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Thursday, July 13, 2017

AKG (Americans Kill Ghosts)


AKG

Getting to Peddocks Island was never a given.  It always has taken a fair amount of planning, research and coordination to get there especially since I moved to Worcester. Buses, trains and even humping my way on foot have been a standard part of any mission I have undertaken.  The boats to the island have been the most unreliable part of the journey at times.  This was never more true than on my first visit of the summer in 2007.  I had all of my contingencies covered including having called the office of the company which ran the island ferries to make sure that I would indeed be able to get there.  This time I got as far as Georges Island, the main terminus for boats to the Harbor Islands before I discovered that despite what I had been told Peddocks Island was in fact not open to the public on that day. 

When I received the news that the island was closed I was beside myself. I was angry beyond words that I had made the arduous trip all the way to Boston only to be denied a short distance from my ultimate goal.  To make matters even worse I would now be stuck at Georges Island and Fort Warren which even by that early date had been reduced to an overcrowded morass teeming with youth groups, tourists and, worst of all, corporate team building outings. It would be nearly impossible to achieve the separation I needed to successfully commune with the fort in a way that was conducive to taking my best photographs.

I attempted to make the best of the aggravating turn events by seeking out things to photograph at Fort Warren before the inevitable wave of obliviousness washed over the island. I headed toward Bastion A of the old  granite Civil War fort.  It was a large open space with vaulted ceilings that I used to refer to as "Dracula's Castle" for its similarity to scenes from Todd Browning's famous horror film.  Ironically in one of many odd coincidences that occurred during my time on the islands I came to find that it had served as a movie theater for the troops stationed there during World War II.  When I arrived at the bastion there was a ghostly fog inhabiting the vast room giving it a more otherworldly feel than it even normally had.  I thought at least I would get some sense of the ethereal history that I had hoped for when I set out.  Soon my idyll was shattered when group after group of screaming kids descended on the bastion running aimlessly through it's echoing corridors. Not only was the mood utterly destroyed but the swarming masses of kids running around had dispersed the fog ruining any semblance of a dreamlike air.  My frustration reached a boiling point when I was shooting a long exposure in a darkened corner when a group of knucklehead teenagers came by waving bright flashlights all through the composition. Things had gone from evocative to exasperating in the space of 15 minutes.

In my previous years of travels around the islands I had imagined myself as being invisible to the blithely unaware day trippers whom I encountered.  I really almost believed nobody would notice me if I stayed quiet and to myself while photographing places that nobody seemed think had any redeeming historical significance.  So I exited the swirling mass of howling young uns with this in mind and started to make my way, hopefully, to some quieter corner of the island.  As I walked from the darkness of the fort I encountered two very pretty young black girls who clearly did not perceive my imagined invisibility.  They asked me if I was taking pictures.  They seemed quite sweet and interested in what I was doing as opposed to the loud, intrusive mob I had just left behind. 

As I got to talking to them one of the girls was particularly interested in the lore of the islands and asked me if I had seen The Lady In Black.  This was allegedly the ghost of the wife of a Confederate spy who had been hanged at the fort.  According to the legend she still roamed the halls of the ancient fortress.  I said I had not, but was familiar with the story. I mentioned how I would certainly entertain such an encounter should it have happened.  She then went to explain about more "ladies" who haunted the other numerous military installations that once occupied the islands. She referred to a Lady In Red who supposedly held forth at Fort Strong on Long Island a short distance away.

Then she came to the part about a ghost who roamed Peddocks Island and the dilapidated remnants of Fort Andrews, my desired destination and the epicenter of my work up to that point.

She claimed that there was a spirit wandering the fort's large and crumbling brick barracks named The Lady In White (for distinctly masculine locations it seems there were a lot of colorful and tragic female figures involved with these places). She told me the tale of a talented young woman who had fallen in love with one of the officers stationed at the post during World War II.  She was a singer who had frequently entertained the boys as they trained in preparation for embarkation to the great conflagration raging in Europe.  The officer supposedly didn't think it wise to commit to such a liberated soul and instead jilted her for another more refined young lady who was purportedly more suitable for his standing. One night after having been rejected by the young lieutenant she was playing piano and singing for the enlisted men in one of barracks.  As the story went after serenading the attentive audience she was consumed by the despair of unrequited love and leapt to her death from a third story window. After the fort was abandoned by the army at the war's end all of the buildings were sealed and hoarding fastened to all of the windows.  Except that the window from which she jumped kept having the boards covering it knocked off.  It was impossible to keep them in place as each time crews reattached them they would be found lying on the ground the next day. 

The thing that stopped me in my tracks about her account was not the eerily tragic account of spurned loved followed by terrible tragedy, but it was that I had a narrative in mind while I photographed the among the ruins there.  It concerned  a young officer who had stepped outside of his rigid, unquestioning military approach to life and had followed his heart, falling in love with a beautiful, creative young woman. In my backstory she was an artist who was unlike anyone he was accustomed to being with ever before. My version of events had it that he had forsaken her for expediency and devoted his attention to another girl for whom he did not feel the same passion but was the daughter of his commanding officer.  In that moment he had abandoned his soul for the straight and narrow life of self denial, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his life and lead to his own unfulfilled downfall.  The first of many tragedies that would play out over the years was the death by her own hand of the irreparably saddened free spirit whom he had denied. 

The similarities in her fanciful tale and my imagined narrative were stunning.  I had never told anyone of my story and I had never heard about any Lady In White before despite extensively researching all aspects of the island's history.   

The two girls who had almost seemed to have emerged from another time that day went on their way and I never saw them again despite keeping a lookout on many visits to Georges Island that followed. I was left to wonder what strange narrative I had crossed paths with and which I had imagined so vividly.

Before my encounter with the girls I had manged to get into one of the badly deteriorating barracks buildings on Peddocks.  I dropped down into the basement of the structure to gain access and frighteningly found myself nearly trapped inside as getting out the way I got in proved nearly impossible.  A couple of years later, after my conversation with the two girls had occurred, I related the story of my experience of being trapped in the barracks to the uncle and nephew who ran the water taxi to Peddocks. I told them how I couldn't explore beyond the basement of the building because the stairs were impassable due to being burnt out.  They claimed it was possible to climb them, but it was extremely treacherous due to their condition.  They said it was too bad I didn't make the attempt because there was something worth seeing on the third floor.  It was a piano.




Thursday, June 22, 2017



 I am re-posting the video "Discovery" from my last post as Youtube seems to not want to display the last one for no apparent reason.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Always Clear The Building



Discovery


Back in 2011, on dull grey October morning I traveled to one of my favorite locations, Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, Rhode Island.  There was something strangely detached about the way I was feeling as I tried get beyond the normal perception of reality and immerse myself in the timeless flow of history and quietly hostile nature that coursed through the derelict defenses.  My first destination was Battery Varnum which I had visited numerous times since I first came upon the imposing concrete coast artillery emplacement that I initially referred to as "Cosmoliner* Heaven" a few years before. It stands alone separate from the sprawling main gun line of the rest of the fort on a distinctively shaped formation once known as "The Dumpling" for its compact mound-like appearance.  It had been the fortified in one fashion or another dating back to pre-Revolutionary times as it was advantageously situated over the entrance to Newport Harbor. The existing battery was the first to be completed of the Endicott-Taft period reinforced concrete batteries that stretch across the 100 foot high cliffs overlooking the harbor. 

Generally I make a point of "clearing the building" making sure to check all the rooms for the presence of anything (or anyone) unexpected.  On this occasion however I became complacent since my surroundings were so familiar.  I eschewed my standard operating procedure and ignored the usual search.  As I ventured down the long shadowy corridor that spans the battery I half stumbled across an unanticipated protrusion in the floor.  When I shined my flashlight on the object I tripped over I was stunned to see that it was the body of an opossum.  I noticed further that it appeared to have been the victim of some sort of attack as there were numerous stab wounds in the unfortunate creature's abdomen.  A fairly fresh trail of blood led to one of the magazine rooms off to the side of the main corridor.  At the end of the blood trail was a sizable puddle of blood with a fish scaling knife lying nearby.  This heinous act had not occurred all that long before my arrival, possibly as recently as the night before. It was a shocking revelation that snapped me out of my lackadaisical state. I immediately assumed a full defensive posture and cautiously inspected the entire battery, checking each blackened magazine thoroughly to make sure the perpetrator was not still lurking about somewhere.  After making this grisly discovery I stepped outside into the deserted alleyway that separates the ordinance rooms from what had been the power plant and plotting rooms of the battery complex to gather my thoughts.  

The only sound in the vacant alley was that of a white plastic bag fluttering like a flag of surrender as it was entangled in the overgrown shell absorbing earthworks covering the roofs of the structure.  I felt like I had been selected to be a solitary witness and that as disturbing as my find had been my first obligation was to go back in order to document what I had literally stumbled upon to somehow provide some context.  It was, after all, an element of the unconventional narrative that I was a part of that day and not unlike that which I had experienced throughout my explorations of the Coast Artillery positions. There was a cold-blooded viciousness to the act that repelled me while at the same time compelled me to confront and  somehow rationalize it in relation to that tale of endless war and indifferent nature. I went back and shot the video posted above seeing it as a curiously juxtaposed extension of a scene I had shot that summer in a bunker at Fort Standish in Boston Harbor.  In that video the unseen narrator leads the viewer on a tour of a long abandoned bunker to the darkened ammo room where he indicates the saga of his tragic wartime experiences began.  When I emerged from shooting the current scene of the crime a flock of hundreds of birds swooped and swirled over the battery almost as if the madness of the moment had possessed them and driven them to a squawking mass frenzy.  

Later in the same day I journeyed over to Fort Adams across the channel in Newport.  I was disappointed to find that all of the gun positions had been sealed to the public, but I did come across what had been the fort's cemetery.  As I wandered among the ancient headstones of soldiers who died from maladies and fevers while posted at the fort the headstones shifted unexpectedly from those of fallen warriors to those of babies. They were the soldiers' offspring who had succumbed to the high rates of infant mortality that plagued the world of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Under the inscrutable gaze of a bronze bust of John Adams, who had once described his namesake fortress as "the rock against which the storm shall break", row after row of grave markers simply proclaimed "Baby", "Baby"...  

And so went my expedition into the greyness of one October day in the murky shadows of history.




*Cosmoliner was term for Coast Artillery Corps soldiers as they were constantly covered with the petroleum gel, cosmoline that was used to rust proof the guns they serviced. 



Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Devil In The Details


Entering the the unknown.

On a hot, steamy August morning in 2008 I approached the Quartermaster's Warehouse at Fort Andrews on Peddocks Island.  As I trudged through the gigantic almost pre-historic looking weeds and ferns I noticed the ground had become quite muddy due to the rainstorms the night before.  I had never in seven summers of going there seen a single mammal on the island, not even a squirrel, but as I looked down that day I noticed cloven hoof prints in the muddy path leading up to the warehouse. "Deer?" was my first reaction, "Or the devil!" was my second. (This being Peddocks I had learned over the years that it was a wildly different kind of place and to expect virtually any realization in this world of altered perception.)  Despite my trepidation about encountering the Prince of Darkness himself I proceeded to enter the building.  The warehouse was actually two separate buildings connected together to appear as one large brick structure.  The other half was the Corps of Engineers warehouse.  The Quartermaster's portion of the building was where a large mural of the USS North Carolina had allegedly been drawn by Italian POWs who were interned here during World War II. This was located in a very dark office on the second floor.  Though I had been in the office in years past it was so dark that I didn't know the drawing was there until years later when after hearing about its existence I went to deliberately to search it out.  Such was Peddocks where in the shifting light things appeared and disappeared almost as though in a dream.

I had been photographing and documenting the drawings in the office on a number of occasions that summer.  The main culmination of this was a photo I called Between The Windows of The Sea which depicted the North Carolina image. I also recorded the two smaller crests in the room; the 241st Coast Artillery Corps unit insignia and the Coast Artillery Corps insignia as well.  And as shown above I shot numerous videos of entering the building and finding the office.

On this particular day I wanted to closely examine the remarkable detail of the North Carolina drawing.  This was  outside of my usual operating procedure as I always tried to not get to sucked in or preoccupied by some distracting detail  as while Peddocks was a magical place I always realized that it could kill you too if your head wasn't screwed on about going there.  These were dangerous buildings that had not been maintained in nearly 70 years.  A careless step could be disastrous.  My relaxed attitude about entering the building for the fourth time in a couple of weeks led me to not "clear the building" as I always did before conducting operations. This would come back on me a short while later.

 As I intently perused the picture the silence was shattered by an incredibly loud bang from the third floor. It sounded as though something extremely heavy had slammed to the floor though I knew no large objects existed in that floor. With my heart still racing from the initial shock I hurriedly gathered all my gear which I had casually laid around the room.  My first inclination was to immediately abort the mission and head for the exit.  But then I was overcome by a feeling of resolve to "hold the position"..  I felt I had taken the building and I was determined to not be driven out no matter what.  I headed to the other end of the hall where there was a large warehouse room.  I dropped my gear and lit up some smoke, waiting for what or whoever made that noise to make themselves known.  I left at my own speed eventually, but I never went upstairs to see what it was either.  When one ascended those stairs their heads would be the first thing exposed at floor level...and I had seen those horror movies.

You can now purchase beautiful 13" x 19" prints of  my new portfolio, Endless War, at my new shop at www.facebook.com/donfeeneyphotography/ as well as on my website at www.donfeeney.com

Monday, May 9, 2016

New! Endless War

Blood In The Water

My journey through the ruins of World War II has taken me to many unexpected and unusual places both physical and metaphysical.  No journey has been more transformative though than that which found me emerging from behind the camera to appear as the subject(s) of my photographs. This through-the-lens progression started innocently enough with my adopting more and more actual military gear as the clothing and equipment I used while photographing out of practicality.  I had written about this a while back in an earlier post entitled, The Lost Year and the Commando Raid.  I then started to portray a solitary figure as a result of an aborted project a friend of mine had wanted to do involving an armed hooded figure.  I liked the idea and decided to try to do it myself.  I had not been accustomed to photographing the figure at the time so it was an interesting challenge to pursue. I did a small series based on this concept, but soon was confronted with the limits of  constantly depicting a single individual.  Some time passed where I was not inspired do any figurative work, but concentrated instead on a series based on projecting images in the rooms of the bunkers.  I still like to incorporate this device into my latest work at times.

Last Fall I decided to once again attempt to re-approach the beast I had known as Photoshop for a third time.  My two previous forays with the program were fraught with confusion and frustration, but I knew I had overcome this in order to take my work to a higher level as I am always striving to do,  This time I broke through the barriers that previously existed and came to grips with the demon. It enabled me to expand my vision in the direction I had first conceived when I started taking pictures which was to photographically create the kinds of scenes that I had done using found images and painted backgrounds.  This caused me to change the way that I worked immensely.  I can now populate my scenes with multiple characters.  I no longer rely on happenstance in a stream of consciousness kind of way, but rather I approach creating each scene more like shooting a movie. There is an entirely new set of demands both visually and physically that must be accommodated. For one thing, whereas before the idea was to infiltrate and flow with the nature of the location, now each scene has to be "scripted" and performed, as it were, and then extensively edited to make it visually compelling.  I still rely greatly on the spectacular natural light found in the forts, but I have also started to augment it with the use of a flash at times.  I have also now discovered the virtues of cloudy weather for its wonderfully even light and ominous feel.  In the past I would seek out the sunniest days to infuse the structures with the most vibrant, lurid color.  All of this I feel has reinvigorated my work and opened unlimited possibilities. 

The culmination of this transformation is now available for viewing in a new portfolio entitled, Endless War.  You can view and purchase these new images at my website: www.donfeeney.com and on my Facebook page,  All of the images on my website are available and are custom printed in various sizes from 4" x 6" up to /16" x 24".  You can also view and follow the photos on Instagram. Please contact me at donfeeney@donfeeney.com if you have any questions or requests.

Update: You can now purchase beautiful 13" x 19" prints of  my new portfolio, Endless War, at my new shop at www.facebook.com/donfeeneyphotography/

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This Hard Place


 For the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to travel out to Boston's Harbor Islands, most notably Georges Island, Peddocks Island and Lovells Island.  Georges Island and Fort Warren have been transformed into the hub of the Harbor Islands State Park and thus has been rendered a tourist destination as opposed to the once idyllic getaway it could be just a few years ago. Peddocks, my favorite, has suffered a worse fate as  most of what once was Fort Andrews has either been torn down or boarded up. The magical home to my first photographs, my World War Wonderland has been snuffed out.  So I was left with Lovells Island as my location of choice this summer.  Lovells is a hardscrabble strip of land facing out towards the outermost harbor and the Brewster Islands. It sits across from Fort Warren along what was once the main shipping channel entering Boston. It's shape has been severely reconfigured by erosion since WWII though. As a testament to this a large communications bunker lies in a massive heap on the beach having been ripped from its original hillside location by the savage winter surf.  Unlike the other islands I mentioned nothing really has been done to despoil this rugged place which on a blazing hot summer day can bring to mind some desolate Southwestern Pacific island in 1944...if one is so inclined.

I had not been to Lovells or the concrete remains of Fort Standish for about five summers.  Any time I traveled to the Harbor Islands I would opt to go to Peddocks as even in its diminished state there were certain challenges yet to be conquered. (See The Summer Campaign blog below)  In fact this year my first visit was to Peddocks where it became abundantly clear that the challenges were pretty much exhausted.

The part of Fort Standish that I find most compelling is known as Battery Terrill or Battery Terror as I prefer to call it. It was originally a triple six inch rifle battery and it managed to survive in service until 1943 when its sadly antiquated weaponry was removed and replaced with more modern armaments.  Now it is wildly overgrown and crumbling like so many of my locations,,,only more so.  Its great appeal is that it is a wonderful spot to occupy for hours as one can watch the sadly beautiful light change from lurid green to golden yellow and pink with shades of blue as the afternoon progresses.  It is a subtle but spectacular shift in tones to witness particularly in late August.  The light at that time is most like that which used to inhabit Peddocks Island in its luminescent heyday.  The other very notable quality the rooms of the emplacement have is a remarkable sound quality with an extraordinary echo developing the deeper one ventures into the bowels of the structure.  On certain days the sound of jet engines at Logan Airport is amplified in such a way as to sound like the rumble of an angry volcano constantly on the verge of erupting.

 I was fortunate to get number of "picture perfect" days for my travels to the islands this summer, but three of the days suddenly ended with thunderstorms, one of which was particularly nasty. On the day the photo above was shot  as the violent storm approached the vibrant colors that illuminated the bunkers became dark with shadows and drained of coloration. I had attempted to shoot the image above another time, but it was too bright even in the seemingly darkened casemate to get a clear projection. While the thunder rumbled ever closer I worked feverishly like a camouflaged Dr. Frankenstein to set up the shot. I knew I couldn't rush things but I soon had to get back to the boat which involved an arduous hump across the island. This included crossing a significantly large enough wide open area that it seemed like it could called Lightning Alley under such circumstances. The oncoming shitstorm became an ideal time not only to get the right lighting effect for the shot, but also it created the  perfect setting to create an image of a war criminal about to be executed.

 

Saturday, August 15, 2015


The Cottage

video

A place collapsing under it's own weight

During a sultry July morning in 2004, on the day that my father was to have heart bypass surgery, I stood in the Fort Commander's Station of Fort Andrews on Peddocks Island. Inside the crumbling two story brick tower the heavy, humid air felt literally "full of monsters" as thunderstorms brewed in the firmament over the horizon.  I was possessed by the the most curious urge to visit what had been a caretaker's cottage on the other side of the East Head of the island.  I had not visited this location for two years as it did not seem to fit with the feel or the architecture of the fort's other structures. Also it was impenetrably boarded up and overgrown when I had last explored there. But on this day it was almost as if a voice implored me to go back.

I arrived at the cottage to discover that the hoarding that had prevented entry into the building had been since torn off and one could gain access  to what remained of the front porch.  From there I could look through a shattered window into the house to see a chaotic scene of destruction and decay.  In the midst of this sea of rotting trash and deteriorating personal affects one pink easy chair lying toppled over on it's back stood out, eerily illuminated by a near nuclear blast of daylight coming in a side window.  In surveying this scene my first involuntary thought was, "Daddy's gone!" For me in a single moment it represented not only a commentary on the fate of this place's former occupant, but it was also a defiant, truthful rebuke to my father. The Colonel, who had for so long intimidated us with his authoritarian approach was suddenly vulnerable and his existence was hanging in the balance. Now I was the strong one who was there to record this bizarre confluence of events in a still image as we were, in a sense,  meeting at a distorted cosmic crossroads.

A few days later when I visited my father at the VA Hospital after his surgery he related a dream he had while recovering from the operation.  He told me he had dreamed of being in his brother's gas station (itself a ruinous relic of South Boston lore) when he heard repeated hammering coming from the back.  When he peered into back room of the station he saw a man hammering a coffin together.  Perplexed he turned to his brother and asked, "What's he doing?" to which his brother replied, "Don't you know?  He's making your coffin."  I never told him, but I knew that I was in this cottage at that moment having my "Daddy's gone" thought and that we were together in the same place.  It just looked different to each of us. 

I crawled through the remnants of jagged wood, broken glass and rusted nails that once was a window to enter the rabbit hole.  All of the windows save the busted one were covered with thick yellowing sheets of filthy plastic making for an unbearably hot and claustrophobic atmosphere.  The place was in complete upheaval with overturned furniture, mattresses and sundry smaller household items littering the floor.  The odd reminder of mundane existence - an iron, an old handbag, Christmas decorations, some crumbling beach chairs and a child's watering can were randomly tossed about while piles of magazines still neatly stacked lay melting into pulp on the floor where they had once been so purposefully placed.  One item oddly stood out - a jar of pickles that were desiccated, but weirdly preserved lay on the heap like a specimen.  But there was something not right about it all.  There was no rhyme or reason to it. Some things rotted while others were pristine with no apparent regard to time or conditions. To add to it there was an unsettling feeling that someone may have still been living there.

As I ventured further into the kitchen I wondered what that ticking sound I was hearing was. It turned out it was my heart pounding in my throat. I feebly called, "Hello?" not really wanting to hear what response I might receive. I squeezed through the kitchen door that was permanently frozen slightly ajar and entered the room.  The strangeness continued.  A potful of what appeared to have once been white rice sat on the table while half filled cardboard boxes seemed to indicate the original owner had been in the process of moving out when time stopped. Dishes were still carefully placed in a corner cupboard while plastic gallon milk jugs full of water and marked "RAIN" were scattered around the room. I thought, "If these jugs had been here for, say twenty years, the water surely would have evaporated by now."

I retreated back to the front parlor to capture the photo I naturally would entitle, "Daddy's Gone" while trying to find steady footing on the foul mountain of old mattresses and seat cushions. I was not intrepid enough to chance going upstairs.  That would wait for another visit.  When I turned to go I found to my chagrin that front door was in fact wide open so I was spared the ordeal of contorting myself to exit through the front window.  But after having been so enveloped by this dark and twisted space it was as if I were silently being allowed to leave.  I departed as a vivid bolt of lightning sliced the sky across the bay.  A storm was coming.