Picture Elsewhere: Two New Photography Classics

More
hsu_may26_graffiti_post.jpg

Praeger Publishers

One of the only times I have willfully ripped someone off was when I got my first edition of Jon Naar and Norman Mailer's 1974 rare classic Faith of Graffiti. This was in the early days of eBay. I convinced someone to close an auction early and sell me a nice copy of this book for about $30, as I desperately needed it for a school project. This was kind of true: I was very desperate, and I was still in school. (And, in my further defense, $30 was triple the initial asking price.)

Once the book arrived, haphazardly mummy-wrapped in tissue paper, any feelings of sketchiness instantly dissolved. This book was a treasure, energies of pride and despair coursing through Naar's photos, Mailer's bold essay inaugurating a new approach to understanding those images' codes, customs and faiths. With its almost ostentatiously over-sized dimensions, Faith towered over every other book in my collection, and its vast pages were like windows into futures we did not end up choosing. It describes a possible city—one in which bulging property values and $30,000/year parking spaces seem the stuff of science fiction—and a different version of public space, and it's probably a good thing that this past seems so distant. Owning Faith was like joining a cult. It has been that way since 1974. For years, only the careful consumer of second-hand goods could reconstruct the recorded histories of New York graffiti and street art, hunting down out-of-circulation books like Steven Hager's illustrated guide to hip-hop and Subway Art or videos like Style Wars, All City and Stations of the Elevated. But Faith was the Holy Grail.

I had the honor of introducing Jon Naar at a reading the other night at McNally Jackson. Even though the event was organized around the Faith reissue, Jon very generously shared the spotlight with the freakishly insightful Marc and Sara Schiller of the Wooster Collective and SNAKE 1 and BUTLER, two of the artists who, as young teens, featured in his book. It was absolutely engrossing hearing SNAKE and BUTLER, now middle-aged men, recall those moments captured by Naar's camera and reflect on all the changes they've witnessed in the city and its relationship to public art.

It was amusing, too, hearing SNAKE describe how difficult it was to track a copy down—it took him over a decade! BUTLER, who would, ironically enough, grow up, become a cop, and make his first arrest while on a graffiti stakeout, is actually in this photo (probably my favorite from the book)—he's in the top row, second from the right. Their attendance and insights made it an extra-powerful event. Jon's photos challenge us to ponder all that has happened since then: in the case of SNAKE and BUTLER, it's a connection to former selves; for the rest of us, it's our arrival at a moment when such a foregone city, incubating weird, new ideas, seems genuinely impossible, especially when such things like the Times Square bomber might become a case for London-style CCTV.

What would have happened if Jon hadn't run into the kids in that photo on his first day out in the field? If BUTLER's daughter had not encountered a graffiti-sympathetic art school teacher who helped reconnect the child in the photo with the aging photographer? Nothing serious, probably, outside of the loss of this tiny, idle tributary in the onrushing stream of history. I've been spending a lot of time in the archives recently, tracking down some forgotten authors' correspondences, rough drafts, etc. It can seem like a pointless exercise, reconstructing a history few cared for the first time around.

But at its best, such micro-historical sleuthing can result in something startling like Faith or Luc Sante's recent Folk Photography. (I think I've blogged about this before...Luc's essay is one of the most gorgeous things I've read in a while.) The book reproduces some cherished pieces from Sante's collection of one-of-a-kind photo postcards, and I was reminded of their ephemeral nature the other night while at McNally. He explains:

In rural America at the beginning of the twentieth century, the worldwide postcard craze coincided with the spread of light, cheap photographic equipment. The result was the real-photo postcard, so-called because the cards were printed in darkrooms rather than on litho presses, usually in editions of a hundred or fewer, the work of amateurs and professionals alike.

They were not intended for tourists, but as a medium of communication for the residents of small towns, isolated on the plains and in the hills. The cards document everything about their time and place, from intimate matters to events that qualified as news. They show people from every walk of life and the whole panorama of human activity: eating, sleeping, labor, worship, animal husbandry, amateur theatrics, barn-raising, spirit-rapping, dissolution, riot, disaster, death. Uncountable millions of them were made in the peak years, 1905 to 1912.

That these millions will forever be "uncountable" is humbling. Sante began collecting these postcards in the early 1980s, when Astor Place, as he recalls, was more of an open-air swap meet than the space between the Good and Bad (R.I.P.) Starbucks. If Sante or some fellow collector didn't pick them up, they would probably end up in an incinerator somewhere; similarly, there were probably thousands of hours poured into all the subway car masterpieces that were never photographed or completed. The rich and static images in these books demand a kind of intense humility—portraits on postcards meant to widen the circumference of the known world mere miles, to the next town; secret languages whizzing by on trains, for young eyes only. Somehow, they survive into the present.

Both of these books are highly recommended. Get them now, before you have to chisel someone for them years from now.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do Men Assume They're So Great?

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In