Snapshot Stories: Road Trip

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. For a more in-depth look at Maier’s work, take a look at Artsy’s page which includes images, articles, and information about upcoming exhibitions.

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?

Playground

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.

Secondhand Experiences

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.

Très Très Beau

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.

Harpies at the Met

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.

Plastic Auguries

Photography by Lost Meridiem Productions

At precisely 8:10 every morning the pigeons settle on a branch overlooking the corner of 92nd and Madison Avenue, where a flock of women wait in line outside a coffee shop. The pigeons are not particularly interested in conversations about children just dropped off for school, or yoga classes yet to be attended, or husbands too old to care.

No, the pidgeons study the complex system of ritualized postures and displays of affection — tousling blonde feathers, standing on one leg, squeezing clear containers of milky-brown liquid — within the group they’ve come to know as the plastic flamingoes.

Like the augurs of ancient Rome, this eminent group of pigeons selects a spot of high ground and uses their nuanced understanding of the flamingoes’ habits to determine the right course of action — usually regarding the correct time to defile a public monument.

With his eyes fixed on the exit door of the coffee shop, the senior auspex poses a straightforward — “do you approve?” — to the higher powers and finds the answer in the direction the flamingoes take once they disperse in clusters, drinks in hand.

The Department of Lost Dreams

Photography by Lost Meridiem Productions

You would think that a department responsible for recovering readers from falling into the illusory realities of their books would merit an office in a less obvious state of disrepair. The exterior gives all the appearance of abandonment — letters disintegrating into nonsense, glass so hazy with grime that the more respectable brownstones across the street bear the smudged edges of a charcoal sketch.

If reading is a collective experience, there are some who pass through stories and others who get stuck in them, unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. It happens gradually, through no fault of their own except perhaps an unusually strong attachment to a word or phrase which steers them along a narrative thread too plausible not to explore.

Let them get lost, you might say, but the department would point out cases when the reader becomes a victim of his own curiosity. Just yesterday they had to clean up the mess of a man who got so absorbed in a murder mystery that he failed to anticipate, turning the last page, the knife in his back.

As you can imagine, these kinds of situations require discretion, so, in a way, it’s convenient that no one in the department wants to bother with window cleaners and sign painters. Like many non-profits, the hierarchy is tangled at best and remains stuck in a strange loop of its own; those that seek a higher position inevitably end up where they started.

So how does department avoid the fate of their clients? It’s the details — the peeling “R”, the clouds of mud encrusted on the glass — that lead them back, nine to five, until the weekend loosens their grip on reality in favor of more devious pursuits.

On the Table: Sakura Season Favorites

Sakura sencha from Rishi Teas; Vintage Utamaro book; High Line by Bond No. 9; Bridge of Scarlet Leaves and Mappa Mundi by Lost Meridiem Productions

We recently got a console table from Dendro, Co. a company based in Chicago that sells furniture made from reclaimed wood. Our wabi-sabi tastebuds have been salivating over the grooves and patterns in its wood surface — a douglas fir salvaged from a blacksmith shop that predates the civil war. We were delighted to receive some wood coasters painted with our initials as an unexpected surprise.

We thought this table would be the perfect backdrop for displaying some of our favorite items of the moment — tea, books, well, what else is there really.

Cherry blossoms are starting to bloom and we plan on enjoying their short-lived appearance to the fullest. Here are some of our sakura season essentials.

1) Rishi Sakura Sencha

We’ve tried quite a few green teas flavored with cherry blossom leaves, but this one is our favorite. It doesn’t have any of the fake, bubble-gum flavor that comes with many other sakura sencha blends. Just green tea and flowers — exactly how we like it

2) Bond No 9 — High Line

When we first wandered into the Bond No 9 store on Madison Avenue, we were in awe. The bottles are sculptural works of art and the scents — well, it was the first time we were tempted by anything other than Christopher Brosius’ fragrances. The High Line scent is like a meadow of wildflowers — ironic, considering its namesake weaves rises about rows of concrete. It’s grassy without being sharp, floral without being cloyingly sweet.

3) Ticket to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

They say the beauty of cherry blossoms in full bloom is too obvious, and that yet unopened buds or fallen petals make a more lasting impression. We’re not that picky. We want to gorge on clouds of pink at the peak of their lushness. The BBG has a map that tracks the status of their cherry blossoms so you can plan your feast accordingly. They even have markers for “post-peak bloom” for all the wabi lovers.

4) Kokinshû

The Kokinshû is an anthology of Japanese poetry compiled around 900, but the vivid imagery remains as dew-fresh as ever. Sleeves scented with plum blossoms, warblers singing, melting snow, and brocades of willows and cherries mingle in the spring poems. There are contributions from monks, empresses, and courtiers, but our current favorite is by an anonymous poet:

In these mountain heights
There is no one to sing the praises of
You cherry blossoms.
Do not be aggrieved
For I will do it.

5) Lost Meridiem Productions Prints

Our last sakura season essential will get its own proper blog post, but we’re too excited not to mention it. We’ve finally opened up our own Etsy shop where we sell canvas prints of our photography. We have a big one hanging right above our console table and it looks pretty impressive. The rich texture of the leaves came out well and the curving path gives a sense of depth so tempting that we often joke about jumping right in. Can you tell it was taken in the BBG? We took the photo in the fall, and we’re thinking of going back for a spring edition of the same view.

Traces of the Moon

I don’t know about you but I’ve noticed the moon everywhere these days. So far I’ve seen it leave its mark on…

Kobocha squash photograph by Lost Meridiem Productions (that’s us!); Devour series by Christopher Jonassen
Handmade items to buy (clockwise): Earrings by Kendra Renee; Earrings by Mac Black Sheep; Earrings by Studio 1980; Studs by Misluo; Earrings by Sigal Gerson; Pendant by Misty Metal; Bracelet by Stories of Silver and Silk; Earrings by Sharon Saint Don

The bottom of cast iron skillets, scraped against the stovetop from shaking omelettes into obedience.

The surface of a lotus leaf, scattered with moondrops of autumn dew that remain pristine among decaying surroundings.

The flesh of a tree, compressed and rolled out into thin sheets that map out its rippling journeys.

The ancient millstone, nibbled by the elements in open fields after serving its long-forgotten purpose of grinding grains.

The sea sapphire, which reveals its brilliant iridescence for a split second before disappearing, like the moon behind clouds.

The front of my black leather boots after a walk through the park on a rainy day.

The skin of a kabocha squash, its dusty, weathered exterior giving the impression of more hardship on its journey to the farmer’s market than simply being harvested and placed in a basket.

The beach before the tide washes over traces of footprints creating craters in the sand.

The walls you hope will never be smoothed a fresh coat of paint but continue to build a rich landscape of mold and outdated notices.

The bloomy rind of certain cheeses that bears the imprint of its mold, ripening the soft, oozy insides into a grassy flavor.

Windowside Wanderer

Icarus, they say, almost became a god. The same can be said, can it not, of the windowside wanderer, whose gaze aspires to flight, but falls, into a sea of streetlamps and shadows. He revels in randomness, seeking out busy intersections during rush hour, the salty air of seaports over perfumed avenues uptown. Daydreamers get all the credit, but their ambitions remain suspended in the clouds, elevated above the asphalt as they bend time to their own liking. Innovation, we claim, requires a leap into the unknown, a touch of madness. Yet what could be more daring than spending an afternoon exploiting the inconsistencies of the street from above?

photo: Bedrich Grunzweig, 1950

The windowside wanderer, with a camera, arms himself against the leisurely gaze of the flaneur, intoxicated by messy brushstrokes trying to define the rainy boulevards of Paris. No, he belongs to New York, its sidewalks swept clean of aimless figures better suited to conventional compositions. Tilted perspective, almost aerial, asks not for the irregular outlines of the dandy or dilletante, but rather the streamlined silhouettes of trenchcoats and fedoras, elongated, spilling over crisp edges cut with the ruthless severity of tight, dry lips and ironed collars of Wall Street bigshots.

The windowside wanderer, over time, trains his reflexes for the right moment to jump. He does not stroll; he stalks his prey and pounces with the soft certainty of the feline predator, feeding an appetite for converging paths he maps in monochrome. By cropping this man’s hat and that woman’s shadow, he snatches away destinations, the one-note melody of the commuter, and transforms the street into a circus act unaware of its own synchronicity.

photo: Andre Kertesz, 1960

The windowside wanderer, then, invokes the Greek akrobateō, climbing upward while walking on tiptoe. Letting go of the window’s edge, he balances above the flux of chance encounters mediated by the sun’s unwavering trajectory. He falls and fails, missing his chance as shadows lose their intensity. But his devotion to spontaneous combustion gives him another chance, and another. In his art, he is immortal, which brings us back, in a way, to the gods.