Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween from Paris!

In George Romero's classic zombie flick "Dawn of the Dead,"the American undead—creatures of habit—head straight to the shopping mall. In Paris, they look at cafe menus, text their zombie friends on iphones, smoke, keep up with fashion, take photos, protest, and go on walks with their babies.

Scenes I stumbled upon today on my way home from a photo show...

Monday, October 26, 2009

huhs, hmms, and ahs : three very short stories

Let me forewarn you that these one-photo stories probably won't make any sense. Worse still, once I explain, you may wonder why I bothered posting them. But I'll get to that, I promise.

story 1.

Discarded organizer outside the headquarters of "Le Monde" newspaper

story 2.

Pockmarked sidewalk

story 3.
By a stairwell outside the Kenna exhibit

I tell my students that I like writing assignments more than memorization-based exams (names, dates, that kind of stuff), because I can still remember essays I wrote in 7th grade, but I forgot my chronology of all the rulers of France a week after the final exam. Who am I kidding? I forgot some of it during the final exam.

There's something about the act of writing that makes the story stick with you. But maybe that's not the case with you. Maybe you're a numbers and dates kind of person. A former part-time secretary in my department could recite birthdays, phone numbers, or any other number with meaning attached to it with zero effort. Having just figured out that I'm a year younger than I thought I was (and I had the midlife crisis all planned out!), I can't even wrap my mind around that kind of numbers memory.

My memory likes images. I remember my first meeting with the museum director who wanted to discuss the possibility of an exhibit about my research. He was surprised at how quickly I converted written thoughts into visual form. What he didn't realize was that I saw all of my ideas as images before I wrote them. Converting the images in my mind into words on a page was the hard part.

The three image "stories" above were all taken within the last few days. The first two are from a walk I took today in an area with streets named after photographers like Atget and Brassaï. The third image was in the library where I researched most of my dissertation, and therefore the easiest to spin into a story with deeper meaning, which would be dishonest. Here is the extent of each story:

1. I noticed the organizers outside the newspaper building and thought that I could use them back at home, but didn't feel like carrying them around. Then I noticed the labels indicating they were sorting things by region (Brittany, Corsica, etc.) which made me think about the decline of the newspaper industry and the fact that regional reporting is one of the first things to go.

2. I noticed the little craters in the sidewalk created by pits or nuts from the tree above. Could a falling nut create that kind of damage? Maybe if the sidewalk had been resurfaced and was still drying or maybe if that is a patch of tar that melted during a heat wave. But why resurface a sidewalk only to let it a tree launch a full scale attack? Hmm.

3. The Kenna exhibit was just so beautiful, so moving, that I had to take a photo immediately outside just for the sake of release—by impulse, like applause at the end of a play.

Not compelling stories? Don't say I didn't warn you. The idea I want to put out there is this: a photo can be the story of how you think. It may not have the wide appeal of something pretty, but it might be a way for you to capture your thought process. I am imagining how a book of these moments, not the famous Oprah "aha!" moments, but more like the "huh"moments that capture the natural flow of your mind. This is what Rousseau was after when he walked around collecting plants during the last years of his life. He wasn't trying to make any great botanical discoveries. He was gathering his own thoughts.

It's not about gathering events or photos of loved ones. It's not about great philosophical reflection. It's just about the flow of thoughts and feelings we usually never document.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

More than just photos...stories

Plus que des photos, des histoires (More than just photos, stories) reads Canon's current slogan, seen on huge banners right now inside the Salon de la Photo in Paris. Naturally, it made me think of this month's theme. And I'm glad that it did, because thinking about story turned an otherwise crowded, hot, zoo of an atmosphere into my own personal safari.

The difference between the expo-as-zoo (complete with caged displays) and the expo-as-hunting-expedition was a sudden shift in my perspective. To return to (and mistranslate for my own purposes) the huge Canon banner— it's all about your reflex and your objectives. My initial reflex when I stepped inside the large exposition hall was to remember the PMA convention in Vegas not so long ago, say "been there, done that" to myself, and leave.

But then I looked at the Canon banner and found myself agreeing with their premise. Not the ridiculous commercial premise that photos taken with a Canon are superior (although I do use a Canon, so I wish it were true), but with the idea that not all photos are stories. In fact, I think that a lot of photos are not stories. Some photos are more like "to do" lists (Me in front of Notre Dame. Check. Me in front of the Eiffel Tower. Check.) or doodles (bokeh experiments, abstract streaks of light in long exposures, etc.). Sometimes a photo is a fragment of a sentence. But whole stories are not always so easy to come by.

Everyone taking the same photo of a model.

The photo I took of what was happening beneath their feet.

My best piece of advice from the experience is that if you want stories, you need to stop looking at the thing, and start looking at the story of the thing. When I made a conscious decision to look for stories at the photo expo, I became more interested in my environment. When people were all crowding into a space to look at a display in the way the vendor intended, I didn't feel the need to compete. Instead, I could step back and observe the competition itself.

From their end—elbowing other photographers to take a photo of a girl in front of a giant "Olympus" sign. From my end—no elbowing necessary, and I get a photo of the girl and the fight to photograph her instead of a camera ad.

I imagined a parent applying this same attitude to a kid's soccer game (I say "a parent" because we haven't had a kid in soccer since Max was 4). I imagined that parent taking a more documentary approach to the event, one that included other parents reacting to the game, other kids. One that included the other team.

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir, but if the general public is anything like it was yesterday at the photo show, I would venture to say that most people gravitate toward the same spot to take the same photo. Again and again.

Watching people interact with people will likely lead to some kind of story.

When I changed my objective from shopping mode to documentary mode, the stories began to appear.

"Older man befriends group of goth teens" was a nice story to witness.

If this "monthly special" about story and that Canon ad hadn't triggered a change in objective for me, I would have spent ten euros on a photo show only to leave after five minutes to spend 10 more at the movies. The movies are still in theaters. The photo show ends tomorrow. And even though I was not interested in any of the products, I am glad I got to see the stories.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hot Chocolate

(worst title ever, I know.)

Yesterday at the Paris Salon du Chocolat...

(If even spandex doesn't fit tightly, it might be time to eat one or two of those chocolates. Just a suggestion.)

(Wipe that smug look off your face, dude. We get it. You're a model AND you're wearing a coat made out of chocolate. No need to gloat.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A story with no text.

If you do scrapbooks, it might be tempting to "journal" everything just out of habit. But sometimes words are just redundant.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Recipes for stories: "told" book review

mental photo—your participation needed. imagine a delicious pile of assorted macarons sitting artfully atop my copy of the book I'm reviewing. Got it? OK, then read on.

How many recipe books do you own? Go on, take a mental inventory. One? Ten? Dozens? In our house, we have shelves and shelves of them. More than a person could use in a lifetime. If that "Julie and Julia" woman needs some sequel projects, may I suggest one of my books about macarons—those little French cookies that I like to think of as heaven's version of an Oreo. The cookbooks all feature beautiful images of both savory (foie gras cookie, anyone?) and sweet (so hard to get beyond chocolate) confections, each more photogenic than the last. I believe one of the books even has the word "simple" somewhere in the title. A cruel hoax, I assure you. But then, wasn't it the French who invented Sadism?

But let's get back to you. You and your recipe books, or lack thereof. If you don't have any, then I can only conclude that either you don't cook or you don't believe in recipes. If you do, and you are not an obsessive blogger living over a pizzeria, then I bet you have made less than half the recipes.

A brief review
Which brings me to my little book review. I bought Simon Aboud's book "told" only days after arriving in Paris because, like the macaron books, I found it visually appealing and on a topic I love. The book's subtitle, "The Art of Story," fits well with the recipe book comparison (replace "story" with, oh...let's say..."French Cooking"), as do the "Twenty Principles of Storytelling" (by Paul Wilson) that appear right up front like must-haves for the well-stocked pantry. The principles are grouped by category: first principles (such as premise, genre, etc.), storyworld (cast, setting...), character, rhythm, and craft. The rest of the book is a study in combining those ingredients to achieve different effects, all accompanied by masterful photography. "She Waits," for example, uses three ingredients: "Point of View," "Exposition," and "Intrigue, Mystery, Suspense." In fact, most of the stories use only three or four ingredients. C'est simple comme "Bonjour!"

I found myself flipping through the pages many times, just admiring the photos and whatever text was in a large enough font to catch my eye. Then, stuck in a bus to Fontainebleau, I finally took time to read...

And that takes me back to my macaron obsession. You see, in my quest to replicate the perfect macaron back in America, I searched the four corners of the web for almond flour (and found it at an intestinal health site in Colorado), I acquired pistachio paste from a pastry supply store near the Rue Montorgueil, and even bought Silpat, but all for naught. My macarons were a disaster.

Scarred by that experience, my reading of "told" led me to conclude that any attempt to cook up even a simple one-ingredient dish (see "Want Me? A Story of Desire" which lists "Hook" as the one principle at play) would lead me to shelve the book in frustration. And I don't want to do that. Because, in spite of its textbook-style hardcover, I see "told" as a rich source of inspiration more than an instruction manual.Let me try to explain by quoting Aboud:
"We believe story is everywhere. In a business context, marketing or whatever, that means, very simply, communicating is no longer about only TV or cinema or press or radio or internet [...] We're suggesting that any form of engagement will be more effective if it is about storytelling." (told, 186).
Aboud's book makes me think about story across disciplines and media. It makes me think beyond the book an to reflect on other people's recipes and principles (Umberto Eco's entertaining reading of Ian Fleming comes to mind, as do the nearly impenetrable early structuralist writings of Roland Barthes, the compelling recipes for history outlined by HaydenWhite, and the work of so many theorists). But for me, inspiration wins out over didacticism every time. So I am embracing "told" in the way I first discovered it, and not in the prescriptive, pedantic way I fear it may be (mis)used in some class on "digital storytelling" (I hate that term although I love the thing itself).

Take-Out Photo and its recipes, or "Why am I even writing this review?"
As a hybrid between a series of photo essays and pedagogical text, "told" stood out from the catalogs and monographs surrounding it in the Pompidou bookstore. (That, and the fact that it's in English.) That difference made me think about my own goals for my blog. Or for the Take-Out Photo book that I will write when I finish my Nostalgia & Technology book or when someone with influence at the offices of an "independent publisher of distinctive books" subscribes to my blog and makes an offer—whichever comes first.

I admire"told" just for existing. If there were a dozen more books like it, each with its own set of storytelling principles, I would buy them all. But there are not any others. At least not that I have seen here in Paris. Like Aboud, I want to create something people will use. My tutorials give some recipes, my "monthly specials" look at themes to develop, other posts might provide a principle or two, but my end goal is to encourage myself and others to tell our stories through images. In that way, I feel a kinship with what Aboud's book is trying to do. They even have a blog just waiting for participation—two followers and three comments—and look at me, I get loads of visitors, a lot of followers, almost no comments (drives me crazy), and yet I left no comment!

How hypocritical am I?

I like the recipe book (told, macarons, take your pick), but spend my time just looking at the pictures.

I want more photos and less text, but I am writing this now at almost 3 a.m. with no photo and I want to hit "publish" before my head hits a pillow.

Yikes! Now I'm going to have to contribute something to their site. Or maybe this is already a contribution—the story of people who participate, but not always in the most direct way. Part of me finds comfort in the thought that maybe that's your story too.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Three photos about dogs followed by one simple lesson.

Inside the Musée d'Orsay

Outside the Centre Pompidou

Inside our apartment

A unified theme can create a story between different subjects and circumstances.

I was at the Photographer's Gallery in London last week where I saw an inspiring exhibition of André Kertész's photos of people reading. Photos of people reading on balconies, in parks and cafés, but also people reading from piles of trash, on top of discarded newspaper, photos of people reading in painting, and so many declensions of the theme that it struck me how much a unified creates its own story. Walking from one photo to the next, I felt a connection between cultures, classes, circumstances. Not that we-are-all-the-same sentiment that my cynicism interprets as willful ignorance cloaked in charity, but more of a look-at-this-human-impulse-at-work-in-such-varied-situations moment of awe. Together in that gallery, photos taken over the course of years and across continents told me a complex story about a subject that matters to me.

Before leaving the gallery, I visited the bookstore and bought the book On Reading, as well as an irresistible little contemporary work called Mrs. West's Hats—a book that features self portraits of Helen Couchman wearing hats left to her by her grandmother. I immediately felt attached to Couchman's book, not because of any particular photo in it, but because of the collection as a whole and the thought and emotion that it represents.

After returning to Paris, I prepared a brief introduction to Atget for my students and found myself thinking again about how a theme creates a story.

For this post, I rapidly pulled up three photos of dogs: one taken this week in the Musée d'Orsay, one taken a few weeks ago near the Pompidou Center and one taken tonight of my 4-year-old daughter's collaborative project with her grandpa (six dogs and a brachiosaur). My quick experiment made me think more about dogs and the people who feel compelled to portray them (in museums, on walls, on refrigerator doors...). It's certainly no On Reading. Nor is it Mrs. West's Hats. Three things that prevent it from becoming so are time, attachment, and development. Beyond this post, I don't plan on any dog-themed books (there are too many of those in the world already). But it is making me think more about how theme relates to story. And maybe it will start making you think about grouping your own photos into stories simply by organization.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

October Monthly Special: Story

This is your life, but processed. Hammered into the mold of a good screenplay. Interpreted according to the model of a successful box-office hit. It is no surprise you've started seeing every day in terms of another plot point. Music becomes your soundtrack. Clothing becomes costume. Conversation, dialogue. Our technology for telling stories becomes our language for remembering our lives. Our framework for perceiving the world. (Chuck Palahniuk, Stranger than Fiction)
In spite of an all-time low in terms of "monthly special" participation this past month (Shanna should receive some kind of award, I think), I am continuing down a path suggested by the August (triptychs) and September (points of view) themes by looking at "story" in photography.

Too many years of graduate training in literature have only worsened my ambivalence toward the conventions of storytelling. By age 9, after countless Sunday School lessons in the genre of "Susie had an iron lung" and "Johnny got hit by a train," I learned to become wary of the devices meant to illicit an emotional response from an audience—devices that, when overused, condition some people to measure spirituality in the number of teardrops shed.

In 17th-century France, back in the heyday of Cartesian body-as-machine enthusiasm, pulpit orators tried to get their rhetoric down to a science. A well-placed metaphor here, just the right simile there, and your audience laughs or cries at your command. Fast forward a few hundred years and you find everyone from semioticians to ad agencies trying to figure out the recipes for different kinds of stories.

Look through some of your photos—or better yet, a scrapbook—and ask yourself what kind of stories they tell. Do the photos stand on their own? Are they part of a sequence? Does text play a role?

This month I want to encourage you to pay attention to the story in your photographs. Think about when story matters to you and when it does not. Look for patterns in your storytelling. Are there recipes? Should there be?

I plan to look at those questions and more this month, and I may even throw in a Photoshop tutorial, who knows? And if I'm really lucky, maybe I'll see some stories from you.