June 7, 2004

"Don't take that door!"

Yesterday, photographers protested a proposed ban on photography in the New York Subway system. I've been in NYC the last five days, taking photographs, though not on trains. Why don't I take photographs on trains? I was robbed on a train once, so I'm one of those people who try to be inconspicuous on trains. I certainly don't want to display any valuables, and a camera is a stealable item. But even aside from my vigilance about robbery, I don't want to annoy or intrude on people. People riding the train are trying to endure their little daily ordeal in peace, and it is irritating to be viewed as someone else's subject, even in the tiny subjection that consists of being the subject of a photograph.

I was on a photography walk this morning, wending my way from my 5th Avenue hotel to the block of 91st Street between First and York where I used to live in the early 1970s. Unlike my old 1977-1980 neighborhood--shown here--that neighborhood, which wasn't even nice at the time, has declined. The building I used to live in, then an unrenovated tenement, has become a warehouse. But the nice thing about neighborhoods in decline is that there are a lot of interesting things to photograph. Walking around my hotel, there's nothing photographable. Approach my old neighborhood, and there are interesting things everywhere. So what does this say about the role of the photographer? Maybe we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, intruding on the people who can't afford to remove themselves to a nicer place. Those people on the subway would probably prefer a less picturesque mode of transportation, and there is something unseemly about capturing their suffering, though it is a very mild form of suffering. It is only interesting to photograph because it has an element of suffering. I usually don't photograph people, but I photograph places that express something about the people that live and work there. I'm drawn to things that are wrong or messed up in some way, even though I'm very sensitive to anything being awry in my immediate surroundings.

As I was walking this morning, I saw a strange door at the top of a stoop. Someone had attached assorted pieces of wood to it in a way that made it look like a shrine. There was an old woman sitting on the stoop. I thought about how much I would love to photograph her, but how I wouldn't even dare to ask her if I could. With my camera in my hand, I looked at the door. She yelled in a very cranky "Little Edie" way: "Don't photograph around here!" I said, "Can I take that door?" She spat out, "Don't take that door!" with the level of disgust and outrage that would have been appropriate if I had actually asked if I could detach the door from its hinges and cart it off with me. I said I was sorry and walked on, feeling quite chastened and guilty about taking photographs.

So what do I make of these one hundred protesting photographers who marched through the subway system staking out their entitlement to take all the images they want even though New York City police officials deem a photography ban a good anti-terrorism precaution? Clearly, the subways are a terrorist target and a horrible catastrophe could easily occur there any day. There is some connection between photographing the site and making a terrorist plan. Those who ride the subway have new reason to feel uneasy when they see photographers, whose photographing of odd corners of the station has become disturbing in a way that it was not before 9/11. One photographer quoted in the linked article was questioned by police when he took a picture of a bridge and knew of someone who was questioned for photographing a train station. He says, "The paranoia has gone a little too far." Yet if an attack were to occur, the police would be criticized for not noticing things like this and taking action to prevent an attack. There are many places where photography is prohibited by law, many other places where it is prohibited by social convention and human decency. (Suppose I had taken a picture of the old woman who yelled at me?)

What does it mean to see yourself as an artist? Does it mean you have a special privilege to annoy or intrude on people, to have the rules bent to suit you, to challenge and make people confront their fears? Does it give you a special feeling of entitlement? Why doesn't it give you a special feeling of empathy for the fear and suffering of others? And if it doesn't give you a feeling of empathy and some sense of guilt about intruding on the suffering of others, why are you not ashamed of your self-flattering belief that you are an artist?

June 6, 2004

Views from the hotel and in the American Wing.

Here are two views from my hotel window (note the flag is at half staff):

And here are two images from the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the first is a detail the second an Art Deco tomb effigy):

The Whitney Biennial: polymer bliss.

This morning I saw the Whitney Biennial. There will be no photographs, because you're not allowed to take photographs in art museums (at least in the United States). So how was the show? Of course, there's always a lot of stuff in the Biennial that seems like somebody is trying to help somebody by letting them hang their things in the company of things that deserve to be there. There are always dismal installations and videos. There are always messy, self-indulgent things trying to look good by being tacked up in large multiples and bathed in very strong light.

But go to the top floor and take a right turn and look at the first two rooms. Okay, stop for a couple minutes and read the absurdly leaden and pompous art-prose they've painted on the wall, but don't take it seriously! If you're an editor-nerd like me you can think about how someone might have written these words if they had actually wanted the reader to understand the actual meaning as opposed to wanting to create a general sense of the loftiness and political importance of the whole affair. And then you can think about the meaning and decide if it was worth saying at all. Or even if anything at all was said. But why are you wasting your time? Take that right turn and hang out in the first two rooms. That's where I spent my time. What most impressed me were two artists that have worked out an elaborate style involving thick use of synthetic polymer (i.e., clear plastic), that gave a fascinating dimensionality to what appeared as a flat surface. (Why is that such a fascinating effect? Why did we like Magic Eye posters even when the images that seemed to pop out were not even interesting images?)

The two artists were Julie Mehretu and Frank Tomaselli. Mehretu's large canvases with built up layers of polymer were done mostly in black ink painted and drawn on in great curving lines and hard ruled lines within the polymer layers. Tomaselli had elaborate swirls of cut out paper birds and hands and eyes along with real pills embedded in his polymer. For both of these artists, it was not just the brilliant technique but also the images. Mehretu's were surrealistic landscapes/cityscapes that brought to mind ancient Chinese ink paintings and abstract expressionism. Tomaselli's were druggy hallucinations on a black background.

Here's the link to the official Biennial site, which tries to be a clever website but is pretty annoying and ugly. I can't link to the particular artists I liked--you can click your way to them though--but it's just as well because their works don't look at all impressive reproduced on line.

D-Day and today.

The lead editorial in today's NYT reads:
It's tempting to politicize the memory of a day so full of personal and national honor, too easy to allude to the wars of our times as if they naturally mirrored World War II. ...

But there are two forms of temptation to politicize the memory of D-Day. One is the temptation to say our war is like that war. The other is to say our war is not like that war and to criticize those who find any similarity.

The Times keeps its indulgence in this temptation quite subtle. I've seen much more heavy-handed politicization of this kind. On Memorial Day, I wrote about WWII without mentioning anything about today's wars, and was harshly criticized on my now-defunct comments page for failing to go on to criticize the Iraq war. Talking about WWII supposedly required setting it apart from the current war. The Times, being far more sophisticated in its expression of opposition to the Iraq war, confines itself to positing proponents who will make the positive comparison between the two wars--as if they, and not the Times editors, had brought up the subject.

Dark comedies.

Key line in an excellent NYT article on fixing movie comedies that failed to please test audiences (especially the new and troubled Stepford Wives): "No dark comedy has ever reached the status of blockbuster."

June 5, 2004

Ronald Reagan.

Here's a picture of Reagan I took a while back, a freeze frame from the movie That Hagen Girl. (My long post on That Hagen Girl appears here. It's a horrendously bad movie that he didn't want to be in.) I'm listening to the TV coverage of Reagan right now. The coverage is quite nicely done. [MSNBC] So beautifully positive. A really nice tribute from Bill Clinton just now.

Turtles, frogs.

[UPDATE: Sorry turtle and frog fans. The photographs here were stored on a Mac.com page which — though I paid for it — Apple took down before I had the chance to relocate the photographs. I've attempted to restore the images using The Wayback Machine, but somehow this one is irretrievable. It hurts me more than it hurts you.]

A little girl was led by her father to the end of the wooden pier that extends into the Turtle Pond in Central Park. One second before she looks over the end of the pier, she says, "There are no turtles." Then:

Ah! There are 10 big--foot long--turtles right there. And optimism is instilled next to the little girl's skepticism. And here's a little boy reaching up toward an exotic frog. See the other one right there in the middle? (Now we're at the Frogs exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.)

Here's a frog that looks like moss.

This one is not inclined to blend in:

Fashion advice.

May I suggest, this season, for the man, the Cossack look:

Comedians from another time and place.

Two abstracted faces.


Lips that spoke to me.

Unnatural ahistory.

[UPDATE: Sorry, I can't restore the photographs that got lost when Apple destroyed my Mac.com archive.]

The faces that spoke to me today at the Museum of Natural History--taken out of tribal context.

Partisanship ... and good-bye to Ronald Reagan.

Over breakfast this morning and out of range of the internet, I read David Brooks's op-ed in today's NYT, which dealt with a question I think about a lot: why do people have the party affiliations they do?
Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist and Eric Schickler argue in their book, "Partisan Hearts and Minds," ... people do not choose parties by comparing platforms and then figuring out where the nation's interests lie. Drawing on a vast range of data, these political scientists argue that party attachment is more like attachment to a religious denomination or a social club. People have stereotypes in their heads about what Democrats are like and what Republicans are like, and they gravitate toward the party made up of people like themselves.

Once they have formed an affiliation, people bend their philosophies and their perceptions of reality so they become more and more aligned with members of their political tribe.

I spent much of the day at the American Museum of Natural History catching glimpses of the tribal ways of the human being. It is sometimes very beautiful and poignant. And yet I have to think that we are born to rise above these attachments and to think rationally and scientifically.

As I walk across Central Park--that rationally constructed imitation of nature--my cell phone rings and it's John telling me of news reports that Reagan is near death. Back at the hotel, I get connected to the internet and begin to download the day's pictures. John calls again to say that Reagan has died, and we both turn on CNN together in time to hear a clip of Reagan's Challenger speech, which seems to refer to his death now. There are shots of Reagan on horseback and striding in the sunlight with Nancy at his side.

I'm struck by how soon after I heard he was dying that I--mired in this partisan world--began to think about the effect his death would have on the Presidential race. It would help Bush--wouldn't it?--to return to the positive images of the Reagan era for the next week. It could only hurt him if he overreaches and uses the occasion for his advantage too noticeably, if he makes what we might call the Wellstone Mistake. I imagine the Kerry camp cursing their bad luck or contemplating how or whether to mix the nice things they must say about Reagan with sideswiping comparisons to Bush. I wish I hadn't even thought about these things. The aged President has died--one ought to think kind thoughts about the dead man and not taint the occasion with politics, but that doesn't seem possible. How I hate partisan politics!

June 4, 2004

I love writing.

I love unnecessary words:

And words that seem meaningful:

And words that seem a bit off, like this celebration of the American-ness of meat:

And this grammatical conundrum (if they are selling pedicures cheap, are they not selling NYU students?):

Catching fast dogs.

I got the idea of catching pictures of dogs as they passed by. I aimed the camera down and took a chance, not wanting the owner to know what I was doing. Here's a picture I took of a guy and his dog before I got the the aim-down-quickly idea:

Here's one that came out using The Method:

Here's one that is just so weird that I loved the way it didn't come out. Just sheer essence of passing dog:

My old neighborhood.

There is so much more to photograph in Manhattan than in Madison. And there's so much more to do in Manhattan than in Madison. But I can't post what I do on the web the way I can post my photographs. And I'm trying to resist going overboard. But I've just got to continue. I want to show you the building I lived in when I was a law student. It's called The Rembrandt.

The same company owned another building nearby called The Van Gogh. You might think it inadvisable to live in a building named after a person who famously committed suicide, but I lived in The Rembrandt for only two years and one day I came home from work to see a body lying under a tarp right in front of the door. I ran upstairs and told my then-husband who said he thought he'd heard a strange noise. On another occasion during our two-year lease, a man who lived across the street committed suicide by jumping from what was a one-story building. The Rembrandt is on the corner of Jane Street and 4th Street, a corner most famous for The Corner Bistro, which has one of the best burgers in the city:

I walked from The Rembrandt down 4th Street all the way to NYU School of Law, which was my walk for the first year of law school. Fourth Street is much spiffier now, and I stopped for lunch in a restaurant, pictured below, where the customers looked and acted like the sort of people I once associated with the Upper East Side, not the Village.

What did I eat? Why, my favorite: pasta with bolognese sauce! The place is called La Focaccia. Why don't you go there?

13 details of Greenwich Village and SoHo.

Inside Seton Hall.

I'm here in Newark for the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics Annual Health Law Teachers Conference (as mentioned here). It's at Seton Hall University School of Law which has a beautiful modern building with a spectacular atrium. This is just a slice of the huge space:

I gave my talk--about federalism, medical marijuana, and assisted suicide. Here's what the view from the speaker's position looked like:

You try talking about drugs and suicide while looking into such an alienating space! It felt like a scene from a Terry Gilliam movie. From the speaker's perspective, the people look like disembodied heads lined up on shelves. But teachers make great audiences, usually. They know how helpful it is to smile and nod.

Students usually keep a poker face because they don't want to be called on. It can be unnerving. So a word to all the law students who read this blog: just smile and nod occasionally. It won't make us call on you. Now, frowning and shaking your head: that's asking to be called on. I once had a student who constantly frowned and shook his head, and I always had to say "Is something wrong?" I had to call on him to find out if I'd said something wrong or if there was a point he wanted to disagree with me about. But he just didn't like what the Court was doing (and didn't mind talking about it in class--he was a terrific student). I sometimes feel that students attribute the cases to me: if they don't like the outcome or the reasoning or think they are complicated and confusing, they appear to be mad at me. This is another reason for students to speak in class. Or just do that nodding and smiling thing once in a while.

June 3, 2004