Results tagged “Arkansas” from this Public Address 2.0

Off the wire


LITTLE ROCK (AP) Police say a former University of Arkansas at Little Rock student jumped to his death from the sixth floor of a parking garage at the campus.

University police identified the man as 30-year-old Michael Carter. Officials say he enrolled at the school in 1994. The death is under investigation by campus police, who say they do not know why the man was at the university on Wednesday evening.

Police said witnesses reported Carter knelt and yelled before jumping at about 7:00 PM. Officials said they believe Carter has relatives in Greenville, Miss.

Year's End


Year’s End

I was looking back through my archived material and realized that I haven’t been able to clearly explain just what I’ve been working on since August. I’ve posted a lot of sketches which probably only succeeded in confusing people further. What’s been missing, for the people who only see this stuff on my weblog, is the constant explaining/defining that goes on as I move it toward the proposal stage at school.

I’ve sketched several introductions, and submitted one proposal that resulted in around thirty pages of text— all about the eighteenth century. I wanted to try to explain why I think it’s important as the year closes, as much for myself as for anyone else. It surprises me that I’ve only been researching it for five months. It seems much longer than that, mostly because I now have several feet of shelf-space dedicated to this material.

So forgive me if you’ve read some of this before, but I want to try and write it as concisely as I can to remind myself as I get lost in the myriad of tangents.

The research project began while I was writing a series of blog posts about Walker Evans. Researching Evans, it began to blow me away just how many miles of text had been generated about him. Of course, I’d collected a foot or so of material on him over the years, because he was one of my early heroes as a photographer. Evans disdained politics— and the art world. I empathized with that deeply. It seemed to me that Evans wanted to take pictures that were somehow free of the taint of both. Most of my knowledge of Evans came from a time long before I’d studied language philosophy or rhetoric. Now, his views (and my own for most of my career as a photographer) seem hopelessly naive.

As I bought more books on Evans and tracked down articles it seemed like anything that could possibly be said about Evans had been said— with only one minor hole— the literary influences. So I dug into Hart Crane and others, not so much because I imagined that I could do anything in the way of a thesis in Rhetoric about it, but because I just wanted to know more. As I explored the milieu Evans moved through in the thirties, I noticed a huge disparity in the sheer volume of words generated about him and his collaborator James Agee and all the rest— the difference is at least a hundred to one. It was understandable at first— I wasn’t alone in considering these men to be the “heroes” of documentary photography.

I remember how much Let Us Now Praise Famous Men changed my life. It wasn’t just Evans’ incredible photographs. It was Agee’s heartfelt text. When I moved to Arkansas around six years ago, I remember loaning my copy to a local poet. He gave it back with a note— “thanks for giving me the chance to deconstruct this crappy prose.” Recently, I’ve run across several references to Evan’s feeling that many parts of Agee’s text were “embarrassing.” None of this has shifted my admiration of the textual portion of the book— it’s naked, and raw, and not really about the supposed subject Evan’s photographs were meant to document. Agee’s text is really about the sheer futility of documentary, and about the self-deconstructing nature of valediction. Agee’s worst nightmares have come true— his text is neatly ensconced on the bookshelf of classics.

It’s easy to chalk up differences of opinion on Agee’s text as a matter of taste. The sheer density of critical writing about it, and the tension it provides for Evans’ photographs seems to assure that the book rests comfortably in a sort of cultural aporia, free from the Marxist dissection of the proletarian and nationalist rhetoric that was all the rage during the 1930s. Most of the commentaries on other works from this period are scathing and derogatory. I really started to wonder why. Why are Evans and Agee universally hailed as heroes? Just what is a damn hero anyway?

I was reading Aphra Behn, and was impressed by her plea to the audience in the preface to The Lucky Chance that she wanted to be a hero in 1686. William Blake, who I have spent many years studying, was intensely concerned with the overthrow of classic models of heroism. Perhaps our present concept of heroes was developed in the eighteenth century? As I started to fill in some gaps in my literature education (Fielding, Defoe, Swift) it seemed clear that heroic consciousness was dealt with in a nearly obsessive fashion— and the peak of the New Deal in the 1930s brought with it a new sort of proletarian heroe, where rather than favoring the individual as hero we want to erect effigies to whole groups— unknown soldiers, firemen, you name it— as if to be a hero in the classic sense was anathema.

Another tangent loomed as I stepped into Emerson and Carlyle’s concept of the “representative man”— I need to deal with the formative years in the American national identity in the early nineteenth century. I spent at least three months on the eighteenth century, and never really finished. I’ve spent a lot of time just gathering material too, as more and more texts from the 1930s come to light. This is big, and far too unmanageable for a master’s thesis. But now I have the lay of the land. If I want to explore heroic rhetoric, I really know where to look now.

But why? Because as I uncovered those other texts, I found many of them to be innovative, and deeply influential even though no one seems to be writing about them much. It’s as if there is only one channel of input into considerations of documentary pursuits— the heroic artistic outsider exemplified by Evans. Only Evans defied the “government stooge” represented by Roy Stryker, head of the FSA. Though a growing amount of material is being generated which heroizes the “file” of 100,000+ pictures now in the public domain generated by the FSA. I’m torn now about what I want to do. On one level, I want to deal with the photographers and writers lost in the torrent of texts about Evans and Agee. On the other, I do want to deal with the nature of the FSA file.

The FSA was the first and last government funded “commons” where creative materials were made open and accessible to the public, free of copyright. Recent research I’ve been doing has highlighted the “unmediated” nature of Franklin Roosevelt’s access to American public opinion through his fireside chats— the parallels with contemporary issues on the Internet are fascinating.

And then, there is the theory behind the concept of heroism. I do believe that heroism is not synonymous with “power” in the Foucaultian sense, or “cultural capital” a la Bourdieu— I think there are other forces at work, completely outside these concepts. The persistence of “heroism” is not addressed very well by other theories. Barbara Kruger (or Tina Turner, if you prefer) can proclaim all day long that “we don’t need another hero,” but as Thomas Carlyle argued in the early nineteenth century, apparently we do. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many books, films, and pictures made about it.

So that’s where the year ends for me— deep in the middle of all this, trying to figure out which piece to chisel off for a Master’s thesis. That’s where my “work” these days is. I keep sailing along this titanic central idea, brushing against icebergs that regularly rip open my sides and cause me to sink into yet another round of research.



Blowing in the Wind

I always feel guilty walking past the bell ringers outside the supermarket. My father is a generous guy though, and every Christmas he donates a substantial sum to the Salvation Army. I have no reason for the guilt, largely because I have no money.

But I had a dollar in my pocket when I walked past. I was thinking about my father, remembering the way he fondly talked about voting for FDR: “He didn’t live long after that, but I was glad I got the chance— he did a lot for the poor people in this country.” It was a strange little tangent for my mind to take, and as I looked across the parking lot I thought for a moment that I might leave the cart in the parking space. But then I thought, “what would dad do?” He’d put it in the right place, of course. So I braved the whizzing traffic and pushed it across.

On the trip back, a car stopped and started honking at me. I looked back, and the man behind the wheel was about the same age as my father. He was pointing frantically at the pavement. I looked down, and saw the dollar bill blowing in the wind. I felt rather silly chasing it; I felt like the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

The next car in line stopped and asked: “Was that money blowing across the road?”

Yes, I said.

I really should have given it to the guy with the bell. It would have saved the traffic disruption. But I’ve had less sympathy for those guys around here. I found out last year that because so few people volunteer to be bell-ringers these days, most of them around here are paid to stand there and make shoppers feel guilty. The incident also reminded me about the difference between Arkansas and California. In California, I wouldn’t have had to chase the bit of green paper because no one probably would have mentioned it. They would have waited until I left and picked it up.

Archie's Letters


Archie’s Letters

I got distracted this evening looking at some letters by Archibald MacLeish. There’s a letter from February 1930 that I suspect must have been written to Hemingway while he was residing in Piggott, Arkansas:

Dear Pappy:

Thanks for the warning about the mosquitos. Its a damn shame. I had wanted Ada to be near you and Pauline. But I can still take advantage of her father’s generous offer to put her up at Daytona and she’ll have the sun there if she doesn’t have anything else.

Met Dotty Parker Saturday night and think she’s swell. I have always been afraid of her because I thought she was the kind who would be affectionate to you with her right hand and murder you with her left. But she was so fine in talking about the Murphys and you and all her friends and so damn wise and intelligent about people that she took me in about eight minutes. She may be serving me up cold at the minute for all I know but I doubt it and if she is it doesn’t matter anyway . . .

The mosquito is the Arkansas state bird, and Hemingway spent a lot of time shuttling between here and Florida from 1929-32. Nice to hear that “Dotty” Parker is swell too. But that’s not really what I was up to here. I wanted to note a couple of MacLeish’s thoughts on Conquistador for Loren, in case he doesn’t have the letters lying about. In a letter to Robert Linscott in October of 1931, he was stinging over the failure of an earlier book, New Found Land to sell:

. . . I can’t help feeling that had New Found Land appeared in a regular edition and had been pushed it would have sold extremely well. What reviews I saw were favorable & the book was a book of short poems. As a matter of fact, if Hart Crane is not misleading me, the Bridge sold in the same year very very much better. Comparisons are ridiculous but what else is there in the world?

. . . After all, books of verse have been advertised in America— have been pushed. You know & God (if it isn’t an anti-climax) that I loathe blurbs & have no desire to see my name like Edna Millays with “Immortal Poetry” over it. But there are things that a publisher can decently do for a book which a poet can’t do— unless the poet is Amy Lowell & as rich as Amy & as gifted in self-publicizing. And those things H.M. [Houghton Mifflin] have never done for my books. Because you lose money on a book of verse anyway, you will say. But isn’t that a vicious circle?

But this is futile. I certainly can’t, & don’t wish to teach H.M. their business. But I have worked on Conquistador for many years. I believe it is going to be a really good poem— but certainly not a popular one. And I want to see it well treated by a publisher— not just issued with an item in trade paper & allowed to sell itself if it can. . . .

Mentions of Conquistador appear for years before this— MacLeish wrote everyone he knew asking if anyone else had ever done a long poem on the topic. He wanted it to be original. Evidently, Pound criticized it severely (but in good spirits). There’s more to be quoted from there, if I get the time. My favorite phrase about Pound from the letters was: “Pound is a unicorn who turns into an ass every time you look at him too closely.” I was curious about how MacLeish thought of the poem, because it is not nearly as “accessible” as most of his poems. I found the answer in a letter written to his mother, on the occasion of the death of John Hillard— a meditation on death written in February of 1930 which quotes approximately the opening line of Conquistador:

What I must do is step aside into the quiet & think. By thinking one begins to see. It is strange. Only by ceasing to see can I see. Myself I do not love but unless I behold myself once in these windows. I am nothing & never lived & the roar of the wheels will roll over me. Over us all. Over us all. And all that was young & lovely in the world. I am not afraid of death. But I pity it. I pity its silence. I sat for a long time in the vault of poor Harry Crosby. He had shot himself. He lay on a narrow couch under a dark red cloth. He had made a great noise with his death. But already I could hardly see his face. I had to turn back to see him.

I am hurting you with these words. Forgive me. Believe me. I am not what you think. I am an evil person. I take no happiness in anything on earth but the sonorous sounds of certain words. It is a very wrong thing. Poetry is not always in me & sometimes coming out. I go to it as a man goes to what he loves & is ashamed of. I go to it out of my life. I come back ashamed. You do not understand. Do not try to. “How do the winds follow unfortune”— I write that & my heart is smooth. What at all have I written? Well, I am a poet. I do not describe myself by this word. I do not speak it. No one speaks it to me. But I am that thing. And it is agony. It is not wisdom like a quiet light in the brain, nor wisdom in the ankles of the body. It is no wisdom. It is thirst. Only with this wine— And only I can make this liquor. Out of what? Out of— Oh be still, be still. I do not write letters such as this. I am not to speak so. Never answer it.

I once said things much like this when I was working fervently as a photographer. I never felt like it was a good thing either. It just was.

Straight Dope


The Straight Dope

It was a trip which began with many wrong turns. I avoided civilization completely, due to the holiday traffic, but it turned dark too soon. I kept turning down the wrong highway in the middle of nowhere. Within a couple of hundred feet, I knew I was going the wrong way. I’d double back and try again. When I got to Hackett, I looked at the bank thermometer and saw that it was 32 degrees— or zero, depending on your scale. It’s always a matter of scale, isn’t it?

I read more Hegel before I slept, but the nightmare didn’t start till the following morning. It began innocently enough. I walked outside to stare at a clear and crisp blue sky with remnants of the moon. I read Barthes and then an essay written by my cousin Wendy about growing up. My mom complained— “that may be the way Wendy remembers it, but I don’t remember it that way”— maybe it’s more a matter of perspective.

It was a fun read though, because of the scene where my brother Steve came up with the idea of painting her sister Julie’s fingernails with Tabasco sauce while she slept to help cure her from chewing on them. That sounded right to me. The trouble usually begins right when Steve gets involved. I haven’t played family mediator for a while, but those skills came back just before dinner when Steve arrived. My mom made a dry comment about Steve not caring about family history when I brought up the story. Steve got insulted and walked outside. I brought the story outside to him and tried to calm things down. I thought it was pretty funny. Wendy calls herself the “flower” of the family — “the blooming idiot.” This is the role I think I usually play in my branch of the clan.

After he read the story, his first comment was “I don’t remember things quite that way.” Wendy had made a big deal about how pious Julie was. “Uh, Julie was the first person to ever show me a Playboy magazine!” Steve said. It blew him away that a girl would read Playboy, let alone share it with him. Needless to say, he was impressed. After we all had a good laugh over the story, things smoothed out. It was a happy Thanksgiving.

The road back was smooth, other than some occasional dips. The temperature on the Hackett bank sign was of a higher caliber tonight— it read 45. Passing through Harmony, Arkansas, I looked at the display board of a church. It read: “The road to Heaven is in front of you— stay straight and keep to the right.” I followed those directions and made it home. I didn’t make any more wrong turns. However, instead of taking me to Heaven, it just took me home.

There was something I’d been meaning to research, and I looked it up tonight— the history of the word dope. It didn’t surprise me that it was stolen from the Dutch— from doop (dipping, sauce, etc.) and doopen— to dip. The oldest usage seems to date to 1851, as a synonym for simpleton. Given the etymology, dipshit also makes more sense now. In 1872, it refers to a preparation, a mixture— and not much later, an unspecified drug. This helps explain the dual usage for preparations like thread dope and pipe dope as well as intoxicating substances. It doesn’t really explain to the latest rap twist on the word as being good though. Surely they’ve been following the public service announcements.

At least now I have an answer for the old anti-drug commercial: “Why do you think they call it dope?”— Because you either dip into it, or dip things in it? Or, perhaps because it is a way of getting sauced?

Yes, I confess. I am easily amused. I’m all for Luke’s movie idea. Lest anyone cares, I’m a straight dope these days.

Superior Protein


Superior Protein

In another bizarre confluence, I had some strange thoughts on heroic genealogies. It started out innocently enough. I was watching a show on the History Channel about US marshals. Much of it was centered on the area where my parents live— Judge Parker, the hanging judge of Ft. Smith Arkansas. With Shirley Abbott’s assertions about the tri-racial character of the South fresh in my mind, I was thinking that even that is an oversimplification when it comes to the Oklahoma territory. There were bits about black marshals, Native American outlaws, and the general lawlessness of the area at the turn of the twentieth century.

It reminded me of a conversation I was having with one of my students about the fate of the Cherokee that managed to escape the trail of tears, whose lineage became melded with white settlers as they resisted forced relocation. There are no pure blood-lines here, as far as I can see. But its a secret of the South, because the appearance of native tribes is not far removed from the settlers who came in.

The program that followed was about the forensic investigation into the lineage of Jesse James. In most countries, I suspect, the point of genealogy is to trace your family tree to some aristocratic beginning, some king or hero, in order to feel validated by tradition. But here in the US, to be descended from an outlaw is an amazing point of pride. It seems so strange how in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence some people cling to the idea that they might be related to a junkie, a murder, and a thief.

I took a shower, and when I got out the first thing I heard was a bit of dialogue regarding the bidding wars over bull semen. When a particular prize bull’s genetic material becomes scarce, the prices escalate. The consequent elaboration of eugenic techniques was captivating. They actually do sonograms to determine the marbling pattern of fat in the flesh to find the choicest bits of beef. The insistence on ancestry as a way of establishing heroic merit seems to me to be not far removed from this— as if people could be engineered to be heroic. As one of the cattle breeders remarked, we do our best to assure our superior protein. There’s something downright sick about the whole enterprise.


Mike Disfarmer, Heber Springs, Arkansas

More Disfarmer images




Reading Shirley Abbott’s book Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South for a class today, I decided to save some snips. It’s fairly well written, I think, and it makes some provocative assertions:

To grow up female in the South is to inherit a set of directives that warp one for life, if they do not actually induce psychosis. This is true for high-born ladies as well as for farm women, and no one has ever quite explained it. A North Carolina journalist named Florence King made a good try, though, in a book called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen. All Southerners, she observed, are insane and most especially is the Southern woman insane. The reason is that “the cult of Southern womanhood endowed her with at least five totally different images and asked her to be good enough to adopt all of them. She is required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained— all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact she succeeds.” (3)

Tracing the lineage of Southern settlers to the Ulster Scots, Abbott returns to colonial records to find gems. I was taken by her description of Reverend Woodmason’s (from around 1766) perception of Southern cooking:

Their cookery, if indeed it can be so called, is, he says, “filthy and most execrable.” What provisions they have consist mostly of bacon and cornmeal, and clearly the women have already acquired the habit of drowning everything in grease. (40)

Now that I think about it, the quick exploration of the cooking dovetails nicely with her thesis that Southern ladies/gentlemen see themselves as descended from the English aristocracy. British food isn’t exactly renowned either. One of the interesting techniques used to frame her elaborate historical tale of family is that she marks the ahistorical perspective of her Southern mother against her Yankee father who feels attached to history. From this perspective, she deeply explores the nature of Southern identity as manifest in Arkansas.

Bill Steber

Bill Steber 1997 exhibition postcard image

Outstanding in his field

It was a grueling day of grading papers. But I was rummaging about in one of the many boxes of “stuff” littered about my floor, and I stumbled on a postcard. It took a long route to get to me. My photographic mentor in California, Harry Wilson, sent it to me a few years ago after I talked about meeting Bill Steber in Helena, Arkansas. I’m terrible with names, and I hadn’t remembered it until found the postcard.

I walked into a bar in Helena during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1996 to find some truly outstanding work displayed on the walls. It was the first really significant (to me anyway) work I’d seen since I got here. I said something to the guy chopping barbeque behind the counter, and he said— “Do you want to meet him? Bill’s around here somewhere.” Bill and I ended up drinking together for a little while, and he was a really nice guy. Later, when I wandered off to photograph Cedell Davis, Bill was there too. I did my best to stay out of his way.

Today, searching around a bit I found that he has a web site displaying the work called Stones in My Pathway. The site is pretty amazing; it features real audio streams of Bill talking about the pictures— or if you click the note— music to go along with them. It’s well worth a visit, and an excellent example of worthwhile contemporary documentary work.

One of the issues Bill and I discussed was the problem of exploitation. He was going to photograph Rosetta Patton Brown, last surviving child of Charlie Patton, the next day and he talked about how difficult it was to get the trust of these people. He was conscious of the importance of giving something back. A percentage of the sale of his photographs goes to help surviving blues musicians. I think that is a wonderful thing. I wish I could afford to buy some of his prints, because they are truly gorgeous. The Blues Highway layout available elsewhere showcases some of the same photos, but also some different ones. Both sites are well worth a visit. Bill Steber is an outstanding photographer, and more than that, he has a conscience.




Teaching research writing has evolved for me in bizarre ways. Because it is an intro class that crosses many subject fields, it seems pointless to spend too much time on specific databases or tools. Communication isn’t only about tools; it’s about attitudes and strategies for dealing with other people’s attitudes. I make it up as I go along, but I thought I might write down some of what I’m doing now.

The first concept I try to explore is people’s feelings about genius. The majority always seem to agree with Harold Bloom’s attitude. There are some people who are just special— above the norm. More and more, I find this incompatible with the idea that “all men are created equal.” Equal is a valuation, as is genius, and valuing things quickly becomes complicated. What constitutes a genius? A shifting cultural celebration of some values over others. I can only fall back on one of the earliest definitions of genuis— similar to genii, it simply means spirit. Can one person have more spirit than another? I don’t think so. It’s just that some can express it better than others, and we find ourselves drawn to some spirits more others. Genius— like heroism— is a rhetorical concept.

If these things are established rhetorically, then it seems essential to examine how language works. To that end, I use Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. Orwell’s essay, despite its gross errors and conservatism makes an essential connection between thought and language, and the deadening nature of hollow political rhetoric. These days, in particular, I think this is an important issue to raise for anyone who steps into a voting booth. Morrison’s essay places control where it should belong, in the hands of the public, which must question in order to know. These first exercises are meant to get people questioning their beliefs about ideas that they take for granted— only “writers” should care about writing— that writing, like genius, lies outside what regular people should aspire to know.

After this, I examine some effective political rhetoric— starting with the US Declaration of Independence. This requires some deep historical context, to show that it isn’t a document that just emerged from the pen of a genius, but rather is built from an avalanche of commonplaces developed in other political precedents. It’s also a nearly perfect example of the syllogism, of inescapable deductive reasoning. Then, to show that imitation isn’t a bad thing, I teach the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. This one is far more accessible to students. It also shows just how long the fight for women’s rights actually took, and that freedom as they know it is quite a recent development.

The only weird thing about using this group of essays is that it can seem like I’m teaching political science rather than rhetoric. However, when it comes to ethical and logical arguments, political documents are a great place to turn for both good and bad examples. I teach them as arguments, not as politics. To counteract the heavy weighting on the political side, this time I decided to try something completely different when I turn the emphasis to pathetic argument— seduction poetry.

To this end, I use Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply and compare them with John Donne’s The Bait. The Donne poem, I hope, is even more effective in Arkansas. How many love poems are written with a fishing motif? The most common problem in arguing issues that students feel passionately about is that they alienate anyone who might feel differently, by assuming that their audience feels the same as they do— if this is the case, why write? Donne is incredibly shrewd in shifting the power to the maid he wants to seduce, rather than assuming that he has the power. I hope that this will encourage the writers to think about what they can gain by granting that their opposition has some power too.

What is a more common reason for persuasion than getting laid? Besides, it’s a great break from all the politics.

I am not teaching creative writing. I am teaching writing that works. Research writing begins with questions, and ends with actions— not answers. That’s the hurdle I’m trying to cross, and this is the twisted way I’ve chosen to get there. I’m sure I’ll change things every time I teach the class, but for now, I wanted to mark this down. I want my students to climb down off the ivory tower notion that only geniuses are worthy of writing, and learn to make reading and writing work for them. That’s the real equalizer.




I don’t know why I can’t ever take on anything small. Or why once I start to get a picture in my head of something I can’t stop rolling it over, tweaking it, and messing with it. It gets very confusing for me to follow myself, let alone to try to relate it to someone else. I suppose it’s unusual to do this sort of thing in public. I don’t think about it that much, until something reminds me.

It’s been a weird couple of days. For the first time, someone physically recognized me from these pages— rather than finding these pages because they knew me. I was standing outside a building on campus smoking. A girl said “hey Jeff” or something to that effect. “I know you!” She looked vaguely familiar. But I couldn’t place her. Then she explained. “I ended up on your website on some sort of weird search . . . I saw your ogre photo. . . .” I can’t recall her name (I’m terrible that way) but she’s finishing a Ph.D. in English, and was there on campus teaching a class in marketing. We had a nice conversation, and I ended up explaining why I was looking at rhetoric programs instead of English. It comes down to being interested in everything, and not wanting to be tied down to literature alone. I said that I tend to write about too many different things to be satisfied otherwise. She said, “yes, I got that idea from your site.”

Talking to Krista the next day, she said “I don’t think you realize just how much its possible to learn about you from your site.” I freely assent that anyone who has read what I write here for any length of time can rapidly figure out that I’m more than a little bit neurotic, manic depressive, and above all else my hunger probably comes across fairly accurately. I’m obsessed with representation, and I try to represent my thoughts, feelings, and general attitudes as accurately as possible. I am well aware how hard such a project is, and given that I have a small audience to play to here in Arkansas, it has been exhilarating to try to relate some small piece of me to a larger audience without being too boring, morose, or too tied to the specific, resulting in a big pile of self-involved crap.

That’s the primary problem with portraiture. That was one of the directions my work as a photographer was evolving, and the audience for portraiture is narrowed by the desire to connect, or know more (outside the frame) about the person who is in it. Most (non-art) people have no interest whatsoever in pictures of people they don't know. It’s a major challenge to get a lay audience to even look at them.

Portraits can be the most intense form of lying, when the representation doesn’t have anything to do with the reality of the person in it. There has to be some connection of thought, feeling, or desire to get someone to look at a portrait. I think that’s why celebrity portraiture is the only form that gets much attention. Portraiture is torn between the impulse to universalize (the person represented could be you) and to particularize (the person is different from you, from anyone).

For me, blogs are like that. The ones I love are filled with personality. Some of them are lies. Some of them I identify with. Some of them are incredibly different from me. I think that this aspect of representing yourself on the Internet follows many of the same forms, and conventions, as portraiture. People oscillate between an idealized vision of themselves, and a raw version with every hair, mole, and wrinkle standing out. But always, the goal is to connect to someone else in some way. There is no standard, no generalized prescription for representation. Only different ways of authorizing it as something worthy of attention.

Sometimes, this seems like a dusty album that belongs at the back of a drawer somewhere— moments of thought and feeling that pass as soon as they are uttered. I’m never the same from one day to the next, yet parts of me do seem constant and unchanging. Sometimes, it seems more like a giant atlas of places I’ve been, useful for research, useful because it contains a frozen moment of a fleeting congruence. I look up things that I haven’t thought about in a while sometimes and look at them and make fun of myself for being so stupid and ill-informed.

When I pulled out the Aperture special issue on David Wojnarowicz a couple of days ago, I remember how much it blew me away when I first saw it. It still does. I admire him as an artist not because he is the same as I am, but because he is so profoundly different. Sometimes, difference is good. I wish I had written about it then. I’m curious what I might have said. But the last few years are hanging around here, for praise or damnation, for anyone to see. It doesn’t bother me, really. When I started doing this it was with the feeling that I still have— that there is nothing, besides life-itself, left for me to lose. Now that’s a scary— and big— thought.

Recognition contains within it two amazing roots— re, which means to do something again, or to look deeper— and cognition— to think about it.

Pull Down


Pull Down and Pull Toward You

It was a good trip to Hot Springs. I saw four films, the latest paintings from Warren Criswell, and watched the freaks. Going down there is always like entering some sort of redneck time warp. I saw a grizzled guy wearing a Damn Yankees tee shirt, more Chuck Norris look-alikes on Harleys than I could name, and actually heard a car stereo or two. I remember my first impressions of Arkansas were based on the busy main-drag of Hot Springs. It was silent. No sound from car stereos, no music coming from the bars, no spill-over muzak, nothing— just the occasional horn or siren. No loud voices, no arguments, no struggles— just strollers, by the hundreds. It was more like a wake than a party.

The look this time was different. Film festivals draw a different crowd. Lots of people wearing square black-framed glasses. Lots of queer-as-folk. Lots of professorial types, and lots of people who seemed to be too-hip for their own good. And then there were the citizens, smiling friendly helping the tourists find their way around. I arrived just in time to rush into the theater to see Photos to Send.

It was a good film. There was a sense of discovery to it, as if the filmmaker allowed the chance happenings of the story itself play a role in the result. The theater was full when I got there, but I negotiated the balcony (which is a lawsuit waiting to happen) to find overflow seating at the front edge. I’ve never looked down on a film before. It was in progress, and I walked in to footage of a man riding a bicycle on country roads. You could hear the filmmaker say “I can’t believe it’s him!” repeatedly. A moment later, the original Lange photograph came on the screen. Yes, it was the same man on his bicycle that Lange had photographed. I got caught up in it, feeling much the same thing.

The director located and interviewed survivors, and relatives of survivors that Lange had photographed and juxtaposed it with quotes and pages from Lange’s journals. There were a few audio voice-overs taken from a 1964 interview with Lange regarding the project, and interviews with her son. The looks of the people as they saw for the first time photographs of their parents, and relatives that had passed on for the first time were priceless. What a great project. The faces of those people, looking at the photographs, reminded me of what I used to do. No amount of theory can strip away the power of the document to provide a window on the past. Photographs may be lies, but in a larger sense, so is life— and there are some lies we are compelled to embrace, to make it bearable. One of the fragments from Lange’s notebooks hit me hard:

Never straight-on. Always from the curves.

For years I struggled with the dead-on perspectives of Walker Evans and others. It was when I started to come at it from the curves that I really started to grow. There will always be artifice. The evidence of Stryker’s influence was all over some of the notebook passages, notes for things to research, like “Why no trees?” Ireland has changed since Lange was there, but as the filmmaker noted in the end— it was the things that had remained the same that were the most striking, not the differences. To see relatives sitting against the same backdrop as their parents, to see the continuity of life, seems to be one of those “lies” of photography that seems absolutely essential to living. As one of the descendents said regarding his farm, passed down for six generations— you get the feeling that you aren’t alone. Someone had been there before you. Somehow, that seems to be more important than the disruption and changes of time.

The second film I saw was David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. It was outstanding, also. Several bits of information stand out, including Joshua Reynold’s portable camera obscura which folded up to be disguised as a book. I really liked the assertion that “intellectual property” was a part of life long before the juridical apparatus was there to support it. The technology used by the painters in the Middle Ages has been lost to mystery, however, because of this drive to protect it. However, as Hockney’s tee shirt proclaimed— optics don’t make marks. The idea that these painters used technology does not undercut their ability as artists. However, I’m not so sure about his proclamation that technology now will allow us to free ourselves from single-point perspective. Single point perspective is one of those comforting lies that I don’t see disappearing any time soon. However, the assertion that we are “in the world” rather than standing outside it looking in (the lie) is certainly food for thought as well. I remember seeing Hockney’s photo-collages on the beach in Venice, California in the mid-eighties. There was a sense of completion for me, in seeing this film. From the birth of an idea, to its fruition. Watching Hockney adjust the camera obscura, to sketch things at different points of focus reminded me of some similar experiments I was doing in the darkroom about that time too, trying to find new ways to see.

I wandered off after that to look at Warren’s latest at Taylor’s Contemporanea . Warren seems to be a bit time obsessed lately. There’s a little digital clock that keeps showing up in his paintings, always just after midnight. His sense of humor hasn’t dulled a bit though, Six Cent Still Life stood out to me, as did Books and Toilet Paper. Though the real connection is just a feeling that runs constantly through his work of flight. The web versions just don’t do the paintings justice— my favorite by far was Flash Flood. I walked the length of the strip, ordered a cappucino that came out of the same Krups machine I use at home, and went back to see the films we were supposed to see for the class.

Watching Daddy and Papa brought out memories of a different sort. The moment they flashed Anita Bryant on the screen, I started to get ill. Why can’t we just give Florida back to Spain? It might solve many of the country’s problems, though we would lose many fine beaches. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that there is so much noise over gay adoption. It is so hard to find people who really want to be parents. Are group homes, filled with neglect really better “moral” environments for children? What a sham, and a disgrace. If people want to be parents, regardless of their sexual preference, I don’t see what the big deal is. Given the urge of children to rebel against their parents, it seems to me that if anything, it would increase the straight population.

The last film we watched was a real hoot. Georgie Girl is the story of the first transgendered MP in New Zealand. It seems to me that survival in such a difficult life role would be a guarantee of great political skill. The vintage footage of sex-clubs in New Zealand alone was worth the paltry price of admission. What was most interesting to me was a TV interview where the interviewer was just certain that there must have been a huge change in attitude once she had her genitals snipped. As if the root of identity was in a person’s genitals, and any change there must have had a profound effect. We went out for drinks afterward, and I’m sure I talked too much. It was a good day though. It’s just such a weird setting to see these films in. Hot Springs wants to be San Francisco (a few days of the year, anyway), but they really don’t have a clue. San Francisco is loud; open communities don’t come from silence and deserted shop-fronts.

In the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate dinner there was a towel dispenser that reminded me of an old album from the San Francisco band Hot Tuna: First Pull Up— Then Pull Down. It was named after the instructions on toilet seat protectors. The towel dispenser seemed more to the point: “Pull Down and Pull Toward You.” I like that advice better.




Besides the death of romance, my most mind-shattering shock after moving from California to Arkansas was the loss of audience. The stereotype of life in the Southern/Midwestern states is that people are friendly. Arkansas is a bit of both, perhaps more Southern than Midwestern— it did join the Confederacy, after all. I think that it’s the misreading of visitors, and natives, to make the claim for the happy helpful down-home folks. I find them cliquish and closed, as they smile big and say “no thank you.” Politeness and friendliness are discrete quantities. The shadow of politeness is dark, like most shadows.

I’ll never forget the gasp of horror when I first said “fuck” in public. It wasn’t that I used the word, people in Arkansas certainly do cuss frequently— but I said it in public. People around here never swear in front of people they don’t know. They also don’t ask anything of strangers, or impose their feelings upon them without extreme circumstances. Deep social networks make it possible to live with little exploitation (except of friends and neighbors). Arkansas is uniquely tolerant of outsiders, really— but it is tolerance, not acceptance.

I come from a freeway town in California. No one stays in a place like Bakersfield by choice, except those who have become complacent enough to accept that it’s an easy place to be. And it was easy. There was no veil of politeness, guarding you from what people were really thinking— they would tell you to “fuck-off” in no uncertain terms if the situation demanded it. Because everyone seemed to be in a constant state of passing through, the urge to exploit people for whatever talents or skills they had was strong. Get it while you can, in no uncertain terms. Life is rootless, wandering, and evanescent. One advantage of the climate of exploitation is that in some ways, you always feel wanted, needed— there’s always something that you might be good for. A ready-made audience of hungry eyes, and ears.

Strangers in the South aren’t needed. I walked through this state with my “exploit me” neon sign flashing for the first few years. I photographed for a charity, and made myself known to many of the musicians. My phone never rang. Unless you’re selling, they don’t want to take. They are far too polite for that. I’m sick of selling, and I really never want to do it again. I’m more intimately acquainted with being sold. For years in California I seldom bought a drink. There was always someone who wanted to seduce you into their project, their vision of how you might be used. I mistakenly thought that because I had some talent it should be easy to find some project to distract me, some new audience for my particular historical skill. No one ever bought me a drink in Arkansas. I had an exhibition in the most popular “counter-culture” hot spot in the city after a year or so. No calls, no comments, no thank-you. I discovered that to be exploited, I’d need to sell myself into it. I want to avoid selling, but in order to get an audience I suppose you do have to sell someone.

Without an audience of some sort, life becomes a bit meaningless. I think that’s why I felt like teaching was the only way out. A group of people sits on the other side of the room. You do your best to fulfill your obligation to impart something to them, to help them understand the subject you try to teach. You don’t have to sell them on exploiting your talent, the environment itself dictates the relation— you have something to give, and students are free to take what they want from you. The only real coercion involved is convincing students that the subject is important enough to pay some attention to. Of course, this means to a certain extent I’ve got to sell again— sell an establishment on my mastery of the material, and my ability to convey it. I’m looking at that as my final sales job. All I really want is an audience willing to exploit me, and I hope I can convince the guardians at the gate to let me in. My abilities as a photographer became unimportant to me when I found that there was really no one who wanted to look at my photographs. Without feedback, reactions to the work, you merely stand in one spot and stare at your navel. There can be no progress, no growth. Ever the adaptive, I’ve been forging new skills with words in the hopes that someone might want to exploit me for it.

I really just want to be exploited. I just came to the wrong part of the country for that. The land of “please” is also filled with “no thank you.” I hope I can find my way out of it soon. The place is incredibly beautiful, polite, picturesque— but my tastes lead into a gaudier sense of the sublime. One day I will return to photography, I'm sure— when I have satisfied my need for exploitation.

Culture Wars


Culture Wars

Just a quick note in response to Jonathon: I have been looking at Ph.D. programs with a great deal of fear, for most of the reasons detailed in the Chronicle article. I am a bit of a traditionalist in some ways (some New Critical habits stick), in that I prefer to read primary texts rather than dense piles of writing about writing. The departments at my school (University of Arkansas at Little Rock) are fractured in amazingly complex ways.

The British literature specialists are mostly traditional— though my mentor was a Duke Ph.D. from the early 90s with a big po-mo background. The Americanists are a more volatile bunch who practice cultural criticism more than close reading— though they inflict it more through lecture than assigning critical texts. Around ten years ago, the Rhetoric Department was split from the English department— and most of the heavy gender/technology people went there. So, the conflict between canon and theory is mostly fought in the American Lit portion— most of the people there specialize in ethnic literatures, so there is no canon to teach if they stick to the “traditional” road. A person can, however, get a degree without reading much in the way of theory at all. Having no “canon-wars” to fight, the rhetoric people are mostly docile regarding shoving theory down people’s throats— though they have a definite political, social-constructivist, agenda.

I’m not allergic to heavy theory. I am however, concerned— like the writer of the article with the loss of primary texts in favor of theory. My notes on Darwin from a few days back were a response to what I felt was a misreading by a prominent gender theorist. The current situation makes me deathly afraid of many English departments. That’s why I really want a program with a strongly rhetorical focus for my Ph.D.— I want a job. A conventional degree in literature is usually a bad way to be assured of employment.

Technical writing is the hot field right now, field, though I just can’t bear to give up literature. That’s why I’m thinking more of a focus on a texts/technologies and cultural studies track. It’s sort of a combination of art/literature with professional/technical work. The problem is finding a department that doesn’t think this conflation is a contradiction incapable of resolution. I find it easier to fit in with the more theory-oriented crowd even though my views on literature are perhaps more traditional. I cannot see myself as an juridical aesthete, however— I'm much more practically minded. What this really means is that I don’t want to do Marxist or feminist or historical dissections of literary works per se, but instead try to figure out how specific works fit in a broader context of communication strategies— rhetoric, not traditional literary study. I don’t want to have to defend any canon, though there are many canonical figures that I love. I am very afraid of the politics that lie at the end of any path I choose.

English departments are scary places. The only plan I can think of to make it through is to try to understand just what the agenda of the place I’m headed is. Regardless of the label they hang over the door (Rhetoric, English, American Studies) I want to make sure that I’m not signing up to be an exponent of anyone’s ideology. I want to do research and teaching, not preaching or theory-mongering. I think that is still possible in many departments across the US— just not all— and that is the real shame.

Portrait of a Decade

Gordon Parks, Washington DC 1942

Portrait of a Decade

I don't think anyone has done a really good “portrait” of the FSA decade (1932-42). But since I will be writing about it, I figured it would be a good idea to review some of the available books, both for their content and the mistakes I'd like to avoid.

Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties (1972) is an excellent book in many respects. It has fresh, original research including first-person interviews with many of the people involved.

However, some of the basic concepts which it uses as a point of departure seem deeply flawed to me. Hurley ignores a lot of pioneering work through careful definitional exclusion. He feels that the Stryker was instrumental in enabling documentary work, work that would not have existed otherwise.

Edwin Rosskam gets a total of one paragraph. [I must amend— there are a couple more in chapter 6] Bourke-White and Caldwell are deprecated. The book follows a rather liberal party-line, where commercial=bad and all of the New Deal cheerleaders were the heroes. Evans is subsumed into this crowd, even though Hurley admits that it is an insult to him.

Intro. & Chap. 1
Chap. 2 — 9/1
Chap. 3 & 4 — 9/2
Chap. 5 — 9/8
Chap. 6 — 9/15
more to come later

Deep background in the “conventional” story sets this book apart. I like the book, but it is fairly shoddy scholarship. There are many errors, omissions, and travesties in the organizational structure. But it also has several leads I need to track down. The biggest problem is stripping away the obvious cheerleading to get to the meat.




I wanted to write this down for some reason. John Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee nation knew that there was no way to stop Indian removal. Though he knew it would mean his death, he signed an agreement with the Jackson administration, providing for 13,800,000 acres of land and $4,500,000 to fund schools for his people. He relocated his family from a location near Chattanooga, Tennessee, to a location near Van Buren, Arkansas (25 miles from where my parents now live). He was murdered in his home by members of his own tribe, in full view of his wife and sons, in 1839, the year photography was invented.

John Ridge senior was politically active and well off— he owned 18 slaves. John Rollin Ridge, his son, had been educated by a missionary woman, Sophia Sawyer, hired by his father. After his father was murdered, John Rollin Ridge decided that he’d had enough of tribal politics and immigrated to Sacramento, California (where my eldest brother died last year). He later became a writer for the California American, a leading newspaper for the “Know-Nothing” Party, a secret nativist organization of the 1850s.

While all this is totally unconnected with my current project, a couple of years ago I did an online edition of the Poems of John Rollin Ridge. I was thinking, as I reviewed my mentor Dr. James Parin’s biography of Ridge, that the rising tide of female school teachers in the early nineteenth century was largely responsible for the tide of activism in the following decades. Without these women educating the future crop of “muckracking” journalists, the nations history would have been far different.

More tangential bits: it was against the law in Georgia to educate slaves. The Cherokees didn’t see any harm in it, so they freely educated their slaves. Oh, and for those who have only seen Native Americans in old Western movies, the delegation responsible for the fat settlement (which was not honored) all wore suits, not loincloths and feathers. It seems interesting to me that these “savages” valued education so highly.

I’m currently knee deep in The House of the Seven Gables by Hawthorne. I’m beginning to think that it should be required reading for all historians— and photographers too. The way that Hawthorne describes the buildings is like an Evans photograph.

Hillbilly Highway


It was a fruitful trip to Oklahoma. I stopped off in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to pick up a rare book of Horace Bristol’s Korea photographs, published in Japan as a sort of guidebook/souvenir for American soldiers on their way to Korea. It was the abridged third printing from 1951, originally published in 1948. I’ll do a more complete entry on it later. Right now, I’m still on the hillbilly highway.

The photograph on the right is Bristol’s photograph of Grandpa Joad, the original one. I’m waiting for the Chronicle books monograph which should have the complete series of Grapes of Wrath photos. I saw them in a gallery in 1992, and haven’t seen them since. My excitement for the book project is growing.

I found out that my grandfather, the alcoholic miscreant that my father never had a kind word for, went to California in 1938. And I found that his first name was Jestus. From what I’ve heard, he wasn’t really a funny guy.

My father and mother, along with two of my father’s brothers, went to California for the first time in 1944. They didn’t find work, so they went back to Oklahoma.

Dad then went to Detroit with one of his brothers, and mom followed him on the train. He got a job in a cement factory for a while, but his brother wrecked his car, his brother’s girlfriend lost her mind and had to be institutionalized, and they headed back to California in 1945 or 46. The details are hazy.

What was amazingly clear though was my dad’s memory of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Though he read the book fifty years ago, he still remembered the major plot points. It blew me away. My older brother has read it too, and contributed his reason for reading it: the song of the same name by The Nashville Teens from 1962, and the fact that it has dirty parts. It was the subject of a big obscenity case which is used as a teaching example in first amendment law.

After I got back, I uncovered another book with a liberal social agenda illustrated with FSA photographs, Home Town by Sherwood Anderson from 1940, which used the same photo editor as 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I also discovered a series of books published by the FSA at the same time under the rubric of “social research.” The context deepens, and my bank account is getting much shallower. It seems that most of these books were subtly modified when they were reprinted, shifting them in a more “politically correct” direction. It seems important to locate as many first editions as I can.

The more I compare my family’s history with the Dorothea Lange / Paul Taylor book, the more I respect it. I’m beginning to think that it was the fairest and most impartial book to come from this crucial time. The book has had minimal critical response, as a book that is— Lange’s photographs have received all the attention. But as a book, it is quite impressive. I can’t wait until the rest of the material I’ve ordered starts rolling in!

Life goes by


Totally committed to the fifty-bucks

I didn’t want to write this entry— the “Stop Police” photograph started it. Then I got the notice to renew my hosting and realized I was totally committed to the fifty bucks. That phrase means something more to a Frank Zappa fan.

Turn it down! . . . I’m calling the Police! . . . I did it. . . . They’ll be here shortly!

Sometimes I think of this web site as my garage, where I tinker with building things, and perhaps manage to stumble my way through some tunes. In Zappa’s tour de force concept album Joe’s Garage, Mary— Joe’s girlfriend turned crew slut— enters a wet t-shirt contest to earn fifty-bucks for a bus ticket home. Following in Ray Davis’s footsteps, I’ll offer a limited time sample which also explains my other favorite phrase— “an ice-pick in the forehead.” Both phrases ran through my brain today. I’ve got privacy issues. No, there isn’t anything I want to hide. I get nervous when other people hide things. Nothing good comes from secrets— from my experience, at least. I don’t like silence either— I’ll often start talking just to break it. I can tolerate and sometimes enjoy silence in the wilderness, but if there’s someone else in the room I’ll start jabbering just to keep from feeling insecure. And I’ll discuss just about anything. There are no taboo subjects for me. I can make people uncomfortable easily with my willingness to reveal myself. Remember that Kristofferson/Joplin lyric about nothing left to lose?

If you don’t like confessional blogging, or personal disclosures, please don’t click the more link. Just listen to the funny sound byte and move on. I moved a lot of bytes around today and it made me want to write down some history now that I can remember the dates more clearly. Life slips by.

It’s wet t-shirt time again!

One of the hazards of writing in public is that when your eyes get wet— people can see right through.