Unreal Nature

October 26, 2009

Concrete Reality

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:02 am

This is from a book report on a forthcoming project of photos and notes by an army nurse in Iraq, Riley Sharbonno, in collaboration with Monica Haller; in Aperture 196 (Fall 2009):

… Many events during my time in Iraq were too complex, too horrific, or beyond my understanding. There were simply too many things I witnessed there in a given day to process, so I stored them as photos to figure out later.

Pictures create a concrete reality. At least I know these things happened. They continue to serve that purpose.

Photos provide the chain of events that lead your mind into a state where it is okay to kill somebody. If you don’t remember the sequence of events that took you there, you can believe you were a monster.

You can find out more about this project, here. The .pdf file available from that page is pretty interesting.



Yellow Fever

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:58 am



[click for larger]



… and more yellow!


Miss Liberty (below) still stands … in a yellow sea.


and from the back:


Because of this profligate use of yellow, there is a shortage of eggs in the supermarkets; chickens are unable to get enough yellow to make proper yolks (this can lead to green eggs and ham). And blond-haired parents everywhere are giving birth to brown-haired babies.



October 25, 2009

Not to Know

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

The main quote below is from a speech that Susan Sontag gave (the Nadine Gordimer Lecture), titled At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning.  The full speech is, in my opinion, garbled. It seems to ramble around searching for coherence. She repeatedly contradicts herself within the speech. Perhaps this was caused by her long illness: the speech was given in March of 2004 and she died in December of that year. Anyway, bits and pieces within it are interesting.

I want to contrast what she has to say about novels to what, a few days ago, I quoted Juan Antonio Molina as saying about photography: “A photograph is like a door without a room, a window without a view, a road with no sides; to delve into it is like daring to live a metaphor: truth and untruth in unison.

Here is Sontag:

… Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion. Here, the ending tells us, is the last segment of a hypothetical total experience — whose strength and authority we judge by the kind of clarity it brings, without undue coercion, to the events of the plot.

If an ending seems to be straining to align the conflicting forces of the narrative, we are likely to conclude that there are defects in the narrative structure, arising perhaps from the storyteller’s lack of control or a confusion about what the story is capable of suggesting.

The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.

A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

Further, the novel, by being an act of achieved form, is a process of understanding — whereas broken or insufficient form, in effect, does not know, wishes not to know, what belongs to it.

I don’t agree that a novel (or a picture) is “a world with borders”  or that “there must be borders.” But I do agree that a story’s ending or a (good) picture is “point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.”

To her last statement: “the novel, by being an act of achieved form, is a process of understanding — whereas broken or insufficient form, in effect, does not know, wishes not to know, what belongs to it,” I would say that often what is missing, what is not known is the whole point; is necessary to the point.



The Funnies

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:37 am

photo by Kenneth Josephson

Almost all of Josephson’s work could be part of my Inside/Outside series, but I find his in/out stuff to be just too obvious. This particular picture, on the other hand, I really like.



Black Cat

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:31 am

All the glances that have ever struck her
she seems to conceal upon herself
so that she can look them over,
morose and menacing, and sleep with them.
But all at once, as if awakened,
she turns her face straight into your own:
and you unexpectedly meet your gaze
in the yellow amber of her round eye-stones:
closed in like some long-extinct insect.

That’s the last verse of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called Black Cat (the full poem is below). In his book, Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address (2003), William Waters uses this poem to discuss the relationship between poet and reader. I find this particular bit both interesting and spooky if, instead, you consider it as if it were about cameras and photographs (which it most certainly is not):

… The alien eyes of the cat present your own subjecthood back at you as an object, coming (impossibly) from another, fixing you even as it itself is entombed (“eingeschlossen”) and frozen thinglike within the eye of the animal. Rilke’s image of the extinct insect preserved in amber is rich in implication: ausgestorben (died-out) first plays off eingeschlossen (closed in) by answering confinement in with a prefix out that, however, brings anything but release. But the word extinct conveys much more than impotence, more even than deadness. The prehistoric insects preserved in amber would be lost wholly to knowledge and memory if not for this same vessel that announces their extinction. They are not mourned for as a loss but marveled at as a startling remnant, a recovered and estranged presence where we did not even know there had been anything missing. Your gaze, which at the beginning of the poem had disappeared without “sound” (l.2), “dissolved” (l.4) into the blackness of the cat’s pelt, comes back at you with this distance, as across millennia in which it has long since ceased to be remembered. “Eye-stones” (l. 16) reflects the depth of this alienation by showing minerality in the place we look to for aliveness and subjectivity.

I think it works even better for photography than it does for poetry. Mr. Waters would probably disagree.

Here is the poem in full (translated by Waters), along with the last verse in its native German:

Black Cat

Even a ghost is like a place
your glance bumps into with a sound;
but here, when it encounters this black fur,
your strongest gaze will be dissolved:

the way a madman, when he in fullest
rage pounds into the blackness,
stops short at the sponge-like padding
of a cell and drains away.

All the glances that have ever struck her
she seems to conceal upon herself
so that she can look them over,
morose and menacing, and sleep with them.
But all at once, as if awakened,
she turns her face straight into your own:
and you unexpectedly meet your gaze
in the yellow amber of her round eye-stones:
closed in like some long-extinct insect.


Alle Blicke, die sie jemals trafen,
scheint sie also an sich zu verhehlen,
um darüber drohend und verdrossen
zuzuschauern und damit zu schlafen.
Doch auf einmal kehrt sie, wie geweckt,
ihr Gesicht und mitten in das deine:
und da triffst du deinen Blick im geelen
Amber ihrer runden Augensteine
unerwartet wieder: eingeschlossen
wie ein ausgestorbenes Insekt.



October 24, 2009

From Tiny Brains …

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:49 am

Ray Girvan has had two excellent posts recently on lyrics, good, bad and nutty. [ good here; nutty here ]

Sean Murphy on PopMatters has attempted to find the top ten worst rock lyrics ever. Here is how he describes his task:

… when it comes to identifying truly awful lyrics that are the result of neither idiocy nor ambition, it’s best to consider the soft and mushy center between those two poles. It’s not terribly fun, or rewarding, to pick on the pointy headed prog rockers or the boneheaded pop posers, unless stepping on ants is enlightening. Put another way, I’ll defend the bands who tried a little too hard and could care less about the entertainers who are genetically incapable of insight. Put yet another way, as it pertains to the sublimely awful rock lyric, sometimes having a tiny brain is worse than having no brain at all.

I think his #1 is quite possibly correct. I might argue the other nine, but only because there are so many to choose from.



Art is a Hammer

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

Art is a hammer, not a mirror. — John Grierson

The quotes below are from a report on an Aperture sponsored symposium, The World’s Reality. The report is titled The Past Becoming Future, and it’s by Nan Richardson in Aperture 119 (Summer 1990). She starts with a quote:

If he is honest, [the ethnographer] is faced with a problem — the value he attaches to foreign societies — and which appears to be higher in proportion as the society is more foreign — has no foundation. It is a function of his disdain for, and occasionally hostility toward, the customs prevailing in his native setting.
— Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques


… James Clifford’s phrase “ethnographic romanticism” was advanced by Megan Biesele … to describe the prevalent bias in anthropology: the Eden-like pastoral of “death-by-myth” that strips political realities from the picture, so that, as Beisele contended, “you can’t see that they’re still there, they’re hungry, and their land is being taken away.” She discussed the ways in which social documentation was moving away from speaking to others, in favor of ways people could speak for themselves. “translation itself is a political act,” she asserted, “and the broad translation of cultures in particular is a very political activity.” Biesele pointed further to the enfranchisement in current anthropology of new forms: the ethnographic novel, the autobiography, and the use of a multiplicity of voices in continuing dialogue, which has been slowly replacing the authoritarian voice of the documentarian.

The  film Biesele showed, N!ai, the Story of a !Kung Woman, by colleagues John Marshall and Claire Ritchie, told in N!ai’s own words the story of her life over thirty years, the changes the Bushmen of Namibia’s Kalahari Desert have undergone in moving from a past as hunter-gatherers to their current status on a reservation set up by Namibia’s South African rulers. … Beisele spoke of her own deepening involvement in the area, first as a folklorist and then, as the !Kung asked for specific help, as an active advocate, founding the Kalahari Peoples’ Fund to support practical and political work. “Finally,” she concluded, “it comes down to an art, an art of presentation, as true in photography as in anthropology. The cutting edge is to bear witness to the fact that it’s not over yet; people are in the process of creating their own reality, and they ask us to listen.”

[ … ]

[Pablo Ortiz Monasterio] showed … [a] project on a fishing village … [He] spoke of reconciling the inherently colonialist act of taking photographs with the need to return something to the subjects. Ten percent of the books made on the village were given to its inhabitants, he reported; “One old man looked at a copy for several minutes before opening it: he looked at how it was done, what sort of materials were used. this object that had come from the outside represented them. Some things they liked, others they didn’t but because it came as this object, everything was important. It made them discuss things that they didn’t feel were very important, socially or politically, but they became important precisely because they were in the book.”

[ … ]

The dilemma of corporate sponsorship was … raised by Eugene Richards, who reported that Consumer Reports, who published his book Below the Line, used it “to advertise their social concern. They agreed we could talk with people and discuss what it means to struggle with poverty, because people never think about whether they are poor or not.” Nevertheless, Consumer Reports subtitled the book Living Poor in America. Richards said that he had insisted on using the words of the subjects, rather than the “name” writer the publisher wanted: “Though their perceptions of themselves were absolutely untrue, even in untruth, they were fascinating and important.”

I find that last Richards quote, “Though their perceptions of themselves were absolutely untrue, even in untruth, they were fascinating and important,” — to be mind boggling. What possible justification could a documentarian, or anybody else, for that matter, have for making such a claim? Such patronizing arrogance.



October 23, 2009

A Bell Sounded

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:50 am

This is from an essay, Not About the Money, by William H. Gass in Lapham’s Quarterly. I will start with the first paragraph to give you an idea of what it’s about (sensuality):

A few years ago I tried to lead my students through two brief novels by Colette, Chéri and The Last of Chéri. I thought, among other things, that these beautiful books would furnish us with a good opportunity to think about the nature of sensuality and its tense relationship to sex — which is a close but not always friendly sibling — and to love, which is often another matter altogether. At the very beginning of our trip, we halted in order to examine a string of pearls belonging to the reluctantly fading beauty, Léa de Lonval. She is a courtesan, as the French say, of a certain age and the sexual mentor of her present bed toy, the handsome Chéri, who has just picked the necklace from her dressing table and declared his desire to possess it.

Next, jumping to almost the end of the piece:

… The sensualist cries out, “Stay a bit, my tongue has not concluded its encounter; wait a moment for my smile to widen.” If the sensualist could, he would stretch time like a length of elastic. Nothing does that like the camera. The movie actress who is told she will be naked only for a moment in her shower scene had better remember that uncounted millions of men now have freeze buttons for fingertips, so that her breasts might as well be bronzed and her figure stood on the steps of a library instead of the lion. The camera halts a habit in mid-blink, catches the flutter of a few leaves in a startled spurl, cuts into milliseconds an expression that was in transit from grief to rage, then pins them like bugs in a frame. There are so many occasions in life that are scarcely seen, let alone savored, because the moments have made themselves as small and still as a bee asleep in a bloom, or have no more wish to endure than dew on a leaf, so before you know it they have become other than they were, as Heraclitus claimed. But experience is not simply a river you can’t step into twice: it is composed of unrebreathable sighs; it is a lemon that comes sliced; it is a fall of light upon a dusty table, a sausage three millimeters from its intended mouth. Though they are deeply meant, wishes — “wait” — “stay” — “cohere” — cannot change fate… even the glacier, as slow as it goes … goes.

And finally, the last paragraph:

… Sensuality, I suppose, always has to do with someone’s flesh, some dear eatable, some fascinating surface, some arresting sound. And the softness of soft skin is often softness enough. Then we dwindle to our finger’s tip as if there were nothing else alive, while consciousness makes a meadow of the moment; but the senses celebrate themselves best when they rejoin the other functions of awareness. To be too full of sensation is to be like a cup made of its own drink — a miracle — but impossible to hold. Nor can Lawrence sustain his depiction of the two monks and their solemn pacing. For an instant he has stood outside himself. Then he seeks more ecstasy than they can serve up, and mostly what the prose shows is the strain such an aim puts on his resources. Nevertheless, Lawrence is not through. Twilight is his theme and so he pulls down darkness like a drape. Snow on the far off mountains turns in the twilight the color of a rose: “And I noticed that up above the snow, frail in the bluish sky, a frail moon had put forth, like a thin, scalloped film of ice floated out on the slow current of the coming night. And a bell sounded.” This sentence is perhaps a metaphor too fully explained, but now we are no longer dealing with sensation. When the bell sounded it was not for the monks alone to hear, but for the ship of ice the moon had momentarily become to heed. However, the imagination is another subject. Louis Aragon was wrong to be indifferent to the sensual experiences of others. What would we do without Rodin’s models, whose flanks have yielded us such pleasure, or Colette’s French savor of fruit and flesh, or Lawrence’s chaste monks in decorous conversation through winter’s bare garden beneath a cold, chaste moon?

William Gass is not one of my favorite writers. He is legendary for crafting beautiful sentences; creative writing teachers are almost orgasmic in praising him. To which I say, sure, fine, but what does he actually have to say? Is there anything as awful as getting it all wrong in gorgeous Technicolor prose? Anyway, in parts of this essay, he gets it just right (and in other parts, all wrong, as usual). Read it all and see if you agree. [ link ]



October 22, 2009

Manners of Domination

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

This paragraph is from an essay, Creating a Visual History: A Question of Ownership by Theresa Harlan in Aperture 139 (Summer 1995). This is the same issue of Aperture as was quoted from yesterday. It’s devoted to the subject of Native American photography:

Creating a visual history — and its representations — from Native memories or from Western myths: this is the question before Native image-makers and photographers today. The contest remains over who will image — and own — this history. Before too many assumptions are made, we must define history, define whose history it is, and define its purpose, as well as the tools used for the telling of it. The intent of history is to help us keep our bearings. That is, to know what is significant and, most importantly, to teach us how to recognize the significant. What happens when history is skewed, or when we no longer have the same skills of recognition? We as human beings become disabled by the inability to distinguish what is real from what is not. Gerald Vizenor, in his book Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance, calls this “Postindian simulations [which] are the absence of shades, shadows, and consciousness; simulations are mere traces of common metaphors in the stories of survivance and the manners of domination.”

” … Before too many assumptions are made, we must define history, define whose history it is, and define its purpose, as well as the tools used for the telling of it … to know what is significant and, most importantly, to teach us how to recognize the significant.” Laughing helplessly. As a photographer and amateur philosopher … wouldn’t it be nice if we could?



October 21, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:51 am

… On good days,my ancestors were some of the finest people you would ever want to meet, generous and friendly and fun to be around, especially at parties. But we also were world-class barbarians, a people who for a hundred and fifty years really did all that murdering and kidnapping and raping and burning and looting, against Mexicans, Apaches, Utes, Pawnees, Pueblos, Americans, Poncas, Tonkawas — well, yes, pretty much anyone in our time zone. Compared to us, the Sioux were a bunch of Girl Scouts. [He is a Comanche.]

As a life-style it wasn’t for everyone, but as a group we liked it. Others objected.

[ … ]

The movies gave us international fame. Without them, the Comanches would be an obscure chapter in Texas history books. With them, we live forever.

In the age of moving images, we remain a favorite target of still photographers. The pictures in recent Indian coffee-table books, the ones that always seem to feature Elder and Spiritual in their titles, are a bit of deceptive flattery. The clear, unstated message of these books is this: the vast majority of Indians — there is no nice way to say it — disappoint. We have, apparently, lost our language, misplaced our culture. We rarely make rain anymore or transform ourselves into cougars or magpies. We use glass beads and disposable cigarette lighters and sometimes, when no one is looking, even throw trash out of our pickups. We are not worthy enough to be members of the coffee-table book tribe.

(photo) Zig Jackson (Mandan/Hidatsat/Arikara), from the “Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian” series 1991

To me, those books and the photographers behind them are like big-game hunters on safari, and their big game is the real Indian. They set out from Berkeley or New York or Phoenix in their Range Rovers or Grand Cherokees, armed with Leicas and Nikons and Zeiss lenses, trained observers who see nothing. They barely glance at the fourteen-year-old boy in baggy pants and the Chicago Bulls sweatshirt as he screams down the road in his Kawasaki dirtbike, too fast and no helmet either. They ignore the fat guy with the Marine haircut and bad skin who pumps their gas at the Sinclair station. Busy checking directions provided by a German anthropologist, they miss the pack of excited young women in designer jeans and damaged hair, trading gossip on their way to a friend’s house where the satellite dish actually works for an evening of Melrose Place and microwaved popcorn. If our visitors cared to stop for dinner, the basketball coach who lives alone in the trailer just past the power station I am sure would invite them in and share his chili and fry bread from the night before; his only plans for the evening are the Maple Leafs and catching up on the latest controversies in deconstructionist theory with the new issue of Third Text that just arrived from London.

… They blow right past us without a clue.

… I do not know how their [the people described earlier] stories end, but I know the possibilities are there for the unexpected, the surprising, the improbable, and even the impossible. And these possibilities are precisely what escape the big-game hunters. They search for ghosts, for elders trapped in amber. Sometimes they even find them. But no matter what they find, they miss far more.

… Each of us has a complex relationship with photography, and each knows it. That relationship is one of culture, of history, of politics. … It is our radical leaders from the 1970s finding steady movie work in the 1990s, and the haunting thought that comes at you like a freight train from hell that no pictures exist of Crazy Horse, but the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp of him anyway. It is our own frequent willingness to lead the searchers in their quest for the real Indian. It is the terrible truth that most of us, in dark, painful moments, have felt inadequate for not living up to the romantic images. We know they aren’t really true, of course. We are somehow supposed to be immune from their powerful beauty, yet the reality is that we are particularly vulnerable.

[ … ]

The brilliant Palestinian intellectual and troublemaker Edward Said, author of Orientalism, wrote that “in the end, the past possesses us.” Okay, Eddie, I get it. But is it suppose to possess us this much? The country can’t make up its mind. One decade we’re invisible, another dangerous. Obsolete and quaint, a rather boring people suitable for schoolkids and family vacations, then suddenly we’re cool and mysterious. Once considered so primitive that our status as fully human was a subject of scientific debate, some now regard us as keepers of planetary secrets and the only salvation for a world bent on destroying itself.

Heck, we’re just plain folks, but no one wants to hear that.

(photo) Jerry (Horace) Poolaw [Kiowa], Mountain View, Oklahoma, ca. 1929

But how could it be any different? The confusion and ambivalence, the amnesia and the wistful romanticism make perfect sense. We are shape-shifters in the national consciousness, accidental survivors, unwanted reminders of disagreeable events. Indians have to be explained and accounted for, and somehow fit into the creation myth of the most powerful, benevolent nation ever, the last best hope of man on earth.

We’re trapped in history. No escape. …

All of the above is from an essay, Ghost in the Machine, by Paul Chaat Smith in Aperture 139 (Summer 1995). The two photos are from the same Aperture issue but were not associated with the particular essay quoted from.



« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.