Monday, December 28, 2009

Failing at Glory

Last time I was at my folks' house, I randomly picked up Glory, by Vladimir Nabokov, and started reading it. I wasn't terribly impressed - the prose drier than what I've come to like from the big N., the story not overwhelmingly interesting, though the pacing an attractively odd and elusive trick that leaps without action - with it but it was good enough to keep reading and I read until I got to page 144.

Several days ago, I grabbed it on my way out, thinking I'd make good use of my hour long subway rides and even got a seat during rush hour where I could successfully avoid Christmas shoppers' packages from poking me in the calves as the train rocked back and forth. It was mad crowded on the train but I was contently ignoring the people squeezing all up on me by adamantly concentrating on Martin's lackluster misadventures. Somewhere between Brooklyn and Union Square, Martin moved from Switzerland to Berlin in an attempt to do something about his unceasing boner for Sonia and things were getting a little more interesting. "You're such a dear that I have to kiss you," Sonia says on page 144, and then of course they kiss (finally!), and then she's all, "And what if I'm in love with somebody else?" and I go to turn the page to find out who it could be and how Martin will ever survive this blow and I hope to inch onwards to the supposed Glory that has yet to develop even slightly. And then somehow I'm back on page 113, where Sonia is again recounting how she turned down Martin's friend's marriage proposal way back in London!

I didn't get it - I kept frantically looking at the dead eyes all around me, swaying to and fro with their hands up on the rails and no one even flinched. I checked again; went back to the original page 113, then to the faux 113, then back to 144, then stared at 144 which faces faux 113 and back at the dead eyes. It felt like I was losing it! Back when I was finishing my thesis, staying up for days at a time and cramming words onto pages at unprecedented speeds, I had a similar experience. There was some sort of glitch with Word where out of nowhere pages just started disappearing and mixing and sleep-deprived, stressed me couldn't fix it, broke down, and just sobbed on my keyboard until a friend arrived with emotional and technical reassurances. But then, order was reinstated!

This time, I kept looking for answers in dead eyes and the pages kept staring back, mocking. Everything between 145 and 176 is, instead, a repeat of 113 to 144. Disaster struck around 14th Street, so I had to ride bookless up to 77th St. and again bookless all the way back to BK. Reading on the subway is awesome; I almost prefer it to reading in a hammock or in sun-dappled nooks. I also like people watching on the subway. In general, I just like the subway. But rush hour subway sucks and without a book it's utterly depressing! Plus, now I have this book that I wasn't even that into to begin with that I now must finish and neither my local library or the local Barnes & Noble (which is bigger and more comprehensive than the library!) carry Glory!! If those 31 pages don't contain some mind-blowing passages when I finally get to them, it's going to be the most inglorious reading experience ever.

Friday, November 6, 2009


I haven't been CAWing lately because I've been tip-tapping on another blog, Art+Culture. Check it out! I interviewed the awesome Donald Weber and accomplished less interesting feats of blogging, as well.


Sunday, October 11, 2009


Oh yes, I like books! Last weekend I carried around boxes full of them to and from the P.S.1 hosted Art Book Fair and shelved an enviable collection of photo books while trying my hardest not to let my desirous spittle reach their crisp covers. Though I didn't spend too much time looking around the fair, controlling my shopping impulses by not acknowledging the presence of thing I may want, a brief perusal led to the following conclusion: there's so much crap out there, people! It's not to say that there aren't quality art books being put out by large and small and very, very small publishers alike, but with the democratization of access to publishing comes the inevitable flood of things that really didn't need to appear in book form. It's a sacred form, after all.

The fair, of course, has me springing into action. On the one hand, the good stuff makes me want to make good stuff, and on the other, the bad stuff makes me shed all self-consciousness and leap to action self-assuredly, confident that if it turns out bad it will be in the company of other bad stuff that people still consume. It's something, right?

It will be ready by Jan. 1st. Promise. I'm planning to perfect bind it in my parents' garage.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Leek Soup

boiled chicken bones for broth
throw in the below and cook till soft:
3 thick leeks
6 small potatoes
half clove garlic
1 tbsp margarine
salt, lemon pepper, sage
juice of one lemon

half cup of milk in the very end
garnish with chives and eat with good toast of choice

Monday, September 28, 2009

Archives: Family

Fact: Printing this in the darkroom was hell. In Photoshop it took 3 minutes to make it presentable and I could probably even ween out a decent print.

Archives: St. Petersburg view

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Fine Photo

The first photo book I ever picked out for myself was a Jeanloup Sieff monograph that had everything from fashion to portraits and reportage. I was 16, starting to shoot regularly, and discovering the medium with its various aspects – the technical, the stylistic, the different genres, etc. I‘d grown up with my Dad’s photo books, mostly Soviet produced, worn tomes with black and white images of mountains and grandiose landscapes that seemed to be printed with heavy, metallic inks that glared thickly on the fingered pages. But this was a book I had picked out and paid $40 (!!!) for and I spent long hours leafing its oversized pages and staring. I liked his style, the serenity and loneliness of his fashion work, the contextual ambiguity of his journalistic pictures, the pithy sentences at the bottom of each photo that gave them a vie I could grasp on to, a nuisance interpolated onto the pages and the stories of the photos.

But what I remember being most impressed with was the tones. It was the same wonderment I experienced when turning on the lights in my makeshift darkroom after printing from one of my dad’s negatives, rather than my own overly contrast-y, dirty, pale, etc, negatives. Or the first time I used fiber paper. There was lavishness; a gradation in the grays, a richness in the blacks, a texture in the whites, a range that made the shapes roll onto the pages rather than insert themselves starkly and violently. There was a picture I liked, of nuns gathered to see the Pope, in flowing holy habits and wimples, and the blacks of the robes were defined, the folds full of body and essence. I felt reprehensively attracted to the photo.

I learned that this was kind of a norm in quality photography – properly produced negatives tend to yield a spectrum, a rolling gamut of grays that is subtle and supple. But though I’ve put in long hours looking at other photos since then, the awe of seeing a perfect print hasn’t faded.

A few days ago I went to see the Richard Avedon fashion retrospective at the ICP. I had seen most of the work featured at the museum previously, in books or on websites and magazines and factoring in familiarity, wasn’t really expecting to be blown away. Rather, I went to stand in its presence, to see it printed large and scrape some motivation from the ubiquity of it on the walls of a small space. But it blew me away and I spent minutes lingering, leaning into each photo and, again, staring (L. has asked me what I’m looking for when I lean in like that, sticking my nose in too close to see…I’m looking for the grays.) There was a darkened room with relatively small prints, 11x14 maybe, each separately lit by a small white bulb that further defined the tones, making the photos glow with a glassy sensuality burgeoning from within. There was an oversized print spanning floors and large prints, so many, too many for me to stare at for as long as I wanted.

A gay couple kept trailing behind me and comparing favorite dresses and accessories and another duo, aged denizens of the fashion business I guess, casually pointed out models and where they’d last seen them or worked with them. But for me, the quality of the images was distracting, taking away from the images themselves, from the compositions and the faces and the clothes and the striking, bird-like poses. I couldn’t concentrate and kept obsessing how perfectly he lit them, how crisp the folds of a black dress look, how well he back lit the smooth faces of the models, how intricate the backgrounds are, a shade darker than the foreground but immaculately defined.

During one of the few photo classes I took, I shot a then-roommate of mine playing guitar, lit by a single work lamp pointing at her from above. It had the full tones of a good black and white photo, the oddly placed lamp capturing her in a cone of light around which darkness enveloped gradually and slowly. During the critique the teacher dismissed it hurriedly. “It’s too perfect,” she said.

Though I’m tempted to think that she may have had a point – if I’m so distracted staring at the quality of the image that I can’t grasp it’s content, it’s not entirely the point of photography – I’m loathe to give that thought too much consideration. Though I make plenty of space for the non-Westonian photographers that let technical aspects of the craft go as they may, old habits die hard. Viva the well-crafted photo!

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Since moving to the biiiig city, we've tried to keep to a strict budget as we look for work. This has led to extensive bike riding, keeping to our sturdy two-wheelers through thick and thin. We rode down to Rockaway Beach on shitty Flatbush Ave., which to my bare-bones beauty was the equivalent of off-roading, and up and down Brooklyn and the elusive bridges and along the West side and under the East side bridges. I think the map is starting to finally materialize in my head and make sense as a cohesive entity, rather than splotches scattered around NY without order or context.

We've also been eating on a budget - "just like in the military," our roommate commented. And that's really where I was going with this post. I've become more interested in food photography recently and at the same time I feel like I have less disposable income to spend on fancy eats and the accessories to make them look good. So I'm starting a series of food photos - food photos on a budget, that is.

Here's breakfast:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Ethics of Seeing

In making a photo, I make two somewhat conscious decisions - an aesthetic choice and a choice in how to represent the subject featured in the photograph.

The first is easily explained thus: though I purport to shoot in the documentary tradition with the documentary ( [subjective] truth, [cultural] discovery, [perhaps] useful documentation) aims in mind, I was raised on images that flaunted aesthetic as much as content. The visual – colors, composition, focus, etc. – remains important and my innate sense of what works cannot be turned off. Nor would I want to turn it off.

The second decision uses the same tools – framing, cropping, focus, etc – but the goal isn’t the best looking picture, but rather the most accurate in representing the scene and what I want to say about it. For example, when documenting a concert, it may be more appropriate to shoot the musician or, perhaps, the crowd. Depending on the scene, it might make more sense to shoot close-ups, or in black and white, or cut off faces, or aim at the feet, etc. Whether conscious or unconscious, decisions are made when taking a photo that reflect the photographer’s subjective interpretation of the view. It is an imposition of how the camera handler sees the world and an edited product that is served up to viewers dictating, inevitably, how they can see the world in the glimpse presented in the photo.

So while I am aware of these forces vaguely circling in my method as I shoot, they have become integrated into a smooth work-flow that, though conscious, is mostly unforced. The fact that I tend to shoot organic situations (not set-up, without instruction to the subjects, etc.) reduces my control over representation factors slightly as well.

These things, always humming in my head as I work, were turned up to a screech when I met X. Without going into details, after brief interactions with X. I developed a healthy aversion to him and was then in a situation where I took photos of him. The question then is this: What is the right way to take a picture of someone you do not respect?

Though no representation is truly objective, a strong disrespect for the subject is blatantly subjective. Is it ok to oblige the viewer to subscribe to this? Susan Sontag writes that “there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” How much stronger is that aggression when the picture is taken with a disgust as part of the driving force? Further, Sontag writes, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have…” How respectful is the act of this violation (and by inference, me) when the aim is to show ugliness when perhaps, the subject in the photos does not see it thus? Is it more ok to show the ugliness if the subject agrees that he is ugly?

As the one with the camera, I hold the power to shoot, to represent, to show, to manipulate. This is the case with every photo I take. Why then did I feel so uncomfortable in this case? It’s not the mere fact that what I thought of the subject was negative – I’ve shot with negative impressions before without such issues. Is it because he showed vulnerability in addition to the ugliness and I only saw ugliness? Perhaps, though in the end, the picture shows both. Is it because I let the aesthetic carry too much weight? The photo is eye catching and well lit with an overall, attractive (to me) softness. Perhaps. Is it because it’s too blunt? The image conveniently includes the graffitied word ‘vile’ above the subject’s head. I don’t know.

It is tempting to me to take on an anthropological reflexivity when showing photos. I think in this way the judgment is less vague and leaves more room for the viewer to interpret the image, perhaps letting them understand my subjectivity and letting them agree, disagree, or at least put it into context. In a photo book or a photo show one can do this with a statement or a bio. What does one provide as reflexive documentation for a disparate image? It seems burdensome to ask a viewer to invest the kind of time and care that would require in viewing one image.

In the end, the bigger issue isn’t about the photo – it’s about an approach to human interaction and judgment. But the dilemma is this: while I think my judgment is valid, it is private (and about a private figure, not a politician, celebrity, etc.). The photo becomes public as soon as it leaves my camera and is seen by others. So, is it fair to make a public statement about a private judgment and is it avoidable? Also, it would be interesting to figure out if any of my qualms or aversions to X. even come through in the photo to first-time viewers...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

ye who remember, don't forget

She forgot about our appointment repeatedly, up until the moment I arrived to pick her up. I was to photograph her in a white gown, with her long hair, always pinned into a loose bun, down. She never absorbed the part about the gown, and even in the studio she stepped up onto the platform in her clothes and looked hesitantly at the camera.

When I came over, she was dressing – pulling hangers of white, embroidered and cuffed shirts out of a two tiered closet, her short frame reaching into the neat darkness of the space and ruffling plastic coverings on dresses and coats. The girlish way her pile of white shirts lay scattered on the bed and elastic-waist pants intertwined on the rug was offset by the demodéd style of the garments. She changed from one shirt to another, kicked at a pair of pants that tripped her up, finally stepped into a pair of shoes and faced the mirror. “I paint my lips only from memory,” she giggled, and applied rouge. There was a lace coverlet on her pillow, a cheap photo calendar on her armoire, her great granddaughter’s plastic pink beads, an oriental-style rug – a mismatched décor where each item seemed out of context with the next and she floated incongruously amongst the planes.

Driving in the rain, she turned to me and asked quickly, “When will you get married?”

“I’m not planning on it any time soon,” I had responded, “Why?”

“Because I want to get so wasted at your wedding,” she sighed.

She’s wandered in and out my house for years, quietly attending every family gathering, taking her seat by the window or the fireplace, depending on the season, and with her honeyed gaze commanding a soft, sad attention of the guests. I don’t know her; I built up her personality based on her soap-soft features and it seems strange now to see her fall apart, an unwinding that takes with it her real self as well as the one I constructed, leaving only a rapidly tarnishing other.

It’s difficult to attempt to know a person and to try to disclose her in a photo at a time when she is getting lost. What is revealed? I wonder if the loss dominates in her uncertain gaze or if it is the steadfast anchors of her self that come through stronger in her pulchritude.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Take a Bath, Son!

"You're writing about the banya?" Vital, a fellow bather, asked, "But that's not very interesting."

We were soaking - I in a bikini, he in shorts and a felt hat with a red star on it, my friend in garments only vaguely resembling swimwear – in a luke-warm Jacuzzi overflowing with bubbles. A tall, very mustached man came by in intervals to release a few pumps from an unmarked spray bottle onto us. The room itself was all laid out in blue tiles, except one wall, which is crowned by a salmon pink cap of décor, the top quarter festooned with faux balconies, Corinthian columns and plaster statues; Apollo holding a bouquet of dried flowers, one armless beauty, another, demurely holding up a snatch of cloth in front of her breasts. The TVs, one in each corner, blasted an oversaturated, bombastic variety show of dance and song routines with costumes, snow globe winter effects, theatrical make-up, and leg-flinging choreography.

In a way, Vital was right; there is nothing interesting about the banya, or public bath. People have been getting clean in them since at least Ancient Roman times. Of course, there are the myriad of less than spotless stereotypes about the Turkish bath, implying an un-cleanliness rather than a cleanliness, of den-based, concupiscent pleasures made all the more salacious when performed in dark, steamy, public rooms. When I was attending high school in Israel, for instance, the mention of the relatively more tangible Turkish bath brought on a snickering amongst the gaggle of adolescent boys that was undeniably reminiscent of dorm-room conquests and not of, for example, hoards of Russian men bathing together in mustached man-unity. But in Philly, until 1950, The Public Baths Association of Philadelphia maintained six inexpensive baths for the “self-respecting poor” to cleanse. In New York, one can still see defunct public bathhouse buildings in the middle of major streets and hidden behind wrought iron fences. And yet here, despite our generic past of communal washing, we are now shy and private and Puritan and rich, so public bathing is a little uncommon, unnecessary, and, let’s admit, interesting.

My aunt, who invited me, goes religiously on Tuesdays, when there is a discount to enter - $20 all day for use of all facilities including Turkish bath, Russian bath, pool, Jacuzzis, steam room, Swiss showers, ice pool, and tanning services . She’s a woman that hustles hard, a natural caretaker whose efforts have not been reciprocated enough by her loved ones, who cackles when retelling steamy nostalgia about the saunas she frequented while working on the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) in Siberia.

The first time I went with her, it was empty. We spent 7 hours in a euphoric routine of steaming, cooling and relentless relaxation. We’d go into the Turkish bath, more humid than the dry heat Russian bath, and lie down on the top tier, towels on our heads. Sweat appeared in the first 30 seconds, small bubbles sitting on top of each pore like paper candy buttons, as if the body was being squeezed to delicately ooze its liquids. Then we’d stand, side by side, under shower heads that looked like street lamps, and pull on a chain that released a flood of cold water. In matching white robes, thread bare on the sleeves, we’d schlep back to our table, onto white plastic chairs with backs carved into roses and we would sit, drinking tea. That time, the TVs were blasting a program about Russian monastery life; a pretty girl in a black wimple recounted nun fights, a man in robes performed a ceremony where he repeatedly let “slip” a pair of scissors onto another man’s robes, and a handsome priest with a salt and pepper beard conveyed to the viewers how Forrest Gump is the ultimate servant, for “he was told to run, and so he ran.” Russian Orthodox choral music echoed thinly in the main pool room. We sat for hours, red-faced and calm, drinking tea and sweating it back out.

This time, I brought two American friends, similarly inexperienced in the ways of the glorious public bath. We strolled in West-Philly dirty, the man at the desk smirked at us knowingly before handing us our locks, and we proceeded to don the provided, worn, white robes and plastic slippers. And this time, it was full; ladies in ankle-length leather coats kept strolling poolside towards the changing rooms, and tables filled up with thermoses and bottles. One had to sweat parked on a bench between a platinum blond bombshell and a gold-toothed, rounded Aunty-type, across from the strangely intimidating resident banya experts, sitting in a unified buffalo stance with heads topped by their starred, felt hats.

My aunt was busy beautifying and so we ventured, clueless bathers into the wooded infernos of cleanliness, veniks in hand. A venik is, essentially, a broom; a dry bundle of, in this case, either maple of birch branches. These are soaked in hot water until they lose their brittleness and then used to whack the body, providing a termagant but aromatic massage that can, supposedly, not only open up your lungs, but also cleanse your skin, up your metabolism, cure joint and muscle aches, heart aches, hangovers, etc. Use of the venik seems to be a point of pride among the regulars, who smack each other around in practiced rhythm redolent of rich forests and hippie S&M.

We not only got called out on our weak-wristed walloping, but had a group of volunteers who seemed more than willing to perform the cleansing for us. They took to it so enthusiastically that they didn't even hear our whimpers for mercy, burning up under the too hot breath of the branches and the pleasant thump when they hit. After hitting some, ice is dumped and rubbed all over the body, and then the treatment resumes on the other side. When we finally stumbled out of the sauna in a cloud of steam, red-faced and with leaves sticking to our sweaty bodies and tucked into our bathing suits, we must've looked like we had just narrowly escaped an attack by a tree, near a volcano.

And again, between rounds of aggressive sweating and red-faced relaxation in the saunas, we sat. We sat with my aunt and drank tea. And when, after about five hours of this, my non-English speaking aunt gleaned from our conversation that maybe it was time to go, she laughed at us and told us, quite simply, that it wasn't time, yet.

And here, finally, is what I found interesting. Where the public bath was a matter of scrubbing oneself clean, it has vanished. In the U.S. practically every home is equipped with private facilities for the upkeep of hygiene and water is subsidized by the government, telling us, in effect, that we should use plenty of it to make sure we keep that hygiene up. Public bathing is limited to the beaches of various bodies of water, well chlorinated pools, and people’s parents’ Jacuzzis. On the other hand, where public bathing served a role larger than hygiene, it persists. In New York, for example, public bath houses were a popular meeting place for gay men into the mid ‘80s, when the NY Supreme Court ruled it legitimate to close one such establishment (thereby setting a precedent) under the pretext of public safety, citing the rising numbers of AIDS cases. Elsewhere, notably Mexico City, such massage parlors and bath houses carry on as before. In the US, there is no widespread tradition of the public bath except in the context of cleaning, and when cleaning became affordable, bathing became private and public baths extinct. Not so for the Russians, Japanese, Finnish, etc, who have a long history of using the bath not only to wash but also to socialize and conduct business. Those who have experienced the bath in its grander sense don’t seem to want to trade it in for a 5 minute shower in the mornings. And Temazcalteci (Aztec god of bathing and sweat baths) bless ‘em, because I fully support their ways.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Propaghandi, Paint it Black, Witch Hunt - Philly

I'm a proponent of subtlety. A Propaghandi show is probably the least subtlety infused event one could choose to attend - it's more like the riotous, public beheading of subtlety and its kind. I present, as evidence, lyrics from The Only Good Fascist is a Very Dead Fascist, off the Less Talk, More Rock album:

Swastikas and Klan-robes. Sexist, racist, homophobes. Aryan-Nations and Hammerskins: you can wear my nuts on your nazi chins! God, I love a man in uniform! (But, uh, before we get too intimate here, big fella): what exactly are the great historical accomplishments of “your” race that make you proud to be white? Capitalism? Slavery? Genocide? Sitcoms? Guns? War? Pollution? Addiction? NAFTA? Thigh-Master? This is your fucking white-history, my “friend”.

It's not that I disagree (though I do find the listing of slavery and the thigh-master in one fowl swoop of misdeeds a little jarring), rather that the complete lack of story-telling or mystery or nuance or poetry is a turn off for me; it's sloganeering. (In the song Less Talk, More Rock, they sing, "We wrote this song because it’s fucking boring to keep spelling out the words that you keep ignoring," though it doesn't really hold for the rest of the album[s]). I guess this would disqualify a lot of punk rock all together [for me], though the lyrics aren't what attracted me to it anyway. What's strange, though, is that John Samson (who is now in the Weakerthans, whose lyrics I like and do find appealing) was still with Propaghandi at that time. What gives?

Either way, it is what it is. I went [and had fun] and took photos, mostly of the psyched kids going crazy up front, which is simultaneously sweet and poisonous to a perpetually mid-life-crisis-ing 24-year old like myself.