Monthly Archives: October 2014

Some Not-So-Scary Stories for Halloween

Couple with a spirit in their car, William Hope.

Couple with a spirit in their car, William Hope; Wikimedia Commons.

Every year for eighteen years, Canadian author and critic Robertson Davies read a ghost story aloud at the then newly-founded Massey College’s Christmas party. His stories were, as he said, “light-hearted.” They were not intended to frighten but rather to parody with gentleness both the ghost story form and Massey College itself. The role of the ghost, Davies suggested, was more important than one might suspect:

Let no one suppose that I was the first to think that a few hauntings might be acceptable in the new college. Very early in its first autumn I was told that a figure had taken to appearing on the stairs, and in dark corners, who frightened some people, and disappeared when bolder people pursued it. I have never thought of myself as a ghost-catcher, but my work at the college demanded some unusual tasks, and I accepted this one as part of the job. I captured the ghost at last—sneaked up on him from behind—and he proved to be one of the students who, with a sheet and an ugly rubber mask, was trying to cheer the place up. That was his explanation, but there was a gleam in his eye that suggested to me that the ghost game fulfilled some need in his own character. That was not hard to understand, for he was engaged in a particularly rational and hard-headed form of study, and too much rationality, as I have suggested, calls for a balancing element.

Davies’s ghosts were cheerful creatures; they did not harm anyone or drive anyone else to madness. But his ghost stories weren’t pointless, either; they were meant to reveal something about life at his college. In one story, a devil visits, and reveals that Hell has become a giant university bureaucracy; in another, Davies is cornered by a ghost who has written hundreds of dissertations, and demands to be examined on each one. In yet another, nostalgic academics pining for the past are turned into their ancestors (and don’t much care for it). In my personal favorite, “Dickens Digested,” a young scholar is eaten alive by his area of study.

These stories were also all social stories, as Davies believed horror stories properly were: He points out that the story of The Turn of the Screw is framed by a Christmas party and Frankenstein had its genesis at another party. The ghost story provided an outlet for mischief and self-reflection, but also functioned as a way of bringing people together, building a community with a shared sense of history and myth. Since Massey College was a new institution, this sort of communal myth-making was particularly important. Ghosts, in which many people half-believe, are just uncanny enough to hold one’s attention without being frightening enough to represent a true threat.

In the spirit of Davies, most of the stories listed below aren’t really frightening. They’re also more solitary affairs; most are not designed to read out loud. But as Davies reminds us, Halloween is really just the beginning of spooky story season, and there are many cold months ahead and stories to share. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: October 31, 2014

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Noteworthy reads from last week:

“What Will it Take to Get Electricity to the World’s Poor?” David Roberts
“Choices made in those parts of the world today, at the front end of growth, will influence the course of global energy and carbon emissions for decades to come.”

“Against the Grain,” Michael Specter
“How could gluten, present in a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening?”

“Jewish History is Not Just About the Holocaust. Finally, a Museum Gets That.” James McAuley
“The last thing Poland needs is a Holocaust museum…The whole country is a Holocaust museum.”

“Shrinking Prisons: Good Crime-Fighting and Good Government,” Eric Schnurer
“Corrections is the ultimate human service—and it can be done more cheaply and more effectively without locking so many people up.”

“2014 Midterms: The 27 Candidates to Watch,” Colin Daileda
“They are politicians whose presence and ideas have a chance to redefine how we view politics in America, and you may soon be hearing their names a lot more.”

“Pope Francis’ Progressive Statement on Evolution is Not Actually a Departure From the Catholic Church,” Miriam Krule
“Like many modern approaches to religion that embrace theistic evolution, Francis’ statements endorse evolution by enforcing God’s role in it.”

And some Halloween-themed ones for good measure:

“The Uncanny Power of Weird Fiction,” Jeff Vandermeer
“Here, in what is actually our infancy of understanding the world—this era in which we think we are older than we are—it is cathartic to seek out and tell stories that do not seek to reconcile the illogical, the contradictory, and often instinctual way in which human beings perceive the world, but instead accentuate these elements as a way of showing us as we truly are.”

“The Struggle of Being Asian-American for Halloween,” Steve Haruch
“As I was trying to figure out what to be for Halloween this year, I had a recollection of my mom using eyebrow pencil to draw a Fu Manchu-style mustache on my face as part of a costume when I was a kid.”

“Halloween: Everything that’s wrong with America?,” Adam Kotsko
“Halloween has…become the most striking symbol of the white middle class’s arrested development, its perpetual adolescence.”

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Divided We (Barely) Stand


Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

In a recent column, New York Times columnist David Brooks aptly names a troubling new feature of American civic life. Partyism, as he dubs it, is an overheated and “hyper-moralized” partisanship that turns political differences into a “Manichean struggle of light and darkness.” Whether Democrats or Republicans, Tea Party enthusiasts or Wall Street Occupiers, Americans today increasingly display a holier-than-thou certitude in judging their political foes. Those who hold opposing political positions are not merely misguided or ill-informed but also lacking in fundamental moral decency and, therefore, beyond the pale. Brooks elaborates:

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

Politics becomes a marker for basic decency. Those who are not members of the right party are deemed to lack basic compassion, or basic loyalty to country.

Finally, political issues are no longer just about themselves; they are symbols of worth and dignity. When many rural people defend gun rights, they’re defending the dignity and respect of rural values against urban snobbery.

Brooks is persuasive about the pernicious consequences of partyism. It forecloses any possibility of compromise, he says, by making even the slightest concession seem like the betrayal of one’s core identity. It also leads people to ignore or shut out what might be valid points in diverging views. Not only does this plague of partyism destroy the art of politics; it  casts a pall over human interactions, making us an even more divided unum. Is it surprising, as many studies have shown, that even residential neighorhoods are increasingly segregated according to the red or blue preferences?

Brooks’s description of our tragicomic dividedness is spot-on and convincing, but  I find his explanation for it both baffling and incomplete. As he sees it,

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.

The features of the hyper-moralized mind-set are all around. More people are building their communal and social identities around political labels. Your political label becomes the prerequisite for membership in your social set.

First, I’m not entirely sure what Brooks mean when he says that personal life is being de-moralized. It would seem, rather, that personal life is being re-moralized—that is, shaped and guided by moral standards quite different from those that once guided most people’s lives.   These new standards tend not to derive from transcendent beliefs or deep ontological commitments. Nor, for the most part, are they upheld by institutions or traditions. Instead, they come largely out of those various lifestyle preferences and choices that we make in constructing our individual versions of the modern consumerist identity. (And even those traditionalists among us have generally opted for their traditions, while those born within faith or other traditions increasingly either abandon or customize their birthright creeds.)

Yes, many Americans assemble their identikits around politics, though not quite so many beyond the Washington beltway as Brooks might imagine. Many other Americans construct their identities around other choices, from food or car preferences to exercise regimes to various spiritual disciplines, most of which entail an ethical orientation. To be sure, these other choices often align with a partisan affiliation. We think the Prius-driving vegan feminist must, ipso facto, vote Democratic, and she probably does. Yet I suspect the hyper-moralized mind-set of this person, or her gun-loving, SUV-driving Republican opposite, derives less from the depth of their political convicitions than from the fragility of their self-constructed identities. They both police the boundaries of their respective identities with such moralizing ferocity because those identities lack depth and traditional supports—and  because they are so much the product of individual will.

In some ways, we are simply witnessing the aestheticization of ethical life that philosophers  such as Nietzsche called for.  These Existenz philosophers hoped that the self-shaping choices we moderns would make would produce more creative, authentic, and heroic selves—and, consequently, a more vibrant and vital culture. But the longed-for heroism of the existential project could not compete with the pressures and seductions that produced the modern consumer and the consumer society. Rather than a vibrant culture united around heroic ideals (or our former transcendent ones), Americans seem to be producing a fragmented “unculture” divided into mutually demonizing groups and connected only by a prevailing spirit of distrust. That dismal prospect, while still far from full realization, might compel us to reconsider the sources and ends of our freedom.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Cozy Up to Whole Foods

Whole Foods Market is tired of your “whole paycheck” jokes. Recently, “America’s healthiest grocery store” launched a multi-million dollar advertising campaign dubbed Values Matter. The Austin-based company won’t divulge the cost of the campaign, but The New York Times reports that the budget was $15–$20 million. The Values Matter campaign includes several different print and digital ads as well as 29 videos available on YouTube. A full-page color ad in the national edition of the Wall Street Journal, for example, costs more than $334,000; multiply that by other print outlets such as Rolling Stone and Bloomberg BusinessWeek along with the costs of videos ranging from 31 seconds to 7 minutes and it’s easy to see why the budget estimate is so large. By any standards, this is a massive campaign.

Whole Foods Market (WFM) is engaged in a hyper-competitive business, operating almost 400 stores with annual sales of $13 billion. In recent months, it has also come in for some bad press with reports of a drop in share prices, talk of inflated prices, and accusations of pseudoscience. Clearly, there’s a lot at stake. Why now and what does Whole Foods hope to achieve? In July, co-CEO John Mackey told investors “We’re trying to advertise who we are. We’re trying to change what we think is a negative narrative about our company.”

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So in the spirit of Roland Barthes, let’s look at just one example of a Values Matter print ad and examine its verbal and visual rhetoric. The ad in question appeared in the Eastern edition of the Wall Street Journal on October 23, 2014. The design emphasizes a top-to-bottom vertical reading, from the comely baby sitting on a woman’s shoulders to the headline “Values Matter” and on to the copy below it: “We are part of a growing consciousness that’s bigger than food—one that champions what’s good, and the greater good, too. Where value is inseparable from values.” Beneath that is the WFM logo and the slogan “American’s healthiest grocery store” along with the URL for the campaign on the Whole Foods website.

The design observes a standard, though not particularly innovative, type hierarchy, drawing the eye down in an orderly fashion through each part of the ad. The copy is neither too long nor too short; sentence structure is simple, with extra credit awarded for properly placed commas. Readers can grasp the ad’s meaning with minimal effort. While most of the text is set in a serif font, the phrase “Values Matter” is a handwriting type font that balances legibility and consistency while clearly carrying traces of the human hand. The marketers and designers no doubt spent hours trying to find the perfect font because (like values) these things matter.

The photograph is a carefully selected shot that calls on conventional mother-and-child iconography with the most engaging element, the woman’s open face with its toothy smile, hitting just above the campaign title. Nothing draws our attention like a smiling face, and this attractive woman of indeterminate ethnicity fits the bill. The baby is the jarring note here, his (her?) expression one of solemnity and a touch of hauteur. Considering Whole Foods’ reputation for humorless self-righteousness, one wonders if this is perhaps a Freudian slip? The woman, her hair artfully disheveled, wears a casually chic denim shirt with rolled-up sleeves that complements the outdoor, soft-focus background. She wears a ring on the third finger of her left hand; its significance is open—is it a wedding ring or just decorative?—but in an highly-orchestrated image such as this, its mere existence draws our attention.

These then are the ad’s decodable signs, but there’s even more going on here. We are presented with a photograph that for all its softly appealing palette and engaging style attempts meaning but is beset by discontinuity. The marketers have avoided signaling to any one group (race, class, gender, socioeconomic status) in their choice of models. While the small details are remarkable, the best conclusion we can draw is that these people represent the new bourgeois. In spite of their best efforts, the marketers seek inclusion but the result is exclusion—a rhetoric that is noncommittal and elusive.

Before anyone at Whole Foods approved this ad, we can be sure that every element of it was mercilessly scrutinized—one shudders to think of the long meetings and endless debates. Whole Foods is a company with a clear sense of purpose—and its own Declaration of Independence—so the question isn’t one of corporate confusion. When confronted with a realistic image of a woman and child rendered in an artistic fashion, our minds do more than process mere representation; we comprehend basic—even traditional—associations of motherhood, family, love. Believers might add religious connotations, while the aesthetically minded might recall examples of fine art. In Saussurean terms, the woman and the baby do not in and of themselves represent these religious or cultural qualities. They are merely signifiers of meaning. What is signified is something that a marketing campaign can neither predict nor control, and this is what bedevils any form of advertising, especially, in this case, when the advertiser is aiming to course-correct its brand identity as well as shape its consumers.

Interestingly, other ads from the campaign use much more playful taglines: “Let’s redefine this generation’s definition of yummy” and “The highest standards weren’t available, so we created them.” The succinct and uncompromising “Values matter” carries a different weight altogether. In fact, playing off the notion of “family values” with its polarizing 1990s associations with the Moral Majority  and the Republican Party is a bit of a risk for Whole Foods, a company that bases its reputation on social and environmental ethics. WFM’s marketers differentiate themselves delicately yet distinctively by emphasizing “the greater good,” a phrase that has a benevolent expansiveness not found in the media-inflected dogmatism of “family values.” In addition, it is worth noting that the ad includes a gentle pun on dollar value versus cultural value. Further, Whole Foods’ ad copy does not imply that the company is the bellwether for the new values movement, merely that it has responded to “a growing consciousness that’s bigger than food.” Indeed, as has already been remarked in this space, the convergence of consumerism and morality, especially in the area of food, has grown increasingly prevalent in modern culture. Whole Foods is merely identifying a social trend and capitalizing on it as a business model.

In the interest of growth, a company often expands beyond its area of specialization, but the realm of ethics is considerably messier and less quantifiable than profits and dividends. At first glance, the assertion that values matter is potent, concise, and bold—here’s an idea everyone can get behind! Only consider: Both “values” and “matter” introduce as many questions as they answer. Whose values? What do they matter and to whom? What if the tagline were rephrased more assertively as,  “Let’s work toward the greater good” or more pedantically as, “Cultural constructs are of great significance”? While stronger meaning might result, the spark of brevity is lost.

Values matter does what any marketing campaign must by reinforcing the positive in consumers’ minds and inviting them to consider a company as something more than the sum of its parts. A  certain wariness about crude commercialism compels even firms so basic as grocery stores to expand beyond their brief and become purveyors of social ethics alongside organic kale. While the Values Matter campaign attempts to make consumers cozy up to Whole Foods, it also introduces a more insidious notion: If you want to exhibit the right values and be a part of the greater good, you can do this at only one place. There was a time when values were inculcated through other community institutions, but now, it appears, these, too, can be bought.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: October 24, 2014

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Notable reads from last week:

“Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post editor, dies at 93,” Robert G. Kaiser
“For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession—it was a public good vital to our democracy.”

“One-Fifth of Detroit’s Population Could Lose Their Homes,” Rose Hackman
“Many families could stay put for just a few hundred dollars, if only they knew how to work the system.”

“The Money Midterms: A Scandal in Slow Motion,” Evan Osnos
“The elections on November 4th are on pace to be the most expensive midterms in history (even adjusting for inflation).”

“Speed Kills,” Mark C. Taylor
“Fast is never fast enough.”

“Inside Twitter’s Ambitious Plan to Kill the Password,” Casey Newton
“Can some powerful new features reset Twitter’s relationship with developers?”

“What is the Value of Toleration,” Piers Bann
“Is the defense of free speech and toleration merely another name for indifference?”

“The International-Student Revolving Door,” Albert H. Teich
“Foreign students shouldn’t have to prove they’ll go home after graduating to get a visa.”

“Obama Talks Up Net Neutrality, But Could Do More to Defend It,” Brendan Sasso
“Obama has avoided taking a position on the most controversial piece of the net-neutrality debate: what authority the FCC should use to enact new open-Internet regulations.”


Our own Jay Tolson went on Charlottesville’s WTJU to talk about the “War on Poverty” and preview the fall issue of The Hedgehog Review “Thinking About the Poor”—on newsstands November 1! Listen to the interview here! Subscribe to The Hedgehog Review today!

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“What is Liberal Education For?”: A Conference Postmortem

Charles Dickens at a reading, Charles A. Barry (1867).

Charles Dickens at a reading, Charles A. Barry (1867).

The liberal education conference has now come and gone. My own panel went well (Inside Higher Ed has a brief write-up here), though I think I left with the same question I had going in, namely: Are there any truthful instrumental arguments to be made for liberal education?

Inevitably, an event like this involves some preaching to the choir. When asked if he considered any arguments against liberal education worth taking seriously, for instance, Andrew Delbanco said: “No.” Well, that’s a problem. Even if it were true—and I’m not sure it is—it plays well only in an audience full of people who have set aside three or four days to go to a liberal education conference. And in the repeated declarations that liberal education is every positive superlative—the most useful, and so on—the meaning of the term begins to become a little obscured.

This is why instrumental arguments continue to interest me. If I stand up and say, for instance, that no true instrumental arguments exist, and the Vice President of St. John’s College tells Inside Higher Ed that I am wrong (as she did), it’s clear that despite going through basically the same motions and reading the same materials in the same structured program of study, she and I have emerged with very different conceptions of what we’re doing and probably are talking about very different things.

In other words, if you’ve assembled the choir, it might be good to focus on the internal philosophical disagreements that are coming into play. There was never, so far as I could tell, a panel that meant to address head-on what a liberal education was at all. But someone who has a Straussian perspective on liberal education will disagree with someone who has a Catholic perspective, even if both of them are willing to quote Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University. The programs at St. John’s College and Thomas Aquinas College are in many ways identical, but do the schools consider themselves to be doing the same thing? Continue reading

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A Connoisseur of Vanishing Acts: An Interview With John Rosenthal

The Hedgehog Review: Our forthcoming fall issue includes a photo essay with the work of, among others, American photographer John Rosenthal. John, please describe your background and how you came to photography.

John Rosenthal (JR): My route to photography was so circuitous I can hardly follow it. In my twenties, I taught literature at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro and UNC–Chapel Hill and, during the summers, acted in stock theaters. In 1970, after the Kent State killings, I was one of the leaders of the strike that closed down the university. To the administration, I became a persona non grata, and, in the fall, I was told that my lectures were being monitored. Who needed it? So I quit.

Coney Island, New York, 1974; courtesy of the artist

Coney Island, New York, 1974; courtesy of the artist

My then-wife and I moved to Rethymnon, Crete, where I borrowed a camera and began to photograph everything—the people, the children, the rocks, the sheep, the fog over the Mediterranean. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved it. When we returned to America, I bought a Pentax and, when it got dark, I set up a darkroom in my kitchen. One night, I watched a new photograph rising up out of the developer. It was a photograph of two men, one of them shirtless, standing in front of a small fire on the beach at Coney Island (left). Behind them, in the distance, a ferris wheel and roller-coaster seemed to drift in the mist. I thought, okay, this is good, call yourself a photographer.


THR: Are there any photographers whose work has made a deep impact on you? Have you encountered any particular mentors or teachers?

JR: Literature brought me to photography, but not right away. I had to learn somewhere that what you see isn’t all there is, and I learned it by reading. Even though Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a book, it created in my mind images that were brighter and more distilled than anything my eyes could see. But more specifically, in the late 1960s, my late friend and mentor, Jean Morrison, a poet, photographer, and teacher, sat me down and said he wanted to show me something. Then he handed me a book of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, saying “Don’t look fast. Don’t assume you know what you’re looking at. They’re complicated.” I knew nothing about the art of photography. I’d never heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank or Diane Arbus. Probably, I’d seen Ansel Adams’s photographs of Yosemite, but I didn’t care about them.

Now, I found myself looking at a 1938 black-and-white photograph [Cartier-Bresson’s On the Banks of the Marne] of two plump, middle-aged couples sitting on the bank of the Marne, enjoying a picnic. Dirty plates, an empty bottle of wine, newspapers, a picnic basket, forks. In the river, two boats were tethered to the shore by two poles. In one of the boats, three fishing rods were propped up, dangling their lines in the river. A woman in a skirt and slip was chewing on chicken bone. One of the men, in suspenders, was refilling his wine glass, his face with its Charlie Chaplin moustache turned sideways to the camera. The other three were turned away from the camera, facing the river. The photograph’s composition was as relaxed as the picnic, but it managed to convey a culture, a society, a landscape, and, above all, the texture of friendship. The photograph, which was both an inward and outward fact, both a metaphor and itself, was a poetic act of consciousness. That year I learned to read the complex language of a photograph, and that opened up Robert Frank’s America, Diane Arbus’s creepy wonderment, and the beautiful elusiveness of Eugène Atget.


THR: You have said, “To be a photographer is to be a connoisseur of vanishing acts.” Please say a little more about this evocative statement.

JR: Well, when I first began to photograph in lower Manhattan, I found myself drawn to things like bottles of seltzer water stacked in wooden crates, dusty bread-shop windows, Ukrainian men playing backgammon in Tompkins Square, movie marquees on 42nd Street, a ship in the window of an Italian seamen’s club on Mulberry Street. There was nothing self-conscious or intentionally documentary about these photographs. They were the city I’d fallen in love with. To me, New York’s dynamic urban beauty was equal to the views at any number of litter-free national parks.

Then the city sanitized itself, real-estate prices soared, and a lot of New York disappeared to make room for the yuppies. Only then did I realize that what I’d been photographing was the imperiled city.

It turned out, to my surprise, that those early photographs are now considered documents. New York the way it used to be. Unlike Ansel Adams’s High Sierra mountains, which will stay put for a very long time, my photographs of New York in the 1970s deal almost exclusively with landscapes and moods that have largely vanished.


THR: Whether deliberate or unintentional, a photograph almost always conveys a particular story or connotation of a subject. What are your views on the ethics of photography?

JR: Photographing people, strangers especially, can be a very tricky thing to do, ethically tricky, even if it’s now a universal cellphone activity. And photographing pre-adolescent children as if they were seducing the camera brings the problem to a darker level. I think a clever person with a camera can be very dangerous. A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything). It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty. I recall a photograph I saw many years ago—I won’t say who took it—of a woman in a mink coat staring into a glittering jewelry store window on Madison Avenue. She may have been idling away her time, as the rich often do, or she may have been returning home from a hospital visit to a friend who was ill. Her expression was haughty. The mink coat made it so. The photographer, of course, knew nothing about this woman, but she had turned her into a symbol of the bored rich. She’d played into a collective hunch about women in mink coats on Madison Avenue, and many viewers have undoubtedly nodded their heads at this faux profundity.

Of course, there are many occasions in which a stranger is the person you photographed, but that’s because they’ve already been reduced. They are holding a sign. They are angry. They want attention badly. And sometimes strangers simply want or need a photographer to tell their story. But, generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.


THR: You have described how people see a divide between the verbal and the visual. As both a teacher—and one for whom literature led to photography—and a visual artist, you would seem to straddle this divide. Is this divide real? Why or why not?

Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, 2003; courtesy of the artist

Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, 2003; courtesy of the artist

JR: Frankly, I think the verbal/visual thing is an empty distinction that exempts writers from looking at Hopper’s paintings and painters from reading Faulkner’s books. But we need both kinds of artists in our lives! Yet I know that photography is connected to storytelling in a way that painting isn’t. I recognize that. Photographs—if we are to know the mind of the photographer and not just the cleverness of his image—need to exist in some kind of continuum, which can often be transformed into a narrative. Think of Robert Frank’s influential book of photographs The Americans (1958), a purely visual poem describing an America haunted by its own loneliness. It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction for The Americans.


THR: You have described photography as “the deep surprise of living in the ordinary world.” How have you overcome complacency or habit in order to remain in a state of wonder?

JR: Nowadays I think “wonder” is more of a capacity than a state-of-being. If you remain in a state of wonder, how could you develop any sort of wit? You’d end up like that terrible innocent, Harold Skimpole, in Bleak House.

Coronado, Ocala, Florida, 1986; courtesy of the artist

Coronado, Ocala, Florida, 1986; courtesy of the artist

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t seasons of wonder. Becoming of a photographer in the early seventies was like living in that season. My first marriage was ending in North Carolina, I’d quit teaching, I had no money, and here I was, walking around Tompkins Square on the Lower East Side, looking for the right photograph. It was as if I was wandering through an undiscovered country, not exactly lost, even though I had no idea what I’d encounter on the next block. I mean, suddenly my job consisted of looking at things and photographing them in such a way that someone else would say “Yes!” What a wonderful thing to do! Of course, aesthetic and moral questions were a kind of energy. What should I photograph? Should I look at it widely or narrowly? What are the limits of intrusion? How do I learn to slow down enough to truly look? Not having developed my own way of looking at things, I pretended, at least half the time, that I was Cartier-Bresson, and I looked for images that would contain his kind of information. Sometimes I’d see something that I liked, a bar on a corner with sunlight falling sideways on the street, and I’d just wait around for something else to happen, like a dog running by. Then the dog would run by, and I’d take the photograph, and I’d take a deep breath because I knew I was getting it.

Of course later on, when I was finally taking my own photographs, not Cartier-Bresson’s, I exchanged that early wonder for patience and know-how. That was necessary.

But the capacity for wonder doesn’t go away. In 2007, when I saw the Lower 9th Ward [in New Orleans] for the first time, I felt the same way I’d felt in 1970s in lower Manhattan. Here was a story that hadn’t been told. Other stories had been told about it, but not the one I wanted to tell. Once again, I was on fire.


THR: So your work in New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina brought you back to the fundamental reasons for becoming a photographer. What were those fundamentals? How did you approach this project knowing that some many people were visiting the city with more prurient intent as “disaster tourists”?

JR: When my wife and I visited New Orleans in February 2007, I had no intention of photographing the Lower 9th Ward or, for that matter, any of the breached levee zones. We were there to see a city that was, once again, opening up its doors. All I knew about the Lower 9th Ward—and I learned it while the Lower 9th was filling up with water—was that the media invariably linked it to poverty and crime. Then, the Lower 9th was underwater and people drowned, and now, in 2007, it was uninhabited. I’d seen the disaster and post-disaster photographs. End of story. New Orleans wasn’t my city.

St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 9th Ward, New Orleans, 2007; courtesy of the artist

St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 9th Ward, New Orleans, 2007; courtesy of the artist

But when a local friend drove me through what remained of the Lower 9th Ward, I was shocked. Not just by its eerie silence and emptiness, although that was shocking enough. No, it was more of a mental surprise: That the Lower 9th wasn’t anything like what I’d been led to believe. It wasn’t a slum; it was a working-class neighborhood full of bungalows. There was an elementary school named after Louis Armstrong. There were churches, once full of worshipers, with wooden doors falling off their hinges. There were abandoned homes, baking in bacteria, homes that had once been lovingly tended. You could still see that. But such care was pointless now, tragically so. People, I saw, had loved this place, and soon everything was going to be demolished. The only sound I heard in the Lower 9th Ward was the rumble of dump trucks and the crunching of wood.

The collapse of the distinction between “us” and “them” is the beginning of real documentary work. It is also one of the journeys consciousness is required to take. If you don’t take it, you’re probably a propagandist.

I decided to archive the loss, to memorialize it, before everything was gone. Photographs do that very well. They’re a fine, if modest, consolation. They testify to what has been and what will be no more, and this testimony matters. I hoped my photographs would tell a story about possession and loss, community and separation. I’d photograph only the evidence. Small things. This was someone’s home. These were the bulletin boards in someone’s kindergarten class. Everything I photographed then has since been carted away.

In 2008, on the third anniversary of Katrina, the New Orleans African-American Museum held an exhibit of my Lower 9th Ward photographs. I believe that if the photographs had pretended to know more than they had a right to know, had tried, say, to capture the sorrowful faces of the dispossessed, the invitation would never have been extended.


THR: How do you reconcile photography’s mechanical or technical aspects with its potential for expressiveness? Has there ever been an instance in which your expertise as a photographer has failed to capture the moment you saw with the naked eye?

JR: Well, one’s proficiency—as a photographer using technical equipment—improves over time. You learn what you’re doing, and the odds of capturing what you want improve. Your timing gets better. You can anticipate, if not always what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” then at least the indecisive moment you’ve been looking for. I know this sounds a little crazy, but on the deepest level of expression, I don’t think it matters if you’re holding a pen or a camera. “I’m an artist,” John Lennon said, “and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”

Expertise, however, is different from proficiency, especially, in the arts, where it is only approximate. Creativity, of the highest sort, has its seasons. It waxes and wanes. A photographer with expertise, one who consistently produces expert images, is probably a wedding photographer. My goal as an artist is to avoid predictability and to create fresh images. So I have to keep finding a way to slide away from my own expertise, and to realign my sights.

Some photographers take the same photograph over and over¸ and that requires a kind of expertise. It’s a way of making a living.


THR: Can you tell us about what sort of equipment you use? Do you prefer traditional film or digital cameras? If you use a digital camera, have there been any modifications in your methods or your approach?

JR: Well, I should start off by saying that I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for a while now. Probably out of necessity. I spend as much time working on digital prints as I used to spend in the darkroom, but now I don’t have to stand on my bad left foot.

In my case, switching from film to digital was a matter of convenience, and that’s about it. Even though I am using a new technology, the reasons why I take photographs haven’t changed. The digital camera is, really, just a camera, and the world I want to photograph is the same old world. The old challenge remains unchanged: to use my camera to disclose some sort of hidden meaning that lies below our common awareness. A poet’s task, neither more nor less. So I trained myself to look closely for the little thing that nobody was paying attention to, the quiet thing that didn’t want to give away its secret importance. An unmade bed. A chessboard in Tompkins Square after a rainstorm. Something you might walk right by.

I guess I have faith that the actual world, as it is, is enough. It’s my guiding principle. I think that if I move things around in my photographs, arrange expressions, say, or digitally create a dream effect, then I won’t meet the criterion of perception that I’ve set for myself. I want to distill reality, not modify it with software.

Of course I’m describing only one approach to image-making—one that I inherited from a certain time and place. It’s just the way I do things. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other ways of considering and making photographs. It’s just mine.

John Rosenthal’s New Orleans photographs will appear in AFTER: The Silence of the Lower 9th Ward (Safe Harbor Books, forthcoming 2015). See more of his work at

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Cowardice and Ebola

A Kikwit, Zaire clinic (1995).

A Kikwit, Zaire clinic (1995).

Not long into his new book Cowardice: A Brief History, Chris Walsh, associate director of Boston University’s writing program, notes that his subject has received surprisingly little direct consideration in Western letters and scholarship. Humanity responds to cowards and cowardly acts with an appalled reticence. “Let’s not speak of them,” Dante’s Virgil says dismissively of the hundreds of cowards crowding Hell’s vestibule. The philosopher Kierkegaard, who gave more thought to the subject, observed that “there must be something wrong with cowardliness, since it is so detested, so averse to being mentioned, that its name has completely disappeared from use.”

Not quite completely, of course, but a certain obliquity does characterize most literate reflections on the subject, even though it’s crucial to our conduct—not only in war but in those moments of choice that call for moral courage. Consider the current debate over the appropriate response to the Ebola virus as it spreads beyond its epicenter in West Africa. Does the discourse of cowardice, and its antonyms bravery and courage, play any role in this debate? Should it? Are we being evasive—even cowardly—in refusing to see the debate in those terms as well as in medical-epidemiological or national security ones? Perhaps courage and cowardice raise moral questions that we would rather ignore.

Bringing cowardice into the discussion certainly doesn’t simplify matters. Even if we accept Walsh’s working definition of a coward—”someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do”—we run into problems. One person’s excessive fear is another’s reasonable fear, and defining our duty in any given situation invites qualifications and assorted objections.

Sure, we can easily point to the brave healthcare workers who have thoroughly acquitted themselves in fulfilling their duty, in many cases losing their lives or otherwise going far beyond duty’s call. The British healthcare worker who returned to Africa after recovering from the disease fills us with highest admiration, yet the extent of his courage may cause some to wonder whether it exceeds reasonable bounds. If we explain away such courage by attributing it to perverse or even vainglorious motives, we may be admitting we hold an idea of duty that lacks firm or clear obligations. Uncomfortable as such an admission may be, we need to understand our own standards of duty so that we know when we may be shirking them.

The question of our own cowardice grows more discomfiting when we consider the most contentious proposed response to the spread of the disease: the imposition of a travel ban that would curtail international commercial flights for people from Liberia and Sierra Leone. There are opposing arguments about the efficacy of such a ban, of course. But is one side more clearly courageous and the other more clearly cowardly?

Again, answers are not easy. First, where is one’s primary duty here—to one’s national security and well being, or to humanity and the greater global good? We who want to participate fully in a globalized world must know that with its benefits come responsibilities. Is it not cowardice to shirk such responsibilities?

It may be another form of cowardice to rush to answers that are too easy and too quick. Are there, for example, better ways of limiting the movement of infected people than by imposing restrictions on all people who share their nationality? Have we discussed and explored those alternatives? If we say our primary and unqualified duty is to our own national good, are we certain that such a ban furthers that good in the short or long terms?

Courage and cowardice enter into these questions again when we examine the motives for our answers. “Kinds of cowardice can conflict,” notes Walsh.  And he adds that “Excessive fear of being or seeming cowardly can lead to cowardice.” These potential conflicts should bear heavily on the minds of our political leaders, who sometimes show more concern for appearances than for substance. Are those political leaders who are now calling for a ban merely pandering to a fearful base or taking yet another opportunity to bash whatever President Obama calls for? Conversely, could President Obama be so fearful of the disapproval of the international community that he might refuse to make certain choices? Is it cowardly not to be cruel to be kind? After all, imposing a ban on the most afflicted nations might move the elites of those nations (the citizens most likely to avail themselves of international air travel) to devote more resources and effort to containing the contagion, in the way that Nigeria’s political elite did.

The discourse of cowardice may not bring easy answers to dilemmas so vexing as this one, but if it brought a little more honesty, that would be no small contribution. The somewhat paradoxical problem with facing up to cowardice, as Walsh’s excellent book shows, is that it usually requires great courage.


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