Week #67 Manhattan: a photographic series

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The first time I travelled to New York City I was struck by its contrary qualities. There’s a generosity among the harshness, a beauty, especially on Manhattan Island, despite the intensity. The attractiveness emanates from the architecture and manifests on the pavements. It resonates in the people, in their industry and their effort, and spreads through the small parks and large central garden. It travels along the grid of the city’s streets and climbs into the theatres and bars.

This duality of endeavour and largess is what the street photographer, Alan Schaller, loves to picture: the movement and vivacity of a city that holds ugliness with pride and energy with varied amounts of glue and glitter.

Homegrown and old-fashioned at times, Manhattan, simply put, has style. And it is this that Schaller’s black and white shots capture. There’s a softness to them that appears to be informed by the city itself. You can find it in other photographs Schaller has taken in other places, so, you could say, that along with a never-ending supply of subject-matter, the city has influenced Schaller’s eye by giving him the same generous position it displays. While managing to be objective, the stills have a softness that adds to their attraction. And, as the same gentleness imbues the angles of this city, subject and photo are inextricably joined.

Of course, Alan Schaller’s work goes beyond the crowded island. Cheek out more of his shots here and here.

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Week #66 A View from the Bridge: a play

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Arthur Miller‘s plays are often about men. He told stories of their power and their demise both through circumstance and a lack of insight into themselves. He depicted men’s breakdowns and broken relationships, the persecutions they enforced and their inner struggles to be good. Most importantly, Miller teased out the impact that their actions had on others.

Wonderfully rendered in a performance at the Melbourne Theatre Company, A View from the Bridge is not Miller’s most famous play, but quintessential in his canon as he mines the crises of masculinity he saw in his male characters. Set in the 1950s near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, the drama sets out the events that occur when illegal immigrants arrive from Italy to be housed secretively by a couple, Eddie and Beatrice, who have brought up Beatrice’s orphaned niece, Catherine, as their child.

As the play unfolds, Eddie’s struggle to control his attraction to Catherine, now seventeen-years-old, reveals itself. When Catherine falls for one of the Italian arrivals, jealousy flares in Eddie. His desperation not to lose her causes him to do something he would never normally do. Against all his prior beliefs and values, against every previous trait of loyalty and honour and his anti-establishment view, he alerts the authorities about the “illegals”, Beatrice’s cousins, who are living in his small apartment. It is a betrayal the gritty, hard-working Eddie would never normally commit, an act he knows will mean ostracism from his community and a fall from grace with his wife, Beatrice.

It’s this, the reaches we will go in order to fulfil our desires, especially when they are unconscious because we find the facts around them abhorrent, that, for me, A View from the Bridge is about. Blindness to oneself is a common phenomenon. But what we do when we are in that state, varies. Certainly, what we can’t tolerate in ourselves we will subvert into action, action that, depending on our level of denial, can go against our beliefs and values, and can even hurt us. Rage and high emotion do not assist to analysis what’s happening, to uncover why we are doing what we are.

Of course, in A View from the Bridge, drama is afoot, and in the tradition of the theatre of ancient Rome, and what followed in the Greek tragedies and in Shakespeare’s high dramas, it ends with ultimate demise.

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Week #65 Many Girls White Linen: a poem

Alison Whittaker has created a rhythm in Many Girls White Linen that manages to be both stark and affecting. With so few words and some of them repeated its hard to know exactly how she accomplishes this, but, after building over the first two stanzas, the third packs audacity into a tight wad that pushes on the gut.

Poetry should be physical and Whittaker has a gift for making it feel like grit in the mouth and soil on the hands. There’s something to be learned and certainly a lot to be appreciated in her textile of words, in the weave of their meaning and the anchor-drag they are loaded with. To read more go here and here and here.

Many Girls White Linen

no mist no mystery

no hanging rock only

 

many girls white linen

men with guns and

harsher things white women

amongst gums white linen

starch’er things later plaques

will mark this war

nails peeling back floor

scrubbing back blak chores

white luxe hangnails hanging

more than nails while

no palm glowing paler

 

later plaques will mark

this sick linen’s rotten

cotton genes later plaques

will track the try

to bleed lineage dry

 

its banks now flood

a new ancestor, Ordeal,

 

plaits this our blood

if evil is banal

how more boring is

suffering evil two bloodlines

from it how more

raw rousing horrifying is

the plaque that marks

something else rolling on

from this place a

roll of white linen

dropped on slight incline

amongst gums collecting grit

where blak girls hang

nails hang out picking

them hangnails

Week #64 Black and White Portraits: a photographic series

Stephen Sewell has written a superb play Arbus & West in which he imagines the hours that Mae West and Diane Arbus spent together in 1960s when Diane Arbus went to Mae West’s Ravenswood apartment to photograph her. The play slowly reveals the differences between the women, the wealth that cushioned Arbus’s world as she grew up and the hard-edged life that was Mae West’s before fame changed her circumstances. As Arbus was turning her back on her fortune and following her passion to photograph the marginalised and the shunned, the ordinary and those considered not worthy of a photographer’s lens, West was clinging not only to the fame that she’d lived and breathed for years but the fantasy of her own immortality.

This excellent dialogue between the women made me seek out the photographs that Diane Arbus took over her too-short career. I’ve put some favourites here, but there are many more, many images I didn’t realise I already knew.

Because of Arbus’s true belief in the realness of those who, as she said through Steven Sewell’s imagination, had had the worst happen to them already, she was interested in capturing their lives. Finding them more fascinating, more authentic and more worthy of recording, she was part of a new vanguard that used photography to record all that was around her rather than just the rich and glamourous.

“A photograph,” Arbus said, “is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

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Week #63 Lost Photographs: a photographic series

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Sylvia Grav is a photographer with a seriously sensitive eye. She’s not just interested in an image but the layers that lie below it, the smoky drafts that compile representation, that build understanding and purpose. The trust we invest as viewers can easily be dismantled.

Her pictures contain the movement of anguish and stand on pillars of old disturbance. There are shots that draw from the historical analogues of art, conjuring old pains and disturbances, loneliness and despair, a kind of searching that is emblematic of life.

Of course, there is much to be explored, much to be examined. In her Light Project Sylvia Grav shows us her playfulness and experimentation. In her Space Shots she shows us how experience nestles in the curve and bulge of the human form. And, in her Lost Photographs we see into the souls of her subjects, into their most classic startled uncertainty.

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Week #62 Dyschronia: a novel

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This novel by Jennifer Mills is, among other things, about the weird and unexplained phenomenon of the disturbance to the chronology of time. Sam, the young female protagonist, experiences the condition and sees, literally, into the future. Dyschronia describes in disturbing and realistic ways the price of this ‘gift’, its harrowing demands and the tax it takes on the body. Sam must navigate her way through the visions – although they are more like physical presentations – and deal with the town-folks’ requests for more information.

Set in an unsettled future in a dying town, Dyschronia is narrated in each alternate chapter by the collective voice of its inhabitants. This Greek chorus effect shows us a world that has become acidic. The town has lost its industry and people are flailing to know how to stay afloat. There is the arrival of the new order who breed lies and propaganda about what’s on offer. What can the population do other than believe in what they’re told rather than look down the barrel of what is to come. Of course, this only increases their feelings of being let-down.

Quintessentially Australian, this novel’s canvas is broader than a country’s borders. Like On the Beach by Neville Shute, it encompasses a global sensibility and opens us to the vulnerability of all those who inevitably want answers.

Week #61 Close Proximity: a photographic series

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Andreas Gursky has an eye for the ordinary and yet, his particular brand of observation transforms the ‘taken for granted’ properties in life and gives them a majestic quality that’s both confronting and thought-provoking. What are we to do with the beauty that comes from witnessing people’s working reality? How are we to take it in? And where on earth did all this stuff come from? It’s not ours, surely?

Here in lies Gursky’s talent. Because the photographs manage to captivate us, we want to look, we must see, and we are forced because of it, to acknowledge the glorious and ghastly contents.

Close Proximity is my title for what I think links Gursky’s pictures. Whether he is photographing inanimate objects or humans, a breathtaking conglomerative overwhelms here. Like other art I’m drawn to, the impact is contrary, with calming, static, even peaceful results. But, a ruse perhaps, Gursky is interested in keeping us looking. He doesn’t want us to put aside this actuality, he wants us to be present. And it is in this way that he strikes the perfect note, finds the right ingredient and then knows how to fuse it into one frame. We are privileged to see the things he has sort out. The fact that we don’t want to look away denotes a mark of brilliance.

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