Monthly Archives: May 2005

Charles Town Race Track (photo)


The Humor of Maud Casey

I am expecting an online magazine to publish an interview I did with author Maud Casey. In the meantime, here is an excerpt.

Yang: Though it’s often used to mask a sadness, there is a wonderful sense of humor in your fiction. It also ranges in style and tone. In Drastic, it can be simply offbeat and amusing, similar to what see from Eudora Welty or Anne Tyler, who populate their fiction with quirky characters. At other times, your fiction can be silly, satirical or poignant. In The Shape of Things to Come, the humor is more sad. Where does your sense of humor come from? Is humor usually sad, and is its source sadness–or something else, like exasperation?

Casey: I’m thrilled to hear you find my writing funny. My humor has occasionally been mistaken for bitterness–I won’t name any names, but let’s just say that a particular anonymous review of Shape referred to it as a “bitter, little novel.” Still planning on getting a tee-shirt made that says “bitter, little novelist.”

I’m not sure where my humor comes from, though I see it as a form of resilience in the face of sadness. One of Lorrie Moore’s characters says at one point, “Life is sad. Here is someone.” Or something, a banana peel? My favorite kind of humor doesn’t mask sadness so much as embrace it. Life is sad, but there’s beauty and, often, hilarity to be found in its sadness. The great philosopher Mel Brooks once said, “Comedy is when you get eaten by a lion. Tragedy is when I cut myself shaving.” Humor requires a little distance from great sadness, so it can be a kind of relief. It’s a relief, but it’s also deeply, inextricably related to and entwined with sadness.

New York through a Welta Garant (photos)

I have been putting my Welta Garant through its paces, mostly Ilford XP-2 on New York cityscapes. Using a pre-war camera like the Garant seems to be both good training and a lot of fun. Jurgen Kreckel, who sold me the camera, has been great at responding to
my questions, but there isn’t an English-language manual—and
forget finding Garant-specific information on the Internet (though is a great general site on medium format cameras). Things we take for granted on our modern cameras (autofocus, a light meter, easy to use focus) don’t come on the Garant; I am having to rely primarily on depth of field.  Still struggling with basics like how to properly close this folding camera!  Maybe I need to trade this in for a twin lens reflex…

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Allende’s Mask of Zorro

"Magic realism is not like salt that you can sprinkle on everything," Isabelle Allende says in an interview with Salon about her new novel Zorro. "I have written more than 15 books and there are elements of magic realism only in a few of them. But for some reason, Latin American writers who have used this end up being labeled with magic realism. But really, magic realism is just an acceptance that the world is a very mysterious place and we don’t know all the answers." She also talks about why she accepted the project to write about the fictional masked hero, despite being a "serious writer."

Fiction and Wide Variability

In the preface to Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity: Inside the Mind of BRUTUS, a Story-Telling Machine, Selmer Bringsjord and David Ferrucci argue that a good story, whether generated by man or machine, needs "wide variability."

There are many dimensions over which a story can vary. Plot is only one of them. Characters, settings, literary themes, writing style, imagery, etc.–these are other dimensions, and there are many more. Generally speaking, belleteristic fiction has very wide variability across these dimensions. Mark Helprin’s latest novel is likely to have a rather unpredictable plot traversed by rather unpredictable characters in rather unpredictable settings tossed by unpredictable mixtures of  love, revenge, jealousy, betrayal, and so on, as reported in prose with a cadence and clarity rarely seen. One of the chief effects of it all is to conjure unforgettable images in the reader’s mind. (One of us is haunted weekly by the image of the lost gold in Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case.) At the other end of the spectrum fall formulaic fiction and film; here the variability is narrow. Some romance novels, for example, fail to offer wide variability of plot and characterization: It’s the same character types time and time again, dancing hot and heavy to the same choreography. If Brutus^n, some refined descendant of Brutus^1, is soon to find employment at the expense of a human writer, in all likelihood it will be as an author of formulaic romance and mystery.)

The preface is available as a pdf file on Bringjord’s web site.

Subject Selection

David Hurn of Magnum Photos on the selection of subject matter.

The reason for a young photographer’s confusion is that most teachers, classes, workshops, books, whatever, imply that how the picture is made, what techniques were employed, why it looks different and artistic, is more important than the subject matter. Yet the photographer is, primarily, a subject-selector. Much as it might offend the artistically inclined, the history of photography is primarily the history of the subject matter. So, a photographer’s first decision is what to photograph. Your curiosity, fascination and enthusiasm for this subject can be communicated to others through the pictures you take of it.

Manhattan Saturday (photos)

Betsy Johnson boutique, New York


McDonalds, Midtown Manhattan

Gary Stochl Uncovered

David Bernstein of The New York Times tells the wonderful story of how street photographer Gary Stochl was discovered.

"We get a lot of older students at the college, and I thought he
was a returning student trying to place out of a class," recalled Bob Thall, Chairman of the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago. "He had this gigantic pile of 300 or so pictures just loose
in a paper shopping bag. That was kind of a bad sign. Anyone who had
gone through one of our Photo 1 classes would have been much more
sophisticated about how to show work to somebody. But as I
flipped through the pictures," he continued, "maybe I got through 20,
25 pictures. I was shocked by how good some of them were."

In contrast to Thall, Rod Slemmons, director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago, comes across as narrow-minded. "But if he’s just as good as Robert Frank, or someone like that, we’d rather spend our money on Robert Frank."

The Chicago Tribune notes that Stochl’s only formal photographic training was a course in high school. An online gallery of Stochl’s photographs appears at, where Thall has written a must-read introduction to the works.

Like all great stories, this one holds some lessons. Gary
Stochl’s long journey should re-teach us the importance of
devotion, perseverance, and personal vision. His story suggests
that many of us should care a bit less about our careers and
reputations and a bit more about our work. His story recommends
humility when some of us confidently assume that we know well the
recent history of photography, that we know who’s who and
exactly what’s been done in photography. His photographs remind
us that descriptive photographs can gather extra meaning and
importance as time goes by.

Besides teaching a lesson about persistence and artistic vision, though, Thall says Stochl’s experience forces us to question our ideas of art.

It’s also a tale of isolation, which forces us to question our
assumptions about how American artists, working today, are generally
entangled in the complex web of the artistic community:
schools, museums, galleries, funders, dealers, curators, critics,
collectors, and publishers. What happens to an artist when he or
she has no contact with that artistic community? Is it possible
to be a serious artist without those connections—and what
happens to the work of an isolated artist?

Technorati Tag(s) – photography.

All Roads Lead to Rome (Photo)

Neipu, Taiwan Village (Photo)