Friday, August 02, 2013

I'm not remotely a naturalist, but a quick Google search suggests this is a female Polyphemus moth, which flew into the study and was subsequently carried out and set free.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Face to Face with Homelessness

In September of 2010, the Dutch photographer Jan Banning was casting about for a new subject.

He was living in Columbia, serving as Artist in Residence at 701 Center for Contemporary Art, when a CCA board member made a suggestion: why not homelessness?

Banning resisted.

“I thought, my goodness, no. Not homeless. We’ve seen that,” Banning recalled from his home in Utrecht, The Netherlands, during a transatlantic Skype interview with Free-Times.

Still, he looked into it. He got in touch with Supportive Housing Services at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, which provides help for Columbia’s homeless population. He saw the idea in a new light: the homeless not as types, but as people.

It wasn’t a new approach for Banning, who has previously devoted whole series to thematic portraits. One was Comfort Women, featuring aging women who had been forced into prostitution in Japan in World War II.

Another was Bureaucratics, which was exhibited at the 701 Center, a startling and often funny series which showed government clerks from around the world in their natural habitats, ranging from chaotic hovels in India to tacky government offices in Texas.

For the homeless, he opted for the approach that had worked with Comfort Women: close-up color studio portraits.

The results – which combine pictures in Columbia with ones taken in Atlanta and the Mississippi Delta -- have now been collected in a book, Down and Out in the South.

                        b. Naironi, Kenya, 1987

The faces tell the story. Many are recognizably worn down by years of hard living. You see it in the eyes: some bloodshot, some jaundiced, some with a faraway, vacant expression that suggests mental illness. Some have prominent scars: a middle-aged white woman with fresh bruises, an African-American young man with an eye-patch. Names and birth dates caption each shot, which often reveal people who are younger than they look. An embracing couple seem like mother and son, until you notice the woman is only four years older than the man.

The years haven’t caught up to all of them. A brunette in her early thirties could just as easily be a schoolteacher or doctor or writer. Several of the young men could be college students or factory workers with families to support -– which, perhaps, they once were.

                        Charles and Victoria,
                        b. Columbia, S.C., 1976;
                        b. Abilene, Texas, 1975

When Banning initiated the project in Columbia, he found help from Tom Bolton, an outreach worker from Supportive Services. Bolton – “a tremendously great guy with huge social capabilities,” Banning said -- knew both the streets and the people. With Bolton running interference, he met little resistance.

Banning’s method was to create an intimate atmosphere. Once he had a subject in his makeshift studio at an empty office at Supportive Services, he would get them to talk about themselves, asking how they became homeless and if they saw a way out.

As the conversation progressed, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, Banning would move closer. He would talk to himself, sometimes in English, sometimes in Dutch.

“You get into this kind of hypnotic atmosphere, which I think is interesting. The people on the other side of the camera are to a certain extent left to themselves. We’re not communicating at that moment, although I am making sounds, noises, sometimes incomprehensible, maybe almost like a magician, and I think what happens to people is they’re still in the atmosphere of the previous conversation.”

Banning’s method of getting reactions from his subject reflects his own philosophy of photography.

“Forget about the camera, forget about subject, it is first and foremost an encounter between two people,” he said. “So you get what you invest, in an emotional sense. If you are afraid or too shy or whatever to make contact with these people, or any person for that matter, it’s not going to work. You have to relate as a human being. That is, also, I think, where you have influence on the portrait. In a way, it also mirrors the personality of the photographer.”

For Banning, the subjects of the pictures are indicative of life in a country where the gap between rich and poor is enormous, and success and failure is always a matter of personal initiative. Even his subjects viewed life from the same perspective.

“What I had expected people in those circumstances to do and what Europeans would probably do, is blame society, and see this in the context of society, let’s say, a political view of it. And what struck me here is if I asked people what they wanted to do, how are you going to get out of this, it was always individual. It was `I have a plan.’ And the plan was sometimes completely absurd. There’s someone in his late 40s, dreaming of becoming a stand-up comedian. It’s hardly likely it is going to work. But to me, that was very significant of a U.S. attitude. It’s all individualized. It’s `I have to get out of it.’ It is not a problem of society, it is not a political problem -- it is in a way the nightmare version of the American dream.”

                       David. b. Detroit, Mich., 1967

Banning said he has received a very positive response to the photographs in Holland, France and Germany, either through public exhibitions or publication in Internet magazines. The US response, based on comments at the CNN website or at, has involved more debate. On native soil, the sympathy isn’t always there.

Banning said he wants the exhibition to cause a certain amount of confusion, and he’s tried to make sure of that in the book’s publication. If you purchase the book, you not only get a hardback version, but a more cheaply-bound “giveaway edition,” twice as big but on thinner paper, with slightly different content.

“Once you give it away, the book is not complete anymore. The whole idea is to confront people with how they handle property, which of course is an important matter. Homelessness is not just about poverty, but poverty is certainly one of the aspects of it. So the book is trying to make people think about how they handle property, what they do with property. You buy a book – are you really going to give away part of it?”

It’s all part of dealing with a confrontational topic.

“My biggest fear was that the whole project would end up unnoticed because people don’t want to hear about the homeless,” he said. “So, in that sense, the outcome is fantastic. People do want to hear about it.”

(Down and Out in the South is available at It may be purchased in either the hardback ($44.00) or iBook ($11.00) edition. The website also includes audio links to several of Banning’s interviews with his subjects.)

(Photos courtesy of Jan Banning.)

This story originally appeared in the July 10, 2013 Free-Times.

Sunday, July 07, 2013


Not wearing seatbelt.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone
Location:Elgin SC

The Seer is Intense

I'm near the end of my second full listen of the Swans album and all I can say is that it is overwhelming: a mind-fraying omnibus of ambient sounds, voodoo chants and what sound like incantatory poems and proverbs, set to rhythmic jungle congos that go from deadly silent to a full-bore assault on the senses.
No idea what it's about or if plot is important. It's ambiguous and dramatic and melancholy and wild like the best work of God Speed You! Black Emperor. It really takes you all kinds of places and leaves you exhilarated and drained when it's all over, even if you weren't do anything more than playing Words with Friends while it was playing. Like I said before, definitely a whole experience, you have to absorb it from beginning to end to really feel its soaring power.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Elgin, SC

Friday, July 05, 2013


While I'm in one of these periodic bloggy moods -- which may increase after bailing on most other forms of social media (Facebook, Twitter, fora) --  I may as well cite a couple of other reviews from month's past.

Here's a Washington Post review of Edward Rutherfurd's gallumphing Paris.

The other, Vera Gran: The Accused by Agata TuszyƄska, offered some real insight into the life and struggles of a cultural figure not that well known in the West.

Swans' Song Cycle?

I've listened. more or less attentively, to Swans' two-hour 2012 epic The Seer this morning -- and all I can say right now is that it is demanding but not alienating, not an endurance test. It does drone a bit, but not so much that I found myself reaching for the Enough Button.

This isn't the kind of record you play at parties, and I'm not sure you should play it when driving to the store, or while doing anything except sitting down and giving it your full undivided attention.

This is one of those purchases based solely on the fact that it made so many best-of lists from last year. I know absolutely nothing of the band's history, except that they (or he, or whoever) have been around for 30 years, born amidst the same early-80s New York noise-rock explosion gave us Sonic Youth (which for me is more than reason enough to merit a listen.)

Seems like one of those ambitious, all-or-nothing epic poems that you really have to listen to many times before you can venture a guess as to just what it is.

Okay. Will do.

The Rolling Stones' Kiss-Off to Groupies

Here's something else I've never done: paid all that much attention to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones' "Star Star," a.k.a. "Starfucker." I've only heard the live versions, and I've never really tried to make out the lyrics. Turns out they are hilariously filthy and were even just a little libelous to Steve McQueen and John Wayne. You can hear them pretty clearly in the studio version on Goat's Head Soup.

Mary McCarthy's Unforgotten Novel

I've never had that much interest in reading Mary McCarthy's novel The Group, or seeing Sidney Lumet's film of it. Nonetheless, I was perfectly fascinated by Laura Jacobs article on book, author and the lingering controversies attached to both in the recent Vanity Fair -- a compact, highly readable education on the book as both a literary work and a social document. It was apparently quite the book of its time, drawing strong reactions from the Vassar girls portrayed in it (especially the poet Elizabeth Bishop) as well as critics ranging from Norman Mailer to Dwight McDonald to Elizabeth Hardwick. Everybody had to have something to say about it, back in those golden days when the work of a powerful, intellectually forbidding author could seize the cultural moment. I guess those days are gone for good.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Latest Book Review

Here's my review of The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom. Washington Post, July 5, 2013.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I've decided I will no longer ask any writer about their so-called "writing process." I no longer give a shit. The act of writing is the same for everyone: I fart around forever, and then I finally get down to work. It was probably even true for Shakespeare.

Friday, March 22, 2013

John Banville: "Writing a novel, even a bad novel, is a fiendishly difficult task."

John Banville’s The Sea is a haunted novel.

Having recently lost his wife to cancer, an aging art historian named Max Morden retreats to the seaside inn where he spent summers as a youth. Here he finds himself dealing with ghosts from the near and distant past, as he reflects on his wife, his distant relationship with an adult daughter, and the strange, unresolved mystery of a girl he loved long ago.

Each memory sparks another, forcing Max to come to terms both with himself and an uncertain future. 

The Sea won the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

Author Banville -- who will be in town next week to discuss the novel as part of the University of South Carolina’s Open Book series -- took a few questions by e-mail.

FREE-TIMES: Was there any single event that inspired The Sea?

BANVILLE: I never know where a book begins - I seem not to start anywhere but to be on the way, before I know it. I can look back at my manuscripts and see exactly when and how I wrote the first line, but that always comes long after the book has started up in my head. I can't even remember inventing Max. I was in my late fifties when I wrote the book, and was beginning to feel the encroachment of old age, and it was inevitable, I suppose, that I should begin to look back towards childhood. My own summers by the sea long ago found their way into the book. However, I have no idea why I chose also to write about illness and bereavement. Fiction is a mysterious business.

FREE-TIMES: Max begins as a morose and sad figure, but as the book goes along, he tests our sympathy. Did you see him as a whole from the beginning, or did your conception of him shift as the book went along?

BANVLLE: I imagine he was fairly well 'fixed' before I began to the book. He's not a very appealing figure, is he. But like all my narrators, he is at least honest, insofar as he can be. I remember a critic in Germany asking how on earth I had written such a book without falling even once into sentimentality. I took it as a high compliment. The only answer I could give him is that art is never sentimental, and if it is, it turns into kitsch. I would like to think that Max has much sentiment, but no sentimentality.

FREE-TIMES: There’s a quote from Nabokov’s lecture on Ulysses that came to mind while reading this book. He said that Joyce’s novel was about the hopeless past, the ridiculous and tragic present, and the pathetic future. The Sea has those very features in it. Max, from the vantage point of a ridiculous, aimless middle age, examines life for the first time, scrutinizing a past he can’t resolve, facing a future that doesn’t give him much to cling to.

BANVILLE: Nabokov's observation is somewhat trite, don't you think? All fictional art deals with 'the hopeless past, the ridiculous and tragic present, and the pathetic future.' On the other hand, in The Sea the hopelessness, the ridiculousness and the pathos are shot through on every page with radiant light. That was my intention, anyway. After all, for all its terrors, failures and betrayals, life is a glory.

FREE-TIMES: The prose is very rich, and perfectly motivated. As an art critic – even a self-proclaimed mediocre one – Max is deeply observant of colors and sounds, a kind of artist himself in his way, as he tries to recall every last detail of his memories.

BANVLLE: I tried, in my teenage years, to be a painter. I failed miserably, but the effort did teach me to look at the world with a painterly eye. For me, the art of fiction is an attempt to conjure up and to illuminate the world, or the little fragment of the world that is contained in a novel. The novelist, like the painter, must be all concentration. I take my lead from Cato the Censor: Rem tene, verbum sequentur - grasp the object, and the words will follow.

FREE-TIMES: There’s a lot of story to The Sea but I wouldn't describe it as plot-driven. It's a mystery story, on a couple of levels, as well as an intensely interior book. Was it difficult to balance those sides of it?

BANVILLE: Writing a novel, even a bad novel, is a fiendishly difficult task. The aim is to strike a balance, to weigh part against part, sentence against sentence - in a word, to find a harmony.

FREE-TIMES: I seem to recall John Updike saying that most of his characters are losers. I think that’s partly why they’re so compelling – and why this one is as well. Failures have more to reflect on, and they have richer interior lives. Have you ever, or would you ever, write about a well-adjusted human being?

BANVILLE: Have you ever encountered a well-adjusted human being? Our predicament in the world leaves us constantly ill-adjusted. This is what makes life interesting.

FREE-TIMES: How did winning the Man Booker Prize change your life?

BANVILLE: It gave me a little money, and a brief moment of fame, among people who read books such as mine, which is a small minority. The prize is bound to have brought The Sea to the attention of many readers who would otherwise have missed it. For this reason alone prizes are important. They are not, of course, any kind of real measurement of one's work - and any writer who thinks otherwise is deluded.

John Banville’s The Sea is the focus of next week’s Open Book series at the University of South Carolina. USC’s Master of Fine Arts Director Elise Blackwell will lead a discussion of the book this Monday, March 25, at 6 p.m, at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library on the USC campus. Author John Banville will talk about the book on Wednesday, March 27, at 6 p.m. at the same location. Both events are open to the public. 

(Published in the web version of the March 20, 2013 issue of the Free-Times.)