Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective

Published in 2012 for the SFMOMA retrospective that later went to the Guggenheim, this added another layer to my understanding about Dijkstra’s work. Several of the same photographs that were in The Louisiana book, but more detail and a great interview included. I especially enjoyed the interviews with some of her subjects, getting their impression of the photos of them years later. Dijkstra, born in 1959, went to art school in 1980 and became a commercial photographer in 1986, taking portraits of business people for magazines. She toughed it out for 6 years and then turned to art, also coinciding with a bicycle accident that laid her up for months where she watched Twin Peaks and thought about how people aren’t who they present themselves as.

The Man Who Walked Through Time

I enjoyed Colin Fletcher’s Complete Walker, so figured I’d give this a whirl. By now I’m used to the faint whiffs of sexist writing (also on display here) but I’m a sucker for books about wandering on foot.

The journey takes place in the spring of 1964 over a two month period with snow storms, boiling temperatures, obsessive planning about water sources, contemplating nature, dissolving into the silence and solitude. He’s obsessed with the idea of being the first person to walk the length of the canyon (completely disregarding native people and previous explorers). The idea comes to him after he reads an article by Harvey Butchart who had spent the previous 17 years on a series of 3 and 4-day trips making his way around the National Park. There was one section that Butchart had not yet accomplished and Colin pouts that Butchart tackles that remaining bit while Colin’s on the trail, beating him to the punch. Colin gets his revenge by describing him as a happy and devoted schizophrenic who teaches math. But there are several whiny passages where he bemoans being the second person to pass through a certain passageway, or boasts about being the first without evidence.

I shuddered to read about him tossing his trash into the river as he progressed, especially one passage where he devotes a page and a half to describing the arc of the bottle as it crested over the water, how it exploded on the water. And what did he do with all those empty food canisters and parachutes from food drops? Yet he gives us a grim tsk-tsk when he spots a half eaten orange bobbing near civilization.

Once again, he’s tromping along naked as a jaybird, “freed from the pressure of haste, the tyranny of film, and now the restraint of clothes…” He does seem to slip back into his togs when he dips into society at the Phantom Ranch, where he sneers at the “urbane and attractive blonde from New York” who said in a hushed voice that ‘This is really the end of the line, isn’t it?” whereas for him, he’d been living weeks without any modern comforts.

I didn’t realize there were two commercial airplanes that collided over the Canyon in 1956. The wreckage was there when he clomped through, but he was angry to see helicopters of tourists checking them out.

“If the dream you have dreamed can survive untarnished through a year of doubt and discouragement and frustration and all the drawn-out detail of research and planning and preparation, then you can safely assume that you want to go through with the project.”

Rineke Dijkstra : the Louisiana book

Rineke Dijkstra’s work was a delightful surprise on a recent SFMOMA visit: the posed children in swimsuits, the bloodied matadors. Curious for more, I checked out this survey of her portraits. Along with the Manchester youth in clubgoing clothes, several serious family portraits, plus a few that follow certain people over time, like the Bosnian refugee child sitting in a chair, visited every few years for an updated snap, and the French legion soldier, followed over the three year period of his duty. Amazing photos of new mothers clutching their hours-old babies, blood dripping down leg, C-section scars on display.

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Sarah Igo drops a 600 page bomb on us, scattering seeds of our search for privacy since the beginning of the modern nation. With the 1936 introduction of the SSN, things started unraveling quickly, in ways that the government hadn’t supposedly intended (sharing of data among agencies).

I love the detail that hundreds of working women called the Social Security Board to ask if their bosses would find out about their actual ages, since they lied to be younger on their applications. They wanted also to know if they’d shaved 10 years off their age, if they could actually retire at 65 or would they have to wait until they appeared to be 65 in the SSN system.

Another great detail: people getting their SSN tattooed on themselves in order to remember it. Portland OR tattoo artists reported doubling of their business in the 1940s because of this. Also funny how people printed their SSN in the newspaper, including Mayor Hartsfield of Atlanta, once he finally got registered. (His number: 252-12-4939).

Dense, meaty work worth skimming through for the parts you’re most attracted to.

Mozart’s Starling

I had a complicated reaction to this book—enjoyed and hated it, learned things from it and then muttered about the frequent spurts of terrible writing. Haupt undertakes a project to raise a starling of her own, stolen from a nest in a local Seattle park right before a sweep to kill the starling population. This, to help her understand what it was like for Mozart to have a starling as a pet. The book weaves details of her own starling (named Carmen) alongside fantasies of Mozart’s starling, with underpinnings of actual facts about his life.

In April of 1784, Mozart completed his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G. He was 29 years old and this was his 453rd finished composition. In May, he purchased a starling from a pet shop after hearing the bird sing the theme from the allegretto in the new concerto which had never been performed in public, only the bird made a minor rhythmic change and raised the last two Gs to G-sharps. We know this from the detail in his notebook that recorded the purchase of the bird with a notation of his version of the motif and then the bird’s version. Theories: Mozart had previously visited the shop and whistled the motif a few times, enough for the bird to catch it. Or, there was a small performance of the concerto which may have had people whistling that motif in the streets afterwards. Or, as Mozart was composing a few streets away, the snippet of music made it out to another starling’s ear who passed it on.

Interesting bird bits:

  • Another confirmation of the genetic overlap between birds and humans that I noted in The Nature Fix review: 50 overlapping genes in humans and birds that correlate with vocal learning, meaning we’re more similar to birds than primates in this respect.
  • Her description of Carmen’s sunbath was interesting: “starlings enter a torpor-like state in the sun and spread themselves out so that as much light as possible can reach their epidermis. The many health benefits are believed to include vitamin D absorption, discouraging of parasites, release of oils that protect the skin, and possibly even a mental-health advantage—something akin to the restorative calm we humans feel when we lie on the beach or meditate.”
  • Carmen learned to mimic basic household sounds like the beep of a microwave and the whoosh of a wine bottle being stoppered up for the night. Interestingly, she made the sounds in response to appropriate stimuli, like making the microwave beeps just after she heard the microwave door open, or the whoosh sound after she heard the clink of a bottle.

The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living

A wonderful book about living on the land with concrete suggestions. The Nearings went to the woods to live deliberately in 1932, refugees from New York City, first spending 20 years homesteading in Vermont before the region changed due to a ski slope opening up nearby, then heading to Maine near Penobscot Bay for the remainder of their days. Scott is 95 in the last book in this collection, hearty and hale, chopping away and building and thriving on their near-vegan diet. Probably worth buying this book for the bibliography alone, pages and pages of recommended future reading.

The books (Living the Good Life, pub’d 1954, and Continuing the Good Life, pub’d 1979) give heaps of practical advice to anyone headed out to build their own stone house, wrest their entire food source from an organic garden, make their own compost, raise cash crops of blueberries (Maine) or tap maple trees for syrup (Vermont). For those of us not willing or able to shift our lives to the wilderness, there are plenty of tips on focusing on health by eating right and living simply.

It’s easy to see why the 1954 book was picked up by the Whole Earth Catalog as a recommendation, especially with representative samples like this one: “What we did feel and what we still assert is that it is worthwhile for the individual who is rejected by a disintegrating urban community to formulate a theory of conduct and to put into practise a program of action which will enable him or her to live as decently as possible under existing circumstances.” They call life in cities a “dying acquisitive culture” and suggest that the power resides in all of us to make the best, creative, purposeful life that we can, living outside a cash-flow society as much as possible.

The effect of the Whole Earth Catalog recommendation is clear—the trickle of visitors they had in Vermont turned into a flood in Maine. Occasionally it brought them lasting friends, like the guy who biked there from Ohio having read Living the Good Life and wanting to know what they were up to in Maine. Bretton Brubaker, a cabinetmaker, ended up being the master carpenter on their Maine house. They sold parts of their land off to other promising couples, but for the most part it sounds like the invasion was annoying, no matter how politely they write about it. “Never before in our lives have we met so many unattached, uncommitted, insecure, uncertain human beings.” By 1976 they had to put a sign up saying they were only open for visitors between 3-5pm and in 1978 they declared a sabbatical so they had time to work on the book and other projects. “As we near the century mark of our lives we find we must limit our contribution to part-time.”

Sample meal: their own herb teas and fruit for breakfast, soup and grains for lunch, salad and a cooked vegetable and applesauce for supper, sometimes adding seeds or nuts to breakfast or tofu/cottage cheese to supper. Meals at 7, noon, and 6 o’clock.

The Complete Walker: The Joys and Techniques of Hiking and Backpacking

There was something appealing enough about this 1968 guide to hiking that made me wade through the sexism that usually makes me choke. He starts out with a chapter rhapsodizing on “Why Walk?” to go over the many reasons walking is beneficial to the body and brain. Mostly he encourages solo hiking where he’ll frequently strip down to just boots and pack, au naturel; he states “the best dress for walking is nakedness.”  The bulk of this book is a fairly entertaining guide to how to go on days-weeks-months- long excursions, and what equipment you might want, and how to go about it. For the terrible parts, I knew what I was getting into when he notes sarcastically on page 17 that everything he had to say in the book about men applied equally to women. “Well, almost everything. And almost equally.” (Note: based on the names written in the library card from the book I borrowed, 60% of the people reading this book in the 1960s and 1970s were women, but no big deal.) But I pressed on because I was amused by his writing, like passages where he notes that dehydrated food “makes you fart like a bull.” Extremely detailed instructions on everything from boots to backpack to tent to sleeping bag to binoculars and film gear. Speaking of film gear, he has some great observations:

“Nowadays, most of us tend to accept that we are failing in some kind of duty if we do not record our outdoor doings on film. Chalk up another victory to advertising. But, brainwashing aside, we all want on at least some occasions to carry back home a thing facsimile of the marvel we have discovered.”

But later, after his camera breaks, he revels in the delight of non-photography: “… within an hour I discovered that I had escaped from something I never quite knew existed: the tyranny of film. Photography is not really compatible with contemplation. Its details are too insistent…. But that day in Grand Canyon, after the camera had broken, I found myself savoring in a new way everything around me. Instead of stopping briefly to photograph and forget, I stood and stared, fixing truer images on the emulsion of memory.”


Discovered via Whole Earth Catalog

The Tourist City

I continue to be intrigued by the phenomenon of tourism, people crowding together to see the same objects which they dutifully capture on their phone camera before stomping off to the next spot to elbow each other out of the way. This collection of academic thought on the topic was a mixed bag. Best were the intro essay by Fainstein and Judd, and then Fainstein’s chapter on urban tourism. Tourists are taught how to gaze at the place or object, coached on how to become a tourist. “People have to learn how, when and where to ‘gaze.’ Clear markers have to be provided, and in some cases the object of the gaze is merely the marker that indicates some event or experience which previously happened at that spot.”

Cities like Rome, Venice, Athens have what is called “place luck,” not having to be squeaky clean to attract tourists. Other cities construct a safe fantasy land for tourists to visit and step outside their daily lives.

“The globalization of mass tourism leads to an odd paradox: whereas the appeal of tourism is the opportunity to see something different, cities that are remade to attract tourists seem more and more alike.” Applebees on every corner.

“Tourism depends on the commodification of leisure. The viewing of a harbor or a walk through downtown is insufficient as a tourist experience. Rather, satisfaction for the visitor and profit for the investor require that place become transformed into an object. The tourist’s gaze composes the urban landscape into a collage of frozen images. Photography is a perfect expression of this process.”

Problems arise when demand swamps supply, unique places overwhelmed by the large scale of visitors, like to Venice or Florence where the native populations are dwindling. A 1990 article noted 2.8M visitors to Florence or more than 7 tourists to every inhabitant., plus millions more that merely stopped in for a few hours en route from Rome or Venice.

The problem of Venice is that “the tourist Venice is Venice,” in the words of Mary McCarthy. It’s a “folding picture-post-card of itself.”

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography

My notes are brief but quotable bits extensive. Levy shows us loss (of husband, through divorce; of mother, through death; of the family home she spent years building as a nest around her daughters and husband), how it makes her stumble, how she regains balance through infusions from friends. Beautifully written, and I’m off to find the rest of her work.

“Life falls apart. We try to get a grip and hold it together. And then we realize we don’t want to hold it together.”

“Above all else, it is an act of immense generosity to be the architect of everyone else’s well-being.” (I’ve been thinking a lot about this, the unpaid emotional labor that women do, seen on full display this weekend watching a woman at a cafe throw her head back and bear her teeth to the brim smiling, there’s no way that her companion was that funny. Nothing is that funny. Women get trained up in this early and I’ve been trying to wriggle out from that burden lately.)

“At the end of the day I would begin the long walk up one of the highest hills in London to cook supper for my daughter. Sometimes I stopped to get my breath back by the gates of the local cemetery. It was such a long walk in the dark. The night smelt of moss and the wet marble of the gravestones. I did not feel safe or unsafe, but somewhere in-between, liminal, passing from one life to another.”

Any book that references Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America is fine by me. Levy has one of her friends mention, “Apparently Stein thought it is obvious when something is a question so she stopped using question marks and she thought that commas were servile. In her view it was up to the reader if they wanted to stop and take a breath.”

Her writing about her mother’s death hurts my heart… “when I turn my mind to my mother’s death, I can only do so for ten seconds before I start to sink.” The Cut has a nice excerpt that includes the details about her daily purchase of popsicles to bring to her mom as she was dying. “I somehow thought she would die and still be alive. I would like to think she is somewhere in that distant sound that resembles the sea in which she taught me to swim, but she is not there. She has gone, slipped away, disappeared.” Towards the end, Levy offers up thoughts to her mom: “Thank you for teaching me how to swim and how to row a boat. Thank you for the typing jobs that put food in the fridge. As for myself,I have things to do in the world and have to get on with them and be more ruthless than you were.”

Non-stop Inertia

Ivor Southwood’s treatise on the precariat and terrible working conditions for workers who can’t guarantee how much or when or where they’ll be working next week as they bop from temp gig to temp gig. The performative aspect of having to pretend to love what we do is additional unpaid emotional labor. I like the idea that not talking is the new disruption—being quiet instead of parroting your lines on cue. Always auditioning, always looking for work, we have no rest, no spaces to pause and think. He skewers the now common practice that EVERYONE has to have a resume, even blue collar workers, where we paper over our gaps and pretend that everything is peachy. It’s all about pretending, that’s what makes the late capitalist world go round.

Editing Virginia Woolf’s Diary

I feel extremely lucky to have been able to get my hands on one of the limited editions (Arizona State owns #814 of the 1,000 signed copies) of Anne Olivier Bell’s recollections of editing VW’s Diary. It all stemmed from Quentin being asked by Leonard to write her biography, which he acquiesced to when asked again in 1966. Anne “was alarmed at the responsibility he had undertaken” and knew she could help him. Quentin asked Leonard for the diary, which he’d had transcribed and typed in order to come out with his A Writer’s Diary (1954). Leonard sent the carbon copy of this to the Bells, but hilariously they were in tatters because Leonard simply snipped with scissors the parts he wanted to include in AWD, telling the Bells they had the complete text when they put the tatters together with his published copy. The actual diaries were in the Westminster Bank in Lewes until Leonard’s death, upon which they transferred to the New York Public Library which had purchased them decades earlier (but to be held by Leonard until his death).

Anne’s process was to create a scaffold of VW’s life on index cards that Quentin could refer to while writing his biography. These cards would come in handy later on when she was awarded the task of putting the full diaries out for publication. She details some of the fun in tracking down information that’s wedged into the footnotes of the diaries, how fortunate she was to have an extensive library at home but how that also led her to linger over tangentially related things like reading Wordsworth or Walter Scott.

Are You Somebody? : The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman

Nuala O’Faolain’s memoir is a funny, sad, well-written account of growing up Irish, lucky to have avoided the major catastrophes of life such as babies and marriage, making her way in a man’s world of literature and broadcast. It’s filled with delights for people who love words. One of the most important moments of her life is when she learns to read, and this memoir shows her lifelong joy in that pursuit. Literature begets commentary and autobiography and biography. She adored the classics. “The only thing I don’t read much of now, when time is so precious, are middle-range authors—Kundera, say, or Paul Auster. Writers who play middle-level games.” When she is teaching English literature at Oxford in the 1960s:

“I wanted my students to do something hard, to learn to hold on to the self while going out of the self to enter into the literature that someone else had made—to find a poise between subjectivity and objectivity. This poise would then be rehearsed and made more stable with each access of understanding of a piece of art. The change in the person comes in that; it isn’t a matter of learning a technical vocabulary. There is a vocabulary peculiar to the study of literature, literature itself never having asked to be studied.”

She is guilty of a lot of name-dropping, and the chapters do become a bit wearisome. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the extremely lengthy afterword she added which seemed to consist of bits of fan mail she received when the book was originally published.


Recently I heard a conversation between Thomas McGuane and another writer featured on the New Yorker Radio Hour where the pair go fishing and talk about words and writing. McGuane said something along the lines of being amazed at the quality of short stories coming out of the U.S. right now, compared to the vastly disappointing novels, and as I read Lauren Groff’s collection of stories about or tangentially related to Florida, I wholeheartedly agreed. It seems especially fitting coming from the author of Ninety-Two in the Shade, that Key West fishing guide to life.

Groff’s stories are so powerful, you have to close the covers after each one, look wide-eyed around the room and wonder to yourself, “Did I really just read that?” The lush, rainy, snakey, lizardy life of Florida pulses from the pages, even when the characters are escaping the summer heat by traveling to France. Yes, yes, yes. Read it.

Essays After Eighty

I definitely was in the wrong mood to read poet Donald Hall’s memoir of what life as a privileged old white man was like. RIP, since he died recently, but perhaps his poems are better foodstuff for my brain than his haphazard recollections of various wives & helpmates, various awards and trips and other yawning details of a long luxurious life teetering toward death on an ancient farm in New Hampshire.

Pauline Kael on Charleton Heson

In Decadence, Pauline Kael’s December 1974 review of Earthquake, she calls the film a “marathon of destruction effects, with stock characters spinning through. It isn’t fun, exactly; it’s ejaculatory, shoot-the-works filmmaking carried to the borderline of satire and stopping just short… there is something particularly gratifying about seeing the smoking ruin of the city that movies like this come from.” The director seems not to want to leave any calamity effects for other movies to use, “as the bodies keep jumping, falling, or being shot, buried under walls and girders, or drowned… a lot of well-known people are casually left in the debris.”

The treatment of the film’s two principal stars, Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, could almost be the in joke of an industry that enjoys the idea of self-destructing… Charlton Heston is the all-time king of prestige epics. However, the repressed acting, granitic physique, and godlike-insurance-salesman manner that made him so inhumanly perfect for fifties spectacles have also destroyed his credibility. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s humorlessly unresilient. He can’t open up: his muscles have his personality in an iron grip. When Universal uses him in its action-disaster pictures, which are all really the same movie, sold by the yard, he underacts grimly and he turns into a stereotype of himself. In Earthquake Heston plays a big-time engineer who married the daughter (Ava Gardner) of the boss (Lorne Greene) and has fallen in love with a young screen-starlet widow (Genevieve Bujold), and when the city is all shook up he dashes from one heroic deed to the next, rescuing, rescuing, rescuing. He’s a dependably heroic joke. No one is expected to believe in the acts he performs: he’s a wind-up hero-machine, and ingenious special effects and trick photography can go on around him. At the end, the movie has the embarrassing problem of what to do with him to avoid the catcalls of a jaded audience, so it cynically trashes him along with Gardner and most of Los Angeles.

Heston’s fatigued heroism serves a function: it enables us to retain an amused, disbelieving view… You feel no pang when the various characters get hit: the whole point of a pop disaster epic is for the audience to relish the ingenious ways in which they’re brought down. When a drowned man pours out of a flooded elevator, you’re meant to gasp at the shock, not lament his passing.

Also on Heston:

“We don’t respond to those Charlton Heston heroes who lack irrational impulses.” (Notes on Evolving Heroes, Morals, Audiences, 1976)