The format is a facing-page pairing of American Civil War photographs, evocative of various battles, and Huddleston’s own photographs of the battlefieThe format is a facing-page pairing of American Civil War photographs, evocative of various battles, and Huddleston’s own photographs of the battlefields as they appeared in 1990 or so. The Civil War images are your standard mix of Matthew Brady’s bloated blackened battlefield debris, intense individual portraits (“These men appear composed, despite the pressures upon them, as they look into the eye of time”), blurry exposures of camp commotion, and fire-hollowed southern cities in which only the masonry stands (after they burned Jackson, Mississippi, Union troops nicknamed the city “Chimneyville”); and then there are rare medical images from the archives of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology* that give the reader some idea of the look of the postwar society that had absorbed nearly half a million wounded veterans – there are a number of eerie shots of men in waistcoats and neckties, but no pants, showing their sawn stumps, while seated on the little tasseled stools and posed against the cheesy painted backdrops of Victorian portrait studios.
As for Huddleston’s own pictures, they made me think of William Eggleston – the world of Eggleston which Janet Malcolm once described as
defined by the presence of recently made structures, machines, and objects; by people dressed in clothes of the cheap, synthetic, democratic sort; by the signs and the leavings of fast food, fast gas, fast obsolescence…
In short, images of hyper-banality – and great power. Huddleston writes that he made most of his photographs “in areas where the heaviest killing in a battle happened.” So we get a shot of a Nashville intersection – an Exxon station, a Taco Bell drive-through menu, a Kentucky Fried Chicken marquee (“HOT WINGS ARE HERE”) – whose caption reads: “Site of the Union attack on the Confederate Left. 7, 407 American causalities.” A one-story vinyl-sided house in Gaines’ Mill, Virginia, with a child’s bike on the lawn: “Center of Battle Lines, Site of Several Unsuccessful Confederate Charges. 15,587 American Casualties.” Petersburg, Virginia’s K-mart – coin-operated miniature carousel and sheathed shopping carts – was the site of Fort Sedgwick; opposite, Fort Sedgwick as it looked in 1864, a trenchscape of hovels scooped out of the dusty soil and bough-less trunks in the bleak dissolving distance. A pair I keep going back to is that of the studio portrait in which Lorenzo Dickey, aged 21, of Maine, wounded at the battle of Chantilly, Virginia, shows his nearly hip-high amputation; and opposite, the parking lot of the Chantilly office park where in August 1862 the Confederate center first received the Union charge – “2,100 American casualties.” The sign as you exit the lot reads: “Have A Nice Day.”
Huddleston's introductory essay is a rich specimen of confused and contradictory ideals that I would comment upon if it wasn't 2:15am and if I didn't have to move all my books into a new apartment tomorrow morning. Civil War historiography is my thing but Killing Ground is in its box and I'm not going to see it for a few days.
* When I was at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, making copies of its photographs of the Civil War wounded, a box was received from a World War Two veteran. Inside the box were the remains of a Japanese soldier killed in the Pacific that the American soldier had managed to keep in his basement for forty-five years. (Pg. 8) Now that's fucked up! ...more
Pamuk adds another layer to Istanbul’s proverbial description as “the bridge between east and west” by showing how the major Istanbul modernists – poePamuk adds another layer to Istanbul’s proverbial description as “the bridge between east and west” by showing how the major Istanbul modernists – poet Yahya Kemal and novelist A.H. Tanpinar, new names to me, I have to follow up – derived a poetics of post-imperial ennui and urban decay from the melancholic image of their city recorded or dreamed by travelling French writers in the nineteenth century. “[T]he roots of our hüzün [urban melancholy] are European: the concept was first explored, expressed and poeticized in French,” he writes. And the nineteenth century French, the literary critics will tell you, were dealing with their own post-Napoleonic, post-imperial fatigue, and a Mal du siècle which made for what is called a “Late” Romanticism: dark, sexually anguished and routinely syphilitic (“The day the young writer corrects his first proofs he is as proud as the schoolboy who has just caught his first dose of the clap” - Baudelaire), as well as more perverse and pessimistic than the verdant and Liberty-extolling English variety (outcast, exiled, dark-locked Lord Byron being the founding hero, the revolting Satan for the French Romantics). I love that whole nervous crew; the Horror of Life Club, with their flamboyant despair and macabre brilliance (an 1874 entry of the Goncourt Journal begins, “Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola...We began a long discussion of the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language”). For such Istanbul visitors as Gautier, Nerval, and Flaubert melancholy was salutary and decadence authentic, the human norm. They relished the “Orient” for what they saw as its frank spectacles of violence and decay. Flaubert was especially taken with what he saw as the unworried kinship of pomp and squalor; writing a friend from Istanbul in November 1850, he marveled at the “splendid faces, iridescent existences that glisten and gleam, exceedingly various in their riches and robes, rich in filth, in their tatters and finery. And there beneath it all, the old immutable, perennial rascality.” – antiquity and authenticity in contrast to the European bourgeoisie’s fatuous conflation of moral and material progress, its aesthetics of engineering, its religion of convenience. When the Istanbul modernists, like all the other modernists, made their pilgrimages to the French wellsprings, they found their city already a literary image of melancholy – and just in time, what with Istanbul now the defunct capital of a fallen empire, poor, isolated, and afflicted by Westernizing republicans – a virulently progressive form of authoritarian bourgeois, in Pamuk’s picture – eager to raze the old Ottoman mansions and pour concrete Corbusian apartment blocks in their place. I thought of Baudelaire on the demolitions of medieval Paris – “the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.”
My favorite sections of the book were those devoted to Istanbul writers. Kemal and Tanpinar had two interesting associates, bachelor flâneurs like themselves: the Proust-like recluse Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar, and the historian Reşat Ekrem Koçu, compiler of the lurid and idiosyncratic Istanbul Encyclopedia (its entries on Ottoman torture devices and techniques thrilled young Orhan) who lived alone amid ceiling-high piles of nineteenth century newspapers and archival scraps. I love the image of a coterie of urban dreamers engrossed by a city, people for whom the layered landscape of their 2,500 year old home is a complete cosmos, the inexhaustible ground for diverse passions – creative and curatorial, novelistic and antiquarian; sexual, architectural, philosophical. (I think of Joseph Cornell reading Mallarmé after a day rummaging in New York City’s junk shops.) Pamuk is, of course, one of these writers. I was deeply impressed to read that the composition of his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, was preceded by two decades of collecting hundreds of objects that would “belong” to the characters and figure in the book. And then he opened a real museum to display the collection. Elif Batuman in the London Review of Books:
The inspiration for the Museum of Innocence came to Pamuk in 1982, while he was having dinner with the last prince of the Ottoman dynasty. Exiled after the formation of the Turkish republic, the prince ended up in Alexandria and worked for decades at the Antoniadis Palace museum, first as a ticket collector and then as director. Now, back in Istanbul after a fifty-year exile, he needed a job. The guests discussed the delicate subject of employment for the straitened septuagenarian prince of a defunct empire. Someone said the Ihlamur Palace museum might need a guide: who better than the prince, who had lived there as a child? Pamuk was immediately taken by the idea of a man who outlives his era and becomes the guide to his own house-museum. He imagined how the prince would greet visitors – ‘Ladies and gentlemen! Seventy years ago, in this room, I sat with my aide-de-camp and studied mathematics!’ – before crossing the velvet cordon to sit once more at his childhood desk, demonstrating how he had held the pencil and ruler.
Ten years later, Pamuk came up with an insane plan: to write a novel in the form of a museum catalogue, while simultaneously building the museum to which it referred. The plot of the novel would be fairly straightforward: over many years, an unhappy lover contrives to steal a large number of objects belonging to his unattainable beloved, after whose untimely death he proceeds to buy her family’s house and turn it into a museum. You might think that Pamuk’s first step, as a writer, would have been to start writing. In fact, his first step was to contact a real-estate agent. He needed to buy a house for his future heroine, Füsun. During the 1990s, Pamuk visited hundreds of properties, trying to imagine Füsun and her parents living in them. It was beyond his means to purchase a whole building in Nişantaşi, the posh neighbourhood inhabited by Kemal, the hero of the novel. He could afford a single floor in a stone building in the old Ottoman commercial centre of Galata, but then the remodelling would be difficult...
For the next ten years, writing and shopping proceeded in a dialectical relationship. Pamuk would buy objects that caught his eye, and wait for the novel to ‘swallow’ them, demanding, in the process, the purchase of further objects. Occasionally an object refused to be swallowed, as happened with some carriage lanterns and an old gas meter. Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence in 2008. It resembles less a museum catalogue than a 600-page audio guide. A ticket printed in the back of each copy grants one free entry to the museum. By that point he had already acquired nearly all of Füsun’s belongings, so the museum could, in theory, have opened the next day. But Pamuk was worried about the example of Edouard Dujardin, the French writer sometimes credited with pioneering, in a largely forgotten text called Les Lauriers sont coupés, the stream of consciousness. Pamuk didn’t want to be Dujardin. He wanted to be Joyce. It wasn’t enough just to build the world’s first synergetic novel-museum. The museum had to be a thing of beauty. He hired a team of artists and curators and worked full time in the museum for several months, taking naps on Kemal’s bed in the attic.
It was difficult to imagine the holidaymakers and commercial travelers who would want to stay there, nor was it easy…to recognize the Albion as the “hotel on the promenade of a superior description” recommended in my guidebook, which had been published shortly after the turn of the century.
Of course this connoisseur of desuetude, this dreamer on oblivion, tramps about with a lapsed guide book. The better to savor what’s disappeared from the landscape. I know now to apply “Sebaldian” to a jaunt I made last month. One Sunday, thinking we had little else to do, my girlfriend and I drove two hours to a town we saw profiled in a boosting local glossy. The magazine had the usual montage of professionally flattering, almost stock, images of the charming diversions awaiting us (a bike path, a tea room; no local brewery though - a bearded hipster in Red Wings, thrusting a growler at the camera, would have completed the montage), but I was really excited by mentions of the town’s dead and preserved stuff, its ideas of the vestigial and the relinquished. The article noted that Litchfield, Minnesota, had been dubbed “the Queen of the Prairies—No Drone in Her Hive, and Every Inhabitant Full of Work and Public Spirit” — a nice sample of the grandiloquence lavished on those little farming and commercial hubs nineteenth century Americans were so proud to have raised, quickly and in a seeming desert, and then linked together with the iron rails on which Progress was grooved to run. The article also mentioned an opera house dating from Litchfield's flush heyday, now being halfheartedly restored, and the meeting hall, now a museum, built by the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic, that once-vast fraternity of Union veterans. The post was probably an essential civic bond for the area’s early, rootless residents, all of them homesteaders from somewhere else.
The post building was stout, turreted, chessman-like structure. Inside there was rack after rack of old rifles, a bust of Grant a local grocer awarded to a woman who had collected fifty ABC soap wrappers in 1890, and a dinner service embellished with the faces of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, the three assassinated Republican presidents. Covering one wall were large portraits of the post members. It was a prosperous, padded, stolid-looking set of farmers and merchants, though stuck into the corners of a few of the frames were small spotty ambrotypes, taken during the war, of the beardless rawboned teenagers, scowling and clutching rifles, that some of the men had been. The biographies were short and perfunctory, but here and there afforded glimpses of eventful lives. One man was born during an Atlantic crossing, to German immigrant parents. The ship foundered off Long Island, the parents drowned but their infant was miraculously saved, and ostentatiously adopted by a wealthy New Yorker. When just a boy he ran away, to Ohio as a hired farmhand, then to the Union army, and then further west to this homestead. One of the post members was black. Most G.A.R. posts were segregated, but the founder of Litchfield’s was a radical editor who had commanded a black regiment at the Battle of Nashville, and he welcomed a black veteran by the name of Van Spence, born a slave in Kentucky. Spence was the town’s lamplighter. He would regale the post meetings with spirituals, accompanied by his daughter on an upright piano that still sat up on the stage. He also oversaw the town’s July 4th barbeque, and in preparation would travel back to Kentucky and to West Virginia for possum, which he seems to have made popular. The museum had a picture of Spence’s son with the high school football team. He wasn’t allowed to play, but served as mascot. Looking at the picture I was unable to make out just what animal, if any, the boy’s costume was supposed to represent. He wore a colorful motley. I hoped he wasn’t simply “our darkie.”
The photographer of the veterans, a post member himself, enjoyed a local renown, and captured the town in the twilight of the nineteenth century. The museum attached to the hall displayed albums of his work. Richly-ringleted, lace-collared little Lord Fauntleroys, cradling spaniel puppies. Family portraits in which the ornately carved chairs and Corinthian pedestals and busy arboreal backdrops seem a kind of forgetful buffer against the windy plains and spectral Sioux. Two of the albums were all that remained of a lakeside resort that flourished a few summers beside a nearby lake, and then went bankrupt in the depression of 1893. Sebald’s spooky inset photo of fishermen posed knee-deep in one of Lowestoft’s fabled herring catches reminded me of these contemporaneous albums, in which a party of young men, grinning under rakishly tilted bowlers, lounge in one of the hired gigs that circuited the grounds; and two girls, already in massive bustled skirts, stroll a lakeside path, heads tilted toward the other, arms around cinched waists.
The museum was hardly to be distinguished from the antique shop down the street — from the antique shops in so many Midwestern towns. It was the same slightly chaotic, slightly morbid display of only recently defunct households. And it presented all the things I usually adore, when I visit my grandmother in rural Iowa and rummage the shops with her: the old uniforms, and the various trophies yanked from German corpses in the two world wars; also and especially, reminders of middle class cultural aspiration like cheap copper busts of Beethoven and Shakespeare, and sheet music, especially four-hand reductions of famous symphonies and operas, to play beside your mother on the parlor upright, when distant neighbors visit (Sviatoslav Richter emerged from rural Ukraine after a youth of parlor piano Wagner and free peasant concerts -- what a combination of the bourgeois and the revolutionary orders! -- and the professors at the Moscow Conservatory sighed that they had nothing to teach him) ; oh, and the books! those anonymously translated encyclopedic sets of the World Classics of Literature…Turgenev and Maupassant and Hugo and everybody else in cheap-looking but self-evidently durable editions ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog or bought on subscription from that traveling salesman who smiled so patiently while you wiped your hands on your apron before signing and who was also offering a deluxe edition of President Grant’s Personal Memoirs illustrated with back number engravings from Harper’s Weekly.
So, The Rings of Saturn. I loved this novel (anatomy? travelogue? memoir? dream? nightmare?). I loved it so much that at times I thought it a drug designed for just for me. I loved it so much that I’m content to bask in the memory of it—am in no special haste to get copies of The Emigrants or On the Natural History of Destruction. This book is unusually fortunate to have a cover blurb that perfectly describes the narrative’s eerie and unpredictable apparition of specters. “Stunning and strange…like a dream you want to last forever.” Yep.
At his most exasperating, Koestenbaum seems a child of the forced captive mating of Roland Barthes and Camille Paglia. He’s got his dad’s parentheticAt his most exasperating, Koestenbaum seems a child of the forced captive mating of Roland Barthes and Camille Paglia. He’s got his dad’s parenthetic prolixity, and his mom’s loopy associative rants. And I would add Jackie Under My Skin to the pile of Books That Should Have Remained Essays. That said, some of the chapters—“Jackie as Dandy,” “Jackie and the Media,” “Jackie as Diva”—make this recommendably brilliant despite the 2(.5) stars I’m giving it. Koestenbaum’s special strength is his 1970s New Jersey gay suburban fanboy youth, when he played pageboy at powwows of the muumuu’d “block ladies” with their endless cigarettes, endless gossip, devotionally dog-eared copies of Valley of the Dolls and “braying phlegm-laced laughs.” Not just some academic going for his Walter Benjamin Merit Badge, he’s a collector-cultist with a deep command of three decades of tabloids. I could read him all day on these vessels of Jackie’s fame:
In a representative mid-1960s issue of Movie Mirror, the ads cater to housewives, dreamers, and drag queens—to anyone, particularly a woman, who is unsatisfied with her body or life, and therefore seeks marital aids, bust enlargers, diet secrets, negligees (“the undie world of Lili St. Cyr”), depilatories, star glossies, vanishing creams, inflatable female dolls, vibrators, correspondence courses, cellulite removers, harem jamas, “Shape-o-lette” Lycra spandex corsets, height-increase shoe pads, falsies, muumuus, sea monkeys, false finger nails, hormone creams, and wigs, including maxie wig, swept-back flipper, curly-cue s-t-r-e-t-c-h wig, and a bippy tail that functions as braid, bun, twist, or dome.
Jackie habitation of the block ladies’ tabloids was somewhat new to me. I knew she was paparazzi-beset but my major image of Jackie was supplied by sedate commemorative ephemera of the type collected by my mom, and once pored over by me (her birthday falls on Nov. 22, and she recalls a 9th birthday party converted into a conclave of crying moms and sullenly drinking dads).
Koestenbaum introduced me to the Jackie that first overwhelmed him, the sybaritic 70s jetset Jackie, a gluttonous shopper with a swarthy billionaire rebound and a killer private-island tan.
This is Jackie Oh!—or “Jacqueline Borgia,” as Koestenbaum calls her—the source of so much titillated outrage in her former subjects, the Good People of America, who made her a tabloid icon:
In what kind if magazines did icon Jackie appear? Sometimes she materialized in magazines that lived on the border of soft porn. For example, a Jackie Kennedy Onassis souvenir booklet from the late 1960s was published by a company, “Collectors,” that also issued Peter Pecker, Oral Lust, Seduction of Suzy, Drugged Nurse, Queenie, Skirts, Whips Incorporated, Lesbian Foto-Reader, Adult/Lad Lovers, Punishment Journal, Chaplin vs. Chaplin, and Love Stories of a Wayward Teenager. In contrast to these titles, children’s books about Jackie ostensibly aimed to teach youngsters how to read, or to offer moral uplift…It’s bizarre that there should be a children’s bio (“A See and Read Beginning to Read Biography” by Patricia Miles Martin) about Jackie O, since her image epitomizes late 1960s salacious yet safe “adult” pleasures. And yet icon Jackie had the knack of inhabiting the border of porn and pedagogy, and shuttling between the two without blinking: the same picture of Jackie could be a lech’s pinup, a patriotic talisman, and the picture that explained a baffling emergency headline.
Jackie Under My Skin begins with Kostenbaum standing in the cordoned crowd outside Jackie’s funeral cathedral; the first chapter, “Jackie’s Death,” records his discomfort and unease at “the media’s rehabilitation of the errant Jackie O.” “Only Maurice Tempelsman,” Koestenbaum writes of the service,
struck a note that recalled the Jackie O who had originally captured my affection: reading the C.P. Cavafy poem “Ithaka,” he artfully resummoned her years in Greece with Ari. It was wonderfully contrary to the spirit of the mawkish and idealizing media coverage that Jackie’s Jewish companion should have chosen a poem celebrating the louche and sybaritic virtues for which Jackie O, in the tabloids, had long been recognized. Of particular interest were the lines: “may you stop at Phoenician trading stations / to buy fine things, / mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, / sensual perfume of every kind”—a passage confirming and blessing the acquisitive aspects of Jackie’s reputation that the media momentarily neglected.
Koestenbaum wonders about the future of Jackie’s “iconicity.” I think it’s safe to say that the 70s tabloid icon no longer has any power to shock, and has yielded entirely to the First Lady—just as we remember Thin Elvis and Black Michael—and after all, as he notes, Jackie chose to be buried at Arlington, next to Jack, under the eternal flame. (I wonder if Tempelsman also meant “Ithaka” to stand for Arlington, for the mausolean Kennedy Legacy; the poem’s last stanza, according to Wikipedia, reads:
Always keep Ithaca in your mind. To arrive there is your final destination. But do not hurry the voyage at all. It is better for it to last many years, and when old to rest in the island, rich with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to offer you wealth.)
Paparazzi images of the Aegean-yachting Jackie, once so scandalous and breathlessly consumed, are now mainly staples of fashion magazines whose editors wish to impart glamorous precedent to this or that season’s large sunglasses and strappy sandals. Which is all the more reason I’m glad Koestenbaum gave us this encapsulating, eccentrically tributary media memoir.
Out west, the complex responses to industrialization and its transformation of time and space include things never dealt with by the impressionist paiOut west, the complex responses to industrialization and its transformation of time and space include things never dealt with by the impressionist painters and avant-garde poets usually talked of as modernist, include Indian wars and identity shifts, a landscape being claimed and renamed, photography as art, and a comic literature.
Rebecca Solnit doesn’t explicitly oppose the history of San Francisco to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of Paris as “capitol of the nineteenth century” (Baudelaire and Manet, those painters of modern life, are a bit hard to dismiss), but there’s no mistaking her view that the photographic genius and railroad fortunes gathered to California in the late nineteenth century helped seed the most intense and influential of all the mass cultural upheavals precipitated by the Promethean shit Europe and Euro-America were tinkering with. I’m usually wary of big theses like this. George Steiner argues that the nervous style of Austria-Hungary’s urban Jewish intelligentsia provide the mopey whining and self-derisory shtick of Smart People Today, which is true. Some other book argues that Enlightenment Edinburgh in the persons of Adam Smith and David Hume made the modern consciousness of godless mercantilism, which might also be true. And at some point, I hear, the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s impossible to be so mocking about Solnit because she has a vision of things rather than an easy thesis, and because the guy who took the pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, and the guy who owned the horses, railroad oligarch/senator/governor/university founder Leland Stanford, invented photographic techniques and founded research institutions whose “unimaginable consequences” were to be movies and computers, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Not to mention an entirely new worldview. The innovation wasn’t just technical—-it was radically spiritual. Motion pictures and the shifts in perception and landscape brought about by rail travel touched the deepest questions of time, reality, identity, of life’s pace and rhythm.
That inquiry into the meeting of science and art is what I love about Solnit. It’s all too easy to write technological history with a sense of the inhuman inevitability of certain discoveries; the global possession of influential technologies tends to obscure the context of the original devisers. Solnit insists that though cinematic technology from which flows the “river of shadows”—-the visual mediation and abstraction of experience we take for normal today—-was formed from numerous global contributions, the pioneering motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge were marked by their creation in the hands of a peculiar individual in a particular place. Muybridge was a good-natured wandering Englishman who arrived in 1850s San Francisco and soon made out quite well as a fine bookseller. The city may have been a boomtown at the end of the world, but it was an insanely rich one, and among the first things new princes wish to buy is Culture. Passing through Texas on his way back East, he was thrown from a stagecoach when the team of half-tamed Mustangs suddenly bolted off the road. Muybridge suffered a frontal lobe injury that made him irritable and erratic, but that also seems to have released some previously hidden creativity, unlidded some magic eye, because after wandering around Europe and the eastern states during the Civil War years, he returned to San Francisco and began to take some amazing landscapes, social documentaries, and proto-cinematic motion studies.
Muybridge’s images of Yosemite are the stark, brooding compositions of a sensibility attracted, "by temperament or by brain injury," to a fierce disorientation of perspective and to debris, wrack, rubble, and scars of violent geological movement. Muybridge led a mule train bearing his tripods, portable darkrooms and huge glass plate negatives through dangerous passes and up rocky trails to get shots that often look menacing next to the photographs and paintings being made by his friends and contemporaries - like Alfred Eisenstadt - working in the same landscape, and in whose work the vertiginous cliffs and scantly-treed ledges of Yosemite often appear horizontally stabilized by lush foreground meadows and bathed in divinely serene light appropriate to the God-given Eden that most Americans wanted the west to be. Not Muybridge, the connoisseur of vertigo; he also had a back-file of ominous cloud formations that he’d print onto other pictures to make the landscapes even more harsh and threatening.
The eeriness of Muybridge’s early still photography supplies one of the most curious parts of Solnit’s biography, the scrap book of Muybridge’s young wife Flora. Flora was half her husband’s age, in her early 20s. By accounts she was a fast, flirty, excitable young woman enamored of theater, nightlife and expensive clothes.
While Muybridge perched on the some contemplative precipice in Yosemite or followed U.S. Army campaigns against the restive Modoc, Flora cuckolded him, got herself knocked up by a sponging, rascally swell. Muybridge shot this man through the heart at a poker table. Muybridge was acquitted of murder. He had a good lawyer who anchored an insanity defense around the fact that Muybridge was on a few occasions diffident about payment for his photographic services. To a jury in San Francisco, a city built on the Gold Rush, such diffidence seemed proof of insanity. And their Not Guilty verdict was to them confirmed when at the reading Muybridge suffered a spectacular seizure in the courtroom; he was prostrate for a while, but eventually rose and walked outside, to be greeted by a cheering crowd.
After the trial Muybridge left Flora. He went to photograph ruined, vine-choked Baroque churches in the jungles of Guatemala. She dramatically wasted away, died, and was committed to a mass grave of paupers. Her son was sent to an orphanage; he grew up to be a ranch hand with a strong resemblance to Muybridge. In the 1950s, her scrapbook turned up in a junk store. In its assembly she had used prints of her husband’s uncanny landscapes to border and background pouting portraits of her favorite matinee idols and music hall performers.
Think Joseph Cornell without French Symbolism or Surrealism, more juvenile and inclusive (the dream life of the masses is always stranger than the experiments of “high modernism”). Flora’s scrapbook is at Stanford University library, and probably well worth examining; and it seems just the sort of bizarre codex Taschen should reprint. Solnit writes:
One imagines Flora at home while Muybridge was away on an expedition, pasting his work into her album, proud perhaps of her husband’s achievements, but altering and arranging them to fit her own vision of the world, making them scenic background to her urban demimonde.
An irritable Victorian eccentric with a tangled patriarchal beard, Muybridge doesn’t fit the part of Father of Cinema, but his wife surely represents the people who would become the first adoring audience for movies. Solnit found that the pauper’s grave Flora is buried in lies behind a movie theater, and uses her as just one example of the human hunger for images that would only increase in the years after her husband perfected multiple high-speed exposures capable of capturing all the minute motions of a galloping horse and settling for a good a bet Leland Stanford had made with another wealthy racehorse collector, that at some point in the stride all four hooves are off the ground.
I’m very eager to see more of Muybridge’s 1869 series on the Central Pacific’s eastward race to join the Union Pacific in the first transcontinental railroad. The images from this series that Solnit includes are so spooky, primal scenes of the westward expansion. Muybridge was one of those rare artists who could discern and dramatize essential forces, currents in the air, history-in-the-making, the noise of time. One shot shows a line of track running level and smooth between two halves of a dynamited rock formation. The massive rock halves dominate the image, are characteristically looming and formidable. The image is such a precise register of the scale of what’s being done. An era’s ambition compressed to an image. What an audacious feat this is, Muybridge reminds us, to impose our industrial will, our straight-and-smooth, on such daunting, ancient natural forces. The image communicates awe for the land and for the organized, unstoppable strength of its exploiter. Captain Ahab, Shakespearian symbol of all the subduers of American nature, soliloquizes from the stern of his whale ship:
The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly, I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way.
Another striking shot is of a Shoshone family Muybridge photographed along the Central Pacific spearhead in Utah. Surrounded by what appears to be his three children in intricate finery and his mysteriously beautiful, half-shrouded wife, an adult warrior pugnaciously aims his bow and arrow at Muybridge’s lens--but the defiant dignity and demure covering of the adults’ poses, so suggestive of charms against the potentially soul-possessive camera, are neutralized, undercut, by signs of the subtle dissolution of their context: some kind of building in the distance to the group’s right, a telegraph pole, and a rail car closer on their left. Defiant, independent gestures against an background being reamde by and for whites. Considered up close, they are proud and fine; in the context of the background, which is basically a rail yard, they look out of place, homeless, utterly dispossessed and slightly ridiculous. Theft of land and theft of meaning in a single image.
And this was how America’s leaders knew it would go. General William T. Sherman is always said to have transferred his depredations from the rebellious South directly to the Indian west because the campaigns he oversaw as General-in-Chief of the Army (Grant’s old post, before he was promoted to the White House) incorporated the big strategic lesson of the Civil War: that you can subdue vast amounts of territory and population when your military force is equipped by an invulnerable industrial base and projected by railroads and steam-powered river fleets (the U.S. Army would drive across Western Europe into Nazi Germany after the same fashion, though with massive numbers of trucks, jeeps and tanks named after Sherman augmenting rail networks and providing troops with personal mobility). The land area of the Confederacy had been massive—-as big as Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Poland combined—-and by the end of the war the Union army’s higher commanders like Grant and Sherman were experienced handlers of whole-continent geopolitical strategy.
Sherman, who had been a banker in 1850s San Francisco, knew that rail companies like the one owned by Stanford, subsidized and protected by the government, would win the west without the massive levee of troops that would signal war to the war-weary American voter. (Hitler, always an avid reader of Wild West dime novels, so associated the militant use of railroads with the US that he named his personal armored train “Amerika.”) In the West the railroads would shuttle troops, and, importantly for permanent conquest, carry civilian development along with it; as Solnit writes, this rail system wasn’t built to serve existing needs, but to create them.
Much fuss has been made over the idea of the frontier, as though it were a line advancing east to west, but the West was settled piece meal, and Indians fled in many directions to escape the tightening noose of the railroad lines and towns.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the American West, its legacy of butchery and theft, its mythic violence, and Solnit’s writing and Muybridge’s photography combine in what is the most unsettling summation of the period I’ve yet to encounter.
Awesome. Leaves William Claxton choking in the dust. Wolff's shot of John Patton--at piano, his sweat-gemmed face, shut eyes and slightly parted lipsAwesome. Leaves William Claxton choking in the dust. Wolff's shot of John Patton--at piano, his sweat-gemmed face, shut eyes and slightly parted lips set on a giant white turtle neck sweater--is up there with Avedon's 1955 Marian Anderson as a timeless image of ecstatic musical transport.
Kirstein had an awesome range of interests. This selection of his writings shows him intimate with so many areas. He co-founded the NYC Ballet, so ofKirstein had an awesome range of interests. This selection of his writings shows him intimate with so many areas. He co-founded the NYC Ballet, so of course there are essays on dance (a dry but trenchant history of the development of dance technique, then a wonderfully idiosyncratic essay explaining how Russian Orthodox demonology informs Balanchine's choreography), and essays on the photography of Walker Evans, on the paintings of Cadmus and Siqueros, the poetry of Auden, Japanese music and theater, a memoir of the JFK inaugural, an appreciation of James Cagney and gangster films, historical studies of Henry Adams's marriage and black soldiers in the Civil War. He published Pound and Eliot in a literary magazine that he started while an undergrad at Harvard. During WWII he was part of the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, a unit that was responsible for rescuing and repatriating art looted by the Nazis. He's tirelessly insightful, it seems, about everything. I only started reading him in May, and he's already one of my favorite writers....more
Pundits trying to be clever like to point out the profane religiosity of our "celebrity worship," but we have nothing on "Golden Age" fandom. You coulPundits trying to be clever like to point out the profane religiosity of our "celebrity worship," but we have nothing on "Golden Age" fandom. You could send away to fan clubs for glamour shots of your favorite stars--for glossy, burnished, super-retouched saint cards of divine human perfection. Some of Hurrell's shots of Jean Harlow look like vampish cartoons, barely real, and Marlene Dietrich was more of a beautiful drag queen than an actual woman. These images have the unnerving emotional intensity, the palpable freight of idealistic longing that one finds in devotional art. Us Weekly, with its paparazzi chronicles of cellulite, nip-slips and break-ups is so much more earthbound than this crazy shit. ...more
For future reading in American history, I really need to track down more lavish exhibition companions like this. Each photo is accompanied by a mini-eFor future reading in American history, I really need to track down more lavish exhibition companions like this. Each photo is accompanied by a mini-essay--an education, a further vista. Lilienthal understook one of the first municipally-sponsored photographic surveys of an American city. This book contains that portfolio, plus work from the rest of his career. Here's New Orleans from so many angles: panoramas from high perches, cards de viste of notables, firehouses, cemetaries, busy wharves and paddle-wheel shipping, seedy streets, loungers and gin mills, as well as composite photographs, one of which, of the orphans of Confederate General John Bell Hood surrounded by images of their late parents, victims of the city's 1879 typhus outbreak, verges on spirit photography. I need to find books like this for Muybridge and Matthew Brady. ...more