Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I've looked at clouds from both sides now...

More from Tent State! - the most perfect label.    Yesterday there were no clouds in sight anyway: today there were quite a few - but judging by the positioning of the notice, it's not attempting to be meteorologically referential.   It does, however, fit in very nicely with the ability of the narrator in Cortazar's short story "Blow Up" to become distracted each time another cloud formation floats past... "and again  the clouds begin to come, two at a time, three at a time," like they do.   And one's left wondering whether the clouds in the tale have any symbolic function, or not, just as it's unclear whether this notice has any purpose whatsoever.   Perhaps the artists was apprehensive that, without a descriptive word, we wouldn't recognize white fluffy things on a blue ground for what they are?   

They do, all the same, bear some resemblance to the wonderful clouds that we looked at very briefly during the course, photographed by Byron Wolfe: "The Life of a Cloud" is at the top of his web page, and is an idea of such wonderful simplicity that one's very sad not to have thought of it oneself.   Wolfe does a good deal of work with Mark Klett, especially in the area of rephotography - tracking down sites first stood on by photographers like Sullivan and Muybridge in the C19th, and seeing what's there now - and in the environmental recording and commentary on the American West more generally: their current show is in Phoenix, and will be traveling to the Autry in the fall... where I shall do my best, somehow, even with the travails of chairing, to catch up with it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

tent state

... or, in the first instance, a perfect example of how misleading the writing that appears within an image can be.   Because to anyone who doesn't know Rutgers's annual springtime sprouting of radical tents, Tent State, this could well look like some kind of camp set up by, yes, the Rutgers University Outdoors Club.   I have no doubt that they have a member or two or three living and sleeping and desperately trying to revise for finals in that tent, but the overall purpose is somewhat different from a celebration of hiking and climbing and digging useful pits.   Tent State has been pitched annually since 2003, and has migrated, as a movement, not just to other US campuses but to one or two - including Sussex - in England as well.   I'm very attached to its annual appearance.   First, it's a sure sign of spring on Voorhees Mall, together with the blossom and the weird blue coating that surrounds the grass seed that they put down for Commencement and that looks like rat poison.   And second, it makes me really encouraged and proud that there still are radical students out there... on some suitable occasion, I'll reminisce about occupying the Examination Schools in Oxford in 1973, for what seems now like the very tame cause of demanding a Central Students Union (only it was interventionist and anger-provoking at the time, and there still isn't a CSU ... what do we want? CSU!  When do we want it? Now!...   "now" is yet to come...).

Tent State was started in protest against funds being diverted from education into the Iraq war. I'm not completely convinced, still, of the total logic behind this, when it comes to the different disposition of state and federal funds.   But the protest against state cuts to higher education is even more relevant today (TS's website is remarkably conservative, I think, when it comes to discussing how much we're likely to be cut... within the School of Arts and Sciences, we're talking of up to 28% of the "cuttable budget" - that's after salaries and fellowships and scholarships etc etc have been paid.   That, in other words, is what departments live on from day to day - everything from paying for tuition that can't be covered from existing faculty and graduate bodies, to bringing in guest speakers and putting on conferences, to - and this is a big one - doing maintenance to departments and offices and classrooms.   And anyone who was in Murray 301 this afternoon, where we farcically tried to watch a color film (Blow Up) with direly imperfect blackout - including a broken blind behind the screen that projected a rear-lit pattern of sunstripes and, yes, broken blind into the middle of the image, and plastic blinds flapping and crashing against the windows (open because of the heat) in the wind - an exaggerated reference, I thought, to Antonioni's use of wind within the film itself - anyone who was there this afternoon in class will know exactly what I'm talking about.

Monday, April 27, 2009


This was turning out, I thought, just a little bit too Georgia O'Keeffe - and one can feel just a bit too over-exposed to her influence when one spends a lot of time in Santa Fe, so I was proceeding with caution, and wondering whether to try another angle or approach or... when I was distracted by a movement on the deck.   It was The Marauder.   I was shocked.               

There he was - quite shamelessly digging up lily bulbs, holding them in his pretty little grey paws, and nibbling.   It says something, of course, that I rushed for an appropriate lens, rather than banging on the glass and telling him to desist (but what good what that have done? the poor plant was no more...).   So I have broken my one-picture rule in order to tell a narrative (the tale, or for that matter bushy tail end of last week's class that looked at different kinds of story telling in photos) - and really, such shocking depredations have left me without words.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I've been experimenting with taking indoor photographs of flowers against a black background (a paper by Matt Prepis on Jonathan Singer's Botanica Magnifica was the initial stimulus here) Singer gives individual blooms a preternatural luminosity, but I wanted to move away from his emphasis on the individual portrait, and to suggest flowers in a more intimate, and less aloof relationship with one another (in other words, looking for something that wouldn't be a mere imitation - so far as an imitation is possible using natural light rather than studio light.   And I spent a lot of time moving lights around yesterday, and didn't come up with anything expressive enough (I think I was trying to force expression onto the anemones, rather than just getting used to the fact that I liked their color).   Today was marginally more successful, but in many ways all that I achieved was a deeper knowledge of a whole lot of technical skills that I lack.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Today was Rutgers Day - apparently well over 50,000 people attended on one campus or another, and certainly the sunshine and the tents and the clusters of red and black balloons made it surprisingly festive.   I taught two mock, or sample, classes on Writing and Photography, and in the first one Danny asked me why black and white photographs are so  much more emotionally evocative and appealing that color ones.   I replied that I didn't think that that was necessarily true - that I, at any rate, like to search for the interesting, the surprising, and the emotionally provocative within the effects of color that turn up in the world.

And yes, I'm particularly drawn to such effects when they occur in the haphazard abstract patterns of peeling and cracked paint and walls: this seaweed green and its attendant lighter patches is to be found on the stairwell of a downtown New Brunswick carpark.   I was descending with Barry Qualls, in full discussion about this blog, and about Rutgers Day, and hence posting an image that I paused to take half way down the stairs is the only logical thing to do.   This particular set of peeling and mending and repainting and generally trying to stave off decay has something of the displaced flower about it, but in general, many of these arbitrary arrangements of disintegrating paintwork are defiantly anti-representational.   So - more corners of the ordinary, to round off a week that's been full of them.

Friday, April 24, 2009


One of the real difficulties of taking photographs of the ordinary and the everyday - not the quotidien of one's own house, full of memories and associations and other emotional depositories, but the mundanely Out There - is that there's sometimes very little to be said about it.   On Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, this morning - a peculiarly clear and promising spring day - this simply just was.   What makes it, of course, is the entirely anomalous wreath - why would anybody bother stenciling it there?   It's a neighborhood full of tagging - there are just some little, discreet bits of gang-style graffiti here - of disintegrating stuffed black garbage sacks, of stray empty beer bottles, disinterred bicycles that have been stripped down to their sad frames, and bits of furniture that sit on porches not sure whether they are redundant or not.   So this little wreath, applied with precision, is a strange decorative statement, curiously precise, and commemorative, in its form, of something completely indecipherable.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


This was a tulip.   Yesterday, this was a happy, flowering tulip.   This morning, it was devastated, a wrecked set of petals, its stem wrenched from the bulb.   So who was responsible? Most probably the squirrels, who are very cute and furry, to be sure, but who are a blight, a serious blight, on our gardening ambitions.   Maybe it was a rather dear possum that I saw shuffling around late last night?   Maybe it was the big brown rabbit that I encountered down the street a few weeks back?   Whatever, the detritus fits today's class's theme of photographs of the ordinary, of waste products, of matter: photographs that emphasize the unarguable material existence of the world, and, in the face of being photographed, the democracy of all matter: a brick pathway, and some quickly fading and curling red petals have the same claim on our attention as anything else.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

cracking up

Tomorrow it's the turn of photographs about nothing - or about nothing much, or about the act of seeing, or whatever - a transition from narrative photography that we'll be making via Jeff Wall, and his series of Diagonal Compositions.    I'm very struck by his desire to show "the unattributed, anonymous poetry of the world" through photographing the overlooked, the casual corners of our lives - messy sinks, brooms and floors - even if I'm sure each last pail or bar of used soap is as carefully positioned as a Dutch still life.   More to the point, for my purposes, might be Ute Barth's series of pictures from her house - the nothingness of window frames and suburban gardens, yet continually shifting with the light, the time of day, the season - a series that she then continued into the light falling into her living room, its carpet and skirting board photographed again and again.   "My primary project," she says, "has always been in finding ways to make the viewer aware of their own activity in looking at something."

Here the "something" is the crack - the ever-widening crack - outside my office door at the top of 36 Union Street.   I took a  number of photographs of this today - and was amazed how differently they turned out - horizontal, vertical, with a bit of grubby curtain in the background, and so on.   I cheated, of course, when it came to choosing just one image of the day - here is the same crack, photographed with flash on the left (and flipped over), and illuminated by daylight and the faint red glow of the exit sign on the right.   But I love the abstract potential in what is, in documentary terms, a peculiarly crumbling part of our university's real estate.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

water horse

Evidently, I'm still playing around with the plastic ponies, trying to get used to their photographic vagaries: this one is climbing out of a plant pot by the front door that's completely awash after yesterday's heavy rain.   That pale ochre object over on the left hand side is a floating peanut - one of the many that have been buried around here by the squirrels.

There's a whole community - not one that I'll be joining... - of plastic horse photographers on line, I find: they have their own virtual horse shows, customizing their model equines (as I used to do when I was 9 or 10, admittedly), photographing them, and then submitting their images to be judged.   But they don't seem to pose them in quasi surreal settings (though there are, indeed, a couple of Breyer horses for sale on eBay that look as though they are grazing in lush and expensive paddocks), but go in for far more amateur hobby-ing, buying artificial grass (why?) and trees and fences, as well as stables and tack and all kinds of other accoutrements.   Now, again, I used to buy things with which to furnish my model stables: I'm sure that the person who sold me a pack of doll's house cleaning tools (plastic bucket, broom, etc) at the Wimbledon High School summer fete didn't think that these were going to be rushed home, unpacked, and instantly deployed as a feeding-and-mucking-out kit).   But these photographers seem to be adults, and extremely serious about their pursuit: there are even people out there attempting to make - well, probably, supplement - a living setting themselves up as model horse photographers - you send them yours, and they'll be captured grazing and prancing around a plastic studio.   This is a sub-group of professional photography that had never even crossed my mind that it existed.

Somewhere at the back of my mind is the work of an art photographer who, like me, has tried to recreate her childhood relationships with imaginary horses - I can't for the life of me remember who ... when I saw her work a year or so back I remember thinking Damn!  I'd been wanting to do this... I'll post a link if and when I find this - I don't think it's Joanne Leonard, who admittedly has at least one strange knight on horseback in her work - suggestions/memory jogs welcome...

Monday, April 20, 2009

bedtime stories

Narrative photography in class tomorrow: I'm unlikely to go out into the wind and rain and lightning to set up an outdoors scene, but this harks back to some of my earliest story telling practices.   I had very firm set bed-times when I was small - they advanced by half an hour a year, like the way in which my pocket money advanced 6d a year until I received 2s 6d a week when I was 11 (enough to buy a plastic pony.... but around 18 cents in today's currency...).   When I was 9, that meant that I went to bed around 7 p.m., I think (I was certainly in bed when my mother came upstairs to tell me that President Kennedy had been assassinated).   Retrospectively, this seems terrifically early - and probably explains why I never fell straight asleep, but lay awake for hours, reading (that was easier in summer than winter - though I doubtless stretched my eyes by reading by the light that came into my bedroom through the open door from the landing), running over the day in my mind (quite literally - trying to remember each thing chronologically - I thought the mental training was good for me...), and making up stories.   One of my favorite ways of doing this (with or without plastic ponies) was to puff up my pillow and then burrow, cave-like, into it, making a little dwelling place, with ledges on which imaginary people would sleep and hollows in which they and their animals could hide (really rather like the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelly - though I didn't know this at the time, I would have been fascinated by them).   Which, at a stretch, allows me to incorporate the Appaloosa into tonight's reconstruction of a site for bedtime stories.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


One more valedictory-style photograph for this weekend - the front steps of 962: my favorite view, with the orange tree in the foreground.   This has a large patch of blank wall on the left, not because I failed to find a more interesting angle, but so that I could put text on it: this image is the basis for invitation to our Leaving Los Angeles party in a couple of weeks time.

And even if transportation (flight to JFK, since it was the only remotely affordable one this w/end, and then endless LIRR and NJT) has made it a very long day - nearly 2.15 a.m. - I will still miss this crazed version of commuting, and the way in which the steps open out onto the terrace - whatever the very obvious plus sides!

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Another image of the completely everyday, though again, full of the knowledge of its transience. I was up very early - still on east coast time, and not much point in trying to settle down into PCT when I have to fly back tomorrow - so made some coffee and took it, and some toast and almond butter, out to the front step to watch Emmett whilst he took his morning prowl up and down the terrace, inspecting where the skunk had skunked on the geraniums.   I've always particularly liked picking up the paper in the morning (and wondering where the paper deliverer might have hurled it - it was with the trash cans this morning, though they seem to have given up, happily, on making it land on the spikes of the cacti).   There are all kinds of very early morning fresh smells (besides skunk), many of them coming off the orange tree, or dew on the pots of herbs by the top of the steps.   It's also - then and in the early evening - when 962 is at its most European, and this picture manages, partly because of its color, to look as though it's pretending to be Umbria or the Dordogne (it would make more sense to opt for the former, given the Deruta mug, and given the fact that I've never been to the Dordogne, and hence am relying on the visual cliches of tourism ads and travel articles, which usually feature geraniums).

But this also manages to be a picture about what we won't miss.   I was very glad, when leaving 16 James Street, in Oxford, to have gone around taking a number of images of spreading damp and mould and of widening cracks, most of these unattractive features carefully concealed at the back of closets.   This has acted as a wonderful visual corrective when I find myself missing that particular house - the use of photography to remind one about what one's relieved to be dealing with no longer.   One of 962's most scary facets is very visible here - the tendency of this house, too, to develop cracks.   There's quite a gap between wall and middle step, and that greyish powder is the cement dust from where, once again, it's being patched up.   And there are worse areas than this...

Friday, April 17, 2009


Photography of the everyday, of the absolutely ordinary, is on the class menu for this coming week - but one thing that is inescapable is the way in which such photographs are bound to overlap with photography and memory.   I'm in inescapable commemorative, proleptically nostalgic mode this weekend, knowing that every picture that I take here in Silver Lake is in many ways an archival object, trying to capture the essence of a perfectly lovely house in which I've been so very happy.   And there's little point in pretending that Highland Park, whatever its leafy - well, now that it's spring, its leafy - merits, including its quietness (as opposed to tonight's police helicopter overhead trying to rustle someone or something out of the next street, which is blocked off by a police car; zooming cars; and the inevitable ice-cream van playing Pop Goes the Weasel - or, as I found out today, this C17th London song transmuted in the US into "Round about the chicken house/The possum chases the weasel."   It smelled of skunk outside, this morning, but that's something else again).

What I've been looking for today are little corners of the unimportant that seem to signal decay, departure, the melancholic - a table with traces of former leaves and plants left in the grubby dust as though they were doing their best to photograph themselves onto the tin surface, a few fallen petals, a crumbled and possibly squirrel-chewed paper lantern on the deck. Because it's going to be heart-wrenching (more for Alice than myself, since it's really her house, but for us both) to pack up in June, I'm not so sure it'll be that easy to take valedictory photographs then: the freneticism is likely to block out the kind of calm that's necessary for the quiet perverse enjoyment of imminent loss.   Barthes wrote a lot, of course, about photography as a form of death, but - writing, as he was, in the midst of grief for his mother - he didn't really write enough about the power of the photograph to sum up the place that is no more, or at least, that no longer exists as one's habitual environment.   So I've been thinking how to do this (in advance) without falling into too many cliches involving, say, mist - which is, admittedly, rather absent from Los Angeles in April.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Albert the Interloper

Albert is most emphatically Not One of Our Cats.   He lives over the back somewhere from Graham Street, but visits occasionally in an extremely haughty way.   Despite being rather elegant in color and fur length (if not in figure - this is one of his better angles) he is also remarkably camera shy.

But this is not an excuse for another Cute Kitty picture - it's a post about what one can't photograph.   For Albert's world is ruled by smells.   He patrols the house trying to understand and trace the scents left by previous feline co-habitants of rugs and furniture (whether in England - RIP dear Pankhurst, Saffo, Charlie Mew and Ruskin) or here in Graham (Saff, again, in her dotage - and this is perhaps an opportune moment to mention that Saff and Panks had the honor of featuring on the first page of the Introduction to Margaret Reynolds's The Sappho Companion  and Emmett and Lola, and Mary-Rush and Brendan's short-furred squirrel assassin, Poots).   Albert is understandably fascinated by their many invisible traces, and that further got me thinking about how rare it is that a photograph prompts the memory of a smell, even if remembering a place through its smell is very potent.   For humans, there's a big mismatch between the visual and the olefactory.

Alas, an earlier and probably better version of this was swallowed by the wi-fi system on board a Virgin Atlantic flight to LA, which multiplied and swelled and distorted pages like crazy, causing me great apprehension about the state of my laptop... but all is well.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Believe me, I share the pain of those students who found all kinds of technical and emotional difficulties with the self-portrait assignment (not that they didn't negotiate these difficulties very well).   Tonight has been the first night in which I've been truly pushed into a corner with this blog....   Earlier today, I was very much taken by some late C19th photochrom images that someone else had posted to a web site.   Yes!  I thought - one of my smaller enthusiasms is trying to mimic old photographic techniques in Photoshop.   And - I checked - there was a tutorial on line as to how to perform precisely this conversion.   So I took an o.k., but in many ways Dull picture of Murray Hall, with good intentions...

...only the on-line tutorial was predicated on one using Photoshop Elements - and I have the full-blown CS4 - and the transition between the two isn't easy to follow - and after trying four times over I realized it was past 10.30, and I'm still trying to do teaching prep, and deal with administrative correspondence, and no one would want to see a very, very, very boring picture of Murray.   And I didn't have time to work out the techniques on my own.   And so here's an image of me looking quite disconsolate, and the only further details that I'll add belong to the realm of memory: this mirror was the only thing I've ever bought at auction, at a sell-off of architectural antiques in a yard in Jericho, in Oxford (shades of Jude the Obscure), and the deep red wall coloring is the identical shade that graced the living room in James Street, also in Oxford - a way, I guess, of carrying my former environment around with me by way of a chromatic scheme.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

off the range

I was proud of my class today - whether they were presenting orally, or handing in their projects, many of them came up with some stunningly imaginative, and technically inventive, self-portraits.   This image might seem to be a long way away from that particular exercise, but it's related.   Here are four new plastic companions who will be coming with me on the road this summer, on my crazed zig-zag of a road trip out west, and I intend posing them in a variety of locations and backgrounds, from the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn to the Spiral Jetty.   At least, that's my current plan...   

It's surprisingly difficult to take good photographs of small plastic horses, and I'm learning a lot in the process.   These are probably a hand high - that's four inches at the withers - that's their shoulders...  I've been using a macro lens, a telephoto, flash, daylight... and I have a lot to learn about converting their pretty decent modeled selves into good photographs: it's not that I want them necessarily to look like Real Horses, but I want them to look like the kind of horse that a young girl might be able to weave endless fantasies around... I'm not there yet.

I wondered whether to go the whole hog (if that's not an inappropriate animal for an equine context) and bring some of my old miniature horses back from England: not my Isis models (for I only have one left, a grey stallion, Cheviot - I gave the rest to my cousin Gaynor's daughter Ellie) - these were the British equivalent to Breyer horses, in style and size, only with flowing manes and tails, not moulded ones - but the little ones that were the equivalent of these ones.   But I felt more interested in recreating my sense of enthusiasm, of losing myself into this tiny world of heads and hooves, rather than trying to pay homage to my past horsey fetish objects.    I wanted new, Western-ish horses - one pinto, one near-palomino part Walking Horse, one Appaloosa, one feisty little grey dun mustang (at least, that's what they're most like - Target didn't offer a very sophisticated choice for $5.99 a throw.   But then, I wanted something that I might be able to afford if I were a nine year old, not some impeccable scale model).  What I hadn't bargained for is that it's precisely their small size that makes photographing them such a challenge, even when posed against a neutral background.   Old Faithful or Mount Rushmore or the South Dakota Badlands are going to be even harder...

Monday, April 13, 2009


Ever since walking past the window of Ten Thousand Villages in Highland Park yesterday - when it was closed for Easter - I had been fantasizing about purchasing this canvas yucca plant: a wonderful whirligig of off-white imitation leaves, with a tangled purity and simplicity to it.   Just the thing, I'd thought, for the plant stand on the turn of the stairs, which has had a very depressed (live) plant on it for a while, that (understandably) doesn't quite want to die, but doesn't feel very happy about growing.

So I calculated very carefully how much time I would need, and whether I could fit in a quick shopping trip between their opening time and a meeting I was heading for, and rolled up just after ten a.m., half anticipating a long line of people with exactly the same object of desire.   I picked it up.   No price tag.   I asked the not-very-helpful sales staff.   It wasn't for sale.   It was designed to draw people into the store.   Where could I get one?   Where had they obtained it from?   "They made it."   Who "they" might be wasn't specified - but "they are very artistic."   In fact, there's a web site that offers canvas yuccas, but they look a little less exuberant than this one.   I'll think about it.   Disconsolate, I had to console myself with stealing its likeness through the store window.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

happy Easter

This is an unashamedly seasonal picture: Highland Park is completely covered in white blossom, pale pink blossom, deep pink blossom, bright green leaves, deep pink leaves, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, crocuses, tulips (plain, striped, feathered), narcissi, and cats on front porches.   This is not an environmentally motivated photograph, just a celebratory one.   What makes it very different from an English spring (and English landscape and the fringes of leafy suburbia is much on my mind, having just finished Howards End for a grad class tomorrow) is the violent suddenness with which it all happens.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Not that it was at all spring-like today - very cold, very wet - and indeed tomorrow night a quite definite frost is forecast - but the leaves were doing their very best to unfurl from the damp trees.   I spent a very uncomfortable ten minutes or so trying to find the best way to take photographs of these soaked young leaves - a macro lens? a telephoto lens?  flash? and diving indoors to change from one to the other.   Some of the pictures ended up interestingly over-exposed, and gave off the impression that as well as rain there was a thick Scottish mist: this, however, just about conveys the idea that it looks as though it was quite hard work for the leaves to make it out for Easter.

Friday, April 10, 2009

forbidden ground

I've abandoned for now the melodramatically self-important tone that seems to come along with self-portraiture - at least for me - in  favor of fantasy.   One of the delights of going to one of my dentists, in - or just beyond - Rocky Hill, is this sign.   I always imagine the Painted Islands as being somewhere just off the west coast of Ireland - or maybe floating around in a marshy bit of bog, and hence unstable.   Or maybe one damages their colored lichen.   Or maybe they are just an illusion, floated there by demons, enticing one onto their slippery surfaces, their thin and brittle crusts.   And what may be so dangerous on the other side?   Somehow the sign looked very dull against still-wintry trees today (peculiarly dark and dismal, indeed, given the pale pink riot of cherry blossom and magnolia everywhere else), so it needed a little enhancement to bring out, if possible, the combination of the sinister and the surreally beautiful that's summoned up by the command.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I've set up everyone in my class to create a photographic self-portrait for next Tuesday, all too well aware of the difficulties in making choices that are involved in that particular exercise.   One marker of self is surely one's choice of tattoo; one's indelible label - and the more-or-less irrevocability of one's skin signage was what stopped me for decades from being able to choose whatever emblem it might be that seemed sufficiently adequate (and meant that, at the same time, I used to fantasize about writing a still unwritten short story about someone with a name tattooed on their fingers who, after their break-up, felt obliged to go looking for possible dates with that same name).   

Spirals have always appealed to me enormously - indeed I've just reserved a room for sometime in late May in Providence, Utah, so that I can go and visit Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, curling like a fern frond into the Great Salt Lake.   I think that I had in mind a Hopi spiral, which represents the number of journeys made by a tribe to the four corners of the earth - and more abstractly, an opening up of consciousness (something that seems pretty suitable for my general wanderlust, both physical and mental).   For other cultures, spirals have symbolized the sun, the universe in constant motion, life/death/rebirth, and dizziness.      Madame de Stael cheerfully noted that "the human mind always makes progress, but is a progress in spirals."

This particular spiral was in fact drawn by Amanda Odell, teacher, former Bread Loaf student, and jewelry designer - and this spiral was on a little tag attached to some earrings that she gave me, and it was a simple matter to hand it to a tattoo artist to be turned into a transfer.   It also has the merit of not being datable (what of this current celebrity fad of having large Latin quotations inscribed on one's shoulder, or a thin stripe of Hebrew down the back of their neck? And we know someone in LA who has the first hundred numbers, I should think, of Pi [3.14159265 etc etc] tattooed, very elegantly, on his arm, which I can imagine that one might get bored of).   But to me, there's something aesthetically and symbolically very satisfactory about my own skin marking: it simultaneously manages to be both highly personal, and non-shocking if on public view.    Although I was a little puzzled yesterday, when the doctor asked me if it was my only tattoo - the puzzlement came from the fact that it was the nearest thing that I had on to clothing at the time.   Maybe she's used to people having tattoos inside their lips, like the numbers that are used to identify racehorses?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


This is still on the subject of personal photography and self-portraiture, but it's not the image that - if I could have managed it - I would have chosen to post today.   Yesterday in class we talked about a strange photograph by Chema Madoz of an X-Ray of a skull - his skull? - and a not-quite-in-alignment spinal column: it's superimposed on a couple of clouds - his head in the clouds? wondered one student.   For me, the cloud looks more sinister, like an atomic bomb exploding around him, the white heat of the explosion located somewhere near the pineal gland.   Certainly, a glimpse into one's own body offers a more literal form of personal insight than one usually bargains for.   I would loved to have taken a photograph of my heart as imaged by an echocardiogram machine, which not only showed what I know to be a more or less oval, semi-palpable lump of muscle going about its business on the one hand, but on the other,was illuminated with an imaging device that showed my blood pace and direction, turning the images on the screen into strange flows of color: bright blue rivers, the color of my ID bracelet, going one way, and jagged burst of red and yellow and startling bright white in the other, looking like a Weather Underground radar image showing a peculiarly violent storm system.

But it didn't seem practicable to raise a hand and say Stop! I want to get my camera! when one's all wired up like a circuit board, and lying down wearing a gown designed with no apparent relation to the fact that a human being might some day have to inhabit it.   Thinking about my heart is enough to make me go wide-eyed and scary at the best of times, so looking at it working away (oddly? how oddly? if very oddly at all? I guess I get to find out soon) is an experience that hovers between a usefully objectifying experience (oh look! an image! I can write about this!) and something that touches on metaphysical terror.   To be sure, I can't write about the latter aspect of this without tears of panic starting to well up, so I'll stick to trying to remember the aesthetic possibilities of it all.   But I do understand very well why people undergoing medical procedures might document them photographically: sometimes regarding oneself as an object, not as an experiencing subject can be a way of holding at bay one's fears about the tenuous physical fragility of that very self.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Portraiture and self-portraiture - we looked at a large number of images in class today, from Disderi's cartes de visite (and various other anonymous, untraceable old images that I dragged off my favorite source for these things, eBay - I particularly liked the tintype of two African-American women in their Sunday best swinging in a studio hammock) to Catherine Opie's Pervert and Jen Smith's 2007 - what would one call it? reply? - Citizen.   

We'd been talking about Barthes' self-consciousness about being photographed, and at one point I sent everyone off to take photographs of each other - not so much to see what photographs they produced, but to think about what it meant to be photographed - to compose oneself, to put on a mask, to goof at the camera, or whatever.   One student came over to photograph me (though I saw at least one other person doing so in a more surreptitious manner: how did that feel? I played along with being natural...).   But with a camera pointed at me - I inevitably fell into the instant trap of producing a smile - a tired looking smile, it transpired, but a perfectly acceptable professional mask.   Postage stamp sized, it looked like a wonderfully flattering shot: normal size - well, let's say that I could have done with more time to pose, more time to think about it, more...    Nonetheless, it produced something to work with for a self-portrait today, for, as I pointed out, someone else can well press the shutter when it comes to one's production of a self-portrait.   So thank you, Shane.

One of the questions that we were asking was what does a (self) portrait require in order to be a portrait?   What if someone is shot from behind?   What of the series of images that Carrie Levy shot of people naked in their homes - but with their faces hidden, turned to the wall or the floor or buried in their arms?   Does a portrait need a face? - something asked by Axel Antas's White Portrait, in which his head has disappeared in fog or cloud or air.   And - the point behind Bill Armstrong's Infinity series - how much detail does a face need to be a recognizable portrait?   So I took Shane's picture of me (originally in black and white), and cropped it down, and applied Gaussian Blur to the point that I could still find the image very recognizable (radius 32.8 pixels, for the technically minded).   But would anyone else?   And what might it mean that I've chosen to tint it a very, very faint dark blue?   And am I depressed, or not, to find that I look much, much better - much more like an ideal version of myself - when I'm on the verge of illegibility?

Monday, April 6, 2009


It's portraiture week in class - and that includes self-portraits.   Much though I like taking portraits of others, self-portraiture is way down on my list of favorite genres to practice - much though I'm intrigued by the self-portraits of others.   Of course this is in part physical vanity (my nose is especially bony here - although in part its profile could be said to bear witness to  history, recording a very aggressive tackle with a lacrosse stick in my more sporty past - and the jawline is depressingly soft.   Etc).   But I'm very aware that for me, self-portraiture means - or I want it to entail - something far more complex and searching.   So for me, the genre lays bare a kind of intellectual vanity (and concomitant anxiety), too.   I either want these images to emphasize some sort of conceptual awareness, or at least to engage with issues of identity in a less obvious way than by depicting myself gazing into a mirror.   "Glancing" might be more like it - I don't have a good relationship with mirrors, and duck and weave and close my eyes in the hairdresser's.

But without a sense of oneself in a mirror (or maybe in photos taken by others), how would one know what one looked like?   In the Introduction to his excellent Face - an introduction to contemporary photographic portraiture - William Ewing makes a point of telling one how early photographers could readily dupe their clients because these people didn't have mirrors - at least, not easily scrutinizable, clear-surfaced mirrors - in their homes.   Not for them the self-inspection in the hall mirror in the morning on one's way out the door (and it was, indeed, in doing just that, today, that I thought that the lighting might work for a quick hand held shot - I'll bring out the tripod and the release cable when/if I magically develop more hours in the day, later this week).   But this does capture the suspicion, the reluctance, the deliberate head-angling as one tries to convince oneself that one's able to face the world first thing.   

And the minute I engage in any kind of self-portraiture, I'm filled with respect for the courage of people - Catherine Opie, say, or in a very different context, Jo Spence - whose self-portraits don't in any way aim at self-flattery, but rather take a long hard look at who they are, and how others might (literally or figuratively) see them.   I tried a few shots like that earlier in the weekend, but just looked like a rather grouchy groundhog.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


This is about not having a memory.   Here are the bleachers, piled up, in Donaldson Park, Highland Park, waiting for the new baseball season (they might, however, have to wait a long long time, since most of the park seems to have been plowed up and the soil mixed with sand and, one hopes, will soon be re-seeded).   They look, therefore, like a sign of spring: cue daffodils, willow trees bursting into bright green leaf, speedboats on the Raritan.   

But it's not quite my spring, at least not my memory prompt for spring.   I had an emotionally intense blast of that this morning, via Skype - courtesy of my father taking the computer round my parents' garden, and showing the - yes, daffodils, banks of them - and the magnolia, and the newly arrived roses that we gave them for Christmas, which they have planted up with spinach.   Spinach?   Is this the economy?   But the real nostalgic tug came not from the vegetation, but from the energetic birdsong.    

Bleachers, though.   It took me some years or decades to realize what this word signified - something must eventually have rubbed off via my reading, but somehow the Joni Mitchell song ("The blonde in the bleachers/She flips her hair for you/Above the loudspeakers...The girls and the bands/And the rocknroll man") had me very confused, possibly with another non-British concept, the boardwalk.   And baseball is a sport I haven't yet really got the hang of.   Nor softball.   I played a yet further sibling, rounders, in junior school, but that didn't particularly draw me to its transatlantic cousin (rather, what I remember most about heading off to the playing field - itself historical, since it was where the first Wimbledon Lawn Tennis championship was held before it moved to its current home - is the picnic lunches that my mother packed for me, which would invariably include some sausage rolls, cooked from frozen, with their warm pastry crumbling damply over the handful of cherries, and with a chunk of compressed dates thrown in for good measure, and a warm tomato).   Women's basketball, yes (I'm watching the Final Four with the other half of my head), and, indeed, and to my own surprise, football.   But baseball?   My sense of sporting spring involves the emergence of the heavy roller on the cricket pitch, not benches piled up alongside an extraordinarily high piece of triangular netting.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

blowing away

This isn't at all what I'd expected to blog about today, and doesn't fall under any rubric involving memory or personal photography, but I was walking past this house on S. 4th with wind chimes blowing in one direction, and plastic flowers in another, and it completely summed up the windiness of the day.   It was the kind of day in which one looked at the trees out front to check that they are leaning away from the house, and at the squirrels swinging in the trees at the back nibbling new leaves hoping that one wouldn't see their little grey furry bodies hurled through the air.   I'm also rather taken aback that HP can look so southern - I could kid myself that I'd taken this in Charleston SC.    It does seem rather trivial by the side of the CNN piece that I'm watching with one eye about the dangers of photographic journalism in Juarez ...

Friday, April 3, 2009

eating murray hall

Today was the day of Eve Ate the Apple - the all-day reading of Paradise Lost, masterminded and organized by Ann Coiro and attended by all kinds of luminaries - you'll be sorry to have missed Ben Sifuentes-Jauregui reading Satan, wearing shiny red glitter horns, or Phil Furmanski ventriloquizing the same anti-hero - who somehow ended up reading the lines "I should ill become this throne, O peers,/And this imperial sovereignty, adorned/With splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed/And judged of public moment, in the shape/Of difficulty or danger could deter/Me from attempting."   I managed to grab my favorite pieces about light and sight - including the line about Hell "no light, but rather darkness visible" - that somehow I try and assimilate to Flash! - and the invocation that opens Book III, in which the blind Milton looks inward for illumination.

And it was also Murray Hall's birthday!  (more or less).   And we cut two cakes - yes, obviously, devil's food cake and angel cake.   Thank you, Rick, once again for your inspirational event planning!   In class yesterday, we were talking (when not wrestling with Barthes) about the odd places in which photographs could now turn up (I'm still mystified about the tattooing process, by the way), and they included Cakes.   And here, like an on-time visual aid, was Murray Hall, twice over, adorning these gooey concoctions.   English Department Chairs, past and present and (sigh) future, were handing out slices: I took especial pleasure in choosing a slice for Quionne that meant that she could eat her office.   Yes, of course, those are apples in the background.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


We've started to talk about photography and memory in class, and we'll be moving onto personal photography - and this is by way of an introduction, to show how one very ordinary corner (here, bedroom - but also think desk top, kitchen counter, car trunk on a bad day, etc) might work to bridge these terms.   Because our possessions signal ourselves, our current lives (which are always already past), our choices, our tastes (or, if not our possessions, they may only give an indication of our current environment - this is a hybrid, since the mirror and lamp and rather covetable oriental cabinet belong to our house sitters and will disappear off to their own futures in the summer).   They may also literally signify memory - that's my 2009 journal sitting there, still as up to date in terms of its daily entries as is this blog, which is something of an unprecedented miracle - or the Roni Horn catalogue (see yesterday - relic of an exhibition visit earlier in the year, and also playful with the idea of memory slipping around and not turning up where one expects to find it).   The peacock jug was bought as a Christmas present for someone - and then I kept it when I thought I'd like it more than they would (a good call).   But that takes me back fifteen years or so.   And then when I look back at this picture, maybe I'll remember that another book on the bedside table is Fred Ritchin's new book, After Photography, which is deeply unsettling in the ways in which it makes one question the reliability of digital photographs as trustworthy records.

And then there's the tee shirt.   To be honest, this whole post is really an excuse to write about the tee shirt (posed on the cabinet - even at this stage of the semester, the bedroom isn't looking quite that manic...).   Maybe buying the tee shirt was an excuse for writing a blog entry? For the tee shirt bears on it the picture of a lobster.   It comes via Etsy from Xenotees, in Philadelphia (donation from each tee shirt sale to feral cats).   This lobster is on a leash, and the leash is made up of a Gerard de Nerval quotation, that reads "J'ai le gout de homards, qui sont tranquilles, serieux, savent les secrets de la mer, n'aboient pas..." - that is, "I like lobsters, who are quiet, serious, know the secrets of the sea, and don't bark..." (there's a short story in the current New Yorker by Woody Allen in which two men, reincarnated as lobsters. savage Bernie Madoff in a restaurant, but that's just incidental).   De Nerval, of course, used to walk his own lobster regularly, in Paris, on a leash.

And why did I buy this tee shirt?   I once - when I was an undergraduate - went to a themed dressing up party - a "decadence" party - as Gerard de Nerval, with a plastic lobster (begged from a fishmongers' stall in Oxford market) on a long brown velvet leash (I also once went to a Bad Taste party as a flock of flying china ducks, but that's another story).   I was very fond of my plastic lobster.   And my mother, who didn't share my emotional attachment, Threw Him Out when Clearing Out My Room after I left home.   Clearly, there is a lot of trauma associated with these crustaceans, which I will now have to exorcise.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Today's left-out-for-recycling contributions - next door - a whole flock of winter snow shovels.   One hopes that they won't be needed again this winter... What I like about them is that they are so utterly, emphatically, themselves.   Since we'll be discussing Barthes' Camera Lucida tomorrow, and starting to think about photography and memory, I was looking in one of the two books that constituted the catalog for the Roni Horn exhibition: this one is a "subject index" - a kind of idiosyncratic lexicon not just of her subjects, but of her preoccupations.   I wanted to see if she had anything to say about memory.   Nada between "me" and "metaphor" other than "me see you" and "mes see tongue twister" - which turned out to be "me" pluralized - Horn thinking about self-replication, about "PALIMPSIZING MYSELF" - about, in telling a story, the fact that she may actually be "imitating memory" - thinking her voice through thinking through her voice - turning herself into a palindrome, since she has no idea if she is remembering accurately.   In other words, o clever woman that she is, one can read this entry as displaced memory...literally...

Which I hadn't realized before I started to follow this through.   What I wanted to borrow (but am now cautious of doing) is what she says about metaphor, which I think (as befits what she's talking about) is relatively straightforward: "Looking for metaphor can be limiting, it is usually at the expense of the work.   People often reject a work if they can't find the metaphor.   But when metaphor is not there, you have to be more present.   I prefer to look at less familiar things, to allow the vocabulary of the thing to educate me.   It's the opposite of cloud watching - where you're projecting yourself onto the cloud and trying to make it more like yourself."   I'm very much in sympathy with this aesthetic - letting the photographed thing just be itself.   Sometimes a spade is just a spade.