Unreal Nature

October 31, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 pm

We spend almost our entire philosophical, even theological brains thinking about our humanness and how wild and crazy it is. That’s partly because we need to be special and we’ve chosen humanness as the site of All Specialness. Humanness is Specialtown. It’s Special City. Hell, it’s the Nation of Special. Humanness, we’ve decided, is the most specialest thing in the whole wide world! We have some reasons for that, and some of them are interesting and have validity and others are specious. It seems clear to me that other aspects of us are also compelling, however. And one of them is mammal. But that’s only one — hey, throw vertebrate in there. Our phylum, chordata. Hell, throw in tetrapod. That’s our superclass. How cool is that, that we’re tetrapods? Superclass tetrapod. I mean it’s cool. How about throw in dry-nosed primate? That’s our suborder. I like that dry-nosed primate is my suborder. I, personally, revel in being a dry-nosed primate. I don’t know, some people like sports teams. I’ve never been into, like, my team. But my superclass, though … I could go there. In my view, there’s far too little fiction out there focusing on the fact that we’re in a class with prosimian tarsiers, plus all the rest of the true simians. Far too little focusing on the fact that we’re multicellular. I mean that’s a big deal, being multicellular. Huge. Technically, a lot bigger deal than being human. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to being human, we’re mental about it. We’re completely fixated.

That’s writer Lydia Millet in an interview on Identity Theory. (My dry nose is not very dry. I’m a damp-nosed primate. Extra special.)



Outer Cause

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:55 am

Photographers, when you get accosted by painters who, in their innocence, revive that tiresome old argument that Photography is not an art (which is true), reply that Painting is not an art. This last is also true.

Painting and photography, sculpture and photography, pottery and photography are only media, vehicles, pushmobiles, laundry chutes that get an intangible something from one unfindable part of one man to an unlocatable part of another person. And the ineffable something is not art because to name it implies that art is an object, or a thing, or a biscuit, or a building that can be moved about and grasped with the hands. … Every creative photographer has to find out for himself that it’s the man behind the camera that is the artist, or not — wearisome as this may be to those who have gone through the process.

— (above) Minor White, from “That Old Question Again,” Aperture vol. 7, no. 1, 1959

Though I agree that art is a vehicle, I don’t agree that it is not in the object. I think Rudolph Arnheim has it right when he says (in Parables of Sun Light):

When the painting is finished, the artist vanishes from the canvas. Until then, the brushstrokes, not yet bound by the composition, call for an outer cause. They show that they have been put there by someone. But once caught by the rhythm of the whole, they no longer owe their presence to anybody. The picture admits our eyes but nobody’s hands.




Here’s Looking At You

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am


When I first saw this picture, I was leafing though an old issue of Aperture and I thought it was just a picture of a bunch of photographers taking a photo of some interesting natural feature (animal or vegetable). But just as the page was turning, I realized that the objects of their attention were children. The suddenness of that recognition, and the “jump back” to include the staring tourists led to a predictable, “nasty, gawking white tourists” reaction. But I looked closer at the tourists. They turn out to be elderly, mostly women and all smiling, their body posture showing affection and care; not the aggressive, lunging stance of the worst kind of tourist. In fact, they look like a bunch of grannies (and one grand-dad) .

I mentally backed up a step and included the maker of this picture in my consideration. What’s his intent? This is a carefully composed shot. The photo’s caption reads “Ed van der Elsken, American Tourists Photographing Children, South Africa, n.d.”. Hmmm … Possibly I am too sensitive, maybe “American” is not always a pejorative qualifier when coming from a European? Maybe he is more bemused than critical? He is staring at the “American tourists” in much the same way as those tourists are looking at the African children. Maybe I should photograph this photograph and title it Dutch Tourist Photographing American Tourists Photographing Children.

Let’s retreat one more step and include you, dear reader. Are you seeing an over-sensitive American photographing (in her mind) a Dutch photographer … Is my relationship to that Dutch photographer any different from that of the Dutch photographer to the American tourists and those tourists to those children? Step back again, and you’ll see yourselves, looking at me …

I look back at you and say, no. This is a good picture; this photographer did a good job.

The photographer might look back at me and say that he intended exactly the complex reaction that I have just described.

The American tourists in the picture might (and maybe did) look back at the photographer with simple unselfconscious affection.

The children look to me like they are enjoying the attention.




October 30, 2009

Until Hit

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:11 am

Here are two poems that I like.

The first, because it tickles me:

So Be It
by Ruth Stone

Look, this string of words
is coming out of my mouth,
or was. Now it’s coming
out of this pen whose ink
came from Chattanooga.
Something tells me
Chattanooga was a chief.
He came out of his mother’s
body. He pushed down
the long tube that got
tighter and tighter until
he split it open and stuck
his head out into a cold
hollow. Holding his belly
by a bloody string he
screamed, “I am me.”
and became a cursive
mark on a note pad that
was a former tree taken
with other trees in the
midst of life and mutilated
beyond all remembrance
of the struggle from seed
to cambium; the slow
dying roots feeling for some
meaning in the eroded
soil; the stench of decay
sucked into the chitin
of scavengers, becoming
alien to xylem and phloem,
the vast vertical system
of reaching up. For there
is nothing that is nothing,
but always becoming
something; flinging itself;
leaping from level to level.

Also by Stone and recommended, The Cabbage.

The second poem is by Jane Hirshfield, whose poems are usually entirely too solemn for me, but this one is just right:

The Lives of the Heart
by Jane Hirshfield

Are ligneous, muscular, chemical.
Wear birch-colored feathers,
green tunnels of horse-tail reed.
Wear calcified spirals, Fibonaccian spheres.
Are edible; are glassy; are clay; blue schist.
Can be burned as tallow, as coal,
can be skinned for garnets, for shoes.
Cast shadows or light;
shuffle, snort; cry out in passion.
Are salt, are bitter,
tear sweet grass with their teeth.
Step silently into blue needle-fall at dawn.
Thrash in the net until hit.
Rise up as cities, as serpentined magma, as maples,
hiss lava-red into the sea.
Leave the strange kiss of their bodies
in Burgess Shale. Can be found, can be lost,
can be carried, broken, sung.
Lie dormant until they are opened by ice,
by drought. Go blind in the service of lace.
Are starving, are sated, indifferent, curious, mad.
Are stamped out in plastic, in tin.
Are stubborn, are careful, are slipshod,
are strung on the black backs of flies
on the black backs of cows.
Wander the vacant whale-roads, the white thickets
heavy with slaughter.
Wander the fragrant carpets of alpine flowers.
Not one is not held in the arms of the rest, to blossom.
Not one is not given to ecstasy’s lions.
Not one does not grieve.
Each of them opens and closes, closes and opens
the heavy gate — violent, serene, consenting, suffering it all.

As one who was a horse-obsessed child, I love it where they “tear sweet grass with their teeth.” Nothing munches as beautifully as a horse in thick, new orchard grass (or a bucket of sweet feed).




October 29, 2009

Really Mine

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:59 am

Below are two extracts from Aperture that I find more interesting if considered together. The first is by a conservative, even reactionary fellow from Holland talking about his own photography, and the second is by a prototypical liberal American.

From the essay, Homesick: Domestic Landscapes, by Bert Teunissen in Aperture 160 (Summer 2000):

… Some people say that if you live in the past, you die a little every day. I think that we die a little every day anyway, and I wonder what’s wrong with “living in the past.” Why do we have all these museums filled with stuff from the (good) old days, why is there history, and why is it so important to us? For me, it is a matter of telling myself that this is where I come from and this is how I became the person I am today, going back to my roots, photographing while it is still here so my children can see it when they are grown up, when it will almost certainly be gone. I know it will disappear. Not only because of architectural changes (reason number one), but also because of changes in society and opinions about life and how to live it.

One of my pictures, Ruurlo #1, 1999, shows three people: two brothers and a woman who is the wife of one of the men. They have lived all their lives in one house, a little farm. Now a new road has come through, less than a meter from their living room, and the government has decided that their house has to be torn down. So they built a brand-new house a few meters from their old one. At the time I took that picture, their new house was almost finished but they had scarcely even bothered to take a look at it. Today they are still living in their old house, but I believe that as soon as they move they will lose their roots and become very unhappy. The way these people are is how they became: they decided at one time in their lives that the situation they lived in was good, and that it should stay that way. Luckily for them, they were able to stay themselves, to be true to themselves.

So you could say that “Domestic Landscapes” is about light and atmosphere; on the other hand it is about authenticity. I think this story is largely about me: me becoming more and more myself after a long period of wandering in a world I have encountered, but which isn’t really mine. Making these pictures is something I simply have to do.

Next, from an essay, Blind in the Sun, by Charles Bowden in the People & Ideas column in Aperture 150 (Winter 1998):

We get the desert, we imagine, and what we imagine has very little to do with the desert.

… I have felt out of step with the way the cameras and my fellow citizens see the desert since I was a boy dragging a .303 Enfield through the hills and arroyos seeking deer. I fell in love with the desert at first sight. Serious love is a lot like lust — you don’t ask why, you just wonder when. I have always depended on the desert to be there for me and this dependence has been based on the desert being nothing much at all but an uncaring place. For years I have written about a society of murder, rape, poverty, and greed. The desert has been my drug to block out this life of gore and shopping malls, and so I have gone to the desert as a supplicant and asked little and worshipped less. I have gone to the desert because it is so aloof with its thorns and empty water holes, so clear in its vast indifference to my concerns. It has kept me in my place by caring not at all for my money problems or my soul. I have never thought the desert was fragile or the face of God. Or any divine body part. I have thought the desert was honest in a world of lies. This belief may also be a lie, but I do not think so. The desert does not speak, nor does it listen; but I believe that every minute of every day it exists, and I often do not believe this about my nation or state or community.

[Bowden goes on for three more pages, getting more and more overheated about the ignorance of “most people” and ends up  predictably, inevitably with “Desert photography will continue to have an imaginary life of its own, much like American foreign policy” … and so on. Yawn. You’ve read this speech before …]



October 28, 2009

Not From the Fox

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:23 am

This is from an essay, Home, by Mary Oliver in Aperture 150 (Winter 1998). I find it interesting because, for me at least, she has it exactly backwards:

A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It is the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world — especially to that part of it with which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate. It is no great piece of furniture in the universe — no Niagara, or rainforest, or Sahara. Yet is is beautiful, and it ripples in the weathers as lively as any outpouring from the Great Lakes.

In its minor turns, and tinsels, and daily changes, this landscape seems actually intent on providing pleasure, as indeed it does; in its constancy, its inexorable obedience to laws I cannot begin to imagine much less understand, it is a still richer companion — steady commentary against my own lesser moods — my flightiness, my indifferences, my mind- and heart-absences.

I mean, by such flightiness, something that feels unsatisfied at the center of my life — that makes me shaky, fickle, inquisitive, and hungry. I could call it a longing for home and not be far wrong. Or I could call it a longing for whatever supercedes, if it cannot pass through, understanding. Other words that come to mind: faith, grace, rest. In my outward appearance and life habits I hardly change — there’s never been a day that my friends haven’t been able to say, and at a distance, “There’s Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook.” But, at the center: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel. Restless. I read about ideas. Yet I let them remain ideas. I read about the poet who threw his books away, the better to come to a spiritual completion. Yet I keep my books. I flutter; I am attentive, maybe I even rise a little, balancing; then I fall back.

I don’t however despair of such failures! I know I am sister to the dreamy-hearted dog who thinks only small thoughts; and to the green tree who thinks no thoughts at all, as well as to Rumi, and St. Francis.

[ … ]

The constancy of the physical world, under its green and blue dyes, draws me toward a better, richer self, call it elevation (there is hardly an adequate word), where I ascend a little — where a gloss of spirit would mirror itself in worldly action. I don’t mean just mild goodness. I mean feistiness too, the fires of human energy stoked; I mean a gladness vivacious enough to disarrange the sorrows of the world into something better. I mean whatever real rejoicing can do! We all know how brassy and wonderful it is to come into some new understanding. Imagine what it would be like, to lounge on the high ledge of submission and pure wonder. Nature, all around us, is our manifest exemplar. Not from the fox, or the leaf, or the drop of rain will you ever hear doubt or argument….

She calls it ” a longing for home .” For me it is a daring to leave home. It’s not an attempt to escape “doubt or argument.” It’s the great pleasure of finding and exploring doubt and mystery.

Larry Sultan; Mom Looking Through the Curtain, 1989





October 27, 2009

Thing of the Past

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 4:46 pm

Urinating into yoghurt cups while careering down the motorway will be a thing of the past for women thanks to a new German invention for ladies — the disposable mobile toilet which turns urine into an odorless gel.

That’s the subhead from an article, German Company Invents Pocket Toilet for Women in Spiegel Online (Sept 2, 2009), that I’ve had bookmarked for months, intending to post about it …. but then again, no; maybe not. Well, today’s the day.

I can honestly say that I have never urinated into a yoghurt cup while careering down the motorway. If you plan on doing so, I would appreciate it if you would tell me before we leave home so we can take separate cars.

… The product follows the launch of the Roadbag for men in 2007, sales of which now total some 200,000 a year. Asked whether she had a sales target, Tinter said: “Every glove compartment should have one and there are 40 million cars in Germany.”

!!! Day and night the men of Germany are urinating into bags?

Read it all. It’s very short. [ link ]



The Distinction

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 4:06 pm

This is an interesting twist on the subject of animal research that Felix Grant talks about in his post of a while back, Soul Searching. Is it okay to make human-animal embryos for research purposes? In an essay, Chimeraphobia in The Philosopher’s Magazine (Oct 26, 2009), Anthony Cox discusses the “Yuck” reaction to this, and whether or not a 99.9% human embryo is to be treated as human:

… Another, perhaps more plausible, explanation however lies in the concepts of boundaries that humans create to order their world, and the taboos that operate to avoid mixing items from distinct categories. By being neither human nor animal, cybrids* threaten such social and moral concepts and boundaries — which are what set mankind apart from other creatures. They become an abomination and threaten our human identity. Andrew Ferguson from the Christian fellowship puts it thus: “We are creating a being that is not completely human. We should not alter the whole future of what it means to be human. We should not blur the distinction that’s been there in nature since the dawn of time.”

Really? There has been such a distinction? Says who?


In brief, the animal embryo (rabbit or cow) is cleared of its resident genetic material, and human genetic material is inserted. The resultant embryo is 99.9% human, with a residual amount of genetic material remaining in the cell structure making up the remainder. The resultant egg is stimulated to create stem cells for research. After the stem cells are extracted, and before it reaches 14 days of age, the embryo is destroyed. These embryos are called human-to-animal hybrids, or cybrids — a term considered more accurate by scientists in the field, since it avoids the suggestion that a true hybrid organism is being created: only 0.1% of the embryo would be animal, only a few cells would be created, and there is no intent to produce a viable foetus which would become a hybrid “animal”.

[I’m blogging in the afternoon (gasp!) because it’s pouring rain, and I can’t go for a hike. Grrrr! … ]




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:32 am

… I think the inescapable sensation is sadness, sadness for the little trays with the little treats.

Timothy McVeigh

Two recent threads in the Photo.net Philosophy of Photography forum, one about voyeurism and the other about empathy (which I won’t link because they weren’t very interesting), both made me think of these photos. (Last meals of death row inmates seem to attract photographers. In addition those of Celia A. Shapiro (that I am using), James Reynolds has a ‘last meal’ series and Jacquelyn C. Black has a book of such photos.)

Voyeurism (loosely defined to go beyond the sexual) should be distinct from empathy. However, in these pictures, at least for me, they’re thoroughly entangled. Here is what Charles Bowden says in his essay, Come and Get It: Last Meals and the People Who Eat Them, that uses Shapiro’s images as illustration; in Aperture 172 (Fall 2003):

… When I was a kid, folks would speculate about things such as what they would want on a desert island if shipwrecked, or what the one book might be if they could, God forbid, have only one. But I don’t recall anyone thinking what their ideal last meal would be. Now there are at least two documentary movies on the subject of dining in by the condemned, plus various sites on the Internet that record the choices of those hung, injected, gassed, or now and then electrocuted.

[ … ]

Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged Arkansas inmate murdered during the governorship of Bill Clinton, famously set aside half of his pecan pie to enjoy after his execution. Ruben Montoya in 1993 asked the state of Texas for barbecued chicken and frijoles and bubblegum. He was denied the bubblegum due to prison regulations. Sometimes the requests are short and sweet. Margie Velma Barfield, who had poisoned her lover’s beer with arsenic, simply wanted a bag of Cheez Doodles, a Coke, and a Kit-Kat bar.

John Rook

I’ve witnessed only one execution, and in that case, as I sat with the family of the condemned and various prison guards and officials, we were supplied with a large buffet of salads, cold cuts, pop, and the like. The condemned man had been slowly wandering through the legal system, a prime case of someone too crazy to execute. The legal system concluded finally that he was sane enough to murder. When he was offered his last words, strapped to the gurney a few feet from me, he merely said he wanted to get the whole thing over with so that he could have lunch.

There is a dream-walk quality to an execution. No one can be murdered before their appointed hour, and so the whole thing has that frantic and yet slow quality of a big wedding. The prison officials have checklists of protocols they patiently work through. The entire affair is quite orderly and organized. In the one such murder I witnessed, the whole shebang kept more than a hundred guards busy. In that case no one said the word execution out loud, but simply referred to The Event.

… I don’t think anyone who reads the menus of the condemned is likely to get hungry. Nor do I think anyone gazing on such final feeds is likely to get angry about capital punishment. Or feel good about it, for that matter. I think the inescapable sensation is sadness, sadness for the little trays with the little treats. Perhaps, in some cases, also a sadness for the person about to be murdered, though many such diners have sorry and savage deeds charged to their souls. But mainly a sadness for this petty and small thing we do through the instrument of our governments, this calm, cold, premeditated murder that sums up not only the terrible failings of the condemned, but of ourselves.

For a long list of last meals from Texas, see here. For a truly offensive use of last meals, see here.


October 26, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:04 am

This is from a remembrance of Robert Rauschenberg by his son, Christopher in Aperture 196 (Fall 2009):

… He felt that “a pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine oil and fabric.” His paintings filled up with socks, tires, chairs, stuffed goats and chickens, neckties, dirt, gold leaf — everything in the world. He said: “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly. Because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” Those who looked at Bob’s work with the eyes of tradition thought he must be thumbing his nose at them; they wrongly assumed that he was attacking them because they couldn’t understand the sincerity of his exploration and they couldn’t see that he was building (from scratch) a new way to make art, a way that celebrated the whole world as the greatest artwork of all.

[ … ]

There was an absolute purity to his boundless curiosity. It was not completely unrelated to the way a baby puts everything into his mouth: to understand a thing, but also to freely take it into himself and let it do with him as it will. “I come to terms with my materials. They know and I know that we’re going to try to do something. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but I would substitute anything for preconceptions or deliberateness. If that moment can’t be as fresh, strange, and unpredictable as what’s going on around you, then it’s false.”

Bob’s favorite place to be was in the studio, working. He produced an amazing number and an amazing variety of artworks, but he wasn’t as interested in making objects as he was in continuing to follow his magnificent, relentless curiosity as it led him to explore and invent the world.



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