Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jon's Notebook

My photography project 'Developing Writers' shows the subjects with their notebooks. Here's a page from my notes relating to the printing of the portraits and accompanying images:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Photographer's Body

Stephen Shore: I was thinking of how I would approach the issue of embodiment in photographic terms, and that is if you become aware of yourself as a physical object in space, as though you were a dancer moving through the space of a room, your perception changes, your perception of space changes, your perception of time changes, and to the degree that that perceptual change is visual, it could be communicated in a photograph. So the sense of space is often the easiest of these subtler qualities to talk about, but if your physical awareness of yourself changes your perception of space, if you are a photographer that has had a lot of experience, a practiced photographer who has control of the medium, the picture you take can communicate that.

Michael Fried: Yes. What struck me in [your] landscape photos .... is that I felt something intensely empathic about, for example, the way they depicted the unevenness of the ground. And about the way in which they treated the whole question of relative distance. It had to be read. I mean I was keenly aware of the visual work I had to do to make my way imaginatively through the photos, to figure out distances, to read scale relations. Let's say there is something at a certain distance, it might be a big rock or it might be a smaller one. Everything depends on whether it is a big rock at 800 yards or a small rock at 75 yards, and those photographs don't immediately deliver that information. They make you work for it, and I came to feel that the labor of construal they forced me to do was implicitly physical, if you see what I mean. It was more than just mental, it was equivalent to imagining myself having to physically negotiate that space. So they were for me extremely interesting photos precisely with respect to the issue of bodiliness and empathy. Also, they made me register the unevenness of the ground in a more than strictly visual way -- the way I would have done had I been walking on it, climbing that slope, or coming back down. 

From an interview in the recent Phaidon volume on Stephen Shore

Monday, July 7, 2014

Street Level Photoworks

This is where I am currently developing my negatives:

 

I was really pleased to discover such a great public darkroom in Glasgow.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

New Photography Project

I am currently working on a new photography project: my first using a large-format camera since 2005. It depicts Glasgow University creative writing students with their notebooks, in the setting of the university’s Hunterian Gallery. I wanted to use a large-format camera in order to retain resolution in the text on the notebook pages, which occupy a relatively small area in the composition, but are its literal point of focus. The theme is of ‘Developing Writers’, and it seemed appropriate to use analogue technology to depict the similarly analogue character of handwritten notebooks by writers in the process of revising themselves as well as their final portfolio submissions.

 I found this project very challenging on a technical level, for reasons that would not be appropriate to explain at length in a general discussion of the images, but which I’d like to review here, if only for my own satisfaction.

 First of all, I was out of practice with the large-format camera. That’s like being out of practice at running: it takes time to recondition your body to work within the machine's protocol. Secondly, I have never developed my own negatives before. I’ve always made my own prints in a wet darkroom, but for previous projects I shot away from home, and I had the negatives developed by someone else. This wasn't really an option here in Glasgow, and it took me quite a while to get the hang of this part of the process. Numerous fogged or stained films bear witness to my difficulties. Thirdly, the light levels in the Hunterian are low, and the light is also very flat. Using the slow lenses of a large-format camera, the best aperture / shutter speed combination I could get was f8 and 1/15 of a second, even on a 400ASA film pushed one stop to 800. That’s very slow for a portrait, and even at f8, the depth-of-field on a 210mm lens was often only a few centimetres.

I focussed on the handwriting on the notebook pages, but I often couldn’t see clearly enough on the ground-glass screen to get critical focus, or alternatively the sitter moved a few centimetres before exposure, or the paper shifted very slightly during the exposure (sometimes it was 1/8 of a second; occasionally 1/30). Any of these variations was enough to fuzz out the letter shapes on the notebook page, and the human eye has no tolerance for fuzzy typography. Whereas a face can be slightly out of focus and still seem natural, any loss of sharpness in written letters looks ‘wrong’.

In addition to this, the resolving power of my 210mm portrait lens is not as great as I would like. My 90mm wide-angle has much superior optics, but isn’t great for portraiture. I also used a Fuji 6 x 9 as a backup camera, which does have a great lens, and a convenient rangefinder focussing mechanism. I sometimes found that the resolution on the notebook pages was better on the smaller negative of the 6 x 9 than on a large-format negative from the 210mm.

These are all technical problems, but, even assuming that I managed to resolve them all, which I did on maybe one in three negatives, that simply established the preconditions for a successful portrait. Success depends on capturing an interesting psychological truth or moment from the sitter, and I am a very poor director of people.

 I was helped in this by the presence of Katy Hastie during most of the sessions. During the set-up, she talked to sitters about her side of the project, which involves a questionnaire and discussion of creative-writing pedagogy.

 I would set up the camera to determine the edges of the frame, and then place the sitter within that space. Katy compared the second phase to being at the opticians (‘Left a half-step, right a quarter step, notebook up ten centimetres, face turned slightly to your left; now hold that while I put the darkslide in the camera back’). Of course, from my point-of-view all those directions had to be given while viewing the image upside-down and back-to-front.

The really crucial elements in a portrait are facial expression and body language, and the sitter had to discover those while trapped in the vice of the technical limitations.

I expect to get 8-10 successful photographs from about 75 sheets of large-format film and 30 or so rolls of 6 x 9 film. That failure rate is more or less consistent with previous projects. Since I’m not a professional photographer, the only edge I have is in my willingness to edit ruthlessly.

Samples to follow on Flickr.

Friday, February 7, 2014

'Available' by The National

From their album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers

Sunday, September 8, 2013

'Like a Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan



Heckler: Judas! 
Bob Dylan: I don’t believe you. You’re a liar. [Aside to The Band:] Play it fucking loud! 
Manchester Free Trade Hall, 1966 

In 1977, Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese were inseparable. 'I had always been a film buff, and [Scorsese] was a music buff', Robertson recalls. 'When I moved in into the house I brought these huge studio speakers into the living room, and on the other side of the house he turned a bedroom into a screening room. The screen was a whole bedroom wall'. The two men lived in a nocturnal world of parties and cocaine binges, editing The Last Waltz as other priorities allowed, which may explain why the film wasn’t ready for release until early 1978.

On 26 November 1976, the day after The Last Waltz concert took place, the Sex Pistols released their debut single, Anarchy In The UK. In January 1978, the group played their last disastrous gig at San Francisco’s Winterland – the same venue that had hosted The Last Waltz just over a year before. Thus the film’s period of gestation coincided precisely with the rise and fall of the first wave of British punk. Robertson and Scorsese, holed up in their air-conditioned Hollywood bachelor pad, and deprived of all sensory input except an endless succession of old films and albums on looped playback, were probably unaware of this, but the Pistols appropriated and inverted the same ‘end-of-an-era’ rhetoric that underpins The Last Waltz for their own purposes when they declared 1976 to be Year Zero in the history of popular music. It suited both camps to forget that Bob Dylan had already invented punk ten years earlier.

Witness the gig of 17 May 1966 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, during which Dylan was backed by the future members of The Band. Nothing the Pistols ever recorded matches the savagery with which Dylan attacks the complacency of his own constituency that night; nor did Dylan ever again betray the kind of vulnerability that underlies the violence of his response to the – undoubtedly sincere – cry of ‘Judas!’, which leads inevitably into the final song, Like A Rolling Stone. The lyrics, viewed in the retrospective light of that agonised cry, sound like a pre-emptive series of counter-accusations, while the punchline of the chorus is equal parts identification and vilification; which is to say, it’s an attempt to marshal the creative potential of self-disgust, an attempt that’s only possible because it’s unclear to whom the question is addressed or even whether it’s sincere or rhetorical – unlike the unscripted exchange that opens the song, where the battle lines are very clearly drawn.

The Band weren’t The Band in 1966 of course. Not just because Levon Helm had temporarily absconded, unable to bear the heckling on the American leg of the tour, but also because Dylan doesn’t acknowledge their existence as a unit. In the footage included in Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Robertson is frequently visible, as inseparable from Dylan in 1966 as he was from Scorsese in 1977, the chosen confidante whose designated role is to echo Dylan’s self-image back at him. But Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson barely seem to exist, at least offstage. In concert it’s a different story, but still, the only voice heard from the stage is Dylan’s. Harmonies are strictly surplus to requirements in 1966, so Danko and Manuel literally have no voice, and Robertson isn’t yet so bold as to dare to mouth the words along.

Ten years after Dylan appeared at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, on 4 June 1976, the Sex Pistols played the same venue – although they only merited the ‘B’ stage, the so-called ‘Lesser Free Trade Hall’ upstairs. It was their first significant gig outside London, and was sparsely attended. They appeared again on 20 July, when word of mouth from the first show brought in a much larger audience, and when they performed Anarchy In The UK in public for the first time.

In 1966, the walkouts, boos and slow handclaps were in part arranged in advance, orchestrated by the commissars of the folk clubs, whose understanding of the significance of ‘their’ music was entirely in thrall to hard-left politics. According to the party line, Dylan had prostituted himself by turning his songs into commodities. In retrospect, the opposite argument seems more convincing: that preconceived audience expectations had fetishised Dylan, who was understandably unwilling to accept this state of affairs. How appropriate then that the most succinct dramatisation of this manufactured conflict took place in a venue called the Free Trade Hall.

In 1976, by contrast, the audience at the two Sex Pistols shows had no shared musical tradition and no idea of what to expect, but their response to a group that openly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit was one of ecstatic (self-)affirmation. Legend has it that everyone in the audience formed a band.

'Play it fucking loud!'

This is the only moment of unmediated communication in the Manchester version of Like A Rolling Stone, the only moment that leaves no room for misunderstanding or contradiction. It’s both an imperative and an affirmation. There’s no object, no subject, and therefore no gender: just a lightning bolt of energy that short-circuits all the normal paths of communication, erasing the distinction between monologue and dialogue; between question and answer.

'How does it feel?'

Sunday, September 1, 2013

'Don't Do It' by The Band



They dove for this song. They grabbed it. They took it as a piece of rhythm, which is what white rock and roll bands have always done with rhythm and blues. They didn’t go for the soul of it – maybe because it wasn’t accessible to them, maybe because it wasn’t interesting to them. There was something in the rhythm that begged for more, that begged for speed, that begged for hardness, for harshness. It seems as if the entire performance is simply a dare: the various people in The Band daring each other to play harder than they’ve ever played before. And what’s most amazing is that they’re battering at each other, they’re throwing challenges at each other. That’s what’s going on in the rhythm. And then at the very end – I guess you could call it a guitar solo – Robbie Robertson simply cuts out on guitar. But he cuts out like somebody gunning a car out of town, as if he’s never going to look back at that place ever again. It’s an absolute escape, and it’s something to hear somebody leap right out of the song, the rest of The Band trying to keep up with him, almost as if to grab his legs as he makes it out the door – and failing. 
Greil Marcus

[The Band’s private studio in Malibu] had once been a high-class bordello. There were still mirrored walls in the bedrooms, and the corridors were lined with crushed-velvet wallpaper.
Barney Hoskyns

‘Cutthroat’.

It’s not the first audible, enunciated word in the film, since it’s preceded by a babble of production noise that concludes with the phrase ‘Same slate, still running’, reminding us that what we’re seeing is an artefact, whose production is dependent on the cooperation of a group of invisible artisans. But 'Cutthroat' is the first word that’s clearly directed at us, the audience, and the first spoken by a protagonist. An odd opening for a film intended as a monument to the history of a community.

‘Okay Rick. What’s the game?’

The speaker is off-camera, but the voice is clearly recognisable as that of director Martin Scorsese. When this scene was shot, in early 1977, Scorsese had already made a number of cameo appearances in his own films – for example, as a brothel client in 1972’s Boxcar Bertha – but most viewers would know the voice from a scene in the recently-released Taxi Driver, in which Scorsese delivers a monologue in the role of a jealous passenger spying on his wife from the back of Travis Bickle’s cab. Travis watches him via the rear-view mirror, without turning around or responding directly, so it’s a peculiar kind of monologue; that is, it’s a monologue that aspires to be a dialogue – whether with Travis or with the absent woman is unclear – but in any case it fails to hit its target. As such it anticipates the film’s most famous scene, in which Travis repetitively challenges his own dumb, uncomprehending reflection.

‘Cutthroat’.

Rick Danko, bass player and one of the three vocalists in The Band, answers Scorsese’s current (and seemingly innocuous) question. Danko is standing over a pool table with a racked set of balls.

‘What’s the object of it?’, Scorsese asks, again from off-screen.

‘The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off’.

Danko breaks. He pots a number of balls with consecutive shots, as other group members watch passively from the edge of the frame. Is anyone else even playing? The dry smack of the impacts bleeds over into the warmer noise of audience applause, introducing the next shot, which is of The Band walking back onstage to perform what will be their final encore in their final concert in their original line-up, a momentous occasion recorded for posterity by Scorsese in this film: The Last Waltz.

The song The Band launch into is Don’t Do It. On this occasion, Danko sings lead, although that’s not always the case. The members of The Band are comfortable with each other in this way. They swap instruments as well as vocals: Danko changes bass for violin; Levon Helm changes drums for bass; Richard Manuel changes keyboards for drums; Garth Hudson changes organ for saxophone. They swap groupies too. On their 1974 tour with Bob Dylan, roadies take Polaroids of the available women at each date: a rotating menu of options.

There are three vocalists in The Band, but guitarist Robbie Robertson – the only group member who only plays one instrument – isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, he appears to sing along enthusiastically to every song in The Last Waltz, although his contributions are inaudible. His silent mouthing is significant, however, because the subtext of the film is Robertson’s claim to ownership over The Band’s legacy and back catalogue as the group’s main credited songwriter. It’s Robertson’s decision to dissolve the community of The Band, which (in his opinion) can’t continue to exist without him – a claim subsequently contested by the other four members, who recommenced touring and recording in the 1980s. So this final onstage show of solidarity masks profound inner tensions, and Robertson’s claim to leadership is based upon the nihilistic premise that the man in charge is the one with the key to initiate the self-destruct sequence.

Don’t Do It.

Again, an odd way to start (in fact, to end) a celebration: with a denial rather than an affirmation, with a deluded plea from a narrator in a pitiable state. But Danko doesn’t sing the words like a defeated, bitter man. He sings like he’s the sexiest motherfucker on earth, and he’s crowing in triumph. Moreover, he skips half the words, as if he’s in a goddamn hurry to get to the end. Probably he is. After all, it’s after two in the morning, and The Band have been playing for hours by this point in the filming of The Last Waltz. But there’s also a sense in which the tone of the performance deliberately nullifies the sense of the words, which speak of enthrallment even as the omissions and the acceleration send a different message: one of barely-veiled contempt for the addressee, who is revealed as the victim of an elaborate joke. She’s not a person. She’s a pretext for men to tell each other stories about what it means to be a man.

This, then, is the ‘official’ reading of the song in the film: In The Band’s world, no man is ever helpless before a woman. In The Band’s world it’s always the woman who says, 'My biggest mistake was loving you too much'. In The Band’s world, male sexuality is empowered by male solidarity.

I don’t live in The Band’s world.

Friday, August 23, 2013

'Diane Arbus' by Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus is one of the most influential monographs in the history of photography. Since it was first published in 1972, a year after Arbus’ untimely death, it has continued to provoke strong reactions in viewers, who see contradictory meanings in Arbus’ confrontational pictures of teenagers, outsiders, freaks, nudists and psychiatric inmates. Compassion, curiosity, openness to other ways of being; cruelty, prurience, voyeurism: even Arbus herself was not entirely certain which category her work falls into.

Arbus never published a book in her lifetime – her biggest exposure was in 1967 as one of the three featured photographers in the New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander). Diane Arbus is not, then, strictly speaking a 'self-titled' book, because it was edited after her death by her friend, the painter Marvin Israel, and her daughter, Doon Arbus. It features eighty photographs – a small selection of those available in Arbus’ archive. They date from 1962-71, the last decade of Arbus’ life - her forties, more or less. It’s a masterpiece of editing, cut to the bone. Every image is remarkable, though some are more remarkable than others. The sequence jumps around chronologically, except at the very end where there is a small group of consecutive images all dating from 1971, depicting residents at a psychiatric institution.

Arbus' estate holders have been criticised for not allowing wider access to her work or archives, but in a sense the posthumous success of Diane Arbus reveals the effectiveness of their strategy. And, since Arbus herself has no need to keep churning out material to service an ongoing career, why not leave a single, impactful monograph as a definitive statement? (In fact, there have been several other volumes printed recently – a set of the 1971 photographs, a compilation of magazine work from the early 60s, and the catalogue for a recent retrospective; but the first cut is still the deepest.) Thinking of the posthumous creation of this unique monograph reminds me of the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish - perhaps Arbus might not recognise herself in the book that bears her name.

Except that the voice of the photographs is there in the written preface too. Informal, ironic, intellectually inquisitive, but impatient of theory and abstractions. The preface is full of quotable aphorisms, which speak powerfully of Arbus' aesthetic:

Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.

It’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s.

A whore I knew once showed me a photo album of Instamatic colour pictures she’d taken of guys she’d picked up. I don’t mean kissing ones. Just guys sitting on beds in hotel rooms. I remember one of a man in a bra. He was just an ordinary, milktoast sort of man, and he had just tried on a bra. Like anybody would try on a bra, like anybody would try on what the other person had that he didn’t have. It was heartbreaking. It was really a beautiful photograph.

These are all Arbus’ words, but none of them were written by her. Instead, it's a collage transcribed from excerpts of taped interviews. So, in fact, the preface is a masterpiece of editing too.

Reviewing Diane Arbus, I now see that the voice I’ve been trying to capture in the photography chapters of Reciprocity Failure is Arbus' voice from the preface.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dancing

Denis Lavant dances, in:

Mauvais Sang by Leos Carax:




Beau Travail by Claire Denis:



‘Do you know the only time I feel completely at home in my body?’ I ask.

‘When you come?’

‘Besides that. I meant when I dance.’

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Stream of Consciousness

Stream-of-consciousness is closely associated with literary modernism. Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, et al experimented with this technique under the influence of contemporary philosophical attempts to define the nature of consciousness – it was William James who first referred to it as a ‘stream’ - for example, in the fields of phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

I rediscovered stream-of-consciousness recently in the work of Jean Rhys, whose short novels of the 20s and 30s are all marked by their profound exploration of the narrator’s sensibility via this technique. Here is a sample from Good Morning, Midnight (1939):

Now the room springs out at me, laughing, triumphant. .... Here we are. Nothing to stop us. Four walls, a roof, a bed, a bidet, a spotlight that goes on first over the bidet and then over the bed – nothing to stop us. Anything you like; anything you like. ... No past to make us sentimental, no future to embarrass us. ... A difficult moment when you are out of practice – a moment that makes you go cold, cold and wary. 

Stream-of-consciousness has fallen out of favour recently, like many of the literary techniques associated with high modernism. It has largely been replaced by ‘limited third person narration’: that is, writing nominally from a third-person perspective, but in fact following the experiences and consciousness of a protagonist fairly closely. This technique allows writers the intimacy of a first-person perspective, while eliminating the dangerous idiosyncracies that come with direct immersion in the narrator's thoughts. Direct stream-of-consciousness is now used only to represent altered or damaged states of consciousness: that is, intoxication or madness. (Rhys’ protagonists are often on the verge of either intoxication or madness, or both.)

I am writing a novel about modernism and consciousness, but I never use stream-of-consciousness. It didn’t even occur to me until after I read Rhys. Why? Because Reciprocity Failure is more concerned with intersubjectivity, and so its key passages are either dramatic monologues (that is, written as if spoken aloud, as quasi-soliloquies) or dialogue exchanges: direct attempts at communication. In this context, stream-of-consciousness, as traditionally practiced, is a failure to communicate, a form of solipsism.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

IBDS 2013 Conference

From the website for the 2013 conference of the IBDS (International Bande Dessinée Society), which is being held at the University of Glasgow from 24-28 June, and features appearances by Grant Morrison and many other UK comics luminaries:

Comics have a long tradition in Scotland and her neighbours. Many argue that the Northern Looking  Glass (1826), which was created in Glasgow, is the world’s first modern comic, that Scottish publisher DC Thomson’s The Dandy (1937 – present) is the world’s longest running comic, although it was with the English character Ally Sloper that we saw the world’s first comics superstar. The place of comics in Scotland will be celebrated by an exhibition in the Hunterian in 2015 showcasing the Glasgow-based Northern Looking Glass, as well as comics from DC Thomson in Dundee. In anticipation of this the Joint International Comics and Bande Dessinée Society conference in 2013 will explore the origins of the medium, and has adopted the guiding themes of The National Origins of Comics, Scottish Comics, and comics and national identity. However, the conference, like the exhibition, will also focus on much broader questions relating to text/image history and the cultural status of comics. It will examine the emergence of international comics traditions, exploring world traditions, and, for IBDS, specifically French-language ones. The conference organisers also invite papers and suggestions for panels on the international origins of comics, comics and identity, crossborder influences, and digital comics as a potential transnational “re-birth” for the medium and the industry. 

I am giving a paper on the influence of comics on Five Wounds on Tuesday afternoon as part of the programme.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hand Lettering

Peter Bagge interviewed at The Comics Journal:

I very much followed Crumb’s example with Weirdo, where he made the letters pages part of the art. It was very careful designed and carefully edited to be as entertaining as possible. He lettered the letters pages by hand, and so I did the same thing. But once I started doing Neat Stuff and then Hate then I had to do type-set, because doing that by hand was insane. .... And then Dan Clowes used to do that with Eightball. I would say that along with a lot of what Robert Crumb did, I think nobody made a better package using the comic book format than Clowes. He very carefully pieced it together, he would even hand-letter the indicia, and hand-letter and hand-design back-issues ads. .... So what would normally be all be filler and house ads, he did all by hand and made a piece of artwork out of it. And like his hand-lettered his letters sections, they always looked beautiful. And they ware entertaining.

There is a persistent prejudice against typesetting in the comics world: an assumption that hand-lettering is always more expressive. I don't share this prejudice.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Article in 'Visual Communication'

The latest issue of the journal Visual Communication (May 2013) has an article I wrote on the design of Five Wounds. Best accessed via a university library subscription.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

'(Love Like) Anthrax' by Gang of Four



These groups and singers think that they appeal to everyone
by singing about love because apparently everyone has or can love
or so they would have you believe anyway.
But these groups seem to go along with the belief
that love is deep in everyone's personality.
I don't think we're saying there's anything wrong with love.
We just don't think that what goes on between two people
should be shrouded with mystery.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

'I Keep Coming Back'



A cover version from Gentlemen by The Afghan Whigs. The whole album works for Reciprocity Failure really, but the lyrics on this track are the most apposite. The original is by Tyrone Davis:


Friday, December 28, 2012

Psychology

S: You have often expressed contempt for psychology. Yet you keep talking about the mystery of personality in ways that sound psychological. What's the difference between what you want to understand and what the psychologist wants to understand? 

B: The psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I explain nothing. 

S: You are a person with no preconceptions. 

B: None at all. 

S: Whereas psychology is a closed system, whose premises dictate its method. Therefore, it discovers evidence in support of a preexisting theory of human behavior. 

B: If I succeed at all, I suppose some of what I show on the screen will be psychologically valid, even though I am not quite aware of it. But of course, I don't always succeed. In any case, I never want to explain anything. The trouble with most films is that they explain everything. 

....

S: What I am trying to explore with you is the emotional problem for the spectator [in Pickpocket]. 

B: I never think of the spectator. 

S: But you can see that your hero might appear unsympathetic. 

B: He is unsympathetic. Why not? 

S: I am also puzzled, in view of your uninterest in psychology, at the heavy psychological emphasis in this film. Let me explain. As we see the hero stealing, we don't know his motive, but toward the end of the film we find out that he previously stole from his mother. We then realize his psychological motivation; he stole from his mother, felt guilty about that, was ashamed to confess to her, and, therefore, commits crimes so as to be punished and fulfill his need for penitence. 

B: Perhaps, but only a psychiatrist would explain it like that. As Dostoyevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you desire to find out the reason.

From this interview with Robert Bresson.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Novelist and the Storyteller

The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others.

From The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin 

Benjamin was distinguishing the novelist from the 'storyteller', by which he meant someone participating in an oral culture: that is, someone linked to their audience by direct physical contact, for whom storytelling is a bodily performance. I think that the growth of online culture has, ironically (given that all online communication is, by definition, mediated), taken us back to the age of the storyteller. It is impossible to flourish as a new writer now without communicating regularly and closely with one's audience: that is, without performing the role of author in public.

Friday, December 21, 2012

'Paris Peasant' by Louis Aragon

Louis’ Aragon’s anti-novel Paris Peasant [Paysan de Paris, 1926] is one of the earliest Surrealist texts. To my mind, it’s superior to Breton’s Nadja, though the latter is better known and more widely read now, perhaps because it has a recognisable plot of sorts (that of the author’s romance with the titular heroine), whereas the structure of Paris Peasant is determined only by Aragon’s perambulations around a soon-to-be-demolished shopping arcade (the longest part of the book is a tour of all the shops it contains) and the Buttes-Chaumont park. Throughout, Aragon pays particular attention to places where the distinction between public and private is in abeyance, as indeed it is in arcades and parks in general, but even more so in public lavatories, bathhouses, hairdressers, brothels, and the more secluded corners of Buttes-Chaumont after dark.

The walk around the park put me in mind of several photographers: Atget, who in fact took several photographs in Buttes-Chaumont (Google tells me they were of trees, but perhaps he also photographed the statuary, as was his wont), Brassai, whose Paris After Dark contains several images of locked park entrances (Aragon and friends are surprised to discover Buttes-Chaumont open when they arrive there by taxi at night); and, most of all, several infrared images shot by Weegee of lovers in New York parks. Like Weegee's, Aragon’s nocturnal stroll is also surrounded by partially-visible canoodling couples, but he leaves them in semi-obscurity, which is more inspirational for his surrealist purposes.

If I have understood Weegee's technique correctly (it is rarely explained), he used a flash with an infrared filter to expose the film: the filter suppressed the light source from the point-of-view of his subjects, but allowed infrared wavelengths through to provide enough light to expose the film. He shot several famous images in darkened cinemas and on the Coney Island beaches using the same technique. The results are far from seductive, since infrared light exaggerates bone shadows on the face, and highlights skin imperfections, especially male stubble. But they are revealing. Nonetheless, it seems a mean-spirited – not to mention voyeuristic – pursuit, and I can’t imagine anyone replicating it now without being prosecuted. I’m glad the photographs exist, but Aragon’s descriptions are both more suggestive and more tactful: desire generalised and mythologised, like the gouged outlines of hearts and genitals that Brassai photographed for his graffiti project.

One of the most inspired aspects of Paris Peasant is Aragon's inclusion of transcriptions of ephemera - newspaper cuttings, price lists, product advertisements, shop signs - which give a fascinating insight into the history of the everyday in 20s Paris, and (in the form of inscriptions on a column in the park and a disquistion on statues) into the relationship between the ephemeral and the historical. These transcripts are not photographic reproductions of the originals, at least in my English translation (Sebald's work occasionally includes such photographs of ephemera, but Aragon was the pioneer here). The texts are instead displayed in a variety of layouts that attempt to mimic the designs of the originals. This has a strange effect: a strictly mimetic intention (which is, moreover, concerned with written texts that do not aspire to innovation) results in highly original typography in the context of a book.

I wish (I wish!) I had had the foresight to retain receipts from Venice in 2004 (the setting and time for much of Reciprocity Failure), and to take related notes on signs and prices, so as to follow Aragon's example.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Site Maintenance

I am in the process of changing servers, so my website (jonathanwalkervenice.com, and various subdomains) is likely to experience significant downtime over the next couple of weeks. Links from blog entries to the site will suffer accordingly.

The site should be back to normal before Christmas.

EDIT: Everything seems to be working fine as of 18 December.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Outmoded

He was the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the 'outmoded', in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.
Walter Benjamin on the Surrealist leader Andre Breton

Outmoded technologies are those which once seemed natural, but now seem peculiar, quaint, redundant. Because they are outmoded, we become aware of their specific properties and limitations.

A photograph is no longer a second-generation print enlarged from a negative - and before digital technology displaced film, the default state of a photograph went from a daguerreotype (1840s), to a black-and-white print (mid-nineteenth century until the 1960s), to colour slide (in the 60s and 70s), to colour print (in the 80s and 90s).

To their original users, all these technologies seemed intrinsic to the definition of what a photograph was.

To use an outmoded technology is not, therefore, an invitation to nostalgia; or it need not be. It is instead an invitation to consider the results as the product of a historical process.

In Reciprocity Failure, this point applies most obviously to the use of chemical photography by the narrator as a deliberate, 'reverse' anachronism. But it also applies to outmoded philosophies, which are used to frame and explain the photographs he creates: phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

'Dart for My Sweetheart' by Archie Bronson Outfit



The album this is from - Derdang Derdang - is full of seething sexual tension, with the performances constantly on the edge of total (male) hysteria.

Friday, November 2, 2012

'American Gigolo' by Paul Schrader

The opening scene in the shooting script for American Gigolo by Paul Schrader is as follows:  

INT. COCKTAIL LOUNGE -- NIGHT FADE IN:  

Pre-credits. We only see his face, speaking through the shadows. He brushes his index finger lightly across his lips as he speaks. He knows: his lips are his most sexual organ. 

JULIAN 
You know who I am. I know who you are. We have no secrets. I know what you're thinking. You know what I'm thinking. We have our own methods of communication. You don't have to say anything. I can read your thoughts. I know what you need. You're afraid. You're afraid of your husband. You're afraid of yourself. You're afraid of your own sexuality. You're afraid to ask for what you need. You're afraid of being hurt.  

Julian sits in a dimly lit booth with a middle-aged woman. His eyes are only on her. His crème brûlée is untouched. The woman nervously sips her coffee as he spins his web

There's no reason to be afraid. I don't know why you're afraid. I don't even know why we're sitting here. Why we're wasting time eating things we don't want to eat, doing things we don't want to do, talking in front of people who don't matter. It's so simple. You know who I am. You want to be here. You want to be with me. You know what I can do. I can make you relax, relax like you've never relaxed before. Make you aroused like you've never been aroused before. Excited. I know how to touch you. Where to touch you. How to kiss you. Where to kiss you . . . 

CUT TO: 
End pre-credits. 

Credits. 

The opening of the finished film omits this scene entirely, and starts with the credit sequence. However, part of the monologue can be found in the trailer (I think some of the lines were incorporated in a later scene in the finished film, and the snippets in the trailer are probably taken from there):



P.s. Someone has compiled lots of critical opinions on American Gigolo, but s/he missed a rather less positive assessment from a sex worker.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Most Print Books are Ugly

In the endless debate over e-books, one of the principal reasons for defending the older, analogue model of publishing has been the fetishisation of the book as an object (I'm not using 'fetishisation' perjoratively here: I'm a fan of fetishisation). But the fact is that the vast majority of printed books are not desirable objects. The vast majority of printed books are incredibly ugly. They're printed on cheap paper, which begins to yellow very quickly; they're poorly bound, and begin to fall apart very quickly; they're poorly typeset, with inadequate margins; and they're shoddily packaged, with covers that date very quickly.

I do not conclude from this that e-books are better than traditional paperbacks: no design whatsoever is not superior to poor design. My conclusions are instead similar to those of Richard Nash, former Head of Soft Skull Press, interviewed at The Boston Review:

I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years. 

Interviewer: Why? 

When I started at Soft Skull in 2001 we were printing on 55-pound paper. By 2005, we were typically printing on 50-pound paper. By 2008, half our books were on 45-pound groundwood. And that’s because our print runs were going down. And even with publishers whose print runs weren’t going down, they were trying to save money. Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore. 

If you’ve got a manufacturing supply chain, then the dictates of manufacturing are going to be the ones that drive the business. And there’s certainly going to be some ad hoc occasional efforts not to do that: certain independent publishers will try to focus on quality, and certain individual books from other publishers might be tarted up for one reason or another, for marketing purposes. But those are the exceptions. Basically, when you’ve got an industry that is pushing out $25 billion worth of physical products into a supply chain, the vast majority of businesses are going to try to cut costs and increase revenues. And the simplest way to cut costs is going to be on the production side. So if the core of the business is no longer a supply chain, but rather the orchestration of writing and reading communities, the book is freed of its obligation to be the sole means for the broad mass dissemination of the word, and instead become a thing where the intrinsic qualities of the book itself can be explored. 

I believe in the importance of book design to the reading experience. In its current form, the e-book entirely nullifies the existence of design, and wiping out centuries of accumulated wisdom on how to improve the reading experience at a stroke hardly seems worthy of celebration. But equally I feel little nostalgia for the cheap, smelly, decaying paperback editions I grew up with.

I think the role of printed books in the future will be similar to the role of vinyl in the current music industry. And if that means better designed and better produced books, but in much smaller quantities, and at a higher price, well, so be it.

For my next book, I anticipate preparing a 'generic' electronic edition, which adapts the contents to the limitations of e-book format (since it's foolish to pretend that e-books don't exist); and a printed version with a more elaborate and nuanced design. The word count will be exactly the same, but the presentation will be quite different. Such distinctions seem a necessary evil, since failing to accomodate the electronic version to the limitations of the software in e-readers could have unforeseen consequences, and (in a book in which design is an important element) could in fact render parts of the work utterly incomprehensible if said design elements are simply automatically 'stripped' by the e-reader. Authors have to intervene in this process, not leave it to the software designers.

Or maybe my sense of the limitations of e-readers is inaccurate (I don't own one). Has anyone read, for example, House of Leaves on an e-reader? What kind of experience was it?

[N.B. I found the Nash interview here.]