Popsicle #37: Photogeliophobia by Tim Davis

The purpose of this weekly Popsicle assignment (I tell myself as I frantically write under a self-imposed deadline) is to remember to take pleasure in my cultural consumption. The truth is that there hasn’t been a lot of consumption these last couple of weeks. I’ve been too busy playing Ping Pong.

But I did manage a little bit of airplane magazine reading. It has been years since I’ve subscribed to a photo magazine, but the redesigned Aperture is a must read. Not only is it larger, thicker and more lushly printed than before, it is chock-full of text. After the endless waves of Insta-Tumblr, what a relief to be forced to shut my phone off on the plane and engage with thoughtful writing about photography.

The theme of the current issue is ‘Playtime’ and there are excellent pieces on Erwin Wurm, Christian Marclay, Jacques Tati, American conceptual humorists of the 60’s-70’s and contemporary Swiss photographers using comedy. But my favorite essay is ‘Photogeliophobia: Fear of Funny Photography’ by Tim Davis. “There are no published case studies of Geliophobia, the fear of laughter,” writes Davis, “but the History of Visual Art mostly is one. Despite how unbearable life would be without it, artists get anxious letting laughter leak into their work.”

Later in the essay Davis goes on to quote the patron saint of these Popsicle essays, George Saunders:

I just started writing these Dr. Seuss poems after seven or eight years of doing just Hemingway. And that night I just brought it home and threw it on the table…and after the kids were in bed I heard my wife laughing in the other room. Like Christmas morning I peeked around the corner and she’s laughing at my stuff, actually having pleasure in it…I had just written a 700 page novel…in a Joycean voice…so to see someone taking pleasure in it was just unreal…After that I said OK, so, you are heretofore permitted to be funny.
-George Saunders, The Sound of Young America Podcast

During the course of an interview with Araki last week in Tokyo, he looked at my book Sleeping by the Mississippi. “Why do you take pictures that are so sad,” he asked, “they all look like graves in a graveyard.” One of the answers, I suppose, is that I too have suffered from geliophobia. But in the years since working on Mississippi and Niagara, I’ve tried to loosen up and give myself permission to be lighthearted.

One result is LBM’s most recent book Ping Pong. This project came about after years of collecting vernacular pictures of my beloved semi-sport. The thing I cherish about these photos is their whimsy. Ping Pong isn’t boxing; it isn’t a brutal metaphor for our primitive aggressiveness. As Pico Iyer writes in the book, “Ping Pong is a lifestyle, a training in attention, a diversion, a mad passion and a way of not taking anything important too seriously and taking some tiny things much too seriously.”

Last Friday night LBM hosted a Ping Pong party in New York. In attendance I saw Paul Graham, Todd Hido, Susan Meiselas and many other acclaimed photographers. It was glorious to see all of these fantastic artists having fun and not taking themselves too seriously. I hope that now and again photographers allow themselves to convey this same spirit in their work.

Popsicle #36: The Value of Suffering by Pico Iyer

In the next few days we’ll be announcing a new LBM book made in collaboration with the writer Pico Iyer. It has been such a delight to work with Pico. He’s brought generosity, humor and transparency to every one of our exchanges. So I was thrilled when I opened up the Sunday New York Times a couple of weeks ago and saw he’d written a piece for Op-Ed section. I was also deeply moved. I read ‘The Value of Suffering’ while visiting a loved one in the hospital who’d been struggling with complications from cancer surgery. What makes the piece so great – and something I wanted to share with her – is that it isn’t the least bit preachy:

Philosophy cannot cure a toothache, and the person who starts going on about its long-term benefits may induce a headache, too. Anyone who’s been close to a loved one suffering from depression knows that the vicious cycle behind her condition means that, by definition, she can’t hear the logic or reassurances we extend to her; if she could, she wouldn’t be suffering from depression.

Occasionally, it’s true, I’ll meet someone — call him myself — who makes the same mistake again and again, heedless of what friends and sense tell him, unable even to listen to himself. Then he crashes his car, or suffers a heart attack, and suddenly calamity works on him like an alarm clock; by packing a punch that no gentler means can summon, suffering breaks him open and moves him to change his ways….

But does that change all the many times when suffering leaves us with no seeming benefit at all, and only a resentment of those who tell us to look on the bright side and count our blessings and recall that time heals all wounds (when we know it doesn’t)?

I’m writing this week’s Popsicle from my hotel room in Tokyo (where a typhoon appears to be brewing outside my window). This is my first visit to Japan and I’ve been flabbergasted by the depth of the cultural differences I’ve seen here.  The British-born Iyer lives in Japan and is able to speak to the way these differences play out in our response to suffering:

“I’ll do my best!” and “I’ll stick it out!” and “It can’t be helped” are the phrases you hear every hour in Japan; when a tsunami claimed thousands of lives north of Tokyo two years ago, I heard much more lamentation and panic in California than among the people I know around Kyoto.

My favorite part of Iyer’s essay is his discussion of Kobayashi Issa’s 18th century haiku. Rather than restate Iyer’s point, I think I’ll just end with Issa’s poem. This is a perfect thing for me to read as I head out into a dark and rainy day:

This world of dew
is only a world of dew –
and yet




Popsicle #35: A photograph by Yasuhiro Ishimoto

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Japan, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to photograph and interpret another culture. To what extant did Robert Frank’s Swiss heritage, for example, shape the way he saw and interpreted The Americas?

One peculiar example of cross-cultural seeing is Yasuhiro Ishimoto. Ishimoto was born in San Francisco in 1921, went back to Japan at the age of three, returned to the US at eighteen, spent time in an internment camp during WWII, studied photography in Chicago, then spent the rest of his life living in Japan but traveling back often to the US. Minor White referred to Ishimoto as “a visual bilinguist.”

Perhaps this partly explains why Ishimoto was also such a visual omnivore. I own the 1969 edition of Chicago, Chicago, and it is pretty much a compendium of every mid-century photographic style. A note in the back of the book by Yusaku Kamekura explains how the book was created:

Ishimoto spent between 1960 and 1962 photographing Chicago. This was an immense amount of film, from which he selected 1000 shots and printed them…

April 16: A cold rain poured down all day. On that day I saw the whole set of Ishimoto’s Chicago, Chicago. The two of us started to work on editing, and separating them into blocks, we put together the pages. Then we cut down the photos to two hundred.

It was May 10th when the final decision was made and the photos brought, divided into blocks. With few exceptions, the choices were largely those made on the rainy day.

Unfortunately, I think the book would be much better if they’d worked longer. While the “blocks” show Ishimoto’s hungry eye, they also show his heavy influences. There are sections with decayed buildings and new skyscrapers in the manner of Ishimoto’s teachers: Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. One is reminded of Helen Levitt in his portraits of children. But it is the influence of Robert Frank that is most notable. A number of the pictures in Chicago, Chicago are dead ringers for iconic pictures from The Americans.

While the editing is flawed, the book still has so many great pictures that it is a pleasure to look at. But the greatest pleasure, for me, is the final image in the book:


For their 1999 exhibition catalog, Yasuhiro Ishimoto: A Tale of Two Cities, The Art Institute of Chicago put this image on the cover. Curator Colin Westerbeck wrote the following:

It is an image of the hot air of the American press (nothing could typify that better than the Chicago Tribune), and of the Windy City, as Chicago is called. This photograph’s allusion to Chicago’s nickname makes it a fitting end to the book, though at first glance the image seems completely unassuming…In fact, Ishimoto pursued those sheets of newspaper for over an hour. There is nothing casual about the photograph. It instills into the book’s ending a “hush profound” like that in which the sound of the cicada seeps into the rock in Basho’s haiku.

For me what makes the image so great is that it isn’t a picture of the American press, or Chicago, or haiku for that matter. With this image, Ishimoto largely escapes the burden of cultural influence. Like the title of his first book (which I unfortunately don’t own) the picture is simply “Someday Somewhere.” The newspaper flies away, language is lost. The only thing left for the bilinguit to do is look.

Popsicle #34: Lectures by Charlie Kaufman and George Saunders


Fifteen years ago I was in an exhibition with my former teacher Joel Sternfeld. During the opening, the director of the gallery asked me to say a few words to the audience. But with public speaking at the top of my list of anxieties, no amount of pleading would get me to take the stage. “If you want to be an artist,” Joel said, “you are eventually going to have to deal with this.”

Initially this comment irritated me. The whole reason I’d become a photographer was that I liked working alone. But in time, I realized Joel was right. If you are in the art business, you are invariably asked to talk in front of an audience.  So I eventually had to face my fear. It wasn’t always pretty, but the more lectures I gave, the more comfortable I became.

Recently I’ve been thinking about expanding the possibilities of the artist lecture. If art is about communication, why not try to be more artful in the construction of this form of communication – why not make the lecture its own form of art?

This was the fundamental question I had on my mind while organizing our recent Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers. As it turned out, the participants more than confirmed my belief in the artistic potential of this form. Their final presentations were emotional, funny and electric. Most of all, they made me think hard about how I can make my own lectures more vital.

One of the camp participants recently sent me a link to a lecture by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. It starts this way:

I’ve never delivered a speech before, which is why I decided to do this tonight. I wanted to do something that I don’t know how to do, and offer you the experience of watching someone fumble, because I think maybe that’s what art should offer. An opportunity to recognize our common humanity and vulnerability.

So rather than being up here pretending I’m an expert in anything, or presenting myself in a way that will reinforce the odd, ritualized lecturer-lecturee model, I’m just telling you off the bat that I don’t know anything.  And if there’s one thing that characterizes my writing it’s that I always start from that realization and I do what I can to keep reminding myself of that during the process. I think we try to be experts because we’re scared; we don’t want to feel foolish or worthless; we want power because power is a great disguise.

With that, Kaufman begins a master class in socially-awkward storytelling. You can tell that Kaufman has invested himself totally in this talk. He’s thought long and hard about what he wants to say and why he wants to say it. And what he’s saying most fundamentally is this:

Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognize him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me and I have to keep rediscovering it. It has profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.

This is from E. E.  Cummings: ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.’ The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.

This last note about being kind reminded me of another recent lecture ­– George Saunder’s commencement address at Syracuse University. While Saunder’s words aren’t as raw as Kaufman’s, I appreciated that rather than trying to be cool or smart, Saunders emphasized something “a little corny” : kindness.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk — dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure — for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things — intellectually we know better — but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

Listening to both Kaufman and Saunders was inspiring. Not only did they both make me want to give richer, more honest lectures – they both wanted me to be a kinder, more honest person. As grateful as I am for Being John Malkovich and 10th of December, I’m equally grateful for these lectures. I’m glad both writers were able to step away from the desk and talk directly to an audience.

 George Saunders’s advice to graduates

Popsicle #33: Jack Reacher and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe


Confession: I’ve probably read a half dozen of Lee Child’s pulp fiction novels featuring his drifter protagonist Less Child. I honestly couldn’t tell you which of the eighteen novels I’ve read or, for that matter, recount any of the plots. For me the books are just a warm bath of masculine escapism.

One of the reasons I took on this weekly Popsicle assignment was to break the habit of reading this kind of stuff. So when I learned that there was going to be a Jack Reacher movie starring Tom Cruise, I definitely planned on skipping it.  But last week I was confronted with the choice of watching the movie during a long flight to Bogotá. While I’m committed to raising the bar on my cultural consumption, I’ve also made the decision to forgo watching serious films on airlines. I still haven’t forgiven myself for watching The Tree of Life over the course of two separate transatlantic flights.

So I watched Jack Reacher. The movie was entertaining, but like the books, also forgettable. What I do remember was that Werner Herzog played the bad guy. Werner Herzog! Why would the greatest living filmmaker appear in a summer Hollywood blockbuster?

The answer is that Herzog has always been open to surprise and contradiction. “I invite any sort of myths [about myself],” he once said, “because I like the stooges and doppelgangers and doubles out there. I feel protected behind all these things. Let them blossom!”

After seeing Herzog on the screen, I was hungry for more, so I decided to watch Les Blank’s film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The back-story of the film is legendary: Herzog promised he’d eat his shoe if Errol Morris completed his film Gates of Heaven. While I initially thought it would be a one-liner, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe ended up being a brilliant portrayal of Herzog’s iconoclastic genius.

The film starts with the sound of switching television channels with this voiceover by Herzog:

If you switch on television it’s just ridiculous and it’s destructive. It kills us. And talk shows will kill us. They will kill our language. So we have to declare holy war on against what we see every day on television. I think there should be real war against commercials. Real war against talk shows. Real war against Bonanza and Rawhide.

The film then goes on to describe Herzog’s support for Errol Morris’s movie and, as promised, shows him eating his shoe. While chewing, Herzog is asked what the value of film is for society. His contradictory answer is fascinating:

I think it gives us some insight. It might change our perspective and ultimately it may be something valuable. But there is a lot of absurdity as well. As you see [pointing at his shoe] it makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone. Just look at Orson Wells or even people like Truffaut. They have become clowns. What we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light. And doing that all your life makes you just a clown. It’s illusionist’s work. It’s embarrassing to be a filmmaker.

The day after eating the shoe, Herzog is interviewed again. And again he contradicts himself:

A civilization is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language or adequate images. I see it as a very dramatic situation. We have found out that there are serious problems facing our civilization like energy problems or environment problems or nuclear power and overpopulation. But generally it is not understood yet that a problem of the same magnitude is that we don’t have adequate images. That’s what I’m working on: a new grammar of images.

Throughout this short film Herzog whipsaws between fierce conviction and comic ambivalence. Perhaps it is this unstable dualism that has kept his vision so vital. I love that he can star in a Tom Cruise movie (and compare it to Melville!) while simultaneously directing documentaries about death row. Now the only question is which Herzog film I’ll watch next: Stroszek or his new web documentary on texting while driving.

Popsicle #32: Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

a_250x375I’m currently in Colombia for an exhibition of my project from ten years ago, Dog Days Bogota. While I’ve always been eager to exhibit this work in Colombia, I’ve been equally apprehensive. I know nothing of the complexities of this place and don’t want to pretend otherwise. The other day I had coffee with a fellow photographer from Minnesota who lives in Medellín. He was explaining to me the six official social classes in Colombia. How could I publish a book about this place and not know this? My only defense is that the pictures were made as a sort of family album. In terms of cultural investigation, they barely scratch the surface.

I thought a lot about ignorance, cultural and otherwise, while reading J.M. Ledgard’s deeply intelligent novel Submergence. The book tells the story of two travelers: A British spy held captive by jihadist fighters in Somalia and a half-French, half-Australian biomathematician exploring the depths of the Greeland Sea.  The book is part love story (the two meet on holiday at an exclusive French hotel) and part suspense story (will the spy escape? will the couple meet again?). But mostly, the book is a somber ode to the cosmic ignorance of Homo sapiens.

“We exist only as water,” the scientist says to the spy over dinner, “We’re nature’s brief experiment with self-awareness. Any study of the ocean and what lies beneath it should serve notice of how easily the planet might shrug us off.”

Ledgard contrasts the roles of the spy and the scientist this way:

They had different understandings of time and space. He worked on the surface, the outside of the world. For him, everything was in flux. He was tasking agents to infiltrate mosques in Somalia and along the Swahili coast. He was concerned with alleys, beliefs, incendiary devices; with months weeks, days, with indelible hours. For her, an age was an instant. She was interested in the base of the corrosive saltwater column, delimiting through mathematics the other living world, which has existed in darkness and in continental dimensions for hundreds of millions of years.

Submergence is a brilliant book. It is knowledgeable not only about East Africa and oceanography, but also religion and literature. But fundamentally the book seemed to me about the necessity of recognizing our ignorance.  As Ledgard writes on page three: “The essence of it is that there is another world in our world.”

Popsicle #31: Welcome to Pine Point

For the last week I’ve been in Connecticut working with students at the Hartford Art School’s MFA Program. One of the things I love about this truly distinctive program is its emphasis on the photo book. Every single graduating student produces a book. While there is also a final exhibition, these books show a depth and complexity that’s impossible to display in the limited space allotted in a group show.

But as much as I cherish the photo book and admire the work these students have produced, there’s something nagging at me. Two weeks ago while writing about the development of Manga, I mentioned my belief that The Americans of our time will not be a book, but something else: a website, an app, perhaps even a video game.

In response to this, one of the participants of the LBM Summer Camp, April Dobbins, sent me a link to the interactive media website: Welcome To Pine Point. But here’s the thing, had April told me that it was an “interactive media website,” I likely wouldn’t have clicked on the link. Those words give me chills.  Over the years, there have been countless efforts to harness new technologies like Flash to create a new form of media. But invariably when I watch these efforts, what I’m most aware of is the effort to harness new technologies. The content falls by the wayside.


Welcome to Pine Point was a breathtaking exception. Created by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (aka The Goggles), the project actually began as a book project about the decline of photo albums.  But then The Goggles stumbled across an amateur website memorializing a Canadian mining town that had been shut down in the late 80’s. Created by a former resident, Richard Cloutier, this website contained photos, videos and memorabilia.

Just as it felt natural for Cloutier to make a website rather than an album, it made sense for Simons and Shoebridge to use a website to tell the story of this town. What is thrilling about Welcome to Pine Point is that it does tell a story. Unlike Cloutier’s album website, The Goggles created narrative tension much like a book or movie.

In an interview with The Nieman Storyboard, the Googles address this narrative construction:

The thing for us that we’re happiest with is that we stuck to what linear “narrative” has done for so long: that beginning, middle and end…People want to be told stories, they want to be engaged… When people think of digital interactive media, one of the first things they say is “It’s going to have multiple entry points, and you can go wherever you want to.” And sure, you can deliver certain kinds of information like that, but it’s not super-great for stories, at least in our experience.

While watching Welcome to Pine Point, I realized what a rare experience it is to be immersed in a website. The exception is movies. When I watch a movie online, I’m not thinking about the mechanics of Netflix. The content carries me away. Something similar happened with Welcome to Pine Point. I forget about my fingers turning the pages and entered the book.

“We’ve started calling them “liquid books,’” says Paul Shoebridge in an an interview with the National Film Board of Canada, “Like, not quite a web doc, not quite an interactive doc… some form of “rich book.”” Is this “liquid book” the form for the next Americans? It is hard to say. But I agree with Michael Simons when he says “I think storytellers – widely defined “storytellers” – should start entering this world and experimenting with the form.”



Popsicle #30: Four Japanese New Wave movies

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#1) Black Sun by Koreyoshi Kurahara  (1964)

As part of the research for my our new LBM project, THE FRANK ALBUM, I’ve been looking for stories about Westerners in Japan and the ways in which one culture can appreciate another without necessarily understanding it. I struck gold when I stumbled on Black Sun. The lead character, Akira, is a petty thief and drifter in love with jazz (the film is named after a Max Roach album he buys at the beginning of the film). When Akira runs into Gil, an African American GI on the lam for murder, not only is he unafraid, he’s overjoyed. For Akira, all black Americans are cool jazz men. He doesn’t see Gil, he sees a fantasy; at least until Gil kills Akira’s dog, Monk. The movie is bursting at the seams with frantic energy and utterly bizarre acting. Gil’s mumbling English is almost incomprehensible. But in this way the viewer almost sees him like Akira does, as an exotic alien. My favorite thing about this movie was the jazz. One can only imagine how fresh, alive and utterly foreign something like Thelonius Monk sounded in Tokyo in 1964.

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#2) Pleasures of the Flesh by Nagisa Oshima (1965)

Pleasures of the Flesh is a story of self destruction. I won’t bother explaining the complicated plot, but essentially a good man makes a bad decision, comes into a lot of money and eventually becomes everything he once despised. The moral of this protagonist’s deeply immoral journey: money can’t buy you love. Whether or not this moral is a metaphor for Japan’s postwar prosperity is hard to day. My favorite thing about this movie was seeing just how far Oshima was willing to push the protagonist’s debasement. It is remarkable to me that a nearly fifty-year-old film from Japan can be this bitterly nihilistic.

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#3) Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara (1964)

An entomologist from Tokyo with marital problems goes to the desert to look for beetles. After missing his train, he agrees to spend the night at a woman’s hut in the bottom of a sand dune. The hut, he soon learns, is a trap that he cannot escape. My favorite thing about the movie was the way Teshigahara made the sand come alive as a character. Midway through this two and a half hour masterpiece, I decided to take a nap. The surrealism of the movie seamlessly blended with my dreams. When I woke up, I swore I had sand in my mouth.

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4) Pigs and Battleships by Shohei Imamura (1962)

While Pigs and Battleships was cinematically more conservative than the other three films I watched (Imamura came from the studio system), the movie is a powerful depiction of clashing cultures. The film is set in the port town of Yokosuka where gangsters and prostitutes try to make a buck off of the sailors on shore leave. The movie paints an ugly picture of both the Americans and the Japanese. Or I should say, it paints an ugly picture of American and Japanese men.

After watching Pigs and Battleships, I realized how every film I watched dealt with prostitution and the subjugation of women. In fact, this was the third film in a row with a rape scene. In the case of Pigs and Battleships, this is a horrifically brutal gang rape by American sailors of the movie’s female lead, Haruko. Afterward, Haruko tries to steal money from one of the sailors and is arrested. Despite all of this, Haruko not only survives, she is left at the end of the film as the one true hero.

In an excellent video commentary, film historian Tony Rayns says:

The film’s title is not an accident. The battleships are American. The pigs are Japanese. I think only a young man would get away with this, but this is sort of a film that defines contemporary Japan as a pigsty. First as a moral pigsty, then as a social pigsty, as an economic pigsty and finally, at the climax of the film, as a literal pigsty…In terms of Imamura’s thinking, we’re talking about the cusp of the 1960’s. He sees Japanese people becoming increasingly materialistic, increasingly reckless, increasingly crazy actually, and his interest is shifting increasingly in the difference between men and women in this environment. The men he sees as being fundamentally weak, foolish, helpless. The women as being fundamentally tougher, stronger, more enduring – more likely to survive and adapt to the changing environment.

Like all of the New Wave Japanese films I watched, Pigs and Battleships looks at the new world with terror and skepticism. My favorite thing about the film is that it found a glimmer of hope neither in Western progress nor in Eastern tradition, but in the strength and resiliency of women.


Popsicle #29: A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

During my commute home from work I usually listen to the sports talk radio station. The curious thing about this is that I’m not a sports fan – I just enjoy listening to people converse passionately about something besides politics. The other night while coming home late from work, the sports station aired a talk show devoted to video games. It was the best radio I’d heard in a long time. I had almost no idea what they were talking about (the last video game I played was Donkey Kong on my Atari), but I found their passion and insider knowledge inspiring.

I had a similar feeling while reading Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s 800+ page graphic novel, A Drifting Life. Whereas Tatsumi’s Good-Bye (reviewed last week) was terse and minimalistic, A Drifting Life is an extraordinarily detailed memoir of the first fifteen years of Tatsumi’s involvement in Manga.

Before reading A Drifting Life, I knew next to nothing about Manga – it was just that shelf in the bookstore that made me feel like a pervy old man when I got near it. But Manga, like video games, turns out to be a vast universe with a rich history.  As Tatsumi tells his story, he also tells the historical story of Manga.

One of the most fascinating things I learned is that Manga was developed out of something called ‘picture story shows.’ These were essentially puppet shows with pictures instead of puppets. At the height of their popularity in 1949, there were 50,000 picture storytellers on the streets of Japan. Tatsumi also points out that some of these stories were called “gageki” (picture drama).

When these picture story shows become transformed into published stories, the new commercial art form of Manga was born. At a very young age, Tatsumi became swept up in the success of this new craze. But it wasn’t long before he became hungry to push it in new directions. Much of the book deals with Tatsumi’s ambition to create an “anti-Manga Magna technique” called Gekiga (dramatic pictures). Essentially what Tatsumi was creating was an adult form of literature that is very similar to the graphic novel’s relationship to the comic book.


While reading A Drifting Life, I often found myself envying Tatsumi. It must have been incredibly exciting to not only be active in an art form in its infancy, but to also be one of the people pushing its parameters. In photographic terms, I think of a photographer born three years later than Tatsumi in Osaka, Daido Moriyama. But now, of course, it has been over forty years since Moriyama published Bye Bye Photography. One can only envy the chaotic energy of the time when Tatsumi and Moriyama were finding their way.

Who is inventing the graphic novel or Bye Bye Photography of today? When I talk to young photographers, I often say that the next Americans isn’t going to be a book, but something else. Maybe it will be a website or an app. After listening to that talk radio show, I’m thinking it might be a video game. In any case, I’ve already missed the boat. But that’s okay. After reading A Drifting Life, I’m thinking about trying to revive the ‘picture story show.’


Popsicle #28: Good-Bye by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

During our recent Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers, one of the participants made a compelling point about children’s books. He said that when he thinks about these books, he rarely remembers the story. For him, the book is more of a place than it is a story.

After reflecting on this argument, I found myself agreeing. The place that a story takes me is more important than the mechanics of how I get there. But the story, more often than not, is the vehicle for getting there.

But that doesn’t mean this vehicle needs to be anything fancy. In preparation for camp, I watched a video by Ira Glass on creating radio stories. Glass defines a story as simply being a sequence of actions. “A story in its purest form,” says Glass, “is someone saying ‘this happened, and it led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing.’” A story doesn’t have to have an Aristotelian arc, or any sort of plot whatsoever.

I thought about this simple definition while reading the nine short stories by the legendary Manga/Geika artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi collected in the book Good-Bye. Some of the stories in the collection have dramatic tension, but most are a straightforward series of actions.

One of my favorite stories, for example, is ‘Night Falls Again.’ It starts with a homely young man at a peep show being called a pervert by a stripper. He leaves, follows a pretty girl on the street, and gets called a pervert again. In a park, after seeing a couple make out, he masturbates. On the train home, he vomits. The next morning while walking in the park, he sees pigeons pecking at his semen from previous night. After going to work and being ridiculed by his boss, he walks the streets at night and stares at more women. The story ends with him going back to the peep show.


This story has absolutely no plot. And with the exception of the pigeons, noting memorable happens. But the desperately lonely place this story took me was unforgettable.


Would I be able to get to the place if the story was removed? I’m imagining a series of photographs: a stripper, a girl on the street, pigeons, vomit, more girls on the street. It sounds gritty and potentially engaging. But what about those pigeons? Without knowing the story of the protagonist, would the image be so unforgettable?