Popsicle #2: Building Stories by Chris Ware

fink1In last week’s Popsicle assignment, I quoted a critic of Louise Glück who wrote “Very few lives are interesting, and even fewer are sufficiently interesting to spawn nine books of autobiographical poetry.” I thought about this a lot while reading the 14 books and pamphlets enclosed in Chris Ware’s epic graphic novel, Building Stories.

The main character (who’s unnamed) is a depressed, middle-aged, stay-at-home mom who defines herself mostly by her physical imperfections. If I have one frustration with Building Stories, it’s that there weren’t even more books about this seemingly uninteresting woman.

Much has been written about the wildly inventive design of Building Stories, but what makes it masterful is the way Ware creates such a compelling portrait out of these fragmentary pieces. After finishing the box, the nameless protagonist was so vivid I had a hard time remembering she wasn’t real. This is particularly remarkable since so much of the book deals with dreams and memories.


George Saunders was recently quoted in the New York Times Magazine saying:

I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another… The writer… can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit… The black box is meant to change us.

I did exit Ware’s box feeling changed. But it’s also worth noting that the experience of reading Building Stories was extremely pleasurable. I was worried when I bought it that Building Stories was going to be annoyingly experimental and, well, too much hard work. But the only difficulty was finding my reading glasses (don’t even think about trying to read it without them).


Unpacking Ware’s box is a delight. It also complements and energizes the narrative in powerful ways. In a recent dialog at the New York Public Library with Chris Ware, Zadie Smith talked about the necessity of formal invention:

When I felt a communion with Chris, it was the idea that we are both moderns and that we live in a modern period and have an understanding of what that demands…You have to jolt people in different ways, in different decades and different periods. You can’t keep doing the same things expecting the same reaction because it becomes formulaic and they become used to the very strategies or they are not being challenged. You’d have to find some fresh way to approach them because people are ingenious about protecting themselves from reality. They find different ways not to deal with the real. Writers have to become ingenious to get through it.

If the purpose of my 52 Popsicle New Year’s resolution was to experience more pleasure, a side effect might be that I’m occasionally jolted into experiencing more reality – Building Stories gave me a heavy dose of both.

Alec Soth

Popsicle #1: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

“Even the person who lives like a dog still has some kind of life. Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, “If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.”’ Abdul – in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

For Christmas, Uncle David gave me Louise Glück’s book of collected poems: 1962-2012. I figured this book would be perfect for my first 52 Popsicles assignment. I was particularly encouraged when I read her poem CeremonyNot only does she mention one of my all-time favorite poets, she also alludes to the pleasure/joy dichotomy I’ve been thinking about lately:

If you are so desperate 
for precedent, try
Stevens. Stevens
never traveled; that doesn’t mean
he didn’t know pleasure

Pleasure maybe but not joy. 

Like just about every other poem I read in Glück’s book, Ceremony is about the dissolution of a marriage. Worthwhile territory, of course, but the more I read, the more I felt the pleasure slipping away. “Very few lives are interesting,” wrote one critic of Glück, “and even fewer are sufficiently interesting to spawn nine books of autobiographical poetry.”

bookcover3eWorn down by all the navel gazing, I picked up the book Uncle David had given my wife: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. The remarkable thing about Boo’s acclaimed nonfiction portrayal of a Mumbai slum is how much it reads like fiction. The narrative of these lives, however ‘bad’, is portrayed with an interior intimacy almost never found in documentary work.

As a photographer, I couldn’t help but look at Boo’s achievement with envy. Pictures feel mute next to the novelistic universe she portrays. This got me to thinking about the book’s cover. I find it curious that the publisher chose a romantic photograph, particularly when Boo writes in her author’s note “I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor.”


As it turns out, the cover is a montage of two photographs from Chiara Goia and Alex Masi.  I like both of these pictures. But I’d rather not attach any photographic imagery (including the UK cover) to Boo’s seamless merging of novelistic interiority and documentary rigor.

– Alec Soth

10 things that gave me pleasure in 2012 by Alec Soth

Since my list posted on the Walker Art Center (a) doesn’t work on iphones and (b) has a god-awful picture of me, I’m reposting it here:

“Joy” by Zadie Smith

In her short essay on the difference between joy and pleasure in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith changed the way I think about everything from parenting to the writing of Top 10 lists.

As a die-hard fan of soft-serve ice cream, I’m thrilled about the new, self-serve frozen yogurt craze. It seems like every town has at least one of these new outlets. Gaudy and overpriced, yes, but so damn good.

Juergen Teller’s Pictures and Text
I’m always looking for books that combine text and image in interesting ways. My favorite in this category was this aptly titled book by Juergen Teller. Teller’s naturally gifted prose is as sweet as his pictures are crude. The result is laugh-out-loud funny and strangely moving.

Photography In Abundance by Erik Kessels
I wonder how many millions of pictures I looked at online this year? My favorite was an installation shot of Erik Kessel’s show of every photograph uploaded on Flickr over 24 hours.

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier
My favorite purely photographic book of the year was this uniquely understated reflection on migration, exile, and the longing for connection.

AMC’s Breaking Bad
When I watch an episode of Breaking Bad, I feel like I’m going to church. This year they only gave us a half season, but it was enough to keep me faithful.

Frank Ocean on Saturday Night Live
I’m not sure I saw a single live musical performance in 2012, but I felt like I was sitting right next to Frank Ocean when he sang “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” on SNL.

The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield
In a year where the buzzwords were 99% and 47%, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of a 1% family ended up being the most potent portrayal of recession economics I’ve seen.

Romka Magazine
Described as “a collective photo album in which both amateurs and professionals archive their memories,” Romka Magazine sounds really cheesy. But great curation and beautiful design make this a truly endearing publication.

Brad Zellar’s The Envoy: A Christmas Serial
People throw around the term “genius” a little too loosely, but writer Brad Zellar is the real deal. This December he posted a 60,000-word story on his blog that was not only as good as any novel I’ve read in ages, but I’ll be damned if I can find a single typo. Somebody get this guy a MacArthur grant, pronto.


LBM Dispatch in Aperture Magazine

Alec Soth: We started out with this idea of going out into America – the hot-action, Weegee-style press photographer – to shoot in these places without a lot of action. I was drawn to this because it is sort of my world. I’m no Weegee – I’m not a Jewish, cigar-smoking Lower East Side character. But there’s Weegee on the one hand, and there’s Robert Adams on the other. For me, they are like the good angel and the bad angel – I have one on each shoulder. Adams is the good angel, the ethical photographer, who’s also cynical about society and its decay. And the flipside is Weegee, whom I think of as kind of unethical. Someone who’s laughing at the world.

Brad Zellar: Exuberant?

Alec Soth: Yeah, he is exuberant. He loves life. And there’s that flipside for me: part of his work is really joyous, because it’s about being in the world, and having fun. And laughing and at the same time seeing what’s really sad. That’s something I want to reflect in my work: that it’s okay to laugh. It’s funny. It’s dark and funny and sad. 

The current issue of Aperture Magazine features a dialog between Alec Soth & Brad Zellar recorded while driving around Ohio.


Aperture Magazine / LBM Dispatch


Aperture Magazine / LBM Dispatch

Aperture Magazine / LBM DispatchAperture Magazine / LBM DispatchAperture Magazine / LBM Dispatch

Order your copy HERE

Aperture Magazine / LBM Dispatch

Little Brown Mushroom and Big Al’s Holiday event

On Saturday, December 15th, Little Brown Mushroom Books and Big Al’s will be hosting a holiday open house. Come meet the LBM team and other wonderful people. We will have copies of The LBM Dispatch and other books for sale. There will also be tours of our studios, and anyone who makes a purchase between now and New Year’s will be receive a heartfelt holiday letter from LBM. We hope to see you there.

Check out Brad Zellar’s Christmas story: The Envoy: A Christmas Serial. Start at part one and look for a new segment everyday until Christmas.

Top 10+ photobooks of 2012 by Alec Soth

Before working on this year’s top 10 list, I decided to review my previous lists from 2009, 2010 and 2011. It is interesting to see how different themes emerge. Last year, for example, was the year of crime stories. 2012 seems to be the year for looking back. While only one of my selections is a reprint, six of the others were made by photographers digging through their archives.

Needless to say, a top 10 list is as much about the list maker as it is about anything else. At the end of last year, in a post entitled Moving Forward, Looking Back, I wrote “So as the year comes to a close, I’m looking at my old photographs and Robert Adams books and thinking about time.” I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the last year I published a book of my old photos and made a video homage to Robert Adams.

So take the list below mostly as a reflection of my own interests. If anything, I hope it prompts readers to make their own list. So tell me, what were your favorite books of 2012?

Pictures and Text by Juergen Teller (Steidl)
A case study in the potential of photographers writing alongside their pictures. Teller’s naturally gifted prose is as sweet as his pictures are crude. The result is laugh-out-loud funny and strangely moving.

Out to Lunch by Ari Marcopoulus (PPP Editions)
A brilliantly crafted mess of pictures, posters, stickers (and a screenplay!) makes we want to throw away all of my belongings, move to New York and become a graffiti artist.

On the Mines by David Goldblatt and Nadine Gordimer (Steidl)
The genius of Goldblatt’s original book from 1973 is the expansive view achieved by inclusion of three distinct documentary approaches alongside texts by both Gordimer and Goldblatt. This gorgeously updated version (which includes new images and texts) achieves Goldblatt’s goal to “expand the view but not to alter the sense of things”.

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier (MACK)
With the never-ending tide of media bombast coming out of Israel and the West Bank, what a relief to spend time with this understated book and quietly reflect on migration, exile and the longing for connection.

The Afronauts by Cristina de Middel (self-published)
In the thrilling, DIY world of self-publishing, almost anything seems possible. With The Afronauts, Christina de Middel shot for the moon and made the most coveted photobook of the year.

Life’s A Beach by Martin Parr (Aperture / Xavier Barral)
A joyous celebration of fleshy human foibles presented as a photo album. In both form and content, Life’s A Beach might just be Parr’s masterpiece.

American Portraits 1979-1989 by Leon Borensztein (Nazraeli) & Rodeo Drive, 1984 by Anthony Hernandez (MACK)
I’m cheating here, but these two books of pictures from the 1980’s work perfectly together. Where Hernandez’s street photos indulge in Regan-era conspicuous consumption, Borensztein ventures into the living rooms of working class American hoping for their own slice of nobility.

Summertime by Mark Steinmetz (Nazraeli)
Another book of pictures from the 1980’s, Steinmetz is as wide-eyed and lusty for contact as a teenager as he prowls the American summer. Pretty much any book by Steinmetz is guaranteed a spot on my top 10 list.

Jeddah Diary by Olivia Arthur (Fishbar)
How do you photograph the lives of Saudi women if you cannot show their faces? Using this restriction to her advantage, Olivia Arthur beautifully evokes the desire for exposure and loneliness of concealment.

Lick Creek Line by Ron Jude (MACK)
Flipping the pages of Lick Creek Line is like following footprints in fresh snow. The narrative is so quiet it is easy to get lost. But every now and then a branch snaps and you find yourself back on Jude’s mysterious and somber trail home to Idaho.


LBM Dispatch #3: Michigan

One week after returning home from Michigan, it is pretty cool to have copies of LBM Dispatch #3: MICHIGAN with me in Paris.

I’ll be signing copies at Offprint Paris on Thursday, November 15th at 5pm (along with my new book Looking For Love, 1996).

On Friday the 16th I’ll be doing another signing at David Lynch’s club, Silencio, from 8-10pm.

Of course, if you aren’t in Paris, you can order or subscribe to the LBM Dispatch at the Little Brown Mushroom web store.

Merci Beaucoup,


PS. We’ve seriously upgraded the print quality of LBM Dispatch #3. It cost us three times as much to produce, but we are keeping the price the same for now.

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier – reviewed by Vince Leo

“Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?” -Rainer Maria Rilke

There are two stories in J. Carrier’s Elementary Calculus (MACK), actually a story within a story. Commencing after the title page, the first story begins with a photograph of an ancient stone wall on which a pigeon is perched, and ends with the last photograph of what seems to be that same pigeon in that same wall a few seconds later. Evoking all the associations of massive stone barriers, the story of the walls opens onto the historical: its inescapable presence, brute force, implacable logic, and incontrovertible permanence. Comprising the remainder of the book, the second story begins with the second photograph—an empty phone booth—and continues to the second-to-the-last photograph of another empty phone booth with the handset upside down. In comparison to the larger historical bracket, the second story is about a humble human activity, a simple phone call that almost inexplicably expands into a visual stream-of-consciousness, a day in the life as lived between walls.

The setting of both stories is the intractable historical terrain of Tel Aviv and East/West Jerusalem, a complex and disputed landscape defined on a daily basis by the visual conventions of mass media. But forget the Kalishnikovs and demonstrations; J. Carrier is after something else entirely. Using his own experiences as a migrant to guide his perceptions, Carrier maps the notion of migrancy across streets and alongside sunsets and especially in the public/private implosion of the Africans, Asians, and Palestinians he photographs at phone booths. It’s a revelation, a place in which the intransigent narrative of opposing sides has given way to the subterranean currents of global labor and its stateless wanderers. That said, Elementary Calculus isn’t a social documentary in the strictest sense: Carrier doesn’t depict the living conditions of migrant workers in graphic detail. Instead, he asks his viewers to do something more subtle and risky: to walk a mile in his migrant shoes, to see the world as a migrant sees it, to understand the world as migrants understand it.

In Carrier’s rendering, it’s a world that moves between beauty and anxiety, between bushes exploding into bloom and cats warily looking for shelter. It’s also a world in which migrants know other migrants, notice what other migrants notice, walk the same streets, use the same phones. The sequences pile up through recurring visual cues: African with shadow on sidewalk becomes cart with shadow on sidewalk containing fruit which become the markings in a graffiti die which become the popping buds on a tree branch which become the pock marks of an African’s face which become the roses in bloom on a bush. The historical appears as a checkpoint or a gate with a star of David motif, but it feels subsumed by the ongoing rush of visual associations. More than a simple formal arrangement, the sequential structure of Carrier’s story-within-the-story frustrates the explanations of historical knowledge in favor of the unexpected connections provided by the visual and experiential.

Using this open-ended process of association, Carrier constructs a bittersweet meditation on the nature of the transitory: from birds to fruit to the ever-present phone-callers. What is common to these images is exactly what is elemental to calculus: change, constant yet variable, is the underlying order of all experience. There are undeniable visual pleasures in this view of the world. But even the startling beauty of a lemon tree is tempered by the tragic realization that every moment is fleeting, every social space unstable, every phone call home a phone call about to end. If we believe Carrier, migrancy is nothing less than the inescapable and continuous experience of impermanence.

By nestling his experience of migrancy within the walls of the historical, Carrier has created a complex space of being in which the systematic knowledge of history and the associative empathy of everyday experience become a single visual field. Within this field, Elementary Calculus transforms a rambling depiction of the “the fragrance of impermanence” into an elusive call to justice. It’s not a simple story and the end is nowhere in sight for those condemned to use public phones and who, unlike Carrier, can’t go home. But by pleading for what is crucial to the lives of individuals against what is expedient for the powers that be, J. Carrier has dared us to look beyond the seductions of borders, of history, of walls and to imagine what it might mean to pledge allegiance to each other.

– Vince Leo

The LBM Dispatch is in Michigan

From October 20th through November 5th, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar will be on the road in Michigan, producing an election season version of the LBM Dispatch in one of the country’s most diverse and politically fascinating states. The trip –a rambling search for the state of the union in towns all over Michigan– will take them across the Upper Peninsula to the Mackinac Straits, and then downstate through the enormous territory of the Lower Peninsula, including stops in Saginaw, Flint, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids. Follow along here: http://lbmdispatch.tumblr.com

Subscribe to the LBM Dispatch here.