Monthly Archives: April 2006

Jon Anderson Interview, Part IV

The fourth and final installment of the interview with photographer / writer Jon Anderson.

Wayne: How fair is it to say that much of your work seems to be centered on ways of individualizing people whom others might characterize as down and out? You have mentioned your interest in the urbanism, poverty, marginal subcultures, social conflict. Why do you think you are attracted to this vein?

Jon: I am not sure that my intention or purpose in shooting centers on the idea of individualizing people; I am basically motivated by larger social themes, but perhaps as a result of communicating with the people I shoot and hanging around them for a while, a bit of their individuality comes through. It would be nice to think so, but I am not sure: I mean, how much can a picture really tell us about a person? We are really just capturing surfaces aren’t we, though I suppose if an “environmental portrait” is good enough, if it succeeds in creating a photographic equivalent of what Clifford Geertz called a “thick description,” then maybe we do in fact learn something about the individual whose contours are rendered so sharply in two dimensions. But I hear the nagging voice of Richard Avedon reminding me that after all a photograph is just surface and as such is a lie. However, I will say this: I agree with Kenneth Jarecke, who said recently on Lightstalkers that “Maybe our goal could be to help the viewer see their own humanity in our subjects.” I cannot think of a better description for what it is we do and what we can expect in terms of photographic communication.

I can give an example that illustrates the problem. I have a shot of this guy they called “mad Mac” – I mentioned this previously. He is seen on his cot, along with his reflection in the mirror and in a third “compartment” of the photo we see the back of woman waiting outside the shanty. In the photo Mac appears isolated, lonely, cut off, and as a paranoid schizophrenic or bipolar personality, Mac was indeed trapped in fantasies that tortured him. So I guess I caught something of his individuality there, and the photo is rich in detail too, so we get a strong impression of the conditions under which he lived. But the photo registers none of his intellect, his adaptability, his ingenuity, and that was something that impressed me after getting to know him. So the danger is that Mac becomes a symbol of an affliction he suffers from, but his humanity, which is something much greater and more complex, is elided or lost in the process. And it may well be that photography works best when it manages to raise whatever bit of humanity it documents to an iconic level, but that means that it requires a certain purging or purification of the elements so that an emotional focus is obtained. But I am not entirely certain: let us compare Salgado and Gene Richards. The former has always seemed to me the kind of photographer who turns his subjects into powerful iconic representations, whereas the latter seems to me more quotidien in his approach – Gene Richards’s people strike me as being everyday real people. Part of that impression stems from the incredible intimacy he shares with his subjects who reveal themselves to the camera even in their most private moments; but also there is something about the compositions in which one sees so much of the everyday detritus of life, tousled sheets, grimy walls, clutter, which make everything seem so familiar. Richards always manages to translate social issues into very immediate human terms: look at his recent series in the Nation, where he focuses on a father’s grief over the loss of his boy. The war, seen from that perspective, is indeed very personal.

As I am very much influenced by novels and the whole idea of narration, I have played around with the idea of having a book about social issues achieve a more intimate perspective by having one or perhaps a few “characters” appear repeatedly in the photos, without turning the narrative into a story about that single individual. So while there are images that deal with the general themes, a subset consistently presents the viewpoint of an individual, and maybe you feel like you get to know this person over the course of seeing him or her in different situations. For example, in one project, “The Good Life,” it so happens that many of the pictures deal with one group of people in a slum near San Juan de la Maguana. Particularly one person named Josefina, or Fina, who appears in several shots. We see her at home, we see her comically trying on donated clothing, we see her being blessed by a witch, and we see her possessed by a “misterio.” Plus we see her daughter and grandkids. So in a sense this individual thread is wound through the warp and woof of the larger narrative, and while I havent decided yet just what it all means, or what I eventually can make of it, I am intrigued by the idea of having little stories like this, which add another dimension to the book, almost like a subplot. Still, I havent pursued it very rigorously and that project is on the back burner at the moment.

Why am I interested in marginalized people or poverty? Urbanism? The latter is easy: cities are just full of the random accidents of life, and the sheer drama of human life is concentrated there to an extreme degree. Plus I love walking around and searching for the serendipitous, and a city is a great space in which to do just that. Street photography was born in the city. It is a place where great contrasts exist side by side. Don’t conclude from this, however, that I am not drawn to rural environments. Agrarian life interests me tremendously, in fact I would say the contrast between urbanism and agrarianism is a major theme for me, it is the crux of The Good Life. But the rhythm and style of country shooting is very different, at least down here. For me to get out to the farm fields I need to drive, rather than walk. The spaces are open, there are fewer people, and shots tend more toward landscape than toward portraiture. Or rather, the earth, the trees, the clouds, the sky are all characters in the drama, so sometimes I have to wait for the light or the skies to be just right before I can take a shot.

The former is harder to explain. First of all, I just like being around poor people, who tend to be more forthright and warm in their human relations, particularly in Latin countries. They are less mediated, less self-analytical, and less cautious. They tend to be more dramatic, so of course they make for better pictures. (I realize I may be getting myself into trouble by generalizing in this fashion!) There are very few photographers who make the middle or upper classes their subject and produce work that I find interesting. Everyone seems more guarded and posed. Tina Barney is famous in the NY art scene for her large-scale prints of posed upper class life, but on the whole I find the imagery cold and stiff and dull. I am probably in the minority in that, but I just cant seem to find a sympathetic link to the stuff. Dayanita Singh’s portraits of middle class Indians at home is another project that somehow doesn’t quite do it for me, though I recognize the interesting motives behind it. I know that it is supposed to deorientalize and de-exoticize India, but I find nothing in the images to hold my interest; it is like staring at New Jersey. I prefer her Hijra book. Frankly, I prefer the company of Hijras to that of the average middle class Indian family. The same is true here in Santo Domingo, I prefer the company of the lower classes and most of the time that is where I am found. And believe me the upper classes have no love for me either. One drunk rancher once called me an “imbecile.” Maybe it is because I come from a fairly Protestant, spare, and bourgeois background that I am drawn to its opposite. I like ecstatic or arcane religions like Catholicism, Vodú, Hinduism; I prefer emotional drama to the stiff upper lip (though in my personal behavior I hew to the latter, much to the consternation of my wife); and I don’t much like the bourgeoisie, though obviously I owe pretty much everything to that class. I am a member of that class, they feed me, they buy my work, and they are the ones who foster many of the cultural values I cherish.

Apart from the emotional satisfaction, however, there are other motives more noble if not more compelling. Frankly, I am disgusted by the grave inequities of society, and I somehow cannot bear the thought that were it not for a mere accident of birth, some child might have a better life and more opportunities. It is unjust. Now, I cannot set the balance right, I cannot eradicate poverty; but I can certainly show the humanity and character of the poor so that they are not demonized by society or shunted aside without a squawk. I once read in Edith Hamilton’s book on the Greeks that their definition of happiness or success was “the exercise of vital powers in a life affording them scope.” While I don’t think the definition is complete, it is very apt: all of us achieve some kind of meaning and satisfaction by “exercising our vital powers,” that is by flexing the creative muscles, by doing the thing that gives us life, animates our spirit. But there has to be scope for that exercise, there has to be opportunity to develop and grow. Well, it is a crime that so many people will live stunted lives for lack of the opportunity to develop their vital powers. For having been born in a poor village where malnutrition and disease retard one’s physical and mental growth, or in an urban slum where violence and desperation color your whole environment. Oh, plenty of people escape their backgrounds, plenty develop in spite of their obstacles. But that fact doesn’t resolve or absolve the basic injustice of these social inequities. For me poverty and its attendant ills are as evil as war, and the two often stride together. Moreover, there is a tendency to hide poverty, to shun it, to sweep it under the rug. The lifestyle reporting and consumerism that rule our media certainly have little room in that vision of the world for vistas of bleak vacancy and despair. So the poor essentially are invisible. My job is to make them visible and give their humanity a voice or a presence. This is nothing new. Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, made a singular discovery about the physical structure of Manchester in its early industrial days. The streets and buildings conspired literally to shut off the poor from sight, to enclose them in a limbo. The very architecture embodied an ideological message: “industrial capitalism creates wealth; our city is a marvel of prosperity and progress.” Engels wrote his book to expose the lie. And that for me is an adequate definition of at least one major aspect of the work that photojournalists do.

Wayne: Can you talk more about the travel writing narrative on which you are working? How different are your influences on the travel writing / photography side from your photojournalism influences?

Jon: Actually the root influence is the same in both cases: Joseph Mitchell, whom I mentioned earlier. As I said it was his essays that inspired my father to take us with him on his explorations of the city, and that love of meeting different people and learning about different ways of life is basically what impels me in both my writing and my photography. I am not the only one that Mitchell affected in this way. Diane Arbus talks about how Mitchell influenced her desire to meet different people and her choice of themes.

That said, there are different influences with regard to each medium but they do overlap. My writing is very much influenced by a diverse group of authors, particularly Montaigne and other French essayists; a whole bunch of different novelists, Balzac and Dickens, Joyce and Proust; various travel writers, but particularly the older English travellers who mixed in a considerable amount of scholarship with their adventures – I mean, Richard Burton was a real traveller in the best sense – in one hand he carried the Koran and in the other a six-shooter; and some contemporary writers like Ryszard Kapuscinski, in particular The Shadow of the Sun. But it goes beyond that too: there is the philosophy, history, psychology and sociology that I read as a graduate student. And ancient religion, a very important influence. One thing about Columbia University, they really took the idea of a liberal education seriously. I remember once I went to see my dissertation advisor to update him on my progress. I listed a bunch of titles by Freud I had finished reading, and basically he indicated that I should return when I had gotten through the complete works! If I hadnt quit school when I did, I would never have gotten out of there! When I look back, I realize that I spent many years of my life just reading, reading everything.

Still my taste for the realist novel has had a lot to do with the subjects I choose when it comes to photography. I am not so interested in striking visual imagery for its own sake, and I don’t care for controlled studio work much either. I favor a kind of photography where the shooter has little control over the scene and the accidents of life play a large role. I like surprises, and I very much like the fact that my intentions don’t count for much when I tangle with the object world. I like photographs that give me an almost novelistic view of society in all its registers: the comic, the tragic, the burlesque, the epic. I am big on crowd shots, particularly those that manage somehow to unify all the elements but without sacrificing the diversity of human gesture and _expression. I have one right now that I like very much: it depicts the entry into a mountain village of the saint (Espiritu Santo) being carried by a bunch of pilgrims, and the shot as a whole is rather chaotic and uncentered; but I think it holds together and the sheer human drama of it all is quite fascinating to me. I havent rendered a final decision on that one, but I keep it around for study. Obviously I love Weegee. Garry Winogrand. But I also love Larry Towell’s work for many of the same reasons. There’s a lot of poetic humanity in his shots. And above all Eugene Smith. His Pittsburg project is sublime; and his SpanishVillage essay too. Photo essays like that are almost like reading novels.

The travel narrative I mentioned is something that began as a series of email reflections on the various mishaps I was experiencing here in Santo Domingo after I decided to move. I just happened to land in the middle of the transition from one political party to another, and as a result of the outgoing party’s criminally inept management of the country’s resources, the nation was basically bankrupt, the lights were out all over, and crime was out of control. I wrote a little piece called “al dedo malo to’ se lo pega” (a Dominicanism that basically means “when it rains it pours” though it is in fact more colorful), which recounted what it was like to live without electricity, to have to draw water from a well (in a modern condominium!), and to fight off burglars; and that started me thinking about the possibility of writing more seriously about all the little cultural rituals and conundrums posed by a developing nation and witnessed by a gringo who can successfully navigate both worlds. So I started writing essays in the manner of Montaigne that wandered about, contradicted themselves, and generally “essayed” or “tested” ideas by playing with them, all the while commenting on the way of life here. The first good essay was on sex tourism, and that was followed by a piece on death rituals. Recently I finished another on the public taxi system – which I know sounds like an unpromising theme, but I think it is the best piece yet. I also want to have a series of vignettes on life in the village where my family resides. There are many characters there. We have one guy, for example, whom everyone calls “cali fuiche” which basically means “ass-face” and he literally is a “peon,” he works in the various farm fields and spends his money on beer and rum, so when he is not working he is usually stumbling around reeking of alcohol. We have had feuds too, vendettas, like the Hatfields and McCoys, which provide a real insight into the cultural values and motives of the people. I am slowly developing another essay that deals with popular religion, but I work off a long list of themes, anything from cockfighting to crime, and as the spirit moves me I tackle them sometimes sequentially, sometimes all at once. The book, as I conceive it, will have no very clear or straightforward direction; the essays will treat whatever happens to strike my fancy, much in the same manner as our minds work when we travel, fastening on all the odd little details that one encounters, and the series will revel in its own disorder. It is not by any means a book of journalism, though there will be journalistic pieces; rather it is a commentary on the manners and mores of a people.

Some of the things I write about deal with the same themes as my photographic projects, but in general the themes are more wide ranging. In my writing I can talk about the colonial history of the place, I can describe human relationships more in depth, and I can discuss ideas and values, all of which is basically impossible in photography. So in a way, by working in two different media, I am able to cover a lot of ground and satisfy all my interests.

Wayne: You have said before that many emerging photographers have unrealistic expectations of photo agencies. How so? How should an emerging photographer actually go about leveraging his or her relationship with a photo agency?

Jon: Did I say that? Uh, oh. I don’t know if I can speak about this yet with any real knowledge. I have been promising to mail out a survey of the agencies and summarize the subsequent information in an article that would convey a bit of the history of the system, its present dilemmas and functioning, and practical matters such as how to join an agency, what to expect from them, and how to profit from the experience. However, after working on the editorial survey and writing up a piece on grants, I am taking a break. The problem is that my perspective is rather limited. I have been a member of only one agency, and that particular agency in its ultimate phase does not really serve as a good example of the present agency system. Moreover, I did not exactly shine among the staff there. At present I am switching to a new agency, Anarchy Images, which should be operative some time around the end of May, and its modus operandi promises to be something rather different, a mix of the old dedication to “photographie engagée” with a conscious attempt to create a formula more in tune with the present opportunities and shortcomings of the digital revolution: a streamlined staff, a small group of photographers, a variety of means of connecting with an audience via the internet, and so on. At the very least, and this is no small thing, it is going to be a very interesting experiment, and lately I am all for trying new ventures.

But it remains to be seen whether it will prosper, since the market is so volatile, the demand for photojournalism has shrunk and changed, contracts are increasingly less generous, and profits are severely curtailed. An agency cannot retain the kind of staff that it once needed to perform all its functions, particularly in regard to maintaining an active stock library and aggressively marketing that imagery. Black Star used to have a crew of about six “researchers” whose job was primarily to sell the contents of the library. Photographers could live off their stock sales. Now we see that agency photographers have assumed more responsibility for the sale of their own stock and resort to online libraries like Photoshelter and Digital Railroad in order to get their stuff out there. Of course that may work well enough for a photographer whose images on any particular subject are widely esteemed, but stock sales generally depend on a middleman whose job it is to help editors make a pertinent selection and that crucial element is missing now from the equation. Granted, DR and Photoshelter are extremely innovative and have come up with remarkable technology to facilitate searches and highlight good work. But the present system is still lacking in certain elements that were once de rigueur and crucial to the survival of a photographer.

It seems that there is a polarizing trend toward two types of agency nowadays, with various renditions on both. On the one hand we have monolithic conglomerates like Getty and Corbis which have snapped up whole libraries and depend on their almost monopolistic control of these image banks to keep all their other operations afloat. If I remember correctly, I believe the profits that Corbis posted came entirely from its libraries and not from the editorial or commercial assignments. They also have tremendous “reach” so photographers I imagine are tempted to work with them for the greater access to global markets that they offer. On the other hand, we have small, elite agencies who depend on marketing the reputations of their award-winning photographers, and they survive, I imagine, by offering high quality, original style, and personalized service. Of these latter, some are owned by an individual and some are cooperative, along the lines of Magnum. The standout example is of course VII, which now numbers ten members, and states that it will make room for only 14 photographers total. But this trend began a ways back and Contact Press was one of the earliest examples. Of the smaller agencies there are also some new cooperative startups like Verasimages, formed by a bunch of ICP graduates, and other “collectives” that seem to exist in order to promote gallery shows, print sales and so on, but I have no idea really how they work. It might be a good idea to do an interview with the members of Verasimages to see how they are confronting the current market and how they define their ethic.

The misconceptions you mention probably stem from a lack of knowledge about the different types of agencies, how your contract with an agency works (the fee splits and so on), and the basic nature of your relationship. First of all, I get the feeling that most newbies probably believe that once inside an agency, their needs will be met, and that just aint so. There are people who thrive at agencies and there are people who don’t. There are agencies that will fit you like a glove and there are others where you will feel like a pariah. Eugene Richards’ on and off again relationship with Magnum should indicate to people that the relationship is not all roses. He is with VII now.

An agency is there to represent you; it does not employ you, there are no insurance benefits, you are still basically a freelancer. You need to bring them stuff that they can sell. You need to compete for attention along with all the other photographers, and in the end the agency cannot work miracles with you. If you don’t have much experience shooting travel essays, for example, an agency can’t be expected to get those kinds of jobs if you should desire them. Also, you are still often going to find yourself working on spec, if only to preserve some measure of independence and keep working on the stories that really matter to you. Moreover within certain agencies there are gradations of representation: at the bottom you have “stringers” or “contributors” as they are often called now. These are not full members, or what we used to call “contract photographers” though I assume that they sign some sort of contract. Essentially what this means is that the agency is taking you on provisionally and is waiting to see what kind of work you can bring them on a consistent basis to sell. If you end up bringing them lots of saleable work; I imagine you are eventually rewarded with something like full membership status. But you will probably end up having to work a lot on spec, and the full members are going to get the lion’s share of the assignments – unless you happen to be in a place where no other members exist and your work is right in line with what the client is seeking. But I am speculating here; I am no longer sure just how, say, Redux manages its range of photographers. There are many LS members who are currently Redux “contributors” and they certainly seem busy enough.

Another thing about an agency is how well they manage their editorial relations. Do they have strong relations with the big magazines? Then you are likely to get assignments. If not, then they may not do a very good job selling your work. In a sense the agency is only as good as the people who do the assignment hunting, and if the agency is in bad odor, for whatever reason, its photographers will suffer even if individually they are professional and consistently deliver quality work. While an agency can be a tremendous boon to a busy photographer who has no time to hustle work, chase down bills, protect against misuse of his imagery, and so on, there is no clear-cut answer about their benefits. Some people do better on their own, over time they develop good editorial relations of their own, and they don’t need to split their fees. But others like the resources offered by an agency, like being part of a team perhaps or a group of photographers, and figure that the fee split is well worth the services that rendered in compensation.

As far as leveraging goes, well I am the wrong person to ask about that! I never did a very good job of leveraging and at a certain point I just didn’t care, I was too devoted to my personal projects and doing ok on my own. I think the only real leverage you have is your work: if you consistently bring in good work that sells, the agency will likely be disposed in your favor and ready to accommodate your wishes to an extent. But I wonder today just how much leverage photographers have. I get the feeling, perhaps unfounded, I really cannot say, that some agencies treat their photographers as if in fact they were mere employees and thus the agency mandates rather than cooperates. But again, I am not the person to ask about that.

Wayne: You have said that you believe that many of your projects are emblematic of larger, more global issues. What advice do you have to emerging photographers who are looking for subjects that will resonate with them in the same way yours have for you?

Jon: Well I mentioned, I think, that my projects, though focused on local trends occurring on a small Caribbean island, were emblematic of the larger forces compelling population movements and development globally. Two points occur to me: first of all, when thinking about the big issues, it is probably best to think locally, to think very specifically, and as Jack Picone put it, “look at the foot of the mountain” instead of at the top. It will be easier to make a good start, it will be easier to describe the issue in convincing detail, and it will be easier to finish the project. Second, I don’t want people to think that I would recommend only tackling “big” issues or sticking to the headlines of the day, though of course that is a good way to get published. Rather I think one has to look about one’s immediate environs and find what is at hand or look inside you and see what it is that moves you. Some do better when they travel in utterly foreign circumstances; others do better at home. Ultimately I think one should be guided more by one’s heart than by some abstract calculation to provide the media with what it wants to see. Sure, read the headlines, keep abreast of the times, and pursue the stories you find there. But the really lasting projects, the ones that will be remembered, are so rarely the result of a newshound following his nose for a headline. More often it stems from deeply personal motivations. Think of Gene Smith’s Pittsburgh project, Frank’s The Americans, Ackerman’s End Time City, Larry Towell’s The Mennonites, Abbas’s Return to Mexico, Richards’s Dorchester Days – the list of memorable works with absolutely no news value is just so long.

Though this will not be true for everyone starting out, I personally think that concentrating on a long-term, deeply felt project is the best way to establish yourself as an original photographer with something to say, and though it take years to achieve decent results the wait is usually worth it. In the meantime you grow and change and mature. And hopefully in the end you will have images that you can live with. That is the real test: do the photos you took several years ago still move you, still surprise you with their serendipity? If so, you probably have a winner there. Anyway I should hope so, because if you are going to work on a project for a long period, it damn well better be compelling enough to hold your interest and fire you up.

I think that if one goes deep inside, one finds inevitably that the material connects with society and with larger social concerns. Why should that be? Probably because we are all social creatures and our individuality is formed within a social context, so even our most private feelings are after all general human property and not a solipsistic fantasy. Even Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was not so cut off that we can’t spot the many ties that bound him to an entire generation of disaffected intellectuals who eventually became the motive force behind several lamentable political movements of the early Twentieth century. Or look at Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency: who would have thought that an intimate look at a circle of bohemian friends in New York would have found such an overwhelming public response? But of course her book is not singular; its antecedents are found in Larry Clark’s Tulsa. Interestingly, that book was not greeted with much enthusiasm initially, and it remained almost a cult classic for years. It was ahead of its time I guess. It would seem that a book has its historical moment, when society is primed for its ideas.

Besides choosing indepth projects and growing into them, the best advice I can offer is from the clarinetist and band leader, Artie Shaw: “If you don’t ever make mistakes, you’re not trying. You’re not playing at the edge of your ability.”

Wayne: A lot of fine photographers have benefited from grants and government programs over the years: Edward Weston’s Guggenheim and the Farm Security Administration photographers, for instance. There has been some controversy as well, however, such as Mapplethorpe and the National Endowment for the Arts. What misconceptions are there about grants? How have they been both beneficial and detrimental to you?

Jon: I would have to say that the few grants I have gotten have been thoroughly beneficial and I am deeply grateful for them. I can’t see anything wrong with them, only with their dearth. Yes there has been some controversy about funding and perhaps some grantmakers are more conservative now than they might otherwise have been, but on the whole grantmakers fund a whole bunch of unpopular or unsupported projects that would never have seen the light of day. In a world of shrinking opportunities for documentary photographers or photojournalists, the grants are a godsend and can provide the means to achieve independence and freedom to pursue one’s goals in one’s own manner. Think of all the great photo projects that were realized with grant money: Robert Frank’s The Americans; Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh project; Garry Winogrand’s cross country tour of the States; Eugene Richards’ Knife and Gun Club; Bastienne Schmidt’s Vivir la Muerte; and among our own LS members currently we have Jonas Bendikson working on Third World slums, David Holloway on American White Supremacy, Balazs Gardi on Gypsies and on Iran, and Marcus Bleasdale on his Congo project. My own Dominican projects are alive and kicking largely thanks to the Open Society and the New York Foundation for the Arts, among others, and given that these projects deal with a small island that rarely beeps on the media’s radar, it suggests that such grants really do offer support for alternative themes.

Of course there are few grants all told, though more have surfaced in recent years. And one cannot depend on the chance of winning a grant if one is to forge ahead with one’s work. The competition is tough and there are many variables involved in the decision making. But for me, grant writing is practically a reflex action these days, because that is how I put myself through school, and academics are more or less primed to apply for these things. Still, I get rejected far more often than I get accepted. And those rejections, however much you prepare yourself for the bad news, are big disappointments. One must bear in mind that the decision is not always a judgement about the quality of one’s work; rather, these decisions are usually reached by committees who must compromise and select from many excellent proposals a single submission or a handful of them, and of course that is a very difficult thing to do.

Now the Farm Security Administration deal was a different matter, less of a grant and more of a social welfare program conceived in the days when government had grand ideas about fostering a better life for its citizens and open communication about social realities. I don’t know enough about the details to comment usefully on the topic, but I do know that the program had many different facets: there was an educational arm aimed at teaching farmers to become self-sustaining; there was a development arm concerned to buy out failing farms and set up communal homesteading settlements; there was a financing arm that made loans so farmers could upgrade equipment; and of course there was the photography initiative, which was part and parcel of the whole emphasis on education. The office was called The Information Division, run by Roy Stryker, and its goal, apparently, was to “introduce America to Americans.” Nicely put. Well, in a way I guess the grand Governmental grants of the recent past, like the NEA, were an extension of this idea, (and they were born in a second wave of grand social planning, Johnson’s New Society), because as everyone knows the FSA is far more famous for its influence on American art and photography than it is for its social welfare programs. And while you might think that such success would virtually guarantee more programs of this ilk, that is, governmental initiatives to introduce “America to Americans” (or perhaps in this global economy, the “World to Americans”), it seems that the government no longer thinks in terms of fostering either large scale social programs or artistic endeavors. And it certainly desires to steer clear of controversy of any sort, but that bothers me less than the lack of more funding opportunities. Probably most grantmakers prefer to avoid controversy: I don’t imagine the Guggenheim people favor mavericks much, and I know that they have sometimes been displeased by the results of what they have funded, because the material was so strong.

The NEA funding was curtailed in 1996, but apparently since 2004 the endowment is something like 121million bucks, so the program seems to be going pretty strong. My only complaint about the NEA is that while it provides individual grants to writers, it does not do so for photographers. Mostly the NEA funds programs and organizations, so for example in 2006 it gave $20,000 to Nueva Luz, a magazine that publishes Latino photography. As I understand it, the idea is to have the regional organs, such as the New York Foundation of the Arts take charge of the individual grants in the area of visual arts. Time for me to think about applying for a literary grant.

Rusty Barnes Interview, Part II

Wayne: Why did you feel the need to bring out Night Train as a print magazine? What are the advantages and drawbacks (besides costs) to having a print magazine?

Rusty Barnes: We weighed the online option pretty carefully, and decided against it because we thought we might not attract the caliber of writers we wanted if we published solely online. It was a matter of hedging our bets and hoping we could do it well. There was still a cachet to the bound journal that online journals didn’t have. That’s changing now, if not changed entirely.

One advantage of print is that you get taken more seriously by investors and potential donors if you produce something they can hold in their hands. A disadvantage is that you can’t feature fresher content as a print journal. Once the journal is out there, it’s an artifact. A lovely one, but an artifact nonetheless. The new incarnation of the NT website—in development now—will very likely feature monthly content changes among many other tweaks. I’m hoping, anyway.

Wayne: Since you’re familiar with the submission process from both the vantage point of a writer and editor, can you talk about the most common weaknesses you see in slush pile submissions? What advice can you give to writers who want to see their stories in Night Train?

This is such a loaded question, and I feel so badly for the way I’m about to answer it. Many of the stories that come in are very good, and they have few weaknesses, but don’t seem different enough or interesting enough, don’t show me anything new, just generally seem as if they could come from anywhere. There are amateur mistakes that will doom your story of course, and they’re all over the internet in various advice columns, but the single biggest problem is sameness. This is not to argue for MFA sameness, as I don’t believe that. I do believe, however, that there’s a general failure of imagination in a lot of fiction I see, not enough sense that a given story is a product of a singular mind at work quibbling with itself about the answers to whatever questions the story poses. I know I struggle with this in my own work. I have this stubborn realist streak. I love people doing things and suffering consequences. Night Train’s first subheading was: People, Action, Consequence. I still love what mimetic fiction at its best can do, but I find myself now, four years into a lot of reading, trying to write something a little different, looking for something, anything else that can satisfy that realist instinct I have while showing some original—whatever that is—situation, some skill and verve in the language, something that doesn’t plod away into another domestic drama fraught with agony. Give me people going at it in high volume, give me paragraph-long sentences, give me darkness and funniness or raunchy sex or anything, really. But then I find myself drawing back from that because of the risk that someone will send me something so self-indulgent I want to puke and then challenge me in a returned-rejection email because “you said you wanted weirdness and stuff.”

The truth of it is what Night Train publishes depends on the staff’s reading whims on any given day, and how persuasive we all are at forcing each other out of our reading comfort zones. For me personally, if you followed me around and knew what I read and what I liked and what was pissing me off on any given day, or what I was currently obsessed with, you could more accurately gauge what might get into the journal, Failing that, the best way is to read what we’ve published already and imagine what might be next.

Wayne: Besides Night Train, what are your favorite literary magazines, and why do you read the particular ones that you do?

Rusty: I wish I had room to mention them all, but in the interests of mere name-checking, these are the journals I’ve most recently purchased, or which are on the desk next to me because I’m thinking of submitting. I subscribe to a number somewhere in the double digits, because I have few obvious vices, and lit journals and books are the biggest one of those I admit to in public. I actively seek out new journals. I almost always buy one issue if I see something new¬—they need support and they’re probably more receptive to relatively unfamiliar writers like me—and often rotate subscriptions and buy single copies.

One-Story
Phantasmagoria
Prairie Schooner
Alimentum
Quick Fiction
Sentence
Shimmer
Poetry
Barrelhouse
Ploughshares
Quick Fiction
Noon
Oxford American
Witness
Redivider
Fantasy and Science Fiction
New Yorker
American Poetry Review
Ballyhoo Stories
The Sun
Saint Ann’s Review
Opium
Bat City Review

I read anything that strikes my fancy, and if I find a story in a journal I like, I figure it’s been worth the investment and more.

If we add electronic journals in, my list becomes really unwieldy. I read many electronic journals as well. Online journals can take more chances and publish more than traditional journals, and there’s no road to reader visibility—other than publishing a book—better than having your stories available via a search engine. I still get occasional emails about stories I published online years ago, in places like Conversely, Dead Mule, In Posse Review and Thunder Sandwich, to name just a few. On the other hand, though, some agents, judging from what I know from author communication, consider online availability a mark against the possibility of publishing in book form. It’s logical, to an extent, as no one’s going to pay for a story they can get for nothing. In time I think it will work to the writer’s detriment though. Online visibility is key, and I think the readers of online fiction, if they like what they read online, will certainly seek out the author’s work in book form. I know I do. If I read a story I like in a journal, I move to the bio note, then to Google, and then often to an online bookstore.

Wayne: Can you talk about how associate editors are recruited at Night Train? What do you think are your particular strengths as a staff?

Rusty: Night Train’s AEs are chosen from people I know already, or by recommendation from people I trust. Occasionally, I have put out calls for AEs on writing website discussion groups, places where I can trace the trajectory of the way a person responds to work and decide if they have the stamina to respond helpfully to a minimum of seven stories a week during our submission periods. The job is high-burnout; we have turned over AEs completely nearly every year since the beginning.

I think we do well at almost everything manuscript-wise. We have and have always had conscientious editors, careful and kind and quick responders. We also have a wide range of editorial experience, and every one of us is a working, that is to say publishing writer, and knows full well how much the process can frustrate writers. I can’t imagine a better staff for the way we operate.

Charles Frazier’s Follow-Up

The New York Times says that Random House is confident about the follow-up to Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain.

The publishing industry is likely to watch the progress of Mr. Frazier's new book closely because at the time he signed the deal four years ago, his [$8 million] advance was considered extraordinary for a literary writer who had only written one previous book, although it was a huge best seller. With just a one-page outline of the planned work, he sold the second novel in an auction, and in so doing left behind the editor, Elisabeth Schmitz of Grove/Atlantic, who had discovered and nurtured him to success.

[…]

The new novel, like "Cold Mountain," takes place in the 19th-century American South and is the story of a young white man raised by Cherokee Indians who ends up representing them in Washington in their fight to preserve their land. According to Random House's fall catalog, which goes out to booksellers this week, the new novel, "Thirteen Moons," is also, like "Cold Mountain," an epic love story.

 

Rusty Barnes Interview, Part I

Rusty Barnes is the editor and co-founder of the literary journal Night Train Magazine, which has been featured in the Boston Globe, The New York Times and on National Public Radio. His writing has appeared in Cadenza, pif, Red Rock Review and other publications. An excerpt from the novel on which he is working can be found at Smokelong Quarterly.

Wayne: Can you talk about how you and Rod Siino came to found Night Train? Besides the intrusion of everyday life, why did it take seven years to gestate?

Rusty: We founded it in large part because we had little else to do, both of us being unemployed at the time. Being between jobs makes you reconsider what you really love and want to do. While we both knew we’d be working again, NT gave us a shared focus on something in the meanwhile, which is not to say it was merely something to do, rather that everything came together while we had the time to devote to beginning something completely new. It seemed perfectly illogical, yet right.

It took that long to gestate because we were both in different parts of the country. Even though most of what we do business-wise is on the Internet, to start something you need (or we needed, at least) the initial buzz of being able to meet and plan and set forth a vision of some kind in person. In our case it gestated at various cafes in Davis Square Somerville, [Massachusetts].

Wayne: Why did you see the need to start another literary journal? How does the magazine differ from other notable literary journals?

Rusty: We started the journal because we thought we could do something different and fun, serve writers better by getting back to them more quickly and being more informative and responsive than we were accustomed to seeing literary journals be. We have tried to define ourselves by being both more responsive and quicker than most literary journals, though I will confess that the sheer grind of reading—as you well know—bears down on me day after day now, four years into the journal. I don’t read and respond to as much fiction as I’d like to.

With teaching occasionally and homeschooling my children and handling the business and promo aspects of NT, like finding money, I’ve put my trust and a large portion of the magazine’s reputation in the hands of a staff—past and present—who constantly strive as I did to be helpful and quick to respond. Even with a stellar staff, and perhaps because of it, we occasionally have to turn to the generic rejection as a way to unbury ourselves. We’re more than happy to read stories—it’s what we do—but the sheer volume has become difficult to handle at our present staff size. In May, when we close submissions for the summer, I hope to take some time to redesign the website and rethink our editorial and staff policies. Which is a long way of getting around to answering your question about how we differ: it’s about how much we care about a helpful and/or timely response. Everything we do is built around that. And the result is I’m now the slowest reader on staff.

Wayne: You list a compilation of Night Train “favorite authors” on the magazine’s site. Can you pick out the ones who have been most influential on you? How have they, in turn, influenced the aesthetic of the magazine?

Rusty: We chose those favorites to give our potential submitters a way to know something about what we liked in a story before we had a track record of stories published. Writers (and editors) are made of what they read, so it’s difficult to pin down who has been most influential. I’d say in my case Andre Dubus and Larry Brown have been most influential, though I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly how, except in the sense that their focus is realist/mimetic in nature. And having said that, I’d like to see something other than traditional realism these days, but our aesthetic is so firmly in place we don’t see much other than that. Blessing and curse, I guess.

Wayne: How is actually editing a magazine different from what you expected?

Rusty: It’s so much more work than I expected. I knew I could choose stories, I knew I could handle the business aspects, I had no idea I would have such difficulty with fund-raising. We’ve been fortunate, even with significant delays before issues II and VI (available now) to be able to put out the journal at all. Along the way I’ve learned rudimentary web design, a bit about business, non-profits, PR, and have had the opportunity to work—from the beginning until now—with stellar editors and idea-people who want the same things I do. I had no idea a community of sorts would build among staffers past and present and writers well-known and not, but that’s been the most rewarding part, knowing we’re all in it for a common goal, getting the good writing, as we see it, out to readers who we hope will enjoy it as much as we have.

Wayne: Night Train is unusual in how it is funded. Can you explain how the idea for having train towns sponsor the magazine arose? How successful has the idea been? Has this freed the magazine from the limitations of other traditional ways of financing a literary magazine?

Rusty: Tom Jackson, marketing manager, and Sue Henderson, then managing editor, came up with the idea in 2003, and we have been successful in that every issue since III has had the support of a town behind it. We owe our continued existence to the program. It has not freed us from traditional funding, though, really. We couldn’t operate without donations from individuals either. The Rail Stop program is the way we get the journal out, but financial need always outstrips money available. It’s a constant struggle, and my single biggest concern day-to-day. Everything else will take care of itself. Except money.

Thomas Abercrombie

A number of publications have noted the passing of National Geographic writer / photographer Thomas Abercrombie.

Photo District News, which also cites an Abercrombie interview that appeared in New Bay Times in 1998.
The New York Times called Abercrombie an "adventurer with lens."

The Washington Post recounts Abercrombie's swashbuckling tales:

The point of all those travels was to bring back photographs and stories of the world, and Mr. Abercrombie was one of the magazine's foreign staff who handled a camera and pen with equal dexterity, disparate abilities rarely found in the same person.

The National Geographic web site has a piece by Abercrombie about the Matterhorn.

Photography on the Waterfront

The New York Times features how photographers Diane Cook and Len Jenshel are documenting the waterfront of New York city.

Into the scrum of preservationists, developers, maritime interests, politicians and ordinary New Yorkers, each fighting for a particular vision of the waterfront, come Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, a husband-and-wife photography team who have spent the past three years documenting the city's infinitely convoluted 578 miles of shoreline. The aim of their project, which has received funding from the Design Trust for Public Space and the New York State Council on the Arts, is not to take sides but simply to show what is there.

Both photographers work in the documentary tradition, but they are artists more than journalists, and the romance, wit and mystery that emerge from their images go far beyond any factual statement of reality.

And National Public Radio (NPR) remembers him as "a photographer and much more."

Memoirs, The Fixing of Memory

J.D. Lasica points to Roy Peter Clark’s suggestions on how to fix the memoir genre.

When you pick up a memoir, you deserve to know what you’re reading. You may already think you know – a work of solid non-fiction – but you may be wrong. Along with the non-fiction, you may be getting doses of fiction – or gobs. Some authors and publishers are upfront about this. Others prefer to veil their methods, riding the coattails of writers who adhere to stricter standards.

Clark’s emphasis on the words “stricter standards” is yet another note on how journalists and novelists differ on what is permissible in a “memoir.” Rick Moody asked the most salient question, though: why didn’t someone (and he pointedly absolves Frey on this score) decide to call the book a novel? And why were so many column inches devoted to attacking Frey when journalists are so quiet on their own shortcomings these days?