…a writer’s photography… or one year of intentional practice

In August of 2018 I posted my first photo-blog. And in truth, all my blogs (a mere 3 posts) in 2019 were, in fact, photo-based, while everything previously posted was quite wordy. I seemingly switched from words to images. After several years of writing blog posts, I finally had the courage to submit my writing for publication elsewhere. In February of 2018 I had my first article published on the Hidden City Daily. I spent most of that year pondering whether I could start to utilize the word “writer” to describe myself. It’s just now dawned on me that while I was putting myself out in the world as a freelance writer, I was suddenly only posting photos on my personal blog. Perhaps my brain split. Or perhaps I merely opened an inspirational channel that had no preference between words and imagery. Were they one and the same?

In 2019, I made an intention to post daily photos on Instagram. Nothing taken with a fancy camera, just my cell phone. A decent camera, but with its limits. The intent was less about fancy images or sharing my life with strangers, but more about a practice. A practice in looking at the world around me. A means to refocus my thoughts away from the chaos we all found ourselves living in. I had days of frenzy at home as well. Sometimes I didn’t know where to focus. I just knew I needed to find a new place to look. Find something pretty. Find color on a dreary day. Some days I needed to document destruction. Somewhere along the way I discovered joy. Joy in a very difficult year. A year where my inner-self, my home-self, my street-self, my world-self… all suffered from anxiety and hopelessness. Many of us have this in common. Have we reached bottom yet?

When I looked back on the (almost) daily photos I posted in 2019 it occurred to me that each was a story. Each image conjured its own words. And perhaps that’s it. I am a storyteller. And perhaps the form doesn’t matter. Photography as meditation. Photography as story-prompt. Photography to capture a moment. An incredibly beautiful bit of light on a raindrop. Or a beloved friend. A smell. A taste. An emotion. A transition. A cloud passing overhead. A cloud that reminded me to let my emotions follow suit. Acknowledge my feelings. Then let them go. They are not me. They do not define me. They are like a cloud floating overhead.

I remembered something important about myself in 2019. I remembered that I have always loved taking pictures. From an early age. Whether I borrowed my dad’s camera or used a disposable one, I took photos. Here are a few of my earliest. Lion Country Safari in 1971 had to be one of my first. I would have been 7 at the time. Our dalmatian Mike in our Fountain Valley living room and my best friend Maureen at summer camp are circa 1973. I like these photos. They feel reminiscent of my current photos.

Not too many years later I would receive my first serious camera as a Christmas gift. Here I am at 16 (in a photo taken by my dad) on a Spring trip to DC. I was serious about my craft back then and had aspirations of attending art school or perhaps pursuing photojournalism.

Here I am at 16… and at 55 rediscovering what I loved at 16…

Somewhere along the line I lost this part of myself. The photographer. The writer. Freshman year of college I was thoroughly discouraged by my English professor from pursuing any sort of writing ambitions. I listened when she said I couldn’t write. I don’t remember what happened on the photography side. My first photography classes were in high school. I briefly continued my art studies in college. I don’t remember much, other than hours in the darkroom. And feeling less than inspired. Writing books and creating art seemed beyond me. What I do remember is being encouraged to get a business degree. Which I did. And later an MBA. I have a specific memory from during my graduate studies… thinking as I was writing a personal essay for a Communications class assignment… how happy I was to be writing and why was I taking business courses? Again? At the age of 55 I am learning to go back and find the bits of myself I discarded along the way. My daily photography practice has been a big part of this process. I’m not complaining… the path I took included some incredible adventures. It’s just nice to look back and see that some parts of me were always there, and to remember I have always taken photos along the way.  

Last year I posted “Beyond the Likes” sharing my favorite photos of 2018 after an Instagram algorithm informed me what my “Top Nine” photos were. No surprise that like the year before, my 2019 “most liked” photos had little to do with my own personal favorites.

Here are the images OTHER people liked best in 2019:

According to the Instagram algorithm, these are my “Best Nine” of 2019

Upper left and middle right, I watched a beautiful mural in progress from the waiting room of a hospital floor over the course of many days…the mural was created by Amy Sherald, who gained fame after painting Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. It was an interesting process to watch during a stressful time. Upper right was a film shoot going on a few blocks from my house featuring a well-known Stranger Things actor. Middle left was of two incredibly talented violin players busking on the corner of 18th and Walnut. I think this was actually a video of the music that folks liked. Some photo of me and my husband (middle) always makes the most liked. (It wasn’t a selfie but taken by my sister.) And bottom right is another photo I did not take… but is of me (at right) at a dear friend’s wedding. I used it to illustrate the fact that I was “ready to dance” after years of a Leukemia battle. So, yes, of course that got many likes! I wonder why that cat in the window ranked so high? As you will see, cats in windows are a favorite subject of mine in general. And the famous S.S. United States, bottom left, was a throwaway shot that every Philadelphian who shops at the Ikea in South Philly has taken at some point. Top middle WAS actually one of MY favorites too. The rain stopped just as the sun was setting. I’ve lived steps from this spot for almost 15 years… and I’d never seen this block of Fitzwater look like this.

My personal “top nine” photos of 2019:

My kitchen, my back deck, the tree beside my bedroom window, the top of the first-floor stairs, a few steps from my front door… all were inspired locations. A drive up Broad Street, a walk through the Wissahickon, and a stained-glass window in a local historic church provided still more inspiration. I had to travel across the country to witness perfect light on a late afternoon in Long Beach, to capture the smile of a beloved friend. What I most love about each of these is that they are images that can likely never be captured again. They were the product of perfect alchemy of a moment.

Here are a few more favorites from my year of intentional practice:

Animals are always a favorite subject… cats in windows are awesome

#theviewfromhere has been a favorite hashtag for some time. I like to see how the view out my window changes through the seasons and over time

The view from my desk…

The view from my bedroom window…

2019 was also about building my stamina. After being taken off Leukemia meds after many years, my body was awakening to a new reality. It was no longer exhausted, and it wanted to move. I started walking. And walking. Fitbit tells me I averaged about 50,000 steps a week… which is roughly about 19 miles. Not an outrageous amount of walking for my fellow city dwellers, but a great leap for me.

Here’s some of what I saw during my daily walks along the streets of Philadelphia… below you will find images from the neighborhoods of Bella Vista, Queen Village, Rittenhouse Sq., Wash West, Old City, and Chinatown, along with the Delaware Riverfront, the Schuylkill River Trail, and City Hall…

While walking… I often found myself “looking up”… with all the rain in 2019… the skies were crazy…and beautiful…

On one occasion a neighbor walked by and saw me looking up… she said “what’s going on?”… I pointed to the sky behind her… “Look up!” I said. She turned around… and was caught by surprise. Why don’t more people pay attention to the sky?

#Lookup while walking the Streets of Philadelphia

#clouds and more clouds… these were taken on the blocks near my home

This one is a combo of clouds and looking out the window… I happened upon a strange glow emanating from the bathroom… it looked like the sky was on fire. I opened the frosted window and found this…

Moonlight is always magical… whether outside or streaming through our skylight

Three of my top favorite photos were about looking closer… paying attention to the details. Like that granny smith apple. And any flower. Flowers are a world of their own. And sometimes food. It might be a taste you want to capture or a color. Or steam on a cold day.

Perhaps I could capture the sweetness of cinnamon, a perfect slice of radish, or the time Gritty showed up in my mandarin peel… (I saw it, then I had to create it…)

Miscellaneous other images:

A trip to California or simply to the ‘burbs, research at a library, a concert with a friend, an Uber ride, hanging out at the hospital, or meeting my husband for a beer. Inspiration strikes.

BONUS Photos! Because some days you take a lot more than one photo

In December, I ran away for an overnight visit to Virginia with a good friend who’s as much of a history nerd as I am. The purpose was to visit Westover Plantation on the James River. My friend Jennifer and I have each spent time studying the life of Elizabeth Willing Powel, a revolutionary woman who’s home here in Philadelphia was a center of culture during the Revolutionary and Early National Periods. Jennifer introduced me to the story of Elizabeth’s sister, Mary Willing Byrd, who kept Westover alive during the Revolution. She (and her many children!) survived despite a successfully-suicidal and debt-ridden husband and her treacherous cousin Benedict Arnold (through his marriage to Peggy Shippen). Mary’s property was raided by Arnold and his band of Loyalists, forcing Mary to fight off treasonous charges of trading with the British. You know, it’s one of those really incredible stories of a woman you were never taught in history class. After spending so much time in “historic” houses with roped off rooms frozen in time, it was refreshing (and sometimes disconcerting) to visit a historic site that is first and foremost a privately owned FAMILY home. It’s a stunningly beautiful location on the James River. Especially so on a cold December day… the day before Solstice… with a low-hung sun and early shadows. Before our tour of the house, we spent time walking the property.

The night before Westover we stayed at the historic Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. All decked out for the holidays, it was an interesting experience. Dinner at the bar included melt-in-your-mouth fried oysters and peanut soup. No photos of food though…

We drove around Richmond and chanced upon the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. We had to stop. It was a curious collection of buildings and items. Quite different from Philadelphia’s Poe House. And home to two black cats who enjoyed following us around.

And finally off to Westover…

Here is the traditional approach to the view of Westover Plantation, as seen from the James River. Thanks to an eagle preserve, the view towards the river hasn’t changed since the days of the Byrd family residency.

We walked the property and took in the view of the house from all angles. Outside looking in. And inside looking out (thanks to a private tour). And let’s be honest, Jennifer spent much of the time imagining herself (in full 18th Century attire) in the company of Mary and her sister Elizabeth, as they discussed the news of the day. Jennifer isn’t just a mere history nerd, she’s a very talented stage actress who’s also a great sport when it comes to being a photography muse. You can follow Jennifer’s exploits on Instagram.

We lingered as long as we could… as the trees came alive with golden light and the James River glowed…

I couldn’t help myself… I was forced to pull over to the side of the road…for one last photo… as we followed the sunset until finally heading North towards home…

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