Safety cones

When you try not to let your editorial impulses get in the way of your creative ones, you generally give yourself permission to photograph whatever attracts you, and after a couple decades you may begin to notice some unusual themes in your subject matter...

Kensington businesses

One of the treats of living in a diverse, developing neighborhood is setting foot in new and old businesses. From hand-crafted guitars to bougie ice cream to a comic book shop lauded by The New York Times, Kensington is always surprising. This year Forbes magazine proclaimed southern Kensington (Fishtown) as America's hottest new neighborhood. Here are a few of the unsung and farther-flung businesses they didn't mention.

“Gentrification”

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My corner of Philadelphia (Kensington) is seeing rapid real estate development. While nearly everyone wants the benefits of development (jobs, for instance, or improved city services) those changes often come with a price—increased taxes, higher rents, higher cost of living. For some, development means displacement. 

The Reinvestment Fund measures displacement risk by comparing average housing sales prices to median family income. On a map generated with that index in PolicyMap, a wide swath of my neighborhood appears purple, spreading north and east from Center City along the Delaware River, indicating a high likelihood that my neighbors or I will be priced out. 

The company I work for, New Kensington Community Development Corporation, is one of many organizations countering involuntary displacement by helping families purchase homes, repairing existing homes, and building new affordable housing. On my six-block walk to work, I document the physical changes.

The phone booths of Quebec City

According to research by writer Lawrence Papoff, Bell installed the first public telephone outside its offices in Lancefield’s Stationery Store in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1881. Pay phone use peaked in Canada in 1998, when there were 90,000 phones from coast to coast. Bell remains the largest provider with some 45,000 phones, mostly in Ontario and Quebec.

In 2013, Bell Canada and Bell Aliant told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that, of the 55,000 pay phones then in use, 10,501 phones were making revenue of less than 50 cents a day. Still, the regulatory agency found that the phones are critical for low-income or homeless people who don’t have cellphones or landlines of their own. They are also critical in rural areas and aboriginal communities with spotty or zero coverage, and are often used in emergencies.

I am not the only photographer who finds these relics of a pre-mobile era interesting. Joshua Nelson has a large collection here.

Old world panoramas

For me, visiting Quebec City was like discovering a secret room under my kitchen floor. It looks European, people speak French, and my whole life it has been a day's drive away.

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Bathrooms

As much as I enjoy photographing people, I'm drawn to the strange spaces we create for ourselves. Bathrooms are both predictable and constantly surprising. I document them.

City Hall, Philadelphia, USA

Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh, USA

Salatiga, Java, Indonesia

Goshen, Indiana, USA

Cloister Cafe, New York City, USA

Taoyuan International Airport, Taipei, Taiwan

Audubon Park, New Orleans, USA. The fine print says, “PLEASE WASH YOUR HANDS! You can catch very itchy, seeping stds from toilet seats.”

Old City Coffee, Philadelphia, USA

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

Habitat home dedication

Habitat for Humanity’s vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Families qualify for their homeownership and home repair programs by showing a need for safe, affordable housing, by meeting income criteria, and by being willing to contribute “sweat equity” by working on Habitat projects. 

I attended a joyful home dedication ceremony in North Philadelphia in 2017, and met some of the kindest and most photogenic new homeowners in the world!

Edisto Island, South Carolina

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Point of Pines Cabin dominates the lowest floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It came from Edisto Island, South Carolina, a coastal island an hour south of Charleston. Edisto supports both a majority White beach town and a majority Gullah residential population, whose ancestors were taken as slaves from Senegal, Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

I was introduced to Edisto Island two decades ago by Nick Lindsay, my animated poetry prof who made his living building boats and homes on the island. And I’m Glad—an oral history of two farmers that he transcribed—is one of the island’s stand-out histories.

Last summer my wife brought me back to Edisto. She and her family had vacationed there for years before I met them. As an author with German, Jamaican and Chinese roots, Chelle felt drawn to both the island’s simple familiarity and its complicated past. We camped outside of Botany Bay Plantation, a wildlife preserve maintained on land once covered in cotton, worked by slaves. 

Contemplative photography

Photographer and restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr introduced me to the term “contemplative photography”—a way of using the camera to slow down, practice mindfulness, think imaginatively and renew myself.

Working and living in a neighborhood wrestling with drug addition, rapid development and displacement, I find daily walks with dog and camera to be a good way to wind down and remind myself of what's ordinary.

A mobile kitchen for making healthy meals

You've probably eaten food from a food truck. Now imagine cooking at one.

Vetri Community Partnership runs a Mobile Teaching Kitchen that delivers pop-up cooking classes and demonstrations at schools, community events and farmers markets across Philadelphia. They invite children and families to participate in 15-minute hands-on cooking demonstrations where they learn basic skills they can use to make healthy dishes at home.

Multicultural Festival

Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL) is the neighborhood organization for about 90 blocks of Kensington, Philadelphia, centered on Somerset Avenue. Along with advocating for neighborhood safety and making residents’ voices heard in zoning decisions, SNBL organizes community gatherings. Their vision for the annual Multicultural Festival is a big party celebrating one of the most racially and ethnically diverse places in Philadelphia.

The image of a rising star...

This Thursday, Tess Donie receives the “Rising Star Award” from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. I photographed her for her application last fall on a quiet side street a few blocks from her Kensington office.

Community Development Corporations, or CDCs, are nonprofit organizations that connect government dollars to important work in local communities. Tess came to Philadelphia to pursue medical school, but was drawn to community development after seeing the power of residents’ place-based work in West Philadelphia.

Now Tess is Associate Director of Community Engagement at New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), where she oversees its Community Connectors program, supports the work of a local civic association—Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL)—and leads the organization’s trauma-informed approach to community development. 

Donie serves the Kensington community with sincerity, love and drive. ”It is my job to work with residents, empower them to realize their own vision as a community, and help them make it a reality,“ she says.

”I am a firm believer that this community in Kensington has given so much more to me than I could ever give to it in my lifetime. Without our community members’ support, and the leap of faith they have taken to welcome me into their homes and challenge me each day, none of my work would be possible.“

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Letters from a life lost

 Catherine Friesen, New York, December 2009. We turned her Spanish Harlem apartment into a makeshift studio for headshots for her grad school application. She styled her own hair.

Catherine Friesen, New York, December 2009. We turned her Spanish Harlem apartment into a makeshift studio for headshots for her grad school application. She styled her own hair.

Four years ago, after a dear friend died of cancer, I combed through letters she had written to me two decades earlier, when we were in college and sometimes dating and both of us were trying to figure out how to become adults. I chose about 20 letters—some typed, some illustrated on colored paper, some with beads or feathers—that I thought captured her young personality without being uncomfortably personal.

Catherine was an actor. She died less than a year after completing her MFA from the University of South Carolina. She was also a New Yorker, having left her native Indiana in 1998 to become a building superintendent, school administrator, baker and a good many other things in NYC. Most of all, she was a gentle soul. She noticed small things—the curl of a leaf, the expression on a squirrel—and seemed to speak for all creatures as they would want to be represented.

Catherine didn't want to be treated differently because she was dying, and so she told few people she had cancer. Most of her USC classmates didn't know. She also guarded her legacy, destroying garbage bags of personal detritus in the last weeks of her life. And her desire to live was almost delusional—she insisted up until days before her death that the end was not yet near. Many of her friends didn't get a chance to see her before was gone.

I wanted to send a package of letters to her best friend (fittingly living in St. Catharines, Ontario). But before I stuck it in the mail, I thought I should scan everything, just in case.

It turned out to be unnecessary. The letters arrived in St. Catharines, were hungrily read, and came back. The box sat on my desk, unopened, for weeks.

Then a strange thing happened: they disappeared. They left on the same night my old wedding ring slipped its chain on my bureau. My housemate had a drug relapse and robbed his own home, taking a stereo, jewelry, laptop, bicycle—and apparently, for some reason, Catherine's letters.

It took a couple weeks for police to arrest the culprit (eventually they got video footage of his using my credit card at an ATM and in a taxi) and in that time I initiated a couple awkward conversations with him about the value of what I had lost, without ever indicating I knew who might have taken it. He never tipped his hand.

Insurance covered the wedding band and Discover refunded the credit card charges, but the letters never resurfaced. Eventually, I decided that Catherine herself might have inspired the theft to stamp out one last record of her adolescence.

She apparently didn't know about the digital files. 

 Catherine Friesen, Milwaukee, December 2013. This is the last photo I took of her, on the site of her last role, Hamlet.

Catherine Friesen, Milwaukee, December 2013. This is the last photo I took of her, on the site of her last role, Hamlet.

 Morgan Library, New York, December 2015. Exactly two years later, I was startled to find this alternate ending to  A Farewell to Arms  enlarged on the wall of a Hemingway exhibit.

Morgan Library, New York, December 2015. Exactly two years later, I was startled to find this alternate ending to A Farewell to Arms enlarged on the wall of a Hemingway exhibit.

Sour beers from nowhere, Queens

Funky or tart, balanced or sharp, sours are the first beers I have really liked. I intentionally missed the IPA craze, which unfortunately seems to have taken over most of the U.S. beer world. I can only hope that the same thing happens for sours, because I am 100% on that wagon. Although perhaps part of the allure is that they can be hard to find. To drink at Transmitter, a brewery in Long Island City, Queens, we wandered through a parking lot, below a highway and across the tracks to a warehouse under the Pulaski Bridge.

Brickmaking & placemaking

In August 2017, artist Michael Morgan showed adults and children how to shape and glaze blocks of wet clay at a workshop in Kensington, Philadelphia. Weeks later, he fired the blocks into bricks and used them to build a piece of public art at the "Frankford Gateway," near the intersection of Frankford Avenue and Sterner Street.

Morgan's sculpture is part of a series of projects to turn neglected lots into a source of community pride. The project was made possible by New Kensington Community Development Corporation, Mural Arts and Philadelphia LISC.

Thanks to footage from Bea J.E. Rider and the ongoing miracle of iMovie, I was able to edit and voice this video at my kitchen table one evening after work.

City snow

It was a weird winter, but weird seems to be typical these days. Mind-numbing cold at the beginning of January, then balmy spring showers in February. Here and there, a few bits of "normal" winter. These images from a sudden snow squall in Germantown, Philadelphia.

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Other Music

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Other Music was a record shop specializing in underground, rare and experimental music at 15 East 4th St, New York City, from 1995 to 2016. When it closed in June 2016, Yoko Ono, Sharon Van Etten, Bill Callahan, Frankie Cosmos and Yo La Tengo were among the artists who played a farewell tribute show at the Bowery Ballroom.

Other Music still sends a weekly email and maintains a web presence at www.othermusic.com. Former staffer Rob Hatch-Miller and his partner Puloma Basu are also working on a documentary about the shop's history and legacy.

In March 2017, Other Music and MoMA PS1 presented Come Together: Music Festival and Label Market with live performances, films, workshops and panels celebrating the interactive ecosystem of local and international music communities, along with a label fair featuring over 60 participants. Come Together aimed to reassert "the central and essential role that communities play in both the creation and consumption of new sounds," recasting the "fading" record store experience for the current moment. The market was a success, and Other Music will return to MoMA PS1 on Saturday, March 24, 2018 for "more labels, more performances, more fun."

 The Other Music storefront in July 2016

The Other Music storefront in July 2016

Signs

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graphic designer in me can't help taking pictures of signs. I love well-made typefaces, logos, ads—and old hand-lettered billboards make my heart melt. I also love the uneven and unconventional letters of DIY signmakers, and how letters change when exposed to the elements.

 

Then there's the actual meaning of the words—the intentional and unintentional jokes. These images are just from Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.