading outposts and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, some historians argue that Venice weakened itself when its governing body enacted what was called La Serrata, or the closing. This restricted eligibility for membership in the ruling council to families that were already part of the nobility. It put a lid on upward social mobility and diminished the incentive for upstart Venetians to contribute their energy to the commonweal. Whatever the reason, it's beyond argument that some of the hereditary aristocrats given command of Venetian naval forces proved themselves less than valorous in battle with the Turks.

But while its relative economic and political power declined after 1500, it would be an egregious overstatement to say Venice collapsed. To the contrary, it managed decline very well. For one thing, its cultural life thrived long after its geopolitical dominance was gone. Titian (1488-1576) and Vivaldi (1678-1741) were exemplary Venetians of the sunset era. Though forced to surrender its independent republic status to Napoleon in 1797,  Venice always managed to avoid being sacked and burned. Its canals and beautiful palazzi remained more or less intact for future tourists to marvel at. Its industries suffered from global competition, but some of them managed to find niches in which they survived. The woman at right works for Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua, a Venetian fabric manufacturer in business since 1499. Using wooden looms made hundreds of years ago, she weaves rich fabrics of silk and velvet that, as of yet, the textile mills of China and India either cannot duplicate or don't bother with. The market for Bevilacqua products, I was told, includes Arab sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, and a couple of European royal houses. They cost upwards of a thousand Euros a meter. Venice stopped being a competitive purveyor of mass goods, but it retained a reputation for quality good.

(My thanks go here to Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman. My wife and I are on one of their photography workshops in Venice, and their contacts have made it possible for me to visit places like the Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua and ask my questions about Venetian history.)

It's almost impossible for me, especially at this point in American history, to visit Venice and wonder if it is now, or soon will be, America's turn to face the challenge of managing decline. I know there are chest-thumping Americans who would regard this statement as akin to treason. God has chosen America to be the exceptional nation, they would say, and therefore decline will never happen unless Americans turn their backs on God or some such blunder. There are others who apparently believe that America has been in decline for the last decade or so, but it will come roaring back in a storm of blustery tweets.

I don't know. Maybe America will be the exception, but until now the inevitability of great power decline has been a constant in human affairs. I think it's safe to say that the United States has become a status quo power whose leading citizens prefer to dodge taxes rather than sacrifice for the commonweal. (See Trump, Donald.) We are embroiled in a world full of hungry, disruptive powers. (The tactics of Vladimir Putin today bear a striking resemblance to those employed by Sultan Mehmet II against Venice in the 15th Century.) Our system concentrates wealth in the hands of one percent of the population, and social mobility, once our pride, is now worse than in many European countries.

The American political system is increasingly dysfunctional. Twice in this century, the loser of the popular vote has nevertheless become president. Small states, the wealthy, and residents of certain "battleground states" wield disproportionate influence. The art of gerrymandering has advanced to the point where moderates have no influence and the fringes, both right and left, control Congress. Our people are riven into tribes that have diverging views of reality and don't very much listen to, respect, or understand one another any more. 

All of those would seem to be harbingers of decline. If they are, the question is what to do about it. We could choose to exacerbate the factors that have traditionally led to decline. We could choose to concentrate still more wealth and power in the hands of a few. We could have our own version of Venice's Serrata by slashing immigration and letting the public schools drift in futility. We could choose to ignore or remain ignorant of the challenge posed by leaders like Putin. On the other hand, we could choose ineffective, expensive military responses to those challenges until we exhaust our funds and our will to fight.

Or, perhaps, we could learn from the things Venice did right during its decline. We could take care to preserve our culture and our environment. We could recognize that some things are beyond our control, like the new trade routes to the Far East in the 16th Century were for Venice. We might be able to make our decline so long and gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and to preserve our country, as Venice did its city, as a place for the rest of the world to admire. Still a lion, but a lion of a different kind.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Donald Trump Ottoman Empire United States, Venice decline imperial decline Wed, 11 Jan 2017 16:31:53 GMT
Footsoldiers in Hillary's Army

My daughter Catherine and I have established a quadrennial family tradition in the years since she grew up and moved out of our house. We volunteer in the campaign of our favorite presidential candidate. There's not much point in doing this where we live, Maryland and the District of Columbia. They're both emphatically blue jurisdictions in presidential years. So we go to a nearby swing state, either Virginia or Pennsylvania. This year, Catherine arranged for us to volunteer in York, Pennsylvania. We drove up there Tuesday morning.

We were not alone. Dozens of out-of-state volunteers were converging on Democratic headquarters in York, which, with no apparent irony, was located on the first floor of a structure called the Rich Executive Building, just across from the county courthouse. We signed in , were issued clipboards and a packet, and then directed toward the room where we would get our instructions.

The instructions were already underway by the time we squeezed in, so I didn't get the name of the person explaining how to canvass and fill out the forms (see picture above). She was black and, judging by her dress and accent, a Muslim immigrant. That gave her four very good reasons to oppose Donald Trump. She told us that we would be the second wave of canvassers going through York in the morning; an earlier crew had already rung the doorbells in our assigned routes.

That suggested that reports about the thoroughness of the Democrats' ground game were not exaggerated. We were going to be the among the last of many canvassers in York. People in prior weeks had already knocked on doors, identifying likely Democratic voters. We were assigned to a neighborhood of row houses near the center of York. Our job was to remind people to go to the polls, to identify the ones who were on the list of likely Democratic voters who had not yet voted, and to offer help in getting to the polling place.

It turned out that we didn't do much of that. Predictably enough, no one answered the knock on most doors we tried. It was the middle of the day and people in this precinct were working. A few people told us, in either English and Spanish, that they'd be voting later. Some said they'd already voted and somehow, their names had not been checked off our list.At most houses, all we could do we leave a sticker on the door, reminding people it was Election Day.

It wasn't much. But if, God forbid, Donald Trump wins this election and unleashes his malignant ego on this country, we at least will be able to say that we made an effort to defeat him.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Democrats Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Pennsylvania York canvassing election Tue, 08 Nov 2016 22:15:51 GMT
Life and Death in Chevy Chase There was a killing this morning in my placid suburban hometown, Chevy Chase, MD. The perpetrator was a hawk (a red-tailed hawk, I believe, but I am open to correction on my identification from more qualified ornithologists). The victim was a rabbit. The killer remains at large.

The crime occurred somewhere near the back of my driveway, as best I can judge from the feathers and bits of fur left at the scene. I did not see it happen. But my wife, Ann, spotted the hawk from an upstairs window. It was trying, unsuccessfully, to get airborne with the dead bunny clutched in its talons. I suppose it manages to do this with mice and squirrels. But this was a rabbit plumped up from a summer preying on Chevy Chase backyard gardens. The hawk had killed more than it could lift, much as it flapped its wings

I got my camera and went into the driveway. The hawk was silhouetted against our standard suburban white picket fence. It was trying to drag the carcass behind the garage, where it could presumably have its breakfast with a modicum of privacy. But even that was proving too difficult. The killer turned and stared at me with yellow-and-black eyes. I thought I detected a hint of embarrassment and confusion in its gaze, but maybe I was anthropomorphizing. When a few moments had passed, and I had come no closer than 20 feet or so, the bird seemed to decide that I was not a threat. Or its hunger overcame its fear. The hawk started to eat. 

He or she straddled the carcass and used its bloodstained beak to tear it open. It picked away for ten or fifteen minutes as I shot pictures. Its beak, talons and leg feathers were stained red. Tufts of fur dangled from the beak.

I am sorry if the photos are too graphic for some tastes. Apologies as well to those who have loved bunnies since they first heard of Peter Cottontail. I suspect there will be others, though,  their gardens denuded of carefully tended flowers and herbs, who will look at the pictures and figure the rabbit had it coming.

When it had eaten enough, the hawk hopped a few feet away and scanned the scene for a few minutes. I got some more pictures. Then it flew off to our neighbor's fence, where it perched for a while. I went back inside to get a garbage bag to help dispose of the bunny's remains; I didn't want crows or vultures to descend upon us. When I came back out, the hawk was gone. But I thought that I ought to warn our next-door neighbors to keep an eye on the sky. They have a dog not much bigger than a rabbit.

As I write this, our emergency generator has turned itself on, a test that it performs once a week. Its rumble normally seems to say that here in Chevy Chase, we're insulated from the vicissitudes of the natural world. Even if there's a hurricane and the power lines come down, we'll be okay. But the generator's rumble is not quite so reassuring this morning.

I know it's a jungle out there.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Chevy Chase death hawk predators rabbit raptors red-tailed hawk suburbs Tue, 11 Oct 2016 20:23:26 GMT
Photographing a Heroine Few books have affected my understanding of the world as much as Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man.  So it was a great privilege yesterday to have the chance to photograph her.

For those who don't know of her, Jane Goodall is a primatologist. In 1960, at the suggestion of the paleontolgoist Louis Leakey, she began living among the chimpanzees in what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. No one had done this before, at least not as she did it. She lived in a tent. She spent hours and days sitting quietly in the chimpanzee habitat, until they began to trust that she would not harm them. The chimps began to display their normal lives in her presence.

Most famously, she saw them make tools out of twigs to "fish" for termites in holes. That put to rest the old notion that the ability to make and use tools distinguished human beings from "lower" species. Over years of patient observation, she observed behaviors that were quite human--bonds between mothers and children, mutual support and assistance and brutal warfare and predation. She began to notice personalities. 

She did this unencumbered by by formal academic training. When she started, she lacked even a bachelor's degree. (Ultimately, she got a Ph.D. from Cambridge without having to do undergraduate work.) When she wrote about the chimps, she didn't do it in the dry, off-putting style of an academic. She did it almost as a novelist, creating character and plot that made her observations doubly compelling.

For me, the book was a revelation. Chimpanzees are said to be the closest primates to human beings. The similarities Jane Goodall found between chimpanzee behavior and human behavior suggested to me the extent to which our own behaviors are programmed in our genes.   I admired her insight. I admired her writing. I admired the grit, confidence, tenacity and patience  that enabled her to make dramatic scientific discoveries without any formal credentials. She became a member of my small, private pantheon--the group of people, most of whom I had never met, whom I deeply respected. My heroes and heroines, if you will.

So a few months ago, I was delighted when the Jane Goodall Institute asked me to make some staff portraits for its web site. The institute is the organization through which Dr. Goodall continues her work these days. She is 82, but she spends about 300 days on the road each year, advocating for the rights of animals and the need to conserve the habitats they depend on. That first session went well, and the institute asked me to make portraits of board members during a meeting on September 26.

(The portrait above left is an indication of what the JGI does. It's of Madison Vorva, who as a young girl became a member of the JGI's Roots and Shoots program for kids. Madison was so inspired that at the age of 11, she launched a successful campaign to persuade the Girl Scouts of America to stop using palm oil in their cookies, since palm oil plantations tend to displace habitat needed by chimps and other wildlife. Madison is a JGI board member now, and a student at Pomona College in California, studying environmental management. If past is prologue, I suspect she and others like her will do a fine job of carrying on Jane Goodall's legacy.) 

I was told I would get to meet Jane Goodall, but the only photograph of her that they wanted would be in a group shot. She had enough portraits. That was understandable. A portrait session takes time, and her time was both limited and valuable. And she's been photographed thousands of times in her life.

But when I arrived at JGI Monday morning, there was a new development. The staff wanted one of those life-size cardboard photo cutouts of Dr. Goodall so that when they had a public event she couldn't attend, fans could stand next to the cutout and have a picture made. They had ransacked the archives, though, and hadn't been able to find a head-to-toe shot that was suitable. Dr. Goodall had consented to pose for one if I would be able to make it. I, of course, said yes.

This was not the circumstance I might have created if she had been a normal portrait client. Because the picture would be made into a cardboard cutout, it had to be brightly, evenly lit. I wouldn't be able to create any shadows.  I wouldn't have more than a minute or two with her, and there was no chance to ask her to walk outside and pose in the patch of woodland next to the JGI's office building, even though a wooded setting might have been my first choice. I had brought with me only the black paper backdrop that the JGI wanted for the staff and board portraits, and that would have to do. I would have to use a wide-angle zoom lens to get her entire body into the frame rather than the Sigma 50 mm that is my go-to portrait lens. 

This, I know, is the way that photographers who shoot famous people have to work. They get just a little time, and they have to be ready to improvise and succeed.

So I set up an extra light. I cut off the ragged edge of my backdrop and extended it so it would look smooth against her feet and shoes. Jane Goodall came into the empty office I was using as a makeshift studio. She had no apparent makeup or jewelry. Her skin was clear, almost translucent. She projected a calm serenity. I had a chance to tell her that I admired her books, and she asked which one. I told her my favorite was In the Shadow of Man. She seemed pleased to hear it, and she mentioned that it has just been published in Iran. She posed for about four shots.

I was nervous enough that I damn near blew the shoot. My camera's top flash sync speed is 1/250 of a second. Somehow, fiddling with the settings, I pushed the shutter speed to 1/320. When you do that, a thick stripe of solid black, known as a curtain, begins to fill the frame of an image. I got a curtain in each of the images I shot of Jane Goodall. Fortunately for me, the curtain didn't obscure her, and it's barely noticeable against the black background paper. 

I am pleased with the images that I got. I cropped one of them--it's at the top of this post. I like the effects of time on her face. I like the little hint of an overbite. And I like her calm, yet somehow penetrating gaze.

The full shot is on the right. And, yes, Jane Goodall is carrying a stuffie, a monkey named Mr. H. It was, I was told by a staff member, given to her in 1996 by a man named Gary Haun, an ex-Marine who, despite blindness, learned to become a very good magician. Jane Goodall admired Gary Haun's willingness to become a magician even though people told him he never could. She says some of Haun's persistence and courage will rub off on people who touch Mr. H, and persistence and courage are valuable commodities in the battle to save the planet and its wildlife. Besides, she had stuffies when she was a little girl, and she loved them. And if she wants to carry one now, who's going to tell her she can't? 

Not me.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Gary Haun In the Shadow of Man Jane Goodall Jane Goodall Institute Mr. H chimpanzees photography portrait primatology Tue, 27 Sep 2016 20:07:22 GMT
Brexit and My Breakfast I heard about yesterday's British referendum in a village called Liscannor, in the western Irish hinterlands, hard by the Atlantic Ocean. It's a place that makes me appreciate the European Union and worry about all the possible consequences of the British vote to leave it.

My wife and I had breakfast in a little bakery and coffee shop called Sea Salt on Liscannor's main road.  The shop seemed to symbolize all the benefits that have come to Ireland as a result of the EU.

That's one of the staff members, a baker named Charlie Moraghan, in the picture above. But Charlie was the only native-born Irishman we encountered in Sea Salt. One of the waitresses was from Denmark. The other was from France. The owner was named Fabiola, and although she was too busy to tell me where she came from, I doubt that it was Ireland. 

Some might say that these migrants have taken jobs that might have gone to the Irish, but I doubt it. I think that the influx of European influences into Ireland, of which the Sea Salt is a small example, has created jobs that would not otherwise exist.

Certainly, when I first visited Ireland in the pre-EU days, I didn't eat in any places like Sea Salt. Ireland was a no-go for foodies. You felt lucky if you could get a "mixed grill"--a plate of overcooked meats--and a Guinness for supper in some dreary pub. In Sea Salt, there was an attractive and eclectic array of baked goods for sale. I had a blueberry scone and Ann had a brioche. There were tarts and little cakes and other delicacies. The decor was bright and imaginative, with one window decorated with old millstones that bakers once used to grind flour.

When you see the results of immigration on a personal level, as in Sea Salt, it's easy to appreciate the benefits that come from the cross-pollination of European cultures. It's easy to see immigrants as hard-working, aspiring people who make a big contribution to their adopted countries.

It's when people contemplate immigration from an impersonal distance that they start to worry about dark hordes engulfing their countries. That kind of fear apparently drove the Brexit vote, and I know it's behind the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States.

I can understand this fear. I am by no means opposed to immigration, and I am contemptuous of Trump's scheme to build a wall along the Mexican border and his ridiculous boast that he'll get Mexico to pay for it. But I do think the United States has to get a better handle on how many immigrants get into the country in a given year and regulate that number with an eye toward improving employment prospects for our own citizens.

The problem is that when people are afraid, and their fears are exacerbated by demagogues like Trump, they can vote against their own interests. 

That's what I'm afraid happened with the Brexit vote. I hope that more level-headed Brits control the separation process and can somehow salvage some of the benefits that came with the EU. I hope that Britain's exit does not, as it now seems likely to do, lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, with Scotland exiting. I hope it doesn't lead to the further dissolution of the EU. And I hope that if there are any level heads among Trump supporters, what happened in Britain yesterday causes them to think twice about the dangers of what they're doing.  


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Brexit Europe European Union Great Britain Ireland Liscannor Trump immigration Fri, 24 Jun 2016 10:10:44 GMT
Something Republicans Did Right I am not much of a nature photographer, but you don't have to be very good to get some interesting images near where I live. That's because I am blessed to live near a monument to the foresight of the Republican party. I live near Rock Creek Park.

A little less than a year ago, I was riding on the hiker-biker trail that runs along the creek just north of Military Road. I was struck by a particularly lush little stretch where the canopy of trees over the creek created a vivid, deep green reflection in a pool below an unnamed rapid. I came back a little later with my camera. For the last 11 months, I've returned periodically and photographed the same spot as the seasons changed. A few of the pictures accompany this post.

I've seen deer picking their way across the stream in the cold mists of a November morning. I have seen the canopy of trees, bare, spiky and black, frosted with snow. I've seen mallards feeding.  I've seen dozens of city people enjoying the picnic tables and barbecue grills set along the little valley floor between the creek and Beach Drive.

Rock Creek Park at this stage, five or so miles from its confluence with the Potomac, is an engaging mix of the urban and the natural. Thousands of commuters drive by on weekdays, going to and from downtown DC. On the weekends, the drive is closed to cars and becomes a haven for bikers and joggers. People with no weekend country homes, no green to call their own, set themselves and their families up on the banks of the creek to picnic and play, members of the propertied class for at least a few hours. Yet for all this traffic, it's not hard to take a little walk and see no one, to be alone with just the woods and the rocky, tumbling stream, as if wandering in the mountains far from any town rather than well within the confines of the District of Columbia.

It calls to mind the passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Marc Antony reveals to the Roman crowds the terms of Caesar's last will and testament. Caesar, he tells the crowd, has bequeathed to them his orchards along the Tiber. They will be urban parks.

He hath left them you and to you heirs forever

Common pleasures to walk abroad and recreate yourselves.

I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of Shakespeare's account, but I believe it attests to the feeling, in Shakespeare's time if not also in Caesar's, that it is important to provide a community with parks, with pieces of natural ground to which the people can repair, rest and recreate themselves.

Fortunately, the consensus in favor of government action for things such as parks still held sway in 1890, when a Republican Congress passed the legislation creating Rock Creek Park, authorizing the purchase of up to 2,000 acres of private land. A Republican president, Benjamin Harrison, signed the legislation into law. 

Sadly, it's impossible to imagine today's Republicans doing anything so wise. Use tax dollars to buy private land? Set it aside so you can't hunt on it? And primarily for the people of Washington? Today's Republicans take it as dogma that government should be "starved," a principle that they are applying with particular zeal to the National Park Service. Buying private land and setting it aside would be construed as socialism or unconstitutional. Some kind of self-appointed militia would probably arm itself and try to seize the park to preserve hunting rights. And no good Republican of today would vote for anything to benefit the city of Washington, a place the party values at roughly the level of Pyongyang, Tehran, Sodom, and Gomorrah.

I guess I should just be grateful that the earlier version of the Republican Party had its day in D.C.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) D.C. National Park Service Republicans Rock Creek Rock Creek Park Washington Washington, D.C. nature photography photography urban Fri, 29 Apr 2016 22:24:42 GMT
Capturing Moments in Havana I expected to learn a lot from Peter Turnley when I signed up for his photography workshop in Havana. I was not disappointed.

Peter is a premier photographer and journalist. He doesn't specialize in studio work. He's known for his news photography and for his work on the streets of Paris, Havana and other cities, capturing "moments of the human condition," as his recent Havana exhibition was called. He got started when he was 16. Until that time, he and his twin brother David had been focused on football. Peter suffered a serious knee injury, and while he was in the hospital, his parents bought him a book of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. For Peter and David, seeing this book was akin to what must have happened the first time Tiger Woods saw his father hit a golf ball. It lit a fire. Within weeks, they were making a series of photographs in their hometown of Ft. Wayne, Indiana which were so good that they are still exhibited today. Within a year or two, David flew to New York with their portfolio, talked his way into the offices of photo editors and art directors at major publications, and launched their professional career. Peter eventually moved to Paris and served what amounted to an apprenticeship in the school of French photography that included Cartier-Bresson. He is both a natural and very well-trained. (You can see his work at

So the first thing he taught us about making pictures surprised me. He advised us to set our cameras on shutter priority, at whatever speed we needed to make certain camera movement didn't soften our pictures. He suggested adjusting the ISO setting in our cameras to adapt to differing amounts of light and using the matrix metering setting. 

This surprised me. I was in thrall to the story I read long ago about how Ansel Adams made his famous "Moonrise Over Hidalgo, New Mexico," photograph. Adams was driving along late in the day after taking many shots and had one glass film plate left for his box camera. He saw the moon rising and knew he had to get the exposure right the first time, having only the one plate left. Adams, of course, had memorized the proper exposures for a wide variety of images, including a rising moon. He set up his camera and nailed the picture in one shot. So I have always figured that a real pro shoots in manual mode and knows, through experience or memorization, what the proper exposure settings should be.

That's not what Peter taught. The electronics in the modern camera, he said, were far more capable than we could be of assessing the proper exposure settings, at least quickly. He wanted us to rely on those electronics. We were to set or re-set the camera whenever we went outdoors or indoors. We were to be ready to operate is if there were a special neuron between our hearts and the finger on the shutter release button, reacting instantaneously.

I would have thought that if a pro used any auto setting it would be aperture priority. But Peter did not. He values crispness in an image and his first priority is making sure that neither subject nor camera movement causes blur. I usually walked around Havana with my camera on S and my shutter speed set to 1/250th of a second, because I had a heavy 24-70 zoom lens and I wasn't sure I could hold the camera as steadily as needed with a lower shutter speed. 

After a day or two, I could see the value in this practice. But I found myself using the exposure compensation button a lot, kicking the exposure up one or two stops, especially when subjects were back lit or had dark complexions. Using shutter speed priority means the background in most shots is going to be fairly sharp. That suits Peter. He's usually trying to get an image that gives the viewer a sense of both the subject and the environment. When we zoomed in close to a subject, Peter's critique was likely to be, "Step back. Let it breathe." He wanted us to use 35 mm lenses so we'd capture not only a person, but a sense of that person's world.

Far more important than the technical details of how Peter shot was the attitude he brought to shooting. He demonstrated this by example. On one of our first mornings in Havana we went to a neighborhood called Regla to see, among other things, a Catholic church that is hospitable to the local population's adherence to santeria, the traditional African religion the ancestors of many Cubans practiced. In certain parishes, the church has stopped fighting santeria and allows parishioners to blend the two. This was one of them; the statue of the Virgin Mary was black and she was evidently conflated with the santeria goddess Yemaya. Yemaya is associated with the sea; Havana Bay laps at a seawall steps from the church. When Peter saw a woman in a white turban standing at the edge of the bay, seemingly praying, he wanted to photograph her.

I watched as he approached her and I saw her emphatically shake her head no. At this point, I would have apologized for intruding and walked away. But Peter very calmly began a dialog with this woman. He later told us he spoke to her from the heart about how important communication between people and cultures is to the future of the world. After a while, he started making photographs of her. I took a couple of shots of the two of them from long range, but I didn't go closer. I didn't want to interfere in the moment Peter created between this woman and himself. He later showed us a wonderful portrait he made of this woman with the blue sky and the bay shoreline in the background.

So that was the big lesson I took from Peter Turnley. It's not enough to follow good technical practices like keeping your camera ever ready. You have to believe in yourself and what you're doing. You have to have a way with people. And you have to stick with a situation long after most photographers would have given up, until you get the image you need.

I tried to apply those lessons that morning and throughout our week in Havana, seeing people in the streets, or in places like a dance academy which we toured. Some of the images I made are on this page, along with a picture of Peter talking to the woman on the edge of the bay. But I came to the conclusion that photography is a little bit like golf. There is no "ah-ha" moment when the secret becomes clear. You can watch a great player swing. You can even take a lesson from that player and learn something useful to improve your own swing. But you will likely only improve slowly, and only with practice. In the end, you will only be really good at it if you have both dedication and talent.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Havana Peter Turnley Regla photography photography workshop santeria street photography Fri, 26 Feb 2016 01:32:31 GMT
Habaneros I have had the good fortune in the last year or so to visit two places where the people are extraordinarily receptive to being photographed. One was Hanoi, in February 2015. And the second was Havana, from which I have just returned. In both places, I found that all I had to do was walk the streets, point my camera at someone interesting, put a plaintive look on my face or say a phrase or two in the local language, and three times out of four, the person would say yes.

Sometimes, they'd do more than say yes. They'd ham for the camera, or give me a big smile. That's not what I'm looking for. I'd prefer that people act as if I am not there, though I realize that's a lot to ask. 

But someone who hams for the camera is way better to work with than someone who says no, which is what I most often get when I take my camera into the streets of an American city. In fact, I'd say the yes-no ration is roughly reversed. For every one American who consents, I get three rejections. Sometimes, the rejections are rather emphatic.

A while back I was in the street photographing houses for a web site interested in the homes and former homes of famous Washingtonians. I was near Howard University, shooting a row house that once was the home of a famous African-American poet. A guy came out of the house and threatened to call the police, presumably because he thought I was breaking the law by photographing not him, but his house. No, there were no open windows through which I could have photographed the interior of the house. And no, Americans have no legal right to prevent someone from photographing in the street. But a lot of Americans think they do.

It was not that way in Havana or Hanoi, and I am not sure why. Unfortunately, my Vietnamese is non-existent and my Spanish is rudimentary, so I couldn't ask people why they were happy to let me make their picture. But I can speculate.

I suspect it may not be a coincidental that both Hanoi and Havana are the capitals of communist regimes, albeit not as ardently communist as they once were. I don't think communist states instill in their citizenry the concept of a right to privacy. Or, if they do, it's a more circumscribed right than what we in the non-communist world like to think we enjoy.  

On top of that, both Cubans and Vietnamese have reasons to welcome Americans and Westerners even if, not so long ago, we were at war with them. Vietnamese, having driven both France and the United States from their land, are now worried about China, their region's traditional overlord. We can serve as a counterweight to Chinese influence.

In the case of Cuba, there are government billboards around Havana that show the island encircled by a noose, with the legend "Blockade: The Longest Genocide in History." Obviously, the government would like its citizens to be angry toward the United States, or at least its policies. But I didn't sense much anger. I suspect a couple of things are at play. One is that the Cubans know their economy is not healthy, and one thing that could make it healthier is a flourishing tourism business. Cuban tourism is small compared to other Caribbean countries, not nearly what it could be. So they're glad to see a foreigner, especially an American. And I suspect there are a fair number of Cubans with relatives in Florida. They're in touch with those people, however loosely. They know that regardless of whether they think America is a just society or an admirable society, it's a much wealthier society than theirs is. They may not want our health-care system, and they may not think college should cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they wouldn't mind having a car that runs, and a house that isn't crumbling around them.  Maybe they think that by posing for an American tourist, they are hastening the day when they can move out of communal housing. 

Or, maybe they're just nice folks.

Whatever the reason, I had only to walk around to find good subjects. The woman at the top of this post was just watching the life on her street on a Sunday morning. The man with the bananas works in  market. He winked when I walked past, and then winked again when I asked him to. The girl in the red dress posed, then asked me for a peso. And the man at left, below, standing by one of the pay phones that are still common in Havana, may have been thinking, "I bet that guy with the camera has a cell phone. I wish I had a cell phone."  




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Havana photography street photography Tue, 23 Feb 2016 23:28:38 GMT
Ideology Vs. Reality in Cuba I see that both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have denounced President Obama's plan to visit Cuba next month. Obama should first insist that Cuba make “serious concessions,” Rubio says. Cuba is too “evil and oppressive” to deserve a presidential visit, says Cruz.

I note that neither Cruz nor Rubio had the grace to mention that he has never actually set foot in Cuba. Not that it would matter to them. Facts don't generally matter when they conflict with a politically useful tenet of ideology. Their ideology postulates that Cuba is a communist dictatorship, a police state, a threat to American interests. 

Well, I'm sorry. I have only spent a week in Cuba; I'm just back. But I worked as a journalist in Moscow and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. I was spied on and harassed by the KGB in Moscow. In Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romania, the Securitate arrested and expelled me. I know a real, evil, oppressive communist police state when I see one. I didn't see one in Cuba.

Cuba is by no means a liberal democracy. I was reminded of that every time I tried to use the Internet in Havana. Access is tightly controlled by the government and it doesn't work very well. If I were a Cuban citizen, I would know that if I wanted to start a movement to oust the Castros and remake Cuba as a free-market economy, I'd expect an encounter with the police, and quite possibly time in jail. But I suspect for most Cubans, oppression amounts to the strictures of poverty, of waiting in line for rationed goods, of dealing daily with the dead hand of bureaucracy. At the top of this post, there’s a picture I made of a woman, her eyes dull, waiting interminably in a shabby Havana office for a notario to put a stamp on some document. That’s oppressive, but it’s not the Gulag.

Let's review the reasons put forward decades ago to justify the American embargo against Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and all the tragicomic efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro with implements like exploding cigars.

It was said that Cuba was part of the global communist conspiracy to subvert democracy and export revolution. That may have been true in the 1960s, when Che Guevara went to Bolivia to organize a guerrilla war. It may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s, when Fidel sent Cuban troops to Angola to assist an anti-Western faction in a civil war there. But it has been decades since anyone has produced credible evidence that Cuba is trying to export anything more dangerous than cigars.

That's change.

It was said that Castro's regime took away the people's freedom of religion. That may have been true in the 1960s, and it may still be true that if you want to rise in the Cuban communist party, it would be best to do your praying at home rather than in public. But I have seen lots of active churches in Cuba, and lots of people praying in them. They're not just Catholics. There are Baptists, Russian Orthodox, and santeria practitioners, like the cigar-smoking gentleman at left, who sold me a blessed candle to take into a nominally Catholic church. If the Castros once persecuted the faithful, they're not doing it now.

That's change.

It was said that the Castros took away private property and prohibited free enterprise. And there's no doubt that they confiscated many estates, haciendas and factories that belonged to the Cuban elite, many of whom are still frothing at the mouth about it up in Miami. But I have eaten several times this week in restaurants that Cubans are establishing in private homes.

In the picture at right, you see a man named Perez, whom I found sitting in the doorway of his renovated house on Calle Industria, a few blocks from the Malecon in central Havana. He told me that he had worked 17 years as a cook in a tourist hotel, saving whatever hard currency came his way. His daughter and son-in-law also worked in the tourist industry and saved their money. Under recently liberalized Cuban law, they invested their savings to renovate the house and turn it into a B&B, which they own. It's called 3M Hostal Havana, and you can make a reservation by email. I would recommend it. It’s true that most of the Cuban economy is still government property. But the nose of the capitalist camel is under the tent.

That's change.

It was said that Castro had a totalitarian grip on the Cuban people, monitoring their every word for hints of sedition. That may once have been true. But take a look at the picture at the lower left. It's a family in a park in the Havana  neighborhood of Regla, on St. Valentine's Day. The park happens to have wi-fi availability, for reasons I can only guess at. So Havana families gather there with their cell phones or the occasional tablet, and use the wi-fi to call and Skype relatives in Miami. This particular family was calling to show the baby, at left, to her godmother in Miami.  When a big stranger with a camera (me) came up and asked if he could photograph them, the family smiled and said, “Sure!” They went on with their conversation.

I have been in police states where people were afraid to talk to foreigners, let alone be photographed by them while talking to the enemy. I used to visit a Russian historian, Roy Medvedev, who would surreptitiously slip me an aerogram letter with the understanding that on my next trip to the West, I would mail it to his twin brother Zhores, who was living in exile in London. That was how members of divided families in totalitarian police states communicated with their relatives. They did not Skype on an open internet connection and smile for the camera.

That's change.

Is it enough change? I don't think so, and I don't think the Cuban people think so. They're perfectly aware that their country is impoverished, their mass media are propaganda organs, and that not all of the blame for their condition can be laid at the feet of the American embargo, much as the ruling party would like them to believe it should be.

The question is, what American policy will promote more change? Barack Obama is saying that Cuba has changed sufficiently to justify more people-to-people contact, more diplomacy and more trade, and that these will enhance the prospects for more positive change.

Cruz and Rubio are saying that Cuba is still beyond the pale. There's a certain inconsistency in this. They're perfectly happy, for instance, that America does business with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship governed by a single kleptocratic clan. It cruelly oppresses much of its population, especially women. It does not permit freedom of religion, or of speech. It has nationalized American companies. Its extremism gave birth to the mastermind behind Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, as well as most of the men who executed those attacks. If there is a more dictatorial and oppressive country in the world, I wouldn't want to visit it. Compared to Saudi Arabia, Cuba is a bastion of liberty.

But that's a fact, and if there's one thing that's evident from this year's presidential campaign, it's that a good ideologue never lets facts interfere with his preconceptions.

Cruz and Rubio, I imagine, might be satisfied if Fidel and Raul were to commit seppuku on the Malecon and leave a note confessing that their revolution was a horrible mistake. That will happen about the same time Donald Trump apologizes for besmirching John McCain's courage, or Rubio says maybe he was a little rash to try to shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood, or Cruz decides that maybe his close adviser Jesus doesn't really want him to carpet bomb Syria. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, a realist wants to fashion a more constructive American policy toward Cuba. I hope he does.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Castro Cruz Cuba Cuba policy Obama Peter Turnley Rubio Sat, 20 Feb 2016 14:09:27 GMT
The Best Pitcher You Never Heard Of If you go to Havana's Parque Central and ask for directions to la esquina caliente, any Habanero will direct you to a bench in the middle of the park, near the big statue of Jose Marti. There you will find a cluster of men, mostly middle aged or older, engaged in often voluble discussion about baseball. La esquina caliente means “the hot corner,” a bit of diamond jargon meaning third base and maybe containing an allusion to heated debate. It's an institution in a country where, as far as I know, there is no sports talk radio and you can't tune into the palaver and yak on ESPN Deportes. Cubans know how to make do.

If you ask, as I did, if the men of the hot corner ever heard of a pitcher named Yasvani Gallego, the reaction will be a collective sigh. Oh, yes, a man says. Yasvani Gallego was a great one.

I asked about Yasvani Gallego because, as I am not the first to observe, an era is coming to an end in Cuba. The Castro brothers will, one way or another, soon be part of Cuban history rather than rulers of the island. Their revolutionary order, like the revolutionary orders in Russia and China, will give way to something else. The change has already begun.

The timing means that Cubans who are now in school may have lives fundamentally different from the ones their parents and grandparents had. But for Cubans of a certain age, the timing is too late. I think particularly of athletes, artists and others who might, in their primes, have found fame and wealth on the world stage. Because of the accident of when they were born and where, however, their prime was spent entirely on the Cuban stage. If they were athletes, that meant they were amateurs. They made no money. They never played in America's big leagues the way that Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans could.

I am here in Cuba for one of Peter Turnley's photography workshops, and as part of the service, Peter engages some knowledgeable Cuban guides. One of them, Marcel Benet, turned out to be an ex-baseball player who loves the game. I asked Marcel if he knew of any older Cuban baseball players I could meet. I wanted to ask how they felt about the changes happening in Cuba and to Cuban baseball. Marcel immediately thought of Yasvani Gallego. When Marcel was a boy, Gallego coached his junior team.

Marcel arranged for me to meet his old mentor on the grounds of what was once a Havana tennis club. In pre-revolutionary days, he said, this club was reserved for the capital's elite. Set close by Havana Bay, it had an impressive white stucco clubhouse, clay tennis courts, and a pool. It was so exclusive, Marcel told me, that Cuba's dictator, Fulgencio Batista, could not become a member. He had wealth and power, but he was a mulatto, and Cuba's pre-revolutionary elite was white.

These days, the former tennis club is a community rec center. There is still one dirt tennis court; the players I saw had to use the butt ends of their racquets to etch the court lines into the dirt. The other former courts have gone to weeds and the pool is empty. The land beyond the clubhouse long ago became a baseball stadium. Now the stadium is decaying. The lights in the light towers are gone, and the grass is shaggy.


To find Yasvani Gallego, we walked behind the small concrete grandstand next to the diamond. We stepped through a small door and descended a wobbly ramp built, precariously, from a couple of boards and a couple of cinder blocks. There, in the semi-darkness under the grandstand, in what was perhaps once a locker room, is the place that serves as Yasvani Gallego's office.

He is a slender, wiry man with gray hair and a ready smile. He wore a sleeveless white baseball jersey with no name on the front and the number 24 on the back, baseball pants with no belt and, incongruously, a pair of dusty pink Crocs on his feet.

I gave him some new baseballs I had brought from the states, and he was very happy to have them. Some of the balls he uses are soft and some are wound up in duct tape. He showed me photos of some of the junior teams he has coached to the Cuban championship.

My Spanish is bad and Yasvani Gallego's English is non-existent, but I was able to obtain some information about him. He was born in 1945, which makes him 71 years old. He started playing top-level Cuban baseball when he was 14, which happened to be the year Fidel Castro came to power and decreed that henceforth, all Cuban baseball would be amateur baseball, and Cuba's best players would stay on the island and play for the national team, for the love of the game, and for the glory of the fatherland--not for Yankee dollars in America.

Yasvani Gallego was not, he said, an overpowering pitcher. If he grooved a fastball, it was likely to be hit hard. He relied on control and on breaking pitches, including a curve, a slider and a knuckleball. The statistics on Yasvani Gallego are startling, though hard to evaluate or compare to American pitching stats. In his best season, both he and Marcel said, he won 15 games and lost 3. In one Cuban championship series, he posted an Earned Run Average of 0.36. It is still a Cuban record. Granted, it's impossible to gauge the level of Cuban amateur baseball when Yasvani Gallego played. Granted, his Cuban ERA cannot be equated to ERAs by major league pitchers. We do know that Cubans play very good baseball, though, and that no Cuban pitcher has ever matched Gallego's numbers. So it seems very likely that Yasvani Gallego is the best pitcher you never heard of.

I asked him if he regretted that fate did not allow him to prove his talent in the major leagues and make a lot of money. No, he replied. He was happy with the career he had. And, yes, he felt confident that he could have pitched well in the major leagues.

I asked him if he thought that the political changes that have allowed younger Cubans like Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman to leave the island for the American big leagues will help or hurt Cuban baseball. It can only help, he said, because it will enhance interest in the game. Yasvani Gallego, like a lot of Cubans, projected a kind of sunny serenity. If he harbors any bitter thoughts about the course of his life, I did not hear them.

He pulled on a baseball hat that said “Cal,” from the University of California at Berkeley. My Spanish was not up to finding out where and how he came by it. We walked up his little ramp and around the grandstand toward the field. Not many kids would be coming for instruction today, he said apologetically. It was an exam period in Cuban schools.

But the half dozen or so kids who did show up while I was there got marvelous instruction. Yasvani Gallego teaches sound fundamentals. When he drills a 12-year-old kid on fielding ground balls in the infield, the kid learns that there is a proper sequence to the way a shortstop is supposed to see the ball into his glove, turn his body, take the ball out of the ball with his throwing hand, and throw it. Gallego slaps ground ball after ground ball to the boy until he's doing it right.

Would be second basemen, one as young as eight, learn that there are two ways to get the ball to the shortstop to start a double play, one for grounders hit at them or to their left and one for grounders hit to their right, up the middle. And they practice both, many times.

I have a vague memory of my time in Little League. It involves fathers supervising “infield practice,” hitting a few ground balls to each player. They were fielded haphazardly. And at the end of the session, the dad might say, “let's get two,” and we boys would try to execute a double play, again haphazardly. And that was it, at least at the age of 11 or 12. We wanted to play games more than we wanted to practice fundamentals. So did our dads.

Cuban boys want to play games, too, I am sure. But coaches like Yasvani Gallego see to it that first they learn how to play right. That may be the reason Cuba punches above its weight in international competition. I'll be curious to see if that Cuban style of sport survives the political changes that loom ahead.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Havana Peter Turnley Yasmani Gallego baseball photography Thu, 18 Feb 2016 22:19:24 GMT
The Rhythms of Cuba I am in Havana, taking part in a photography workshop taught by a great photojournalist, Peter Turnley. I first met Peter in the 1980s, when we were both covering stories in Moscow for Newsweek. I knew he was a fine street photographer, one of the artistic heirs to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he knew. What I didn't know about Peter is that he loves to dance, loves to photograph dancers, and knows Havana's music and dance scene about as well as an outsider can.


So, not coincidentally, my first days with Peter's Havana workshop have been filled with music and movement. Habaneros listen and dance in the open air and the daylight, which is fortunate, since there's natural light in which to photograph them. Bands begin to play in bars and clubs in old Havana around lunchtime, and I have heard the sounds of drums from the streets at around 3 a.m.


The rhythm of those drums, like a big chunk of the Cuban population, has roots in Africa. The Afro-Cubans' ancestors were brought here as slaves to work the sugar fields. They brought their music with them, music often played on the simplest of instruments, like an old kitchen drawer pounded by hand as a drum, or a piece of pipe that becomes a percussion instrument. It's something that no government, whether the colonial government or the present one, can take away from them.


On Saturday, our group went to a kind of rhumba fest in the courtyard of a residential building with no sign to identify it as a dance place. The people of the neighborhood, I guess, knew where it was and when it would start. Hundreds gathered in the courtyard, drinking beer and rum and swaying as dancers and musicians performed on a makeshift stage.


The next evening, Peter took our group to La Tropical, an open air club with a long history as a hotspot of Afro-Cuban music and salsa in particular. La Tropical is a big amphitheater, with a couple of tiers of VIP seating and an enormous concrete pit in front of the stage.


As any wedding photographer will tell you, capturing a dance is not easy. The couple is in motion, of course, so the target is constantly shifting. It's a challenge to capture a fleeting moment that conveys the passion and emotion of the dance.


Fortunately for me, the passion isn't confined to the dance floor. Spectators smile and sway, even if they're standing in the middle of a thick crowd. Musicians and singers sweat and emote. They're often a little easier to shoot, particularly when the late afternoon light illuminates their faces.


Some of that passion, I have learned, is also rooted in Africa, in the religious tradition that Cubans call santeria, a faith that features a lot of dancing. I am not certain what the relationship between Catholicism, which is the formal Cuban faith, and santeria. Apparently, there is some syncretism going on with Catholic saints and santeria spirits cohabiting.


Outside some nominally Catholic churches in Havana, there are people clad in white, both men and women, hang around, smoking cigars. I found one sitting on a low wall, accompanied by two ebony-skinned dolls. For a small donation, which she tucked away under the skirt of one of the dolls, she anointed my palm and told me my fortune. For another donation, she cleansed my body of evil and disease, a ceremony that required the purchase of flowers which a nearby friend of hers happened to have for sale.


My santeria priestess was, if nothing else, blunt. She told me I ought to eat less and take a walk after dinner each night. This was not an observation that could only have come from Divine Guidance. But I was grateful she didn't tell me I had to donate ten percent of my income to some church. I walked to the edge of the seawall, and, per her instructions, tossed my flowers into the murky water of Havana Bay. I felt better.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Cuba tourism Havana Peter Turnley photography photography workshops rhythm santeria Wed, 17 Feb 2016 00:13:18 GMT