Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ordinary Matters With Luc Sante

Luc Sante has been essaying the fringes and half-shadows of American culture for many years.  His first book Low Life (1991) was a dense, grimy, wholly alive account of Manhattan in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (Sante's research and the book's verisimilitude attracted Martin Scorsese, who hired Sante as an advisor on Gangs Of New York.)  In his many books and edited collections since, including Evidence (1992), Walker Evans (1999), Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (2007), and Folk Photography (2009), Sante explores the commonplace, the underside, the accidental and the artful in American life.  He engages photography, literature, art, and music with a scholar's skill and an everyman's perspective, never forgetting that the minor, unself-conscious Americana document has the power to move us as profoundly as conventional art-making.  As Sante himself says on his image blog Pinakothek, "Generally I favor humble over great, marginal over central, old over new—but not always, because like a four-sided porch I'm open to all winds."

Sante was born in Belgium in 1954 and moved with his family to New Jersey in the early 1960s.  In 1998 he published The Factory of Facts, an autobiographical account of his upbringing and emigration.  Sante currently teaches at Bard College.  His essay "My Lost City" is one of my favorite pieces about New York City.  I recently e-interviewed him about writing, photography, and nostalgia.


I'd like to start with the personal nature of your writing. Are you a daily writer?

No, I'm not.

Why did you decide to write an autobiography?

I don't think of The Factory of Facts as an autobiography. It only goes up to about age 7 or so, for one thing, but it's not primarily about me at all. It's about my family and my city and southern Belgium in general, which few Americans have visited or know anything about. I wrote it because I wanted to make an accounting of where I came from, and it's relentlessly specific, but my alibi was that it was about the experience of immigration and displacement, an experience more widely shared today than in my actual childhood.

What do you mean by "alibi"? Defending the specificity of the book?

I'll leave "alibi" alone, if you don't mind.

What role does "Resume" play, those very cool alternate "I was born” mini-memoirs at the front of The Factory of Facts? At what point in the book's writing did you compose them? And why?

I'd been struggling to start the book for a couple of years when one day I woke up from a nap and wrote the "Resume" chapter in a single breath. It made the rest of the book possible. "Resume" helped me by putting matters into perspective, confronting my fears—my early years were drenched in fear, and all those alternate scenarios represented very specific fears (there were a few that were even more scabrous that I omitted from the book because my parents were still alive and I didn't want to cause them pain), and it set up a verbal rhythm. Maybe that last one is actually the most important.

You essay the past often. I'm interested in the role that nostalgia plays in your writing, both in your autobiographical work and your less personal work. You successfully avoid nostalgia and sentimentality in Low Life, and elsewhere. Do you guard against being led or deterred by nostalgia/sentiment when writing about the past, especially about customs and modes of living that are gone for good?

Nostalgia plays no part when I'm writing about the time before my birth. I'm deeply interested in the past and compelled to try and recreate what it was like to live in a certain long-gone time—something I've now done in a number of works—but I can't be nostalgic about something I didn't physically experience, can't imagine how one could be.

Maybe I meant feeling sentimental for a long-past age, for what it represented, and now represents.

When I've written about my own youth, that's a different matter. I do have to find a way to contend with nostalgia when addressing the 1970s, but I think I have pretty effective built-in guards against sentimentality.

Is that a native guard, something in your temperament/personality, or something that you've fashioned by necessity?

Yeah, I think my anti-sentimentality guards were fashioned by necessity long ago—I lived in a household where the chief theme was regret (my parents regretting Europe, primarily) and was both prey to it and determined to fight it.

About what in the 1970s are you/could you be sentimental? The way the city's culture was, the way you were?

Whenever I think about the 1970s I feel a gigantic weight of loss, about a great many things but especially about living a scavenger existence outside the market economy (but not, like, in the woods). The past thirty years have been a huge regression—people are working more and getting less and there's no hope in sight.

What jobs did you hold in the city? You teach now, but were you able to commit yourself to writing full-time?

I worked at the Strand Bookstore for three years after college, then as assistant to a photographer who specialized in author bookjacket photos for about six months, then for four years at the New York Review of Books—one year in the mailroom, three years as assistant to Barbara Epstein. That was my last fulltime job. Then for five years or so I was a proofreader at Sports Illustrated—a fantastic job at the twilight of both proofreading (they eliminated the job category circa '91) and of the paternalistic corporation. Full benefits for 17 hours' work a week was a good deal.

In 1990 the murder rate in NYC was the highest in the city's history. You were presumably writing or finishing Evidence around the time. Was the city's then-crime wave an influence on you and/or that book in any way?

No. I had no idea of that statistic. I was aware of murder as an aspect of the city in both the long and short term, but my book was not intentionally about the current headlines. It was about photography first and foremost.

As a scholar (and fan) of photography and its cultural history, what is your reaction/attitude toward the explosion of personal images in the form of digital self-documenting (i.e., digi cams, phone cameras, Facebook, etc.)? Do you see this as a positive development?

I see it as a neutral development. We don't know yet what the ultimate effect will be. I imagine that more photographic images have been produced in the last year than in the first 150 years of photographic history, something like that, and so grasping the totality is nearly impossible. The pix also seem more dully competent and less risky, but there are undoubtedly other complications. Just the other day I met some young people who described themselves as photo collectors, and it turned out that they collect by selecting and downloading pix from online databases. It thought that was great. Much editorial and curatorial work lies ahead.

In Folk Photography you write of early American domestic and regional photographers, and how isolated they were from one another, having few examples of photography to react or conform to, or rebel against. Now we have the inverse situation, it seems to me. Do you see us reaching critical mass at some point? A teenager can have over 1,000 images of himself on Facebook, gathered in just a year or so!

Our relationship with photography is changing in very large ways we can't yet see. For one thing, the set rather than the individual picture is the unit of measure on Flickr. And pictures taken simply as documents are much more compelling that the ones taken for artistic purposes. (Well, maybe this has always been the case, actually.) We may well end up with a situation where photography as an art is something relegated entirely to the past, while photography continues in daily life as a mere unremarkable practice of recording. Advertising is what will keep schools of photography in business.

Given the capacity/potential of art to "return us to the world refreshed" as A.R. Ammons described poetry, why do you think it is that photo-as-document is more compelling than a quote-unquote artfully-composed photo?

Because it's unconscious. The unconscious mind is much more interesting than the conscious mind. But it's also the case in the other arts that you make good work by following a rhythm, a color, an image, etc., whereas if you decide deliberately to tackle an important subject you will produce dogshit. Your unconscious has to do that tackling while you remain more or less unaware.

Can advertising photography ever move us profoundly? Or do artists have to co-opt it, approach it from a different angle, such as Walker Evans (signs, billboards, etc) and others?

Not these days. This actually follows from what I said earlier. Advertising photography, besides being an aspect of evil, is far too calculated and calculating nowadays to be any good. Evans's pictures were not advertising. They were documenting advertising, which is another matter altogether, and it was advertising of the Eat At Joe's variety, which was the very opposite of calculating, and which is in the process of disappearance, at least in the Western world.

Yeah, I know that Evans wasn't in advertising; he was photographing advertising in interesting ways that revealed their aesthetics, such as they were. On to the present: who are you reading now who's compelling to you? Any current and/or future projects to mention?

I just read Geoff Dyer's The Missing of the Somme, an older book by him that used to be hard to find here. It's terrific and he's terrific. I'm rereading Colin Fletcher's The Man from the Cave (1982) in preparation for a trip to the southern California desert, where I've never been. Fletcher's book was the second book to make me want to go there (the first was Ed Sanders's The Family). I'm slowly beginning work on a very slo-mo translation of Maxime Vuillaume's Mes Cahiers Rouges (1914), a nearly hour-by-hour account of the last week of the (1982) in preparation for a trip to the southern California desert, where I've never been. Fletcher's book was the second book to make me want to go there (the first was Ed Sanders's Paris Commune.

And I have two big writing projects, but I'm superstitious—sorry.


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