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A scrapbook of stuff I'm reading / looking at / listening to / thinking about...



Aug 21, 2014
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1946 LIFE magazine profile of Margaret Wise Brown

My kid really loves Little Fur Family and Goodnight, Moon, both of which are actually really strange books, so I wanted to learn a little bit more about the author. Turns out she was pretty wild herself:

She was a lovely green-eyed blonde, extravagant and a little eccentric; with her first royalty check, she bought a street vendor’s entire cart full of flowers, and then threw a party at her Upper East Side apartment to show off her purchase. She was a prolific author, writing nearly a hundred picture books under several pen names and sometimes keeping six different publishers busy at once with her projects. She was known to produce a book just so she could buy a plane ticket to Europe.

She was also a real student of children and their responses to literature:

Brown wanted to become a writer as a young woman, and she once took a creative writing class from Gertrude Stein. But she had a hard time coming up with story ideas, so she went into education. She got a job at an organization called the Bureau of Educational Experiments, researching the way that children learn to use language. What she found was that children in the earliest stage of linguistic development relish language with patterns of sound and fixed rhythms. She also found that young children have a special attachment to words for objects they can see and touch, like shoes and socks and bowls and bathtubs.

Goodnight, Moon, btw, was not an instant bestseller:

The influential New York Public Library gave it a terrible review, and it didn’t sell as well as some of Brown’s other books in its first year. But parents were amazed at the book’s almost hypnotic effect on children, its ability to calm them down before bed. Brown thought the book was successful because it helped children let go of the world around them piece by piece, just before turning out the light and falling asleep.

Parents recommended the book to each other, and it slowly became a word-of-mouth best-seller. It sold about 1,500 copies in 1953, 4,000 in 1955, 8,000 in 1960, 20,000 in 1970; and by 1990 the total number of copies sold had reached more than four million.

Aimee Bender recently wrote a piece on what writers can learn from Goodnight, Moon:

"Goodnight Moon" does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure. Many children’s books do, particularly for this age, as kids love repetition and the books supply it. They often end as we expect, with a circling back to the start, and a fun twist. This is satisfying but it can be forgettable. Kids - people - also love depth and surprise, and "Goodnight Moon" offers both.

Though she was so prolific, the story of her death at 42 is extremely sad: a nurse asked her how she was feeling post-surgery — to show her how good she felt, Brown kicked her leg up like a can-can dancer, dislodged a blood clot in her brain, and died.

Aug 20, 2014
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Contact Sheets

After seeing Vivian Maier’s film rolls, I’ve been pawing around online, looking at other photographer’s contact sheets. (The biggest treasure trove is this book of Magnum Contact Sheets — and several of the sheets above came from the site Chasing Light.)

What is a contact sheet?

The contact sheet, a direct print of a roll or sequence of negatives, is the photographer’s first look at what he or she has captured on film, and provides a uniquely intimate glimpse into their working process. It records each step on the route to arriving at an image—providing a rare behind-the-scenes sense of walking alongside the photographer and seeing through their eyes.

Going behind-the-scenes sort of breaks the mythology of photography:

No document gives greater insight into how a photographer shoots and edits than a contact sheet—the direct print, from a roll or negatives, where a film photographer often first sees her work, grease pencil in hand, and marks her best frames. […] “The contact sheet spares neither the viewer nor the photographer,” Martine Franck writes… “By publishing that which is most intimate, I am taking the very real risk of breaking the spell, of destroying a certain mystery.”

Photographers, of course, don’t always like the evidence of their process:

“It’s generally rather depressing to look at my contacts,” Elliott Erwitt [says.] “One always has great expectations, and they’re not always fulfilled.” Henri Cartier-­Bresson, a Magnum founder, so hated the idea of someone pawing through his outtakes that he once bragged about throwing out his negatives “in the same way as one cuts one’s nails.”

And in the digital age, of course, contact sheets don’t really exist…

Related reading: 10 Things Street Photographers Can Learn From Magnum Contact Sheets

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Rolls of Vivian Maier’s film

From the documentary, The Vivian Maier Mystery:

With her Rolleiflex, she had just twelve shots and then had to reload the film. Not easy in the open air. She shot about a roll of film a day. She spent virtually all her earnings on film, equipment, and storage. Unlike most photographers, Vivian tended to take just one shot and move on. Her hit rate was phenomenal.

When the Chicago History Museum had a show of her work, they displayed prints of her rolls of film. Here’s Michael Williams, author of Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, on what you can learn from looking at them:

This is a roll of film and the order in which they were taken. It’s kids getting on a bus in the morning for school. She drops them off and then she heads Downtown and she starts photographing. You really get this sense of a day in a life… or her diary here and you can see how she moves through the street. If you put it all in a row, you would see one woman’s life unfolding on film…you’d have an unbroken string of images of what she saw, what her experiences were. This is what her big project was. It was her life. It was experiencing life through photography.

Filed under: photography, Vivian Maier

(Top image via a post at The Online Photographer)

Aug 19, 2014
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She knew me better than anyone else in the world. And still wanted to have lunch with me.
— Julian Barnes, The Sense Of An Ending

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Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending


  In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.


I asked for novel recommendations the other day, and this came up more than once, so I gave it a spin. Loved part one, and actually put down the book, and said, “I’m going to sleep now, because I’ve really liked this book so far, and everything will just go downhill from here.” And that was true — I still read it hungrily, but I’m just not sure what to think about the ending. (Which, I suppose, is fitting, given the title.)1

It’s a short book with some beautiful writing and lots of underlined passages, so really, I got what I asked for.

Filed under: my reading year 2014



Luckily, I’m not a book critic, so I don’t have to give it thumbs up or thumbs down. Have I mentioned lately how happy I am I’m not a book critic? I could never do what, say, Dwight Garner does. He’s so good. ↩

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives—and time itself—would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.

I asked for novel recommendations the other day, and this came up more than once, so I gave it a spin. Loved part one, and actually put down the book, and said, “I’m going to sleep now, because I’ve really liked this book so far, and everything will just go downhill from here.” And that was true — I still read it hungrily, but I’m just not sure what to think about the ending. (Which, I suppose, is fitting, given the title.)1

It’s a short book with some beautiful writing and lots of underlined passages, so really, I got what I asked for.

Filed under: my reading year 2014


  1. Luckily, I’m not a book critic, so I don’t have to give it thumbs up or thumbs down. Have I mentioned lately how happy I am I’m not a book critic? I could never do what, say, Dwight Garner does. He’s so good. 

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Russian interior designer Alexey Steshak has been instagramming spreads of the Russian translation of my book, Show Your Work!

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This is the argument that I always feel like never gets as much traction as the ‘tortured artist’ argument, [which] is that artists actually have it a little easier because everybody fucking suffers but artists have something to do with it.

Aug 17, 2014
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Child in the womb,
Or saint on a tomb —
Which way shall I lie
To fall asleep?
The keen moon stares
From the back of the sky,
The clouds are all home
Like driven sheep.

Bright drops of time,
One and two chime,
I turn and lie straight
With folded hands;
Convent-child, Pope,
They choose this state,
And their minds are wiped calm
As sea-leveled sands.

So my thoughts are:
But sleep stays as far,
Till I crouch on one side
Like a foetus again —
For sleeping, like death,
Must be won without pride,
With a nod from nature,
And a lack of strain,
And a loss of stature.

— Philip Larkin. Via Maud Newton. Filed under: sleep. (via mlarson)

(via mlarson)

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A Vivian Maier Primer

I’ve yet to watch the the BBC’s The Vivian Maier Mystery or Finding Vivian Maier, but, of course, since she’s an artist who didn’t show her work during her lifetime and has now been built into a kind of mythical figure, she’s of great interest to me. (I’m a little embarrassed to look and see the only thing of hers I’ve posted here are her selfies.)

This morning artist Dmitry Samarov sent me a nice piece he wrote for Spolia Magazine, called “The Vivian Mire”:

Because Maier left no will or instructions on what she wanted done with her work, her intentions—and the image of her presented to the outside world—are in the hands of anyone that takes an interest in her story…

….There has never been a discovery quite like Vivian Maier and there may never be one quite like her again. Everyone who happens upon it can find a piece or an angle that appeals or that they can identify with. The kind of privacy she kept to do her work may never be possible again in our over-surveilled age. To make a lifetime’s body of work and not share it with anyone is anathema to our times and that makes it that much more attractive. Why didn’t she show someone what she spent every free waking moment doing?

Dmitry brings up lots of interesting issues. For example: her prints. Maier seemed to be less interested in printing or showing her work, than actually doing the work. (“By all accounts, she spent every spare cent on the next roll of film, chasing the next shot rather than reveling in what she already had.”) Here’s a comparison between one of her original prints and an uncropped print done posthumously:

As he was researching, Dmitry also collected links to piece on Maier, which can be found here. Spolia also has collected a bunch of perspectives in this post.

Thanks again to Dmitry for sending me down this rabbit hole!

FIled under: show your work

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