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.
I can’t remember exactly how long ago the first funeral I attended was. I was nine years old, maybe ten, and one of the counselors from my daycare center had committed suicide. He was everything I had wanted to be back then: smart and funny, with an immensely inventive creative mind. I remember the way his Adam’s apple bobbed and his voice cracked when he spoke—he was only sixteen—and the way his hair curled where it was long in the back. His father’s voice broke, too, when he gave the eulogy. I remember being sad and terribly confused.
The most recent funeral I attended was this past March. He was a friend, and the husband of my office’s admin. He was one of the first people to compliment my photography. He had a sudden heart attack, and passed away after spending a few weeks in a coma. It was chilly and gray on the morning we gathered at the Miramar National Cemetary, but though it rained before and almost immediately afterwards, during the actual service it was dry. Even though I was expecting it, the crack of the rifle salute made me jump.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life, which is just to say that, whether friends or family, I’ve lost a lot of people. And I’ve grieved.
That I’m thinking about grief today makes sense, because for the last several hours I’ve been watching what seems like the whole world grieving over Prince’s death. It would have surprised a younger me that I am grieving as well.
I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Kurt Cobain had died. It was April of 1994, and I was on a week-long school camping trip. We were on our way from one campsite in Anza-Borrego to another in Joshua Tree and the bus had stopped at a supermarket in Twentynine Palms so that we could all go to the bathroom and pick up some more supplies. All of the newspapers in the vending machines outside had Cobain’s face on the front page. I remember being unfazed, because that was before—just before—music really started to matter to me. I looked over and saw a girl named Britta bent over with her arms wrapped around her stomach, sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t say anything, but I remember being surprised and confused. “Why are you so upset?” I thought. “It’s not like you knew him.”
And my fourteen-year-old self would be equally surprised—no, more so—that I spent a good chunk of this morning quietly sniffling at my desk and hoping that my cubemates didn’t notice. I didn’t know Prince. I’d never even been in the same room as him. And though I have enjoyed his music for a long time, it wasn’t the foundational music of my life; I didn’t even really listen to it all that often. Nevertheless, I am grieving his loss.
The way I feel right now is not the same as the way I felt when I watched my mother and her sisters open the urn and empty their father’s ashes into San Francisco Bay. It’s not the same as the way I felt when I found out that a friend had jumped off the Bixby Bridge. But these emotions are no less real for being different.
I’ve seen a lot of “Man, fuck 2016” on the Internet today, as for the past several months. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, and now Prince. And more besides. At each passing I’ve seen an outpouring of love, of sadness, of memories—though perhaps none so much as with Bowie and Prince. What I understand now in ways that I didn’t when I was a high-school freshman is that whether or not you know an artist personally, they may still be a part of your life. If that connection is different from what you have with a close friend or loved one, it is nonetheless still meaningful and profound, and the loss of that presence is truly a loss.
I have seen so many people today talk about how Prince’s music, his style, his life, made them feel accepted, helped them find a sense of self. Back in January people said the same of David Bowie. I can’t honestly say the same thing, but, even so, there was this sense of security, of continuity, to knowing that they were out there, doing their own thing and doing it so perfectly, so singularly. If I didn’t think of them every day, the days that I did think of them did make me think about accepting myself and accepting my work, about letting myself be OK with the idea that I’m different from other people. And now that they are gone, the world does seem a little less bright.
We are all in some way or another looking for connection. And that feeling, that recognition and acceptance can come in a lot of different ways from a lot of different places. I find it in a certain look in my wife’s eyes, in the laughter of my children, in the memory of my grandfather’s slow, deep drawl. I find it, too, in the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice cracks in “Dear Theodosia,” and in the tenderness of Judith Fox’s photographs in I Still Do, and in Jude’s brokenness in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. And today I’m finding it in the unshakeable confidence of Prince’s guitar, a confidence I have never felt but which he makes me think some day I could.
If you’re feeling a little lost today, if you’re feeling sad: it’s OK. It’s OK to feel that way. I feel it too. We can feel it together.
Why I Haven't Been Writing (Fuck It All)
I’m finding lately that I’m having trouble writing for this blog. Everything I want to say, that I feel a need to comment on, it goes into my journal and stays unseen. Broken language, sentences half-completed and perhaps only a quarter thought-out, not real ideas themselves but only pointers to help remind me later what I was thinking. But do I ever look back? Not really.
Or it goes on Twitter and flies by, and disappears into the ether, a massive particle sliding through a mile of lead but, at most, only weakly interacting. You see writers who wring their hands about the ephemerality of a tweet, not realizing that this is its most fundamental source of power. To say the thing and have it not matter at all, to know that even in the moment of its creation it is already gone. It is an unburdening even as it is an erasure.
Or did I say it already? To you, perhaps? Did I spill a thousand words into your inbox when you asked me a simple question? Did you even ask? But you heard from me all the same, at length and in detail.
Writing for a blog: it’s not as immediate as a tweet, as private as a journal, as directed as a message. And having said the thing once, having already written it down, to decide to take the same idea and copy it and post it again elsewhere is to decide that this thing must be said, that it must be shared, that it is of value. It is a conscious choice, in a way that it wasn’t the first time I wrote it. It becomes, I am too aware, a performance. An ode to my own insight or wit—or at least my loquacity.
And yet. “Hey, what happened to your blog?” is a question I am asked from time to time. “I kind of miss when you posted more.” It has happened; not often, but more often than I’m ever comfortable admitting.
So: fuck it. Fuck all the self-criticism and the Impostor Syndrome and the laziness and the exhaustion. Fuck always wondering if I’m talking too much, always thinking that I’m not important enough or smart enough or deserving enough of an opinion and a place to put it. Fuck thinking that this stupid blog doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, but it matters to me. And fuck worrying that I’m going to say the wrong thing, because I’m the wrong person, because I’m going to fuck it up. I will fuck it up. I know I will. But I know I can count on you to tell me when I do, and I know that’s better than worrying.
I’m going to try, again.
Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng
There’s a scene about a third of the way into Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You that just about sums up, for me, the experience of reading it. The family members around whom the narrative revolves are still reeling from the death of the middle daughter, Lydia—I’m not giving anything away here; you find out about Lydia’s death in literally the first sentence of the book—and two police officers have arrived at their home to ask a few more questions. Marilyn Lee, the mother, begins shouting at the police, becoming angry and accusatory. James Lee, her husband, tries to calm her down and apologizes to the officers.
Now, this is a dynamic in family dramas that is familiar almost to the point of cliche—the hysterical mother, the conciliatory father—but reading it in this book was electrifying to me because of one detail that colors every interaction in the story, and which made it all so perfectly tangible for me: James is an Asian-American man, Marilyn is a white woman.
Suddenly the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension. Here’s a man who has spent his entire life being ridiculed and excluded, who wants so desperately to fit in and be “normal” that he’s dedicated his life to teaching college students about cowboy imagery. And here’s a woman who, dreaming of being a doctor in her youth, has spent years sublimating her rage at the condescension of men. I wondered as I read this, would a mainstream audience—and by that I meant a white audience—understand this? Is this something that is only obvious to someone like me?
After the officers leave, though, Marilyn accuses James of kowtowing and all of the subtext becomes text. No one is going to miss that. At least, I hope not.
And so it goes for the book as a whole, as well. In so many ways it is a familiar story. Literary fiction on the whole is thick with themes of family tragedy, of longing, of failed communication, and in that way Everything I Never Told You is perfectly representative of the genre. But by putting that story in the context of interracial marriage, and particularly with this racial mix, it becomes something new, something I can’t recall ever seeing before.
I almost feel a little guilty at how thrilling it was for me to read this book. Almost. But it’s not as though I haven’t also gushed over books where none of the characters looked like me. I recognize bits of myself all the time in other stories, but here it felt like a little whisper, the author saying, “I know you. That thing you felt—I felt it, too.” It’s not something I’m used to. Not this thing.
And there was so much I felt as I read this book. The intimacy of the narrative, the way each member of the Lee family is shaped by each other, by their histories, and by the way the rest of the world treats them, it all had me desperately pulling for them, which made each missed opportunity all the more heartbreaking. And if I saw echoes of myself in James Lee’s longing for inclusion, and then in each of his children’s lives as well, how much more infuriating did that make it when they were small to each other, when they hurt each other, when they were self-absorbed or oblivious? How much did it sting to reckon with the ways I must have failed to be the man I ought to be for my own family, good intentions or not?
It’s only February yet, but if Everything I Never Told You is not my favorite book this year, it will have wound up being an amazing year for me as a reader, because topping this experience is going to take some doing.
Started: 2/18/2016 | Finished: 2/25/2016
City of Blades
By Robert Jackson Bennett
One of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy—not the only thing, but one of them—is that they are really the genres most suited to exploring big ideas. You want to see what a world would look like where gods walked among us, where religion was not a matter of faith but of unassailable fact? Boom, you can do it. You want to see what would happen when such a world has its gods taken away? No problem. You want to see how people survive and adapt and get stuck and move on in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war? Not only can you do this, but you can make it as broad or as specific as you want. There are no boundaries beyond what you can imagine.
I’d say that Robert Jackson Bennett had a lot to live up to in writing a sequel to his 2014 book City of Stairs. It’s a book whose style and premise were unlike just about anything I’ve read before; a book with ideas that, though big, never overshadowed its wonderful characters; a book that was insightful and imaginitive and also a lot of fun to read. For all that, City of Blades may be even better.
Picking up about five years after the events of City of Stairs, City of Blades leaves the previous book’s protagonist, Shara, and instead follows one of the supporting characters, General Turyin Mulaghesh. Pulled out of retirement, Mulaghesh is sent to find a missing agent, who herself had been sent to investigate some strange occurrences in a city that was once the seat of the deity of war and death. As her mission unfolds, Mulaghesh finds that many things are not as dead as they seem, including her own past.
As before, the detective-story structure of Bennett’s book gives a strong feeling of exploration and discovery, and the world he has imagined lets him grapple with some pretty big concepts. What kind of world is left behind in the wake of huge, earth-shattering change? Where is the line between atrocity and necessity? Can we atone for the sins of our pasts? How much will we sacrifice in order to do what’s right, or what needs to be done, and are those the same things? Do old wounds ever really heal? Yet the book is anything but didactic. Like the best examples of the genre, it manages to be high-concept and fun, alien and familiar, plot-driven and well-characterized all at the same time. I haven’t had a chance to read his older works yet, but with this series Bennett has managed to cement a place as one of my favorite contemporary fantasy writers.
The third book is scheduled to come out next year, and I’m quite looking forward to picking it up. Until then, I’m happy to give this book (and its predecessor) my full-throated recommendation.
Started: 2/10/2016 | Finished: 2/17/2016
February Book Reviews
Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson: I have to admit that I had never heard of Jacqueline Woodson before the 2014 National Book Awards and what happened before her acceptance speech. This is to my own detriment, because, damn, what a writer. Feathers is a great example of how, done well, YA is a genre that is every bit as resonant and powerful as any other. The story is set in the early 1970’s, the main character, Frannie, is a sixth-grader in an urban middle school who is dealing with a lot of the same issues that we all recognize from that time in our lives: changing relationships with friends; the beginnings of awareness of adult life and concerns, especially with respect to one’s parents; the academic and social challenges of school. These are pretty universal themes, but the story is specific, and this is, I think, the source of its power. Because I obviously have no idea what it would be like to be a young black girl growing up in the 1970’s, attending an all-black middle school in a depressed part of the city. But I do know what it was like to be a young Asian boy growing up in the 1980’s, living in an affluent, mostly white town and being neither affluent nor white. And there are a lot of points of contact between the life I had at that age and Frannie’s life in this book, which helps make the parts where our experiences differed more accessible to me. (And this is to say nothing of the simple power of seeing one’s own experience represented, for those readers whose lives were like Frannie’s.) I’ve got a shelf of books set aside for when my kids are ready for them; this one is on that shelf, and I can’t wait to be able to talk with them about it. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: It was an interesting experience reading The Bone Clocks relatively soon after Cloud Atlas; I often have trouble retaining details after I’ve finished a book, so if more time had passed I’m not sure if I would have noticed the callbacks and references in the newer book. As it is, I’m sure I missed some. Mitchell has referred to the shared universe of his novels as an “uber-novel,” and I hear that his latest book, Slade House, continues adding chapters to that story. For myself, I’m sort of stuck in between with this book. When I finished Cloud Atlas I was impressed by the ambition of the work but left unsure about whether it actually did anything for me, what it was saying or doing. Now that I’ve read The Bone Clocks and gotten a little more context, I’m starting to get a sense of Mitchell’s concerns, but I still don’t know whether the experience is one that I value a lot. Taken as a high-brow fantasy novel, there’s certainly a lot I could credit here: he builds an interesting world, and I think he does a good job of exploring the consequences of that world for his character, what immortality looks like, how the temptation to evil works, and so on. And the way he gives us such a close perspective on his characters—who are, I think, very well realized—is immersive enough to make me feel that connection with them that is necessary for a good book. Still, there’s something unsatisfying in it, for me at least. Taken together with Cloud Atlas, this book seems to show a certain obsession with mortality, with decay, with dystopia. I can’t say I blame Mitchell there, since my own obsessive nature focuses in that direction, too, but something about the way this book ends makes me wonder what the point of it all is. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie: One of the things about genre fiction that often gets overlooked by a certain type of literary snob is that, in many ways, genre allows a more effective medium for engaging in social commentary than so-called literary fiction. That’s not to say that all genre fiction is great at this—certainly there are many examples of ham-fisted diatribes dressed up in SF or fantasy clothes—but when done right, genre tropes and conventions provide a space for the commentary to operate within without drawing too much explicit attention to itself. That is, socially minded science fiction and fantasy can be more subversive. That’s mostly what I’m thinking about with Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series; here we have what is ostensibly a far-future space opera, but it’s really a very contemporary piece. It’s about a particular political moment that is happening right now, and in telling us a story about sentient starships and incomprehensible aliens and a space emperor whose consciousness is spread across multiple bodies, what Leckie delivers is a cogent and powerful examination of privilege and power dynamics and personhood. This series explores bias and struggle along multiple axes: race, class, gender, culture, and more. And it packages it all up in a story about war and diplomacy in the distant future. This gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while: that the greatest impediment to social justice is the inability for any person to ever live another person’s experience, to really know how someone else feels. And that the true power of art is that it allows us these points of connection, of being able to see things from another perspective. In this series, Leckie will challenge you, challenge the way you think and the things you take for granted, and she will do it in a way that is nonetheless remarkably entertaining. This is vital reading. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Updraft, by Fran Wilde: Speaking of Ann Leckie, I heard about Fran Wilde’s book Updraft via a recommendation on Leckie’s blog. So if you don’t trust my judgment, you can at least trust hers. I can say for sure that I wasn’t let down. One of the things that reading this book got me thinking about was the ways in which the human experience can be translated to so many different forms, different places and cultures, and still be recognizable and relatable. In this story, all of humanity (as far as we know) live on towers of living bone, which constantly grow and force people to ascend in order to survive. Below the towers, dense and deadly fogs swirl. Between them lurk invisible monsters that prey on the unwary. Trade and communication and travel between the towers is accomplished by flight using manmade wings. Now, that’s pretty far from the life you and I live, but you take that setting and add in a harsh coming-of-age story, and even though I can’t relate to flying tests or echolocation lessons or glider knife fights, there’s still something in there that I can recognize. I have no idea where this series is going to go from here (this is a self-contained story but the author is planning more in the same setting) but it’ll certainly be interesting to find out. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro: OK, so I have to admit: I have a bit of a crush on Kazuo Ishiguro. I mean, it makes sense, right? Here’s a guy who was born in Japan, raised in England by Japanese parents, who writes stories that are as British as anything Forster or Waugh or McEwan ever wrote. According to his Wikipedia page, in an interview he once said, “If I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I’m sure nobody would think of saying, ‘This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.’” You can see why this would resonate with me, right? And I love that he’s willing to write stories that blur the lines between lit-fic and genre. With Never Let Me Go he turns what seems to be a story about a boarding school into something science fictional and much darker. Here he writes a fable about a post-Arthurian Britain that reads a bit like Malory but also functions as an allegory for how societies forget the atrocities in their pasts. There’s a pretty powerful message in that allegory, but what I found worked best for me were the little character moments, particularly between the main protagonists, an elderly couple who are traveling to visit their son. Stylistically, The Buried Giant is rather broad, as you’d expect reading the sort of medieval legend this is, but the way Ishiguro manages to show the small intimacies between wife and husband, two people who’ve known each other a lifetime, it’s pretty wonderful. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho: Sorcerer to the Crown has been getting a lot of talk in SFF crowds since it came out last fall, and rightly so. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been comparing it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or to Jane Austen or Patrick O’Brian, and certainly all of these comparisons are apt. I’d also throw in Stephanie Burgis’s Kat, Incorrigble books, which not only shares the Regency-era English setting, but also the frustrating way that no one ever listens to the protagonist. (In both Burgis’s books and this one there’s a narrative reason for this—in the former case it’s to highlight the unfairness of adolescence and in this one it’s because of racism toward the book’s black main character—but it’s still frustrating.) In any event, I am apparently a total sucker for anything set in this time period, fantasy or not. Those of you who don’t find the idea of English manners and magic spells terribly amusing may not find this up to their tastes, but I had a lot of fun reading Sorcerer to the Crown. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace: It’s a little difficult for me to describe this book in a way that makes sense, what with the way it blends genres and never fully explains itself. It’s part post-apocalyptic dystopian SF, part ghost story, and (sort of) part Greek myth. And it opens with a knife fight. I mentioned to the people who recommended it to me that I’ve been getting a little exhausted by bleak, brutal fiction lately, and certainly this had some of that same effect on me. The title character, Wasp, is an eighteen-year-old girl who hunts ghosts, a job she was raised for since infancy, which she received by killing her predecessor, and which she only keeps by killing the “upstarts” who would take her place. Bargaining for a way to escape her situation, she agrees to help a ghost enter the underworld and find the ghost of his friend, lost to him for hundreds of years. A lot of stuff is never really explained—why are there ghosts? What exactly happened in the war that destroyed civilization? Why are ghosts attracted to salt, and how does the Archivist’s magic work? Or is it magic?—but even though I was curious about these things, they’re not really the point. What you really have here is a story about struggle, about loyalty, about overcoming, about agency. And, telling that story, it comes to a really beautiful and moving conclusion. It’s an odd story, but it’s worth a look. (Amazon, B&N, GoodReads)
As some of you may know, I've been working on a small edition of handmade artists books for my series "Sheets: A Love Letter." I'm still finishing work on that set of books, and I'm very pleased with how they're turning out. The one problem with handmade books, though, is that due to production costs and the amount of labor involved in making each one, I can't make them as affordable as I'd like. So, following up on a suggestion I got from Aline Smithson at a portfolio review last fall, I've decided to self-publish a softcover version of the book.
The new softcover book was designed by me and printed by Edition One Books, who were very easy to work with; I would definitely recommend them for anyone looking to for a short-run printer. The edition is 100 books, and each will be signed and numbered.
If you'd like to buy one, you can pop over to my online store, where they're available for $25 each. Patreon subscribers at any level also get 20% off, so don't forget to use your discount code when checking out if you're a subscriber.
A few more detail shots will follow at the end of the post. Thanks so much to all of you who have supported me over the years. It really means a lot to me.
Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs
By Sally Mann
If you are—as I am—a photographer whose work focuses on your own children, it is more or less impossible to escape the shadow of Sally Mann. Mann was not the first artist to turn her lens on her family, but she was unquestionably one of the best. She is to the family genre what Ansel Adams was to black-and-white landscapes: the progenitor (or at least the catalyst) of a whole family of photographic tropes, an inspiration to generations of following artists, imitated to the point of cliché but seldom equaled, let alone surpassed.
It’s not exactly accurate to say I’m a fan of Sally Mann’s work. Rather let’s say that nearly everything I’ve done photographically is somehow informed by, inspired by, measured against her work. Her family work, of course, but her landscapes as well, her obsession with rootedness, with legacy, with personal history, with connection, with decay. If there’s ever been any single photographer in whose work I most saw my own ideas and emotions reflected, it’s her. (I can feel a slight sneer from an imaginary reviewer at this revelation. Of course some Dad With A Camera, some guy with his portfolio of longing-filled images of beautiful, serious-eyed children, of course he would cite Sally Mann as his biggest influence. Is it a cliché? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it any less true.)
There was never any question that I would read her memoir.
What does one look for when reading the story of one’s hero, told in her own words? (Is that the right word for what she is to me? My hero?) Affirmation, perhaps? Some sign of convergent evolution, some hint that I’m on the right track? Or maybe just the same thing I hold so dear when I look at her photographs: that inkling that someone, somewhere, thinks and feels the way I do. The little spark of recognition that makes me feel a little less isolated.
Did I find that? Did I ever.
On mark-making and legacy:
When an animal, a rabbit, say, beds down in a protecting fencerow, the weight and warmth of his curled body leaves a mirroring mark upon the ground. The grasses often appear to have been woven into a birdlike nest, and perhaps were indeed caught and pulled around by the delicate claws as he turned in a circle before subsiding into rest. This soft bowl in the grasses, this body-formed evidence of hare, has a name, an obsolete but beautiful word: meuse. (Enticingly close to Muse, daughter of Memory, and source of inspiration.) Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form, but when I gently press my hand into the rabbit’s downy, rounded meuse it makes me wonder: will all the marks I have left on the world someday be tied up in a box?
On the pain of place:
In Wales, for example, Welsh is spoken by barely 20 percent of the population, so we can only hope that the evocative Welsh word hiraeth will somehow be preserved. It means “distance pain,” and I know all about it: a yearning for the lost places of our past, accompanied in extreme cases by tuneful lamentation (mine never got quite that bad). But, and this is important, it always refers to a near-umbilical attachment to a place, not just free-floating nostalgia or a droopy houndlike wistfulness or the longing we associate with romantic love. No, this is a word about the pain of loving a place.
On self-confidence (or the lack thereof):
Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am that exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?
On beauty and sadness:
As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well. And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy. The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware. It means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay. For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.
I could go on and on. If I were the type to write in books, my copy of Hold Still would be underlined and highlighted on nearly every page. She says not just the things I would say, but she says them the way I would say them (if I might flatter myself to be nearly the writer she is).
What stands out to me even more than the similarities, though, are the differences. Mann and I both come from a rural area, but she grew up on a Virginia farm while I grew up in a woodsy California neighborhood. She describes herself as a young girl as “feral” and “naked,” while I was straight-laced and buttoned-up. She was raised in relative wealth and privilege; when I was a child, we had to make do much of the time. It was no surprise that she went to school for the arts; it was no surprise that I studied engineering. Somehow, though, we both seem to have arrived at the same set of obsessions. How does that happen? What does it mean?
It’s not a perfect book. Or rather, it didn’t sit perfectly with me. At times when she speaks in defense of her family images she seems to want things both ways. To be sure, I agree when she argues that her children shouldn’t be judged by the photographs, because photographs aren’t people. But then, she also comes close to saying that critics shouldn’t say that her photographs don’t show “mean” or “cold” children because her children aren’t mean or cold.
And though I find it admirable that she tries to reckon with the racial legacy of the South she loves, and with her own history with race and privilege, I can’t help feeling a certain ambivalence about how she approaches the topic. She admits the hypocrisy of the situation, but can’t quite extricate herself from it:
Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raise by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly †insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them. This reflects one side of the fundamental paradox of the South: that a white elite, determined to segregate the two races in public, based their stunningly intimate domestic arrangements on an erasure of that segregation in private. Could the feelings exchanged between two individuals so hypocritically divided ever have been honest, untained by guilt or resentment?
I think so. Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me.
She is open in her criticism of the system of racial segregation she grew up in. She acknowledges her part in it, how she benefited from it, how her biases blinded her in her youth. But I’m torn between finding her candor laudable and seeing some bit of self-congratulation in it. At that, though, I felt the same ambivalence in her, a desire to see herself in a good light tempered with a hint of self-loathing in having to make the story about herself. Where that leaves me, I’m not sure. I might squirm a bit at a white, affluent Southerner talking about race from a position of power, but I’d likely find it odd, too, if she simply didn’t bring it up at all. You can draw your own conclusions; I’m sure she’d want no less.
And in that, perhaps it’s no different from the rest of the book. Mann never presents herself as anything other than the same sort of fallible human that we all are. Her art, not to mention the deeply insightful and lyrical writing in this book, might raise expectations for those of us in her audience, and so often those expectations are borne out. But looking for The Answers from any person is on some level a fool’s errand, and what we get from this book is still remarkable and resonant, even if the person painted by its portrait isn’t perfect. Hold Still is an exceptional articulation of the inner life of an artist who, though she wouldn’t admit to it, is a genius. After this book, I continue to labor in her shadow, and I suspect I always will. I hope someday I’ll be able to contribute something half as meaningful.
Started: 10/28/2015 | Finished: 11/21/2015