Oops!

Well, a dangerous trick I too often use on unfinished blog posts has finally bit me where it hurts. The post that went up this morning is nowhere near ready to publish and I’d stopped working on it a month ago. Yet by the magic of the internets and WordPress there it was. A special shout-out to the wife for letting me know it was up.

The Transformative Nature of the Photographs of Diane Arbus – The New York Times

“A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971.” The Estate of Diane Arbus

Well, James Estrin has gone and done it now. He has made up for his (in my mind) less than kind assessment of Diane Arbus’s work with a piece today that gives the proper perspective on this truly amazing 20th century photographer.

But some of the thoughts expressed in this article really hit home for me. In many ways I have felt locked up in a world of photography as it is viewed and presented today, by voices that frown upon unflinching images of America and the conditions of life here. Images that are taken, and not made, (more on that in a second) and clearly without permission. So I’m going to be presenting some of that on this photoblog in the very near future.

More often than not, Arbus had permission from her subjects. But, as Joan Didion once alluded to about herself and the subjects of her writing as she encountered them, we can be pretty sure the subjects of both of these unflinching documentarians had no idea how graphic the end result would turn out to be. In the case of Arbus, it has been the source of great criticism of her work. For me, however, I believe you can’t argue with what we are left with in terms of the impact and resonance of great photography or great writing. Anyway.

So, this paragraph that I quote below. Wow. I wrote a brief thought here about four years ago on the whole ‘make-or-take’ question in photography. I have SO wanted to expound on that theme in greater detail and with a little more of a critical voice. So to be clear, I don’t ‘make’ images, in the Ansel Adams or National Geographic way of thinking. I don’t plan and calculate or place myself in carefully chosen positions waiting for all the perfect elements to fall into place.

So I find now that, at least in the words of Neil Selkirk, the only photographer to have printed her work since her death, Arbus and I have this one thing in common. I am trying to show the world what I see and where I’ve been, and I don’t give a damn and never have about ‘making’ images.

“The whole thing was about her wanting you to see, to share her experience of the moment and the significance of what she had witnessed, and that was a just completely different approach from any other photographer I’d ever been aware of,” Mr. Selkirk said. “They’re trying to make a picture. She couldn’t give a damn about that as the motivating idea. It was to present a document of something she had experienced.”

”OH DAD, COULD YOU PLEASE STOP BRAGGING ABOUT YOUR AFFAIR WITH LIBERACE?”

barnat_st_102006_70
Ha ha ha! That’s from David Letterman’s writers, by the way. Runner up was, “Hey Dad, thanks for teaching me to smoke.”

Just my way of saying, Happy Father’s Day!!!

The AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G Review: A Look Inside My Photographic Heart

Touching the great indoors. Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/2.0 1/400 sec

Hello and welcome to a rare thing around here on my photoblog, the product review. I’m going to give my takeaway on the lens Nikon created as an update of an old legend from the manual focus days, the 58mm f1.2 Noct-Nikkor. The newer lens, released in late 2013 (Yes, I’m late) is called the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, and no, if you might at some point find yourself wondering, Nikon does not know I exist. I promise you this will be an unusual review, to say the least. But I never say the least if I can, as anyone reading this will quickly realize. So let me explain some things right off the top that might save some of you a lot of time and annoying reading.

What you see below, the thousands of words? They have been written for one purpose only and that is to qualify the opinion given here. I will be the first to admit that my thinking is based on somewhat unusual factors and processes. But in order to appreciate, respect, or even disregard my opinion,  such as it is, you would have to know something about the person giving it, what makes that person tick photographically and why he or she (he, as of this writing) has come to the conclusions he has come to. Thus everything that follows.

Let me further save you some time if you’re inclined to cut to the point. I didn’t take all this effort and put my keyboard through all the wear and tear I have because I merely like this lens. And I would never waste my time writing about a lens I had a negative opinion of. The reason I’m writing this review is because the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G has changed my photographic life and that’s the truth. I have never been happier with the results from a lens and, combined with the D750 I’m shooting it on, I’ve never been as happy with a camera and lens combination as I am right now.

Two Views On A Suit Worthy Of Conor McGregor Himself

One word, so many meanings. Nikon D7500, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/3.2 1/320 sec

Words on Glass. Give it a second. Nikon D7500, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/3.2 1/250 sec

But happiness doesn’t begin to describe how I really feel about this lens and the images I’m able to make with it. There is a mystery inside of me now, once again, that this lens is helping to explore. There is the genuine awe and a constant element of surprise when I look at the images I get from a day out shooting. But more than all of that, there are the affirmations to my own personal photographic aesthetic that helps to create a pure joy that shooting this lens provides me. For me, this lens has brought the magic back that I first felt many decades ago thinking and experiencing photography in the earlier days of my life.

Is that all a little over the top? It might sound that way to some, but I promise you, to me, none of that represents an over-the-top assessment. Not after all the years and the money I’ve spent searching for exactly what I have now. I’m in a new world with this lens and it’s the first time I’ve ever been here. I’m producing with this lens what I dream of from the time I pull out my charge card to pay for camera gear to when I put the viewfinder to my eye to capture a frame to when I pull the memory card out of the camera.

Flare of beauty. Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/2.0 1/2000 sec

Will everyone reading this and looking at the images here in this review and in the other many posts here featuring shots from this lens see the wonderful qualities that I see in the photos? I’m resigned to the fact that this might not happen for many people. First, I’m now mostly a street photographer only and I’ve used this lens mostly for grab-as-you-can street photography. If you’re looking for professional use results from this lens in a review, look here. That guy is the real deal. I’m a different kind of photographer.

Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/2.5 1/2000 sec (right click and open in new tab for pixel peeping euphoria)

Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/1.4 1/1500 sec

I’m also a walking rejection of the credentialed professionalization of creative endeavors like photography which are now almost entirely the fiefdom of those with advanced fine-arts degrees from a short list of select schools. But then again those are also the kinds of photographers who I would think most likely to appreciate this Nikon 58. If you’re a nuts and bolts wedding or high school seniors shooter this lens might have some characteristics that may be off-putting to you. I can only make a recommendation around the attributes that matter to me and my vision of what matters in photography.

So, if you’re wondering what the verdict here is, wonder no more. This is my favorite lens ever. Breaking news: Apparently, it has flaws. But you’ll have to read about those flaws somewhere else. At first I was obsessively concerned with this new(er) 58’s flaws. Now I’m no longer interested in them at all and I won’t be giving any of that the time of day in this review. If you haven’t already read it, I think the review posted and conclusions drawn at DPReview perfectly describe my psuedo-technical impressions of the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G.

Except for this.

The truth is, things that we think of as flaws can have unpredictably wondrous effects on the images a lens produces. Quirk, as anyone who is exposed to fine art photography knows, is never out of style. Every modern photographer at this point should know that correcting for every last possible imperfection carries with it the risk of producing a clinically bland camera lens. Perfection is sometimes necessary but most photographers would probably take magic over flawless perfection. This is a path of understanding I’ve been on for a long time. Look at the photography you see on the New York Times that accompanies articles on the arts or food or documentary subject matter. What I refer to as ‘character photography’ is now the most well-represented look in modern photo-journalism as it it practiced at the highest levels.

Nothing screams ‘quirk’ louder than a woman with hair blown in her face and a nice minty green hue adjustment.

So let’s start somewhere right around–but not quite–there. But first, how about an entire gallery of images shot wide-open? Here’s one to whet your appetite. (Provided you’re a teenage girl.)

(click and click again for a full res version)

I want to say, one of these images, which I won’t identify, was shot the morning I had intended to run this lens over to UPS and send it back. I had the return authorization. Then I saw this very simple shot and it finally registered with me. I saw it. And I’ve never looked at the images from this lens the same way after that. I would be opening myself up to charges of lunacy if I revealed to the world what image in this gallery it was that so turned me around about this lens. But it’s in here somewhere. There are links on the bottom left of each image in the gallery that lead to a full-res look see.

While we’re on the subject of wide-open f/1.4 performance. Let me show you one more shot and explain a few things about it. The photo below was taken wide-open, of course, and at 1/500 of a second. It wasn’t nearly as light out as this image suggests. The shot was taken while driving by an ultra-trendy Sunset Plaza eatery at around 35 MPH. This is another watershed image for me with this lens. I thought I had the shot, but when I opened it in Lightroom I was taken aback. I would have to admit, however, that my amazement is as much or even more about the auto-focus performance as it is the performance of the lens wide open. I love my Leica rangefinders. But for many years a shot like this would have been impossible. Nikon has really taken auto-focus, especially auto-focus in dim light, to an incredible level. 

What Photography Means To Me

The famous quote by Garry Winogrand goes something like this. I photograph in order to see what something will look like photographed. This always sounded to me like just another attempt by a photo-artist to apply the required art-speak that every photographer must have ready to deploy in discussing his work if he ever wants to be taken seriously by the fine arts crowd.

It is not. It’s a literal statement by a photographer who, in my opinion, was not always the most articulate spokesman for his own work. But if you remove Winogrand himself from the thought and replace him with all of us who now peek at our LCD’s to see how the shot we just took looks, it’s really a statement about lenses and film and now digital gear of all varieties and what they all impart to an image that is first seen by the naked eye, then most often (but not always) through the viewfinder of a camera, and then, finally captured when the reflected light is exposed to our camera sensors, or, back in Winogrand’s day, to the emulsion on a patch of film. All of those things change what we first saw with the naked eye into a visual memorialization that is made to look different because of the choices and characteristics of the lens being used, the camera system, the type of film loaded into the camera, or the myriad digital camera settings, and whatever other magic happens in between all of that.

Another timely gem from Winogrand:

“The photograph should be more interesting or more beautiful than what was photographed.”

Wait. You mean, like this?

Come on. You have to admit, this freeway on ramp is quite fetching.

You see where I’m going with this. There’s a big difference between reality and a photographic image. And I don’t think we’d all be that interested in photography if there wasn’t. When it comes to the impact of glass on that difference the results vary wildly from one lens to another in the context of the thousands of lenses that have been manufactured in the last half century or more. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it is a natural impulse at this point to shoot a scene or a subject in order to see what that scene or subject looks like after the reflected light has passed through our glass, been recorded to our sensor, with our settings, and then put through each of our unique chosen post processes.

And I know I’m not alone in saying at the end of the day I’ve been both surprised and disappointed a thousand times over at the results I achieved.

f/2.8 is stunning. (right click and open in a new tab to pixel peep)

f/2.8, 1/1250

When I first became aware of pictures in the 1960s it was largely through magazines like LIFE and LOOK, but also the images in encyclopedias and my older siblings’ discarded history and sociology text books. I’ve come to understand, over time, that the pictures I saw in those books and magazines, especially the iconic black and white film images taken by the legends of 20th century photography, were so often made with Leica cameras and lenses.

Did someone say B&W?

Only my entire life story, cont’d….

As I moved into my second decade of photographic awareness, the 1970s, the images that I was seeing and being influenced by changed. Now it was about manipulative magazine advertisements which featured flashy, witty, or sexy color photography that sought to influence the buying public by relying heavily on pictures to infect consumers with that germ of longing for objects or places that were available but only for the right price. Like this guy’s Porsche. 😉

f/2.4, 1/1000

This era also marked the advent of lifestyle photography as that trend grew more popular through countless magazine photo features. Now it became these seemingly vernacular photos of attractive people drinking, dining, lounging around pools, or frolicking about the globe that were writing themselves into my head. What images were taken with what camera systems is something that I can’t know at this point. But it was during the 70s that Japanese SLRs became popular with professional photographers. So without question, the photography we were seeing back then was being increasingly shot with Japanese cameras and lenses made by companies like Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Minolta.

By the photographic standards of today, a lot of the lenses from that era wouldn’t hold up. But from all of these name brands there were many gems produced that photographers lived with and swore by. These lenses created a look. It was not the Leica look. It was a Japanese look. But it wasn’t just the glass that contributed to that new look. It’s important to remember that color film was being changed as well. New and faster films, color matched for different lighting situations, were now widely available. And so the photographic look of the era as we saw it in magazines of the day was largely based on an interaction between the best Japanese glass with new and exciting color films.

What I’m trying to do here is paint a picture of my own and that is a description of what I believe created my own particular aesthetic wants and desires when it comes to photography. Everyone is different, that’s true. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t great similarities shared between wide groups of people. We all might watch a cool commercial and there would be a consensus that it was indeed cool. Likewise, in photography, it seems that many of us have some shared sensibilities when it comes to what we like to see and what characteristics in the images that certain optics produce we all aspire to. That explains the bokeh craze of the last decade or more. Not everyone is on board. That’s important to point out. But when you call people’s attention to a specific something, I believe there does seem to be a shared agreement that this is good, that is bad, etc.

f/2 is a very good thing.

So fast forward to 2004, when I got my first DSLR, the really marvelous Nikon D70. I got it with the kit lens, I think it was something like an 18-85mm f4-5.6. And despite being in love with the camera and the newfound ability to take countless images without having to pay for film or developing, I saw absolutely nothing that remotely reminded me of the kind of images I grew up loving or of why I wanted to make photographic images of my own.

Thus began a journey. The journey. I’d spend hours upon months on a website called pBase, looking at the images taken with any number of older Nikon lenses. I’m sure so many photographers can relate. We called it lens lust. But I think it was coming from something much deeper. I think we were all chasing something. I know I was. I was chasing the look of photography as I’d known and loved it growing up and photography as it had attracted me to making pictures with a camera.

I can’t tell you how many Nikon lenses I owned. It’s unknowable, at this point. But I might remember the cameras. After the D70, I had a pair of D80s, a D2Hs, a D200, a D3, and a D700. Sensors evolved. Software evolved. Auto focus… well… they TOLD us it was evolving, but whatever on that. 😉 (We’re there now, Nikon. All is forgiven.)

But as I got out of photography that required pro-zooms and flash units, my frustrations with auto-focus and a life-long desire to shoot Leica gear won out and I sold my Nikon equipment and started down the expensive but incredibly rewarding road of being a Leica shooter. I started with the M9 and a 35mm f2.5 Summarit, but I quickly went through a lot of Leica lenses, as well as a lot of money, in short order. I grabbed a mint M7 and a well-worn M6. As far as lenses go, let me say this. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have never moved much beyond that little 35mm Summarit. It’s a great lens with a perfect balance of near perfection and oodles of character and Leica glow and it produced what are still some of my favorite shots.

The holy grail Leica lens, for me, was the one that this website is named after. The Leica 50mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH. It wasn’t an easy lens to get your hands on not so long ago as I’m sure many will remember. I recall telling my wife the day I got it something like this: If I am ever lazy and not shooting, even for a day, remind me to get out there on the street and take pictures, because every picture shot with this lens is that amazing.

So first let me say that I still love my Leica 50mm Summilux. Color and contrast are amazing. The ability to photograph at f1.4 and achieve stunningly sharp results was a revelation and oh so useful. And, very often, the combination of those things all came together to produce magic. If you have the subject, Leica is the equipment for you. Anything compelling is rendered in a way that adds a distinction to an image that isn’t really available with most any other family of lenses. I say ‘family’ of lenses because I don’t think the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G I’m reviewing here takes a backseat to any lens when it comes to adding that certain distinction to images. Bravo, Nikon.

Now if you’re starting to get the impression that this review is less about the lens being reviewed and more about me, you’re right. And that’s kind of the point. And it’s an important point. Choosing this Nikon 58mm lens is really about understanding the photographer who would make that choice and what might lead that person to coming to his or her choice. What do photographers want to see when they photograph something in order to see what it looks like photographed?

What are my desires from the making of an image? That’s what me owning this lens is really all about.

f/2.5, 1/640

So with all that blurred background now, I would hope, established, let’s start our review. I’ll keep it short. 😉

When I first mounted the lens that’s the subject of this post, the 58mm f1.4 Nikkor G, after seven or so years of shooting Leica lenses, I decided almost immediately that it was going right back on the next UPS plane headed east. I’d read, and disregarded, as suggested by the review writers, the stories of the lens’s now infamous softness wide-open. I got caught up in the glowing claims that the remake of the legendary Noct-Nikkor had a magic to it. But what I saw was something familiar and depressing. An almost veiled fuzziness wide-open. Something dull about the colors. Chromatic aberration, which is pretty much the cold sores of photography, was also apparent. So, yeah, I was disappointed. Now I’m thinking I might have been delusional.

Because I can’t really explain much of that now that this lens has come to mean what it does to me and my photography and my life. Color is just off-the-charts. One of the more amazing things about the 58mm f/1.4 (and its 35mm f/1.4 G sibling) is that as you stop it down from the lush loveliness of bokeh-licious wide apertures, the bokeh REMAINS bokeh-licious. Sharpness is fantastic but… there’s something… it’s the sum total of the unique things about how this lens renders scenes that creates the real magic. It’s like, imagine you have a spouse (wait a minute, that didn’t come out right) and your wife or husband is sharp, in all manners of speaking. Beautiful to look at, and smart. Sharp. But that’s it. Then imagine a partner with those same qualities, but there’s a softness to this person that isn’t there with the other. A charm and gentleness to the voice and outlook. I don’t want to get weird but I’m striving for some kind of analogy that explains how a lens can have a way of rendering a photograph without the harsh edges and clinical perfection but still be as sharp as one could ever want or need a photographic optic to be. For me, that IS the defining quality of the AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G.

One factor that led me to the ridiculously premature jumped-to conclusion this lens wasn’t a keeper was its performance on a DX sensor camera. I bought it with the intention of using it on a new Nikon D7500, which I purchased immediately after receiving the 58 1.4. DPReview warns that DX shooters might have some real issues with this lens. I wanted a gorgeous 85mm equivalent combo and so I thought these two would make a great pair. They do and they don’t. But I’m not here to talk about what this lens doesn’t do well on a camera I no longer intend to shoot it with. My next purchase will be another D750 and that will give me two incredible camera/lens combos with the NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4 G and this 58. And hey, there are actually very many shots here taken with this lens mounted on the D7500 and they’re in this review because I’m very happy with them. Let’s take a look at a few now

And one more. I won’t say much about this image below except that it, too, was another watershed photograph in my appreciation for this lens. Sometimes it’s the simplest-nothing burger shot that reveals qualities we haven’t seen yet. This was one of those for me.

Nikon D7500, AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, f/5.6 1/1000 sec

Back to the point, please.

What I really wanted to talk about and showcase in this review is images that I took with this lens on the full-frame Nikon D750. It’s my favorite camera ever. I dreamed forever of a F5 size digital Nikon that was as pro as I could ever need or want a camera to be. The D750 exceeds my wildest dreams. Anyway. The only explanations I have for my initial impressions with this lens is that a) I had the flu during the first two months with it, b) I was coming from years of shooting Leica 50mm lenses and in comparison I was reacting to things not looking quite right and c) I had the flu during the first two months with this lens. (I know I mentioned the flu twice. At my age, the flu takes you out of yourself and it takes quite a while to get back to feeling like your normal self. Anyway.)

As many reading this might know, there was an extended holiday period for returning unwanted items at B&H. I called with just days to spare and got my return authorization for this Nikon 58. Then I decided to take it out one more time, and to take another hard look at the images I’d already shot with it. I won’t say I had an epiphany, it was more like an awakening. It swept over me. I’m not kidding. The images looked different to me and I wanted exactly what I saw in those images.

Over time, those feelings have only grown stronger until I’m now at a point where I don’t want to shoot with anything else. Ever. At least not out in the streets of LA. I have a Nikon 35 f1.4 G that I use for paid gigs. It’s professional perfection in an autofocus lens. I might be dating myself, but these two lenses, the 58 1.4 and 35 f1.4 Nikkors, are the Magic and Michael of autofocus lenses as far as I’m concerned. I’ll use Michael when I absolutely must get a win. But Magic is the one that dazzles my imagination.

A Gallery of f/2 Images

Having a (finally) reliable autofocus system driving an epically gorgeous f1.4 lens? lol. Please. I hope everyone reading this understands what that truly means photographically. It has never been easy to work with ultra wide aperture glass in situations requiring fast precise focus. But (finally) in my life, that is no longer a concern of mine. If I’m shooting on the street, I put my D750 on “GROUP” and “CONTINUOUS” and rarely miss focus or miss badly. (More on that in a second.) Does this lens focus really fast? No. But it gets there and in real world shooting I can’t recall being frustrated by the speed or accuracy of this lens’s autofocusing capabilities.

One reason mitigating any frustrations I might have with autofocus is the fact that, with this lens, as with film, subjects being not perfectly in focus doesn’t necessarily render an image unusable, let alone unlovely. On the contrary, some of my favorite images with this lens are ones in which the focus didn’t quite nail the subject. Magic happens regardless.

Anyway, I don’t have much else to say. I’m now shooting the kit of my dreams. And I mean that literally and in every other way imaginable. Lifelong dreams. Dreams of a small but very pro Nikon body like my first SLRs in the late 1970s.

And the heretofore unrealized dreams of shooting a lens that is magic. The AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G is a lens that produces something that my eye sees as magical. It surprises me every time I take it out and shoot with it. I photograph things to see what they look like photographed with this lens. The things I photograph with this lens are more interesting and beautiful in those photographs than they actually appeared to me in person. I don’t know what else I could ask for in a piece of photographic equipment than all of that and so, for me, this lens represents many dreams coming true.

I’m going to leave you now with three images that sort of sum up why I do street photography at all and why I need all the help I can get from great camera gear with wide apertures and fast autofocus and all the rest. They are less than perfect images in a strictly technical sense. Not perfectly in focus. Light is challenging at that time of day and facing west so there’s some motion blur. But they capture real life as it is happening in this incredibly alive city at the times I was fortunate enough to pass by it.

Hope you enjoyed or otherwise got something of value out of this review. Have a great life shooting images that make you happy!

Thank you,

donald barnat

Memorial Day… Again?

This is a repost of the very first real blog entry (after Hello World!) on this website back in 2012. I was in a very bad place at that time. My best friend was dying. I was not good with that. I was in one of those places where a person has no patience for the simpering superficial bullshit people tell each other mostly to make themselves feel better about themselves.

And although I feel strongly (always) about the message of this post, I didn’t repost it the last few Memorial Days. I was probably in a better mood. This year though, with Memorial Day coming so closely on the heels of more gut wrenching domestic tragedies, and given everything else I see on the streets and read in the newspaper, I’m once again in a dark and unforgiving mood about my country. So fuck it.

Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ exposed much of the truth about America. We might have looked at that work and been properly shamed and sought to make a course correction. But we didn’t do that. Anyway. Enjoy this holiday. Don’t thank our troops. Remember instead the dead ones, and their wives, and their children, and their mothers, and their fathers. And forgive me for encroaching into sanctimonious behavior with a self-righteous attitude. I have no room to talk. It’s taken me over half a century to finally wake up.

Memorial Day

Cookouts. Barbecue. Hot dogs and hamburgers. Beer. Friends and family. Unofficial start of summer. Hell yeah! That’s what Memorial Day is all about. Right? Oh, and, of course, the Memorial Day mattress sale at Macy’s.

Then there’s those people who try to remind you of the more sober aspects of the holiday. Sanctimoniously thanking ‘our’ soldiers. Does that really stick with you or are they just as annoying as the people at Christmas telling us all to remember the spirit of Christmas and that Christ ‘our’ savior was born on Christmas Day?

So they had this event down at a new memorial in Irvine for service men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw it on the 11 o’clock news. The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial looks really nice and is said to be the first of its kind in the country honoring those who have fallen in the wars on terrorism we’ve been fighting for the last eleven or so years.

But they’ve got this open mic thing going. And the wives and mothers of those who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan come up to the mic and, if you didn’t see it, I’m telling you these women are just fucking raw. All are emotional but more than a few can barely get their words out; they’re just dying up there.

Blubbering women. Most of them young enough to be my daughter, if I’d had one. Talking about what they feel on Memorial Day.

While these women are stepping up to the mic, one at a time, to tell you the names of their husbands and sons and what happened to them – as best as they can between the sniveling and gasping and choked-off words – all over this country, millions of Americans are getting drunk, washing down burgers with Bud Lite, laughing the day away talking easily about everything that careless partying Americans talk about on a summer holiday together. Most Americans are having a good time, a welcome day off from work, celebrating the start of summer and vacation time – which is and always has been the real point of Memorial Day in our culture.

A really young woman steps up to the mic in Irvine. Her two hands are in a wrestling match with each other as she speaks.

“My name is Brooke Singer and my husband was killed in January.”

Brooke looks to be about 22. She’s wearing a pretty black dress with nickle-sized white polka dots and spaghetti straps that cut into the soft skin of her shoulders. She seems to have more to say but after that one solitary sentence she puts the back of her right hand to her face and unsuccessfully tries to stifle a sob. That hand has a mind of its own and, almost to conceal the degree to which it is shaking, Brooke drops it momentarily but then quickly raises it back again to cover her mouth, which is contorted in a way she’d obviously rather the entire world doesn’t see.

A girl who looks like she could be Brooke’s younger sister stands helplessly to her left. A woman who must be her mother puts her arm on Brooke’s back and whispers something into her ear.

If you need to be told at this point that Memorial Day isn’t about cookouts and really good shopping then I don’t know what to say to you except that you’re not alone. Not in my America.

But if you still think it’s about thanking ‘our’ soldiers and telling them how much we love them and appreciate what they’re doing for us then you really need to either wake up or grow up or maybe just look up the word ‘memorial’ in a dictionary.

If this country can ever find its soul again it will be on some hopefully not-too-distant Memorial Day. One day when enough Americans are finally able to look squarely and, maybe more than anything else, responsibly, at young women who can barely breathe as they muster the courage to stand in front of a microphone in a public square and somehow manage to choke out the names of their dead husbands.

db

Film images made with a Leica M7 and 50mm 2.0 Leica Summicron lens.