Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stories Not Told: A Conversation with Jim Linderman

Jim Linderman and the forgotten
"Every passion borders on the chaotic," writes Walter Benjamin in "Unpacking My Library," "but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories."  This observation informs the work of collector, archivist, and Americana yay-sayer Jim Linderman.  At his wide-ranging, comprehensive, and lively blogs Vintage Sleaze ("The true and untold story of smut in America"), Old Time Religion ("Vernacular religious detritus"), and Dull Tool Dim Bulb ("Surface, wear, form and authenticity in art, antiques and photography") Linderman acknowledges the obscure at the same time that he elevates it.  For many years he's doggedly pursued the arcane and the forgotten—from late-19th Century religious iconography to mid-20th Century smut, from vernacular photography to vanished advertising.  His collections tell vast stories in sotto voce, allowing curios and objects shadowed by mainstream culture and ideology to converse and be heard.  What we hear is an enormous American sub-culture speaking in forbidden, marginalized languages: stuff discovered boxed in the attic out of embarrassment or zealotry, smutty ash trays crowing next to religious pamphlets, each claiming a part of the complex, sometimes contradictory, always conflicted American imagination, a chaos of memories that will one day vanish.  I've been an admirer of Linderman's work for a while, especially the breadth of his interests: the racy to the pious, the filthy to the redeemed.  Sounds like America to me.

Linderman and I virtually sat down recently, and I asked him about his collections.  


How and why did you begin collecting?

As soon as I could walk, I probably took three rocks from the front yard, put them next to each other and someone said "That looks nice."  Three of anything makes a collection.  That seems simple, but the process of assembling and categorizing always made sense to me.  Before long with stamps and baseball cards.  Maybe I was completing a puzzle or filling in blanks.  When I could read, I was always at the newsstand the day the comics came in.  The drive to collect is to appear "more special" than others, and there is a psychological need just as with any human activity.  It is a solitary pursuit when done well, as a good portion of collecting is study and learning.  Perfect for a shy person like me.  Some collecting is highly competitive, especially when one likes things no one else has.  I have always collected the hard things.  I find a niche, preferably one no one has thought of (as I have never had any real money) and then sacrifice a bit to obtain things I want.   I always had to be first, both with the idea and in line at the flea market.

I have always collected for a particular purpose.  For a book project, for a show, to prove a point, to illustrate a truth.  I don't collect things willy-nilly...and I seldom post anything on the blogs I haven't found and purchased myself.  Folks don't quote Mao much these days, but he once wrote something like "To know what an orange is, you must first taste the orange," and the truth and beauty of that has stayed with me since junior high school.    Unless I have put in the work and lived with an object, I don't think I am qualified to understand it or write about it.

Among Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Old Time Religion, and Vintage Sleaze you cover a vast, perhaps conflicting, terrain of Americana and ephemera.  What, in your conception, fits inside that triangle?

Authenticity and stories not told.  That is the common thread running through all three.  As mass culture became so prevalent, I saw how important the little things were.  It is a losing game, I suppose, but there is far more value in what is done beneath the surface than what is offered to us as product for consumption.  Even as a kid I didn't like the records I could buy downtown, I liked the bootlegs I had to drive miles for.  To me if 60 million people see the same hit movie, that is just horrendous.   It is a massive, destructive waste of precious human time and talent.  Frightfully so. Outsiders and eccentrics are far more interesting, and ultimately far more real to me, so I seek out their stories and share them.  What is "presented" or packaged for consumption tells virtually none of the truth.  Long ago (or ideally) in our system, the cream will rise to the top.   That is certainly no longer even remotely the case.  I purposely avoid that which I am "supposed" to like.  I don't watch TV or read best sellers.  I don't need to, as millions have done it for me, and if I need to know anything I missed I can ask.  I'm not being smug, I'd just rather find and learn about things not so easily available.  I'd rather have salsa from my little sister's garden than spicy corn syrup in crates from Kraft.

I have also always been drawn to things forbidden.  I don't know why.  I think they are intellectually stimulating. 

There is a clear distinction between all three blogs, but that current of authenticity is there in all, as is my own thread an artistic outsider.  I've never studied art, but Dull Tool Dim Bulb is an art blog.  It is intentionally diverse, but more than anything it is about the artistic inclinations of amateurs and passionate people from the past who have created beauty without being recognized for it.  My aesthetics, which drive both my collecting and the material I post, come from the honest, direct and worn surface of folk art, and the blog is about surface, wear, age and form as much as it is about people.

Similarly, I don't believe in God, but Old-Time-Religion is a blog about believers and how they are manipulated by others.  It is about the interesting, beautiful and often hopelessly eccentric and hilarious graphics used by preachers and personalities involved in a massive, pervasive fraud... but I seldom editorialize.  I let the material speak for itself.  The origins of the religious right are shown there every day, and I delight in digging up that which has been passed over or swept under by current practitioners.  The more crooked and silly, the better.  It is amazing, just amazing to me that in this day and age there are still people getting away with being "faith healers" and when I find one lining his pockets, I might point it out...but for the most part it is about the striking graphics and pictures.  And no one wants the things (most of them were given away after all) I don't have any competition.  I usually find a pile of tracts at the end of the shelf in used bookstores and that keeps me busy for a while.  Sometimes I'll spring for a particularly beautiful photograph and add that.

Vintage Sleaze might appear to be about sex, smut and boob jokes, but it is in fact about hypocrisy and untold stories.  It is also just funny as hell.  My entire life there have been attempts to censor smut, usually by folks with equally offensive morals as the smut producers,  but everyone bought it.  I don't care how upstanding someone appears to be on the surface, when they pass away you'll find a dirty book in a box in the basement.   This hypocrisy meant no one ever wrote about the producers, the writers, the artists or the models who created the material, and what a group of eccentric, talented, unusual folks they were.   Because you weren't supposed to acknowledge it, no one has told the stories, and I have found it an incredible rich, fertile area for study and writing.  The women's movement made much of the material passe and taboo, and rightly so, but at one time it was so pervasive that to pretend it didn't exist is not only wrong, we are missing so much history and entertainment.  Personally, I believe Bettie Page and proto-pornographer Lenny Burtman have had more influence on popular culture than virtually anyone you can name.  I like to think of the blog as a James Ellroy novel but with every word true

Can you talk a bit about the distinction between collecting and hoarding?  Does the line ever blur? 

Everything I have fits on the shelves behind me.  I used to collect large things. Folk art objects, paintings, handmade furniture...and I have been through a dozen art forms which did take up space.  But today, as I collect to tell stories and put together books, little paper ephemera and photographs fit the bill...and they don't take up any space.  I also use collections as tools.  I'm not a pristine Mylar bag kind of guy.  I'd rather see the wear and the surface.  It lends that all important authenticity.  When I was working as a librarian, most of my colleagues seemed more concerned that the material be on the shelf in the right place, but I'd rather have it circulating and being used, even if a kid stole it.

When I'm done with a category, an object or a collection, I feel I have mastered it and pass it along.   Increasingly as donations to museums, but back when I was living on a librarian's salary, I traded or sold things I had put together to afford to collect in another area which interested me.  To me, stuff is a tool, and when I'm done with it someone else gets it.   Plus there is always something else to study.  I might add that I have learned one or two splendid objects against a white wall look better than 50 objects in a I edit a little as I go along.

How do you define "vernacular photography"?

More than anything, to me it means amateur.  I suppose it actually means "photography of the people" or "photography of the common man" or something like that.  I'm not too interested in "mistakes" or "shadows" or the commonly collected categories.  Photographs which mistakenly turned out approximating beautiful art are interesting, but I just like pictures taken by those who happened upon it themselves.  I usually collect photographs of my collection of folk art objects being made or where they are placed...and many of them just happen to have been taken by amateurs.  I also love press photographs which have been virtually obliterated by cropping and "touch-ups" before publication, as they help illustrate how we have been manipulated by photographs all along.
Can you talk a bit about the distinctions between smut and pornography?  Is it a question simply of relative explicitness, or is there something less quantifiable involved?  Does smut still exist in the 21st Century?  If so, where?   

My blog only deals with smut up to around 1965, when through court rulings and such virtually anything went.  The characters I profile worked at a time when they could be arrested at the whim of a local politician or authority, and living on that edge made them interesting characters.  With the 1970s, porn became a much larger business with larger profits and also unfortunately became less interesting.  

Pornography used to be something kids shouldn't see and still is, but because of the Internet I think it has become something kids have virtually no interest in seeing!   When is the last time you saw a cartoon showing a kid trying to peek into a nudist colony?  It's over.  We are saturated.  Hopefully we are finally on the verge of defining the real obscenities, which are poverty, hunger, war, racism, greed, violence and sexual abuse.  Those are pornographic to me.  Unfortunately, at the same time we seem to be living in a productive era for ignorant zealots who latch onto the most convenient religious beliefs and try to force them on others, both here and maybe my optimism is misplaced. I know some kind of clash is coming.  Due to backward notions and religious beliefs, a large percent of the world's population doesn't have the lax attitude towards undraped women as the Western world, though the wealthy of all cultures still reserve it for themselves.  Bin Laden was watching porn in his adobe, after all.  But if I happened to come from a culture where women were forced to wear veils, I'd be pretty angry at the West, I guess.  Thankfully, I was raised in a country where one could find anything and women are becoming equal. 

It is relative explicitness, as there are still arbitrary rules applied by censors of various forces.  I never voted for them, but they still try to tell me what I can read.   Today the pasties which cover nipples are blurs on the TV screen.  Just like the "founding fathers of smut" I delight in getting as close as I can on the blog without crossing that arbitrary line, and just like the girly magazines of the 1950s, women have no nipples on my blog!   But it appears filthy and that is the point.  In the vintage sleaze paperbacks of the 1950s, folks slowly took their clothes off, over and over, but nothing ever happened.  The cover of the cereal box tastes better than the kibble inside.  Additionally, "pornography" today is no more real than any other mass media product.  Frosted hair, breast implants, air-brushing, skin-bronzing...ugh.  That is pornographic to me...the false presentation, the lies, the artificial "allure" which just looks pathetic.  I'm not old fashioned in the least, but I can see phony, and phony is what we get today.

I should point out women far outnumber men as regular followers of the site.  The guys pop in by mistake looking for the real thing, but I think women appreciate the irony, the history and the kitsch more.  I hope everyone reads the text, as the images mean little without it...but we have become more visual and less word savvy.

What's the cultural value of collecting and exhibiting smut?  

Americans can only handle one or two cultural figures at a time.  For example, (as Harry Smith, John Fahey, Joe Bussard and others have shown) there were thousands upon thousands of folk and blues musicians, but we only know Bob Dylan,  Peter Paul and Mary and B.B. King.  Today Dita Von Teese represents the entire concept of  the pin-up, but as I try to show there have been thousands of hard-working models doing the same thing and in very harsh conditions indeed for decades.  R. Crumb draws dirty and funny cartoons...well, so did a thousand other cartoonists, illustrators and artists.  The richness and depth of our culture comes not from celebrities, no matter how much the increasingly concentrated and interlocking media wish us to.   By the way, I use the examples above because I love them very much, except for Peter Paul and Mary, who sucked.  But then they loaned their microphones to Garth Hudson who recorded the Basement Tapes for I'll cut them some slack.

I am most interested in smut because this was fugitive literature.   The libraries didn't collect it, the material wasn't indexed, there are no bibliographies and often not even a copyright.  That makes documenting it challenging.  It as such a large part of our collective nature, but in a secret way.  It should be known about.  The sex drive is as basic as eating and drinking, and yet we have this huge vacuum in our understanding of how it has been treated in popular culture. 

You publish your books with Blurb, the on-line publishing company.  Can you describe your experience working with Blurb? 

Blurb is a wonderful platform. It is amazing how creative one can be, and I decided to see if it was a viable medium for publishing.  Of course, their primary emphasis is on wedding photographs and travel pictures, but I found one can also actually do art books.  They are too expensive for anyone to buy, but they've recently made it possible to sell books for the iPad and iPhone too, so that is pretty great.  I hardly think of them as books actually, I think of them more as "limited edition prints" and a way of documenting things I have assembled.  They won't make anyone rich other than the owners of Blurb, and that is due to the death of the book as much as anything else, but I am proud of the modest little things I've done there.  I also like that they are in a sense "fugitive" themselves as they are outside the established channels of book publishing.  I hope one day some kid will happen upon them and collect them.

Who's working in your field who you admire, or have admired, and why?

I have dozens of heroes from history and popular culture.  Those who influenced me most directly in what I am doing today are friends I was fortunate enough to make some 25 years ago, Herbert Hemphill jr. and Sterling Strauser.  Hemphill was a folk art collector who helped found the American Museum of Folk Art, and Strauser was a painter who happened to collect self-taught artists.  They both impacted me in ways I can hardly describe, and spending time with each in their homes were among the most meaningful times of my life.  We swapped stories, discoveries and both taught me to be fearless and collect the hell out of what I found interesting, no matter what the prevailing experts were shilling.  As for writers and bloggers, John Foster at Accidental Mysteries, Joey Lin at Anonymous Works, Carolina Miranda at C-Mon and Jim Marshall at The Hound are essential.  Every day essential.  The Bob Dylan site Expecting Rain is the best music site around. 

All images from Jim Linderman's blogs Dull Tool Dim Bulb, Vintage Sleaze, and Old Time Religion.

1 comment:

Barbara Levine said...

There has been a firestorm of interest lately in vernacular culture collectors. As a long time collector and author about vernacular photography, I have been dissapointed by the lack of depth of most articles about collectors. Thank you for insightful interview about Jim Linderman (I too am a 'fan') and his perspectives on collecting.