Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Year of Fog: The Final Missing Chapter

“The Great Highway at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1980”
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Some books stay with you long after you’ve finished the last page. Michelle Richmond’s novel The Year of Fog, which I wrote about as one of my earliest blog posts here, is one of those books for me. I read it in 2009, two years after it was first published in 2007. Today the book is still going strong and was chosen as the 2011 selection for Silicon Valley Reads.

The working title for Richmond’s novel was “Ocean Beach” and it is often the imagery of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, The Great Highway, and the Sutro Bath ruins that I connect with the characters of Abby and Emma. These were settings for important scenes in the book. They were also favorite spots of mine to explore when I lived in San Francisco, and they are places that tend to show up in my own fiction writing.

"Great Highway Parking at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1981"
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Recently Richmond made the original ending, which she’d cut in the final manuscript edits, available as a download for e-readers as “Day 49: The Missing Final Chapter of The Year of Fog.” I want to be careful not to unintentionally reveal too much for those who have not yet read the book, so I’ll just say this: For readers, this is a unique opportunity to find out additional information about what happened to the characters; for writers, it’s an object lesson in editing.

Luckily for those of us who live far beyond the Bay Area, Michelle Richmond’s appearance earlier this month at the Morgan Hill Public Library was videotaped. Click on the video below for Richmond’s talk about the writing process, about research and editing, and about memory as a narrative device.

For a list of Richmond’s appearances at upcoming Silicon Valley Reads events for The Year of Fog, click here.

Around the Blogosphere:
  • Check out Kevin Scanlon’s photography and short essay “Mountain State Stories – Satori” in the most recent edition of The Photographers’ Railroad Page. This is the first feature in an occasional new series titled “Mountain State Stories.” In a recent message to RPP subscribers, Scanlon wrote, “I am pleased to announce that The Photographers’ Railroad Page will be under the direction of a new editor, Kevin N. Tomasic. Kevin will be soliciting and choosing new features for the site as well as making decisions on its general direction. The site will still be hosted by Lightsource Photo Imaging.”
  • At Photography in Place earlier this month, Edd Fuller ran several interesting posts on Edwards, Mississippi and photographer Walker Evans.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009: Tim Barnwell Print of the Month

"Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" copyright by Tim Barnwell,
used by permission

(click on image for larger view)

I want this photograph. It reminds me of the more remote ridges and hollows in Pennsylvania where I grew up and of backcountry areas in West Virginia (the areas without mountaintop removal coal mining looming high above, ready to bury the valley with debris from the overburden and pollute the groundwater). Because this is one of Tim Barnwell’s photographs, I suspect it was taken further south in Appalachia. If you are a long time reader of my blog, you know that I've written about his work in the past, which you can read here and here.

Barnwell’s photographs capture the landscape of my home, of my roots. And when I look at the rise and fall of the ridges and the contours of the snowy mountains surrounding that homestead, I am transported. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in one of her novels (possibly it was in We Were the Mulvaneys) that we never escape the landscape of our childhood. She was talking about the emotional landscape as well as the physical landscape. Barnwell's image "Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" evokes a strong emotional response for me: homesickness for how it feels to live nestled in the mountains; amazement at the pristine beauty; concern that this beauty will be lost; and admiration for Barnwell's artistry.

I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing Barnwell's work in exhibition, but I own a copy of one of his three books, On Earth's Furrowed Brow. Those images had the power to make me cry in the bookstore as I paged through the book for the first time. Although the price of a print of one of the images published there is beyond my means (Barnwell's photographs are included in the collections of several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum), Barnwell has launched a new "Print of the Month" program that is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is serious about collecting fine art photography but has limited budget. "Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" is the first photograph to be offered as a print of the month, and it is available until March 31, 2011 – which just happens to be the timeframe when I'll see another birthday come and go. Last year I received a Bill Scheele photograph of Levon Helm for my birthday. This year, I'm thinking a Barnwell photograph would be a nice addition to our collection.

Here is the description from Barnwell's website of how the new program works: "The Print of the Month Program is designed to introduce collectors to new, previously unpublished, images by master photographer and printer Tim Barnwell. We are able to offer special initial pricing, as these images are not available through galleries until after they rotate out of the Print of the Month (POM) program." These are limited edition photographs (a maximum of thirty photographic reproductions will be made), and each is mounted, matted, signed and numbered. The price is $295 during the time the print is offered as a print of the month selection. Print size is 11x14 (prints of this size are normally priced at $600 for unpublished images and $1200 for images published in his three books). For an additional $35, framing is available (black metal 16x20 frame, with Plexiglas). More details and ordering information are available at his website.

I'm looking forward to seeing what images will be offered in the future through the Print of the Month program, but this first one has the power to make me a little misty around the eyes, in the same way that the images in On Earth's Furrowed Brow do. It’s the topology that does it. In the prologue to An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes, “When everything else has gone from my brain – the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family – when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”

Tim Barnwell is a commercial and fine arts photographer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He is the author of three books, The Face of Appalachia, On Earth's Furrowed Brow, and Hands in Harmony. His fine art photography has been exhibited widely and his images have appeared in dozens of magazines including Time, Newsweek, Southern Accents, House Beautiful, American Craft, Outdoor Photographer, Sky and Telescope, US Air, Blue Ridge Country, U.S. News and World Report, Billboard, Travel South, American Style, Black & White Magazine, LensWork, and National Parks.

Photo Credit: "Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" copyright by Tim Barnwell, used by permission

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Welcoming Light: Meetings With Remarkable Men

Kastl's in San Francisco, copyright by Kevin Scanlon,
all rights reserved, used by permission

The glow of warm lights from Kastl's is a sensory memory deeply encoded in my brain. That memory image can be triggered by associative senses, such as hearing certain songs that were on the jukebox there (Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” or Elvis Costello’s “Alison” in particular). Long gone in reality, Kastl’s has a tendency to reemerge in my fiction writing – sometimes resurrected whole as a setting for a scene, and sometimes just a small detail from it will be used for an entirely different place. The night photograph shown above was taken on one of the final evenings it was open for business, and serves to confirm that the place truly existed and wasn’t simply invented by my imagination.

We rarely referred to Kastl’s by name, instead calling it “the diner” because the layout reminded us of the diners back east with a long counter and stools along the interior wall and deep booths against the window walls. The menu was far from diner food (brown rice and steamed kale were the standard side dishes instead of fries), but you could get a good burger and a real soda fountain coke, and the jukebox was usually playing.

What remains of Kastl’s is a series of memory images, such as the rainy evening a tow-truck driver stopped in for a takeout order, his truck double-parked out front with the yellow lights flashing. While he waited for his order, he sat at an upright piano along the back wall and played a classical piece I couldn’t identify, but in my stories it’s always something by Rachmaninoff.

Kastl’s closed when Bell Savings decided to take over the prime corner location at Sacramento Street and Presidio Avenue. That meant that Phil, the diner’s owner, lost his lease and was forced out of the space where he’d been in business for thirty years. In his sixties at the time and feeling too old to start over, he ended up retiring rather than trying to reestablish his business at a new location.

I still have one of the typewritten menus, a single sheet of paper folded in half, which I nabbed on our final visit. I come across it from time to time in a box of old keepsakes. It has a little grease stain on the front that I like to think is from the oil-based blue cheese dressing that came with the spinach salads.

I can’t remember the exact date it closed, although I could look it up in the journal I kept during those San Francisco years. I would’ve guessed 1980, but the movie listed on the Vogue’s marquee next door suggests it would’ve been 1979. If you look closely at the photograph (click on the image for a larger view), you can see Bell Savings wedged in between the theater and the diner, ready to expand and push the diner out of existence. Kastl’s was definitely a welcoming light, and a favorite meeting place for me with the remarkable man who photographed it.

Photo Credit: Kastl’s, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Photographs and Story of Vivian Maier

Self-portrait taken by Vivian Maier,
from the Jeff Goldstein collection,
used by permission

I'm fascinated by the unfolding story of Vivian Maier and the discovery of her photographic work. There are many stories here – some of them yet to be discovered and revealed – as though they’d been packed away along with her negatives, photographs, and exposed but undeveloped film in the boxes stowed in a storage locker. I love a good story, and I’m not sure which of the stories surrounding Maier I’m drawn to most. There’s the story of her possessions being sold at auction after nonpayment of storage fees; the story of a woman who earned her living as a nanny while devoting days off to her creative work in street photography; the story of the young man who bought several boxes of her negatives thinking they might contain images of buildings which could be useful in his research for a book about Chicago architecture, only to have his own life changed by Maier’s photography; and the visual stories Maier tells in the photographs themselves.

From the John Maloof Collection, courtesy of,
used by permission

Little did John Maloof know that the contents of the boxes he bought at an auction in 2007 would eventually take over his l
ife. It wasn’t until 2009, when he began to truly examine the negatives and photographs, that he realized the importance of Maier’s work. Intrigued by the images, he decided to see what he could find out about Vivian Maier, only to have a Google search turn up her recent obituary in a Chicago newspaper. He learned that she was born in New York in 1926, but grew up in France, and returned to the United States as a young adult. While her photographs show that she traveled widely, most of her images are from Chicago. To watch an interview with Maloof, click on this link to the CBS News Video “Discovering the Photography of Vivian Maier” which also includes input from esteemed photographer Joel Meyerowitz.

From the John Maloof Collection, courtesy of,
used by permission

A nanny by profession, Vivian Maier spent her days off working at her photography. This is what cuts to my heart. She diligently and quietly worked at her art. She devoted her life to it. It appears she did it for herself, for the creative satisfaction it gave her, and she didn’t share it with others. In fact, she was pretty much a loner and didn’t seem to have any friends or family beyond the families who employed her. She is as mysterious as her self-portrait above, where she is standing in half-shadow with her Rolliflex camera.

From the John Maloof Collection, courtesy of,
used by permission

There are many fans of Maier’s photography now that word is getting out, and those ranks are growing daily. The two biggest champions of her work are John Maloof and Jeff Goldstein, who each own portions of the Maier collection. Both have invested substantial time and money into the Maier project, working independently but toward the same purpose and goal with camaraderie. Both have websites devoted to Maier’s work and I highly recommend that you take the time to look at the images and read the story of Maier’s work at John Maloof’s site “Vivian Maier – Her Discovered Work” and Jeff Goldstein’s site “Vivian Maier Photography.”

From the John Maloof Collection, courtesy of,
used by permission

An exhibition of Maier’s photographs, “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer” is currently at the Chicago Cultural Center (January 7 – April 3, 2011). An upcoming exhibit, “Vivian Maier, Photographer” will be at the Russell Bowman Art Advisory (April 15 – June 18, 2011).

From the John Maloof Collection, courtesy of,
used by permission

A book and documentary film are in the works. See video below for more information.

A big thank you goes out to John Maloof and Jeff Goldstein for granting me permission to use these images from their collections.

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