While Chile, Japan and California constantly experience tremors and earthquakes, plate activity in the Caribbean rarely happens. Memories of past Caribbean earthquakes fade over the generations. Because of the historical research I’ve undertaken, I’ve long expected the earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12. Of course, I had no idea that it would occur in my lifetime, and I wasn’t expecting that it would strike southern Haiti and Port-au-Prince. What made me anticipate this one was my photography of the remnants of the 1842 quake that almost destroyed the northern Haitian city of Cap Haitien.
When I saw photographs of the ruins the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, I was immediately reminded an older Haitian palace almost destroyed. The Sans Souci Palace was a casualty of the 1842 quake.
On a mountain top above the Sans Souci, is the fortress Citadelle Henry, a subject of a previous blog post. Despite its six to sixteen thick walls, the Citadelle is scarred with a long fissure from 1842. Most of the floors of its main battery crumbled as well.
Now, most homes and buildings I knew in Port-au-Prince are wrecks, and so gone is most of its history: the National Palace, the National Cathedral and countless artifacts that were part of Haiti’s story. The Haitian people have had to survive and rebuild many times from tragedy, and I still have hope that from this tragedy, among Haiti’s greatest, a great opportunity arises for all Haitians.
I hope you will join me in supporting efforts to provide relief and redemption to the people of Haiti. Here are two organizations I’m supporting:
-The Albert Schweitzer Hospital has served Haitians for over 70 years and I’ve long known of their good work: http://www.hashaiti.org/
-In my native home of Hertford County, North Carolina, the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, like many other Habitat chapters, is raising money to build a new earthquake-resistant house in Haiti. Usually, one home provides shelter for one family and many relatives. Send your check to Habitat for Humanity, c/o Dennis Deloatch, 107 Ahoskie-Cofield Road, Ahoskie, NC 27922.
One of the places in Washington where I rarely get to work is in the Supreme Court. In the spring of 2008, C-SPAN had the chance to bring together students of the highly esteemed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology of Alexandria Virginia and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
While Gregg Adams and I photographed associate justices before, neither of us covered a speech give by one in the Supreme Court building. One other thing that made this assignment different was that access was very limited and that only a few seconds was I allowed to capture Justice Scalia at the podium and with the students.
The justice gave a short introductory talk and then took questions from his 26 visitors. He was very expansive in his answers. In one, he explained that the state courts were just as important as the federal ones because their jurisdiction overlays matters that affect us on a daily basis such as cases involving family, commerce, criminal and contract law.
Justice Scalia also noted that it is the United States Constitution that defines what an American is - Europeans are better described by their culture rather than their laws.
To learn more about C-SPAN’s coverage of the Supreme Court, vist http://www.c-span.org/Topics/Supreme-Court-Judiciary.aspx. Note: Comments may be sent directly to me on my contact page.
Click on images below for captions.
[Click on images for captions] Yesterday, I walked into a machinist’s shop to have an expensive tripod head repaired because of a weakness in the original design. We photographers, or at least me, have to modify or create some gizmo or gadget for our work. The photographic manufacturing industry never made all the things that photographers ever needed.
I’ve had help in these matters. My father made my first tripod. My brother soldered an extension cord for a flash tube (don’t do this at home). Sometimes I don’t want to buy a widget when one can be made. Sometimes a product or part is no longer available. Following my brother’s lead, I once made a remote control cable release for a motorized camera using a 35m plastic film canister, a push button switch, speaker wire and a small stereo jack. Here’s a shout-out to Radio Shack.
Sometimes I didn’t spend the money for an item or service. That meant making four darkroom sinks (I sold two of them) and a desk. The sinks and the desk would have cost over a thousand dollars each. During the years that I had a color darkroom, I took a $53 plumbing class that is still helpful in these digital times – after all, I’m a homeowner. The large photographic printer rests on a homemade cart which stores under a floating table. It is ugly as homemade soap - which my grandmother used to make - but workable.
There is a stock of Plexiglas reflectors that I cut from a remnant sheet. People pay money for something similar that I find harder to use and store.
So, don’t be surprised if you see a nick on my hand(s) from all of the snipping, sewing, sawing, awling, melding, welding, wiring, rasping, wrapping, tapping, taping, shaping, gluing, screwing, powdering, soldering, measuring, milling, drilling, filing, tiling, reaming, Velcro-ing, crimping, clamping, cutting, caulking, nailing, painting and sanding that I do.
After several decades of practicing photography, I felt I was qualified enough to spend a few days mentoring middle and high school students who participated in a four-week summer program created by the Smithsonian’s National Building Museum (NBM). The students of the Investigating Where We Live program used digital cameras to explore, document, and interpret the built environment in D.C. neighborhoods. The group of ten, to whom I was assigned, captured the U Street area with photographs, writings, and artwork.
In introducing myself to the group, I showed them work from two assignments: the previous day’s shoot of the American Federation of Teachers annual national conference and my project in Somaliland, East Africa.
During our tours of the U Street area, I was surprised how much I knew about the area’s past, its architecture, businesses, specific buildings and events. For example, I explained how Florida Avenue was a path made by Native Americans that described the bottom of hill that rises north of Florida Avenue from 4th Street NW to Connecticut Avenue NW, two miles away.
By the time I met the students, they had seen an exhibit featuring the 90-year span of photography created by Washington, D.C.’s Scurlock family. Since I’ve known and know several Scurlocks, I had a bit of insight on what the students experienced at the exhibit. This is a must-see exhibit, and I’ll probably take it in for the third time before the show closes in September.
Over the years, I have made many architectural photographs around U Street, and I had been atop several buildings where I was astonished by the hundreds of cupolas that cap the townhouses of the U Street and Shaw areas. Those cupolas and other details will be featured in an NBM exhibition of the students’ results.]]>
With the help of Gregg Adams and my friend Paul Smith, I made portraits of 35 families in two days at an on-site studio on U St NW. Every year, the design firm Kinetic Communications produces the annual Kids Count Data Book for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and they wanted to feature families in a studio setting. Along with the Casey and Kinetic staffs, I made calls to family heads which is why some of my relatives and friends were included.
We converted the photographs to black-and-white for publication. The data book profiles the state-by-state status of children’s health, education and economic condition. If you would like a copy of one the pieces produced (data book, data brief booklet and a data wheel), I’ll be glad to send one.
It is a real pleasure to cover, for the second year, the taping of the award-winning television special, A Evening of Stars that highlights the efforts of the United Negro College Fund. This year the taping was at the Pasadena Civic auditorium, and the days of photography were long but exhilarating.
I’ve long had a crush on Nancy Wilson, and this assignment was the most time I’ve ever spent around this intelligently alluring legend. When I was introduced to her, she leaned on me and I felt ethereal for at least another day.
In the two years of covering the taping the AEOS events, I photographed the related symposiums, activities of the college presidents and corporate sponsors, the UNCF/AOES signage, corporate sponsor signage, theater and television production, rehearsals, celebrity photo-ops and press conferences. This year’s honoree is Smokey Robinson. After the taping of the show and Smokey’s press conference, I transferred images to disk and uploaded a few. There was still had time and energy to catch the last of the after-show party where I had a dance and a drink.
Please check UNCF’s website for showtimes: http://www.uncf.org/aeos/
I made this series of still lifes for an awards program, using tungsten and studio flash lighting. One of the inkwells here is one that I had won in a previous year. As you can see, I thought of all kinds of ways to present the subject, including making a candle out of it. More than 15 variations were made, all done in a day’s time. Different angles and lenses, including a very long 500mm lens, helped create these variations along with the different uses of lighting and color gels.
I never used my prized inkwell because my handwriting is as bad as my father’s, and while my overall patience grows in so many other ways, the one for writing is getting worse.
Seasoned folks like my grandmother, Miss Georgianna, always told me to have something to fall back on. Miss Georgianna had eight brothers, which was back-up enough. One of them, Collin, was a house painter and lived with her. On one frosty morning, Jim Lewis, a friend of Collin’s, came over to ride with him to work. Collin’s 1930’s car was heater-less and narrow. As he drove, Collin could feel heat coming from his friend’s coat pocket and he asked, “What’s that hot thing in your pocket, Jim?” Jim replied, “Miss Georgianna got out of me that I didn’t get breakfast, so she gave me a sweet potato.” Jim Lewis could have gotten through the morning hungry, but my grandmother wanted him to have that something extra. I’ve always tried to follow Miss Georgianna’s advice.
A few years after I earnestly began my career in photography, I had gathered enough equipment to do most of my assignments. Early on, I had the habit of keeping plenty of film and batteries for every job. I never worked with less than two cameras. Many people still ask, “Marvin, why do you carry two cameras?” I answer:
- To switch quickly between wide angle and telephoto zoom lenses
- In case one camera breaks
- If a camera is later found to have failed, I have at least a half-set of images from the assignment.
- It immediately identifies me as a professional. You amateurs always carry one camera.
- I might want a picture of me with a camera while on assignment (see the above banner photograph).
- To keep both shoulders sore.
- If someone tries to snatch one, I can bash the thief with the other one. (I’ll still have a working camera).
Once I had a complete front line of two cameras, lenses, flash, meter and tripod, I began to double the equipment inventory. The least expensive backup was buying a second flash unit. When my oldest camera body aged, I added a new body but kept the old one as backup in case any camera body needed the two weeks to a month’s time required for repair.
Eventually I got two sets of studio lighting, light meters, computers, even film processors and backed myself with assistants. In 1985, the wonderfully talented Sali Dimond Gelestino, who had worked for one of my vendors, became my first assistant. We’ve been good friends now for a quarter of a century. Sali, Gregg Adams and others have been available over the years to assist on studio and studio location shoots. Gregg and other experienced photographers handle assignments when I have time conflicts.
At one time, there was even a reserve car until I realized that a sports car was no longer necessary in my life. Among the spares in the car are a flash and battery charger. On studio shoots, there’s a backup set of large flash units, which are used when we have two concurrent studio assignments.
The switch to digital was pretty abrupt. Within 8 months, all 35mm film cameras - save one - and the darkrooms were sold. When the last pickup truck hauled off the remaining lab fixtures and furniture, I ceremonially slammed a sledgehammer into the darkroom wall and called my carpenter. The darkrooms are now additional work areas.
Digital was as expensive then as it is now and we needed three cameras quickly, making it quite a financial plunge. Now Gregg and I have a total of six digital cameras, two of them are backups. This summer, when I was working in Ethiopia and Somaliland, a laptop, DVD disks and a portable hard-drive/viewer combination kept three identical sets of images.
Assignments can have a world of uncertainty. By having plenty of photographic systems to rely and fall back on, I can concentrate on the job. As another old-timer repeatedly said, “Always keep a sandwich in your pocket.”]]>
Beginning in 1977, I started photographing a gigantic Haitian fortress, the Citadel Henry. It is better known as the Citadelle Laferriere. I was astounded by the history that brought it about and I was fascinated that Haiti, usually in chaos, could place a fortress, larger than any other in the Western Hemisphere, on a mountain peak. Its builder, Henri Christophe, also put Haiti on a path different than the one it has traveled since his death in 1820. Documenting his work was one of the important influences and challenges in my life. What I admire most about King Henri Christophe is that he rebuilt and advanced a hated, feared and war-ravaged country.
My trip to the Citadel would be the first time I ever left the United States. It would also be the first time I ever camped out, spent time on a mountain or used French (which I had just learned for this self-financed project). Yet, I was to spend four days in this fortress with one local man assigned to me. While flying to the nearest airport, I made the first photographs of the fort.
After a caravan of men and a mule carried my bags of equipment and food to the top of the Pic du Ferriere mountain, I dismissed all of the men but one, who stayed with me and arranged for his future wife to cook and wash clothes in the Citadel Henry.
I arrived at noon on my first day, and I began the four-day stay with many doubts followed by a two-hour nap. After ditching the sleepiness and lack of confidence, I began to explore, study and photograph the artillery batteries Marie-Louise, Royale, De la Reine, du Prince Royale, des Princesses and especially the huge Battery Coidavid, which is the prow that you see in these pictures.
The batteries held about 200 cannons which, combined with their power, range and position, would make the Citadel Henry nearly impossible to lay siege. These big guns were mostly captured from the Spanish, French and English armies that the Africans of slave-era Haiti fought to earn its independence. The 130-foot high prow, the Coidavid battery, is the Citadel’s tallest wall and, with its three levels, held the most cannons. One early evening, I made a time exposure from the prow’s top so that I could light each section of the Citadel with one flash unit. This is called painting with light. Before going to Haiti, I practiced on my parents’ house in rural North Carolina. In the photograph, a silhouetted pillar is the furthest point of the fortress.
The nights were enchanting with the sounds of breezes, bats and an occasional voodoo ceremony taking place down the mountain. Because there was little to do at night, my guide, Romain Aime, and I would usually turn in early just past dark. Bedding down on a rock floor in the battery Marie Louise, I used a straw mat, a sleeping bag, a bottle of Rhum Barbancourt and a cassette player/recorder to help me sleep. We did have to learn to store ourfood in another room at night to keep the fort’s two rats from crawling over us.
The reward of an early turn-in was to rise to the spectacular dawn. The clouds dropped below our 2800 foot elevation and the sun rose above the clouds. When the morning air was warmed, the clouds would rise through and above the Citadel. In the afternoon, the reverse would happen. One such morning, Romain and I hiked to a neighboring mountain ridge where King Henry Christophe built a rear defensework for the Citadel – next to his mountaintop palace of Ramiers (now completely ruined). Christophe built other palaces, most notably the Sans Souci - his main home at the foot of the Citadel’s mountain chain near the port capital of Cap Haitien. Ramiers’ main purpose was to guard the southern approach to the mountaintop fortress.
From Ramiers, Henry Christophe and his army commanders had a sweeping view of the southern areas in his kingdom. Three redouts - each with a ditch, a drawbridge and slitted ports for rifles - allowed Haitian riflemen protection from an attack to the south of the Citadel. The three surround the ruins of the Ramiers palace. It’s a good 45-minute hike from the Citadel and the flattened mountain ridge is covered with rocks, probably all quarried at the site. I’m sure that the Citadelle’s governor, Christophe’s brother-in-law, used the Ramiers palace more than Christophe.
In the photograph on the right you can see that people still live on the Citadel’s ridges. Horses graze and beans are been grown between Ramiers and its parent. Another redoubt is seen here as well as the southern batteries. Although the Battery Coidavid has the tallest walls, it slopes down the mountain below the other seven batteries. The mountain beyond is Morne Rouge which looms over the former capital and port of Cap Haitien.
The another impressive battery is the Marie-Louise, named after Christophe’s queen-consort. One must scale the mountain’s sheer western side to approach this Battery - and no one does. It’s top is notched with catch basins that funnel rainwater to the cisterns. There is a water chute, several hundred feet long, that irrigated the crops grown at the fortess. The slanted stucture below is one of two powder magazines.
In 1818, lightning ignited one of the magazines, killing many including the aforemention brother-in-law who is entombed inside. There is plenty of evidence that the Citadel was still being repaired when work was abandoned in 1820. Most cannons are unmounted and few cannon carriages exist. But once completed, it would have been impossible for a large army to lay siege on the towering fortress with its two hundred large caliber long-range guns. No enemy could have transported matching artillery. Night-raiding guerillas, working under the protective umbrells of the Citadel, would have crushed a French re-invasion.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sent me back to Haiti in 1989, for what was my last trip there. The Haitian government’s ISPAN program and UNESCO began a restoration program of historic sites in 1979, and the Citadel Henry was the showcase. Many local people; skilled in masonry, metalwork and advanced carpentry; worked under the direction of Haitian architects and engineers to solve the problems of the neglected Citadel. I finally found myself walking the prow at night, singing everything I knew, until someone, who knew just enough English, would yell across the fortress courtyard,
“Marvin, go to bed!”
- Construction began in 1804, immediately after Haitian independence was achieved. The early generals of Haiti built 40 forts in the mountains.
- Lighting struck one of the powder magazines in 1818, killing many soldiers and the fortress governor, King Henry’s brother-in-law, who is buried in the Citadelle.
-The Citadelle Henry was abandoned in 1820 after the overthrow and suicide of King Henry.
- Like the governor, Henry Christophe, too is buried in the Citadelle.
- Length: 450 feet - Largest fortress in the Carribean.
- Number of cannon ports: 200
- Highest wall: 130 feet - the prow of the Battery Coidavid.
- Depth of thickest walls: 16 feet
- Number of batteries: 8
- Other features: defensive ditch and drawbridge, two powder magazines, casernes or catch basins which feed into rainwater into casernes, drainage aqeduct used for irrigating crops, storage and dungeon rooms, governor’s palace, military courtyard and barracks.