Saturday, December 22, 2007

Greg McBride: IN-COUNTRY: DAY ONE, 1969

Duffel bag stuffed in the back, he bounced down
Cong Ly on the suicide seat. The sergeant crowed
they’d stolen the mud-scarred jeep the night
before on a whorehouse street in Cholon.

His starched jungle fatigues and boots, a joke
in a city of millions, .45 hard
on his hip. Dressed in yellow, Saigon hummed
like a factory. Fuel-stench hung like a scrim.

The sun seared down on angels in ao dais,
silk panels in a red soft as wet blood,
in the green of his mother’s eyes.
They skimmed the simmering sidewalks,

at ease in their beauty under the palm-leaf
shade of conical nons, the calm rise
of dry heat, skirts wafting in spiraled mists
of nuoc mam, the smog of fried steam rolls.

That night, he sauntered down Tu Do Street.
The bar girls called and the cyclos spat
their two-cycled rasp. Distant iron bombs dropped
from B-52s burst out of the dark,

laying a blanket of moans over him
and the street and the girls too young in the night.
He glanced at the stars and felt himself
holding onto his gun with both hands.

(first appeared in Connecticut Review)

More of Greg McBride's poetry.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday Photo (23)

Aristocrats Card (Street Trash Series), 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday Photo (22)

Untitled (Mall Series), 2007

Friday, December 7, 2007

Friday Photo (21)

Untitled (Mall Series), 2007

Friday, November 30, 2007

Friday Photo (20)

La Dolce Vita 2 (Cinematic Reveries)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Friday Photo (19)

La Dolce Vita 1 (Cinematic Reveries)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Friday Photo (18)

Le Sang d'un Poete (Cinematic Reveries)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Friday Photo (17)

Tokyo Story (Cinematic Reveries)

Friday, November 2, 2007

Friday Photo (16)

Les Quatres Cents Coups (Cinematic Reveries)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Finding a gallery—the mantra of the artist

Represented by three galleries in major markets, I still periodically find myself asking, “How can I find a fourth?” It’s the worm that eats at the artist’s brain. Feeding the worm can consume one, whether emerging or established.

Recently, favorable commentary about my work appeared on a blog. Traffic on my website increased dramatically and remains much higher than before the notice. The page most looked at is the gallery listing. This astonishes me, not because my work merits attention, but because it demonstrates the hunger of artists trying to place their work. (The possibility that viewers are contacting galleries about my work has, alas, been disproved.)

After visiting the southwest, a friend told me Sante Fe has tons of galleries and buyers, and my work is “perfect” for that market. I know the former to be the case. The latter may or may not be true, but—from the point of view of finding a gallery in Sante Fe—only a small factor.

It’s a truism that the artist trying to place her work should know the kind of art the prospective gallery shows. Visit the gallery, and so on and so on and so on. Make sure your art fits. Okay, but commercial galleries are businesses that sell products to customers, and a gallery’s business practices, which might be most important in determining acceptance or rejection, are opaque to the artist.

The business side of the art gallery is appropriately on the distant emotional horizon of the artist, who devotes energy to developing and maturing a body of work. What has the market to do with that? Nothing, until it comes time to place one’s work in a commercial gallery.

A “perfect” aesthetic fit between your work and the gallery? A first step, the only one you can control.

Here’s how my work came to be initially reviewed by the galleries that represent me. A friend introduced me to the gallery owner, an artist represented by the gallery recommended my work to the gallery director, and the gallery owner saw my work in one of her clients homes. I have never placed my work through a submission to a gallery.

Will I again send images and a resume to a gallery I find interesting? Probably. In the meanwhile, I work.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Friday Photo (15)

Ladri di biciclette (Cinematic Reveries)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday Photo (14)

Oklahoma Farm Outbuilding

Friday, April 6, 2007

Jacques Réda: The Correspondent

The time comes when I don't sleep for hours on end at night.
At first, I tossed and turned in bed like a crazed woman.
Then, sometime later, I began composing letters
To kind and faraway parties. I who know no one.
Now I see in the darkness, as on screens of distant
In the countryside, gestures in the dust of the stars.
It's me, speaking to break fields of daisies into bloom.
If I wanted, I believe I could put them on paper;
And I think my dreams deserve to be told, too.
In a white dress, I descend flight after flight of stairs.
At the bottom some people are anxiously awaiting me:
Oh! we've received your letter, my darling... It's midnight.
Chatting, they slip away under the floodlighted trees.
Somnambulistic automobiles silently pass.
The boulevards touch the sea's edge. And I laugh;
There, beneath the wall, you're compressed into a narrow shadow,
As in the childhood orchard, when I dared not utter
a cry.

Friday Photo (13)

Untitled, 2007

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Benjamin Franklin Eats Fish Again

In early June of 1724 Benjamin Franklin, age 18, sailed for Philadelphia after visiting Boston with the hope of borrowing money from his father to establish a printing shop. When the sloop was becalmed off Block Island, passengers took the opportunity to fish for cod. In his Autobiography, Franklin describes watching them clean the catch:

Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I considered, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelled admirably well. I balanced some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish take out of their stomachs; then thought I, “if you eat one another, I don’t see when we mayn’t eat you.” So I dined upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

He was drawn to discovering things. A year after observing the cleaning of the cod, Franklin wrote Quaker merchant Peter Collinson, who shared an interest in science, that he had been in a riding party when they saw a whirlwind pass close to them. “The rest of the company stood looking after it,” wrote Franklin, “but my curiosity being stronger, I followed it, riding close by its side, and observed its licking up, in its progress, all the dust that was under its smaller part.” Franklin continued to follow the whirlwind into the woods for three quarters of a mile, “till some limbs of dead trees, broken off by the whirl, flying about and falling near me, made me more apprehensive of danger.” The most widely known instance of Franklin’s interest in natural phenomena, of course, is the kite experiment.

It is no surprise, then, that Franklin was would closely observe fishermen eviscerate the stomachs of cod. The story is notable because Franklin alters his eating habits as a result of the observation. He explains later in the Autobiography that a pamphlet he wrote in London was wrong-headed because an error had “insinuated itself into my argument, so as to infect all that followed, as is common in metaphysical reasonings.” Rationalism is suspect. Whatever principles we use to guide us through life must be grounded in empirical observation. (The concluding sentence about the convenience of being a “reasonable creature” must be an ironic, humorous throwaway. After all, Franklin, adept at the comic remark, isn’t making a reasoned argument.)

We see the same distrust of the non-empirical in John Singleton Copley’s early portraiture. Copley, badly wanting to achieve the status of European academic painters, modeled his portraits after them, but couldn’t break out of his attachment to the empirical until the mid-1770s. Mrs. Joseph Mann, painted in 1753, the year before Franklin’s cod observation, is a very unpainterly portrait, what Barbara Novak has called a “monumentality of the specific.” Copley has difficulty disengaging from what he observes. As Novak observes, Copley's technique is “an embalming process.” In Mrs. Joseph Mann and other early portraits, he attempts to transfer what he knows by observation directly to the canvas.

The empirical tradition winds its way through American arts and letters. One of the earliest American empiricists is the great Jonathan Edwards. Fifteen years old in 1718 and already conversant with Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Edwards is observing nature and produce short essays on his findings. In his maturity, Edwards will find “Images and Shadows of Divine Things” throughout nature. Two hundred and thirty years later William Carlos Williams famously sums up the American attraction to empiricism in “A Sort of Song”: “no ideas but in things.” Between the two, many writers and artists have embraced the notion that meaning can be recognized only through empirical observation, in things themselves.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Friday Photo (12)

Car Wash, 2007

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Jules Laforgue: Pierrots (One Has Principles)

She said in her typically vain way,
“I love you for yourself”--oh, right, a likely story;
yes, like art! Settle down, oh dream of gold,
you're only fool's gold.

She went on: “I’m waiting… here I am… I don’t know”
Her look was as fake as the moon--
come on!-- could we have learned so little
from her down here?

Then one lovely but ill-fated evening,
she died--Great! change the subject!
We know you’re to be reborn on the third
day, if not in person, at least

in the fragrance, lushness, and flowing brooks
of summer months;
and, picking up more fools, you will go
to the veil of Gioconda, to her skirt.
I may even be one of them.

Friday Photo (11)

Untitled, 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sunday, March 18, 2007

George Herbert: Love

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

NYPL Exhibit: From Revolution to Republic

In 1800 Mason Locke Weems, author of the first popular biography of George Washington and creator of the story of Washington and the cherry tree, wrote to Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey, urging him to “put to press” an edition of Weems’s Life of Washington with a better portrait than the one his first publisher had printed. Weems included in his letter an engraving of the Revolutionary general Hugh Mercer, suggesting that Carey make it a suitable portrait of Washington. To us, who live in an age putatively concerned with truthfulness, authorship, and the rights of artists, Weems’s suggestion seems a bit crazy. But in 1800, using the work of someone else was common, and attributing the portrait of one hero to another was not unusual. The point for Weems was to have a frontispiece that appealed to his potential readers, most of whom had not seen any Washington portrait. The frontispiece had to more refined than the crude one that opened the biography’s first edition; its likeness to Washington was irrelevant in 1800. When demand for and distribution of Washington portraits dramatically increased during the next ten years, using portraits of men such as Benjamin Franklin to represent Washington became both undesirable and unnecessary.

While fictitious portraits of Washington compose part of the current New York Public Library exhibition “From Revolution to Republic in Prints and Drawings,” the exhibit's focus is “firsthand visual accounts of the major battles and scenes of the early Revolutionary period,” the library’s print specialist, Nicole Simpson, writes. “A number of them are by British and American soldiers who participated in the incidents they depicted, and they are often the most accurate, or only, contemporary depictions of these events.” Unfortunately, illustrations of most of these firsthand accounts are missing from the exhibit’s online version. Fragility of the pieces preventing reproduction, copyright problems? If only we could see Archibald Robertson’s sketchbooks. Even so, the available visuals with Simpson’s illuminating commentaries are well worth an online visit.

Cans: Two Buds

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Friday Photo (10)

Provincetown Fireworks (2004/2007)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Where Writers Live

“In Baltimore! We were lost. In Baltimore!” He paused to let Baltimore sink in. “Can you believe it?”

I could. He and a friend had wanted to see Edgar Allan Poe’s house. A spur of the moment decision, it lacked prudent preparation such as buying a city map or knowing the hours the house was open for visitors. As the question of belief required no answer, I waited for him to go on.

“It was raining. A helluva night, man. We found the house, though, after wandering around like mice in a maze. Jeezus. We walked up and pounded on the door.” He laughed, rubbing his balding head. An elderly woman answered the knock, he told me. “The place was open only by appointment, but she let us in. It was fantastic! Poe’s house! Poe!”

Lost in mid-sixties Baltimore. A rainy night. Rapping at the door. His Poesque tale rid me of the little desire I had to see Poe’s house for myself. What could the house offer that my friend’s story didn’t? Later, after I came to love Poe’s tales, the idea of seeing the writer’s artifacts struck me as a bizarre notion, as if visiting Cezanne’s studio would deepen my admiration of his Mont Saint-Victoire paintings.

Several years ago, when my wife and I had finished wandering through the historical museum of Wellfleet I asked our pleasant docent where I might find Edmund Wilson’s house. “Why, isn’t it a coincidence. You’re the second person this week to ask me that question.” You’d be wrong to think I was testing her. I listened carefully to the directions she gave us.

The sun shone, the late summer air was warm, and the beach crowd free. In the end, we didn’t bother with Wilson’s house. His journals would be within reach when we returned home from vacation. Browsing through them, I came across this entry about visiting Robert Lowell during one of his manic phases. Lowell

began telephoning in all directions and inviting people for dinner and for after dinner. Elizabeth [Hardwick] had counted on only four people. He invited his little mistress, and other young people—I suppose to cover her up…. It was already impossible for him to talk to everybody without flying off into a “free association.” I had told him I didn’t much believe in Frost’s poetry—in fact, that I thought him “a dreadful old fake” [Randall Jarrell writes that this was Wilson’s worst error of critical judgment]; but—or perhaps, in consequence—he called up the Frost’s and invited them to dinner. He told Mrs. Frost over the phone that I was a great admirer of Frost’s, and Mrs. Frost said that her husband would be so glad to hear it because he thought I wasn’t.

At dinner Lowell told Frost that Wilson wanted to ask why his reputation was “so greatly exaggerated.” Frost apparently took this in stride, discussing with Wilson various New England poets to Wilson’s satisfaction. The evening turned Wilson around, at least in his estimation of Frost’s intellect.

When a writer and his friends live in your library, why visit his empty house?

But I’ve no interest in arguing for my preferences. If Julian Barnes needed to make a pilgrimage to Rouen to visit Flaubert’s haunts, I’m happy for it; Flaubert’s Parrot is a terrific novel. Seeing a painting in Emily Dickinson’s house helped Barton Levi St. Armand solve the mystery of one of her images. Perhaps visiting a favorite writer’s home could offer a surprise or open an unexpected vista. Perhaps it could.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Poetry Wars

Dana Goodyear's long, strange article about The Poetry Foundation receives a reply from David Orr, poetry editor of The New York Times Book Review. The good news: poetry is worth fighting about. The bad news? I'll leave that to your judgement.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Friday Photo (9)

Untitled, 2007

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Photography and Contingency

I recently bought a camera with impressive features and capabilities. To master it, I’ll first need to absorb the camera’s thick manual. Then, shoot lots of photographs. Because failure is a daily part of creating art, I’ll have many failures ahead of me, if I set myself the goal of using the camera to create art.

Camera technology today makes picture taking nearly foolproof. Point and shoot. No need to have a complicated camera; today’s disposables do a fine job. It’s easy to take a good photograph. Taking an interesting photograph is another matter. Just as the best cookware is a pleasure to use, but unfortunately wholly ancillary to creating a great meal, using a professional camera is satisfying though it in no way ensures an interesting photograph. It’s not the tool. Amateurs using cheap cameras sometimes take interesting, even great, photographs. Thomas Walther’s Other Pictures is a fascinating collection of such photographs. However, snapshooters usually create work of interest by chance.

Most photographers like to minimize chance. They want to achieve a predetermined look—the look of advertising or fashion or the family photo album or a tableau . Unexpected results are unwelcome. The art director expects to get what she ordered. The family wants to relive the birthday or vacation. Both the commercial photographer and the snapshooter know a style—the conventions of photography—and adhere to them. When conventions are broken, surprising things may happen, but they are still failures

I welcome chance—the chance encounter and the unpredictable registration of something on film or the digital sensor. Part of my attraction to chance is psychological. By submitting to chance, I feel I relinquish control, and so am not responsible for failure. This is not true, of course; I control most of what I create. And only I decide whether or not my creations are of interest to me (or possibly you).

But what about the more important, deeper implications of chance? What is the relationship between the philosophy of chance and the aesthetics of chance? These questions came to mind as I thumbed through my copy of Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. No philosopher, I enjoy reading philosophy occasionally. Its extended arguments give me pleasure, and nearly always raise interesting questions. Some are worth unpacking, even by armchair readers of philosophy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Cans: Diet Pepsi

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Mower Against Gardens

Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,

Did after him the world seduce,

And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,

Where nature was most plain and pure.

He first enclosed within the gardens square

A dead and standing pool of air,

And a more luscious earth for them did knead,

Which stupified them while it fed.

The pink grew then as double as his mind;

The nutriment did change the kind.

With strange perfumes he did the roses taint,

And flowers themselves were taught to paint.

The tulip, white, did for complexion seek,

And learned to interline its cheek:

Its onion root they then so high did hold,

That one was for a meadow sold.

Another world was searched, through oceans new,

To find the Marvel of Peru.

And yet these rarities might be allowed

To man, that sovereign thing and proud,

Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,

Forbidden mixtures there to see.

No plant now knew the stock from which it came;

He grafts upon the wild the tame:

That th’ uncertain and adulterate fruit

Might put the palate in dispute.

His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,

Lest any tyrant him outdo.

And in the cherry he does nature vex,

To procreate without a sex.

’Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,

While the sweet fields do lie forgot:

Where willing nature does to all dispense

A wild and fragrant innocence:

And fauns and fairies do the meadows till,

More by their presence than their skill.

Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,

May to adorn the gardens stand:

But howsoe’er the figures do excel,

The gods themselves with us do dwell.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Friday Photo (8)

Red Lips (Mall Series), 2006

Marie Watt's Blankets

Visiting Boston several years ago, my wife and I happened upon a Newbury Street gallery exhibiting contemporary works constructed with fabric. Among them were Marie Watt’s small blanket pieces, the first of her blanket constructions that I had seen. I hungered for more.

The announcement of Marie Watt’s new show at PDX Contemporary Art in Portland, Oregon, arrived in my mail this week. I wish I could travel to Portland for the show. Instead, I’ll pour over images of Watt’s work on the gallery website.

Watt, a Portland-based Seneca artist, draws on Native American traditions and materials. “I am interested in human stories and rituals implicit in everyday objects,” she has written. “I find myself attracted to the blanket’s two- and three-dimensional qualities. On a wall, a blanket functions as a tapestry, but on a body it functions as a robe and living art object.” Her interest in everyday objects and the varied dimensionality of the medium bring to mind Jasper Johns, especially his groundbreaking flag and target paintings of the 1950s. Like Johns, Watt’s blankets play off oppositions: formal/informal and public/private. And like Johns, the blankets carry with them communal meanings associated with Native American traditions. Unlike Johns’ use of communal, depersonalized symbols (the American flag, the bull’s eye), Watt’s blankets also evoke associations with our most intimate and vulnerable activities. Tension created between these evocations and the rigorous formalism of Watt's constructions give her work extraordinary power.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Robert Rosenblum

I first came to Robert Rosenblum’s Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (1967) in search of antecedents to John Trumball’s painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In an effort to establish themselves as worthy artists, Trumbull and other eighteenth-century American painters emulated their European counterparts. The style that Trumbull and others worked to master was what Rosenblum calls Neoclassic Stoic, “a viewpoint which looked toward antiquity for examples of high-minded human behavior that could serve as moral paragons for contemporary audiences.” As well as classical antiquity, didactic painting had its origins in the rise of the bourgeois class and served its purposes. Warren’s death showed viewers an act of self-sacrifice at a time when self-sacrifice (albeit less extreme than Warren’s) was important to building the new republic.

Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1975) was crucial to my understanding of early nineteenth-century American landscape painting. He argued that, contrary to the traditional view that modern art emerged out of Paris, there was also an important northern mystical tradition that greatly influenced painters in both Europe and America. In painting of the “Protestant North,” Rosenblum wrote, “we feel that the powers of the deity have somehow left the flesh-and-blood dramas of Christian art and have penetrated, instead, the domain of landscape.” His exploration of this tradition in its early stages creates a kind of typology of Hudson River School painting. The concluding chapter of Modern Painting demonstrates that the Abstract Expressionists were trying to work through the same dilemma as Caspar David Friedrich one hundred and twenty years earlier. Rosenblum’s pioneering work opened up a line of thinking that makes us now take for granted the landscape characteristics and spirituality of Rothko and Newman.

Robert Rosenblum died on December 6, 2006. Today the Guggenheim Museum held a memorial service for him. Herbert Muschamp’s fine article about Rosenblum appears in The New York Times.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Friday Photo (7)

Because I'll be away the remainder of the week, the Friday Photo appears early.

Untitled, 2007

Goodbye Sunday Poem

I once had the unpleasant experience of becoming involved in an expensive lawsuit that could have had severe consequences. The extent of my involvement was determined by the legal concept (whose name I forget) of half-conscious but willful disregard. In the back of the mind one knows that such and such is wrong; since such and such is in the back of the mind, one does nothing to correct the wrong. On the other hand, since it is in one's mind, one is culpable. Fortunately, I was found to be not culpable.

In a gentle way The English Teacher has brought to my attention that I have been violating the law by posting poems that are copyrighted. I've poked around various sites regarding copyright issues as they relate to poems, and see that it's okay to use a poem of no more than 250 words, but not okay to post the poem on the internet. This is because one doesn't have control over the poem's use after the posting. I've been half-consciously and willfully ignoring these strictures.

One criterion that determines fair use is intentions. Mine were good. I thought that providing another venue for poetry would serve poetry. I believed that alternating the work of a not-so-well-known poet with a well-known poet would provide the lesser known with a wider audience. But, the Sunday Poem was really for me (as is this blog). I read and reread poems that I hadn't looked at for years. Reading poems became part of my week. And I sought out new poets with chapbooks or collections from small presses.

In the back of my mind I was concerned about copyright issues, for I posted the source of a poem, its copyright date, and the small © to indicate the poem was protected. The law might say I profited from the Sunday Poem, and so I did. My profit was attracting viewers interested in John Ashbery, David Edelman, James Merrill. Anne Bradstreet, whose poems I can freely post, would have appreciated these complexities.

Au revoir Sunday Poem. We may meet again if fair use relaxes its restrictions. Until then, I'll read poems in the privacy of my library, keeping them packed, away from public view.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunday Poem: Anne Bradstreet

On my dear Grand-child Simon Bradstreet,
Who dyed on 16 Novemb. 1669, being but
a moneth, and one day old.

No sooner come, but gone, and fal'n asleep,
Aquaintance short, yet parting caus'd us weep,
Three flours, two fearcely blown, the last i'th'bud,
Cropt by th'Almighties hand; yet is he good,
With dreadful awe before him let's be mute,
Such was his will, but why, let's not dispute,
With humble hearts and mouths put in the dust,
Let's say he's merciful as well as just.
He will return, and make up all our losses,
And smile again, after our bitter crosses.
Go pretty babe, go rest with Sisters twain
Among the blest in endless joyes remain.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Friday Photo (6)

Untitled, 2007

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Loneliness of Todd Hido

At a gallery talk last year Todd Hido paused a moment to comment on his photograph of house whose upstairs and downstairs windows emit an eerie blue light. “That’s the glow from TVs. Two TVs. I love that, when I find it. It doesn’t happen often.”

The average household in the United States owns 2.4 televisions and watches them 6.76 hours a day. It’s surprising that in his wanderings Hido hasn’t come across more houses with people watching televisions in different rooms. His love for the two-television house isn’t. Separation, isolation, and loneliness are characteristic of all Hido’s work.

Hido covered some personal history during his gallery talk. He didn’t, that I recall, mention Robert Adams, an obvious precursor to Hido’s landscapes and urban photographs. In Denver, Adams’ 1977 monograph of tract housing, industrial areas, and other inhabited landscapes, the solitary house is prevalent. Adams was influenced by the great painter of solitary houses, Edward Hopper. Unlike Adams or Hopper, Hido has no interest in the power of light to transform the ordinary into something transcendent. One feels that Hido’s internally illuminated houses lead the way down rather than up. They belong to the world of Poe rather than Thoreau.

Roamings, obviously not as dark as Hido’s nighttime photographs of houses, continues to portray the West as an isolating, muted and often weird landscape. Hido likes to shoot through his car window, a kind of veil between us and the land. The absence of people adds to the feeling of isolation. If we were able to step out of the car, we’d find ourselves in uninhabited territory; there may be houses, but they’ve been abandoned.

In Hido’s latest work, a portrait series, women look directly at the camera with intense ennui, as if the photographer had unsuccessfully attempted an intervention. The photographic portrait of disengagement, perhaps first raised to an art by Rineke Dijkstra, is now so pervasive that one wonders why Hido bothered. Though of a piece with his previous body of work, they add little to it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mall Windows

“That’s a small building for a school,” my son remarked. We were passing the church school, not a block from home
“It doesn’t look small to me,” replied his friend. “The building goes way towards the back.”
“It does? I never noticed.”
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
"Seven years. I can’t believe I haven’t noticed.”
“Maybe that’s because you live here.”

Blindness to the familiar may have evolved over the millennia to free us from attending to the commonplace. Seeing while not consciously registering our environment allows us to concentrate on more difficult encounters. This is a handy survival trait, but a hindrance if one aspires to “perfect sight.” The phrase is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s. To have perfect sight is to see beyond our everyday world. “What is a day?” Emerson asks.
“ What is child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting.” To see truly is to be affected by “the miraculous in the common.” Emerson thought this ability “an invariable mark of wisdom.”

Though the distance between being unaware of a school building and perceiving the miraculous may be great, the two lie along the same path. Emerson recommended starting the journey by “turning the eyes upside down,” so that one could experience “looking at the landscape through your legs.” Seeing anything anew is a first step toward knowledge.

For several years I have been trying to see with fresh eyes a ubiquitous phenomenon in our culture: the store window advertising photograph. “We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely notice their total impact,” the critic John Berger writes. In my experience, Berger could have eliminated the adjective “total.” During the countless times I have visited the mall, I have yet to run across anyone looking at a display window. And people to whom I’ve mentioned my interest often respond with quizzical looks. “What photographs?,” most say.

Scholarly inquiry about the cultural impact of advertising is vast. University courses explore the subject and I’d wager doctorates are offered in the field. For those of us outside the academy, Berger’s Ways of Seeing suffices. If there’s a more cogent brief critique of the display window images that populate malls across America, I haven’t found it.

Advertising photographs “propose to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more,” Berger observes. Indeed. Four years ago one of the department stores in the mall I visit had as its ad campaign an overt statement of this goal; lettered on each of the store’s windows was “Re-invent yourself.” Advertising photographs persuade us we can re-invent ourselves by “showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable.” We envy them because they are glamourous. Buying the product they advertise will make us glamourous too, envied by the unglamourous.

Glamour, Berger writes, “depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you.” To own the product is to distance oneself from others. The model in one mall display I photographed wears a tshirt that asks, "CAN YOU AFFORD ME?" Can you afford to buy the tshirt, the display asks? Can those who see you wearing the shirt afford to know you? Can they dare to associate with a woman who wears clothing that slyly evokes the streetwalker? That the tshirt raises such questions is part of its appeal. To be glamourous is to disregard those who see you. “You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest… It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images.” But not all mall images have unfocused looks; many gaze directly at us in a way that makes Manet’s Olympia look demure. Like silent sirens, they capture our interest with their gazes so we will buy what they have.

Is feeling the impact of mall window advertisements the same as being affected by "the miraculous in the common"? No, nor is it a mark of wisdom. Still, my re-photographed advertising images help me see what I might otherwise disregard, a step on the path to understanding.

Sunday Poem: Catherine Clarke

Why the Ride Is Longer on Certain Days

Ah the poor bastard talks to himself on the subway.
Books under one arm, nothing he says makes sense.
We avoid him, disconnected.
Want him to get off at Central, and he does.

He had hair the color of straw in sunlight.
Eyes. The man had eyes like anybody else.

The leaf is twisted but the tree is fine.
The tree is twisted but the land is fine.
So, the train moves on, in the dark,
too close to the walls. We cough.

I knew a girl who lived in a well.
She called and called, her long hair beautiful,
but no one came. We talk to ourselves.

It is light and impossible arms that we imagine.

Catherine Clarke, Red Horse (Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1981).
Copyright © Catherine Clarke, 1981

Friday, February 9, 2007

Friday Photo (5)

Untitled (France), 2006/2007

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Gone. Why?

I wrote the following essay in 1980, before Theodore Kaczynski became a household name and we began to find weekly missing persons flyers in our mailboxes. Paul Auster’s novel Oracle Night (2004), which I have yet to read, is based on the Wakefield and Flitcraft stories.

Newton, Mass. – As Christmas approaches, my stubborn, habit-ridden mind persists in recalling that my oldest brother has not and probably never will return home. Fifteen years ago, he failed to telephone the family on Christmas Day and has not been heard from since.

His disappearance has motivated my interest in similar dropout cases, and has led me to several unexpected findings. The first is that a relative’s sudden disappearance is not as uncommon as one might think. Thousands disappear from their families into silence ever year. A second finding is that the literature on the phenomenon is hard to find. While social scientists have examined the problem of runaway husbands and wives and children, they have not systematically looked the phenomena as a whole, as far as I can gather. Finally, and most surprisingly, only a handful of writers have written in any fashion about it, according to my findings.

Nathaniel Hawthorne is of the few to explore the motives and consequences of absenting oneself form one’s family. In 1835, a magazine published Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield,” a “not very uncommon” tale about a man by that name who tells his wife he will return in four days from a business trip into the country. Instead of returning, however, Wakefield takes up residence in a house on a street adjacent to his former home. From there he watches his wife for 20 years.

Like Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, my brother "went away like a fist when you open your hand"

With Sam Spade’s story of Flitcraft in The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett gave us a 20th-century version of “Wakefield.” Using words that precisely capture the sense I have of my brother’s disappearance, Sam spade says that one day Flitcraft went way “like a fist when you open your hand.”

Can Wakefield and Flitcraft tell us something central about the reason a brother, sister, wife or husband would unexpectedly break contact with the family? Do their stories explain why thousands arrange their own disappearance every year?

After his disappearance, Flitcraft is remorseless and oblivious to the similarity between his “old” and “new” lives. He falls back into the same routines, creates another family, manages another business, and goes to the country club as predictably as he had before. After his disappearance, Flitcraft is still himself.

I would rather believe in Wakefield’s end. After two decades apart from his wife, he steps across the threshold into his former home as unexpectedly and unexplainably as he had left. Life resumes in the “red glow and the glimmer and fitful flame of a comfortable fire.”

I would like to believe that all those missed by their families would some day return. At one time I did believe so. But now I cannot. Fifteen years have passed sine the Christmas my brother did not telephone. It is unlikely that more years of waiting will reunite him with us in the romantic glow of a Christmas hearth.

As the years have passed, my brother has faded until he lacks even the definition of a Wakefield or a Flitcraft. Like Wakefield’s, his motives remain obscure; like Flitcraft’s, he may now be whoever he was before he disappeared.

While this is not much to say, there is no longer much to say about it. The adult dropout’s motives, who he was, and who he now might be remain open, ineffable mysteries to the family left behind. Only the disappearance becomes tangible and complete.

Copyright © The New York Times, 1980

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sunday Poem: James Merrill

The Blue Grotto

                 for Mona Van Duyn

The boatman rowed into
That often-sung impasse.
Each visitor foreknew
A floor of lilting glass,
A vault of rock, lit blue.

But here we faced the fact.
As misty expectations
Dispersed, and wavelets thwacked
In something like impatience,
The point was to react.

Alas for characteristics!
Diane fingered the water.
Don tested the acoustics
With a paragraph from Pater.
Jon shut his eyes--these mystics--

Thinking his mantra. Jack
Came out with a one-liner,
While claustrophobiac
Jane fought off a minor
Anxiety attack.

Then from our gnarled (his name?)
Boatman (Gennaro!) burst
Some local, vocal gem
Ten times a day rehearsed.
It put us all to shame:

The astute sob, the kiss
Blown in sheer routine
Before one left the scene...
Years passed, and I wrote this.

James Merrill, Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
Copyright © by The Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University

Friday, February 2, 2007

Friday Photo (4)

Untitled (Mall Series), 2006

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sunday Poem: Anne Carroll Fowler

Hermit Crab

         Anything you lose comes around in another form

Part of yourself leaves in morphine dreams
and changes shape. You say last night
I was a pine tree, a scrubby beach rose,
a heron, stalking.
And remember
the night we lay on the grass
stared at the thunder moon.

I know you are afraid, but listen!
Hermit crabs outgrow their shells
and find others, bigger, empty--
whelk or periwinkle,
broken husk of a coconut,
coral or sponge. Some carry
their anemones with them
when they move.

Anne Carroll Fowler, Five Islands (Johnstown, OH:
Pudding House Publications, 2002).
Copyright © Anne Carroll Fowler, 2002

Friday, January 19, 2007

Friday Photo (3)

Untitled, 2004/2007