Oscar Isaac in Scenes from a Marriage, HBO Max.
I was longlisted for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize from New Literary Project alongside some real writers. Wild times.
I spent yesterday wandering around with my current 35mm set-up, a Canon EOS-1N RS. I had just put in a roll of Kodak Gold 200, and wanted to shoot it through so that I could swap to Cinestill 800t, which had arrived the day before. I’ve never shot Cinestill before, but I’d always wanted to, and now that I had some in hand, I just had to get through 35 more frames of the Kodak. That makes the Gold 200 sound like a shitty filmstock, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s such a warm and forgiving film. It brings a subtle nostalgia to everything it touches. When I lived in Iowa, it was a perfect film stock for those bright, bright days. There is so much light in Iowa, of an almost scathing whiteness. The light gave everything a fizzy patina, and Kodak Gold 200 just made it so lux and soft.
In New York, the light falls differently. I spend a lot of my time on the Upper East Side, in the East 70s. Even on sunny days, you’re moving through these zones of shadow and cover from the buildings. It always seems one or two hours later in the day when you’re in the East 70s before you hit Central Park. It’s somehow almost always just before dusk. But, when you get to the avenues, you’re suddenly thrown into these long channels of brilliant sunlight. It creates interesting shadows and shapes. One of my favorite places to stand is at the corner of E 72nd and First Ave, because if you look up and to your right, there’s this lovely warm brick and it catches stray light brilliantly. On the other side of the street, some high old buildings and the light makes these pockets of illumination on them. And, at the very tops of some of the buildings, there are these little forests or gardens. Trees and shrubs hanging over the sides of the building. I imagine it costs quite a lot of money to domesticate trees that way. The luxury of a little wildness.
Yesterday, as I walked to the park, the early afternoon was a little warm at first, but by the time I had looped back to come home, walking down 79th, it was much cooler and damper. The candy-striper pipe emitting these clouds of steam from below ground. The lights of traffic already visible in the fading light of day. People hurrying this way and that. I passed a few Synagogues. A Ukrainian consulate. Buildings made of gorgeous white stone, sitting across from more modern buildings like a family in argument about the progression of time. And overhead, the sky milky. I came down 79th and ended up across from a construction zone. Then I crossed and went South on First Ave until I once again entered the shadowy network of pre-war buildings. The diners, the coffee shops, the grocers with their fragrant flowers. The French laundry. The Chinese laundry. The dozens of little restaurants with their gleaming red signs getting brighter by the moment in the dropping light.
I took many pictures of the buildings. The tops of the trees. The people going by me, screaming into their phones, making plans, breaking plans. I thought a lot about how this city is a place of perpetual argument. How nice that is. I always feel a little shy when I go to take a picture of another person. I always want to say, oh, do you mind? But then it would be weird to ask them. But weirder not to ask. So I end up not taking the picture usually. I think because I came of age taking pictures only after I had a cell phone, I have no way of seeing the ethical quandaries of street photography outside of the construct of the creepshot. This is, to be clear, entirely a me thing. Street photography is a long tradition with its own values and conventions and ethics. I just mean that I didn’t take pictures until I had a phone. And by then, the discourse around taking pictures of people with your phone and uploading them to the internet had already gone through so many revisions and skirmishes that I have this reflexive guilt whenever I go to take someone’s image. I’m trying to work through that. Because I’d love to be able to be more spontaneous. But as it is, I take pictures of buildings mostly.
In the film Carol, Therese is a photographer. She talks about the anxiety she feels taking pictures of people with her friend Dannie, who is a writer. She says it feels like an invasion of privacy.
Later, when she’s talking about it with Carol, she says that she’s trying to be more interested in people. I feel that. Heavy.
I’d like to be able to take pictures of people out there in the world. Treat the moment like a found text to be engaged compositionally. I’m learning. I’ll get there. I just have to be less shy about asking.
I’m glad to be taking pictures again. It’s gotten me to thinking about analog and nostalgia, I guess. I recently got a record player, and I’ve been really enjoying it. I didn’t think that it would make much difference. I’m not an audiophile. I don’t know anything about music. But I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The sound is rich and warm. I love the little crackle of the needle making contact. The static in the speakers as the stylus seeks out the groove of the music. The physicality of the sound and the way it’s brought forth. You can’t mistake it for some imaginary thing that comes out of the air like digital can be sometimes. With a record, you know there’s another person on the other side of the music, the sound. You can hear the little human in them speaking to the little human in you, almost like under every song you hear on vinyl, there’s a small, repeating I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. The undeniable humanness of it.
Like with film, there is something really comforting about having this physical object to focus on. You can’t just press a button and make it all pour out all perfect and right. It takes time to set up a shot, and it takes time to select a record, to put it on. It takes time and consideration to pick out your set-up, to make it function and happen. It’s a lot of work thinking for yourself. Doing research, making choices. It was shocking to realize the extent to which I had grown used to the automatic life. The thing done for me, slotted into place. And once I got out of thinking in such an automatic way, letting the algorithm with its self-ordering, self-perpetuating force do my life for me, it was shocking to realize the extent to which other people are going around and desperately seeking someone to tell them how to be and how to think.
As I’ve been putting together my apartment, people have been asking me where I got various things. It’s always such a curious question, Where did you get that? In the New York media world, the question usually means How much did you pay for that and if it is too much, I am going to talk about you with my friends in our groupchat. Like, there is some constantly updating list of secretly wealthy people who write for the internet, and once you pass a certain threshold, you gotta go. But, there is also this idea that people want to know where you go things because they want it for themselves. Not because of the thing. But because of the mana of the thing. Because the thing represents an entry into a certain affect or style or taste.
It honestly reminds me of communion, the eucharist. And maybe it’s true that all of late capitalism has modeled itself on the rites of the Early Catholic church. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve been reading so much Zola, particularly his novel Money, which is in many ways so much about the concatenation of capitalism, style, and zealotry both religious and cultural. But perhaps it’s just true that influence is influence, and that whatever mystical transformation we seek in God’s grace is really just another form of pecuniary emulation. Or maybe it’s backward. Maybe pecuniary emulation and the mimetic itself is a desire to achieve the Blakean apocalypse—all of humanity dwelling within one eternal invincible body or form.
I don’t know. It’s hard to unsee it. The way you get turned into an influence broker even against your will. How some people don’t seem to notice or care, and they go around wielding their authority and power like it’s some kind of Divine Right of Kings. And, maybe it is. That would track, honestly.
There’s also the fact that people are convinced by beauty. I’ve said this before and it’s not new, but beauty and aesthetic wholeness have a moral vibe about them. In that way, it’s kind of like that ridiculous germplasm theory, but for aesthetic. That is, you become a part of a collective when you join a platform and participate in its rhythms and aesthetics. And the minute you become a part of it, you are on a course of conversion and assimilation into the dominant aesthetic of the platform. The kinetics vary, of course. You get there when you get there—even if it’s at the end of the world. A zeitgeist is just a locus of mass conversion within a platform. All that vibes must converge.
Anyway, I recently spoke to a journalist about my style for an article he was writing about what he calls the “cool shrink” vibe. I described my aesthetic as “a teaching professor from 50 years ago.” I think for many people new to the concept of a house cardigan or dressing like a TA for Lionel Trilling, Oscar Isaac in Scenes from a Marriage was recent ground zero moment. I mean. The hair. The beard. The glasses. The white t-shirts under comfortable oversized sweaters and cardigans. The sensible pants. The sensible shoes. The huge ass house that his wife bought with Tech money. Part of what makes the style so covetable is that Oscar Isaac is hot. And also because, perhaps, we have fraught relationships to male authority figures who dress like our grandparents. Or maybe because it’s triggering because we all had…formative experiences lusting after inappropriate brainy men who would later go one to ruin our lives because they are not as emotionally evolved as they pretend to be. I don’t know! But give me a man with a pencil tucked behind his ear and a rolled sleeve, and it’s over. I will will never know peace. Phew. There is just something about man, however insufferable, who is about to push the sleeves of a neutral-toned sweater up to his forearms and talk about something you don’t give a fuck about. Revenge of the Nerds, but they’ve read Jane Eyre. I need therapy.
Anyway, I want to say more about the thing I wear everyday. I have this uniform that I wear. I come from people who wore polyester uniforms to their jobs. My mom had to wear ugly housekeeping outfits. We’re talking powder blue polycotton skirts and white shoes. She looked like a fucking old-timey nurse. Then, when she got a job at a factory, it was coveralls in navy blue with her name stitched across the breast. My aunts wore scrubs to nursing jobs. My uncles wore coveralls to factories and mechanic jobs. My grandpa wore the same clothes every day. I derive a lot of pleasure from having a set outfit. It feels right to me.
Since I moved to New York, I jettisoned almost all of my old wardrobe and made a uniform of sorts for myself. It’s comfortable pants from Uniqlo—black, of course. An Oxford shirt in white, navy, or light blue. A chore coat. A pair of Campers leather shoes. And white socks. A beanie or a hat. At home, it’s black tights, a black or white t-shirt. A cardigan. In the summer, an oversized Oxford over the shirt as a kind of summer cardigan. Birks and socks. I own knit sweaters. Cable sweaters. And a couple sweaters in red or black. It’s the kind of wardrobe I’ve always wanted. A uniform. For my diffuse and irregular labor. The non-labor of intellectual work. I’m a layabout. My grandpa would be ashamed. He always thought I’d come to dissolute ends. He was right, to be totally fair But when I look at this wardrobe, it’s so similar to what he and my dad wore. The sensible leather shoes. The loose sensible pants. The white socks. The chore jacket or loose flannel overshirt. I dress like a rural black grandpa. But it’s funny how this outfit has been absorbed and co-opted not just by people in media, but by all of the mid-range fashion brands with their Instagram ads. French work wear…started with workers, obviously, but it’s become utterly bourgeois. But, you know. That’s how it goes.
I think one reason I dress this way is because I like comfort. But also because I am bourgeois. My life is very bourgeois. I dress the way working class people dressed in my grandpa and father’s generation. Back when the way you dressed said something about your class or your class of origin. And now, the way we dress says something about us as people. I mean, yes, fashion has always been an argument of the self with the world. But it feels particularly true that fashion also used to tell you something about the social context and milieu of a person’s life. That’s why people get so heated when Gen Z shits on skinny jeans and dress like they’re mall rats despite never having actually been to a mall. It’s stolen mall valor, I tell you! All that lightwash denim! You do not know the desolation of a suburban mall! We couldn’t just order up fast fashion! Some of us had to sneak into Hot Topic for pants that showed off our thighs!
I’m far afield. I guess what I’m thinking through lately is that I have this hunger to return to something real and concrete. I mean, not in the faux-earnest way of Stomp, Clap, Hey! or the artisanal soaps and chocolates of Brooklyn of years past. But in a real, earnest way, I have this desire to return to the handmade. To the personalized experience. Not as content or copy. But as something for myself. Something I do for myself and enjoy by myself. The parts of my life that I can’t capture or won’t capture and beam into the world. Because, the fact is that I sometimes share in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I get so happy about a new thing that I want to share it with people. With no ulterior motive. With no desire for hegemonic influence brokering. I want to say, Look at this thing I am new to! How interesting! But because of the formulation of social media, because of the overriding impulses of our platforms, when you share anything, it comes out as an argument for why someone should do it too or have it too. People reflexively emulate. They roll over and show their bellies to you and hope you’ll scratch and call them good and bestow your blessing upon them.
It’s not your fault, of course. Like Willy Shakes once said:
For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Vibe his court and there the antic sits