Monday, July 28, 2008

How disenfranchised?

The District of Columbia is so bad off that it can't even get shown on these haut geek charts of the degree of representation of American citizens in various components of the federal government. No senators, and no representatives, but it has three electors.

21st-century downtown.

In downtown Charlotte, a luxury condominium is scheduled for construction this year that will allow residents to drive their cars into a garage elevator, ride up to the floor they live on, and park right next to their front door. I have a hard time figuring out whether that is a triumph for urbanism or a defeat.
Alan Ehrenhalt, writing about changing cities in TNR.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

This I knew as a young child.

Matt Bowman says Tintin is an aesthetic prototype for the 20th century. My first was Flight 714.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Human mirror.

L'Enfant's city.

In European Affairs, Ken Ringle's review of a new biography of Pierre L'Enfant talks about how his original plan for the capital city has been realized.
In the end, stung by interference from the dollar-hungry commissioners and landowners, L’Enfant walked away from the building of Washington. He felt particularly betrayed when, after numerous delays in providing a version of his plan suitable for engraving, the authorities went forward with land sales on the basis of a bastardized version of his plan engraved with another surveyor’s name. He ended his days a sad, hermitlike guest of indulgent Virginia estate-owners, forever petitioning Congress for compensation.

Washington, D.C. would stumble along as a glorified sheep-walk augmented by a few grand federal buildings until the Civil War, when the city experienced an explosion of population largely related to a 19th-century military-industrial complex centered on the nation’s capital. The city’s sewers were piped, its streets paved in the 1870s. But it was not until 1900 when L’Enfant’s name and vision were resurrected by architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War period. He revived the idea of making Washington a place of beauty. His attention gave impetus to L’Enfant’s notion of a national Mall – the great central place in Washington that remains today the world’s largest planned urban open space, symbolizing the American psyche and destiny of perpetual becoming. This concept, contrasting with the European tradition of monuments celebrating past triumphs, has become increasingly blurred in recent decades as this tabula rasa has been encroached on with modern “memorials” of questionable aesthetic merit. (Even the acclaimed Vietnam Memorial, a starkly harrowing trench, had to be dumbed down with literalistic figures representing the four armed services.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Photographing Borges.

Richard Avedon . . . wanted to photograph Borges ('I photograph what I'm most afraid of, and Borges was blind') and, in 1975, he flew to Buenos Aires to do exactly that. En route, Avedon learned that Borges's mother -- with whom the writer had lived almost his entire life -- had just died that very day. Avedon assumed the session would be cancelled but the great writer received him as arranged, at four o'clock, sitting on a sofa in 'gray light'. Borges told Avedon that he admired Kipling and gave him precise instructions as to where a particular volume of his verse was to be found on the shelves. Avedon read a poem aloud and then Borges recited an Anglo-Saxon elegy. All the while the dead mother lay in an adjoining room. Later Avedon took some photographs. He was 'overwhelmed with feeling' but the photographs turned out to be 'emptier' than he had hoped. 'I thought I had somehow been so overwhelmed that I brought nothing of myself to the portrait'.

Four years later Avedon read an account by Paul Theroux of an identical visit -- the dim lighting, Kipling, the Anglo-Saxon elegy -- and saw his failure in a new light: Borges's 'performance permitted no interchange. He had taken his own portrait long before, and I could only photograph that.' Is it an exaggeration to say that the photographer was left with nothing to see, that he was, effectively, blinded by the writer?

This is not the end of the story, however, for Avedon photographed Borges again the following year, in New York. As in almost all of Avedon's portraits the subject is framed by a sheer expanse of white. This one shows an old man in a pin-stripe suit with messed-up eyes and white eyebrows looking, in Adam Gopnik's unforgiving phrase, 'not sage but vaguely comical in his complacent blindness'. The key word here is 'vaguely'; not a word one associates with Avedon who is normally the most exacting of photographers. Unusually for an Avedon picture it lacks psychological focus, as if Borges's blindness impairs the reciprocity of intention on which the photographer depends. Or perhaps the opposite is true: it brings sharply into focus a shortcoming in the photographer, suggesting that there was a potential for complacency not just in Borges but in Avedon's unyielding adherence to his own method.
Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment 43-44 (Pantheon, 2005).

Sunday, July 06, 2008

San Francisco.

Tom Killion, The City From Grizzly Peak

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