The Engaged Photographer

I’m working on a two-part series of posts at the moment, with Part 1 due up tomorrow. In the meantime, I thought you’d appreciate this. It’s a promotional video for the New York Public Library Photography Collection:

Among the photographers discussed, you can find more information at these Web sites (besides Wikipedia, of course):

  • Dorothea Lange: her work and life is documented in various places around the Web. You can get a good introduction from the site of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s “About Life” exhibit of 2002-2003. (The Goethe quote which the narrator mentions says, “Each traveler should know what he has to see, and what properly belongs to him, on a journey.”)
  • The NYPL’s own Berenice Abbott site
  • Stephen Dupont

And of course, if you’re interested in documentary photography, you could do much worse than visit the Library’s own online Digital Images Collection.

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(Un)Smiling Faces, in Black-and-White

Probably Mrs. John Coleman, from 'Wisconsin Death Trip'I’ve always liked black-and-white photographs — especially family snapshots (even of other people’s families) taken in the 1950s and earlier.

It’s not that they satisfy some inner longing for quaintness (I’m not a fan of quaintness in general, and the adjective “whimsical” often makes me want to reach for the X-Acto knife (especially, ha ha, when someone else uses it)). Nor is it — just — a nostalgia for things which I know are gone, sometimes long gone.

No, it’s not the overall elegiac atmosphere. It’s not the places. It’s the faces of the people.

In candid snapshots, especially, those unguarded glimpses into the souls of their subjects reveal more than their words ever could — or, truth be told, than my own words ever could. But it’s something to aspire to. (Which is one reason why a near-cliche of fiction is the moment when the protagonist glimpses herself in a mirror, or examines the creases and tears in a photograph of himself as a boy. At some level, people’s faces say everything there is to be said about a person — at that very time, even, if photographed or if described in heartbreaking verbal detail.)

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Learning to See

Continuing last Friday’s meditation on the topic of sight, and the things which we might see differently “if only”…

First, from whiskey river‘s commonplace book*:

Picasso is riding on a train and someone sits down next to him.

Recognizing who he is, the person asks, “Why don’t you paint people the way they really are?”

Picasso asks, “What do you mean by the way they really are?”

The man eagerly pulls out his wallet and shows Picasso a picture of his wife and says, “This is my wife.”

Picasso responds, “She looks rather small and flat, don’t you think?”

(by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei; story also recounted elsewhere)

Not from whiskey river:

Jack London, by Arnold Genthe (taken 1906-1916)

When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe: “You must have a wonderful camera… It must be the best camera in the world… You must show me your camera.”

Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London.

When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: “I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter.”

(quoted at

From The Luminous Landscape:

…a good photograph isn’t measured in line pairs per millimeter, MTF functions, S/N calculations, or any of the other measurements that photography enthusiasts recite like religious mantras. The most important tools that are used to take good photographs are the human eye, the human brain, and the human heart.

And finally, a little music. I’m not going to provide a bunch of links to online information about Ry Cooder — there’s a ton of it out there. I will say that if you don’t know his work, at all, I think you’re in for a treat. The number which follows (not one of his hits, but a performance I’ve always been fond of) is a straight-up instrumental version — a re-visioning — of an Ike & Tina Turner number called “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine.” Here’s what Rolling Stone said of the number in its review of Cooder’s 1979 Bop Till You Drop:

Cooder’s instrumental version of “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine” takes the sweet growl of the Ike and Tina Turner original and sets it against some easy, sexy self-assurance. Ike and Tina made this number into a toe-to-toe at midnight, but Cooder’s version is full of relaxed and low-slung afterglow.

“Relaxed and low-slung afterglow”: love that.

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* whiskey river’s “commonplace book” is what the site’s author calls its archives. Unlike most blog archives, though, whiskey river’s are not strictly speaking chronologically organized: “They are arranged here in random order, the way they were found.”

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Overwhelmed by Ursula Vernon

'Overwhelmed,' by Ursula VernonOkay, look — so I don’t have kids of my own, and my niece and nephews and stepkids are all grown and the next generation is still somewhere out on the misty horizon.

But I keep coming across these nominally “children’s” books which I then wish I had a non-adult excuse to read. Much of the credit (or blame) for this must be placed at the doorstep of the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, whose focus is principally (but not exclusively) on children’s and young-adult books. (The 7-Imp innkeepers, Eisha and Jules, are school librarians.)

Once a week, 7-Imp features the work of a single children’s-book illustrator. This week, the subject was one Ursula Vernon.

Vernon apparently came to children’s books after first succeeding in the Web comics world, as the writer and artist behind Digger, which she describes thusly:

…it is a story about a particularly no-nonsense wombat who finds herself stuck on the wrong end of a one-way tunnel in a strange land where nonsense seems to be the specialty. Now with the help of a talking statue of a god, an outcast hyena, a shadow-being of undeterminate origin, and an oracular slug she seeks to find out where she is and how to go about getting back to her Warren.

That sounds rather… well, precious — right up until you hit the “outcast hyena/oracular slug” part. And indeed, despite her fascination with cute and furry creatures, Vernon does apparently have a knack for putting them in dire straits, depicting them as dangerous characters, and at the very least writing — and writing damn well — about them.

The picture at the top right, for example, is titled “Overwhelmed.” I discovered this and other outstanding bits of her work in her gallery at the DeviantArt site, where she says of “Overwhelmed,” briefly:

And once again, we prove that Ursula trying to do angst = hamsters.

Oh, well. At least they’re expressive little buggers.

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Death of a Jacket

There’s so much news every day. Who can keep up with it all…?

For example, I’m a couple-three months behind the curve on this:

One of the central works in the exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (until 12 May), Victimless Leather, a small jacket made up of embryonic stem cells taken from mice, has died. The artists, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, say the work which was fed nutrients by tube, expanded too quickly and clogged its own incubation system just five weeks after the show opened…

Ms Antonelli says the jacket “started growing, growing, growing until it became too big. And [the artists] were back in Australia, so I had to make the decision to kill it. And you know what? I felt I could not make that decision. I’ve always been pro-choice and all of a sudden I’m here not sleeping at night about killing a coat…That thing was never alive before it was grown.”

Will wonders never cease? Apparently not. Just for starters, what are the odds that a work of art made from mice would have originated with an artist named Catts?

(More details on the Victimless Leather project from Wired, a few years ago.)

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The First Blank Page

Drawing by Edward Gorey

For reasons which I’m not sure I could articulate, I love this drawing without reservation. (Click the image for a larger version.) It’s from a page in 2007’s Edward Gorey “Page-a-Day” calendar and I’ve kept it around on various computers, trying without success to make it work as a desktop wallpaper. (Icons are inconsistently legible when layered over it.) Perhaps I must get used to just knowing about it, without ever using it in some way.

(If there’s anything guaranteed to p!ss a writer off, it’s knowing about something which can’t be used.)

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“About suffering, they were never wrong…”

Bruegel: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Last weekend, The Missus and I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. By the time you’ve seen (say) your 500th painting in one day, it’s tempting to claim they all look pretty much alike. Tempting, and wrong. Many of them sort of blend together, true. (In the Renaissance galleries, I lost count of the number of paintings titled “Portrait of a Young Man.”) But some always stand out, and leave their hooks in place long after you’ve laid eyes on them.

The painting above was done by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1558; its title is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. (You can click the image to see a larger version.) It looks unremarkable, on first glance: a fairly typical (albeit expertly done) late-Renaissance rendering of a fairly typical pastoral/nautical subject. A — yes — a landscape.

But Icarus? Where’s Icarus?

Just in case you don’t know the Greek mythological story, here’s Wikipedia’s brief version:

Daedalus fashioned a pair of wax wings for himself and his son [Icarus]. Before they took off from the island, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea. Overcome by the sublime feeling that flying gave him, Icarus soared through the sky joyfully, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted his wings. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms. And so, Icarus fell into the sea…

So then. In the painting, Icarus must be falling. Perhaps in that bright sunlight-glowing area of the sky, just right of center; such an intensely lighted area certainly draws the eye… No? Then maybe it’s what the shepherd is looking up at — after all, he’s placed dead-center in the painting, so he must be important. Right?

Well, no. Here’s where Icarus is:

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