The Incompetent Photographer

Biarritz, 1994.

Over at the WSJ, Kevin Sintumuang tells the story of a young man — a young man who goes backpacking through Europe only to return with terrible photos. Get out of my memory hole, Kevin Sintumuang!

In my quest for frame-worthy shots, I came away with a handful of boring ones: A street. A bridge. A church tower. An empty field. Another church tower. … But years later, flipping through the mix of matte and glossy 4-by-6 prints, I experienced my biggest travel-photography epiphany: The more you document seemingly insignificant details on a trip, the more vivid the memories.

See the top right corner of this website? The part where it says I’m “a writer, photographer, and historian?” I sometimes write stuff that doesn’t stink and I’m proud of my accomplishments as a historian, but I often feel the word photographer should be in air quotes. For years I wasted pounds of silver halide shooting empty landscapes from wide angles in an effort to capture the spirit of a place, only to end with distant and impersonal ghost towns that showcased nothing except my own detachment. I actually studied photography in college and though infatuated with Ansel Adams, somehow still managed to make the view from a summertime beach in Biarritz — populated by topless girls, no less — chilly, gray, and blurry, as you can see in the above taken during my 1994 European rove. I filled whole albums with castles and bridges and cathedrals. Cold stones, cold images.

Like Sintumuang, it took me more than a decade of thumbing through old albums or browsing desktop file folders to realize the most appealing shots were those featuring people or animals and often up close, not from some removed point.

Which isn’t to say landscapes aren’t worthwhile — just that I have to do better. I took hundreds of photos on a 1992 trip through the southwest, and yet the best of the bunch is a snap of my brother, diminutive against the vastness of the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon

(I also like, because this is a scan of a print, how age has washed it through a natural Instagram filter.)

And occasionally loneliness is the objective, like this 2001 shot of a foggy early morning hike to Hadrian’s Wall.

On the trail to Hadrian's Wall.

So-so, if you can overlook the way too-dark tree trunks.

I remain a poor photographer. I fancy myself a decent composer, yet lighting confounds me and my post-production editing is atrocious. But these days, my more compelling subject matter often offsets my technical shortcomings.

New Hampshire.

Samuel Smedley Talk

Samuel Smedley, Connecticut PrivateerTomorrow night — Thursday, February 21 — I’ll be speaking about Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer at the Black Rock Yacht Club, 80 Grovers Avenue in Bridgeport, right on the shores of Smedley’s very own port o’ call.

I’ll talk about Smedley, Defence, and how the division of prizes — that is, the proceeds from captured ships and their cargoes — impacted the Connecticut state navy during the American Revolution.

You don’t have to be a member of the club to attend! The presentation begins at 7pm.






Running Up That Hill

“One Running Shoe in the Grave” screams a Wall Street Journal headline:

In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners, according to the Heart editorial. But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.

Meanwhile, according to the Heart editorial, another large study found no mortality benefit for those who ran faster than 8 miles per hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.

I won’t be throwing my New Balances on the bonfire anytime soon. “8 miles per hour” is an awkward phrase — runners gauge their pace in minutes per mile — concocted to mask how few people this second study applies to.

Eight miles an hour is a 7:30 pace, which is a good clip for most. To give you an idea of how few runners that is: In this year’s New Haven 20K (12.4 miles), only 379 of 2,373 finishers ran a 7:30 or faster. That’s 16 percent. In the 5K (3.1 miles), 410 of 3,548 finishers ran 7:30 or faster. That’s 12 percent. The remaining 84-88 percent of those racers, meanwhile, can expect to reap “significant mortality benefits.”

There’s not even an impairment here — the study simply showed no benefit for anyone running at sustained high speeds.

From this rather dull news peg the story then slides into the horrors of extreme sports like Ironman racing, which should shock the same folks who don’t realize pro boxers and NFL players sometimes experience brain trauma. Yes, elite (generally regarded as the top 10 percent of the field) and/or professional runners and triathletes often sustain injuries like “cardiac abnormalities,” increased risk of stroke, and a host of orthopedic ailments. That’s why it’s no country for old men. But the hebephrenic headline and tone of the article are misplaced, as are the “See? I told you so!” opinions of many of the commenters extolling the virtues of an inactive lifestyle while they rub the pizza grease on their bellies.

I’ll keep running up that hill, and if you run, so should you.

Samuel Smedley Commemoration

Hey sailor! Do you live in or around Fairfield, Connecticut? If so, on Saturday, October 27, I’ll be at the Old Burying Ground on Beach Road to speechify at the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Samuel Smedley’s death. Come on out.

The fun starts at 10am at the intersection of Beach Road and Fairfield Beach Road — we’ll meet there, then walk up the street to the Burying Ground. You can park at Jennings Beach.

Update: Here’s a write-up of the event.

Training Camp

Today the Kuhl family persevered through gnarly traffic and inclement weather to attend Patriots training camp.

Here’s Tom Brady completing a pass to running back Danny Woodhead.

Brady handing off while Bill Belichick scrutinizes every motion.

Aaron Hernandez catching.

Quarterback Tom Brady.

The man you want in a pinch: kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

Third-string quarterback Ryan Mallett. According to Mrs. Kuhl, Hoyer will soon accept a starting job with another team, positioning Mallett to be our next starter once Brady retires in a few years. Time will tell.