Tag Archives: spring 1999


Invisible New York

The Hidden Infrastructure of the City
Stanley Greenberg
Johns Hopkins University Press ($29.95)

Linda Niemann and Lina Bertucci
Stanford University Press ($35)

by C. K. Hubbuch

Invisible New York presents architectural photographer Stanley Greenberg's photographs of the city's service spaces—places unknown, if not unimaginable to most, and seen by almost no one. As far as 650 feet below the streets of New York are twenty-foot-diameter water tunnels, controlled by enormous valves in cavernous adjacent chambers. A Lunatic Asylum, dating from 1839, crumbles roofless on Roosevelt Island. On Hart Island, the Bronx, are Nike missile silos abandoned in 1961.

Greenberg—who, before becoming a full-time photographer worked as a civil servant in New York City—reveals an appreciation for the shabby splendor of such service places that could only belong to one so familiar with the inner workings of an organism as complex as this city. He knows that water doesn't reach millions of people without some very sophisticated and interesting mechanisms, just as surely as he knows that a modern city rises over the ruins of earlier eras.

His talent, though, is hardly limited to finding and exposing the invisible parts of the city. Greenberg is a skilled photographer who uses only available light and a four-by-five view camera, to elicit dramatic, almost gothic moods and near-perfect geometric compositions. His most interesting photographs are of the anchors of the city's masterful bridges. Beneath the Verrazano-Narrows is a harp of massive cables strung on steel eyebars in a concrete base. The bound cables of the Brooklyn Bridge crouch like giant springs just below the roadway, where they attach to anchors extending down another 90 feet. Deep inside the towers are vaulted chambers that once served as wine cellars for Manhattan restaurants. In an enlightening (if somewhat cranky) introduction, art historian and curator Thomas H. Garver observes how 20th-century cities have transformed public work sites from monuments to technology into bland, utilitarian spaces, while yesterday's grand "service places," as pictured in Greenberg's work, deteriorate unseen.

Only one photograph in the book shows a human form. This photo reveals the inside of a clock tower at 346 Broadway, where the movement of the clock lies inside a glass case between four translucent dial faces. Sunlight projects the numbers of one dial onto the glass, through which the gears of the movement are visible; further back, the light filters through the opposite dial. Amidst all this light is the ghost-like reflection of a man—perhaps Marvin Schneider, the city's clockmaster who spent ten years of his spare time restoring the clock to working order. Whoever he is, this reflection is a visual reminder of the ghosts of the laborers who once built and worked in these places.

In Railroad Voices writer Linda Niemann and photographer Lina Bertucci collaborate to produce an honest and intimate portrait of one of America's most vital infrastructures. While the trains remain omnipresent, snaking across the countryside and rumbling through lower-income neighborhoods, the people who work these service corridors are as invisible today as the service places of Greenberg's New York. Automation has dwindled the ranks of railroaders, with most freights now running a crew of only two. Describing an encounter between a train crew and a family on the California Zephyr, Niemann writes, "[they] know every train or engineman by name; they know about their families, keep up on their lives. The usual encounter between rail buff and railroader is not at all this way. The buff wants to know about the motors, the track, the radio frequency."

Trains themselves are largely absent in Bertucci's gritty photographs. These are intimate portraits of the hard-working railroaders—mostly men—working, resting, and waiting. As we learn in Niemann's spare vignettes and oral histories, peppered with the esoteric jargon of the trade, these people do a lot of waiting: waiting for signals from the shrinking ranks of dispatchers; waiting on often drunk and unruly passengers on Amtrak routes; waiting to go home after three-week stints on the rails.

If it seems odd that two women would produce a book on the male-dominated world of railroad life, consider that these two were among the first women to work on the rails.

Niemann, who holds a Ph.D. in literature, left her university job in 1978 and has worked as a brakeman (railroad titles remain defiantly masculine) ever since. As her writing attests, she has worked doubly hard to establish herself in this world. Bertucci hired on as a switchman on the now-defunct Milwaukee Road in 1974. Only 19, Bertucci used her camera to return the gaze of her often distant, occasionally hostile, male coworkers. In the process she captured the personalities of the largely invisible laborers of the trade.

Click here to purchase Invisible New York at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Railroad Voices at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999



Nelson George
Viking ($24.95)

by Peter Wardrip

Around 1992, Tommy Hilfiger came upon a chance meeting with the rapper Grand Puba in New York's JFK airport. Tommy, of course, is currently a leader in the youth apparel industry, but at the beginning of the decade he and his clothing line were still trying to find their place in an already crowded market. Tommy's brother, Andy, recognized Grand Puba and knew that the rapper spoke highly of their clothing. Andy introduced the two and because of this meeting, Grand Puba and his crew were given a gratis shopping spree in their showroom.

Nationally, Grand Puba may not have carried the popularity in 1992 that someone like Puff Daddy does today, but he was extremely popular in New York City. He had just broken off from the successful group Brand Nubian to attempt a solo career, and at the time his voice was ubiquitous on rap albums. When Grand Puba was seen wearing Hilfiger, the trend spread throughout the country on the shoulders of rap music and hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop's influence on American culture is extremely strong today. Bits of hip-hop are pervasive whether through rap songs in the top ten or Will Smith's starring in big-budget action movies. Novelist, cultural critic, and music critic Nelson George, author of the much lauded The Death of Rhythm and Blues, describes hip-hop's influence on American culture in his latest book, hiphopamerica. This cultural, critical, and historical text is approachable and smart.

Rapper Krs-One was one of the first people to articulate the difference between hip-hop, which is a culture, and rap music, which is simply a style of music within that culture. Other aspects of the culture traditionally involve deejaying, breakdancing, and graffiti. However, with the influence hip-hop has had on mainstream American culture, it becomes more difficult to exclude other aspects such as fashion, movies, videos, poetry, journalism, and politics. What began as a largely urban phenomenon has gone the way of just about every form of business: global.

"Hip-hop didn't start as a career move, but as a way of announcing one's existence to the world," writes George. Although reports differ about who started what is now known as rap music, it is agreed that giants like Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Flash created what would become rap music when they deejayed parties in the early to middle '70s. These auteurs would play only the beats (the breaks) from popular rock, soul, and disco records. At first, words were spoken over the beats to energize the dancers, but gradually the evolution of rhythmic poetry developed, putting the rapper at the center stage and sending the deejay to the background.

As the music began to grow in popularity, so did other facets of the culture. Run DMC were endorsed by Adidas and had a hit single with Aerosmith. The Two Live Crew's booty-shaking lyrics brought about a national debate about freedom of speech and public decency. Different parts of the country developed their own brands of hip-hop. With this diversity came the infamous East Coast/West Coast feud which brought about the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

Nelson George does not go through a chronological history of hip-hop. (For that I would recommend The New Beats by S. H. Fernando.) Instead his mosaic shows influences that develop positive and negative aspects of hip-hop culture. He is able to situate hip-hop in a social, political, and cultural context. Hip-hop does not stay put in an inner-city domain, which represents much of its aesthetic foundation, nor does it completely sell out to suburbia, its largest customer. The shiny mixture of the two is what makes it so marketable and popular. The adaptability and diversity of hip-hop culture allows it to praise nihilism and vitality, materialism and simplicity, guns and peace—all at the same time.

As an involved observer for the past 15 years or so, George writes about the culture with an unabashed love. He has been an insider, but is also able to be critical of the lesser portions. He criticizes the violence, materialism, and black stereotyping, as well as the increasing influence of the visual aspects. Although videos have brought about a new breed of African-American filmmakers, George writes, "video just changed the hip-hop environment enough so that more sucker MC's have hits, taking up space from worthier artists." Videos make neighborhoods, cars, hairstyles, dances, and clothes world famous.

Is hip-hop better off than it was 20 years ago? Nelson George, I think, would argue that it is. He probably yearns at times to see pioneers like DJ Hollywood like he did back in 1981 and, like many of us at that time, to be mesmerized by the freshness of this new genre. We can all be nostalgic about the times when we could keep up with what was new in the music with five monthly releases instead of 50. George doesn't sour his book with nostalgia, but even he ponders, "what will come after hip-hop?" George posits that the next generation could reject hip-hop as the next wave of hipness comes by, but it doesn't seem likely; just a new form of the old. "The truth is that hip-hop—in its many guises—has reflected (and internationalized) our society's woes so evocatively that it has grown from minority expression to mainstream appreciation."

Enter Tommy Hilfiger again. Four years after his meeting at JFK with Grand Puba, he had adapted his clothing line to the youthful hip-hop market. He became buddies with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and black music impresario Quincy Jones, becoming a strong supporter of his Vibe magazine. In 1996, Tommy Hilfiger was the number one apparel company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

EX LIBRIS: Confessions of a Common Reader

Ex Libris

Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($16)

by Deborah J. Safran

Over the last few years, there have been a plethora of "books about books" published—more specifically, "readers on reading." Each has its merits, but there are too many to read; after skimming a few of the titles, I decided that a true reader would rather "just read" than discuss others' attitudes towards the act of reading. Yet I stopped my self-declared moratorium on the topic after stumbling across Anne Fadiman's slim, new book, Ex Libris.

Ex Libris is more than just a book about reading. In these 18 essays, Fadiman examines the memories and personalities created through reading, the joy of books themselves, and more complex issues such as the constant changes in our vocabulary, the need (artificial or otherwise) for nonbiased speech, and the eternal search for the "original idea." As most avid readers can, she links certain books to the most intimate moments of her life ("I had read [War and Peace] at 18. I kept no diary that year, but I had no need of one to remind me that that was the year I lost my virginity. It was all too apparent from the comments I wrote in my Viking edition."). She believes that the marriage of her and her husband's libraries really and truly secured their commitment to each other. And reading her great-grandmother's copy of The Mirror of True Womanhood upon the birth of her first child connected the five generation of women in a unique and touching way.

For the "common reader," the books kept at home can tell more about a person than the contents of a medicine cabinet. We each have our own methods of organizing our libraries (by title, author, subject, date of publication, etc.), and while some believe that a book's physical self is "sacrosanct . . . its form inseparable from its content," for others, "a book's words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contain them [are] a mere vessel." Reading is the one act that is both intensely personal and public—our bookcases alone can tell a thousand secrets, and yet we display them proudly, instead of hiding them from our friends and neighbors—a concept I truly appreciate after reading this collection.

While I found all of the essays entertaining and engaging, the subtitle of Ex Libris—"Confessions of a Common Reader"—struck me as a bit odd. After reading "The Joy of Sesquipedalians," in which she disclosed her family's favorite pastime of trying to stump others with obscure literary references, my own upbringing seemed to pale by comparison. And I can't even imagine purchasing 19 pounds of books in one afternoon. Confessions as they may be, Fadiman seems to lean more towards the extraordinary than the common. I empathize, however, with her description of how books can bind the family together, and share her love for the English language, her quandary over the "his/her/them" issue, and her obsessive-compulsive proofreading. In Ex Libris, Fadiman captures the essence of reading for a true lover of books—one who views it not as a pastime, but as a passion.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999
| © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999


Half-Humans, Evil Twins, and Science Fiction
Mike Hertenstein
Cornerstone Press ($14.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

In The Double Vision of Star Trek: Half-Humans, Evil Twins and Science Fiction , Mike Hertenstein offers a Christian deconstruction of Star Trek. He establishes his Trek credentials early, opening his acknowledgements section with a humorous reference to the Vulcan mating season, and as he explores various contradictions and paradoxes in Star Trek , his command of the oeuvre is never in doubt. Nor is there any question where Hertenstein's argument will lead. We know that, as an editor of Cornerstone , a magazine published by the Jesus People U.S.A. organization, he will eventually bring things back to the domain of Christianity. What we don't know is exactly what route he'll take.

Hertenstein avoids the easy traps. He knows that since the series has undergone 30 years of collaboration between various producers, directors, writers, and casts, a single monolithic work cannot emerge. While creator Gene Roddenberry is a key figure in his analysis, Hertenstein resists reading him as an outright auteur. He does not lean too heavily on any one phase of the Trek franchise, but draws examples from all its various television and movie incarnations.

In the course of the book, there are a number of high points—an interesting bit on teleportation and the nature of the soul, and some intriguing discussion of Trek's multiculturalism and multi-speciesism in light of how the future society it portrays seems to owe so much more to the Western Europe than to any other terrestrial cultural heritage. Perhaps the book's finest moment is its penultimate chapter, a wide-ranging treatise on poetry, science, religion, the unknown and—most of all—wonder.

Hertenstein occasionally glosses over his subject matter a little too quickly, however, as with his treatment of religion on Deep Space Nine. While he's right to point out that one of that Trek series' major religious characters is a cardboard fundamentalist and another is a fuzzily drawn New Ager, some of DS9's numerous religion-themed storylines also offer instances of characters who act on strong religious convictions—and are portrayed not only respectfully, but even heroically. Considering some of these more positive portrayals of religion in Star Trek more closely probably wouldn't have changed the conclusion Hertenstein reaches, but it would have enriched his analysis along the way.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

JULIEN LEVY: Portrait of an Art Gallery

julienlevyEdited by Ingrid Schaffner and Lisa Jacobs
MIT Press ($25)

by Anna Reckin

In January 1932, the Julien Levy Gallery presented the first exhibition of Surrealism in New York, assured ample publicity by the presence of Salvador Dalí, whose work was being shown in New York for the very first time. But Dalí was not Levy's only outstanding New York "first"; others included Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Frida Kahlo, and René Magritte; and Levy' s interests extended beyond Surrealism to the Neo-Romantics and Magic Realism, beyond paintings and sculpture to film and photography, and beyond "high art," to various kinds of popular art. He was one of the first to exhibit Walt Disney' s work in a commercial gallery, while also giving Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou its first U.S. showing. His taste in photography was catholic, finding common ground between Walker Evans's documentary work, Jean-Eugene-Auguste Atget's near-surreal records of Parisian buildings, the artifice of Lee Miller and Man Ray, and Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moments."

Supremely gifted facilitators are often not especially self-effacing. Fittingly, the largest illustrations in this book are nearly all of Levy himself: Levy and his first wife, Joella, hanging a Max Ernst (photographed by Lee Miller); Levy and his second wife, Muriel, playing simultaneous games of chess with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning; Levy's celebrated profile in a portrait by Jay Leyda. The dustjacket shows Levy in a "daguerrotype-object" by Cornell; the dramatic cropping makes his face appear to be bursting out of the frame, floating above a row of roughly sketched skirts and pants—a witty representation of the lower halves of his gallery visitors, perhaps, all dressed up for a cocktail opening. The only other full-page illustration is a portrait of Mina Loy. As Carolyn Burke describes, in a chapter devoted to Levy's "Loy-alism," she was muse, mother-in-law (mother of Levy's first wife), and agent.

Julien Levy: Portrait of an Art Gallery was produced in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name at The Equitable Gallery, New York in Fall, 1998. It provides a scrapbook of the gallery from its beginnings in November, 1931, (with an "American Photography Retrospective" arranged with the help of Alfred Stieglitz) to its final closure in 1949. Alongside illustrations of some of the major works that passed through Levy's hands, the book shows catalog covers, plans for a wall the "shape of an artist's palette" featured in one of the gallery's sites, and other ephemera. It explains Levy's many innovations in gallery management and publicity, and looks at his contribution to the development of museums and galleries in the U.S. Visitors to the Julien Levy Gallery would find themselves surrounded by some of the most sensational art in New York, and this book is a celebration of that coming-together. After all, the contemporary gallery that Levy helped to create is more than a location; it's an occasion, a performance space, a place for a party.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

Twisted Spoon Press: A Profile


by David Auerbach

Under communist rule, Czech literature was a crippled entity: not only did authors have difficulty publishing their work outside of brief thaw periods, but precommunist Czech writers disappeared from view, as their works were often banned. When Czech literature did become more well-known in the last few decades, much of it was in direct response to communist rule, such as the works of Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky. But many Czech writers both past and present remain unknown to English readers. Based in Prague, Twisted Spoon Press has a dual purpose: not only to bring lost Czech literature to light, but also to translate it into English, giving it a wider audience both outside and within their native country.

If there is a common thread among Twisted Spoon's books, it is a decided antirationalism; the press aims to bring the surrealist side of Czech writing to an English readership. As publisher Howard Sidenberg says, "What Twisted Spoon is trying to do is to present these works from the prewar period in order to provide a hitherto unknown element of the European avant-garde during those fertile interwar years." Among these prewar reissues are new translations of Kafka's work in editions that restore the books as they were originally printed in this Prague native's lifetime. The press also has a strong list of contemporary authors whose work places them in this cutting-edge tradition.

Twisted Spoon's very first publication remains one of their most extreme: Lukás Tomin's The Doll. Tomin leaves his characters half-drawn for much of the book, forcing the reader to puzzle out the connections and distinctions between them. His drastic switches of style abandon cumulative effect for a series of instants, sometimes with heavily compressed plotting or circular passages of dialogue. A dream of a monk's life is described: "Through cold gothic corridors. Cloistered prayers. Move in silence. Angel walk. Shaved head. Faith the problem. Doubts. Dark night of the soul." The novel seeks to jolt with its odd narrative rhythms, making it a rare contemporary update of the surrealist novels of Breton and Pinget. Tomin grew up in a dissident family under one of the harshest periods of communist rule, and wrote The Doll in his second language, English, as an émigré in Paris. He steadfastly refuses to ground his prose in a comfortable fictional environment, just as he refused to ground it in the comfort of his native language.

While Tomin is more aggressively experimental than most precommunist Czech authors, he inherits their themes. Two "lost" books of Czechoslovakia, Paul Leppin's Severin's Journey Into the Dark and Otokar Brezina's Hidden History, outline a decadent romanticism. Dating from 1914, Leppin's novel plainly describes a libertine's aimless affairs and wanderings, focusing on the repetition of Severin's life and melding his decadent outlook with Kafkaesque detachment. Borrowing from Kleist as much as from Sacher-Masoch, Leppin passes over the more voyeuristic aspects of eroticism to examine the mechanistic drive of Severin. The book is surprisingly restrained, and the tight prose prevents Severin's miseries from becoming too histrionic.

Approaching the irrational passions of life with a manic rush, Brezina brings a happier outlook to the primevality that Leppin describes. In the essays contained in Hidden History, written in the first decades of the century, his words erupt almost without sense. Brezina forsakes rational structures of thought, instead creating towers of language that often exhibit powerfully abstract imagery. In death, for example, Brezina finds "a love of man for man which would seem lethal in our time—where the hearts of the brethren, distant, beat in solitude—will bring about a singing union of the spirit." Like Leppin and Tomin, he has little patience for convention, either in writing or in life, but his vision lacks all cynicism and nihilism; he realizes in words some of the purest possibilities of the subconscious.

Bohumil Hrabal's Total Fears is a nexus of Twisted Spoon's concerns: written late in life by a man who lived through both wars, it gives a firsthand impression of the impact Czech history has had on a single author. Hrabal, best known for Closely Watched Trains, here alludes to the nullifying effect of the political situation, which seems to have driven him out of the world and into his mind. Taking the form of unsent letters to a female acquaintance, the chapters are free-flowing streams describing Hrabal's travels in his old age, in which he encounters the spirits of dead writers who seem more real than the modern world around him. Particularly forthright and chilling is the first section, "The Magic Flute," a compulsively written travelogue ridden with pain, exhaustion, and unsettling calm: "Bohumil Hrabal, you've victoried yourself away, you've reached the peak of emptiness, as my Lao Tzu taught me, I've reached the peak of emptiness and everything hurts." As an invitation to Hrabal's memory, the book is tantalizingly frank and approachable. Hrabal's casual language discloses his obsession with communication, the desire to speak to his reader as his beloved authors have spoken to him.

If the press's surrealist impulse is buried in Hrabal, it is still detectable, as in the harrowing "Meshuge Stunde," which describes a frenzy among cats as Soviet planes fly overhead. This antirationalist strain seems to have fully permeated Czech literature; as Sidenberg says, "Czech surrealism draws on many themes that are endemic to Czech art in general: a deep sense of irony, absurdity, fantasy." Hrabal, Leppin, Brezina, and Tomin all represent different stages in the development of this aesthetic. As Twisted Spoon excavates parallel developments to more commonly known movements, they preserve what the title of Brezina's book describes: a hidden history.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

Paul Metcalf: A Eulogy


by Allan Kornblum

The following piece was composed for the Paul Metcalf Memorial Reading held in Minneapolis on March 14th, 1999

Paul Metcalf was born in 1917, in the midst of the first World War, and died in the last year of the twentieth century. His lineage included a famous maternal great grandfather, Herman Melville, and on his paternal side he was related to Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island. A lifelong student of history, folklore, ecology, and ethnography, he nonetheless did not fit into traditional academic life. He was fond of telling audiences that he and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, while the Unabomber, Theodore Kazinski, graduated with honors.

Paul Metcalf never did use a computer, but long before gigabytes and hard drives entered the lexicon, he understood that we were living in the age of information. Massachusetts was where he lived, but his real home was the library. Perhaps it was the view of all those spines leaning next to each other, facing each other in their respective bookcases, that led to the juxtaposition of texts, texts about ideas, people, places, and events that came to define his literary technique. And because Metcalf's source for this information was the library, not the computer, he understood that the internet was in many ways, simply an extension of the traditional card catalog. And that it is not enough to be able to access information—the challenge is to see the interstate highway system as the part of the nation's central nervous system, to see Columbus reaching the New World as the sperm reaching the egg.

I had just finished giving a presentation on the history of books and printing at a small independent bookstore in Northampton, Massachusetts, a store that has since folded, when a tall elderly man walked up to me, introduced himself as Paul Metcalf, and handed me a manuscript. Normally I would have begged off, but I knew Metcalf's work, and was delighted to take it. But when I got home, the manuscript got buried for a few months. Then he wrote me a polite letter asking about it, so I dug it out, and when I read it my life was changed forever. Unlike his other work, the piece he had given me was primarily based on one text, an anthropological study of indigenous people of Peru. But like his other work, it had a scope of historical vision and a depth of compassion that I found breathtaking. I don't know what led me to think of publishing his collected works. There were times when I wondered if I'd lost my mind. But as I look at those three volumes, it stands as one of the defining moments in my life as an editor.

But beyond his magnificent work, I also am grateful for Metcalf the man. I remember asking how long it would take to drive to his house from Boston—it took much longer than his estimate. The next day I asked how long it would take to get to my next destination—again it took much longer than his prediction. Then I remembered that almost all the stories he had told the night before had, at one point or another, involved a speeding ticket. I can still see the wood-burning stove he used for cooking, and to heat his home. He was a big man who moved with the grace that called to mind his youth as an actor. Able to tell stories about literary and historical figures of the past and present with equal ease, conversation flowed around and through him like a gently bubbling never-ending stream.

But we are gathered here tonight in part in tribute to what he achieved as a writer, as an artist. There are many theories about the role of art. Some see it as a reflection of society. Others as an agent for societal change. But I always recall one of the slogans of my youth when I think about art—the personal is political. Art can only affect society if it can affect individuals, one at a time. For this individual? I want art to help me look at the world with new eyes. And more than any other writer I have read in the last thirty years, Paul Metcalf has helped me look at everything in my world differently. Books, magazines, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, the past, the present, the earth, and the skies, all have been forever changed, for me, because I have read Paul Metcalf's work. I can't think of a higher compliment to pay a writer, or a friend. I will be forever grateful I had the opportunity to meet him, and to publish his work.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999

The Postmodern Romantic

photo by Molly Weinstein

An Interview with Luis González Palma

by Elizabeth Culbert

A self-taught photographer from Guatemala, Luis González Palma creates expressive works of art that are often about contradiction. His portraits of Mayan Indians present a tragic vision of life that is full of pain and beauty. Often collaged with images of contemporary symbols, objects, and icons, the pictures act as records of life in a country where violence and mysticism coexist. At the same time, the overwhelming sense of humanity in each picture speaks to the photographer's ability to transcend cultural boundaries and tap into a pool of shared experience.

One of the most recognizable aspects of González Palma's photographs is their deep sepia tone. He achieves this by painting a standard black and white print with asphaltum, then further manipulates the image by removing the asphaltum from key areas, returning them to the original white of the photograph. The process turns the pictures into tangible objects with a sense of history, creating a dialogue with the past that works toward a realization of the complex social legacy of Guatemala.

Luis González Palma: Poems of Sorrow will be published this spring by Arena Editions; the book surveys the photographer's themes and obsessions since he began taking pictures over a decade ago. In his most recent work, González Palma continues to examine the subtleties of the gaze, along with the politics of looking and the complicity involved in the act of pointing the camera. He recently visited Minneapolis for the opening of his exhibit La Mirada Critica (The Critical Gaze) at the Weinstein Gallery.

Elizabeth Culbert: You trained and worked as an architect before making a transition to photography. How has your relationship with photography changed since you began taking pictures?

Luis González Palma: I think my relationship with life has changed—right now I want to make more complex images than before. Complex in the sense that I try to put in a lot of information, sometimes contradictory information.

EC: You continue to use certain symbols that appeared in your early images.

LGP: Borges said that we only make one work in our life; we just give it different names. I think that my obsessions are the same. I know that I make variations on just one theme.

EC: What is that theme?

LGP: Pain . . . sadness.

EC: And you see this in the faces that you photograph?

LGP: I see it in life.

EC: Most of your pieces are based on portraits. What draws you to the people you choose to photograph?

LGP: The gaze.

EC: Whose gaze is it exactly? You look through the camera to make a picture of someone who looks back at you; then the subject looks at the audience, who looks back at the photograph . . .

LGP: I wanted to make these kinds of relationships. Usually the Indian people are outsiders who have to look up at the people who look down. For me it's very important to place these portraits in the horizontal view—to create horizontal levels in communication, so you see the person's face directly. I think in the beginning it was a little political, but mostly my interest is to bring people to the same level. I come from a very racist country. The Indians are a marginal people in Guatemala just like I am a marginal person in the first world. So I try to balance things.

EC: So you're commenting on power relationships.

LGP: Yes . . . but also I try to say that a face, to me, is a metaphor of sadness. And I want to share this sadness. At the moment I'm not really interested whether it's an Indian face or not—that's not as important for me. But it's still important to establish the relationships in order to bring about a consciousness of our fragility.

EC: How does your audience react to these ideas? Your pictures have been seen in Europe, Central and South America, and the United States. Do you see a difference in the reaction of your viewers around the world?

LGP: It is different. People with a large Indian population look at them in a different way. Whereas people in Italy, France, even the United States, find exotic faces in the images. It's all part of what I want to do.

EC: You talk a lot about writers and musicians who are important to you. How do you incorporate their experience in your work?

LGP: I just try to incorporate the emotion that I have. For example, if you can explain a poem, it is not a poem. Poetry has to be inexplicable. And it is impossible to explain the emotion of the violin from Bach. You can talk about something, but to explain why you feel things . . . you can't. So I try to have an emotional impact, not with words or sounds, but I try to get these deep emotions from images.

EC: Who are some photographers who have that emotion?

LGP: Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll.

EC: How do these influences play a role in your own photos?

LGP: I am a postmodern romantic. I try to use their way to photograph, and at the same time, incorporate the problems that I feel in a country like Guatemala. And at the same time, the philosophy of Persia in the 11th century. I try to take a lot of things and put them, not in one image, but one . .. I hate to say one work, it's so pretentious!

EC: People have used the term "magic realism" to describe your photographs, but you prefer "poetic realism." How do you define this?

LGP: You know, everything unusual is "magical" or something for this country. But they are not exotic for me. They are not magical. When I put flowers on a woman, it's not a way to make her face exotic—it's more a way to charge her face in a romantic view. I enjoy being a romantic at the end of this century.

EC: Do you feel part of the community of contemporary artists as a romantic working at the end of the 20th century?

LGP: Sure. I want to be a contemporary artist and at the same time a romantic!

EC: Is it difficult to unite the two?

LGP: I don't know if it's difficult or not, but it isn't interesting for the mainstream. Fortunately I don't want to be part of the mainstream. When I see a Kiki Smith work, for example, she's very contemporary, and I feel a lot of emotion in each of her pieces; I think she understands our time, and she makes really interesting art because of that. But it's not necessarily more important than a man who paints a typical landscape in Peru. Because Kiki Smith is a wonderful artist doesn't mean that the other one is a lesser artist—it's just different. I think that all the people who spend time in their lives thinking about these things are emotionally at the same level, they just have different ways of perception.

EC: You have recently begun a project in Guatemala called Colloquia that involves bringing together artists of diverse backgrounds.

LGP: Colloquia means dialogue in Greek. It's very hard to try to be a cultural . . . you know, people who organize cultural things . . . it's very complicated. And more so in a country like Guatemala. But I feel that it's part of my mission. If I have all these contacts around the world, if I meet a lot of artists and interesting people, why don't I bring these people to Guatemala and share my experience with people who don't have the chance to travel around? But I think we started in the wrong direction.

EC: What direction did you take?

LGP: At the beginning it was like a contemporary art center. And then I realized we didn't have to copy the organization or the function of a contemporary museum in the United States, for example—we have to invent another kind of project, because we are in a completely different kind of situation. To have a museum like the Museum of Modern Art in New York is to have power. I don't have any interest in being the director of an institution that has power. So, right now, we try to get money directly to the artists, eliminate curators . . . we try to work in a different way. I'd prefer to invite the artists simply to work and have fun with Guatemalan artists. To talk as we talked last night, for example. To share missions of life. Maybe that is more important than seeing an exhibition. We invited some artists this year just for that: to have parties, to talk, to try to have more emotional contact than you can have in formal opening receptions.

And we want to have more urban projects with Guatemalan artists, in the centers and in the streets. We're trying to start a sculpture garden, not like the Walker, but in a very contemporary and contradictory way . . . pieces in different gardens and different places. Right now we have maybe a thousand dollars, so it is illogical for us to spend a thousand dollars for a catalog. I prefer to give a dollar to a thousand people. We want to bring the money to the artists and not make a catalog, or maybe make a very humble catalog, a simple thing, and try to work that way.

Another part of Colloquia is a small newspaper that we send just to the marginal parts of the city and not to the privileged zones; we put it in the supermarkets, McDonalds, places like that. It's usually the art world and the art society who receive this information, especially in countries like Guatemala, so we try to change the relations. But at the same time, we send a copy to you, for example, or to another friend or artist or writer. To the director of a museum in Spain, and at the same time to people who live in a marginal place in Guatemala. So we have these two things, no?

EC: Which themes do you pursue in your art and in these projects?

LGP: For one, transparency. Because our gaze is transparent.

EC: You often print on transparent photographic paper . . .

LGP: Yes, exactly. And I am an architect. I try to feel the transparency in contemporary buildings and I try to understand the transparency in Zen poetry. I just want to mix all those things, you know?

EC: Which is very postmodern and romantic.

LGP: Yes. Now you understand me!

EC: You have a book coming out soon that combines poetry with your pictures. Tell me about the different elements that will be presented.

LGP: It's very complex, because when you're somebody who has the pretension to make art, it's completely different from when someone else says I want to make a book of your art. You don't decide the title, you don't decide the size, the order of the photographs . . . so it's completely out of control!

EC: Does that bother you? The lack of control?

LGP: No . . . I think it's impossible to know the destiny of things. For example, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I imagined when I saw a portrait of a woman in the 17th century, if the painter knew that someone from Guatemala three centuries later would communicate with this work . . . you never know who will see your images hanging. And I like that. I think you never really have control over the things that you do, and this book is one of these things. You never know who will take the book and read it, or maybe cry at some images, or fall in love with someone in front of the picture, things like that. It's impossible—only God knows.


Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999