Archive for ‘Photography’

May 9, 2011


by Megan Abbott

photo: Jon Crispin

Hat tip to Karolina Waclawiak, assistant editor at The Believer and one of our beloved guest posters for this fascinating online exhibit devoted to images by photographer Lisa Rinzler of suitcases (and their contents) left behind at Willard Psychiatric Center in the Finger Lakes region.

I lived for a year near Seneca Lake, where the hospital operated for more than a century (1869-1995), and it is lovely, haunting place that always reminded me, vaguely of Twin Peaks.

When the facility closed, workers uncovered 427 trunks, suitcases, satchels and crates in the attic of one of the buildings. It appeared many of them remained unopened since the patients (or family members) originally packed them for their hospital stay.

The stories of each suitcase, each patient, is a tale of mental health history but also those kind of universal tales of people whose circumstances limit their options, whose yearnings exceed those acceptable by their era, whose families abandon them or whom life treats with alarming cruelty.

But you almost don’t need the narratives provide (though they are unbearably poignant–many in need of help who never received any therapeutic treatment, and many who didn’t seem to need to be there at all, such as one young man, Roderigo, institutionalized from the age of 29 after a bout of depression. A note in his case file, written more than 50 years into his 64-year stay, says “years of institutionalization appears to be a mistake… as this man appears in perfect mental condition”).

The items themselves carry so much of the story. The intricately embroidered baby booties, penny arcade photos, the delicate lady’s tea-cup, a pair of ice skates. You can tell the story; somehow you know it.

A book followed the exhibition. And here’s a NY Times article about the exhibit, and some great pictures of it.

March 16, 2011

run, hazel!

by Megan Abbott

Courtesy of past guest, Karolina Waclawiak, who posted the link on Facebook, don’t miss a wonderful tour of mysterious glass-plate mug shots from 1920s Australia, over on NPR.

NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum/Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Many secrets reside in each and every one.

February 14, 2011

valentine, in color

by Megan Abbott

In honor of the day, one of my favorite pictures from one of the most revelatory collections I’ve seen in years. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, which I found through a piece in last summer’s Denver Post.

Couples at square dance. McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940, Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Isn’t this a stunner? Don’t a 100 stories just flood from it?

In case you haven’t seen them, these images were taken by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Apparently, they are some of the only color photos documenting the impact of the Depression on rural and small town America.

It’s striking how little I/we imagine that time and place in color. Somehow the photos look so present, so vivid, so now. You can touch them. In this one, you can feel every bit of hectic energy in that room, church, school, townhall. You feel like you could reach out and touch their warm skin.

February 8, 2011

Eight Million Stories in the Naked City

by Sara Gran

Megan wrote a few posts about photographs had inspired her writing. They have for me, too–in particular, Weegee‘s photos were a big inspiration when I wrote Dope. Weegee was a photographer who took pictures mostly in New York City–his peak production was the thirties through the late fifties. He started off as a photojournalist, using a police scanner to get to crime scenes and the like to get the first pics, and then developed renown as a more general photographer.

The other night I saw NAKED CITY, the Jules Dassin movie, for probably the third time. Naked City is at least in part based on Weegee’s photos–many of the scenes are directly modeled on his photographs. Yet I’ve forgotten the relationship between the photographer and the film–if they optioned his book (also called Naked City) or just “borrowed” his ideas. Weegee’s name wasn’t in any the credits or even in the special features. But many scenes in the movie actually begin as reconstructions of his photos, even duplicating his lighting, which then come to life. If you know the photographs it’s kind of amazing. I’m guessing there’s some kind of legal monkey business at work here, though, because Weegee’s name seems to have been erased from the history of the film. Anyone know the story here?

And, of course, the later TV show was inspired by the film. This was on TV about 3 a.m. throughout most of my adolescence and I watched it almost nightly. That and Ben Casey. What a world I thought adults lived in!

I haven’t seen many Jules Dassin films, but the two I’ve seen–Night and the City and Naked City–are tops. By the way, all the consonants in his name are hard–DASS-in isn’t French, as I’d always assumed, but an American who moved to France and made some films there after got blacklisted. Combined with the name, everyone apparently jumps to same conclusion I did.

January 15, 2011

screen memories

by Megan Abbott

A week or two ago, I wrote a post about muses and referred to a particular photograph, long lost, that had inspired me:

It was a photo I clipped from a magazine. I think it was from the early 1960s, black and white, and depicted a woman at a party, seen only from behind, the back of her head, shoulders, wasp waist. The black dress she wore had, if I recall, a dramatic “V” in back and you felt you were behind her, walking into a lively scene that she somehow owned. You felt her hectic power.

Last night, during a purgative and highly unpleasant process of getting rid of old files and ephemera accumulated during the last 15 years or so, I found the photo. Here it is:

This was an alarming discovery. Yes, it is a black and white photo of a woman, from behind. But aside from those facts, I had completely misremembered it. It’s not a party, there’s no plunging V, she doesn’t seem to “own the scene.” And I didn’t remember the man at all. And when I look at it now, it seems like a rather sad domestic moment, a hectoring woman and a put-upon fellow, maybe?

I have long been fascinated by the way memory distorts, rewrites—is in fact a kind of art in and of itself. But I’ve never seen it in myself in such plain terms. When I found the picture, I almost didn’t believe it could be the same one that propelled my first novel. And I wonder now at the power of one’s memory to make what one wants or needs from one’s experiences. (That, of course, is the kind of rabbit hole one might do best to avoid when digging through one’s past!)

But gosh, I’d even remembered her, with feverish intensity, as a brunette.

January 9, 2011

PseudoHistory & Ancient Aliens

by Sara Gran

So I now get this channel called History International with my cable plan. This is best channel EVER. It should be called the PseudoHistory Conspiracy Theory Channel. Almost nothing on it is true, but it’s really fun to watch and they have strange long commercials like I used to watch when I was a teenager and stayed up watching tv until sign-off.

On a show about the Hitler/Ancient Alien connection (please tell me you knew about this! Don’t they teach anything is schools these days?), I saw something that fascinated me–a mention of the mysterious Vril Society and one of its members, Maria Orsic. (That’s her in the photo, which I think is fascinating in it’s own right.) To explain what this is, I’m going to take a step back and introduce the Thule Society, an occult group in Berlin that, through some twists and turns, turned into the Nazi party. That’s how the Nazi party ended up appropriating the swastika, which is a beautiful symbol of ancient origins that crosses many cultures–the Thule Society folks studied the occult intensely, and, in fact, shared many of the obsessions of modern occultism: aliens, Tibetan Buddhism, and ancient Hinduism. In fact, I’ve read in a number of places that a handful of Tibetan lamas actually came to Berlin to help Hitler with his cause–obviously, they’d been entirely misled as to what his true cause was, but Jeez, can’t these lamas, like see shit? That’s a big bubble burst. The whole Nazi thing actually makes a lot more sense as you look at is a case of religious fanaticism, rather than a political movement, and it also helps explain why so many otherwise intelligent people were taken in by them–the whole occult, pseudo-mystical thing is very appealing. It’s also useful to keep in mind that these occult groups were all the rage across Europe and the US from the Victorian Era through the thirties–the Golden Dawn is the best known example. But while the Golden Dawn was seriously devoted to spiritual study (and in-house bickering), many just took the form and forgot about the religious stuff: the pseudo-freemasonic trappings of the Ku Klux Klan (calling themselves Grand Dragons and the like) were influenced by this mystical trend, as were the masked, point-hatted costumes of Mardi Gras krewes. (As an aside, many Nazis also believed the earth was hollow, an old theory that has waxed in waned in popularity over the years.)

Anyway, I hadn’t known (and am still not entirely sure, given my sources) that the Thule Society had a kind of ladies auxiliary in the Vril Society, led by Maria, a medium and psychic. According the always-factual internet, the women of the Vril Society channelled  Sumerian entities and never cut their hair (like some Sikhs, they may have believed the hair can serve as an antennae for otherworldly news).  They worked towards channelling alien technology to create a flying saucer for their Nazi brothers. Apparently it all relates back to a Victorian-Era work of science fiction called Vril: The Power of the Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton–the inspiration-by-fiction bit reminds me of the current hoopla around the Anastasia books.  According to this deleted wikipedia page (how massively insane does something have to be to actually get deleted from wikipedia?), Maria and her Nazi-ettes disappeared in 1945.  So who knows if there was a Maria and if there was, what became of her and her long-haired sisters?

Of course, one reason why all this fascinates me so is because I, too, study the occult, Tibetan Buddhism, and yoga. And I find the alien thing pretty interesting too. But the conclusions I’ve reached–that all sentient beings are truly one, subject to the illusion of time, space, and separation, and if I cause another harm that is literally indistinguishable from harming myself (not that I always practice that, of course)–are pretty different from those the Thule Society reached: kill everyone.

Incidentally, someone recently spray-painted some swastikas on a road sign near my house. I don’t think it was personal– HALF-JEW LIVES HERE, ATTACK! I think it was likely just some bored kids who figured the one and only thing they could do to get in trouble in our little hippie town. But when I saw those swastikas I realized, after over ten years of studying yoga, I couldn’t see Hitler’s swastika anymore. The real symbol is so much stronger and older than that. Instead I enjoyed those swastikas as a reminder of the divine Self inside, every day, until, the country sandblasted them away, and I missed them when they were gone.


December 30, 2010

rear window

by Megan Abbott

Over the holiday, I read Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired and became intrigued with all nature of things (not the least the extent of Prose’s deep dislike of Yoko Ono).

Photography is the abiding art in the book and the chapters on Alice Liddell (below) & Lewis Carroll, Lee Miller & Man Ray and Charis Weston (below) & Edward Weston were particularly fascinating.  When you gaze into the photos these men took of their subjects, you feel strangely stirred and troubled and entranced.

I remember when I was writing a book that was distinctly inspired by a photograph I can no longer find. It was a photo I clipped from a magazine. I think it was from the early 1960s, black and white, and depicted a woman at a party, seen only from behind, the back of her head, shoulders, wasp waist. The black dress she wore had, if I recall, a dramatic “V” in back and you felt you were behind her, walking into a lively scene that she somehow owned. You felt her hectic power.

It made me think of how potent images of the back of the subject’s head can be. I remember hearing that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and the director Alan Taylor considered the back of Don Draper’s head to be the leit motif for the pilot and the show.

It remains a powerful image that is wielded at key moments on the show (and, most famously, in the credit sequence).

It’s both the opposite of the bold, forthright gazes of Alice Liddell and Charis Weston above (in fact, it seems to violate the area idea of an image in that it refuses the path between subject and viewer) but also somehow just as provocative. Its power lies in the inherent mystery–we can’t connect because we can’t see the face.

The opposite, though, also seems true. There is a way we can identify closely with the subject–if we are seeing the back of a person’s head, it’s almost like we are so close to him we become him? It’s almost a P.O.V. shot and yet at the same time a complete obstruction. It’s both a mask and it’s a complete integration of viewer and subject. It’s magnetic, powerful.

(Charis Weston from Edward Weston/Collection Center for Creative Photography)

December 15, 2010

glowing trails

by Megan Abbott

I just read a fascinating piece about photographer Angela Strassheim, who takes these haunting photos of homes where a crime occurred, frequently long ago.

The bright flashes in the photos are the result of  “chemiluminescence”–the reaction between Bluestar, a chemical reagent used by forensics specialists, and blood residue. The walls are long cleaned, but the chemiluminescence remains. Using long exposures, Strassheim captures what the naked eye can’t.

One forensics science expert interviewed in the article, however, isn’t convinced it’s blood that she’s capturing, noting that Bluestar also reacts to “other materials, such as bleach and … horseradish sauce.”

Somehow that last detail lingers the most with me. Something about the ordinariness (or not) of these scenes of extraordinary tumult and loss.

(Photo from Wired )

December 6, 2010

wanted, part two

by Megan Abbott

Some great mugshots sent along by folks, after yesterday’s post, beginning with the comely Patty….

Thanks to Nathan, Lesley and Paul.

December 5, 2010


by Megan Abbott

Like many crime fiction aficionados I know, I am a lover of old mug shots, and of tabloid photos of the those caught in the act of reckless living, tumult, sorrow and rage.  Some are cracking, rowdy–promising behind-the-scenes bad behavior of the lighter, livelier kind. Some are hopelessly sad. Many just let you fill everything in yourself:

(this from a great exhibit a few years ago here).

Mostly, I prefer these images to be at least a few decades old, or even older.  But there have been a few lately (one a mug shot, one apparently a cell phone shot of bad behavior) that really struck me.  The first one is of a young woman who was, recently, the star of an E! reality show. A probation violator, she was recently caught with a fake driver’s license and black tar heroin. Her expression, the angle, everything about it is striking, strange, sad:

(Note also the t-shirt; so many mug or crime scene photos have organic irony).

And the other one (follow this link) is Lindsay Lohan. With its grainy, nearly sepia quality, it could almost be a century old, or older. There’s something utterly contemporary (cell phone image, party dress) and yet ancient. With Ms. Lohan looking for all the world like a doomed vampiress.

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