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Photography is dead. Long live photography.
Over at 9-eyes.com, Montreal-based photographer Jon Rafman has posted an astonishing collection of street photography. From ‘captured moment’ street scenes such as the knowingly Cartier-Bressonesque shot here, through gritty urban reportage of guns and fires and traffic accidents, to scenes of rural idylls and quite beautiful landscape and wildlife shots, the sequence ranges across continents to capture some of the best and worst of 21st century human life; a quite phenomenal undertaking for a single photographer.
Well, it would be if he’d taken the pictures. He didn’t. He’s collected them all from Google Streetview. Of course, that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment: it’s still taken a gifted eye to find and select and curate these images. But the fact that they were captured by the unthinking nine-eyes of the Google camera is… well, what is it? Unnerving? Exhilarating? As Jon Rafman says in his essay, here, the images appear to have “a spontaneous quality unspoiled by the sensitivities or agendas of a human photographer”, achieving, finally, the unobtrusive neutrality long sought after by documentary or street photographers.
And yet. There is clearly nothing neutral about the selections Rafman has made, nor of the meanings we create when we look at them. Neither, judging by the reactions of the people within these images, which are reminiscent of the reactions of early 20th century citizens to passing movie cameras albeit with the very contemporary addition of a tendency to present one’s middle finger, is there anything unobtrusive about the cameras which Google use; nor, indeed, is there anything unobtrusive about the project Google have undertaken. And, as Rafman also points out in his essay, far from providing an all-are-equal snapshot of humanity in all its rich diversity, those captured by the Streetview project tend to be those who are most in the streets; people who are poor, marginalised, excluded.
So there is something uncomfortable about this project: both the Streetview enterprise, and Rafman’s curating of it. But there is also something wonderful about it. The images are beautiful, provocative, funny, moving, and bursting with narrative. Take a look for yourself.
“The fall had not appreciably helped the thickness of the cat”
- is my favourite line from ‘Trout Fishing In America’, by Richard Brautigan. It captures just the kind of wry understatement which, if I’m reading him right, was more or less the measure of the man. ‘Trout Fishing In America’ is probably his best-known work – although I would suggest that ‘So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away’, his last novel, is his true masterpiece – so I was delighted to find this edition, with the original cover, which was published by Four Seasons in 1967.
I found it, along with a handful of other Brautigan paperbacks, in a tiny apartment somewhere on the Upper East Side of New York which Michael Seidenberg operates as a kind of underground bookshop. I recently spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon there, talking about books, and bookselling, and writing, and reading, and New York: the things you want to talk about when you’re in a bookshop. It was an intimate space, but not uncomfortably so, and the set-up felt like a defiant gesture in defence of actual books. It’s a different way of doing business (and a way which doesn’t involve planning permission or licenses or any of that – hence the secrecy) but it seems to work for Michael. He’s always looking for new customers – and is at pains to stress that no-one is obliged to buy anything – and when I asked how people might be able to find him he said, “Hey! Come on! I’m in the New York phone book. Why not try that for a change?”
And on the subject of great New York bookshops, I also went to Three Lives in Greenwich Village. It’s a lovely place, and not just because they happened to have my new book in the window. You should go.
Did he just…..?
There’s more to life than books, you know. Danny MacAskill knows how to ride his bike. Sometimes beauty is found in stuff like this. Sometimes wonder is about seeing someone do something it’s taken them years to perfect. The editing’s pretty neat as well.
Under the Covers
Zoo Indigo, an Anglo-German performance company based in Nottingham, previewed their new show last week. It’s a smasher.
Under the Covers is a sweet and funny and painful look at motherhood, work, performance, and loss. Which sounds rather Anglo-German, but given that it consists mainly of the two performers re-enacting scenes from Thelma and Louise while asking the audience to keep an eye on their sleeping babies (live images of whom are projected onto the stage courtesy of Skype), and having heartfelt dialogues with cardboard cut-outs of their partners, and giving cakes to the audience, it’s mainly just a lot of fun. The virtual presence of the sleeping babies is surprisingly powerful: one theme running through the show is that of the sense of entrapment many new parents can feel, and the tension between loving a child and wanting to escape it, and the looming presence of these breathing and wriggling entities (made ghostly both by their virtual distance and by the infra-red cameras used to film them) cleverly illustrates this tension.
Another theme of the show, that motherhood and work and youth and relationship and the intersections between all four can be experienced as a series of layered performances, is of course illustrated by the fact that the audience is watching… a series of layered performances. And one of the intriguing aspects of the show is the way in which performance and fiction are interwoven with simple from-the-life truth telling. At once startlingly confessional and inventively playful, this is a show which is both uncomfortable and affirming. If that’s possible.
Arise, You Gallant Sweeneys!
John McGahern’s excellent short stories regularly featured Irish men who had gone to England to work on the roads and building sites of a booming post-war economy: stories in which men who had learned not to talk much endured hard work, drink, death and injury, and recalled an Ireland many of them could not or dared not return to. If he were alive today, McGahern may well have written a story much like the one in a new film, Arise You Gallant Sweeneys! which is making its debut in Nottingham next week.
A documentary made in full collaboration with its protagonists, the film follows a group of older Irish men on a road trip from their hostel in Nottingham to an Ireland many of them haven’t seen since the 1950s. En route, they tell fractured tales of the exploitation, homelessness, destitution and alcoholism which characterised their careers as 20th century navvies. And once in Ireland, with much singing and drinking and smoking and staring out at the unrolling road, they talk about what they remember of their home towns as they arrive at each one in turn. One man meets the brother he had long believed to be dead, only to suggest he should be drowned in the Atlantic.
It’s not a sentimental film. But it is an engaging, unsettling, involving and ultimately quite moving one.
Authority and American Usage
This essay, in the collection Consider The Lobster, is more non-required evidence that David Foster Wallace was one of our greatest and most eloquent thinkers, and that his loss has still not been properly measured.
Authority and American Usage is ostensibly a review of a usage guide. But David Foster Wallace manages to expand his reviewer’s remit into a survey of the raging debates about language – what is ‘Standard English’? Who says so? Who lets them say so? – and in the process manages to comprehensively bring the argument to a close. If you’re in the least bit interested in language, you’ll read this.
(And you can read the whole thing online here: but don’t let that stop you buying the book.)
The Nottingham Contemporary gallery has turned out to be something very special indeed, despite the woefully ill-judged exterior. The spacious and well-lit exhibition spaces feel, well, like a Proper Art Gallery; and the two opening exhibitions, from David Hockney and Frances Stark were serious and substantial bodies of work. The David Hockney was a particularly smart choice for a gallery looking to make an impact and draw in a rather sceptical public. “International art. For everyone. For free.” What are you waiting for?
Poetry – Matthew Welton
Matthew Welton’s newish book of poetry, published by Carcanet, features one of the longest book titles you’ve probably ever seen; but it deserves your attention for more than just that reason. It’s also a set of poems which, through exercises in form and tricks of wordplay, explore the very idea of a poem or even of a word. It includes a number of pieces which were originally written for radio or the stage, and even a sequence structured around the fixture list of the 2002 World Cup. (It’s too complicated to explain. Go and look for yourself). There’s nothing as completely wonderful as the very wonderful What Utters Winters, which featured in his first collection, The Book of Matthew, but when you’re as busy reinventing the form as this it probably doesn’t matter. The full title of the collection, by the way, is ‘We needed coffee but we’d got ourselves convinced that the later we left it the better it would taste, and, as the country grew flatter and the roads became quiet and dusk began to colour the sky, you could guess from the way we retuned the radio and unfolded the map or commented on the view that the tang of determination had overtaken our thoughts, and when, fidgety and untalkative but almost home, we drew up outside the all-night restaurant, it felt like we might just stay in the car, listening to the engine and the gentle sound of the wind’
Aubrey’s Traditional Creperie, Nottingham
Aubrey’s Traditional Creperie, which can be found in the West End Arcade, opposite the Angel Row library in Nottingham, is brilliant. That’s all.