Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Covers: Incongruous Images

Ever been shocked by a book cover? Me, too. Most recently by the cover of the new paperback edition of Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, released earlier this month. My husband alerted me to it after he saw it, sending me an e-mail saying he was he was “shocked at the cover, a young girl and boy walking through what looks like a ghost town on the western plains.” After looking at the new cover on the Random House website, I’m scratching my head too.

We both read the book last year, which I wrote about here. It was the image on the original hardback cover that drew our attention to it when browsing in a bookstore one afternoon. The simple image of a rusty railroad spike against a stark white background made it stand out from the other titles on display around it. That cover lured me to reach for the book, take it from the shelf and read the jacket copy, flip through the pages and read a few sentences. Sold.

If the new paperback image had been on display that day last year in the bookstore, I’d have walked past without giving it a second glance. Marketing is no doubt trying for an even wider audience now – possibly trying to lure romance readers. I suppose a book with a young couple walking side by side through golden fields on the cover has been shown to sell more copies in a certain demographic. Except that the image is misleading. It is not the landscape of the book, nor is the story a love story (although there is a subplot about a romantic liaison). American Rust is a book about an industrial region in decline, the towns along the Monongahela River just south of Pittsburgh in particular. While Buell is a fictional town, it is rooted in a very real place known as the Mon Valley – and it sure doesn’t look like what’s on that new paperback cover.

Other book covers which were even more inappropriate have been written about recently by Tayari Jones at her blog and Kate Harding at Salon after the publishing house Bloomsbury USA used images of white women on books about characters who were African American. Because this has happened twice over the past year at Bloomsbury, it appears they believe a book with a dark skinned heroine on the cover would not sell as well – even if the book is about African American characters.

Authors are often unhappy with the covers that adorn their books. Even if their contract gives them input into the design, as Christina Baker Kline wrote about in a post “Anatomy of a Book Cover: Bird in Hand” at her blog about the progression of cover designs for her latest novel, it is usually the publisher who has the final decision.

The image that comes to mind when I think about American Rust will always be that rusty railroad spike on the original cover and the industrial decay of the mill towns of southwestern Pennsylvania as depicted in the book. The essence of that story (at least for me) will always be the friendship between two young men, and their plan to leave a place where they have no future and how that plan goes awry. It’s about a place where the American dream has corroded, but where people still try to hang on and do what they can to survive because it’s their home. It shows what happens to hardworking people when factories close and jobs disappear. American Rust is a gritty and dark novel, a story which deserves a more fitting image on the cover.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mitch Epstein: American Power

I first became aware of photographer Mitch Epstein’s new book American Power late last summer after seeing his cover image on the summer 2009 issue of Granta. Inside were 15 images and an essay “American Power” by Epstein, the essay in essence the afterword for his new book which was published last fall. The Granta cover image was Epstein’s photograph “Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia, 2004.” That cover alone, of the Poca high school football team practicing on their field near the power plant’s cooling towers, made that issue of Granta a must buy for me.

While on our “Follow the River” vacation last fall when my husband and I traveled between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh following the Ohio River (as well as a side trip along the Kanawha River) through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, the landscape was often dominated by the coal-fired power plants along our drive. We’d
recently begun taking photographs of our own in Ohio River towns, but Epstein was already ahead of us in his vision. American Power was six years in the making, and the 63 photographs which made the final cut into his book will make you hold your breath as you think about energy – environmentally, economically, and politically.

Epstein, who has been photographing for thirty years, has published five books and his photographs are part of the permanent collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum, New York Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney Museum. The photographs in American Power are color images, taken with his primary tool of choice, an 8 x 10 view camera. Making the photographs was often a challenge given the post-9/11 Homeland Security atmosphere, which serves to add an additional layer of irony to his images, to his story, and even to his project’s title.

An October 2009 New York Times article, “Capturing a Nation’s Thirst for Energy” by Randy Kennedy, recounts the 2004 incident of Epstein being run out of Shippingport, PA for taking photographs from a public sidewalk in town of the power pla
nt there. From Epstein’s essay “American Power” we learn of a similar incident happening to him in the town of Poca, WV.

Jorg Colberg (founder and editor of the fine art photography blog Conscientious, and a research scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst), in his interview “A Conversation with Mitch Epstein” (PopPhoto, September 2007) asks Epstein about his role as a photographer. Epstein replies, “I don’t think in terms of having a ‘role’ as a photographer, nor do I consider my purpose to ‘record.’ I am compelled to interpret, not record the world around me.” Later in that same interview, Epstein describes the experience of being questioned by local law enforcement officers and FBI agents because of Homeland Security: “I have been stopped more than once on public property for photographing distant coal stacks . . . This project calls into question so much of what I’ve taken for granted. One thing I’ve taken for granted (aside from endless natural resources for me, my children and grandchildren) is my freedom to photograph in public space in the United States of America.”

I have also stood on a public sidewalk in Shippingport, PA and snapped images of a community swimming pool with the power plant in the background, as well as a public playground in the shadow of the power plant. But working with a 35mm camera is much quicker – no need to set up a tripod for a large, heavy camera or peek under a dark cloth in order to view the image on the ground glass back of the camera – and I doubt that anyone noticed me. Had I been working with a larger format camera, it may have been a different story. I hesitate to even share my shots here since they are nowhere near the league of Epstein’s shots, but given that they were taken in Shippingport they may help show how it’s nearly impossible to not see the power plant in town, making his experience there all the more alarming. Someone mistaking a tripod for a rocket launcher in itself shows how fearful we’ve become.

Playground at Shippingport, PA, 2009 (copyright by Dory Adams)

(Click on images for larger view)

Swimming Pool at Shippingport, PA, 2009
(copyright by Dory Adams)

If nothing else, Mitch Epstein’s photographs should make us think about our energy consumption, and about the effect that consumption is having on the climate and the land. Last week American Power was one of several photography books I bought as a birthday gift for my husband. This is the book I keep picking up and paging through. Staring at the images. I can’t stop looking at these photographs.

I hope you’ll take a look at Epstein’s work. You can see fifteen of the images showcased by James Estrin at the Lens blog at the New York Times.

Photo Credits:
Top: “Playground at Shippingport, PA” copyright © 2009 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
Bottom: “Swimming Pool at Shippingport, PA” copyright © 2009 by Dory Adams, all right reserved

News: I’m the Curator of the Week over at She Writes, where I’ve chosen and reviewed three blogs for the week of January 24th-29th: Caroline Leavitt’s blog CarolineLeavittville, Lauren B. Davis’ blog View from the Library Window, and Lisa Romeo’s blog Lisa Romeo Writes.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Automatic Human Jukebox

The Automatic Human Jukebox, 1978
(photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon)

Grimes Poznikov performing as The Automatic Human Jukebox
(photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon)

(Click on images for larger view)

I was going to ask readers if anyone knew whether the Automatic Human Jukebox, who used to perform near Aquatic Park at the wharf in San Francisco, was still there in 1989 (which is an important time frame for my novel-in-progress). However, a quick Google search led me to this sad account in a series of San Francisco Chronicle articles from 2002. The images accompanying the articles are disturbing, especially when compared to the photographs I’ve posted here, taken by photographer Kevin Scanlon in 1978, which convey an enterprising use humor and wit by the street performer to earn cash from tourists.

As someone who is fascinated by those who step or fall into society’s fringes (which I wrote about here), the fate of Grimes Poznikov who was the American Human Jukebox frightens me a bit. Clearly, Poznikov later developed serious mental health issues, and according to this site died of alcohol poisoning in 2005. More photographs archived here document the changes over the years.

Apparently he was still performing as the American Human Jukebox as late as 1987. Does anyone know if he was still performing in 1989? If so, I’d be interested in knowing if he was still at the wharf area or elsewhere around San Francisco, particularly during October of 1989. Please leave a comment below if you have information (or e-mail me at the address in the sidebar to the right of the screen).

Photo Credits: Both photographs above of the Automatic Human Jukebox are copyright © by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission, all rights reserved.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Looking Forward, Looking Back: San Francisco Noir, "The Lineup"

Dory at Sutro Ruins 1979
(Click on images for larger view)

I’m a fan of film noir, and over the holidays I enjoyed seeing the 1958 classic The Lineup for the first time. This film especially appealed to me because San Francisco was the setting, and director Don Siegel made the best possible use of interesting spots around the city: the waterfront docks, the Sutro Baths, the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge, and the then unfinished Embarcadero Freeway which was still being constructed. That freeway is no longer there. Damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it was torn down in 1991.

I’m caught up in all things San Francisco now as I work on revising a section of my novel-in-progress. One chapter is set at the Sutro Bath ruins near Ocean Beach and Point Lobos, close to where the Pacific flows into San Francisco Bay, so it was of great interest to see scenes filmed at the Sutro Bath complex while it was still standing. It had burned down and all that still remain are the foundation walls, which look almost like ancient ruins. I’d seen old black-and-white photographs of the baths, but until seeing The Lineup I’d never seen any movie footage of it.

Sutro Baths and Cliff House Postcard

Sutro Bath Ruins 1979

I was surprised to see it in the film because I’d thought burned prior to the 1950s. Research shows me that it actually burned down in June of 1966 – so it had been standing a mere dozen years before I saw and walked the ruins for the first time in 1978. There are even pictures of the fire on the National Park Service Website here.

We ended up watching
The Lineup DVD a second time the following evening, this time with the commentary by writers James Ellroy and Eddie Muller turned on. One of the things they discussed was the accuracy of the settings and that the scenes were true to San Francisco’s geography. For instance, in the chase scene from Sutro’s to the Embarcadero Freeway, they really pass the things they would’ve driven by and you can see them in the background, such as the Legion of Honor Museum, The Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Seeing the film has caused me to change some of the dialogue in scenes I’d written where two of the main characters are walking together at the Sutro ruins. It also made me think about the Embarcadero Freeway and how I might use it as material. That freeway had been an eyesore, and its construction had been controversial because it bisected the waterfront area. It had been meant to connect the Bay Bridge with the Golden Gate Bridge, but was only ever completed as far as the Broadway exit ramp to North Beach. Now that it’s been torn down, a park stands where an off ramp was, and a wide tree-lined boulevard opens up and unites the waterfront where there is now a promenade for pedestrians.

I’ve been back to San Francisco twice since we moved east in 1982, once in January 1990 just a few months after the Loma Prieta quake and again in June 2004. The last time we were there, I was struck by how much had changed at the Sutro ruins. A part of the trail we used to walk along the cliffs at Lands End is now inaccessible due to erosion and is closed off to hikers. As late as 1982 when we were still living in San Francisco that part of the trail was open and we used to walk it, including the narrow part along the very edge of the cliff. Occasionally we’d read in the newspaper of a hiker who’d fallen there to the deadly rocks far below. This interesting website with photo galleries is devoted to capturing and recording the subtle changes as they occur at the ruins.

Was it serendipity that I happened to watch The Lineup as I turned my focus toward finishing my novel? Maybe. (Funny how things seem to come together when you get into “the zone” of generating fresh material.) Is it inspiration? Definitely.

From the Blogosphere:

Alexander Chee's post at his blog “Koreanish” on photographs of the Tuileries Palace found at a yard sale and their usefulness to him in writing the book he’s now working on.

Photo Credits:

Top Photo: “Dory at Sutro Ruins 1979” copyright © Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Middle Illustration: “Sutro Baths and Cliff House Postcard” courtesy of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, National Park Service via San Francisco Parklands Image Gallery

Bottom Photo: “Sutro Bath Ruins 1979” copyright © Dory Adams

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