Sunday, August 25, 2013

Now THAT's Writing ...

There's an anecdote that when the miraculous comedy writing team that worked on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" came up with a great joke, none of them would laugh.  They never actually laughed as they wrote some of the best sketch comedy ever.  When someone came up with a truly wonderful gag, the rest would simply nod and say, "Yeah, that's funny."

Though I lack that kind of self control, I sometimes feel I want to do something similar -- but with an added tone of awe in my voice -- when I run across truly great journalistic writing.  Usually, it's old writing, the kind of reporting that's not done anymore.  It's the kind of journalism that was necessary in an age when the reports had to be mailed back, and the news was often days if not weeks old.  It was the kind of description that had to be put on the page when there were no 24-hour cable networks, no television at all.  You'd be lucky if there was a newsreel, and that usually without synch sound.  The reporter had to put you there, and do it only with the written word.

I think that art is too often forgotten today.  Look at the complaints when, at the recent "Whitey" Bulger trial, cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.  Legions of journalists, used to having their television  -- with sound -- and still images, found themselves at a loss when composing reports of the most dramatic mafia trial in recent memory.  People were describing murders right out of the movies, old gangsters were staring each other down in the courtroom ... novels have been built on such things, and you can't crank out a decent minute-and-a-half with drawings?

I look at things like Kirke Simpson's 1922 account for AP of the return of the Unknown Soldier from France to Arlington.  It won the Pulitzer.  Sure, it's sort of antiquated in style, but look at that rich description of the ship slowly moving up the Potomac, the minute guns thumping as she comes.  You want to savor the words like a fine wine, rolling them around in your head.  Or the articles that triggered this post, in the New Yorker, chosen by editor David Remnick (of whom I am jealous beyond words in general).  He points to two separate reports on the Nuremberg trials, both written in 1946, but in a way neither describing the trials per se.  Rather, they are rich descriptive stories, telling about the places and people who are what make something like the trial an event worth reporting.  Because, when you think about it, an event is rarely a thing unto itself.  Rather, it is the actions of people in a place, even when that event seems apart from the people.

Tornado ratings, for example, are not really rating the tornado itself, but its effects on houses and people.  There can be (and I suppose are) tornadoes out to sea, away from ships and people, about which we never know ... and never shall.  They are not, for us, an event.  But what if someone should go out seeking those storms ...

Anyway, great writing, writing like these authors created, now that's something a person can aspire to, something one can wish to create for a magazine or a book or a blog ...

Monday, August 19, 2013

The End is Near!

There was a period (still occasionally reprised) when cartoons in the New Yorker and its ilk always included one with a robed figure on the streets of the city, carrying a sign reading: "The End Is Near!"

It was a good, simple setup for gags, something everyone understood instantly, so there was no need to waste time explaining background.  I read an article today that made me think of those cartoons.

At first, I thought that Rob Goodman, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, was going to take an interesting tack on my thoughts about mourning and when is the best time to shuffle off the mortal stage.

"We flatter ourselves when we imagine a world incapable of lasting without us in it—a world that, having ceased to exist, cannot forget us, discard us, or pave over our graves. Even if the earth no longer sits at the center of creation, we can persuade ourselves that our life spans sit at the center of time, that our age and no other is history's fulcrum..."

But then he moves on to a grander canvas, looking interestingly at the full picture of apocalyptic legend and literature for humanity.

"In music, a progression that resolves to a minor chord is more pleasant than one that fails to resolve at all; in the same way, even a story of the end of the world may be more comforting than the thought of history as an endless, pointless series of 'one damn thing after another,' something too immense and amorphous to be captured by story. Kant, in fact, suggested in his 'Idea for a Universal History' that it's unbearable to imagine history without plan and purpose. Whether or not such a plan exists, we would be paralyzed unless we acted as if it does: 'For what is the good of esteeming the majesty and wisdom of Creation ... if we are forced to turn our eyes from it in disgust, doubting that we can ever find a perfectly rational purpose in it. ... ?'"

Goodman moves on, by way of George Orwell's 1984, to Olaf Stapledon, author of Last and First Men.  "His treatment of history and apocalypse made him one of the last century's most innovative authors of science fiction. His work, which imagined the course of humankind from the 1930s to its extinction in two billion years, reached an astronomical scope. And his refusal to flinch from historical randomness led to a kind of fiction far more disturbing than the alternately self-pitying and reassuring dystopias of our time—and also, in the end, more honest and more humanist. The question at its heart is a lasting challenge to our political imaginations: If we lose our faith that history is going somewhere, how should we behave?"

Fascinating.  Though it sounds profoundly depressing, it seems something worth finding.

However, in the end (of this blog entry, at least), I can only think of a favorite quote from H.P. Lovecraft:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents ... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Just Call Me Canute

The other day, I proclaimed the supremacy of printed magazines and books for documentary photography, explaining that, while pure art photography has an obvious outlet in print sales, no one would want a print of dying soldiers or poverty stricken drug addicts in the living room.  The internet is where everything is going -- an article I've been reading today explains why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, but includes this quote from him: “There is one thing I’m certain about: there won’t be printed newspapers in twenty years.”

So I'm wondering, to completely contradict myself, if there isn't a way to print an "online magazine" that could be as satisfying in its use of photos, and still exploit the multi-media aspects of the internet, using, for example, video and audio podcasts, written material, etc., in a layout that would artistically display them all. J. Bruce Baumann has tried something of the sort, trying to transfer the old picture magazine experience to the net in his Posey magazine, which is indeed a thing of beauty, but I'm thinking of something more.

Maybe I'll have to just do it for myself.

If I can find the time ... and the content ... and the knowledge of coding ...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"We Did This Thing ..."

A truly cool video, but at the end it leaves a question I have addressed in another form ...

"We pointed the most powerful telescope ever created by humans at absolutely nothing, for no other reason than because we were curious..."

Yes! Outstanding.  But now let's think about actually going to, I don't know, the nearest damn ball of rock to us, let alone galaxies millions of light years away?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Paper and Ink Is the Only Way

Every so often (many will tell you far too rarely) something will set me into a cleaning or organizing frenzy of sorts.  I think some subconscious part of my brain, after staring at a pile of stuff in search of the right place, will solve the problem, and at that moment I can't wait to get everything taken care of.

Today, it was the case of a stack of various photo magazines in my office.  I started by flipping through them, remembering why I'd kept them around, then putting them in order, then placing them where I thought they belonged.  It was indeed satisfying.

But in the process, I was reminded of a lot of truly great work by photographers, and I came to think: the magazine (and by extension, the book) is really the best, the only medium for documentary photography and its various relatives.

Unlike much "art" photography, a lot of documentary work just isn't something that calls to you to buy a print and hang it in the living room of your posh Bel Air estate.  I mean, who want to walk into the family room to the scene of heroin users shooting up in gritty black-and-white?  Even the simpler, less grotesque images of, say, a run down Appalachian neighborhood are kind of sketchy, in my opinion.

Now, one could argue (as I often have) that not all documentary work needs to be gritty and downbeat.  As a matter of fact, I tend to get frustrated (and have written here and in NPPA's News Photographer magazine) when every prize seems to go to a "compelling portrait" of the disgusting life of gay, black insane people on drugs in forgotten neighborhoods.  I mean, really, wouldn't it take more talent to show all the facets of a hardworking high school athlete, or explain how someone could be truly happy as a farmer in the Midwest (not enraged and frustrated, things which are I think remarkably simple to photograph)?  But, as they say, I digress ...

Where I was headed was this: the magazine format, that thing in your hands, is perfect for showing a story.  You page through, the pictures are revealed -- some bigger and grand, some small and delicate -- in an order and in an arrangement that display the art, tell the story, and are -- by their arrangement -- an artwork in themselves.  You can show a single image, or a whole series in a slowly unfolding tale.  With a book -- a nicer, longer version of the magazine -- you can do the same.

Sure, you can put photos online, and you can even arrange them artistically, but it lacks something, a sense of presence, something tangible.  It's just not the same when you lean into the screen to study some detail, not like looking at a page ...

Long live dead tree magazines!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I Am Not the Smartest Guy In the Room

Shortly after his loss in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore was the subject of a range of articles centered on the idea of his superior intelligence.  Most were about how he was misunderstood, and if one really knew Gore, one was impressed by him and baffled by the election results.

I particularly remember one piece, an extended personality profile, that described him as entering every place knowing he was "the smartest guy in the room," and of course how he was right.  I instantly took a dislike to Gore.

Really, who walks around constantly confident that he is smarter than everyone else around him?  Does it not occur to you that, perhaps even by random chance, you might have tumbled into the same region as someone far more clever than yourself?

I generally assume I am actually the stupidest person in the room, or at least part of the vast miasmic mass of average that fill out most places.  Often, I am surprised to find myself wrong, but that doesn't in my mind invalidate my premise, nor does it stop me from continuing to assume that I am most certainly not the smartest guy in the room.

And here's my bigger point: It's perhaps unfair to say that, when I read that profile back in 2000, I took a dislike to Gore.  I think I more properly took a dislike to the author and those testifying on Gore's behalf.  People who go into a discussion thinking they are smarter than everyone else are frankly annoying.  They assume a rectitude and superiority that sets my teeth on edge, foreclosing any discussion or debate with an attitude that any questions I might have, let alone disagreement, can only be brought about by stubborn ignorance at best and obtuse evil at worst.

Assuming at least the intellectual equality of those around you seems to me simple politeness, a graceful pleasantness that promotes open discussion and good feeling.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

How Could I Forget?

It's easy to get carried away by someone like Fridtjof Nansen, but that's no excuse to forget to cite a couple of others, like Sir Richard Burton.  That's the Victorian explorer, not the dissolute Welsh film actor.  A friend's blog reminded me of my error.  Burton was a classic example of going somewhere because ... well, because it was there, and no one had done it before.  He also brought us the stories of 1001 Arabian Nights, one of which is Alladin.

When Wendell Phillips (again, there is confusion: not the 19th Century abolitionist, but a 20th Century archeologist) set out in the 1950s to find the cities of the Queen of Sheba, the closest comparable figure he had for his adventures was the legendary Sinbad.  Now, we have Indiana Jones.  I hope someday to made a documentary about Phillips, who I had the pleasure of meeting as a child in the 1970s when he spoke at the Smithsonian, showing film and photos of his adventures.  He died only a couple years later, a wealthy man as he arrived in Arabia about the same time they figured out there was oil there.  The organization he founded still stumbles on, though without his monumental personality at its center.

Where are these people today?