Charleston Wanderings

The summer of 2017 is coming to an end and I’d like to share some new photographs and writing with you. This is my first exhibit for 2017 so thank you for taking a look.

Charleston Wanderings is a photography exhibit that came as a result of my third visit to South Carolina in successive years. My first exhibit, Charleston: 72 Hours, was a good start at showing some of the beauty of the area. The second show, Charleston, Reframed spliced free artistic yearnings with the heavier underpinnings of the city, examining what was going on today, as well as two centuries ago.

Both shows complemented each other. Now with Wanderings, the camera’s point of view has expanded. Not just by visiting new areas—after all, each of the three shows touch unique locales around Charleston—but by revealing more from the groundwork we’ve come to know.

Unlike other trilogies, you can enjoy Charleston Wanderings as your first look to this series. I hope it will implore you to discover more on your own.

Twenty-seven photographs comprise this collection. Let’s look at the photographs.

1. Two classics. A pelican and a palmetto tree.

2. The causeway at the Cooper River is a favorite place to sit, stroll, or jog. In the background, the Ravenel Bridge spans to Mount Pleasant—and to beautiful wildlife preservation sites.

The lack of people give the scene a chance to show its every inch. People are typically all over this path, so it’s rare to see it empty like this. I also love how the green sea grass happens to fill the fence openings with color, right down the line.


3. Sneak a look. My initial plans for photographing Charleston Wanderings was to shoot the entire exhibit with a magnifying tele-conversion lens screwed onto my 55mm prime lens. The effect combined a circular tunnel vision look with blurry edges, where only the center of the photograph was sharp. I wanted the new exhibit to have the distinctive, battered-but-beautiful look.

I shot with the tele-conversion for a day, and decided to switch to traditional photography for the balance of my week’s stay. This photograph is the single magnified shot that passed the exhibit’s selection process.

The subject is a vintage door from the inside of the Aiken-Rhett House, which is a well-preserved 1800’s home on Judith and Elizabeth Streets. The door and room furnishings are not only authentic, but have remained mostly unchanged for over 150 years. We could imagine we’re spying on the past.

4. Rabbit at entrance. Caught tending his greenery, this charming fellow sat and smiled for us. What a nice way to present a doorway to one’s home. This street arrangement is perfection, made a little artsy with IrfanView’s Filter Sandbox RadialBrighten, and Photoshop’s Poster filter. The rabbit sculpture is beautifully cast, and is unpainted. We have his attention, and he has ours. If you’re ever in need of a smile, look no further than this photograph.

5. Metal sign. On a walk down a tucked-away alley, cicadas buzzed louder than a passing helicopter. We don’t mind the noise because it’s natural and reminds us it’s summer, and very hot. The cicadas are hidden in greenery that seems to comfort a carefully metalworked sign, displaying the familiar South Carolina marker. Ivy and brick ground this placard, which with the rusted surface, makes for a very homey appeal. This sign had been carefully cut by a craftsman who understood the concept of negative space. This is not the first time we’ve seen the state’s palmetto as a hand-cut greeting to the passing visitor (refer to 2015’s CHARLESTON, REVISITED exhibit). There is something special about showing regional pride. It’s great to love where one is from.

6. Dragonfly on car antenna. This dragonfly was not fooled for long; she jumped off the black plastic rod within seconds, looking for a natural perch to enrich her life. I got one shot.

I enjoy this photograph because it can’t be easily re-created. Many photographs in this show can be duplicated by going to these streets and matching the view. For the extra-special shots, which typically feature living things, duplication is nearly impossible. I appreciate the dragonfly photograph for what it is at face value, but also, I love it for the luck to be on hand to share it.

7. Hidden House. There are stories that occurred within this home’s walls, but in the viewer’s world these stories don’t exist. We tend to pass by old homes because we don’t give much thought to the human history of the place. Maybe we think the people who lived there were just like everyone else.

Or perhaps we don’t think of them at all.

If the residents who lived in this dwelling behind the scraggly tree—this Hidden House—weren’t particularly famous, or of blood relation to us, then why should we be interested in their past?

We could say it’s like owning a particular object—say, a stapler—but having no awareness of it. What if you’d inherited a small box of stuff and you’d stored it in your basement. Let’s say a stapler’s in that box. Since you don’t know of the stapler, or you once knew but had forgotten about it, the item is essentially a non-entity. It doesn’t matter that you happen to own the stapler, because in fact, you do own it. But if you needed papers bound together tonight, you’d have to buy or borrow one.

You don’t know of your basement stapler. It doesn’t exist in your world, and yet, it does exist.

Are you with me so far? Let’s take a look at Hidden House again.

The stories that originated at this address are the “unknown staplers” of a family’s life—the lives of many families. But so long as the historical anecdotes remain out of our sight, the goings-on do not exist to us, the stranger. Most likely, we can’t call upon the previous owners’ accounts or investigate their details. Until a person steps forward to talk to us, or a document is discovered that reveals the people who lived here, there is not much for an observer to hook onto.

So to us, when we look at Hidden House, there’s nothing. But yet, there was something.

The occupants’ activities are memory boxes of a sort, long thrown away. What’s important for the casual observer to grasp is the massive weight these boxes carried. After all, pre-and post-Victorian-era people lived here, so by default their lives were linear.

Vintage life tended to string activities together like beads. Often, one event had to come and go before another was managed.

This linear concept applied to nearly every household. Information and activity tended to flow in and out of homes in a simple, consecutive fashion. A person’s linearity was like an endless private tape measure, with accumulated rolls of activities instead of inches and feet hash marks. The spools of these tales were lost; how could they not be? Unless someone kept a detailed diary, there were no means to record or preserve the comings and goings of Hidden House. But we can believe that many interesting adventures took place in this home.

How do we know this? Why should we care? If history hasn’t noted anyone of merit in Hidden House, why should we be concerned with its generations? How can we be so sure interesting events took place here? Weren’t most people’s lives routine and unremarkable?

If we tend to slight the value of drama in commonplaces, it’s because we aren’t aware of the depth of content that’s present just about anywhere, given the nature of people and the course of time. So long as there were folks living and working their days and nights, there would be accounts we’d be interested to know.

We have a lack of interest because we don’t know what went on, not because what went on wasn’t interesting!

Their arcs would engage us. We’d see a twist of ourselves in them, or we’d marvel at a different social value system.

But—like the stapler—we don’t know we’re missing these stories. So we go out and buy others. We consume what’s packaged for us. We make our way to book stores or online, and pursue what’s neatly written and placed upfront, fiction and fact. There’s no fault or blame in our doing so.

Consider this. Someone starred in Hidden House. A good guess would be that there were many stars involved at this address. Maybe someone fell in love, or worked themselves to exhaustion on too many days. Perhaps someone gave up on a precious dream, or cashed out their savings, so that another person could enact a dream of their own. Someone was not free; others had too much freedom. One thing I’ve learned is that reality exceeds imagination. It’s hardly documented—no one’s kept their spools of routine—but the sheer weight of numbers backs this.

Another lesson I’ve learned: Entertainment is about storytelling. I think we’d find delightful interest in Hidden House’s personal accounts if the stories were told to us, just so. If we broke the linearity down to a contemporary meter, and edited-out the repetition of which we need not be bothered, then we’d have the basics of a good story.

A gift-bearing child walking to a friend’s house may carefully alter his route to avoid the local bullies—and then there’s a bully standing on the friend’s street corner.

Human drama need not be epic to be interesting.

When I look at this Charleston house, I see old wood siding and shutters, with layers of paint that reveal advanced age. Who dreamed, and desired, and laughed here? Who cried? What was the source of their strife, and how close was their solution? Who built this home, who toiled in it, what were their ambitions, how did they view the world?

We don’t know what we’re missing, in Hidden House.

8. Cobblestone street. Large cobblestones were brought to South Carolina as ballast by merchant ships. When the ships were docked in Charleston and loaded with goods, the stones were no longer needed. Most were likely discarded in the Cooper River, while the stones seen in this photograph were offloaded and used to surface the streets near the docks. Eight such streets survive today.

9. Hideaway. This plant has found a cozy place to live. Chances are she’ll only last a short while; this location isn’t a garden or permanent place to grow. But she was here, and I was there.

Photography captures an experience and shares it with you. Photography lets you ponder where otherwise you’d simply walk by without a glance. Photography packages a scene and presents it to you in your comfy place. Photography is simultaneously a spotlight and a seat, for the subject and for you.

10. Vintage gutter. I will not lecture the city wanderer who does not give this very old spout a good look. I will not admonish the current landlord on how his layers of sloppy paint have obscured an artisan’s fine relief. I’m a guilty wanderer myself, having not taken the opportunity to study or touch this wondrous piece of old, when I was on location.

11. Cicada on tree. The cicada is like heat bug of sorts; we hear its body vibrate when the day is hot. Charleston cicadas ratchet their noise in quarters; buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz. The sound grows louder, with a slightly higher pitch, for each quarter.

12. Tree drops. The prettiest litter.

13. Hidden House. A 1930’s family struggles with their choices when a penpal’s daily letters unexpectedly stop.

14. In the midst. You’ll never be closer to water and light.

15. Life’s end. This horseshoe crab died and was found on the sand when the Sullivan’s Beach tide went low. I was the first to come across this creature. As a child, one of my first memories of living creatures were the horseshoe crabs of Gloucester, MA. I’d see them when I’d wade in deeper water; see them when I’d explore the miles of straw wastelands where the animals would live. I’ve seen tiny horseshoe crabs that were lighter than my skin color and fit on my pinky; and larger ones, bigger than a basketball and scary with their speed. Mostly, my memory of this ancient animal is that they minded their business. Despite my fear of them, they never wanted more than to eat what they traveled over, in their protective shell.

16. Stick in the wild. Near Station 18 at Sullivan’s Island, there is a lighthouse that seemingly rises from the sand dunes to warn the ships of the shore. I wanted to capture this structure because its sight from the beach was impressive. I took several sharp pictures, but photography isn’t about documenting, not for me.

On a day of fresh exploration, and having given up my idea to capture the lighthouse for you, I instead focused on the proximal wild grass. I enjoyed the sun’s interplay with the tips of the tan strands, and as I composed in the camera’s frame, I became aware of a new character. The lighthouse loomed not too far out of sight and as I applied a bit of effort to turn and recompose, I found the money shot. Man and nature, thick and thin, solid and fragile, here and there. The Photography 101 parallels go on, including, indeed, our subjects being in parallel.

17 – 25. Bird life. In my previous exhibits, I’d never presented bird photographs because I hadn’t captured anything close to what I saw. I don’t own a birder’s lens, and there are other requirements as well, including the consideration of viewer expectation. People are used to great bird photography, and if I didn’t have the goods I didn’t want to present subjects just to cover them.

With Charleston Wanderings, at last I had a good batch of pictures that satisfied my requirement of clarity and composition. I selected photographs that could at least be in the ballpark with birder’s books.

You be the judge. The birds you see here are the ones I saw there. We’re in the mud and we’re in the trees.

The photograph of the baby Clapper Rails crossing at the Pitt Street Causeway is a favorite. The scene happened in a quick moment and didn’t repeat itself. The image was used for the exhibit’s cover illustration.

26. Cooper River fisheye.

27. Moon over the Cooper River. Want to sit and dream with me?

Thank you for looking!


About Ara Hagopian's The LITERATE Show

For over thirty years, I have enjoyed drawing beautiful shapes and writing complementary stories. The imagery tends to focus on our place in the world—whomever or whatever we may be. I am influenced by Twentieth Century history—I read vintage magazines, books and letters. Inspiration comes from visualizing human achievement and personal interaction—derived from people, places and things which may be obscure, but never insignificant. My pen-and-ink THE MAGNIFICENT RECOVERY was selected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for their 2008 summer art auction.
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2 Responses to Charleston Wanderings

  1. CLIVE d WATTS. says:

    Ara, I have never been to Charleston and most likely never will. This is actually not important.
    What your pictures do is awake memories of very similar sightings in my own life. The memories of an old forgotten house in my childhood village where we would sit as youngsters and wonder what stories this house had to tell. To us it was known as “Collins Old House” and none of us remember anyone ever living there. I don`t ever recall any of us asking who the Collins were…….but we didn`t need to know as we each had our own stories we made up.

    Your other pictures here also stir up long forgotten memories, like driving through an English village and stopping to let a family of ducks cross the road, or being in the sand dunes in Wales wondering how on earth the grass grows on the mounds of sand.

    A lovely set of pictures, which in my case has brought back some great memories.


    • Thank you Clive. Your memories add much to this page. For a Southern locale to reach a man in the UK, via a New England photographer… that is a fine connection.

      Yes, you’re right. “Where we would wonder what stories this house had to tell.” This thought is important to our culture. I’d love to explore the idea. Thank you for looking and commenting!

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