Saturday, August 23, 2014

How To Be A Good Baseball Player (1973)

I found this childhood gem at a take-a-book, leave-a-book shelf at the local food co-op. Published in 1973, the slim volume is chock full of tips aimed at kids, most decent—choking up, running to where you think the fly ball will land in the outfield, striving to hit the ball up the middle while at the plate. From choosing the right bat, to running through first base on a ground-out, to how to correctly grip a fastball, these helpful instructions were duly memorized by kids on the weekends and put into sometimes unhappy practice on ball fields across the country. One of-the-era comment caught my attention, on page 20: "There are very few homers, but plenty of high flies are caught for outs." The authors—Clare and Frank Gault, who wrote several Scholastic Book Club baseball titles—may have been referring to the anemic power of most ten-year-olds, or possibly to the characteristically weak early-70s sluggers, at least relative to our era. In 1972 there were 34, 071 innings pitched and only 2,534 balls hit out of the park, a percentage that would change demonstrably over the next couple decades.

The illustrations by Dick Ericson (1916-1988) are terrific:


It's nice to see girls on the field, too.

This kid's not having a great day.

Even Pete Rose practices, and yes even Pete Rose makes mistakes...

Monday, August 18, 2014

Another Bottle of Inspiration: Elvis Costello's Drinking Songs

Elvis Costello writes and sings about human weaknesses more acutely and entertainingly than most. Man's inability to stay upright—morally and literally—has long amused him; drink and its comic and tragic excesses are among his favorite subjects. Costello's wrestled with booze privately, and though one never knows how autobiographical he is in his songs, he's always personal. Here's a glassful of his best songs about drinkers, drinking, joy and regret.


Many of Costello's songs are set, nominally at least, in bars. "King Horse" from Get Happy!! (1980) is an incisive character study of men at bars and the thin respect they pay to female bartenders. It's also about how some of those men pine for women but can't reach them, befogged as they are with drink and deceptions. The second verse is a particularly insightful and sympathetic portrait of a woman toiling behind the bar: "When it's someone else's weekend, that's the best you can expect." 

King Horse, Get Happy!! (1980)

Sometimes incidents turn ugly. (See "Riot Act," below.) In this oddly striking and disturbing song from 1994's Brutal Youth, Costello imagines on-base soldiers at a bar with a "damsel,"  and there's drinking and laughter and arguments and...from there, things get murky. There's much debate about this song's meaning: to some, the title and story refer to an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion; to others, the title and story suggest rape; to still others, murder. The details remain dark and blurry, shadowed by faulty memory and patriarchal menace, but for the origin of that blur: drinking and its often regrettable, pitiable aftermath.

Kinder Murder, Brutal Youth (1994)

Another tavern, another little man "twice as foolish" as he was before. This gentle, rural stroll from 2009's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane was recorded in Nashville, where Costello backed himself with local musicians playing double bass, dobro, fiddle, accordion, and mandolin. The mood is rustic, evoking a dusty honky-tonk somewhere where the larger a man feels on drink the smaller he appears, or as Costello brutally puts it, where "he gets what he merits." That old, old story. A girls sails through his foggy memory and he drinks more to remember less, yet, at last call, "picks himself up from a sawdust floor, clicks his fingers to that swinging door, suddenly he's calling out more, more, more."

Down Among The Wines And Spirits, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (2009)

I've written before about "Party Party" from the 1982 soundtrack of the same name, one of Costello's funnier songs about drinking. Though the tone is comic and the principals hapless, naive teenagers, the details evoke the meanness and loathsome regrets that absorb so many characters in Costello's songs.

This is a weird one, not altogether one of my favorite songs of Costello's but I include it for its rawness and intensity. Costello's adapted a W.B. Yeats drinking poem to music—although calling it music is stretching things, as here Costello, solo in a studio in late 1992, bangs and howls and screeches his way though the poem, which dramatizes the seductive moments so many fall victim to between too-few and not-enough, the gray area where joy has not yet led to darkness, where a man can still believe that waltzing with his shot glass will keep him sober, since all dead men are drunks and all drunks are dead men. Powerful, gripping stuff. Costello tossed the experiment in irony onto a CD single.

A Drunken Man's Praise Of Sobriety, CD single (1994)

As "Party Party" reminds, not all of Costello's songs about drinking are cramped and unhappy. "The Big Light" from 1986's King Of America, snapped into rockabilly groove by veteran players James Burton, Jerry Scheff, and Ron Tutt, is a funny tune about a hangover "with a personality" and the titular light that will inevitably shine in truth-telling agony. The song rocks, and there's a great pun involving Merle Haggard and the singer's ashen, morning face. The moral? "Well it's fine to go out and have a big night, sooner or later you’ve got to face the big light." (On familiar terms with overdoing things, Johnny Cash recorded a version in 1987.)  

The Big Light, King Of America (1986)


And then there's this. Not strictly speaking a song about bars or drinking, "Riot Act" is by all accounts a song that responds to an incident that took place in a bar. No need to rehash the details of the regrettable 1979 hotel encounter between Costello and Steven Stills and Bonnie Bramlett, during which a drunken Costello made awful comments about James Brown and Ray Charles, except to say that this song, with its lamenting tone, dramatic contrasts, passionate playing, and evocative narrative details, reminds that a blinding drunk can only obscure so much—eventually the Big Light will come, and you won't be spared.

Riot Act, Get Happy!! (1980)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Like Fact and Water: A Conversation with B.J. Hollars

Reading B.J. Hollars's new book Dispatches From The Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction is, much like trying to pluck a fish from a river, a slippery and tantalizing experience. That's precisely how Hollars intends it. After Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars collects over forty photographs by Charles Van Schaick, who in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created portraits using citizens of the town posed against rural backdrops. Hollars pairs many of the strange, stagey photographs with actual newspaper accounts of contemporaneous drownings in nearby Eau Claire, Wisconsin (where Hollars lives and teaches). The pairings are random—none of the people in Van Schaick's photographs drowned, not least in Eau Claire—yet evocative; as Hollars notes in his Author's Note, it is inevitable that a reader will link the images with the stories. (I certainly did.)

The gap between fact and fiction thus exposed, Hollars, who last year edited Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, intersperses among the seventy-five nonfiction drowning reports twenty-five of his own fictionalized accounts. With an ear to fidelity, Hollars mimics the other-century casual, folkloric tone of the newspaper accounts—but the reader doesn't know which ones are "fakes." Plus: Hollars admits that he rewrote the newspaper accounts after having read and absorbed them, a further muddying of the waters. Hollars's intent here is to shed light on that destabilized place between facts and the imagination by creating a hybrid text, part journalism, part fantasy. Hollars reminds us that a century ago many reporters relied uneasily on their own memory, faulty witnesses, and narrative skills in reporting on drownings. In what ways were their own attempts at objective reporting subverted (or complemented) by subjective factors such as faulty memory, personal temperament, and perhaps—Hollars never raises this; I'm speculating—the reporter's relationship with the victim and/or his or her family?

Hollars locates the gray area where fact and fiction, detail and myth, and objective reporting and subjective dread meet. It's a fascinating, absorbing book. Here's the trailer:

Recently, I virtually sat down with Hollars to discuss Dispatches From The Drownings, memory, and the uneasy blend of fact versus myth.


B.J. Hollars
In the Author's Note, you describe yourself as less an author or writer than as a curator. Could you talk a bit about that?

It probably goes without saying that this was the strangest writing experience of my life. Rather than sit down and create something entirely new—as one does in fiction—or craft a true account—as one does in nonfiction—I attempted to replicate stories previously told. That is, I sat down with one drowning report after another and tried to re-write them from memory. Not word for word, of course, but in terms of factuality. And as I soon found, my memory was terribly faulty. There were simply too many details to keep track of, too many names and circumstances and hypotheses. When doing my own writing, I first returned to the original drowning reports again and again, but no matter how often I returned to them, there was always something omitted. To put it another way: I always omitted something. In short, I found myself unwittingly making the same decisions all writers must make: deciding what stays and what goes and forever altering the stories based on these decisions.

I should probably note that I only performed the aforementioned process for 75 of the 100 total drowning reports. As I note in my introduction, only 75 of the 100 included reports are true. The other 25 are completely fabricated. For reasons related to my own disconcerting feelings toward genre, I make no effort to distinguish. And so, if I am a curator—by which I mean a keeper of artifacts, or, if we go back to the word’s early usage, a “guardian” of sorts—then I am, indeed, a faulty one. I don’t keep or guard these drowning reports all that well. In fact, I intentionally and unintentionally muddy their veracity. The point, I suppose, is that even when we writers attempt to “protect” true stories, all we’re really doing is protecting one version of the story—the one we’ve manufactured, the one we’ve deemed most true.

How long did Dispatches From The Drownings take to complete?

I always struggle to trace the beginning and end points of a book. I suppose my first encounter with drowning took place in July of 2011. The morning after my first night in Eau Claire, I went for an early morning jog and spotted a rescue team searching for a drowning victim in the river directly behind our new home. I spotted a dripping young man lean into a nearby car and whisper of the tragedy to a friend.

I soon learned that drownings were common here; that when you live in a town overflowing with rivers, on occasion, people will drown.

I began consciously working on this project in the summer of 2012. My son had just been born, and since he wasn’t sleeping much, in the night hours when it was my turn to stay up with him, I’d take him upstairs, place him on my lap, and begin researching historical drowning reports. We lived just a stone’s throw from the river, and perhaps my research was my attempt to safeguard him from that future fate. Or maybe my research was driven by my own personal fears. By August I’d moved beyond the drowning reports and began using the nighttime hours to scan the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archives for photos by Charles Van Schaick. I’d first become familiar with Van Schaick’s work in Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, and it soon became clear to me that I, too, was engaged in my own Wisconsin death trip of sorts, only in my book, all the deaths occurred via drowning.

I suppose this is the long way of saying the book probably took two years from start to finish, though the majority of the work occurred during those sleepless nights (though the work itself always left me even more sleepless…).
You rewrote the true drowning reports after having read them. Why not quote verbatim?

First, allow me to clarify: on a few rare occasions I did. Though I rewrote 99% of the original reports, as I note in the introduction, “When I could not—when the linguistic nuances of the time period allowed for a lexicon I simply could not re-create—I employed direct quotations from the original work.” Simply put, sometimes the language of the original reports was so startling and baffling that it was a disservice for me to try to “improve” upon the original design. Though, of course, it was never my intent to “improve” the reports. Rather, I rewrote them to test my own memory. I didn’t want this book to read as a condemnation of journalists of the past. Rather, I wanted to own up to my own shortcomings as a nonfiction writer. I wanted to prove just how hard it is to get the story straight, even when the story seems simple.

And when it came to the subject of drowning, I assumed the stories would always be simple: people entered a body of water, then drowned. But as I soon learned, the stories of drownings are never so simple, and every fact in every report always raises new questions. 

Where do you place Dispatches From The Drownings among Michael Lesy's book and James Marsh's 1999 docudrama? Does Dispatches subvert or complement those works in any way?

That’s a great question. I suppose I’ll leave that up to readers to decide. But in an attempt not to dodge the question entirely, I’ll note that I view my work as an homage to Lesy’s book. Wisconsin Death Trip fundamentally changed the way I thought about narrative. My book, much like his, relies on newspaper reports to craft a narrative. But more than that, it relies on photographs as well. Taken together, the juxtaposition of words and pictures creates an odd dissonance, at least when it comes to subject matters such as Lesy’s and my own. And it’s a productive dissonance, I think; one that demands we study our world a bit more critically. People often think of pictures as “proof” and words as “proof” but they’re both quite vulnerable to manipulation. Wilson Hicks, the former picture editor for LIFE magazine spoke of “the principle of the third effect” which argues that context matters. Simply put, when we interpret in image, we take into account the image we saw before. Thus, we can never fully examine an image—or a text for that matter—without lugging some previous knowledge along with us.

My book is certainly the result of what I saw before—Lesy’s work, and to a lesser extent, Marsh’s docudrama. And I hope it will spur others to consider the interplay between text and image, between fact and fiction, too. 

Charles Van Schaick's photographs are remarkable. You write, "By pairing these drowning reports with Van Schaick's photographs, I hope to illuminate the aesthetical aberrations inherent in both." Can you talk a bit about this?

Both the drowning reports and Van Schaick’s photographs forced me to find beauty in unexpected places. While there is nothing beautiful about the act of drowning (don’t let Shakespeare’s Ophelia fool you), I discovered beauty in the reports. On occasion the language verged on the poetic, and the narratives, too, vacillated on a wondrously wide spectrum between the tragic and the heroic.

Van Schaick’s photographs are—as you noted—indeed remarkable. But aside from the images’ apparent beauty, I also fell in love with the story of Van Schaick’s life-long pursuit to capture these images. Here was a man who spent the majority of his adult life in a small Wisconsin town, walking up the same stairs to his studio day after day. And day after day he would take these photographs, forever memorializing a time, a place, and a people. He posed his subjects, picked his angles, and prepared his own visual narrative of their lives, preserving them in a way nobody else ever bothered to.

I used the phrase “aesthetical aberrations” because there is horror here as well. The drowning reports are horrifying, and many of Van Schaick’s photographs are equally disturbing, particularly when placed alongside the reports. I’m not saying these photos evoke “horror” on their own, but that we viewers bring our disconcerting feelings along with us. The dispatches create the conditions for us to feel fear upon looking into the eyes of people now gone—not necessarily as a result of drowning, but simply due to normal lifespan considerations.

In Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy showcases many of Van Schaick’s more popular post-mortem photographs—including photos of dead children—but I chose not to include them. My use of Van Schaick’s photographs are meant to provide a spark of life, to remind readers that the people I’m writing about were once as alive as you or me (exempting the fictional dispatches, of course). 

Did you find that Van Schaick images influenced the writing of your fictional drowning reports in any way?

They surely must have, though I’m hesitant to try to decipher specific ways in which these photos influenced the work. More than anything the original drowning reports influenced the work, but I’m sure the photographs added a tint of darkness to the already dark subject. 

In the Afterword you confess to not remembering which of the reports you created. If it's OK with you, I'm a little skeptical of this! Did you not keep notes? Did you purposefully neglect to mark the fictionalized version early on? If so, why?

I appreciate your skepticism! (And you’re right to be skeptical). Allow me to clarify: it’s not that I don’t know which reports are fictional. I do. I have a master list saved as “Fictional Drowning Reports” that serves as my so-called answer key. But when called upon to reveal what’s true and what’s false, I stumble. I truly cannot rattle off what’s what. I think I did this intentionally, metaphorically submerging myself with so many details and so many versions that somewhere along the way I lost track of the truth. And this, too, is troubling. How could I—the guy writing the book—fail to distinguish fact from fiction? My misremembering of the status of the reports is troubling on a macro level, but on a micro level, I’m also troubled by the minor uncertainties even in the reports deemed true. For instance, if an original report mentioned that fear “gripped” the victim, I couldn’t help but wonder how the reporter could have had insight into the victim’s perspective. Surely that seems like a logical conclusion, but how could the reporter know that interior detail for sure? Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, though perhaps it’s emblematic of larger issues of sensationalizing the truth in the media. 

Can you theorize about the spot or the moment when fact become myth?

It’s tough, mainly because everyone has his or her own definition of what constitutes a fact. But I think we all know how a truth begins to unravel. One person observes an event, reports the event to someone else, who then re-reports the event to someone else. Along the way biases intercede, details are added and subtracted, and the final version of the event (that is, if there is ever a “final” version of an event) is far different than how that event was originally observed.

But when we cement that event with words—when we report it in a newspaper, for instance—then the many versions of truth all begin narrowing to a single, unified version, which is then repeated by everyone who reads it. And so, the uncritical reader reinforces the “truth” by assuming the written version is true, thereby muting alternative versions.

This is my way long-winded way of saying no, I don’t think I can properly theorize about the specific moment in which a fact becomes a fiction. But I think as members of the 21st century—an era glutted with “facts”—it’s imperative that we begin to ask ourselves how we test what we deem to be truth. 

What do you think is the cultural value of nostalgia? 

I’ve thought about this quite often. In particular, how I personally utilize nostalgia as a means to finding my way through a project. When I think about nostalgia, I think about home, and when I think about home, I think about why I do anything. We do many things, I think, as a way to clear a path that might lead us home. Nostalgia, for me, is the false remembrance of a time and place we can never go back to. Yet to its credit, it offers us a taste of that return, even if the place we feel nostalgic for only exists in our minds.

As for the value of cultural nostalgia—which is where your true question lies—that’s trickier still. I guess I’ll just say that I didn’t write this book for nostalgia’s sake. If nostalgia is linked to personal connection, then I’ll readily (and thankfully) admit that I have very little personal connection with the subject of drowning. Nevertheless, I think there is great value in remembering these people.

These days, when I walk along the rivers, I have a sense of the people who once died there. I know many of their names. Everyone in town can speak vaguely of the dangers of the rivers, but I can say, “Yes, and their names were Judd Wells and Emery Brown and Rupert Sweet…”

Maybe their lives no longer matter to those of us in the present, but I like to think they do. I like to think that there is always value in remembering the past, even if that value isn’t always apparent. If nothing else, these drowning victims have reminded me to be weary of facts. And to be weary also of the rivers.


How has your relationship to rivers—and for that matter, to death—been affected by writing this book?

I think this is the very question that I’ve tried hard not to face. The short answer is that my relationship with both death and rivers has changed. On the river front, I’ll simply mention that we recently moved farther away from the river. Last year at this time we were within a stone’s throw of the Chippewa River. These days, we live on a hill high above it.

As for death, I’m no more comfortable with it than I was before, that’s for sure. Probably, I’m just as anxious as ever. Recounting these drowning deaths reminded me how quickly death can strike, how one wrong step along a riverbank can change everything. But it also made me realize that one wrong step even far from a riverbank can lead to similar results. And even if we take every step right throughout our lives, still death will always find us.

In short, I wish I could tell you that escaping death—for me— was as simple as moving to the top of a hill. But even from my new height, I’ll never stop knowing that the river flows just below me, and that it cares very little for my life.

Photo of Hollars by Brian Hollars
Charles Van Schaick photos via "Miss Magnolia Thunderpussy's photos with the Charles van Schaick (photographer)" @ ipernity

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Just hanging out...

I recently bought a new turntable. My 20 year-old record player works fine—I was upgrading—and I plan on boxing it up and dropping it off at the local Salvation Army. I'm fantasizing that some teenager will wander in on the prowl for clothes, ironically goof on or sincerely melt at the site of the analog relic, and bring it home to set up in his or her bedroom or basement, continuing the tradition of untangling cords, dropping the needle, and flippin' over a record. I love the idea of a sonic continuum, of one person's mania infecting another years later. The Salvation Army seems as good a place as any to pass it along. One generation's fondue...


FIDLAR's stomping anti-anthem "Wake Bake Skate" came up on shuffle today, and I couldn't help but think that this skater punk band from Los Angeles is plugging in to the desires and hungers of any decade that sees kids, when idle, wanting to holler the joys of doing little. I remembered The Twiliters' "(Everybody's Going To) Rollerland," the upstate New York band's tribute to their local roller-rink and show venue. (The Twiliters' great story is told here and here.) The band recorded the song live on a Saturday night in 1964: one take direct to two Ampex portable recorders, the skaters in attendance asked to gather near the band so their squeals could be caught by the mics. (Roy Urbanus produced and engineered; the band also cut "Shakin' All Over," the a-side for which "Rollerland" was the flip.) A storming slab of raw rock and roll, "Rollerland" catches the mania and fun of teenagers letting go, skating to loud rock and roll, whipping around a roller rink as fast as physics will allow, their parents a literal
and figurative blur on the periphery. FIDLAR's on wheels, too, though their motivation to get up and out is a little less giddy, and a lot darker: "I do a bunch of drugs / I'm a fiend / I'm an addict / I'm all messed up / Watchin' television static." The goal: "I'm gonna try and make it / For another year / Just to hang out with my best friends / And drink a lot of beer." The singer's cheap, broke, without a job, phone, or "a life." Then why am I smiling? Because despite their stoner ethos, punk regalia, and speedy Millennial ennui, the guys in FIDLAR are riding, in low-rent spirit, the same nutiness and few chords powering the clean-cut, besuited guys in the Twiliters forty years earlier: their lanes might be faster, but the speed's the same. Loud, fast, needle in the red, the details are as similar as they are disparate: roller skates, skateboards, beer, weed, just hanging out. LBJ or Obama. Transistor radio or Spotify. A locally-pressed 45 or an mp3 in seconds. Rock and roll, it's like the weather, or the law. It's all around, and will outlast us and fuel the kids who aren't born yet.




Rollerland advertisement via The Twilters

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Metamorphosis: A Conversation with Brian Rose

“One belongs to New York instantly," said Tom Wolfe, "one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” Be this as it may, contemporary New York City endures so much civic upheaval and cultural scrubbing of its past that a half decade there can feel like a half century. I'm enamored of photographer Brian Rose's new book Metamorphosis: Meatpacking District 1985 + 2013. In it, Rose juxtaposes photographs of Manhattan's lower West Side in the mid-1980s with new photographs of the same locations and of locations nearby. The result is graphic: the Meatpacking District of the Ed Koch-era is long gone, vast stretches of hulking factories and desolation replaced by bright commerce and busy residents. What's particularly powerful about the book is its accidental nature, as Rose happened upon the '85 negatives and, surprised, and moved, felt compelled to revisit the sites and document the changes, letting commentary accrue in the spaces among the images. The photos are striking: large, vibrantly colorful, dramatically composed yet intimate in their documenting of particular city details. Some of the before-and-after comparisons are literal—a block-long fruit stand now houses Hugo Boss and Moschino boutiques—and some are subtle—a building remains, but shiny cars distract from its decrepitude. Throughout the series, in media res construction points to the changes coming.

In his introduction, Rose says this about the locally infamous High Line: "I love it—it's a perfect conjuncture of preservation and contemporary architecture. I hate it—it's too crowded much of the time to be fully enjoyed." Such a counterpoint informs many of the photographs in Metamorphosis, but Rose leaves the judging to his readers. Not so the inimitable Jeremiah Moss, of Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, who wrote the book's foreword, which is characteristically informative, mournful, and stoic. (My 2012 interview with Moss is here.) Moss writes: "Those of us who remember, who dream that gorgeously decaying world as it existed right up to the end of the last century might sometimes wonder if we were imagining it." Brian Rose's book is a reminder that that world did exist, in all of its grimy, crumbling, hazardous glory. One wonders what the area will look like in another thirty years, and who will be there to remark on the clash between then and now.

Recently, I virtually sat down with Rose to discuss Metamorphosis, photography, and the past.

Brian Rose
Could you talk a bit about the origins of the book?

It was the winter of 1985 and I was looking for something new to photograph. I'd recently finished projects having to do with the Lower East Side, the Financial District, and Central Park. So, for several days I wandered with my 4x5 view camera through the Meatpacking District and up into Chelsea. Everything was frozen—probably me too—and I did not feel terribly inspired. The film ended up in a box, and I never printed any of it. A year and a half ago I opened the box and scanned the negatives and was stunned to see these simple, but carefully composed, pictures of a semi-abandoned stage-set New York. I posted some of them on my blog, and Jeremiah Moss did a story on them on Vanishing New York. People started clamoring for me to do a book. So, last summer I began re-photographing the Meatpacking District, repeating many of the original shots, and making new images as well.

In the introduction you write, "This is New York. You cannot live here if you cannot abide change." That says: 1) change is inevitable, and 2) change must be accepted. Do you find the many changes in Manhattan since the mid-80s positive? What in your opinion has the city lost in its continual metamorphosing?
14th Street, 1985
14th Street, 2013
Change in a dynamic city is definitely inevitable, and unless you are inclined to perpetual suffering, you have to accept it. That doesn't mean you can't complain—I get worked up about stuff like anybody else. But there are many ways to push back against the onslaught. For years, I was actively involved with a housing group on the Lower East Side. We successfully secured permanent low income housing for hundreds of people, saved buildings from destruction, and influenced the design and scale of new development in a large urban renewal area. It didn't stop the tide of gentrification, but we deflected it and channeled it to the benefit of people.

Every change, however, involves loss. Sometimes it's painful, sometimes you just shrug your shoulders. There are a million more people in New York than there were when these first photographs were taken. There have been two stock market crashes. We weathered the Reagan years, then the Clinton years. And there was 9/11, the most traumatic event in the history of the city. It was an event reflecting the global nature of New York, which we often forget living in our individual neighborhoods, that there are forces affecting this city that we have little control of, that are beyond the scope of our complaining about the loss of our favorite bar or diner on the corner.

In the early '80s it was possible to imagine New York going the way of present-day Detroit rather than way things have turned out. You'd stand in the middle of the desolation on the Lower East Side or over in the Meatpacking District and say to yourself, "This is fantastic! This is beautiful!" And there was a kind of perfection in that moment. But in another moment you'd realize that it was a lie. That people were dying of AIDS, that people were strung out on drugs, that buildings were burning down and lost forever. Manhattan used to be a complete city with rich and poor neighborhoods, with blue collar industry, and iconic ethnic neighborhoods like the Lower East Side or Harlem. It's more homogeneous now. The old timers hold onto their rent controlled apartments, but for many newcomers it's an unapproachable Oz, too expensive, too glamorous. The diversity of the city remains, but it has expanded outward to the boroughs.  

You write also that you hesitate to say much textually, that you want the images to do the heavy lifting. What story do these photographs narrate?

Washington and Jane Street, 1985
Washington and Jane Street, 2013
I had a professor in art school who believed that images should have an "open ended" quality. And it's something I took to heart. What it means is that such images have multiple meanings, or there is ambiguity in their meaning. That they can be as much about the unknown as the obvious factual reality in them. In a similar vein, I've always said that I want people to find their own way in my photographs. I want to engage and provoke, but not preach. I want people to overlay their own mental maps of the city onto mine, and in the process look at things differently, see things freshly, re-examine their relationship to the familiar. The story in these pictures is yours as much as it is mine.

What do you feel is the cultural value of nostalgia?

Nostalgia is a normal component of human nature and society. But I think it can become fetishized, decadent. You can luxuriate in the imagined past and denigrate everything new. As a photographer I'm looking to bridge the gap between past and present, if that's possible. To find another kind of relationship with time that isn't simply before/after.

I'm always curious about what complementary photographers feel about the Instagram and Hipstamtic craze, specifically the use of pre-set filters that cast images in particular moods and tones, suggesting different eras or times of day, etc.. Are you a fan of this movement? Do you resist it? As a photographer who works with film and negatives, do you find digital manipulation problematic in any way?

It's curious to me that people view the past as if through a filter. I think it's largely because the past is commonly seen as grainy black and white film or faded color snapshots. Well before Instagram filmmakers were using filters to psychologically evoke the past. And they there still doing it. Look at Inside Llewyn Davis by the Cohen brothers in which the colors are muted and there's bluish cast over everything.

When I began scanning my 1980 Lower East Side film a few years ago, and more recently with the Meatpacking negatives, I realized that I could recover all the vibrancy of the originals. The past didn't look like the filtered past, it looked just just like the present. To me, that was startling, a kind of epiphany. I immediately decided that I wanted to mix the old and new images together in Time and Space on the Lower East Side. I wanted to confuse one's perception about what was then and what is now. With Metamorphosis, it made more sense to do a number of exact before/afters, but the equal color fidelity remains an important aspect of the book.

This wouldn't be possible without the ability to scan and work in Photoshop. The color in the old negatives had shifted, and if you tried to make analog prints, they'd look unbalanced and clogged up. So, I've embraced the technology, but only in the sense that it can help me do what I do. The idea of manipulated imagery goes all the way back to the early days of photography and film. It's a legitimate thing, but I'm still in love with camera-based images. It's not reality, actually, but it's connected in a very basic way to a common sense of visual perception.

Do you have a favorite image in the book, either from the past or present?

I'm not sure I have a favorite image, but I do have a favorite moment. I had set my camera up on the corner of Washington and West 13th Street in front of the Standard Hotel in order to duplicate a rather bleakly empty image from 1985. I stood there about 15 minutes waiting for something to activate the frame—something that made this different from a mundane before/after. Suddenly this bright red vintage car, top down, full of guys in sunglasses comes screeching around the corner, and I nailed it. It was the perfect distillation of what had happened to the area, the crassness, the excess. But it's also funny and harmless. It's just another moment.

Have you metamorphosed demonstrably since 1985? Do you see any of yourself in the juxtapositions of these photos?

I tend to think of myself as invisible in my photographs, though I know it's probably not true. When I began shooting large format color in the street in 1980, it was in many ways a new way of working. And in 1985 I was still discovering a process of investigating the urban landscape. Now when I go back, I'm aware of so much more. Not only has a lot of history unfolded in New York, but a lot has happened in photography. What I feel most of all is a sense of reconnecting with myself, a closing of a circle that began long ago.

Photo of Brian Rose by Rodger Kingston
All other images copyright 2013 Brian Rose

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jose Abreu. Employment: Baseball

The 2014 Chicago White Sox baseball season is a wash. Poor relief pitching and inconsistent hitting have discouraged winning streaks and have kept the team below .500 for much of the season. The Central Division-leading Detroit Tigers are poised to pull away for good (again). One of the bright spots for the White Sox this season has been the arrival of Jose Abreu, a Cuban-born slugger who's having one of the best Sox rookie campaigns in history. Already he's been named American League Rookie of the Month three times and Player of the Month twice; he also was named to the All Star team. As I write, he 's hitting .307, with an OPS of .911. He's slugged 31 homers, knocked 28 doubles, and driven in 86. He's struck out 95 times, but many of those whiffs came in a mid-season funk when he was trying to hit everything out of the park. Since then, his plate appearances have only gotten more impressive; he hits the ball to all fields, lays off close pitches, and seems to have a game-plan with every pitch. With his muscular stance and bat held high he reminds me a bit of Albert Pujols, and by sending balls screaming in all directions he's reminded some of newly-minted Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. But it's too early. He's a serious player—you can hear the gears whirring when he's at the plate—with a mature attitude to the game and its daily knack for humbling hot-streak players and exposing their weaknesses. But he's not sober, humorless, or distant. He's young enough to have a long career ahead of him, barring injury, but he's been around long enough that he takes the game's ups and downs in stride. His patience at the plate is complemented by a swing so fast it startles. At a game against the San Fransisco Giants at U.S. Cellular on June 18, I saw Abreu shoot a low line-drive homer to left that got out so quick that everyone in the park, with the exception of Abreu himself, looked baffled.

What I love about Abreu—and why he's quickly becoming a favorite player of mine—is his business-like nonchalance about his gifts that masks his concentration and knowledge. He's not a show-boat, and he doesn't sulk when he fails. His facial expression remains the same before a pitch, as he's crushing the pitch, and when he's standing on second after another loud double. Mr. Abreu, Baseball Player, has gone to work. He'll be refreshing and fun to watch for a long time.

Photo via AP, Charles Rex Arbogast