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WTF?

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WTF?

A casual reader, or for that matter a regular reader of my blog may wonder just what the fuck all these little essaylets are. It isn’t like blogging. It isn’t like formal writing. It’s just plain weird. That is, unless you’re inside my head.

Here’s the deal. People who have been following me for a while already know I’m working on a major project on the development and reception of documentary photography in the 1930s in America. What does the seventeenth and eighteenth century have to do with that? In my opinion, a lot. There is a pervasive myth that somehow, before the advent of postmodernism, people thought photographs were somehow “true” or realistic. I think that’s a load of crap. These people were much more conscious of what they were doing, and what they were doing was surfing on genre-currents that had been in place since the onset of mechanical reproduction. In order to establish that they were indeed constructing a new genre of representation, it is important to establish the streams that flowed into it. The roots radically predate the invention of the means, and influence the directions they grew.

So, I’m trying to tear off little pieces and make sense of them. The puzzle itself is inside my head, so some of these bits probably don’t seem related to much of anything. I post them here in the hope that at least the fragments of exploration are consistent, and accurate. I hope that if they don’t make sense in and of themselves, or are inaccurate, people will speak up and comment. They may sound authoritative, but I can assure you they are not. The exercise of forming essays is indeed a process of assaying the nuggets to see if they are gold, or just the ramblings of a fool.

I have been working on this stuff so intensely that I realize that I haven’t stepped back in a while to write anything entertaining in a personal way, to assure a visitor that it is indeed a human being rather than a bot behind these pages. Most of the personal thoughts, memories, and reflections in my head lately have been just too dark, too negative, and too depressing to thrust them on a public that might come here expecting to be entertained. My work, right now, is far more entertaining than my life— and that may not be saying much.

Scratchpad

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Scratchpad

Just some tentative notes on where I’m going: exploration of Riis and Hine leads me to think that there were many genre threads involved in the weaving of the social documentary books of 1930s America. Though I thought it easiest to start with Riis, it becomes clear that I’ve got to go even further back, at least in glancing reference. Many genres came together in the 1930s: travel photography, ethnography, advertising, photography as “art” and urban planning. There are precedents for all these from the 1840s forward, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in it. But the rhetoric involved is unique in each genre.

Aside to Jonathon: Evans and Agee’s book was a reaction against much of this. But Let Us Now Praise Famous Men— its impact, its honest virtues and its delusional qualities can only be discussed adequately in light of all the competing aesthetics present at the time. Understanding the differing impulses which drove each book makes forgiving their excesses easier. None of the books I’m considering were simply exploitive; each one had a unique place as a frozen moment in American rhetoric. Each book from the 30s offers a different interpretation of what a “hero” is. It is easy from a high cultural vantage point to lionize Evans, and in some ways demonize those who were perhaps closer to the suffering of America in the depression. There’s been a lot of revisionist history going on. That’s almost a subject for it’s own book. I am becoming fascinated with the changes after the fact to many of these books. Evans, for example, doubled the number of photographs in the 1960 edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, adding photographs of blacks and locales outside the context of the book. In 1960, it was safer and easier to do that. The dynamics of the rhetoric involved is just fascinating. The division between rhetoric and poetics is an Aristotelian fantasy.

All of the pieces of the puzzle are interconnected in strange ways. That’s why I think that blogging is the easiest way to find a suitable arrangement. Hyperlinking is wonderful that way, in terms of discovering what flow patterns work and what patterns don’t. The first attempt at making sense of the connections between Jacob Riis and Erskine Caldwell is in the previous entry. Of course, along the way I thought of other connections. I'm going to try to create self-contained fragments here, and organize them more coherently later. Each theme connects with all the others. Soon, a new blog category to tie things together will be created, but here’s 1600 words to start.

Intense

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Intense

I’ve been radically unsuccessful at anything resembling normal sleep for a couple of days now. I was supposed to be on the road to visit my parents, but I’ve ended up researching an idea. You see, in a few weeks I have to start writing a a book. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. The course is “extended topics in nonfiction” and the quantity of writing involved will be massive. I feel much better dealing with something I’m comfortable with. Photography was my first choice, but specifically, what?

I’ll use the blog to string it together first. I like the idea of doing it in public; it will be like having advance reviewers. The working title thus far is Imaginary Heroes: The Rhetoric of Representation in 1930s America. Rolls right off the tongue, eh? I began to think of this while reviewing significant documentary photography books published between 1937-1941. The list was small at first, but it’s been expanded a bit with a few books that I wasn’t aware of until now.

The first on my list was the last published, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. Big surprise, I’m sure. There are already tons studies of that book out there already. However, the context of those studies is mostly shallow and laudatory, in my opinion. It is one book among many. The first was You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell. It was a best seller. Evans and Agee’s book sold 600 copies of its first printing. Fortunes change. Currently, Evans books in print probably outnumber Bourke-White books by five to one, though she published at least ten times as many books in her lifetime. Curious, no? The rise and fall of critical reception is fascinating. Bourke-White and Evans exhibited together in 1932, and they certainly were an odd couple, aesthetically. Then there’s the wildcard from the West Coast, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s An American Exodus, a distinctive book in its own right. And there’s another little known collaboration that had a huge impact. Horace Bristol and John Steinbeck originally planned to do a documentary book, but instead their trips into the San Joaquin Valley interviewing and photographing migrants became The Grapes of Wrath.

Additional research turned up Land of the Free by Archibald MacLeish (whose poetry was recently considered by Loren) and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I haven’t seen those two yet, but I’m sure they’ll fit my plan. I’ve read about a three-inch stack of critical articles from proquest, and half of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road in the last few days, along with parts of a thick book on post-colonial theory. This will be fun. The objectification of the poor as the “other” living in the middle of the American dream during the depression speaks volumes to the construction of the national identity. It’s all rhetoric, Evans and Agee included.

Ultimately, each of these collaborations approached the problem of individual identity vs. the creation of “the public” in unique ways. Right now, I think most of the other works have been unfairly eclipsed by Evans and Agee. Popularity=bad seems to have done the most damage to Caldwell and Bourke-White, and I’ve discovered that Bristol went on to do some innovative experimental photo books while living in Japan that deserve at least a footnote in the story. Bristol was cheated most of all in the aftermath.

Obviously, there will be much more to come on these topics. But I had to spit something out before I lost the core ideas. What happened in the 30s is also deeply wrapped around romantic/pragmatic rhetoric, and I hope I can do sufficient research to bring the conflict to life.

Life goes Bi

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Life goes bi

For centuries, spoken words were unidirectional, evaporating into space. Ritual pursued preservation, and writing technology was formed to capture stories and manage lists. Recorded sound changed communication as profoundly as writing, but in subtle ways. Words and music of people long dead can haunt us. Is it an illusion of bidirectionality? We hear them, but they can’t hear us. The Recording Angel by Evan Eisenberg deals with sound in a unique way:

But if a record is a time capsule and a phonograph is a time machine, they are so in an unaccustomed sense. A record is a sculpted block of time, repeatable at an owner’s whim. The block may have been carved from another time and place (though only live recordings are carved in one piece) and may be a document or record of its quarry. But a record of music does not record historical time. It records musical time which, though it exists in historical time, is not of it. A violoncello is already a time machine, taking its listener to a place outside time. The phonograph is a time machine of this sort, but with the difference that the listener operates it himself and can take a spin as often as he pleases.

Records, I said, shattered the public architecture of time. The have replaced it with a kind of modular interior design. The individual supplies himself with sculpted blocks of time and proceeds to pave his day with them. Each block is infinitely repeatable. Each is different from, but formally interchangeable with each other.

One of the major problems in semantics is determining the effective limit of a meaning unit. The meaning of words is shaped by their context, and not contained in the words themselves. We can isolate them by function, subject, verb, preposition, etc., but we cannot safely say that a word means anything outside of context. Perhaps words are also like paving stones. How many of them does it take to form a road? Is it a one way trip?

I think writing a blog is different than conventional writing not only because it’s electrified and public, but because of the shape of the path. Software offers the option to display entries in conventional chronological order, but no one I read uses that. Why? Because it would be redundant and confusing to surf in to the beginning of a story each day, scrolling down to where you left off. It’s best to start in the now. Because it’s recorded, it’s always possible to go back to the beginning if a writer interests you. Our experience of a blog can be bidirectional. This makes me ponder its presence in historical time, but more than that, it makes me wonder at the problematic nature of conventional writing methods in this context. With every additional entry, the context subtly shifts, as entries disappear into the archives.

With every use, our words grow deeper in meaning built on associations established before. Random access dilutes carefully crafted meanings built using linear approaches to writing. Blog writing is different because though the window into it is always random, a reader can stroll back down the path and see how the stones are placed; we can trace the sculpted blocks of discourse back deep into the quarry and get a greater sense of the person behind the words. Blog entries are also like modular decorating blocks, interchangeable with any other. Without the conceit that an audience has followed the story, each day I reinvent the wheel driven to make each block self-contained. I’m not sure it’s better than a linear approach or more flexible, but it’s certainly more coherent than a random one.

Most readers don't prowl the archives of a blog, but the possibility always exists.

Odd thoughts

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Odd thoughts.

Maybe it was the gold-spangled eagle uniform of Judge Dredd, but it suddenly dawned on me that the national symbol of the US is an endangered predator. There’s something downright poetic about that. I digress, as usual.

It seems as if everyone has redesign fever these days. From the minty-freshness of Shauny’s new look, to Alex and Euan’s surrender to MT, lots of folks seem to be moving and changing. If you haven’t seen Stavro’s miraculous floating boxes, be sure to have a look. In case anyone noticed that my boxes can resemble frames on a roll of film, I can assure you that that is intentional.

I’m still in the tune-up phase, as you might have noticed from the addition of a dictionary search box (to avoid constantly defining the vocabulary I slip into, and as a convenience to me as I struggle with everyone elses’). I switched everything to PHP enabled pages, and started using a beta-test script to help manage my links. I figured it was better to do it now, so as to avoid a bunch of broken links in the future. I suppose I resisted the urge because PHP sounds too much like PCP, and I never cared for that at all. Yeah, I know it’s silly. I also installed the MT related entries plug-in to make navigation easier for people who just happen by. What I’m aiming for here is user friendliness, so if there are any issues, please let me know. But I’m digressing, again.

What I really wanted to do was point at Kiri’s new site, which contains a fun little zine in PDF format. If I had the free time, I’d love to do some book dummies in the same way. But there’s only so many things a person can do at once.

While I'm at it though, if you haven't seen this page of Ozzy soundbytes, it’s rather amusing.

I've just taken four seconal . . .

That went down like a nun’s knickers . . .

Things always overlap for me. Lara Croft was up on screen next, attempting to unite the past and present, not unlike Roskelly and Ronald in my current reading project. I must say that I prefer what’s up now— Tank Girl.

Bimedial

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Did I mention I was a photographer?

It occurs to me that as my site traffic has grown, new readers won’t realize that I was a photographer. The past tense is intentional— though it’s sort of like saying I used to be a junkie. Once you’ve been swallowed-up by photography, it never really lets you go. For the last five or six years I’ve been seduced into becoming heterotextual.

I’ve been composing all manner of texts, excepting fiction. I approached photography much the same way, experimenting with everything except fabricated tableaus. Eventually, I’d like to be bimedial. That’s part of what this website has been about. Experimenting with combinations of words and images, just trying to see what I can make work. It think there is a synergy between text and image that is rarely explored, let alone exploited to full advantage. The only work that springs to mind that has integrated all the elements that obsess me: text, photographs, and found objects— is Bill Burke’s Mine Fields— but that’s a subject for another day.

Yesterday, I was looking at the gallery presentation I put together about a year ago. It’s right here, though few people bother to access it. Invisible Light, the online version, contains around a hundred images, available in a nice big slide show. I’ve noticed since I put it online that few people look at the big pictures. The thumbnail sketch is pathetic by comparison. I’m not sure if it’s a bandwidth issue or not, but I checked and it still works. That portion of the website was a lot of work. Posting an occasional photo to my blog isn’t. Please don’t email me with technical questions about infrared photography. All the questions gearheads might want answered are there on the main page under, surprisingly enough, hardware and technique.

The search module was put online today (though obviously there isn’t much to search here yet) and Professor Salo has generously given me some tips regarding MT templates that should speed the progress of getting the final design together. There’s a lot more stuff I want to play with here, but in case you think I’ve been sloughing off— I did manage to complete my reader’s notes to Literature in its Place today. I like stretching out like I did in that entry, giving myself the time to work things through. The book, in case you’re curious, is easily read in a day. However processing it into a form that another person might understand, well, that takes longer. But it’s rewarding to me, even if it’s only of use to a limited audience. That’s what I like most about the “new” look. It makes me want to be more concise— perhaps my biggest problem as a heterotextual. When those atoms start colliding, it often turns into an explosion.

Moving along

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Things are moving along nicely. I had to modify the comments template because the link attributes were causing a problem. No one else had tried linking yet, and when I did I found that they disappeared (black on brown- not really legible). I’ve been beta-testing the mt-search add-in, because search functionality is really what makes blogging much better than just taking notes on things. I can’t believe that MT doesn’t have a user search as standard equipment, and what’s up with the “recent entries” thingy they put on the sidebar? Unless you are using a single day on your front page, it’s a little redundant, isn’t it? Carping aside, I’ve now tested this thing out with Opera 6, Mozilla, I.E. 6, and Netscape 6. I really love the rendering engine in Mozilla and Netscape— it makes this page look really nice. I’ve still got some minor alignment things I can’t resolve, and Opera behaves kind of screwy because it seems to cache style-sheets. If I change them and revisit the page, Opera uses the old sheet unless refreshed. So, if you’re using Opera and the screen looks a little funky, hit refresh.

I love blue. It was hard to give that up for the new layout. It was perfect for image-oriented things, since it was easy on the eyes. However, for text it just wasn’t cutting it. In order to keep the somewhat restrained overall appearance and maintain chromatic coherence with paper-toned text box insets, brown seemed like the best alternative. It works fairly well with images too, sort of an off-white matte board. Mostly, it’s just more readable. Anyone who tries to follow some of my more elaborate rants should appreciate that.

I felt like I needed the boxes. Something that would contain the content. One of the peculiarities of web writing is that it is scroll oriented rather than codex oriented. I really enjoyed exploring that for a while. But, fundamentally, web writing is also page oriented. The archives of the old blog are best viewed in their weekly format because of the unfolding of the scroll, as the week progressed. But that’s not how I chose to maintain the entries. They exist on individual pages, so the real scroll effect gets lost when linking or responding to them. So, I think I want to work with a more atomistic view for a while, where each individual entry can stand on its own better, without the comfort of its companions in the scroll. It makes for a more jarring, frame-like experience when visiting the main page, but it helps stop the sprawl.

However, by instituting an “in progress” status for some of those atoms, I feel like I can have the best of both worlds. Currently, for example, my notes on Britton’s book are forming a cohesive scroll of their own. To try and maintain reader-friendliness, I am using links within these entries. So, if you’ve started to read an entry like this, a hotlink will appear to the continuation on the main page so that you need not scroll to exactly where you left off. It’s actually quite easy to code it this way. Rather than leaving the entry in its original place, I could change the date after successive revisions causing it to move up the page, but I’m resistant to that. I like the idea of limiting the presence of any particular post to one week. It will force me to finish it, or give up on it after a while.