Instagram: the best part of my day (and a museum’s best friend).

You know that oft-quoted line from John Lennon, about how life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans? These are wise words. I need to keep them in mind a lot more, or possibly even have a poster made of it (like, with a picture of cat playing with a ball of yarn and a thought bubble above his head showing a scratching post). You see, I have been planning for the future, pretty much daily, the entire time that I have been living in San Antonio. Some of this planning is necessary; especially in light of our upcoming move to Seattle. I like to think of this obsessive planning as doing my future self a favor. But what about my current self? I focus on everything but the present. I might even say I am uncomfortable with the present. I don’t know if it’s being born into a time and place with literally limitless options and endless distractions, but lately I tend to feel like there is always something more, or something different than whatever it is I am doing at that moment. First-world problems, right?  Why am I incapable of giving myself a break and letting myself enjoy this singular time and place? Being present, meditating, living in the moment: these are things I’ve never been good at. I want to change: to overcome the anxiety that comes with being comfortable with me, as I am today, whenever today is. 

As I said, I’m no good at meditation (restless, lack discipline, etc.), but there are other ways to achieve the same mindfulness of “now.” While I’m busy with any of these tasks, it is my goal to just focus on the one thing I am doing, and do it well.

1. Knitting. Getting off of the computer, and making something tangible, even if it’s just a bunch of scarves. The mind is still active, but pleasantly distracted. The hands are busy, so there’s not much else I feel like I could be doing. Who wants a scarf? I recently mastered stripes.

2. Walking, now that it’s not 100 degrees, is another good mind-clearing activity/exercise. But. I find myself feeling more and more like a local when I’m on the riverwalk: annoyed with slow-moving tourists and their strollers. Perhaps it’s a good exercise in patience, another virtue in which I lack.

3. Art projects are another way to focus my jumbled energies. I have been asking my boyfriend Peter to teach me some techniques. He pretty much says I can discover my own “visual language” through just making marks on the paper. I’ve never been drawn to the sketchpad like he has been, though. My right brain creativity is more connected with the verbal left brain. Which is why he and I have had, for years, the idea to do be a writer-illustrator team. We did try it a few times in the past, although I guess others have had the motivation to follow through before we did.

4. Photography. Not the “real” kind, that actual photographers do. Not the kind I used to do when I worked as a museum collections photographer in Madison. No, just me and my iPhone, out in the world. This device, that is always with me, has become the mode of documenting my life over the last year here in San Antonio. More than any activity, taking photos, by definition, puts me in the moment. I never really thought about what taking these photos means to me, until I read this last week on an inspiring blog I follow:

And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?” And something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something I hadn’t known was important will leap out and hover there in front of me, saying I am— I am the best moment of the day. I noticed two people were writing down what I was saying. Often, I went on, it’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking across a parking lot and admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed across the windshield. I thought, Ah, of course— I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. “And that’s my secret, such as it is,” I said.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

This is from August, when we stayed at a farmhouse built in 1881. Being in the middle of nowhere was exactly what I needed. At this moment, the light in our room was cast from prisms, and that, combined with the quiet outside made me extremely happy.

Even though this excerpt is about poetry, it can really be about any creative pursuit: making art out of the inspiration that is received from an ordinary day. This makes sense to me: I do use these photos to capture something fleeting from my day; maybe what I choose to capture even is the best part of my day. Having a camera with me all the time now does allow for the creation of a legitimate photographic journal. But more than the journal, the poetry, whatever, the thing that holds me in the moment is the act of capturing the scene. What am I drawn to photograph? It could be a pretty vista, or someone who is with me, but often it is just something I see that I like and can’t explain it anymore than that. It’s the way the evening light hits an industrial building. The way a flowering plant looks extra beautiful against a gray wall. It’s the small things that often make up the best moment of the day; we all know this. As I sit here, always making plans for the future, this is what is happening is right now, whatever that happens to be.

And, the best part of having a documentary device always with me? Because the iPhone is actually a tiny computer, these photos can be shared through the magic of Instagram. The act of taking a photo, formalizing it as a portrait through the filters, and then sharing it: it’s a form of sharing visual poetry, isn’t it? We’re social. We want to share. I like Twitter, but sometimes the endless links and hashtags and words become too much to process. Instagram is the visual Twitter, a way to say “I was here” or to express a visual ideal.

Which brings me to this, because my brain is always jumping around: I have worked in several museums, and I can’t think of a better use of social media than Instagram for cultural institutions. First off, there are suddenly a LOT of people using it. The potential audience is huge. As museums become more and more social entities, there should be more of them on Instagram. And the museums who already use it could be using it even more creatively.

Museums are visual institutions and Instagram is a visual social resource: they are a natural fit. Using the app should be a main component of a good social media and marketing plan. Of course we know the photographic quality is not archival. That’s what museum photographers and archives are for. This is about social engagement and a moment in time. It should be a fun and irreverent way to engage visitors and followers and to start discussions.

The best ways for museums to use Instagram? Show off the collections. Give us behind-the-scenes shots. Use it to promote exhibits and events. Ask questions, start an artistic dialogue. Keep a consistent visual language, to use Peter’s phrase. Use it once or twice every day.

I took this photo during the first few minutes into the first education program I coordinated, back in June. I was nervous. I wanted it to be successful. These young teens were filling out a contemporary art guide I wrote, and just seeing young people engaging with art was a good feeling that morning.

Here’s a list of some creative arts organizations and artists to follow. Some of my personal favorite photographers that I follow? Yvette Inufio, Jasmine Fitzwilliam, Andy Spade, and Marie, in addition to lots of others. And, if you want to see some of my favorite daily moments, follow me. When we move from San Antonio, I am going to be really glad I have a visual record of this past year.

Murals, Mormonia, and More

Here’s some links for the February doldrums… At least the Olympics are providing me with my quadrennial fix for short track speed skating.

Vans in California. Weirdly beautiful.

Econoline with Primer and Tarp, Santa Monica, CA, Winter 2007, by Joe Stevens

Frightened Rabbit has a new album out, The Winter of Mixed Drinks. As my friends know, Scottish accents are a weakness of mine, but FR also has a great rock sound…The Killers meets Arcade Fire meets…Sean Connery?

Scientific Facebook data about who people are connected with across the U.S. I kind of love it for introducing the term “Mormonia.”

This is a great post about the use of the iconic drum beat from “Be My Baby.” I had no idea so many songs had sampled it.

Philadelphia has never been super-high on my list of cities to visit, but these murals are pretty awesome. I wish more cities would make long, boring commutes a little brighter with public art.

5651 Market Street, Philadelphia, part of "Love Letter" project by Stephen Powers

Yeah, this song is just slightly longer than what I thought was the longest song ever, “American Pie.”

Definitely on board with simplifying.


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

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.

Photo Friday: Because want to go back to Paris.

More than the huge, panoramic city shots, or those of the Eiffel Tower/Arc de Triomphe, I think the best photos of Paris are street scenes- life happening on the micro level.

auro in paris: back again, just alone. for a while.

From [auro]\’s photostream

This entire Paris series from Laurent Nivalle is pretty brilliant, with the type of faded colors that I love.

From Laurent Nivalle's Paris series

My favorite neighborhood I visited in Paris was Montmarte. (I missed Marais, which Amy tells me is the very best. Next time!)

Montmartre

From Breno Peck.

Montmarte flea market, 2009

From my Paris set.

And because we love the vintage, here are some photos of Paris street scenes during the WWII occupation.

Rock Photography

Sometimes I think that in another life, I’d want to be a rock journalist. I’ve seen Almost Famous too many times to count. I tell myself, what a great way to experience the lifestyle from an intellectual point of view, to be able to make it all even more meaningful. Study them, feel their angst, their raw magnetism, and then analyze it on paper. But then I think, screw that: I want to be the lead singer, man. Not some nerd whose dream is it to be the girl who scribbles notes about the lead singer. Their lives are art, their music is their soul- they don’t need it decoded and picked apart so some elitist magazine and their advertisers can make a few bucks.

But I identify more as writer, and not a musician, something I apparently haven’t yet come to terms with.

Oh, I tried to be a musician: Viola, piano, and some sad attempts at guitar lessons from my dad (I still stand by the fact that I would need a child’s size guitar because of my child-size hands.) I guess I can sing, but prefer not to do so in public. But music is in my blood. I come from a musical family. And besides falling asleep to The Beatles’ records every night, one of the first ways I became fascinated with rock music was through cover art. It was probably my future art history nerd coming through; my freakish ability for rote memorization, but at a very early age, my parents discovered that I could, quite enjoyably, memorize the names of bands based on the record covers. My earliest favorite cover was The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. So much of The Beatles’ art and music is so child-friendly, so they were a great launching point for me into that world. But apparently, at age two or three, I’d go through the stacks and stacks of records we owned (like the one below, so appropriate for children) and say, “Rolling Stones,” “Donovan,” “The Kinks.” I mean, I guess that’s why people have kids, right? To delight parents in whatever odd ways their future adult interests (or obsessions, or afflictions, or whatever) manifest themselves.

Rolling_Stones_Sticky_Fingers.sized

Sticky Fingers, The Rolling Stones

Uh, where was I? Yeah, album cover art. I am still pretty obsessed with rock photography. Dream job: photo archivist at rock and roll hall of fame (especially if it wasn’t in Cleveland.)

For vintage (to modern) rock photography, the Brooklyn Museum is exhibiting “Who Shot Rock & Roll, a Photographic History, 1955 to the Present,” This photo is one of my favorites, as featured in New York Entertainment.

20091029_rockandroll_bobdylan

Bob Dylan with Kids, Liverpool, England, 1966, by Barry Feinstein

So iconic, so sixties, so clearly Dylan, even from the back. It’s a surprising shot, an American musician abroad in the land of The Beatles.

But you don’t have to be a professional photographer to capture amazing musical moments. The most stunning recent example of amateur rock photography (and also, concert videography) I’ve seen comes from Bon Iver’s sunrise show in L.A.

IMG_0415-1024x768

Bon Iver sunrise show, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 9/28/09

The concert was timed to coincide with nature’s backdrop- the light gradually shifting, the colors changing from indigo to violet, to pinkish orange to clear morning light, contrasting with the tall, unmoving Hollywood palms. And then, through all of this, you have the wonderful sounds of Bon Iver. I know it’s, like, oh my gah, so totally trendy to be a fan of theirs right now, and I’m just waiting for the inevitable backlash against them for having such a following. Even so, they are definitely one of the top bands of the last few years for me. (And Justin Vernon is a Sconnie!)* The concert was described as “magical” and “meaningful” by attendees. There are some concerts just hit you in a place no writer could describe, and there’s something wonderful about that. You just have to be there, although a photo probably does a better job of capturing the beauty than a written review would. I wish I could have gone, but maybe he’ll do a sunrise show back in his home state (although we’d have to wait a good 6 months for bearable temperatures.)

*Sconnie, slang for someone from Wisconsin, is one of those terms that started out as derogatory, but was re-appropriated and embraced by the targeted group to instill a sense of empowerment. That, or it’s just kinda funny.

Happy Friday!