Graphic New York City

So there are an endless number of ways to be inspired in--and by--New York City, and I am only adding myself to the category of people who fell in love with the city upon visiting. It certainly makes itself easy to love, if you would rather not have to use a car, enjoy eating pizza on a sidewalk patio at midnight, and want to randomly discover art galleries, quirky stores, and delicious street food piled one after the next on every little street. One of the ways the city inspired me was in its graphic, natural state; that is, the billboards and architecture combining with graffiti, tiles, manhole covers, stairwells, creating an bold urban patchwork of colors, patterns, movement. Here are a few of my favorite examples.

 

Taryn Simon, exploring bloodlines and stories that bind us, through photos

 

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in midtown Manhattan, we were near collapse after a morning exploring the Upper West Side and Central Park, then shopping around midtown. Then we went to the Modern Museum of Art. I felt it essential to visit at least one of the major, internationally-renowned museums New York City has to offer, even while we were resisting the traditional tourist visit to the City.

Taryn Simon, artist and photographer, has a knack for amazing titles. Her current show: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I-XVIII. At some point as we neared delirium, we wandered into the photography section of the museum, tucked on one of the expansive floors, and found Taryn Simon's stunning exhibition of photographs. To be honest, the named intrigued me first, as names and titles nearly always do. A great name is the fastest way to get me interested. (I read Angela's Ashes in sixth grade--I know, right?--because I desperately wanted to know who Angela was, and what was her relation to the little grungy boy on the cover; no other reason.)

We found ourselves surrounded by austere faces, portraits of men, women, rabbits, sitting each by themselves, amid a series of people (and sometimes things) who are somehow related, whose lives and stories intersect by some grand or small event. There was something about "bloodlines," as after looking deeper at the panels and photographs, I was confused about the organization of the show and its larger meaning. I left intrigued deeply, wanting to spend more time pondering this series, these "chapters," later, but not wanting to buy the $125 exhibition book--which was the show in its entirety, amazing.

Hours later, I am in the hotel room taking a much-needed rest, and flipping through a Time magazine I'd brought with, when there is this bold headline: "There Will Be Bloodlines: Taryn Simon untangles the ties that bind."

I kid you not, I got goosebumps. If I had looked at this magazine a day earlier, I might have overlooked this name, skimmed the article at best. Here was this woman, and her explanation of this newest project, which was four years in the making, and took her to twenty-five countries.

Now I have a proper explanation of the project's theme and meaning:

The organizing principle for this project is what she calls bloodlines: all the living descendants, plus any living forebears, of a single man or woman who sets a story in motion.

And the reasoning, the messy ties and stories and variable havoc that occurs within these "bloodlines" is where her project becomes truly fascinating. It echoes what I see and know deeply: that family lines, genetics, and genealogy have little to do with  the way our lives turn out, have almost nothing to do with the events that shape our individual lives in the present.A simple concept, really; and this explains why the tribal man with ten wives, dozens of children, and many dozen grandchildren appears in a massive sequence. And also, why there is a man missing from his own story--a blank canvas appears instead; he was executed for war crimes after the end of WWII and Nazi Germany, but descendants appear after his spot, along with more missing people, via their empty canvases, as well as pieces of clothing that act in lieu of a person, who preferred not to share his or her face in association with this man. Meaning becomes clear.

Simone depicts bloodlines as flowing charts of small portraits--like a living periodic table of the elements. What resonates is the persistence, and finally the insufficiency, of ancestry and kinship as systems for making sense of unruly destinies. To show that blood lineage can be an extremely loopy line, she sought out unlikely subjects; one is a Lebanese man who claims to be reincarnated, so he pops up more than once in his own family history. "I was always looking for a surreal twist," she says, "something that would lead to a collapse of logic."

All the same, even the most outlandish chapters have their universal element. As Simon put it, "We're all the living dead, pieces of what came before." What she means is that we all carry the DNA of our forebears; there ghostly current pulses through us. The intricate machinery of her project is designed to show that blood ties are a weak line of defense against the blows administered by history, politics, or sheer unlucky circumstances. [italics my own.]

Yes. This entire work is more stunningly magnificent than I ever could have imagined, aligning greatly with my own theories on this whole world and what happens to us during our time here.

Gerardmer, France [2005]

Between visits to Paris and Colmar, we spent our remaining days in France in the tiny town of Gerardmer, about two or three hours east of Paris, where West Laurens High School's sister school was located. I loved the scenery here, because it was all accessible with a nice walk, and was not nearly big enough get lost in.

We went to tiny shops and patisseries, went bowling, drank rum and cokes on outdoor patios (and feeling very grown-up about it), visited the grocery market, and tried on clothes in quirky, local boutiques. It was a picturesque place, and these are some of the best images, given the very mediocre camera I had with me in 2005.

I didn't have an iPod then, nor a Facebook or anything. In fact, I registered for a MySpace account while in the computer lab at school in Gerardmer, after learning that this was the thing all my friends who were traveling with me were desperate to check every time they had access to the internet. Strange to think how life has changed even since my senior year of high school.  The camera I used is 3 megapixels. Wow.

 

A new Chernobyl

Photographer David Guttenfelder recently won a World Press Photo Award for his work, for National Geographic, on the deserted town of Namie, Japan--which lies within a 12-mile radius of the site of last year's nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. His photographs were some of the most stark and significant images I had seen all year in the magazine--a publication whose lifeblood is excellent photography. Certainly his work, risking his health amid the radiation-affected areas he traversed to collect these images to share with us, deserves such accolades. It also reminds me, yet again, why I love the magazine and the organization, and why I only hurt myself when I let my subscription relapse. (Yes, I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms today. I haven't had a new issue in almost three months.)

My favorite image of his entire series (there are many more images) is the one of the makeshift rooms in refugee sites like the Big Palette convention center, taken from above. Every time I look at it, I consider each item, the composition of each tiny space, and marvel at how little we need, and what things we keep, replace, buy, borrow, use, throw away. What things would be in my space if I was a refugee? How much of this would be things I was even able to take with me? I am humbled once again by how much those affected by the March 11 earthquake and subsequent trauma have endured and how gracefully they have handled immense tragedy and loss. We do grow so attached to places, to spaces. 

I have provided the original captions for these photos as they appear in the print issue.

 

[Update}: I just watched this extraordinary documentary from the BBC, on the 3/11 events told from the perspective of children who were/are the victims.

BBC report

A day in Colmar [October 2005]

Colmar, France is one of the most amazing and charming little cities I've ever been to. I was a freshly-minted eighteen-year-old, and it was my first stint outside the United States. It was a liberating day for me, when we visited this French town on the German border, because I broke away from the group after more indecision mired any plans from forming, annoyed that we were all indecisive and trying to impress one another--the French teenagers who were our hosts and the American teenagers that composed my group.

We were passing this amazing shoe store, with boots in the window in colors I'd never seen in the U.S., and everyone bowled right past it--so I ducked in, hid, and tried on some ridiculous shoes I would never have bought but loved: orange and brown leather, hitting mid-calf, laced all the way up. These make me smile now, the price tag asking for hundreds of Euro and my youthful excitement at their outrageous appearance. I would have been brave enough to wear them back home, though they would be added to the list of strange and unusual things Jessie Edens wore in high school. I was the one who had made a skirt out of my dad's old army camouflage pants. (I still own this skirt, cannot give it up.) Maybe these orange and brown boots would have looked crazy and cool with the skirt. Probably not. The point was, I was sitting in a shoe store, in a foreign country where I could barely communicate with the saleslady, and I was beyond smitten with my position on the earth right then.

Alone, exploring, free, smiling, in a shoe store, with a few hours to kill.

The first thing I did once I headed out of the shop was follow a map back to the meeting place we had established for later that afternoon. It would be no good to lose track of myself and then be late getting back to everyone--when doing little excursions on my own, it would be foolhardy indeed to lose the right to my time exploring alone. I wanted, needed, to show everyone, especially the adults guiding us, that I was capable of handling myself and that they could trust me to go it alone. Adults had a habit of not believing I could do this.

A year earlier, on a trip with my church youth choir, I had left the hotel in Philadelphia early on our last morning there, because I was bound and determined to visit the steps that Rocky runs up--the iconic steps of the fists in the air and grey pantsuit moment of Rocky. The way events had played out, some of our group had been able to visit them while I had to be doing something with another group. I was royally annoyed and ready to be defiant. When I returned to the bus (in time for departure, mind you) the adults were mad, and I relished it. I was not a bad kid, and especially disliked being treated like an incapable human, so I really enjoyed making everyone huffy with concern. "What would your parents do if we told them?" was their main argument to me. My dad would have done exactly the same thing, I responded. You know what? My mom absolutely would have done the same, too. We're not a family to have much concern for "the plan" that everyone has established.

Anyway, if people are all being group-minded and deciding things en masse, I tend to want to just wander without them. I don't have to do anything grand. It's the small things that are grand.

I wandered. I bought a postcard whose words still inspire me today, near my desk. I bought ice cream. I asked a man on the street what time it was, in French. I kept hearing water running, flowing, and finally found that it was running alongside a main rue, right between the buildings and homes and the road itself. It came out of nowhere and truly surprised and delighted me. I stepped in dog poop right along that tiny urban river. It is a testament to how happy I was that this didn't even phase me. (At least I hadn't been wearing brand new lace-up brown-and-orange leather boots.)

I found a small little restaurant, boldly went inside and ordered an "American cheeseburger" and a beer. At 18, I triumphantly drank my first beer, freezing cold in a tall glass, because it was legal and I could. The men running the place inquired whether I was allemande-- German. Je suis American, I stumbled around the language, even if the statement was simple. They understood. I wonder if my foolish, giddy grin was obvious?

That afternoon, I returned early to the park area where we were to meet, and discovered that our bus driver was an artiste during his down time driving tourists around--he loved Dali. He let me on the bus so I could grab my notebook and wax poetic about my day alone in Colmar.

Colmar has stayed with me. It charmed me more than Paris, probably because I wasn't too scared to wander it alone and discover a bit more about it in a half-day's time. It was just the right amount of pure, utter joy. Little things.

 

My Pop Art Series

This is part of the Living Atlanta street art series that was done by local artists in 2011, but I have only recently discovered this piece, very close to my office at 34 Peachtree Street. I absolutely love it. So I played with it in Lightroom to my heart's content, and this is the result. I can't have enough versions of this picture, it seems.

Among reindeer

This week I have finally been able to open my October and November issues of National Geographic and I was awestruck by the November story on the Sami people of northern Sweden. Their wardrobe and striking faces radiate against the harsh landscape of the region where they live--blanketed all in white snow. Even the reindeer they keep lend themselves to the grey and white backdrop.

They are a fascinating group, and the photographer who has been living among them for the last few years captured them spectacularly. I had just been pondering not renewing my subscription, as a glanced over an archeological dig and ancient treasure story, and then flipped to this story, just after it. That always happens. The stunning cultural pieces remind me why I always find something worthwhile in the pages. I just skip the ancient treasure stories. See the photo gallery here.

Steve McCurry's Kodachrome career, and legacy

You may not recognize the name Steve McCurry, but I bet you have a vivid memory of this photo, and maybe a vague notion of the story behind it. McCurry has made a career out of photographing the world's faces, many of which have appeared on the pages of National Geographic over the years. The Afghan girl's eyes are what struck McCurry, and subsequently, the people who picked up the June 1985 issue.

In 2002, the saga of this young woman and the mystery and enchantment she beset upon McCurry continued, when he finally found her again--seventeen difficult years later. I remember reading that story, and the fact that the first picture he took of her was the first time she'd ever seen a camera; when he found her again, it was the second time her photo had been taken. In rural Afghanistan, traditional customs still rule, and McCurry was allowed unusual access to this woman--now married with several children.

What I didn't realize until now is that McCurry's photographs are known for their very saturated color, an effect which he gets by using Kodachrome. I have sen hundreds of his portraits, of people across cultures, and never knew what was behind this rich and fascinating quality.

Kodachrome was discontinued last year, and the company gave the very last roll to McCurry. He's currently working on taking the last 36 shots with this film, and taking his time to ensure each one will live up to the responsibility he has been given. (There's only one place in the country that even develops them, in Parsons, Kansas.) Based on the book of his portraits, and his lifetime of vision, creativity, and global exposure, he's got a proven set of eyes.