Friends, I have done my stress-cooking for the night — and consumed the goods much too quickly for there to be photographic evidence. I have moved on, in my nocturnal navigations, to completing my House of Cardsmini-bender whilst delaying my return to the more perfunctory tasks that await me. The hour, once again, is quite late. My eyes threaten to fuse shut if I don’t remove my contact lenses, which I will do just as soon as I introduce you to a gorgeously confounding collection of photographs I found over on Slate — as part of my equally perfunctory practice of procrastination — published under the heading “Narratives of Unknowability.” And I wondered, as my eyes flitted between and across images, whether that is perhaps the best descriptor of modern art: a quality of unknowability, rendering the art critic (nascent and knowing) essentially disempowered from the discomfort that comes from not knowing what to make of something. It is perhaps less an exercise in explication* and more an endeavor of experience — specifically, an attempt to create experiences for audiences, both known and unknown.
Eyes near-crying now… so without further ado, the photo essay.
(and below, two from the collection that I especially adore)
*much of what is maddening about maneuvers in minutia is steeped in an ardent pursuit of explication as both the preferred mode of communication and redress. first to go is any sense that there may be more than one way to see something, to pursue something, to consider action or not. too eager are the explicators to explicate, to offer the answer. or, as a student noted, the all-too-common practice of seeing singularly without recognizing the harm done by adopting a stance toward difference as inferior. put simply, ranciere was on to something; thanks to d for reminding me of it.
Rather than attempt any written response to the events and aftermath unfolding from the dark day in Connecticut, I’m choosing instead to share a few new finds on the order of the art in children’s books and the worlds they open up — it is where I’m choosing to dwell for a spell.
This week, teaching meant being a student — returning to joyfulness, to receiving without the expectation of giving (in the familiar and staid ways), to sharing vulnerabilities through silence and observation, to giving oneself over to the unexpected shapes or sounds that occurred, to being free from expectations of replicability — I return to some favorite words from a favorite theorist:
“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre
Learning printmaking (with paints and “stamps” or plates that we made) under the guidance of the incomparable O.
Delighting in the nervous giddiness of graduate students’ verbal and embodied articulations when given the invitation to make movies in class using Animoto.
Becoming transfixed by the vocal tenderness of Nina Simone.
Oh, and the bliss of sharing Sebald with someone for the first time (highlighting is mine) and thus being made, in the process, to revisit his poetry again, anew.
My office should be declared an archaeological dig site.
I have spent the better part of two hours doing nothing but excavating, occasionally — ok, frequently dusting off folders, books, questionable objects that have not been used or moved in over a year, despite the use of my office by people who were holding together the many loose ends I left when I walked away from campus last summer. Midway through the year I learned that my bookshelves were being used as the backdrop for faculty and student video profiles that were filmed in my office, which explains why there was a large white umbrella in taking up residence in here when I popped in last spring.
Finally, the over-eighteen-inch high pile of papers has been sorted through. Most of it is filling the newly emptied green, plastic, recyclables receptacle in our office suite — and most of it was packaging: envelopes, filler advertisements, plastic wrapping for journal issues, bubble wrap, and more envelopes. I heard forests cringing all around me, their cries cutting through the crooning tunes courtesy of my Carole King & James Taylor Pandora station.
What stayed: copies of research participant permissions that were not filed before I left; copies of grant reports and related materials; journal issues that I have not yet looked through and the ones that contain pieces I have authored or co-authored;
Among the very special finds was a 2009 calendar that features the paintings of life in small town Norway, Maine, all painted by the then-90+ year old Duncan E. Slade. I had spent a week in Maine with my in-laws the previous summer that had included a visit to Slade’s studio, where I first learned about underpaintings, and about the artist’s life, including his decision to pursue a career in teaching at the age of 51. The four of us — Slade, my in-laws, and I — spent the better part of an hour talking about these and a range of other topics, including the strange symbiosis that exists between Philadelphia and Maine. At some point, my in-laws must have gone back into town and had the artist sign the calendar for me, which they presented to me the following Christmas. Gems, all of them. So I let myself take a few minutes to look through the calendar that included this painting for October that speaks to me loudly any time of year.
And then, quite unexpectedly, a piece of notebook paper fell onto the wobbly table top below me. I recognized the handwriting immediately. The rounded letters written in black ball point stood out and coaxed their neighbors to bend slightly, too. Capital letters mixed with lower case throughout this note that was written by one of the secretaries in a different program, whom I had gotten to know when I first arrived at my university. She was a sharer of stories, a sister, a grandmother, ready with a warm embrace, an infectious smile and sweet voice that belied her wicked wit. Walking past and seeing her in the doorway was always a highlight, an excuse to exchange laughter, momentary and agenda-free respites from what can feel like intractable mania. The last time I saw her, the familiar sturdy gait with which she would amble slowly and deliberately through the school halls, had been stripped away in a manner that only life-stripping diseases can do. Her carefully coifed salt and pepper hair was replaced by a closely cropped head of small curls. Thick glasses were a permanent fixture on her face, and they allowed me to recognize her when I attended the farewell luncheon being given in her honor last summer. She was surrounded by people and chatter and food and others who, like me, also hadn’t known the full extent of her illness.
In the letter, she references a conversation in which we discussed her grandson, about whom she was concerned and spoke of often. Hers is a letter of thanks, and she concludes her thoughts in this way:
“I (we, my [dept] coworkers) respect you so much. … Don’t let anything or anyone change you — It’s important to your students and to those with whom you interact. Respectfully, I—–“
Oh, but dear I… you changed me. With your beauty, your grace, your persistence, and caring. And I am ever thankful for that.
If photography is about seeing and showing, then could photo editing have something to do with the possibility of showing and what is seen? I’m not talking about the endless scandals of hazardous photoshopping in which a model’s ribs, hips, or appendages have been eliminated for the sake of preserving some strange ideal of “beauty” or, quite simply, to market and thus sell things. No, I’m referring to the art of photo editing in which a digital image taken of the world is made to look somehow celestial, even as it maintains a representation of this reality.
In short, I have been captivated recently by the work of Leanne Cole, a photographer whose blog is full of such artful photographic treatments. What first brought me to this blog escapes me, but I know that I keep revisiting it and at first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing — only that I was full of questions about how and what. Only later did it become clear that what I was seeing were artistic renderings of photographs.
Here’s an image of Leanne‘s that I absolutely love, in large part because of its Hopper-inspired quality:
The red face of the counter corner is, of course intriguing, but with each look — and there have been many — the street, the back of the road sign, the lampposts and trees become increasingly interesting. And the wooden floor, weathered and reminiscent of the surface being meticulously attended to by Caillebotte’s scrapers: (image courtesy of Musee d’Orsay website)
But Leanne Cole does not keep her secrets secret. She has shared some of the photoshop techniques she uses, including posts that offer excellent tutorials full information about sliders, layers, masks, and more. I haven’t tried it yet, but, inspired by her technique of seeing and then seeing again I present a respectfully doctored image of a stone staircase near the beach in Cromer (manipulated using the basic exposure, contrast, and saturation functionality allowed by iPhoto).
How to explain the strange fact that the first image is what I recall seeing when I first decided to take this photo? Has a camera yet been invented to do what the eye seems to do effortlessly? That is, processing color and shape and shadow and scope, all while triggering memories, intertextual connections, and adjusting for light exposure.
Hung on the walls of the cafe from where I write are paintings, several of them by the same painter, most of which depict people in naturalistic settings — next to foliage or biological life of some sort. The painter’s brush and palette of paints here work in the same way that the mouse and video editing software does in the images above. An entity exists in the world, and instruments are used to render a version of it — never can a painting or photograph or film or even exact replica be the thing, itself. So, if all representations are, at most, approximations of the truth, why not dabble in the practice of creating entirely new worlds with their own truths? That is, to conceive of photographs as paintings, as not merely captured or clicked, but composed long after the shot is taken.
What kind of photography is this? In a world of instagram filters and readymade schemes anyone can apply to enhance a photo, what is this practice of carefully manipulating an image to create an altogether different artifact? Are we all just auto-tuning our pictures?
What does one do with a manipulated photograph? How do we read an image that has been stripped of color? Whose shadows have been augmented or minimized? Haven’t photographers always dabbled in photo making? In deciding how long to let an image burn onto the photo paper or how quickly to take it out of the developing liquids — no image is free from mediation, yet the chase for some unreal sense of purity persists (though not among photographers, I suspect).
For the inspiration, for the provocation, and for the beautiful work, my thanks to Leanne.
“Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” — Emerson
This photo essay by Christopher Payne blew me away. His photographs tell the story of Steinway pianos being made by hand over the course of a year. Upon discovery I immediately made a mental note to share it here in honor of the piano playing E. One of my favorites from the collection:
Photographic projects are everywhere. Camera ready mobile-everytechs make this readily possible and the internet is a veritable photographic wonderland. And so while it’s easy to be moved and awed and wowed by a particular image or angle or composition or subject matter, these moments seem episodic rather than systemic.
Recently I encountered, yet again through Twitter, a photography-based project that made me smile just a bit wider with each shot I saw. The photographs are not spectacles of light play or exemplars of white-balance technique or the rule of thirds. Quite simply, they are part of an impressive collection of portraits of people in New York City being people in New York City. The photographer is Brandon Stanton, a former trader and just a guy who is on a mission to create a photographic census of the city. (Read more on his website.)
Two things captivate me about this project:
1. Brandon approaches people and takes their photos with their blessing. Often they pose and thus they, too, are helping to compose the image. He is not the surreptitious photographer; he is the everyday, citizen picture-maker.
2. Each photo, with its brief yet full (of narrative and human possibliities) captions, invite curiosity about the many stories to which it is connected — not just the stories of the photos, but the stories behind the stories of the photos.
My recent readings, in addition to taking me through intricate cityscapes, have also brought me deeper into philosophically-oriented readings on hospitality, cosmopolitanism, and personhood and running throughout these texts is a shared commitment to appreciating and understanding while also nurturing the human condition. I can’t say for certain whether or not this ex-trader has read these texts or is actively pursuing a philosophical agenda to heal our wounded human souls, but in the way he is bringing the lives of the strangers he photographs together with the strangers who visit his photographs it seems to me that he is enacting a bit of cosmopolitan-minded knowing of self and other with each photo he takes, with each post he makes.
This stranger thanks him. Check out his sites — the tumblr and original site (and the other social media outlets) — and you will, too.
The concept of “stumbling-upon” is ever alive and well. Most recently, while visiting the author Teju Cole’s facebook page to locate a link to one of his recent audio interviews (in which he talks about his latest small fates project — Simple Tweets of Fate on NPR), a link that someone had posted as a response caught my eye: Paris, I Love You: 10 Books Starring Cities, compiled and written by Emily Temple. Among the titles were Cole’s Open City as well as:
Thus, my list grows by yet another few titles. Is sabbatical really only a year long? (she says, knowing full well that such a sentiment can bring about more than a few eye rolls…)
Twitter, too, did not disappoint and while the original tweet failed to catch my eye, I was endlessly pleased to find my way to The Atlantic Monthly’s most recent photo essay — a response to reader-suggested photo requests; a sort of media treasure hunt. A few that caught my eye for how they surprise as well as cajole the viewer into wanting to know more (click for larger views of the pics):
To these fantastic images, I’ll add a few of my own that detail some of my literal, city-wide and city-dwelling stumbling-upons during last week’s very arty-cultural happenings in Philly (thanks, in part, to the lovely e! — more on that to come).
Two installations I hadn’t seen before:
1. A collection of photographs and quotes and poetic musings that line the concrete walls underneath the bridge on 22nd Street.
2. Another Mural Arts Program masterpiece — this one caught my eye for its mixed media/mixed genre effect.
A few more stumblings from recent weeks to come your way soon…
In between shifting geographies — and the rituals of settling and resettling, unpacking and packing, taking inventory and organizing — I find the act of revisiting photographs to open up a soothing, even therapeutic space. The eye focuses on different things, sees what the photo wasn’t meant to capture, recalls sounds and smells that an image evokes. While composing one of the several unfinished, saved drafts sitting in the blog post hopper and just waiting to gain an audience, I found myself spending time looking through an album I’d labeled “art” that contains images taken from various corners of the world. They beg the question not only of “What is art?” but also where one finds art, recognizes something as art-full, and how one responds to art. Here are a few that have made me ponder these and other questions.
There’s little I can say that hasn’t already been said about the film “The Artist.” Prior to seeing it, I had read very little about it and had read almost none of the available reviews — just a feeling I sometimes get with some movies for fear that the words of others will ruin my own viewing experience. I knew that it was a modern take on silent films and that my mother-in-law had raved about it. This afternoon, after an exhausting few days of post-illness recovery, I finally left the flat and sat in a nearly empty theater just around the corner and took in this cinematic experience. I’m embedding the tap dancing, fancy-filled trailer here.
George Valentin is at the one center of this dual-nucleus film and is portrayed by the devastatingly charming Jean Dujardin who, along with his film co-nucleus Bérénice Bejo, the utterly enchanting female lead, offers a layered, nuanced, and loving letter to a key moment in film history. In addition to the two main actors, this film also serves up a panoply of supporting actors all of whom deliver poignant and punchy performances regardless of how many or how few minutes they are on screen — including James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, and Penelope Ann Miller who call attention to the many dimensions of screen presence that go far beyond vocalization or verbalization of lines in a script. Eyebrows move, shoulders shrug, hands gesture and hold strong, looks are held and broken, there are dance numbers, and playful and meaningful glances and grazes. And what comes through in this film, more so than in many I’ve seen recently, is the strength of the visual framing of the story. The characters and the narrative are elegantly and precisely framed, especially moving are the shots that incorporate staircases and mirrors in fantastic ways. My teacherly self wants to recommend this as a core text through which to explore this practice of framing and the play of sound, song, and speech off one another. And the pop culture connaisseur in me can’t help but think of the ways in which the stories about artists in the public sphere are framed and played out in various texts and media outlets. Or how, in my walks through the city, I have seen artworks framed by adjacent structures and the ways in which my own movement helps or constrains the ability to see the art.
And for those who have watched the film, click here for a parting gift — a bit of video fun in which the much-celebrated lead of The Artist, whose voice we barely hear in the film, collaborates with FunnyOrDie to put his vocal talents on display in this excellent example of self-parody.
Is this perhaps the nudge I need to pick up brushes and some paint again? If for no other reason, then I should do it to demonstrate what a person who has no idea what she’s doing does when she applies paint to surface. Either way, this is a delightful, idea-provoking, color-inducing read!