As I write this letter, you are asleep, having spent the day running and playing and having lots of fun. Earlier this evening, you and I sat next to each other when we went to a restaurant for dinner, and just before the food came you climbed into my lap—completely unprompted—and let me give you a hug and a kiss. It was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one—most of the time when I ask if I can give you a hug or kiss you say no. But, honestly, this is one of the things I love about you, that you have a sense of your personal boundaries and that you are independent and strong-willed.
You've had a big year. This was the year of your first dance recital, the year you discovered CookieSwirlC, the year you learned the words to every song from the soundtracks to Moana and Steven Universe, and the year you started potty training. You always have a ton of energy in everything you do, and you've been proud of your accomplishments, and for good reason! In the fall you'll be starting pre-school, and you're looking forward to it already. You're smart, funny, and very strong, and I know you're going to do great.
Happy birthday, Mary. I love you, my big girl!
Soundtrack: "It's Well (Instrumental)" by Bekah Shae. Licensed from Audiosocket.
As I write this, you are asleep. I think you probably would be surprised at how quickly you fell asleep, given how excited you were when you got into bed, but it's true: you were out in just a few minutes. But, truth be told, I'm excited, too.
You've said many times over the past few months that this year has been hard for you. It's been hard for me as well, as it has for many people, but even though I wish we were all in a better situation, it makes me so proud to know that you care so deeply about doing the right thing, helping other people, fairness, kindness. I tell you this all the time, but it's true: I'm proud that I get to be your dad, and I'm happy to know you.
Every year, every week, it gets more and more fun to be your dad. Last weekend we started playing co-op video games for the first time, and that was great. And our reading time is always one of my favorite parts of the day. So far this year we've read The Lord of the Rings and two more Harry Potter books, and I love how enthusiastic you are about these stories.
Today is your day, buddy. I hope it's a great one. Happy birthday!
Soundtrack: "Hooked (Instrumental)" by Hotbloods. Used with permission.
Goals for 2017
A year ago, when I was setting my goals for 2016, I had no idea what the year was going to bring. Looking back over the year with all its losses and turmoil, it's easy to lose sight of the smaller things. But, as is my tradition, I want to check in with how I did with last year's goals, and then set some new ones for the coming year.
Goal: Read 24 books in any genre. Of those, at least 12 must be written by women, and at least 12 must be written by a person of color.
Result: I finished the year having read 30 books, of which 23 were written by women and 13 were written by people of color. This included 23 novels (15 SFF), 6 books of poetry, and 1 self-help book.
Goal: Submit at least 5 proposals for solo exhibitions.
Result: I did not submit any proposals for solo exhibitions in 2016. Nevertheless, I did have my second feature on Lenscratch, I had images included in an online group exhibition, and I participated in the portfolio reviews at the Medium Festival of Photography, where my work was well-received and garnered some interest from several museum and gallery curators.
Goal: Spend at least 1 day shooting for my “It Forgets You” project.
Result: I spent 2 days shooting for “It Forgets You,” completing the project and turning it into a handmade book.
Goal: Run 400 miles.
Result: I ran 137.5 miles.
Goal: Write at least 12 essays on any topic for this blog.
Result: I only wrote 6 real essays for the blog, but I also wrote 5 book reviews that I think qualify. Additionally, one of my essays was republished on PetaPixel.
Goal: Design and make a self-published version of my “Sheets” book.
Result: I did this, self-publishing an edition of 100 via Edition One Books. I also got them included in the Fraction Media Shop, and sold several.
Goal: Conduct 12 recorded interviews with other artists.
Result: I recorded 32 interviews with artists, writers, and curators last year, and so far 29 of them have been released on the podcast I started. This is probably the accomplishment of mine of which I'm most proud.
Goal: Design and make at least 1 new handmade artist’s book.
Result: I actually designed 2 new handmade books, making a final version of one and a prototype of the second. Both got excellent reviews at this year's Medium Festival of Photography.
So, in the end, I met six of my nine goals, and came close on a seventh. I'm satisfied with what I was able to achieve last year.
As for next year, here are my goals:
- Read at least 26 books, of which at least 13 must be written by women and 13 must be written by people of color.
- Run 400 miles and at least 1 race of 5K or longer.
- Set a new personal record for a 1-mile run. (Current record: 7:53)
- Lose at least 13 pounds and keep my weight at or below 190 pounds through December 31.
- Start an email newsletter and use it to send out at least 12 essays.
- Start a Patreon for my podcast.
- Get at least 4 essays, poems, or stories published in paying markets.
- Record at least 8 conversations for my podcast with people I don't know well.
This seems like a good start.
At the beginning of the summer, when you graduated from pre-school, Mommy and I told you that you would be starting TK in the fall. But now it's fall, and even though you're just today turning five, you've already been in real kindergarten for three weeks, and you've been doing great with it. Every morning you have been getting up just like your brother, and you've had such a great attitude about going to school, even though it's early. And even though you are the youngest one in your class, you're still one of the smartest and hardest-working. You've gotten points from your teacher every day for things like staying on task, participating, and using whole body listening, and I'm so proud that you are being a good citizen in your class.
Right now as I'm writing this, you're in your bed all tired out from spending a whole weekend at Disneyland. I'm so glad to get to spend time with you, whether it's when we're away or at home, and I can't wait to see what the future brings us.
Happy birthday, Eva. I love you so much!
Soundtrack: "It'll Only Get Better (Instrumental)" by Tayler Buono. Used with permission.
Some day gray hair will fall
from my nose, gnarled, silver-white
live-oak roots reaching toward the soil.
No longer manicured garden, presentable
for the neighbors, weeds
plucked, lawn mown, now
a thicket, a rain forest, impenetrable,
uninviting and untameable when
at last no one remains
I’ll probably still shave, though.
Three days ago we celebrated your brother’s birthday, and today it is your birthday. Birthdays being what they are, this is how it’s always going to be, and sometimes your mom and I worry about letting your day turn into an afterthought. I don’t think you’re going to let that happen, though.
Because you are a force.
You may be the youngest member of our family and—for now—the smallest in stature, but in will and determination and sheer size of personality you are a giant. You are mighty. You know what you want, and you go for it, every time. I think of all the times I’ve lifted you over my head and listened to you cackle, your gleeful shouts of “Again! One more time!” I think of the way you will just climb into my lap and push your smiling face right into my line of sight; you are playful, but you demand to be seen.
And even though sometimes that means your mom and I—and your sister and brother—have to reckon with your displeasure, I hope that you hold onto that spirit, that ability to stand up for yourself, never taking a drop of disrespect from anyone. Because if you can do that, nothing is going to stand in your way. You’re smart, you’re strong, you’re funny, and you’re fierce. You will go far.
Today is your day, my girl. I love you. Happy birthday!
Soundtrack: "Nightglow (Instrumental)" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.
For the past few nights you’ve been having trouble sleeping because you’re so excited about your birthday. This is really one of my favorite things about you, that you get excited about things. Just in the past few days you have been excited about your birthday, about Pokemon, about getting a new pair of flip-flops just like the ones I have, about eating hamburgers, and a bunch of other things that I can’t remember. I know that you’ve heard me say this before, but I hope that as you keep growing and getting older, you will hang on to that excitement.
What can I say to you that I haven’t said already so many times? I tell you all the time that I love you, because I do. I tell you that I am proud of you, because I am. I tell you that I am lucky to be your dad, because it’s true. I tell you these things almost every day, it seems like, and when I was your age I probably would have rolled my eyes and said “You already told me that.” But you take it a lot more gracefully than I would have.
You really are a great kid, my boy, and I hope that you have a great day today. Happy birthday, buddy. I love you.
Soundtrack: "The Atmosphere (Instrumental)" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.
A Predictable Trend in Photography Criticism
There’s an article from PetaPixel that’s currently making the rounds on social media, called “A Disturbing Trend in Photography.” In it, long-time photographer and photo educator Neal Rantoul makes the argument that the art photography of today is heavy on words and light on quality. He says:
Go to a graduate thesis show and take a look. The students are concerned with issues of identity, gender, developmental and emotional positioning, posturing, physical and emotional abuse, cultural and societal pressure and assumption, human rights, sexual identity, and on and on. Each of these ideas and many others takes on a personal relevance and importance square in the photographer’s aim, as though there is a catharsis that when shared it is assumed to have relevance to others who are there looking at the work. Of course, much of this is narcissism, self-absorption, even making work with blinders on.
Rantoul lays the blame for this trend on the ubiquity of contemporary MFA programs and the increasing ease with which modern camera technology allows us to produce “stunning results” without any real mastery of the craft.
In the five days since the article went live on PetaPixel, I’ve seen a great number of my peers sharing it on their various social media feeds, talking about how great it is, how well written, how spot on the argument and observation. The thing is, there is nothing unique or even particularly unusual about Rantoul’s piece—I’ve literally been seeing pieces like this shared about once a month for as long as I’ve been following photography.
If there’s anything that artists and art critics love besides the art they favor, it’s complaining about the current state of the art world. This is a long and storied tradition going back hundreds, possibly thousands of years, so there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the fact that it’s still happening now. And, really, I don’t need to pick on Mr. Rantoul too much—even if he’s not advancing any new ideas in his piece, it’s by no means the worst or most strident of the bunch.
Generally speaking, thinkpieces decrying the state of contemporary photography make some combination of three basic arguments:
- Art used to be much better than it is now (e.g. in the 80’s, in the Modernist period, in the Renaissance, etc.) and the current trend is dangerous or disturbing.
- The art establishment has suckered the critical or art-making populace into believing that the new style is important, but it is ultimately empty. (I call this the “Emperor Has No Clothes” argument.)
- Artistic practices no longer pay proper respect to traditional constraints, and they should. (e.g. “If a photograph requires words or explanation, then it is a failure,” or “Photoshop is ruining photography.”)
Now, I can understand the appeal of arguments like this, particularly if one feels his or her own interests are not reflected in the tastes of the art establishment. My main problem with them, though, is how ahistorical they are.
The tendency to look backwards with warmth may well be innate. Certainly people have been doing that about art as long as there has been art. But go back to any historical period, and you will find people talking about how the current trend is garbage. Back in the 1980’s, Robert Hughes told everyone he could about how stupid and shallow Andy Warhol and his art were. In the 1960’s, John Canaday regularly took to the pages of the New York Times and alleged that the popularity of the Abstract Expressionists was only due to the art world having brainwashed the public. And from the 1890’s until his death in 1948, Royal Cortissoz used his position as the art critic for the New York Herald Tribune to loudly denounce the egotism of the anti-traditionalists—he particularly hated the Modernists, claiming that they were “ruining the younger generation.” And so it goes, throughout history.
Even were we to limit ourselves to viewing art’s past with modern sensibilities, it’s extremely unlikely that any previous period was any better, considered as a whole. We must bear in mind that history is always written with an agenda, that we are only ever presented with the parts of the story that are considered worthwhile. In the context of art, time acts like a sieve in which only the great or important work remains in the narrative; the landfill of history is full of art that no one cared about. It’s not at all a matter of apples-to-apples when comparing the greats of yesteryear with any random student of today. Rantoul does this explicitly: he names Frank, Friedlander, Callahan, Sommer, Baltz, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams as his exemplars of photography’s golden past while holding up a hypothetical “graduate thesis show” as the opposing side. But, honestly, how many people at any point in history were doing great work in their early 20’s? I somehow doubt that “20 or 30 years ago” college kids were regularly making revolutionary art, and even the ones who were making interesting work were likely not widely accepted by traditionalists. It’s also worth noting that most of the work we know best by the men he listed in the context of “20 or 30 years ago” was really made 50 or more years ago. This, too, speaks directly to the idea about the curation of history. We may notice a surplus of bad art today, but wait fifty years and people will only remember the good.
But what do “good” and “bad” even mean? If artistic quality were in any way objective then you would expect opinions about it to remain relatively static. Yet though, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier was hailed in his own time as one of America’s most important poets, he’s seldom read today. And Van Gogh, on the other hand, famously died penniless and obscure, and is now considered one of the most important figures in Western art history. Tastes change, the avant-garde becomes tradition, and perhaps the only constant is the grumbling about how far standards have declined.
It does appear to be true that art photography today is largely concept-driven. I would also agree that the favored visual aesthetics of the present are different from what they were two decades ago—though in that respect I think you’d be hard pressed to find any time since the Renaissance when that wasn’t the case. Many photographers who came up in the film era now find their preferred methodologies to be out of favor, and I can understand why that would be frustrating. But any explanation of a major art trend that relies on blaming art-school groupthink or assumes that the new generation is simply vapid and narcissistic—both of which, not coincidentally, function to prop up the traditionalist viewpoint—is ultimately an exercise in self-soothing, not intellectual rigor.
What, then, does explain the new currents in the artistic ocean that so discomfit Rantoul and so many other people who write about photography? Questions about art movements often prove difficult to answer conclusively without the benefit of hindsight, but I have a theory, which in many of the details is not too different from Rantoul’s. As he points out, modern tools have, indeed, taken much of the technical challenge out of producing a traditionally beautiful photograph. But when neither long experience nor virtuosity is required to produce technically perfect work, the result is that technique tends not to remain very impressive or even interesting, and the generation of artists following a wave of technological upheaval tend to start looking for other things to do with their medium. There’s a certain irony here that photographers are now finding so much to complain about in the digital age, because it was the invention of photography, itself, that spurred exactly the same sort of innovation in painting.
It’s fairly well-accepted by art historians that the advent of photography directly led to the increasing use of abstraction in painting. Once painting was no longer the quickest, easiest, or most cost-effective way of producing an accurate representation, representation quickly lost its preeminence as the determiner of quality in art painting. Photography was invented in the early 1800’s, and by the middle of that century it had largely replaced painting in the realm of portraiture. And it’s by no means a coincidence that at exactly that time, the dominant Romanticism of Western painting began to give way to Impressionism, which in turn led to Post-Impressionism, Modernism, and so on. Nor is it surprising that as the painting aesthetic changed, the traditionalists pushed back—critic Louis Leroy famously said of Monet’s Impression, soleil levant:
Impression I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.
That line was written in 1874, but you see the same sentiments about egotism and shoddy technique in Rantoul’s piece from last week.
To me, this suggests not that photography is in some sort of decline, but rather that we are in the first stages of a new artistic revolution. It may well be that what’s to come in the next few decades will leave even the bright-eyed idealists of today behind, but not only is there nothing we can do about the inevitability of change, it’s not actually a bad thing. After all, as revolutionary as Monet and his Impressionist friends were, it’s still hard to imagine them immediately embracing the work of, say, Jackson Pollock. We somehow manage to have room for both in the canon, though.
Extended artist statements and conceptual series may fall out of vogue at some point, but when and if that happens it will be because another new trend has replaced it. I don’t know what that will look like, but what the future thinkpieces will say about it is not in any doubt.
Not For Me
I bought Beyoncé’s Lemonade album eight days ago. That I have listened to it a mere seven times through is only a reflection of the amount of time I have to listen to music, and not at all of my feelings about the music. Because this album is a masterpiece, and I love it. I love how musically adventurous it is. I love the naked emotion, both the roar in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the sigh in “Pray You Catch Me.” I love the confidence and the vulnerability, both. I love how it makes me feel. As much as I understand about Lemonade, though, I know too that there are parts I do not understand, that I may never fully understand. I love it, but it wasn’t made for me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: art that isn’t for me. I thought about it when Prince died, of course, because on some level music so brilliant and so explicitly about freedom and limitlessness is for everyone. But, of course, there are parts of Prince’s music that I can’t access, which the life I’ve lived simply hasn’t given me the experiences to be able to know.
Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t appropriative? That isn’t trying to make it about me? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The question that stays in my mind isn’t so much what I’m allowed to love or what I can say I relate to. Rather, I wonder about participation, and about how my presence affects the rest of the audience.
Years ago I saw a feature on Lenscratch of photographs from a young artist named Natalie Krick; I was drawn in by the wit and intellect apparent in the images. She had something to say about femininity, about feminism, about youth and age, about parents and children, about our image-saturated culture. Much later I discovered she was on Instagram, and I loved the way that even her casual studio and process snaps had both a boldness and a sense of play, and an assuredness that I have certainly never felt about either my art or my body. But it’s clear, too, that that play is with and for the young women who are her peers and friends, and not at all for some dude out in the suburbs who has three kids and is pushing forty. I love her work and I think it deserves to be celebrated, but I wonder sometimes whether I am intruding.
Back in March, Jenny Zhang—whose poetry and essays I adore—tweeted a link to an interview between her and fellow writer Charlotte Shane, titled “There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.” I had just recently read Zhang’s essay “On Blonde Girls in Cheongsams” and had been thinking a lot about how erased I have felt at times in my life, how I have not felt entitled to access the Asian culture into which I was supposedly born. And I loved her for putting that feeling into words and then again for putting those words into the world. I felt seen. At the same time, I knew that much of what she wrote in that essay was something I’d only really understand if I’d grown up as a girl. In the interview with Charlotte Shane, she asked
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a womanís brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
It’s a thing I’ve wondered, too, because Zhang’s writing is so often about her sexuality, her body, and it must attract all manner of creepers. And, indeed, both she and Shane talked about that. I can imagine how frustrating, how infuriating it must be to get that kind of reaction from men who you were not talking to, who you were never thinking about when you were writing your own truths, but who still feel allowed to do whatever they want with your writing. I can imagine it, but I can’t really know how it feels because it’s not something that has happened to me.
And this is the crux of it: this work represents a phenomenon which I have never and probably will never experience, but which millions of women live every day. It is speaking to them, not to me. And if I go into this space, no matter how much I love the work, nor what my intention may be, it is true that my presence may make one of these women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Here some dude will pound the table and shout “Not All Men!” but this is entirely missing the point. (Also, he is an asshole.) The point is that the work is by a woman, speaking to other women, and if my being there makes one of these women—who may connect more deeply with the work than I ever will—unable to enjoy and connect with the art or the artist, then that is me interfering with the purpose of the art.
I know that if art is put out into the world for the public to view, it is not wrong for me to view it. I know that if I see some part of myself reflected in someone else’s art, I can experience that connection and feel good about it. But what the boundaries of participation and engagement with a piece or with the artist are—or should be—I don’t know. I’m sure it varies from piece to piece and artist to artist, from situation to situation. I want to be respectful. I want not to cause harm. I don’t know if there’s an answer and I know there isn’t a rulebook, but I hope that there could be a conversation.
Rauschenberg, de Kooning, and the Arrogance of Art-Making
I’ve been contemplating a new piece recently. A new way of working, really, something that breaks from what I currently do as a photographer or writer. Big changes are always scary, and this is certainly true for changes to one’s artistic process. The future is an uncharted territory, and it’s always unclear what you will find if you head down a new path. Perhaps it will be a new vista, perhaps ruin.
Speaking of “ruin” in the context of an art project smacks of hyperbole, of course—it may feel like disaster is lurking but, realistically, artistic failure means only the loss of time and, perhaps, money. Still, I can’t help thinking about the ways that the creation of art can affect one’s life, a sort of quantum effect where the observation intrudes upon the observed. And this brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg.
One of Rauschenberg’s most famous and controversial pieces is “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” De Kooning, of course, was one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionists, and Rauschenberg was a particular fan of his. As the story goes, Rauschenberg was interested in finding ways to make art that didn’t involve traditional mark-making and had hit upon the idea of erasure as a technique. But he was unsatisfied with erasing his own works. In this interview on Artforum, he says:
I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all-whites. I kept making drawings myself and erasing them, and that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg. It was nothing. So I figured out that it had to begin as art. So I thought “It’s got to be a de Kooning.”
“Erased de Kooning Drawing” has gone on to become a significant work in itself, and people have praised it for how it pushes the boundary of the medium, decried it for removing what would have been an important de Kooning piece from the world. I’ve always seen the art of it as being in the act of its creation, which is to say: the act of destroying the original de Kooning piece. The object that’s left, which hangs today at SFMOMA, is really a pointer to something more like a performance. In erasing de Kooning’s drawing, Rauschenberg was destroying something that he valued in order to make something else.
The thing that marvels me most right now is the same apprehension I’m having with my own work: the unknown future. Some art—and Rauschenberg’s is a prime example—changes the world irrecoverably just in the act of creating it. And though “Erased de Kooning Drawing” ended up being a success, there’s no way that Rauschenberg could have known that before he started. Even leaving aside whatever the financial outcome of the piece may have been, or whether it was eventually accepted into the canon of “great art,” it would have been possible for Rauschenberg to know before he started scraping away at the paper that he would be satisfied with the result when he finished. And if he hadn’t produced something that at least he felt was worthwhile, then the act of destruction would have been meaningless. It would, in fact, have taken something valuable out of the world and given nothing back.
To be able to take that leap, to be assured enough of the validity of your ideas to be able to do something like that: is that confidence? Arrogance? How does a person come by it? Was it something cultivated, something nurtured, or is it something you have to be born with? Is this something I could find for myself? And should I? Am I prepared to deal with the consequences if I should fail?
Of course, I find myself rushing to point out that I have no thoughts to destroy something like a de Kooning—what I stand to lose is merely personal. Though, at that, if the damage would be limited to my own emotional state, this doesn’t make it so terribly less daunting to me.
Too, I know that I have taken risks before. So much of my work is about family, about my relationship to the people in my life, and by taking private moments and making them public, I am inevitably and irrevocably altering the moment itself, our memories of the moment, and my relationship with the people in the images. I have always known this, and yet the necessity of showing my story has trumped my responsibility to the other people who populate that story.
I know I’m being cagey here. I’m not ready to go public with this new idea yet. Maybe something will come of it, or maybe I will decide that it’s not worth the risk. I may even decide against it for other reasons—I never have difficulty coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. Still, I can’t help thinking about Rauschenberg. Is the making of art inherently arrogant and narcissistic? Or is this question merely my own anxiety rearing its head again?
I wish I had some answers for you. I’ll be thinking about it. Good luck, everybody. I hope the coming week is fruitful for you.