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The Daily Yonder

The Daily Yonder

I’m pleased that some of the photos from my Newsprint and PFOA projects have found an outlet in The Daily Yonder, which is published online by the Center for Rural Strategies. The photos are accompanied by a brief interview — my first as a photographer. It can be found here: http://bit.ly/dailyyonder

This is how the Yonder describes itself on its About page.

“55 million people live in the rural U.S. ­ Maybe you’re one of them, or used to be, or want to be. As mainstream TV and newspapers retreat from small towns, the Daily Yonder is coming on strong.

We’re your daily multi-media source of news, commentary, research, and features.

Check us throughout the day for breaking news, commentary, reports from our rural correspondents, updates from the best rural bloggers, and eye-opening photography from across the rural U.S.

The Daily Yonder’s special reports also bring you overviews of the big issues now facing small communities — health, employment, broadband access, education, and economic development. We’re tracking how national policies are reaching (or ignoring) rural communities.

The Daily Yonder has been published on the web since 2007 by the Center for Rural Strategies, a non-profit media organization based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The site  was developed with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Media Democracy Fund.

The Yonder’s founding editors, Julie Ardery and Bill Bishop have written for national magazines and for newspapers in Kentucky and Texas. In the 1980s, they owned and ran the award-winning Bastrop County Times, the weekly in Smithville, Texas. Bill”s The Big Sort, a study of political segregation, was named one of the top 100 books of 2008 by The New York Times.

We welcome photos, tips, observations, and links to stories about rural America. Send us stories about what you’ve seen, heard or witnessed. Make it meaningful, make it cool, make it good, make it Yonder.”

 

Along the Eastern Front

Along the Eastern Front

It is August 1944 and Soviet forces have smashed through the German lines near the Vistula River in Poland. Several German units have been cut off and are trying to get back to the main German lines before the counterattack can begin. Soviet forces are trying to hunt these groups down and find the new German lines. There are local Polish resistance units working in the area, but they have to be careful. The Germans will kill them, and the Soviets aren’t much better.

That was the scenario presented by Richard Tucker, a member of the Living History Association, when he invited me to witness a “tactical” reenactment in Stamford, Vt., last month.

When I arrived at the remote site near the Massachusetts border, Tucker greeted me dressed in the uniform of a Waffen-SS Untersturmführer, a Walther P38 pistol at his side. His appearance was disturbing, but he explained that he and his compatriots “go as immersive as possible” at such events.

While the Soviet impersonators sought historical accuracy, the dozen or so German soldiers seemed to take it a step further, banning sleeping bags, for example, in favor of wool blankets on straw. “German units are popular with veterans because the discipline is more like what they’re used to in the military,” said Tucker, an ex-Marine who served a tour of duty in Iraq.

Tucker and others said they were well aware of the sensitive nature of portraying soldiers of the Third Reich. “It’s all about preserving history and telling the story to the next generation so it doesn’t happen again,” Tucker said. “Your reenactors … aren’t skinheads or white supremacists. They don’t believe all that crap.”

For more information, visit www.festung.net, site of the group that portrays German second-line security soldiers, and www.3rdriflediv.org, site of the group that portrays members of a Russian rifle division.

Outsourced Jobs and Poisoned Water

Outsourced Jobs and Poisoned Water

The Wilson Quarterly has just published “Outsourced Jobs and Poisoned Water: An American Town Fights For Survival,” by London-based journalist Caitlin Randall. I contributed photographs. The story chronicles the efforts of a fading mill town, Hoosick Falls, N.Y., to revive its economy, only to learn that its municipal water supply and scores of private wells were contaminated with a suspected carcinogen, PFOA.

Randall’s piece appears in a themed issue of the Quarterly, The Decline of the American Middle Class. http://bit.ly/hoosickfalls The photos posted here are outtakes from the assignment.

 

Also posted in Black and White, PFOA

PFOA Project Update

PFOA Project Update

Last week I expanded the PFOA project to include photos of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., residents whose water supply has been contaminated. I also visited the former Warren Wire factory in Pownal and accompanied Vermont state environmental officials into the field, where they sampled Bennington wells and fish taken from Paran Creek and the Walloomsac River. Thanks to all for their cooperation. Please contact me if you’d like to participate in the project.

 

 

Havana Vinyl

Havana Vinyl

Working on a piece about searching for vinyl in Havana last month. More to come.

Home Burial

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Home Burial: Gene Lott 1935 – 2013

Tzaims Luksus said it was undeserved, but he had a reputation for being erratic, whereas Gene Lott was quiet and steady. Yet it was Tzaims who had a brief but remarkable career in the fashion world and so he was the subject of the magazine profile I wrote in 1991, nearly 20 years after he had faded from the scene.

In the headline that accompanied the piece, my editor called Tzaims the “eccentric extraordinaire” of Bennington, Vermont. Yet it was because most townspeople only knew him for his theatrics and not his record of accomplishment that I thought him worth a story.

It began at the Philadelphia College of Art, where he designed fabrics that brought him near instant acclaim. The young man born James Lukshus in 1932 recast himself as Tzaims Luksus and moved to New York, and in 1965 he won the Neiman-Marcus Award for “bold, daring and imaginative fabric designs of breath-taking beauty and dimensions unlike anything seen before.”

When Tzaims hosted a midnight fashion show attended by Halston and Rudi Grenrich, the creator of the topless bathing suit, the New York Times covered it. Meanwhile, the heiress and arts patron Rebekah Harkness took to wearing Luksus’ paper dresses and installed him at the Hotel Crillon in Paris.

Then in 1966, at an experimental film festival in the East Village, Luksus met Gene Lott, an aspiring writer from Texas. The pair soon moved into a rambling, cedar shingled house in Old Bennington, where Luksus leased an empty textile mill. Although critics and designers continued to praise his silk prints and woolen fabrics, Luksus’ business went under.

***

As his reputation waned on Seventh Avenue, however, it grew in Bennington. He hosted the radical Living Theater and a troupe of loincloth-wearing “demon drummers“ from Japan. He celebrated something he called the Festival of Pandu with a party for 300. And he and Lott opened a gallery and head shop on Main Street, which the police shut down after it relocated to a spot behind the junior high school.

When I interviewed Tzaims in 1991 he seemed increasingly troubled by feuds with his neighbors and run-ins with the police. For a while it became rare for him to leave the house, grandly named Buckthorne Hall despite its lack of running water and central heating. Although Tzaims sent me periodic emails denouncing the Select Board and others, I didn’t reply, thinking it best to keep my distance.

Gene was a different story. Tzaims might fly to England to attend classes at Oxford, but Gene stayed and worked the graveyard shift at a local factory to support them both. It was Gene — slight and soft-spoken, with lank brown hair to his shoulders and a beard flecked with gray — that I’d see occasionally when running errands around town. Not only was he loyal to Tzaims, but he was modest and funny and grounded and I liked him a lot.

***

I hadn’t seen either of them for a while when on December 10 of last year I was copied on another email from Tzaims, this time announcing that Gene had died that day at the age of 77. Tzaims now asserted that Gene, whom he referred to as John, was his own biological brother given up for adoption at birth. After a week passed, Tzaims wrote that I was welcome to visit the house they shared and pay my respects. I could take photographs if I wanted, he said.

I feared what I might find, but compassion and morbid curiosity led me to the upstairs room where Gene was laid out. There were flowers and incense and the oak coffin was draped with flags displaying royal insignias. Although Gene hadn’t been embalmed, Tzaims assured me that the frigid room would preserve the body until a burial could take place. In fact, snow had drifted through a hole in the roof. Before we exited I struck a gong in Gene’s honor.

I stayed and spoke with Tzaims for several hours — more than I had in the past 22 years — retreating to a spot beside the wood stove in the kitchen, the only warm room in the house. It was there that Gene had complained of chest pains and where moments later he died. The way Tzaims told the story made me think grief had calmed him.

***

Tzaims intended to hold a home burial on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, but a fiberglass vault he ordered was damaged in transit and so the interment was delayed. Instead, a Requiem Mass was celebrated that evening at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The ritual offered solace, but the only witnesses were Tzaims and me and in a pew at the rear of the church, a plainclothes policeman.

As the days passed and the temperatures climbed unseasonably into the upper 40s and low 50s, I began to worry about Tzaims alone with Gene’s body. Then on the morning of January 15, nearly five weeks after Gene’s death, Tzaims phoned to tell me that the burial would take place that day.

It wasn’t as if the wariness and caution I felt had left me completely, but I no longer wanted to keep my distance. And so I put on a jacket and tie and joined the gravediggers and undertakers to serve as a pallbearer.

But it was 81-year-old Tzaims who lay on the ground to ensure that the vault and coffin were properly positioned. And it was Tzaims who grabbed a shovel and filled the hole with dirt. And it was Tzaims who was the last to leave.

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