As for Disfarmer, his photographic style may have been plainspoken, in the vein of Madani, but he was nonetheless a true eccentric. Born Mike Meyer in 1884, he changed his name in middle age to register his contempt for the profession of farming (‘Meyer’ means dairy farmer in German) and to signal his critical distance from the citizens of the Arkansas mountain town where he worked. He kept himself aloof, dressing like a dandy and acting like a cipher. He claimed to have been deposited at his parents’ doorstep by a tornado. He built his first studio in the 1930s, after a real tornado destroyed his home and devoted the rest of his life to perfecting the portrait. One of his assistants said that no one could understand the workings of his mind, not even if they had a million years to think it over.

- Jacob Mikanowski

Decay is the Way Dead Things Live

on Bruno Schulz, Jindřich Štyrský,
and other modernist masters of matter.

Dream of Butterflies, Jindřich Štyrský from Dreamverse (Twisted Spoon)
The fiction of Bruno Schulz is alive with dead things. His stories all take place in the narrow landscape of his childhood: the small, provincial town of Drohobycz in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is now western Ukraine, a few years after the start of the twentieth century. At the same time, they seem to occupy a separate cosmos, one whose physics, biology and even meteorology are distinct from our own. Schulz’s Drohobycz is a city of abnormal winds, intercalated seasons and illusory geography, in which time is entirely plastic, stretching out and contracting according to its own desires.

Here, the boundaries between people and things aren’t fixed. Human beings are susceptible to sudden, inexplicable transformations. They turn into animals — cockroaches, flies, crustaceans — and objects — a pile of ash, a primitive telegraph, a heap of rubbish, the rubber tube of an enema. A flock of multicolored birds flies from the family house in winter; in the fall, it returns blind and misshapen, the birds’ anatomy a nonsense of cardboard and carrion. The substance of reality seems paper-thin and prone to tearing. In attics, darkness degenerates and ferments. Unmade beds rise like dough. Colorless poppies sprout out of the weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish.

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baqari's wife

For fifty years, beginning in 1949, Hashem El Madani worked as a photographer in Sidon [Saida], a city in southern Lebanon. He began as an apprentice for a Jewish photographer in Haifa. After the events of 1948, he moved to Lebanon. At first he took pictures of his friends and family members. A few years later, he opened his own studio, called the Studio Scheherazade, above a cinema of the same name. With time, he became Sidon’s leading photographer. By his own estimate he photographed ninety percent of the people in town, amassing an archive of some five hundred thousand images.


[…] Baqari’s wife (we do not know her name) […] must have snuck into [Hashem El] Madani’s studio when her husband was away. According to Madani’s account, her husband, a jealous man, didn’t let her out of the house alone; he couldn’t stand for other people to look at her.

She had two portraits taken.

The first was a Bedouin [?] fantasia: she wears a black abaya and a jeweled headdress and balances an amphora on her shoulder, which lets her show off the jewelry on her wrists.

Hashem el Madani - Baqari’s wife. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1957.
 / © Akram Zaatari [***]

In the second one, she is a modern woman: her head is uncovered, and she wears a white blouse and black skirt. You can tell from the portraits that she wasn’t used to being looked at. She doesn’t confront the camera. Madani would tell his customers that he always focused his lens right into the eyes, right on the pupil. Did she shy away from this? She wasn’t sure where to put her hand. Madani must have told her to keep one arm akimbo, to show off her shoulders. Her expression is unreadable: it might be defiance, and it might be resignation.

Hashem el Madani - Baqari’s wife. Studio Shehrazade, Saida, Lebanon, 1957.
© Arab Image Foundation [***]

When Baqari found out what his wife had done, he immediately went to the studio and demanded that Madani destroy the negatives. Madani refused, but he did agree to scratch across them with a pin instead.

[Hashem El Madani: “He came asking for the negatives. I refused to give them to him, because they were on a 35 mm roll. In the end we agreed that I would scratch the negatives of his wife with a pin, and I did it in front of him.”]

Years later, Baqari came back to the studio. By then, his wife had committed suicide, burning herself to death […]. He asked Madani to make prints from the scratched negatives; he wanted to know if there were any other negatives he didn’t know about. It didn’t matter if they were damaged. He just wanted to look at her again.

[Hashem El Madani: “Years later, after she burnt herself to death to escape her misery, he came back to me asking for enlargements of those photographs, or other photographs she might have taken without his knowledge”]

Jacob Mikanowski [thanks to TOP] / [***]


Food is now at the center of American culture. Everywhere art, music, literature and philosophy used to be, food is now. Food is how we express our values, assert our status, and communicate our morality. The new food culture is a strange mix of hedonism and virtue. This leads to some odd situations: organic cocoa beans ferried to Brooklyn from the Caribbean in a handmade sailboat; Alice Waters advising the First Lady on the White House vegetable garden; Michael Pollan establishing himself as a secular saint. Locavores and paleo diets. Mark Zuckerberg skinning a bison he just shot to uphold a vow he made to only eat food he killed himself. Bill Buford, fresh from the fiction desk at the New Yorker, drinking a bucket of blood straight from a butchered pig’s throat and calling it the best thing he’s ever tasted. Why has food become so important? Perhaps because it satisfies the contradictory desires that make us American, for conspicuous consumption and moral one-upsmanship. And as food replaces culture, it becomes the place where we live our dream life—where we’re all as upright as Puritans and as extravagant as Romans, richer than our fathers and better than our peers.

Jacob Mikanowski

Shutter Madness

By Jacob Mikanowski, The Awl (June 14, 2013)

Garry Winogrand used to say that he took photographs of things to see what they would look like as photographs. He took a lot of them. He photographed relentlessly: crowds, zoos, dogs, cars, parties, sidewalks, train stations and women, always more women. He’d describe a good night as “thirty-five rolls.” A good year might involve a thousand. He was always slow about editing. He had a rule that he wouldn’t even look at an exposure for a year, so that emotion wouldn’t cloud his judgment, but towards the end of his life he wasn’t even doing that anymore. He just let his rolls pile up in trash cans and in the fridge.

When he died, of gallbladder cancer in 1984, he left behind more than half a million exposures. Most of them were unedited. Most of them he had never even looked at. Winogrand had always been prolific—but this was something else: three hundred thousand pictures (at a minimum), barely sorted, unorganized, with no indication of why or when they were taken. By most counts their quality didn’t keep up with their quantity. Thousands were botched, “plagued with technical failures—optical, chemical, and physical flaws—in one hundred permutations.” The ones that weren’t tended to be either banal or badly composed, but there were so many of them it was hard to get a read on the whole.

The archive Winogrand left behind was an ocean—trackless, infinite, and unsurveyable—and few had the patience to enter into it. Contemplating its immensity, the curator Alex Sweetman imagined a photographic blob, oozing out of its drawers until it blocked traffic on the entire East Side. Leo Rubinfien, the curator of a new retrospective predicated on the idea that the late work wasn’t all bad, admits to a severe drop off in quality. And even John Szarkowski, Winogrand’s close friend and chief patron, while editing the late work for a posthumous exhibit, found himself feeling first impatient, then angry, and finally convinced that he was the butt of a cruel joke, “designed by the photographer to humiliate him.”

Winogrand’s late work was a failure. Not only that, it was a failure so grand and ambitious, so vast in its scope and comprehensive in its extent, that it immediately turned into a cautionary tale. What could better embody the seductive ease and terrible difficulty of photography than those three hundred thousand aimless, shambolic pictures? They’re a fiasco, a warning and a monument, the medium’s Gallipoli and its Xanadu. They combine everything I like in art: obsession, risk, ambition, disaster. Failure can be more interesting than success – and more revealing. I want to know what happened to Winogrand in those final years. What did he think he was doing? Did his talent desert him, or did he stop trusting it? Was he looking for something else entirely, something beyond art or reason? Or is there something peculiar about photography, particularly the kind of photography that makes its practitioners prone to obsession and repetition?

The Awl


Amid all the debate about the political implications of Dark Knight Rises—its treatment of class inequality, the presence of Occupy Wall Street, the menace of Bane Capital—we’ve lost sight of some of the inherent strangeness of Batman. Why does it take a bat costume to fight crime? The answer given by the series is fairly simple. Bruce Wayne was traumatized by seeing his parents murdered. This trauma was linked to his childhood fear of bats, present at both his parents’ death and beneath the family mansion. Psychically, fear of bats equals powerlessness, and overcoming this fear allows Bruce to seek vengeance. So far, this is all straightforward reaction formation. But what if something stranger is at work? What did Bruce really see and hear in that alleyway when he thought his parents were being murdered? And why was he so preoccupied with the dark, furry cave under his house? The Freudian theory of the primal scene suggests another answer: like Freud’s Wolf Man, young Bruce caught his parents in the act of intercourse, (which, to a child, appears as a murder, complete with screams and blood), then spent the rest of his life re-staging the scene in hopes of exorcising himself of the hold it had on his mind. Primal scene trauma normally leads to sexual perversity, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. Psychoanalyst Henry Edelheit notes that it also leads to a heightened affinity for animal-human hybrids and compound mythological beasts as figures of the intertwined parents. That’s pretty much the combination you’d expect in a vigilante wearing a latex cowl with pointy ears and driving a rocket-propelled phallus. This reading helps resolve a few of the discordant elements of the Batman myth—Batman’s fixation on childhood, the obsession with caves and wells, the nighttime scopophilia, his preference for the company of other fetishists, the vinyl, the suit. It might also restore something that has been sorely missing from the superhero genre—a dose of psychological realism. After all, being a citizen may take nothing more than a willingness to trust your own judgment as much as you do that of your fellows. But to be a hero, to devote yourself to public service, to throw yourself into fighting corruption and crime—does that take dedication and public-spiritedness, or perversion, exhibitionism and obsession?

Jacob Mikanowski


Most people see the crisis of the Euro as an imminent political problem. The collapse of the common currency area would be a blow for European unification, and the project of a democratic, integrated Europe. But the real disaster has already happened. A wave of cheap credit and foreign money eroded the competitiveness of the peripheral countries, and Greece, Spain and Portugal are saddled with a currency that’s much too expensive to ever make this imbalance right. In these conditions, the Euro has become what gold was to the Great Depression—a rigid standard that maintains investor confidence while preventing shattered economies from recovering. Since the peripheral countries can’t devalue their money, they have to devalue their labor, by letting wages fall. But this turns out to be impossible, and with declining revenues and mounting unemployment the peripheral countries have entered a deadly spiral. Cash injections haven’t rescued Spanish banks and default hasn’t saved Greece from indebtedness, while youth unemployment in both countries has crossed 50 percent. There doesn’t seem to be a way out: exiting the Euro would cause collapse, but keeping it only prolongs the misery. In these conditions, democracy itself is fading. Against the power of the European Central Bank, as one analyst wrote, the only choice is between bargaining and pleading—and in the recent Greek elections, pleading won. Deprived of any other means of protest, it’s time that the Greeks registered their dissent some other way. For instance, on the Euro bill itself. They should replace the bridges and archways and other symbols of integration on the bills with something more fitting, like Procrustes’ bed or Prometheus’ chains.

Jacob Mikanowski