February 1, 2007

In My Language


A video posted by autistic woman titled "In My Language" has sparked lively online debates on personhood, the essence of language, and the nature of her condition (some claim that someone who expresses herself so clearly can't be autistic). While these debates interest me, they weren't the questions that came to my mind on seeing the video. Instead I was fascinated by purity of experience it portrayed, a kind of purity most often seen in children, and which artists are always talking about trying to reclaim: a state of elemental awareness, an almost painful sensitivity to the world...

Last weekend 60 minutes profiled Daniel Tammet, a savant who was able to recite pi to 22,514 digits (it took him 5 hours), and was able to learn conversational Icelandic within a week. Unlike most other known savants, he can interact fairly normally with other people in everyday social situations. And unlike most other savants he can narrate his mental process. Numbers for him aren't abstract things, but objects with mental geographies, "Every number up to 10,000, I can visualize.... [each] has it's own color, has it's own shape, has it's own texture," he explained in the interview. He spoke of the beauty (and ugliness) of numbers and illustrates their forms as landscape-like paintings.

I believe savants are not much different that the woman in the first video, it's just that the focus of their intense gaze happen to to have practical application in our world—descriptions of numbers versus descriptions of water or some other more ineffable obsession. The cerebral wiring that allows this focus, limits human interaction. Daniel Tammet for all his startling abilities can't remember faces a few hours after meeting a person, instead he memorizes the number of buttons on a coat, or the count of stripes on a shirt, but even so Tammet is unusual amongst autistics. He can have human relationships. Most severely autistic people have trouble relating to anyone. What "In my Language" was saying, I thought, was that this was ok. The author wanted no pity. Her life is not empty, her gestures are not randomness, or madness as is often supposed by outside viewers, just the opposite, it is a life emotionally overfull- her brain is saturated with dense thought much of it beyond our comprehension.

Most anyone who has dabbled in the arts, I think, can relate to these inward impulses. We become immersed in the clarity of a particular interaction, in the love of the word, in an idea, in a particular emotion, or in a fleeting vision and the artistic instinct is to fix time telegraphing the moment so it can be remembered. We live for those moments of heady transparency when the mundane veneer of our lives is peeled back to reveal something extraordinary. But of course usually we fail even at holding on to the thing for ourselves. It is the rare individual who can marry impulse, idea, and technique to produce something that allows us to peek into that hidden world of extravagant beauty surrounding us... Despite our clumsy fumblings the important thing I think is to try. Because in trying we build bridges between the worlds and we become more adept at living in them both.

Related: Tammet on Wikipedia (contains many other links)

February 2, 2007

Late in the Game

You know your wife is very very pregnant when the OB can't help but exclaim, "Wow! Now that's a belly." Officially there are 30 days left, but it looks like it could happen yesterday.

February 2, 2007

Where to go?


Blog reader Paul from Madison Wisconson asks, "If you could go anywhere in the world right now. Where would you go? Your budget is $1600. This is really a way of asking where should I go. I want to travel to the type of places you've been and I want to travel around for about a month. I'm into mountains but not mountaineering."

Hmm. The place that immediately came to mind is Leh in India. It will be around $1100 to get yourself to Dehli ($800 direct from NY). From there you get to Leh by bus and as long as you stay in backpacker type places your costs are minimal. The journey up to Leh is an adventure in itself, Leh is spectacular, and then from Leh you could take a bus to Kulu Manali and then back down to Dehli. I haven't scanned my negatives from Leh, but the snapshot above taken a few blocks from the bus station might give you a sense of the lost in time feel of the place... There are great day treks from Leh in all in all directions and the road to Manali is is flanked by some of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world. I'm getting itchy feet just thinking about it.

February 4, 2007

Feb 4th, 1986


I recently came across this (somewhat self conscious) self portrait taken exactly 21 years ago. You're looking at my freshman year dorm room, a two room triple I shared with Nick ("The Rage") and Scott (Scott was the kind of guy who never merited a nickname. He was leader of the mime troupe and was always proudly proclaiming his virginity.) The things that draw my attention the most are the typewriter on my roommate's desk (which makes the picture seem ancient) and my dorky hat. I was trying out the hat thing... I've tried the hat thing many times over my life. These episodes usually last a week or two and, thankfully, fade quickly.

I remember taking the picture... A brand new Hüsker Dü tape was playing in the cassette player and I thought, "I'll probably want to remember this room someday. Nick is out raging, Scott is out miming, now's my chance, but then again I'll probably look back at the picture someday and think, man what a jackass I was. Oh well, at least I'm wearing a cool hat."

February 5, 2007

Ugo Mulas

the new york art scene

For years I've tried to find a cheap copy of Ugo Mulas' The New York Art Scene to no avail. I saw the book for the first time 15 years ago at house of one of my friend's parents. I didn't really get far through it as I was grabbed by the cover which seemed almost criminally perfect. It's an image of two New York City cops watching over a gathering at Warhol's Factory. Can an image capture a cultural moment? That one seemed to. A few minutes into my book browsing, I had to leave never to return.

Anyway today I discovered a Mulas web site maintained by a foundation that bears his name (he died in 1973). The site is surprisingly rich complete with long texts and a portrait archive of 60's art world figures like Giacometti, Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and so on.

The book keeps going up in price. When I first started looking for a copy you could find a first edition for $100 which seemed outragous to my 25 year old mind. In recent auctions good quality copies have been going for 3 to 20 times that. Grrr.
the new york art scene

February 6, 2007

Dorthe Alstrup

I discovered Dorthe Alstrup's photography via her entry in Jen Bekman's Hey Hot Shot competition more than a year ago. Her body of work is full of evocative imagery suggestive of fairy tales or short stories. Look at this one for example... or this one or this one... oh hell, they're all great, just go browse yourself. I hope someone gives her a show here in New York soon. I'd love to see these as prints.

February 9, 2007

American Wasteland 10:47PM


Channel 2:
"Are you saying the blood was used in ritual sacrifice?"

Channel 21:

Channel 39:
"Lo voy a matar!"
"No, No puedes matar un niño!"

Channel 41:
"Vivo en un casa de sangre."

Channel 66
"When they come to that conclusion that babies go to heaven, they are even more in revolt against the word of God."

Channel 203
"He was found in a bathroom without his clothes on with his head severed."

Channel 208
"Look at this big tall guy. He takes it as it comes which makes for a nice bullride. Oww! Look at that guy holding on with those big long legs.-

Channel 227
"Are you serious? You can't be serious? $68 for display case with the bear claw? You can't be serious Shelia, are you going to start sending out cash with these babies? Every knife in this set—the swamp lizard, the bear claw, the avenger, the american hero, the dragon claw, and the green beret—is a hand crafted fighting machine. Can you say fast, these are fast knives. They DO NOT want to mess with you when you are packing one of these. So get off the porch and pick up the case."

Channel 244

Channel 254
"I'm scared. I'm scared. No. No. LET ME OUT OF HERE!!!!"

Channel 261
"Hanna refused to give in to the unthinkable, especially in the case of Lady her favorite."

Channel 276
"A hardened witness to battle the hyena will eat it's own in times of drought and famine."

February 12, 2007

Romualdo Garcia


I'm always surprised when my fellow photographers don't know the work of Romualdo Garcia. After Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Agustin Casasola he's one of the icons of early Mexican photography. Garcia was based in Guanajuato where he ran a busy portrait studio for almost 60 years. Unlike most studio photographers who toil in obscurity his mastery was recognized in his own lifetime and he won the bronze medal at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris. Despite his fame, he never travelled outside the city of his birth, always giving the excuse that there were too many clients waiting, too many portraits to take.

There are several Spanish language books on Garcia. The best is probably Romualdo Garcia, un fotagrafo, una ciudad, una epoca.

Related: Seydou Keita, more on Seydou Keita, part of my collection of photostudio portraits from tibet, Colors Magazine issue on Photo Studios

February 14, 2007

Photostudio Vernacular

On the heels of yesterday's post about a photostudio photographer, today I discovered a fantastic set of photostudio images on flickr. No context is given so I don't know the story behind them.

February 15, 2007

Book of Portraits, 1987


The amusing thing about being an regular diarist is that if enough time goes by you eventually discover stuff you've utterly forgotten. There must be a term for looking at some younger version of yourself and feeling embarrassed because in looking back you once again get wrapped up in the emotions of that particular time. You are ashamed for yourself for not knowing what you know now.... Make sense?

Anyway... in college I had this idea for a "book of portraits" with one portrait per day for 50 days. But I was basically too shy to ask anyone else to participate so it became a book of self portraits. On the next page I included a list of girls I wanted to shoot. I never worked up the courage to ask any of them to be photographed.

If you haven't guessed it already from the cluster of posts of content from 1986/87, I recently found a box full of journals/photos from that era...

February 16, 2007

The Ethnographic Image: Film, Photography and Ethnography

New Yorkers should note that tomorrow night (tonight actually as it's after midnight) Nelson Hancock will be moderating a panel discussion on ethnographic images at the School for Visual Arts... sounds pretty interesting and I'm going to try to make it there. The image above was taken in Guinea by panelist Robert Gardner and is titled Ritual War.

The panel will include:

The aforementioned Robert Gardner, filmmaker "Dead Birds," "Rivers of Sand," "Forest of Bliss." Author most recently of The Impulse to Preserve (Other Press 2006). Founder of the Film Study Center at Harvard. images

Susan Meiselas photographer and filmmaker, books include: Nicaragua, Carnival Strippers, Kurdistan and Encounters with the Dani. Meiselas is a member of the Magnum Photo Agency and has held solo exhibitions in major cities around the world. She has received numerous awards, including the Leica Award for Excellence, The Hasselblad Foundation prize and a MacArthur Fellowship.

Rosalind Morris, professor of anthropology, Columbia University. Her writings include monographs on spirit mediumship and the mass media in Northern Thailand, and the archive of visual anthropology. Other essays have addressed photography and its discontents, art in South Africa, the history of fetishism and the violence of culture in anthropological theory.

For more information, please contact the Artist Talk on Art office at 212-779-9250 or contact Nelson Hancock, the panel organizer and moderator at 718-408-1190.
@ School for Visual Arts (209 East 23rd) in the amphitheater. It's $7.

February 17, 2007

Creation Myths

Before your first child is born, if you are like most of us, you tell yourself lies.

You say, "We won’t change our lives."
You say, "We’ll won’t be like those other parents."
You say, "We won’t be like our parents."

But of course your lives change. Of course you’re like those other parents, obsessing over every burp and gurgle. And maybe not initially, but after a bit, you find yourself doing and saying things that remind you of your own parents. That much is inevitable. It happens to everybody.

When preparing for the first you have this illusion that you can make things perfect, or almost perfect. "If I just plan everything in advance," you think... So you buy too much gear, you paint and prep and read too many baby books. You develop plans to avoid the sleep deprivation everyone talks about.

And then the kid arrives and those first few weeks almost kill you because while your kid is booting up all his systems nothing goes according to plan. Nothing happens the way it’s "supposed to". There is always some crisis you can’t solve. There are never enough hands around to help and of course, you never get enough sleep. Your life changes, fundamentally and irrevocably.

And then, if you are like many of us, after about eighteen months or so you start having so much fun, you forget those first hard months and go for a second. During the second pregnancy you are so busy with the first child so you don’t think about the pregnancy much at all. You don’t plan or read books, it just kind of progresses on it’s own until the last few weeks when you realize "holy cow we’re having a another whole kid" and fear begins to creep over you as you remember those first hard weeks. "We’re not ready yet, we need more time. How did 9 months pass?" you ask yourself. You worry about how the first child will accept the second. You worry that you won’t have enough time for the second, and you worry about how life will change again just as you were starting to figure things out and become yourselves again. But there a line of thought that provides deep comfort at what lies ahead, "Things will not be perfect. We’ll fail just as we did before. It’s going to be hard. We’re not going to sleep. Nothing will go as planned. But everything will be ok. Just as we did the first time we’ll ride things out. Make things up. Break a few rules, and it will all be just fine. We know it will."
. . . . .
p.s. This evening Jenn turned to me and said, 'We can't have this baby yet, we still have too much to do.'
'Like what', I asked.
'We don't have enough onesies.'
'You aren't going to have the baby because we're low on onesies?'
'What's he going to wear?'


apropos of nothing she turned to me and said:
"When I'm in labor nobody is allowed to say to me, I'm opening like a flower."
"Did anyone say that last time?"
"No. But If I hear it I'm going to hit someone."

February 19, 2007

Babbling (a bit of a ramble)

After being turned away from In the Lives of Others at the Angelica, Jenn and I finally got around to seeing Babel tonight... Neither of us was excited about the movie as we both thought Iñárritu had lost his touch after the success of the great Amores Perros (hostile reviews also put a damper on our enthusiasm). We both found 21 Grams to be heavy handed and sort of falsely arty, and feared Babel was more of the same—maybe even more annoying. But both of us were pleasantly wowed. Jenn deemed it 'pitch perfect.' I kept thinking about how the scenes that were supposed to evoke 'the other'—the scenes in Morocco, and Mexico, and Japan—were all familiar to me via both travel and family... so the film felt oddly close even though all the situations were extreme...

Anyway in the cab home, we were discussing what we had just seen, when the cabdriver, a man named Mohammed from Dhaka turned to us and said, "You are talking about Babel. I didn't understand this movie. Why did they have a story about Morocco boy shooting tourist together with a girl looking for love in Japan and a story in Mexico?" We explained as best we could.

The conversation reminded me of discussions with my grandfather who remembered being confused during his first movie experiences by cuts. He remembered not being able to figure out how the actor got from one place to another so quickly.

Jenn's mother, a woman who grew up in the shadow of the Korean war, has a hard time understanding fiction. "Is this story a real thing?" she will ask. If it's not "real", more often than not the story will be dismissed. Movie flashbacks are confusing to her. "Why is it out of order," she asked once, "They should put the beginning at the beginning."

The parents of a friend of mine from India have a somewhat different problem. Having grown up on Bollywood films in which plots are endlessly recycled, they only accept a narrow set of possible storylines. They dismiss American films by saying, "No singing. No dancing. No hero. No wedding." It's almost as if for them the building blocks of narrative are hard coded and they can't deviate from the pattern.

The cabdriver listened carefully to our explanations about the connections between the various storylines. We explained things literally: The Japanese man gave his gun to the Moroccan and the woman who was shot was the mother of the kids the maid took to Mexico, but I wanted to say this, "The director is Mexican, all good Mexican directors tell stories about death. These were all stories about dealing with the death of family members." But I said nothing, knowing the words would have been wasted. "This was a strange movie" the driver replied, "you know it was very hot in the theater. It was hard to think."

February 19, 2007

New round of Hot Shots

Ka-Man Tse

Jen Bekman and her panel have announced a new round of Hot Shots winners. I particularly like the work of Ka-Man Tse (her image is shown above) and can't wait to see her prints in person. You can find more of her work on her website.

February 19, 2007

Japanese Photoblogs

After a post a few weeks ago featuring a Japanese photographer, several emails came in from Japan pointing me to this big list of Japanese photoblogs. The list features a huge range of sites from serious art portfolios to casual everyday "I ate eggs this morning" kind of blogs. Navigation is often obtuse so be warned. Images from a few of the photographers whose work caught my eye are listed below (click on the image to launch the respective sites).


hondaart.jpgOkajimax S.Hondart


dionnejp.jpgKoji Takiguchi

nakamuraayao.jpgAyao Nakamura

nijino-kizashi-petit.jpgSachiko Kawanabe

digikazi.jpgYoshihisa Kajioka


everybreathyoutake.jpgAtsushi Saito

Here's a bonus: The project "broken" on this blog by Akihiro Takahashi adds snippets of live sound to the images... I find it adds a real immediacy... nice idea.

February 21, 2007

How to buy good corn tortillas

1. Look at the ingredients.

2. Good tortillas have 3 ingredients: corn, lime, water. That's it. If anything else is listed in the ingredients you your tortillas are no good. If your supermarket doesn't have tortillas with these ingredients (and these ingredients only), go somewhere else. As far as I know there is no national brand of real tortillas. Those circular things Mission calls tortillas are lifeless tasteless cardboard-like abominations.

3. If there are no tortillas in your supermarket, find one of my fellow Mexicans. If he has any love of eating at all he will be able to tell you where you can find real tortillas.

In Brooklyn you can find good tortillas here: Tortilleria Mexicana 271 Starr St., between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas Ave, Brooklyn 718-456-3422

In LA you can find good tortillas in little bodegas all over Echo Park. Also at Acapulco Tortilleria @ 1309 S Vermont Ave or at the Santa Fe Tortilleria 1715 W Sunset Blvd


Good flour tortillas:

1. Look at the ingredients. Good flour tortillas generally contain lard, salt, flour, salt, baking powder and water.

2. Good flour tortillas are virtually impossible to find in the US because Americans are terrified of lard. "Lowfat tortillas" are an abomination. Why even bother?

3. Your best bet is to make them yourself. This is a good flour tortilla recipe.

Double bonus:

Sugar tortillas: Right after you put your tortilla dough on the comal you can smear it with a little bit of sugar. Then instead of flipping the tortilla you fold it over to make delicious sugar tortillas, my favorite childhood breakfast treat. Instead of sugar you can also substitute a bit of honey. Equally delicious.

February 22, 2007

Pepper's Ghost

I was curled up in my son's toddler bed last night finishing up our nightime routine of 4 books and a song about the moon when a streetsweeper two stories below drove slowly past the house . The flashing lights refracting through the window panes lit up the dark room painting the walls with bright orange and white squares. After the vehicle turned the corner and the room fell dark again I heard my son's quiet voice, "Wow." he said. Then after a long pause, "more?" and then, "more!" Before I could say, I couldn't make more, as if on cue, another streetsweeper began it's slow journey down the block. This time my son held up his hands to catch the light making huge shadows on the ceiling. After this too passed my son, content, bumped his head against mine and closed his eyes. Or so I thought. After a few minutes I turned to see if he had dozed off and was greeted by wide open eyes. He was watching me, studying me. "No daddy" he said seeing me notice him. Then he put a hand over my eyes. "Sleep Daddy," he said. I played along closing my eyes waiting for him to fade and for the hand to drop but while I was waiting I was the one who drifted off.

We parents complain about the lack of sleep, the length nighttime routine, and the hoops through which we have to jump to induce sleep... time gallops by so fast it's often hard to slow down and say, I want to hold on to this particular day and not let it get lost in the slippery blur of life... I woke up an hour or two later, my son finally asleep, his nose pressed up against my ear and slowly began to make my escape. As I was sitting on the edge of the bed clearing my fuzzy head I had one of those moments where time folded and I was suddenly a kid again on a similar small bed somewhere in Houston Texas a lifetime ago. In the middle of the night a firetruck's siren broke my sleep. I opened my eyes to a room painted in red flashing light. I'm pretty sure I said, "wow." Looking down at my son I wondered if this evening would lodge somewhere deep in his memory. Probably not—those early memory banks are most often reserved for bee stings, and tumbles, and getting lost in department stores. Maybe he'll remember, but probably not, and if not, I hope I have the wherewithal to remind him someday.

February 24, 2007

Weng Fen

Weng Fen is an artist from Hainan Island in China. Many of his projects—'Bird's Eye View', 'On the Wall', 'Staring at the Lake' and so on—feature figures, usually schoolkids, with their backs to the camera staring out over the landscape. To my eye they recall Casper David Friedrich's The Wanderer. It's compelling stuff especially when viewed in multiple. I'd love to see a exhibition of his one day. Anyone know if he's ever been shown in New York?

Weng Fen's personal website (with installation photos)

found via Moca Taipei

Update: Speaking of Freidrich, the Sunday Times today has a nice article on Justine Kurland who admired Friedrich so much that she named her son Casper. Her monumental landscapes with their tiny figures owe something to Friedrich but more to 17th and 18th century European painters who used their tiny naked figures to suggest something of the fecundity of unspoiled nature. I am most compelled by her work that keeps that distance using the smallness of the figures to emphasize the vast scale of the land. When she gets closer to her subjects and they are photographed from a few feet away all the uniqueness of the work falls away and they just become pretty nudes... well at least to my eyes. You can see examples of both types of kurland's images in her current show which runs through April.

February 26, 2007

First Snow

Yeah. It's actually the 2nd snow, but the first one didn't really count as it was mainly ice. Perhaps tomorrow we'll finally be able to break in the sled.



February 27, 2007

The Leopard Muses on His Spots

I cannot change them,
I am told by you people
who apply the rule of leopards
to the two-legged ape
who fancies himself better
then those who go about on four.

Why would I wish to change them,
though they do little to blend
me to the gray walls of my cage?
I am not gifted to ask
myself or others what a spot is
or what a spot is not.
We are given what we have
and left with what we've got.

by Paul Ruffin
From Issue 169 of the Paris Review

February 27, 2007

Jeff Wall Roundup

The new Jeff Wall show at MOMA has managed to stir the soup pitting those who admire Wall against his detractors. Here's a roundup of show reviews and blog posts (most from the last couple of days).

The New York Times profile and show review.

The New Yorker show review.

The Tate mounted Wall retrospective last year. The Tate site includes many images... good to check out for a bit of perspective.

Chris Keeley's thoughtful review.

Wall's show inspired Time to write a somewhat dismissive article on "staged photos". They group Wall with Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, and AES&F.

Alec Soth's blog entry on the Wall portrait by Justine Kurland in the Times article sparked this interesting discussion on artists doing editorial work.

An article on the Vancouver art scene and Wall's place in it.

Of course there is a wikipedia entry on Wall.

The Landscapist says he likes some of Wall's work but is annoyed by the underlying premise of the work...

Paul Butzi on Wall and 'nowhereness'.

Jon Anderson muses on Wall's constructed images as compared to found images

In Wall's work Dan Ng sees some redemption for creative people in advertising.

Doug Pummer is of two minds on the work...

As for me, I respect Wall. His recent images almost never hit me in the gut as did his earlier ones (sometimes I see the seams of the photoshop trickery which is a turnoff), but he's an important artist with something to say and I pay attention when he makes art... I appreciate the pure richness of his large lightboxes and enjoy decoding his art historical allusions. Much of the criticism of Wall comes from other photographers who find his work somehow threatening. I believe the opposite is true, and that his work has enlarged the range and scope of what people accept as art photography. I'm excited to see the show.


February 28, 2007

Holding Pattern

Everyone predicted our 2nd child to be born already, but he's taking his time. I'm in the middle of an ugly cold so I wouldn't mind if the birth were delayed a few days as sneezing on newborns is not recommended. The due date is today or tomorrow or yesterday depending on which chart you believe. My dad keeps saying, "He should have been born already," as if we are in control. He and my stepmother have also stated they could never love the second one as much as the first. "Impossible" they say in Spanish. When you love one kid so much, and that love has given you so much, the appearance of a second one is almost threatening as if it will dilute what you feel. They underestimate the size of their hearts.

If you've never seen the belly of a woman at full term, it's an extraordinary thing. Knees and elbows poke out when the baby shifts. Occasionally you see a foot or handprint. You push, the little guy inside pushes back. It's staggering how the journey of a few inches will change all our lives. Our first son is 2 years and 3 months old. He understands he'll have a brother soon, but of course he has no idea of how his life will transform. My wife and I are both firstborn, so we empathize.

We're all tired of waiting, ready for what's next. Now if I could just shake this cold.

Related: Undivided World, 2 years and 3 months ago

February 28, 2007

Erika Svensson


I found Erkia Svensson's work via Michael Julius' linklog who describes the images as "haunted pictures" with "strangely beautiful color". My thoughts exactly.

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