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Two Hundred Years of Blue

Cerulean splendor from Goethe, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Rachel Carson, Toni Morrison, and other literary masters.

With Carl Sagan’s poetic Pale Blue Dot on my mind lately, I have found myself dwelling on the color blue and the way our planet’s elemental hue, the most symphonic of the colors, recurs throughout our literature as something larger than a mere chromatic phenomenon — a symbol, a state of being, a foothold to the most lyrical and transcendent heights of the imagination.

Gathered here is a posy of blue from some of my favorite encounters with this more-than-color in the literature of the past two centuries.

JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1810)

In his sixty-first year, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832), by then Europe’s reigning intellect, published Theory of Colors (public library | public domain) — his effort to unearth the psychological link between color and emotion nearly a century before the dawn of psychology as a formal field of study, penned just before his compatriot Abraham Gottlob Werner released his seminal scientific nomenclature of color, which Darwin would later take on The Beagle.

“We love to contemplate blue,” Goethe wrote, “not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.” The treatise, composed as a refutation of Newton, turned out to have no scientific validity. But its conceptual aspects fascinated and inspired generations of philosophers and scientists ranging from Arthur Schopenhauer to Kurt Gödel.

Color chart by Patrick Syme for Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts.

Goethe writes in the section allotted to blue:

As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade… Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU (1843)

“Where is my cyanometer,” Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) exclaimed in his splendid journal on a blue-skied spring day, referring to the curious device invented by the Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure a century earlier to measure the blueness of the sky, which the polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt enthusiastically embraced. “We love to see any part of the earth tinged with blue, cerulean, the color of the sky, the celestial color,” Thoreau wrote in another spring entry. “The blue of my eye sympathizes with this blue in the snow,” he recorded in a winter one. “Blue is light seen through a veil,” he wrote on the precipice of the two seasons.

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure’s cyanometer, circa 1760.

Thoreau’s writings, dancing at the borderline between observation and contemplation, are strewn with his love of blue. Most often, he records his delight at the raw reality of the color as he encounters it in nature. Occasionally, however, he leaps from the actual into the abstract, drawing from physical blueness insight into the metaphysical dimensions of existence.

In a travelogue from an 1843 walk to Waschusett, found in his indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library) — the source of his lovely meditation on finding spiritual warmth in winter — Thoreau writes:

We resolved to scale the blue wall which bound the western horizon… In the spaces of thought are the reaches of land and water, where men go and come. The landscape lies far and fair within, and the deepest thinker is the farthest travelled.

Peering into the blue horizon from the conquered mountain summit at the end of the journey, he finds in it a metaphor for the boundlessness of the human spirit:

We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue; that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.

WASSILY KANDINSKY (1910)

Exactly a century after Goethe, the great Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (December 16, 1866–December 13, 1944) examined the psychological and spiritual dimensions of art through the lens of form and color. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art (free ebook | public library), Kandinsky devotes an especially impassioned section to blue:

The power of profound meaning is found in blue, and first in its physical movements (1) of retreat from the spectator, (2) of turning in upon its own centre. The inclination of blue to depth is so strong that its inner appeal is stronger when its shade is deeper. Blue is the typical heavenly colour… The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest… [Footnote:] Supernatural rest, not the earthly contentment of green. The way to the supernatural lies through the natural.

When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human… When it rises towards white, a movement little suited to it, its appeal to men grows weaker and more distant. In music a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello; a still darker a thunderous double bass; and the darkest blue of all — an organ.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE (1916)

When Georgia O’Keeffe (November 15, 1887–March 6, 1986) was a little girl, decades before she came to be regarded as America’s first great female artist and became the first woman honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, her mother used to read history and travel stories to her every night before bed. The mesmerism of place never lost its grip on her. At the peak of her career, O’Keeffe left New York and moved to the exotic expanse of the Southwest to live a solitary life. She once wrote in a letter to her dearest friend, Anita Pollitzer, who had selflessly taken it upon herself to make the New York art elite pay attention to O’Keeffe’s work: “I believe one can have as many rare experiences at the tail end of the earth as in civilization if one grabs at them — no — it isn’t a case of grabbing — it is — just that they are here — you can’t help getting them.” Pollitzer would later come to write in a major profile of O’Keeffe: “Fame still does not seem to be as meaningful or real to her as the mesas of New Mexico or the petals of a white rose.”

Or the blue of the Southwest sky, for what most enchanted O’Keeffe in her new home was the vast firmament with its tempest of color, richer than anything she had ever seen or even imagined possible. In a letter from September of 1916, found in Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer (public library), O’Keeffe exults in the azure awe of the Southwest sky:

Tonight I walked into the sunset — to mail some letters — the whole sky — and there is so much of it out here — was just blazing — and grey blue clouds were riding all through the holiness of it — and the ugly little buildings and windmills looked great against it…

The Eastern sky was all grey blue — bunches of clouds — different kinds of clouds — sticking around everywhere and the whole thing — lit up — first in one place — then in another with flashes of lightning — sometimes just sheet lightning — and some times sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it –. I walked out past the last house — past the last locust tree — and sat on the fence for a long time — looking — just looking at — the lightning — you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land — land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know — There was a wonderful moon.

Well I just sat there and had a great time all by myself — Not even many night noises — just the wind —

[…]

It is absurd the way I love this country… I am loving the plains more than ever it seems — and the SKY — Anita you have never seen SKY — it is wonderful —

Georgia O’Keeffe. Light Coming on the Plains, I, II and III, 1917, watercolor on paper. (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.)

Two decades later, O’Keeffe revisited blue in her contribution to An American Place — the catalogue for an exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photographs her great love and spouse, Alfred Stieglitz, had put on in New York City. (Thanks, Natalie, for the discovery.) O’Keeffe writes:

When I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones — what I saw through them — particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world… they were most beautiful against the Blue — that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.

MARGARET MEAD (1926)

For Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978), the color blue appeared not in the attentive observation of the real world that made her one of the most visionary and influential anthropologists in history, but in a nocturnal visitation of her own unconscious mind — a strange and wondrous dream about the meaning of life.

In a 1926 letter found in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — which gave us Mead’s exquisite love letters to her lifelong soulmate and her advice on how to raise a child in an uncertain world — Mead recounts her nocturnal revelation:

Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF (1937)

There is a strange paucity of blue in the private writings of literature’s bluest soul. Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) rarely mentions the color throughout her journals, collected in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the indispensable posthumous volume that gave us Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the consolations of growing older, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, what makes love last, and her arresting account of a total solar eclipse.

But when she does turn to blue, it becomes more than a color, more than a mood — a subtle yet piercing hue of being, or rather the color of the lacuna between being and nonbeing. In an entry from April 9 of 1937, four springs before the blue of her lifelong depression and the River Ouse swallowed her, Woolf limns the singular blue of a particular interior space. Alluding to Wordsworth’s verse addressing “the heart that lives alone, housed in a dream,” she quotes another line and argues with the poet:

“Such happiness wherever it is known is to be pitied for tis surely blind.” Yes, but my happiness isn’t blind. That is the achievement, I was thinking between 3 and 4 this morning, of my 55 years. I lay awake so calm, so content, as if I’d stepped off the whirling world into a deep blue quiet space and there open eyed existed, beyond harm; armed against all that can happen. I have never had this feeling before in all my life; but I have had it several times since last summer: when I reached it, in my worst depression, as if I stepped out, throwing aside a cloak, lying in bed, looking at the stars, these nights at Monks House. Of course it ruffles, in the day, but there it is.

RACHEL CARSON (1941)

A quarter century before marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making book Silent Spring, she performed another unprecedented feat. In a lyrical essay about the underwater world — a world then more mysterious than the moon — she invited the human reader to experience the reality of life on this planet from the nonhuman perspective of marine creatures. Nothing like it had been done before. Published in The Atlantic, the essay became Carson’s first literary breakthrough and led to her 1941 book Under the Sea-Wind (public library) — a series of lyrical narratives about the life of the shore, the open sea, and the oceanic abyss.

In a passage about the migration and mating of eels, she bridges the scientific and the poetic to plunge the human imagination into the otherworldly blue of the deep sea:

The young eels first knew life in the transition zone between the surface sea and the abyss. A thousand feet of water lay above them, straining out the rays of the sun. Only the longest and strongest of the rays filtered down to the level where the eels drifted in the sea — a cold and sterile residue of blue and ultraviolet, shorn of all its warmth of reds and yellows and greens. For a twentieth part of the day the blackness was displaced by a strange light of a vivid and unearthly blue that came stealing down from above. But only the straight, long rays of the sun when it passed the zenith had power to dispel the blackness, and the deep sea’s hour of dawn light was merged in its hour of twilight. Quickly the blue light faded away, and the eels lived again in the long night that was only less black than the abyss, where the night had no end.

NAN SHEPHERD (1940s)

Sometime in the final years of WWII, the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) began composing what would become The Living Mountain (public library) — her poetic inquiry into the interconnectedness of nature and human nature.

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Shepherd wrote. She found the most powerful transmutation agent of that alchemy in the singular blue of the mountain air:

The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings. Brown for the most part in themselves, as soon as we see them clothed in air the hills become blue. Every shade of blue, from opalescent milky-white to indigo, is there. They are most opulently blue when rain is in the air. Then the gullies are violet. Gentian and delphinium hues, with fire in them, lurk in the folds. These sultry blues have more emotional effect than a dry air can produce. One is not moved by china blue. But the violet range of colours can trouble the mind like music.

VLADIMIR NABOKOV (1951)

“The confessions of a synesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are,” Vladimir Nabokov (April 22, 1899–July 2, 1977) wrote in his 1951 autobiography, Speak, Memory (public library), describing the lifelong crossing of the senses that resulted in his synesthetic alphabet.

In aiding the non-synesthete to experience this strange parallel reality of sensory perception, Nabokov constructs a color wheel of the alphabet, allotting each letter to a particular portion of the spectrum. These are his blues:

Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.

Although the letters of the alphabet spilled across the entire spectrum of his mind’s eye, Nabokov had an especial fondness for the color blue. He recalls how, as a youngster, his teacher would take the class to the park and enchant them by arranging the autumn maple leaves in a large circle forming “a near complete spectrum” — but, crucially, without the blue, which was “a big disappointment” to the young Nabokov. Perhaps this is why, when he turned his cross-disciplinary curiosity to lepidoptery later in life, the butterflies that most captivated his imagination and became his greatest scientific legacy were the azure-colored Latin American Polyommatini, colloquially known as the “blues.”

ANNIE DILLARD (1974)

Annie Dillard may be the closest counterpart to Thoreau we have a century and a half later — a poet laureate of nature, whose lyrical prose beckons mind, heart, and spirit to heights of contemplation we have forgotten exist. Her 1974 classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (public library) — which gave us Dillard on the two ways of looking and reclaiming our capacity for joy and wonder — is strewn with blue. Some of it delights with the pure splendor of sentiment in language:

I saw in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains.

Some of it transports to places of the natural world and places of the interior world we rarely let ourselves notice, much less visit, by our own accord. Dillard invites the imagination into the inky enchantment of nightfall in winter:

Yesterday I watched a curious nightfall. The cloud ceiling took on a warm tone, deepened, and departed as if drawn on a leash. I could no longer see the fat snow flying against the sky; I could see it only as it fell before dark objects. Any object at a distance — like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window — looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue. It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled; silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration at the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed. The snow on the yard was blue as ink, faintly luminous; the sky violet. The bay window betrayed me, and started giving me back the room’s lamps. It was like dying, that growing dimmer and deeper and then going out.

TONI MORRISON (1987)

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Toni Morrison wrote in her spectacular acceptance speech as she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize. The cornerstone for the trailblazing distinction was Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (public library), inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.

In a scene on the banks of the river, where the fugitive heroine gives birth to her baby daughter aided by the cover of night and the white woman with the kind hands, Morrison shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of destiny. She contemplates what fate may hold for this new life that had so closely escaped death before entering a pitiless world; what it may hold for any life. Morrison wrests from one of this planet’s rare blue plants an exquisite existential metaphor:

Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects — but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one — will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.

REBECCA SOLNIT (2005)

Rebecca Solnit examines the color blue and its relationship to desire in a stunning essay that may well be the crowning achievement of this chromatic category of literature, found in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (public library) — her sublime meditation on how we find ourselves in the unknown.

In an exquisite centrifugal unfolding from the scientific into the poetic, Solnit writes:

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. “Longing,” says the poet Robert Hass, “because desire is full of endless distances.” Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

This blue of distance and unmet longing, Solnit argues, is what makes desire so disquieting. We seek to silence it either by grasping toward its object in hungry hope of consummation or with the restless resistance of denial and suppression. We seem unable to befriend desire on its own terms and to approach it with what John Keats memorably termed “negative capability.” Solnit offers a remedy for this chronic and self-defeating anxiety:

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

After relaying the personal significance of blue in a vividly remembered childhood experience, Solnit closes an altogether extraordinary essay with a return to the universal coloring of distance and longing:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel. If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not … abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway.

[…]

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

JANNA LEVIN (2006)

A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines (public library) by astrophysicist Janna Levin remains one of the most beautiful, profound, and intellectually elegant books I have ever read — a splendid biographical novel levitating with the poetics of a rapturous imagination, yet rigorously grounded in the real lives and scientific contributions of two of the twentieth century’s most tragic geniuses: computing pioneer Alan Turing and trailblazing mathematician Kurt Gödel.

The richest, most enchanting aspect of the book is the way it illuminates just how inseparable our so-called personal lives are from our public contribution — how Turing and Gödel’s singular lonelinesses and loves shaped their character, informing and inspiring the landmark breakthroughs we celebrate as their scientific genius. For Turing, the most formative fact of his life was his deep adoration of his boyhood classmate Christopher Morcom, with whom he fell in love at the boarding school where the teenage Alan was mercilessly bullied by the other boys, nearly to death. Christopher was everything Alan was not — dashing, polished, well versed in both science and art, aglow with charisma. Alan’s love was profound and pure and unrequited in the dimensions he most longed for, but Christopher did take to him with great warmth and became his most beloved, in fact his only, friend. They spent long nights discussing science and philosophy, trading astronomical acumen, and speculating about the laws of physics. For the remainder of his life, Turing would consider Morcom his soul mate.

It is an intense blue that Levin chooses as the backdrop of their improbable love. In a stunning scene suspended between science and romance — two realms of the human experience grounded in a shared longing to make the impossible possible — she writes:

Chris had shown him the reaction between solutions of iodates and sulfites. Holding the mixture in a clear beaker near his face, he watched Alan’s response as the solution turned a bold blue, tinting Christopher’s hair and deepening the hue of his eyes. To Alan it seemed the other way around, as though Chris’s beautiful eyes had stained the beaker blue.

[…]

He often tries to re-create the moment when Chris’s spirit seeped out of the portals of his eyes and infused the room, a stunning concentration of his soul trapped in the indigo liquid in the beaker. He knows the simple form of the chemicals and the rules of their combination, but he can’t shake the force of the impression that Chris makes on him. He can’t limit the experience to the confines of ordinary matter. In the privacy of his room, he re-creates the experiment, waiting for thirty seconds before the sudden rush of color tears through the fluid. While the process enhances the vibrancy of his memory of that moment, the color never quite strikes the peak hue it reached the time Chris held the tube suspended near his eyes. Where is the spirit in human cells and chemicals and glass?

Three years later, Christopher would die of bovine tuberculosis from infected milk, breaking Alan’s heart and thrusting him into an existential tussle with the binary code of body and spirit. The inextinguishable heartache of the loss would haunt Turing for the remainder of his life, fomenting the restless soul from which his science sprang. Levin writes:

Although Alan is agitated by his own faith — a faith that has never crystallized as well as he had hoped — he does not allow his spiritual leniency to corrupt his pure view of mathematics. As a tribute to Morcom, Turing analyzed sulfur dioxide and iodic acid in explicit mathematical detail. Beneath the differential equations and the chemical compositions he found a sharp result. Lucid and true. He recorded it in black ink on white paper. His proof did not glow in blue or throb with the thrill of the moment the beaker trapped Chris’s radiance. But it was honest and right. His homage to Chris.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS (2016)

Midway through The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (public library) — her symphonic and mobilizing clarion call for protecting the wildernessTerry Tempest Williams includes a most unexpected burst of delight. Recounting her visit to Big Bend National Park in Texas, she enacts her intention “to simply walk and witness the Chihauhaun Desert” in a lovely way: She fills twelve small field notebooks, each a different color and each allotted to one day of her trip, with examples of the respective color she observes in the natural world about her that day.

It doesn’t seem accidental that Williams chooses to begin with the most elemental color of our planet, recording the wild and wildly sundry manifestations of blue with a naturalist’s observation of detail and a poet’s largeness of contemplation. In the small blue notebook inscribed “Day One,” she writes:

Blue is bunting, indigo and quick. Blue is jay, its chatter like jazz. Blue is grosbeak is bluebird is blackbird turned sky. The Chisos mountains at dusk are blue. Blue is ghost-like. Twilight. Deep border blue. Once is the blue moon where panthers dance. Twice is the blue belly of lizards flashing. Blue waves are heat waves, dervishes in sand. Blue is the long song of storm clouds gathering with rain.

UPDATE: Thanks to many readers who live under rocks significantly less sizable than mine, I have since discovered the wondrous Bluets.

BP

Jeff Buckley on Music and Life: A Rare Interview with One of Creative History’s Most Tragic Heroes

“Be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside.”

In 1995, while working for an Italian radio station, journalist Luisa Cotardo conducted what would become the most candid, soulful, and profound conversation with legendary musician Jeff Buckley. His only studio album, the now-iconic Grace — which includes Buckley’s extraordinary cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the song for which he remains best-loved — had been released a few months earlier and Buckley had just performed in the town of Correggio in Northern Italy as part of his European tour. Less than two years later, at the age of thirty, he would drown by accident while swimming in Tennessee’s Wolf River during a tour, becoming one of creative history’s most tragic heroes — doubly so because Buckley’s critical acclaim only crescendoed after his death. Rolling Stone eventually proclaimed him one of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Cotardo has kindly shared with me her recording of this rare and remarkably rich interview, in which Buckley discusses with great openness and grace his philosophy on music and life. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he chose not to include lyrics in the album booklet, a deliberate effort to honor music as a deeply personal experience interpreted and inhabited differently by each listener:

So that instead of people being compelled to read through the blueprint of the songs — instead of them looking at the dance steps ahead of time, they would just go through the dance. So that they would let the songs happen to them. Later on, they will find out what the meaning is, but for now — I mean, you know, we’re just meeting for the first time and it’s better… It’s better to grab your own reality from it right now instead of like, you know, read.

On what he seeks to communicate with his music, echoing composer Aaron Copland’s conviction about the interplay of emotion and intellect in great music:

[What I want to communicate] doesn’t have a language with which I can communicate it. The things that I want to communicate are simply self-evident, emotional things. And the gifts of those things are that they bring both intellectual and emotional gifts — understanding. But I don’t really have a major message that I want to bring to the world through my music. The music can tell people everything they need to know about being human beings. It’s not my information, it’s not mine. I didn’t make it. I just discovered it.

On the problem with Western charity efforts like LiveAid:

I would like for the starvation and oppression to end in Africa. I like for money from concerned people to go there, you know, to go to Africa, to aid. But … the real solution will come from Africa ruling Africa and not Britain ruling Africa, not America ruling Africa — it’s the only real key. If Africa rules Africa, that’s the only way that pattern of oppression from the outside can be stopped — not money, not only money. Money is a tool and it can be, I don’t know, I really don’t… It’s great that Mandela came out and took office in Africa. I think that’s the real revolution.

On place and what constitutes home and belonging for a global nomad like himself:

I don’t know what belonging means… I can only use my brain and intellectualize. I really wouldn’t able to tell you from the heart what belonging means… My memories of that place are my link to the place — memories of your experience in a place is your link… All people belong to the world. There is no exclusivity in that… The soil from America can differ from the soil in Malaysia, but its soil, it’s still the same. And the color of people’s skin can differ from place to place but it’s still skin. And, in that regard, there is no difference. People must belong to the earth and a traveller must belong to world somehow and the world must belong to her or him somehow. But, you know, then there’s the social level — that’s just the archetypal level, people usually live in the social level.

Echoing what Jackson Pollock’s father so poetically told his son in 1928, Buckley parlays this into his humble yet wonderfully wise advice on being in the world:

I have no advice for anybody except to, you know, be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside, even in places you hate.

On one’s journey of self-actualization and the organic letting go of dreams that no longer fit that journey:

It’s part of maturity, to project upon your life goals and project upon your life realized dreams and a result that you want. It’s part of becoming whole … just like a childish game. It’s honest — it’s an honest game, because … you want your life to hold hope and possibility.

It’s just that, when you get to the real meat of life, is that life has its own rhythm and you cannot impose your own structure upon it — you have to listen to what it tells you, and you have to listen to what your path tells you. It’s not earth that you move with a tractor — life is not like that. Life is more like earth that you learn about and plant seeds in… It’s something you have to have a relationship with in order to experience — you can’t mold it — you can’t control it…

BP

The Best Photography Books of 2013

From Mongolia to Mars, by way of mesmerizing mines and Manhattan’s characters.

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography nearly three decades before the age of Instagram and the selfie. Indeed, the photographic image has not only retained by amplified its power to move, to mesmerize, to usurp power. On the heels of the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, “children’s” (though we all know what that means), and pets and animals, here are 2013’s most exquisite books on photography.

1. THIS IS MARS

“Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there WILL be by the end of this century,” Arthur C. Clarke predicted in 1971 while contemplating humanity’s quest to conquer the Red Planet. “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you,” Carl Sagan said a quarter century later in his bittersweet message to future Mars explorers shortly before his death. Sagan, of course, has always been with us — especially as we fulfill, at least partially, Clarke’s prophecy: On March 10, 2006, we put a proxy of human life on, or at least very near, Mars — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its powerful HiRISE telescope, arrived in the Red Planet’s orbit and began mapping its surface in unprecedented detail.

This Is Mars (public library) — a lavish visual atlas by French photographer, graphic designer and editor Xavier Barral, featuring 150 glorious ultra-high-resolution black-and-white images culled from the 30,000 photographs taken by NASA’s MRO, alongside essays by HiRISE telescope principal researcher Alfred S. McEwen, astrophysicist Francis Rocard, and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold — offers an unparalleled glimpse of those mesmerizing visions of otherworldly landscapes beamed back by the MRO in all their romantic granularity, making the ever-enthralling Red Planet feel at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever. At the intersection of art and science, these mesmerizing images belong somewhere between Berenice Abbot’s vintage science photography, the most enchanting aerial photography of Earth, and the NASA Art Project.

In a sentiment of beautiful symmetry to Eudora Welty’s meditation on place and fiction, Barral considers how these images simultaneously anchor us to a physical place and invite us into an ever-unfolding fantasy:

At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates. These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.

Originally featured in October.

2. HUMANS OF NEW YORK

The ever-evolving portrait of New York City has been painted through Gotham’s cats and its dogs, its buildings and its parks, its diaries and its letters. Underpinning all of those, of course, are the city’s true building blocks: its humans.

In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton — one of the warmest, most talented and most generous humans I know — lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago and was forced to make new light of his life. Having recently gotten his first camera and fallen in love with photography, he decided to follow that fertile combination of necessity and passion, and, to his parents’ terror and dismay, set out to pursue photography as a hobby-turned-vocation. (For his mother, who saw bond trading as a reputable occupation, photography “seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment.”) Brandon recalls:

I had enjoyed my time as a trader. The job was challenging and stimulating. And I’d obsessed over markets in the same way I’d later obsess over photography. But the end goal of trading was always money. Two years of my life were spent obsessing over money, and in the end I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to spend the next phase of my life doing work that I valued as much as the reward.

In photography, he found that rewarding obsession. Approaching it with the priceless freshness of Beginner’s Mind, he brought to his new calling the gift of ignorance and an art of seeing untainted by the arrogance of expertise, hungry to make sense of the world through his lens as he made sense of his own life. And make he did: Brandon, who quickly realized that “the best way to become a photographer was to start photographing,” set out on a photo tour across several major American cities, beginning in Pittsburgh and ending up in New York City, where he had only planned to spend a week but where he found both his new home and his new calling.

And so, in a beautiful embodiment of how to find your purpose and do what you love, Brandon’s now-legendary online project documenting Gotham’s living fabric was born — at first a humble Facebook page, which blossomed into one of today’s most popular photojournalism blogs with millions of monthly readers. Now, his photographic census of the world’s most vibrant city spills into the eponymous offline masterpiece Humans of New York (public library) — a magnificent mosaic of lives constructed through four hundred of Brandon’s expressive and captivating photos, many never before featured online.

These portraits — poignant, poetic, playful, heartbreaking, heartening — dance across the entire spectrum of the human condition not with the mockingly complacent lens of a freak-show gawker but with the affectionate admiration and profound respect that one human holds for another.

In the age of the aesthetic consumerism of visual culture online, HONY stands as a warm beacon of humanity, gently reminding us that every image is not a disposable artifact to be used as social currency but a heart that beat in the blink of the shutter, one that will continue to beat with its private turbulence of daily triumphs and tribulations even as we move away from the screen or the page to resume our own lives.

The captions, some based on Brandon’s interviews with the subjects and others an unfiltered record of his own observations, add a layer of thought to the visual story: One photograph, depicting two elderly gentlemen intimately leaning into each other on a park bench, reads: “It takes a lot of disquiet to achieve this sort of quiet comfort.” Another, portraying a very old gentleman in a wheelchair with matching yellow sneakers, shorts, and baseball cap, surprises us by revealing that this is Banana George, world record-holder as the oldest barefoot water-skier.

Some are full of humor:

Damn liberal arts degree.

Others are hopelessly charming:

When I walked by, she was really moving to the music — hands up, head nodding, shoulders swinging. I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked: “Does she belong to you?”

Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard: “I belong to myself!”

Others still are humbling and soul-stirring:

My wife passed away a few years back. Her name was Barbara, I used to call her Ba. My name was Lawrence, she used to call me La. When she died, I changed my name to Bala.

I stepped inside an Upper West Side nursing home, and met this man in the lobby. He was on his way to deliver a yellow teddy bear to his wife. “I visit her every day,” he said. “Even when the mind is gone, the heart shows through.”

Then there are the city’s favorite tropes: Its dogs

…and its bikes…

I’m ninety years old and I ride this thing around everywhere. I don’t see why more people don’t use them. I carry my cane in the basket, I get all my shopping done. I can go everywhere. I’ve never hit anyone and never been hit. Of course, I ride on the sidewalk, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do, but still…

…and the deuce delight of dogs on bikes:

Above all, however, there is something especially magical about framing these moments of stillness and of absolute attention to the individual amidst this bustling city of millions, a city that never sleeps and never stops.

Whatever your geographic givens, Humans of New York is an absolute masterpiece of cultural celebration, both as vibrant visual anthropology and as a meta-testament, by way of Brandon’s own story, to the heartening notion that this is indeed a glorious age in which we can make our own luck and make a living doing what we love.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

3. BLACK MAPS

For nearly three decades, photographer and visual artist David Maisel — whose gloriously haunting Library of Dust project you might recall from a few years back — has been transforming landscape photography with his stunning aerial images exploring the relationship between Earth and humanity. Now, the best of them are collected in the magnificent monograph Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring more than 100 of Maisel’s surreally entrancing portraits of our worldly reality, at once beautiful and tragic. From cyanide-leaching ponds to open-pit mines to the sprawl of urbanization, Maisel’s mesmerizing photographs — which, without context, could be mistaken as much for abstract impressionism as they could for cellular microscopy — capture fragments of the landscape that “correspond to the structure of human thought and feeling.”

From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘Oblivion’ © David Maisel
From ‘Terminal Mirage’ © David Maisel
From ‘Terminal Mirage’ © David Maisel
From ‘Terminal Mirage’ © David Maisel
4. DOROTHEA LANGE

At the same time that pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott was busy capturing the urban fabric and trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Mead was laying the groundwork for modern anthropology, Dorothea Lange mastered the intersection of the two in her influential Depression-era photojournalism and documentary photography. In Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (public library), Lange’s goddaughter Elizabeth Partridge, an accomplished and prolific author in her own right, presents a first-of-its-kind career-spanning monograph of the legendary photographer’s work, placing her most famous and enduring photographs in a biographical context that adds new dimension to these iconic images.

Among the biographical sketches is also the story of Lange’s best-known, infinitely expressive, most iconic photograph of all — Migrant Mother, depicting an agricultural worker named Florence Owens Thompson with her children — which came to capture the harrowing realities of the Great Depression not merely as an economic phenomenon but as a human tragedy.

Migrant Mother, 1936

In 1935, Lange and her second husband, the Berkeley economics professor and self-taught photographer Paul Taylor, were transferred to the Resettlement Administration (RA), one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs designed to help the country recover from the depression. Lange began working as a Field Investigator and Photographer under Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division.

Resettlement Administration Report, ‘Rural Rehabilitation Camps for Migrants’ by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange. Lange had absorbed Taylor’s working habits, particularly the practice of listening attentively to the migrant workers and taking handwritten notes on what they said. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

In early February of 1936, while living in a small two-bedroom house in California with Taylor and her two step-children, Lange received an assignment to photograph California’s rural and urban slums and farmworkers. She was supposed to spend a month on the road, but severe weather along the coast delayed her departure. When she finally set out for Los Angeles, the first destination on her route, she wrote in a letter to Stryker:

Tried to work in the pea camps in heavy rain from the back of the station wagon. I doubt that I got anything. . . . Made other mistakes too. . . . I make the most mistakes on subject matter that I get excited about and enthusiastic. In other words, the worse the work, the richer the material was.

Accompanying this photograph was Lange’s handwritten caption: ‘Old Negro — the kind the planters like. He hoes, picks cotton, and is full of good humor.’ Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi, 1937 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

It was in the pea camps that she captured her most iconic image less than two weeks later — an image that, due to its unshakable grip of empathy, would transcend the status of mere visual icon and effect critical cultural awareness on both a social and political level. Partridge writes:

Two weeks of sleet and steady rain had caused a rust blight, destroying the pea crop. There was no work, no money to buy food. Dorothea approached “the hungry and desperate mother,” huddled under a torn canvas tent with her children. The family had been living on frozen vegetables they’d gleaned from the fields and birds the children killed. Working quickly, Dorothea made just a few exposures, climbed back in her car, and drove home.

Dorothea knew the starving pea pickers couldn’t wait for someone in Washington, DC to act. They needed help immediately. She developed the negatives of the stranded family, and rushed several photographs to the San Francisco News. Two of her images accompanied an article on March 10th as the federal government rushed twenty thousand pounds of food to the migrants.

Another shot of Florence Owens Thompson. Lange’s caption from her notebook: ‘Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven children without food. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is a native Californian.’ Nipomo, California, 1936 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

The most remarkable part of the story, however, is that this was an image Lange almost didn’t take: At the end of that cold and wretched winter, she had been on the road for almost a month, with only the insufficient protection of her camera lens between her and the desperate, soul-stirringly dejected living and working conditions of California’s migratory farm workers. Downhearted and weary, both physically and psychologically, she decided she had seen and captured enough, packed up her clunky camera equipment, and headed north on Highway 101, bickering with herself in her notebook: “Haven’t you plenty of negatives already on the subject? Isn’t this just one more of the same?” But then something happened — a fleeting glance, one of those pivotal chance encounters that shape lives. Partridge transports us to that fateful March day:

The cold, wet conditions of Northern California gave way to sweltering heat in Los Angeles, a “vile town,” Dorothea wrote. By the beginning of March she was headed home, exhausted, her camera bags packed on the front seat beside her.

Hours later, the hand-lettered “Pea pickers camp” sign flashed by her. Did she have it in her to try one more time?

She did.

The long, hard rains that had delayed Dorothea at the outset of her journey had deluged the Nipomo pea pickers. And even as Dorothea drove north and homeward, the camp was still floundering in water and mud. Not long before Dorothea arrived, Florence Thompson and four of her six children, along with some of the other stranded migrants, had moved to a higher, sandy location nearby. Thompson left word at the first camp for her partner, Jim Hill, on where to find them. Earlier in the day he’d set off walking with Thompson’s two sons to find parts for their broken-down car.

The sandy camp in front of a windbreak of eucalyptus trees is where Dorothea pulled in and found Florence Thompson and her children. They were waiting for Hill and the boys to show up, for the ground to dry, for crops to ripen for harvesting. They were waiting for their luck to change.

In minutes, Dorothea took the photograph that would become the definitive icon of the Great Depression, intuitively conveying the migrants’ perilous predicament in the frame of her camera.

Dorothea Lange’s studio and darkroom, Berkeley, California (Photograph: Rondal Partridge, c. 1957 / Helen Dixon Collection)

Originally featured in November.

5. BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY

In the late 1990s, photographer Jimmy Nelson became fascinated by Earth’s last living indigenous tribes. It took him a decade to begin documenting their fascinating lives, but once he did, what came out of his 4×5 camera was nothing short of mesmerizing — a glimpse of what feels like a parallel universe, or rather parallel multiverses, to our Western eyes, yet one full of our immutable shared humanity. The magnificent results are now gathered in Before They Pass Away (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring 500 of Nelson’s striking photographs, standing somewhere between Jeroen Toirkens’s visual catalog of Earth’s last nomads and Rachel Sussman’s photographic record of the oldest living things in the world.

The journey took Nelson all over the world, from the deserts of Africa to the steppes of Siberia. He writes:

I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.

The semi-nomadic Kazakhs, descendent from the Huns, have been herding in the valleys of Mongolia since the 19th century and take great pride in their ancient art of eagle-hunting.

The Huli of Papua New Guinea migrated to the island about 45,000 years ago. Today, the remaining tribes often fight with one another for resources — land, livestock, women. To intimidate the enemy, the largest tribe, the Huli wigmen, continue the ancient tradition of painting their faces in yellow, red and white and making elaborate wigs of their own hair.

Though the Gauchos of South America might appear more “modern” than other indigenous tribes, these free-spirited nomadic horsemen have remained a self-contained culture since they first started roaming the prairies in the 1700s.

A distinct ethnic group and even more distinct cultural collective, Tibetans, descendent from aboriginal and nomadic Qiang tribes, are known for their prayer flags, sky burials, spirit traps, and festival devil dances, which encapsulate their history and beliefs.

The Maasai endure as one of the oldest and greatest warrior cultures. As they migrated from the Sudan in the 15th century, they took possession of the local tribes’ cattle and conquered much of the Rift Valley. To this day, they depend on the natural cycles of rainfall and drought for their cattle, which remain their core source of sustenance.

The reindeer-herding Nenets of northern Arctic Russia have thrived for over a millennium at temperatures ranging from 58ºF below zero in the winter to 95ºF in the summer, migrating across more than 620 miles per year, 30 of which consist in the grueling crossing of the frozen Ob River.

Originally featured in November — see more here, including Nelson’s entertaining and moving TEDxAmsterdam talk.

6. FACES OF JUSTICE

On the heels of Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear comes Justice: Faces of the Human Rights Revolution (public library) by New-York-based photographer Mariana Cook — who gave us this heart-warming portrait of Maurice Sendak and his dog Herman, a fine addition to history’s beloved literary pets. The humanist upgrade to Platon’s Power, Cook’s magnificent black-and-white portraits, poetic and dignified, capture 99 beloved luminaries ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spearheaded the opposition to apartheid, to President Jimmy Carter to Sir Sydney Kentridge, who served as the lead lawyer in the 1962 trial of Nelson Mandela, to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who helped champion this week’s historic win for marriage equality.

Cook frames the project in her preface:

How do people come to feel so passionately about fairness and freedom that they will risk their livelihoods, even their lives, to pursue justice? A few years ago, I became fascinated by such people—people for whom the “rule of law” is no mere abstraction, for whom human rights is a fiercely urgent concern. I wanted to give a face to social justice by making portraits of human rights pioneers. I am a photographer. I understand by seeing. Peering through the camera lens, I hoped to gain an understanding of how they become so devoted to the rights and dignity of others.

Ludmilla Alexeeva
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Desmond Tutu
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Aung San Suu Kyi
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Raja Shehadeh
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Hina Jilani
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Takna Sangpo
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Nicholas Kristof
Photograph: Mariana Cook

Accompanying each portrait is a micro-essay exploring the life, legacy, and singular spirit of its subject.

Originally featured in June.

7. VIVIAN MAIER: SELF-PORTRAITS

In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.

Maloof writes in the foreword:

As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.

There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.

It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.

The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood.

Originally featured in November.

* * *

Catch up on all the year’s best-of reading lists here.

BP

Mysterious Street Photographer Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits

How a remarkable woman, at once mythical and legendary, saw herself.

In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.

Maloof writes in the foreword:

As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.

There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.

It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.

The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood. Complement it with this fascinating 600-year history of the self-portrait, from Galileo to the selfie.

Photographs via Maloof Collection HT Colossal

BP

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