Northern Nights

Tallinn, Estonia

Riga, Latvia

“It was one in the morning and the night’s black was flat. We were close to the Arctic Circle but we couldn’t see a thing. Were we close to the Arctic circle? I thought so. The air was mixed with night, the air sucking the breath from you. The landscape was soaked in a grey-black wash from which streetlights stared with a dull intensity. I pretended briefly we were on the moon, and the homes were labs for surveyors. Estonia could be the moon, I decided…”

“There is a corner of the sea that is deep but not so deep that it’s black. It’s the blue of a blueberry, violet in its heart, though this blue allows light through a million unseeable pores. The hue is evenly painted but electric, a klieg light pushing though a gel of cyan. But invading this blue are clouds of inky purple, billowing clouds in small waves, and they grow from below, splitting the sea between light above and dark growing from below.

Turn it upside down and this was the sky above Riga.”

-Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, 2002

Yesterday, leaving work in the blue-gray evening of 4:30 pm, I was reminded of these beautiful passages from one of my favorite books. Maybe it wasn’t intended, but to me they read like travel advertisements for eastern Europe. I’ve always felt a kinship with other northern cultures because of our sheer audacity to live in such inhospitable climates. Although my hometown of Madison is on a similar latitude as say, Spain, our harsh winters definitely have more in common with places like Estonia. At present, Madison is covered in nearly two feet of fresh snow, and the downtown last night was gorgeous in its stillness, with all the coffee shops, bars and restaurants illuminated and beckoning. Cold temperatures bring out the clarity in everything- buildings, the sky, the ground, and I wished I had my camera with me to capture it all.

Except, lately I’ve been trying this thing- to really look at everything through a photographer’s eye without actually taking a photo. When you concentrate on your camera, you get distracted by getting the perfect shot and often miss the sounds, the smells, the panoramas or the details- and get so caught up in whatever is the subject of your lens. When I was in Europe a few months ago, I actually feel like I missed a lot because I was pretty obsessed with taking photos. I should have been viewing with both eyes. But on my very last day in Venice, on the boat ride through the canals to the airport, I took this one photo, and then put my camera away for good. I sat in the back of the little motorboat and just took it all in, noticing everything. It was Sunday morning, quite early, and the city that had been so jam-packed and so hot the day before was now serene in the early-morning light. And I relaxed, not worrying about taking photos, just making memories, little snapshots in my mind. The trouble is, you can’t share those, but sometimes you just have to be selfish and create those personal “photos”.

Luckily, these people decided NOT to be selfish and shared great photos of the aftermath of the Madison blizzard.

Photos credits, top to bottom:

aurora0borealis\’ photostream

europics\’ photostream

mjlmadison\’s photostream

Philgarlic\’s photostream

Music for Egon Schiele

This 1996 album by Rachel’s forms a nexus into the worlds of music, art, and drama.  I don’t normally listen to a lot of all-instrumental albums, but this one is so lovely and relaxing and…perfect. It’s the kind of music that conjures up an eerie form of nostalgia for that which is only half-remembered. As Don Draper once astutely put it, in one of his most stunning pitches ever, “It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” I am starting to think there might be a Mad Men quote for all occasions.

Recommended listening for a snowy day (or sunny, or whatever.)

Interesting Tidbits from the NGA and Extreme Art Nerdiness – Or not.

Walkway at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. – Leo Villareal Multiverse.

Nope, not going to win any awards for my camera work.

I can’t help myself, the two times I’ve experienced this at the NGA I’ve been dumbstruck. It’s mesmerizing, beautiful, sparkly, and just plain COOL. And it reminds me of the effect in Star Wars whenever the Millenium Falcon (finally) makes the jump to lightspeed. I know next to nothing about light sculptures or installations so I don’t really have the vocabulary to discuss it, and I wish my little clip was better, because it’s really only a sliver of the actual experience.

Something I CAN expound at length about, and I know Alison can too, is Mr. Rothko. Maybe someday we should have a blog-off and see who writes a better blog about a specific work of art? Or not.

I have a weird habit of taking detail shots of my favorite paintings – inspired, I think, by all the detail slides my art history professors would take themselves (when on vacation?). They would then usually apologize about the poor quality of the image. Or they would apologize for not having a detail of something and try to describe, at length, what the detail proved about the point they were trying to make and how we would just have to “imagine” or “trust them.” Did your professors do that, too? No? Someday I’ll put together a gallery of all my random detail shots of everything from the Ishtar Gate to shadows of Calder mobiles. Or not.

Photo Friday: The Professionals, part one

In the photo posts so far, I’ve mostly shown the work of talented amateur photographers. But if I’m really going to demonstrate why I love photography, I obviously can’t leave out the professional photographers who have grabbed my attention over the years. This won’t be a history lesson- there’s lots of better places to get that- and I won’t pretend I know all about the history of photography, because I definitely don’t. Instead, this goes under the “admiration” category- a mini-series-within-a-series of the work of some of my favorite photographers.

Many of these happen to be featured in a great photo book, The Nature of Photographs, by Stephen Shore. I bought the book in Ireland a few years ago, which is kind of crazy considering the exchange rate and the fact that you can most certainly purchase it in the U.S. (And the only other thing I bought on that trip, excluding beer, was a penny-whistle for a friend who said he was definitely going to learn to play it. Still waiting for the concert. Bottom line: I am not a good shopper overseas.) Anyway, it’s one of the more unique photo books I’ve come across. It’s organized by the formal elements comprising a good/interesting/eye-catching/memorable etc. photograph, with few (but carefully chosen) words and many lovely, luminous photos.

Consciously or unconsciously, the work of these artists surely influences the current photographs that are splattered all over the internet, particularly flickr. I am constantly amazed at the level of talent displayed on flickr and similar websites, and it makes me wonder- were people always this artistically skilled, but just didn’t have the same kinds of outlets we have available today? In modern America, just about everyone has access to a camera, and an eye, and a story to tell. It’s such a democratic medium, and I think that’s what I love about photography… which brings me to the work of those who have been inspirational for me.

Robert Frank


One day, when I was working at the University of Washington School of Art, I was processing an image-order for a professor from the book The Americans by Robert Frank. Now, I am easily distracted by pretty things (something I have in common with my cat, Libby), but I was especially compelled to page through this entire book. It’s so very American, so 1950s, a decade I have always been fascinated by. It seems like it was a time for creating facades and suppressing urges for many Americans (or at least that’s the postmodern view we’re being sold these days.) But I can’t help feeling like all of these images are capturing the relative calm before the storm of the 1960s. (All of this is why I love Mad Men so very much.)

Garry Winogrand

Hollywood Boulevard, 1969 (Getty Museum)

Winogrand’s photographs are like the 1960s and ’70s counterpart to Robert Frank’s 1950s series. I love the combination of documentary style + artistic eye for light and angles.

Edward Steichen

I bought The Flatiron, 1904 in small-poster form when I visited the Met a few years ago. It’s one of those images that I couldn’t get out of my head. Living in the northern U.S. my whole life, it just summarizes the isolation of cities in early evening winter.

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt- Untitled, New York (spider girl, green car), 1980

Levitt, who recently passed away, had an amazing eye for the beauty and movement in everyday street life. The colors in this shot are typical in the “vintage-inspired” look that is so prevalent these days.