I popped into the Saint Lazarus Bar for a quick beer the other night after seeing John Zorn’s Simulacrum at Johnny Brenda’s. To the left of where I sat was this mysterious stranger hugging a guitar while slowly sipping a drink and to the right of me was this wall emblazoned with an image of a fiery red forest. Clearly this man was meant to be photographed in front of this wall. I ask to shoot people I don’t know with some regularity so without hesitating I slid down towards the stranger, introduced myself and asked if I could take a picture of him in front of said wall on fire. He shot back a quick, “yes of course” as if he’d been expecting this inquiry. I had only my phone on me at the time but didn’t want to miss this opportunity. After a few quick shots I asked his name. Melvin. He then gave me his card, said thank you, took a final sip of his beer, grabbed his guitar and vanished. The next day after posting the photo to instagram I pulled his card from my pocket and decided to reach out to Melvin C. McKnight aka Blaqmel to ask if he’d sit for a proper portrait. He again said “yes of course.” The location I had in mind had been on my agenda to use for quite a while. Months ago while in the basement of my building someone turned the lights off and this was revealed to me. I thought Melvin would be perfect for this space plus I’m moving in a few days so time was not on my side. Clearly Melvin was also meant to be photographed in my creepy basement.
As the wife of a photographer, Natasha often falls victim to my camera. After being together for ten years, I’ve shoved my lens in her face upwards of ten billion times. It’s gotten to the point where I know not to point it in her direction anymore. That being said I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to shoot maternity photos of her while visiting her parents out in magical Cape Cod pass me by. It took some convincing but she eventually acquiesced and here are the results.
Meet Danny from Daytona. He crashed my photoshoot with Celeste Denucci of Jeopardy Fame earlier today. Hell of a nice guy though. He arrived in Philly on July 4th after traveling down from Connecticut where his mom was sick in the hospital with what turned out to be a fairly mild case of pneumonia. Then he mentioned something about having worked as a carny and being from Daytona before wishing us a good day and wandering off. See ya round Danny.
Meet Derek (Bagel) Bakal and his puppets. They’re an odd yet wildly entertaining and very photogenic bunch. If you’d like to learn to make puppets you should reach out to Derek. He’s a brilliantly creative teacher/ mad man.
A couple months back, the photo editor of JUMP asked if I was available to gets some shots of The Dead Milkmen for the summer 2015 issue. I can’t remember what my answer was specifically but even If I was busy I would have cancelled whatever else I doing to make this happen. I was told that I’d be meeting with the band on a Tuesday afternoon after they performed an acoustic set at main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. I put it on my calendar and set about my day. Fast forward to the Sunday before the shoot. It’s mid to late spring and I’m prowling around on my bike running random errands and wasting time. At around about 4pm while standing five deep in line at the Family Dollar I get a call from that very same photo editor. He frantically explains that when he told me Tuesday he actually meant Sunday. He begged my forgiveness and asked there was any chance I could get over to the library as quickly as possible. I really needed the crappy cleaner I was holding but dropped it where I stood and ran home. I originally had some big ideas for this shoot but there was zero chance of making any of that happen now as I was told they could only hang around for a few minutes after the show. When I got home I quickly grabbed my camera bag and a reflector and rode out to the library in about three minutes. Normally impossible but not on that day. With no plan I was ready to wing it and just cared about getting a decent shot and saying what’s up to Rodney and the boys. We met up in the alley behind the library and I did my best not to gush. They were gracious but indicated that they wanted to make this happen quickly. I scanned the area and caught sight of the Swann Memorial Fountain. It was pretty still warm out and there were kids swimming in it. I thought it would be amazing to get the band to hop on it but that idea was shot down immediately. With patience waring thin I suggested the courtyard of The Rodin Museum. It’s pretty and looks like Paris so why not. We hobbled on over only to discover that they like to close early on a Sunday afternoon. A common thought of ‘shit’ resounded. Since we had just walked all the way over here I decided to attempt some shots with them gathered on the steps in front of the gate. The light was garbage but the mood was jolly so we gave it a go. After a few funny faces and some killer jokes the foursome started wavering and wandered off the steps. I wasn’t going to bug them too much more but asked for one more shot on the way back to the library. As we passed by the Barnes Museum I asked if they could line up behind the long rectangular fountain. While setting up to take the shot they started playing in the water and were picking up the little rocks. In no time a security guard materialized and reprimanded all of us and threatened to kick us out. This put everyone in the perfect mood and we finished up the shoot feeling a bit more punk rock that when we’d started. Two minutes later and a whopping 15 minutes after we started everyone ran off in different directions and my shoot with The Dead Milkmen although rushed and rough around the edges was a success. The only thing left to do at this point was to head back to family dollar for that cleaner.
Volunteer and grant writer brings many skills to East Kensington’s Emerald Street Urban Farm
Bryan Thompsonowak says volunteering at the Emerald Street Urban Farm has made him more invested in the neighborhood. | Photos by Jared Gruenwald
When Bryan Thompsonowak, 37, was young, his father, a bricklayer and “all-around handyman-type of a guy,” taught him to not be afraid of trying new things. He applied that lesson when he tackled the construction of a three-bin compost system and a rainwater catchment system at Emerald Street Urban Farm in East Kensington.
The farm’s managers Nic and Elisa Esposito needed to expand their volunteer base because they were expecting their first child. That’s when Thompsonowak stepped up, volunteering on Mondays from May to October.
“It’s nice to have a project close to home, and it’s not just the work; it’s the people that you’re there volunteering with,” says Thompsonowak, whose last name is a result of combining his and his wife Sharon Nowak’s last name.
Founded in 2009 by Elisa Esposito and the former farm director of Marathon Farms, Patrick Dunn, ESUF reclaimed and transformed five vacant lots in East Kensington. The farm, which sits a few doors down from his home, offers produce through a weekly donation-based farmstand and several pick-your-own community garden plots. The core group of about a dozen volunteers also runs an outreach and education program.
The East Kensington Neighbors Association has worked closely with ESUF and various other organizations, such as the Kensington Community Food Co-Op and Hackett Elementary School, to improve the East Kensington neighborhood. President Clare Dych helps lead the various sectors of EKNA in addressing the concerns and actions of the community by hosting monthly meetings to discuss zoning and planning within the neighborhood, and by promoting the Clean Up and Green Space Committees that work to protect and maintain the local parks.
This past spring, the farm received a $1,000 grant from the association to support the farm and their youth programming. “ESUF has given so much to the East Kensington neighborhood, all on a shoestring budget, and we felt it was time to give back,” Dych says in an email.
Thompsonowak also wrote an application on behalf of ESUF for a grant provided by the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust given to nonprofits that further the field of ornamental horticulture through education and research. Esposito was blown away: “This went beyond the commitment of coming out every Monday. If we get the grant, it will be a huge game-changer for us.”
This winter, Thompsonowak, who’s also a graduate student of the Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture, will continue the program through the University of Delaware with hopes of advancing his career within public gardens. But he won’t be too far from the farm.
“Volunteering at the farm has made me more invested in the neighborhood,” Thompsonowak says. “Being a part of something that is 100 percent good for the neighborhood is great.”
It was a beautiful day today and I had a few spare hours this afternoon so I decided to head down to South Philly in search of something to photograph along the Delaware River. I find myself shooting down there quite often. It’s a pretty photogenic area and it seems each wander I go out on I find a new and interesting subject. Today I parked just along the entrance to Pier 68. When I got to the edge of the platform a man aboard a tug boat called out to me. He seemed pretty chipper and just wanted to chat. His job that day had him piloting the boat from the dock to the middle of the river where an oil barge called the Chesapeake was anchored. That’s it. Just back and forth multiple times a day. I didn’t catch his name but if I had more time I would have talked my way on board. Next time. As our conversation trailed off, an older fisherman sitting in a camping chair opposite the boat waved invitingly over to me. There were no immediate introductions. We just started having a conversation as if we were picking up where we left off the day before. He was surrounded by gear one would use to fish in various stages of wear as well and other random items like a bag of unopened Rice Krispies and Walmart shopping carts. I eventually asked him his name as the conversation was getting rather intimate. Dave is Korean and has lived in Philadelphia for 34 years. Or was it 43? Either way he left Korea behind when he was a young man and hasn’t returned. Despite having lived stateside longer than I’ve been alive he still spoke with a rather thick accent and I had trouble making out some of what he said. I did gather quite quickly that he is rather devout as the topic settled on god. He was a little taken aback when I told him I lean more towards the agnostic but understood my point of view. I asked him which particular sect of christianity he followed. He told me none. He wasn’t catholic, protestant, snake handler or presbyterian. He said he simply followed the word of god. I liked that. I honestly don’t understand all the divisions within the religion anyway. It’s all just jesus isn’t it? At this point another man walked up and plopped himself into a chair adjacent to the river. He didn’t seem at all concerned with this random photographer hanging about and just started chatting with us as if he was privy to the entire conversation. His name was Buddy I think. Well that’s what Dave told me at least. Buddy, a lifelong Philadelphian is probably sixty to seventy years old. He’s very soft spoken, polite and knowledgable about fishing. He had just returned with more beef livers to use as catfish bait. Despite being happy to chat he didn’t want me taking his picture. The only explanation he gave was that he was playing hooky from work and didn’t want to get caught. I assured him these photos would only end up on my blog which maybe three people read. Dave at this point started talking about his younger days. He had been an avid photographer and purchased an underwater camera to take out on fishing trips back in Korea. He then reached into his backpack and pulled out about ten folded pages with incredible black and white images of young men fishing in the 1960’s. He named a few of the men as his relatives and pointed out a few shots of himself. They were stunning. I assumed that Dave and Buddy had been fishing together at this spot for decades however they’d only connected recently. Dave had been calling Pier 68 his personal fishing spot for years and Buddy was stationed at the next pier down just fifty feet away. A recent influx of new anglers forced Buddy to move. Dave called Buddy’s spot North Korea, his spot South Korea and the water separating the two the DMZ. I wanted to ask him more about life in Korea before he emigrated but he didn’t seem to want to go down that road. He just kept saying how Philadelphia and the United States are the best places in the world. We chatted a bit more about bread, beer, politics and how to properly bait a hook. I had to get going said my goodbye’s and walked off just as casually as I’d come, assuming that no proper farewell was needed as next time I visit we’ll just fall back into the same old comfortable conversation.