Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Photographing the Presidents Heads

On Sunday I had a long drive down to Williamsburg for a photo shoot that a group from Richmond had set up. I was extremely fortunate to have got a spot as I had been checking my e-mails at the right time to nab a space, all of which filled up in less than an hour. There were 4 times, each one an hour apart and only 10 allowed in each slot. I got the first so had to meet the group at 2pm. I made sure I wasn't late. We were taking photos of huge president busts so I spent some time driving around country roads to see if I could peak a white head poking up over a fence or through some trees but to no avail. And later I discovered that these weren't visible at all from the road. Set far back on a private lot, they now belong to Howard Hankins who has saved them from being destroyed.
Once these huge heads sat in a place called Presidents Park in Williamsburg but when the tourists failed to flock to see them the park was closed in 2010 and Howard was called in to demolish them. They had once been appraised at about $100, 000 each and Howard couldn't bring himself to destroy them. So at his own cost he moved all 42 of them to here. there isn't one of Obama.
Driving up to them for the first time is an awe inspiring experience. Washington at the front was the first I recognized, towering above me as I pulled up in Stuart. Poor Lincoln was close by with a huge hole in the back of his head, received when Howard and his crew first started moving them; they had to create holes in the bust's heads so machinery could grab them to be hoisted on to flat bed trucks. At about 20 feet tall and each weighing around 20.000 pounds this was no mean feat.
They all stood close to each other with barely enough room to wiggle between them, JFK rubbing shoulders with Truman, and George H.W. Bush looking over the shoulder of Eisenhower. They were not in chronological order and it was fun to walk among them identifying them, which was relatively easy with some of them as the likenesses were so good, but there were others that had me and the others scratching our heads. Regardless, they were all superb and all with, I'm sure, particular identifications if we knew what to look for, but we simply didn't have the time.
We had about 40 minutes to take our photos before we had to leave and make way for the next group, and even with just 10 of us there we still had to be conscious of each others working space. I knuckled down and started focusing on my task, trying to get as many different perspectives as possible without missing any of the smaller details. I climbed the huge piles of earth piled up behind them and made use of tree trunks that were lying on the ground, balancing while trying to fiddle with the settings on my camera.
The sun was hot and dragonflies flitted back and forth, hovering over us and skimming over the water on the ground. There was a swampy area to the left of the busts and behind them, not really an ideal footing for concrete structures.
I thought this one in the center was James Buchanan and think that it was probably my favorite with his studious expression.
I found the backs of the busts just as interesting as the front, noting all the different hair styles. The only place on each of them that lacked detail was their backs, but not surprising really as the back of one jacket looks pretty much the same as another.
I'm not sure if that's Coolidge above in the middle but it seemed he was staring straight at me. The facial features were amazing on the busts and I was particularly impressed with the eyes. They were so lifelike from any angle, and sometimes almost seemed to be expressive.
Is that Franklin Roosevelt giving me the nod from the middle, and looking past his cousin Theodore?
I loved George W. Bush's tie. What superb detailing.
Mr Taft looking very masterful as he gazed over the fields.
We searched for identification on them but found none. I was fully expecting to see the names engraved in the lower back of the busts but we couldn't see any markings. Admittedly we didn't hunt for too long, time was of the essence. Was this wonderful bearded one above Garfield?
I wanted to wipe his nose, poor guy.
As I walked around the back I noticed a gaping hole in one of the busts. There was quite a lot of standing water here and some of the others were reluctant to paddle, unlike me, so I squelched over and stuck my camera inside. I was amazed to see such little metal structuring inside, I had assumed there would be a lot more than this and especially that it would look sturdier. My admiration for Howard grew as I realized what a huge task he had undertaken in moving these busts.
Once again I had to wade through some swampy water to get this shot, but it was worth it, knowing the others weren't prepared to do the same. I really wanted some perspectives that were different from the rest of the group. Every now and then there was an exclamation that there could be some form of unsavory wildlife lurking, such as ticks or snakes, but anyone who knows me would realize this wouldn't faze me in the slightest. It would have actually been pretty cool to see a black snake enjoying the sun, draped around a neck or curled on a shoulder.
Some have suffered more from the elements than others and the ground around a few is littered with chunks of cement and peels curling in the grass like flaked skin.
Our 'time up' was called so with a last shot of my two favorites, Buchanan and Washington, I called it a day. I fervently wished we'd had another hour at least so I could amble around and take my time photographing these wonders. I felt as though I'd just taken an exam, a rush of trying to do my best in a very short space of time. But looking at my images later I wasn't disappointed with my results, and if I don't get the opportunity to see these monuments again, at least I have a fair representation of them. But it was sad driving away, the dust from my wheels flying up and creating a haze as I peered in my mirror for a last look at these noble faces.
Hopefully Howard can raise the money to restore these, he likely has the ability and knowledge running a concrete company to help put them back together. He has a Facebook page with a GoFundMe link on it for folks to donate if they wish.
But for now, the heads rest in their quiet retreat, flanked by hillocks of dirt and machinery, looking sad and neglected but somehow still maintaining an impressive dignity as they await their fate.
Some articles about the heads are here;

Here is an interesting link about the closing of Presidents Park.

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