Friday, June 23, 2017

Blue Bayou

Channel 9.1 (KQED) had a Roy Orbison concert reprise last night (we'd seen it before), in which he's accompanied by Bruce Springsteen, among others. Some way into the set, he did Blue Bayou, a song I was surprised to learn he'd actually written (and released on August 1st, 1963, according to Wikipedia).

It's a beautiful song, redolent of the rock-n-blues-y Southern tradition Orbison came out of, and a perfect vehicle for his high-pitched, plaintive voice.


Earlier in the evening, I had tried a new cocktail mix, actually a slight variation on a standard recipe.

Two Parts Myers Dark Rum
1 part limoncello
1 part fresh lemon juice
1 part Mandarin Napoleon orange liqeuer

Served over ice and lightly stirred. Very seductive.

And in retrospect, it seemed the perfect accompaniment to the music we later heard. 

The slow, unhurried, submissive, passionate, fatalistic, decadent, suffering, delight in the inevitability of transient love and regret.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

Polishing Mirrors: The Photographs of John Sexton

Let me begin this essay with a series of qualifications.

Since the inception of photography in the 19th Century, there has seldom been any doubt about the inherent quality of photography's function, which is its ability to present verifiable versions of visual reality through the use of artificial glass lenses onto light sensitive surfaces. The degree of accuracy of the reproduction of imagery from reflected surfaces, onto flat ones, has always been its aim and measure.

Of course, accuracy alone cannot account for the effect of modified illusions, which is partly what modern photography offers. The last century of photography is the development of a technology of increasing sophistication, in which "raw" data is manipulated and augmented to create altered or improved versions. When Ansel Adams said the negative is the score, and the print is the performance, he was referring not just to the playing of the music, but to its interpretation. What, after all, is a "straight" print, if not one version of the process. To change that process, or adjust it, by whatever means, is in one sense, just another means to an end, which, from an aesthetic point of view, cannot be more or less than an aesthetic choice.

All art is subject to the vagaries of taste, which is ethically neutral. All attempts to fashion a fixed, defensible bastion of aesthetic criteria are doomed, since there is no final arbitration of value inherent in the artistic realm. Which suggests that all our preferences and pronouncements about the ranking of quality in the arts are opportunistic and arbitrary. They may be constructed around humanistic, or religious, or pragmatic principles. They may begin in utter simplicity, but ultimately, we cannot credit such principles unless we accept them, as starting points, as initial axioms.

There have been attempts to distort the meaning and function of photography by diverting it into cup-de-sacs, such as Soft Focus, multiple imaging, etc.; and since the advent of digital technology, the manipulation of the image itself. But there is no reason, other than the arbitration of prejudice, that we should want or need to object to such variations.

Straight photography, nonetheless, continues to hold a place of privilege, even as it evolves into new means and materials. As we transition out of organic emulsions to digital projections, the terms of the equation may change, but the solution to the problem has the same general aim. The sense of an idealized photograph implies the existence of an idealized subject, and this is what makes landscape, fashion, photojournalism and documentation, etc., each in its way, compete for progressively ever more iconic, diverting, or synthetic instances.

What is the difference between reality and an accurate photograph? What is the difference between a "straight" (unmanipulated) print, and one which has been subjected to various augmentations? What is the difference between an "exaggerated" and an "invisible" manipulation? What is the difference between how I see a scene, or a photograph, and how someone else "sees" it? What is "reality"?

Most photographers will readily admit to manipulations, since to do so is as much a boast and a claim, as it is an admission of some degree of artificiality. The delicate balance between a naked "straight" representation and an augmented work, insures that there will always be some degree of "wiggle" room between what we may decide to expect of, or allow, any craftsperson.

The issue of craft is paramount in any production where method and materials are as crucial as they are in the chemical processes of traditional photography. We tend to be somewhat suspicious of any craft that pretends to define meaning and quality merely as aspects of the refinement of technique, as (for instance) with poetry. A well-written sonnet may say nothing of importance, may be nothing but an equivocal demonstration of wit or word-play. But with true crafts, of which photography is one, it is often convenient to think that the perfection of method is more important that the actual content of the image. 

John Sexton began his career as an apprentice of Ansel Adams, and his career has followed a familiar pattern for the kind of craftsman that he set out to be, and has become. 

It's tempting to suggest that fine art photographers who concentrate, for instance, on landscape can equate fine craftsmanship with the subtle distinctions one encounters in nature. Sexton has said repeatedly that his aim is to transmit the subtlest shades of feeling and impression through the careful exploitation of the finest distinctions of silver gelatin print-making. Like Adams, Sexton focuses on the familiar scenic icons of the American outback, including notably Yosemite, which Adams immortalized. 

But unlike Adams, Sexton seems less interested in evoking the "heroic" aspects of nature, than in transmitting meditative calm, peaceful states of mind, fragility, harmony, and centeredness. It is perhaps no coincidence that an adroit technician--patient, careful, even finicky--should choose these kinds of tropes to explore and convey.  

What strikes me, looking at Sexton's work, more than any other quality, is its static fragility. It almost has a feminine aspect to it, a timid sufficiency that chooses to accept whatever mildly pleasant scene chance may offer to his discerning eye. His pictures don't seem to say very much. Images of still or silky flowing water, windless forests, posed leaves or rocks or details of architecture seem chosen primarily because they present little challenge, but may yield delicate possibilities in the darkroom. 

When technique overshadows content, an artist may become over-fastidious and prone to mannerism. This is what I see in Sexton's work: A photographer who has become so preoccupied with finishing and revising and drawing out nuance and innuendo that he forgets about the importance of feeling and significant meanings. 

Any art which gets so caught up in the technicalities of its craft that it forgets to communicate anything but an appreciation of the function has lost its way. Sexton's passivity and ingratiating distillations leave you feeling as if you needed a nap. There is perhaps some use in presenting images of perfect calm and frozen visual music, for those for whom these are the desirable states of mind. We're all familiar with the drugstore Zen Buddhist approach to the vicissitudes of life in the over-amped Western pursuit of pleasure and wealth, but oversimplifying the potentialities of serious photographic-imaging by promoting it as an aid to nature meditation is nothing but glib salesmanship by critics and gallery-owners, looking to capitalize on the latest new age fad. 

It may indeed be true that "art makes nothing happen," but whatever is happening should at least occur in the mind of the viewer. 

Technique can get you so far in any art, but without at least a clear vision of what your craft is for, you may be nothing but an experimenter, content to let your ingenious tricks be the main attraction of your work.  

Sexton's work is restful, and satisfying in a submissive way. Its only determination seems to be to make everything fit, and clear, but that organized transparency feels ungrounded. His prints seem like problems to solve, rather than experiences to be lived. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Announcing Imminent Publication of Photographs 1986-1996 by Curtis Faville

Regular readers of this blog--if indeed there are any such animals--know that I've had a profound interest in photography, as evidenced by my many blog-posts here about various well-known photographers over the years. 

While living in Northern Japan in the mid-1980's, I developed an interest in documenting the fascinating landscape of that place, by taking pictures. In the course of that pursuit, I quickly realized that I had an untapped orientation to the visual, as well as an aptitude for composing in two dimensions. After returning to the States, I quickly moved into the view camera field, acquiring various large format monstrosities, including a 4x5, an 8x10, and even an 11x14. 

I pursued this avocation for 10 years, before abandoning it in 1996, for personal reasons. In the intervening years, I've always intended to return to it, while keeping busy with other distractions such as blogging and antiquarian bookselling.

Finally, this Spring, I decided to explore the possibility of making a collection of my images as a published book. In the time since I had actively worked in the field, the technology of print production underwent a revolution to the digital. What would once have taken a lot of painstaking donkey-work with chemical baths and drying racks and mounting boards, could now be achieved inside digital application programs, projected onto light screens, with an almost limitless range of possible adjustments and augmentations of an image file. The possibility of projecting a collection of mounted silver gelatin prints into a book file was a dream I had nurtured in my imagination for over 20 years. The time seemed ripe. 

Fine art photography book production, using the latest high-tech craft in digital lithography, has yielded stunning examples of the work of the best contemporary photographers in the world. The costs associated with this craft have driven much of the industry overseas. In America, one outfit in particular has continued to set a standard, Dual Graphics in Southern California. Continuing a tradition begun earlier at Gardner-Fulmer, Dual Graphics employs the latest in digital image-making from scanning to final print production, to produce breath-taking monographs, with images that rival the original prints they're made from. 

30 years ago, hardly anyone would have thought this possible. But it's become a reality.

Presently, I'm about half-way through the production of my book of photographs, the front cover of the dust wrapper for which is shown below. Assisting in layout and design is George Mattingly, a publisher and graphic designer in Berkeley, an old poet and little magazine editor I've know for many years, since our days in Iowa City back in the 1970's.             

The book is scheduled to be completed sometime in mid-June. Next week, I'll be traveling to Brea, California, to oversee the printing of the signatures. There are 65 black and white images in the book, predominantly landscapes, with a few studies and abstractions. The shot reproduced below is of countryside in West Marin, an area I spent a good deal of time in during the decade of my photographic work.    

The dimension of the book will be 16x14 inches, a huge tome of a volume, in the traditional "coffee table" format. The reason I chose such a large dimension is because I wanted to print my 11x14 inch contact prints at full scale, without shrinking them to fit a smaller vision. One of the great attractions of very large format, is the incredible clarity with which scenes can be reproduced, without blur or weakness anywhere in the field of the frame. Having gone to such trouble to generate these big prints, I couldn't stand the idea of compromising their potential. 

The book will be 106 pages, and a $100 price tag, though I suspect that few if any of the copies will be sold for that amount. The run is limited to 300 numbered copies, all signed. I've explored the possibility of national distribution, but I doubt anyone will pick it up. Book distributors aren't much interested in obscure photography books by unknowns, no matter how interesting they are. And I've never been ambitious enough to pursue gallery or print sales.  

Good luck, big book!


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Lily Sabine Dreaming

Lily Sabine, sleeping, so curled around her intent, dreaming no doubt of escapades and adventures, from the past, or soon to come. 

Do dreams serve some purpose in the riddle of survival and genetic mutation?

Since we can't know what it feels like to be "inside" another animal, another being, we can only guess what they dream. We assume that other mammals dream, since they exhibit the same twitchiness, rapid eye movement, and distraction which we have learned to associate with active "unconscious" narratives during sleep. 

Are dreams a passageway into our secret meditations, conduits to the unknown? The surrealists thought so, and psychology and psychiatry are both founded largely on an analysis of the involuntary impulses that generate dreams. We live in the "real" world, while conducting a private series of stories or incidents in our imagination, which are parallel to the real but also creative reinterpretations  of it. Perhaps, as has been suggested, dreams are a testing ground or a rehabilitation center which exists to work out problems or try out ideas. The brain may be said to possess a certain autonomy with respect to actual experience, in a sense "acting alone" without our conscious direction. 

As I get older, my dreams seem to be getting more involved, more tangled with plots and counterplots. I'm not sure why this should be. My life was certainly more eventful when I was younger, and yet my dreams then tended to be briefer, less complex, though often more lucid and powerful in their immediate effect. 

Many people report that they can fly in their dreams--an astonishing proposition since humans have never been able to fly--except artificially, with balloons, parachutes, or in planes. Is it possible to imagine that humans may someday mutate, naturally or artificially, into bodies that could fly? What an amazing thing that would be. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Announcing Larry Eigner's Selected Poems: Calligraphy Typewriters

The University of Alabama Press has just published Calligraphy Typewriters: The Selected Poems of Larry Eigner, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier [ISBN: 978-0-8173-5874-7, Quality Paper $24.95]. 334pp. with a Foreword by Charles Bernstein, Index and Notes on the Text. The book measures 7 x 9 inches, with sewn signature binding, and a glossy cover (designed by me and George Mattingly).  

The publication of Eigner's Selected follows our earlier work on the Collected Poems of Larry Eigner [Stanford University Press, 2010, Edited by Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier], a four volume hardcover set of 1868 pages.     

Any selection will be a reflection of the taste and discrimination of its editor(s), and with a poet as prolific as Eigner was, there can never be a completely settled subset of universal correctness. Certainly all of Larry's famous poems have been included, but the work's overall consistent quality virtually guarantees that any selection will have a satisfying and familiar confirmation, no matter how partisan. 

Our determination to include as many poems as would reasonably fit--our selection actually comprises less than a third of Eigner's total published out-put in his life--meant that we used as much of each page as possible, often stretching the limits of traditional margin-practice. Due to a slight trim error, some of the pages are a bit too low on the page, a problem which we could not have foreseen at the proof stage. 

Unlike the earlier Stanford edition, in which we established a fixed left-hand margin for all the poems, in the Alabama edition we chose to present each poem roughly centered, in order to give each a degree of autonomy. The resulting shifting margins makes for more variety of placement, and creates a sense of balance. 

Calligraphy / Typewriters is intended to reach a wider audience than the bulky Stanford Collected. Our hope is that it will become a sort of textbook of his work for use in classrooms and study-groups, and for the general reader. 

For my part, Eigner's work belongs in the handful of major post-Modern writers who broke from the strict confines of traditional verse to create a kinetic, deconstructed experimental work that revisions poetic perception and sensibility in unexpected and astonishing ways. I'm proud to have had a hand in husbanding his contribution to subsequent generations of readers.     

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Swimming in the Nude - a New Cocktail

Tender sensibilities! 

If we could all admit that the most enthralling physical sensations occur in our most vulnerable states,  perhaps our over-mastering inhibitions wouldn't get the better of us.

Mortality is a blessing, which if we could only comprehend its crucial meaning, might liberate us all. 

The fact that all that we know and experience is fleeting--not to be repeated, not to be extended indefinitely--might allow us to elevate our response to life, reflecting the value that only limits can grant. 

Swimming is a wonderful thing. Our whole bodies immersed in flowing liquid--symbolically amniotic--a sensation that refreshes and enlivens our nervous system. 

If a drink could inspire this feeling, it might be the most addictive drug. Most psycho-active drugs are said to either heighten our sense of impression, or deaden our sense of pain. 


Innocently enough, here's a stab at an inspiration of the freshness and immersion of bodily clarity and chill, the Swimming Naked Cocktail. Mixed as always by proportion. 

3 parts Boodles Gin
3/4 part aquavit
1 1/2 part Cointreau
1/1/3 part fresh lime juice

--shaken and served up with a garnish of a thin slice of lime.

I was a latecomer to the joys of swimming, but eventually I was hooked. 

I often have the same feeling with certain kinds of music. Just now I was listening to Chabrier's Scherzo-Valse, which I find so bracing and uplifting, with its crisp enunciation and high spirits, that it's as exhilarating as a dive into a cool pool. 

So here's to physical joy, and the pleasures of feeling, and taste. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Mamet's Conversion [Part II]

Theatre (and by extension, cinema) is perhaps the best example of a cooperative, collaborative artistic medium. Writers may collaborate, artists may collaborate with writers (or vice versa), musicians may (as with jazz) improvise (becoming, in effect, the composers of new extemporaneous works), architects may share billing with builder/craftspersons, landscape designers and interior designers. But in the theatre, the playwright is separated by at least two removes from the actual realization of his vision. There's the text, the director, the producers, and the actors, each of whom has a say in how it turns out; and each can alter, to a greater or lesser extent, the outcome of the playwright's original work. In this sense, any playwright might be said to be dependent upon the skills and abilities of those who actually realize a dramatic work. 

Mamet's many successes in the legitimate theatre and in cinema entitle him to speak with some authority as a critic of dramatic art. Great writers of fiction or poetry or drama may or may not qualify as useful or valid critics of their own metier. We usually need to qualify any artist's opinions about their art, by remembering that powerful imagination and creativity may not necessarily be accompanied by a clear rational objective sense. Most artists tend to value what they themselves do best. Occasionally, an artist or writer will admit to admiration for another's work, even to envy. Mamet praises Anton Chekhov, though with the caveat that Chekhov's work is politically tame, blandly "universal" in its meaning(s).

So if Mamet denigrates the "interference" of producers, directors and actors in the artistic process of theatre or cinema, it's understandable that this could be seen as the overblown vanity of pride, of a belief in the sufficient perfection of his own work or vision. Any artist may "earn" the right to make their own case, but we are under no obligation to accept such partisan verdicts, especially when applied to widely different kinds of products. As a screenwriter whose credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hoffa, The Edge, and Hannibal--we'd grant him the authority to make sweeping statements about such tropes as violence and venality in dramatic works. 

But would we be willing to accept Mamet as an authority on comedy, or affairs of the heart, or historical dramas, or science fiction, or epics? What is the connection between Mamet's personal proclivities as a writer, and his political points of view? 

Some playwrights who have a certain view of humanity, can be a laborer on two fronts, the way George Bernard Shaw was, as an active socialist part of the time, and a very good playwright the rest of the time. Portraying human beings interacting on a stage, or on a screen, is a perfect vehicle to demonstrate certain political or philosophical principles in action. 

And indeed, Mamet has come more and more to believe in a certain view of human life and value, one which he calls "the Tragic View." The tragic view holds that humanity is--in Mamet's words--"greedy, lustful, envious, slothful, duplicitous, corrupt and inspired" and that "this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama." 

Mamet sees liberal politicians, and those on the Left as suffering from the delusion that human imperfectability can be corrected, and the imbalance between right and wrong made even, through government intervention. He sees the highest good American democracy has achieved as the balance of powers, set against one another, thus self-restraining.  

An argument could be made--and it is a classic (some might say tired) one--that having achieved personal artistic success, accompanied by personal wealth, Mamet now can "afford" to assume the usual privilege of economic success, and glory in his own good fortune by believing that his prosperity is a kind of credential in an imperfect world; that his success is not only proof of his own moral superiority, but that his dramatic actions have been successful precisely because they present life in the terms he sets up. 

Mamet himself might suggest that his own "greed, lust, envy, corrupt and inspired" are no more admirable, or exceptional, than any other artist or citizen. And he'd be right, with the possible caveat that he's just a bit more corrupt and inspired than most people. 

If the point of drama, as Mamet defines it, is to portray human error in conflict with itself, then we might respond that the early work of Clifford Odets, such as Waiting For Lefty [1935], or Awake and Sing! [1935] is as apt a vehicle, in this sense, as any of Mamet's works. Odets came of age in the Depression years, when the reaction to the excesses of unbridled capitalist speculation and exploitation was at its height. The "tragic view" of human life would be no less pertinent then, than it would be for Mamet, growing up in the post-war years of relative prosperity. The tragic view of life does not imply that people should not have flaws, but that their struggle may not result in a preferred outcome. Since Odets was, in his day, as successful and admired as Mamet is in our time, would it be disingenuous to argue that Odets' politics was somehow as irrelevant or extraneous to the fact of aesthetic achievement, as Mamet's politics is?

For Mamet, the best outcome is measured by the success of the performance. The struggle in the hard knocks arena of public entertainment is no less frustrating, or tragic, than the struggles that occur in politics, or life in general. 

As an American Jew, Mamet sees the struggle for Israel's continued existence as a dialectic between those who support the Jewish State, and those who oppose it--or who may hold a contrarian view that includes the Palestinian opposition's interest. Because for Mamet, the predominant contemporary liberal view of the Mideast Crisis--that Israel must in the end learn to compromise with its neighboring Arab States--is consistent with a false promise of the perfectibility of humankind, that people with legendary differences can learn to get along with one another. 

But the tragic view of Israel is built on generations, nay millennia of experience, that Jews cannot trust those whose interests oppose theirs, and that if history teaches anything, it's that they will be betrayed and persecuted just because they exist. If Israel's identity is indeed existential, then any Jew may come to believe its best chance for survival is through domination. Further, that any attempt to temper that dominance with compromise or concession is bound to lead to the ultimate capitulation. And that any betrayal of that domination may be identified with weakness, self-destruction, and threat. 

As an American Jew, Mamet's politics is heavily influenced by the "tragic view" of Israel's continued existence. Though Jewish American political sentiment has traditionally been liberal, the issue of Israel's existence, and of America's continued support of it, is the key dividing point between liberal and conservative Jewry. Mamet's "Hollywood" politics follows a recognizable pattern for those of his biographical profile. But Mamet's conjoining his aesthetic focus with the politics of personal, financial success may signal a wrong turn. 

In America, any man may declare his political beliefs without fear of reprisal or repression. But we're under no obligation to accept those beliefs. Why should we think that portraying the human condition in the make-believe world of theatre or cinema entitles any artist to speak about real problems in the difficult real world? Ultimately, a playwright's work must speak for him. 

As I enter old age, I come more and more to understand the impatience of intelligent people who deal with the frustration of seeing history repeat itself, over and over again. If you believe that human life is essentially tragic, then it would seem a futile gesture to take sides in a Shakespearean dialectic in which right seldom, if ever, triumphs.