2001 Notebook: Weak XLII
gratuitous image
15 October 2001
Saif Al-Adel (sex: male, complexion: olive)
I’m annoyed with myself, but then just about everyone is these days.

Even though I’m trying to ignore the current climate of paranoia and hysteria, I couldn’t help but glance at the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Twenty-Two Most Wanted Terrorists. I was struck by the uselessness of the list, vague descriptions of shadowy men with either “olive” or “dark” complexions. Combined with low-quality photographs, the list seemed to incite generic suspicion of Arabs and Africans.

I took the FBI’s words and images, ran them though my computers, and came up with a new piece, Twenty-Two Translations of The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Visual and Verbal Descriptions of The Twenty-Two Most Wanted Terrorists as of 11 October, 2001.

It’s available in the PDF format; visit the tedious technical notes if you’re unfamiliar with such acronyms.

16 October 2001
Looks Like Art
Sandra sent me a letter in which she pooh-poohed my pooh-poohing of Umberto’s plan to open a restaurant called “Tastes Like Chicken.” I’ll let Sandra speak for herself.

    David, I can’t believe you’re being such a pooh-pooh head about Umberto’s restaurant plans. Your position seems more hypocritical than usual in that I always think of your work as “Looks Like Art.”

I thanked Sandra for her comments. She is, after all, one of my more charitable friends.

17 October 2001
My Uncomfortable Resemblance to Buridan’s Ass
I haven’t been in a darkroom in a decade. Each year I’m away, my urge to enjoy the craft as well as the art of traditional, analog photography becomes stronger. And each year I’m away, digital photography keeps getting better and cheaper.

Jean Buridan was familiar with this situation, even though he died about half a millennium before photography was invented. (1295-1356? 1300-1358? Who knows?) Whether or not Buridan actually invented the concept, the philosopher is generally credited as being the father of Buridan’s Ass.

Here’s the scenario. The ass in question finds himself (and I’m sure it is a he, since women generally aren’t this stupid) equidistant from two equally appealing piles of grain, or hay, or whatever. Since there’s no quantitative or qualitative reason to choose one pile instead of another, the ass is paralyzed by indecisiveness and eventually starves to death.

What an ass!

Were it not for the fact that I’ve managed to continually make photographs of one flavor or another over the years, I fear I might understandably be mistaken for yet another of Buridan’s asses.

18 October 2001
In the Light of Nineteen Stars
I crawled up to the roof of my San Francisco laboratory, with predictable results. I was enthralled. Huge illuminated buildings, peripheral fog, distant alarms and sirens, that sort of thing. I counted nineteen stars. Nineteen out of a trazillion stars wasn’t bad for luminous San Francisco night.

I don’t know much about stars. (One of the stars I saw turned out to be a helicopter.) I only know that the starlight I saw took decades, centuries, maybe even millennia to reach my eyes. I enjoyed the old starlight and new San Francisco light; the combination generated a pleasing fog.

19 October 2001
Stuck Song Syndrome
I heard that some marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati has discovered—or at least named—a new syndrome, Stuck Song Syndrome. Although I can’t blame the guy for making a buck, I think this syndrome thing has gone too far. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that no one will ever get drunk again. Instead, they will be deemed to be suffering from Excessive Alcohol Intake Syndrome.

Anyway, the professor not only identified Stuck Song Syndrome, he found the source: repetition. It’s like Quintus Horace Flaccus said millennia ago, “Haec decies repetita placebit.” (Things which are repeated are pleasing.) It seems fairly obvious that repetition is the not-so-secret secret of Stuck Song Syndrome.

I’ve used mind-numbing repetition for years; it’s one of the best ways I know to torture my audiences. For example, here are the lyrics from one of my recent compositions, Rosie is a Kitty Cat.

Rosie is a kitty cat,
Kitty cat, kitty cat,
Rosie is a kitty cat,
That’s why she is a cat,


Rosie is a pussy cat,
Pussy cat, pussy cat,
Rosie is a pussy cat,
That’s why she is a cat,


Rosie is a kitty cat,
Kitty cat, kitty cat,
Rosie is a kitty cat,
That’s why she is a cat,


Rosie is a pussy cat,
Pussy cat, pussy cat,
Rosie is a pussy cat,
That’s why she is a cat,


And like all my musical compositions, Rosie is a Kitty Cat repeats endlessly. A wonderful thing should never end.

20 October 2001
Seven Temporary Paintings by Glenn Trahenir
I just saw a brilliant exhibition by Glenn Trahenir. The entire show consisted of seven paintings on glass jars. I can’t find the words to fully describe the paintings, except that they were very good visually and brilliant conceptually.

Trahenir filled the contents of each sealed jar with a different strain of botulism. According to the artist, each of the jars will explode before the end of the year.

I’ve spent too much time worrying about the permanence of the images I make. I wish I could make photographs that exploded before they faded.

21 October 2001
Ansel Adams at 100
I went to see the latest Ansel Adams show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art after hearing it provided a new prospective on his work. I should have known better.

What a pile of meecrog!

The exhibit was an exercise in marketing, not aesthetics. In addition to displays inside and outside of the museum’s store, one of the upstairs galleries was converted to an Ansel Adams store.

Now, I don’t have any problem with peddlers and hucksters in general, but this show purported to be innovative, definitive, et cetera, et cetera. And since Ansel was kind enough to pour me some large-format gin and tonics when I visited him, I thought the least I could do in return was to write a nasty little piece about the greedy leeches feeding off his inventory.

So I did.

In case you don’t subscribe to European Photography, here it is ...

Ansel Adams at 100 isn’t really a book; it is a major corporate marketing and branding campaign, of which the book of the same name is but one component. (The sales blitz also features an Ansel Adams at 100 exhibit of the same name traveling to six institutions in three countries, Ansel Adams at 100: 2002 Engagement Calendar, Ansel Adams at 100: 2002 Wall Calendar, Ansel Adams at 100: A Postcard Folio Book, and, of course, Ansel Adams at 100 posters.)

Here’s how the publishers describe the book component of this marketing exercise. “In celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ansel Adams (1902-1984), Little, Brown and Company publishes the most significant book ever done on his work—an oversized centennial volume, destined to be the definitive book on this great American artist.” If that wasn’t enough, the book’s author, John Szarkowski is “the most revered photography curator and critic of our time.” If there are any doubters in the audience, they’re reminded that “only such works published by Little, Brown and Company can be considered authentic representations of the genius of Ansel Adams.”

The pompous boasts are empty, hollow, and untrue.

Ansel Adams at 100 is most certainly neither the most significant nor the most definitive work on Adams. Were the publishers honest enough to choose a title for this book that accurately reflected the volume’s contents, it might have been called Ansel Adams’ Beautiful Nature Pictures, or perhaps John Szarkowski’s Favorite Ansel Adams Photographs: The Few Good Years.

The selection of the one-hundred and thirteen plates in the book is nothing if not eclectic. Only six of the images acknowledge the existence of human beings: one photograph of New York City buildings (without a person in sight), two pastoral scenes with fence posts in the background, two unremarkable photographs of Native American dancers, and, of course, the ever-popular Moonrise.

Why is there not a single portrait in this “significant” book’s plates? Why is there not a single photograph that Adams made at Manzanar, the desert internment camps where the U.S. government forcibly relocated law-abiding Japanese-American citizens during the second world war? Szarkowski has an explanation. “The problem with [the Manzanar photographs] was not Adams’ moral stance but his pictures, which—like his portraits even of his close friends—were generally wooden and opaque.”

Szarkowski is not a shy man when it comes to promoting his book. “Ansel Adams at 100, in contrast [to “the several superb books published on his work that have been directed toward specific aspects of his subject matter or his history”], is a product of a thorough review of work that Adams, at various times in his career, considered important.” In fact, Ansel Adams at 100 is nothing more that a review of only the work that Szarkowski considers important.

At one point in his essay, Szarkowski includes an explanation for his omissions. “The function of this essay is to consider Adams as an artist, not as an educator or a proselytizer for the art of photography or an environmentalist; but it is true that he had only one life to live, and it must be true that his extra-artistic activities were connected to and effected his work.” It must be true, but Szarkowski doesn’t explain why or how.

Szarkowski notes, “In 1952 he [Ansel Adams] confessed to the Newhalls that he was becoming less and less interested in making photographs, and more and more interested in how they could be used.” The author fails to follow up on this development, and instead declares Adams’ career all but over before his fiftieth birthday. “We should assume that he had recognized that he had done the work that his own genius had asked of him—and had permitted him.”

For Szarkowski, Adams produced little of substance during his last three decades. Worse, he managed to ruin his earlier successes by making bad prints from good negatives. “The lyrical precision and perfect balance of his earlier work he reworked in his old age, too often replacing the elegance with melodrama, and the reverence with something approaching bombast.” Szarkowski provides a couple of examples of elegance versus bombast. “Why this radiant peak [Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake], a reflection of our highest and purest aspirations, should have been transformed into a dirty snowdrift is a mystery to this viewer.” (As an aside, this viewer preferred the later prints.)

Early in his essay, Szarkowski admits, “It is tempting to play psychoanalyst ...” He then yields to that temptation and provides readers with his posthumous psychoanalysis of Adams, psychobabble sometimes contradicted by facts. For example, Szarkowski claims, “Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul he was trying to save.” Could Szarkowski be talking about the same Ansel Adams who used his photographs as lobbying tools during political visits in Washington, DC?

The publishers of this book describe it as “oversized,” even though it is physically smaller than a number of other very similar books. Editorially, Ansel Adams at 100 is very small indeed. It’s so small that there’s only room for a caricature of Adams, and only a single facet of his work.

Adams deserves better, but he probably won’t get it. The accountants at the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and the marketing people at Little, Brown and Company know what sells: Ansel Adams’ Beautiful Nature Pictures.

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©2001 David Glenn Rinehart