My Native Place: Ticket to the Past and Future

LATELY AS I make my turns around the city, I have been struck by how even more quickly its narrative gets rewritten — streets, storefronts, housing tracts, signage even the curve against the shore.

As I begin to consider the architecture of a class I will be teaching again next semester, one that uses the city as subject and laboratory, I have found myself thinking about how rapidly and aggressively this change happens and how, sometimes, it’s difficult to articulate.

I was heartened by something I observed recently however. Last week, while downtown for meetings and then working dinner with an editor, I ended up at Union Station. The Station, which was purchased not long ago by by LA Metro, has gone through a renaissance. This one, thankfully, respectful.

We Angelenos have reason to worry about such things. We’ve watched so many of the puzzle-pieces of our elegant past razed, paved over, essentially “disappeared.” For awhile, back in the 80s, Union Station felt like a relic headed either toward the attic or the curb, but now as a connecting hub that serves as a nexus connecting a web of commuter lines, it’s pushed life into the the decades-old building, that so elegantly caps this edge of the city.

Built in 1939, it was the entry point for so many Angelenos who were stepping out on faith or chance. Today it still serves as a hub not simply linking commuters across the city and counties, but between past and present.

When I want to get back to what it is that “feels” like Los Angeles, this is where I wander to for big dose of “home.”

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The Eye and Heart of Vivian Maier

I’VE WRITTEN previously about Vivian Maier, a nanny who was also, by turns, prodigious and poetic photographic chronicler of mid-century street life in Chicago. As the story goes, Maier lost her images, which she’d kept in a rented storage locker, after she couldn’t come up with the payment. She died in 2009 at the age of 83. Serendipitously, a man named John Maloof, who had been working on a history of the neighborhood, happened upon the images and then set to the task of cataloging and chronicling.

I was happy to see last week that powerHouse books is publishing a collection of her work, Vivian Maier: Street Photographer this Fall with a forward by Geoff Dyer. These folks do solid work. Among one of my favorites is a lush collection of images by photographer Phil Stern. It chronicles the breadth of his career, work documenting the WWII battlefield, Hollywood and L.A. West Coast Jazz scene. I met and wrote about Stern some years back for the Times. He is delightful and a wonderful storyteller both face-to-face and in the frame.

Looking forward to seeing what they do with these images of Maier’s.

The Universe of the Frame

COMPLETELY COINCIDENTALLY, in the last couple of months, I’ve read two books that use the quiet power of photographs to explore the lingering legacy of racism in the United States.

Both are well-reported and affecting but very different takes on deeply rutted and painful territory. Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson came to me as a suggestion from a new friend, the other, just out earlier this month, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick, arrived over the transom and, as it turns out, I’m reviewing for the Los Angeles Times.

Both books allow the reader walk backward into time — the Jim Crow South — vis-a-vis the “door” of the photograph. Each photograph focuses closely in on a charged, visceral moment in the history of desegregation in this county: Sons of Mississippi, the integration of the University of Mississippi at Oxford 1n 1962, by James Meredith; Elizabeth and Hazel the integration of Little Rock Central High School, 1957, by the Little Rock Nine. It would be Elizabeth Eckford who would become the “face” of the “Nine” though hers was obscured by black shades. (The Mississippi photograph was made by Charles Moore; Little Rock by Will Counts).

In retrospect, what struck me about both photographs, particularly after finishing the Margolick book, was just how powerful these images still are more than 50 years gone. I feel them in my gut. In these frames, what’s communicated, can’t be expressed in words, not quite in the same way.

Both writers talk about the spell that each photograph cast on the public. In Hendrickson’s case, the study is more personal. He happens upon a photo in a Berkeley bookstore decades after it was made. The image focuses on a ring of chuckling Mississippi sheriffs, one with a raised billy club, his jaw clenched, whose face says it all, “Dare ya.” And while the book attempts to locate those men, their ghosts and/or their progeny, Hendrickson is also looking for something more, beyond the frame of the photo. It’s journey that takes him back to the husks of old courtrooms and general stores, rummaging through yellowed files, as well as posing questions of elderly men and women in humid sitting rooms, but also into his own soul and heart.

For Margolick, the photo is a way to look at the power of images as tool for exposing some deeply embedded wrong in a blunt, unequivocal manner. This, “decisive moment,” as photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about, was just that: It was an impetus. It shocked the world, ultimately shamed a country into change. Fifteen year-old Hazel Bryant (later Masserey), the contorted mask of fury, shouting epithets behind Eckford as she made her way to school, became a symbol too — of so much of the country’s frenzy, fury and ignorance — which is what Margolick’s book so eloquently explores. The photo connected the two women in a “tiny universe” as Margolick writes. In a random, fraction of a second, they’d be connected for the rest of their lives — a metaphor for a public discussion whose language shifts and playing field tilts. In the frame and universe of the photo, however, the sentiments and deeds, speak for themselves.

Below, footage of Elizabeth Eckford walking alone.

The World Inside a Book

ONE OF my Tumblr crew mates just posted this. I’ve paid attention to music in books and other details like retro cocktails (the Jack Rose in a Hemingway novel) but never anything quite as comprehensive as this:

I’ve sent off for a beta invite just so see how it works…an interesting way to categorize the stuff books are made of — literally.

Here’s a link to a piece in the Atlantic from yesterday about the project.

Blackwings and Black Warriors

ANYONE WHO knows me even glancingly is aware of how much I’m fixated on “writing instruments” — fountain pens, gel pens, razor point felt, fine ballpont, mechanical pencils, “woodcase” pencils perma-ink markers, but there are some writing tools that are so singular that they belong in another category.

Years ago, in our newsroom, support-staff stocked the supply closet with pencils called the Mirado Black Warrior, known for its smooth, bold lines. I stockpiled them in my desk. For years. I used them to make notes just before I began writing, for outlining the structure and flow of a piece. After we stopped recieving them, I’d draw, sparingly from my stash — until there were none.

About a year or so ago, I noted that Paper Mate was now making the Black Warrior; it’s slightly different. The casing’s finish is matte and the pencil comes pre-sharpened, not sure why. The shape feels a bit unfamiliar in my hand, the weight different, but I’m happy enough to have them back and I use them again to do organizing and some editing.

Then, I ran across this today:

I love this video and the reverence the reporter has for this pencil. I’ve known it too about certain objects. I haven’t used the Blackwing 602, but now of course I’m fascinated and will probably order a box just to feel this smooth soft line. I find it interesting (and admittedly a relief) that other people are so particular about the instrument they use to create. With writing nowadays everyone assumes I just use a computer. It is of course much more efficient and I don’t have to struggle with a messy page of cross-outs or erasures on onion skin. However, I’ve always had a sort of tactile relationship to the pen/pencil and the paper upon which the ideas un-scrolled. There was something about watching the letters form in my own handwriting, the link from my brain to the page, that somehow seemed to make me think deeper. Most likely it had to do with slowing the thoughts down and climbing inside of them, and I think that that does have to do with the idea of making shapes on a page — it is its own art, design. Looking at the words pull out across the page works in a sense like footprints. Here to there, mistakes and all, set down on the page.

(top image via postboutique.com)