A Dozen Hits
All-Time Favorites from RALPH
Our server provides us with
daily, weekly, and monthly hit lists ---
those reviews, poems and articles
most favored by our readers.
Here are some old friends ---
a dozen or so collected
from this month's
most popular hits.


Down & Out
The Life and Death
Of Minneapolis's
Skid Row

<Joseph Hart
Edwin Hirschoff
Photographer

(Minnesota)
You don't have to look far to see the result of these decades of "urban renewal." Perspectives of scale, variety, and architectural interest were all sacrificed. Go to your public library, look at pictures from your downtown area the years before the 1950s and weep. Or, you can see it laid out in photographs of a representative city --- both before and after --- in this new volume, Down and Out: The Life and Death of Minneapolis's Skid Row.

Thanks to the late Edwin Hirschoff, we have a permanent record of the tearing down of the heart of Minneapolis. Called the Lower Loop, some twenty-five blocks of 19th and early 20th century buildings --- 200 of them in all--- fell to the wrecking ball. It represented more than 40% of downtown Minneapolis.

The press of the time called it "an occasion for civic rejoicing." By 1965, most of the area had been turned into parking lots and buildings of pure glass and steel. The poor had to find housing elsewhere.

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review


The Worst Hard Time
The Untold Story of Those Who
Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Timothy Egan
(Houghton Mifflin)
A judge in Dalhart, Texas, trying to understand why people were going crazy, drove through the dust bowl and

    saw farmhouses without a chicken or cow. He saw children in rags, their parents too frightened of dust pneumonia to send them to school, huddling in shacks shaped into wavy formations on the prairie, almost indistinguishable from the dunes.

A woman was brought to his court. "Her children were hungry, dirty, coughing, dressed in torn, soiled clothes. The house was nearly buried." Having lost her husband to the dust, what finally drove her over the brink wasn't the critters (centipedes and black widows). No, the thing that destroyed her and so many of her neighbors was the enervating, hot, rainless wind that never stopped. "One day, the woman simply snapped. 'Dust is killing me!' the woman shouted."

The static electricity would build up so that people "tried not to touch each other," because they could literally blow each other down. It was

    the same kind of electrical energy that caused the windmill to spout a flame from a trailing wire and barbed-wire fences to emit blue sparks."

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review


50 Photographers
You Should Know

Peter Stephan
John Gabriel,
Text Translator

(Prestel)
This is a work of love, and we love it, and would promptly marry editor Peter Stephan if he would have us, if he's free and willing, has the time to take myriad photographs of us in the buff (or in the park). Those who teach photography, if they were wise, would force their students to study each and every one of the 200 or so shots shown here. Our only demurral would have to do with Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Andreas Gursky and Wolfgang Tillmans, stuffed in there at the very end. In the photographic arts, we're hopelessly stuck in the quicksand of the past, never much cared for color work, never could figure out why others favor it, why whole books are dedicated to it since to our simple taste it gives too damn much and leaves nothing to the imagination

The editor is not only wise in his choices and layout, he's literate. The introduction, "Rendering the visible to make it visible" is spot on: "According to Lewis Mumford, the time clock, and not the steam engine, was 'the most important machine of the industrial age' ...

"To be in command of time is to have power. Photography is the pleasure of making time come to a stop. The perpetuum mobile of our existence pauses for a brief moment."

    No face, even in repose, is totally motionless. A face held motionless on silver gelatin paper radically confounds our perception and triumphs over time and ageing ... The portrait --- apparently a simple matter to manage --- is perhaps the most difficult of all photographic genres.

"The charisma of the model reacts to the charisma of the photographer, and in the most favorable cases the effect has been reciprocal."

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review


Live Nude Girl
My Life as an Object
Kathleen Rooney
(University of Arkansas Press)
Live Nude Girl is intriguing, as much for the insights into clothed vs. unclothed as for the occasional throw-aways. For instance, she tells us that Edward Weston, with his stunning photographs of nudes "made some of his subjects look like vegetables."

    He made his sitters look like peppers, or like squash, not to dehumanize them, but to call attention to the splendor of all forms: animal, vegetable, mineral, human.

Or this story from a woman who modeled for Maurice Utrillo.

    She said that after hours on end of her standing there naked, and him standing there drawing, she put on her clothes and took a peek at the canvas. She discovered that all he'd been doing that whole time was this quaint pastoral scene of some little country house.

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review


The Klondike Quest
A Photographic Essay: 1897 - 1899
Pierre Berton
(Boston Mills Press)
There were three ways to get to Dawson in 1898: up the White Pass Trail, up the Chilkoot Trail, or down the Yukon River from Alaska. It is estimated that 80% of the stampeders went via the passes, the other 20% by way of Alaska.

The impetus, according to Berton, was not so much gold fever as the fact that the United States was --- in the midst of the so-called "Gay 90's" --- engulfed by a panic. That was the word in those days for what we now name "economic depression."

There was nothing gay --- in the older sense of the word --- about the journey. The White Pass was called "The Trail of Dead Horses" because 3,000 horses died en route. Chilkoot Pass was scarcely better. But the worst impediment to the stampeders was not so much the weather, which was dreadful, nor the passes, which were almost impassable --- but the Canadian government.

The route north to Dawson was in the hands of Canada, although uneasily so. The U. S. claimed part of the Klondike, but was busy fighting the "white man's burden" at other venues ... namely Cuba and the Philippines. It was not free to make war on our neighbor to the north.

There was a rule, a sensible rule if you think about it, enforced to the hilt by the Northwest Mounted Police. The rule was that if the stampeders were going into a place of ice, snow, trees, and nothing else, that they could not enter "without a year's supply of provisions."

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review


The Slave Ship
A Human History
Marcus Rediker
(Viking)
At the beginning of the Middle Passage, captains hired on a motley crew of sailors who would, on the coast of Africa, become "white men." At the beginning of the Middle Passage, captains loaded on board the vessel a multiethnic collection of Africans, who would, in the American port, become "black people" or a "negro race."

    The voyage thus transformed those who made it. War making, imprisonment, and the factory production of labor power and trade all depended on violence.

There are fascinating bits here: that the sailors who did the dirty work on the vessels had a mortality rate not so much less than the blacks; that the captains, too, rarely survived more than seven voyages; that the captains and officers typically had women slaves as "favorites" during the journey, which then were sold at "'a good price' once they reached the New World"; that the cruelest captains were called "buckos"; that the ultimate weapon against the slave trade was a drawing published widely in England and the United States of hundreds of black bodies crammed together in the hold of the Brooks, one of the larger of the slave ships, along with exact measurement of the space below decks given to each body.

Thus the trade was not ended over a rage at the treatment of an innocent peoples, nor concern over the social and mental harm of the trade ... but the able communication of the feeling of simple claustrophobia.

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review


Bertha Alyce:
Mother exPosed
Gay Block
(University of New Mexico Press)
The photographs and the writing come together in a spiral of images and words spun out of hurt and love and pain and the sheer weirdness of it all --- being born of a powerful charming flirtatious woman, one who could only love men. Thus Gay growing up a girl with a passionate man-lover for a mother --- knowing from afar that she will never able to let that part of Bertha Alyce, the part of her inside, alone --- at least until mother, was in pain:

    After the stroke, finally I could see her beauty. She was more in touch with herself and more accessible to me. When I entered her apartment, I even thought I saw her eyes light up as if they were saying, "I love you." I felt this, certainly, but not deeply. Distance, perhaps even anger, had become my habit.

    Mother didn't object to my photographing her, in spite of her vanity, in spite of the fact that she felt she had lost her looks. Perhaps she hoped these pictures would live after her, or perhaps she just couldn't say no to me.

This reminded me so much of my own up-and-down with my own mother, one who could be craven and childish, and a moment later, charming, funny, winning, easy, a great storyteller. One of my friends first met my mother at my daughter's wedding, spoke French with her (Mum studied in Switzerland for a couple of years) for hours on end. And she, my friend said, "You're so lucky! What a wonderful woman!"

I said, "Yeah. Just try growing up with her."

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review


Homer &
Langley

A Novel
E. L. Doctorow
(Random House)
The Collyer brothers lived alone in a grand New York City mansion where they collected things. Baby carriages, pianos, motors, tools, gas masks, candles, "car body parts, tires, stacked chairs, tables on tables, headboards, barrels, collapsed stacks of books."

There was also --- their most famous artifact --- a mountain of newspapers with careful paths made between the stacks so the brothers could get around their dark castle there on upper Fifth Avenue.

It wasn't Homer Collyer who did the collecting: he was blind, and preferred to spend his day at the old Aeolian, playing Mozart, Bach, Chopin. The collector was brother Langley. He got up early in the morning to pick up the morning papers and went out again late at night to get the evening editions, which he stored, along with their father's "collection of human organs and fetuses floating in jars of formaldehyde" --- dad had been a doctor --- plus

    side chairs piled one on top of another, the flowerpots filled with the earth of my mother's botany experiments, the Chinese amphora, the grandfather clock, the innards of two pianos, the tall electric fans, the several valises and a steamer trunk, the stacks of newspapers piled in the corners and on the desk.

And the Model T.

In the dining room, there under the dusty old chandelier, was an old car ... partially dismantled, with flat tires. Langley had a theory that he could turn the auto into a source of power so they wouldn't have to depend on Consolidated Edison any more. Con Ed! They always had problems with the utility bills:

    A registered letter was delivered one morning from a law firm representing "Con Edison" --- the new slick name of the Consolidated Edison Company that we thought appropriately confessional and self-defining.

So there stood the bills, and the papers, and the Model T, even after Langley lost interest. Sooner or later, seems he lost interest in almost everything he brought home: typewriters, fans, pianos, law books.

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review


The Face
Of War

New Zealand's
Great War Photography

Sandy Callister
(Auckland University Press)
Over sixteen million people died during World War I. Twenty-one million more were wounded. Total deaths for the "British Imperial Forces" numbered 1,114,914.

Over 100,000 men were sent from New Zealand to fight, a full 40% of men of military age. "The toll was particularly high for a small nation," the author reports, "equivalent at the time to 10 million Americans." Final casualties for New Zealand were almost sixty thousand.

Soldiers were allowed to carry cameras into battle and took pictures of much (but not all) that they saw. The newly invented "autographic camera" from Kodak was small and portable and, was, as their ads claimed, "positioned as the visual historian of the household." The Autograph was billed as "The Soldier's Kodak." Film was available in every country.

    As small as a note book or diary and will tell a more interesting and convincing story of your share in the Great War story.

Snapshots could be used for "portraiture and landscapes," but Callister thinks that New Zealand soldiers photographed the war itself with gusto. The autographic camera was sturdily democratic. "Cameras required no special skill ... ordinary soldiers avidly photographed and communicated their experiences."

Photographs also provided memento mori. "Families used the photographs of soldiers as symbols of their absent bodies and as artifacts of mourning and memory."

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review


The First Be-In
---1952

John Cage and the
Untitled Event
John Cage's The Ruse of Medusa performance was still, in spite of its departure from the Bauhaus model, the production of a scripted play. It was on his visit [to Black Mountain College] in 1952 that he radically disrupted previous incarnations of performance and inaugurated a dispersal of attention and a radical fragmentation of narrative. By the time Cage returned, he was utilizing pseudo-chance compositional methods derived from parameters provided by the I-Ching. But it was faculty member M.C. Richards' translation of Antonin Artaud's The Theatre and Its Double, with its call for a medium of theatrical performance beyond the scriptures of literature, that provided most fertile ground for the 1952 'Event.'

Cage and pianist David Tudor formulated an idea for a performance with multiple participants who would perform during various overlapping time segments totaling forty-five minutes. According to Cage, he proposed that Charles Olson and M.C. Richards read their poetry, student Robert Rauschenberg display his paintings and play records, and Merce Cunningham dance. Tudor was to perform on the piano, and Cage would read from a previously prepared lecture on Zen Buddhism. To Cage, the event represented the fairly specious possibility of events taking place without being causally related to one another, although he had in fact established strict time brackets and organized the event with particular temporal and location parameters.

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reading


Paul Strand
Photographs from the
J. Paul Getty Museum

Anne M. Lyden
(J. Paul Getty Museum)
In his long life, Paul Strand was comfortable photographing machines, faces, naked bodies, old men and women, and the people and buildings and farms of France, Italy, Scotland, Canada. He spent sixty years learning his craft from the likes of Lewis W. Hine and Alfred Stieglitz, hanging out with artists like John Marin and Georgia O'Keefe.

He also spent several years making films in Mexico, working for the Mexican Secretariat of Education. Which, along with his other neo-socialistic activities, is probably what got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Such that Strand got out of the United States in 1950, moved to live permanently in southern France. (One can't help thinking of this period being notable in that we threatened our best artists with jail time so they'd get gone: Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov, Berthold Brecht, Paul Strand, the Hollywood Ten. Keeps the country safe from backbiting and untoward criticism; separates the traitors from the loyalists).

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review


Cuba
Art and History from
1868 to Today

Moraima Clavijo Colon (Curator)
Nathalie Bondit (Director)

(The Montreal Museum
of Fine Arts/
Prestel)
It's the photographs and the pre-revolutionary paintings that are the most memorable. The famous shot of Ché Guevara by Alberto Korda appears next to an essay by Iliana Cepero Amador, "Myths and Realities: Cuban Photography of the 1960s and 1970s." It was at one of those endless speechifying days with Castro in March 1960. Korda said,

    I was about eight or ten metres from the podium where Fidel was speaking, and I had a camera with a semi-telephoto lens. Suddenly I noticed Ché approaching the railing beside Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He had been standing at the back and came forward to look at the crowd. I had him in focus. I took one shot and then another, and at that moment he turned away. It all happened in a half a minute.

After Ché was murdered in 1967, the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli "reproduced and printed the image on millions of posters that sold across the globe."

    For many years, Korda never received a cent in royalties for this photo, considered the most frequently reproduced image in the history of photography.

Amador describes the conscious sexiness of the leaders of the revolution. The macho army fatigues, the beards, the cigars. "The informal settings and animated gestures suggestive of the world of advertising narrowed distances: the leaders were shown playing baseball, fishing and reading: activities with which all Cubans could easily identify. They were trustworthy men."

    Nevertheless, Fidel's stern bearing in Korda's Commandante en Jefe or Che's world-famous Heroic Guerrilla spoke of persistent qualities in the potent placement of these figures in a frozen world, a timeless world of political commitment and eternal ideals, paradoxically well-grounded at the same time in a firm belief in the future.
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review


Siamese
Stig Sæterbakken
Stokes Schwartz,
Translator

(Dalkey Archive)
Edwin Mortens is spending the last of his days in the bathroom in his apartment, where he chews gum, rocks back and forth, eats meatballs on occasion, and screams at his wife --- Erna --- asking what the hell she is doing and why she isn't taking better care of him.

Evidently Edwin retired to his rocking chair (and the bathroom) many years ago ... retired from life, as it were. All his needs are taken care of: besides his meatballs and packets of chewing gum, he has a catheter, a colostomy bag, and his thoughts, which do go on.

He had a radio for awhile, but Erna was afraid that he'd drop it into the toilet or in the tub and set the apartment on fire so she took it away from him. There is a maid named Sigri who comes once a week to shop and clean up a bit, but evidently she doesn't make it to the bathroom: the floor is knee-deep in chewing-gum wrappers and used chewing gum. At one point, Edwin tells Erna to look for a bug that is, he thinks, shuffling around on the floor, but she replies that he has to be patient. "It could take hours to find a little insect in all of the garbage that was on the floor around him, assuming it was even possible."

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review


Slavery and the
Welfare State
It is clear why the availability and generosity of such things as unemployment and disability insurance, cash relief, food stamps, old-age pensions, and health care have commanded our attention. They have clear palliative functions, and their generosity correlates directly with individual power to refuse work. But it is less clear why we have excluded other institutions.

Most scholarship has proceeded from the assumption that welfare state institutions are benevolent, that at their core they are efforts to help those in need. But, as the history of AFDC [Aid for Dependent Children] and TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] clearly shows, American relief has also functioned to regulate the sexual, reproductive, and labor market behavior of vulnerable populations. (In fact, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward have long argued that the principal functions of relief are to regulate the low-wage labor supply and to placate disruptive poor and unemployed people.)

Given this, we should consider programs that serve to commodify labor (those that reduce choice), and not just those that decommodify it (those that increase choice), when evaluating the reach of the welfare state. Slavery, its successors (sharecropping, tenancy, convict labor), and the prison have been as important throughout American history in the lives of (poor) African Americans as have, say, Social Security, homeless shelters, or Medicaid. By excluding them because they are malign in intent, we make all but inevitable a distorted view of the history of the American welfare state.

--- From A People's History of Poverty in America
Stephen Pimpare
2008 The New Press

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Note:
For the visually inclined in the audience, and,
although we can only reluctantly begin to guess the reason,
there is one on-line drawing at RALPH
that attracts the most hits ...
almost 75,000 a year.
It can be found below,
one which so many years ago
some mischievous editor
labeled "whip-lady."