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Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.




Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann (2015)

I’ve been ambivalent about Sally Mann’s work for a long time — to put it kindly — and probably wouldn’t have read this if Wendy hadn’t gotten it for me for Christmas, but I’m really glad she did because I really enjoyed it. This is not to say that I’m any more enthusiastic about the work than I was, though. In fact, I’m probably less interested in the art than I was before, which was not much, but I’m a lot more interested in the artist.

I never had trouble with Mann for the reasons others did; the idea that she’s a child pornographer is ludicrous. I always thought she was more of a class pornographer, race pornographer, and history pornographer. The feral children eating homegrown food from roughhewn bowls and playing in the mud by the river seem to argue for the beauty and purity of an Appalachian noble savage existence, but always reminded me that those must be some pretty rich white kids to be getting their picture took with an 8×10 view camera, and that a lot of Appalachian kids are running around with no clothes not because of their parents’ theories on parenting but because they don’t have any fucking clothes.

Mann marches right into The Help territory in her memoir when it comes to her point of view on her race privilege:

“Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them … Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”

It’s interesting, I think, how her diction gets all gee-whiz vernacular and her syntax turns baroque here; it’s almost like she’s trying to not quite say what she’s saying. Further, almost funny, certainly sad, is Mann’s description of her current project, which consists of hiring black men as models and then taking their pictures. Such a project seems unlikely to cause Mann or anyone else to learn much new about power dynamics between blacks and whites. Now, if she paid black photographers to take her picture, that I might be interested in.

Then there’s history. I’m sorry, I know this is an insane thing to say, but anyone that makes a picture of anything with wet-plate collodion process, especially south of the Mason Dixon line, is playing on the viewer’s deep, semi- or unconscious attraction to nostalgia and historical amnesia. Any contemporary collodion photograph, in addition to whatever else it is saying, also says, “Don’t you long for the old days, when things were simpler and everyone knew their place?” Everything that Eggleston did to prove that the South exists in Kodachrome color, and contains automobiles and swimming pools and freeways, can be undone or at least undermined by a single sepia Mann landscape of a mournful live oak in its misty shrouds of Spanish moss.

So I don’t seem to be such a Mann fan; why did I enjoy the book? I had no idea what a character she is! And it’s a lot of fun finding out. I’m almost sure I’d find her immensely irritating close up — she’s self-absorbed, histrionic, and touchy, the kind of person who would cause you pain and find a way to make it your fault rather than hers — but she’s fascinating to observe from a distance. Smart as hell, full of feeling, with deep gusto for a good story, and such a huge and powerful sense of ambition that I can’t help but feel awed by it. No matter how you feel about the pictures, you’ll find this an irresistibly weird and engaging memoir.



KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”


The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis (2010)

710tNVz1QVL._SL1077_I suppose this might seem quite exciting and exotic if you didn’t go to Sarah Lawrence. If you did, you will likely be reminded, as I was, of everything you loved and hated about dear old Sadie Lou, and beyond that everything you still love and hate about art and artists.

The Woodmans are white and privileged and care passionately, in the Romanticist manner, about making art. They are all of them — father, mother, son, daughter — ambitious, insecure, massively narcissistic, and mildly talented. The daughter, Francesca, the sine qua non of this movie and the family’s small, self-gnawed niche in art history, is not necessarily any more talented than any of the others, but she is, we are led to believe, the most ambitious, the most insecure, the most massively narcissistic, and — the documentary seems to want us to make a causal connection — the most successful.

Though not in her lifetime. The poor young woman killed herself at 22. She was upset a boyfriend, upset her work wasn’t being seen, upset about not getting a grant from the NEA. So she killed herself, at 22, and then became successful.

We’re reminded of Sylvia Plath and think forward to Sarah Kane, but may I say out loud what I hope I’m not the first to think? We’d be reading Plath and watching Kane even if they hadn’t killed themselves. Do we know that about Woodman? If she hadn’t self-mythologized and been effectively marketed by her craven and jealous parents, and had instead lived to a ripe old age making emo self-portraits in beautifully empty studios in Tuscany, would anyone remember these photos except the RISD professors and students who thought she was so cool and intense and enviable at 21?

I’ve seen a lot of contrasty nude self portraits made by incandescent from-money up-all-night white girls with dirt in their hair. The broken furniture casting Caligari shadows under hot lights, the Man Ray motifs, the double exposures symbolizing this, the long-exposure blurs symbolizing that. In college in the 80’s those photos seemed revolutionary and way better than Titian. But then I grew up, and some of those girls did too, and we learned that making art isn’t about passion, and it sure as hell isn’t about whether or not you get an NEA.

I am not blaming or belittling Francesca Woodman. She was a talented and vibrant young woman and her death was a tragedy, and she may have become a good artist had she lived. I am a little bit blaming her parents, who obviously instilled in their daughter early on and in dangerously concentrated form the shibboleths of Romanticism. I am additionally blaming the 20th century for conceiving of the idea that a young woman making nude self-portraits is always to be read as self-empowering and never as self-objectifying. I am mostly blaming Western culture in general. It’s amazing any of us get out of it alive! Oh wait.


Detroit City Is the Place to Be, Mark Binelli (2012) & Detropia, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (2012)

I’m a proud Michigander but I come from the west side of the state and the far east has always been something of a gleaming mystery to me. I knew the auto industry had built Detroit and that when it collapsed Detroit collapsed, and I knew about the white flight to the suburbs, Devil’s Night, the 1984 Tigers, Philip Levine’s poems . . .  Well really I didn’t know much; I knew about as much as a kid from Poughkeepsie knows about Bed-Stuy. But still, Detroit is bound up with Michigan (in a much more meaningful sense than New York City is with New York State), and Michigan’s my home, so I’ve always felt some affinity; I just haven’t known what with exactly. Recently, Detroit’s come to my attention in a lot of ways both direct and indirect, though, and I feel like I’m moving (sliding?) toward some more tactile understanding of the place. I’ve had the chance to visit for the first time in years; I’ve been reading more and more about the place in the news in the wake of its recent spectacular fiscal meltdowns; I’ve had frequent occasion, in my beloved New Orleans, to draw analogies to Detroit (ruin/beauty, opportunity/inertia, etc.); and my reading of visual art periodicals has featured lively debates about the ethics of “ruin porn“–an issue that I also think about a lot in New Orleans.

I remain, of course, totally ignorant about Detroit, though I think I do understand that the smarty-pants interloper (usually white) who comes along to explain the place to its supposedly benighted (usually black) inhabitants is one of the most reviled members of the local fauna, so I’m smart enough at least to profess my ignorance! There’s a great scene in Detropia where a couple of white hipster European 20-somethings come into a coffee shop clearly so pleased with themselves for coming to Detroit instead of the more predictable destinations like New York or San Francisco, like so pleased with themselves that they seem to be looking around waiting for someone to congratulate them on how cool they are, and the African-American barista just looks at them like . . . I don’t even know how to describe that look.

Detropia and Binelli’s book are nice companions. The movie, like Ewing and Grady’s excellent Jesus Camp, has no voice-over narration telling you what to think or feel about what you’re seeing; it just follows some people around as they go about their business in Detroit and reflect aloud on how it was, how it is, and how it could be. Binelli’s book, on the contrary, is super chatty. Binelli grew up both in and around the city of Detroit. (Those are important prepositions. If someone tells you he grew up “in” Detroit, and he is white, try this: Say, “Wait, in Detroit? Or around Detroit?” He will almost certainly blush a little and confess to an address well beyond the city limits.) After living elsewhere for a long time, he returned and lived smack downtown for some years as a reporter, during which time he wrote this book. The writing is smart and funny, a little shaggy in spots but all in all a really nice blend of solid reportage and color commentary. I won’t go into detail about the contents; suffice to say that if you’ve got more than a passing interest in the city’s current situation, this is a lively and useful overview. I’m still a dumb farm kid after reading it, but a little less dumb.

P. S. I’m also going to mention here while I’m at it a project by Brian Widdis and Romain Blanquart called Can’t Forget the Motor City, in which Widdis took b/w photos of Detroit landscapes and Blanquart color portraits of Detroit residents. The idea was to show the life in the place rather than the decay and I think the results are terrific. That image up there is one of Blanquart’s.


William Eggleston in the Real World, Michael Almereyda (2005)

It’s dangerous to learn too much about the weird puny humans behind the artworks you love. Bill’s a little lovable in this, but he’s also petulant, selfish, drunk, and stupid.

I was interested in his process, though, which seems to involve taking a billion pictures and then guessing which of them are wheat and which are chaff. I say “guessing” advisedly; the resistance to valuing wheat over chaff is exactly at the heart of Eggleston’s achievement in much the same way it’s at the heart of John Ashbery’s. I’ll also go so far as to say that just as you can’t write a contemporary American poem without invoking Ashbery’s presence or absence as you do so, you can’t take a contemporary American photograph without similarly admitting or excluding Eggleston.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the recent lawsuits involving Eggleston’s estate making additional prints of images that were supposed to be limited editions. These cases seemed to me delicious and hilarious in their irony. Eggleston is all about surfeit.

Finally it was interesting to realize, watching this, that though the South remains in many ways foreign and mysterious to me despite my dozen-odd years here, there are some character traits, attitudes, social strategies, and modes of dissimulation I have come to recognize as characteristic of a certain set of the populace here. Men both dreamy and mean, lost and ambitious, needy and oblivious, mournful and contented. And the inscrutable women who mix their drinks and then pretend to scold them for being drunk.

Anyways. It made me a sad in the best ways.


Touching Strangers, Richard Renaldi (2007-)

20130703-lens-renaldi-slide-1BCB-custom1It’s not a fancy idea. Renaldi approaches people, asks them if they’re willing to pose touching a strangers, and then he photographs them with his 8×10 view camera. But I do love a lot of these. Moral of the story would probably be something like it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. The series is here.


Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, Ben Shapiro (2012)

imagesWhat are we supposed to think about Gregory Crewdson? His photographs, some of which I’ve seen in person, are overwhelming, incredibly-detailed large-format prints of Hopper-like (sometimes more Stephen-King-like) scenes of small-town life. The melancholy rag man pushing his cart, the melancholy waitress exhausted after her shift, the melancholy working-class family sitting down to their melancholy supper. It seems to be about 1972; the downtown single-screen movie theater is still going, folks drive Dodge Darts and wear girdles, no one has a computer or a cell phone. It’s always either dawn or early evening, the light is diffuse violets, blues, yellows, oranges. They’re interesting to look at, very engaging visually, tons of details to observe, and the figures are often found in slightly mysterious acts, peering at each other in ways that are strange, or ignoring each other for reasons we can’t know. So fine, right? Not super interesting, but interesting enough, right? Well, there’s a bit more to the story. Crewdson’s probably less known for the images themselves than he is for the processes by which he obtains them, which are, in a word, insane. Entire soundstages are constructed, entire towns are brought to a standstill, when he decides to make an image. He brings enough infrastructure to make an entire movie, but he produces only a single frame. Looking at the pictures, I can’t help but have this sense of their extravagant staging present in my mind, and that massive assertion of artifice becomes, for me, a part of the experience of the work. Now add in the fact that the people and settings of the images are generally working-class and low on luck, and the aura of the artwork gets even odder. I’m looking at a hugely expensive, extravagantly faked depiction of a sad little invisible domestic drama on a dead end street in a dead end town, and Gagosian is going to sell it for probably around $100K. I’m upside down trying to figure out the political ramifications of this process. Is Crewdson a hero for suggesting that so much depends upon a tired waitress it’s worth spending three days paying a crew of dozens to set up a shot depicting her? Or is Crewdson a creep along the lines of the rich Swiss scumbags in Detropia (review coming soon) who have come to Detroit to enjoy themselves by admiring the city’s decay? Is he empathizing or exploiting? My guess is that he himself would have no idea how to respond to these ideas. Judging from his presence in this documentary, he’s not a terribly self-aware person. He has pictures in his head and he wants to put them on the wall, and this is how he does it.