3. Elif Shafak : Author

I didn’t know anything about Elif Shafak until I a few months ago when I was listening to one of the Radio 4 book programmes in my car.  I switched on in the middle of an interview and heard the interviewer explaining that Shafak , who is of Turkish parentage, writes her books in English; has them translated into Turkish and then back again.  Shafak explained that Turkish is her emotional language and English is her intellectual language.  She also described her childhood with her intellectual, modern,  single-parent mother (a diplomat) and her grandmother, who took care of her,  who was a healer, mystical, religious and spiritual.

I was very interested in her background and this psychological split (including reading recently  that that she had been born left-handed but changed to being right-handed by her grandmother when she went to school – something I share with her). I have often wondered about the effect upon a child in moving between two different cultures and dealing with two different languages at the same time and this is something I have already written about regarding Jack Kerouac.

Unusually for me I didn’t explore further, but the interview obviously stayed in my mind because it came back to me when I was at the William Klein/Daido Moriyama Exhibition at Tate Modern in January). Keith and I were discussing Daido Moriyama:  how we might understand his photography: whether there is a language of photography and what is the effect of this language on the way a photographer views and conveys his/her world. I’ll write more on this in a future blog post when I review the Exhibition.

I did more research on Elif Shafak in the following week; looked at her website; found an excellent TED talk (also on YouTube) and bought one of her novels. She was born in 1971 in Strasbourg, France, of Turkish parents philosopher Nuri Bilgin and Sfak Atayman.  Her parents separated when she was a year old and her mother became a diplomat.  Shafak has lived in many countries and currently I understand, divides her time between Istanbul and London .  She attended the Middle East Technical University in Turkey and, from there, has a Master’s degree in Gender and Women’s studies and a PhD in Political science. Her Master’s thesis was on Islam, women, and mysticism (Islam, Mysticism and the Circular Understanding of Time).  She has published 12 books, eight of them novels) and her non-fiction  essays  have been collected together in three books – Med-Cezir (2005), Firarperest (2010) and Şemspare (2012). In 2007 she was arraigned for trial in Turkey (charges subsequently dropped) for the crime of  ‘insulting Turkishness’ for approaching the question of whether there are possibilities for reconciliation in some of the darker episodes of Turkey’s history are acknowledged and absorbed.

Her official website  has information on her fiction writing plus articles, reviews and interviews.  In her TED talk, Shafak describes her background and talks of the role that story telling has placed in her life. She says that, being both female and Turkish, people expect her to be writing about women in veils and Islam and refers to the way in which we can stay inside cultural ‘cocoons’ (reminiscent of Edward Said’s views on ‘Orientalism’). Her belief is that storytelling can puncture holes in these cocoons and she likes to think that her fiction is both local and universal. Shafak also talks about linguistic shifts – mathematical and cerebral when writing in English and emotional when writing in Turkish and the way in which stories keep her ‘pieces’ and memories together. She likens her imagination to being her only suitcase when she was travelling with her mother. You can watch it on TED here or watch it now

I find Elif Shafak very interesting for a variety of reasons – her ideas on the way in which cultural stereotypes can be broken down by universal stories; her belief that writing can change things; the way in which she paints pictures with her words.   I think that much of what she writes and says can be applied to photography.  I want to think more on the language of photography –  how an image can transcend cultural boundaries and how it acts on both emotional and intellectual levels.

26th March 2013

References 

http://elifshafak.com

http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/elif-shafak/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq7QPnqLoUk

Robert Frank and “The Americans”

Robert Frank,  The Americans

I knew about this book as it has been mentioned so many times (including Mishka Henner’s ‘appropriation’ in Less Americains)   but hadn’t looked at it until I read John’s blog post   which inspired me to acquire it. I purposely decided not to re-read John’s blog post or do any research on the internet to decrease any influence on my immediate response. I even stopped reading the introduction by Jack Kerouac as it was such a lyrical piece that I thought this too might influence my reading of the images. Instead I looked just at the photographs. My first impression on looking through the book was that Frank was portraying lives ‘on the slant’. People were looking right, looking left, occasionally straight ahead. I could see compositional triangles and diagonals with horizons not usually straight.  The images were black and white (of course) and grainy. Many of the shots are blurry, as if captured quickly passing by, or people are moving. There didn’t seem to be a narrative flow, just random images. The captions named the building and place but it wasn’t as if I was in the same town/city or on the road to the next one as I turned the pages. I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was seeing. It was hard to understand why the book has had such an impact. I decided first to obtain the book On the Road to discover more about the connections between Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank and also to do more reading about Frank. I’ve already written about Kerouac here.

Some background on Robert Frank

I’ve accessed several interviews with Robert Frank, including video interviews,and will quote where it seems appropriate.  Frank was born in Switzerland into a Jewish family on 9th November, 1924.  He apprenticed himself to a variety of Swiss film and photography studios whilst a teenager and then emigrated to America in 1947, finding work with Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion photographer.

In an article in the New York Times (pub 4th September 1994) the interviewer, Richard Woodward, quotes from one of the first letters Frank wrote to his parents , “Never have I experienced so much in one week as here.  I feel as if I’m in a film.  Life here is very different than in Europe.  Only the moment counts; nobody seems to care about what he’ll do tomorrow”, which is a statement that, to me, certainly acts as a prescient comment on the content of Kerouac’s “On the Road” and also, perhaps, points to what I perceive as Frank’s ambivalent attitude towards America as shown in his later book “The Americans” and yet the fact that he has continued to live there.

Frank was both dissatisfied with the control that editors had over his work and also what he saw as the fast pace and overemphasis on money in the United States. He soon left America to travel in South America and Europe but returned in 1950 and married a fellow artist, Mary Lockspeiser, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo. However, he continued to travel, moving briefly to Paris, but returned to New York in 1953 where he continued to work as a freelance photojournalist and associated with fellow photographers such as Saul Leiter and Diane Arbus. In a documentary for The Southbank Show in 2005 (Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank”  now on You Tube (see below) Frank said, “For a long time as a photographer I searched for very clear and strong pictures. I was attracted by what you call sombre events; strong images” (around 5.58 min into the video). He has said that he was influenced by the contemporary photographers Bill Brandt,  in England and Walker Evans .

Walker Evans encouraged him to apply for to the Guggenheim Foundation for a Fellowship to make, “a broad voluminous picture record” of the United States.  Frank began to make the first of several road trips where he documented what he saw as, “…a soul-damaged population, fluctuating between violence, ignorance and despair”  (p. 344 Marien, M.W. 2002). He said, “One became aware of white cities, black people, no money, no hope. The noise; the violence; how brutal people were” (Woodward, RB, 1994). All this was happening against the background of the Cold War and the Second Red Scare in America with its heightened fears of communist infiltration that enabled Senator Joe McCarthy to pursue his anti-communist activities.

I’ve read a lot around Frank’s affinity with the Beat Generation (and of course his connection with Jack Kerouac) in terms of values and attitudes they shared.  I’ve also wondered about other connections in terms of personality.  There’s that sense of alienation from mainstream thought and culture.  Mary Warner-Merien refers to  “…. beat generation hauteur with its emphasis on cool, self-absorbed rebelliousness in the face of narrow social conformity” (p. 347, 2002).   There was also the other aspect of living in the moment and keeping moving.  It seems to me that, like Kerouac, Robert Frank was/is a wanderer and, wherever he was he wanted to be somewhere else.  This came through to me also when watching the Southbank Show documentary where Frank and his second wife June Leaf are talking about their move to Nova Scotia in 1971 because Frank wanted to get away from New York. He describes how June was alone several times in Nova Scotia, “I was just a rolling stone”. (c. 40 min) – just as he was in those earlier years after he first went to New York.

Frank travelled mostly alone whilst gathering together his images, although sometimes with his (first) wife and children.  In the Southbank documentary he says, “What a lonely time it can be in America. What a tough country it is.  I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated.  It didn’t make me hate America; made me understand how people can be. You can learn a lot as a photographer.” (2005, around 12.01 min in).   His images in the Americans reflected Frank’s, alienated, outsider view.  Prints, as I described earlier – often gritty, tilted, blurred, shooting from the hip,  and with an unpremeditated look – “fragmented, ‘indecisive’ moments”. This style of photography has been described as ‘stream of consciousness” or ‘diaristic’ mode as it mediates the world through the personal (G. Badger)   To me, Robert Frank’s visual style mirrors what Jack Kerouac was seeking and found in his writing.  It needs a looser, freer approach, some kind of letting go.  I have found another photo resource here  to illustrate that.

Frank decided to make a book of the photographs, choosing 83 images.  The reaction in America was strongly against The Americans  with its technical roughness, use of low lighting and more unusual cropping,  plus its pessimistic tenor at a time when the media were more concerned to produce images of an optimistic population rebuilding themselves after the War. No American publisher would handle the book to begin with and it was first published in France as Les Americains  in 1958. By that time he had met Jack Kouerac who agreed to write an introduction to an American edition of the book which came out in 1959.  The two of them later went on to make  the film Pull My Daisy  with Kerouac as narrator and Frank subsequently turned to more film and video work, with a portion of it being based around his family, returning to still images in the 1970s.

Another look at The Americans

With all this new information I then turned back to look at the book again. I was more aware of the moment to moment, passing-through, style but it still didn’t make any narrative sense to me other than these are different people living different lives, some rich and some poor. Yet I know it’s been influential on many photographers since. Is it the loose, close-up, slanted,  shooting from the hip style; that sense of fast movement that street photographers get now?  Is it the fact that Japanese photographers such as Daido Moriyama have taken up stream of consciousness photography and a bleak alienated vision of the world. This is the work that Frank is probably the best known for.  Is part of this because of the connection with Kerouac and the Beat Generation?  I still have questions because I’m trying to understand the influence and I’ve certainly been on quite a reading and looking journey, so I looked again and found a paper by George Cotkin,  looking at Frank’s connections with the Beat-Hipster generation – the search for the essential self; critique of the established order and the existential awareness that death can always be just around the corner.

Cotkin notes some of the words that Kerouac uses in his introduction..   “CRAZY FEELING . . . music . . . jukebox . . . funeral . . . traveled on the road . . . old used car . . . agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy.” He states that all of these are the essentials of the Beat imagination, “its iconographic roadmap” – all of which appear prominently in The Americans. To prove this, Cotkin describes a series of five adjacent photographs in the middle of the book that, to him, capture, in miniature, the book’s intermingling of life and death.

  1. “U.S.91 leaving Blackfoot, Idaho” – two young men in a car
  2.  “St. Petersburg. Florida” – “an evocative study of the elderly—sad and dying—sitting on two benches whose posts seem to resemble the marker lines of a highway. In the background of this image, placed against the rootedness of those involved in the waiting game of death, is a streaking car—perhaps one carrying the Idaho youth—off to new horizons and possibilities”.
  3. “Covered car – Long Beach. California” – a tarpaulin shrouded car, “immobile and dead”.
  4. “Car accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona” – body of an accident victim.
  5. “U.S. 285, New Mexico – “Returning to the road and a new set of possibilities.  The passing lanes of the highway suggest escape and speed, but evoke danger, for one can glimpse the outline of an on-coming car, headlights faint, in the passing lane”.

Cotkin places this ‘series’ within the context of  Rolan Barthes observation that “photographic images invoke death with tremendous vigour. “ It certainly makes sense, so does this series serve as a memento mori then? is Cotkin stretching this too far? Is this just another example of the way in which the viewer ascribes his/her own meaning to images?  After all, 5 out of 83 images isn’t a very large proportion although Frank did choose the order of course.

There is a newer book, an expanded  edition  containing a lot more of the background material – letters, essays, contact sheets etc – only the price has put me off buying it to see if I can gain even more of an understanding of the influence of this book.  Robert Frank has certainly drawn me in and much of this was to do with the Southbank Show documentary I watched on YouTube!

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank (2005)

(Documentary with introduction by Melvyn Bragg on the Southbank Show)

Here’s a link to the YouTube version . I haven’t embedded it because it’s a long video, but I can certainly recommend it. Frank agreed to this documentary on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It brings out all that I’ve read so far about him – his reclusive personality, the tetchiness, the comment by Richard Woodward in his article in 1994 “…. Everything about the way Frank and Leaf lead their lives seems to announce that the occupants could care less about money, dirt, post-modern convenience…” However, it also provides what I think is a well-rounded portrait of a man committed to his art; to his wife still; and to the memory of his children – both of whom died early deaths. Early on, when the film runs out, he takes the crew off out (to Canvey Island I think) and, with his old photographs in his hand, begins to ask passers-by what they remember.  Frank often talks of the past as if it’s the present, living through his experiences and thinking around his photographic intentions. At one point he says, “You see how I walk around, go from one place to the next to the next. That’s what I know to do. It’s my life to travel through America; no guy sent me”.

I think that’s a good place for me to end.

 

18th March 2013

 

References

Frank, R,  (1958/2008) The Americans, Steidl, Germany [6th ed 2012]

Frank, R (2006) Come Again, Steidl, Germany

Keroauc, J 1959 Introduction: The Americans,(2008), Steidl, germany [6th ed 2012)

Marien, M.W. (2002) Photography: A Cultural History 3rd Ed, Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London

 

http://www.americansuburbx.com/go/george-cotkin

http://www.americansuburbx.com

http://www.artscenecal.com/ArticlesFile/Archive/Articles2004/Articles0304/LFaurerA.html

http://www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Robert-Frank.html

http://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hpj/badger.htm

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm

http://mishka.lockandhenner.com/blog/?cat=66

http://www.nytimes.com/1994/09/04/magazine/where-have-you-gone-robert-frank.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

http://steidlville.com/books/889-Looking-In-Robert-Frank-s-The-Americans-Expanded-Edition.html

http://umneygm.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/you-got-eyes-the-americans-by-robert-frank/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6CVyWCVgFg (Jeu de Paume documentary)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt97Jomj5nw&feature=share&list=FLml5BO8fcMgESJ3Sg6_H9vw (Southbank Show, 2005,  from ITV Archive)

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/b/bill-brandt-biography/the Americans

1. Jack Kerouac : On the Road

Jack Kerouac : “On the Road” (1955, 1957)

Many of the books I read are linked in under blog Categories of Assignments;  Projects/Exercises or  Exhibitions I’ve visited.  However, some books are those I’ve read in response to other influences – hence my new Category .  This is its first post.

A while ago I read John’s post regarding The Americans  (Robert Frank (1958, 2012). I knew about the book (and also Mischa Henner’s take on it Les Americains) but John was so complimentary about the book, and Jack Kerouac’s original introduction, that I decided I had to buy the book. John had written that, unusually for him, he had actually looked at the book from beginning to end rather than dipping in and out – something that I tend to do with photography books as well.  I decided to follow suit but, as soon as I began to read Kerouac’s introduction, I told myself not to continue because it was certainly going to affect the way I perceived Frank’s images – through Kerouac (and John’s) eyes. I’ll be writing about The Americans in a separate post.

I remember reading Kerouac’s book when I was around 15. I borrowed if from the library and have a vague recollection of feeling quite ‘’with-it” to be reading this book, written in such a style, and about events and behaviours which were quite novel to me even versed as I was in American culture from my frequent visits to the local Cinema. This wasn’t a book about ‘boys next door’; everlasting love;  ambitious college guys etc,  it was a book about the kind of young men my parents warned me about!

Some background on Jack Kerouac

I’ve used the introduction to the book by Anne Charters as my major source of information – although I have read around various internet sites – will provide a link if appropriate.

Jack Kerouac  was born, the youngest of 3, on 12 March 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a French-Canadian family who originated in Quebec. French was his first language at home – a local dialect called joual –  and he didn’t learn to speak English fluently until he went to school at the age of 6.  His brother died at the age of nine – an event that must have been traumatic for the whole of the family.  The family also struggled in the Depression; his father ran into financial difficulties with his print shop and later became an alcoholic. I think all of these events, in combination with his personality, could have contributed to Kerouac’s later difficulties  – his strong attachment  to his mother; his possible search for his lost brother (and maybe a father figure,) through his male friendships; his unsettled relationships with women; his inability to settle for long in one place and his use of drugs and alcohol.

Kerouac gained a football scolarship to Columbia University in 1939, beginning there in 1940, but dropped out after conflict with his football coach when he wanted to return after breaking his leg in one of his first games. He enlisted in the Marines in 1943 but was honorably discharged after only 10 days of service – apparently the report referred to “strong schizoid trends”.  He ended up working as a merchant seamen, during which time he began a novel called The Sea is my Brother”  (1943), and then returned to New York where, in summer 1944,  he became friends with a group around the Columbia campus. This group became the nucleus of what later became called The Beat Generation, some of whose members would appear as characters in On The Road. These included Lucien Carr; Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Charters writes of Kerouac leading a ‘double’ life – experiments with the Columbia group using different drugs and a ‘straight’ life in his parents’ household. ( Charters, A, 1991, Introduction, p.xi).  That type of lifestyle is pretty common nowadays, but was probably much more unusual in the New York of 1944.

In December 1946, Kerouac was introduced to Neal Cassady, a visitor from Denver, with a teenage wife, who had plans to attend Columbia but. after meeting Kerouac’s group, decided to become a writer instead.  Cassady’s letters once he had returned to Denver, inspired Kerouac to start hitch-hiking on a cross-country trip as a way of overcoming writer’s block on a novel he was working on at the time (The Town and the City [1950] ) and these kind of trips continued into the early 1950s. whilst he struggled to find a right language to describe them  – something freer, more spontaneous similar to the prose of Cassady’s letters.

I wondered how much of this might be connected with having two languages as it were – joual ,his ‘mother’ tongue, (he was very close to his mother all his life also) that would be his emotional language and English, his ‘second’ language, that he used for the rest of the world. I was curious as to how this dialect sounds,  and a search led me to this blog  and also some videos which, I hope, are the correct dialect – a song  and the history of joual

For anyone interested, there’s another Youtube video here  with a discussion between two young people regarding the differences between French as spoken in France and in Quebec. I might have been very much diverted from my main topic here, but I have been thinking how these kind of language differences influence children as they grow up, particularly where parents have moved away from their origins but want to keep that link with its language and culture. I’ll be writing more about this in a later post when I think about language and culture in relation to photography, but there is a lilt and freeness in the dialect (particularly in the song) that does remind me of the prose style of the book.

I wrote all this before I recently read an article in the New York review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan that refers to  the film of the book directed by Andrew Salles and also a biography,  The Voice Is All: the Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, by Joyce Johnson  (Sept 2012)  that ends in 1951. Johnson knew Kerouac (as did Anne Charters) see the description here .  The American site of Amazon does refer to the way in which Johnson shows how Kerouac “forged a voice to contain his dualities” of  two cultures and two languages. I can only imagine what a struggle that must have been allied with his other difficulties.

So, Kerouac achieved his writing style eventually and his fellow writers also began to attract fame as the Beat Generation.  On the Road was published in 1957 but apparently, he was never able to cope with the fame he achieved or to find a settled life. He had been first marred in 1944 to Edie Parker (divorcing after a few months) and then, in 1950 he had married Joan Haverty – divorcing her after less than a year and even disputing that their daughter Jan Kerouac was his child. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction whilst trying to rediscover his talent as a writer and died 21st October 1969 due to an abdominal haemorrhage.

On the Road

The book is autobiographically based  and concerns the narrator, “Sal” Paradise, an Italian-American  (Kerouac, stripped of his own identity) and his new friend Dean Moriarty (suggesting his friend Neal Cassady had an Irish ancestry) a free-spirited young man who is the catalyst for Sal’s travels, with jazz as the backdrop.  Basically, these two young men travel the road, meeting a whole range of characters who are similarly ‘searching’ for something.  They make and break friendships and intimate relationships; whilst working at a variety of odd jobs in between returning like homing pigeons to wife in the case of Dean, and aunt in the case of Sal.

I’ve read that the book portrays the story of a fierce personal quest for meaning and belonging at a time in American history when conformity was praised and outsiders were suspect.  Women are restricting and travel is a way to assert independence. The book has also been compared to the sagas and myths of young men going off into the wilderness to find themselves and coming back as heroes.  Charters describes On the Road as being a quest by Sal Paradise who sets out , “….to test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty who Sal believes  is “in possession of the key to unlock the door to the mysterious possibilities and richness of experience itself”.  (p. xxi). Whereas Sal is making an attempt to attain some maturity, Dean is always on the move.  The contrasts between them portray both the duality and tension that underly  the search for ‘other’, need for belonging and attachment and the opposing need to remain separate.

What comes over to me in the book is the aimlessness  and hedonism of all the characters;  a sense of restless energy,  and searching for sensation which has no focus other than seeking the next kick with Sal usually captured in the flow Dean’s wake. The moment Sal alights like a butterfly back with his aunt and determined to concentrate on something, Dean turns up and speeds him off somewhere else – just as Sal does the same to Dean when he settles back with his wife. I just don’t read it as a quest for meaning and belonging because it seems to me that neither of the major characters yet have enough even minimal solidity of self to learn from their experiences.  As Hagan writes Kerouac and Cassidy, “were children themselves in other words, with ruthless souls, allowing Kerouac’s book to tumble and glow with a sense of childlike wonder and capacity…..Getting high and feeling great and having friends along the way: What could be better for a summer illusion?”

I realise that I am ambivalent about this book as I don’t feel sympathy for any of the characters themselves who are young adults hanging onto adolescence and playing at being mature.  I also know of course that Kerouac didn’t have a happy life and died young never having found what he sought. At the same time I can empathise with those surges of raw hormonal, almost primal energy that can impel young men into a heedless disregard of consequences – ‘the moment is all’.  This is something that Kerouac does capture and it’s his writing style that achieves this. – in the moment, sweeping the reader along the road

The stars seemed to get brighter the more we climbed the High Plains. We were in Wyoming now. Flat on my back, I stared straight up at the magnificent firmament, glorying in the time I was making, in how far I had come from sad Bear Mountain after all, and tingling with kicks of what lay ahead of me in Denver – whatever, whatever it would be.  (J. Kerouac, 2000, p.29).

I think it’s that kind of writing and being swept up in the flow of words and energy that has inspired so many other artists to follow Jack Kerouac On the Road.

7th March 2013

References

Charters, A (1991) Introduction in On The Road , The Penguin Group (2000)

Johnson, j (2012) The Voice Is All: the Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, Viking Books

Kerouac, J (1955, 1957) On the Road, The Penguin Group (2000), London

O’Hagan, A Jack Kerouac:Crossing the Line (1913) in The New York Review of Books, on-line edition  www.nybooks.com [accessed 5.3.2013]

http://joualvert.com/blog/joual.html

http://umneygm.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/you-got-eyes-the-americans-by-robert-frank/