Category Archives: Books & Literature

Anna Karenina, Found in Translation

Masha Gessen reviews two new translations of Leo Tolstoy’s literary classic Anna Karenina for The New York Times Book Review.

This is an exercise millions of native Russian readers of the novel perform several times in a lifetime. Teenage girls read the novel as melodramatic; adult readers of both genders begin to perceive irony — its amount seems to vary from reading to reading. The author’s sympathies, too, invariably appear to shift between characters with every reading; this, combined with ironic distance that is always contracting and expanding, makes the book endlessly rich — and endlessly difficult for the translator, who can never hope to keep pace with the author. How earnest, ironic, condescending, moralistic and simply funny a Tolstoy should the translator inhabit? Perhaps the only way to render Tolstoy’s variable voice is to continue producing ever-varying translations.


When you are a young man

When you are a young man, you are not yet fully aware how the years can blow past like the wind, that there are good years as well as bad, that they must all be weathered in the same way that trees earn their rings. One of the greatest challenges of becoming an artist is overcoming the fear of feeling like a fool. It is no accident that fools are quickest to overcome that fear.

Photographer Frank Hurley

Why is one man an optimist, when another is a pessimist? Ernest Shackleton, the famed Antarctic explorer, is considered a good case study for how indefatigable a man can be. A co-worker recently shared with me his copy of the Kenneth Branagh-directed biopic Shackleton. I have read Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, but it is interesting to see a dramatization of the 1914-17 trans-Arctic expedition that is often characterized as a great survival story. Shackleton, his crew of 27 men and their ship the Endurance never made it to the Antarctic. They were instead trapped in frozen waters, their boat was crushed by ice, and they had to survive on the ice or open water for two years before they were able to seek rescue. Every man made it back.

The accounts of how Shackleton marshaled and rallied his men are inspiring, but I am just as intrigued by the accounts of Frank Hurley, the expedition’s official filmmaker and photographer. A veteran of an earlier expedition to the Antarctic led by Douglas Mawson, Hurley was hired by Shackleton to serve as his official documenter. I want to get hold of the well-known Alfred Lansing account of the expedition, but I recently bought South with Endurance, the collection of Hurley’s stunning photographs from the trip.

The Endurance’s First Officer Lionel Greenstreet called Hurley “tough as nails.” At one point of the expedition, it became clear to Shackleton that they were going to have to man their life boats and head to open waters to escape the melting ice floes on which they had been camping; he told the men that each of them was going to be allowed to take only two pounds of personal possessions with him. Hurley convinced Shackleton that he should be additionally allowed to salvage a number of his photographic glass plates. According to PBS/Nova, which re-broadcast the film re-creation Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure:

When the Endurance sailed in October 1914, Hurley carried a range of cameras, including a Cinematograph motion-picture camera, a square bellows stand plate camera, a Kodak Folding Pocket Camera Model 3A, and a Vest Pocket Kodak camera. The crew was astonished by the lengths to which he would go for an image, from high in the ship’s rigging to the back of a dogsled; First Officer Lionel Greenstreet called him a “warrior with a camera [who] would go anywhere or do anything to get a picture.” Hurley not only had the stamina to haul his cameras to the mountaintop of Duse Fell on South Georgia, but also was a talented artist and innovator. He was a pioneering practitioner of color photography with the Paget color process, and, when the long polar nights descended, he used multiple magnesium flares and long exposure times to capture images of the Endurance beset in darkness.

After they abandoned the debilitated Endurance, Shackleton ordered the crew members to pare their personal possessions down to two pounds each. Hurley had to leave his precious cameras behind, but Shackleton allowed him to keep a selection of photographs and motion-picture footage. Stripped to the waist, Hurley dove into the icy waters to retrieve his treasured images from the sinking wreck of the ship. Together, Shackleton and Hurley chose 120 glass plates to keep and smashed about 400; Shackleton feared that Hurley would endanger himself to return for them later. Hurley sealed the plates in metal tins with improvised solder, along with prints he had developed on board the ship. Hurley documented the remainder of their odyssey with only a handheld Vest Pocket Kodak camera and three rolls of film.

In paying homage to him, Kodak explained Hurley’s contribution to photography.

Hurley raised expedition photography to a new level. He did not make routine photos of explorers posing in the snow. Instead, he often focused on the snow itself, or on grim snowscapes that became beautiful in his compositions. These scenic studies he integrated into the documentation of the expedition.

Update: Michael Ybarra reviews Stephanie Barczewski’s new book Antarctic Destinies, which puzzles over what makes some men heroes, others failures.

ABC (poem) by Robert Pinsky

Seurat as Street Photographer

Seeing the exhibit of Georges Seurat drawings at the Museum of Modern Art, I could not help but think that the artist would have been a brilliant photographer.

Like many people, I know Seurat best for his obsession with the aesthetics and science of color, perhaps most famously in works like “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” In Seurat’s drawings, however, you also see his keen sense of light, a simplification of subject matter to their base geometries, lines softening to their light and dark cores, a full tonal range of black and white. The subject matter suggests that he would have been equally comfortable as a portrait, street or theater photographer.

Street Artist – Seurat would often roam the streets of Paris with notebook in hand. He would quickly sketch individuals who caught his eye, and he was also known to wander the poorer districts of the city for his artistic studies. The New York Times says:

The sketchbooks show us Seurat on the move, roaming late 19th-century Paris and its more ragged outskirts, noting life in all its aspects. If you want to understand how Seurat’s dark, silhouetted figures convey such an accurate sense of body language, consult these facsimiles. People rush across the pages, as if the whole town were out on an errand. They work hard: Women scrub floors, men wield scythes or break stones for Baron Haussmann’s new boulevards. But they also come to rest, sometimes at cafes or on park benches, sometimes sprawled on the ground, exhausted from backbreaking labor or possibly just passed out drunk.

Portraitist – Associate Curator Jodi Hauptman describes the drawing “Embroidery: The Artist’s Mother,” as a “sculptural abstraction,” a “massing of dark and light tones, enveloped in a soft, velvety blackness.”

Theater Artist – According to Hauptman, Seurat worked on his Cafe-Concert series from the1880s until his death. The series, which Seurat intended as a statement on spectatorship, included “scenes of popular entertainment: acrobats, clowns, circus performers, singers available to city dwellers.” From drawing to drawing, Seurat would shift from position to position, “from long shots to closeups.”

Hauptman also explains Seurat’s choice of materials and his techniques: how Seurat used the textures of the different sides (the “wire” sides and “felt” sides) of his chosen Michallet paper; how he varied in his use of conte crayon, charcoal, black chalk, graphite. In a drawing, he might use an ‘initial light layer of crayon, then subsequent layer of intense darks.’

In drawings like Square House, he would incorporate the texture of the paper. He would divide a sheet of Michallet paper (handmade laid paper, texture of thin parallel ridges called laid lines and more widely spaced perpendicular troughs called chain lines) into four equal sections. Depending on whether the drawing was more of a vertical or horizontal, he would then turn the paper and align the laid lines accordingly.

[In “Eden Concert”], rather than using white of paper to render luminosity and layering of conte to indicate darkness as he had done in past, he now intensifies brightness with either white chalk or white gouache and uses blue pastel for the murky dimness of the theater interior.

The New Yorker calls the exhibit “an exhausting encounter with radical beauty.”


I have started a microblog on Tumblr. Too often, I want to just jot down quotes that I come across or quick thoughts that come to mind, but they sometimes seem too trivial for my main blog, where, for whatever reason, more and more I feel the need to make my entries weightier. My Tumblr micro-blog is like my electronic journal. Offline, I am also now trying EverNote as a place to keep my notes and thoughts. (For years, I have kept paper journals. I now wonder how I convert those many pages into digital, searchable text–assuming it is all worthwhile, of course.)


How do all of you cope with your reading that you want to do? These days I am inundated with financial and economic reading because of work. The reading is getting critical, since I do believe that we have reaching a historical turning point in the global economy, one that can potentially make or unmake our lot in life. Reading business publications, economic research and financial newsletters hardly nourishes the soul, however, and I am finding it difficult to find time for personally-important reading in literature and the visual arts.

Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews

Through my blog, I have had the good fortune to interview a number of interesting, accomplished photographers. The links are scattered across this blog, however, and anyone new to the series would be hard pressed to find and read them in one place. I have thought about pulling the interviews together into a book. If you know a small press publisher who might be interested, please let me know. I have also toyed with the idea of collecting the interviews as a publish on demand (POD) or electronic book. (If you were one of my interview subjects, and you do not want to participate in this project, please let me know.) This blog entry will serve as my placeholder as I gather the links and compile them into more readable chapters. I have another interview or two lined up, but suggestions on that front would be welcomed as well.

Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews
Jon Anderson (Interview and Photo Tips & Techniques)
Velibor Bozovic
Hal Buell
Kitra Cahana
Nana Chen
Alan Chin (profile)
James Whitlow Delano
Hugo Infante
Andy Levin
John Loomis
Brad Mangin
Jessie Mann
Allen Murayabashi
Jason Pagan
John Vink

Mark Sarvas Interview

Mark Sarvas hosts The Elegant Variation, which has been frequently cited as one of the top literary blogs. As a screenwriter, he has worked for HBO, Showtime and Warner Brothers. His fiction has appeared in Troika Magazine, The Wisconsin Review, Apostrophe, Thought Magazine and Pindeldyboz, while his book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Modern Word, Boldtype and the Los Angeles Review. Mark is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He recently sold his first novel Harry, Revised to Bloomsbury.

Wayne: You were born in New York, and you are a graduate of New York University. What about Los Angeles took you to the West Coast and turned you into an Angeleno (more than 20 years and counting)? How much of an influence was the screenwriting career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of your idols?

Mark: Like oh-so-many-others, I came to Casablanca for the waters. Oh, sorry – wrong picture. I came out here in 1986 hoping, like everyone else in this town not interested in acting, to write for film and TV. As for what turned me into an Angeleno, it began with some tough love from a dear friend. I spent the first year here bitching about how inferior everything was to New York, and one day he quite literally whirled on me and said, “Then shut up and go home!” It was bracing, let me tell you. And I decided to make the effort to get to know something about this place, to try to find my way, and now, with the exception of Paris, there’s nowhere else I can see myself living. From the beaches to the downtown library, I’ve found diversity and energy here that rivals any American city. It truly is a 21st century city. As for Fitzgerald, the truth is that at that age – I was 22 – I didn’t really know much about his life which, in retrospect, is probably a good thing, right? The screenwriting life didn’t exactly agree with him, though it doesn’t agree with most people – though seldom to such extreme ill effect. But if I had known, I might have stayed put in New York.

Wayne: Why has The Great Gatsby been so influential on you? Why is it a novel you reread every year, and how has your understanding of the novel—and Fitzgerald evolved?

Mark: Well, it was, simply, the first book that made me want to write. (Fitzgerald has much to answer for.) I remember days after I finished it, I sat down and wrote my first short story, one I haven’t had the nerve to go back and look at in more than ten years but I remember it as little more than a feeble Fitzgerald knock-off called “Imperfect Impressions.” As for Gatsby itself, I came to the book later than most. People usually are taught it in high school, but I wasn’t. A friend gave it to me in college because, he said, I reminded him of Gatsby. Which I realize now probably isn’t such a great thing – the man is a bit of mess, no? – but back then I was kind of flattered. And that was sort of it for about ten years or so, at which point I picked it up again and, of course, it was entirely different to my thirty-something eyes. And I marveled at the experience of returning to something I thought I knew so well and finding it so new – something I came to feel was the essential criterion of “Great Art.” And so I wanted to see if that trend would hold up. And so I read it again. And again. And as I did, I was getting older and, one hopes, wiser and so the themes of loss and the past become more resonant. (I still cry every time I read the famous shirts scene.) But I was also learning about writing, learning about reading, and so it went through distinct phases. Recently, I’ve read it almost purely as a novelist, trying to understand Fitzgerald’s choices, admiring his remarkable style and even coming to grips with the parts of the book I don’t think work so well. That was a big deal, to have the courage of one’s convictions to take on not just an idolized (and idealized) work but a part of the canon.

Wayne: You have said that you are “troubled by how much the book business continues to emulate the worst aspects of Hollywood; the search for the blockbuster, the focus on the widest possible common denominator; marketers in charge of making creative decisions; the lamentable fixation with Young And Attractive.” Yet you’re not above a good James Bond book or flick. How do you reconcile the two views? Which authors get the mix right?

Mark: I think there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with a superiorly crafted piece of pure entertainment. Bond, yes, and I’d throw something like Indiana Jones or the Bourne films into that mix. It was, in fact, the wish to create just such entertainments that brought me here in the first place. I don’t think art and entertainment need (or should) be mutually exclusive. What I object to is how shoddy the process has become – it’s all focus groups and dozens of writers and too many idiot development executives and eventually the singular vision is diluted to the point of sheer tedium. And that’s regrettable in any medium. Where I see that similar trend in publishing is in huge advances for books by young attractive authors that are clearly not merited by the content of the work. It’s a chase of novelty and marketability but it comes at the expense of substance – how many twenty-year olds really have something interesting to say about the world? Some but not a lot. Still, the hype machine ends up kicking in and these books often do well – something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, people buy out of curiosity “So young! So attractive! So much money!” – leading to more of the same next time around, but they’re often just lousy books. Technically proficient perhaps (though not always) but absent any sense of a lived life inhabiting the pages. (Of course, maybe I’m just bitter since I’m no longer young and was never attractive.) As for who gets it right, I think people could do much worse than to look to Graham Greene, who had both his serious books and what he called his “entertainments.” I also admire – no surprise here – what John Banville has done with his Benjamin Black novel Christine Falls, in which it’s a real pleasure to observe the not entirely dignified spectacle of a serious author having the time of his life.

Wayne: On your site, you explain how you got the title “The Elegant Variation (TEV).” Essentially, you are referring to fiction that too consciously calls attention to itself. What else─beyond your criticism of mass and crass, does your selection of this title say about your view on today’s literary scene? On literature in general?

Mark: It’s interesting to see how the name of the blog is received and interpreted. The most common response is “Wow, what a cool name!” But I didn’t really intend it as a comment on the literary scene – although that’s admirably provocative and I might just make that my story from now on. Rather, it was really intended as a bit of self-deprecating humor. Blogs exist, after all, to more or less call attention to themselves. It seemed amusing to name a literary blog after a literary faux pas, suggesting that its proprietor wasn’t taking himself all that seriously.

Wayne: You talked about how other literary blogs inspired you to start a literary blog of your own. Why did you feel the need to add your voice to the world of literary critics? Why blog about literature and not one of your other—what you call—”obsessions” (cycling, the Beatles, Tintin)? What has surprised you most about the evolution of TEV?

Mark: It’s important to think about the context of the blogosphere in October 2003 when I launched TEV. There were a handful of established book blogs – Maud Newton, Moorishgirl, Book Slut and The Literary Saloon – and none were paying much attention to the Los Angeles literary scene which seemed to me, if not yet thriving, definitely up and coming. And my tastes, though similar to some of these bloggers, traveled toward some areas that I didn’t see getting as much attention, and I suspected my somewhat rambunctious sensibility was different enough, and I’ve never been shy so I just sort of elbowed my way into what seemed to be an interesting and lively conversation taking place online. As for my other obsessions, they’re amusing diversions but I don’t think any of them would, on their own, be interesting enough to sustain a daily blog – although there are surely blogs about cycling, Tintin and The Beatles. But I suspect even I would find those tiresome as a steady diet. As for what’s surprised me most, honestly, it’s been how visible the blog has become. In truth, I think I was just a beneficiary of lucky timing – as I said, the pool was much less crowded when I leapt in, so it was perhaps easier to make a splash. Now there are thousands of blogs about books and some of them are quite good but there’s no time to get to most of them. If I had been doing exactly the same thing I’ve always done but had started last year, I doubt my voice would have risen above the din of the crowd. The other great surprise is how well received my more personal posts are. I’ve always assumed people couldn’t care less about my personal life but those entries often generate the deepest comments threads.

Wayne: You have mentioned how useful TEV has been to you in meeting other writers, bibliophiles and people whose intellect you have found stimulating. How has that been useful to your writing? Your novel writing in particular?

Mark: I think it’s a given that when you move in circles that challenge or inspire you, it’s bound to have an effect. And you’ve got a wider, built-in support system to encourage you on when you’re doing something that really seems to work, like the feedback I got on my recent week devoted to David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk. As for the novel side, the most illuminating thing for me was the de-mystification of the novelist. I’ve gotten to know many of these men and women who are so formidable on the page but when you speak to them in real life, they suffer from precisely the same anxieties and struggles that you do, and that’s very reassuring. And, finally, it’s nice simply to have loads of remarkably smart people to turn to when I have a question – which I frequently do!

Wayne: Despite the fact that you blog frequently, you have said that you are at heart a private person. Still, you share glimpses into your family life (your family’s roots in Hungary, stories about your parents) and some of your “obsessions.” How fair is it to ascribe some of the popularity of the literary blog to the fact that readers get to know bloggers like you more intimately than they do more traditional book reviewers? How else does sharing tidbits about your personal life help or hinder your ability to share your thoughts on the books you review?

Mark: Very interesting question, partially addressed above but worth delving into. First, not to get too Clintonian, but it probably helps to define “private” and “personal,” at least for the sake of this discussion. Perhaps one might substitute “intimate” for “personal.” There are plenty of bloggers out there who are wholly comfortable using their blogs as a sort of confessional, and although it can make for genuinely fascinating reading, I suspect I’m, at heart, simply a bit too fastidious to be that publicly open. So I might, for example, blog about my mother in the form of MOTEV posts, but it will be within parameters that can be accepted as at least mildly literary, or entertaining without being especially revealing. That said, whenever I’m asked “What makes a successful blog?” I always answer that it’s about voice. It’s about whatever it is that makes that blogger’s perspective unique and interesting and that, often, is personal. For me, there will always be a boundary that keeps the deeply personal away from the blog – unless (and this is the one exception) there’s a clear, literary connection. That’s where I’m willing to delve a bit and expose more. The essay I wrote remembering my writing teacher Steven Corbin is an example of that. As for the last part, I don’t think it has much of an impact one way or another on reviewing books. We are all the sum of our prejudices and predispositions, and anyone coming to a book review should necessarily assume that the author of the review has a point of view, even if it’s not represented in a specific review.

Wayne: The tone of literary blogs generally seems to be more intimate than that of traditional book reviews. At times, you are more of a confidante to your readers, and that seems to lead to remarks that are more off-the-cuff than those that might appear in the weekend newspapers. That tone has gotten you into some public spats with some well-known writers. How has that reaction surprised you? I am sure you feel that you need to be as upfront in your reviews as possible, but how, if at all, have these incidents taught you to be more measured in your reviews? You have said, for instance, that: “It’s easy to be careless and unintentionally destructive or hurtful and one must exercise constant vigilance.”

Mark: Again, we need to make some distinctions here. Actual “reviews” constitute a very small part of what I do at TEV – I do more of that in other venues – and specific rules apply there. I try to ensure that my actual reviews are always measured and carefully considered. But as for the daily commentary at TEV, well that’s a bit more no-holds-barred, and that’s the part that’s resulted in these spats. (Nothing I’ve ever written in a review, at TEV or elsewhere, has led to any trouble that I know of.) What’s surprised me the most, honestly, has been that anyone had been paying attention. My two most infamous spats – with Steve Almond and the n+1 editors – took me aback primarily because the ferocity of their replies seemed all out of proportion to any offenses I might have given. (With Almond, in particular, the blog was so new I had no notion that anyone outside of my family was reading.) But we’re all grown ups and if I criticize someone, they have the absolute right to criticize back (although I was surprised by the dishonesty that both these “foes” employed). That said, my quote that you note about constant vigilance was something of an outgrowth of those experiences, a recognition of the fact that people do, in fact, pay attention to what I’m saying, and when I’m critical, there are flesh and blood people at the other end of that criticism – people who in most cases (though not, in my opinion, these two) are coming from a position of good faith with respect to the work they do. And I’ve tried to take that into consideration, to make sure my criticisms can’t be perceived as personal but are focused on the work, and to try to follow the golden rule just a wee bit more than I have. I suppose that’s called growing up. That said, when someone like Richard Ford makes a willfully idiotic statement for all to read, I’ll still reserve the right to step up and call him a dipshit. I hope I don’t ever get too polite for that.

Wayne: Despite the fact that literary blogs are often used as an example of how traditional book review pages are dying, you and other literary bloggers frequently quote from those pages. You have said that it seems de rigeur for others to blast the New York Times Book Review, but you yourself admire the publication. Which book review pages do you admire and why? Any specific reviewers?

Mark: We don’t only quote from them, we contribute to them! I think the New York Review of Books and Bookforum are the two best American book reviews out there and should be on the bedside table of any serious fiction reader. I also think TLS and London Review of Books are superb. They are unfailingly serious, thoughtful, insightful. They’re given breathing space and assigned to writers who are elegant and inventive. At BEA, Heidi Julavits said that “Eight hundred word reviews are bullshit,” and although that might be overstating it a bit, it’s only a bit. There’s nothing quite like the luxury of space in which to flex one’s critical muscles. Among the daily papers, I think Oscar Villalon does fine work with the San Francisco Chronicle. The Boston Globe and Washington Post also offer above par coverage. The Nation and The Atlantic do quite well, as does the New Yorker. As for specific reviewers, my admiration of James Wood is scarcely a secret. I’d also add Daniel Mendelsohn and Louis Menand into the top ranks of critics. I think Michael Gorra is consistently thoughtful; I also admire Stephen Metcalf, Ruth Franklin, Walter Kirn and Adam Kirsch (when he’s not writing about blogs). Richard Eder, too. If we stretch the list to include the likes of Cynthia Ozick, and Joyce Carol Oates, then I could go on and on an on … What is common to all these great critics, I think, is considering works in their context – taking a long view, whether of an author’s entire body of work or the state of a genre. It’s about running long and deep and having the chops to full it off.

Wayne: Among the interviews you have done for TEV, which have been your favorites? Are there any specific thoughts that you have gleaned that have accelerated your own development as a writer? Who is on your short list of authors that you still want to interview?

Mark: My favorite – again, for obvious reasons – is my interview with John Banville. It was such a treat to be able to sit down across a lunch table and talk for hours … though it took a half bottle of Sancerre before I finally calmed down! (All I could think was, “Jesus Christ, I’m sitting here with John-fucking-Banville.”) I also have a real fondness for my interview with Andrew Sean Greer because it was my first extended TEV interview and suggested to some what the medium was capable of. To repeat what I’ve said above, I don’t think I gleaned anything specific other than the very reassuring fact that even The Great Man himself has doubts and frustrations. I do remember a lovely, encouraging moment in the cab on the way to the train station. Banville, very courteously, asked me about my novel. I said “Well, the truth is, I expected to write this literary, profound Banvillean debut and, instead, I’ve written this slightly squalid, trivial black comedy.” And he leaned in and conspiratorially said (imagine a gentle Irish lilt), “Oh no, that’s much better.” Which was hugely encouraging. My short list is pretty long because I’ve done so few interviews. The problem is to do them properly really is quite a lot of work and I can be a perfectionist. And when the Robert Birnbaums of the world do it so well, it’s more fun for me to sit back and read. But, in no particular order, I’d love to talk to Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn and … and … and …

Wayne: In many of your interviews and reviews, it is clear that you have absorbed much of the respective oeuvres. How systematic are you in your reading?

Mark: Well that’s one nice thing about being obsessive – you tend to do your homework. The problem is that it’s thorough – occasionally exhaustively so – without being especially systematic. Sometimes – like in the case of my James Wilcox review for the New York Times – I’m unfamiliar with a writer and so to review it properly, I’ll read all his work. (Nine books for that review but it was my Times debut so I was on best behavior.) It’s certainly easier – though often less interesting – to review first novels. Other times, I’m fortunate enough to dovetail an existing interest with an piece I’m writing. For example, I’ve got an essay in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review about Tom Stoppard’s first and only novel. It was my first chance to write a bit longer – about 1500 words – and in that case, I already knew Stoppard’s oeuvre quite well so I was able to deploy some of that knowledge in writing the essay. And still other times, I might simply latch onto something that piques my interest and read away until I drop. I’ve actually just begun reading a pile of books that constitutes research for my next novel, so I suppose that represents some kind of system, though it’s not fully revealed itself yet. For all the knocks blogs get about sloppiness, I do try to do my homework and know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, thereof one must remain silent …

Wayne: You are closing on four years as a literary blogger. What keeps you going?

Mark: I find the conversation endlessly fascinating and rewarding. And I’m flattered and honored to be a part of it. Or at least to be tolerated.

Papageorge on Literary Photography

Alec Soth gets Tod Papageorge’s thoughts on “literary photography.”

AS: You’ve said that you see photography as ‘at least as close to writing as the other visual arts.’ Are you talking about a specific kind of writing (poetry, journalism, fiction)?

TP: Poetry, because it and photography can both be similarly condensed.

AS: Which photographic books stand out for you as an example of literary photography?

TP: There are only a few, but, of course, they are also the usual suspects: “American Photographs,” “The Americans,” and, combining pictures and text, John’s “Idea of Louis Sullivan and Strand’s “Time in New England,” a great book.

As you’ve indicated here in this blog, I’ve tried to do something that I think is new in “Passing Through Eden,” and that is to follow an established narrative through the long opening of the book, and then trace out the residual ‘literary’ energies of that narrative through the rest of it.

Live at TNB

I am now a contributor at (Thank you, Brad Listi.)

John Vink Interview, Part III

Part III of the interview with photojournalist John Vink, a W. Eugene Smith Award-Winner and member of Magnum Photos.

Wayne: You talked about how the financial difficulties at Vu helped spur you to transition to Magnum. What was that transition like? How different were the two agencies? How has the agency been important to the furthering of your goals? What are the biggest misconceptions that outsiders have of Magnum?

John: As I said I quit Vu before applying to Magnum, as I thought that was a clearer position in regard to Vu. I didn’t want to be perceived as a traitor, so I told Christian Caujolle beforehand about me leaving Vu and trying to get into Magnum. The risk was of course that Magnum would not take me, in which case I was out there on my own, because it would have been a bit strange to go back to Vu… Luckily, it worked out and I spent the next four years passing through the required purgatory steps to become a full member of the Magnum cooperative. I had applied once to Magnum in 1985 already, but that was way too early, and I was not mature enough at that time.

In retrospect the Vu episode probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the biggest move ahead in my “career.” It really revealed me to the business world in France and also to myself. It gave me the self-assurance I would need to be accepted by Magnum later on.

The difference between Vu and Magnum was switching from a small dynamic and quite iconoclastic place where things were run in a fairly emotional and messy French way to a much heavier, more complex structure with a comparatively huge multinational network of offices and agents with heavy traditions and loaded to the brim with icons. I must say I had a very hard time adapting (and in fact, after being a full member for 10 years, probably still have not completely adapted). Things have changed quite a lot these days and nominees are much better taken care of to find out about the mechanisms of the beast, but at the time I felt kind of dropped into a big machine without anyone telling me how it would work. It was up to me to find out.

To make things more difficult there were quite violent tensions between the three main offices at the time, due to cultural differences, personal histories and because of crippled internal communications (no email). Although some of those tensions still remain (you can’t rewrite cultural identity or history) they are definitely less of a burden today because communications have improved (yes, now we do use email!) and because if we want to survive we have to get along and stick together to face the world out there.

In 1994 Magnum was also at a pivotal stage, at the very beginning of a switch from an analog to a digital distribution. It took ages to implement this, partly because of our inexperience in that area at the time, because most members were computer illiterate, except for Carl De Keyzer, a couple of others and me, because we were early in wanting to do the switch compared to many other agencies, and because of our specific and complex way of being organised which had to be translated into a digital system. Our data management was written from scratch, tailor made to our needs and has cost us several tons of money (amongst which 5 percent of our photographer’s share, still today). If we hadn’t done that Magnum would not be there today. It is as simple as that. I think it is the biggest managerial achievement of the agency ever. We are still free. Freedom is expensive…

The improvement of the Magnum machine is the thing which helps me most in achieving my goals, as having an efficient and up to date sales tool brings in better money with which I can continue working on my projects. But otherwise Magnum never really provided direct support for any of my projects. I was for example very disappointed by the fact that not one portfolio was published about my refugees work at the time when there was the exhibition at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris in 1994. Not entirely Magnum’s fault of course but I was really expecting the Magnum machine to be more efficient and supportive for its new nominee at the time. That cold shower made me understand right from the start that I had to keep relying on my own and not count on Magnum too much.

As for the misconceptions outsiders may have about Magnum? I should know about what they exactly think first. The biggest misconception I had would turn around the term “cooperative.” My own (probably romantic) view of a cooperative is a generous place where ideas, energy and goods are equally shared in order to produce intellectual and material improvements for the members. I shouldn’t be romantic, shut my big mouth and be happy with what I can get…

Wayne: You said you felt a need to leave Belgium, but what has been the common thread about where you have lived since you left? In particular, what is it about Cambodia that has attracted you and compelled you to stay?

John: The only other place I lived in besides Belgium and Cambodia was Paris for a few years. Well, sort of… Just like when I was in Belgium I was home three months a year and travelling the rest of the time. Now the big difference with today in Phnom Penh is that I am at home all the time, being somewhere else without having to travel (and saving a lot of money in travel expenses)… Some of the reasons why I am staying specifically in Cambodia can be found further down, but not travelling anymore also gives me the chance to build some serious/ normal relationships.

Wayne: What has been most pivotal to you in forming your ideas about what constitutes a story? You mentioned Gene Smith; how, if at all, did he influence you? From what other art forms have you drawn ideas? How is multi-media affecting your ideas on this front? What are the limits and possibilities of multi-media for the still photographer?

John: Before I even knew I would be a photographer or a photojournalist I was also fed with the books about Tintin.

And I guess that these Belgian comic books about a reporter and his dog having thrilling adventures at the four corners of the world, drawn with great accuracy by Hergé in a style called “la ligne claire” (the clear line) have unconsciously taught me how to construct a story and what are the elements that keep it together and “entertaining”: beginning, rythm, progression, climax, plot, suspense, end, characters, etc… It also taught me to try and make pictures with great depth of field…

People like Gene Smith, Gene Richards, Gilles Peress, Larry Towell and so many other photographers have in fact only translated in photography what I more or less already learned through Tintin about constructing a story.

But when I was a kid my parents also showed me paintings by Pieter Brueghel (here: “The Triumph of Death”)

Jeroen Bosch (Here: “Hell” from the tryptich “Garden of delights”)

Jan Van Eyck (Here: “Virgin with the chandelier”)

…and other Flemish painters… Imagine what stories you can make up in your mind as a small kid when you see people being skinned alive in hell?

Later there was Wassily Kandinsky:

Or Joan Mirò (Woman Dreaming of Escape. 1945)

That is the power of painting: so many stories, so many informations, in one and only frame.

Photography usually needs more than one frame, at least with the kind of photography I am doing. That is perhaps the limitation / asset of my photography. It seems that the more I go ahead, the more I have to have pictures relying on another one, that one picture on its own loses some of its power if it is not part of a thread. That the thread is what my pictures are about. And it somehow makes sense as I have been favouring the story as opposed to anything else for so many years.

To build that thread is a matter of collecting bits and pieces, left and right, without apparent immediate connection. It’s like a craftsman making the pieces of a puzzle he has the concept about but not the final image. The tricky part is not to forget to collect one piece or another, as a seemingly unimportant situation may in fact be crucial to the understanding of other parts of the story. For example during my first trip to Cambodia in 1989 I completely overlooked the fact that I had to take pictures of the empty streets of Phnom Penh, of the twilight just before curfew, of the absence of circulation. In retrospect it is the most obvious change with today and those pictures I did not take could have been coming in handy at one point.


But you also have to keep an open mind and at the same time be strict and coherent regarding the concept. You have to adapt the concept in the light of what you encounter but at the same time keep an eye on the initial idea. It is only at the very end, when the story is finished (but is it ever finished?), when you look at the outcome that you start piecing things together and try to convey and reconcile both what your initial idea was and what changes you found with the initial idea during the quest for bits and pieces. I mean: you learn a lot about things during the collection process, you refined the initial idea and therefore you have to integrate that in the final result.


With me the initial idea grows usually out of some other story. It doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s more of a maze. That’s how I very often end up working on several stories simultaneously, because suddenly an interesting situation leads me to initiate a new thread. The decision to pursue one thread or another and how I do it is probably as far as I will go in revealing my feelings about a situation. I never use the “I” word in my stories. The “I” word would only be a distraction.


The multimedia thing is just a logical extension of the storytelling and is realistically possible only since a few years thanks to the internet and broadband (which I don’t have by the way). It is adding a range of informations to the photographs. If done properly it helps in apprehending…

Wayne: You use the term “paroxysm” to talk about what draws you to a story. What do you mean by the word, especially in light of your coverage of the dislocations to people, especially those relating to the most elemental (famine and drought, land grabbing), and how powerless and poor are most affected by those dislocations? Can you also talk about the concept with regards to your story on Terre Rouge relocation?

John: I used paroxysm in the sense of crisis, when things go out of hand, when common rules don’t apply anymore. When things are being deconstructed, torn apart and when journalists pop up from all over. I usually come after the paroxysm, the crisis, when things are in suspension or settle down, when things are being rebuilt, reconstructed.

True that the particular case of relocations of people in Cambodia are to be considered a crisis, but compared to what happened before that in the country, one can also see it as a (painfull) part of the reconstruction of Cambodia as a “normal” country. I wouldn’t want to sound cynical, but the basic idea I have behind everything I am doing here in Cambodia is documenting the reconstruction of the country after the Khmer Rouge regime. What does it take to recover from near-total destruction, be it infrastructural, moral, social? Every single story I am doing on Cambodia can be seen from that perspective. The Terre Rouge relocation is just one chapter in the Quest for Land, a story about land issues in Cambodia I am working on, and that in turn is just part of another story about the reconstruction of Cambodia, just like the several other stories I am doing evolving around the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Imagine documenting a country being rebuilt from scratch…

That is why I stay here. And that is why I will stay for quite some more time…

CAMBODIA. Kep (Kampot). 13/04/2003