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".

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

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

Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

Roger Ebert Pulitzer

I never met Roger Ebert and I doubt he knew of me directly. Yet he played an important if brief role in my graduate education that I'd like to share in his memory.

During my stint at the U of C, I volunteered in various roles at Doc Films. For me, to spend evenings threading a projector or dreaming up (and sometimes programming) film series with fellow movie buffs was a welcomed antidote to the removed, sometimes too abstract, relationship one has with cinema as a student of critical theory and cultural studies. In 1998, for a series I co-curated comprised of films by foreign directors with the idea of America and American culture as central themes, a fellow Doc volunteer, who also worked as a projectionist for Roger's continuing ed course at the Graham School, asked Roger one night for his advice on movies we should consider including. His response surprised me: W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev, 1971), not the kind of film I would have ever expected from the critic whom I had dismissed over the years as too mainstream and forgiving in his tastes, responsible for reducing film criticism to thumbs pointed in one direction or another. The obscurity and uniqueness of the suggestion and (I'm told) the alacrity with which it was offered opened my eyes to better appreciate and understand the breath of Ebert's knowledge of film history and his unpretentious approach to and appreciation of movies, in all forms. For him, it may very well have been a passing thought at the end of a long day or week, one of countless recommendations made over a brilliant, sustained, and unprecedented career (even then) but in my mind's eye, I felt squarely put in my place knowing there was much still to learn and to see.

No doubt my story will be joined by many other, perhaps similar, remembrances in the coming days and weeks, of the small yet profound way Roger Ebert touched our lives. It has always been reassuring to know he was there to turn to — whether through his movie reviews, books, blog, interviews, or in casual conversation wrapping up a course screening — ready to share his passion for movies and his love of life.

Happy Birthday Miriam

Miriam Hansen would have celebrated her 62nd birthday today. It was a happy coincidence that we shared birthdays, which served as a reminder each year to stay in touch long after I left graduate school. News of her death this past February, despite her long struggle with cancer, came as a shock. She was an incredible force of a person — so much so that you expected if anyone could beat this, she would. She was tirelessly driven and unfailingly generous, of her time, her unique insights, and her disarming sense of humor.

We all relied on Miriam. . . to provide unblinking, fair critique of one's work, to courageously (especially in the face of serious illness) set the standard for academic rigor among her colleagues, and to lay the groundwork for the next generation of scholars and students, not least with the founding of the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of Chicago, of which she was very proud and I am thankful to have played a part in its early days. Yes, a rare, beautiful force who truly inspired others to achieve their best.

I feel very fortunate to have known her and I miss her, especially today.

Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004)

Peter Hujar, Susan Sontag, 1975
Peter Hujar, Susan Sontag, 1975

Susan Sontag’s essays, along with those of Roland Barthes, Siegfried Kracauer, and AndréBazin, are a cornerstone of my critical understanding of photography. Her insights not only opened new and interesting questions but did so with a fresh perspective and infectious energy.

I’ve archived her NYT obituary here.

Richard Avedon (1923 - 2004)

Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York, May 6, 1957
Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York, May 6, 1957

Adam Gopnik reflects on Avedon’s distinguished career as a master portrait photographer.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 - 2004)

Henri Cartier-Bresson, En Brie, June 1968
Henri Cartier-Bresson, En Brie, June 1968

From The Decisive Moment (1952):

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.