On Hometowns

Like most of my ruminations, this will be largely populated by iPhone photos. Like so many other photographers who think in exceedingly technical ways for their jobs, I find something freeing about a camera with no settings at all, and no hope of true technical excellence. That said, even shot through a train window you can get some decent results.

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I am a product of two worlds. On the surface is someone who has been thoroughly Manhattanized. I get nervous when I am not within walking distance of a coffeeshop, and sometimes will wander around other towns at 1 a.m. wondering why everything is closed. But I am just as much a product of small upstate New York towns, the kind of place where you leave your doors unlocked and say hi to people on the street without them wondering what your angle is.

Sometimes, even knowing which town is your hometown can be complicated — look at how many towns in the Northeast try to lay claim to Walt Whitman or Edgar Allen Poe? Is it the mid-sized city Plattsburgh, where I was born, where I attended elementary school? Is it Lake Placid, which is usually where you have to tell native New Yorkers you’re from so they have a frame of reference? Or is it where I actually grew up as a child, in the woods, far from any neighbors, leaping over springs and running around wooded trails like a mid-80s Huck Finn?

I’ll pick Saranac Lake, where I went to high school and where I now return when I want to get away from the city’s chaos for the holiday. It’s a town so pastoral and pure that it became a tuberculosis sanitarium because city-dwellers would come here seeking a pleasant place to die … and then find that the clean air put the disease in total remission. It was actually named one of the best 11 small towns in America, by some sort of commission that can’t think in terms of Top 10 lists. Ok, here’s a photo not from an iPhone:

Sigma 30 f/1.4: Landscape

I wandered around Saranac Lake today, seeing ghosts of my memories on every street, feeling more peaceful and contemplative with every step. After just one weekend off from doing photography (my first since April), I already find myself thinking deeply about photography, what it means to me and to my clients, where I can go from here. What they don’t often tell you is that one of the best things about years of photography training is that simply looking at things is a richer experience. Many of my favorite photographs are taken only by my eyes, and the intended audience is only me. Today I saw things — entire fascinating buildings in a small town — that I never noticed in all my years growing up here. And little things as well.

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There’s something deeply comforting about coming from a place that barely changes over the years, and thanks to the Adirondack Park Authority and their strict building rules, Saranac Lake will never become a strip-mall megalopolis. But I don’t know if I’ll ever return here. People talk about the pulse of Manhattan, how it breathes. A big part of that is that there are a heck of a lot of people, but more than that is that the air is thick with ambition. People there walk quickly and purposefully, because they know exactly what they’re going to do. It’s a theme park for workaholics, a place that you need to get away from to clear your head, but when you’re there it charges you as it challenges you. I always figured there would be a day I would want to slow down and look for space and comfort, but I don’t see that day on the horizon. The work I do is more than work. It invigorates me, pushes me forward, and when I do it right, I’m making people’s lives better. With all of that, how could I not be a workaholic? And we workaholics deserve a theme park.

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But it’s nice to rest every once in a while.

Dennis Pike - beautiufl photos, Ryan. I, too, am from a very small town in upstate NY. Anyone ever heard of Sterling? I thought not. I actually just returned home for a couple days myself. I also did a blog post regarding my trip home. I do have to say, your post was far more eloquent than mine. Good stuff.

Steve Early - Well this struck a chord with me for sure. Great post. I grew up in Saranac Lake myself – what a GREAT place. We lived on Johnson Road (which is off Moody Pond but I think it has been renamed), and on Baker Street which backs up to the back side of Mt. Pisgah. I learned to ski on Pisgah at 6. Just got back from a visit about 2 months ago and always enjoy going back.

Thanks Ryan.

Chris S - Beautiful picture!