The Unclassifiable Author and the Imaginative Ekphrasis

Intern Bailey reviews Gert Hofmann's Parable of the Blind

Parable of the Blind, by Gert Hofmann, translated by Christopher Middleton, 978-1-56792-563-0, $18.95, coming November 2016.

The German post-war writer Gert Hofmann (1931-1993) is, famously, an unclassifiable writer. This crisis of identification stems, in part, from the lack of a unifying thread of subject or medium in his work: It was only late in his career that he turned from his preferred medium of radio plays to the writing of novels, publishing his first in 1980 and continuing to produce one or two a year until his death.

When discussing why he eschewed an academic career at a young age and decided to pursue a creative life, Hofmann claimed that he lacked a certain stultifying pedantry necessary for the former. His work as a novelist is marked by this refusal to obsessively mine a single theme, to rest with feet upturned within the grooves of an entrenched style. Perhaps his most famous novel, The Spectacle at the Tower, winner of the Alfred Döblin Prize, concerns the trip a couple in a strained marriage makes through a sere landscape toward a tower.

The Parable of the Blind, published a few years later, while superficially similar, is something entirely different. It presents itself as an origin story, a sort of imaginative ekphrasis that tracks the beleaguered provenance of one of Western art’s most curious masterpieces: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind.

Our six protagonists are the variously purblind subjects of the painting. Some of them are named, some nameless. They recount in a leaky first-person plural narration the events of the day on which they are scheduled to be painted: They are woken by a knocking; they are fed; they relieve themselves; they are led and misled through the numinous countryside, on their way to the home of the painter.

Hofmann’s short novel, especially in its first half, is lightly redolent of Beckett. The blind troupe traipses aimlessly through an amorphous countryside; they trip and tumble and collapse in tragicomic pratfalls; they are fundamentally unclean, grotesque. Among the members of the group a senseless, circular call-and-response sometimes springs up—voices, as in Beckett, are set entirely at cross-purposes, while simultaneously deprived of an awareness of different states of being. One cannot even understand that one has been misunderstood.

But Hofmann is playful, too. In The Parable of the Blind, it is not, as in Beckett, the inherent blindness of literary representation that cauls the text. It is a very literal blindness. All of the derelicts have been blinded in different ways, and they are all in different ways blind—none is quite sure of the specifics of the former, nor the extent of the latter. The very perception of perception is deluded, stripped of any power. And that is enough, Hofmann seems to say, to muddle our conception of the text, of narrative.

Where Beckett’s vagrants are frequently nodes lost in a muted landscape, Hofmann’s cadre forms a line—though they’re invested with no trajectory because of this. In fact, senselessness multiplies as the blind ones crocodile through their shaded world. It is as if Hofmann is suggesting that even before the state of utmost solitude that Beckett so effectively limns there are still unimaginable depths of darkness to be plumbed. “Even if the world slipped away from us entirely, we wouldn’t miss it,” the blind ones say. “Instead of pressing forward into it with words, we curl up without words inside what’s still there” (34). The individual armed only with language is eschewed in favor of the instinctual will-to-community—the animalistic curling-up that the blind ones propone is a more tactile engagement with the world; Hofmann wants us to feel senselessness, not simply dread it.

Though Beckett’s not the only influence to be reckoned with, here. When the blinded finally reach the home of the famous painter (whose name, within the novel, is withheld), the influence of another writer begins to be felt. The painter speaks with an inborn aggression, cantankerousness, and cynical vitriol that recall the works of Thomas Bernhard, another German writer and heir to Beckett whose life was roughly contemporaneous with Hofmann’s.

The painter’s thoughts are curiously italicized, as those of Bernhard’s protagonists frequently are. Of the signs of destruction he notes everywhere in the world, the painter muses: “The sea boiling and very far off, the sky covered by a pall of smoke, glare of a fire behind soaring mountains—a memory of the far Alps—are signs that even the remoter parts of the world have been devastated” (89-90). Of the significance of the world’s dying: “Even himself the painter can easily identify in the pictures of these spaces…himself dying, dead already. At night he is walled in by these spaces with their pictures, thus also by himself” (90).

The cruel and barren logical extension of “thus also by himself” is classic Bernhard, and the disconcerting italicizations that give hint of a madness that is yet logical in its own mad way contribute to the sense of exaggeration that pervades The Parable of the Blind. The novel itself is an exaggeration, a blow-up, as it were, of a particular moment in time, a particular image. But there is a paradoxical tinct to the nature of this exaggeration: As, for Beckett, silence was in a way the ultimate form of eloquence, so for Bernhard and Hofmann exaggeration refines rather than dulls or occludes the senselessness of the world.

It is not for nothing that Hofmann’s blind ones search for comfort, that at the start of the novel they have just woken from sleep and at novel’s end they appear to be preparing once more for slumber. For Bernhard, and I think also for Hofmann, exaggeration is like a blanket that is draped over and occludes the subject matter—but that is draped, nevertheless, with care, and affection. It doesn’t annul the confusing welter of the world, but preserves it instead.

The painter’s art relies on traps, Hofmann tells us, “like the length or brevity of the brush strokes, pigmentation, peculiarity of texture, the arrangement of the background” (106). And while this trap keeps one still and reproduces one’s image, it is still a soulless and antagonistic affair. It is Hofmann’s aim to lay down a blanket and show us the creatures beneath it: sorry, tawdry, and grotesque, but undeniably there.

Author Interview: David Cundy

Intern Amy asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Animals Spell Love teaches readers of all ages how to express the word “love” in sixteen languages from around the globe, using critters made of letters. With its vivid colors, striking design, and positive message, it’s an especially good read during this holiday season. As an enthusiastic, lifelong lover of children’s books, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn more about the process of creating them. Having also studied literary translation and foreign languages in college (though sadly I know only one other language, not sixteen!), I’m always intrigued to learn more about how language can translate to image, and vice versa. I was thrilled to interview author and designer David Cundy about the creation of Animals Spell Love, his debut children’s book and to hear more about his design and life philosophies.

I’m interested in how you came to write Animals Spell Love. Is this a project you’ve been thinking about for a long time, or was there some event that sparked the idea?

Animals Spell Love was six years in the making. It came from serendipity: I composed the Czech lovebirds to illustrate a poem I’d written, and was greeted by the necessary book.

You’ve been working in art and design for most of your adult life—how/why did you decide to translate those skills to a book?

You mean books plural! Planning ahead about a decade ago, I knew I’d want to engage in fulfilling work in my “Third Age” – the stage of life after youth, employment and family raising. Writing, the recoalescence of my early-career aspirations to be an artist and poet, was the natural path. And because books endure, authors are able to create cultural memory, and to influence the future. The inspiration behind Animals Spell Love was the opportunity to “accentuate the positive,” to demonstrate the universality and diversity of love throughout the world, to educate children and to remind adults. I’m well into the sequel, so stay tuned!

You mention that your “linguistic explorations” have included French, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Spanish. What inspired these explorations? Where and how did you study these languages?

The first source of inspiration would be my middle school Latin teacher, who showed us how so many English words are classically derived. By then, I was immersed in mythology, which is subliminal storytelling. Latin led to Greek, which is more difficult because you need to learn a new alphabet, and Greek to Sanskrit, the hat-trick Indo-European language, which inspired Animals Spell Love’s blue monkey – Hanuman, the Monkey King from the Ramayana.

How did you decide which languages to include in the book? Some of them are commonly understood (Spanish, French) but others, like Amharic, are specific to one country or region of the world. What kind of tools did you use to research languages you were not as familiar with?

I selected the sixteen languages in Animals Spell Love to represent as many people as possible, and to cover the widest geographic territory. Over three billion people speak the languages used in Animals Spell Love! Chinese, for example, is spoken by almost a billion people, Hindi and Spanish by around 500 million each, and Amharic and Thai by over 20 million each.

What was your creative/design process for Animals Spell Love?

The process was – using type as my palette – to evaluate what I had to work with, and then to experiment, to look for happy accidents. And to vary the illustrations stylistically to communicate diversity visually in the same way the languages and letterforms literally did.


The images were sometimes homages – the crickets to Kazue Mizumura’s If I Were a Cricket, and the ducks to Marjorie Flack’s and Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping. The ducks themselves were modeled on a pair of Qing dynasty boxes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s image collection, and the illustration itself (a shaped poem inspired by Apollinaire’s calligrams) is literally a Spring poem by Du Fu, which tenderly closes, “two ducks are napping on warm sand.”

What were some of the challenges you faced in creating Animals Spell Love (i.e. working with unfamiliar languages/alphabets, creating recognizable creatures from letters)?

Besides pronunciation, the most difficult linguistic challenge came down to the fact that in some languages, “I love you” takes a different form for masculine, feminine, platonic, romantic and honorific. For example, in Amharic, the form is different if you are addressing an elder; in Chinese and Japanese, the literal sentiment would be considered too personal, so it’s replaced by something like, “I like you.” Structurally, Arabic was most difficult to compose because its letters have initial, medial and final (as well as isolated) forms, and because, like Hebrew, it reads from right to left.

Illustrating Animals Spell Love, on the other hand, was pure fun. Constructing the animals from letterform and ideogram building blocks was like playing a game or solving a puzzle, and when the images materialized, it was like seeing magic tricks performed! And foreign languages are inherently mysterious – like hieroglyphs or secret messages.

What authors or illustrators have influenced and inspired you the most?

Growing up with great children’s books in an era of great children’s book illustrations, I came to admire many author/illustrators and illustrators. Inspirations included the icons – Tenniel, Potter, Rey, McCloskey, Lawson and Seuss, and lesser-knowns like Wanda Gág (Millions of Cats) and Nicolas Mordvinoff (Finders Keepers). Artists who inspired illustrations in the book include Durer, Hiroshige and Peter Max. Graphic designer Bradbury Thompson’s typographic face for Westvaco, a paper company, is a direct antecedent of the illustrations in Animals Spell Love.

Animals Spell Love is ostensibly a children’s book, but it’s complex enough for adults to enjoy as well. Did you intentionally design the book to appeal to a broader audience? Who do you hope will read this book?

The artistic, cultural and literary allusions are entirely intentional – there’s something for everyone! I’m hoping the book will appeal to readers from 5 to 95: that it will be enjoyed by parents and children, and grandparents and grandchildren, since love is experienced when sharing a book; that it will inspire children to appreciate and learn languages, which are instrumental in kids’ development of empathy; and that teachers will use it as a springboard tool. Because I’m a bit of a romantic, I’m also hoping that lovers of all ages will fall in love with Animals Spell Love and share it as a gift.

You talk about how Animals Spell Love represents your life philosophy. Are there any specific events, interactions, or memories that led you to that philosophy, the idea that we “owe it to ourselves to make each other’s lives better”? How does Animals Spell Love represent that philosophy?

My mother was a saint and teacher who gave me an optimistic temperament and a lifelong love for books. Parents endeavor to make their children’s lives better; as an author, I guess I’m transmitting my mother’s meme – that the way to live is to be loving and kind. I hope that Animals Spell Love conveys that helpful message to people today – and in the future.

What’s your favorite image or animal in Animals Spell Love, and why?

While I haven’t chosen any favorites, I look forward to hearing from readers about theirs! Actually, some of my favorite things in Animals Spell Love are its secret pleasures, like the foil stamped LOVE lunette hidden under the dust jacket, and Tchaikovsky’s “Gentle Stars” song in the Russian vignette. To notice these things, you’ve got to C#! And the book closes with an elfin pair of tangram mice sharing cheese, the animal metaphor for my approach and message, which are to persuade with subtlety and humor, and to convey the still revolutionary idea that, to paraphrase the Beatles, “all we need is love.”


Superior Person’s Tuesday: Bradykinetic

If you're a Patriots football fan this is counter-intuitive

Bradykinetic a. Moving very slowly. Alternative Sense: one who jumps up dynamically to switch off the TV when The Brady Bunch comes on. (Or a Jets football fan.)

This is a good example of a bradykinetic creature.
This is a good example of a bradykinetic creature.
This is not.
This is not.

On Tuesdays we offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. Be on the look out for a new edition of The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words, now available for purchase.

You can also win a FREE copy of The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words by entering this Goodreads Giveaway.

Superior Person’s Tuesday: Deterration

Deterration, interrogation, what's the difference? They both get to what's underneath somehow.

Deterration n. Not the act of deterring, but the discovery of an underlying object by the removal of earth around it. From the Latin de and terra.

“Young man, you will proceed immediately to the bathroom. The time has come from the deterration of your feet.”

Under that mermaid body is Joey. We guess the Friends will have to perform a deterration.
Somewhere under that mermaid body is Joey. We guess the Friends will have to perform a deterration.

On Tuesdays we offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. Be on the look out for a new edition of The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words, now available for purchase.



Superior Person’s Tuesday: Hyperhedonia

In honor of Election Day, we are pleased to present a very special Superior Person's Tuesday

Hyperhedonia n. A condition in which abnormally heightened pleasure is derived from participation in activities which are intrinsically tedious and uninteresting. For a case study near you, GO TO THE POLLS!

Person voting
Your voice matters. Your vote matters. Be a Superior Person and GO VOTE.

No matter for whom you vote today, it is important that you do so. We promise, if you participate in the local, state, and federal politics today, something usually seen as tedious and dull, you will derive immense pleasure from participating in a history-making election, for this country has never had two candidates such as these.

Today, let’s all be affected with hyperhedonia.

On Tuesdays we offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. Be on the look out for a new edition of The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words, now available for purchase.

You know what they say about screen adaptations…

…you should always read the books first!

Well, even if you started watching the utterly charming and gorgeous Durrells in Corfu on PBS Masterpiece Theater, it’s never too late to pick up the books! Especially with the final episodes coming up, we know you’ll need something to tide you over until Season Two premieres!

The Durrells in Corfu is based on Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. The books in that series are:


And once you’ve made your way through that series, check out other books by Durrell:

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What the critics are saying about The Durrells in Corfu:

All the Durrells seem to find themselves in Corfu. Viewers will find them irresistible.The Wall Street Journal

The series is a rich family portrait based on the somewhat autobiographical Corfu trilogy by naturalist Gerald Durrell…you will savor this laidback, elegant entertainment.—The Boston Globe

Watch “The Durrells in Corfu,” a lavishly executed production in the Masterpiece tradition, but read Gerald and Lawrence Durrell’s books, too. They offer pleasures that promise to endure long after this public TV series is through.—The Christian Science Monitor

Watch if you like stories about plucky families achieving things. —The New York Times

Author Interview: Adam Van Doren

Intern Allie asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know.

Adam Van Doren is the author of The House Tells the Story (2015), and An Artist in Venice (2013).  Van Doren’s artwork is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; The Wadsworth Atheneum; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Princeton University Art Museum; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., among other institutions. Van Doren teaches at Yale University, where he is also an Associate Fellow, and is a graduate of Columbia University. He has written and directed two documentaries about the arts which were broadcast on PBS and cable television: James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times, narrated by George Plimpton, which was awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Top Hat and Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of The New Yorker, narrated by Stanley Tucci.

In your introduction you explain that the criteria for the houses featured was (1) that the house for the most part be architecturally interesting, (2) that the choice be apolitical, (3) that you should be granted permission to visit it, and, knowing that presidents have lived in more than one house in their lifetimes, (4) that you consider residences that have an especially intriguing connection to the presidents themselves. With so many to choose from, I imagine it was a difficult decision. Which residences almost made the final cut, but didn’t?

Others that were high on the list were Reagan’s ranch in California, Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage in Nashville [Tennessee], Lincoln’s house in Springfield [Illinois], LBJ’s ranch in Texas, and James Madison house in Virginia. (Maybe a sequel is in order!)

You mention the great tradition of illustrated letters in your introduction as well, along with the 2007 Smithsonian exhibition More than Words that featured many of these correspondences. Browsing through some of them online, I was particularly intrigued by Joseph Lindon Smith’s letters to his parents (his handwriting is fascinating), Allen Tupper True’s letters to his daughter, and Rockwell Kent’s letters to Frances Kent (especially the “My darling—I do!”). Were there any that struck you in particular or that served as inspiration for your own illustrated letters to David McCullough?

Yes, a wonderful collection of letters by Edward Ardizzone was a great source of inspiration. I can’t imagine a better artist/writer for this ”genre.”

Early on, you explain that this was an ideal project due to your interests and background in both art and architecture. Which house was the most enjoyable to paint, and which did you find the most architecturally interesting? Are these things directly correlated with one another in your personal experience?

I would say Teddy Roosevelt’s house at Sagamore Hill because I happen to be a great admirer of the great shingle style houses of the Gilded Age, which are masterpieces of a complex, asymmetrical design.

Many of these houses have beautiful libraries. Did any of the books on the shelves surprise you? You listed several titles for Truman, but I was curious if there were others.

I was interested in Jimmy Carter’s personal library (in the house he nows lives in) which has many poetry collections, including Dylan Thomas, one of his favorites.

You mention presidential artifacts such as FDR’s stamp collection, Jefferson’s souvenirs from Lewis and Clark, and Teddy Roosevelt’s assortment of rifles and hunting trophies. Which collection or artifact was most interesting to you, and which did you find to be most revealing about its owner?

I would say Truman’s home. Many of his personal items were not valuable per se, but they were meaningful to him and his family, and they reveal a great deal about who Truman was as a person.

You mention a quote from Jefferson that clearly states his opinion on architecture: “Palladio is the Bible.” Do you agree with him?

Yes, it is required reading for any understanding of great architecture. It is a classic treatise that teaches timeless lessons about proportion, planning, decoration, etc. that can apply to both traditional and modern architecture.

Aside from the White House’s intense security and the oppressive heat in the summer at Mount Vernon, were any of the houses challenging to paint in other ways, logistically or otherwise?

Yes, getting access to the Kennedy compound in MA, and the homes of the Bushes and Jimmy Carter required a fair amount of planning with the presidents themselves and the secret service, since these homes are private and not open to the public.

Describing Jefferson’s genius in his design of Monticello, you write that he had somehow managed to “plan for spontaneity!” Do you try to do something similar when you paint by creating the optimal conditions to allow room for spontaneity in your work?

Yes, I always come prepared. I paint on site, so I have to be ready for all sorts of change in weather and sunlight. I also work on both white papers and tinted papers, and I often make a decision on the spot which ones I want to paint on.

The insides of the houses are just as fascinating as their exteriors. I was surprised to learn that George Washington chose a bold green for his dining room in keeping with the latest fashions of his time, and I was less surprised to learn that Teddy Roosevelt had an original man-cave. Have any rooms in particular left lasting impressions on you more than others?

I was taken with JFK’s bedroom at his parents’ home in Hyannis. It has been left exactly as it was when he last visited it, including the objects in the room and the prints on the wall. It was very moving to see.

Do you find you paint architecture differently after learning more about a place and its inhabitants? Where do you locate the subjectivity in your paintings?

Once I learn more about a president, I tend to emphasize certain aspects over others. For instance in the case of George H. W. Bush, I wanted to emphasize the isolated, exclusive quality to the family compound, so I choose the vantage point of the rocky outcrop which the house sits on, by the ocean’s edge, so you get a sense that the structure is all alone.

Superior Person’s Tuesday: Heteromorphic

Sometimes known as the metamorphosis called "puberty."

Heteromorphic a. Having different forms at different stages of the life cycle. As for example the caterpillar/butterfly. Or your friend Marion, who goes to the office on Friday in her Dragon Lady With Full Make-Up form and then appears in her back yard on Saturday in her Jumpsuit And Thongs Without Make-Up form.


The cast of the Harry Potter series can certainly be classified as heteromorphic.
The cast of the Harry Potter series can certainly be classified as such.

Each Tuesday we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. Be on the look out for a new edition of The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words, coming Fall 2016.

Superior Person’s Tuesday: Kopophobia

A wonderful excuse to be lazy.

Kopophobia, n. Fear of exhaustion. Otherwise known as a lexicographer’s curse.

We suspect that Fat Amy is not a slacker, but merely kopophobic.
We suspect that Fat Amy is not a slacker, but merely kopophobic.










Each Tuesday we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. Be on the look out for a new edition of The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words, coming Fall 2016.


Author Interview: Builder Levy

Intern Jack asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know

Appalachia USA is an honest, unrelenting and thoroughly humanist look at the people of the Appalachian coal mining communities in southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Through his photographic lens and insightful commentary, Builder Levy illuminates the human stories and moments beneath the thin, black layer of coal dust and paints a deeply moving picture of the personal and environmental impacts of the mining industry’s ceaseless search for veins of black gold. In his photographs we see mothers struggling to protect their children, men and women fighting for their rights as workers, but above all we see the same warmth in their eyes that unites us all.

Builder Levy is a graduate of Brooklyn College of City University of New York as well as New York University. He has worked as a New York City teacher of at-risk adolescents for thirty-five years. He works to highlight the humanity of Appalachian coal miners in much the same manner that Walker Evans did for disadvantaged farmers in the dust bowl. His photographs are in more than 80 collections around the world.

Having studied Marxist critical theory at university, I took a deep interest in Levy’s portrayals of union culture and his focus on the working person, as well as the negative impacts of the energy industry’s operation in Appalachian America. His photographs are simultaneously sobering and heartwarming, and create a unique and endearing sense of familiarity between reader and subject. I asked him questions in order to learn more about his past experiences as a photographer, teacher and a union member.

As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in New York City for most of your life, how did you find yourself interested in photographing rural Appalachian mining towns?

Toward the end of the sixties, I felt I needed to see and experience more of America outside of NYC. I had spent most of the sixties photographing in the streets of Brooklyn and New York City. I had also photographed at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I had photographed at mass marches and demonstrations in New York City and a few more in DC for civil rights and peace. In addition, in April 1968, I flew to Memphis, Tennessee to photograph the “Martin Luther King Memorial March for Union Justice and to End Racism,” and then to Atlanta, Georgia to photograph the Martin Luther King Funeral. That summer I began my “Appalachia USA” project, although I didn’t come up with that title until 2008.

I had been raised in a family that encouraged art, and believed the world needed to be changed. As a little kid I listened to my parents’ records of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie singing “Which Side Are You On,” a song about coal miners’ struggles, written by the wife of a striking miner in Harlan County, Kentucky, and many other songs including: “John Henry” and “Oh Freedom”. In the small multiracial progressive children’s summer camp I attended in Wilmington, Vermont, we sang those same songs. Today they still resonate with me.

Why did you select Appalachia for this project?

Appalachian miners [have] struggled against some of the most powerful industrial and corporate forces on earth to make life better for themselves, their families, and workers throughout the nation. (In the 1930s and ‘40s the United Mine Workers helped organize the United Steel Workers and the United Autoworkers.) During slavery, the Underground Railroad had many way stations manned by mountaineer settlers in Appalachia, and during the civil war, 250,000 southern Appalachian mountain boys volunteered for the Union army in the war against the Confederate slaveocracy. The Appalachians, the oldest and most biodiverse mountain range in North America, was originally the hunting grounds of the Cherokee and other indigenous people. Appalachian miners were not a monolithic ethnic group, but a polyglot that included African Americans, eastern Europeans, Western Europeans, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Mexican, Native Americans and others. This project allowed me to make photographs as art while immersing myself into the life of a very significant, yet often mischaracterized and misunderstood rural region of America, in the hope of finding and revealing deeper American reality and truths.

Would you say your teaching career has affected your photographic style or your outlook on life? If so, how?

My students were mostly adolescents of color from poor, working-class families. Some had been in gangs. Some came from foster homes. Some came from jails and/or prison. I talked with them. I listened to them. I got them to write about and photograph their own lives. They shared their lives with me. They enriched my life and my understanding of life. I learned that if you show people you are genuinely interested in them, their lives, their humanity, and culture, and are willing to listen and interact with them, they will often open up to share something of their own lives. I could be given so much from my students and my photographic subjects. I learned how to allow people—students/subjects to give [some] of themselves to me so that in return, I could give something back to them and the world, through my teaching and my photographs. I taught that the students could find their subject matter and vision in their own lives and within their families, their communities, heritage, culture, and struggles. I worked alongside my students, encouraging examples of strength, dignity, love, and camaraderie. I taught by my own example, but also with examples of the great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Roy de Carava, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Peter Magubane. I approached teaching as a way to share and raise consciousness, and while interacting with my students and their lives, enriching and raising my own consciousness as well. By working with my students and getting them to create writing and photography about their own lives, they inspired and enriched my life — [this is] reflected in my own photographs as well.

You mentioned in the Adore Noir interview that several of the places you photographed have since been destroyed by mountaintop removal, flooding, highway construction, or other causes. ( The subject “Coal Camp,” for instance, was gone when you returned in the new millennium), what is it like to return to a location you previously photographed only to find it missing?  

The feeling is of a void, a sadness, an emptiness!   A way of life and a community is disappearing. The dying mines need to be replaced with new industry and living wage jobs. Such could be in education, the health/medical field, environmental reclamation, sustainable energy fields—wind power, solar power, music and visual arts and cultural centers, etc.

When I revisited Raleigh and Boone Counties, West Virginia, in the new millennium, I considered revisiting Stotesbury, where I had made my photograph “Oglesby Bedroom” in Luther Oglesby’s home, in 1982. But I was told there were only a few homes and families left out of the hundreds that I had seen in 1982. I had lost touch with the family. In May I heard from the Oglesbys. The daughter in the photograph, her daughter emailed me with info about the family, and we talked and emailed and caught up. And in June I spoke with Dora Oglesby (the one in the photo). Now there are only three houses left in the whole coal camp.

It is a feeling of loss. A void.

What is the state of mining unions in Appalachia today?  Is their power on the rise, or are they seeing stagnation?

Beginning in the 1980s and accelerating in the 1990s, many of the large coal companies aggressively tried to break the union contract and run non-union mines. One result was less down time in the mine to remedy safety issues. Safety was sacrificed for increased production and profits. There was a rise in mine accidents and fatalities. The worst was at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, Raleigh County, West Virginia, where 29 miners died from a methane explosion in 2010. Mines have been closing all over Appalachia and employment is steadily declining. A number of large mining companies have filed for bankruptcy. Membership in the UMWA has been declining as well. The union is weaker in terms of numbers and influence today.

Could you tell us a little about your experience with the teachers’ unions during your time as a teacher in New York?

It is a long story, but the short answer is, I am a union man! I come from a union family. I like to say, “Coal miners and teachers are among America’s unsung heroes.” The union fought for and won smaller class size, no asbestos in the schools, pensions, a decent salary, paid holidays, and healthcare.

Why do you take pictures?

It gives me a heightened sense [of] being alive. It is my way of being intensely connected to the world. It allows me to explore/discover/experience/interact/teach/reveal/be involved in the real world and simultaneously be deeply immersed in the aesthetic process, to create something new—a photographic print as a physical art object that is imbued with a new consciousness in and of the world. I want my photographs to take on a life of their own. To change the world.

The humanity of your subjects is obviously an incredibly important part of your work.  Do you find your presence as an outsider in their community prevents them from opening up and being themselves, or is it the opposite?

I work till I am not looked at as an outsider—or at least considered an ally or friend. Sometimes I get introduced by someone who is already known. I always try to start off with some advanced contacts. I talk to people. I answer questions and explain what I am trying to do. I hang around. I return. I talk. I show people what I am doing. I give out samples of my work in the form of postcards, announcement cards etc. as small gifts. If I feel like an outsider, and if I am viewed as an outsider, I usually won’t get good photographs. I try to break down barriers. I introduce myself and tell them what I am trying to do: “I am a teacher from New York City trying to make photographs about the real life of the Appalachian coal miner.”

For several days I was hanging around talking to and photographing miners while they waited for their shift to begin. I talked. I listened. I answered their questions seriously and honestly. They joked, good-naturedly—a foreman asked,” You’re not one of those Nader raiders, are you?” And, while I am setting up a large view camera on my tripod, and focusing the old fashioned looking camera under the black cloth, an old timer tells me, “A miner’s life is a dog’s life—buddy, put that in your book!”

Swallows & Amazons is coming!

The trailer for the new film, to be released in the UK on 19 August is out!

Arthur Ransome’s beloved Swallows & Amazons has been made into a feature film, with names such as Andrew Scott (Moriarty on the BBC’s Sherlock) and Kelly Macdonald (the voice of Merida in Brave, and Helena Ravenclaw in the final Harry Potter film) to star.

You can read more about the movie, the books, and Arthur Ransome’s life in this great article from The Telegraph.

Swallows & Amazons the film will be released in the UK on 19 August 2016. Watch this space for the US release date, and watch the thrilling trailer below!

Special Sneak Preview! Author interview with Ralph Steadman

Intern Hannah interview Ralph Steadman--see this first glimpse!

Check out this sneak peek of our interview with Ralph Steadman, author of, published for the first time in the U.S. by David R. Godine, Publisher in June 2016.
Take a brief look at the creator of the eccentric little Dot who bounds through the pages of this unforgettable picture book for ages 3-100. Steadman, best know for his work with Hunter S. Thompson, explains how he came up with the idea of the Dot and how his illustrative process works.
Interview by David R. Godine intern, Hannah Winkelman, editing by Sales Manager Tildy Banker-Johnson. Thanks for watching!

Transcript posted below.

Hannah Winkelman: How did you come up with the idea for

Ralph Steadman: Um, you know it was at the very beginning of things that were sort of, um, well, not the beginning, but 2000’s the year when I got the thing, or 1999. And I just decided that, uh, it was a nice idea for a character, for a book, Little. It’s like little something, you know, like little, little Jim, little something like that. So I thought, because I thought, I always say, for some reason, know what I mean? I always say So that became kind of a habit, to say “.com.” So became a little guy.

[Publisher’s note: In the 2000s it was common to add ” dot com” or ” dot org” to phrases such as “give me a break dot com” or “move on dot org” (See: Gilmore Girls, Season 5, Episode 9). This is what Ralph is trying to express.]


RS: But how you see, I was making use of things like all the blots. I love blots. I just love a blot to just go down, and do what it’s going to do, and then turn it into something with the eyes, make it live. I mean look at him, crazy fool. And that there that’s the Duke of Bogshott… So, it’s like antiquated, antiquated computer animated, computer stories. It’s like the beginning, you know like when Steve Jobs was doing things.

HW: Really?

RS: Well it was the… He hadn’t really got going, he was still doing things, but… ‘Cause a lot of people didn’t have, uh, any of this stuff. And I made mine up as I went along. I’m looking at it for the first time in ages and I’m feeling quite impressed….Yeah, I like it, I like them. You see, the thing is, I think I have a thing about blots. I’m clumsy and I love doing that.

RS gesticulates.

RS: It does something wonderful. You know it’s energy. It’s energy! It’s going out in all directions and I think I like that. And you put an eye in it, or two eyes, teeth, and it’s a lovely idea. I mean I think that’s quite impressive. I don’t love drawing circles, I used to be an engineering draftsman.

HW: Oh, really?

RS: I just, uh, well—I liked doing the geometric drawing, but I used to like doing cartoons in the corner, down the side of my drawing.

HW: Would you just doodle on the side and that’s how you got started?

RS: Yeah, little funny drawings on the side. Then I was asked why I was doing that and I’d say “Because they’re looking at what I’m doing.”