Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Grimly inspiring

This post contains a graphic image and links to graphic images that will not be safe for work. Please be thoughtful as you read.

Chili is talking about observation as a tool for writers. In so doing she's expressing anew her love of a painter named Samuel Bak. I was in attendance for the high school class she taught with the painting she includes in the entry. It was amazing and interesting and I loved both the painting and the observations of the students. I made a promise to myself that I'd seek out more of Bak's work, I should get on that.

Last week I caught the Annie Liebowitz exhibit just before it closed. I love photography and I've always been drawn to portraiture. I like Singer-Sargent, I like a good headshot photographer, I like Liebowitz. For the most part I only knew Liebowitz's celebrity work for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Me and the rest of America. So it was amazing to see the rest of her work and to see how they're all, of course similar.

Liebowitz says that she's a hack because she's almost solely observational. She doesn't use a lot of processes on her prints and she doesn't mess around with fancy depth of field shots or anything. She looks at things and clicks the shutter. Some might say that her more fanciful set ups, like Whoopi in the milk bath, are gimmicky and not observational but I disagree. What I like most about those shots is that it's always seemed as thought she observed the subject and found a quirky set up that magnified what she saw inside them. Nobody thinks of Jodi Foster as a glittery girly girl but we can see that glitter inside her, Annie just put it on the outside and let her live that in a photo. Check out her portrait of Ellen Degeneres for an even more complicated instance.

Bak's paintings make me think of a photographer I fell in awkward love with over a decade ago, Joel-Peter Witkin. I have only seen his photos, I haven't done any research on the man so I can't tell you what makes him do what he does (did?). They are fairly grotesque and feature people who are disfigured, maimed and generally not pretty. But somehow there's a glimmer of something gorgeous, or rather something that used to be gorgeous and has been ruined. Like Liebowitz I think that he tends to see what's inside and pull it out to drape it on the surface. I built a dance-theatre piece around the picture below, Woman Once a Bird, and I remain fascinated by the implications of it. The story I told in my piece was of how she got that way but it was superficial, not nearly enough to really get to how this could happen.

So many of us write to get through a horrible time but I think it's the visual arts that have more leeway to truly convey the emotion of horrors like that. They have a divine ability to combine the beauty and the horror in some of the worst experiences.

I couldn't agree more with Chili about how important observation is for a writer. It's no coincidence that every other blogger out there has a Flickr account. Go out and look at something for a while today, will you? You'll love it, I promise.


  1. Anonymous3:53 PM

    Ah—the portrait thing. In art, a portrait depicts the sitter’s soul. It’s nearly impossible to do that with a camera as you can with paint or a pencil. Krementz is one of the few photographers with a real gift for it.

    Singer Sargent once wrapped up the hell of doing it on commission with this quote, which I probably have already left in receiving at 117 Hudson (check your files): “A portrait is any picture where there is something wrong with the mouth.” ~,:^3

    You hand out the best word verification: cyaxkl

  2. Anonymous7:32 PM

    I am finding that, in teaching observation, I am SEEING more. I'm catching little bits of conversation and watching what people do when they're waiting for a bus. I'm thinking about phrases in songs that resonate (and wondering exactly WHY they resonate). It's an exercise in being aware, mindful, ALIVE. And it's exhilarating!