Recommended reading: Wright Morris

Recommended reading: Wright Morris

Posted by on Jan 16, 2016 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

I once had the opportunity to attend a walk-through of an exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs at the Wadsworth Atheneum, with the artist herself in the lead. She talked about a lot of things outside of the pictures, at one point mentioning Whitman’s lists. As the smallish group moved from one gallery to another, I found myself in proximity to Smith, and I ventured: “The photographer Wright Morris said that Whitman had the photographer’s eye, but no camera.” She pondered this a moment, and said, “I like that very much.”

For half a second, I thought maybe I’d impressed the Godmother of Punk enough that she’d want me to be her new best friend. Alas, she pretty quickly turned her attention back to the group and the show. But Wright Morris had come in handy, as I found he often does for me when thinking about pictures, and – more importantly – about making pictures.

I first picked up Time Pieces, a book of Morris’s essays, when I was newish to serious photography and buying a bunch of the critical/theory books in the Aperture series, just because that seemed the serious thing to do. I didn’t know much of Morris: only a few of his pictures and none of his fiction. I know the photographs better now, but not the fiction, unfortunately. In any case, I recommend Morris solely on the strength of the essays.

The prose is clear, precise, and unfussy. Even better, it’s incisive. Almost aphoristic. To wit: “We sense that it lies within the province of photography to make both a personal and an impersonal statement. Atget is impersonal.”

To me, this is almost Zen-like in its simplicity as a statement and complexity as a thought. With the reference to Atget, we know exactly what Morris means. Which makes it helpful, but not entirely necessary for him to go on: “What we sense to be wondrous, on occasion awesome, as if in the presence of the supernatural, is the impression we have of seeing what we have turned our backs on. As much as we crave the personal, and insist upon it, it is the impersonal that moves us. It is the camera that glimpses life as the Creator might have seen it.”

Admirably, Morris pushes these ideas to make them useful as a means of making judgments: “Where distinctions can be made between images and photographs we should make them. Those that combine the impersonality of the camera eye with the invisible presence of the camera holder will mingle the best of irreconcilable elements.”

This idea of impersonality means just about everything to a certain kind of photographer, and very little to other folks. Wherever your allegiances lie, Morris has much to offer anyone who loves the camera, and the gifts it confers: “Of those who find more than they seek, the photographer is preeminent.”

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Morris’s experience and expertise as a writer of fiction is brought to bear on the role of memory in making art: “When we say, ‘How well I remember!’ invariably we remember poorly. It is the emotion that is strong, not the details. The elusive details are incidental, since the emotion is what matters. In this deficiency of memory do we have the origins of the imagination? To repossess we must imagine: our first memories are as dim as they are lasting. Until recorded history, memory constituted history and memory processed by emotion was our only means of repossession. When this is done with talent, we define it as art.”

Indeed, if memory were perfect, there’d be no art: “If we remembered both vibrantly and accurately – a documentary image rather than an impression – the imaginative faculty would be blocked, lacking the stimulus necessary to fill in what is empty or create what is missing. The faculty of artful lying is image making, and not always confined to fiction writers. Precisely where memory is frail and emotion is strong, imagination takes fire.”

Expanding on this, Morris immensely pleased the late bloomer in me with his observation that “In the craft of image making there is much to be said for the slow grower.” Just a few paragraphs earlier: “The impressions of childhood, indelibly imprinted on a mind open and eager for sensations before it is cunningly attuned to ego satisfactions and evasions, are the ideal circumstances for the nature destined to be an image maker.”

Well, okay, great. And still great when he says that this “less culture-shaped child, accumulating experience before he does art” is characteristic of the American experience, “from Twain through Faulkner.” But then: “Those favored by a more cultivated background (like Henry James and Edith Wharton) are felt to be less American. This is a narrow but telling distinction.”

I get the distinction, with the same ringing clarity provided by the invocation of Atget I mentioned earlier, but . . . ouch. I love those two writers so much, and even consider their craft when thinking about pictures, but I can see the point that maybe it’s better to experience the world first and then art a little later. And here I was in my 30s and 40s envying all the kids who got to grow up in Manhattan.

Anyway, my point is not to agree or argue with Morris on this point, but rather to commend his ability to provoke thought by making concrete statements with concrete examples. At the risk of arguing against writing about photographs, which is something I like to do, I quote Morris at length:

“The artwork no longer speaks for itself. It is ironic to think, as the words flow, that the photograph was once thought to speak a more concrete, less abstract language. The slogan was that it was better than a thousand words. Thousands upon thousands of words now encumber a quantity of photographs. This flowering of writing about photography, much of it readable, informative, and innovative, is the latest example of the current cultural mania to transform one thing into another, and eventually into words. To reside in one thing or another appears to be impossible. On the evidence, the thing itself – the person, the object, the painting, the book, the music, the sunset, the operation – exists primarily as a point of departure, a launching pad from which we take off into an orbit of our own . . . Photographs, photographs of all things, were once believed to offer a point of resolution.”

And finally, one of my favorite passages, as a guy who doesn’t connect with Game of Thrones or Harry Potter (not saying they’re bad, don’t send me any hate mail, please) but prefers the real world (of Henry James and Edith Wharton, ironically): “The mind is often at play, like the summer night buzzing with insects, but to imagine, to make an image, to shape, assemble, and structure experience differs from the play of fancy and invention through the energy it receives from emotion. The image-making characteristic of science and fantasy fiction is largely free of this charge of feeling. The most remarkable events, inconceivable disasters, unheard-of creatures and identified flying objects pass through the mind without distressing the emotions. If the charge of feeling is present, it is no longer merely science-fantasy fiction.”

Time Pieces is sadly no longer in print, but you can find it pretty easily online, and its not expensive. I hope you do enjoy it.

The moon was the first photograph

The moon was the first photograph

Posted by on Jan 9, 2016 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

There’s a Lucinda Williams song that she often opens shows with called “Pineola,” concerning the immediate aftermath of the suicide of the poet Frank Stanford in 1978. He was most well known for the massive, unhinged epic poem The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. At his funeral, his Pentecostal family was shocked to see so many people in attendance; they had no idea that he was widely well-regarded – or even regarded at all – as a writer. Anyway, I bought What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford sight unseen just after it came out this year.

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It became clear pretty quickly that if you did a word cloud on these collected poems, “moon” would be pretty high up there, like in definite article territory. I wasn’t the only one who noticed this, apparently; the Readings section of Harper’s soon ran “Lunar Phrases,” a little collection of references to the moon in Stanford’s verse. Here it is:

And the moon /
Was a dead man floating down the river

the moon
/ was the blind eye of a fish
/ in the back of a cave

the moon was a salt lick
/ for her cattle of darkness

the moon
/ It is a piece of butcher’s ice

the moon full and flowing this side of Ozark / Smoldering like a burnt tick

Night and her moon
/ Like a widow with child

the moon like a bleeding toenail
/ the dancers will pass by

moon hung together with dark
/ like camp dogs in a ditch

The moon was swollen up
/ Like a mosquito’s belly.

the moon.
/ It was a clock with twelve numbers

the moon
/ Was a piece of stationery
/ In a drawer she would not open.

The moon is your old shirt.

And the moon was his white piano

And the moon was a body.
/ I don’t know who put coins over her eyes.

the moon
/ Flinching behind the trees.
/ It was a white flower
/ Afraid to be cut down from its dark stalk.

the moon, the old cow
/ That chewed its way out
/ Of the darkness in our fields.

the moon.
/ It was like the light blue handkerchief
/ She gave him to go with his dark suit

the moon wades a creek
/ Like an albino with a blade
/ Fixed to a stick.

Now the moon was a fifty-cent piece
/ It was a belly I wanted to cut open

the moon in the woods flashing
/ Like a girl running in her panties.

The moon went back into its night
/ Like a blue channel cat in a log.

I liked these excerpted in this way not only because the metaphors are so good, but also because they are for the most part concrete. Like you could make pictures based on them. Like you could put a bunch of those pictures together and make a book of them: the block of ice, the bleeding toenail, your old shirt, an old cow. And they would all be the moon.

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And they would be sad.

Mary Ruefle in “Poetry and the Moon”: There is a greater contrast between the moon and the night sky than there is between the sun and the daytime sky. And this contrast is more conducive to sorrow, which always separates or isolates itself, than it is to happiness, which always joins or blends.

That’s another quality of Stanford’s metaphors: isolation. Also a quality of photographs.

Ruefle says later: [T]he moon was the first poem, in the lyric sense, an entity complete in itself, recognizable at a glance, one that played upon the emotions so strongly that the context of time and place hardly seemed to matter. “Its power lies precisely in its remaining always on the verge of being ‘read,’” says [Charles] Simic, speaking of photography, and I see the moon as the incunabulum of photography, as the first photograph, the first stilled moment, the first study in contrasts.

I had to look up “incunabulum.” Wikipedia: “incunabula,” Latin for ‘swaddling clothes” or “cradle,” which can refer to “the earliest stages or first traces in the development of anything.”

The moon is the cradle of photography.

Christmas is hard to photograph

Christmas is hard to photograph

Posted by on Dec 25, 2015 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

I’ve been doing an Instagram takeover for Photobook Melbourne (@photobookmelbourne for those on the app) this week from my folks’ home in central Illinois, and I’ve learned a couple things:

1. Instagram takeovers are stressful. At least for a guy who’s never done any sort of assignment work, never had to produce images with any sort of timeliness. It’s just Instagram, but still you want it to be good when you’re representing someone else.

2. Christmas pictures are hard. This is a re-learning, actually. I wanted to do a few seasonal images for the Instagram; to not do so would deny the way things look around here right now. So, naturally, I gave it a go.

Holidays provide a natural attraction for photographers: subject matter that’s only around 1/12 of the year or so. But it’s very difficult to not be ironic – in the bad, condescending way – about Christmas sights. They’re sort of naturally sad, like when a nativity figure tips over or secular and religious figures clash in strange (and sometimes wondrous) ways. I see the sadness, and love the sadness, and yet I don’t want to mock the genuine inspiration that motivates someone to decorate a yard or a business or a town square.

This got me to thinking about some of the photographers who’ve gotten the holidays right, in various ways.

Lee Friedlander gets at the sadness in the right way, as he gets every picture right in the Friedlander way: by contextualizing the Christmas image in the complex visual fragmentation that is his M.O. And perhaps contextualize is the wrong word; is it a decontextualizing? A knitting of the incongruous holiday image back into the regular old visual clutter? Either way, a set of his seasonal photographs was shown at Janet Borden a few years back, and it was a delight.

Gerry Johannson does Christmas pictures the other way, by isolating the subject matter and giving it a modest grandeur that seems to me the only way to pull it off if that’s the way you’re gonna do it. His lovely little book of compiled Christmas cards, God Jul & Gott Nytt Ar, is well worth a look.

Chris Verene gets at the sadness through people, as he does in photographs made all year long; the pressure of holiday cheer only adds extra tension to his pictures. It’s like we want the people in his pictures to be happy in the same way that we want our own families and selves to be happy. And yet there’s that controlled distance in Verene’s photographs; we see that indeed each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

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My family at Christmas breakfast. Aunt Louise, my mom, grandpa, my dad and grammy.

My family at Christmas breakfast. Aunt Louise, my mom, grandpa, my dad and grammy.

The Galesburg Christmas lights contest winner.

The Galesburg Christmas lights contest winner.

Recommended reading: Sally Eauclaire

Recommended reading: Sally Eauclaire

Posted by on Dec 13, 2015 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

About ten years ago, I came across a book at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, and know I was going to buy it based on the cover. It was called American Independents: Eighteen Color Photographers and there was a photograph by Larry Babis (whom I didn’t know of then, and am still not very familiar) on the cover. The book was written by Sally Eauclaire, another name I didn’t recognize.

American Independents contains eight or ten pictures (along with an Eauclaire essay) by well-known photographers like Eggleston, Epstein, Meyerowitz, Shore, and Sternfeld, along with equally valuable work from artists whose names have unfortunately not entered the canon in quite the same way: the aforementioned Mr. Babis, David. T Hanson, John Harding, Nancy Lloyd, Kenneth McGowan, Joanne Mulberg, Stephen Scheer, Jack D. Teemer, Jr., and Daniel S. Williams.

Two names – Len Jenshel and Roger Mertin – have become minor obsessions for me. I hope to write on each of them separately, but the point is that this book quite expanded the narrative of color work in fine art photography for me (notably making it at least not entirely male-dominated). So naturally, I had to see what else Sally Eauclaire had written.

Turns out that American Independents, published in 1987, was her third and final book on color photography, following 1981’s the new color photography and new color/new work, from 1984. I went to work reading them in reverse order.

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new color/new work uses a strategy similar to American Independents, with sections on a number of the same photographers, but also including the likes of Adam Bartos, William Christenberry, and Jo Ann Walters. One of the real pleasures of both books is that Eauclaire chooses images from a single project, rather than a “greatest hits” of images, so you get Eggleston’s “Graceland,” or Shore’s “The Hudson Valley,” the latter which didn’t otherwise appear for many years in its entirety in book form.

To its credit, and obviously because it’s actually the first book in the series, the new color photography adopts a thematic rather than an artist-by-artist approach, beginning with “The Problematic Precedents” in color photography. Eauclaire’s categorizations (chapters like “The Vivid Vernacular,” “Self-Reflections,” “Documentations,” “Enchantments,” and “Fabricated Fictions”) are sturdy enough, even if some of the photographers stubbornly resist such labels, or seep happily between categories. A benefit of the structure is that Eauclaire can bring some outliers like David Hockney and Lucas Samaras into the mix.

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All three books can be found for sale online, and I see them pop up at the Strand in New York City with some regularity. Anyone interested in looking at or making color pictures should take a look.

(After some Googling, I found that Harvey Benge posted on the new color photography at more length. Check that out here.)

No ideas but in things

No ideas but in things

Posted by on Dec 1, 2015 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

A couple weeks ago, after reading a short Mark Steinmetz essay on Time’s Lightbox blog, I immediately posted it to the Facebook, with the comment “totally with steinmetz on this one (as shall surprise exactly no one).” The piece is titled “Photography at MoMA: Has Photo-Based Art Become Too Dominant?” – and somewhat inaccurately subtitled “Mark Steinmetz argues MoMA’s recent photographic acquisition practices favor art over traditional imagery,” but this need not concern us too much – and it’s paired contrastingly with Charlotte Cotton’s “Photography at MoMA: Redefining the Medium’s Identity.”

The essays are occasioned by the recent publication of Photography at MoMA: 1960 – Now, a fairly sprawling account of the Museum’s acquisitions of the past 55 years. Before getting to the substance, I’d like to congratulate Lightbox on running the two opposing viewpoints. Paste used to do this with important LPs (maybe they still do) on which members of the editorial staff disagreed, and I almost always felt that I came away with a much more nuanced view of the music than any mixed review by a single author ever offered. Also it’s a clever way for a publication to trash substandard work without jeopardizing relationships with artists. But I digress.

Much of the immediate response to the Steinmetz piece focused on MoMA as a collecting institution and a maker of taste and careers; this is fair because the author wondered if “in putting so much emphasis on photo-based art rather than on clear photographs that describe the photographer’s reactions to the world the museum waters down its legacy to too great an extent.” Two general points that I heard in response were quite rightly taken: 1. Under John Szarkowski, the Museum collected a certain kind of relatively-well-defined picture to the exclusion of many other sorts of pictures, and now the other sorts are having their time in the sun; and 2. Anyhow, the collecting history of any one institution is decidedly not the history of the medium. Probably yes, and yes certainly.

But my interests lie outside of institutional concerns, and I enthused on the essay because of its two opening paragraphs:

“So many of the photographs in the newly released Photography at MoMA: 1960 – Now feel like illustrations of ideas. A large number of them interrogate, in one way or another, the medium of photography or the role of mass media representations in society. Fewer might be considered interrogations of the world that we actually live in as it actually looks and fewer still could be considered interrogations of the self.

The selection is tilted towards photographs about thoughts, not feelings; by and large these are photographs that are carriers of ideas.” (italics mine, excepting the book title)

It’s one of the more pleasing aspects of getting older that the concepts you’ve collected and stored over time seem to collide and expand with greater and greater frequency and force. So it didn’t seem terribly too much of a coincidence that I’d experienced something similarly impactful in another context just a few days before, while reading Kristin Hersh’s remarkable book Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving up Vic Chesnutt. Hersh recounts an interview that she and Chesnutt sat for together, in which she said: ““I have no idea what a song is.” The journalist pressed: “None whatsoever?”

Hersh: “Well . . . I know it’s not an idea.”

There’s a whole other essay or ten about “ideas” and making pictures (or songs, or whatever) but I will tip my hand and tell you that I am very solidly in the Hersh camp. As, it seems, was Chesnutt.

Journalist: “You couldn’t have an idea for a song?”
[Hersh]: “You could have an idea for a bad song.”
[Chesnutt]: “She means brains fake you out.”

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Indeed, brains will fake you out. Fortunately at least my aging brain recalled that Flannery O’Connor had considered this topic:

“[Most people who think they want to write] want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations. They have an idea, or a feeling, or an overflowing ego, or they want to Be A Writer, or they want to give their wisdom to the world in a simple-enough way for the world to be able to absorb it. In any case, they don’t have a story and they wouldn’t be willing to write it if they did; and in the absence of a story, they set out to find a theory or a formula or a technique . . . Now none of this is to say that when you write a story, you are supposed to forget or give up any moral position that you hold. Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

If that last italics-mine sentence doesn’t kill you enough, the next few are disconcertingly appropriate to the making of photographs:

“. . . [E]verything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it. It involves judgment. Judgment is something that begins in the act of vision, and when it does not, or when it becomes separated from vision, then a confusion exists in the mind which transfers itself to the story.”

Steinmetz says in his essay that “The ability to see beauty where others do not has taken a back seat to other concerns” and for me it’s easy to take this general statement and relate it specifically to Steinmetz the photographer, for whom I think beauty and the sort of judgment that O’Connor is getting at are practically one and the same. This ability to collapse beauty and judgment is exceedingly rare (and possibly becoming devalued, which is yet another essay altogether), and that’s why – with Steinmetz uniquely as its author – I saw the Lightbox piece as something different from an institutional critique, and bigger: a plea for us to do better as makers and viewers and thinkers. The same way Hersh and Chesnutt wished for something more, of themselves and others.

“Songs will fuck. You. Up.” says Chesnutt. Pictures better damned well do the same.

In praise of short photobooks

In praise of short photobooks

Posted by on Nov 24, 2015 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

When I first became aware of the recent release of Bruce Davidson’s Los Angeles 1964 through an online article, I was intrigued by a few sample pictures, and I sort of imagined a bricklike physical object housing a vast trove of a master’s unpublished archive. So when I saw it at the Strand one day, I was surprised by how thin the book was. There are just 25 images, a couple of title pages, and a single paragraph by the photographer.

In that text, Davidson says that Esquire sent him to L.A., but did not end up using his pictures, and he “had to return home with a big box of prints,” which was then forgotten. I admire the discipline that he has shown in editing the contents of that big box. Each picture that ended up in the book is a first-rate example of classic street photography. But that’s not why I’m considering it here; rather, it’s the book’s concision that makes it a striking success.

To expand on my thought before seeing the book in person: a title like Los Angeles 1964 obviously signals that a geography and a time are common to the pictures inclusive; it generally equally signals that that may be all that connects them. And when that’s the case, we’re more likely in the company of a catalog than a photobook with a cogent narrative. Both are cool, but they are different. And to be honest, the Davidson book is a catalog: but one so deftly compressed that it somehow creates a set of relationships between pictures that are otherwise not terribly strongly connected to one another. Even upon repeated readings, it leaves me wanting more, but knowing also that excess would spoil the fun.

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The import of the title is brought into sharp relief when we consider another admirably short book, also of apparently older photographs: Henry Wessel’s Incidents. There are 27 pictures in this book, and no text. (I hope this latter is a lesson to us all.) Here again, each picture is fairly discrete, a distinct occurrence. Yet the title is ingeniously effective in creating the reader’s perception of cohesion within the book; it suggests that the experience of the reader herself is the narrative glue, and not the subject matter. We become perhaps a voyeur or a detective, and if we start to imagine those dark occupations, then Wessel’s sun-drenched images – the polar opposite of noir – become even more perversely delightful.

In the case of Incidents, brevity is key because of the work the pictures demand of us. Another definition of “incident” is: “something dependent on or subordinate to something else of greater or principal importance.” In this book, we are made to puzzle out that something of greater importance, and I think it’s crucial not only that the subordinate events not only not overwhelm, but that they leave us tantalizingly unfulfilled: a clue or two shy of a solution.

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Of course, in general, it’s that lack of a clear solution that pleasingly distinguishes the short story from the novel. We sacrifice detail and drawn-out development for a desirable ambiguity created in quick strokes. And then there’s the sort of writer – people say this often of Alice Munro, for example – who somehow brings the feeling of novelistic weight into the short form. I can think of one photobook that fits this bill.

Clare Richardson’s Beyond the Forest is a remarkable work, regardless of length. But I remember the first time I saw it (and loved it): a friend asked shortly afterward: “You know that’s only 17 pictures, right?” What an eye-opener. A reading of this book does not seem long in a temporal sense, yet a density of experience lingers. Surely much of that owes to the large-format color pictures, which even simply on the surface offer detail and dimension that are different in kind from the 35mm black-and-white work of either Davidson or Wessel.

But it’s also the chosenness of the pictures. One can sense a narrative among them without reference to any title and also without reference to the (admittedly short) text in the book that seems too twee by half in comparison to the rigor of the pictures. A strange thing happens: whereas in Los Angeles 1964 or Incidents, where each pictures is compressed like coal into a diamond, Richardson’s pictures expand like sponges and seep out into one another. There are only four true portraits, and their common shallow depth of field and relatively tight cropping make the surrounding environment incidental; yet each is thoroughly suffused with atmosphere by the landscape pictures elsewhere in the book. It’s a neat trick: the book is laconic, but the pictures are not, and the result is a particularly rich experience manifested in the seemingly slightest of gestures.

The darkness that art combats

The darkness that art combats

Posted by on Nov 16, 2015 in Tim Carpenter | No Comments

I sat down to write my first blog post for the Camera Club intending to pursue an entirely nontopical subject, as is my custom. But first I had to check the New York Times website, as is also my custom when I open my laptop. I get nervous whenever the Times uses that very largest typeface of theirs on the main headline, and of course it only got worse as I came to understand the news from Paris.

I’m going to guess that most of the readers of this blog know someone who was in the city for the photography-related fairs. My small photobook publishing company was being represented at the Offprint event by my two business partners, the brothers I never had. (A jury duty that could no longer be postponed kept me in Brooklyn.) And there were numerous other beloved friends – more than I could recall in my panic – in Paris. The (blessedly few) minutes before I got responses to my frantic texts were excruciating.

And of course, even with one’s friends safely accounted for, it’s still excruciating. I have nothing very meaningful to add about France and Paris and the people there whom I have consistently found to be gracious and welcoming, and in general the profoundest and most joyous lovers of life. They are far greater than these senseless events, and they will undoubtedly persevere.

So my personal relief was nonetheless made heavy by the general loss, and I was grateful to spend time later that evening in the company of some new friends at a reception for an exhibition of paintings by Helen Oliver Adelson. (An aside: my trip into the city was punctuated by a phone call from my mother that I was able to take because the Q train was on the Manhattan Bridge at that moment. She was concerned about my safety in the city. To be a guy looking out across New York Harbor at the illuminated Statue of Liberty – that great gift from France – and knowing that his mom still worries after him after all these years; well, I guess there’s not much more that needs to be said about how we feel when the global and the personal connect.) The show was at the Carlton Arms Hotel, the kind of bohemian old New York place that seems a glorious impossibility these days, and the crowd matched the hotel. I had been invited by Edgar Oliver, the playwright and poet and brother to the artist, and he introduced me to many of his friends – writers, musicians, artists, and more likely than not combinations of those.

Although we naturally couldn’t avoid discussing the news, we agreed to have a good time together. That is after all why the people in Paris were communing at the Bataclan and the Stade de France, or just dining out. But even with the wine flowing, it was hard not to reflect soberly on life in a large city, with millions of folks literally piled up on top of one another and speaking god knows how many languages and often not even understanding people who speak the same language and yet somehow we’ve made some sort of truce or contract or whatever that allows us all to get along on what is apparently the very flimsiest of foundations: mutual trust based on a shared idea of the value of life.

And then there’s this whole other level of being artists or loving art, which can seem frivolous in times like these. Beyond Paris, when one is reminded of similarly painful events in Beirut and Baghdad and so many other places, it’s easy to wonder if energy shouldn’t be spent in other ways that might alleviate the palpable and present suffering of far too many people.

A question: do you know the unique pleasure of being cheap and skipping a cab to take the train home and being mostly alone in the car late at night or actually really early in the morning? And maybe if you’ve had a few drinks? This is serious thinking time. (If you’re not a New Yorker or a resident of a city with similar transit options, I am sorry.) All the stuff I’ve mentioned was going through my head and it was a jumble and the thought crossed my mind “Why even photograph?” and but then of course I knew exactly where to turn.

When I got home still buzzed I didn’t even need to get any further than the foreword to Why People Photograph, the essays comprising which Robert Adams says “have a recurring subject – the effort we all make, photographers and nonphotographers, to affirm life without lying about it. And then to behave in accord with our own vision.”

Well now: 1) To affirm life. 2) To behave accordingly. A pretty damned simple formula, one worth rallying around, and also eerily apposite in the negative to the events of the day.

I had pulled Beauty in Photography down from the shelf as well, and as I was revisiting the tables of contents of both books, I was not surprisingly drawn to the essay “Photographing Evil.” My Adams books are pretty heavily underlined and annotated, so I found the part I wanted relatively quickly. I have always loved the way that he pivots away from dealing with evil simply as subject matter in art (i.e., “concerned photography”) and instead towards a bigger and much more crucial project: art, through form and regardless of subject matter, as a bulwark against meaninglessness and the sort of devaluation of life that surely engenders evil.

I want to leave you with his words on this topic because they rather well answered my questions of the miserable and momentous evening, and because again I find myself with nothing meaningful to add.

[We] know firsthand that all art is the product of concern. [We] believe as a consequence that it has social utility – it is designed to give us courage. Society is endangered to the extent that any of us loses faith in meaning, in consequence. Art that can convincingly speak through form for significance bears upon the problem of nihilism and is socially constructive. Restated, photography as art does address evil, but it does so broadly as it works to convince us of life’s value; the darkness that art combats is the ultimate one, the conclusion that life is without worth and finally better off ended . . .

Perhaps this is what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote that “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” We have all had the sad opportunity to watch that. And though poems and pictures cannot by themselves save anyone – only people who care for each other face to face have a chance to do that – they can strengthen our resolve to agree to life.