A couple of days ago I was organizing books in the Auxiliary Library in the barn and happened on Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination (which I had bought in 2008, on just what inspiration I can’t recover, 12 years later). Many of the 40 essays contained within are interesting to probe again, touching as they do on interests and enthusiasms and questions that have arisen during those dozen years. The last third of the eponymous and first (“The Geography of the Imagination”, originally a Distinguished Professor Lecture at University of Kentucky in 1978) is an extended riff on American Gothic, Grant Wood’s evocation of American essence:
Davenport’s four pages of deconstruction of this eidetic image is a lovely mapping of implications, of allusions, of in-knottings. Some are explicit references by Grant Wood, others seem imbricated [an overlapping of successive layers], where the pointer is to bricolage, in the sense of ‘creation from a diverse range of available things’, rather than to an orderly pattern of overlapping, as with shingles (bricoler is “to tinker”). A similar unpacking can be visited upon other familiar images, to get at the question of how and why they come to be eidetic, and I’m tempted to try some of that myself (stay tuned…).
It’s no surprise that American Gothic has been praised as representing “steadfast American pioneer spirit”, derided as Norman Rockwellish cliché of a[n imaginary] small town America, and widely replicated in satire and parody (see a blog devoted to instances). Here’s an instance from my own archives:
My life seems to be a long series of fascinations, sometimes discrete and self-contained, but often braided and intertwingled with one another. They seem to come out of Nowhere, but of course there’s always some grit-in-oyster provocation, which I can only occasionally reconstruct once the pearl has begun to take shape as a new fascination. The last few months have seen a joyous succession, beginning with explorations of pareidolia in November 2019 [though off and on for at least the last 5 years], which led to discovery of Roger Caillois, and thence [not quite sure how] to an immersion in Walter Benjamin in December 2019, and to Maria Popova’s Figuring in January 2020, and to explorations of my library of word books in February and March, which may or may not have sparked a diversion to Georges Perec, which then seems to have led to what has become a continuing bout with Oulipo (and OuXPo extensions), especially via Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, which provoked a reading of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… and so it goes.
It’s worth wandering into the lexicographical weeds to record the history of the Ouvroir [which I gloss as ‘Workshop’] in Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, as summarized in the [just-arrived] OULIPO: A Primer of Potential Literature, Warren Motte’s anthology of translations of oulipist texts:
…an ouvroir—a word that has fallen into disuse—once denoted a shop and, as late as the 18th century, a light and mobile shop made of wood, in which the master cobblers of Paris displayed their wares and pursued their trade. The word could also denote that part of a textile factory where the looms are placed; or, in an arsenal, the place where a team of workers performs a given task; or a long room where the young women in a community work on projects appropriate to their sex; or a charitable institution for impoverished women and girls who found therein shelter, heat, light, and thankless, ill-paid work, the result of which these institutions sold at a discount, not without having skimmed off a tidy profit, thus depriving the isolated workers of their livelihood and leading them (as it was charged) into vice. Later, and for a short time only, ouvroir denoted a group of well-to-do women seeking to assuage their consciences in needlework for the poor and in the confection of sumptuous ecclesiastical garments. Curiously enough, it was this last notion, the “sewing circle,” that prevailed in the minds of the Oulipians: just like those diligent ladies, Oulipians embroidered with golden thread… (Noël Arnaud’s Foreword to Motte, pg xii)
The lexical playfulness of Oulipo is what attracts me most (despite the lamentable impenetrability to me of the French texts), and what connects me to offshoots (or Potential offshoots) like OuPhoPo (Photography) and OuMuPo (Music). As Raymond Queneau put it,
The word ‘potential’ concerns the very nature of literature, that is, fundamentally, it’s less a question of literature strictly speaking than of supplying forms for the good use one can make of literature. We call potential literature the search for new forms and structures which may be used by writers in any way they see fit. (Arnaud again, pg xiii)
This exemplifies the OuMuPo connection:
Daniel Heïkalo’s comment:
Probably one of the craziest improvisation that we ever recorded. It was the last track we played during a week long session. We threw all the rules into the wood stove and blew out the windows. Robert Kehler came up with the title. But in fact, we do believe that children SHOULD be exposed to this sort of music, and especially the ones that are studying in conservatories…
Elsewhere I’ve noted my personal entanglement with OuPhoPo, to which constructions like this advance my claim:
You just never know what the day will bring, and how thing will lead to thing.
I started with a chapter from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the second part of the first one, which finds the reader in a provincial town railroad station:
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences…
Not in Kansas anymore, hein?
The word that springs to mind is “immersive” but whether anybody else has ever been so sprung upon I know not. At the end of Calvino chapter 1 I begin to read chapter 2:
You have now read about thirty pages and you’re becoming caught up in the story. At a certain point you remark: “This sentence somehow seems familiar. In fact, this whole passage reads like something I’ve read before.” Of course: there are themes that recur, the text is interwoven with these reprises, which serve to express the fluctuation of time. You are the sort of reader who is sensitive to such refinements; you are quick to catch the author’s intentions and nothing escapes you….
Hm. And so I put down Calvino and picked up where I left off yesterday in Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Calvino having been a Oulipian, this seemed perfectly sensible) and the feel of the reading seems the same, some amalgam of fictional narrative and factual discourse where it’s perhaps difficult or possibly pointless to say what is real and what imaginary…
And then a look at the RSS feed’s latest brought me this:
And I think: A new genre? Meld of sound and metacommentary, which turns out to have been “inspired” by William Eggleston, and in some sense the whole video is aboutWilliam Eggleston.
You know what? Just google him now. Pause this video.
Now, I’ve never gotten William Eggleston as a photographer, and the why of that is surely worth exploring. I accept that he’s widely regarded as one of the modern masters, and I know that John Sarkowski, whom I revere, recognized him with an early solo show at MoMA in 1976 (the first of color photography): William Eggleston’s Guide is Szarkowski’s catalog for the show, and see also a pdf of Szarkowski’s Introduction. Here’s a section of the Amazon blurb for the book:
The book and show unabashedly forced the art world to deal with color photography, a medium scarcely taken seriously at the time, and with the vernacular content of a body of photographs that could have been but definitely weren’t some average American’s Instamatic pictures from the family album. These photographs heralded a new mastery of the use of color as an integral element of photographic composition.
My own photographic aesthetic is deeply dipped in the world of black-and-white photography, mostly before 1976, though I’ve taken to color myself ever since my transition to digital imaging more than 10 years ago. Eggleston’s color and composition just rub me the wrong way, and generally my reaction to his images has been “so what?”, but a couple of years ago I saw a selection at full size at Pier 24 in San Francisco, and began to realize that my judgements have been ill-placed. So I continue to try to reeducate myself away from long-running prejudices. But I’m still leery of Eggleston.
So back to the video, and its “new genre” possibilities, and how all of that might fit with Calvino and with OuPhoPo (the Workshop in Experimental Photography). The text of the video references a New York Times profile of Eggleston, in which he is revealed to be an over-the-top alcoholic.
…WE LEAVE THE OFFICES of the Eggleston Trust and go to his apartment. The first thing one sees upon entering is a bright red plastic sign with a yellow border, printed with capitalized white sans-serif text. It warns, “THE OCCUPANT OF THIS APARTMENT WAS RECENTLY HOSPITALIZED FOR COMPLICATIONS DUE TO ALCOHOL. HE IS ON A MEDICALLY PRESCRIBED DAILY PORTION OF ALCOHOL. IF YOU BRING ADDITIONAL ALCOHOL INTO THIS APARTMENT YOU ARE PLACING HIM IN MORTAL DANGER. YOUR ENTRY AND EXIT INTO THIS APARTMENT IS BEING RECORDED. WE WILL PROSECUTE SHOULD THIS NOTICE BE IGNORED. THE EGGLESTON FAMILY.” It is a devastating thing to see. Heartbreaking. I was also an alcoholic for decades, the kind who had shakes and saw spiders. I’m not even through the hallway and my mind is racing from “I want that sign” to “What kind of doctor prescribes alcohol for an alcoholic? Where was he when I was drinking?”
The text of the song in the video:
What if the thing that helps you live Is also the thing that will get you killed
It’s the damndest thing
I don’t think I’d ever heard of Beauty Pill, but here are two more remarkable videos:
Dog With Rabbit in Mouth Unharmed
which make me realize that I need to make more room in my musical universe.
I’ve known of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’) in a desultory sort of way for years, mostly via the work of Georges Perec (see Georges Perec provokes and Convivial Question and another genius) and largely thanks to my many years of friendship with Daniel Heïkalo, Oulipian avant la lettre. Becker introduces me to OuPhoPo, a Photographic avatar of the original institution, and a company of rats (“rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”) in which I feel I belong. “Cette association a pour de promouvoir la ‘Pataphysique de la photographie…”
are 3 examples of invocations of the playful, provocations to the literal and the staid.
Last night’s evening woolgathering on the day’s activities and discoveries (which is usually an hour or so after 9, accompanied by something tasty in the liquid line) found me reminiscing about the Blue Ship Tea Room, an uber-funky restaurant on Boston’s T Wharf in the 1940s and 1950s, which I visited with my parents on several occasions. They had whale steak on the menu, and the whole experience was memorable: you parked someplace on T Wharf itself, then walked up an exterior staircase to the third floor of a rickety building. The view of Boston Harbor was remarkable. Some searching discovered a wonderfully redolent photograph:
(photo by Nishan Bichajian, ca. 1955, from https://dome.mit.edu/handle/1721.3/34856)
There’s also a 1961 article from the Harvard Crimson On the Waterfront by Michael S. Gruen (in the series Around the Hub) about the character and characters of that long-vanished waterfront:
A long, faded-yellow loft building now used for apartments, a few lonely fishing boats, and an occasional tourist are all that remain today of what in better days was one of the world’s greatest fishing wharves. Perhaps the only fish people could see at T Wharf in recent years were those they consumed off of the willow pattern china at the Blue Ship Tea Room, a popular seafood restaurant at the tip of the wharf.
Situated near the foot of State St., where it meets Atlantic Avenue, T Wharf was built sometime between 1708 and 1718 as a relatively unimportant appendage to adjacent Long Wharf, which, until 1868, extended all the way back to historic Faneuil Hall and docked the greatest schooners of its day along approximately one mile of pier…
The plaintiff, who had been born and brought up in New England (a fact of some consequence), ordered clam chowder and crabmeat salad. Within a few minutes she received tidings to the effect that “there was no more clam chowder,” whereupon she ordered a cup of fish chowder. Presently, there was set before her “a small bowl of fish chowder.” She had previously enjoyed a breakfast about 9 A.M. which had given her no difficulty. “The fish chowder contained haddock, potatoes, milk, water and seasoning. The chowder was milky in color and not clear. The haddock and potatoes were in chunks” (also a fact of consequence). “She agitated it a little with the spoon and observed that it was a fairly full bowl…. It was hot when she got it, but she did not tip it with her spoon because it was hot … but stirred it in an up and under motion. She denied that she did this because she was looking for something, but it was rather because she wanted an even distribution *423 of fish and potatoes.” “She started to eat it, alternating between the chowder and crackers which were on the table with … [some] rolls. She ate about 3 or 4 spoonfuls then stopped. She looked at the spoonfuls as she was eating. She saw equal parts of liquid, potato and fish as she spooned it into her mouth. She did not see anything unusual about it. After 3 or 4 spoonfuls she was aware that something had lodged in her throat because she couldn’t swallow and couldn’t clear her throat by gulping and she could feel it.” This misadventure led to two esophagoscopies at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the second of which, on April 27, 1959, a fish bone was found and removed. The sequence of events produced injury to the plaintiff which was not insubstantial.
We must decide whether a fish bone lurking in a fish chowder, about the ingredients of which there is no other complaint, constitutes a breach of implied warranty under applicable provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, the annotations to which are not helpful on this point. As the judge put it in his charge, “Was the fish chowder fit to be eaten and wholesome?… [N]obody is claiming that the fish itself wasn’t wholesome…. But the bone of contention here I don’t mean that for a pun but was this fish bone a foreign substance that made the fish chowder unwholesome or not fit to be eaten?”
…The defendant asserts that here was a native New Englander eating fish chowder in a “quaint” Boston dining place where she had been before; that “[f]ish chowder, as it is served and enjoyed by New Englanders, is a hearty dish, originally designed to satisfy the appetites of our seamen and fishermen”; that “[t]his court knows well that we are not talking of some insipid broth as is customarily served to convalescents.” We are asked to rule in such fashion that no chef is forced “to reduce the pieces of fish in the chowder to miniscule size in an effort to ascertain if they contained any pieces of bone.” “In so ruling,” we are told (in the defendant’s brief), “the court will not only uphold its reputation for legal knowledge and acumen, but will, as loyal sons of Massachusetts, save our world-renowned fish chowder from degenerating into an insipid broth containing the mere essence of its former stature as a culinary masterpiece.”
and worth reading in its entirety, especially by New Englanders born and bred (and perhaps likely to be somewhat incomprehensible to others not so endowed).
Just one more bit of glorious serendipity in all of this: the MIT Libraries photograph above references György Kepes and Kevin Lynch (he of the still-essential The Image of the City). Kepes had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin and London, and “after immigrating to the U.S. in 1937, he taught design at the New Bauhaus (later the School of Design, then Institute of Design, then Illinois Institute of Design or IIT) in Chicago. In 1967 he founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he taught until his retirement in 1974.” (Wikipedia). He was also a colleague of Len Gittleman, our photography teacher at Harvard 1963-1965, and was himself a photographer. A few years ago, while exploring in Mount Auburn Cemetery, I came across his grave:
I’ve been plotting a presentation of wood photographs for a while now, thinking that there would be a Blurb book devoted to that subset of my work with Creatures. I decided to try a YouTube presentation instead, and Wooden Wunderkammer is the result of the moment:
I’m still exploring refinements of the Ken Burns thing, and haven’t really worked at precision of transitions with the soundtrack, so the above is, as they say, provisional.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working with photos of Home Kitchen meals, from the last decade of trotters in the trough, using Adobe Premiere and posting the results to YouTube. The results so far are available via http://oook.info/HKC/, and sport soundtracks from my duets with Daniel Heïkalo.
A fourth YouTube video is up: Ken Burns has Hash at Home Kitchen Cafe, again and again
With each of the videos I’ve done I have learned some valuable lessons, and with each I tried out something new to me. After sending links to a few friends, I then made further edits and changes which I haven’t made public.
I have at least half a dozen other clutches of photos that video presentation would enhance, at least in terms of distributability, and I’ve realized that I need some more sophisticated tools, and more careful consideration of where I really want to take this phase of photographic exploration. And so I’ll be doing a 2-day Premiere Pro workshop at Maine Media during the coming weekend.
It’s very useful to consider Ken Burns himself on the “Ken Burns Effect”:
…a very honorable attempt on my part to will old photographs alive…
…willingness to not hold a still photograph at a distance. To just merely acknowledge its plasticity, to not just see its two-dimensionality but to go into its world and to trust that that world had a past and a present. And to activate it. And to be the feature film-maker that I wanted to be with a master shot, a wide shot, a medium shot, a close shot, a pan, a tilt, a reveal, inserts of shots. And to listen to that photograph. To ask the question, “what sounds is this photograph making if it were alive?” That’s what I do…
from Ken Burns: the Kindle Singles Interview (conducted by Tom Roston)
It will be interesting to see how this particular toboggan ride goes.