They were dubbed by my siblings and I as “The Dukes” (Mother) and “The King” (Father). When and why the names were adopted I can’t remember anymore, but it seems fitting. Fitting here b/c they are the two most difficult subjects for me to photograph (hitherto). It is not b/c of tortured baggage – I would not pretend anything that compelling – but it is b/c with ones parents there is something fundamental and unaffected, and something also myriad and unutterable. They’re our kings and queens, our cardinal gateway. Naturally one’s ideas or proclivities are not bowed to by one’s king or queen. Generally it’s the other way around. I’m sure you can understand what I’m getting at, how a Duke and a King aren’t easy subjects.
I was taking these immediately after looking through some photo albums with my mom, snaps from child-hood of us in gondolas, of us petting odd animals, of us dressed up. Upon realizing my early childhood is at best scattered, illusive fragments as far as my memory goes, I commented to my mom, it’s amazing how little we remember, you know, how forgetting it so natural… She offered in response (with not a trace of irony), that’s a good thing.
Dark, Dukes, for God’s sake, dark.
Also, a poem the author, Haven Kimmel had sent me:
OCEANS I have a feeling that my boat has struck, down there in the depths, against a great thing. And nothing happens! Nothing . . . Silence . . . Waves. . . . --Nothing happens? Or has everything happened, and we are standing now, quietly, in the new life? Juan Ramon Jimenez tr. Robert Bly
Which for some reason I think makes sense perfectly here.
I’ve been having a certainly wonderful and kind of ecstatic email conversation with the author Haven Kimmel. We started on the topic of Avedon and Ezra Pound, but quickly found ourselves immersed in topics as various a Faulkner and God, insomnia and work, Milanese art collectors and, then of course, wedding gowns, taxidermic lions in the rearing-ferociously position and inordinately sized dogs in the sleepy-supine position, and, so on and so forth. At some point in the conversation Haven pointed to the Southern photographer John Rosenthal. Excellent! Needless to say, knowing my proclivities, you’ll quickly understand why I think this is brilliant work, or to quote Haven, “ambrosia.”
And of this second picture I’ll quote Kimmel again who explained the print to me, “Rosenthal was walking through a cemetery in Wilmington, NC, and he came across this man digging a grave. It turns out it was the family’s cemetery for three generations, and they allowed no machinery over the graves, so everything was dug by hand. Bellamy [the gravedigger] was a man of intense pride and dignity. Rosenthal asked him if he could take a photograph of him, and Bellamy, ‘You may take one.’ And this is it:”
I feel like the universe just grew.
As far as I know, very often overlooked in the canon of American photography is Ray Metzker, and I suggest seeing his work whenever you have a chance b/c he takes the formal conventions of photography to their maximum. In effect, through such things as double exposures, cropping, or something as simple as displaying in diptychs, he takes every day realities and creates new realities – and not in the simple Winogrand sense of photographing things to “see what they look like photographed,” but in a more deep, controlled, and impressionistic sense of transforming things in an act of creating truths.
Making work that is autotelic like this is something…well, let’s just say it’s not exactly the style of the moment; that is, creating with politics that refuse conventional politics/content – and it’ll have trouble ever becoming fashionable b/c in a way it is something that has to be done in silence, and silence, needless to say, doesn’t sell. To be clear, I don’t write here thinking in terms of the old Romantic vain of l’art pour l’art, but I mean something in the post-post-modernly sense of, say, the “inaesthetics” of Alain Badiou, were art can be “immenent” and not mimesis (see his text, The Handbook of Inaesthetics). Though, stubbornly, I’m still grappling with the mathematical and inhuman definitions of art in Badiou’s approach, but that is another discussion for another time.
Maybe 100 times I’ve walked by Dashwood Books on Bond street w/o walking in until today, and boy that walking in was a bit of mistake as I was hoping to make it to the grocery store but instead managed to absolutely loose myself for over an hour in the small store. It’s a little space, rather sparse, housing only photography books, but every title is of such interest and quality I spent more time in there than I’d ever spent in the photography section of Strand. If you’re in NYC check it out. It’s right across the street from Chuck Close‘s studio. You might see him out sitting in the sun. And, well, I find a picture of Close’s studio entrance more intriguing than a picture of entrance to Dashwood Books, so…
I guess I could say getting old is a sad process that betrays much of human nature, that family brings both the most joys and the most pains in life, that people rarely change and if so only on their own terms, that you can learn something from everyone around you…and so on. But instead, I’ll turn to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (someone once said, and I paraphrase, that everything a man needs to know in life is in this book, a bit of a hyperbole probably, but I’m not sure it’s so far from the truth: reading it is like taking counsel from a prophet), so sitting next to my Grandpa, reading this novel, and thinking of the things you think of when in such a situation, a certain important passage from effected me (and I’m not religious in this sense, but just as much can be taken from this passage w/ a secular interpretation).
Much on earth is concealed from us, but in the place of it we have been granted a secret, a mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossibly on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, and it lives and grows on through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened and destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.
-from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Anyway, enough of that.
I thought of just sharing the above picture, but here are two more.
This is a recording of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as prevalent today as it was when he originally read it I believe.
audio: William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Delivered, Dec 10, 1950 in Stockholm Sweden
If you drive fast straight east from Portland for approximately 3 hours you’ll pass within about 9 miles of this place. It’s the kind of place that conjures absolutely nothing in the imagination. It’s a desert of sorts.
“Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucination of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death. -DE SELBY”
Epigraph from The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.
Dubbed part of the holy trinity of modern Irish lit – alongside Joyce and Beckett – Flann O’Brien’s (born Brian O’Nolan) piece of mastery At Swim-Two-Birds is a must must must (etc) read for one and all. Joyce and Beckett had super smart senses of funny, but O’Brien is of the laugh-your-guts-sore sorts. To the extent that I’d suggest to read him in private. No kidding. Further differences may be generalized as such: I recognize Joyce as one of the acmes of modernism, while Beckett I think is a key to a bridge between modernism and post-modernism, but of the three, O’Brien has his foot the furthest into the post-modern sensibility with his cobbled-meta-fiction and light yet somehow still dark humor that would later become so predominant with the late-post-mod-literature-of-exhaustion satirical writers like Barth, Vonnegut, and suchlike…
So, read O’Brien.
As usual this post begins in a bookstore, where I came upon Sally Mann’s beautiful and instantly classic book, Immediate Family. This book and I have crossed paths a number of times before, but up until now while looking at it I’d never thought of Caddy from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Now I can’t seem to separate them. If you know that Faulkner once wrote, to paraphrase, that the entire story of The Sound and the Fury arose from imagining the sight of a girl in dirty underwear climbing a tree, then the parallel may make sense to you too. That Mann and Faulkner’s works are both so intrinsically tied to the South and the gothicism of the South is also an obvious similarity.
Anyway, if you’ve not taken up either of these books, I suggest to.
On a separate note, it’s well known too that the title of The Sound and the Fury came from the Old Bards, Macbeth. I’ve always adored the passage, which is a soliloquy of Macbeth’s (and also a friendly reminder to read more Shakespeare):
It’s incredible for me to think of Nadar doing this kind of work, taking these kind of portraits, that in sensibility feel so modern, over 150 years ago. I try and imagine him in Paris during the peak of Romanticism, mixing with and photographing the likes of Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier, and living during this pique of beauty and aesthetic. Somehow this must come through in his portraits, yes? Maybe in the sense of the theatrical, b/c I’d guess, despite the admirable earnestness of their ideals, the Romantics might have been guilty of theatrics. Just as so many artists are. Regardless, there’s a sense that not only did Nadar know exactly what he was doing, but he also captured a certain spirit of a time and idea – which is something, considering he was working with photography in it’s infantile stages…though I guess the opposite line of thought could be true: that maybe such work is easier borne if uninhibited from the history of what’s come before… It doesn’t really matter. Just see that, as far as portraiture goes, there is a lot to learn from Nadar. (Mind you, I really know nothing about him historically, nor much about photographs history, so…)
To close, the Baudelaire poem, Au Lecteur, or To the Reader:
Folly, error, sin, avarice
Occupy our minds and labor our bodies,
And we feed our pleasant remorse
As beggars nourish their vermin.
Our sins are obstinate, our repentance is faint;
We exact a high price for our confessions,
And we gaily return to the miry path,
Believing that base tears wash away all our stains.
On the pillow of evil Satan, Trismegist,
Incessantly lulls our enchanted minds,
And the noble metal of our will
Is wholly vaporized by this wise alchemist.
The Devil holds the strings which move us!
In repugnant things we discover charms;
Every day we descend a step further toward Hell,
Without horror, through gloom that stinks.
Like a penniless rake who with kisses and bites
Tortures the breast of an old prostitute,
We steal as we pass by a clandestine pleasure
That we squeeze very hard like a dried up orange.
Serried, swarming, like a million maggots,
A legion of Demons carouses in our brains,
And when we breathe, Death, that unseen river,
Descends into our lungs with muffled wails.
If rape, poison, daggers, arson
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives,
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.
But among the jackals, the panthers, the bitch hounds,
The apes, the scorpions, the vultures, the serpents,
The yelping, howling, growling, crawling monsters,
In the filthy menagerie of our vices,
There is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy!
Although he makes neither great gestures nor great cries,
He would willingly make of the earth a shambles
And, in a yawn, swallow the world;
He is Ennui! — His eye watery as though with tears,
He dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah pipe.
You know him reader, that refined monster,
— Hypocritish reader, — my fellow, — my brother!
Translated by: William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Portraits have been keeping me up at night. You could say I’m obsessed. The thing I want to say is that taking a portrait is easy, so easy, but to take a great portrait – and I mean great – may be one of the most challenging things to do in photography. What is a great portrait? I’ve no idea; there are no rules; I figure it just is. But I don’t want to belabor all of this. So for fun I thought I’d combine two of my favorite things, Literature, or writers rather, and portraits…
First, Joyce by Abbott. The other day I read (I forget where) the perfect description of Joyce, calling him, the Einstein of Literature. Perfect b/c Joyce, like Einstein was a genius: a brilliant, creative mind. When you read Ulysses, you are shared the thoughts of someone who’s ability to think and use language is well beyond normal. And then when you read Finnegan’s Wake, you experience that same thing but you watch it run away from you and normal comprehension. Then you see this portrait, and you see how fragile that genius must have been. Joyce looks like he knows something we all don’t, and that thing he knows is sad…maddening even.
Then two from H.C. Bresson. These speak for themselves. The Matisse (not a writer, I know, still…) portrait I think is absolutely wonderful, but, overall what strikes me as interesting about these Bresson portraits is that he was working with a sensibility that is standard convention in todays celebrity portraiture. That is: the fostering of a concept of the person. Yes, the figures Bresson was working with were famous, but it seems to me that Bresson worked to further the ethos of this public persona through his images. The painter with his birds. Camus the, uh, renegade intellectual looking, well, renegadish. Maybe what I’m seeing is obvious, but it strikes me as something I wish to applaud Bresson for: he understood the power of simplification…stereotypes if you will.
And of course Avedon… Beckett I suspect was probably one of the hardest people ever to photograph. His hyper-awareness of the situation and all levels of what was happening would probably inhibit him from any sort of action, paralyze him even. You could imagine he was a calculating man, in a good way, in a smart as hell way. Where, on the other hand, you have Pound, who would probably be easier to photograph, to say to least. Though, the fragility of his state of being might break my heart, watching him out on the fringe, precarious.
And finally, Pynchon. The recluse. This I assume is from a old high school yearbook…?
I’m moving again this week, back into Manhattan, and things have been busy on top of that and probably will remain to be until after Aug. So it may be slow going on the ol’blog here. I do have some new NYC Journal work, but my scanner broke, so that’ll have to wait.
For now I’ll post Beckett’s last poem, “What is the Word.”
WHAT IS THE WORD
for Joe Chaikin
folly for to -
for to -
what is the word -
folly from this -
all this -
folly from all this -
folly given all this -
folly seeing all this -
what is the word -
this this -
this this here -
all this this here -
folly given all this -
folly seeing all this this here -
for to -
what is the word -
seem to glimpse -
need to seem to glimpse -
folly for to need to seem to glimpse -
what is the word -
and where -
folly for to need to seem to glimpse what where -
what is the word -
over there -
away over there -
afar away over there -
afaint afar away over there what -
what is the word -
seeing all this -
all this this -
all this this here -
folly for to see what -
seem to glimpse -
need to seem to glimpse -
afaint afar away over there what -
folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what -
what is the word -
what is the word
This poem was found on Avedon’s bathroom mirror after he died – now, this is not meant frivolously, but anytime a poem is taped to a mirror, it inherently becomes something touching and something more b/c it’s glimpsing two people, an author and reader, in a manner becoming a mirror itself. And this poem, well, this poem is moving in that it was Beckett’s last, and after a lifetime of writing, of trying to say what he needed to say through language, the poem shows him at the edge of language’s knowledge, peering into the unutterable, feeling it but unable to speak it, and still searching for more words, for that right word, and this search amounts to “folly.” It’s a beautiful poem of struggle and humility and art, and I think I can see what Avedon saw in it. (On top of Avedon, I suspect Wittgenstein would have taped this poem up someplace too.)
(More on Avedon and Beckett here.)
After the mention of Gaddis in the last post I wanted to offer this sentence in addition, from Carepenter’s Gothic. This is beautiful writing, the sort of sentence that one can read over and over…the simple act of reading it aloud makes life itself more beautiful…
From the terrace, where she came out minutes later, the sun still held the yellowing heights of the maple tree on the lower lawn’s descent to a lattice fence threatening collapse under a summer exuberance of wild grape already gone a sodden yellow, brown spotted, green veined full as hands in its leaves’ lower reaches toward the fruitless torment of a wild cherry tree, limbs like the scabrous barked trunk itself wrenched, twisted, dead where one of them sported wens the size of a man’s head, cysts the size of a fist, a graceless Laocoon of a tree whose leaves where it showed them were shot through with bursts neither yellow nor not, whose branches were already careers for bittersweet just paling yellow, for the Virginia creeper in a vermilion haste to be gone.
-Carpenters Gothic. ©William Gaddis, 1985. Viking Penguin Edition. Page 36.
And a Matisse,
Landscape at Collioure. Henri Matisse, 1905
The incessant media on what art is selling for unsettles me. Not b/c of the dollar amounts. Gawd, not at all. I think this stuff is priceless. But b/c what it does is perpetuates the, most often, inane myth of the celebrity artist and, more profoundly, the not inane at all mechanisms of Foucault’s “author function.” Not that there’s anything wrong with these two things if you’re also talking about the work, but when discussion of the work is completely overlooked…
Think. What if all art, all literature, all music was stripped of it’s maker, as though it existed in an ideal of formalism, w/o context or name, and it became entirely its form and the event of experiencing it? Would this change how it affects? Only a hypothetical, since…well the idea of anonymity intrigues me greatly, but so does putting food on my plate…someday I hope I can join Pynchon on an island somewhere, be neighbors and never know it.
I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.
-from his Nation Book Awards acceptance speech for JR in April of 1976
Andy Warhol, Green Car Crash, 1963.
Mark Rothko, White Center, 1950, Private Collection
One thing I envy about writers is that complete, brilliant endings are possible with their work. Photographers don’t have this opportunity, or good ones most often don’t I think. Photographs are vortices, snippets, transitory wisps…photographs may inspire reveries of endings but not supply them. Whereas writers, writers can spin the sort of ending that is like a divine arm sweeping out in a broad gesture of finality. These are the sort of ending that are nearly guilty of bathos b/c they’re usually the last honest moment where the authors’ earned, after much intelligent constraint, the right to let their form touch upon the sentimental, but they’d never be accused of any affront b/c the ending will moreover function as the final pique to the truths that the writer had built with all the pages that came before. This is all assuming it’s a good ending.
First, Fitzgerald’s picture
photo: no credit info avail, found here
and his final page of Gatsby (quoted from this full text source):
I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive. One night I did hear a material car there, and saw its lights stop at his front steps. But I didn’t investigate. Probably it was some final guest who had been away at the ends of the earth and didn’t know that the party was over.On the last night, with my trunk packed and my car sold to the grocer, I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Then there is Joyce’s portrait (which I think is perfect):
photo: no credit info available, found here
and finally his closing page of “The Dead” (quoted from this full text source).
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.