Sunday, January 30, 2011

Guest Post by Caroline Leavitt: What We Choose to See In the Fog in PICTURES OF YOU

Caroline Leavitt’s new novel Pictures of You (Algonquin, 2011) is her ninth, and it seems her work is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Just released this month, Pictures of You is already in its third printing and is currently “Pennie’s Pick” by Costco book buyer Pennie Iannicello. As a longtime reader of Caroline’s blog, CarolineLeavittville, I eagerly awaited this book’s publication since back when she was still writing it with “Breathe” as the working title. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure every reader longs for when the complex characters pulled me into the world of their story in this beautifully written book. Caroline has just started out on her book tour, so be sure to check her schedule of upcoming appearances, and if you are going to the AWP Conference be sure to catch her on the Algonquin panel on Friday, February 4th at noon.


by Caroline Leavitt

I’ve always been fascinated by what we choose to believe, despite the facts that might be staring us in our surprised faces. We tell ourselves stories until they are as believable as the very truths we don’t want to accept. Deliberately, we keep ourselves in a fog.

My novel, Pictures of You, begins with a foggy landscape on a deserted road in Connecticut. There’s a mysterious car crash and the lives of four different people collide. There’s Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband who’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant; there’s April, a wife and mother with a terrible secret; there’s asthmatic Sam with a secret all his own; and there is Charlie who is desperate to discover what his wife and son were doing in a car with a suitcase three hours away from home. I wanted to explore how we forgive the unforgivable, and whether or not it’s possible. I also wanted to ask how well do we really know the ones we love? And how do we choose to see those people?

The whole image of fog permeates the book, both literally and figuratively. The accident, of course, is in a terrible fog, so it’s impossible for anyone to know what really happened. In the fog, Sam sees Isabelle with what looks like a halo around her, and later, he remembers that fog, and he tells himself that she’s an angel, a conduit to his moth
er who has died in the accident. The photographs he later takes all look foggy, the images are blurred, and while Sam thinks he is seeing ghost photos of his mother, he refuses to allow himself to see the blurry images are anything other than the wrong setting, because then he will have to face the fact that his mother really has vanished and died, and he will have to grieve her.

Charlie stubbornly stays in this fog of love for his dead wife. His mother tells him that he has this habit of “seeing only what he wants to see,” that he never even realized that his parents’ happy marriage was not really that happy, that he refuses to look deeper into his relationship with his wife for fear that his life will go into upheaval. But despite evidence to the contrary, Charlie can’t believe the wife he adored was not whom he thought she was.

Isabelle talks a lot about what we see and believe. She knows how photographs, like life, can lie. What you see is not always what is really there in a photograph, and as she teaches Sam to take pictures, she urges him to look below the fog, to get under the surface, to look for the real meaning rather than just the meaning you hope is true.

This sense of fog also enters as breath—that mist of air—and in fact, I loved that image so much, that I originally called my novel Breathe. Sam is terribly asthmatic and he’s always being told to breathe more deeply, to expand his lungs. A friend revealed to me that when her daughters were sick, someone told her that “our breathing is our contract to stay on the earth. Without that breath, we die and we vanish.” That image stayed with me. I had April tell
Charlie that Sam’s asthma might be his way of breaking his contract to stay on the earth with them, but she doesn’t know why. She kneels by his bed, listening to his breathing. She begs him, watching the mist in his oxygen tank, which of course, is a kind of fog: “Don’t leave. Please don’t leave.”

When I had filmmaker Chloe Reynolds do my book trailer, I knew what I wanted it to say, but the only visual input I had was to tell her, “Fog. I need lots and lots of fog.” She unfurled the fog in the trailer, so it sweeps through, clearing only so that you can see bits of what is there. She filmed it all in black and white, so there are even more shadows in the fog, more hidden meanings! That’s the way I wanted the novel to feel—a mysterious and intensely haunting fog, revealing more and more as the fog clears until it reaches what I hope is a shattering, unsettling conclusion.


Caroline Leavitt is a novelist, essayist, book reviewer (The Boston Globe and People Magazine), and teacher (awarded the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in 2004). Her essays and stories have appeared in Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their teenage son Max.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Welcoming Light: The Philosophers’ Club

“Philosophers Club” photograph copyright by Christian Goepel,
all rights reserved, used by permission

I fell in love with the “Philosophers Club” photograph by Christian Goepel the instant I saw it – drawn in by the neon glow through the foggy darkness, the name on the sign, and the barely visible pedestrians in the background (I hope the brightness and contrast of your computer screen shows the subtle details of this image, and be sure to click on the image for a larger view). I like to think those silhouetted figures are headed across the street for an evening of philosophizing.

There are places that hold on to us, and San Francisco is one of the places with a firm grip on me. I don’t remember if I instinctively knew it was the setting of this photograph, or if I subconsciously read the name of the municipal rail station on the smaller neon sign in the distance. It’s more than nostalgia that draws me to Chris’s photograph, though. Along with the elements mentioned above, the story in this image seems to begin in media res. Where have those characters been and what are they up to? How do their stories intersect? Differ? If I could follow them into the Philosophers’ Club, I would no doubt hear some interesting tales. Maybe we’re all just looking for a welcoming light in the fog and darkness, for the possibilities such a place might hold.

Perhaps you have a favorite hangout where you go to hear ideas and share some of your own. I tend to be a listener, one of those quietly nodding in agreement or shaking her head in dissent, content to watch the scene unfold. Such places exist in cyberspace too. A while back, my favorite online haunt was the now defunct Readerville. I still miss the discussions there and haven’t found another place quite like it, though I made some lasting and wonderful connections there that continue today.

Here are some other interesting places online you might want to check out. A relatively new favorite blog of mine is Cathy Day’s The Big Thing, a must read for writers and teachers of writing. Last week, The Millions published Cathy’s excellent essay “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” I’ve been meaning to post links to excerpts of an interview with Cathy at the Ninth Letter blog ever since it ran last summer. You can read “The Weird Room” interview Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Numero Cinq is another fairly new site, which began as an experiment by Douglas Glover and his students at the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts one semester. Vermont College is where I earned my MFA, and Doug was one of my workshop teachers there, so I especially enjoy eavesdropping on the ongoing dialogue at this site.

You can count on The Millions and 3QuarksDaily for interesting reviews and essays on the arts, literature, reviews, science, and politics. Since I’m always on the lookout for great photographs and make sure I spend time each day looking at new images, the Lens blog at the New York Times and Mike Johnston’s The Online Photographer are two of my favorite sites. And, because I’m always interested in seeing how San Francisco has changed over the years since I lived there, I check in regularly at Up From The Deep, Julie Lives Here, and Caliber.

Now that I’ve started thinking about various philosopher clubs of sorts, I realize that I have more images of such places, other welcoming lights, which I’ll share here from time to time. A big thank you goes out to Chris Goepel for allowing me to share this image with you.

Photo credit: “Philosophers Club” photograph copyright by Christian Goepel, all rights reserved, used by permission


Christian Goepel, 36, of Larkspur, California, is a graduate of San Francisco State University and a long-time photographer, writer, and transportation historian. His keen interest in photography, public transit, urban archaeology, and sociology developed in his native Chicago and spread to other cities, including San Francisco, where he has lived happily for a decade. Goepel combines his penchant for social documentary and street photography genres, photojournalism skills, and a willingness to take risks to make digital black-and-white images of the cultural landscape surrounding the nation’s railroads, transit, and highways, all the while seeking out people, forgotten places, arcane aspects, and dark corners off the beaten path. He is employed as a railroad manager, transportation consultant, and freelance photographer.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

From Milltown to Malltown: Poems by Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty, Photography by Charlee Brodsky

Find the steel mill in this picture
or not . . .
(From “Find The Steel Mill In This Picture” by Jim Daniels)

The steel mills disappeared practically overnight – at least that’s how it seemed to me. They’d flanked the rivers in and around Pittsburgh for a hundred years, deeply rooted in the urban landscape when I first moved to Pittsburgh in 1976, still thriving in 1978 when I moved away to the west coast. But, when I returned to Pittsburgh in 1985 with my husband (a “Yinzer” by birthright), those mills were coming down. We got back just in time to photograph the final days of US Steel’s Homestead Works and its subsequent demolition.

The former Homestead mill site, which has been turned into a suburban mega complex known as The Waterfront, is the subject of From Milltown to Malltown (Marick Press, 2010), a book of photography and poems by photographer Charlee Brodsky and poets Jim Daniels and Jane McCafferty (all three on faculty at Carnegie Mellon University). Each of the thirty-six black-and-white photographs by Brodsky is paired with a companion poem by Daniels or McCafferty which was written in response to the images. Jane McCafferty describes the process of this collaboration in an interview which you can read here.

All that remains of the old mill at the Waterfront are a dozen towering brick smokestacks, dramatically illuminated by spotlights at night. Vast parking lots and traffic feeder lanes surround a sprawling shopping center, restaurants, cinema, office complex, hotel, townhouses and apartments. Up the hill a few blocks beyond the new commercial site, what is left of Homestead’s old downtown business district struggles to survive amid empty storefronts. Just upriver across the Monongahela stands Carrie Furnace, her rusting blast furnaces visible from the outermost parking lots at the Waterfront, a ghostly relic and possible future monument to Pittsburgh’s steel-making history.

The Waterfront Mall complex in Homestead is not the only Pittsburgh area mill site turned into a shopping district. SouthSide Works, which is more urban in design and layout, is built on the former south side site of J&L Steel, which operated mills on both sides of the Monongahela River that were connected by the Hot Metal Bridge.

Today, it amazes me now how close in proximity these mills were to downtown Pittsburgh, their smokestacks practically part of the city skyline. Back then, it seemed as though they’d always stood there, belonged there. The first time I saw them was as a child, from the backseat of my parents’ car when driving past on our way to Ohio. They made a lasting impression. It’s their fire I remember most – flames shooting high into the sky. But the mills were never part of my heritage in the way that they are for generations of Pittsburghers. I didn’t grow up with them looming in my future as Pittsburgh children did. Those mills were ingrained in their identity, and now they live with the mill ghosts. When they walk on the streets of SouthSide Works or drive through the Waterfront, they feel the absence, sense the void “in the land of Used-Ta-Be.”

This picture is so silent, not even dogs
can hear it. Not even the wind
has a point of view.
(from “Fresh Fish” by Jim Daniels)

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Reading

Book and iPad (copyright 2011 by Dory Adams)

The photographic exhibition “Andre Kertesz: On Reading” comes at a time when technology is changing the format of how text is published and how we read it. Currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through February 13, 2011, each of the 100 photographs contains a visual story of readers immersed in a textual story. Linda Benedict-Jones, curator of photography at CMOA, describes the importance of Kertesz’s work in a short film clip available for viewing at the PBS website, where you can also view some of Kertesz’s photographs.

It’s interesting to me, in light of how technology is changing publishing and how we read, that Kertesz seemed to embrace the changing technology of photography with his early adoption of small format hand-held cameras such as the Leica. Late in life he also worked with the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and I suspect that he may have even appreciated and used digital cameras had he lived a few more decades to see their advent.

Andre Kertesz (1894-1985) was born in Hungary and came to the United States in 1936 where he lived in New York City until his death in 1985. Throughout his lifetime he returned again and again to the subject of people reading. These are ordinary people deeply engaged with the written word, escaping into the private word of reading in public spaces of cities in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Walking through the Works On Paper Gallery at CMOA yesterday afternoon, I was transported by the gorgeous black-and-white prints to a time and place which seemed to move at a slower pace. Who were these people in the photographs? What were they reading? The images show people reading on terraces and fire escapes and rooftops, in city parks, on city streets and on public transportation, and in quiet moments at the shops or places where they work. One image, which also appeared on the cover of the first edition of the book On Reading published in 1971, shows a young woman reading backstage at a carnival, a coat loosely wrapped around her, but her shoes and top hat reveal that she is one of the performers.

These are people that remind me of me – trying to find a quiet place to escape into whatever book I am reading during my lunch break at work or while waiting for an appointment. Recently, when I was waiting while my car was being repaired and reading Franzen’s Freedom which I’d been lugging around with me, I watched an elderly woman settle herself into a chair and take a Kindle from her bag to read her e-book. She was every bit as involved with the text on her e-reader as the people in Kertesz’s images were with their paper-based text.

Having watched how digital technology changed photography in the past decade, I’m excited by the changes it is bringing to publishing. I will always enjoy traditional books and paper-based text, but I will also buy e-books (and I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up buying some books in both formats). In fact, I think e-books will truly expand and open up the publication of photography books, which until now have been extremely expensive to print in traditional book format. The iPad is a perfect format to make photography books more affordable for both the reader and the publisher. The iPad is also a great way for photographers to have a portable portfolio containing a large library of their work.

Currently I’m reading Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Pictures of You, on my iPad and enjoying it immensely. Reading a book on an e-reader is different in some ways than reading a paper-based book, but I find myself drawn into the story in new ways, less aware of what page I’m on and truly involved in the text at the level of the sentence and paragraph. However, I’m not sure that it is our relationship to the text that is truly changing, but rather that our relationship to the text format is changing. I’m every bit as absorbed by the novel I’m reading on my iPad as the readers in Kertesz’s photographs are absorbed by what they are reading.

In 2008, Kertesz’s On Reading was reissued by Norton and includes 66 of the 100 images from the exhibition. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m very happy to have a copy in traditional book format, although the reproductions in even the finest book can never match the quality of the prints in an exhibition. This is a book I will take from the shelf and admire many times over the rest of my lifetime, but I expect that I will begin to buy photography books in e-format as they become available.

I hope you have the opportunity to see this traveling exhibition in Pittsburgh or at its next stop. A portfolio of Kertesz’s photographs is available for viewing online at the Stephen Bulger Gallery website. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Each time Andre Kertesz’s shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating.” Me too. And I suspect that you will as well.

(click on images for larger view)

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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Happy New Year from the Embassy Theatre

The Embassy Theatre, Lewistown, PA
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

New Year’s Eve was filled with the joy of the unexpected this year. After leaving a family gathering at my brother’s house in Lewistown, PA, Kevin and I drove through town to see if we could catch a glimpse of the big Hartley’s potato chip bag which was to be dropped at midnight to usher in the New Year. The “Great Chip Drop” was launched in 2006 as an attempt to organize an annual New Year’s Eve celebration at Monument Square in the center of the downtown business district.

The Great Chip Drop, New Year's Eve, Lewistown, PA
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

As we cruised through town, what caught our eye was not the big chip bag suspended above the town square, but the bright lights of the Embassy Theatre Marquee. We hadn’t planned to actually stop, only to drive past and have a look. But, after seeing those colorful bulbs lit and flashing, we had to photograph it. The last time I’d seen that marquee working was sometime in the early 1970s.

The Embassy Theatre, Lewistown, PA
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

The Friends of the Embassy Theatre, a nonprofit group which managed to save the theater from the wrecking ball in 1991, has done a beautiful job of restoring the fa├žade and marquee, and in 1998 the theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The preservation of the Embassy Theatre greatly benefits the downtown area of Lewistown, particularly since many of the buildings in the central business district on Market Street east of Monument Square were razed as part of a 1970s urban renewal project to modernize the downtown shopping district. This shopping district later began to resemble a modern ghost town of empty storefronts after Wal-Mart moved into the area and built a superstore at the edge of town.

Interior Restoration Begins, Embassy Theatre
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

Work has recently begun on the interior restoration of the Embassy. It has taken since 1991 to get this far toward the goal of restoring the building for use as a theater and community arts center. Funding for the nonprofit organization is through grants, fundraising events, business and corporate gifts, and private donations. More information can be found at the Friends of the Embassy Theatre website.

Interior, View from balcony
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon,
all rights reserved, used by permission

As we stood on South Main Street and photographed the marquee, we had the good fortune of bumping into a friend who asked if we wanted to see the inside of the theater. Did we ever! Minutes later I was standing inside the doors I’d passed through long ago for Saturday afternoon matinees as a young girl. This was the theater where my dad took my little brother and me to see “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” in 1966, and where I went with friends as a teenager to see “Gimme Shelter” in 1970 (what a difference four years can make during those formative years). Now on New Year’s Eve, four decades later, I was walking across a concrete floor where my shoes had once sunk deep into thick red carpet, climbing the now bare wooden stairs to the balcony where the projector is miraculously still intact and housed in the projection booth which divides the uppermost balcony area.

Second Floor, Stairway to balcony
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon,
all rights reserved, used by permission

The Friends of the Embassy Theatre still have a lot of work ahead of them, and I look forward to the day when the restoration of the interior is complete and the theater is once again in use. This is exactly the kind of venue which could revitalize the downtown as a destination. I anticipate once again buying tickets at the octagonal box office for a live performance or movie, entering though one of the eight wooden doors to the foyer and passing through the second set of doors to the inner lobby where two grand staircases lead to the balcony.

Projection Room Interior
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

It was long after midnight when I finally fell asleep after the excitement of our impromptu tour. The New Year of 2011 had already begun when I finally drifted into a deep sleep filled with dreams about the Embassy Theatre.

Box Office, Embassy Theatre
Photograph copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

(Click on images for larger view.)
  • All photographs copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

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