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A Marvelous Crutch: An Interview with Brad Zellar

April 25, 2014 | by

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McKenna. Corsicana Tumbling Academy. Corsicana. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Douglas. Beverly Hills. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Fellowship Church. Grapevine. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Reveille VIII, Texas A&M mascot. College Station. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Texas City, “The town that would not die.” Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Cory and Justin, Bull riders, in San Antonio. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Execution of Jerry Martin. Huntsville Prison, Walls Unit. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

Brad Zellar’s writing has appeared in daily newspapers from Minnesota and in an expansive blog called Your Man for Fun in Rapidan; he has chapters and essays in collections like The 1968 Project and Twin Cities Noir, and occasionally he writes fiction, which he tells me he publishes “under an assortment of fake names.” But he’s most comfortable writing about photographs, as he did in the book Suburban World: The Norling Photos, and in his most recent project with the photographer Alec Soth, the LBM Dispatch.

Named for and printed by Soth’s limited-run publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, the Dispatch reimagines the iconic American road-trip photography book as a series of small newspapers, each of which chronicles a quick trip Zellar and Soth have taken through a different state or territory. Previous Dispatches have covered Michigan, Ohio, and California’s “Three Valleys—Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death.” The most recent includes images and stories from the Texas Triangle.

I wanted to know about the writing process for the Dispatch, and how Zellar chooses the issues’ many quotations from historical and literary sources. But I was most curious to hear his thoughts on writing to accompany images. Not quite a photo-interpreter in the Berger/Sontag tradition (though he is a great writer in the “how to look” sense), Zellar embraces photography as a fan, and he’s not afraid to let images do the talking when necessary. In Zellar’s work, photos are windows, excuses for curiosity—above all, the Dispatch embodies the devotion to stay curious.

A lot of your work, here and elsewhere, has accompanied photos. How does it affect your own writing to know that pictures will share its space? How does it make you think about your purpose as a writer?

The public library in my hometown had a terrific collection of photo books when I was a kid. I was an obsessive reader, but it was from those photo books that I formed my first real impressions about what the world looked like. And they played a huge role in cementing a resolve that I very much wanted to travel and see that world. I used to spend hours hunched over William Eggleston’s Guide, the first Diane Arbus monograph, and a book of vernacular American photographs called The Champion Pig.

From an early age I used to write stories based on photographs, and I’ve never really stopped. I have a large collection of found photos, I like to take photos myself, and I just get a kick out of looking at pictures and trying to animate them with words. I love that photos represent so many possible realities, and they’re sort of a laboratory for exploring points of view. You have the people in the pictures, obviously, each of them a different voice with a different version of whatever story is being told, you have the people outside the frame or lurking in the peripheries, and then, of course, you have the photographer. Read More »

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Fair’s Fair: An Interview with Neil Freeman

March 25, 2013 | by

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Way back in 2004, the artist Neil Freeman debuted a novel idea on his Web site, Fake is the New Real: a map of the United States, redrawn so that each state has a more or less equal population. This, Freeman proffered, would correct the current problem with our electoral college system, in which sparsely populated states wield tremendous political influence for no real justifiable reason.

He remade the map in 2010 to reflect current census data, but took the idea to its most exhaustive and visually impressive heights in December 2012. Since the country had just survived yet another election where Ohio and Florida were agreed to be the only states of any import; since the governments of certain conservative-leaning states went out of their way to make voting a nearly constitution-violating ordeal for many minority populations; and since the last few years have seen many congressional districts gerrymandered out of political contention, I was touched by Freeman’s effort to envision an American political process that was, to put it plainly, more fair.

“The states of the United States are too disparate in size and influence,” he introduced the 2012 map. “The largest state is sixty-six times as populous as the smallest and has eighteen times as many electoral votes.” I e-mailed Freeman to discuss his problem with that reality, and how his map could theoretically change it.

You’re pretty vague in the artist’s statement to this piece, saying only “reforms are needed.” What compelled you in 2004 to start this project? What do you ultimately think it says about our politics?

The project grew out of two goals, which have tended to get braided and knotted over time. The first is to visualize the population distribution of the country in a novel way. The second is to critique the electoral college.

The roots of the project go back to the early days of the 2004 presidential campaign. The 2000 election made the limitations of the electoral college painfully obvious. Not only does the system make the popular vote irrelevant, but the college gives different levels of influence and power to citizens of different states based on competitiveness and House apportionment.

There was a fair degree of momentum to reform the electoral college after the 2000 election, and nothing happened. The electoral college is deeply naturalized into our political narrative, and rational discourse seems to have little ability to dislodge it. I hope that a more creative approach to the electoral college helps to lay bare its shortcomings and the possibility of effective reform.

Presidential campaigns are also a moment when everyone pays close attention to maps of states, and the weaknesses of state maps as a visual tool become apparent. After the 2000 and 2004 election, a county-by-county map that showed that the country as a mostly red country with little blue bits on the coast began showing up as a proof of the irrelevance of the Democratic vote. This is downright silly, and it really saddens me that people confuse geographical space with population density. If—when—we get rid of the electoral college, one of the benefits will be the irrelevance of geographical state-by-state maps for illustrating campaign trends.

To tie that up—by redrawing the political map, I hope to draw attention to the limitations of our political system, and the ways that we commonly represent it. Read More »

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Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America

December 28, 2012 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I was dragging my five-year-old daughter through the musty stacks of my favorite used bookstore last spring when a middle-aged man, squatting in the Sci-Fi section next to a brimming cardboard box, caught my eye and reminded me of someone.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “are you a writer?”

“I am,” he said, standing up and straightening his glasses. His eyes were deep set and hard to read. He was bashful.

“Are you Michael Dirda?” I asked.

“I am.”

It was him: the book critic and author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, known apocryphally as the best-read man in America, whose essays had enticed me to read everything from Little, Big to Three Men in a Boat—and here he was, squinting his way through the lowest shelves in the same crusty bargain dungeon I came to all the time.

“Amazing. Nina, this is the man who wrote that little letter that we have in your George and Martha,” I told my daughter. Nina was nonplussed.

“When I was eight, in 1992,” I explained, “I wrote a letter to the Washington Post when James Marshall died and you printed it in the Book World section and even wrote a sweet little response. And her grandpa put a photocopy of that letter in The Complete George and Martha for her.”

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Water and Wonder

December 14, 2012 | by

Three times George Bailey enters the water fully clothed, and each time it scrambles his world. The first dive occurs when he rescues his little brother Harry from a crack in the ice. He falls ill and loses hearing in his left ear, which will later prevent him from fighting in World War II. Then when George is twenty-one, he meets his future wife Mary at a high school dance and the two are so enamored of each other that they jitterbug their way into the gym pool.

And thirdly, of course, George leaps off a Bedford Falls bridge on Christmas Eve, trying to save the angel that will eventually renew his lost faith in himself. Read More »

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