Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Sorry for the long delay--we've been, god help us, writing.

So. I took that picture (sans Alfred E. Neuman head) last week while shooting more or less at random on Fifth Avenue, in New York City. I'd been trying my hand at "street" here in Ithaca for a few months, and though I've enjoyed doing it, and gotten some nice results, it was a little like shooting animals at the zoo. New York, of course, is big game country. The strangers are stranger, and there are more of them, and I was having the time of my life until I spied this woman, with her groovy serape-like woolen wrap, approaching from the direction of 47th Street. She looked confident, intense, well dressed. I shot from the hip without even looking in her direction. She was up in my grill in seconds.

"I can take your film. I CAN TAKE YOUR FILM!"

If there's one thing I know from hanging around on internet photography forums, it was that she could not take my film. Indeed, taking pictures on public property (e.g., a city street) of people on public property is, at least in America, at least for now, perfectly legal.

I argued as robustly as possible with my subject (while Rhian stood over by a bus stop pretending she didn't know me), and continued to endure a barrage of mis-, or perhaps disinformation: she was a photojournalist, so she should know, but what I'd done was illegal, she could seize my camera, I was obliged to destroy the negatives, etc. "I used to be a member of Magnum! And I can tell you it is illegal to photograph people on the street!!"

Well. Magnum, as you may know, is perhaps the world's largest photogrphers' cooperative, and many of its members are, in fact, street photographers. Take, for instance, Bruce Gilden. As you can see in that excellent Street Shots mini-documentary (that's a YouTube link), Gilden is as street as they come, and he isn't shooting from the hip. He's up in people's faces with his flash, and screaming like a madman when they complain. He is also, not surprisingly, way better at street photography than I could ever hope to be, or, to be honest, would want to be. I admire the man enormously, and think his photos are excellent. But I don't want to do what he does. I don't believe I'm capable of it.

Indeed, one of the reasons I started trying street was to overcome some of my natural social inhibitions. Most shots, I sneak. But sometimes people notice I'm shooting and stop to talk to me. I've talked to more strangers in the past six months than the previous five years combined, most of them due to my photography habit. Of course, there are more efficient ways of meeting people, and if meeting people was what I really wanted, I would walk up and introduce myself.

So what do I really want? Simply, to steal.

I'm already stealing, of course, in my work as a novelist--though I don't make a habit of fictionalizing real people, I'm borrowing personal quirks, habits of speech, facial features, etc., from everyone I know, and a lot of people I don't. Like a photographer, I'm observing, documenting and recontextualizing things that don't belong to me, and turning them into something new, that does.

But there's something different about the image, isn't there? Your face is your identity. I can describe your face to a hundred people, and those hundred people will imagine a hundred different versions of you. If they passed by you on the street in New York, they would not recognize you. A novel, ultimately, is created by its reader as much as it's created by its writer. This is why we novelists are afforded so much license to represent, and distort reality...most of the time, anyway.

Take a photo of someone, though, and they are recognized forever. Katherine McIntosh was 4 years old when Dorothea Lange snapped that iconic shot of her migrant mother. Later, McIntosh told CNN (click that link), the photo shamed her family--but it left them determined to improve their lives, which they did. The face of Florence Owens Thompson, the mother in the picture, became the face of hard times. Her identity was taken from her (though she intially did give Lange permission to shoot), and lent to a social cause.

Of course, would we have it any other way? I don't think we would. What Bruce Gilden steals from those around him, he gives to the rest of the world. And we're grateful for it.

Not every street photo, on the other hand, will affect positive social change. Indeed, none of mine will. So again, how come I keep making them? I think I enjoy taking street pictures for the same reason I enjoy writing fiction: as a tribute to the endless variety of human beings. When you take a good picture of a stranger, even a half-decent one, you capture a human moment, a fleeting emotion that will never otherwise be precisely reproduced, not for the subject's family or friends, not for anyone. If you're skillful, or lucky, you might capture something great. But even if you don't, you got something: something real and temporary, that you managed to make permanent and, ultimately, less real.

Less real? Sure. Because every photo is a lie, as well, and herein lies part of the problem with street. The fleeting emotion isn't always representative of the context. Hell, everyone looks like a psycho killer at least five times a day. Paparazzi, for instance, are in the business of making the superhumans look subhuman, and it is because of their intrusiveness (along with the mindless paranoia the era of terror has given us) that the law has of late been striving to limit the rights of photographers. Increasingly, photography itself, as a hobby, as an artistic venture, is considered suspect by some, and even the most innocent of snappers knows better than to hang around that most deeply alive of human environments, the playground.

In the end, though, the major problem with street is that it's a kind of taking. A benign taking, of course, that leaves its subject fully intact and unharmed, but a taking nonetheless. And depending on the kind of person you are, this might not sit right with you. Personally, my feelings are mixed. I wouldn't mind, I tell myself, if somebody was sneaking photos of me. But my privacy, in public, is not important to me, and to some people it is. Of course, those people may be the ones most worth photographing--the ones who are vulnerable, whose faces have the most to say.

For me, for now, that calculus comes out on the side of doing it, and respecting after the fact the requests of any subject who would have preferred not to be photographed. This is an imperfect solution, but photography, like fiction, is an imperfect art, and its excitement lies, in part, in the friction between what is and isn't permissible. Presently, the law is on my side, and my conscience isn't quite. But maybe, for the purposes of art, that's where one's conscience belongs.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Crime: Three for Three?

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that it's my habit to go to the library or bookstore, borrow or buy a big pile of crime novels, then come home and be really disappointed. This time I worked at it, choosing one known element, one with a good hook (photography) and one that just looked weird. And go figure, they're all good.

T. Jefferson Parker, L.A. Outlaws. Parker's pretty much a conventional American crime novelist, but is among the best of that bunch. He doesn't get too arty or ambitious, but he has some interesting ideas, his writing is never awful and is sometimes excellent, and his characters are very memorable. This new book has three great characters--a wildly implausible girl bandit and folk hero who is an elementary school teacher by day; a contemplative, self-possessed cop and Iraq war vet; and a machete-wielding villain. They make a strange triangle: the cop alternately trying to catch the bandit and falling in love with her, the bandit and the cop trying to catch the villain, and the villain trying to kill everyone. The cop will be in Parker's next novel, too, which pleases me. I like the cut of his jib.

Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss. This is a highly entertaining quasi-literaruy outing that turns into a semi-run-of-the-mill thriller by the end, with a firey conclusion you will roll your eyes at, and a killer who you knew it was all along. But the protagonist is a washed-up punk rock photographer who is sent to interview a washed-up reculsive art photographer, and photography is not merely window dressing here, but a vital and well-researched element that is integral to the plot and characters. Hand makes the usual accoutrements of noir, like alcoholism, drug abuse, and dark thoughts, seem fresh, as well. A blast.

Thomas Glavinic, Night Work. This translation (from German) is not a crime novel, and I'm not sure why The Bookery thought it was. But that's where I found it. The setup: Jonas, a man in his thirties, wakes up one morning and every human being and animal on earth is gone without a trace. I have to admit I'm only halfway through, but so far he's still alone, yet the book is not only fascinating, but one of the scariest fucking things I have ever read. Jonas's solitude drives him to enter a state that is half sleepwalking, half hyperaware, and minute details take on enormous weight. One scene, where he videotapes himself sleeping, then watches the tape to find "The Sleeper" staring at the camera, his eyes wide open, gave me nightmares. A bit reminiscent of my favorite book of last year, Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The writing is austere and serious without sacrificing its sense of ironic humor. If it loses me before the end, I'll let you know.

EDIT: OK, I finished this last night, and I must say, I think this novel is incredible, maybe a masterpiece. And it definitely doesn't belong in the crim section. It's absolutely unflinching, incredibly depressing, and yet I find it strangely life-affirming. Somebody quick translate the rest of his stuff...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Narrative Momentum. What Is It Anyway?

Earlier today I interviewed Melissa Bank for the Writers At Cornell podcast. Melissa is a Cornell grad, and is in Ithaca filling in for me and Ernesto Quiñonez, who are on leave.

I didn't read The Girls' Guide To Hunting And Fishing back when everyone was raving about it. As Melissa and I discussed in the interview, the book had ridden a particular current of the zeitgeist, one that she had never expected to benefit from, and it was marketed as thinking women's chick lit. This of course is why I didn't read it. But I read it this week, and I liked it, and I liked her newer book, The Wonder Spot, quite a lot more.

The thing I like about them is something that you never read about in reviews of any book, and certainly not on the front flap of the dust jacket: they have an odd approach to narrative. They are not novels, and not really story collections; they're large narrative units composed of loosely arranged medium-sized narrative units, which are themselves made up of loosely arranged small narrative units. They're basically a bunch of anecdotes and jokes mashed together.

And yet, though there are no real plots to speak of, these books have forward momentum, and often that momentum is really compelling. In the podcast, Bank explains that she was trying to give the stories the shape of stories from life--discursive, off-kilter, but still purposeful. And she succeeded. But for the life of me I can't really tell how. The do feel very lifelike; during the interview I told her that, reading them, I never really realized I was being taken somewhere, but was surprised and delighted when I arrived.

One thing Rhian complains about a lot (and perhaps she will comment on this post) is her frustration at trying to make her ideas fit into an organizational scheme, and assume the form of a story. But Bank's books don't bother to do this, and they still feel like stories. And the more I think about it, the more I think that all the books I like have unconventional approaches to plot. Even the crime novels.

Maybe writer's block is the result of feeling detached from your story, from the model story in your soul. Life can do things to tear you away from it--tragedy, or the distractions of home and family, or the pressures of work. You may be generally happy, but the pieces don't fit in the obvious way they once did. In the parking lot of the Agway the other day, Rhian and I were talking about how, during times of stress and slavish adherence to our routines, we feel as though we don't have the small epiphanies we sometimes have, which show us, in an instant, new possibilities for living. Writers need these epiphanies, and they need to put themselves in circumstances that favor them.

I think that it's rare for a good book to have a structure imposed on it. The movement of the narrative has to find its natural shape, and the writer has to assume the state of mind that allows this to happen. I'm not big on "inspiration," the concept. Writing is work, to me, and sometimes it's rather dreary work. But the times that it isn't are the result of everything falling into alignment--the details, the emotions, your life, your story. You can't force it to happen. But at the same time, you don't know how to let it happen on its own. I think this is why really good, really consistent writers are scarce. Such people balance on a knife edge their whole lives, and barely even consider the possibility of falling off.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Being Comfortable

It's bad to be too comfortable, if you're a writer. And I think I mean all kinds of comfortable: financially comfortable, physically comfortable, and comfortable with yourself and your ideas.

Financially comfortable: Inherited money is probably worse than earned money, but both are bad if you can look at bag of groceries you just bought and not think, Hot damn, safe for another week! If you take survival for granted, if there's no possibility of your living in your car next year, you're too comfortable, and your work will show it. It will feel unnecessary.

Physically comfortable: You should never be so comfortable that you can't feel your body. Your chair must be hard, or the room too cold, or there should be a draft. Your desk should be too small. Your work should reflect the truth that you, too, are a physical being forced to exist in a world that has little interest in accommodating you.

Comfortable ideas: If your ideas are comfortable, they're undoubtedly wrong.

Anyway, I started thinking about this after reading a blog post about a young writer who lives with his or her parents. Perhaps things are different in the childhood home of that writer, but as much as I love my parents and enjoy visiting them, I have never been able to write in their house. It's too warm, there's too much food in the fridge, and the carpets are too soft.

Recently I've begun to worry that I'm recreating that kind of comfort in my own house, now. We have numerous rugs on the floors, and a newish couch that doesn't have springs poking out of it. My desk chair came from an office supply store instead of a pile a on street corner, and it feels pretty good to sit in. But what do you expect, I'm a grown-up now and I shouldn't have to pretend to be some kind of desert acetic anymore. Still, I'm pretty sure that too much sitting in a comfy chair will produce those comfy, and wrong, ideas.

Then again, maybe being uncomfortable about being comfortable is enough discomfort. You think?

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Gilded Palace of Sin

I've posted here before about the terrific 33 1/3 series of short books on classic rock albums; I've read about a dozen of them (out of, presently, about five dozen). The books are about the height of a CD and fit on your CD shelf (if you still have one) right next to the album in question. My enjoyment of the series has precipitated an era of closer listening to old favorites and new appreciation for records I might once have dismissed, and the books' size and length makes them perfect for moments of anticipated boredom: I enjoyed Kim Cooper's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, for instance, while waiting in an interminably long line with my family at Disney World. I was the only one having a good time.

The trouble with these books is that, if you are fussy about what you read, you will hate about half. The series' editors have aimed for a broad range of literary styles and approaches, but in so doing have commissioned a few clunkers, and you never know what you're going to get. This is why I was so delighted to see that Ithaca's own Bob Proehl, owner of No Radio Records on Seneca Street, issuer of incredibly long, rambling press releases, ace bartender, and all-around hardcore popular music nerd, has written my favorite book in the series so far: The Gilded Palace of Sin, a chronicle of the Flying Burrito Brothers' 1969 Americana classic.

I'm not going to go into the Burritos' history--I'll leave that to Bob. Suffice to say that they were an offshoot of the Byrds and showcased the songwriting talents of the now-legendary Gram Parsons (and those of bandmate Chris Hillman, though Hillman lacks Parsons' flamboyance and early self-destruction, and thus doesn't get enough credit); and that "Gilded Palace" was their only really great record. They have been lovingly covered by every imaginable current roots-based act, but never got the popular recognition they deserved.

But the point of reading this book is Bob's writing, which is detailed, discursive, and extremely funny. The footnotes alone are worth the cover price; I found myself reading them aloud to Rhian every five minutes until she was compelled to leave the room. "A caveat," Proehl writes early on, in a footnote that follows a Keith Richards quote (he appears to have actually interviewed Richards, by the way--quite a coup), "many of the Keith Richards quotes in this book have been transcribed by the author and should be taken only as approximations of the sounds Keith Richards produced." Later, he writes of having viewed a monumental Elvis Presley exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, featuring "a dozen iterations of Elvis in [his] gold suit, each one at least twelve feet tall. Filled with a Kantian terror at the sheer size of Elvis and his fan base upon viewing this, I returned home and meekly submitted to liking Elvis's music." Or my favorite, which underscores a highly entertaining tangent about the bling-studded suits of country-music clothier Nudie Cohn:

Years later, Hank Williams, Jr. commissioned a reproduction of his father's burial suit, which he sported when posing such timeless musical questions as "Are You Ready For Some Football?" One can only wonder what a rhinestone suit sounds like when its wearer is spinning in his grave.

Also included is a harrowing description of the events at Altamont Speedway in December 1969 (the murderous anti-Woodstock that marked the decade's end), some highly entertaining musings on the longevity of the Rolling Stones ("Frankly, the Rolling Stones scare the fuck out of me"), and a thoughtful essay on the relationship between dying young and being famous forever.

Highly recommended, along with the record, which I have listened to dozens of times but (shockingly, now that I think about it) never actually owned. I will have to remedy that pronto.