Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE PAST AT MARION AND FIRST

By Arthur H. Gunther III
It was at the corner of Marion Street and First Avenue in an American town that the echoes of the past not only filled the ears with a delightful, peaceful sound but the fragrance of the moment catapulted me back decades.
On an errand run in Nyack, N.Y., a community that constantly offers so many echoes and fragrances since it was my family’s principal shopping destination on post-world War II Saturdays before suburbia began to roar and many big automobiles filled with families headed in formation to highway shopping strips and then the malls.
The old Nyack — the old American downtown anywhere — was meant for parking the car and then walking and perusing on Main Street and Broadway. Downtowns have largely disappeared now, though Nyack is still highly walkable even if the full component of stores — so many mom & pops — is not there. Restaurants, bars, yes. A hardware store, health food shop, groceries, a wonderful bookstore, clothing and lingerie places and surely varied offerings for the 2015 shopper. Yet not the downtown shopping vitality of yore. It can hardly be so in suburbia  — we never planned to save the downtowns, shame on us.
But back to the echo and fragrance at Marion and First. As I was walking to a grocery on Broadway, I saw a fellow pushing a lawnmower, the kind without a motor — gas or electric. It was an old-fashioned reel-style mower, and as the fellow gave it a slight push, the blades whirred in particular music, ending as quickly as it began until the next push. Pulling it backward, you heard the ball bearings in the wheels, another distinctive sound. Together, the push and the pull were a cadence, and that produced echoes of a much quieter time in downtown life.
Quiet at the house, on the lawn, that is. Saturday shopping was never quiet, with so many kids on Main and Broadway, in parents’ tow or in groups jabbering to one another. That was also music, with its own memorable echo.
The fragrance that day at Marion and First was the icing on the cake. Fresh-mown grass cut by a hand mower leaves the whiff of the sliced blade, not the smell of gasoline and exhaust.
The chaser to all this — the sound echo, the fragrance — was the great quiet. There was no leaf blower in the cleanup, no rattling of teeth in the cacophony. Just a fellow bending over to collect grass clippings. Serenity in itself.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

'CHARACTER' OF THE MESSENGER

By Arthur H. Gunther III
     Today’s social media, like Facebook, showcases much me-ism and egotism, but it can also be telling about someone’s character. And that character, in turn, is telling about the individual’s beliefs. It brings respect, even conversion.
An example:
Pope Francis’ new encyclical on climate change, while providing counterpoint to naysayers of human-caused environmental woe, is blasted as leftist and anti-“progress.” The tactic is to drown the messenger’s words by personal attack. Yet, the sincerity of the pope and his frank and deep reach into the fate of humankind on this earth, our common home, makes your ears tune in. 
 Pope Francis believes the overuse of fossil fuels, mindless pollution of air, land and water, and consumerism that isn’t tempered by need, all of which offer great profit, are an affront to whatever maker you believe authored this world. 
Beyond the pope’s words, one could add that If you are an atheist, then the slap comes to the possibilities of this earth that are being wasted. Whether you pray to a god or not, too many of us are not thinking about the future. Our Native Americans believe that we are caretakers of the land, water, air, that we must protect and preserve and better our home for our children. They have too few on their side. Even if there were no God, humanity requires all to share the bounty and to offer it to those who follow.
There can be debate as to how to rescue the earth, how to “progress” but with responsibility and shared opportunity. The pope is urging everyone of any faith or no faith at all to “think future,” to see the economic and social effects of mindless, blind-sided growth that puts profit ahead of responsibility to all. 
Now, this is argument and debate, and the climate change issue has been all that for two decades now. The pope’s words spotlight it, hopefully for the better.  If I were sitting on the fence, I would turn to Facebook, where last week you could catch a video of Pope Francis tooling down an Italian country road in a nondescript, compact car, in itself telling of his humility, when the car suddenly stops and the pontiff gets out to kiss a sick child lying on a stretcher. 
Any person, especially of such high office, who in an un-orchestrated way helps comfort the afflicted is worth hearing out. Pope Francis wants us to be custodians of creation. The man was already doing that on the side of a country road. That sort of fellow bears listening to, I’d say.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.

Monday, June 8, 2015

TWO, NOT THREE, MEN ON A 'HORSE'

By Arthur H. Gunther III
ahgunther@yahoo.com

When you are a newspaper photographer, you are like a stage or film director – you set up shots, scenes that capture, it is hoped, the essence, the nut, the who, what, when, where, why and how of an event, occurrence, etc. 

That surely was the way I worked as a lensman for The Journal-News, a daily paper in Rockland County, N.Y., some years back. Today the focus is less on such set-up shots and more on capturing the moment candidly, ostensibly so you do not “manage” the moment, so you do not add artificiality or even the hint of a staged check-passing photo. 

Actually, we photogs of the 1960s at The JN – Ken Muise, Andy Dickerman, Al Witt, Warren Inglese and I – never clicked away at check-passing moments, and we tried not to over-direct or stage a set-up so that it became cliché. Most of the time, we took what Al properly terms “posed candids,” which simply meant you observed a scene and maybe moved a person to keep from cutting someone else’s head off. The result was the better telling of a story, in my view. 

But no matter what the approach, the shot must say something. 

That’s what I was trying to do one hot summer afternoon in Nyack, N.Y., at the former Tappan Zee Playhouse, a seasonal theater off a street called Broadway. 

The play was “Three Men on a Horse,” a 1930s comedy in three acts by John C. Holm and George Abbott. I do not recall the actors – sometimes in summer stock in Rockland they were famous, like Gloria Swanson or even Helen Hayes, who lived up Broadway a bit – but I do remember the director, Sam Levine. 

Levine was principally a character actor – gangster, detective, neighborhood colorful figure – of the 1930s and ’40s, a balding man with a mustache and a sharp New York City attitude and accent. He was excellent in his work, especially when he hit Broadway in the original “Guys and Dolls.” 

Sam Levine had been in “Three Men on a Horse” in a 1930s radio play and knew the material. This summer, 1968, I believe, he was not an actor but a director. 

He was directing when I walked into the cool, darkened theater for 10 or 15 minutes. I was there to do a publicity photograph for the summer stock play, soon to open. I quickly grabbed a few actors – my standard approach, for I wanted a tight close-up to dramatize the play rather than a bird’s-eye view of 10 thespians on a stage, taken from the tenth row. 

I had composed many such photos and enjoyed theater publicity, for you could be a bit more creative with play shots, using natural or “available light,” and the actors were just perfect, ready with all manner of great expression, unlike most living photographic subjects. So very easy to "direct."

Usually the director knew I was coming and would let me do my thing, recognizing that I, as a professional, was a "director," too. He or she would step back as a “second unit” director, helping if needed. 

Not Sam Levine. He was just like one of his tough film or stage characters, grabbing me by the arm and interrupting the shot. “I am the director here,” he said. “In my theater, I set up the shots.” 

Well, Sam set up the shot he wanted – not unlike my own – but I worked the angle my way since I was the cameraman, not him. We used the same three actors I was already “directing,” and the photography went quickly, allowing Sam to go back to his main directing job. 

I chuckled as I left the playhouse, adding Sam Levine to the long list of characters – famous and seemingly ordinary – that you meet as a news photog.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com. This column originally appeared on Jan. 22, 2007. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

ASK THE TEACHERS

 By Arthur H. Gunther III
I am not a teacher, but I know a good argument about education. And the children are losing it.
I live in New York where, as in many other states, the focus is on testing students and teachers because of claimed declining standards since at least the 1970s. The companies that perform these tests make money off what “reformers” say will provide benchmarks for improvement. The general consensus, if we believe statistics, my own media colleagues and often the ill-informed (especially politicians), is that kids today are undereducated, particularly in the basics of language, arithmetic, history, perhaps common sense.
And all this, if true, is because teachers are overpaid, lazy types who cannot themselves pass competency tests, or so say the critics. Of course, no such tests are required of the politicos who demand them nor of those whose own old school records might make us question their argument.
Meanwhile, too many teachers, who have chosen their careers, who perhaps were prepared a bit by teacher's college but who really learned on the job (like we all do), do not get full respect. At least not enough of them enough of the time. Still underpaid in many areas of the nation relative to other government workers — in salary, benefits and retirement — they are criticized for being off in the summer when what is not calculated are the hours spent after school -- nights, weekends -- preparing lesson plans and grading tests, and, increasingly, answering parent emails.
I am prejudiced here — there are fine teachers in my family and I know other fine teachers, most of whom have retired but all of whom are recalled by former students often enough that they are lifelong instructors. I know I still make decisions based on what Mr. Gram or Miss Rouy or Mrs. Still, etc., taught me.
And I am prejudiced, too, against the shrillness and lack of understanding of much of the anti-teacher rhetoric because I know that if teachers could get through to someone like me — a real day-dreamer and challenged in other ways — then something right was going  on. Yes, this is 2015 and next year will be 2016. Social issues, economic difficulties, family dynamics, drugs, crime  -- these concerns are so very evident now. That brings more challenge to teachers, but our teachers are up to it. They need support, though.
Many opinions  are offered on how to “improve” education. I was once among them as a newspaper editorialist. Missing is teacher respect: We no longer trust our teachers to win the struggle as so many once did, as so many now do, quietly, in frustration but in sure achievement, every day.
What are the answers? There are poor teachers who must go. But so should some  doctors, police officers, governors, senators, plumbers, ordinary workers in every field. Schools need money that is properly spent on students. Teachers must direct the reform, not politicians and parents. Parents must get their children ready for school not only by dressing them but giving them a proper, well-structured, loving home. There cannot be two worlds for these kids -- stability in school but not at home, in the neighborhood.
We should all want to improve education. Just walk past an elementary school and see the eager, laughing kids in first grade. Soon enough, this great potential will be in the eighth, then the twelfth grade. As we all continue to argue over how to educate the children, they will grow like wild flowers. Time to tend to fertilize the soil. And the teacher, no one else, is the farmer here.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at ahgunther@yahoo.com This essay may be reproduced.