When I was 12 my family moved to Naples, Italy. My father was in the Navy and received a duty assignment there. When we arrived, my brother, two sisters, and I immediately enrolled in the American High School, which was located next to the US Naval Base. My family lived in a hotel right across from the school for about a month while we searched for a home. I was in 8th grade.
We eventually found a beautiful Mediterranean villa to rent near the beach north of Naples. The home was huge, probably about 3,500 square feet. It was surrounded by a wall and had gardens full of exotic plants and flowers and a large wrap-around, covered porch. It had a red tile roof and wooden plantation-style shutters. My brother and I shared an upper bedroom, which overlooked a busy road. This road had actually been the Appian Way, the legendary Roman road that once carried legions from Rome to Southern Italy. Also, outside of our bedroom window we could see Mount Vesuvius and the Isle of Capri. Between the food (Naples is the home of pizza), the cool and cheap Italian clothing, and the wonderful new friends, it didn’t take long to get used to our new lifestyle!
Entering into my 9th grade year at “Naples American High School” I had to pick an elective. For some reason, “Yearbook” sounded interesting, even though I had no idea what I might actually be doing. As it turned out, they needed someone to take photos. I volunteered since no one else seemed interested. It seemed like a great job. I was able to skip classes to photograph school events and work in the darkroom.
The school camera was a 35 mm Pentax ME Super. It had a worn, brown leather case and a black strap with “Pentax” written on it. It had only one 50 mm lens. When you pressed half-way down on the shutter release and looked into the view finder, a vertical line of colored lights lit up on the right. These indicated whether or not there was enough available light to take the photo. There were three zones: the yellow zone, green zone and red zone. If the lights stopped in the yellow zone at the bottom there wasn’t enough light, if they landed in the middle green zone there was enough, and if it went all the way up to the red zone at the top, there was too much light. It was really simple; just make sure you’re in the green zone, and shoot away. The other more challenging part was focusing. Auto focus was rare back then. But I eventually figured it out.
That ME Super became attached to me like my right arm. Everywhere I went the camera went. It went home with me, it went to every class with me, and it went on family vacations. Eventually, I would start to bring the camera on day trips by myself to downtown Naples and explore the maze of streets and alleys that make up Europe’s most densely populated city.
The history of Naples is fascinating. Because of it’s rough exterior and equally rough reputation, you don’t see the large throng of tourists that you see in Rome and its southern neighbor Pompeii. But Naples is a treasure-trove of history – built on millennia of history, literally. Beneath the heart of Naples, it is possible to explore underground Greek & Roman ruins, including part of a Roman aqueduct system built under Ceasar Augustus. One Neapolitan family even discovered a partially intact Roman amphitheater under their apartment. In 2004, when expanding a downtown subway line, workers had to stop construction because they came across an intact ancient Roman boat.
This crazy, chaotic city became my new “home town,” even though downtown Naples was almost an hour’s journey by bus and train from my family’s home. The ME Super and I would explore and get lost in the narrow, dark, medieval alleys where these Southern Italians live much of their lives on the street. Naples is known for being loud and chaotic.
Walk down a typical Naples street and all of life is on display. Social interactions, shopping, arguments, negotiations, courtships, funerals, and birth announcements are all out there for the world to see. Neapolitans don’t hold back their self-expression, love of life, pleasure, or displeasure. You generally know exactly where you stand with a Neapolitan. They are incredibly loyal people. If you have the good fortune to be “adopted” by a Neapolitan family, you’re in for life!
There is of course the dark side of Naples, which is not openly discussed – the grip that organized crime has on the region. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go to parts of the city that were “off limits” to Americans because of the high danger of getting mugged. But I never had any problems. I had a profound connection with these people. I would blend into the crowds of Italians. My eye and the ME Super would act as a portal, capturing life on the street. For the most part, they loved having their pictures taken.
During the week, I’d go back to school and develop the photos I had taken from my weekend adventures. One time when I was in the school darkroom, I had a profound moment with developing film. I was so excited to see what I had captured with this particular role I couldn’t wait for the film to dry. I held the wet film up to the light and saw the reversed black and white glow of a few images. One in particular was a dark silhouette of a figure walking down an alley with laundry hanging above. This image very much represented what Naples was for me. I was mesmerized. I was hooked. My life would never be the same. I would later name this image “Naples Mystery.”
The ME Super was eventually surrendered back to the school and replaced by a new Nikon, which I purchased after saving money from a summer job. Eventually, my family would move back to the states. We moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had the good fortune to move to the “Land of Enchantment,” the part of the world that gave Ansel Adams his inspiration, though I didn’t know this at the time. I would soon come to fall in love with the high-desert landscape and rustic culture of New Mexico. I would continue pursuing my love of photography in many forms and iterations. I was hired to work for a professional photographer and became trained in advanced darkroom work. I’m so thankful I had that experience. Hereafter, I would start shooting large format film. I love what the world of digital photography has made available, but I miss the slow deliberative process of capturing an image on film and carrying it through to a final print. I’m committed to keeping that process alive in some form or another.
Over the years I would go in and out of being connected to my love of photography. When I’m really engaged and focused on photography I experience a lot of serendipity in life. Moments of seemingly miraculous coincidence and beautiful connections with my fellow human beings and mother earth. I recently had an insight: maybe serendipity is a sort of divine message. For years I’ve either ignored or been oblivious to this message and spent a lot of time and energy chasing things that I never really wanted.
Carlos Castenada asked the question: “…Does this path have a heart?” Having realized a few years ago that I was on a path that did not have a heart, I’ve done a lot of work to put myself back in a direction of being true to myself. The serendipity I experience with photography is now, for me, the equivalent of spiritual bread crumbs, leading to a path that has a heart.
This blog is the beginning of sharing that serendipity – both past and present. I’ve started the process of scanning years’ worth of film negatives, and as I go through them, I realize I have some stories to tell.
So here it goes. Some major changes and adventures lie ahead, which I’ll be sharing about. This sounds like the start of something, but really it’s the continuation of something. Because it really started a long time ago.
After all, in the beginning, there was a camera.