Monday, December 02, 2002

BOOK REVIEW

American Ruins: Ghosts on the Landscape

by Maxwell MacKenzie (photographer)
with foreword by Henry Allen
ISBN 1-890434-41-8, LIC CP data
A-4 (9-1/2” x 11-1/4”), 30 plates, 80 pages, $24.95
© 2001 by Maxwell MacKenzie
Afton Historical Society Press
P.O. Box 100
Afton, MN 55001
Tel: 1-800-436-8443
http://www.aftonpress.com

It’s hard to write a review of a book like this. It’s like trying to explain to your children why you love them.

For like a child in its parents’ eyes, American Ruins is far more than it appears. On the surface, it is a very well designed and exquisitely photographed essay on the vanishing farmsteads of the northern plains states in the USA. That’s like saying the Mona Lisa is a woman.

On the next plane, the photographs—panoramics mainly, in black-and-white on infrared film—are beyond photography. They are a spiritual experience on paper that comes as close to the experience of truth as can be done without becoming it yourself. They are haunting, wistful, emotional evocations of the pain of time and loss, the invisible presence of people in what the picture does not, cannot, show, in the way that only black-and-white can push you out of “that” into “thisness.” As the foreword puts it: “... as if the camera has recorded something going on inside your head and projected it onto a wall.” Small wonder many feel black-and-white is the most difficult image recorder to work with, and also to many the most sublime when done well.

And sublime Mr. MacKenzie is. This is one of the most remarkably photographed books to come off the presses in a long time. Not just well done, but literally beyond compare; the sole occupant of its category. The photographs are closer to poetry without a pen than to the interaction between film and lens. Songs without words in an A-4 landscape book. The only thing to match them is the writing excerpts that “captions” them. (The captions in the conventional sense are Notes at the end of the book.) Mr. MacKenzie chose the excerpts himself, and he certainly did his homework well. Wallace Stegner is here, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, Henry Miller, Frank Lloyd right, and two writers who would probably be surprised to find their sentences thrust alongside the eloquence of this book. But here they are, and no the less eloquent:

“When family love is displaced onto land, every change that happens there has meaning: the calibre of the light and the texture of the clouds in a day, the big changes of the seasons, most of all the slow transformation of the infrastructure of the place itself as the decades pass. When the deflection of love is also a deflection of pain, the gradual decomposition of such a place can be excruciating, a kind of lifelong torture, and yet, at the same time, a hypnotic, unfolding story. As the place declines, layers of meaning are revealed.”

=Suzannah Lessard, “The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family”

To which Annette Atkins adds, in “Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance* in Minnesota, 1872–78”:

“Minnesota lost settlers during the dark days of the 1870s . . . but thousands remained. Some could afford to stay; some could not afford to leave. Debts held some. Others wanted to hold on to their investments of time and energy. Some held different attachments; as one man explained: ‘I have lost my all here, & somehow I believe that if I find it again, it will be in the immediate neighborhood where I lost it . . . I have a child buried on my claim & my ties are stronger & more binding on that account.’”

In the Notes at the end of the book (done so not to clutter the word-plus-image haiku of the page layout) we learn just how fussy the calculating technician Mr. MacKenzie can be. One sawmill required an exposure of thirty seconds for enough photons to wade through what appears to be thinly overcast skies plus polarizing and red filter. The effect is like trapezing on the bottom of a snowflake as it descends the skies and prepares to land. If grays can be thought of as pastels, all the eye’s pastels are in this picture. When spying another photo-op, he could see by the angle of light on a distant shed that it would be a race between himself and the sunset to lickety-split the half mile there in time to catch the perfect light (page 18).

Next level beyond, like the luminous flotilla of cumulus floating above the flat horizon, itself floating above the grassland and grove and far mountain and near hill, each its essence to land that nude is essence to woman and cry is to child, there is, unbroken except for a single structure in or near the center, the next plane in this book: the foreword by Pulitzer-winner Henry Allen. As literary imagery it is the same league as Mr. MacKenzie’s pictorial imagery: Image, but more. Mr. Allen conveys all the picture-frame fact that forewords should convey (Mr. MacKenzie’s bio data, the cameras he uses), and *then* hits us with the real stuff. The first line reads, “All photographs are abandonings” and two pages later the circle is completed with, “The abandonment itself is erased.” How like Ms. Lessard’s alembic of history, “As the place declines, layers of meaning are revealed.”

In between is writing that calls our attention to what the unrushed eye can see: “. . . leaning barns and windowless houses, jutting up like wreckage in oceans of furrowed wheat and sorghum, architecture that looks more like a visible absence of something, like a missing tooth, than it looks like a presence of sun-curled clapboard and tatters of tar paper. It looks like ruins . . . of dreams that didn’t work out.”

Then he goes beyond all that, to the lives unseen in these pictures, flesh long gone but souls still there, a kind of spirit of determination to match this spirit of place: “. . . boredom, bad luck, debt, despair; about the blizzard that leaves you burning your inside walls to stay alive because if you go outside for firewood you’ll vanish; about a summer erupting with wheat until the grasshoppers darken the sky and eat everything—wheat, vegetable garden, even the leaves on the trees; about a husband who tells his wife he’ll be right back after he rides out to round up two cows—she watches him ride around the cows and keep going and he never comes back.”

Beauty of a special kind, these—of death, decay, the falling to ruin—but life of a kind all the more: eonic, seasonless as a century, brutal cold and brutal heat, wind vying only with grass for endlessness, and to the human who endures these and thus surpasses the self, transfiguration. Into this, the Great Plains, families came, filled with grit and ambition and not a few starry-eyed dreams. They are still here, here in these pictures. Look around the corners and there they are, in the boards of the barn they nailed, among the leaves in the trees they planted. With all that’s in this book, we can see what we never would have before, the eyes of dreams become the last remains of a rainbow.

And finally to the last plane of all: the publisher. The Afton Historical Society Press is Exhibit A why we need to keep alive American small publishers by buying their books and wagging our tongues about them. Photographers like Mr. MacKenzie may luck out and see their work accepted by one of the major houses. More than likely though, luck won’t fly their way so unerringly. And even when the so-called mid-list authors and photographers like him do manage to be picked up by the majors, would they get the lavish attention Mr. MacKenzie’s book received? Afton’s “product” is to the book what Pablo Casals was to the cello. It was printed semi-matte paper that won’t glare the eyes half to death, leaving them to see into rather than onto the pictures. The covers are a nice thick stock in the French binding style (a paperback with a flap that gives the effect of a hardcover’s jacket). There is a lovely balance of script and cursive fonts, and a wonderfully effective subtitle in smallcaps (the only place in the book where such are used). And—my heavens, haven’t seen one of these in awhile—a colophon on the last page specifying the fonts used. The ghost of Aldine has visited Minnesota.

This is what books used to be in the highest sense of the craft. And still are, if only we seek out and buy the work of presses like the Afton Historical Society.

And oh yes, order them at your local independent books store whenever you can. We need them, too.

BOOK REVIEW

An Algerian Childhood

Leïla Sebbar, editor
Marjolijn de Jager, translator
Foreword by Anne Donadey

ISBN 1-886913-49-8
Octavo, 226 pages
Published in USA © 2001 Ruminator Books
1648 Grand Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105
www.ruminator.com
$24.00 list
First pubished 1997 as Une enfance algérienne by Editions Gallimard, Paris.

Camus was right: only the sun has been kind to Algeria. Geography, demography and history have not. The thread of green with which desert yields to sea was originally named Ifriqqiya, whence comes “Africa.” (Below the Sahel was “Niger.”) Over the last 2,000 years its many cultures were side-by-side civilizations speaking in common the tongue of the marketplace but otherwise each their own. Among those cultures were the pre-Muslim Berbers (themselves of many tribes), Jews who condensed over the millennia like dewbeads on a thread, Arabs who arrived with the Qur’an and remained to trade. A handful of Christians remained from Roman times and many more coattailed the reconquista seeking a quick dirham. And finally the French, nominally Christian bourgeois but culturally Imperial Bourgeois. When the Algerians exploded after Dienbienphu showed colonies need not submit, the French left, but only after a ghastly fight. The political scirocco still blows and headlines in red tell of it.

How could one possibly have a happy childhood in a place like this?

A book with the right editor can illuminate the souls politicians and economists forget. The Algeria that Leïla Sebbar finds was a courtyard more than a country, and in it people reconciled their differences and got on with their lives. That’s not what the history books say, but historians, too, know how sensation sells.

Ms. Sebbar is an Algerio-French professor and writer who has written of her ancestral land for many French literary reviews. Here she has revived a niche of the Algerian literary world quite popular in the 1950s that withered during the Algerian war: childhood reminiscences.

The sixteen authors in her anthology do not Pollyanna their pens through days of happy yore. There is much between the lines, and even more between those lines. The jacket blurb describes Hélène Cixous’s Bare Feet as, “a deeply resonant story about a young girl’s search for place in a colonial society,” which “recounts how, at the age of four, an encounter with a shoeshine boy awakened her to the harsh realities of her own class standing.” Anne Donadey’s foreword expands that to, “The protagonist, a four-year-old girl, constantly wonders where she belongs in a world divided between colonizers and colonized ... innocent of and responsible for the injustices of the world in which she is growing up.” (p. xv)

Then we get to Ms. Cixous herself, who gives flesh to these: “Suddenly I was a grown woman. ... I resolutely pretended to be the little girl I had been ordered to be. Again the feelings of shame that accompanies our lies invaded me. And it is shame that is the sign of our childhood. ... I saw the face of the little shoeshine boy and I recognized the sparkle in his eyes: it was the lust of hatred, the first shimmer of desire.” (p. 58) One is only fleetingly aware until this that, as she is middle-class Jewish and he dirt-poor Arab, social standing hurls a curse even on awakening desire.

There are other references to the social chasms of skin color—the arrival of a room-hushing lily-white French boy in Mohammed Dib’s Encounters relates, “We would not take our wide-open eyes—and rightly so—off him anymore, we weren’t doing any work, incapable as we were of doing anything but staring.” (p. 110) Jean-Pierre Millecam’s grandmother’s driver, “... whose soul is as delicate as his features pure, suffers from his swarthy skin tone.” (p. 165) This reminds of India, where skin color still cleaves societies more visibly than economic standing and more permanently (these days) than caste.

The Algeria of these writers was no happy barrio of race and religion thriving beneath the colonial rubric “the locals.” The cities were divided into enclaves—this district in Tlemcen for the Arabic Muslims; that rue in Oran where the Jews lived. Locals, yes, real people the more so. Algerian-turned-Parigot Mohammed Dib describes the arrival of his physician with, “Two imperious thumps on the front door with the knocker ... were not only dealt to the door of the house but also to that of my heart, which would instantly crumble with sadness, just that—sadness—because I already knew how to take my pain in stride. ... As if to announce them, my mother used to boil two needles for the syringes. ... He saved my leg, which by all logic should have been amputated.” (p. 107)

Throughout it is writing that enchants. There are so few simple declaratives that they could hardly stand out more if printed in yellow. Annie Cohen’s Viridiana my Love is a stream of consciousness romp through word-images like dessert-case sweets. As befitting the Arabic reverence for poetry, the Algerian writers are the most lyrical of the lot. Jemel Eddine Bencheikh writes sumptuously baggaged sentences—caravans, really—between first cap and full stop there is a lot of tapestry, and yet you never lose the main image. His dreamcatching story Tlemcen Up High gives us five stanzas of a uniquely Algerian popular metrical style called the tahwîf, which consists of two sung phrases to each line, originally meant to accompany pushing someone on a swing.

A beast to translate this must have been. Many sentences run fifty words and up and paint more quick-cuts than a TV commercial. Marjolijn de Jager certainly wins her kudos for that, although the occasional phrase rings a bit off, e.g., “the whole shebang” on p. 73.

“Passion for place” is these writers’ equivalent of Camus’ rejoice of the Maghrebi sun. Ironic then, the monopoles of cultural imperialism that drew these literary filings author by author to Paris. All these reminiscences were written there, encouraged there, published there. The capsule bios that preface each dolefully announce in the sentence after their name, “So-and-so has been living in Paris since ....” Pushed there by the Franco-Algerian war of the 1960s and the ethnopolitical pogroms thereafter, they now write mainly for Francophone literati. How cheering it must have been for them to disalign from the magnet of Racine, Stendahl, et al, and realign themselves to the multipole that once was Algeria—ethnic, religious, economic, geographic—by way of childhoods regained. These memoires are stunning testimony to the eloquence France ignored but these filings retained.
BOOK REVIEW

Art Deco Graphics
by Patricia Frantz Kery

ISBN 0-500-28353-2, LCCC # 2001096302
© 2002 by Thames and Hudson, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
http://www.thamesandhudsonusa.com
$35.00, 10-1/8” x 12-1/4”, 476 illustrations (248 in color), 320 pages

Open.

Suddenly it is Paris in the twenties. Outside the café windows the parade of umbrellas furls under clearing skies reminiscent of the grays of Caillebotte. The clouds of war have vanished from the sky as unnoticed as clouds of birds vanish at dusk. Out on the rain-wet streets prosperity walks the dogs of opulence, one furpiece on a leash, another around the shoulders. The overheated sensuality of the twenties dances from evening till dawn, could-care-lessing the events of the day. Poiret and Chanel and Schiaparelli have announced the inexhaustible things an undecorated piece of cloth can do to a woman’s shape. The arrival of jazz has turned the tinkly quaintness of ragtime into the purr of Josephine Baker’s contralto and blast furnace of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Upsetting economic dreadlines in the news cezanne into the fruitbowl pastels of self-satisfaction over fine wine. Posters on kiosks matisse their voluptuous shapes of style and font. Angle and streamline and vehicle vuillard away the rectal carnage of military revenge in the what-me-worry decade between Versailles stuffiness and beery München pütsch. All testifying to the garb romance always dons after an era of horror.

It was time for something new. The drifting directionlessness of France in the 1920s when film and poetry were all but the same thing, a nostalgia for what always is because it never was.

New . . . and yet . . . more: Modern. Diverting. Striking, startling, disharmonious, direct. Everyone saw the need: Art of street to challenge art of salon. A merger between middle-class decorative taste and the revolutionary’s love of the outré, the young artist’s love of the avant-garde, the liberated career woman’s preoccupation with the suave and the elegantly insolent. By the time the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes opened in Paris, the masters of modern art—Picasso, Braque, to skim for the moment the mythic cream, Klimt, Léger, Kandinsky, Magritte, Modigliani, Duchamp, Ernst, and Toulouse-Lautrec—had already transformed the fine arts. There seemed no new territory to explore.

Then the newbies discovered graphic arts.

There was no “Art Deco” then. Indeed, that appellation was not used until 1966. But artisans embracing a handful of ideas loosely bundled as “Style moderne” borrowed bits from Cubism, Russian Constructivism, Italian Futurism, the Vienna Secession, Bauhaus, then added techniques of their own: abstraction, distortion, oversimplification, geometric solidities reinforced with intense colors. They used these to celebrate the rise of commerce, technology, and (thanks to the auto and airplane) speed. The ensuing volcano spewed simultaneous views from several directions: hypercontrasts of color and arrangement, transformations of reality, personality, eccentricity.

These inspired a new kind of fine artist, the illustrator. Names like Cassandre, Jean Carlu, Herbert Bayer, and McKnight-Kauffer began to turn up not merely on posters, but magazine covers, stationery design, advertisements. A kumquat of Orientalism was squeezed out of Diaghilev's sensational Ballets Russes. American jazz, native American and African art, Egyptian glyphs, these too. And above all the discovery of personal power in the power of machines. All these contributed to an aesthetic confluence from which has flown the sociological art theme of our times: graphics, commerce, private purpose, public event, and social attitude are all immersed in one. Art Deco Graphics is like looking at the wedding pictures of one’s grandparents.

All here.

“Here” is the first encyclopedic gathering of the best of graphic design created in the two-and-a-half decades leading up to 1936, when Life Magazine effectively killed the idea of magazine art by introducing the full-page photo. We’ve been stuck, ever more drearily, with it ever since. There are chapters on posters, magazines, commercial design, books, stationery, fashion, theatrical costume (which for a time was hard to distinguish from fashion). Art Deco Graphics is a definitive sourcebook, as one expects, for art-history enthusiasts. But it is also more: Anyone who takes Web design seriously could do worse than relook at Art Deco as the fount of the most important art-caused social transformation in history.

Dip a little deeper.

There are nearly half a thousand illustrations, and nearly a quarter-thousand are in color. Many of those are full-page. All are testimony to author Patricia Frantz Kery’s inexhaustible ransack of museums, art dealers, and private collections in her quest for thoroughness. And her exquisite taste in selecting the best for these pages. And her wit: On page 88 is an image with the word “PROBLEM” in a streamlined sans-serif block-style font (an Art Deco hallmark). Out of the “O” sticks a cigarette, smoke tendrilling upwards. Yes, we would most certainly agree today, says it all doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, no. Look a little closer. The brand name on the cigarette is “Problem.” Why anyone would brand-name a cigarette “Problem,” even then, is a mystery. Forty years ahead of time, but it was on the wrong-way track.

Almost all these images are standouts, but a few are unsettling, and breathtakingly so. On page 89 is an ad for Herkules Bier “aus dem Hasenbrau-Augsburg.” The sinister, leviathanic, muscle-bound, fist-clenched figure uses one of the hallmarks of Art Deco—deep shadow to enhance contrast—to convey a message as self-contradictory as it is threatening: Drink this and it won’t go to your belly, it will build the muscle of Germany. Rage is power, and watch out you fops of Versailles.

That was 1925. Five years earlier Ludwig Hohlwein design an ad “Tachometerwerke” for a Düsseldorf maker of the eponymous instruments to clock engine revs. The vehicle, with its riveted sheet metal body and upjutting phallic levers for gears and brakes, all done in a dark drab befitting military maneuvers in the slime, is not a Gay Paree streamlined beauty with chauffeur and mink-trimmed consort. It is a tank. The vehicle alone says, “We’re coming, out of the way.” But it is the driver who truly frightens. Garbed in the thick leathers of automobiling at the time, gloved hands gripping—no, choking—the wheel, his face is of such grim, hating, enraged determination that one cannot think of similar malevolency in all of art history except perhaps for Meiji-era Japanese prints extolling the glories of battle. Even in 1920 the omens were shrieking, and by 1925 they were extolling muscle.

Yet for the most part Art Deco was sweetness and elegance, if not light, and a kind of innocence during the days when modern commercialism was being established. One can see editors exploiting inner fears on behalf of ad sales even then: the Vogue and Vanity Fair covers depict improbably slender women draped in the silks and furs of unattainable wealth, their eyes of steel willing and able to stare down an amorous tycoon (page 143). Book publishers were right alongside them: A book cover by a designer pseudonymed “Fish” (in reality the British caracaturist Ann Sefton) proclaimed, “High Society—Hints on how to Attain, Relish – and Survive It; A Pictorial Guide to Life in Our Upper Circles.” Powerful “Fortune” covers (whose ultra-simplicity and unusual view angles could inspire cinema students even today) whose One Dollar newsstand price really *was* a fortune in those days (page 140). They also were the days when “Fortune” had taste: A 1941 cover was graced with a Fernand Léger graphic. Page 141 yields up fabulously insensitive stereotype of Fritz Kreisler jamming with Louis Armstrong, and a “Vanity Fair” cover of a banjo-playing black (p. 148) would be sued off the stands nowadays.

There are surprises, too. The late-Twenties Shiseido Cosmetics ads use the same logotype the firm uses today—perhaps the most antiquarian logo around save for Ford Motor Company, and yet so with-it even now. Stationery designers produced some astonishingly beautiful designs—many mixing in plentiful dollops of Art Nouveau imagery—and if the captions between pages 193 and 205 are anything to go by, they joined postcard designers in undeserved anonymity. The artistry of A.M. Cassandre deserves a re-look (the only two works available on Amazon are out-of-prints dated 1976 and 1983, and the most interesting find on Google is < http://posters.barnesandnoble.com/collection.asp?pid=73009 >). Surely someone out there might be inspired by such a find.

A reviewer could go on for hours like this. Almost every image the book deserves a paragraph to itself. And the descriptions, they could go on, too: elegant style, cool sophistication, ocean liners racing the Atlantic and trains crossing continents., speed a metaphor for modernity, modernity that was soon turned into fashion. The role of the then-new medium of radio, how Hollywood musicals soon picked up the message of offering hope for better times and a temporary escape from daily troubles. In direct dissonance with today, art pushed style into commerce rather than commerce pushing style into art.

Art Deco Graphics is about graciousness of form. An unmatchable book that can be read five, ten times and still sift up new baubles. Brief-lived, yet timeless, like the then-young artists’ cheerful way of navigating into the future using no compass or ancestral guidance. Like office girls who adored the little black dress, but were informed they could liquefy, rather than dump, themselves, into it, and so did.

The best book of its kind. Nothing comes close.

BOOK REVIEW

Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O
by Christopher Wanjek

ISBN 0-471-43499-X, No LC CIP data
© 2003 by Christopher Wanjek
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
111 River Street
Hoboken, NJ 07030
http://www.wiley.com
$15.95, 6”x9” paperback, 280 pages

Someone in Wiley’s cover design and marketing departments did this book no favors. The cover depicts a largely faceless woman in a 1950s to 1960s era nurse’s uniform. (The Little Lord Fauntleroy collar and watch the size of a blood-pressure dial are the giveaways. What kind of casting department to they have at that place, anyway?) The “nurse” is pointing to a brown medicine bottle (Clue 2: today everybody uses plastic) half filled with pills. She smiles, and it’s not the Mona Lisa’s. The word “Bad” is in the “Inkpad” font or equivalent, sized in 96 point type and ugly black. The subhead opener, “Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed” looks cribbed from a checkout stand tabloid, and the rest of the subhead, “from Distance Healing to Vitamin O,” seem a rather small sampling on which to bitch into existence a whole book. The cover promises a diatribe at best, polemic at worst. In a bookstore only a screwball health nut could be seduced by such an unpromising cover.

Sad, this, because the book is anything but a screed for overly convinced fanatics. It is in fact a wide-ranging explanation of most people’s health concerns written in most people’s terms. It is especially good at reinforcing time and again that proper diet, nutrition, and exercise throughout life are the surest and cheapest keys to good health. Along the way Mr. Wanjek dispatches no end of windmills, from the myth of racial exceptionalism to where, exactly, does the tongue taste sweetness and saltiness. The tiny little appendix (the one inside us, not the somewhat more commodious one at the end of the book) really does have a use after all and shouldn’t be willy-nilly snipped out whilst the belly is open for other reasons. Kidneys, liver, skin, hair, the resident populations of microbes—all these get a fair hearing and an even better explanation. As a periodic refresher on why it is a great idea to take care of oneself, this book is about as good as they come.

But it is not, as the cover implies, a debunking screed. Mr. Wanjek is very good at thoughtful explanations of when to take health claims at their word and when to look deeper. Chapter 24, for example, entitled “Organic Food,” starts off with a appetite-vaporizing set of facts about the secretive industry that calls itself “Organic”. Milk sold under that rubric is in fact produced by cows penned up in the same ghastly poop-palace conditions as the more traditional variety. They are simply fed organic food (whatever that might be) instead of the truly dangerous stuff the industrial-food lads have dreamed up. If we take off the rose-colored glasses with the word “organic” silk-screened on the surface, we find many similarities in the minds of “Organic” corporate nutrition designers and the minds of the tetracycline-and-ground-brains designers. Corporate, after all, is corporate. Strange things happen to thinking and values whenever that word enters the picture. So organic cows are penned up like their less well-fed sisters in row-stalls, mouth in a trough and teats in a machine that sucks them dry three times a day. They just get a nicer label for their fate. Soya milk, anyone?

You’ll probably not want to keep this in mind next time at the McChicken place, but “free range” chickens range freely over a pecked-to-death enclosure with thousands of others, their beaks sometimes removed so they won’t go on a murderous frenzy at the spark of something scary. And did you know that five California farms grow half the country’s “organic” crops, right amidst other crops, and how in heaven’s name do they keep the insecticides and fertilizers from wafting in?

There are many similar examples of gut-spasming truth-telling, but Mr. Wanjek sticks to facts and graciously stays out of rubbing our noses in it. He also lays low some foot-soldiers of popular mythology that health-products industry generals use to scare the wits out of everybody. Remember the bottled Perrier scare a decade ago? To quote Mr. Wanjek, “Perrier mineral water comes from a variety of sources beyond France, such as Texas and New Jersey. Somewhere, somehow, in 1990, unacceptable levels of benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical, made their way into the stylish green bottles. The benzene level was far from deadly or even cancerous. You would have had to drink a couple hundred bottles a day to get to a level that would significantly increase your lifetime risk of getting cancer; and by that time, at $2 a bottle, you would have died of poverty.”

Going this example one better, he relates the delicious (inadvertent pun?) story of Alasika brand Alaska Premium Glacier Drinking Water: Pure Glacier Water from the Last Unpolluted Frontier, Bacteria Free. “The FDA made the company change the label upon learning that the water came from a public supply.” Methinks they professed too much.

He gets into trickier territory in Chapter 32, “Herbs as Alternative Medicine.” Here the line between boon and bunk is as greasy as a butcher’s doorknob. On the one hand he gives full credence to proven herbal medicaments like European milk thistle, the only known counter to a certain poisonous mushroom (and many similar examples of like kind). On the other he says things like, “. . . the herbal field us undermined by untrained herbalists, aromatherapists, astrologers, and New Age healers who blindly recommend herbal remedies with no clue how dangerous they can be.” When two people who believe the same thing talk about what they believe, the one thing of which you can be certain is the exclusion of everything else.

Some of his examples are hilarious: “What good is the stress-relieving herb kava-kava when it is bound to a chocolate bar?” And for those of you who are more than a little dubious about the efficacy of whatever ingredients have the ability to enhance males by large inches in small weeks, you might want to check the pages of the teen magazines where a product called “Bloussant” will “wake up your body’s growth process” and “actually stimulate the inner-cell substance in the breast.... Your confidence level will soar.” Note that the ad doesn’t directly state that the boobs will actually swell; they will merely be stimulated to do so. Hell, a boyfriend will gladly do that and is far cheaper. What really does swell is the profit margins of WellQuest International (Bloussant’s makers) for their blend of don quai, black cohosh, fennel seed, and saw palmetto, which, in the industrial quantities WellQuest orders them, go for pennies the pound.

There is a certain progression in Mr. Wanjek’s book, like looking at the pictures drawn by a schizophrenic during the descent into irrationality. By the time he gets us to Chapter 38, “I’m Not a Reporter, But I Play One on TV,” we’ve reached a sort of health industry “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. He sums up the condition of health reportage on mainstream TV, “When cable television became mainstream—with its endless choice of the marvelous, mawkish, and mundane—network television took a belly punch. The challenge was to make news even more entertaining to attract viewers who could just as easily switch to cable without ever leaving the comfort of the sofa.” And you thought this only happened with politicians.

Mr. Wanjek’s is an excellent book. Knowledgeable, fair, even-handed, clearly written. And above all, non-polemical. He has a point to make and he makes it well: There is bunk in the health industry as everywhere, but there are also some musts you have to know along with the must-nots. Those musts he reinforces time after time in the simplest possible language: balanced diet, moderate amounts of stretching and exercise as long as you live, skip the noxious weed, treat alcohol with respect, and above all, moderation, moderation, moderation. For heaven’s sakes, this is what the Buddha said, and it’s a testimony to human willfulness that the obvious can be so hugely missed by so many people in so many ways for so long.
BOOK REVIEW

I Am Not This Body

Photographs by Barbara Ess
Essays by Barbara Ess, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, Thurston Moore, and Guy Armstrong

Hardcover, 96 pages, 9 1/2" x 11 3/4", 100 four-color images
Retail Price: $40 ($32 direct from the publisher’s website)
ISBN 0-89381-936-0, Library of Congress # 2001088023
© 2001 by Aperture Foundation, Inc.; individual copyrights by the photographer and authors
20 East 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010
www.aperture.org

The last forty years has seen photography go through a radical stylistic, technical, and theoretical mutation. Nobody can say exactly when, but at some point capturing the world “as is” slipped away from the viewfinders of contemporary photographers. They began to see themselves as manipulators of reality rather than recorders of it. Bye-bye went the familiar landscape, portrait, street scene, or casual snapshot, and in came the photograph as a "directed" or "authored" or "scripted" document. Students of this view believed their role was not to perfect reality using camera craftsmanship, but to create their own version of it. The trick was to imagine scenarios of the world, then fictionalize them on photo film.

This isn’t what anyone would have predicted when the camera—as distinct from photography—began. So let’s go back to the beginning.

The basic optical principles of the pinhole “camera” (Italian for “chamber”) are described in Chinese texts as far back as the 5th century BC. Chinese philosopher Mo Ti deduced that light travels in straight lines by observing an inverted image when light passed through a pinhole to cast an image on the opposite side. The next mention of the “camera obscura” wasn’t until the 10th century AD, when one Yu Chao-Lung used model pagodas to make pinhole images on a screen.

Western philosophers took a different tack. Aristotle In the 4th century BC Aristotle commented in his work Problems: "Why is it that when the sun passes through quadri-laterals, as for instance in wickerwork, it does not produce a figure rectangular in shape but circular? . . . Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth?”

In the 10th century the Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn Al-Haitam arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images (a) were formed only by means of small holes and (b) that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall. He too deduced that light travels in straight lines.

In the 1850s a Scottish scientist named Sir David Bruiser was apparently the first to make pinhole photographs. (He also coined the term "pinhole" to describe them.) The Impressionist movement in France had a considerable effect on attitudes about the photograph. A traditionalist school believed in sharp focus and good lenses; a contrarian school of "pictorialists" emulated the atmospheric qualities of paintings. By the 1890s commercial pinhole cameras were sold in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

Mass production of lensed cameras and the "new realism" of the first half of the 20th century edged aside pinhole photography. By the 1930s it was all but forgotten. In the mid-1960s several photographic artists in widely separated locales experimented with the pinhole technique. In 1971 Time-Life Books published The Art of Photography in the well-known Life Library of Photography, which included a panoramic pinhole image (at which they excel compared with everyday cameras). The June 1975 issue of Popular Photography published an article "Pinholes for the People", based on a month-long project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in which people came into the museum, picked up a camera from one of the 15,000 made for the occasion, and made an exposure. The images were developed in the museum’s darkroom and then displayed in the gallery. Democratic art if ever there was such a thing.

Pinhole cameras are so intriguing to artsy types because they have no “focal length.” They have infinite depth of field, from a fingertip in front of the pinhole all the way to infinity. The term "focal length" means the distance between the pinhole and the film. Pinhole cameras range from ultra wide-angle cameras to long telephoto cameras. They excel at ultra-wide angle images because unlike lens-produced images, pinhole ultra-wides remain rectilinear. If the film plane is flat—as in Barbara Ess’s photos—there will be vignetting (light fall-off at the corners), producing a circular image in the middle that is sharp toward the center but becomes more ill-defined the further it goes outward. The image also may be overexposed at the center and underexposed at the corners. Barbara Ess exploits all these effects to produce astigmatic soft-focus smears of semi-image which, taken together, chart her voyage from the port of technician out into the promontories and sea lanes of aesthetic philosophy.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Barbara Ess’s photography would have us paging through the dictionary adjective by adjective. She is famous for her attempts to "photograph what cannot be photographed." I Am Not This Body invites us into her imagination as she leads the way into "ambiguous perceptual boundaries: between people, between the self and the not self, between in here and out there." In her view, "reality... includes a perceiver, who has memories, thoughts, desires, emotions a normal camera tends to omit.”

Pinhole images in Ms. Ess's hands are soft, rounded, distant, apparitional, out of reach, intimate, tinged with loneliness and melancholy. Reality becomes subtly-toned dreamscapes that are not so much moments of being as visionary versions of it. Blurry and distorted, she coaxes her subjects from hallucination and enigma. Distinction between photographer and artist is erased. All the more so is differentiation between the perceiver and the perceived. As she puts it:

“The membrane where mind and matter meet is indefinable; it can also be ambiguous where the self ends and the world begins. The material world comes to you via the perceptual apparatus and is mediated through and by you. So sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what is apparent and what is ‘real.’”

One of photography's great strengths is its ability to document life while revealing new meanings in it. Barbara Ess is less interested in discovering exotic new images than in fathoming the meaningful within the mysteries of the familiar. Her repertoire of methods is formidable: isolating, magnifying, staging, suspending belief and disbelief; merging the familiar with the abstract; mixing ambiguity into perceptual and psychological conditions. Representing reality is less relevant than making it malleable.

Her landscapes turn common everydayness into surreal romanticism; it’s like Andrew Wyeth losing his glasses just after he drops acid. One of her signature tools is an ultra-short distance between pinhole and film. This yields up very soft foci and such severe vignetting that the image is a blurry circle centered within a big blot of black. Such mega-vignetting transforms the image content of a shot into to an extremely transitory event—a flash of road, a distant barn seen from a gully, her blurred hands seemingly washing themselves in front of a backdrop of leaves. One almost expects the images to vanish from the page immediately after the tenth of a second it takes for the eye to register their existence, so important is her message of transitoriness.

The book’s images are accompanied by mercifully brief texts—extended captions, really. No pedant with a pinhole and a philosophy is this lady: Her “captions” are a cross between mystical realism, a dada manifesto as might be read by Laurie Anderson, a philosophy that denies philosophy, a tally list of the day’s most banal events—all of which comprise a viewpoint disembodied from a theory. She says it better in the text accompanying what is arguably the definitive image in the book—a picture of a curious but dubious curly-haired girl, little finger between her lips in the quintessential gesture of doubt by a little girl, as she is being hoovered out into the vignette of black beyond the circle of life. Of this she says [all-caps her own]:

“I AM NOT THIS BODY. But I am. Aching and full of longing. Take a picture of this meat, this husk. You don’t have me. I am something that cannot be photographed, cannot be named, defined, translated. There’s experience and that’s all there is. ... But there’s also all this stuff. It gets in the way. I’ve always had trouble with stuff. I’ve fought my whole life to have control over stuff, over the appearance of stuff: my chaotic hair, learning to play the accordion, getting dressed, being on time, electric bills, the five ballet positions, getting money, spending money, even just putting one foot in front of the other. Clear the table. A place for everything and everything in its place. A battle for order, a battle for space.”

If the utter simplicity and honesty of the pinhole camera lead to this chiaroscuro of half-existing things, who or what can one trust?

This is just the sort of cerebral angel-food cake the slick art magazines feast upon, so it is no surprise that her work has occupied covers and inside pages of the likes of Artforum and Art in America, to say nothing of museum and gallery catalogs. She’s had one-woman shows at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Curt Marcus Gallery, New York; Faggionato Fine Arts, London; and Fundacion la Caixa, Barcelona, and at galleries in Madrid, Los Angeles, Paris, Antwerp, Cologne, and Washington. In 1993 the Queens Museum curated the traveling exhibition "Barbara Ess: Photography, Installation and Books." However, none of these are as what-the-heck fun as the title of an anthology she edited in New York in 1983: Just Another Asshole #6.

In other words, forget the hoo-ha and look at the pictures. They’re so good you could climb inside.
BOOK REVIEW

The Best of Gowanus: New Writing from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean
Introduction by Thomas J. Hubschman

ISBN 09669877-2-1, LCCN 2001116427
© 2001 by Thomas J. Hubschman
Gowanus Books
473 17th Street, #6
Brooklyn, NY 11215-6226
http://www.gowanusbooks.com
$17.95, paperbound, 5.5” x 8.5”, 228 pages

The world’s full of literary journals. Why read this one? If you want to know about the world, it’s all on National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and CNN, isn’t it? What can a literary journal add?

Don’t look for the answer in The Best of Gowanus’s Table of Contents. Look for it in the Author Bios. To take only a few of the 28 contributors: Razi Abedi is from Pakistan, Vasilis Afxentiou from Greece, Arlene Ang from Manila, Anjana Basu Calcutta, Richard Czujko South Africa, Viktor Car and Miroslav Kirin from Croatia, Raymond Ramcharitar from Trinidad. Several others are from India, there’s a handful of Yanks, plus assorted jotters-on from places in the world with no fixed address. Apparently they just respond to “Occupant.”

Some people leave a rut, some make a mark, some luxuriate in unearned reward, some crumple under the stubbornness of systems, some sing, some cry. Yet when the last shovel of dirt is spaded or the pyre done to embers, their little bundles of personality vanish along with their fleeting, private histories, blips on a scale whose magnitude they or we may never know. Their meaning is incomplete because our comprehension is incomplete. And would remain that way except for two things: the short story and the novel.

Consider the compression to be had in a short story. Here is a wealthy character whose ideas are not original; they were picked up raw from the churning maelstrom of virtuality that the affluent use to deceive themselves into believing life is as it is. There is a beautiful face, skin a blank surface awaiting the scribbles of time. Another is all too aware that he is being cheated out of the last half of his life by the demons he made into memories during the first half. There a woman who can both love and hate, and does both too thoroughly. The type of person whose smile is a storm warning. The celebrity all personality and no self, of somewhat abbreviated intelligence but a nicely cluttered mind, counterpointed with a mind made evil by the fatal inability to trust intellect. An old factory rat who hates being sidelined by technogeeks. On and on, these summations of self, because humanity goes on and on, our cadences swerving between the sonorous and the onerous so frequently because we are unsure if we are living poetry or swearing at the dog. Maybe both.

Many is the great photographer who started off on a Box Brownie, and so here we are in The Best of Gowanus, mulling over the contact prints of character, seeking the picture of a thousand words.

More than mere characters live in these stories. They are, in that part of themselves which is all humans, first a dream, then not, then they are again (“Sister Hanh” by Ly Lan), only this time as vaporous angels, the angels of the keys, angels in the sense of "Mon ange te précédera”—My angel will precede you—the ignored part of our own relevance going ahead of us into the future to part its waves for us (A Feast of Crows” by KC Chase), preceding, going ahead of us, furthering us ahead of the pace of our abilities (“The Long Journey” by Vasanthi Victor; “Jesus Christ Lord of Hosts Discovers Southern California” by Holly Day), while events of the hour play themselves out as if seemingly important in our monkey-brain salad-bar humanity heads (“Parking Ticket” by Norma Kitson). The carnival barker calls on (“Singing in the Wind” by Keith Smith).

In these stories.

In some is the taste of cultures gone rancid (“The Ngong Hills” by Rasik Shah and “London Through the Magic Eye” by Raymond Ramchartiar), scallop-shaped memories in white light (“The Lost Village”—Lang Lo in Vietnam—by Le Van Thao), the wire through which happiness flows (“The Burden of Grace” by Vasilis Afxentiou), the sense of life’s undoing preordained (“Curses and Poetry” by Anjana Basu and “Diary of a Street Kid” by Fanuel Jongwe), this or that character blocked by not knowing their true worth (“Dalit Literature” by Rezi Abedi and “Spectacles” by Anjana Basu), others a tarantella of quick cuts as the burning finger of the past reaches their heels (“Snapshots of Elsewhere” by Raymond Ramchartiar). The shape of a woman created out of the galaxies (“A Betting Man” by Vallath Nandakumar). The gelatin temple of deeds become brand name (Winnie Mandela portrayed in David Herman’s “The Lady and the Tiger”; “The Transformation of Sleepy Hollow” by Richard Czujko).

Everything is real, even the phantasmagoric. Like the paintings of California Realist James Doolin, the “realism” in these stories is skewed in a way that what is seems always lunging forward at an angle, anything but static. A good story tells us of time; what it brings us to know within is untouched by time, and therefore always ahead of it. These accounts are real, yes, close to the surface of the here and now, but also deeper for in their absence of self-interjection, the contrived just-so light and just-so exoticism of the TV tale, nothing artificial, nothing fake, nothing held back. What you feel is not the author’s work, it is your own feelings responding to the facts the author sets forth. That’s good writing, and there’s much of it here.

About half these entries are fiction—or rather, reality with the clothes of character on—the rest non-fiction. Some are cryptic enough to be short-shorts. Most have a certain fabulist air about them; all you have to do is change the humans to animals and you have Apulius’ Golden Ass or Mr. Toad and friends. The usual baggage of reviewer lingo hovers uneasily above these pages. The stories are lives, not stories; circumstances, not contexts. In the lives on these pages, Levi-Strauss, F.R. Leavis, postmodernism, and semiotics are self-indulgent flatulence. When we know where fear and love come from, we transect them. That’s when the stairway appears before us, a hibiscus blossoming out the window casting its hue over what we choose for breakfast.
BOOK REVIEW

The Best of Gowanus: New Writing from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean
Introduction by Thomas J. Hubschman

ISBN 09669877-2-1, LCCN 2001116427
© 2001 by Thomas J. Hubschman
Gowanus Books
473 17th Street, #6
Brooklyn, NY 11215-6226
http://www.gowanusbooks.com
$17.95, paperbound, 5.5” x 8.5”, 228 pages

The world’s full of literary journals. Why read this one? If you want to know about the world, it’s all on National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and CNN, isn’t it? What can a literary journal add?

Don’t look for the answer in The Best of Gowanus’s Table of Contents. Look for it in the Author Bios. To take only a few of the 28 contributors: Razi Abedi is from Pakistan, Vasilis Afxentiou from Greece, Arlene Ang from Manila, Anjana Basu Calcutta, Richard Czujko South Africa, Viktor Car and Miroslav Kirin from Croatia, Raymond Ramcharitar from Trinidad. Several others are from India, there’s a handful of Yanks, plus assorted jotters-on from places in the world with no fixed address. Apparently they just respond to “Occupant.”

Some people leave a rut, some make a mark, some luxuriate in unearned reward, some crumple under the stubbornness of systems, some sing, some cry. Yet when the last shovel of dirt is spaded or the pyre done to embers, their little bundles of personality vanish along with their fleeting, private histories, blips on a scale whose magnitude they or we may never know. Their meaning is incomplete because our comprehension is incomplete. And would remain that way except for two things: the short story and the novel.

Consider the compression to be had in a short story. Here is a wealthy character whose ideas are not original; they were picked up raw from the churning maelstrom of virtuality that the affluent use to deceive themselves into believing life is as it is. There is a beautiful face, skin a blank surface awaiting the scribbles of time. Another is all too aware that he is being cheated out of the last half of his life by the demons he made into memories during the first half. There a woman who can both love and hate, and does both too thoroughly. The type of person whose smile is a storm warning. The celebrity all personality and no self, of somewhat abbreviated intelligence but a nicely cluttered mind, counterpointed with a mind made evil by the fatal inability to trust intellect. An old factory rat who hates being sidelined by technogeeks. On and on, these summations of self, because humanity goes on and on, our cadences swerving between the sonorous and the onerous so frequently because we are unsure if we are living poetry or swearing at the dog. Maybe both.

Many is the great photographer who started off on a Box Brownie, and so here we are in The Best of Gowanus, mulling over the contact prints of character, seeking the picture of a thousand words.

More than mere characters live in these stories. They are, in that part of themselves which is all humans, first a dream, then not, then they are again (“Sister Hanh” by Ly Lan), only this time as vaporous angels, the angels of the keys, angels in the sense of "Mon ange te précédera”—My angel will precede you—the ignored part of our own relevance going ahead of us into the future to part its waves for us (A Feast of Crows” by KC Chase), preceding, going ahead of us, furthering us ahead of the pace of our abilities (“The Long Journey” by Vasanthi Victor; “Jesus Christ Lord of Hosts Discovers Southern California” by Holly Day), while events of the hour play themselves out as if seemingly important in our monkey-brain salad-bar humanity heads (“Parking Ticket” by Norma Kitson). The carnival barker calls on (“Singing in the Wind” by Keith Smith).

In these stories.

In some is the taste of cultures gone rancid (“The Ngong Hills” by Rasik Shah and “London Through the Magic Eye” by Raymond Ramchartiar), scallop-shaped memories in white light (“The Lost Village”—Lang Lo in Vietnam—by Le Van Thao), the wire through which happiness flows (“The Burden of Grace” by Vasilis Afxentiou), the sense of life’s undoing preordained (“Curses and Poetry” by Anjana Basu and “Diary of a Street Kid” by Fanuel Jongwe), this or that character blocked by not knowing their true worth (“Dalit Literature” by Rezi Abedi and “Spectacles” by Anjana Basu), others a tarantella of quick cuts as the burning finger of the past reaches their heels (“Snapshots of Elsewhere” by Raymond Ramchartiar). The shape of a woman created out of the galaxies (“A Betting Man” by Vallath Nandakumar). The gelatin temple of deeds become brand name (Winnie Mandela portrayed in David Herman’s “The Lady and the Tiger”; “The Transformation of Sleepy Hollow” by Richard Czujko).

Everything is real, even the phantasmagoric. Like the paintings of California Realist James Doolin, the “realism” in these stories is skewed in a way that what is seems always lunging forward at an angle, anything but static. A good story tells us of time; what it brings us to know within is untouched by time, and therefore always ahead of it. These accounts are real, yes, close to the surface of the here and now, but also deeper for in their absence of self-interjection, the contrived just-so light and just-so exoticism of the TV tale, nothing artificial, nothing fake, nothing held back. What you feel is not the author’s work, it is your own feelings responding to the facts the author sets forth. That’s good writing, and there’s much of it here.

About half these entries are fiction—or rather, reality with the clothes of character on—the rest non-fiction. Some are cryptic enough to be short-shorts. Most have a certain fabulist air about them; all you have to do is change the humans to animals and you have Apulius’ Golden Ass or Mr. Toad and friends. The usual baggage of reviewer lingo hovers uneasily above these pages. The stories are lives, not stories; circumstances, not contexts. In the lives on these pages, Levi-Strauss, F.R. Leavis, postmodernism, and semiotics are self-indulgent flatulence. When we know where fear and love come from, we transect them. That’s when the stairway appears before us, a hibiscus blossoming out the window casting its hue over what we choose for breakfast.
BOOK REVIEW

I Am Not This Body

Photographs by Barbara Ess
Essays by Barbara Ess, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, Thurston Moore, and Guy Armstrong

Hardcover, 96 pages, 9 1/2" x 11 3/4", 100 four-color images
Retail Price: $40 ($32 direct from the publisher’s website)
ISBN 0-89381-936-0, Library of Congress # 2001088023
© 2001 by Aperture Foundation, Inc.; individual copyrights by the photographer and authors
20 East 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010
www.aperture.org

The last forty years has seen photography go through a radical stylistic, technical, and theoretical mutation. Nobody can say exactly when, but at some point capturing the world “as is” slipped away from the viewfinders of contemporary photographers. They began to see themselves as manipulators of reality rather than recorders of it. Bye-bye went the familiar landscape, portrait, street scene, or casual snapshot, and in came the photograph as a "directed" or "authored" or "scripted" document. Students of this view believed their role was not to perfect reality using camera craftsmanship, but to create their own version of it. The trick was to imagine scenarios of the world, then fictionalize them on photo film.

This isn’t what anyone would have predicted when the camera—as distinct from photography—began. So let’s go back to the beginning.

The basic optical principles of the pinhole “camera” (Italian for “chamber”) are described in Chinese texts as far back as the 5th century BC. Chinese philosopher Mo Ti deduced that light travels in straight lines by observing an inverted image when light passed through a pinhole to cast an image on the opposite side. The next mention of the “camera obscura” wasn’t until the 10th century AD, when one Yu Chao-Lung used model pagodas to make pinhole images on a screen.

Western philosophers took a different tack. Aristotle In the 4th century BC Aristotle commented in his work Problems: "Why is it that when the sun passes through quadri-laterals, as for instance in wickerwork, it does not produce a figure rectangular in shape but circular? . . . Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth?”

In the 10th century the Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn Al-Haitam arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images (a) were formed only by means of small holes and (b) that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall. He too deduced that light travels in straight lines.

In the 1850s a Scottish scientist named Sir David Bruiser was apparently the first to make pinhole photographs. (He also coined the term "pinhole" to describe them.) The Impressionist movement in France had a considerable effect on attitudes about the photograph. A traditionalist school believed in sharp focus and good lenses; a contrarian school of "pictorialists" emulated the atmospheric qualities of paintings. By the 1890s commercial pinhole cameras were sold in Europe, the United States, and Japan.

Mass production of lensed cameras and the "new realism" of the first half of the 20th century edged aside pinhole photography. By the 1930s it was all but forgotten. In the mid-1960s several photographic artists in widely separated locales experimented with the pinhole technique. In 1971 Time-Life Books published The Art of Photography in the well-known Life Library of Photography, which included a panoramic pinhole image (at which they excel compared with everyday cameras). The June 1975 issue of Popular Photography published an article "Pinholes for the People", based on a month-long project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in which people came into the museum, picked up a camera from one of the 15,000 made for the occasion, and made an exposure. The images were developed in the museum’s darkroom and then displayed in the gallery. Democratic art if ever there was such a thing.

Pinhole cameras are so intriguing to artsy types because they have no “focal length.” They have infinite depth of field, from a fingertip in front of the pinhole all the way to infinity. The term "focal length" means the distance between the pinhole and the film. Pinhole cameras range from ultra wide-angle cameras to long telephoto cameras. They excel at ultra-wide angle images because unlike lens-produced images, pinhole ultra-wides remain rectilinear. If the film plane is flat—as in Barbara Ess’s photos—there will be vignetting (light fall-off at the corners), producing a circular image in the middle that is sharp toward the center but becomes more ill-defined the further it goes outward. The image also may be overexposed at the center and underexposed at the corners. Barbara Ess exploits all these effects to produce astigmatic soft-focus smears of semi-image which, taken together, chart her voyage from the port of technician out into the promontories and sea lanes of aesthetic philosophy.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Barbara Ess’s photography would have us paging through the dictionary adjective by adjective. She is famous for her attempts to "photograph what cannot be photographed." I Am Not This Body invites us into her imagination as she leads the way into "ambiguous perceptual boundaries: between people, between the self and the not self, between in here and out there." In her view, "reality... includes a perceiver, who has memories, thoughts, desires, emotions a normal camera tends to omit.”

Pinhole images in Ms. Ess's hands are soft, rounded, distant, apparitional, out of reach, intimate, tinged with loneliness and melancholy. Reality becomes subtly-toned dreamscapes that are not so much moments of being as visionary versions of it. Blurry and distorted, she coaxes her subjects from hallucination and enigma. Distinction between photographer and artist is erased. All the more so is differentiation between the perceiver and the perceived. As she puts it:

“The membrane where mind and matter meet is indefinable; it can also be ambiguous where the self ends and the world begins. The material world comes to you via the perceptual apparatus and is mediated through and by you. So sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what is apparent and what is ‘real.’”

One of photography's great strengths is its ability to document life while revealing new meanings in it. Barbara Ess is less interested in discovering exotic new images than in fathoming the meaningful within the mysteries of the familiar. Her repertoire of methods is formidable: isolating, magnifying, staging, suspending belief and disbelief; merging the familiar with the abstract; mixing ambiguity into perceptual and psychological conditions. Representing reality is less relevant than making it malleable.

Her landscapes turn common everydayness into surreal romanticism; it’s like Andrew Wyeth losing his glasses just after he drops acid. One of her signature tools is an ultra-short distance between pinhole and film. This yields up very soft foci and such severe vignetting that the image is a blurry circle centered within a big blot of black. Such mega-vignetting transforms the image content of a shot into to an extremely transitory event—a flash of road, a distant barn seen from a gully, her blurred hands seemingly washing themselves in front of a backdrop of leaves. One almost expects the images to vanish from the page immediately after the tenth of a second it takes for the eye to register their existence, so important is her message of transitoriness.

The book’s images are accompanied by mercifully brief texts—extended captions, really. No pedant with a pinhole and a philosophy is this lady: Her “captions” are a cross between mystical realism, a dada manifesto as might be read by Laurie Anderson, a philosophy that denies philosophy, a tally list of the day’s most banal events—all of which comprise a viewpoint disembodied from a theory. She says it better in the text accompanying what is arguably the definitive image in the book—a picture of a curious but dubious curly-haired girl, little finger between her lips in the quintessential gesture of doubt by a little girl, as she is being hoovered out into the vignette of black beyond the circle of life. Of this she says [all-caps her own]:

“I AM NOT THIS BODY. But I am. Aching and full of longing. Take a picture of this meat, this husk. You don’t have me. I am something that cannot be photographed, cannot be named, defined, translated. There’s experience and that’s all there is. ... But there’s also all this stuff. It gets in the way. I’ve always had trouble with stuff. I’ve fought my whole life to have control over stuff, over the appearance of stuff: my chaotic hair, learning to play the accordion, getting dressed, being on time, electric bills, the five ballet positions, getting money, spending money, even just putting one foot in front of the other. Clear the table. A place for everything and everything in its place. A battle for order, a battle for space.”

If the utter simplicity and honesty of the pinhole camera lead to this chiaroscuro of half-existing things, who or what can one trust?

This is just the sort of cerebral angel-food cake the slick art magazines feast upon, so it is no surprise that her work has occupied covers and inside pages of the likes of Artforum and Art in America, to say nothing of museum and gallery catalogs. She’s had one-woman shows at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Curt Marcus Gallery, New York; Faggionato Fine Arts, London; and Fundacion la Caixa, Barcelona, and at galleries in Madrid, Los Angeles, Paris, Antwerp, Cologne, and Washington. In 1993 the Queens Museum curated the traveling exhibition "Barbara Ess: Photography, Installation and Books." However, none of these are as what-the-heck fun as the title of an anthology she edited in New York in 1983: Just Another Asshole #6.

In other words, forget the hoo-ha and look at the pictures. They’re so good you could climb inside.

BOOK REVIEW

The Best of Gowanus: New Writing from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean
Introduction by Thomas J. Hubschman

ISBN 09669877-2-1, LCCN 2001116427
© 2001 by Thomas J. Hubschman
Gowanus Books
473 17th Street, #6
Brooklyn, NY 11215-6226
http://www.gowanusbooks.com
$17.95, paperbound, 5.5” x 8.5”, 228 pages

The world’s full of literary journals. Why read this one? If you want to know about the world, it’s all on National Geographic, Discovery Channel, and CNN, isn’t it? What can a literary journal add?

Don’t look for the answer in The Best of Gowanus’s Table of Contents. Look for it in the Author Bios. To take only a few of the 28 contributors: Razi Abedi is from Pakistan, Vasilis Afxentiou from Greece, Arlene Ang from Manila, Anjana Basu Calcutta, Richard Czujko South Africa, Viktor Car and Miroslav Kirin from Croatia, Raymond Ramcharitar from Trinidad. Several others are from India, there’s a handful of Yanks, plus assorted jotters-on from places in the world with no fixed address. Apparently they just respond to “Occupant.”

Some people leave a rut, some make a mark, some luxuriate in unearned reward, some crumple under the stubbornness of systems, some sing, some cry. Yet when the last shovel of dirt is spaded or the pyre done to embers, their little bundles of personality vanish along with their fleeting, private histories, blips on a scale whose magnitude they or we may never know. Their meaning is incomplete because our comprehension is incomplete. And would remain that way except for two things: the short story and the novel.

Consider the compression to be had in a short story. Here is a wealthy character whose ideas are not original; they were picked up raw from the churning maelstrom of virtuality that the affluent use to deceive themselves into believing life is as it is. There is a beautiful face, skin a blank surface awaiting the scribbles of time. Another is all too aware that he is being cheated out of the last half of his life by the demons he made into memories during the first half. There a woman who can both love and hate, and does both too thoroughly. The type of person whose smile is a storm warning. The celebrity all personality and no self, of somewhat abbreviated intelligence but a nicely cluttered mind, counterpointed with a mind made evil by the fatal inability to trust intellect. An old factory rat who hates being sidelined by technogeeks. On and on, these summations of self, because humanity goes on and on, our cadences swerving between the sonorous and the onerous so frequently because we are unsure if we are living poetry or swearing at the dog. Maybe both.

Many is the great photographer who started off on a Box Brownie, and so here we are in The Best of Gowanus, mulling over the contact prints of character, seeking the picture of a thousand words.

More than mere characters live in these stories. They are, in that part of themselves which is all humans, first a dream, then not, then they are again (“Sister Hanh” by Ly Lan), only this time as vaporous angels, the angels of the keys, angels in the sense of "Mon ange te précédera”—My angel will precede you—the ignored part of our own relevance going ahead of us into the future to part its waves for us (A Feast of Crows” by KC Chase), preceding, going ahead of us, furthering us ahead of the pace of our abilities (“The Long Journey” by Vasanthi Victor; “Jesus Christ Lord of Hosts Discovers Southern California” by Holly Day), while events of the hour play themselves out as if seemingly important in our monkey-brain salad-bar humanity heads (“Parking Ticket” by Norma Kitson). The carnival barker calls on (“Singing in the Wind” by Keith Smith).

In these stories.

In some is the taste of cultures gone rancid (“The Ngong Hills” by Rasik Shah and “London Through the Magic Eye” by Raymond Ramchartiar), scallop-shaped memories in white light (“The Lost Village”—Lang Lo in Vietnam—by Le Van Thao), the wire through which happiness flows (“The Burden of Grace” by Vasilis Afxentiou), the sense of life’s undoing preordained (“Curses and Poetry” by Anjana Basu and “Diary of a Street Kid” by Fanuel Jongwe), this or that character blocked by not knowing their true worth (“Dalit Literature” by Rezi Abedi and “Spectacles” by Anjana Basu), others a tarantella of quick cuts as the burning finger of the past reaches their heels (“Snapshots of Elsewhere” by Raymond Ramchartiar). The shape of a woman created out of the galaxies (“A Betting Man” by Vallath Nandakumar). The gelatin temple of deeds become brand name (Winnie Mandela portrayed in David Herman’s “The Lady and the Tiger”; “The Transformation of Sleepy Hollow” by Richard Czujko).

Everything is real, even the phantasmagoric. Like the paintings of California Realist James Doolin, the “realism” in these stories is skewed in a way that what is seems always lunging forward at an angle, anything but static. A good story tells us of time; what it brings us to know within is untouched by time, and therefore always ahead of it. These accounts are real, yes, close to the surface of the here and now, but also deeper for in their absence of self-interjection, the contrived just-so light and just-so exoticism of the TV tale, nothing artificial, nothing fake, nothing held back. What you feel is not the author’s work, it is your own feelings responding to the facts the author sets forth. That’s good writing, and there’s much of it here.

About half these entries are fiction—or rather, reality with the clothes of character on—the rest non-fiction. Some are cryptic enough to be short-shorts. Most have a certain fabulist air about them; all you have to do is change the humans to animals and you have Apulius’ Golden Ass or Mr. Toad and friends. The usual baggage of reviewer lingo hovers uneasily above these pages. The stories are lives, not stories; circumstances, not contexts. In the lives on these pages, Levi-Strauss, F.R. Leavis, postmodernism, and semiotics are self-indulgent flatulence. When we know where fear and love come from, we transect them. That’s when the stairway appears before us, a hibiscus blossoming out the window casting its hue over what we choose for breakfast.
BOOK REVIEW

Broken Bangles
by Hanifa Deen

Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi 110017, India
Penguin Putnam, Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
ISBN 0-14-028857-0 (available through Amazon on special order @ $20.00), 1999, paperback, 324 pages

Though released three years ago, this book is so relevant today that it is timely to review it again.

Hanifa Deen is an Australian of Bangladeshi descent who returned to her ancestral home in 1995 with the idea of writing a book about women’s lives. She wanted to explore beyond the usual accounts of women in Islamic societies. To her it seemed that most people’s perceptions of the Muslim woman were “centred on the Middle East, yet there are more Muslims in South Asia and Southeast Asia than anywhere else in the world.” She points out that “religion is just one of the many building blocks that shape women’s lives: colonialism, history, nationalism, economics, gender, culture, and patriarchal values make up a litany of influences embedded in the psyche of each country.”

The result is a cinegraphic tale of real people and events. The first half of Broken Bangles takes place in Bangladesh; the second half in Pakistan. The first half is perhaps the more interesting for most readers, partly because Bangladesh is an exotic terra incognita even for people who spend a fair amount of time in the Subcontinent.

Like many who study the women of a culture from afar, she did not anticipate the complex, self-concealing, nuanced, diverse reality she met. From her home base in the Kiplingesque Mona Lisa Hotel in a rumpled-shirt neighborhood of Dhaka, she met women from all corners and byways of Bangladeshi society, from her survival-clutching masseuse Mrs. Nargis to Dhaka’s most wealthy and influential. Ms. Deen found the myth of Taslima Nasreen—the putative grand champion of women’s liberty in a Muslim land—to have mainly been fabricated abroad by the Indian and British press based on overstatements by Taslima herself. To Taslima’s horror, she found that media demons, once unleashed, rage all over the electronic aether.

Ms. Deen found urban Bangladesh to be a very different place than the image most people conjure when they think of the phrase “developing country.” She describes the side of the story told by middle of the road and liberal Muslims—parts of society most Westerners are unaware of unless they have lived in an Asian Muslim country for some time.

This book is an antidote to the perception of Islam as monolithic, backward, and violent. Islamic developing countries are not mere forges of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, conservatives, middle-of-the-roaders, liberals, and a far left exist in any Muslim society in about the same proportion as they exist in non-Muslim societies. The main difference is what one identifies as middle-of-the-road. Ms. Deen portrays how feminist utopianism can survive in a land where liberal is what middle of the road is anywhere else, middle of the road is conservative, and the religious right is Mussolini without the brown.

Ms. Deen jousts aside no end of myths. For example, In Bangladesh (and many non-Arab countries) the burqa that so outrages many Westerners is a largely middle class garment. There is a class component to purdah. Village Muslim women are workers first and foremost; they often wear only the simplest of head covering because drapy cloth gets in the way as they labor. The upper-class women of the cities can wear stylish headgear because they have the wealth and power to not be bound by Qur’anic face- and hair-covering rules.

Ms. Deen paints Goyesque you-are-there portraits of her trips into the Bangladesh and Pakistan hinterlands, some regions of which are bastions of fundamentalist misogyny. She finds that religious fundamentalists are every bit as cruel towards women as portrayed abroad, but for reasons less related to contempt for women than for the economic gains to be had by frightening women into giving up their money and land. The nexus of local mullah, politico, and moneylender put together for mutual financial gain plays a far larger role in the issuance of religious fatwas than blasphemous behavior by woman—a practice Ms. Deen describes as “The Fatwa Industry.” One result is a litany of widow horror stories; another is a myriad of tiny one-woman revolts that Ms. Deen describes with delicious piquancy.

Suppressing women for financial gain is not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon: it happens in Buddhist Sri Lanka, Hindu India, and post-Maoist secular China. Children are no better off, being exploited for labor, sex, and marriages of alliance all over the region. The common thread throughout is economic inadequacy resulting from the refusal of power holders to encourage strong middle classes. Almost everywhere in Asia one looks in some detail, there is a clear correlation between the size of the middle class and the rate of economic advance.

There is also an unseen cultural component to fundamentalism. Fundamentalists want to impose their version of purity on a very old and peculiarly Asian version of Islam, which blends legalistic Arab Islam with pre-existing Hindu, Buddhist, and animist traditions. The ghosts of Hindu gods and Buddhist devas (almost-a-gods) inhabit a world of spirits both good and malign, animal totems, divinations, dreams, and visions. These ancient feudal institutions exploit Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism to hold on to power. Indeed, one must grant Islamic fundamentalists a certain respect for their relatively temperate handling of this mix: Christianity burned thousands at the stake trying to stamp out the ghosts of Cathars, Druids, and forest spirits.

Ms. Deen ably demonstrates how fundamentalists tend to come out the worse for their stridency. To the pragmatic city-dwellers who hold a country’s economic purse-strings, bigoted shock tactics do not introduce any lasting change. Instead, they introduce alienation. Even in the parts of Bangladesh considered their power bases, fundamentalists consistently do poorly at the polls.

The Bangladesh Ms. Deen found was not the Bangladesh she expected. She pens a paragraph on page 60 that distills just about everybody’s perception of a place with the name “developing country” attached to it:

“Reading about poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition from academic texts never prepares anyone. You sit watching television documentaries from comfortable armchairs—Chardonnay in one hand, pizza in the other, and you delude yourself. Everything is at arm’s length and poverty, disease, and death become sanitised. You know nothing -- you realise that later. Nothing prepares you—how can it? Your cocoon is shed soon after you and the distance between you and a world crowded with pain is instantly reduced. You develop a protective veneer just to get through the day, and you hate yourself for doing this.”

The picture she paints of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, a fancier term for not-for-profit charities) is an eye-opener to anyone who has ever seen the ads placed by organizations trolling for donations with pictures of pathetic waifs. In all too many cases the first thing the money goes into is a huge Pajero with fat tires. The second investment is a luxury office in the capital (leaving just enough for properly mediagenic poorly furnished outposts in the countryside). The third set of cheques hires all the family members the local manager can get away. Only then does money go into the mouths of waifs.

On the plus side of NGOs, though, they do bring international attention to things governments should be doing, even if the end result is the NGOs taking over a government’s tasks for it. The politicians are delighted: it translates into more of the country’s economy going into their own pockets.

Ms. Deen’s ability to elevate the particular to the level of the general without directly saying so raises “Broken Bangles” to the quality of a good novel. Readers acquire insights into developing country thinking and customs that do not appear in any travel literature, and rather little of it even in mainstream Subcontinent literature.

For example, she describes the hidden nuances behind passion in Subcontinent Islam: “In Bangladesh, little is what it seems. People do not express themselves as much as enact their feelings. Stage-drama behavioral expectations find their way into religious and political culture.” Just about ever high-sounding ideal is an admission of low self-esteem. Men say they are protecting their women, but in fact they are protecting themselves against their own insecurities.

Asian and Middle Eastern thinking processes are very different. To the Islamic mind there are conclusionary mechanisms more powerful than reason. Westerners tend to think in networks, with linkages and threads in many directions. East Asians tend to think in the silo or vertically integrated clan-based model first codified by Confucius. Most Indians’ context is three-layered: a specific caste level communicates one level up or down from itself, but rarely much higher or lower. Also, Islam is a prophetic system: knowledge is revealed and received rather than arrived at. Muslim thinking can be visualized as a single, vast, flat, sheet of equality and unity based on the principles of umma (the brotherhood of believers) and tawhid (unity with God).

Underlying these is a view of one’s place in the world that explains why forcing democracy and the market economy on people without those traditions results in the kind of rejection whose extreme is Osama bin Laden. Surprisingly, Islam has no significant economic argument with the West. The Qur’an is pro-capitalist—Mohammed was a merchant. And like the West, Islam urges uplifting one’s own moral character through vigorous self-effort. It is salutory to visit a bookstore in Dubai, India, Malaysia, or Indonesia and see Muslim self-improvement guides addressing the same concerns as the “Seven Best Habits” types of books.

The big difference is that most Asians, and Muslims in particular, see the world not as a market but as a courtyard. Courtyard culture arose from the use of worshipping places as common grounds. The courtyard is a social cohesion unit founded on religious identity. A courtyard is bound on one side by market stalls, on another by the prayer hall, on the third by the codes of class and station, and on the fourth by secular power in the form of police, army, and tax. The focus is on leaders, not institutions; function, not reason. The governing principles of decision are muafakat (collective council) and masyarakat (concordance).

Imagine for a moment what would happen if Asian and Arabic proselytizers from a country where these notions predominate were suddenly to arrive on our shores informing us that our society is hogwash, theirs is better, and while we’re at it, we should switch to their food and fashions, too.

Welcome to "Broken Bangles".

A woman’s bangles are given to her by her in-laws on her wedding day. Occasion by occasion she adds them, sometimes for pleasure, others for obligation. Over the years her bangles acquire social baggage: symbol of marriage, protection of husband, dependency, adornment of self. And then slowly, inexorably, they become symbol made real: encirclement, fear of the whisper, the prison of the hearth. Romantic feelings are a privilege of the privileged, and guilt is a gift enjoyed by the middle classes. For most, marriage is desperation packaged as property. The glittery bangle binds.

A woman breaks her bangles when her husband dies. Islam does not impose on widows the banishment that rural Hinduism does, but a woman without a protector (the husband’s role as seen in Islam) is not much better off than a woman without a god (the husband as seen in Hinduism). Bangladeshi wives become excellent misers, hoarding every taka coin for the day when their protector is gone. Unless she is rich, self-deprivation links hands with social deprivation.

Ms. Deen’s etchings of these women are the writer’s version of Goya’s “Los Caprichos”. The broken bangles alluded to in her title are something far worse than Goyesque grotesqueries. You must endure them yourself. With Ms. Deen, you do.

BOOK REVIEW

Changing Fortunes: Remaking the Industrial Corporation

ISBN 0-471-38481-X
© 2002 by Nitin Nohria, David Dyer, and Frederick Dalzell
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
605 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10158-0012
http://www.wiley.com
$27.95, 6” x 9” hardbound, 320 pages

Paleontologists have been on a roll lately. In the science world, picking over old bones has reconstructed not just skeletons but a vastly clearer picture of the why and the way in which species fail to thrive.

Now come Nitin Nohria, David Dyer, and Frederick Dalzell, corporate bone assemblers par excellence. “Paleontologists” because they go beyond mere historianship. Their book Changing Fortunes tackles its bone piles (these days politely termed “case studies”) of the type that MBA students pick over in search of an idea. Rather, it is the climate of the times that these authors abstract, and the forecast is not a sunny one. Unintentional or no, the unpleasant reality that emerges from their discussion is not that systems which fail to adapt die, but that they also die when they pollute their own habitat. If any recent book is a bone pile for Robert Heilbronner’s thesis that capitalism is inherently self-destructive (summarized in the concluding chapter of 21st Century Capitalism), Changing Fortunes is that book.

A bit grand, this?

Maybe. But at this very moment the corporate/political alliance is puncturing an equilibrium that has been in place since the end of the Second World War. That equilibrium is the theory of creative destruction, the notion that to build a better widget you have to destroy not the previous widget, but its market. Today’s corporate/political/media alliance shunts aside the idea of checks and balances. Allowed to continue, meaningful democracy—in the sense that elections really mean something—will follow.

To a book reviewer accustomed to teasing out the subtexts in a novel in search of the root causes of human fallibility, a business book is usually a piece of cake. The causes are sitting there in full view. I read Changing Fortunes through once, making lots of notes. Then I boned up on the history of the Catholic Church from the time of St. Francis till the Reformation, and the Enlightenment from Giordano Bruno till James Watt. Then I read Changing Fortunes again, a wiser and more dolorous soul.

Changing Fortunes makes a solidly researched, reasoned, and documented case that large economic institutions—manufacturing corporation in this case—have a skewed bell-shaped curve of evolution. Each curve emerges almost unnoticed out of the debris of a fading economic institution—frontier agriculture in the case of the medieval Church, religion in the case of the Enlightenment, and piecework in the case of manufacturing. It rises rapidly to previously unimaginable heights of power and prestige (as peas in a pod, cathedrals and high rises are separated only by centuries), and then begins a long decline that never quite ends in demise (Christmas and Easter are relics of paganism, not the progency of a new religion).

The reasons for the decline are varied and many, but several threads seem ever present: selfish interest replaces collective interest (American politics), accountability shifts from external to internal (American business), the network effect grows too inwardly dependent (Japan), and the life support of the whole thing—the everyday Joes and Joannes—feel more and more betrayed as they watch corruption replace commonweal. The shabby little personal deals these days between CEOs and Congressmen reminds one of the commerce in Church offices during the 14th through 16th centuries, which led to unprecedented levels of disproportion between principle and practice. The book Silent Theft by William Bollinger comes to many of these same conclusions from the commonweal-holder’s point of view.

However, a sea change from one econocultural institution to the next doesn’t come from the Joes and Joannes. Their protest tends to take the form of peasant rebellions. Howard Jarvis and Prop 13 was such a rebellion—at first it worked, but then special interest reasserted itself and today Prop. 13 has been defanged except for a few molars left way in the back. Rather, change comes from intellectuals in the leisure class who toil little but wordspin marvelously. If today’s disaffected intellectuals are creating a new mindset to breed lilacs out of the dead land, wish them well. Today’s gerontocratic model bases its decisions on ideas that were current thirty or forty years ago. (Listened to the Pentagon lately?)

Changing Fortunes documents its case very well. It is so lucidly written that typically leaden case studies are polished into brilliance by blunt, often witty assessments of corporate goofs. No softening the blow with genial dollops of well-wishing comes from this trio. And of goofs, boy are there some dandies. The sequence of awful decisions that took Xerox from poster-child of TQM (Total Quality Management) revolution of the 1980s to the blunderer of 2000 that shredded both their billing system and customer loyalty makes one chortle, but behind management’s arrogant imbecilities are unemployment lines.

The book is a goldmine of facts. Between 1982 and 1992 the number of U.S. business consultants went from 30,000 to 81,000 (if you can’t do it, teach it). In 1998 102,171 MBAs graduated from American universities (enough to populate a medium-size city, and wouldn’t that be a dull place). Such statistics hint at the explosion in business information and expertise now revolutionising U.S. corporate life. Yet how many bright young things lust for life at a widget factory? The authors cite many examples of manufacturing sector decline, but in the end the example they don’t cite is the most telling of all: employment in the manufacturing sector is at its lowest point since 1961, and out-of-work statistics have risen every month for the last 27. Somebody’s hurting, and it’s not the guys at the top. Now recall that every seismic shift in thinking in the West since Rome has happened because the Joes and Joannes have become ill-served to the point where they no longer believe what they are told.

Changing Fortunes certainly has its virtues. For one, its procedure is sound. The authors examine the Fortune 100 lists from the turn of the 20th century up till today. They find a scowly mask behind the veil with the smile: American industrial companies may be turning out more products than ever, and many of them may have healthy balance sheets, but their relative importance in the economy is inexorably declining in favor of firms based on technology, finance, and services. Classic Schumpeter creative destruction. Wonderful, until you realize that corruption is far easier in a service economy than in a manufacturing one. Enron, WorldCom, and the Wall Street analysts didn’t manufacture a thing.

For another, the authors’ analysis is impressive. The companies they study are household names—General Motors, Xerox, Merck, Kodak. It’s not hard to relate to those. These companies have survived some bad shakes—the 1974 oil price shocks, the rise of an information economy that sucks up the best brains, a compliant but aging workforce, and globalization that hurts as much at home as it does abroad. In search of lifebuoys corporations spent 13 years trying to convert to TQM, six years to soak up Business Process Re-engineering, and three years to embrace network technology. The first two had inward effects: management got better. IT, on the other hand, made for better informed and therefore more footloose customers. Despite all these stopgaps, the decline continues.

In addition to its analytic interest, Changing Fortunes is a formidable resource of interpretive history. One detects the hands of dozens of grad students busily scrabbling together the raw material. The authors’ main point—that industrial companies are on the way out—has a flaw, however: It is very US-centric. Offshore, manufacturing is still an extremely important engine of global wealth. Asia and Latin America set the pace in steel, cars, computers, televisions, and so on. If the authors had examined the top 100 global corporations instead of the Fortune 100, quite different conclusions might have turned up. One is that globalization has brought sovereign nations to grovel for the blessings of corporations the same way corporations grovel for the blessing of consumers.

For those who hold out high hopes for the Internet economy, disappointment came soon but in the nick of time. With nearly 100 percent of the Internet economy’s blossoming dot-coms vanished into that great bankruptcy court in the sky, the belief that information will transform us all seems less than persuasive. And a good thing, too, because the so-called “Network Effect”—that the value of a service increases as more and more people use it (a sort of reverse wear-and-tear)—is becoming the biggest Frankenstein since the atomic bomb. It gives us unprecedented access, but we are accessed in turn, without knowing when, why, and by whom. The Network Effect is so pervasive and invasive that any business with bucks can insert itself into our lives to a degree unimaginable even to the former East German government. The most worrisome fact about corporations and government today is that their spanky new network economy is accountable to no one at all. (How’s your email box looking these days?)

This gets us back to the bell-shaped curves of econoculture and their rise from completely unexpected places like comfy salons. Robert Heilbronner’s thesis was that capitalism will destroy itself because it is unable to subserve economic wealth to social health. The world around us, on these shores and off, is largely run by geezocracies, and the Joes and Joannes know they’re being had. Changing Fortunes frames their dilemma very well on page 217:

Sharlow had started with Kodak as a machinist at the age of 23, and eventually moved into managerial ranks. “Kodak was everything. How far I could go seemed to depend on my own ambition,” he recalled feeling, neatly articulating the social contract that had governed corporate managerial employment. . . . “I knew there were hundreds, even thousands being laid off. I guess I thought I was special. Then the day came when they made a business decision to let me go. It was, ‘Bye, and don’t let the door hit you.’ The event was a deeply wounding blow for Sharlow, and a lesson for his (grown) daughter, Karen: “We’ve been taught all our lives that if you give your loyalty to something or someone, it gives you something back. Now we know. No one will take care of you.”

The Great Wall of China didn’t succeed at keeping the barbarians out nearly as well as it did at keeping the Chinese in. The ultimate penalty for the regressive thinking that congealed over the great corporations analyzed in Changing Fortunes is the inspiration it gives to the tiny little lumps on the next bell curve—the inspiration to respond to a brick wall by walking around it.
BOOK REVIEW

Czech Photographic Avant Garde, 1918–1948
by Vladimír Birgus

ISBN 0-262-02516-7, no LC CIP data
transl. Vera Orac and Karolinka Vocadlo with transl. editing by Janine Mileaf and Matthew Witkovsky
© 2002 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology
http://www. mitpress.mit.edu
Originally published as Ceska fotograficka avantgarda 1819–1948
$50.00, 8.75” x 10.75” hardbound, 311 pages, 328 illus., 15 color

The 1989 implosion of the communist regime released Czechoslovakia from its cultural isolation. The world discovered a treasury of unknown ideas and techniques that had been developed by Czech avant-garde photographers during the first half of the century. They had worked quietly, even obscurely (and in some cases riskily), as they pursued their artistic and experimental paths. This landmark survey of Czech avant-garde photography is the first time we can see how Central European experimentalists found the same mainstreams and explored many of the same byways as did their American and European cohorts. And yet, as the images in this book testify, almost every shot has a quality distinctive enough to be called Czech. Specialists will take years defining that quality, but anyone interested in the richness of Central European art and originality can catch a look at it now by reading this book.

Czech photographers had a vision of modernity that resembled Bauhaus in its desire for a major houseclean of old forms, but avoided the Bauhaus’s smothering insistence on theory first and reality later. The Czech vision was really many visions, each varying dramatically on the surface but coursing down the same mountain. We see aesthetic old friends here: pictorialism, picture poems, abstraction and its quasi-abstract variant called nonfiguration, social journalism, surrealism—and a home-grown movement named Poetism. (Sadly, in one of the worst oversights imaginable in a book from a university press, the Index cites only the people named in the book, so we can never track down where the term “Poetism” appears.)

The text is an anthology of essays. They have a elbowy reach as they knock into each other introducing the period and movements; exploring the background of the photographers and their mutual influences on each other; and much more. The biographies of most of these photographers were completely unknown in Western Europe till this book came along.

Photography is a study in the ability of a technique to transfer task from person to technology and thereby liberate the creative impulse. The early photographers in the 19th century were as much chemists as recorders. Matthew Brady required wagonloads of gear to take his famous pictures of the Civil War. Putting all that on a strip of film did more than popularize: it opened minds.

Photography came to Czechoslovakia well after film had been put onto rolls. They could spend their spare time thinking. It is tempting to compare the Czech efforts with the boundary-pushing experiments of North American and Western European photographers in the Twenties and Thirties. They were, after all, conducted almost simultaneously. Yet there is a clear difference in technique between images by Paul Strand, Minor White, Ansel Adams, and Edward Steichen, and their Czech counterparts named Jeromir Funke, Jindrich Styrsky, and Drahomir Ruzicka. The difference is largely due to the Czechs being essentially untrained, unlettered hobbyists with very little aesthetic theory to distract them, and therefore an ability to see objects and scenes on their own terms.

It shows.

Take some of the high-angle panoramic portraits of cafe terraces and outdoor restaurants of Josef Ehm, Jan Lauschmann, Arnost Pickart, and Eugen Wiskovsky. They resemble the overhead shots of Atget and Cartier-Bresson. The big difference is that Cartier-Bresson was consciously seeing a “decisive moment” to push the shutter (as does Richard Avedon’s “Portraits” series), while the Czechs seem more preoccupied with panorama in and of itself. For example, there are almost no humans in the pictures; unoccupied cafe tables march off in rows like stamped-metal plates on a production line. From the flat, even light one knows the skies were overcast. Did the photographers go there on such days because they sought a scene without life? If so or even if not, they succeeded.

This same sense of dyspersonalization also occurs with the nudes. If ever there was a case for elan as a series of curves, the nude is it. Yet the nudes of Frantisek Drtikol are so embedded in (and mostly behind) angularities and factory-hewn curves that the figures come off as union-shop amazons fresh from the factory floor.

Jaromir Funke went this one better by removing the nude, letting metal dishes and chrome-plated spiral tubing take their stead. Eugen Wiskovsky does the same to electrical insulators, wires, and turbine rotors. The aura of celebration is obvious—these things will make Czechoslovakia mighty. The Thirties’ obsession with structure and function removed life almost completely from architecture. Only four of the fourteen pictures between pages 130 and 139 have any sign of life in them. Otherwise they look like fully-automated manufactories, a sort of capitalist architectura cœlistis.

While the text assigns terms to the various classes of imagery—Constructivism, Futurism, Functionalism, and the like—the impact on the eye is rather different: of all the catchalls one can apply to remove being from reality, industrial photography is as cold and correct as a calculus solution.

The rather smallish amount of commercial photography presented likewise is unremarkable, even the page layouts trying to be with-it in an era when Art Deco dominated almost everything a few longitudes to the west. This surprises, because the American experimentalist Man Ray, living in Paris, was a formidable esprit de l’oeil to Jaroslav Rossler and others. Ray’s was is the most energizing foreign influence on Czech photo imagination of the time.

All the factory fantasy took an abrupt swerve when Surrealism arrived. The Czechs were not content to imitate. Photographers such as Jindrich Styrzsky, Hugo Taborsky, Frantisek Vobecky, and Bohumil Nemec spared us Western Europe’s metaphysics of dripping clocks and life-vacated forms to concentrate on a more local product: the magical encounters to be found on a human visage. With surrealism the Czechs utterly reversed themselves. A human-seed sensibility blossomed into a broad meadow whose subtext was poetry, imagination, creativity, and the inner model. Literature was as much a part of photography as photograph was of literature, just as complexity, too, contains its own antonym. The term “Surrealism” as defined in Paris didn’t quite fit this heady mix, so it was aptly called Poetism by the locals. Antonin Dufek’s chapter on the subject is arguably the most stimulating in the book.

And indeed, the two most striking images in the book are Surrealist. In Jeroslav Rössler’s “Untitled, 1931” on page 117 (and the cover jacket), a woman’s face fills the frame, tilted at 45 degrees as she looks the lens in the eye. The pictorial strength may come from her thin line of almost black lipstick and one eye encircled by a black ring, but the psychic strength comes from the translucent panes before her that divide the image into portions of clarity and bad focus. What we see isn’t a reality, it is a focusscape.

On page 211 Jindrich Styrsky demonstrates how even sexual explicitness can be turned into art. The scene is metaphysical conception. A couple is immersed in an astronomical scene of stars and nebula. He is swan-diving into the stars while she is curled up receptively with her vagina and eyes both awaiting. His smoky stream of ejaculate divides, with one whisp entering her and the other sailing into the stars. He is energy about to be remote and she is the state of rest already there. It is perhaps the most primal image in the book. Though it adds no new contributions to psychology, it speaks to our inner life as seen much later and from afar.

The book is as complete a view as we can find of the entire Czech world between the White Carpathians and the mountain rim that barriers off Czechoslovakia from the rest of Europe. Photographers had a great old time in the years between the arrival of democracy with Jan Masaryk’s government in 1918 and its end with Hitler’s invasion in 1938. An astonishing number of them were hobbyists with little interest in what today would be called a career path. It is quite something to watch them trying the same experiments and making the same mistakes—finding their own metier like good artists should—with results quite different that events further westward.

They defined aesthetics, possibilities, and learned the limits of their medium. But much more. They ventured well beyond the typical hobbyist’s preoccupation with technique and equipment. (In the entire book there’s not so much as a single paragraph that describes their equipment—and this in the era when the Leica and 35mm film were commoditizing photography to the point of social revolution.) Their great contribution was essentially the same as that of Atget and Bressai: a vivid glimpse into the realities of their part of the world—Westernized Slavs—which no one had paid much attention to. It turned out that society and commonplaces were more relevant to them than theory and manifesto.

BOOK REVIEW

Death of the Dream: Farmhouses in the Heartland
by William G. Gabler

ISBN 1-890434-23-X, LIC CP data
A-4 (10” x 11-1/4”), 72 plates plus misc. pictures, 128 pages
© 2001 by William G. Gabler
Afton Historical Society Press
P.O. Box 100
Afton, MN 55001
Tel: 1-800-436-8443
http://www.aftonpress.com

How alive they were in their picture. Death of the Dream frontispieces its title page with a photo taken when the houses it chronicles were as alive as the faces in the picture. It is well-preserved, showing a family of eight seated at a linen-covered table (lace or embroidery beyond either their means or self-identity), half-curtains on the window above, one man the only person to gaze into the camera (the patriarch, surely, though he looks middle-aged); the others in reflective downward gaze as though having just returned from a burial. Women, their hair up in buns or braids, wearing dresses collared to the neckline, skirts to the floor. Above them a framed family photo and clock on the wall (catalog-bought, no doubt, whose ornate carving seems incongruous given the tablecloth). Only cups and saucers are on the table; it must have been tea time. The tiny symbols of the good life in those days are not many, but abundant—the pitcher of milk and honey in a jar, lamp in the center, side dishes, salt, the pooch snoozing contentedly under the table.

It is the beauteous young woman on the left who most grabs the eye—not for her looks but because the picture was taken c. 1890 and her grandchildren’s grandchildren’s children are among us, perhaps looking at this book. What would she tell them? That a pretty summer sky of peach-hued clouds is also a sky of no law and no mercy? She knew this, said it in the avoidance of her gaze. Prosperity teetered alone on the last edges of the day, and one day during her lifetime the remnants of economy shifted irrevocably out from under the livelihood of the faces in that photo, as it did thousands of others too. The family farm is a factory farm now.

Leaving behind . . . what? The fears of the landholding life, the women alone pushing the pram, the humdrums of the hearth, the half a loaf uneaten, the missing shingles on the roof, the walls that need paint, the averted eyes of the friends at church, the grief recurring in husband-is-gone dreams. Then or now?

All in a picture.

Good, solid, uneventful countryside faces, as plain and hardworking as their shoes. Not the setpiece farms of TV and movies, but of gardens and furrows and drudgework and rain, lived in a prosperity affording perhaps but one portrait in a lifetime. Lives not of comforts or goods or openings at theater, but of the sun and the wind and the dusk and the summer, the indomitable spirit of the Plains, and the immense span of years that was their being then, and will be until the last house in this book is no long evident a house.

Their goods must not have been great, for in 1890 being visited the photographer meant wearing Sunday best. And when they died, what was left? The photographer has long since passed out of business, so there’s no trace of them there. The names are unrecorded, so there’s no use searching the records in old churches. A table, a few chairs, a plow, rakes, hoes, two or three changes of clothing, some debts left unanswered, a cow or few, some chickens, and this photograph.

The debts died with their debtors. The furniture might have gone to neighbors or relatives, but after World War II the Midwest was so eager to modernize that rustic and not particularly well-built furniture went quickly to fires. (Today acquired taste for such things have led to their being cleaned up and sold for astronomical prices—money that would have cleared the original owners of all debts and left a subsistence besides.)

The rakes, hoes, and plows would have lasted longer, the need for such things in the countryside being eternal. But there are only so many repairs that can be made and one by one they would have been stacked in some unused corner of a shed, forgotten until the shed should be worn down by the weather—Mr. Gabler introduces to us many sheds well on their way. The clothes would have been worn nearly to ruin by whoever inherited them, then cut into quilting, and when the quilt went it would have been cut into rags, and when the rags went they would have gone into the fire.

This photograph would have gone to the family member interested in genealogy and keeping the family records. And when all had been duly noted and the scrapbook put back on the shelf, this family was forgotten was by was, except at baptisms and weddings.

Now, three generations later with the economic boom of the 1950s through the 1990s giving Midwesterners their first real taste of prosperity since the late 1800s, anything with memories of the old days is cherished almost as better than the new houses, new furniture, new cars which dismissed the houses in this book into antiquity. Somewhere along the way from that picture to this book, the Plow That Broke The Plains was broken by those Plains.

Where do dreams go when they die?

Open this book.

You will find them here. William Gabler is as good a tale-teller as he is a photographer, and his text is so informative one can read it several times and still notice things anew. His pictures have an overlit quality that does not come across as overexposure (he’s too accomplished a photographer for that) but as his wish to wring the last of the light out of a darkened dream. His pictures are so much more than “pictures.” Only in ink upon paper do we see these old buildings defecting remnant by remnant into the wither of time. On the paper of our minds, thanks to Mr. Gabler, we see so much more. He has captured the dismemberment of a culture, the culture of the standalone farming family who fed a country from an annual turn of sod under the annual turn of sky.

Simple, seemingly, his photos. But not. For in each image we detect a different reason for the abandonment of this or that house, barn, shelterbelt of carefully arranged trees so as to trick the snow into falling out of harm’s way. This farm relinquished after an untimely death made it impossible to go on. That one when the children wrote home from ag school they had decided to study engineering or chemistry or literature, which meant the Big City, which the family back home knew would open their eyes to desire and leisure and the freedom of the wheel, all of which made the second letter an inevitability: “I am not coming back.”

And that one over there, atop the low roll of hill, there lived Widow X or Widower Y, seeing their lives through to the end on the soil where their lives were made, wresting from the earth each year’s glean not of wheat by the bushel but carrots and radishes and plums by the basket. We see them mirrored in Mr. Gabler’s houses, their forlornity, stature much shorter than it once was, back unbent but a hand that trembles. Not a bitter harvest by any reckoning, but an ever-harsher one, yes, that.

Once they were content. Once they were spiritually strong, for the vastness of nature under the unceasing sky informed the upright steeple on the horizon where God really lived. But now not. It’s self-evident from the fact that these pictures, these houses, exist. Not dying, but dwindling. Losing their rooflines and paint as a dowager loses her strands of hair. Metaphors not of decay but of deconstruction, yielding back to nature the cellulose and pigment and glass and iron which nature once bestowed. We see in them not old wood and window, but ourselves. The economy these plains and these people made possible ran away from them, off to the cities, just as it is running away from us, content under our God of cityscape and steel, monsters of the id made by urbanity, where we are no the wiser of the impending wind blowing off the globe than the farmer and the widow.

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden
Has it begun to sprout?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.”
=T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

Our selves are in Mr. Gabler’s pictures, for these empty husks of house are where the culture of consumption is taking us. Not unto death as these provisioners of the past were taken, but into discard, our lives a blister-pak on the trash of the used; all to a failure to partner with the God our souls and religions say we have but our horizons do not confirm. How we wish, like the farmers who built these houses, to elope off with Destiny the Giver, not the Taker, of life’s things.

Their goods may not have been great. They were.