- Sometimes I lose sleep worrying about the colors of the world, fearing that some of them will disappear forever as manufacturing processes change and our planet’s pigment chemists quietly swap, say, one shade of aubergine for another, slightly inferior shade. But we needn’t worry. The Forbes Pigment Collection, presently housed at the Harvard Art Museums, is dedicated to preserving historic colors. “Later Forbes hired scientist Rutherford John Gettens, who examined the chemistry of pigments and innovated tools like a microsampler for taking art specimens. Now conservators can examine how a color has changed over time—like pararealgar, that was originally red and reacted with light into yellow—and the original components of art through the pigment library.”
- So your home was featured in a popular motion picture! That’s swell. That’s just grand. I’d be happy to stop by and have a look, because, you know, I’m in the market for a—oh, oh it was in Silence of the Lambs, you say? I see. And nearby, “there’s a creepy-looking tunnel, which some visitors suspect is haunted. There’s an old, rusty bridge that crosses the Youghiogheny River and serves as the main access route to the nearby town of Perryopolis. The isolated location is perhaps the perfect place for a fictional killer to set up shop”? Well, let me think on it. I’ll get back to you sometime.
- In the 1930s, a Wyoming newspaperman named Garrett Price started to draw White Boy, a comic about, yes, a young white male who was captured by Indians and adopted into their tribe. (The strip later took the slightly less inadvisable title Skull Valley.) Now, the entire three-year run of White Boy has been reissued and it is … let’s say it’s illuminating as to the predilections and prejudices of its era. “Price’s character Trapper Dan Brown was a familiar frontier type, with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of Indians,” Thomas Powers writes of it: “In one strip Trapper Dan challenges Lark Song, a noted orator in his tribe, to best if he can a song Dan has written. One verse goes: Oh, I don’t like books / and I don’t like tea, / I wrassled a bear / when I was three. / Ki-Yi-Yippy-Yippy Yea.”
- A new collection of Walker Evans’s photography finds him in cinemas and junkyards, subways and ice-cream shops—the book shows “an artist who was constantly evolving; he was sampling new ideas, techniques, and technologies. Anything new or curious was of interest. When he advised the artist to ‘Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop,’ he was speaking from his own experience. It could have been his personal mantra.”
- Patti Smith has been reading Frida Kahlo’s love letters to Diego Rivera, with attention to one in particular: “They didn’t have a passionate relationship that dissipated and was gone. They had an earthly human love as well as the loftiness of a revolutionary agenda and their work. The fact that this isn’t a profound letter makes it in some ways more special. She addressed it to ‘Diego, my love’—even though this is the most mundane, simplest correspondence, she still noted their love, their intimacy. She held the letter in her hands, she kissed it with her lips, he received it and held it in his hands. This little piece of paper holds their simplicity and their intimacy, the earthiness of their life. It contains the sender and the receiver.”
On his first night in Toledo, in his first at bat, Shelley Duncan cue-balled a dribbler to the pitcher. On contact, he yelled, “Shit,” and began his reflexive sprint down the line. When he returned to the dugout, nobody on the team said anything to him or even looked his way. On this road trip, he was 1-10, with a .217 average for the season. He arrived in Durham from Tampa on May 6, after hitting only .182 in twenty games with the big club. As he pulled off his helmet to reveal a tangle of blond, thinning hair, I noticed a far-off look in his eyes, as though they had been hollowed out. It’s a look familiar to anyone who has seen the photographs of Walker Evans: complete exhaustion meshed with pure confusion. He took his helmet in his right hand and walked down the steps, lightly tapping the plastic against the metal railing; his lips, as he spoke to himself, made only slight putters of admonishment. He carefully put the helmet away in its nook and sat down on the bench with his white batting gloves still velcroed at the wrists. Before I even got to know Shelley Duncan, I was already worried about his future in baseball.
I first became interested in Duncan a week earlier when, watching the team in Columbus, I had spotted his name in the Durham Bulls’ media guide as having the most major-league experience of the roster. He had two considerable stints with the Indians and, before that, had made his rookie debut with the Yankees. I was intrigued because, on the surface, he seemed the aging veteran with big-league time, now toiling in the purgatory of Triple-A where everyone is either on their way up or down, or out of baseball altogether. Watching him at the end of the bench, I had no idea that his mother had passed away from brain cancer earlier in the summer or that his brother had been diagnosed with the same disease. I didn’t know that his twin sons had been born last July and he’d been away from them for almost half their lives. He was just a player who seemed near the end. Read More
On Tuesday morning, December 11, I drove a rented 2013 Chevrolet Impala out of Chapel Hill on I-40 East, the first miles of a twenty-two-day road trip around the South, with points as far west as New Orleans and Shreveport. These were the first Christmas plans I’d made on my own in forty-six years.
Without children, my holidays since 1995 have alternated between my parents’ house in eastern North Carolina and my in-laws’ in Pittsburgh. Over a nearly identical duration, I’ve been researching the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. Now I’m working to finish my last book on him. The first stop on this Southern holiday journey is Berkeley County, South Carolina, a former slave-plantation region near the coast where Smith photographed his 1951 Life essay, “Nurse Midwife.”
The truth is that I’m tired of Gene Smith. Read More
Working with words is how I’ve made my living, but becoming a photographer has been a longtime fantasy, fed by the vinaigrette smell of the chemistry in the college darkroom, the monographs in the library upstairs, and all the museums and galleries and bookstores I’ve visited in the decades since. The more amazing work I saw, the more shy I became about picking up a camera, so this fantasy was sublimated into writing about photography, even writing about writing about photography.
The pictures that speak to me most are street photographs. I wanted to be a surreptitious chronicler of urban life, like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Helen Levitt or Elliott Erwitt. Street photography took off with the Leica, a groundbreaking portable camera introduced in 1925 that used the same 35-mm film manufactured for motion pictures. By the time I became aware of street photography, its golden age—its culturally decisive moment, so to speak—was behind us. To practice street photography at the end of the twentieth century seemed like nostalgia.
Elizabeth Bishop was a painter as well as a poet, and the paintings that she left to her partner Alice Methfessel, who died in 2009, are now being sold. I’ve been to see the paintings a couple of times: last winter in the office of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, and a few weeks ago in the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
The paintings are quiet. Some are domestic still lifes, including pansies in a wicker basket, a candelabra on a table, a tea set, and a doll-like lover asleep in bed. Others feature vernacular architecture: a Greenwich Village apartment building of ivy-covered brick, a wooden church in Key West, a county courthouse grand in the way of the nineteenth-century South. Most are in watercolor and gouache on vellum paper, whose delicate translucence no reproduction quite captures; lines are sometimes drawn in ink or pencil. Bishop didn’t have a steady or a precise hand, but her eye for color was fine, and she understood how to make the most of patterns, such as the radiations of a palm leaf, the stripes of a comforter cover, or the palings of a fence. She also had a Walker Evans–ish appreciation of the way that words, when they appear in the world as things, can seem both monumental and silly. The county courthouse is childishly labeled as such on a gable. On a street near a cemetery, each of five tombstones leaning against a shack reads “FOR SALE.”
The choice of subject and the modesty of style suggest that the paintings were for Bishop a personal matter. She usually signed them, when she signed them at all, with her initials or just her first name. Read More
There might never be a more bountiful kingdom of photography than that established under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration and ruled by the former economist Roy Stryker, some 171,000 negatives made to document Depression America between 1935 and 1942. Though he was no photographer (Gordon Parks joked that he couldn’t even load a camera), Stryker pulled no punches during his reign. “I never took a picture,” he once wrote, “and yet I felt a part of every picture taken. I sat in my office in Washington and yet I went into every home in America. I was both the Stabilizer and the Exciter.”
He might have added the Excisor. Scattered among the Library of Congress’s FSA archive are curious reminders of Stryker’s autocratic touch: For the first three years of the project, he registered his disapproval of an image—whether to make an example out of those he thought had wasted valuable film or out of some darker fit of spite—by taking a hole puncher to the negative, ensuring that it wouldn’t be subsequently printed. It didn’t seem to matter who took the picture. Walker Evans got holes punched in a handful of negatives; so did John Vachon, a lowly FSA clerk at the time who was learning the trade on weekends. If Stryker’s one-man photographic death panel was democratic in judgment, it was sporadic in execution. In some negatives the holes are perfunctorily, even apologetically clipped along the borders of the negative; in others, Stryker seemed almost wrathful, going straight for the jugular by obliterating offending faces, necks, or buttocks.
In his video “Punctured,” a reformatted version of his 2009 film “Killed,” the LA-based artist William E. Jones has performed a sort of perverse resurrection of Stryker’s perforated negatives, a Lazurus act that’s doubly miraculous because it uses the powers of video animation to raise up the quite-dead world of documentary photography. (The video is currently featured in an exhibition at Andrew Roth gallery in Manhattan.) From 100 perforated images he located in the Library of Congress archives, Jones has produced 4,500 digital files at different scales of enhancement and organized these into a hypnotically syncopated, nearly five-minute-long looped movie. The structural logic is provided by Stryker’s hole itself: each of the hundred images appears for a total of around three seconds, beginning with an enlarged, screen-filling close-up of the negative space of Stryker’s hole, a giant black spot that then smoothly and very rapidly appears to recede in size as the surrounding photograph comes into view. Then, bang, another Stryker reject appears, with the same fast zoom-out, from hole to whole.