Popsicle #17: Passengers

Brad in Boulder. Photo by Tim Carpenter

Brad in Boulder. Photo by Tim Carpenter

I’m currently on the road with Brad Zellar and our fantastic tour manager Tim Carpenter in Colorado (follow us HERE). As usual with the Dispatch trips, there is little time for reading and writing. But following up on last week’s popsicle, I did bring along a copy of Denis Johnson’s collected poems, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. As we push onward in Colorado, this poem seems appropriate:

by Denis Johnson

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through these intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning — her languid flight of hair
traveling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.

Popsicle #16: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

121511winterreading02When I was in my twenties, Denis Johnson’s masterpiece, Jesus’ Son, was my favorite book. It’s like a homemade airplane skidding along the bruised tarmac of reality, occasionally rising a few feet in the air, then finally catching air and soaring into the dream world. It is pretty much the perfect book for a twenty-something dizzy with longing.

When I was thirty-one, Johnson came to Minneapolis. He was there to perform some sort of musical collaboration, but I’ve pretty much forgotten all of the details. All I remember was nervously waiting for the event to end so that I could hand Johnson a copy of my book dummy for Sleeping by the Mississippi. I’ve also blocked out the memories of that exchange. All I know is that Johnson took the book and later informed me (by letter? did I dream this?) that he couldn’t write the introduction.

Twelve years later, I still think Denis Johnson would have been the perfect person to write an introduction to Sleeping by the Mississippi. And now, after reading Train Dreams, I think he probably should have written the introduction to Broken Manual as well. Broken Manual is my mid-life crisis book. It is about realizing that youth is slipping away and the fantasy of escaping into nature. It is about coming to terms with being a broken man.

Here are some passages I highlighted from Train Dreams:

“He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him.”

“By most Januaries, when the snow had deepened, the valley seemed stopped with perpetual silence, but as a matter of fact it was often filled with the rumble of trains and the choirs of distant wolves and the nearer mad jibbering of coyotes. Also his own howling, as he’d taken it up as a kind of sport.”

“God needs the hermit in the woods as much as He needs the man in the pulpit. Did you ever think about that?”

“Grainer still went to services some rare times, when a trip to town coincided…He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.”

“Beyond, he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the earth were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds. He’d never seen so grand a prospect. The forests that filled his life so thickly populous and so tall that generally they blocked him from seeing how far away the world was, but right now it seemed clear there were mountains enough for everybody to get his own. The curse had left him, and the contagion of his lust had drifted off and settled into one of those distant valleys.”

On the back of old 35-mm film cameras, there is a slot where you can put a tab from the film box to remind yourself which type of film you are using. I recently encountered a camera in which the photographer had a put a picture of David Lynch in this slot. As I leave for a shooting trip to Colorado this week, I’m thinking I should put a picture of Denis Johnson on the back of my camera. Who knows, maybe he’ll write the introduction to my next book. A boy can dream.


Popsicle #15: A Period of Juvenile Prosperity by Mike Brodie


While photographing baseball players a couple of weeks ago in North Carolina, I was reminded of why I have an aversion to photographing people in uniform. Uniforms are like personality shields. Instead of seeing a person, you see a type. But uniforms aren’t just limited to athletes and police officers. A few years ago while working on a project with the fashion designers Rodarte, I was asked to photograph punk kids in Oakland. What I mostly encountered were gutter punks. To me their dreadlocks, ear gauges and facial tattoos made them as one-dimensional as their cardboard signs.

For this reason, I’ve always avoided Mike Brodie’s pictures of young train hoppers. This has been particularly hard to do in the last couple of months with the release of Brodie’s book and exhibition, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. Making this even more difficult was the fact that the work was being championed by a great person, Paul Schiek, and was being shown in a great gallery, Yossi Milo. Most difficult of all was that the book was being published by one of my favorite publishers, Twin Palms.

While recently visiting Ampersand, the great art bookstore in Portland, I couldn’t resist any longer. After spending thirty seconds with A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, all of my preconceptions dropped away. Everything about this book is perfect: the size, printing, sequence, cover image, title and essay. Even the acknowledgements are perfect (“My mom, Frankie, for letting me go; my dad, Gary, for not being around;..and Savannah Locklin, my first love, for introducing me to and amazing new life worth living. Thank you all.”)

A Period of Juvenile Prosperity opened my eyes. The cliché lifestyle dropped away and I could see past the uniform to the ‘life worth living.’ At the end of Brodie’s brilliant essay, he writes “I don’t want to be famous, but I hope this book is remembered forever.” I have a feeling it will be.

– Alec Soth

Note: Over the last week littlebrownmushroom.com has been repeatedly hacked. We think we’ve finally resolved the issue. But if you encounter any difficulties, please email us at orders(at)littlebrownmushroom(dot)com. Thank you.

Popsicle #14: Two books by Jess Walter


A couple of months ago I wrote about David Foster Wallace’s commencement address, This is Water.  He begins his talk with the following story:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

Wallace knows that it is a corny cliché to use a “parable-ish” story in a commencement address, but by the end of the talk, he brings the message home with real weight and seriousness:

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe even 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”

I couldn’t help thinking of Wallace’s parable when I picked up Jess Walter’s recently published collection of short stories, We Live in Water. At the beginning of the title story, a young boy repeatedly asks his father, “Do we live in water?” It is only at the end of the story that father understands his son’s question:

And there was the boy, staring into Flett’s giant aquarium, tropical fish swimming around in the blue light, a big square-headed whiskered thing probing the glass, and a skinny one with streaks of gold and a flitty little yellow one that darted in among the phony rocks. Michael was so close his nose almost touched the glass and his face was as blue as the fish, as he watched them swim the way he watched traffic out the window of Oren’s apartment, the way he looked at Oren in the car, the way he looked out at the world. And that’s when Oren understood.

Do we live in water?

He watched the fish come to the end of its blue world, invisible and impassible, turn, go around and turn again as he sensed another wall and another and on and on. It didn’t even look like water, so clear and blue. And the god-damn fish just swam in circles, as if he believed that, one of these times, the glass wouldn’t be there and he would just sail off, into the open.

As a collection of short stories, We Live in Water is like an aquarium. Each story describes a couple of fish, usually male, swimming in circles and smacking into the glass. I loved these stories, but was always disappointed when they ended. I wanted to watch one of Walter’s characters swim in a bigger tank.

So after finishing We Live in Water I picked up Walter’s 2009 novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets. It tells the story of Matthew Prior, a business reporter whose dream of quitting his newspaper job to start a website devoted to financial news told in poetic verse ends up leading to his family’s implosion. Reminiscent of Walter White in Breaking Bad, Matthew Prior’s desperate decision-making is pathetic, hysterical and wildly entertaining. It is also, as you might guess, poetic. Prior’s free verse is sprinkled throughout the story. As with his financial poetry, most of these poems are cheeky and intentionally average. But every now and then Walter slips in something serious. In a poem entitled ‘Dry Falls,’ Prior writes about the rural home along a dry riverbed that his father retreated to after leaving his mother.

And I wonder if we don’t live like water
seeking a level
a low bed
until one day we just go dry.
I wonder if a creek ever realizes
it has made its own grave.

Both We Live in Water and The Financial Lives of the Poets were enormously pleasurable to read. Along with being entertaining, they manage to lyrically address the ‘capital-T Truth’ of keeping your eyes open to the world hidden in plain sight.

Popsicle #13: Stitches by David Small

For this week’s assignment I planned on reading Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by the psychoanalytic writer and former child psychologist Adam Phillips. I knew the book would have smarty-pants discourse on King Lear and John Ashbery, but I was secretly looking for a little self-help. The first sentence of the prologue seemed promising:

The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.

But then came King Lear and John Ashbery. After reading Ali Smith’s hypnotic mix of mix of fiction and comparative literature last week, Phillips’ rambling was just too much dry work. But since I’d paid $25 for the hardcover, I decided to skim the book. One of the things I came across was this quote by Graham Greene:

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition. Auden noted: ‘Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.’

With those words in mind, I picked up the graphic novel, Stitches by David Small. The book had been on my shelf since visiting Small, a friend of Brad Zellar’s, while Brad and I were making Michigan last fall. I’d thus far avoided reading Stitches because I knew the book was an exceedingly painful childhood memoir. What made this avoidance peculiar is that I’d met the kind, generous and successful author and his wife and thus knew the memoir would have a more-or-less happy ending.

Boy, am I glad I finally read the book. While there is nothing more painful to read than cruelty inflicted on children, the book offers soaring moments of hope and redemption.

As with Greene, the hope comes with art:


But the true therapy comes, somewhat surprisingly, from therapy. Midway through the book a teenaged Small visits a psychologist and finally gets a rational perspective on his situation:

A boy who has had cancer…A boy whose parents and doctors did not tell him he had cancer…a boy who had to find out the truth on his own…Is this crazy?…You’ve been living in a world full of nonsense, David. No one had been telling you the truth about anything. But I’m going to tell you the truth. Are you ready? Your mother doesn’t love you. I’m sorry, David. It’s true. She doesn’t love you.

A few weeks ago my therapist told me she was retiring. In some ways, Stitches was just the self-help book I was looking for.  Perhaps, like Small, I’ll someday be able to thank her in my work. In the acknowledgments to Stitches, Small writes: “Lastly, my special thanks to Dr. Harold Davidson for pulling me to my feet and placing me on the road to the examined life.”


Popsicle #12: Artful by Ali Smith

Last week I gave a lecture to a couple of hundred students in Kansas. It was the first day back at school after Spring Break and the night before KU had won a big March Madness game. As the lights dimmed for my slideshow, I might as well have sung ‘rock-a-bye baby’ while I talked about Sleeping by the Mississippi. The twenty year olds were dropping like flies.

For most of the audience, attendance was mandatory. To prove they’d been there, each student had to hand in a short worksheet at the end of the lecture. I’d love to have read the sleepers’ comments. Better yet, I’d love to have seen their slideshows.

I thought about these sleeping students while reading Ali Smith’s Artful. The book is a transcription of four lectures Smith gave on European comparative literature at Oxford. While that might sound dull, the book reads like a passionate and unpretentiously intellectual dream.


Here Smith writes about the photograph above while talking to the ghost of her fictional dead lover:

One day, quite late on, you showed me this photograph…You told me about how Lee Miller, the very beautiful woman at the top of the photograph, had started as a Surrealist photographer then in the Second World War had taken photographs all over Britain which still looked like they were Surrealism except now they were realism…

You told me how Miller’s photographs had been lost, completely forgotten about in the final decades of her life, while her husband, who’d taken the photo of the four sleeping women holding cups, Roland Penrose, carried on being the important figure he was in Surrealism and British art. Then one day, some time after her death, her son’s wife went up into the loft and found thousands of negatives, and a set of astonishing and vivid written dispatches she’s sent from the front to Vogue, who’d published them, in the war’s final push.

Then you’d pointed at the dark-haired woman sitting lowest in the picture. That’s Leonora Carrington, you said, one of the most underrated of the British Surrealist artist and writers…

That night in bed you showed me some of Carrington’s pictures. They were dark and bright, playful, like pictures from stories, but wilder, more savage, full of sociable-looking animals and wild-looking animals, beings who were part animal and part human, looking like they were all having a very interesting conversation, masked beings, people who were turning into birds or maybe it was birds turning into people…

You flicked further into the book and read me this: ‘However deeply we look into each other’s eyes a transparent wall divides us from explosion where the looks cross outside our bodies. If by some sage power I could capture that explosion, that mysterious area outside where the wolf and I are one, perhaps then the first door would open and reveal the chamber beyond.’

You told me Leonora Carrington was an expert in liminal space. What’s liminal space? I’d asked you. Ha, you’d said. It’s kind of in-between. A place we get transported to. Like when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music and realize that for a while you’ve actually been somewhere else because you did? I’d said.

I confess that I nodded off while reading Artful during my flight home from Kansas, but Smith transported me as much as Delta.  The slideshow I saw in my dreams was one of the best lectures I’ve never attended.

In last week’s post on Hologram For The King, I mentioned the importance of physically holding the book. This came to mind again with Artful. But in this case I wonder if the act of reading itself prevented me from fully plunging into Smith’s surrealist dream. In the lecture ‘On Edge,’ Smith writes:

Are words on the page more than surface? Is the act of reading something of a surface act? Do words on the page hold us on a surface, above depths and shallows like a layer of ice? (A book should be the axe to break the frozen sea inside us, Kafka says.) And what about reading on-screen – the latest, most modern way of communicating, working, writing a letter, writing a book, reading a book, telling a story?

What is a screen? A thing that divides. A thing people undress behind. A think every computer has, in fact a thing computing has distilled itself increasingly into…A thing that has an appearance of transparency and that divides us from bankers, ticket sellers, post office workers, people with money. A thing people project onto.

I’m jealous of the students that were able to attend Smith’s lectures. The attendance the first week was low. But then word got out that Smith was creating something artful and the audience tripled for the second lecture. By the final week there wasn’t an open seat in the house.

Reading Smith made me want to be more creative in the construction of my own lectures. There will always be sleepers, but I like the idea of the artist lecture being the launcher of dreams.


Popsicle #11: A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers

hologram_for_the_kingA couple of weeks ago I mentioned my attraction to stories about ordinary men stuck in a run of bad luck. For this week’s assignment, I read about a real humdinger of a a sad sack in A Hologram for The King by Dave Eggers. The protagonist, Alan Clay, is a 54-year old consultant trying to redeem himself after a series of financial and familial failures. His last ditch plan is to sell a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

While awaiting an audience with the King, Clay recounts his various missteps. The first domino, we learn, was outsourcing manufacturing as part of management at Schwinn bicycles. This eventually led to the outsourcing of Clay’s own job and the company’s demise.

In one of the most painful scenes in the book, Clay calls his father to tell him about his adventures in Saudi Arabia. A union man who’s never forgiven his son’s choices at Schwinn, he admonishes him saying:

Every day, Alan, all over Asia, hundreds of container ships are leaving their ports, full of every kind of consumer good. Talk about three-dimensional, Alan. These are actual things. They’re making actual things over there, and we’re making websites and holograms. Every day our people are making their websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, working on computers made in China, driving over bridges made in China. Does this sound sustainable to you, Alan?

It was poignant reading this passage while holding the hardcover copy of the book. Like so many Eggers/McSweenys productions, Hologram for a King is lavishly designed to be an actual thing. It is also made by actual people. In the back of the book, Eggers credits every single employee of Thompson-Shore Printers in Dexter, Michigan. (Read a nice piece on Eggers’ relationship with Thompson-Shore here).

I really enjoyed Hologram for a King, particularly after my recent trip to Silicon Valley. Both reading and holding the book made me want to continue making actual things. I wonder if I would have felt the same way if I’d read it on Google Glass.


Popsicle #10: MASS by Mark Power

NN1500723For reasons having nothing to do with religion, my six-year-old recently started attending a Catholic school. As we prepared for his first day, I was a little worried about his lack of knowledge about Christianity. Not only had he never been to church, I’m not sure we’d ever explained the whole Christ thing.

Weeks after he started school, Pope Benedict announced that he was stepping down. With all of the talk in the news of red shoes and black smoke, I was even more concerned. I felt like we’d moved our son to a foreign country and we didn’t speak the language.

Around this time a book arrived in the mail from Mark Power. Wrapped in rich purple cloth and titled MASS, the book functioned as a perfect primer for this new world.

Power’s book is striking in its simplicity and ingenious craftsmanship. Without introduction or afterword, Power presents 18 pictures of Catholic Church services in Krakow, Poland. Each image is presented as a large, exquisitely detailed fold-out of the congregation photographed from above. Preceding each lavish poster is a simple picture of the church’s humble collection slot.


Yesterday, instead of going to church, my son and I looked at MASS together.

Who is that guy?


What do you know about him?

He wants people to be better persons.

How does he think they should do that?

They should be nice to each other and listen to each other.

Do you think he was rich or poor?

I don’t know.

He was poor.

Then why was he so famous?

Why do you think?

Because he died on a pole.

Why do you think people did that to him?

Because they didn’t like his ideas.

And what were his ideas?

I already told you…being a better person and listening to each other.

But why would they kill him for that?

I don’t know. Maybe because he was poor?

Why do you think they have a church for him?

I don’t know.

But you want to go to church, right?



Because we get to sing and talk and pray.

Do you know what these slots are for?


They are for money. Do you know why people put money in these slots?

So it doesn’t get stolen.

Right, but who do you think the money is for?

The poor people

Behind its deceptively simple presentation, MASS celebrates the majestic allure of the church while also pointing to its most fundamental contradictions. But it is hardly an endictement. As Power says on his website “There is much debate in Poland about the power and wealth of the church, perhaps most specifically in Krakow, and this was something I wanted to investigate and allude to. But what started out as a tirade against Catholicism soon turned to envy, both for the palpable sense of community and for a belief that I saw, understood, but simply couldn’t reach.”

Buy Mark Power’s great book HERE. It is an edition of 750 and has already been a #1 seller on PhotoEye, so you might want to hurry.



Popsicle #9: Gravity and the Dog by Jackson Cassady

15-The-Only-Road-Out-There-12.20.06-COThe Hardest Line – 12.20.06, CO by Jackson Cassady

My plan for this week’s assignment was to write about Jim Gavin’s much praised collection of short stories, Middle Men. The connected theme of these stories, ordinary men failing to string together some good luck in Southern California, seemed right up my middle-aged alley. The first few stories were entertaining enough, but then I made the mistake of watching an episode of Louie. After 20 minutes of my favorite TV shlump, I didn’t feel like reading four more bleakly humorous stories about men eating alone at Del Taco.

Instead of finishing Middle Men, I poked around online and found David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction. Written in 1990, the essay is a great trip down TV memory lane. Wallace talks about the way programming of the time (Moonlighting, Murphy Brown) had co-opted the ironic coolness of contemporary fiction. Midway through the essay, Wallace unleashes his thesis:

I want to convince you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features in contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fictionists they pose terrifically vexing problems.

Reading Middle Men twenty-three years after this essay was published, it doesn’t seem much has changed. If anything, the brilliance of a show like Louie leaves a lot of contemporary fiction in the dust.

Don’t get me wrong. I like cynical humor as much as the next guy in line at Pump-N-Munch. But a little bit goes a long way. A few Patton Oswalt tweets is just about perfect. But hours and hours of self-conscious guffaws can start to make you, or the world around you, sick.

At the end of Wallace’s essay, he writes something about the future of fiction that might just become my new mission statement:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic, Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.” Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.

Over the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time traveling around the US. I’ve encountered plenty of ironic humor, of course, but over and over again I’ve been touched by the stories of real people trying hard to make their way through real lives.

One recent example was the project I worked on for the New York Times Magazine in the oil fields of North Dakota. The experience of visiting this place was profound. But there was something about it that also felt old fashioned. Looking at the pictures in print, it didn’t seem that different from something you might see in a 50’s edition of Life Magazine. It certainly wasn’t cool. I wondered if the media savvy Times readership would roll their eyes.

I’m still not really sure. But shortly after publication I got an amazing email from a fellow named Jackson Cassady. For eight years Cassady worked in the oil fields. Just days before sending me his email he’d given up the good paycheck to pursue his creative ambitions.

The other day Cassady sent me a link to his blog, Gravity and the Dog. I couldn’t help but wonder if Cassady might just be one of David Foster Wallace’s anti-rebels. All I know is that reading his blog gave me a lot more pleasure than reading ironic fiction:

There is an oilfield term POOH – Pull Out Of Hole. I’ve jotted it hundreds of times in countless tally books.

On a rig there are only two reasons to ever POOH. The first and only good reason is getting to TD, or the Total Depth. In this case POOH typically means my job’s done, and I can go home. As a directional driller I have rarely worked a set schedule. I’m on the job to TD, however long drilling to TD takes. Walking out of my house to a job without return in sight is a tough thing. Coming home knowing another call might come at any minute is infinitely worse. Still, every time I got to scribble POOH in my book because we had TD’d the well, it felt as if I were signing my own parole release. The other kind of POOH sucks…

A few weeks ago I was on a rig outside of Lisbon, OH…In the wind it was around 20 below. I sat just off location in my rental sipping plastic vodka toward an easy blur. I surveyed and projected my current path.

I called a friend of mine who is a company man in the Williston Basin. Chris is there working as I type. He’s helped pull me and my family out of the fire a few times. I love and respect him like few people I have ever. He knows me, my personal trials, my solitude. He understood and felt exactly where I was, wholly in that hole.

And he says to me –

The hardest place to be in this world is a freckle away from as far as you can go.

On February 4th I walked away from the oilfield in the middle of a well where lateral leaves curve. I’ve always finished the job. I’ve never missed a target. I’ve been paid stupid money to do simple shit a monkey could master, but I haven’t been making any progress. I wasn’t going to be able to turn this one around. There could be no more drilling ahead on this line, and in staying at it any longer, I was just gonna keep tearing-up my world, myself, literally and otherwise. When tools come apart down-hole on a rig, they call in the fishing crews. I didn’t want to end up dead or broken and having to be fished out of my hole. So I called it. I POOH, sacked my gear, and came home to figure out how I am going to get back on course before I cross my hard line.

Follow Jackson Cassady at Gravity and the Dog.

Popsicle #8: Bye-and-Bye by Charles Wright

Monday stares through the viewfinder, a black hood over his head. – from Littlefoot by Charles Wright

url-1When Brad Zellar and I hit the road for The LBM Dispatch, we’re primarily looking for stories. Our most recent trip, Three Valleys, was no different. Both Silicon and San Joaquin Valley offered up countless leads. But Death Valley was something different. The land felt as stripped of story as it was of vegetation. This proved to be a significant challenge. Despite having produced several books with geographical titles, I’ve never considered myself a landscape photographer. More often than not, I just use geography to hang my metaphorical hat on.

While I was in Death Valley, I thought of different landscape artists that might be of assistance. The one that most prominently came to mind was Charles Wright. I wasn’t sure why. Wright’s poetry has nothing to do with the desert. He’s very much a Southerner (perhaps it was because I spent so much time on this trip with the excellent Southern photographer McNair Evans). At any rate, after leaving Death Valley, I went to City Lights in San Francisco and picked up Charles Wright’s recently published collection of late poems, Bye-and-Bye.

The book didn’t disappoint. Virtually every poem in Bye-and-Bye deals with nature and geography. But over and over again, this landscape reveals Wright’s search for spiritual meaning – something Death Valley also invariably evokes:

The structure of landscape is infinitesimal,
Like the structure of music,
seamless, invisible.
Even the rain has larger sutures.
What holds the landscape together, and what holds music together,
Is faith, it appears–faith of the eye, faith of the ear.

– from ‘Body and Soul II’

My ‘faith of the eye’ was tested more than once in Death Valley. After crossing one pass, I saw a giant lake gleaming in the distance. As we drove closer, I could see people the size of ants walking on its surface. Only when we pulled up to its edge could I decipher the illusion. The ‘lake’ was a bed of salt. Nonetheless, the scene looked like a Hollywood depiction of heaven. I tried to take pictures of this illusion, but the results were corny:


I guess this is why I was compelled to read Wright. He’s able to address the big issues behind our engagement with landscape in a way that feels honest, humble and real:

Why, It’s Pretty as a Picture

A shallow thinker, I’m tuned
to the music of things,
The conversations of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I’m all ears
To all this and half again.

And so I like it out here,
Late spring, off-colors but firming up, at ease among half things.
At ease because there’s no overwhelming design
I’m sad heir to,
At ease because the dark music of what surrounds me
Plays to my misconceptions, and pricks me, and plays on.

It is a kind of believing without belief that we believe in,
This landscape that goes
no deeper than the eye, and poises like
A postcard in front of us
As though we’d settled it there, just so,
Halfway between the mind’s eye and the mind, just halfway.

And yet we tend to think of it otherwise. Tonight,
For instance, the wind and the mountains and half-moon talk
Of unfamiliar things in a low familiar voice,
As though their words, however small, were putting the world in place.
And they are, they are,
the place inside the place inside the place.
The postcard’s just how we see it, and not how it is.
Behind the eye’s the other eye,
and the other ear.
The moonlight whispers in it, the mountains imprint upon it,
Our eyelids close over it,
Dawn and the sunset radiate from it like Eden.

What gave me the most pleasure reading Wright was less his description of landscape than his ability to use landscape as a vehicle for exploration. Fundamentally, this exploration is literary. But for Wright, literary exploration creeps right up to the edge of spiritual epiphany. It gives Wright something to believe in.

Whenever I start feeling bad about my skills as a landscape photographer, I’m going to reread Wright and this perfect little battle cry:

The Minor Art of Self-Defense 

Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique,
A method of measure,
a scaffold for structuring.
I stole its silences, I stepped to its hue and cry.

Language was always the subject matter, the idea of God
The ghost that over my little world
Hovered, my mouthpiece for meaning,
my claw and bright beak…