Dec. 18 / All Hail the Prints

Today my friend Derek Nehrbass came over to the house so we could make prints of one of his drawings.  We were both contributing artists in a group show at a local bar/gallery recently, and one of his drawings, which he calls “BP Lovecraft” drew so much attention that he had to start promising everyone they’d have a chance to own a copy.  It’s an ink drawing of an oil platform seen at a distance and from a cross section of the sea, with it’s submerged drilling apparatus extending into the depths and either emerging from or giving birth to a gargantuan, tentacled beast that has a body only Jules Verne could love and the soul of the dark writer from which he derives his name.

Derek art-1

“BP Lovecraft” D. Nehrbass, 2014. Archival pigment pen on paper.

Derek and I are both co-workers at this aforementioned local bar, but my first encounter with him, years ago, was as one of the whiskey regulars who would have a couple of beers, a couple of shots and a couple of good stories to tell.  And Derek would always pass time sketching with a  pen on bar napkins, and leave one or two behind as a token.  It seemed to me kind of like his way of tagging, only way less aggravating and unsightly and way more like something we wanted to post on the wall over the bar.  Over time Derek and I became friends and he became employed at the bar.   Many of those napkins, tacked onto the wall over my desk at home, made their way into one of his art pieces, along with contributions from bartenders all over town.

Though I’ve always been aware of his talent and his various interests, I didn’t know too much about Derek’s artistic pedigree and the thing that got him interested in doing what he does.  We were able to chat while futzing with scanner and printer today, and I got to pick his brain a little.

SS     How do you call yourself?

DN     What do I consider myself?

SS     When someone says, ‘what kind of art do you do?’, what do you say?  I’ve never known what to call that.   A draw-er?

DN     Well, draughtsman, I guess, would be the correct term.

SS     I’m an idiot.

DN     I always tell people that—even though I haven’t done a lot of it lately—I consider myself a printmaker, primarily.  That’s the craft that I was trained in.  But yeah, draughtsmanship.  As much as I’ve liked painterly traditions, I’ve always been drawn to the line, more than anything.  I grew up in a really artistic family—my father’s a painter, my great-grandfather and my great-uncle were both architects and graphic artists—so I grew up around a lot of artwork, art books.  There’s something about the quality of line in everything from Rembrandt‘s etchings to…I don’t know if you know Heinrich Kley, he’s a German cartoonist, mid-century…

"Halloweekend" D. Nehrbass, 2014.  Archival pigment pen on cotton rag.

“Halloweekend” D. Nehrbass, 2014. Archival pigment pen on cotton rag.

SS     Okay.

DN     He just has this beautiful quality of line, really quick sketchy drawings, but still very descriptive.  Moving on up into people like Ralph Steadman or R. Crumb, my dad was a huge Crumb fan.

SS     Reference Ralph Steadman for me?

DN     He’s most famous for doing the artwork in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

SS     Oh, right.  I knew it was familiar.

DN     But his graphic work is just…absolutely phenomenal, his handling of line.  It’s one thing to do something like Rembrandt or Albrecht Dürer, where you’re very meticulous and your line work is just perfect.  Then you get up to guys like Kley or Steadman, where five or six strokes of the pen and you’ve got a face sitting on the paper.  To me, that’s the most impressive thing.  That’s what I’ve tried to develop over the years.

SS     What is that, exactly?

DN     That quickness, that relaxed drawing from the elbow instead of from the wrist.

SS     I think you used the word trained.   Did you study somewhere?

DN     I grew up in Lafayette and I began studying printmaking at what was then USL [University of Southwestern Louisiana] and became UL-Lafayette, which has a great program.  Actually, the reason I became a printmaker in the first place, when I was in high school we took a field trip to the Ooh La La [UL-L] print shop, and I walked in and I saw all these prints all over the wall by Tom Secrest, who was the professor of printmaking at USL for the longest time.  He’s still one of my favorite living artists. He taught my father, actually.  So I walk in and there’s all these beautiful prints, etchings primarily, woodcuts.  And there’s all this heavy machinery, it looks like an archaic medieval torture dungeon, the whole place smells of linseed oils and ink and chemicals and I was like, this is what I want.  If I can use these things to make images that look like this, than this is the route I need to go.

SS     So, is that field, or craft, still reliant on the old technology?  Or has that also been brought into a new age, where they don’t do it that way anymore.

Derek portrait

Derek Nehrbass and sketchbook. 12/18/2014.

DN     It’s definitely an evolving medium—in the Green age, they’re finding non-toxic methods, where you’re using physical methods instead of chemical methods.  However, everybody I know that’s doing classical etching, they’re still using Dutch mordant, the same stuff Rembrandt and Dürer were using to make their etchings.  They say you just can’t get the quality of line with anything else.  I was trained with a substance called Ferric chloride, which reacts to copper.  It’s an acid, but really it’s more of a corrosive salt, and you have to be more careful with it, because it’s a slower etch.  But it’s the same, you just can’t get the same quality as Dutch mordant, but with those old methods, you’re talking about wearing a mask and big rubber gloves, and you have to be in a very well ventilated area.

SS     Back in the old days, how many people did that kill?

DN     I’d love to see the statistics.  If you were an assistant under Dürer, you were going to get pretty sick pretty fast.  That’s one of the reasons why all those guys had so many assistants.  But they’re doing so many green methods now, and alternative ones.  Just because it’s not the classic method doesn’t mean it’s not going to work.  One of the things I really like about printmaking, especially etching, is that you’re talking about how to get a mark on a piece of copper.  Whether it’s chemically or physically, whether you’re engraving it, even adhering things to the plate.   I’ve experimented with spray paint and chemical suspensions and all kinds of stuff. It’s really one of those things where the sky’s the limit.

SS     How much of that traditional printmaking are you actually doing, in terms of your time, as opposed to just sort of the sketches and drawing that you do, whether for an exhibition or just what you make on a bar napkin?

DN     The problem with printmaking or etching—you can make woodcuts or relief prints in your living room—whereas with etching you need a chemical bath, you need a press, you need drying racks.  I don’t have a studio set up right now.  I’ve had offers from some guys at UNO, where I graduated from, to go back and make some prints.  I’m in a process of working on a series, and trying to translate some of these images to copper.  But it’s expensive and meticulous and requires an assistant. Right now everything lives on my sketch pad.  In fact, this piece I brought today, this BP Lovecraft, that’s a study for a larger piece I’m working on.

SS     You said your dad does this?  He’s a printmaker?

Derek art-4

“Cthon” D. Nehrbass, 2007.  Color lithograph.

DN     He’s a painter primarily, and a graphic artist. He comes from a school—David Alpha, Elemore Morgan, Jr., Fred Daspit—I call them the Cajun Impressionists.  You have all these guys that are really enamored of the Louisiana landscape and want nothing more than to draw these colors out and these shapes out….  Lately, he’s been working on a series of collages, which he just showed in Lafayette. He chooses a particular native or migratory water fowl and intersperses them with images of the landscape and repeated images of pin-up models.

SS     Wow.

DN     So there’s all these girls in thigh-highs and mallards or wood ducks and these kind of rice mills.  It’s a really odd juxtaposition but they’re really interesting.

SS     Does he make a living doing that?

DN     No, he tried for a long time to make a living as an artist, and he did quite well in Seattle, actually, but he moved back down to marry my mother, and a little bit before they had me, he went into the oil field.  He was in the oil field up to about a year and a half ago, when he retired.  So now having returned from the oil field, he’s returned to his craft.

SS     Sometimes I wish I’d just gone into the oil field, or the metaphorical one, and just made some fucking money so I could retire now.

DN     Exactly.  You know, that’s one of the things that I dislike about bartending.  Even on my days off, I’m so exhausted from working these long hours and these late shifts, that it’s rare that I just have time to spend in my sketchpad or on my drafting table.

SS      I hear that.  [We’ve given up on making prints for the moment, because my large-format printer is being stupid]  I want to talk a little about when I first became aware of your work, when you were doing a lot of the bar napkin drawings and you turned it into a thing, which was the show that I went to.

DN     Oh yeah, the Canary Collective.  I’d had the idea because I had so many friends that told me that over the years they had collected them.  They’re like, ‘oh yeah, I have 3 or 4 original Derek’s on my refrigerator or in my office’ or whatever.

SS     (laughing) Yep.

DN     So I borrowed some back for the show, and I built a small bar, put a lip on it and stained it, and put all these things under plexiglass, very haphazardly, because I wanted it to look like I end up after a night of drinking.

SS     It was awesome.  And so…talk a little about that ethic. I mean, that’s kind of the other end of the spectrum from the classic quality of the etchings.  I’m trying to liken it to photography, and I guess…there’s the darkroom print. And then there’s the iPhone snap.  And not just the process, but the subject matter.

Derek art-2

“This Cat May Kill You” D. Nehrbass, 2013. Sharpie on bevnap.

DN     A lot of the subject matter in my napkins is bar culture, you know?  It’s an interesting way to capture people in a different way.  People, you know, especially down here, people like to talk with their hands, so gesticulating and facial expressions and there’s just a cornucopia of raw information in front of you and it lends itself well to these dialogues—I grew up on comic books—so it lends itself well to that.  And then, a lot of it is just practice, you know, it’s just lifting weights.  Being able to scribble a hand in half a second and have it be convincing on the page, and making it look effortless.  I had a painting professor one time who told me he always enjoyed going to see retrospectives of different artists that he liked because he liked looking through their sketch pads. Because you know a painting on the wall, or a finished print on the wall, you’re looking at something that took a lot of time and standing back from and working and reworking until you have a finished piece.  Whereas if you’re looking through someone’s sketch pad, you’re really just looking at them daydreaming….You get these things that are very raw and very immediate.  Also, I mean, living in New Orleans, we live in such a bar heavy culture, it’s a way for you to still keep that creative part of your mind flowing, even though you’re just sitting there having a drink and staring at all the pretty girls.

SS     Right.

DN     And, they make great tips.  (laughing)

SS     That’s true.  Let me ask you, if you can answer it, what is it that you would like to be doing?  I mean, to distill it down, what is it that brings you the most joy?

DN     I’ve known quite a few graphic artists who love going to visiting artists at universities and you’ve got all these students around that are eager to learn….Being able to have the freedom [of teaching and working with printmaking students in a lab]. Of course, I’d love to have my own small home studio as well.  But, I mean really, I’m happiest spending my hours just putting marks to paper.

Dec. 17 / Overexposed

I keep a little “Book of Quotes.”  It’s a thin hardbound journal with a psychedelic calico design and pages made from recycled pulp.  It was a gift from a dear friend back in 1993.  Obviously, I’m not very good about making entries.  I mean, it’s not like you hear or read a great line or bit of wisdom every day, but considering it’s more than 20 years old, I should have filled it up by now.  I should, by all rights, be on my second or third Book of Quotes

But it’s just this one. And the quotes inside must have really hit home somehow, because I took the time to blow the dust off and make an entry in my sacred annal.

12 Quotes-1

“Overexposed #1″ Marigny, 12/17/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

I love a good quote.   The kind that stirs the consciousness simultaneously with comforting familiarity, and the lonely idea that every possible thought has already been thought, and every combination of words to describe it have been made cliche.  There are no new ideas.  Just maps constructed of them that we seem obligated to follow.

Still, great quotes are like trophies which illuminate the most beautiful and insightful uses of our human language. They are a missive from a universal catalog which acknowledges when someone has dipped into the source, even if it is just for a moment that we glimpse it. Even if it is just for a moment that we remember it.

This is one of my short days, when I have to be at the job in the afternoon, and as I sit here struggling to come up with my daily offering, I realize that I need to make it simple. So I’m pulling out the secret weapon:  my Book of Quotes. This is not all of them, but a good selection of lines that must have represented a moment of epiphany for me at one time.

Twelve quotes, and a selection of photographs I took today, and none of them are necessarily related.

“To be joyous is to be a madman in world of sad ghosts.”     —Henry Miller, from Sexus

“The hero keeps going, and even his ruin was only a subterfuge for achieving his final birth”     Rainer Maria Rilke, from Duino Elegies

“Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.”     Tom Waits, from the song Come On Up to the House

“It don’t take long to kill things. Not like it does to grow.”     Melvyn Douglas, as Homer Bannon,  in the film Hud

“The truth knocks on the door, and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.”     Robert Pirsig, in Lila

“I’ll begin where the hero is awakened by the sound of rain, and throw out all the rest.”     Treplev (via Chekhov), in The Seagull

12 Quotes-2

“Overexposed #2″ Marigny, 12/17/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

“I am the false character that follows the name around.”     Don DeLillo, in White Noise

“Ideologies separate us. Dreams and anguish bring us together.”     Ionesco

“When you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.”     Nietzsche

“Don’t bother trying to be better than your contemporaries or your predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”     William Faulkner

12 Quotes-3

“One Way Angel” Marigny, 12/17/2014. Format: digital via DSLR

“I want to be captain of a ship and I want to be an artist of music and I will have my piano on the top of the ship and I will make stairs going up to it so I can climb up and play to the fishes.”      Diane Arbus, in a private notebook

“This doll is extremely dangerous—it has voodoo qualities.”     Ralph Brown, as Danny, in the film Withnail and I

**

—for Kath

Dec. 16 / Slav to Love

The spirit of this project is to kind of trace my steps as I walk through the everyday of my every day, for the course of a month, elaborating on the things and ideas, the faces and events and places I frequent, and introduce you, in my own way, to this protracted kind of day-in-the-creative-life of me, my peers, my neighborhood.  In that vein, it was important to take at least a few opportunities during the month to talk about food.  It’s pretty easy, really.  I love food.  I especially love eating it.  And like everyone, I have those spots that are just like…the go-to joints.  From my time living in the East Village of NYC, I have a lingering affinity for Ukrainian food, and in this neck of the woods, there’s only one game in town.

KUKHNYA, the Ukrainian kitchen in the back of the St. Claude music bar Siberia, marries traditional Eastern European classics with the rock and roll ethic of great American bar food, into something they like to call “Slavic Soul Food.”  Founded, owned and operated by my friend, Matt Ribachonek , it is a place that I frequent on a  regular basis, so in keeping with the spirit of my guest curation, it seemed a perfect subject for today’s entry.

Matt the Hat

Matt Ribachonek, the owner and chef at KUKHNYA. 12/16/2014.

The menu at KUKHNYA (which translates in Ukrainian to mean both “kitchen” and “cuisine”) features clever spins on Eastern European classics such as pierogi, borscht, stroganoff and blini (a Slavic version of the crepe), while being comfortably balanced by American diner staples, such as burgers, french fries and Po Boys (or, in this case, “Polboys”).  It is an easy menu to take in, but very difficult to choose from.  Ribachonek also features a special or two every night, and whether it is a house favorite or a new creation, nothing is without his traditionally-based homespun signature.   There is the vegetarian Beet Burger, the Kielbasa Polboy, the Mushroom Golumpki (stuffed cabbage rolls), or the Cheeseburger Blini.  And without getting into the business of being a food critic, let me tell you some of the things I order at KUKHNYA that get me wild with cravings at least once a week:

There’s the Omni-Reuben, with corned beef, beets, swiss cheese, kapusta (spicy cabbage), and Russian dressing.  It haunts me when I’m jogging.  Likewise the Black and Bleu Burger, with it’s bleu cheese and brown sugar bacon jam.  I always get a side of egg noodles in garlic butter and parmesan, but other sides you can get, besides french fries, are grilled asparagus and pickled veggies.  Try some borscht, or pierogi or one of the many varieties of blini.  You have to try these things if you’ve never had them before.  It’s a law, I think.   And if you are already a fan of these things, and didn’t know where you could find it, then your search is over.  You can thank me later.  After you’ve had a Sweet Apple Blini for dessert—apples, almonds, goat cheese, honey.  I know, right?

This guy, Matt Ribachonek, he knows how to cook.  Matt, who hails from south Florida, but is a third-generation Ukrainian-American, learned the cuisine of his inherited culture as a hand-me-down.  He graciously lent me some of his time today while preparing the kitchen and prepping the day’s specials.

SS     What is your background as a chef, and inherent to that question, I guess, is why?

MR     I never really had any other job. I’ve never done anything else. I worked in a butcher shop in high school, that’s the only thing that didn’t involve like, a stove.

SS      And you learned to cook from your grandmother, and a great aunt?

MR     Yeah,  my great aunt Stella was a really good cook and she was the Ukrainian one so…I got a lot of those family recipes from her.  Other than that, I just worked in every kind of restaurant.

SS     It seems like it was not even a thing that you thought about, you just knew.

MR     Oh yeah. I went to college for awhile, but I always knew.  I went as long as it was free.

SS      What are the top 5 ingredients that characterize Ukrainian food?

MR     Potatoes, beets, cabbage, mushrooms.  And meat.  Beef and pork.

SS     Is there a really significant difference between Ukrainian and Russian food?

MR     It’s like the difference between Creole and Cajun.  Russians have that obsession with the French style, going back to Peter the Great.  That’s where the crepes come from, and the Russians call them blini.   Ukrainian and Polish food is more alike than Russian.

SS     Way more blue collar?

MR     Yes. Boiled stuff, boiled and pickled.

SS     And so…what is Slavic Soul Food?  Is that something you made up?

MR     Actually, I’m not gonna lie, it’s one of my favorite bands, Slavic Soul Party.  So I just kind of rolled with it.  It is soul food, though.  It just happens to be Eastern European.

SS      Why Ukrainian food now?  You’ve worked in a lot of different formats.

MR     I was working in Chicago and my boss was Indian, and he had been a cab driver.  Everybody loved his food at home, so he saved up enough money to start his own restaurant. [When I heard that} I hugged him and I was like ‘you’re my last boss.’ I’m gonna take my family’s food and you know, try and figure out how to not work for anybody.   That was pretty much the ultimate goal.  I just really don’t want to work for anybody. you know?

SS    So, what is your timeline here in New Orleans?

MR     I moved here in 1997.  After Katrina, I stayed a year, and then I got a job in Minneapolis, and I went there for a couple years, and then Chicago for a couple years.

SS     And then you came back down?

MR     Then I came down.

SS      And you fell right in here? [Siberia]

MR      Well… I had a shitty catering business for about a year.  It was really terrible, and stressful, and it wasn’t working very well.

SS     By terrible you mean…

MR     Trying to run a catering business by yourself.

SS     Hustling jobs?

MR     Exactly.  Doing parties in people’s houses.  I did pop-up kitchens and I would get clients from there. You know, I’d put out flyers ‘if you’re having a party, call me.’

SS     You did one at Pal’s?

MR     I was helping them with the tacos on Tuesdays, but then every Saturday, I was doing Ukrainian food.  I had a pop-up uptown, Cafe Rani, and the R Bar.  I laid out a spread on the pool table.

SS     But they were sporadic.

MR     Yeah, once a week at each place, and I would fill in the gaps with catering gigs.   One night, Luke and Matt [2 of Siberia’s co-owners] came into Pal’s and they’re like, ‘Dude you want to move into the kitchen?  Cuz it’s called Siberia…’

SS     It’s really appropriate, that marriage.

MR     This is perfect.  It’s good to know people from when you were young. I’ve known Luke since I was 21, working at Fiorellas and Flanagans, and he was the bartender that would come in.  I used to pack up pierogi on my days off, and go around to bars that didn’t have kitchens.  Just like, unload all my pierogi and they would call me the Pierogi Boy, and get all excited.

SS     So, how is it [the business] working?

MR     It gets busier and busier. I was a little worried at first, and then it got busy. And then it got crazy busy.

SS      I hate to get all into the “future goals” question, but I will.  Do you have any thoughts about down the line?

MR     It’s weird because I never talk about plans. Probably because I’m afraid to admit that I don’t have plans.   (laughs) If I do have an idea for something, I’d rather not say it out loud, I’d rather put it into motion and see where it goes. If it doesn’t work out—even if it’s just a recipe, or some thing that I never cooked before—I try not to put it on the special board before I make it once, you know?

SS     That makes sense. That’s a good way of putting it. Isn’t there something, like in the back of your mind?  A dream thing, like having your own space?

MR     Sure.  I always thought…a diner. You know what I mean?  No booze.  Someplace you go to sober up.  I love those places.  If I had to say i have a next move….

Dec. 15 / Acting Out

Today I have an audition. It’s for a television series called Salem. I auditioned for the same show awhile back, but didn’t get it. The truth is, since I acquired an agent here in New Orleans, which was several years ago, I haven’t got much. The last thing I booked was an episode of the HBO series Treme, in the first season. I played a homeless guy who wandered into a party thrown by Davis, the character played by Steve Zahn. I had one line, and I nailed it. Or maybe I didn’t, who knows? The scene was cut from the episode, so my family and friends and I never got to see the four seconds of my television debut.

I made a nice chunk of cash though.  I got to join SAG, the screen actors union, and I got residual checks for a few years. Most of them were very small towards the end.  If you’ve ever seen Treme, season 1, episode 10 in a rerun, I contributed like 17 cents worth of value to that baby. I don’t really look at it that way, but you can if you want.

drama self portrait

“Emote” New Orleans, 12/15/2014. Format: self-portrait collage from LR & PS w/ digitals via iPhone.

For someone who spends a lot more time and energy these days pursuing the craft of photography than he does the craft of acting, I get a fair number of auditions. It concerns me sometimes, that my agent might drop me at some point if I don’t start making him money.  It’s not that I don’t put in effort, or that I don’t care;  I prepare well for the live auditions, and put in a lot of time taping self-submissions (more on this in a minute). But I’m just not as desperate about it as I used to be.  Which could be the problem.  Or maybe it’s because I fall into a difficult type category, since I’m too young-looking to play a typical old guy and too old to be a strapping thirty-something;  I’m too chunky for the emaciated sleaze balls my agent likes to jump on, but not fat enough for the jolly elder fat roles that I sometimes, inexplicably, get to read for.   It could also be the fact that most of my experience is onstage, not behind a camera.

These are all good self-rationalizations that I can fall back on when I keep not booking roles.  Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder if maybe I just suck.

At some point, I have to allow for the possibility.

Not that I totally suck, as an actor. I’ve had enough training and done enough work to know that I’ve had at least reasonable success. Not in everything I’ve ever done, of course, but I’ve gotten some good reception, some good notices. I don’t think every actor nails every role every time. Unless you’re Daniel Day Lewis. But there’s already a Daniel Day Lewis.  Fuck that guy.

No, the thing I’m talking about is the audition itself. I think I might suck at that, especially the ones for film and television work. It’s just, the whole structure of it is something I find very hard to get a grip on, and I’m mostly talking about the ones where I’m reading for a live casting director.   Let me explain a little about all this, for anyone who hasn’t the slightest clue how this business works.

Once my agent submits my name and materials for a role, the casting director for the project decides whether they want to see me. If they do, they notify my agent, who then notifies me.  With in-person C.D. auditions—that is, the ones where I’m reading in front of a live casting director—it’s usually a couple days in advance, and my agent sends me sides to look at and memorize.

The hallway where actors wait before being "seen". New Orleans, 12/15/2014. Format: digital via iPhone.

The hallway where actors wait before being “seen”. New Orleans, 12/15/2014. Format: digital via iPhone.

With taped ones, there’s a deadline to turn in digital files to the agent, who then evaluates it and sends it on. Most of the time, taped auditions are for projects that are being cast out of town, from places like Atlanta, or Wilmington, or even L.A.  These self-submissions are becoming more and more common, and I have mixed feeling about them.  On the positive side, I can control the ultimate product—I can do as many takes as I like, and then only submit the best one. Also, I get to be seen for stuff being shot everywhere. The bad thing is, it’s really time consuming, I’ve got to find someone to help me shoot it, and it’s a lot of work for what is probably a long shot and sometimes a role that I just don’t feel I’m right for.  (In these instances, my agent insists I should trust him, and I do, but it’s hard to get enthusiastic about your chances when the script is calling for a “decrepit old man in his 60’s”)    All in all, I still prefer the face to face, personal audition.

audition-2

Second Line Studios. New Orleans, 12/15/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

My audition today is the live, walk-in kind.  It’s for a C.D. that calls me in a lot.  She’s the one who cast me in Treme, and I kind of feel like I have her in my corner. But she’s got a hell of a poker face. I never know how well or how badly I did. Very businesslike.  And here’s the thing about all these auditions, and the reason why I think I kind of suck at them:  you’re delivering the scene in front of a camera, with a reader who is giving you nothing in the way of emotions or energy.  This is difficult for someone who was raised onstage and relies on the circulation of energy from performer to performer to audience and back again.  It’s performing a self-contained scene, sometimes with 2 or 3 characters, all alone in a vacuum.

Anyway, it sounds like I’m complaining, and that’s not the case.  I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do the work that I spent so much of my adult life preparing and training for.  And I basically try and treat the audition as the gig, so if I walk out of there feeling like I nailed it, it’s out of my hands.

Oh, and I always say that the payoff is going to come when I physically grow into my “old man” persona. Just wait ’til I’m 60!  I’m gonna be a stahhhhh!

Dec. 14 / All That is Gold

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

—William Butler Yeats

Today I’m taking a little field trip and doing a bit of experimenting with the golden hour.  This is a time of day that occurs just after sunrise and just before sunset each day, when the sun is low on the horizon and the light is softer, dispersed, and less blue (thus, “golden”).  It is an ideal time of day for photographers, because the effect of the light means everything, and contending with the hard and dramatic light and shadow of a full sunlit day is never easy.  Filmmakers especially love this period and usually refer to it as the magic hour.

It doesn’t usually last for an hour, in a literal sense.  According to a “Golden Hour Calculator” that I found online, today’s second golden hour is supposed to last from 4:28pm to 5:04pm (sunset), a period of 36 minutes. I don’t know how accurate that chart is. I found it on the website of some German photographer. It seems pretty sciency, which means I barely understand it, so that’s a good sign.  And he’s German, and their trains run on like, second hand accuracy, so that’s a thing.  Anyway, I found it on the internet, so it must be true.

I’m going to drive up to Lakeview and do some shooting there, and since that is the lowest part of New Orleans (below sea level), it might elongate the golden hour a little bit.  We shall see.


Okay, so I made my little trek to try and capture some good examples of golden hour shots, and in many respects, I failed.  I did manage to grab a couple of decent shots, but what I really wanted was to get more shots from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, and unfortunately, due to some traffic and my own navigational incompetence, I arrived mostly too late.

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“Ladder Reflections” Treme, 12/14/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

I took this shot while cruising up Elysian Fields Avenue, at about 4:32pm, right at the beginning of my 36 minute window.  It’s a pretty good example of how that low sun casts a soft, glowy quality.  Sometimes you want the subtle, soft and dispersed light without the dramatic color.  This look punctuates the golden hour, washing a yellow house in golden light.

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“Lakeside, Approaching Sunset” Gentilly, 12/14/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

This was taken at around 4:50pm.  Again, not a bad example of that soft glow, but a little too close to dusk for my tastes.  I wasn’t really trying to cheat by showing you a pretty sunset.  I wanted to show how that glow falls over everything in the foreground as well.  And if I wasn’t going for pretty sunsets, then I really failed on the last shot.

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“Lakeshore Drive at Dusk” Lakeview, 12/14/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

This was taken at around 5:15pm, well outside the window of the official “golden hour” as indicated on the official calculator found on that German website, which, as it turns out, was pretty bang on.  This is, for all intents and purposes, not the golden hour.  This is a sunset.


Though I didn’t exactly get the results I was hoping for, one thing I did was illustrate just how tricky and elusive is the magic hour.  Next time you hear a photographer or filmmaker talking about trying to capture that essence, you will notice a kind of excitement mixed with trepidation, because the time that it is available makes up the tiniest percentage of minutes in a day, and on some days it is nonexistent, sabotaged by clouds or rainy weather.  The movie Field of Dreams makes terrific use of this approach, and director Terrence Malick is downright famous for it.  The quality of the results is worth the chase, because though the pursuit is difficult and fleeting, the results can be….well, magical.

Dec. 13 / Family Portrait

I’ve shot several weddings, portraits and promotional posters;  head shots, events, second lines and red-carpet openings;  today, though, was the first time anybody ever asked me to shoot a funeral.

Pam Folse and Sandra Bohne, along with their brother Mark Folse, decided they wanted some nice portraits of the entire extended family when everyone was together for the funeral of their mother, Elaine.  A mutual friend got us in touch, and this morning I carried my camera bag up to the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Mid-City.

Quite frankly, I was a little nervous about the prospect of shooting the attendees at a family funeral service.  I don’t even feel comfortable at the weddings of strangers, half the time, let alone the day on which an entire family is mourning the loss of their 91-year old matriarch.   Her three surviving children, though, were generous with their sharing, and happy to tell me some of their favorite things about their mother.  I asked them what they think of when someone says ‘Elaine’.

“Coca-cola,” they each said, practically in unison, and laughed.  Sandra added, “I have a little bottle of Coca-Cola in there, she was a Coca-Cola drinker.”  She was referring to the simple memorial they had set up on a table just inside the church.

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“Memorial”. St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, New Orleans, 12/13/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

“My son brought an old-fashioned,” said Pam.  “We’re going to put that on the grave, because that was her drink.”

“An old-fashioned?” I replied, and then, always thinking like a bartender:  “What kind of whiskey?”  The answer was immediate.

“Jack Daniels.”

They encouraged me to go inside and take a few pictures of the tributes that had been arranged.   There was no coffin or viewing, because Elaine had insisted against it.

“She went to the beauty parlor every week of her life and sometimes twice a week.  She always wanted to look good,” mused Sandra, the second of Elaine’s four children.  “So she had us cremate her. She didn’t want to be here not looking good today.”  We all enjoyed an easy, comfortable laugh, and Pam added: “She looked at a couple of friends in the coffin, and she didn’t like what she saw.”

It was really special for me to be that outsider, watching this big extended family revel in the opportunity to share this moment,  and enjoy the occasion as a celebration of a life, the life of a lady who spent the entire length of her years living in New Orleans.  Living practically in the same neighborhood, in fact, along the Carrollton Avenue corridor, and always a stone’s throw from New Orleans City Park.  I learned that Elaine had attended grammar school at St. Anthony, the very property on which we were standing.

“She was baptized here and confirmed here, too,” said Sandra. “Yeah, and now….we’re gonna send her off.”

Elaine attended both St. Mary’s Dominican High School and St. Mary’s Dominican College, where she was the president of her sorority.  She later served as the President of the Alumni Association of Dominican College, and sat on the Board of Trustees.  In 1987, she was chosen as the Dominican Torchbearer.

“She was a New Orleans girl,”  said Mark.

So was their father, more or less. Sidney Joseph Folse had been born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, but he was living in New Orleans when they met.

“My dad was an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, and so they were separated by that,” said Sandra.  “But they did manage to get married in August of ’44.  He came back the night before and they had a quick little ceremony.”

While Sidney became a prominent architect in the city, Elaine, according to the obituary that Sandra wrote for the program at the service, always remained involved in the activities of her husband, her children and her community:

She served as President of the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Institute of Architects, and participated for many years in planning the Beaux Arts Ball.  She was active with her four children in school, church and scouting.  Once, she even served, most unsuitably, as a Cub Scout Den Leader!  

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Family members of Elaine Sophie Hilbert Folse, who passed away at the age of 91 on Wednesday, November 26th. On the steps of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Mid-City. Photo: digital via DSLR, 12/13/2014.

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“Icons” St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, New Orleans, 12/13/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

It’s a pretty extraordinary thing getting to know a stranger, via the remembrances of her family, on the day of her earthly send off.   In attendance for the service (and the subjects of my group portrait), besides her three surviving children and Sandra’s husband William Bohne, were nine grandchildren and their spouses, and five great-grandchildren.   They had come from Kansas, Texas, Chicago and Missouri, and they were just as pleasant and patient as one could expect, as I adjusted their position on the steps of St. Anthony, and held them there for several minutes while I snapped away.  Though many of them live elsewhere and were not born here, they all come back to New Orleans a lot, and the older ones are still connected to the fabric of this neighborhood, where the matriarch held fast for nine whole decades of her life.

“She came up here from when Carrollton was a ditch, ” Mark told me.

I hadn’t even realized Carrollton had once been a ditch.

“Mother loved City Park,” added Sandra.  “There’s a picture inside, of her and Dad at City Park. They lived in Lakeview, Lake Vista…and in her last 25 years, she lived in Park Esplanade in the 7th floor penthouse that looked out over City Park.”

Pam, who raised her own son in the same neighborhood, kind of summed it up:  “We all think that City Park is our backyard playground. We spent the whole evening there last night.”

Memorials may be sent to St. Mary’s Dominican High School, 7701 Walmsley Ave., New Orleans, Louisiana, 70125, Attention: Scholarship Fund.

For more of my portrait and wedding photography, you can go here. 

Dec. 12 / Good Things Come in Threes

Had a Friday night off so I went to check out a friend’s band, the Luke Allen Trio,  playing at one of the nearby live music venues, the AllWays Lounge.   Due to the late start time, I’m getting this post in well after the calendar has ticked off another number, but I really wanted to feature this gig today, so we’re all just going to have to live with that.  (See my post from December 3rd to shed light on my rule for the breaking of rules that I made up.)

Luke Allen of The Luke Allen Trio The AllWays Lounge, 12/12/2014.

Luke Allen, of The Luke Allen Trio, at the AllWays Lounge, 12/12/2014.

Luke Allen is the songwriter and frontman for the long-established New Orleans alt-country/rock/folk outfit The Happy Talk Band.   Having formed in 2001, Happy Talk (as it is informally known) boasts a veritable who’s who of local musical royalty, including members of the Tin Men and the legendary sort-of-defunct-but-occasionally-reunited funk rock window rattlers The Morning 40 Federation.  The songs, says the bio on the band’s website, feature “space monkeys, bank robbers, aliens, Romanian junkies, anesthesiologists, murderers, veterans of war, alcoholic bike riders, scary giants, suicides, muggers, strippers, and Jesus. But really, in the end, they’re all mostly love songs.”

Allen, who is originally from Salinas, California, moved to New Orleans in 1993 and has lived off and on in the Bywater area since then.  He put together the Luke Allen Trio earlier this year, at the behest of a friend.  It is comprised of Happy Talk bandmate Casey McAllister (formerly of the New Orleans Bingo! Show and currently hitting it big with Hurray for the Riff Raff) and cellist Helen Gillet (Wazozo) who has played with Happy Talk on and off over the years.  The trio play a few scaled-down and bracing versions of some Happy Talk songs, but most of the material is new, and they’ve worked on one cover for each of the first 2 shows, “Can’t Put Your Arm Around a Memory” by Johnny Thunders and “Chelsea Hotel” by Leonard Cohen.

Though a big fan of Happy Talk, I hadn’t heard Luke perform in this incarnation before tonight.  In fact, it was only the band’s third public appearance.  This, along with his easy and uncensored banter between songs, lent the experience of watching them an informal intimacy that seemed even farther removed from the unpretentious and earthbound grittiness of a typical Happy Talk show.  Playing acoustic guitar, Luke has the raw, sort-of salty voice embodied in the poetry of his lyrics. In this format, sheltered between the shimmering melancholy of Gillet’s cello and the ever-present conversation woven by McAllister on organ, banjo and guitar, Luke seemed to be given the opportunity to play around within his range, and push it, at times, exploring the corners of the sparse and haunting melodies that make the Trio seem fuller than they are, sitting before you on stage.  His subject matter, as advertised, explores the nuances of a narrator that always seems—whether it is himself, a character, or the voice of a complicit community—to be trying to sing himself out of a hole.  In a song about Hurricane Katrina called “Dog Year,” he sings:

It’s been a dog year since she came and washed us down the drain……I’m down Louisiana way, where the summers last a thousand years, Man, get me, get me outta here.

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I sat down with Luke before the gig to chat about his new project, his history in New Orleans, and how he approaches writing songs:

SS   When did you start playing music?

LA    I was playing in Santa Cruz, and before that, I’d been writing songs for a long time, before I could really play guitar. I mean basically, I’d learn one chord and then I’d write a one chord song, learn 2 chords, write a two chord song, that kinda thing.

SS    What is the genesis of this grouping, you and Helen and Casey?

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Casey McAllister, playing the chaplain’s organ, at the AllWays Lounge. 12/12/2014.

LA    Casey has been in Happy Talk since before the last record.  He wasn’t on the first 2 records. But he and I have been friends for awhile. Helen has been on the last 2 records, but is not really a member of the band.

SS    She doesn’t really play with you live, right? [w/ Happy Talk]

LA    She has. She has off and on over the years…at random gigs here and there.  So the three of us, you know…they both know my songs and I’ve got this new grouping of songs and John Driver over at [the bar and music venue] Chickie Wah Wah is the one who kind of made this gig happen, it was his idea.  He wanted to just have this version of the band, so he kind of booked the first one.

SS    Okay.

LA    I’ve got a ton of new songs. I taught them those songs, we rehearse at Helen’s place in Musicians Village and…I love it. It’s super chill and laid back…

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Hellen Gillet. The AllWays Lounge, 12/12/2014.

SS    So you play mostly stripped down versions of Happy Talk songs?

LA    No, it’s mostly new material and a few Happy Talk songs, and we try to do a different cover each show. Tonight, hopefully, we’re gonna do “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen.

SS    Talk about your songwriting process, and I guess specifically how you think—because really, there’s no way to know how much doing something changes what we do and how we create—but how much do you think the move to New Orleans affected your songwriting?

LA    It’s hard to say.  I moved here when I was 23, which is a kid, you know? So…what would my songs have been like if I’d stayed in Salinas, California, or like, in Santa Cruz, where I was writing songs too?  Because I wrote songs—some of the songs in Happy Talk, in the beginning, I didn’t write here. You know, but…this city, this place was like, it was beautiful. The girls were easy, the rent was cheap, the bars didn’t close. It was Paradise. I had never been happier. And I was, you know…I wrecked myself for almost twenty years.  But there was no place like that, and the place that was is gone now, I would say.
It’s just not like that, these kids moving here…? I think they had good parents or something, they don’t drink like they used to, you know what I mean.

SS    (laughing)

LA    They’re not as self abusive, you know? It’s bad for the bar business. [Luke is a co-owner of the downtown rock bar Siberia].

SS    It’s not good for the songwriting business, either.

LA    Maybe not, I don’t know. This city has provided—you as a bartender as well, you understand this— we basically have the therapists ear where everyone tells us everything all the time, and stories reveal themselves. But we, unlike a therapist, are allowed to tell everyone’s stories, you know?

SS    Yeah.

LA    And the names have been changed to protect the infected.

SS    And I know some of your subject matter.  What do you think is the ratio…how much of it is about other people and how much of it is self-reflective, or at least, projected in a self-reflective way?Luke -1

LA    Oh man. I’d say it’s 50/50, and I think the songs are divided between omniscient narratives…and then other ones where I take on a character, and other ones that are just straight up me. The first record is pretty much, that’s all me, with the exception of one or two. So it’s pretty balanced. As I go along more—I went to school for writing short fiction and a lot of what’s going on with some of my songwriting is a frustrated fiction writer, a frustrated prose writer, and so I’m trying to contain novels or short fiction into a three minute song.

SS    UC Santa Cruz?

LA    Yeah. Ron Hansen was my professor, he wrote “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.  He’s a really good writer. He was my mentor.

SS    Do you have any intention of recording with this trio?

LA    Yes, absolutely. Nick Jaina, who’s a songwriter here in town, an old friend of my wife’s and a good friend of mine too, he’s recorded some of the songs. I’ve talked to Ratty [Scurvics] about doing some stuff, I’ve talked to Goat. There’s different…animal-named people that might possibly record me.

SS    (laughing)

LA    I’ve talked to Moose, apparently he doesn’t do that. I talked to Otter, but she runs a theatre. [Both Moose and Otter are the nicknames of well-regarded local artists]  Um..I talked to…

SS    That’s hilarious. Can you talk a little about both Helen and Casey, in regards to the New Orleans music scene.

LA    Helen has Wazozo, her solo project and her French orchestra. She plays cello and she’s a songwriter, she does a lot of looping stuff. She’s classically trained, and amazing. Casey McAllister is a Baton Rouge musician, he’s been around forever— Liquid Drone, New Orleans Bingo! Show—and then Happy Talk.  And now he’s in Hurray for the Riff Raff, which is his main gig…. Everything that he touches he plays really well, he’s a great musician.  He just finished a soundtrack for this film that’s going to Sundance, and he’s just an all-around badass and level-headed dude.  In this band he plays electric guitar, dobro, this little chaplain’s organ that his dad got him, it’s from the Korean War, and it’s collapsible, and he plays banjo too. Helen does some background vocals as well.

SS    What’s going on with Happy Talk right now?

LA    We have a gig coming up at the end of next month. The Lesseps Street Festival. I’ve got a group of songs that I’m doing mostly with them, that could be on the next record. I’m in a position to probably do a record with this project and do a record with Happy Talk, but no one’s hammering on my door to pay for the recordings.

∗∗

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http://www.happytalkband.com

The 3 Happy Talk albums—Total Death Benefit (2004), There there (2007), and Starve a Fever (2010)—are available on iTunes.  You can listen to song clips there or on their website, and there are several low-fi videos of Happy Talk live available by search on YouTube.