What California Looks Like

Spent a few days in Yosemite, one of the most glorious places on Earth, and decided I should post this essay I wrote for an alumni magazine about one of its first and greatest photographers. It's not online anywhere else, so, here it is:

When I was living in New York, working for a travel magazine, I began to collect very old photographs of where I was from, which was California. I don’t mean that I acquired these images in any traditional sense. I wasn’t prowling flea markets or auctions, nor did I own the physical photographs. I just downloaded digital copies of the ones I was particularly drawn to and kept them all in a folder -- at first, for years, on my computer’s hard drive, and now, in the cloud, on several hard drives, owned by Google and Amazon and maybe even some other company or branch of government. Looking at my collection today, I have a difficult time remembering exactly what it was that prompted me to begin in the first place. I’d like to say it was to ease nostalgia, in the original sense of the word: the pain (algos, in Greek) of being away from home (nostos). But it wasn’t that, because I’d already been away for years, first in Chicago, then in Delhi. And besides, I loved New York and honestly don’t remember missing California much until the very end, after nearly thirteen years away,  just before I moved back.

The move prompted me to reexamine what I had been compiling all those years. A move prompts all sorts of fresh-eyed reexaminations, but I didn’t get to the old photos until recently. What prompted me, in fact, was a strange familiarity with a photo of my own -- one that I’d taken not long after my return. It was snapped quickly, from my phone, as I slowed on a long drive through a back-country road, headed east towards the last remaining big grassy plain in the state. I braked not to take a photograph, but because a pronghorn antelope had appeared, very briefly, beside a fence. I saw it, slowed, and then it was gone. So instead I took out my phone and shot straight ahead, looking down the road. There’s nothing striking about the image: the road winds through a few rolling hills that lead up to a sudden and pleasing but not particularly impressive mountain range. The land is dry, mostly dusty yellows, browns, and greys against a cobalt blue sky, but there are also a few oaks up ahead, a field cleared for farming, and a tall, spindly pole for power lines. Mostly, though, the land in front of me looked untamed. It looked like a California from a long time ago.

It looked, I realized, like a particular image I’d collected, taken from a high location, some of which appears in the foreground, before dropping off into a valley where a road also winds before disappearing into the middle distance, which is again cut by a row of easy, low, rolling coastal mountains. The image is of the Carmel Valley, in 1874 or ’75, taken from Mission Road. The original photograph had been printed on a mammoth plate, an 18-by-21-inch rectangle of glass. The man who took the picture was named Carleton E. Watkins, and until that moment, researching the provenance of the photo that reminded me of my own, I hadn’t noticed that almost my entire collection was made up of photographs by Watkins.

He was everywhere in California in those early days of photography and statehood. Born in upstate New York, Watkins left in 1849, at 19 years old, and stopped in Panama, then Lima, then Valparaiso before eventually landing in Sacramento in 1852. He tried his hand at mining—the gold rush was still going strong—and when that failed to pan out he settled in San Francisco, finding a job as a clerk in a bookstore and another as a camera operator for a few of the first professional photographers in the city. His job—setting up the big awkward rigs, scouting locations, and fussing with the gear as the photographer huddled inside the heavy drapery surrounding the lens—had a wonderful name:  he was an “outdoor man.” After a few years learning the trade, he saved enough to buy gear of his own. A friend gave him a job delivering goods to mining operations up the Sacramento River, and as he traveled these trade routes into the California interior he made daguerreotypes of the landscape, selling them back in the city. I like to think he took the outdoor man title very seriously, because for the rest of his life, the most significant images he made were in the wilderness.

It was the size of the landscape that inspired him, in 1861, to build a camera large enough to capture it. He hired a cabinetmaker, and the two of them constructed his mammoth plate rig. Then, he traveled somewhere that would change his life, and career, and our history: Yosemite. It was at first the rumor of the trees that drew him there. At the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees he took a series of one colossal sequoia, the Grizzly Giant. Ralph Waldo Emerson, seeing Watkins’ images, said they “made the tree possible.” What he meant was that Watkins took what had been a fantastic rumor of natural splendor and brought evidence of it to the world. In capturing the tree, he manifested it. Watkins returned to the Yosemite Valley throughout the 1860s and 70s, making images for the California State Geological Survey that would lead to its protection, first by the state, then by the federal government.

By 1871 his mammoth-plate Yosemite images had gained such renown that he opened a gallery dedicated to them, in downtown San Francisco. He traveled along the coast, and out to the Farallon Islands; he shot the geysers in Sonoma, the Central Pacific Railroad cutting through the Sierras, the new and massive hydraulic gold mines, and Mount Shasta. In Southern California he made brilliant images of new crops and irrigation systems, depicting a rough man-made geometry up against a still mostly unsettled land. But his eyesight was failing, as were his fortunes, and by 1895 he was living, with his wife and two children, out of an abandoned railroad boxcar. The 1906 earthquake and fire left him destitute -- thousands of his mammoth plates (40 years of work) were destroyed—and when he died in the Napa State Hospital in 1916 he had been blind and living in obscurity for nearly a decade.

When I was reading about Watkins and researching his recent exhibits, I noticed that the word “edenic” kept appearing to describe his work—what Watkins captured was a “lost, edenic California.” But I don’t see that at all. Apart from the ones of Yosemite and the Mendocino coast, his images are almost entirely about a taming of the land. And even in the images that show nothing man made, I still see the work involved -- his work:  the framing, the careful camera placement, the way the line of a tree often draws one’s eye up to a distant peak or rock formation. What I see is an attempt to capture, instead of something imagined, something real. Watkins’ landscapes stand in stark contrast to much of the photography in that early era of the still-young form, when many “artful” photographers were attempting to be what artists then were assumed to be, and to reach the esteem of art through their work. I think of Henry Peach Robinson, whose staged image of a dying girl surrounded by her grieving relatives looked painterly, but was met with annoyance if not outright offense. As anyone can tell, the image is not true; the girl in the photograph is not dying. It’s hard to know exactly what a real dying girl might look like, but we can intuit truth in a still image just as we can in a painting. We know it when we see it.

My favorite of Watkins’ Yosemite mammoth plates is not a particularly famous or grand vista, but it is to me the truest. It’s a view of Mirror Lake. The far shoreline of the lake, a ghostly white, is at the dead center of the frame, bisecting the picture perfectly. Below it lies the lake, and in the lake is a reflection of a mountain -- one of the amazing granite monoliths that rise from the Yosemite Valley, but certainly not among the most recognizable. Then, above the white sand of the lakeshore, rising above the skinny pines, is the mountain itself, which ended up being named after Watkins, several years after he stood on the lakeshore, capturing the image. When he stood there, under the heavy drapery, staring into the ground glass of his big lens, the image would have appeared upside down, as the images always did through the lens of his rig. The mountain below, Mirror Lake on top, with its mirror image of the mountain in its reflection—Watkins would have, for the first time, seen what he was photographing the way it appeared, sky side up. I love thinking about all the reflections happening to make the mountain appear as it should, through the lake surface and the lens, then through another lens, in Watkins’ own eye, the waves of light flipped again and again until one aspect of the image appears, to him, the right way. It reminds me of the difficulty of seeing anything for what it really is, and how quite often time, distance, and some reflection help me notice what is most true.

Talk about listening

I gave this speech in May, at my high school, for graduation.

Thank you, Mr. Williams, parents, teachers, and especially, class of 2016. Thank you. It’s such an honor to be here this evening. You know, when Mr. Williams called to ask me if I would do this, I was taken aback. Not because I was surprised. I mean, I was. Let me tell you: Mr. Williams voice is not a voice you expect to hear on the phone when you are 32 years old and have, to be honest, a spotty track record of annual giving to Cate, particularly in recent years. No, I was taken aback for the very natural reason that I don’t see myself as the kind of person who has much in the way of advice to bestow upon graduates. This isn’t a self esteem thing. It’s more a sense that advice, especially graduation advice, baccalaureate advice, is meant to be a passed down wisdom, and wisdom comes from the wise, which is to say, the experienced, which is also to say: older people. Parents. Teachers. Not me. I am very much still figuring this out.

So I did something I do all the time, pretty much professionally, at this point: I asked a question, and listened to the answer. My question was simple: Why me? Mr. Williams’ answer was less simple: Well, Ryan, he said, We like to choose people for this who are engaged with the world.

After he said that last thing, about being engaged with the world, I wrote it down on my notepad and underlined it, twice. It sounded important, and right, and righteous. And it sounded like maybe if I figured out what that meant to me, how I was engaged with the world, then maybe I’d have something to tell you, today, that would perhaps be worth listening to.

Then I went to work, which means a lot of different things everyday, but that afternoon it meant I met up with a woman who is barely older than you, just 19, in her first year of college, who comes from a part of Los Angeles that pretty much for its entire history has been an industrial dumping ground. Rosemary grew up there. And that afternoon she took me around her neighborhood, by the homes and yards where lead has seeped in from a battery recycling plant, and she took me past the residential streets soon to be bulldozed for a freeway extension, and, finally, she took me to a high school where a sink hole had appeared, a sink hole that traced the outline of what was there before: A gigantic pile of pulverized concrete. 

The concrete pile was known, in her neighborhood, as La Montaña, the mountain. And the concrete dust from it that filled the air was the reason Rosemary could hardly recall a day growing up she didn’t wake with a nosebleed. Her older sisters had played a crucial part in removing La Montaña from the landscape—protesting, rallying the community. Rosemary told me that her sisters were the reason that, for the last few years, she had devoted so much of her time toward getting the lead cleaned up from the yards and walls, protesting, rallying, engaging. La Montaña was their battle, she told me, and this is mine. As she took me around her community, and as I listened to her story, and watched her interact with her neighbors—nodding at them, smiling, acknowledging their presence, I was reminded of another community. This one.

I remember the last week of Cate and the first week of college so vividly: and I bet that you will, too, in ten or fourteen years and for probably a lot longer. For me the biggest, most significant change, the thing that has stuck with me and that I still think about, was how once I left the Mesa people didn’t see me the same way they saw me at Cate. This is a small community. I don’t need to tell you that, but it’s remarkable to think about just how difficult it is to go un-seen here. It’s so difficult to go unseen that most of you are probably sick of it, and ready to move on to some bigger and more anonymous place. That’s natural. That’s good. I was exactly the same way—and still am. Since Cate, I’ve only lived in gigantic, anonymous cities. But still, this feeling of being unseen, it’s going to be weird, I promise you: you’ll have this tendency, which is something I still have, which was formed at Cate, to look random passersby in the eye and maybe nod a little, or smile, or at least acknowledge the presence of another—to see them and say without speaking, greetings, fellow human.

Why am I telling you this? To prepare you, I suppose. But mostly to demonstrate that although you are leaving a small campus on top of a hill for something that is almost certainly going to be larger, your world might get smaller. And this won’t be your fault. Not really. It’s a passive process. You can do everything quote unquote correctly, and your world can and does still shrink. I know this because after college I moved to the biggest city in America, worked my way up the ladder at a series of increasingly large and successful magazines, and by the end of it my title was quite impressive, and my days were filled with meeting after meeting with groups of people who looked a lot like me, and shared a lot of the same opinions, and my world, I realized, had become quite small.

I am also telling you this because that acknowledgement, that seeing of others, was what was happening in Rosemary’s community, too. At the high school, standing there next to the sinkhole, Rosemary told me about how she’d traveled to the Paris climate talks, and how frustrating the experience had been for her. How she kept hearing about how her home state was such a leader in climate policy, but it didn’t seem that way to her at all, from her unique perch in a terribly corrupt and polluted neighborhood. She told me how sad she had felt, traveling so far away and seeing the bigness of the world, and realizing the smallness of people who do not want to listen to you, when what you have to say does not line up with how they imagine the world to be. 

As I was listening to her, I realized that that was it, there it was: the way I engaged with the world. And that was the thing I could offer you, today, the one piece of wisdom or advice is something you’re already extremely good at, that you’re already doing right now. It’s listening. 

And I don’t just mean listening in a finger wagging—listen to your mother-ish sense. Though that’s not always a bad idea, either. And I don’t even mean listening when it comes to seeking advice from the experienced and the wise. Or even people who are talking to you behind a microphone, like me, right now. (But, please, do listen to me, if only for a little bit longer).  I mean the kind of listening that is outside of what you are used to doing, what you have come to expect, that confirms what you already believe about how the world is. I mean the kind of listening that is most likely difficult and even uncomfortable.

You are all basically professional listeners, now. And it’s possible that some of you have already peaked as listeners, or will soon. I’m talking to you, students, who have been listening to older people for most of your lives and are extraordinarily good at it already. It gets harder, especially the sort of formal, active listening demanded by a classroom. The older you get, the more exhausting active listening becomes. I’m sure all the parents understand this, having had to sit in on classes during parents weekends. It’s tiring! And this is listening in those formal listening spaces we call classrooms—or the even more formal listening spaces you’ll soon enter, called lecture halls. 

But I want to focus on the informal and, to me, much more important form of listening, that usually requires just two people. 

I have one more observation about leaving Cate: About the world here, and the world out there, and what you lose when you step away from here, that you must fight for once you’re out there. Cate was the first place I had adults in my life beyond my parents who took me and what I had to say extremely seriously. In other words, they listened to me. I still can not quite articulate how important this was, their listening, and how much I am indebted to them for these moments—none of which, by the way, I remember taking place in the classroom, but in their homes, or around a dinning hall table, or on a trail in the wilderness, or some other not formal listening space. I realize now that what those teachers, in those moments, were showing me, was a template for how to go forward into the world, and how to listen to, and take seriously people whose life experience may be entirely different from, and even lesser than their own, and still grant them the extremely human act of listening. 

It took me a long time to realize that the lesson they were teaching me was not simply one of courtesy and common human decency, either. It wasn’t a favor to me; it was a favor to themselves. Because listening is, of course, also an act of learning. Because listening, really listening, and hearing another person, forces us to confront the limitations of our individual experiences. It forces us out of our own perspective on the world. Listening enlarges our world. 

Listening also puts an end the excuse that we are all human beings, and all, deep down, the same. Saying that we are all the same can be a way of silencing someone’s experience and completely unique point of view. It robs the listener of the opportunity, if only for a moment, of imagining what it might be like to be somebody else. That is what makes listening uncomfortable, and vital.

We are, as a world, more connected than ever before in history. There are more voices we can access if we so choose, all at our fingertips. And yet it seems increasingly difficult to remain open to the world, to fight against it closing in, to fight against hearing the same agreeable voices and perspectives and opinions all around us, in real life, and, especially, online. It’s not that people set out to create a bubble around themselves. But we are creatures of comfort, and you have to actively seek discomfort to break out of this chamber of voices and opinions and likenesses we naturally, inevitably surround ourselves with. It is so easy to build up this chamber of validation, and it is so hard and uncomfortable to leave it. But you must. You must. 

What happened after I realized my world in my midtown Manhattan office had become pretty small was, I admit, sort of dramatic. I quit. And since then, for the past two years, I’ve focused on what I initially fell in love with about journalism, which was, at the very heart of it, going out into the world and listening to people. And not just giving voice to the voiceless, which is a journalistic cliche, but an important one. No, I think it’s more essential than that. And I’m certain it’s something you can all do, too, everyday, from now on. It is this: To fight to listen to the people you have not yet made a habit of hearing. 

Thank you all, but especially you, expert listeners, class of 2016, for inviting me here, tonight. And for listening to me. Thank you.

What Something Looks Like Photographed

This, from Janet Malcolm's book of essays on the aesthetic of photography, got me in a photo editing mood:

[Garry] Winograd (who has been a commercial photographer, is now a photography teacher at the University of Texas, and does his real work in his spare time) objects to the very idea of professionals—to the traditional distinction between the professional as someone who can control and predict his results and the amateur as someone who fumbles around and sometimes gets a good picture by accident. Answering a student who had asked "What is it, say, in a picture that makes it interesting instead of dead? What makes it alive instead of dead?" Winograd replied with this telling statement:
Let's go back to that gasoline picture [a photograph by Robert Frank of some gasoline pumps]. Let's say [it's] the photographer's understanding of possibilities... When he took that photograph he couldn't possibly know—he just could not know—that it would work, that it would be a photograph. He knew he probably had a chance. In other words, he cannot know what that's going to look like as a photograph... That's really what photography—still photography—is about. In the simplest sentence, I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.


Confused and Wrong—out loud, in public

"I don't think writers are any smarter than any other people they're maybe more compelling in their stupidity...or confusion." —David Foster Wallace, from David Lipsky's tapes, on On The Media
Since you became a critic, are there any movies or any reviews you look back on and say, “Wow, I blew it”? Yes, there have been many, many such times and I will take them all to my grave with me and never admit to them because the job of the critic is to be wrong. I think it’s much better to have my mistakes corrected by other people than to try to correct them myself. AO Scott interviewed by Isaac Chotiner, in Slate




Future Nostalgias

A long time ago I kept up a Livejournal. Don't worry—I looked but couldn't find it. It was called "Future Nostalgias,” which was lifted from a line in a book that I loved:

Increasingly of late, and particularly when I drink, I find my thoughts drawn into the past rather than impelled into the future. I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of my earlier students days in England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias. 

That’s “From Heaven Lake” by Vikram Seth, about a hitchhiking journey through northwestern China and into India, across the Himalaya. At the time of my romance with the book, and the Livejournal-ing, I was a journalism student living in India, in Delhi, racing around from story to story, experience to experience, “merely accumulating material.” I was acting…really romantic. And part of that act was this clever name—to name the journal after what it was, eventually, going to be for. But it’s gone now, so, joke’s on my past not-too-clever self. 

I was thinking of nostalgia today, though, and Seth’s quote in particular,  because of a great essay I read about Winona Ryder, and this paragraph in particular:

She saw a therapist who diagnosed her with “anticipatory anxiety” —feelings of dread over anticipated events—and, quaintly, “anticipatory nostalgia.” (In the Times, psychologist Dr. Constantine Sedikides recently described this lesser known “condition,” which could be considered our current era’s raison d’être, as the drive to “build nostalgic-to-be memories.”) She was prescribed sleeping pills, to which she got briefly hooked. She then “tried to be an alcoholic for two weeks” but packed it in after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Then, in April 1993, two years after canonizing their romance in a spread for UK Vogue, Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp broke up.

Read the whole thing. It’s by Soraya Roberts (who has a book coming out soon about My So Called Life) and, yeah, it is simply excellent.

The Winona essay, and that paragraph, took me on a little bit of a rabbit hole about anticipatory nostalgia, and research into nostalgia generally. I’d encountered a bit about nostalgia’s history before, for a story I’m working on about sound and deafness and medicine and the military, but had forgotten that the idea of nostalgia being a good thing is a very, very new. Like, only in the last few decades, new. When nostalgia was first named in the seventeenth century, a Swiss physician named it, combining nostos—home, in Greek—and pain—algos. It was a disorder, suffered by military men who’d spent too much time abroad. Physicians speculated that nostalgia’s root cause might lie in ear drums, where the ring-bong-clang of the bells on alpine milk cows had burrowed, causing a deep longing among mountain men for the sounds of home.

My sense is the pendulum on nostalgia has swung too far into the positive. That it’s more likely somewhere in the middle—a nice sad thing. It’s very hard not to feel weird pangs when social media reminds us of what we were doing on this day way back when with a photo we never thought we’d revisit. What I’m saying, mostly, I guess, is that Winona was right all along: we should be anxious, at least a little bit, about the things coming up we’re going to be reminded of later on, and happy when some things, like that Livejournal, are lost completely.