I made a wrong turn and ended up on 93 north when I’d planned to go directly east, to Great Basin National Park. The road led me up to 80 at the Utah border, which I hadn’t planned to go to. Whatever, there I was, so I took the highway east and then south along 6, down through the heart of central Utah. I found the whole place disconcerting, nothing like Nevada, where I’d felt welcomed at every stop. As soon as I crossed the border, I had a cruiser escort for twenty miles, the whole time he was riding my ass, and I only shook the cop when I pulled into a gas station. I was only there for a couple days, but in those days not once did I get a friendly nod from anyone. I’d walk into a diner and all heads would turn and the waitress carrying over my coffee would be visibly trembling. What did they think? That I was some sort of mad brown bomber? I asked for rates at a few motels and from the blank stares and useless responses I got, I couldn’t decide whether the attendants were stoned or inbred. And don’t get me started on the oversized houses that looked like bungalows on steroids. Sorry Utah, I just didn’t like you, and it seems you didn’t like me either, so I guess we’re even. I did end up taking a few snaps. Here they are.
The hundred or so miles around Tonopah, Nevada, offer the darkest skies in the continental United States. I didn’t know this when I was camping by myself in Saulsbury Wash, but learned it later when I drove into town. The owner of the local bookstore even gave me a star finder to use at night. He said he always gave these away free to visitors. The only other book he gave away was a Bible, he couldn’t see himself to making a profit on them. It was an eclectic bookstore, and not at all narrowly religious. There were large sections on science and evolution, and a small backroom of erotica. You entered this room through a seventies-style bead curtain, and were immediately met by the soft porn covers of old sex manuals. I liked the town, and the people in it, and thought if I was a different kind of person, not so wedded to cities, that this is exactly the kind of place I’d enjoy living. Before the moon rose during my first night camping out in Saulsbury Wash, the skies indeed were a blanket of stars. I could trace the faint line of the Milky Way. It had been a long time since I’d seen a night sky like this. I felt like a parched wanderer in the desert who’d finally come upon an oasis. I stayed in the area a couple more days, then took the road west, toward Death Valley. I was leaving Nevada after two weeks, and in those weeks had fallen in love with the landscape and the people. The state came as a great surprise to me, its beauty a shock. One day I hope to return.
For the last month, I’ve been staying at the Edward Albee Foundation, or the Barn, in Montauk, NY. It’s a retreat for writers and artists that is open only from late-May to early October. This time of year, when Rex Lau and Diane Mayo, two artists who live next door and take care of the place, get it ready for the incoming residents, the place is empty. The weather’s still cold, and the first week I was here it barely rose above freezing. I’d leave a glass of water on the kitchen table only to find a thin layer of ice forming an hour later. Cooking was physically painful, because it required using my fingers, and it hurt to touch anything due to the cold. My bedroom was heated, so I could work and sleep in comfort.
I was first here in 2007, at the end of the summer, and remember it as one of the more magical places I’ve stayed. There were five of us, three writers and two artists, and we got along remarkably well. From my desk window, I look out onto a forest, a stream, and often deer bending their necks forward to eat idly in the afternoon sun. Every single night I stayed here I had a series of incredible and vivid dreams, some of which still stay with me. This time my dream life has been subdued, and also I’m here alone.
What sets the Barn apart from other residencies, and in my view makes it stronger, is that it is largely artist-directed. There’s no welcoming committee, there are no set times for lunch or dinner, no stipulations for what you do with yourself beyond doing your own work the way you want to do it. When you arrive, especially if you’re the first to arrive for your scheduled month, you’ll find the door unlocked (it actually never locks), the rooms bare except for furniture, and the building entirely yours. You figure it out for yourself, pick a room, find sheets and blankets in the laundry room, set up your space, and get to work. For me, this offered a great feeling of autonomy and trust, and also ownership, and allowed me to enter the space of my own work much more easily.
With this set of photos, I’ve tried to capture the off-season feel of the place. It’s not inhabited yet, not made ready for the artists and writers who will work here. Winter’s still visible in the rearview mirror, and spring hasn’t fully shown itself. There’s a haunted quality, and a silence which pervades every room. It almost looks abandoned, and at times it feels that way, as if I’ve wandered here by accident and taken shelter under its high wooden eaves.
As a kid, one of my favorite television shows was called The Beachcombers. I don’t remember much about it, certainly not if it had any plot or who the characters were, but what I do remember is that it left me with an overwhelming desire to one day live by the ocean and spend my mornings walking the beach, hunting for what washed up on the shore. The beach is one of those Iiminal landscapes, a region of gorgeous exchange between land and water and sky. When you stand at the edge of a vast plateau, you don’t imagine all that lies beneath. It’s hard not to do that when you stand at the edge of the ocean, and know that a whole other world exists just out of sight and out of reach.
Montauk is kind of a dream beach town, and though increasingly it’s becoming infected with the wealth and aura of the Hamptons, it retains the feel of an old fishing village, especially during the off-season. I don’t have a car and walk the mile or so into town for groceries and to reach the beach. The section of road I live on was built originally as a Grand Prix track, so it has some wild twists and blind corners. I don’t believe it was ever used for Grand Prix races, which is a pity, as I’d loved to have seen F1 cars roaring along these roads. During the walk into town, there’s a final corner I turn, on Essex St, and there, at the bottom of the hill, I see my first glimpse of the ocean sandwiched between houses. It gets me every time. One of my recurring dreams as a child was walking down a street and seeing the ocean at the end of it. It was a potent dream for a child living in some of the rougher parts of London. But here I am, at least for a month or two.
I took these photos during a single walk, about two miles north along the beach from the main town, and back again. I’m showing them here in the order they were taken. I have a few rules when photographing. One: compose in the camera and never crop an image. Two: no more than three attempts at composing a shot (with almost all of these, I took a single image). Three: minimal manipulation (contrast, sharpness), the kind basic darkroom equipment would allow. The first of these rules I believed in when I used to shoot with film, and the others pay homage to that old skill. It would be useful for those brought up with digital cameras to adopt constraints. They train the eye and focus the mind when looking at the landscape, and can lead to surprising discoveries.
Late afternoon in October 2012, a walk home along one of Berlin’s many canals. I’d walked this route many times, at day and well into the night, but this was one of the few times I took photographs.
I don’t think of Berlin as being a true walker’s city. The street lights are designed for cars, to make sure they don’t idle too long. The result is that walkers often have to wait an inordinate amount of time to cross a street, and if there’s an island, the only way not to get stuck there and wait for a second light change is to run. For the elderly, this means almost always waiting, sometimes several minutes to cross a single intersection. It’s one of those silly Euro-eco ideas which means it’s much easier to drive around than walk. But that doesn’t take away from the rough-hewn beauty of the city. And it remains one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited.
Over and again, when I asked about the precarious future of Greece, people gave me this response: “Greece has been here for thousands of years. It does not die, and it will not this time.” Walking the streets of Athens, I find myself marveling at the beauty and humor and energy of the graffiti I see everywhere, and also feeling dismayed, because it does mar the city, it does make it ugly, and it does make the lives of Athenians who have to encounter it every day that little bit worse. But I also think of that quote, and I know that cities, like people, go through periods of creative destruction. Who knows what will emerge out of the Athens of today, what city will stand on these shopworn foundations? But one thing is certain. The city will be here, and so will its people, and I suspect that much of the energy released onto its walls will also help to feed its rebirth. For in seeing the city so brought down, one can begin to imagine the city reborn.
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For additional photos, see the earlier post, “The City Painted, part one.”
All images copyright 2012 Ranbir Sidhu.
On my way into the National Archaeological Museum of Greece today, I met a young woman who was handing out discount flyers for a nearby café. We got to talking, and she said there were many secrets in this city, and many hidden histories. I have felt the same thing, wondering at the dark doors, and silent alleyways I’ve passed. On the Acropolis, she said, there are secret doors to other worlds, and she was amazed I had not encountered them. As a writer, she scolded me, she thought I would have looked more deeply.
Inside the museum, in one of the last rooms I visited, the room containing the five breath-taking Kouros statues, I had an astonishing experience and, for a moment, found one of those secret doors she spoke of. Maybe one day I will write about it.
All photos copyright 2012 Ranbir Sidhu.
One thing is impossible to escape on arriving in Athens, that in much of the center, and even in large areas in the outlying parts of the city, the walls are covered in graffiti. For block after block, every available space within hand’s reach is spray-painted, and the walker swims through it, drowns in it. This must have been what New York City looked like in the seventies and eighties, a city exploding in color and angst and undirected rage. As I’ve been walking and photographing, it leaves me with mixed emotions. Often, very beautiful buildings are tagged, and their facades marred. The National Archaeological Museum is largely covered with quite ugly-looking political statements. Much of it, however, is beautiful, striking, and compelling, and in the teeth of this crisis, it seems necessary that disempowered youth should take their visions and protests and fears and hopes and whimsies directly to the walls of this ancient city. Where else are they going to leave their mark these days?
Please click on the images to view them full-size.
Walking the streets at midnight, the city is almost silent. Seedy, hot, alive in the shadows, it is a different city from the city in the day. All that empty space somehow lets it breathe.
Please click on the images to view them full-size.
All photos copyright Ranbir Sidhu.
In Dad’s ancestral village, these days, in the Doab in Jullundar district in the Punjab. Here’s a picture.
I took a long walk today, out west for some miles to the next village, then cut back and south toward another, closer to home. I’d looked on Google maps satellite images for a route, and it looked like there was one, but a half mile out of Phalpota I was lost in fields. I met some labourers and they pointed me toward home, and I could see the other one too, some distance away. I spent the next hour walking back to the village across the fields and then found a track which led back to the road I’d originally taken. On the way out, a man riding a bullock cart stopped and started shouting at me, I couldn’t understand what he was saying and so eventually walked on, but a schoolgirl came by right after. She was maybe nine or ten. He needed help moving his bullock. It wanted to go the other way from where he was going and he needed someone to pull him round. The girl tried, and her, the bullock, and the cart, all toppled into a field. They got out after some amusing antics, and the cart passed me by and the man offered me a lift, but I declined, which I regretted. It would have been nice to sit up there and watch the fields go by, even for a short distance, but he was loud and he his only form of communication seemed to be shouting in my face, so maybe I was better off. The road was beautiful and much of the way, all I could hear were the birds and the sound of my own footsteps. I met the man again a way down the road. The bullock had pulled the cart into another ditch and the thing had half toppled over, dropped its load of one very large bag of what looked like cement. As I walked up, the man pulled his pants down facing me and pulled his penis out and started pissing, and as he did this called to me to come over. He talked for a while like that, his hands around his dick, then he pulled up his pants and together we lifted the cement bag back onto the cart.
And some more pictures.