Friday, June 29, 2007

Economics, Flora, and Fauna

As a neighborhood goes more upscale, so do its flora and fauna.

We live in Burbank, and the neighborhood has been changing: a mansion here, a mansion there, a modest house razed except for a single stud, around which a new home is built. We have mansionization--we also have Home Depotization--especially when it comes to the exterior decor, we are seeing more of the standardized columns that must be from Home Depot. You can find them in the lumber department, piled together waiting to support a faux-colonial facade.

But as this trend becomes more noticeable, other things bloom: Mercedes-Benzes, Jaguars, and BMW's are seeming to drop from the trees and clutter the streets. They line parkways and driveways in clusters and bouquets; there is always a hum and a buzz in the air as bees seek them, or is that the rather large custom stereos some of them have been equipped with? The more modest and weedy Fords and Chevrolets seem to have migrated out into the North Hollywood area, and spikier older cars line the streets of Pacoima and Panorama City. You only see the occasional mundane tulip gray van here and there--even families prefer the more exotic, hothouse blossoms that need the loving care of the detailer. A shiny black Porsche sits regularly on the street up on Sunset Canyon. It sits there day after day and never gets dusty. The owner drives it to the car wash nursery the way pet lovers take their dogs to the groomer.

For a long time our black Camry sat in front of the house (where it still sits when someone isn't driving it) keeping the pepper tree droppings off the street. Now the whole car has a crusty appearance that no amount of washing will smooth away. You would have to use a grinder. In our walks around the neighborhood, I make sure to stop and smell the flowers along the way.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Standing Up

My wife says my blogs are a form of "stand-up." Does she mean, where you make a rendez-vous with someone and then fail to appear? The many meanings of "stand up . . . "

I Used to Been a Art Critic

This was in Detroit. I was a young prof in the academic department at an art college (teaching English--more about sometime that in "Adventures and Misadventures in Academe")--Center for Creative Studies--and I got a chance to do some writing for a Chicago-based arts paper that wanted a Detroit stringer. I went around to various exhibits--photography, painting, sculpture--and wrote up to 250 words per article on what I saw. It was fun for awhile, and I ate a lot of cheese and crackers and drank my share of cheap wine and more than my share of green grapes and watermelon squares (my then-wife was mortified that I hung around the food table all the time), but then reviewing became an onerous task for two reasons.

(Maybe three: the food was always the same.)

But first (and more importantly, of course, since I could eat at home), in 250 words, you use up everything you have to say on the specific exhibit, but you can never really develop any ideas meaningfully on a broad scale. Then I realized I didn't care about that, and decided my career as an art critic should come to an end.

But the other reason was this: I didn't see any way to continue without compromising either friendships or honesty. As soon as local artists discovered I was writing reviews, I noticed a tendency for them to want to get acquainted with me, tell me about their work, let me know where they were exhibiting. Some of them were already friends; some became more friendly. I was especially troubled when a friend lobbied on her husband's behalf. I did not like his work, and I did not want to be in the position of saying publicly what I would have to say if I were being honest. So, I stopped.

But not before doing a more fully developed article on photography in Detroit. I sent in one draft, and got it back with the comment that it didn't have enough of an "opinion." I presumed they wanted something more confrontive than a neutral overview of what people were doing, so I rewrote the article, calling it "Photo Faciticity in Detroit." The point of the article was that, to judge from the work of most of the photographers on the art college faculty at that time, as well as others I knew in the area, photographers in Detroit were under the sway of what I considered an antiquated idea: that photographs are facts about the world. This was before Photoshop, obviously, but not before there was plenty of discussion about how photographs can be made to misrepresent the world, and indeed, plenty of discussion--if one were reading in such discussive places--of how who knows what a fact is anyway?

The spokesperson for this philosophy (and he may have changed later, but his photography continued to reflect that notion) one day--before the article was written--kicked me out of his classroom for speculating, in a casual conversation, that Brassai's photographs of Paris night life looked like dream images in some respects. I thought the guy was kidding, but he was seriously ordering me, in a raised voice, to "Get out of my classroom!" In front of students. I don't know whether he thought my ideas were contaminative, or whether he just didn't like them. But out I went. He had a non-arrogant demeanour most of the time, but he was arrogant under his mild exterior.

Perhaps it was with some sense of satisfaction that I later wrote the article and used it as a platform to debunk the idea of photo as "fact."

I'm not sure how many of my acquaintances actually read the article, since it was in a Chicago-based arts paper, but my art critical career came to an end. I still have copies of my reviews, perhaps even of the "Photo-Facticity" article. I haven't seen copies on Ebay yet.

The next time I wrote something on photography, it was a fictional piece that got published in the Journal of the Society for Photographic Education, or SPE. Even now, I consider it funny--I think the title was "Steiglitz in Heaven," where Stieglitz, like God, gets to make the ultimate judgment about which photographers gain access to the Pearly Gates, and which don't.

Note to Self #1

No more "Notes to Self." No one else would want to read it, and I certainly don't want to.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pretty is as Pretty Does: All of Aesthetics in One Swell Foop, Proving that Photos are Facts about the world, and whoever believes the opposite is a

Hey, I didn't get to finish my title--what's this?

I meant to say: "Whoever believes the opposite is a lunatic." Okay? Now I can get on to the important part of my blog: the blog itself. Titles are a bunch of crap anyway.

I take/make pictures with cameras. I got a degree in it from an art school, where I learned a lot that I now consider important, like the difference between lying and investing in your future, and when I get the chance I strike out and look at the world to see what I can see. Sometimes, it's a landscape, sometimes a cityscape, sometimes family members. Sometimes it's "serious" shooting, sometimes it's snapshots. I put the quotes around "serious" because who's to deny that a parent with a point-and-shoot digital camera isn't serious about capturing an infant's first stand-alone steps. I don't have to make a living with pictures, so I'm free to shoot whatever I want, and for whatever reason. Like Dick Cheney, who's also free to shoot at whatever he wants.

I've had to divest myself, though, of Biblical Commandment #11: a photograph that isn't gallery level excellent isn't worth shooting. I don't know where I picked this up, maybe from all the talk about archival prints, straight prints with no manipulation as the Supreme Ideal in photography, and the magic word: "vision."

Here's a definitive aesthetic proclamation: My vision is whatever I see. Duh, and Thank You.

This means I can do what Gary Winogrand said he did: take a picture to see what a scene looks like photographed. Or take a picture for the hell of it, even if no one would ever want to look at it in the future. Digital photography makes this much less expensive, but I often do the same with film. I'm amassing many negatives that will never be printed. Why? I'm not always sure I know. I don't print for shows (though at one time I felt compelled to get into shows--a career in art photography seemed important). Sometimes it just seems the thing to do. Considering how many image makers have made the ordinary and unprepossessing their subject matter, how can I go wrong? If anyone wants to contact me to purchase any number of my images, by all means contact me for a list of prices. I don't have (at this point) any list of images, or examples of images, because if you've seen one, you've seen them all. So, just send in your order, and I'll be glad to close my eyes and choose one for you. If you get enough of them, it will be like the patterns on the walls of mosques. (In my more etymological moments, I mull over the historical relationship between the edifice and the insect: "mosqueito." When I finish my definitive proclamations on aesthetics, I'll take up etymology.)

One of my daughters and I were in Yosemite recently, and I was clicking the shutter for all kinds of reasons: I saw some tree bark and remembered that Ansel Adams and Edward Weston shot tree bark; a waterfall looked cool; I wanted souvenir pictures of my daughter in front of impressive geological features--waterfalls, Half Dome, all of Yosemite Valley, Nevada and Vernal Falls. Photo Tip: when the falls are at a distance, as they are when you view them from Glacier Point, you hardly have to do any hiking at all to get pictures of both of them. I believe I may have taken two or three steps. I might even just have turned to my right or left, and Voila! A lady sat on the stone steps overlooking that immense landscape. She sat motionless for a long time. I considered calling 911, but then I saw her take out a pair of binoculars and gaze. I believe she was gazing rather than gaping. I was gaping. When my mother looked earnestly at me, I thought of her as my gaping Maw. But this woman continued with this activity for some time. Then she put her binoculars away, picked up a walking stick, and changed locale. There, she gazed again. I was filled with a rush of human feeling.

Another Photo Tip: The spiritual value of a strenuous hike. After much consternation, we found the trail head to Inspiration Point, where we thought we should go for a drink of some inspiration. It turned out to be right across the street from the Tunnel Outlook, where every visitor entering Yosemite Valley from Fresno is required by law to stop and gape. We had gaped long and hard. I have a picture of the Yosemite Tour Bus to prove I was there.

But the real point is this: Inspiration Point was the shortest of several hikes listed on the trailhead sign. 1.3 miles (one way, I think). I looked for a menu for the snack bar that would surely be at the end of the trail, but couldn't find it and considered that just one more thing to beef with the rangers about--those clucks. They never want you to have any fun.

Let's Go! I yelled "Geronimo!", and then I thought better and yelled "On y va!" instead, after my favorite comic book characters, Asterisk and Obelisk, two late-Roman Empire Gallic warriors who fought courageously against the Roman occupation. We started determinedly up a 45 degree incline. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. My day was just getting started.

My daughter said, "Are you sure this is necessary? I thought we were taking a walk. When does it level off?" I said, "Soon, I'm sure. But to make sure, I'll check ahead."

I hiked forward, my jaw jutting, legs pumping, fist clenched, for about twenty yards. When she was out of sight, I dropped all pretenses. I peered hard as far as I could see. If eyes can pump iron, that's what mine were doing.

I'm told that "rose" by any other name is the same, so it doesn't matter whether I say the trail inclined, heightened, elevated, angled upward, or eventually met my eyes at their own level. It was up, up, up as far as the eye(s) could see, off into the trees, the forest primeval, where piney monuments to time lay about, a bunch of dead trunks on the ground, or, alternately, blasphemed into the air like pirates in a pew looking to the crucifixion for provocative ideas about how to entertain their next hostage.

My daughter was not amused. I, sensitive parent that I am, even at a considerable distance, sensed her frustration and offered her an out: "We could stay here, and say we took a hike." Actually, I sensed nothing. I wanted an out and pretended to let her off the hook. She, hearing me pant from 50 yards away, agreed that Inspiration starts at home, so I made the round trip back to the trailhead in record time, and we decided to move on.

"But not before we document our achievement," I said. "Stand by that sign. I'll take your picture, which will be worth a thousand words, and we'll use it to prove that we hiked--let's see, what's the longest hike here?" I checked the sign--"Hm, Tijuana--yes, we hiked the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Tijuana, and back, in one day, and had time for lunch at some dingy place (what else is there in Tijuana?). We arrived back at the Trailhead, nearly dead for thirst, our clothes ragged (if you don't look too hard at the photograph, this is defensible--I'll only mention to the inner circle of my blog readers that Jessie seems to have just showered) and tattered, nearly falling off us, and struggled, gasping to the car.

"Dad, Mexico's not on the John Muir Trail, and there's no hike to Tijuana listed on this sign."

"If I just adjust the focus, no one will be able to tell where these hikes go, or how long they are." I gave the focus knob my best English and rubbed my thumb on the lens as an extra precaution. "I'll print it in with Photo Shop. Don't stand too close to the sign, no one will recognize you. In fact, get way back there--that way it will seem like you're just coming around through those trees--hey, cool, like Shakespeare--enter, chased by a bear! Not only will this picture document a monumental achievement, it will have literary value! Better yet, get up here, right in front of the camera, then it will seem like more candid, you know, like I documented you struggling to the car. Good--got it! Here, another one--struggle a little more. Hunch your shoulder like you fell down a cliff or something, or into a deep ravine. Good, yes--here, throw some dirt on your face. It was a terrible fall, and we got it all on film, symbolically anyway." I emptied a bottle of Perrier on her in case we needed to say we had had to cross a raging river. I love how the camera never lies.

I've developed a knack for close and sustained argument. It's easier than spitting.

My conclusion from all this is that, even if you're an art photographer, and even if you have a confused idea of what that means--as I do--you can take a picture of anything you want. And you can enjoy a pretty sunset, or pretty waves at the beach, or a pretty member of either gender in a costume that shows off the particular virtues of that gender, whichever it might be.

This reminds me: I told some friends recently that my wife and I were going to Switzerland. One asked, "Which of you is getting the sex change?" We had only planned to be gone for six days, but it's not too late to extend our stay.

One final remark on the aesthetics issue, though I think I must pretty well have exhausted the subject and anyone reading about it. At Olmsted Point, I hopped about here and there with my camera, snapping this and snapping that, and then looking at the the screen to see just what I'd snapped and whether I should snap it again, or go snap something else. Snap snap snap. I noticed a fellow sitting with his legs in a perfect lotus position, his eyes closed, face into the full mid-afternoon sun, a touch of sunscreen on his nose. In spite of his eyelids being on fire, he was perfectly at peace with the cosmos, but he radiated unmistakable hostility toward me. I snapped him. Sitting still with an unearthly stillness (I know passive aggression when I snap it), he seemed to say, "Can't you commune with the grandeur before you without that infernal snapping? Do you think everything can be reduced to a 4x6? An 8x10? An 11x14? A 16x20? Etc.?" He virtually snapped at me, "You cheapen everything you snap. Nature is glorious. The scene before us is f-ing ineffable. What kind of camera is that anyway--how many megapixels? I f-ing can't count that high." Ha-ha, I silently laughed his scornful silence to scorn. Couldn't even count. I practice that all the time: watch--one, two, three, four, etc. A friend of mine once wrongly said, "When we see a landscape, we take a picture in order to control the magnificence in front of us." I made up the quote on his behalf, to represent the essence of his idea, and I haven't seen him for a long time: his name, in case he ever stumbles onto this blog and joins me on the trial by trail, is Dave Jacobs. Hi Dave! He became a dean of something somewhere, but he was really smart and a good photographer. But he was still wrong about controlling landscapes by photographing them. I snap the scape 'cause it f-ing awes me, and I want to get a little of that awe back in my house when I have to leave the awesome reality and that lotus-guy, and the lady with her binoculars, and the crowded "comfort stations" behind. And I want to prove that I went on this fabulous hike. So Dave, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, deaning, or maybe you're the president of something by now--you deserve it, you're smart--but control is not the issue. Okay? I love blogging--Dave will never see this, and so I never have to defend my ideas. Swift had a metaphor for this kind of writing: it's like the spider constantly spinning a web out of himself. Ew. Forget Swift.

This kind of writing is like a photograph--it proves the world is there, but you wonder what the world there is.

And that's the latest report on the most definitive approach to aesthetics, all in one swell foop. Except I forgot to mention Ralph Gibson. He got famous for some surrealist images that were pretty mysterious and impressive. He must have been intuitively good. I heard him talk about aesthetics once, and he thought he was really dazzling his audience with a bunch of blather about "style" and "content." How did he know that a picture consisted of those elements? The owner of his gallery in New York told him so. Right on, Ralph! That was one swell foop right there.

Seriously, though, folks, take any picture you want (pedophilia excepted). I've noticed that in the grand scheme of things, aesthetic theories are rather weak on the endurance scale, but works of art are still there hundreds of years later. Especially if they're archival.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Bit of History

With reference to the title "The Labyrinth and the Garden": when my wife was first demonstrating how to set up a blog a year or so ago, she said, "You have to have a title." I said, "What kind of title?" She didn't say, "A titular title," as she might have, but patiently said, "Just a title." So off the top of my head, I blurted out, "How about 'The Labyrinth and the Garden,'" hoping she would know how to spell either or both of those words.

This proves the validity of the folk wisdom that your first thought may be your deepest and most honest thought, before you filter it through all the filters that filter things about to become a matter of public record. Before you "spin" them.

Here's my interpretation of my own title: sometimes the things you think are going to be gardens, i.e, places of growth, beauty, rest, and peace of mind (never mind the weeds and mosquitos), turn out to be labyrinths--i.e., places of pain, confusion, anger, loss of direction, where neither is the end ever in sight, nor the way to get to the place you can't see. Sometimes the two places (the garden and the labyrinth) change their nature with time. That is, looking back on a labyrinth, you realize it might have been a garden, and visa-versa. Sometimes you yourself are one, sometimes the other. But that is certainly a tale for many more blogs than I intend to write at this sitting, especially since the IRS in its wisdom has decided that I, a teacher, ought to have to spend a lot of valuable time in the labyrinth of last year's tax return preparing for an audit.

And besides, those two terms seem like a reasonable summation of the literature I've taught in the last thirty-seven years. For those of you who may be professionally obligated to think that such a terminological dichotomy certainly must oversimplify things: welcome to my world.

And now, finally, the "bit of history" which was my original intention.

I finished grad school at UC Berkeley, typed out (one by one, since this is 1969 BC--"before computers" were widely available) approximately 125 letters of application to institutions almost entirely outside California, and waited. At that year's Modern Language Assocation meeting, I had fourteen interviews. Out of those, I got one job offer. I tried to negotiate a salary higher than $9500 (even $9750 would have been an improvement), but no dice. I went from California to Detroit, where I spent the next fourteen years. I had thought, if Detroit proved unpalatable, that I would be able to find other jobs in other places, but within two years, all the job listings seemed to dry up. All those positions, at all those institutions of higher education, vanished. Very few ivory towers seemed to love specialists in Milton and the Seventeenth Century anymore. To make matters worse, Detroit proved unpalatable. That will be either a long or short blog, depending on my tolerance for the topic.

Since then, I have taught at one semi-major state university, three colleges of art and design, and several community colleges. I will retire from my current position--at a community college--after some twenty years there.

For the record: the most interesting place to teach was my first art college. Politics were minimal, the academic department (this was truly a garden) had a free hand to create courses of interest pretty much at will, and (along with my own experience as a graduate student in photography at Cranbrook Art Institute some time after getting a PhD in English at Berkeley) I was in daily contact with people who were not only interested in music and the arts, but did them. Like all gardens, though, this one has fallen: new administrations have regularized the curriculum-development process, fulfill many bureaucratic requirements in the name of normalcy and accountability, etc.

At the risk of over-generalizing, there can be a big difference between people who study the arts and people who create them. Almost always, the people I've known who were creators of art have been energetic, eccentric but wide-ranging in their interests, and pretty agreeable. (Obviously, this can't always be true, since there are many instances of artists who are really abominable people, and many fine people who are not artistic at all.) What I remember most sharply about my colleagues at the university is a snide and often contemptuous attitude toward writers: one colleague, thinking of her colleagues on the creative writing faculty, I suppose, as "second-rate egomaniacs." More about this labyrinthine time in my life as we go along, but the university atmosphere seemed, to me, poisonous. I managed to learn a lot because I was always interested in learning, but I would have done that in any case, and the politics that accompanied this uneasy sojourn were borderline hideous. As one colleague put it, "The less there is at stake, the nastier people are about it."

The art colleges have had interesting students, but they're not there to take academic classes, and their studio professors remind them of that, indirectly encouraging them to put in minimal effort there while they applied themselves to their studio classes. This is, I have to say, as it should be--but it can be frustrating for an academic faculty member. The students may or may not be gratifying, and the studio faculty regard you as a second-class citizen, with few exceptions.

There were always studio faculty I regarded highly, one of whom, Joseph Bernard, who has recently retired, introduced me to non-narrative film, and we had frequent chats in the copier room about art and literature.

I had a student from one of his classes in a literature class. When I found out the student was in Joseph's twentieth-century art class, I asked how he liked it. He replied that it was terrible: the first meeting, Mr. Bernard had played them a tape of some woman talking in bed. I immediately recognized Molly Bloom's soliloquy, the many-paged last chapter of Ulysses, a perfect introduction to a class in modern art. I passed that along to Joe, and we had a good laugh about it.

My only description of the university is that it was a 50th-ranked place trying hard to be 49th and vying, in its own mind, with University of Michigan for the self-applied title "Harvard of the Midwest." A day in the life of an untenured assistant professor: at one point, the English department scheduled a group meeting with the Dean of Liberal Arts for some tips on successfully negotiating the tenure process. The standard criteria for tenure were said to be publication, excellent teaching, and public service. The Dean said the criteria were "publication, publication, publication." Most people of merit and potential who began their careers at this university moved on to other places. At least one is a well-known novelist who went to University of Michigan and is now somewhere in New York, perhaps Columbia University. The best things about this place: I read a lot of Faulkner, all of Jane Austen, and taught Shakespeare regularly.

This is the early seventies, and the subject of government surveillance came up one in class. One student pointed out that the government "plant" is always the one who looks most like a hippie. At that time, I had a beard and long hair. Suspicion immediately fell on me.

But I was the victim, not the agent. When the state of Michigan decided that its secret surveillance files had to be made public, I received a notice that there was a file on me. I applied to see it and discovered that the file had been started because my car was parked on a street where a "communist meeting" was taking place.

This reminds me, too, of looking for an apartment that first year. I interviewed with one building owner/manager. He looked at me with my beard and long hair, heard that I had come from Berkeley and that I was teaching at a place notorious for its so-called communists and warned me first of all that I could not have a still in my apartment. I thought stills had gone out with the end of prohibition and speakeasies. Then it was drugs. He would know, he said, whether I was using drugs or not. When I asked how he could possibly know that, he just looked sharply at me and said he would know. The interview concluded with his determination that I "was not right" for his building. I recalled that just before my interview, I had seen him congratulating a very well-dressed, clean-cut prospect. This was my first introduction to the mind of a conservative. The interviewer, a lawyer, had a messy, weedy, toady, infested labyrinth mind that would never be a garden. He would always need someone to hate.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Rejoinders and rejoicers

I'm back--that's the rejoinder. Looking forward to retirement: that's the rejoicer.

Only now thinking about retirement from teaching, and discovering that I can't go out quietly. I have to blog out loud. This is from the community college--not the cockpit or the lookout, but down in the engine room, where we try to get the gears and pistons working: i.e., jumpstart the intellectual life of students who (like I was at their tender age) haven't had too much intellectual life, or are still in their cloud of unknowing.

This is all provoked by seeing a new-minted teacher panicked about an upcoming class, preparing like mad. My advice: take it easy, do something that interests you. No matter how you try to psych out the students, only some will be interested; others will go along for the ride because they have to fulfill requirements; others will drop out for any of a number of reasons, few of which have to do with the professor. Some are there because they need to qualify as their parents' dependents for tax or health-care purposes. At any rate: don't blame yourself for those students who don't seem interested. Although administrators like to claim that every student can be motivated, what they leave out of this high-sounding imposition on a professor's time, energy, creativity and conscience is that not every student can be motivated in every class. The combination of subject, professor, and student is a strange and unpredictable brew, sometimes bubbling, sometimes exploding, other times going flat like grandma's dumplings and sinking right to the bottom of the pot. It's affected by all kinds of other uncontrollable contaminants, like time of day, job demands, family demands, weather, health, hunger, sobriety, the position of the stars, the stock market, the success of favorite sports teams, a pet's health--who knows what? We do our best and are thrilled when there are a couple of students with whom our best seems to take.