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30 April 2009

Lives in Pictures

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(All photographs in this post via The Sartorialist)

I saw a this blog post the other day that seemed to summarize three abiding interests of mine all at once — death, style, and the inability to articulate important things. It opens:

    My Father passed away last week.

    I won’t try to write about what he meant to me, because I am not a good enough writer to express that level of sentiment.

This appeared on The Sartorialist, a blog about fashionable people captured in situ on various city streets — in Melbourne, Milan, Paris, New York. Not the first place you’d expect to read about death but there it was.

I have been thinking about dead fathers a lot recently — as well as about elder parents in general, the difficulty of losing these people. My friends & I are all getting to that age or, rather, the people who raised us are. And then The Call comes. With stunning regularity nowadays. Without rhyme or reason. “It’s not like they were 80.” “But she was fine just last week.” “You saw what in the hospital?”

But the thing is, that’s not what is said in these circumstances. I backtrack. “Was it unexpected?” I check in. “Are you okay?” I struggle. “— — —” As if anything will help…

How are we supposed to talk about these things?

I appreciate how the post I quoted opens with a powerfully inarticulate one-two punch. It’s a tough thing to acknowledge that you don’t really know what to say, and it is a brave and revealing thing to say it artlessly. I’m reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein…

    What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

Wittgenstein puts everything in such poetic terms. But even better is the courage to stumble, then try to say something anyway. It’s more vulnerable, more human, less self-conscious, and I appreciated that.

Of course, also, there was the simple nostalgic act of posting old pictures. (Accompanying the post is a series of images from 1964-65 of the author’s dad — a writer/producer/director for television — on location, in many of the same cities where The Sartorialist finds his subjects.) They’re well curated, of course. And the context add depth to the entire enterprise. It turned the blogger’s obsession with style into a kind of reflection on where he came from.

This is how I got here.

I won’t claim to say I noticed a difference in the pictures that have come in the aftermath. But that’s not how we benefit from experience is it? It’s not an all-at-once thing. The skill of seeing things, really seeing things, accretes over time, like lines around the eyes. The Sartorialist is a casual master at showing how pictures can speak more clearly than language ever does.

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Also recommended is this recent New Yorker profile of Bill Cunningham, the guy who has been doing much the same job as The Sartorialist, only for the New York Times. This typically dense, New Yorker-ish paragraph just about sums up what’s so unexpected about the piece:

    Cunningham lives alone in the Carnegie Hall Tower, one of the last tenants in a formerly vast complex of artists’ studios, without a private bathroom or cooking facilities. His bed consists of a piece of foam, a wooden board, and several milk crates. Nearby is a metal file cabinet crammed with decades’ worth of negatives. (Trip Gabriel, the editor of the Times’ Sunday Styles section, where Cunningham’s column appears, told me that when Cunningham goes to the Paris collections “our reporters are staying right in the First Arrondissement, sometimes at the Ritz, and Bill insists on staying at a cheapo hotel that has no phones in the rooms.” To make a reservation, he sends a postcard.) “When I fall out of bed in the morning, I can come over here and get up my adrenaline,” Cunningham said, blowing his nose into a deli napkin that he produced from a pocket of the blue workman’s smock that he customarily wears, as if to say, in solidarity with the hot-dog venders* [tk!] and delivery boys amid whom he spends his days, that his office is the street. Around his neck was a battered Nikon. Its strap was held together with duct tape. Cunningham has often been described as a fashion monk, but he is closer to an oblate—a layperson who has dedicated his life to the tribe without becoming a part of it. A friend of Cunningham’s told Artforum in 1996, “One of Bill’s favorite sayings, when anyone starts taking the fashion scene too seriously, is ‘Oops, you’re falling into the traps of the rich.’ ”

It’s awesome when those we expect to be fashionable, frothy and fabulous turn out to be pragmatic, monastic and deep.

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* = Odd Latinate spelling of the word “vendor” from the original. O, New Yorker you pretentious devil, you!

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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