conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Image and text’ Category

Joe Sacco Journalism and the Heights Silent Movie

leave a comment »

Hijacking Old Forms

Joe Sacco’s Journalism is a sort of graphic-novel-meets-global-reportage. It’s cartooning with a deadly serious purpose that hijacks both reporting and cartooning and drops both at a new place. Mr. Sacco actually does several new things with this book: sketching out the story, inserting reporting into cartoon bubbles, publishing reporting that looks like a graphic novel. But chief among these new things is Sacco inserting himself into the story he was reporting. Most journalists work hard at writing objectively, that is, without bias. Though that is an impossible task, news readers want to feel they are hearing more than one side of a story.


Sacco went the opposite way: he inserted himself as reporter, sketched right into the panels of the action. We see him ask the uncomfortable question and record the answer while the action goes on—the medium allows for this in an extraordinary way.

The result is a book that is difficult to stick with because the war and refugee experiences depicted are shown in such a raw manner. I think this is exactly what Sacco was after: reporting that grabs you and forces you to interact. He is driving home the difficult stories of our day—and they are hard to see.

Sacco offers no apology for hearing from just one side. The feel of the book is a newspaper as told by your troubled, immigrant neighbor. You want to ignore it (as we do with so many difficult stories) but the whole thing is laid out right before you.

Speaking of being dropped at a new place, last night Mrs. Kirkistan and I attended the remastered The Thief of Baghdad at the Heights Theater, a silent movie complete with the mighty Wurlitzer emerging from the floor. Organist Karl Eilers did a masterful job of providing a continuous soundtrack for two and a half-hours (Oy!) of screen silence. What struck me was how different this experience was from my typical movie-going experience. Because sound incorporates, Eilers’ organ-playing and the response of the crowd (mostly laughter at what was once amazing special effects) were much more prominent. And it took the entire crowd (indeed, the theater was nearly full) to respond to Douglas Fairbanks’ dramatic wind-milling responses to most any situation—it must take a lot of physical energy to communicate without words.07152013-MightyWurlitzer

What old form should you revitalize today?


Image credit: Joe Sacco, Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

July 15, 2013 at 9:30 am

Cartier-Bresson: Zoom Lens is the Work of the Devil

with 3 comments

To See. To Learn to See.


HCB must have framed this and simply waited for the decisive moment.

I’m not sure if Henri Cartier-Bresson actually said that about the zoom lens, but it would fit with his aesthetic. He spent his life getting close to his subjects with a small Leica and its 50mm lens (which he used all his life). That camera and lens brought him in close and kept him there. Someone recently described the big zoom lenses available today as akin to hiding and shooting as a sniper.

What impresses me about the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson is his ability to capture something deep in people. A moment of reflection. He called it “the decisive moment” and it was gone as quickly as it appeared. Cartier-Bresson could irritate people because he would sometimes take a photograph before his initial bonjour.  But he also spent time just hanging around with his camera. People grew used to seeing it (the Leica) and him and he was quick to bring it up to his eye and put it down again: no big deal.


HCB caught Jean-Paul Sartre being Jean-Paul Sartre

In my quest to learn to see, Cartier-Bresson is a valuable guide. He photographed lots of famous folks (thinkers, artists and politicians—he shot Gandhi 15 minutes before Gandhi was, well, shot) and he captured lots of regular people—in a way that reveals a stunning beauty. Here’s a lovely collection of his Magnum photos. Two quotes from this remarkable man:

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.

For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously.

Seeing takes work and practice.


Image Credit: Henri Cartier-Bresson

Written by kirkistan

June 27, 2013 at 9:12 am

Two Equal Texts

leave a comment »



Christian Bök & Micah Lexier, ‘Two Equal Texts’ (2007) via thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

May 18, 2013 at 5:00 am

Glen Stubbe: “I did this thing. Let me show you.” (Shop Talk #7)

leave a comment »

When Photojournalists Gather: MNPA Shop Talk

I’d like to see more. And better.

Photography, like sketching, is another way of interacting with what is right before us. Both photography and sketching present opportunities to see differently—both are a kind of active seeing. As a writer, I have an ongoing project of learning to see more and better and differently. Seeing better helps me write better.


Glen Stubbe Photography [@gspphoto]

That desire prompted me to show up at the Minnesota News Photographers Association last Saturday at Murphy Hall at the University of Minnesota. I wanted to hear how news photographers talked about—and thought about—their work.

What I heard was talk of technique: details about exposure and how to layer different exposures in a single photo, when to wait and when to move when stalking the photo they have already seen in their mind. Several times I heard how photographs were once merely an accompaniment to the article and how that is quickly changing. Glen Stubbe cited an example of his photo of Michelle Bachman escaping a pointed question went on to start a national story thread.

The photographers were exactly right about this last point: as we move to a post-literate culture, visual content moves to the primary spot. How long do stories stick around in any media you consume without some compelling visual anchor? Not long. I’ve often thought readers either fear blocks of copy or simply find them off-putting. But this is nothing new, we’ve know this for some time. As a writer, visual storytelling is a must.

The photojournalists talked about the increasing role of social media and the blurred lines between reporter and photographer. But three things stood out from the panel between Ben Garvin (Pioneer Press), Glen Stubbe (StarTribune) and Jeffrey Thompson (MPR):

  1. “Tweet Every Assignment.” Ben Garvin said this and I think it could be true for anyone finding their way into social media. Whatever your work (or vocation or avocation), those things that are top of mind are the very things of (potential) interest to others. The premium here is on immediacy.
  2. Develop and Feed a Personal Vision. There are some things (photos, thoughts, words, quotes) that land outside of our daily work. There is a place for that top-of-mind content—a public place. Ben Garvin feeds that vision at his blog. For Glen Stubbe , it’s his Instagram account. I believe this personal vision is the necessary counterweight to daily work. My respect for the people I work with and read grows as I see the parameters of their thinking outside their primary work.
  3. Share what is remarkable. It was Glen Stubbe’s quote that helped me see the emotive content that makes something remarkable—a question I’ve wondered for some time. Something is remarkable when it makes us step out of our routine and remark, out loud, to someone else. To Mr. Stubbe, it was photographs he just had to share. The making and sharing of the photos remains a prime driver for him. What amazes us is the very stuff we share with our spouse, our kids, our friends, total strangers. It is good when we can capture what amazes us.


Ben Garvin [@bengarvin]

Seeing is no simple thing. I’m grateful for the chance to listen in on the shop talk of this visual and thoughtful group of communicators.


Image credit: Glen Stubbe, Ben Garvin

Written by kirkistan

April 23, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Illegal Inscriber: We Are Brothers

leave a comment »

Warning: NSFL Image (Not Safe for Librarians)

BookNote-04162013Sometimes Ramsey County goes far afield to procure my desired book through their interlibrary loan system. Not so long ago a book about Levinas written by Sean Hand made its way to me all the way from Janesville, Wisconsin. I had not thought of that working community as a hot spot for continental philosophy, but life is full of surprises.

This copy of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity came from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. And somebody there did his thinking on paper. I say “his” because this scrawling looks like it was made with a masculine hand. I would like to buy this thinker a cup of coffee—his processing of the text is spectacular. He outlined sections of Levinas’ thought, he responded with gusto (exclamation points and double/triple underlines) to the sometimes obscure Levinasian sentences. His notations in the margins show him connecting Levinas to Hegel, Nietzsche, Sartre and Descartes. He is surprised when he finds “another way!” He offers a sad face upon realizing “the state is a totality.”

In fact the first 1/3 of the book is full of his incidental reactions and understandings, all scrawled in remarkably clear pencil in the margins. By half way through the book his interest seems to wane. The latter half of the book is free from all pencil inscriptions. Did he fall asleep in the library and miss his deadline? Did he finish his paper based “the same and the other” without ever getting to “exteriority and the face?”

I suspect so.

Even so, I’d like to have a chat with this illegal scribbler. This person has a lively mind, reaching out to make mental connections even as he reached out with graphite to record those firing synapses. Maybe this guy was even considering the poor dolt (this next other) who would pick up the text next—showing a kind of mercy on him.

I think the Ramsey County Librarian would also like to meet this scribbler. She wrote (for the tiny but loopy handwriting on the transfer label looks like a feminine hand to me) —wryly, to my mind: “pencil marks noted.”


Written by kirkistan

April 16, 2013 at 8:21 am

Your Product: Light of My Life

leave a comment »

You Complete Me.

ChevyCredibility-03282013Am I right? The magnetic power to draw citizens off the street. The hushed tones in the presence of greatness. The loving gaze. This car will change your life—perhaps it already has?

The fawning devotee image is standard fare in our media diet. Models perpetually doing homage to the product at the focus of all attention. Chevy, Toyota, Cadillac—who doesn’t make ads like this? Product as hero. Forever. We see this everywhere.

Somersby recently turned the Apple experience on its head by grabbing the dead-earnest communication style to appropriately ridiculous ends. It is perfectly reasonable to poke fun at the high places certain brands have taken in our lives.

Can we get beyond product as instrument of life change? True: it is possible that some consumers (that is, those who have already chosen to purchase a car/beer/computer/whatever) may look with unbridled lust toward their purchase, this object of their desire. But is it possible to promote a product without making the (thoroughly ridiculous) promise that it will indeed change your life?

Maybe not. Because quickening desire has always been at the heart of selling, and nothing quickens desire (and loosens the wallet) like showing the person you will be once you buy this car/beer/computer/whatever.

Maybe so—and this may be what is behind the eventual victory of online advertising: product messages that follow our search patterns and interrupt us with the key to what we’ve already been seeking.

Maybe both. Because desire follows a need or want. And we want what promises to make us different. Better. Smarter. Hipper. Advertising will always make these promises and will find ever new ways to get the message to us. And because we self-identify as “consumers” we’ll probably never run out of the optimism that buying stuff will change our life

It’s just that the loving magnetism of the Chevy image seems, well, juvenile. It’s a credibility issue.


Written by kirkistan

March 28, 2013 at 9:29 am

Copywriting Tip #3: Words + Images (Think Visually)

leave a comment »

How To Think Visually?

Exhaust your brain with mad thinking not lazy searching

Thinking visually and combining words and images is something of a kaleidoscope experience. Especially for the English major. These folks love words and regularly ask them to leap and dance and bite and romance. English majors have been going steady with words for years. I’m asking these people to see others—but it’s not about two-timing your fascinating Helvetica friends. Just add an image to the mix and step back: did the image just comment on the words—or vice versa? Did the words explain the image? Or did the words supply a subtle subtext that subverted the image? Or vice-versa? Now we’re spinning the kaleidoscope and it is all sorts of (kinda nerdy) fun.

Hint: Don’t Start With The Google Machine.

The temptation is to type your first thought into the search bar and see what images pop. This lazy approach will be at least mildly amusing and completely distracting for the next 73 minutes. There is a more productive way to begin: pen and paper. Any number of artists and writers will tell you that working through potential ideas in the isolation of a blank page helps you focus. The drill is to do it again and again. Page after page. Hour after hour. Until you can’t stand it anymore. From all that terrible, worthless dreck that you would never show your mother let alone the cute human in your Classics class, pick the two or possibly three that don’t make you wretch. That are kinda ok. Google those.

The key is to get your brain working and keep it working long enough that your subconscious takes up the project, freeing you to walk around the lake or pull a prank on your roommate.

You will produce something in this manner.

Try it and tell me if it worked.


Image credit: Maximum stacks/Creative Review via thisisn’thappiness

Below: dreck. Maybe an ad came from it. Maybe not.

Written by kirkistan

March 24, 2012 at 12:07 pm

%d bloggers like this: