Reflections

Lifetime Discomfort

At a 'celebrity' graphic designer event, an audience member asked the all male participants the following question:

Why do you — all three of you — suppose there are so few female graphic designers — or at least so few female 'superstar' graphic designers? Is there a glass ceiling in graphic design?

What was the response for one of the participants, Milton Glasner?

[Glaser said] that the reason there are so few female rock star graphic designers is that “women get pregnant, have children, go home and take care of their children. And those essential years that men are building their careers and becoming visible are basically denied to women who choose to be at home.” He continued: "Unless something very dramatic happens to the nature of the human experience then it’s never going to change." About day care and nannies, he said, "None of them are good solutions."

The crowd was silent except for a hiss or two and then Eggers piped up that he and his wife both work from home and share child care responsibilities — but added that maybe New York was different (although we don't think Eggers really believes this). Then it was clear to everyone in the room that it was time to move on.

We're brought up from birth to adapt to a standard of excellence that is derived from the male. We're taught to exclaim at male art, male cooking, male design; to admire male scientists and engineers and their behavior; to respect male assertiveness in politics or war. We hear about the male heroes of history, with only an occasional aside to some female character–usually a duplicitous one.

It starts early: the school boy who raises his hand in class is called on to answer 50% more frequently than the girl sitting next to him. No one ever assumes when a boy does poorly in math, it's because he's a boy.

We face blatant double-standards in the work place: being competitive is seen as necessary for 'manly' men, but being competitive makes a woman a 'ball buster'. Speaking out is commendable, if you're male; shrill, loud, abrasive if you're not. We have to yell just to be heard, but when we're heard, we're told to stop yelling.

When we're equally capable, we have to hide who we are just to get a chance at an opportunity. Orchestras have finally started hiding musicians behind screens during try outs, so that women would have an equal chance in auditions. It works, too.

If we're pretty, we're called 'hot' rather than intelligent, astute, erudite. If we want to be feminine we're not treated seriously. If we don't want to bind our breasts, flatten our shoes, lengthen our skirts, we're subtly assured that we're 'not committed enough'. Lipstick is the corporate kiss of death.

Managers don't want us in important positions during child rearing ages because we'll quit to have babies, though statistics show most women committed to a career, stay with the career. If we want the opportunities, if we show our earnestness they're still given to Sam or Joe or Don, because they'll 'stick' around. Yet Sam or Joe or Don is just as likely to leave as Sara or Jane.

We're dependable, but the guys are brilliant. We're cooperative, but the guys are innovative. We're nurturing, but the guys are powerful. Anything outside of this pattern just can't be seen.

In the fields where supposedly it's OK to be woman and capable, our work is judged as lesser. How many women artists display shows at major galleries, as compared to men? How many famous chefs are women? Other than Julia Child? Women now make up almost 50% of the law school graduates: how many judges are women? How many women on the Supreme Court?

How many women in Congress? In a free and egalitarian society, doesn't it strike you as odd when those who 'represent' us, don't look like us, don't act like us, and sure as hell, don't think like us?

We're told we're not good at tech, but we make great librarians. However, even in a field dominated by women, male librarians end up with most of the management positions.

We don't know how to write to appeal to a society dominated by male viewpoints. We don't know how to design for a society that is conditioned to a male perspective. We don't know how to debate when the rhetorical rules are derived by men for men. Even our technology: how do we know that women aren't put off from technology because the tools are customized for how a man thinks, works, programs?

We're told to cut along the lines, just like the boys, but then we're given scissors for the wrong hand and chastised for our clumsiness.

To tell a room full of people who ask, "Why are there no women", because we're home having babies should shame the speaker to a lifetime of silence and remorse. Mr. Glasner may love New York, but he doesn't love women. How can he, when he obviously respects us so little.

As for Michael Bierut, what was his response?

"Superstar" designers — and that's what we're talking about; read the question again — aren't just good designers. They're celebrity designers. And celebrity is a very specific commodity. It certainly helps to be good at what you do to be a celebrity designer (although celebrities in other fields don't always seem to have this requirement). But that's only a start. You also need to develop a vivid personality, an appetite for attention, and a knack for self-promotion. Accept every speaking engagement. Cough up a memorable mot juste for every interviewer. Make sure they spell your name right every time. This is time consuming work, particularly on top of your regular job, which presumably consists of doing good graphic design. Naturally, if you choose this route, it helps to be free of the distractions of ten to twenty years of caring for children, to say the least. In many ways, Milton Glaser's observations were shocking only in their obviousness.

That's interesting. I didn't know that celebrity designers were celibate monks with no family life and friends? Huh. Well, that's good to know for all the young women and men entering the field: you can't have a family if you want to make it to the top.

Bierut also wrote:

Yet, you have to start somewhere. Glaser answered the question on the card, but the real question was the unspoken one: "Why is it that you guys up there are always…guys?" There is no good answer for this, and it doesn't seem we should have to wait 150 years to come up with one. It's depressing for a profession that's more than half female to keep putting up 100% male rosters, at the 92nd Street Y or anywhere else. And I say this with no small degree of self consciousness, as a member of a firm where only 10% of the partners are women. This is what made me squirm last Monday night, and it's what makes me squirm today.

So sorry you had a moment of discomfort. We women have a lifetime of it.

Reflections:

Walker Evans: Objective Purist

I recently finished a wonderful book about Walker Evans: Walker Evans: A Biography by Belinda Rathbone. Some critics have said that the book reads a little too matter of fact to be interesting, but that's a perfect type of biography for a man like Walker Evans–an objective biography for an objective man.

In the book I discovered that Evans was born in St. Louis, though he didn't live here long, moving to Chicago, and eventually ending up in New York. He came from a dysfunctional family, was himself married twice, had numerous affairs, almost always with married women, and preferred rooms decorated in black, white, and gray. Additionally, I found out that he was not a particularly good student, kept flunking Latin, and always saw himself as a writer. Even after his photographic career was established, he saw himself as a writer.

From the start, Evans rejected much of the contemporary style of photography that was prevalent in his time (and to some extent, still in vogue today). One style of photography popular with art photographers at the time was called pictorialism. Rather than utilizing the power of the camera to capture images as is, pictorialism featured images that were contrived rather than found. You see these types of photos today when a woman or man is posed holding an apple, looking pensively off into shadows, staged next to a carefully undecorated and plain white wall.

The second style popular at that time was modernistic photography, subjects of which are best described by a quote from M. F. Agha, art diretor of Conde Nast:

Eggs (any style). Twenty shoes, standing in a row. A skyscaper , taken from a modernist angle. Ten tea cups standing in a row. A factory chimney seen through the ironwork of a railroad bridge (modernistic angle). The eye of a fly enlarged 2000 times. The eye of an elephant (same size). The interior of a watch. Three different heads of one lady superimposed. The interior of a garbage can. More eggs…

One can see why Evans rejected both pictorialism and the modernistic photographic styles, but he drifted about for a time, trying to establish what type of photography he wanted to do.

It was after seeing a photograph by Paul Strand, of a blind woman with a hand lettered sign reading "Blind" hung around her neck that served as Evan's inspiration. As Rathbone wrote:

The picture implied an encroaching crisis of the American dream of prosperity, but it showed no obvious emotion. The fact that the photographer had stolen his photograph was pointedly expressed by the stark sign hanging around the woman's neck, as if the subject had come with her own caption. Was the portrait cruel or sympathetic? It was the fact that it was neither, that it appeared not to reveal the photographer's feelings at all, that intrigued Evans.

…that it appeared not to reveal the photographer's feeling at all. If there is any key to Evans, it is contained in that one sentence. In all of his photos, not once does he impose his view, his thoughts and feelings, between the subject and the audience. He disdained photos that deliberately attempted to manipulate the viewers emotions; particularly those that used sentiment, which he considered contrived.

The distinguishing component of all Evans' work, was his objectivity.

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But Evans wasn't just known for his objectivity and his excellent eye for an image — he was also known, or should I say, not known for his grasp of the mechanics of photography. He would ruin several images by his somewhat haphazard lab skills, and lose other images because of under or over exposure. It was not through knowing the mechanics of photography that Evans acheived his work; it was through his exceptional ability to see an extraordinary image from every day things; and then to patiently stalk that image, returning day after day, if needed, to capture it on film. He would never change the scene, or add or subtract elements from it. This, to him, would be completely dishonest. The most he would do would wait for a different light, or if he were taking photographs of people, wait until they were either unaware of the camera, or had relaxed from being in front of the camera.

Needless to say, Evans was almost always late in delivering on his assignments, and drove more than one person to distraction by his exacting nature. Lucky for us, he was not a conciliatory person.

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In fact, one of my favorite Evans photograph (another one I can't locate to reproduce here) was a somewhat blurry photo of Evans' second wife, Isabelle Boeschenstein, wearing evening dress, hair in her face, lighting a cigarette at what looks to be some kind of gathering. It was not the photographic quality of the image that caught my eye; it was how much information about the woman was captured in that one simple photo. It is astonishing.

Evans did not rely on photographic tricks to make his images, and rarely did more in the darkroom then crop shots. But he was obsessed with how they were presented at shows, usually asking to hang his works himself, with no one else present. For the first edition of Now Let Us Praise Famous Men he was determined that the images for the book be perfect, and worked almost daily with the engraver to make minor adjustments to correct an engraving until it reflected the image he had of it in his mind. From Rathbone:

The wrinkles on the Burroughses' bedsheets did not show up clearly enough; could he make them sharper? Could he show more clearly the tear in the pillowcase? Could he bring out the texture of the wooden wall and the objects around the fireplace? Could he soften the lines on Allie Mae's face, sharpen the creases on Bud Fields' overalls? Under Evans' scrupulous direction, several of the plates had to be made over again entirely, while small imperfections in others were painstakingly corrected.

The engraver was too helpful at one point, and removed dead bugs from a photo of a bed, and Evans refused to allow the image be used as it was, and the fleas had to be added back in.

This reminds me of earlier discussions about the purists view of photography. Despite the care taken with the engravings for the book, Evans did very little with the actual images himself. Because of this, and his belief in photographs reflecting the image as taken–the true image–we would consider Evans a purist. I'm not sure what he would make of today's digital cameras and Photoshop, though I have a feeling he would like the camera. So much easier to take those unexpected, hidden photos.

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Earlier I published a link to a baby squirrel image that had been rescued from a mediocre photograph through the use of Photoshop. I have no doubts that this is not something that Evans would do.

No, if Walker Evans wanted a photo of a baby squirrel, it would be because he discovered the baby squirrel by accident one day and was struck by the image for some reason*. He would then get someone to hire him to take photographs of Native American wildlife, and would use the money to purchase new camera requirement, and probably to take other images in the neighborhood–the broken fence, the lost cat notices on the telephone poles, the old woman buying tomatoes at the market. He would then set up his camera by the baby squirrel's hole, and if the baby didn't oblige with the proper image one day, he would return the next. If a week goes by without the image, and by then the squirrel was too old, Evans would return the next year, much to the consternation of his employer (who he would still charm, even while irritating).

But by the time he was done, you'd have a rich, fascinating image of a squirrel, sitting in a hole of a tree, the grain of which would stand out in the image, almost as if the image was three-dimensional. The light wouldn't be the proper light, it would be the perfect light, and the squirrel wouldn't be enticed to pose–it would be acting as a baby squirrel acts, normally.

And it wouldn't be a photo of an adorable baby squirrel, eliciting cries of, "How cute!" It would be a photo of a rodent.

*I doubt Evans would be interested in a photo of a baby squirrel.

Reflections:

Walker Evans: Real Need is a Personal Thing

I've spent the last week reading about the photographer Walker Evans. The more I read, the more I understand why I like his photos so much.

There are some excellent biographies and compliations based on Evans, but my favorite of the books I picked up from the library was a slim volume of Evans photos matched with the contemporary poems of the poet Cynthia Rylant — Something Permanent. Though a writer for children's books, there is nothing childlike in Rylant's poems; however, their wonderous simplicity and humor might not appeal to more jaded tastes. I liked them. Perhaps I like simplicity and humor; or perhaps I like poems meant for the Young Reader (which rather pleases me than not).

Rylant's words complement the effect of Evans' photos rather than overlay or alter or detract, and the book was a pure delight. You can read it in less than an hour, though I think it deserves to be consumed more slowly. My favorite approach was to turn each page and look at the Evan's photo and form my own personal interpretation. Once finished, I would then read the poem, and it was like rediscovering the photo all over again. What an absolutely fun way to spend an afternoon, and I made a special event of it by taking the book to the park with me to sit beside the water in the sun and finish it slowly.

I've reproduced three of photo/poem pairs, and recommend that you get the book for the rest. You won't be disappointed.

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Boys

They both loved the same girl
but she wouldn't have either of them
because she was married–
and to the store owner by god,
so it wasn't worth thinking about.

But at night,
they each stretched upon a bed
and had her,
had her whole
and leisurely.
And when they were done,
they settled her back in their minds
like a soft peach
will disappear

into a young boy's pocket,
warm August nights.

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House

She loved it with all her heart
and on warm days would take a blanket
out into the yard so she
could just sit and look at it.

She never once complained about the
work it took to
keep it clean
nor about being so far from things,
living outside of town.
She loved it.
And when her husband said
he was taking a job in Chicago
and they'd have to be moving,

she was sick on and off for weeks
until it finally occurred to her
that staying sick would keep them there.
She developed the most awful cough,
and now and then a patch of her hair would fall out,
but she never felt so bad
she couldn't do a little dusting.

There wasn't a poem I didn't like in the book, or one that didn't make me chuckle or nod my head. Rylant's writing, like Evan's photos, provide a sensuously real look at the world, keeping sentiment to a minimum. By doing so, they bring a true honesty to an experience in both words and pictures.

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Filling Station

Everybody wanted that job
and when Ferrell Brown's son

got it,
when Mr. Brown's son got to pump gas
and flirt with the pretty girls all day long,
they all said it was a crock,
that that boy never worked a day
in his life, never had to,
with his rich daddy,
so how come he got a job that

plenty of decent boys with real
need wanted.
Then word got around about
the boy's mother
and how she walked through that
house stark naked and
trying to hang dinner plates on the
clotheline,

and people shut up about the
Brown boy.
Real need is a personal thing,
they said.
And his mother's a loon.

Reflections:

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