Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sally Mann. Hold Still.

Hold Still by the American photographer Sally Mann is described as a Memoir with Photographs. It tells the story of Mann’s life and the stories of her family--based on her experiences and memories and on the archive of photographs and papers in her attic.  Hold Still is divided into several parts: Mann’s own story and that of her husband Larry; her mother Elizabeth Evans Munger and her family; the black woman GeGe who cared for Mann as a child; and her father Robert Munger and his family. Near the beginning, Mann writes that when she started the project, she looked into boxes of family papers was looking for “southern gothic: deceit and scandal, alcoholism, domestic abuse, car crashes, bogeymen, clandestine affairs, racial complications, dearly loved and disputed family land, abandonments, blow jobs, suicides, hidden addictions, the tragically early death of a beautiful bride, vast sums of money made and lost, the return of a prodigal son, and maybe even bloody murder.”  And she got it:  “all of it and more.”

But Mann’s story is Southern in so many more ways than “gothic.”  She was born and spent most of her life in an extraordinarily beautiful place: Lexington, Virginia, where the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains meet.  More specifically, she lives in a remote house on the Maury River in the Shenandoah valley, a place that was a regular part of her life since she was a child.  Mann’s life in this place is responsible for a number of traits she describes as typically Southern.  (This is a part of the book that may annoy people who are not themselves from the South.)  But I suggest that it is more important to think about the fact that Mann lives with “a sense of place,” and not just focus on the particular place in which she lives.  The truth is that many people locate their identity strongly in a particular place—anywhere from an Italian village to New York city.  However, claims about the beauty or virtues or dangers of the “South” can be  suspicious to many.  The “South” sometimes functions as a kind of metonymic trope for a set of assumptions, e.g., ignorant, racist, backward.  But the “South”—like any other “part” of the United States is not one thing; it is multiple.  (Just like the “West” is never—and was never—just one thing.)  And, of course, not all people who live or lived in the South are the same kind of people.[i]

Mann is known primarily (or at least this was the case for me) because of her pictures of her children, mostly taken nude.  These pictures, mostly from the 1980s, caused a huge controversy, one that was partly fueled by the appearance of Robert Mapplethorpe’s censored pictures of children around the same time. But she is also a landscape photographer.  Most of her pictures are of the American South, as well as Civil War battlefields.  She is known for her use of old forms of cameras and film, such as collodion plates and ambrotypes.  I was not familiar with these pictures and, though they are reproduced in Hold Still, the quality of the reproduction makes them difficult to see, much less evaluate.  (This seems to me a major flaw of the book.)  I tried to find better quality reproductions on the internet, but most of them were very small images copyrighted to her.

The parts of Mann’s story that deal with her own life are interesting because Mann’s voice is funny and sharp.  It is also interesting as a kind of portrait of the artist as a young woman, explaining her evolution as a photographer, and why she decided to take particular pictures in particular ways.  There are not many books that offer this kind of narrative.  The story of her mother’s family is laced with scandals Mann had not known of.  The story of Gee-Gee, the black woman who raised her, is a canonical narrative of southerners of her (and my) generation: as she says “Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them.”  This, says Mann, is part of the ”fundamental paradox of the South.”  Mann describes her relationship with Gee-Gee in loving terms, but also admits the unexamined assumptions that that underlay that relationship.  Speaking of family trips, she asks “How could I not have thought it strange that Gee-Gee never ate anything but also never had to go, never even got out of the car? How could I not have wondered, not asked?”  The story of her father offers no hidden secrets, but does Mann does try as an adult to understand his fascination with death and the way his self-absorption affected his dealings with his wife and children.

Mann connects these stories of the past to her own identity, claiming at several points that attributes of her ancestors are wired into her own DNA.  This, I believe, she means literally.  But though it is possible (for almost all of us through lived experience) to accept a genetic family history of depression, it is more difficult to locate a gene for nostalgia for the past or for quirky behaviors.  Nevertheless, one can see how a family—handing on to its children patterns of behaviors, values, flaws and everything else that makes up a person—can be, at least partly, the source of who one is now.  Just as where one lives—its beauty, history, inhabitants—can anchor one’s self to its own sense and importance of place.

Hold Still shows how family stories are constructed out of the archives of family life:  the papers, pictures, letters, report cards, and more that a family saves.  The artifacts are by themselves meaningless.  But woven together they become a narrative of a family and its individuals.  That this is only one possible narrative is made manifest in the reproductions Mann includes in the book.  Choosing this letter or that letter is the job of the storyteller who uses them to tie these unruly people into a family.

This month, my Louisville Book Group read Hold Still.  I am sad that I missed the discussion, because this is a book I would really like to talk about.  I liked the book, almost as a “guilty pleasure,” because I wasn’t always sure I should like it as much or in the ways that I did.  After finishing it, I looked at the reviews and was happy to find they were almost all positive.  This makes me a little more confident in my judgment.  But I would still have liked to test my response within the conversation of some of the sharpest critics and best readers I know. 


[i] Odd as it may seem in a blog entry, I insert an endnote here.  I too grew up in the South.  In my case, I was born in South Carolina and lived there until I was almost six.  I also spent all my summers there until I was 14.  My extended family and later my mother lived in North Carolina.  And though I also lived as a child in Florida, Virginia, and as an adult in Louisiana, it is the Carolinas that anchor me to a sense of place.  When I fly into Raleigh-Durham to go to the beach, I become nostalgic (though that is not quite the right word) as soon as I see the long leaf pine, more so when I see tobacco fields, and achingly so when I see old abandoned shanties.  So I kind of “get it.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Summer in the Keweenaw: Part 1?

The very beginning of summer, when the trees were not yet in full leaf.

The last couple of days have been positively autumnal: temperatures in the 50s and even 40s and lots of gray and drizzle.  But I refuse to believe that summer has ended, so I am declaring this dreary weather just a mark of the end of the first part of summer and the beginning of the second.  (That is, I am hopefully whistling in the dark [rainy clouds].)  So here are some of the highlights of Summer in the Keweenaw Part 1.  Let's hope Part 2 lives up to its forerunner.

First, the absolutely best thing that happened this summer was a visit from my brother Ben and his family.  Since this is the first time they have come to see us at Lake Medora, I have to give them top billing.

We had so much fun.

Though some did find it a little exhausting.

Along with the Sombergs, we had great visits from Tony's sister Mags and her husband Ken.  Here is Tony and his sister.

This year Mags--believe it or not--made friends with two dogs.

We went on a picnic but forgot the bread.

Ken sketched.

And I made evil strawberry shortcakes.

We also had our terrific Louisville friends Doug and Susan.  No pictures except of the wonderful meal Doug helped provide (bringing the meat from Louisville!).

In June I had a 67th birthday

And Tony and I had our 27th wedding anniversary.

In between all that I had fun with Cindy 

At her new house

Playing with her dogs.

Enjoying time with her friends from the Philipines Group

Listening to Cindy on ukelele and Ian and Ken on guitar. (In Cindy's amazing new detached screen porch.)

Listening to the amazingly talented Gary Bayes perform.

Making lots of ice cream.

The nymphs have all departed now.  We still are so lucky to have great friends in Houghton and surroundings, but nobody living in our house or two driveways away.  One last set of friends (Hurray!) will be here at the end of September/beginning of October.  But we now in a much more "by ourselves mode." waiting for Summer Part 2.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Narrative of Retirement Redux

A while ago, I posted something along the lines of "I don't need a narrative at the lake; instead I just have cyles of pleasure."  And that is--to some extent--true.  The first two and a half months up here at Lake Medora have been wonderful:  lots of friends here, lots of great company, lots of beautiful days in the water and on the deck.  But. . . .

I have come to realize that I have to have a project.  This summer I did actually work on a project, a book of Budapest photographs.  It was pretty large, something around 140 pictures, and all of them had to be resized in photoshop and often fiddled with.  Along with that I tried (and for the most successfully) to find the address of the buildings and the architect of each one.  This I did mainly for my own pleasure and as a thank you gift to our generous landlord.  But that's done now, and I'm thinking what next?

We will be at the lake til late in November.  Still a lot of summer and Indian summer left.  But not so many friends, not so many gorgeous days when just to be outside is to be happy.  I don't know if it's because as a teacher, I always started the year in the fall, or just my natural need to move towards something (there's that narrative again).  But I need to do something.  And I think I just might have a plan.

My professional life was bound up with writing and publishing.  Everything I have ever published has been in peer-reviewed scholrly journals or books.  Without peer-review, the work doesn't have the scholarly credential, and--at least in the world of tenured faculty--doesn't really count.  Except I no longer live in that world.  I could continue producing peer-reviewed scholarly work, as some of my emeritus-faculty friends are doing.  But I am tired of that game, at least for now.  But I am not tired of thinking and writing.  So where do I go?  Whence is my narrative of retirement?

I have decided to write a book about Hungarian Secessionist architecture.  Anyone who has read my blog knows that I am obsesssed with it: I lust for it.  I actually have learned quite a bit about it, over the years.  And I have thousands of pictures, all of which are my own intellectual property.  And there is really very little available in English on this (trust me) fascinating topic.  But my first problem is that I do not have the scholarly credentials to publish a peer-reviewed book in the field of art history.  And my second problem is that I don't read Hungarian, the language in which most of the published research is written. So no chance of a peer-reviewed book.

But I don't really need to write a peer-reviewed book.  I don't need to add any more peer-reviewed scholarship to my CV.  Thus, I have decided that I will write a book, but that I will self-publish the book, probably on Amazon.  I will set a low price, hoping to attract readers.  (The money is less important to me than a readership.)  It will be a quasi-scholarly book (based, that is, on everything I have learned in the 6 or 7 years in which I have been reading about and taking pictures of Secessionist architecture).  But it will be written for a general audience.  (That is, it will lack, except for a concluding bibliography, all the scholarly apparatus of the peer-reviewed product--and for those of you who have not wandered in this particular maze, the scholarly apparatus is of a truly scholarly peer-reviewed book is HUGE.)

People who are in academia will appreciate what a huge shift this is.  (I spent over 30 years chasing a dissertation then academic publications: it is who I was--and still am to a large degree.)  People not in academia will probably think what's the big deal.  (And I am starting to feel this way myself.)

I am grateful for the technology that allows one to easily self-publish.  However, I am not going to be lured into producing something that's equally easy to write.  I want the book to be good.  I am prepared to put the time in.  And then when it goes out (assuming I make it that far) see what it's worth.

This blog has been, and will continue to be, wonderful for trying out ideas.  So I plan to do more Budapest-themed posts. But I'm not going to make it into a rough draft for the book, so I will try to continue to post about other aspects of my life.  I have not been much of a blogger this summer: too much going on here in paradise.  But I'm now in a different rhythm and hope to be back to regular posting.  Next post will be about summer in the Keweenaw,


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Budapest Book I

I have just finished a photography book with selected pictures of Budapest,which I finally uploaded to Blurb.  The name of the book is Budapest Szeretettel (which I hope means Budapest with Love).  I worked hard over these particular pictures, and I thought I would put a few of them on my blog.  What will follow is a series of pictures that were side-by-side.  The top picture is on the left, and the bottom of the right.  I am skipping pictures of things that already appeared on the blog when I was in Budapest.

Former Török Banking House.  Szervita ter 3.  Ármin Hegedűs and Henrik Bõhm.  Mosaic by Miksa Róth.
Former Wenckheim Palace. (Currently  Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library.)  Szabó Ervin tér 1. Arthur Meining

Rózsavölgyi House.Szervita tér 5. Béla Lajta.
Lehel Market.  Lehel u. 51.  László Rajk.

The following are pictures of buildings by Odon Lechner.

Former Sipeki Balázs Béla Villája.   (Currently Institute for the Blind.) Ödön Lechner.

Museum of Applied Arts.  Űllõi utca, 33-37.  Ödön Lechner.

Former Postal Savings Bank. Hold utca 4.  Ödön Lechner. 

Hungarian Geological Institute.  Stefánia út 14, Ödön Lechner.

(More to come).


Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Garden in Bloom (and other images of summer)

Summer seems to be slipping away, even though we have almost all of August ahead.  Friends leaving.  The garden moving into autumn mode.

My little dog friends Sparky and Lucy are soon going back to Columbus.

Company coming and going.

 Unusual white caps on Lake Medora

Flowers everywhere--cultivated and wild.

Irises from the garden.
Wild irises

Gigabytes to play with.  A wonderful week of guests ahead.  A big project to start thinking about.  Coming up:  the next step towards the narrative of retirement.