We Have a Deer and a Dream…

Over a year ago I got an email from my friend (author and all-around good guy) Ken Foster that said, “What about Lilly the deer?” Ken and I had been looking for a project to do together for some time. I was stumped. What about Lilly the Deer? Ken is infiniately more plugged in than I am, so he, unlike me, had seen the story circulating Facebook about a deer named Lilly who had a remarkable story.

Lilly was born on the side of the road in front of a suburban house. Her pregnant mother had been struck by a car and as she lay dying, she gave birth to the two fawns she was carrying. One did not survive, the other did. The family who owned the house was there as the little deer struggled to take its first breath. They called for the police who came but didn’t know what to do with the deer. What the police should have told them was that they should take the little fawn to a wildlife rehabilitation center, but they didn’t and that’s how Lilly’s story happened.

Ken with Lilly at her Michigan home

Ken with Lilly at her Michigan home

She grew up in a home with two humans and a few dogs and became as domestic as apple pie. One day, several years later, a neighbor informed DEM that a deer was being kept as a pet and the state declared that Lilly was either to be let go or euthanized. Of course she had no idea how to be a deer or how to survive in the wild, so naturally this seemed like a cruel and very unsatisfactory solution to the family who had raised her from her traumatic birth. A long and somewhat famous legal battle ensued. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but, oddly enough, the story has a happy ending. The family’s home was legally declared to be a wildlife sanctuary with a maximum capacity of precisely one deer

Now, who wouldn’t want to read a little book telling Lilly’s story using my photographs and Ken’s words? Apparently, major publishers. They thought it just wouldn’t sell. “Deer are not dogs,” one publisher said. Another went so far as to say that no one cares what happens to a deer. So…Ken and I have embarked on a mission to share Lilly’s story. We are raising funds on Kickstarter in order to publish our own book about Lilly. We have gotten so much support from our friend and peers as well as a wonderful article by The Atlantic's City Lab:

Lilly’s life is sweet and compelling, full of things that might have turned out differently, but didn’t. What I want to photograph are those moments of juxtaposition that reveal an unexpected harmony; when worlds collide but instead of crashing, they hum. With Ken's words and my photos, I think we can tell a beautiful story.

Help us spread the word that a deer and a dream still mean something. Support a warm and fuzzy creature with a warm and fuzzy happy ending. Support Lilly's story.

 

Study of a Hound

Today I am reminded of Felix. Felix is a Spanish Ibezan hound who now lives an idyllic life in New Hampshire. In this semi-rural frontier, he has a huge yard, endless small mammals to chase (and dominate) and an exceptionally loving human family. It was almost a year and a half ago that Felix briefly lived with us but this morning, I happened upon something that brought his memory rushing back. In 2012, my work was awarded "Best in Show" at the Shanghai International Photographic Arts Festival and I was presented with a "gold" medal on stage in a very elaborate, formal Chinese ceremony. The medal was in a blue velvet box and when I got home, I displayed it proudly on a shelf in our living room. Unfortunately, the shelf was far too accessible for tall, lanky Felix (also known in some of our social circles as the 'Rare Giraffe Hound') and he took great delight in pulling the box down from the shelf, shredding it and teething all over my medal. This morning, as I went to dust, I saw the teeth marks on my award and smiled.

When Felix lived with us, he was fresh from Spain and had never lived inside before. He had terrible manners. The first day, he jumped up on top of our dining room table in order to survey the room. He chewed everything that wasn't nailed down- and quite a few things that were, like our coffee table and door frames. He was like the kid on the playground whose enthusiasm and desire for affection is so aggressive that it actually suffocates his peers. Felix wanted so badly to play with our dog that he drove her to distraction. We assigned Felix a goofy voice and used to joke that he would go over to Audrey every 30 seconds or so saying, "Hey, what are you doing? what are you doing? what are you doing?". She did not like this. She would snarl and snap at him, but he didn't care one bit.

Felix was magical with our daughter. He was gentle and playful and she was delighted by him. When he was in his crate during mealtimes, she would go over to see him and he would bow and whine and "talk" to her through the bars of the crate. Neither Felix nor Agatha (then just 14 months old) had the advantage of a verbal language, so they communicated with whimpers, little grunts and squeals. It was wonderful to watch.

Although it was not our original intention, in the end, our home was sort of a half-way house for Felix. In the month he was with us, he learned how to exist in polite society, then he moved on to his forever home. During his time with us, he inspired me to create a photographic series that I titled "Study of a Hound". I have wanted to share some of these photos on my site for a long time and today is the day. View the Study of a Hound portfolio.

True Art

This past month, I had the honor of seeing my series Natural History featured in National Geographic. Four images spread over three pages were interspersed with captions wriiten in first person but actually crafted by a Nat Geo writer based on several interviews. The segment is called Photo Journal and it is run in the magazine  several times a year. The work chosen is always art photography that has a scientific or naturalist bent. During the lengthy pre-production process with Nat Geo, I was asked to submit many things, one of which was a support essay of sorts; in effect, a slightly more personal footnote to my artist statement. While writing it, I remembered things which haven't surfaced in my mind for decades and I was struck with a comforting sense of serendipity:

There are many tastes, smells and visual vignettes that I recall from my solitary summers spent in the Natural History museum: the Moonpies and Mountain Dew that I often ate as a mid-day snack, procured from a distinctly southern 1930’s lunch counter on the ground floor; the slightly fetid smell of the animals’ cages- mostly a mix of cedar and musk; wearing a Corn snake around my waist, coiled deliberately through my belt loops in meticulously planned casualness to impress visiting children; proudly and proficiently operating the temperamental levers of the manual service elevator that would often became stuck between floors; the hissing cockroaches from Madigascar who would emit a puff of air when you pressed on their armored backs… and of course the dioramas which I sometimes watched the staff construct or alter, but mostly just gawked at while lurking in the spot lit halls. Oddly enough though, one of the things that stands out the most about my long, shadowy summer days in the museum is National Geographic.

Either because they liked me or because no one really had the time to care, I had full run of the place including keys and punch codes. Behind the education rooms where my mother gave live animal demonstrations to groups of visitors was one of the museum’s informal archives rooms. At the front of the cluttered, windowless room was a tall bookcase filled with every issue of National Geographic since the 1890’s. At the time, I wanted to be an archaeologist (no doubt influenced heavily by Raiders of the Lost Ark) and so for years I had associated all things “old” with mystery and treasure. I was immediately drawn to the magazines’ obvious age and antiquity: the crackled, yellowing covers, thick fibrous paper and fascinating photos.  I don’t recall reading the articles at all and don’t even know that I was interested in who or what the subjects were, I really just craved the photographs. I hungrily analyzed the clothing and the environment in the images and was possessed by the notion of staring into the eyes of long dead people. I still do this. As an adult I began collecting Victorian photographs and still feel the same uneasy fascination with holding the subject’s gaze. It is the same sort of disquiet I experience when looking at dioramas.

When I rediscovered dioramas through the Natural History series, I felt a sense of satisfaction and completion, like perhaps a few of the loose ends from my youth had been neatly tied up and even finally made themselves useful. An argument could be made that this series is a celebration or remembrance of a time of quiet discovery for an introverted child. Alternatively, it could also be a way of mourning a very difficult time in my life when my family was falling apart and I learned to seek solace alone, valuing things that other children had no time for.

The rest of my childhood is not nearly as clear as those summers at the museum, I remember very little from the next several years. People, school and home life are vague at best but I do remember that the sense of solitude never really left me. 

 

During the past month, I have received really wonderful feedback from all over the world: letters from museums, photographers and other diorama fans. This letter from diorama artist Gary Hoyle really made my day:

Dear Traer Scott,

I was delighted to see your work in the recent issue of National Geographic Magazine.  It's really wonderful to see a new take on the wildlife diorama motif.  My mentor in museum exhibit art, Fred Scherer, began work at the American Museum of Natural History in 1934.  His first duty was to assist in making plants for the Mountain Gorilla Group; later he became a background painter at the AMNH.  After Fred retired and moved to Maine, I was fortunate to work with him one day a week for ten years at the Maine State Museum.  Today, March 1, is Fred's birthday.  He is 97 and still painting.

Your work brings relevance to an exhibit mode that many designers see as archaic, and it makes those of us who do this work feel that we are not "dinosaurs."  Thank you.

Gary Hoyle

Not only did Gary work with a legend, but he has produced beautiful work in his own right. Below is a sculpture of a box turtle that Gary did for the Maine State Museum. This piece is completely freehand, he did not use any molds or casts.

 

Gary and an elite group of artists have lovingly and painstakingly brought spectacular flora and fauna to life in museums all over the world for generations of wide eyed viewers. Even with television, Imax and the internet at our fingertips, these beautiful habitats frozen in time behind glass still delight. Anyone who doubts this need only spend an hour at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. I have been there countless times and witnessed school groups, scout troups and an endless array of summer campers flood into the exhibition hall. Without fail, the dark, cavernous room is instantly filled with screams of excitement. Children point, jump and shove- their eyes as big as saucers- literally about to burst with excitement at every single diorama they encounter. This is an exceptionally beautiful and functional form of art that is often under-appreciated.

 

The Dogs That A City Forgot

After half a century spent quietly fading into the forgotten corners of American consciousness, Detroit has recently been thrust back into focus by a seemingly repellent quality: spectacular failure. The Motor City’s immense and thoroughly disquieting collapse is now officially typified by its tens of thousands of abandoned and moldering buildings.

I first eyed a photo series of Detroit’s “feral” houses about three years ago which featured former homes, mansions and institutions in various stages of severe and usually irreparable decay. Some remnants were almost completely obscured by hungry vegetation that had been slowly suffocating their skeletal remains for decades. The lots to both sides were empty, the lots behind were empty; strewn with garbage and fragments of material life. A great expanse of nothingness seemed to surround these once functional, even majestic monuments to prosperity and progress. Could this really be Detroit?

Like many, I was intensely moved by these images of decadent decay. While it’s true that I felt the normal, cursory emotions: sadness, disbelief and even fear- I have to admit that what I really felt was a pang of photographic lust tinged with the titillating sixth sense of opportunity. I could do it better- but I would have to do it fast. Although the two periodically coincide, the business of photography is ultimately about who can do it first, not necessarily who can do it better. Timing is everything. Little did I know that I was already way too late.

By 2009, photographers had already begun flocking to Detroit intent on documenting the visual catnip that was an estimated 70,000 abandoned properties: houses, theaters, train stations, schools, shops, churches; amidst what used to be a major American city. People like me, seduced by the strange creative beauty that beckons and blooms within deconstruction, justify these projects as being noble because they document the ever important ‘state of things’- but are there truly any unselfish motives to our hunger or are we just vultures picking at a corpse in the name of art? I often think about the fine line between discovery and exploitation, particularly in my field, and can honestly say that I consciously strive to create empathetic work which somehow always leaves the subject better off rather than empty and used up. I’m sure there are many who would argue that from time to time, I fail. However, I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that exposure, for better or worse, inevitably brings some form of change.

Within the following year, several major, epic photographic books were published (Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr; Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore; The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre) This kind of proliferation is generally perceived by the rest of the photographic community as a clear-cut cue to throw in the towel- that the fat lady has indeed sung. The once edgy subject of Detroit had reached relative saturation in the photography and publishing world and was now mainstream, as banal as photographing kittens or cathedrals. Recently the media even clinched this saturation by officially naming the once fringe obsession with the superlative decay of America’s Motor City. It is now referred to as “Ruin Porn” a literal “fetish for decay”.

Despite the implied masochism of “Ruin Porn”, these books, blogs, news stories and documentaries have made the American public and larger media somewhat more aware of what’s been happening in Detroit. For a long time the city’s leaders were reticent to shout defeat from the rooftops, but now it seems that reform and resuscitation have become a priority and they are embracing the media in all of its fickle glory. Coverage has now moved beyond a voyeuristic peek at decay towards a jubilant, ‘up from the bootstraps’, roll up your sleeves approach. However, amidst the fury and the fuss of the past few years, while everyone was busy breaking into abandoned theaters, stalking secret entrances to haunted train stations and generally exploiting deterioration in the name of record and rebirth, new tenants were quietly taking over the sprawling abandoned and burnt out neighborhoods. Dogs. Tens of thousands of them.

The majority of abandoned houses in Detroit are just that- abandoned. Their owners finally left after years of frustration, encroaching violence, and the crushing financial reality that accompanies literally worthless deeds. Buildings are selling all over the city for $100 or $500. (Of course in many instances you inherit the tens of thousands in back taxes rendering the already sketchy properties in truly sketchy neighborhoods even less appealing). With the decline and desertion of the city and its property has come the inevitable abandonment of thousands upon thousands of dogs, many just turned out onto the streets when their owners were finally forced to leave their homes. The city shelter has long since run out of room and resources. Detroit animal control consists of a mere handful of officers who have little choice but to round up animals for certain death.

I consider myself fairly plugged in to what’s happening in the world of animal welfare, yet I had heard no whisper of this issue until author Ken Foster (The Dogs Who Found Me and Dogs I have Met and the People They Found) called me in fall 2010. We were ruminating about projects to do together when he mentioned the street dogs of Detroit. In April of 2011 we embarked on a reconnaissance trip to investigate and begin documenting the situation. The goal of our three day visit was to create a dozen or so sample photos and some sample text that would be used to further pitch the project. Once we received funding we would then return and collect enough material for a book. Due to a number of roadblocks (some were anticipated but others were unforeseen) months have passed and I still have no idea what will become of this project. I certainly hope something does, but for now, there are encounters which still loiter in my mind, persistent and unshakable, that I want to share.

It is said that there are approximately 50,000 stray dogs on the streets of Detroit. Some people, like one convivial postman we met, think these numbers are completely overblown while others view it as a conservative estimate. It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate head count when so much of the population in question is very skilled at hiding.

 

The dogs of Detroit have adapted to life outside the realm of domestication in precisely the same way as the strays that I followed in Puerto Rico and Mexico. They have banded together in the fight for survival. When their needs are no longer met by humans, dogs tend to revert almost immediately to strong, innate pack instincts that are often quashed, distorted or simply not needed in the role of “pet”. The clear-cut roles of pack structure coupled with the obvious benefit of safety in numbers, make hunting for food, defending against predators and raising young much more viable for newly cast off canines.

The one thing the Detroit dogs have going for them that strays in other countries often lack, is shelter. With so many empty buildings, the dogs have no shortage of structures to choose from. Some properties are tightly boarded up, but we found many with unlocked doors and open or smashed windows. The dogs are clever and they find a way in. They make beds and little nests out of the debris left behind: often discarded clothes, mattresses and blankets. When none are available on site, they collect nesting material from people’s trash, the makeshift dumps that are everywhere or from other properties.

We kept seeing yard after yard strewn with stuffed animals, most of them decapitated or partially disemboweled. Eventually we discovered that the dogs were actually collecting them and bringing them home to play with. I was both fascinated and saddened by the notion that these animals who have lived unimaginably difficult lives, still felt the need not only to play, but to seek out and stockpile toys amidst the wreckage.

We navigated what felt like every square inch of Detroit searching for dogs. Sometimes I was glad to find them, and other times, I was relieved not to, but as we drove, I was repeatedly plagued by a weighty sense of déjà vu. Flooded with memories of long, painful months spent tracking dogs in Puerto Rico and Mexico, I felt a familiar sense of despair, but this was somehow different and even more unsettling. The most striking and obvious difference was that we were in Detroit- in America- but Detroit looked more like a second rate apocalyptic movie set with one neighborhood after another burnt out, abandoned and deconstructed. We needed armed security guards with us at all times. This was not so much to protect us from dangerous dogs but from dangerous people. The neighborhoods where these dogs live quite literally top every “worst” list with murder rates nine times higher than that of Los Angeles (2010 stats).

On the last day of our short trip, Ken and I followed a tip and went searching for dogs on a street called Elgin. The scene was pretty familiar at first: empty lots, a rusted, overgrown playground and street after street of desolation -but then we turned a corner and suddenly came upon five large dogs sprawled carelessly in the middle of the road. They appeared to simply be lounging, soaking up the weak sun on the sparsely traveled black top. We stopped the van about 20 feet away and two of the dogs immediately approached us.

The most gregarious dog was a stocky orange pit mix with a scarred face and injured, gimpy leg. A muscular male with floppy ears and a wide, smiling face, his whole body wiggled with excitement and joy when he approached us. The second dog, a young Collie/German Shepherd mix with an extremely long, bushy tri-colored coat was the second to make direct contact. She slunk slowly forward, tail wagging lazily, head bowed in unmistakable submissiveness until she was almost in my lap. The other three dogs, stocky black and tans who looked to be Rottie mixes of some kind, held back. We had hot dogs and began feeding them.

 

 

I think that what immediately struck us about these dogs was how trusting they were. Unlike many of the other strays who had learned (with good reason) to fear people and were all but unapproachable, these dogs seemed to yearn for human contact. Within minutes of stopping, the orange pit was belly up with Ken rubbing his exposed stomach and the Collie was actually nuzzling me. They seemed so vulnerable and were in a word, utterly ‘savable’.

It was heartbreaking to know that at some point we had to get back in the van and leave them there, having made their lives no better except for filling their stomachs with a few lousy hotdogs.

Although we only spent a few hours that day with the ‘Elgin Pack’, Ken and I were both riveted by the highly obvious and delineated pack order that we observed amongst these dogs. Their body language was so pronounced and unambiguous that it made discerning ‘who’s who’ almost effortless. The orange pit was clearly a beta male, ruled with an iron paw by the pack leader and alpha male, a rather puny Rottie mix. He closely guarded a youngish female who greatly resembled him and consistently used force in order to get the orange pit to submit. The scars on the latter’s face had almost definitely come from scuffles with alpha. The Collie seemed to be at the very bottom of the pack order, possibly a newcomer or even hanger-on, with one other stout Shepherd/Rottie mix female falling somewhere in between. Of course we will never know how these particular dogs ended up together in this particular neighborhood. Were they related? Did they know each other before being abandoned or did they somehow band together one by one until finally forming a pack?

 

 

 

The area they inhabited was quite a ways off the main road, comprised of a couple of streets lined with abandoned houses in various states of deterioration. Some were completely burnt out while others were simply boarded up and moderately decrepit. Many still sported old, lopsided signs declaring the property ‘condemned’ that hung on the boarded up windows and doors but one lone house at the very end of the last block was occupied. Although the house was aging, the property was immaculate and almost cheerful looking with a green, manicured lawn, new fence and even a few flowering plants. An elderly white man was outside mowing the grass. He was literally the only human resident left on the street and was clearly trying desperately to maintain a (perhaps pointless) sense of order and normalcy amidst his bleak reality. It must have been his trash that the dogs frequently scavenged for food.

After an exhausting evening filled with frantic attempts at organizing a last minute rescue for these dogs, we returned the next day, defeated but determined to see them one last time before flying home that afternoon. We assumed that the pack had made a home in one of the many burnt out houses nearby and after not finding them in the grassy fields adjacent to the rows of houses, decided to systematically check out some of the buildings. One of the most poignant photos on the shot ‘wish list’ for the trip was of dogs actually inside one of the abandoned buildings- but this had proved both elusive and downright dangerous since the structures were usually extremely unsound and the dogs very prone to fleeing. I was five months pregnant and much more cautious than usual so Ken would go into the houses first to check for rotting stairs, sunken floor boards and other dangers, and then I would follow.

Ken tiptoed into a two floor partially burnt out, boarded up wooden house at the top of the street to check for signs of dogs. I started to follow. The silence inside these houses was absolute and almost electric. I remember feeling a prickly rush of heightened awareness coupled with a sickening thrill of fear. The silence hummed in my ears and seemed deafening. We paused briefly to hear the usual creaks and groans emitted by the decaying wood as it was whipped by the Michigan wind. Then suddenly there came a loud scuffling noise and the frenzied sound of movement followed by a flash of fur that blasted down the stairs and out the back door. Several of the dogs had been inside and we had unwittingly flushed them out into the adjacent field where they then gathered, staring at us as we emerged from “their” house. The sweet Collie was absent. Maybe she was off looking for food or perhaps she had never been part of the pack to begin with.

When we approached the dogs this time, they didn’t come running up to greet us but instead hung back, watching from under the jumbled branches of a straggly tree dappled with tiny new spring leaves. We had quite a bit of time before needing to be at the airport and decided to just sit and watch them- watching us. After a few minutes, they relaxed and laid down in the sparse shade under the tree, popping their heads up every few minutes to monitor our movements. The eldest female went trotting off into the neighborhood.

After about 15 minutes, we noticed the female returning carrying something in her mouth. The others ran up to greet her and then fell into a line forming a little procession through the tall grass back to the cropping of trees. As she drew closer, we were able to make out the white plastic grocery bag filled with trash that she carried jauntily in her mouth. Her walk was crisp and proud. The other dogs, gamboling with tails wagging, were clearly excited about her find.

The bag was loosely knotted and bulging with what appeared to be a mixture of paper products and food scraps. We waited to see what would happen next. The little pack congregated near the tree and the female laid the bag carefully on the ground. Then she looked up at us. We waited, expecting to see one of them rip open the plastic and strew the contents around the field- but they didn’t. All four dogs just sat and watched us; clearly guarding the bag and definitely unwilling to open it while we were there.

 

We tried sitting very still at an old picnic table in an abandoned playground across the street, but they remained vigilant. We tried hiding in our car, but they were not fooled. The dogs simply sat and waited patiently for us to leave. I found this remarkable because self-control, particularly when it comes to food, is not something I find to be very common amongst the average canine. Add to this the fact that it had probably been months since these guys had experienced the luxury of regular meals, and you have some really fascinating behavior.

Exhausted and distressed by our experiences of the past few days, we finally had to admit defeat, climb into the rental car and head for the airport vowing to try and help these dogs- somehow.

Many months have gone by now and I our project has not yet moved forward. I think of the Elgin Pack daily, wondering if they are still alive. Maybe one of the local rescue efforts was able to help them. Maybe at least a few are safe in a loving home- but maybe not. With thousands of homeless dogs in need of help and no shelters, foster homes or even potential adoptive homes to send them to, the future is bleak for these dogs. Now it is winter and bitterly cold in Detroit. Many dogs will freeze to death. Hopefully our pack is huddled together for warmth atop a mound of salvaged detritus left by Detroit’s former human tenants.

Hope in Detroit seems to be rising but its dawn is much like the winter sun: late and weak. Many claim that the city's restoration has begun, other say things are worse than ever. Either way, help will come too late for thousands of dogs that a city forgot.

 

 

Silver Screen Flirtation

I am a self proclaimed movie junky. I watch what is undoubtedly, an absurd number of films every week - a cumulative number which, in the interest of preserving my professional reputation, I will not disclose but suffice it to say...a lot. I am however, a lazy and thrifty addict, relying almost exclusively on Netflix and a carefully chosen court of premium movie channels to deliver my fix. I rarely see movies in theaters because I find them overpriced, full of distractions (yes, YOU who fiddle with your shrink-wrapped candy throughout the entire film) and most importantly, impossible to pause or rewind.

So recently, I was sitting in the movie theater with my husband, enduring preview after ever loving preview, trying as usual, not to be annoyed by the fact that there were actually other people in the theater when suddenly, a trailer for Cats and Dogs II The Revenge of (ummm) Kitty Galore came up. Half way through the clip, I saw two giants photos on a billboard which seemed very familiar, but alas, they were gone before I could even blink. When we got home, I found the trailer online and realised that I was not barmy and they were in fact my photos on that giant orange billboard which a dog wearing an out of control jet pack careens through. The  crash takes out the face of the cat on the right, leaving the wry image you see below.


In 2008, I shot a national campaign for the ASPCA using animals who were currently waiting for homes in their NYC shelter and these are two of the images from that shoot. It was a rare and unexpected treat to see them on the big screen even if no one else in the audience knew they were mine. Plus, I was thrilled to see such prominent placement for the ASPCA in a massively mainstream Hollywood film (AND every single version of the preview).

What's this?? An unequivocally positive animal welfare message in a big budget Warner Brothers kids' movie? Alright then.

You can watch the entire preview here.


The Ocean and the Infinite (Masses)

Today I was among tens of thousands of New Englanders who manically flocked to the beach in order to both celebrate and survive the first noticably hot Friday since Summer's  inauspicious beginning.

Every year at the start of the season,  I re-visit my fascination with the mystical allure of the ocean and the perplexing dichotomy that is our relentless reverence and exploitation of it. There's no denying that a swim in the sea on a hot day is refreshing. But so is a cold shower, air conditioning, or a dip in a clean suburban swimming pool. What is it about the beach and the tempestuous, primordial ocean that so enthralls us?

While shooting my last book Wild Horses, I was stationed in Ocean City, Maryland for a week.  With it's legacy of unpretentious pastel motels, elaborate putt-putt courses, tacky souvenir shops and every fast food chain known to man represented on the same street, Ocean City is an intoxicating, sentimental masterpiece of Americana camp and capitalization. I found myself powerless to resist it's ironic sincerity and timeless appeal. The Pizza Hut there still has a salad bar.

Like any and all of America's seaside oddities, Ocean City's retro splendor was drawn there decades ago by one thing and one thing only: the American public's overwhelming need to journey to the ocean. Every square inch of coast is flanked by something and behind that something are several parallel rows of other somethings that weren't lucrative enough to deserve beachfront property.

Had I arrived in Ocean City two weeks later, I would have been trapped in what locals describe as "amateur month" when high school and college kids arrive en masse to drink, puke and blister in the sun. Fortunately I got to witness the calm before the storm. And what an eery calm it  was. The beaches were barren, the few open restaurants empty, and the epic mini golf palaces and boardwalk still closed for repairs. The stillness and lack of people amidst so much tawdry infrastructure created a sweet, familiar lonliness for me. At dawn, before I spent the day chasing wild horses on the starkly contrasted pristine, unblemished shores of Assateague National Seashore, I wandered in somewhat of a trance through the aging, seasonally forsaken man-made spectacles of Ocean City.

That week I began what has become a long term project of documenting our complex and contradictory relationship to the ocean.

I will never live land-locked. Despite the inevitable crowds, traffic and stupidity, over the past few years I have continued to invent more and more excuses to be in or near the water almost every day. Whether any of the bikini teen queens, metal detecting septuagenarians, football tossing jocks or other  predictable beach characters realize it, I believe we are all drawn to the ocean in a need to reconnect with the infinite. The question is, will there be anything worthwhile left to connect with in 50 years?

 

Winding Back up From Down Time

The past five years have brought many changes in my life. Indeed in more recent months, the defining difference has been a lack of change. From 2005-2008, I was in a career whirlwind with book signings, media events and shooting assignments which swept me to many corners of the globe. It became standard for me to be traveling about 5 out of 12 months each year. While the experiences were truly unforgettable, after the release of Wild Horses, it was time for a little break to catch my breath and allot time for work on several personal series which had long been put on the back burner.

With the help of a Fellowship Grant that I received from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, I have been able to devote time to working on The Hungry Ghost and Natural History. The former is now completed for the time being but the latter is still growing along with my scope and vision for the project. I will be returning to New York next week to gather more images and hope to also expand my shooting to include candid imagery from museums in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

A great honor that has just recently come my way is an invitation this fall to photograph the much endangered Asian Elephant through Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. This opportunity is exciting on so many levels and I'm thankful beyond words that my generous hosts  thought of me for this project which will hopefully span many different aspects of the modern threats facing Asian Elephants. I travel to New Hampshire next week to meet with Katherine Connor, founder of Boon Lott's (making a rare trip to the US) as well as MaryLou Hecht of Dyad Communications, an activist and champion of the sanctuary.