Snapshot Stories: Road Trip

by moods & appetites
September 9th, 2014 be first to respond »

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind old photographs? Snapshot Stories is a series of short, fictional narratives prompted by that curiosity. This installment features an image taken by Vivian Maier. Click here to look at other stories in the series.

Vivian Maier, August 16, 1956, Chicago

I know what you’re thinking. A clear plastic gemstone set in a fake silver band doesn’t look like much. It’s probably the cheapest engagement ring you’ve ever seen.

Johnny will be back any minute. He’s probably brushing and teasing and gelling his hair until it forms a poof in the front. I wish he would just put on a hat, like Marlon Brando in that motorcycle movie.

I know you think it’ll never last. That a bunch of sixteen year olds won’t last a twelve hour road trip with nothing but ten dollars for the both of them. Well, first of all, I’ve got seventy-nine cents in my back pocket that I haven’t told Johnny about. We can get two super jumbo banana split sundaes with that once we get to New York. Second, we’ve got nothing to return to here. I don’t even have a bag with me. Lean in and check, if you want. All I’ve got is this ring and this car and a bucket of ice water melting at my feet.

I’m telling you all this because I can see you’re not from here. Prim and proper, with leather shoes in this heat. If it wasn’t for that wide brimmed hat I’d say you look like one of my schoolteachers whom I won’t be seeing come September. She’d be pleased at my proper use of “whom,” less so for this ring.

There’s Johnny now, holding a pair of boxing gloves and leather lace-up boots. I swear he thinks he’s made for a street gang. Don’t tell him but I think he’d get knocked out before he even tried.

Have you got your shot yet? I can’t imagine what you’ll get out of it. It’s hardly the cover of Life, now is it?

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by moods & appetites
September 3rd, 2014 1 response »

Lester Talkington, Skipping Rope, 1950 (via thursdayprojects)

As a detached observer of the playgrounds that line the upper promenade of Riverside Park, I have come across an unexpected discovery.

The classics — swings, monkey bars, slides — are all there and enjoy their fair share of use. But the most popular activities are not strictly part of the playground at all.

Three of these playgrounds each have their own unique feature. One has a wooden plank bridge that squeaks when one or more children jump on it. Another has a tree stump with a weathered texture and craggy outline that could pass for a Song landscape painting if you ignore the sandbox that surrounds it. Every playground has a gate low enough for a three year old to reach.

There’s always someone jumping on the squeaky bridge loud enough to hear within a five block radius. There’s always someone sitting by the tree stump or climbing its short peak and looking over the edge like it’s the prow of a ship. And there’s always someone opening and closing and opening and closing the gate, removing the chain and locking it in place, removing and locking.

It’s the box-is-better-than-the-toy principle.

Can you think of the last time you ignored the directions and created your own fun? If only gates held on to their multi-purpose appeal.

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Secondhand Experiences

by moods & appetites
September 2nd, 2014 be first to respond »

Hélène Roger-Viollet, Summer Holidays in Camargue, 1954 (via mimbeau)

The bottle — I had to know the brand. I had already found the model of the car — a Panhard — and was trying to zoom in enough to read the label. No luck, too blurry. I tried an image search of vintage French liquor labels (it’s not going to be water or kombucha now is it?) to see if I could find a corresponding shape that would lead me to a name. I couldn’t find any. I settled for general details about Camargue and was pleased to find a number of odd (read: useful) tidbits — wild horses, flamingoes and an annual gypsy festival. The tattered oilcloth was promising.

You see, I have this hope — addiction, really — of teasing out a story from an old photograph. Not from a family album. Nothing that I have any personal connection to. But an image taken by one of the great (or lesser known but equally brilliant) street photographers — Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Kertész, and Roger-Viollet, a new discovery. I’m a magpie for decisive moments, hoping to catch them, define them, and extend them in both directions.

I guess it’s presumptuous of me to think so but when I hear people say — there must be such an interesting story behind this or that photograph — I think I’ll be the one to pinpoint it and shape it into a narrative.

But as soon as I have all these details that seem ready to coalesce into a pattern, I realize I’m missing the glue that holds them together. I hesitate to describe it as the human element (what a vague expression) but that’s really what it is. Without it, the story becomes an amateur anthropologist’s caption.

The thrill of looking through archives is finding secondhand experiences. It’s thrift shopping without the moths, browsing antique stores without accumulating dust. I may have never been to Camargue or driven a Panhard, but impromptu holidays and roadside picnics I know firsthand.

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Très Très Beau

by moods & appetites
August 24th, 2014 be first to respond »

I first came across Jacques Henri Lartigue in Muse Magazine, the one with Kokopelli dancing in the margins, when I was around ten. There were his siblings — lined up in funny masks; pretending to be acrobats; organizing auto races with crates on wheels; waging naval combat in the pond-turned-pool near their chateau. My favorite was his borther Zissou  floating in a tire-boat of his own invention wearing a suit, sunglasses, and moustache. The article mentioned that Lartigue picked up a camera at the age of seven in 1903 and didn’t stop for the next eighty years, and I thought — I better get started.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Zissou in his tire boat, 1911

One thing I could never repeat was his diligent diary keeping. Every day he would make little sketches of what he had photographed (in case they didn’t come out right) and wrote at the top the initials B., T.B., or T.T.B. (Beau, Tres, Beau, or Tres Tres Beau). It was always a good day, except when his camera broke.

More recently, I got his book — Diary of a Century — with photographs and excerpts from his diary. I never get tired of flipping through pages of fashionable women strolling down the Avenue des Acacias with their plumed hats and little dogs. They really do resemble elusive birds from a different age, but, as Lartigue writes:

“Happiness is not an elusive bird, perched high near the ceiling, which, with the help of more or less complicated ladders, you have to work to catch. Happiness is an element, which, like air, is everywhere. Provided you don’t run after it too hard and too long, you’ll find it’s right there, within reach, all the time…waiting for you to take it.”

Yesterday I was making a plum cake, which I’m not particularly fond of — I’d rather eat the plums fresh. I had a few left over so I made a little pot of jam, which, again, I’m not wild about. But there’s plenty of plums in late August and I didn’t want any to go to waste. Later that evening, I stumbled on a documentary about Lartigue with footage of him comparing photography to making jam. He says he’s a cook who prefers to eat fresh fruit but makes jam because he hates for it to go to waste.

His enthusiasm is not nostalgic or sentimental. He doesn’t look through his albums or read his journals to reminisce. Just the process of taking the picture satisfies, for a moment, the obsession to catch time as it passes.

Now it’s time for some tea and fresh plums. Or the jam (if only I had a madeleine!). Either way they’ll be très très bien.

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Harpies at the Met

by moods & appetites
August 23rd, 2014 be first to respond »

A review of the Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Met, through Sept. 21

Garry Winogrand; El Morocco, New York; 1955

I’d like to think that I would have been a good ‘60s child, but the truth is that I would skip Woodstock for a chance to mingle with the midtown Manhattan middle classes a decade earlier. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed the hazy air and free love. On second thought, if I’m being really honest, I would have hated it. I would much rather spend an evening at a supper club listening to conversations over the quick tempos and bouncy two-steps of society dance bands. I’ll take classic negroni and fox-trot with a man in a suit. Flower children hold little appeal for me.

The retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work at the Met confirmed my suspicions. The first thing you see is a blown-up image of a couple dancing at El Morocco, an exclusive club on East 54th. By exclusive I mean that Carino, the head waiter, could turn you down for lack of fame, connections, or charm. Winogrand’s photograph shows a woman laughing with hysteric, almost malicious enthusiasm while digging clawed fingernails into her partner’s suit. And I thought — I would have made a great harpy that night in 1955. I would put on a show for Garry.

And that’s what everyone did in the ‘50s — put on a show. Winogrand’s work plays into the veneer of glamour we now associate with the decade, but rather than portraying a world stifled by suits, coiffs, and furs, he shows us quirks made all the more delightful by their rarity. There’s a strong currant of savagery and predation that runs through the civilized streets, like that screeching monkey in the back of a convertible on Park Avenue.

Maybe the ‘60s and ‘70s are best viewed in color. Maybe the buzz didn’t translate frame-by-frame, or people couldn’t be bothered to put on a show anymore. But Winogrand’s photographs lose their spark after the first half of the ‘60s. You can detect disillusionment creeping into his views of California and Texas, where the open streets fail to set up a stage for his subjects. Obviously a street photographer can only work with what he’s given and Garry had a lot more to play with in the beginning of his career.

You could say that midtown Manhattan in the ‘50s was a little too stilted, a little too fake. A veneer ready to crack. But that’s what makes it so appealing, even if you know it’s a trap. For those of us who have sharpened our enthusiasm into a weapon subtle enough to pass for the real thing, the zebra striped banquettes in El Morocco seem like the perfect place to play our games.

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