Paul Auster (1947 - 2024)

A photograph of Paul Auster taken in 2009 by Todd Heisler
Todd Heisler / The New York Times

Paul Auster was a fascinating, beautiful writer who plumbed themes and subjects I couldn't (and still can't) get enough of — chance, coincidence and the clockwork of the universe; loss and grief; belonging and place; the life of the mind and the act and consequence of writing itself.1 He personified my idea of the quintessential New York intellectual-artist. On the page, I love the velocity of his prose, the economy of his sentences, which avoid the mannered, overworked tendencies one finds in others to whom he might be compared. In the early 90s, I was fortunate to attend two of his readings, both to promote his 1992 novel Leviathan. His in-person storytelling possessed both an ease and a seriousness which were precisely, authentically "Austerian".

I confess over time I drifted from Auster's prodigious output, my devotion tested by novels that didn't wallop me like his early work. But, I felt secure knowing he was out there doing what compelled him, keeping on, unflinching, a force. I was comforted by my assumption I could always reconnect and catch up with his growing body of work when time allowed. In fact not a month ago I came across his latest, Baumgarten, which, with renewed affection, I found to be a return to form though through a more circumspect lens. And now he is gone.

NYT obituary

Literary Hub: Remembering Paul Auster

1 Perhaps my greatest debt to Paul Auster was his outsized yet uncited influence on my mouthful of a Master's Thesis: "From Fate to Indeterminacy: Examining Melodramatic and Comic Uses of Chance in Early Cinema and Their Transformation in the Classical Paradigm".


Story structure diagram

Milan Kundera (1929 – 2023)

Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera’s novels, and in the case of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman, 1988), film adaptations of his work, are among my favorite things. His writing greatly influenced my early appreciation and understanding of how literature can be thoughtful without being impenetrable, playful yet serious-minded, and, as Richard Powers has pointed out, excellent “empathy machines.”

NYT obituary

Why New Jersey?

Copyright © The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation / Magnum
Copyright © The Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation / Magnum

In 1975, Henri Cartier-Bresson came to the United States to photograph, of all places, New Jersey, at the invitation of Jaune Evans, a producer for “Assignment America,” a television show on the public-broadcasting station WNET. Looking back on the experience, Peter Cunningham, Evans’ partner and Cartier-Bresson’s assistant for the project, recalls his impression of New Jersey at the time: “It was a no-past, no-future state of existence.” It’s an apt description that resonates with my own memories growing up there, navigating the gravitational pull between Philadelphia and New York.

Writing for the New Yorker celebrating the re-emergence of Cartier-Bresson’s New Jersey photographs nearly fifty years later, Zach Helfand points out:

Down the shore that month, Bruce Springsteen was agonizing over what would become “Born to Run.” The two artists conjured a similar mythology: asphalt and steel, operatic death on dirty streets, traps and escape. Cartier-Bresson also found humor—two men wearing the same suit, a gaggle of disembodied mannequin heads. By coincidence, Cunningham had been working as a photographer for Springsteen. “In a way, this year, 1975, was Jersey’s birthing year,” Cunningham told me.

I don’t know if 1975 was New Jersey’s “birthing year,” but I appreciate the image of Springsteen and Cartier-Bresson driving the same highways and rural routes, breathing the same salty air, and thinking about and documenting the State of New Jersey, an overlooked and unassuming microcosm of America.

(via Jason Kottke)

Exit Only (1988)

It is difficult to comprehend, in 2022, the sheer number of hours I spent shooting, editing, and preparing to show this short not quite five minute movie, my capstone project for the undergraduate seminar English 284, “Popular Narrative: Comics, Films & Television,” a course taught by Donald Ault in 1988. Shot on 8mm silent color film, edited by hand, and finally, nervously projected while simultaneously playing on a nearby CD player the instrumental song, “The Brazilian,” by Genesis, Exit Only is, if nothing else, a testament to the value and privilege of a liberal arts education. I loved that class, not least because students were given such a wide berth when thinking about how to apply what we learned from our readings and lectures.

Professor Ault dispassionately blew my mind every week as we deconstructed (without calling it that - remember this was 1988) the art and methods of storytelling in popular art forms (mostly comics). I couldn’t get enough and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and apply what I had learned in a non-traditional way for the final class project. The experience still reverberates.

An obvious, cited influence was Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982). That film, as for so many, opened my eyes to how an experimental approach to the craft of storytelling could have such an impact and how film language itself was far from calcified. I also, simply, fell in love with the film’s astonishing images, the result of film speed manipulation and intentional, subtle camera movements. To be clear: Exit Only is no Koyaanisqatsi, but it unabashedly attempts to create a kindred grammar composed of an intentional accumulation of images, cutting between different filmed sequences, with varying timing, stretched non-linearly over the course of an imagined single day.

With so much raw footage, taken on campus and at various locations throughout Nashville, I needed a framework to help me lay out how the sequences would be assembled. I kept coming back to “The Brazilian.” The song had the perfect combination of dynamism and contrast. Given its underlying mechanical-sounding loop sequence — making perhaps a too obvious connection to the stop-motion aesthetic of the time-lapse photography as well as my overt commentary on life’s daily repetition and patterns — the song easily delivered the formal structure I was seeking.

Digital filmmaking today escapes much of the hard work this project required and avoids the many technical mistakes which could not be corrected in post-production. Choices I agonized over are now decided with the push of a button, and then undone if the results don’t satisfy. Magic! Certainly both have their place, but access to the requisite tools, the technical know-how, and, importantly, audiences and fellow enthusiasts, is dramatically different today. This access raises the bar on what can be achieved but also what can be discarded, which can be surprisingly counter-productive, as I have commented elsewhere when talking about the lack of scarcity that digital art can perpetuate and represent. While I don’t pretend to long for the good old days of analog media production — I welcomed the arrival of and continue to embrace all most things digital — I admit there is something inescapably satisfying when I watch Exit Only and think back to the materiality of the experience making it: the uncooperative stickiness of the splicing tape, the clatter of the classroom projector, even the whir of the CD queuing up, waiting patiently for me to press Play.

Like a Blanket in the Rain

Image courtesy of MACK Books
Image courtesy of MACK Books

Alec Soth reflects on his latest book A Pound of Pictures:

For me, photography is fundamentally tied to the physical act of recording. I leave the house and drive into the world. Through the lens of my Honda Odyssey, I watch light bounce off of a million surfaces. One of them catches my eye—the girthiest sycamore in Michigan, let’s say. I park the van, pick my spot, and set up the camera. It’s a simple tool and there’s so much it can’t record. We can’t hear the birdsong nor the crabby farmer who reluctantly gave me directions. My slow shutter can’t even catch the butterfly fluttering near the trunk. We might intuit the tree’s two-hundred-year-old history, but we only see bark, not rings. But, oh, the bark! The film’s emulsion soaks up its reflections like a blanket in the rain. Printing the picture, these reflections coalesce into a body. We hold the weight of a giant in the palm of our hand; flattened and miniaturized, yes, but not a VR genie. Each negative weighs .6 oz.

Shonni Enelow on Nomadland for Film Comment

Nomadland wants to be a film about precarity and poverty, but it is in fact a film about Frances McDormand's skill as an actor.

Shonni Enelow's short essay "Toil and Trouble" written for Film Comment's email newsletter captures precisely what I felt after watching Nomadland. I was constantly aware of McDormand the actor and was left unconvinced by the film's muddle of narrative conventions.1 By pressing on how Shakespeare is narrowly invoked, Enelow offers a refreshing read of the filmmakers' blindness to their own participation in the inequalities and exploitation they hope to reveal and subvert.

Representation is hard.

1. I would have preferred the essayistic film grammar and Brechtian artifice of Godard, though that is likely still too much for the Academy to swallow.

The Unfolding of Any Given Life

Brian Greene:

The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of a given life is a foregone conclusion.

Time Tunnel, 2019

Time Tunnel, 2019

“Pressed” the shutter on this one a year ago to the day; and what a year it has been.

Further Retreats from 2020

The "Pope of Trash" and "Filth Elder" John Waters offers a "hilarious," "glorious," "boldly retro" poster design for the 58th New York Film Festival."Retro digital oasis," (via Daring Fireball).A retreat and a "redo" all in one: this December, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, a new, "vindicating" cut of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part III (1990) will be released (in theaters 🤞) and retitled Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.

August Sander, Three Farmers, 1914

August Sander, Three Farmers, (1914); Copyright: (c) Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2017. / Photo (c) Tate
August Sander, Three Farmers, (1914); Copyright: (c) Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2017. / Photo (c) Tate
A picture about not knowing.

- John Green, “The Art Assignment,” PBS Digital Studios, February 28, 2019

Ghost David, 2020

Ghost David, 2020

As I shared in the most recent installment of my newsletter Just Three Things, the above image is a digital photo taken on April 27, 2020 of a cyanotype (“Sun Art“) photogram (made the same day or day before) of a 4×5 inch litho inner positive (date of origin lost to history) of a 35mm Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white negative exposed in the summer of 1987.

RIP Robert Frank

Fred Stein, Robert Frank holding a pre-war Leica camera, 1954
Fred Stein, Robert Frank holding a pre-war Leica camera (1954)

NYT obituary

Mixtapes: Machined (2018) and Wrapped (2018)

You Are What You Listen To by Mohammad Metri
Photo by Mohammad Metri

I decided to conduct an experiment in 2018 and embrace the coming age of the bots. Throughout the year, I culled songs from Spotify’s Discover Weekly1 recommendations, music heard in the wild (thanks Shazam), songs surfaced by Apple Music, and tracks played on local radio (esp. KUTX).

I say that I embraced the coming age of the bots because well over 80% of the ~1,500 - 2,000 songs I listened to (and tracked) during the year were purposefully based on algorithm-generated recommendations. Of these, I saved 228.2 I then filtered for only those songs released in 2018, reducing the count to a reasonably compact 45 (clocking in just under 3 hours of total play time). And in one final nod to letting the computers do the thinking, I sequenced the song order on “shuffle”. I’ve published the final playlist on Apple Music.

It should be noted that I was inspired to share these results by a friend of mine who regularly posts his favorite songs and albums of the year. Interestingly, though a couple of artists (CHVRCHES, Courtney Barnett) found their way on both of our 2018 lists, not a single song was duplicated.

As a point of comparison, I also installed Federico Viticci’s Siri Shortcut Apple Music Wrapped, which attempts to capture for Apple Music customers the spirit of Spotify’s year-end listening trends summary. The 25 songs that comprise my resulting "Wrapped (2018)" playlist are not limited by year of release, as the experiment above, but are selected solely based on play count. As Apple further embraces services, one can hope they will bake-in these kinds of features in the future.

1 Spotify serves up 30 songs a week to “discover” based on an algorithm which assesses your listening habits, saved songs, and, from what I have read, songs others on the network are sharing, saving, and what not.

2 90%+ of the down-selected songs originated with Discover Weekly.

"In Praise of Public Libraries" by Sue Halpern for New York Review of Books

Sue Halpern commenting on Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris (2017):

If you want to understand why the Trump administration eliminated federal funding for libraries in its 2018, 2019, and 2020 proposed budgets, it’s on display in this film: public libraries dismantle the walls between us.

"Ten Year Futures" by Benedict Evans

Physical retail, TV, and, by extension, advertising at a tipping point (written roughly two years ago).

Things Happen When You're Bored

Pamela Paul on the anesthetizing effects of boredom:

Once you’ve truly settled into the anesthetizing effects of boredom, you find yourself en route to discovery. With monotony, small differences begin to emerge, between those trees, those sweaters. This is why so many useful ideas occur in the shower, when you’re held captive to a mundane activity. You let your mind wander and follow it where it goes.

"Paris through the Eyes of Willy Ronis" by Carole Naggar for New York Review of Books

Willy Ronis, The Lovers of the Bastille (1957)
Willy Ronis, The Lovers of the Bastille (1957)

Carole Naggar on Ronis:

In France, Ronis’s work is much loved, with its focus on ordinary people and ordinary life, its sense of humanity, empathy, and grace—the anti-sensational, as it were.

"City as Character" by Tyler Malone for Lapham’s Quarterly

Tyler Malone on text-cities:

In text-cities like Ulysses, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Manhattan Transfer, readers walk through words and pages, experiencing a city alive, asserting its idiosyncrasy, its uniqueness — fleeting, eternal, fugitive, infinite — amid the ebb and flow of passages.


“How to Survive Your 40s” by Pamela Druckerman for The New York Times

Pamela Druckerman on how to survive your 40s:

These days, when I think, “Someone should really do something about that,” I realize with alarm that that "someone” is me.

Stephen Shore @MoMA

All clips here are worth exploring, but I was struck in particular by Shore's thoughts on Instagram and global photo-based communities and how the iPad, like a view camera, mediates the act of picture making.

Joel Meyerowitz on the Impact of Smartphones on Street Photography

Stuart Jeffries writing for The Guardian:

Today, what entranced Joel Meyerowitz about the street is all but dead. “Nobody’s looking at each other. Everybody’s glued to their phones.” But street photography still exists? “It’s thriving but not in the way I used to do it. The best street photographers now show humans dwarfed by ad billboards. The street has lost its savour.”

Kottke's Advice for Visiting Paris

Having just returned from a long overdue revisit, I would agree with most of Jason's and Tyler's recommendations and observations. Paris is a work of art (veering on cliché) best explored on foot and by Metro.

Between Then and Again: Peter Funch’s “42nd and Vanderbilt”

Peter Funch, 2012.07.03 09:09:07 / 2012.07.17 09:09:43
Peter Funch, 2012.07.03 09:09:07 / 2012.07.17 09:09:43

What to make of this collection of images taken over nine years at the same intersection in New York City, comparing individuals (separated from the crowd) walking by on different days?

In his New York Times review, Teju Cole's reference to Walker Evans is helpful, but his famous and groundbreaking subway portraits are much more surreptitious. Evans wasn't as interested in the ritual or the remembering of a particular yet insignificant intersection of time and space but rather sought the truth that photography alone seemed to be able to conjure: the unguarded, unrehearsed version of a person that emerges within the presumed anonymity of public spaces in large cities.

Likely Funch wants us to be impressed by the discipline of nine years going at something, and the unique fruits of that particular labor, and for the most part I'd say we are. Time, that much of it, gives the project weight and a lens through which to look at difference, perhaps the best way to recognize (and predict) patterns.1 But as with any project, “42nd and Vanderbilt"2 is also very much the result of curation. How many shots didn't make the cut? How many days did his commuters not turn the right corner? These images, and the moments they point to, are no longer unremarkable or transitory, as a natural consequence of their choosing. In this light, Douglas Coupland's mention of Warhol makes sense, given his exploration of (the paradoxes of) unedited phenomenon.

To my eye, it seems Funch is trying to paint the routines and mundane patterns of everyday life here in the most flattering light possible. Unlike Coupland, I’m not as preoccupied with the limited wardrobes these images betray. Nor am I as struck by the “remembering” the project evokes for Cole, perhaps because New York is not my home.

Rather, these images, despite their careful curation, composition, and exposure, function in a much more abstract and less personal or sentimental way for me. The isolation of these subjects in terms of framing, focus, and lighting, within a context (a street corner in New York!) that is anything but isolated, pushes my attention more to the blurry bits in the background where others (often partially) enter the frame. Those stories, and the potential intersections and geometry they represent (through happenstance or otherwise), pique my interest as much as the day to day differences and similarities Funch seeks to reveal.

1. Though it is worth noting intervals between photos of a given subject, at least for those I’ve been able to see online, typically span days or weeks not years. Perhaps the full collection goes further. As well, likely for practical reasons, most if not all exposures occur between May and August.

2. I haven’t done the research to discover if there is a significance to this particular intersection, other than its proximity to Grand Central Station, and therefore the increased chance of spotting commuters coming and going.

Pico Iyer on the Point of the Long and Winding Sentence

Pico Iyer:

I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.