Elegy

I have a picture of a Catholic saint leaning on my computer as I write this. It was given to me by an Italian colleague, who rushed to get as I told her that my camera had disappeared – “It has always brought me luck”, she said.

This is the kind of reaction I have got when I told others about the disappearance of my camera: It prompted shock, then empathy, followed by the question how it could have happened. I don’t really know, I would say: I had stuffed the camera into coat my pocket, went to this bar, and when I left the building, the camera was gone. Was it stolen? Perhaps. Did I drop it into the snow before entering? Perhaps. Did the discovery make the blood in my veins freeze? Certainly.

When I was growing up, my father had his trademark way of mitigating the pain of breaking an object. “Es ist nur ein Gebrauchsgegenstand”, he would say – “just a thing you use”; implying that wear and tear would whittle down even the most prized possessions. It’s a healthy attitude that I reminded myself of on the subway ride home, fists clenched in my empty coat pockets, knowing that a camera could easily be replaced.

I’ve lost a number of things over the years: Keys, glasses, sunglasses. I’ve also dropped a camera lens down a ravine and shattered multiple iPhone displays. “You can’t have nice things”, my friend Beth once told me, with a mix of pity and amusement on her face. I had come to accept this, but the disappearance of the camera felt different: much more personal than the loss of any other object. I loved this tiny, powerful camera that felt not just like a marvel of engineering but also like an extension of my eye. I’ve never had anything that let me so perfectly capture what I was seeing – and thereby document what I was noticing or thinking about.

I am suddenly a photographer without a camera and I can’t help but wonder whether that paradox should mean something. It’s a forced reset that comes at a time when I was wondering how to take my photography to another level: How to elevate it from mere picture taking to the craft of stringing those pictures together.

The grand irony of this story is how I spent my time at that bar: I was killing an hour before meeting a friend, and so I wrote some emails and researched cameras on the internet. My quest to rethink photography had created the impulse to splurge money on an even fancier device. It’s a common trap to believe that you’ll be more creative with better gear, and certainly one that I’ve fallen into in the past. What I realize now is that there’s a flip side to my dad’s saying: “just a thing you use” doesn’t just mean using something until it breaks. But also means making the most of it – with a sense of purpose.

Weekend Reads

1. Far Away From Here
Teju Cole, about his half-year residency in Switzerland, which he spent traveling around the country, taking photos with a film camera, and pondering what makes one’s work good and a place home.

Along the way, I felt the constant company of doubt: my lack of talent, my impostor’s syndrome, my fear of boring others. Every once in a great while, there was finally a superb picture, but when I looked at it the following week, I would see that it actually wasn’t very good: too obvious, too derivative. Three thousand photographs and three thousand doubts.

Read in “Known and Strange Things”, and on the New York Times Magazine.

2. How I Got My Attention Back
Craig Mod writes about a struggle I am too familiar with: How to stay focused in an age of distraction. His strategy? Going away from the internet – or at least turning on Do Not Disturb.

There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at your phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.

Found on Backchannel.

“I guess I want to do the impossible and therefore I do nothing.”
– Tina Mondotti

The Empty Streets

Memories tend to blur, even after just a few days. In my head, our trip to Norway looks like one long sunrise and sunset, but thankfully I have the pictures to match those memories: Standing on Oslo’s windy opera building or down by its fjord, waking up to its empty streets on new year’s morning. Back in the grayness of Berlin’s winter, it’s very hard not to daydream about emigrating to Norway.

“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”
– Jorge Luis Borges

See also: Moments of 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

The uncanny imagery of August Sander

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a rather simply black and white image. It shows three young men, dressed in formal attire, and tilted hats, standing on an open field.

It’s a simple enough historic image, but it has a way of grabbing you: The white colors and the pale hands jump out at you, the dark suits hint at a lush velvet, and the facial expressions, solemn, doubtful, if slightly amused, are perfectly framed by the rim of the wide hats. If I didn’t know better, I’d consider it staged, taken with a modern camera before a painted backdrop, as the three gentlemen seem to hover on the sandy path they’re on, standing right at focal plane, with the background a delicious blur.

I saved the photo on my phone, but I had no idea who had taken it until a few days ago when I read an article by Teju Cole that briefly mentions the German photographer August Sander:

In the work Sander produced around and just following the First World War, he created a catalog of images that stood in for an entire generation in Weimar Germany. Farmers, cooks, stevedores, teachers, priests, and manual laborers were all represented in their full dignity, and Sander achieved something like a double-portraiture in each case, because each actual individual was at the same time a representative type.

I punched Sander’s name into Google and there the three gentlemen and their lopsided hats showed back up – theirs is a fairly iconic picture, it turned out. Sander took it in 1914 during that mammoth quest to portray his fellow countrymen and entitled it “Young Farmers”.

Ironically, the manner in which I stumbled upon this photo, more than a hundred years later, mirrored the words I quote above: The picture immediately seemed representative of something, if not of a compendium of work, then at least of the keen eye of a photographer who knew exactly what he was doing and how to work his camera.

I poked around for more of his pictures and found a surprising number of striking photos by Sander. Here’s his shot of “The Architect Hans Heinz Luttgen and his Wife Dora”:

I had gleaned this from looking at his photos, but I didn’t quite understand what caused that uncanny sensation in the first place – not until I read Katherine Tubb’s article for the Tate, which goes into the history of Sander’s project and the political surrounding it.

“(…) Sander sought to depict an old identity in a new world that could no longer accommodate it.”

Sander happened to take photos right as the world stood on the stoop of a new age. His Young Farmers were to walk right into an age of machines and industrial production, the architect’s wife stared right into a future that would roll back all the rights she had gained during the Weimar Republic. The world in Sander’s images is about to collapse, and maybe, just maybe, his subjects even had an inkling.

Ten Podcast Favorites of 2016

Lists aren’t just everyone’s favorite thing to write at the end of the year, they’re also great for recapitulating the past 366 (!) days in bite-sized chucks.

Just like last year, I spent most of this one with headphones on, listening to podcasts whenever and wherever possible. Many episodes stuck with me, forming a tapestry of great ideas, stories, or just surprising soundbites.

When I launched my own little podcast earlier this year, I quoted radio veteran Scott Carrier, who succinctly said:

“I like podcasts because the screen is in your head.”

So without further ado, here are my picks, ready to be projected onto your brain:

  1. Heavyweight – Gregor
    I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Goldstein’s uniquely neurotic narration ever since he described his job as a telemarketer in gut-wrenching detail back in 2002. On his new show Heavyweight, he helps people correct previous mistakes and irons out regrets (“Like a therapist with a time machine”). This episode about how his friend Gregor lent CDs to a  musician who subsequently used them to get famous is a great place to start.

  2. Reply All – Zardulu
    The team behind Reply All investigates one of the most overlooked scandals of the year: How a New York City performance artist supposedly trained rats to perform stunts in the subway –and injected some magic into the lives of jaded city dwellers.

  3. Love + Radio – A Girl of Ivory
    Donald Rumsfeld famously coined the Unknown Unknowns, the things “we don’t know we don’t know”. This episodes unfolds slowly, way past your previous assumptions, and right into a feeling you didn’t know you didn’t feel before.

  4. Roderick on the Line – The Anchorman
    Two people having a candid conversation on the phone may sound like a terrible format, but with the quick-firing brain of Merlin Mann and the shear charisma of John Roderick it’s a winning combination every time. A podcast about nothing and everything at the same time.

  5. The Memory Palace – Natural Habitat
    With his intriguing and strangely poetic history podcast, Nate diMeo has been doing stellar work all year. This story about an incredibly impressive woman, her impossible dream, and a panda bear was my favorite.

  6. Revisionist History – Blame Game
    I had the pleasure of interviewing Malcom Gladwell a few years ago. He seemed a bit unfocused at the time, which was probably due to the jet lag, so it was surprising to hear his laser-sharp focus on Revisionist History, a show where event the premise “about the overlooked or forgotten” hits right home. My favorite here is Blame Game, a deep dive into the Toyota acceleration scandal that presents a mind-boggling plot twist.

  7. The World According to Sound – Stukas
    A simply idea perfectly executed: This ultra-short podcast highlights just a single sound and the history behind it. This episode made the blood in my veins freeze.

  8. 99 Percent Invisible – Negatives of the Bauhaus
    I had just visited the Bauhaus and recorded my very own show about it when this episode came out and added an entirely new layer to its story: It’s about the stolen negatives of Lucia Moholy, but also about being a woman in the 1920s – being an artist at just about any time.

  9. Note To Self – What Happens to Videos No One Watches
    Manoush Zomorodi’s “tech show about being human” feels very personal, and her topics are an always refreshing take on the madness of tech. Take this episode about online videos that no one watches; the very bottom of anti-social media.

  10. Reply All – On The Inside
    Another one from Reply All, reported by Sruthi Pinnamaneni: The four-part story about a convicted criminal who blogs from jail, denies he did it, and slowly goes off the rails during the reporting.