Circling Back | Accidental Icon

It’s Sunday morning. Sleeping in for me is now 7:30 AM since during the week I am up at 5. Calvin is already up and I can smell the freshly ground coffee. I enter my “new/old” kitchen with its cheery buttercup yellow cupboards. Light streaks across the golden heart pine floor. The room glows. My hand curls around the green ceramic mug that holds my coffee. It’s the same color as the walls. Warmth flows from it into my hand. My eye is caught by the color of this week’s $3.99 Trader Joe’s bouquet. A small treat that brings pleasure all week long. The budget bunches of flowers last longer than ones that cost much more. I’ve often wanted to have regular deliveries of flowers to my house, as I love the sight and smell of them. The cost in the scheme of other obligations was prohibitive. I’ve satisfied my desire within the constraints of a now limited income. Trader Joe’s gets fresh flower deliveries seven days a week. Each small bunch of blooms conveys a subtle color scheme. This week I choose orange. There are calla lilies and gerbera daisies, intermingled with splashes of purple and magenta from supporting players.

The light and warmth I found in my kitchen seeps into my pores. I am excited. Today, we are going to explore a new small town in the Hudson Valley. I think about what I will wear, and now what Calvin will wear too. I am taking photographs of the place we are heading to. We will take photos of us. This time, I am the one controlling the camera settings; aperture and f-stops. A self-timer allows for me to jump into the shot. Together, both equally visible, we embark on a new reinvention. A modeling agency represents us now as a couple. Our destination today is 26 minutes from where we live; a drive through some mountains and across a bridge to the other side of the river. We do not know what we will find when we get there except for the coffeehouse that suggested we could find something interesting there. I take a video of Calvin driving with my phone. He looks happy. I am happy.

When I first started Accidental Icon, Calvin was a silent partner. He could wear whatever he wanted. A film and street photographer by preference, he graciously agreed to take digital photos to support my grand idea of starting a fashion blog. My project was a low-budget operation. I’d just recently discovered consignment and vintage stores as a source of material. I taught myself Squarespace and designed my site. I liked the modern aesthetic of their templates much better than WordPress. Purchasing a domain name and paying for my website was my biggest expense. Because Calvin was a film person, he did not have Photoshop, nor did he know how to use it. All photos of me came straight from the camera. There was no retouching at all.

            Since we both had full-time jobs, this work occurred on a weekend day. I would come up with something to wear. The conversation would be around the lines of, “Where should we go today?” “Where haven’t we been lately?” Our destination would usually be somewhere in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens; a Metro card swipe away. Staten Island was not our vibe. Every once in a while, we would take the bus to gain a different perspective on the city. Once at our destination, we’d wander up and down streets and avenues. At some point, a building, wall or textured surface seemed to imply it would make a cool photo. Sometimes it would capture the mood; others not. We moved on. Often the clothes I wore, imagined by Japanese designers, seemed out of place in the space. Like I was as a professor of social work, in her 60s, stepping into the world of fashion. Calvin’s street aesthetic, our choice to shoot in black & white, and my ability to imagine myself into a character by virtue of what I wore, resulted in a finished product that somehow suggested high fashion. Maybe it was just different from the highly stylized photos of other fashion bloggers who lived in beautiful apartments and traveled to luxe locations. My photos showed the detritus of everyday New York beneath my feet; cigarette butts and plastic bags. The photos were both edgy and elegant.

            During our forays as urban nomads, we attracted people curious about who we were and what we were doing. We made friends and connections. Stimulating conversations were always there for the listening. We had coffee with many young artists; like us trying to express their creative selves. Social media was a democratizing hand up for us and them. It was free. I doubt I would have sneaked past the fashion magazine editors/gatekeepers who until then exerted control over who appeared in their magazines or got invited to fashion shows. Usually my age, they seemed to not care much for older women or fashion bloggers at the time I started mine.

            Once we got the shot, it was time to find a place never frequented for coffee or brunch. Neighborhoods I walked through when I was a social worker, were now gentrifying. We stumbled into bookstore cafes furnished with comfortable purple velvet vintage couches, lofts with distilling equipment for small batch whiskey and tea shops with menus 5 pages long. There was a new idea, a vision, an inspiration and something never seen or imagined that would find its way into a photo or a blog post. We would head home on the subway. We were that kind of tired that is extremely pleasant. We were full. At the end of these days, we felt rich even though I wasn’t making money then.

            When pressed for time, we might choose to stay in our neighborhood, East Harlem. Flowers crocheted onto fences by homeless artists, community gardens, murals and housing project parks offered interesting perspectives. My favorite backdrop was a heavy duty grey steel security gate on the first floor of a building across from ours. Next to the gate is a door that admitted the men who had lived on our street for many years into a social club. Despite our new condo building, they and the row houses they live in remain the anchors of our block. They cede no territory. When I scroll back through the years on my Instagram, I see this gate appears often. Calvin has a series of photos of each of our neighbors, also gifted to them in exchange for the stories they shared with us about the history of our block.

            In these early days, the following week, I would review and process the photos with Calvin. He had an EIZO calibrated monitor that magnified every flaw. The photos I chose were kinder and appeared with softer edges than those treated cruelly by such amplification. They looked good on a small screen. In those days, the photo was a prompt for a blog post. I would go to our local coffee shop, the kind that had brooms and cleaning supplies in the bathroom. I would have what I still remember as the perfect coffee and work on a blog post. My best blog writing is not planned. Like my life, it’s better lived and written spontaneously.

            I realized I’ve been rather negative about poor Accidental. I’ve been harsh with her getting sidetracked in social influencer land. Punitive about the commodification part. But as I remarked to Calvin the other day, there’s so much we wouldn’t have right now if it wasn’t for her. We would probably still be living in our 600 sq. foot apartment and working our day jobs. We would not have this house or the opportunity to take care of my grandson every day. I need to give her a break. 

My Instagram grid is a visual chronology of Accidental Icon from the first post in 2014 to the one I am planning to post this week, 2023. I can plot the pivot points and see where I went off the road. As I review the grid, I am reminded of the resourcefulness in doing with less and the creativity she showed throughout much of her journey. I remember how much fun it was. The year or two she lost her way is just a blip on the screen. It just matters she found her way. Now headed in a new direction, telling a different story. The part of me that is Accidental Icon is not over. She’s just reinventing again. Exactly the way she did in 2014.

Because of this epiphany, this Sunday, for the first time since we agreed to do this modeling thing, I feel cautiously optimistic. I envision the photos and what we will wear. Like before, we do not know what we will find when we arrive in this little town we have never been to. We’ll walk up and down the streets like we did. It’s a crisp winter’s day. I decide the hero piece for us both is oversized vintage coats. Calvin wears a black wool Comme des Garçons overcoat. I gifted it to him because while I just loved the cut, even for me, it was too oversized. Patagonia winter fleece pants and trail hiking sneakers, along with a Barbour brown tailored shirt, complete the look for him.

I wear a black wool oversized Dior men’s coat that required some minimal tailoring. I discover a skilled tailor where I live now. He hems jeans while keeping the original hem. This is an important criterion when the client is 5’2”. I take off my Birks for a minute and substitute some lug sole boots and pair them with vintage Dior jeans. I wear a Margaret Howell rolled neck black boiled wool sweater. I try a pair of my big hoop signature earrings. In this reinvention, they just don’t seem to work for me the way they did before. I decide to keep on the small silver huggies I’ve been wearing. Except for my boots, everything I wear is from a resale site. We both put on our respective black sunglasses, grab my camera and tripod and hit the road. Sunglasses will always be a part of my public story. I need them to feel safe.

The ride is full of anticipation, and Calvin looks handsome as he drives. We are a couple that wear pre-owned clothes and ride in a pre-owned car. We arrive and find the main street populated by yoga studios, taverns, restaurants, general stores, and the coffee shop that enticed us here to begin with. My Leica hangs from my neck and Calvin carries the tripod. We cross the street, ready for a coffee. I’m struck immediately by the coffee machines. I later discover they are called lever machines, made in Italy. Expert artisans hammered the texture by hand over the silver surface embellished with copper accents. The machines are a work of art producing exquisite espresso.  

            Open to all possibilities today, I ask the barista to recommend something. The bite of espresso amid sweet pistachio surprises my tongue. I take photos of the objects, the light, the lever machines. A couple with two children approaches and we chat. When told our story of being recent NYC transplants, they reveal seeing us get out of the car and thought we were artists of some sort and lived in the city. How we are dressed and the camera around my neck were the giveaways. They are a younger version of us, during another time. They live in Queens, met while attending the School of Visual Arts. They’re visiting the brother of the husband who now lives here. The brother is a potter. The two were raised in another small town close to this one. The wife is a designer; the husband is a painter. Both, of course, with day jobs as we always had. We reminisce about New York City over the decades we lived there. We exchange information, get invited to a gallery opening on the Lower East side. We invite them to Peekskill. Another time, a different place, a familiar conversation.

            We venture out looking for a scene to shoot our couple portrait for the week. As before, there are a couple of missteps; the lighting’s not right, it’s not the right mood. We move on. I spot a brick building, a terracotta wall, different shades of color, different textures, a boarded-up window, a pile of leaves to stand in, the dark moodiness I seem to favor in my photos. Calvin’s always has a sharper edge. We try some different poses. I set the timer for 12 seconds and jump into my pose. I’m happy with the work. We’re ready to find a place we’ve never been to before for lunch. We do, a small café with hilarious names for sandwiches like, “Off Your Meds.” An employee hand writes the menu on pieces from a cardboard box.

            Back in our new/old car, our new/old selves feel that spark again. The excitement of new beginnings. We are full. We decide to take a risk, no GPS. We figure we’ll find our way since we have a sense of the general direction we need to go in. We know if we get lost, we can always get found again. Back home, there is no calibrated monitor. No exaggerated flaws. I use Lightroom. There is no retouching, just minimal editing of exposure, as I am still learning. My photos are the same but different from those Calvin took in 2014. We review them together in our new/old kitchen as we did before at the counter in our old place in East Harlem. Different time, different place, familiar conversation. 


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