Monthly Archives: June 2006

Renaldo Balkman (photo)

Renaldo Balkman

South Carolina’s Renaldo Balkman was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the New York Knicks.

C.M. Mayo Interview, Part I

Writer / editor C.M. Mayo won the Flannery O’Connor Award for her collection of short stories Sky Over El Nido. She is the founding editor of the bilingual literary journal Tameme and the editor of the anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

Wayne: You once said that you took up translating, because you found that very little Mexican literature was being translated. What kind of impression does the American reader have of Mexican literature?

C.M.: An extremely faint one. Most educated Americans have heard of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes but, alas, that’s the extent of it. More knowledgable readers are aware of a few other names such as Alma Guillermoprieto, Elena Poniatowska, Alberto Ruy Sanchez, Angeles Mastretta, Laura Esquivel, Juan Villoro, Carlos Monsivais, and Ilan Stavans. This is especially dismaying given that Mexico not only has a stunningly rich literary heritage and contemporary literary scene, but it shares with us a nearly 2,000 mile long border.

Wayne: If you were to name a handful of other Mexican writers, which ones do you wish would be more on the tips of tongues of American readers?

C.M.: All the ones in my anthology! Rosario Castellanos, Ines Arrendo, Agustin Cadena, Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, Monica Lavin— I could go on— there are two dozen writers in this collection. And there’s a long list of outstanding contemporary Mexican writers I could not include for one reason or another. Then there are Mexican writers of past centuries— Juan Rulfo, Agustin Yanez and going all the way back to Sor Juana, the nun and poet of the colonial period, for example, and Bernal Diaz, the Spanish soldier whose memoir, The True History of the Conquest is— this is no exaggeration— one of the greatest books ever written. The Mayan, Nahua and many other indigenous peoples of Mexico also have a grand literature of poems, epics, and stories. So my anthology of contemporary Mexican writing that offers a portrait of place is, really, a cookie-cut out from a veritable ocean of Mexican literature.

Wayne: Are there any other book-length translation projects you want to tackle?

C.M.: At the moment I am focusing on in translating shorter works and shepherding them into print relatively quickly and inexpensively, via the Tameme chapbooks/ cuadernos series. The first one is a story by Agustin Cadena.

Wayne: Can you explain why you said that your anthology Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion had to include something by Fuentes?

C.M.: He’s the best-known living Mexican writer, and certainly, his writing is superb.

Wayne: As a writer and editor who traverses between two cultures, what kind of role do you hope to serve in bridging Mexican and American literature?

C.M.: Good literature is an education of the heart. It all goes to that end.

Wayne: When we think of travel literature, we often think of essays. Why, and why did you take a different tact by deciding to take on a Whereabouts Press project that focused instead on “short stories as travel” (particularly since you are so conversant in both the essay and short story forms)?

C.M.: I knew how little Mexican writing had been translated, how very few anthologies there are, and so I knew any anthology would be an important contribution. The thought of doing one had crossed my mind. So, when Whereabouts Press called to invite me to edit this one, it felt exactly right. The Traveler’s Companion Series provides not only an introduction to the literary voices of the country, but also a portrait of the country itself. I thought it was a brilliant concept. As for my own essays and fiction, I certainly have not turned away from these. In fact, I’m almost finished with a novel and another short story collection, and I’ve been publishing essays on Mexico in Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. “From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion,” about a visit to the Emperor Maximilian’s castle in Italy, is forthcoming in the Massachusetts Review.

Wayne: What have you learned from your translation work that you have been able to bring to your own fiction?

C.M.: It has helped me enormously to immerse myself in Mexican Spanish, nitpicking over nuances of meaning and rhythms. And of course, it never ceases to deepen my sense of awe at Mexico’s richness and complexity.

Rolf Potts Interview

Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding, a book that promotes "the ethic of independent travel." His writing has appeared in Salon.com, National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside, Islands, Slate.com and National Public Radio.

Wayne: You have attributed your travel bug to a road trip you made in college with some buddies in a VW mini-bus. What was that trip like, and what memories stand out? Why did it cement your love for travel, and how did it specifically lead to a taste for "vagabonding?"

Rolf: I don't know that my initial eight-month journey around the USA was what started my travel bug, since I'd had the desire to travel from a very early age. But it was my first in-depth experience of long-term travel as an adult, and it's what made me realize the potential that travel has for making one's life deeper and more textured. At the time, I thought the USA journey would be a ritual of getting travel out of my system before I got serious and started a normal, stationary American life. As it turned out, those eight months on the American road only proved to me how cheap and easy long-term travel was, and how much more of the world I wanted to see.

It was on the American road that I first encountered the joys and challenges of creative travel. I was living out of a 1985 Vanagon, and following the advice of a road atlas and a Let's Go: USA guidebook. This was before the Internet, or the ubiquity of cell phones, and in some ways I was more isolated from friends and family than I am now when I travel overseas. But overcoming the challenges was part of the fun, and the whole experience was so new that dozens of memories stand out — including experiencing the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles; sleeping at the bottom of a snowy Grand Canyon on Super Bowl Sunday; riding as a police observer through northeast Houston; experiencing a New Orleans Mardi Gras for the first time; spending a month in Florida during spring break season; living out of the 42nd Street YMCA while exploring New York for the first time; staying with Cistercian monks in a Massachusetts monastery; and hiking through nearly two dozen national parks and forests in the American West. Experiencing so much only made me want to experience more.

Twelve years later, I'm still wandering.

Wayne: How did your travel bug lead to Pusan, South Korea, early in your traveling, and why were you willing to make temporary home there when your travel style seems more about wandering more whimsically?

Rolf: My Korea sojourn was less a manifestation of my travel bug than the fact that I didn't have any money at that point in my life (age 26). After my USA trip, I'd half-heartedly tried to fit back into American life, but it didn't feel quite right. I was trying to write a book about my 1994 American journey, but that wasn't working out, either. I had friends teaching English in Pusan, so I decided to do the same — to pad my bank account a little while experiencing another culture and buying myself some time. And, while an expat stint might not technically be considered "travel", my Pusan experience taught me so much about living and operating in a different culture. Using my money and skills from two years in Korea, I hit the road and didn't stop for two and a half years. And I the reason I did stop, eventually, was to set up camp in Thailand and write my book.

So Korea was definitely part of the process that gradually opened up my eyes to the full potential of vagabonding. I recommend an overseas work stint to anyone who's serious about travel and the experience of other cultures.

Wayne: In your book, you push the merits of vagabonding for the widest variety of people, but what kind of person most feels the need to "vagabond?"

Rolf: I think the person who most feels the need to vagabond is anyone — regardless of demographic categorization — who has that persistent yearning in his or her gut to hit the road. My book is for those people — people who've always dreamed of long-term travel, but didn't think it was possible for them, for various reasons.

In specific terms, there are several typical categories of vagabonders — including students traveling just after graduation; young twenty- and thirty-somethings between jobs or on sabbaticals; folks with seasonal or contract careers who choose to prioritize travel in their off-time; retirees, ranging from their late-forties to late-eighties, who are out having the time of their lives.

Wayne: You have said that your favorite writers include people like Thoreau and Whitman and Kerouac, writers known for their independence and sense of freedom. Why have these kinds of writers resonated with you? Among other writers you admire, which names might surprise your readers?

Rolf: Of the three writers you mention, Whitman is by far my favorite. Kerouac documented the impulsive joys of life on the road, but he was also melancholic and self-absorbed. Thoreau inaugurated a distinctively American strain of counterculture, but he was a tad snarky and self-satisfied. Whitman's writing, on the other hand, included and encompassed so much in such an exuberant and accessible way. His ideas and his joyous energy still seem fresh, well over a century later.

As for other writers, some folks might be surprised to know that I didn't read much travel writing until I started writing travel essays myself. I've made up for this in recent years, but I still gain a lot of my inspiration from non-travel sources. Not long ago, I went through a phase of writing meta travel narratives, and this was directly influenced by reading the likes of Italo Calvino and Lorrie Moore and Tim O'Brien — none of whom are travel writers. But my resulting meta travel stories were very successful: two were short-listed for The Best American Travel Writing 2006, including my second-person "Tantric Sex For Dilettantes," which Tim Cahill chose as a main selection.

One of my literary-philosophical influences that might surprise some readers is the Bible. In the current political climate, it seems almost impossible to discuss a monotheistic religious text dispassionately, since fundamentalists have distilled the Bible into this cruel little science-fiction revenge fantasy, and secularists boast their ignorance of the Bible as a sign of virtue. In reality, the Bible contains some amazing stuff, from the spiritual existentialism of Ecclesiastes, to the revolutionary humanism of the synoptic Gospels. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, he's not talking about a place where people play harps and gaze down at the damned; he's talking about the process of becoming more fully human.

In mentioning the Bible, I don't want to infer that everything I read is heavy and spiritual. I have eclectic reading interests. I like reading about history and science and evolutionary psychology. I like short stories. I like David Brooks' humorous screeds on class in America, and Chuck Klosterman's wry take on popular culture. I devour the New Yorker and the Economist and the Believer. And I read almost everything that's posted at Arts & Letters Daily.

Wayne: You have traveled all over the United States and now to many places all over the world. Recently, though, you more firmly established your home state of Kansas as your home base. Besides the fact that you have family there, what has drawn you back? How has your sense of Kansas changed as you have traveled more and more?

Rolf: Travel has taught me a lot about roots and family, and I consider it a privilege to be able to stay close to both. It's a nice psychic balance to know that I always have my 30 acres waiting for me back on the prairie. In a more practical sense, it's a remarkably cheap place to live. My family and I got two houses, a barn, a stable, and two ponds on a gorgeous stretch of grassland for less than what it would cost to buy an 800-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn or San Jose. It's a little quiet sometimes, but if I crave excitement I can drive to Wichita and fly to New York or San Francisco or New Orleans for under $300, round-trip.

As for how Kansas has changed in my consciousness, I'd say I've recently reinvented my understanding of Kansas into the adult sense. A lot people who grow up in the far-flung provinces tend to despise their home because their memories are tied to the cruelties of adolescence, or the political limitations of red-state America. But experiencing so much of the rest of the world has allowed me to rediscover Kansas on my own terms. I have little patience for people who've never been to the Great Plains, yet consider it a haven for freaks, fanatics, and fatties. Anyone who's spent time in inner America — or anyplace that's saddled with a reductive stereotype, like the Arab Middle East — knows that the reality is much warmer and more complicated.

Wayne: You have credited your high school teacher John Fredin for helping you get started in writing. How did he instill this need for you to write? How did you get started writing for Salon?

Rolf: I've felt the need to write ever since I started penning bad rip-offs of Stephen King stories at age 14. What John Fredin did was to help steer my reading and writing into a more literary direction. And, unlike some teachers who were just happy to have an English student who finished his homework with decent penmanship, Fredin refused to accept anything but the best from me. He taught me to avoid clichés, embrace reality, and use a critical and empathetic eye. And he never stopped taking an interest in my writing, even well after I was out of high school. I didn't have the privilege of going to an elite college, but I did have Fredin as a tireless and brutally honest mentor. To this day, I'm still proud of the fact that my break in the writing business didn't come through college connections or metropolitan networking, but through skills sharpened with the persistent guidance of a coffee-and-martini-swilling Korean war vet who presided over English classes in a working class Wichita high school.

I was 28 years old before I had anything published — on a cold spec submission to Salon.com's Don George (who has since become a mentor as well). But by that point my writing-voice had developed to the point that my career advanced very rapidly once I had a foot in the door.

Wayne: Can you talk about how you use photography to complement your travel writing?

Rolf: I actually don't use it much. I go through phases where I take lots of travel photos, but at this point in my travel career I don't spend much time behind the lens.

From a business standpoint, it's wise to develop a good photographic sensibility, since it is a great complement to writing. But for the most part I leave the photos to someone else when I write for magazines.

Wayne: How has the Internet made it easier and more difficult to ply a trade as a travel writer?

Rolf: I probably wouldn't have a career without the Internet. I got my start in an Internet magazine, Random House found me through my website, and my blog has solidified my presence as an authority on independent travel. From the very beginning, almost every single bit of correspondence with my editors and agents has been via email. I rarely use the phone, and I use snail mail only for contracts. Seeing as how my first article was published in 1998, I am probably among the first literary travel-writers to get his most important breaks exclusively through Internet outlets.

Wayne: Your web site is a fount of information about travel and travel writing. A great feature is your archive of interviews/profiles of travel writers. Can you mention some of your favorite profiles, and why they rank among your favorites? From which travel writers have you learned the most? Which titles or writers seem timeless enough that you reread them over and over?

Rolf: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Pico Iyer, so it was a thrill to get such a thoughtful interview from him. He's a remarkable person — someone I'd really like to emulate — not just in terms of writing, but in terms of graciousness and openness to the people who take an interest in his work. I've also enjoyed hearing perspectives from the likes of Jeffrey Tayler, Peter Hessler, Sarah Erdman, and Tim Cahill.

I always learn something from each new interview, and the scope of writers represented makes for a lot of variety. An editor like Thomas Swick will have a perspective unique from a guidebook writer like Joe Cummings, both of which are unique from a newspaper staffer like Tom Haines or a full-time freelancer like [writer/photographer]  Amanda Jones. And then you have people like Brad Newsham or Robert Young Pelton, whose career paths and personalities are so unique and humbling.

As for authors I come back to, it's rare that I re-read books, apart from the classics that captured my imagination at a very young age (Catch-22, say, or Cannery Row). And my tastes are varied and distracted enough as a reader that I rarely read through any writer's entire canon. I love reading Iyer and Cahill, for example, but I have yet to read everything they've published. I try to read a new novel by Graham Greene and a new nonfiction collection from George Orwell about once a year. And a Shakespeare play. But I rarely go back to old titles, because I feel like there's so much new stuff out there that I still need to read.

James Whitlow Delano Interview, Part II

Second part of the interview with photographer James Whitlow Delano.

Wayne: You noted that you tend to bring two Leica bodies with you: one with the ISO set for daylight shooting, and the other set for an ISO appropriate to night-time shooting. How systematic are you in seeking your images; how formalistic are you in setting assignments for yourself? In an essay, you said that you were not afraid of admitting that you sometimes start with a thesis, so to speak–something you want to say. Or do you simply like to prowl the streets night and day, the way Cartier-Bresson was known to do, and let serendipity do its work?

James: I am not terribly systematic. It is a matter of reacting to life, not dictating a subject and wrapping real life around it. In practice, prowl the streets, as you put it so well. That is what gives me the greatest joy. I could do that only and be quite happy.

Now I have to be clear in answering your question about the thesis. I carefully research a subject. It is another aspect of my curiosity. I love to learn about how people live. Generally, I look for how the powerful are taking advantage of the rest of us and try to illuminate this. Will it make a difference? I hope so but I just think someone should do this. I keep a low profile, especially in China and play the hapless tourist. I know what I am after. If confronted, which is rare, I apologize, smile and show respect. Then I move on. Quickly. In this part of the world it is easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

I have had to adhere more strictly to a project as the years have progressed. Westerners like a concise message. Americans in particular seem a bit obtuse when it comes to nuance. You can imagine how someone making images in my style would find that a bit frustrating.

Now here is the crux of the issue. What I do not like about this is that one might start this deadly line of thinking, “I will not make this (amazing) image because it does not fit into my story.” I don’t like to pontificate but I will make an exception here. Never, ever, let that thinking infiltrate your mind. Make the images, all the images that speak to you. These images are the important ones for the long term. The Empire book is full of such so-called out takes. I personally believe it is the subtle images that illuminate a culture. Certainly the obvious, blunt images are less penetrating in this way.

Wayne: How have you become more conversant with Japanese and other Asian photography after so many years living there?

James: I wish I could be more conversant in Japanese photography but it seems a men’s club like so much else here. Most of the well-known photographers here seem to be buddies (and they seem mostly to be men). There is Hosoe Eikoh (last names first) whose mythical images in the 60’s and 70’s speak to the Shinto, pre-Buddhist soul of Japan, and my favorite Moriyama Daido whose seething dark energy represents the street smart Japan that I have come to understand. The clique seems to extend to two of my least favorite photographers but more famous Pop Culture figures here Araki Nobuyoshi and Hiromix. Araki has positioned himself as some kind of Japanese Mapplethorpe or Helmut Newton. He’s not.

Forgive me for going negative but one need only live here, and thumb through several of Araki’s uninteresting, wantonly sexually graphic, phone book- thick chronicles of lovers that he leads kimonoed on the street through comically nasty scenarios, one after another, after another to realize that this guy is not doing much here. What is missing, when the work is viewed outside Japan, are the dime store porn manga comics as common as stamped out cigarette butts on a Tokyo sidewalk to realize that this man, with a very good eye, has simply decayed into a garden variety “oyaji”. Taken in this “oyaji” basically means perverted uncle. Araki is an “oyaji” with a good eye. I don’t find his images sexy or even erotic.

Hiromix is a young woman and Araki hanger-on who photographed, snapshot- style, here dance club life and herself in various teasy, semi-nude moments in the mirror. I like some of her images where friends are emerging at dawn from all-night partying but all this gets old in a hurry and depends very, very heavily on her youthful beauty. Strip that away, and this heralded work becomes wafer thin.

Moriyama is the greatest living Japanese photographer in my opinion but he is not alone. There are others who are brilliant, Sugiyama or I think his name is Shibata Toshio, who put out a book on the sculptural form of monumental concrete land reinforcements to protect roads, and seal in rivers, seen throughout this country.

I would like to see more young people’s work, women’s work and more venues for them. This country has the resources (and the talent) for a more vigorous photography culture than it has. I know how hard this is to swallow from the outside but Japan, the land of the SLR, has a quite small domestic photo world.

Wayne: How do you explain why Japanese photography and photographers remain largely unknown in the West (besides a handful of photographers like Hosoe and Moriyama)? Which photographers in particular would you like to see better known in the West?

James: If you think Hosoe or Moriyama are unknown in the West, then you would be baffled at how unappreciated they are here in their own homeland. Absolutely baffling. Araki and Hiromix are demigods. These brilliant people (Hosoe and Moriyama) are almost better know in the West. They seem to show more in New York than in Tokyo.

Wayne: In what way has living in Asia colored your aesthetic and/or way of seeing? How much of your outsider status do you lose the longer you live in Japan, and how is that weakening or strengthening your photography? What do you want the rest of the world to know about Asia through your work?

James: Oh man, how can I answer this? I am an outsider but actually I am not one anymore, as well.

Asia has this mystique. Rightly so. It is my home and a real place to me. A Japanese commentator recently interviewing Wim Wenders, the renown film director, was genuinely surprised when Wenders told him that he thought Japan had a strong, unique culture. It reminded me of Americans saying that there is no American culture. What? Where there are people, there will be a unique culture but it is ironic that many people in two of the most iconic cultures on the planet think that they have nothing defining about their cultures!

I will forever be an outsider here, though I live very comfortably here. I have come to spend one quarter of my life here. Of course, I have a deep, intimate relationship with Japan. To suggest that the cultures in this part of the world are forever incomprehensible to foreigner makes good copy, but I assure you that my Japanese friends find just as many traits of culture here baffling. They are just normal people getting on with their lives in a very special place. But how can you embrace the unique nature of your own country if you have never know anything else. The longer I live over here in Asia, the more I realize that people are motivated by the same needs wherever we live. I love the difference and at the risk of pounding HCB into a pulp in this conversation, he seemed deeply saddened in his final days at the increasing homegeneity of global culture. He had a point. Tibetans in Nikes. Does that make the world richer culturally? But Nikes may be more comfortable than heavy yak skin boots. The decision is theirs.

This knowledge, gained from living in Asia and drinking in every written word on the continent I can beg, borrow or steal (or buy on Amazon), has fortified the work. I depend heavily on visual hints and irony to those familiar, or unfamiliar, with this part of the world. It is inseparable. That is why parachuting into a culture can create flat images.

I want people who view images to understand that Asia has all the shades of grey as anywhere else. I want them not to be starry eyed, or closed about this continent. It is gritty. It has its problems. It has the strongest, and most diverse, distinct cultures in a concentrated relatively small area than any other comparable region in the world. Asia is not a vacuum. It ties into European culture and has fed it.

The interface in Central Asia can be life changing, like a change encounter with a girl I met in Ulaa Bataar, Mongolia with a face that would not bat an eye lash in Tokyo. She could have been Japanese except for her blue eyes, carrot-topped red hair and freckles that would impress the Irish.

Likewise in an Urumqi Museum, (Chinese Turkestan), there is a mummified corpse I saw of a tall Celtic man with sandy coloured hair and a high, long nose, 3,000 years old, who had inhabited the Taklamakan Desert, now in Chinese Turkestan, before the Turkic Uighur people displaced these Celtic people in the 8th Century. They are believed to have emigrated over time into the crossroads region of Afghanistan, Kashmir and northern India. There was also 3,000-year-old tartan plaid fabric in this museum preserved by the extremely dessicated environment of Central Asia. Remember that the Huns that sacked Rome had originally emigrated out of Mongolia. So, Asia is not this exotic other-side-of-the-world. It is the navel of the world.

If one bores of this part of the world, then they have no curiosity. For the inquisitive, there is no end to inquiry.

Google Spreadsheets, Yawn

Stan Beer is singularly unimpressed with the beta of Google's online spreadsheet program.

Just for the fun of it, let's suppose that this new Google product does somehow gain the functionality and performance to start matching it with Excel. Will that mean that Microsoft will lose many of its customers overnight? Not at all. Open Office.org has a free spreadsheet that is largely compatible with Excel and arguably almost as good. The same can be said for its word processor. Yet people still stick with their Microsoft Office products. They're just that little bit better and, for most users, that one per cent or two of incompatibility is not worth the hassle for a few hundred bucks, especially if you're a business that has years of intellectual capital tied up in your office documents. Even Google itself says that it's not trying to compete with Excel. The implication is that Google Spreadsheet is for the casual user. But how many users do you know who have ever used a spreadsheet casually? For that matter, what exactly is the purpose of having an online wordprocessor? Local storage is so cheap and small, why would we even bother trying to do online what we can do locally?

Stan admits that the program might someday evolve into a serious competitor to MS Excel in the future, but he reminds us that "it sure isn't the present." Seems like a lot of journalists who have never seriously used a spreadsheet are working seriously working themselves into a premature slather. (No, putting your shopping list in cells does not constitute serious use.) Om Malik wonders, Is Google Wasting Its Genius Cycles?

That said, I like the idea of online word processing, and I have been checking out Writely and Thinkfree. When I draft a story, it normally goes through numberous iterations. I am neither bright nor diligent enough to properly network my home computers, so the idea of keeping a single set of drafts regardless of which computer I am using is appealing.

James Whitlow Delano Interview, Part I

Photographer James Whitlow Delano lives in Japan, but he is known for his projects that have taken him throughout Asia. His series Japan Mangaland was recently cited with the Leica Camera’s Oskar Barnack Award, Honorable Mention for 2006. His other plaudits include the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts for an Editorial Series, the Alfred Eisenstaedt (Eisie) Award, the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Photography Competition and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts. Some of his China images were recently collected and published in Empire: Impressions of China.

Wayne: How did you stumble onto the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and how did that propel you onto the path of photography? How were Andre Kertesz and Robert Frank also influential on your development?

James: This is going back to my beginnings at the University of Colorado. I was in the university library and bored with studies. I visited a very kind librarian in the rare books room. She had original prints of Cartier-Bresson, as I remember it. It was at about the same time I discovered Frank and Kertesz, but it would be a couple of years before I would sell my 4X5 camera and work with Joel Meyerowitz in New York, that it would all begin to take shape. Meyerowitz is the direct bridge between large format and the Leica. I was helping him unload Cape Light prints, which had just been returned ironically from Japan. Japan was not even a real possibility at the time. Meyerowitz pulled out this unusual little, quiet camera to make a portrait of an author who had come to his loft on I think 17th Street. It was a Leica M.

What was this camera and why had his manner been completely transfused with energy?

He told me that day that I needed to take a camera onto the streets. Then the whole thing began to make sense to me. Cartier-Bresson’s photographs had already penetrated my psyche but now I began to understand how he had worked. Kertesz’s elegance and Old World ways seemed, with HCB, some idyll. Robert Frank showed me that America had its own attitude and that he, a man born outside the US, was able to see things we did not notice or did not want to see. Later, in Japan and China, I would want to exercise a similar function. I still do. There were others, but the work of these three spoke to me on a level that still raises my pulse.

Wayne: You have been based in Japan for more than a decade. What brought you to the country, and what has kept you there?

James: I was working in Los Angeles in fashion and celebrity portraiture. Those days were some of the most carefree and dreamlike in my life: days in the desert followed by nights in the studio. Still it rang a little hollow. LA can be that way.

To abbreviate a long-winded story, the idea about living in Japan had been bounced around and then put down. I then visited a friend living here and was blown away about how much more depth the culture had than the mythology actively cultivated about this country. On that visit, I saw for the first time how I could make it work and photograph Japan for months on end, deeply without interruption. I jumped at the opportunity. It was to be for nine months. It has been for 13 years now.

Wayne: What drew you to covering places like China and Japan?

James: Going back to 1993, I had my introduction to Asia through the Philippines a year before and was then living in Japan. For some odd reason, Japan did not seem so far but China seemed impossibly far away. Before coming to Japan, I never thought I would ever travel to China. It seems kind of odd to see such words on paper now but it is an honest recollection.

A failure to obtain air tickets for Bangkok resulted in my first life changing travel to China. It was apparent immediately after processing film that this place hit me on a very different level.

Wayne: What is it about covering China’s collision of old and new that the country is seeing?

James: Well, the exploration of old and new in China was the focus of Empire: Impressions from China. I have encountered an interesting dilemna where people relatively new to China, and who have failed to look carefully at the dates of photographs, sometimes suggest that I am cherry picking old scenes and dress for that series. Empire was a series made almost entirely in the 1990’s. That was China in the 1990’s, particularly the moment you left any city centre and even more so in the deep interior. Right around 2001 or so (nothing to do with global events), I began feeling the beginning of new era. This newer China work speaks to the awesome change, pollution, new wealth, gulf between rich and poor. Everything that happens in China occurs on an awesome scale, whether it be the massively impressive landscapes, or the ruination (environmentally), or the transformation of urban landscapes sometimes done with heavy handed means. This ongoing series I call China: Growing Pains.

Such a title might raise a few cackles, a Yank talking about the growing pains of another country, particularly an ancient one. Actually, I feel Americans, raised on Manhattan, Las Vegas and Hollywood are uniquely qualified to sympathize with this period in history in China. We can understand it. I see so much that reminds me of America. The Three Gorges Dam could be the Tennessee Valley Authority or the mega-dams out west. They were made for the same reason: to develop the interior. The highway building in China I suspect echoes our interstate highway system; which Eisenhower actually built to help the military transport materiel as much as for 1960’s station wagons full of kids. And the excessive display of wealth is as American as apple pie or trying to keep ahead of the Jones’s.

Wayne: How does this relate to your new China desertification project?

James: Again this echoes the American experience during the painful Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s. There are some frightening differences though. My university studies, as mentioned, where in Boulder, C olorado where the high plains of the Dust Bowl meets the Rockies. The population density in the US at the time was as such that people could and often did move on allowing the land recovered to the point that grasslands grow there today.

In Ningxia and Inner Mongolian provinces where I recently photographed, what were steppe grasslands 50 years ago are often covered by 100 +m high sand dunes. Sand mountains. Moving sand mountains of tremendous power and weight but delicately fine, penetrating everything.

It resembles the Sahara and there is little room for people to migrate. China has over 1 billion people already.

Mao Zedong implemented agriculture policies during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950’s that irreparably damaged grassland that fifty years later look like the Sahara. This is not an exaggeration. These are massive and global climate changing growing pains. So, it weaves into that larger project. Some of the wells have not dried out yet. So there are these tiny settlements of Mongol farmers way out in the desert, I found on satellite photographs. Hiring a motorcycle, I went out to photograph. I don’t know if you are familiar with the ancient lost Chinese garrison town of Lou Lan in the Lop Nur area of the Taklamakan Desert further west. I felt like I was watching the last days of Lou Lan before it was lost to the world for 2,000 yrs. in these little Mongol settlements. Staggering. On those same satellite photographs, oceans of sand go back from the Yellow River valley for hundreds of kilometres and connect like sand through hourglass canyons. A moving sand ocean I photographed that leaps the Yellow River was actually connected to the sand desert that I photographed several hundred kilometres north in Inner Mongolia. These sand areas are growing in size.s

Wayne: You once said that: “To observe a society in a snapshot of time can create a false impression.” You visited China countless numbers of time while working on Empire: Impressions of China. Why is absorbing a country in this way so important to the way you work? How do you compare this working style to those photojournalists who parachute, so to speak, in and out on assignments?

James: I have to be careful here. Anyone may photograph anywhere and there must be a first time for every place. That said, China has an old saying (well thousands) but one states that one may always fool a foreigner. Japan and China erect layers of protocol, appearances, special lavish etiquette especially for visitors. You are not going to see through most of this unless you invest years in these cultures and even still you must ask yourself, am I seeing what I think I am seeing. Usually when you ask yourself that question, your sixth sense is warning you. So, parachuting in risks falling for cliches, stereotypes or very skillful visual obfuscation. There are hundred dollar melons for sale in Japan that have nothing at all to do with daily life but first time visitors gravitate towards these aberrations as if they somehow define this country. They don’t.

There are a lot of half empty, though impressive, skyscapers in Shanghai. There is a red carpet treatment I got there last July in Shanghai and Hangzhou, that I enjoyed mostly because I did not recognize the country I knew was out there beyond the air conditioned luxury of my chaffeur-driven car. My usual mode of transportation are the cigarette smoke filled local buses with Kung Fu movies that try the sanity, at top volume, on a TV set that seems to pull the eye in no matter how much one tries to pretend it does not exist. You know what? I prefer the bus to the car. Actually I prefer the old buses without TV’s and with windows that opened.

Sometimes you should look out from the window of the taxi or bus on that new elevated highway in Shanghai, Tianjin or Guangzhou and look into apartments and see how the massive majority of people still live. China has made tremendous progress but there is a long way to go. Look into those apartments and you cannot fail to admire the strength and sacrifice of families building those massive office towers that try to steal your attention. The high rises are important but I care about the average Joe.

Wayne: You are known for traveling light. On the camera equipment side, you’re said to often carry only a Leica body and a single lens. How true is that, and how and why did you come to work in this way?

James: I carry two Leica bodies and film. That is enough weight! I need to be able to move to work. Life moves too quickly to worry about several cameras hanging around my neck. I rarely carry the two bodies at the same time. One body is for 400 film and the other for 3,200 film at night. So, at any one time I carry one camera, as I always have in Asia.

Wayne: Your photographic style has been described as a throwback to another era. How has that description normally struck you, and how accurate do you find that viewpoint?

James: I like a timeless look to work. There is no attempt, overt or covert, to conjure the past. I think that the subject matter might. I like a rich print but I will leave it to others to judge if, say my Japan Mangaland series speaks of another era. Tokyo seems firmly set in the post-modern, well maybe it is sometimes surreally set in the post-modern. I work in a manner that involves movement but not that different than influences mentioned early. So, perhaps that might feed in part into that perception.

Wayne: Earlier in your career, you assisted fashion and celebrity photographers [such as Annie Leibowitz]. How do we still see that influence in your work?

James: Fashion taught me valuable lessons about light, energy, being aggressive, and quickly capturing expressions that speak loudly in the images. It also meant interacting with the subject or you got nothing.

They (fashion and celebrity portraiture) taught me to get the image, no excuses and probably no second changes. I owe those lessons to Michel Comte who I worked with in Los Angeles, not New York. I owe another lesson to a Paul Jasmin, a gifted photographer and teacher. He talked lot about “dead eye” in fashion photographs and portraits. He meant the lifeless look of someone painfully aware of being watched, on guard. He talked about how “dead eye” murdered energy and drained life from an image. I have never forgotten this lesson even when on the street.

SciFi Author Launches Self-Publishing Future

USA Today writes how Bablyon 5 script writer J. Michael Straczynski is among the best-selling authors who have turned to self-publishing.

"There's always been something of a stigma to print-on-demand, that it was just a form of vanity publishing that could never produce financial returns of significance," Straczynski says. "The B5 books are the first to change this in a big way, showing that a writer can make as much or more as with a major company."