My first day in Kosovo, nowhere to stay yet, walking around with my backpack on. School had just reopened, for kids who were just back from muddy refugee camps in Macedonia. Must have felt like the first day of the rest of their lives. I wonder how they’re doing now as adults.
A few days after I arrived, the UN plane I had taken from Rome - the only plane shuttling aid workers in and out of postwar Kosovo at the time - crashed into a mountain on descent and killed everyone aboard.
Yeah, but the next day it was totally different, all cleaned up. Was I trying to show that the postwar city lacked proper trash collection? No, I was cold, feeling sick, and standing under an overpass out of the November rain, wondering what to do.
That time I accidentally walked out into a minefield. Kosovo, 2001.
Discovering the Moomins, a storybook universe created by Finnish artist Tove Jansson in the early-mid 20th century was, to me, like opening a previously unseen door to a previously unknown way of being.
The books were ostensibly for kids, but I’d say barely. The complexity and Nordic undercurrents make them a satisfying and unorthodox read for adults. Jansson was first and foremost an artist, gay when it was illegal in Finland, and illustrated magazine covers for anti-fascist magazines during the rise of Hitler. In fact it’s said that the Moomins’ world was her artistic response to war, a humanistic, idealistic antidote to despair and thugs on the march. In that world, friends are friends, adventures are to be had, predators are few, respect and kindness (but not necessarily over-sentimentality, this is Finland after all) is valued, and you can always find another bed in your house for a guest, even an odd one.
The atmosphere is understated but very specific, one that quivers with elusive qualities just under the surface - most strongly felt in the original stories and illustrations, somewhat less so in the good but uneven 90s animated TV series - that are hard to pin down but add up to a immersive experience if you’re open to it. It’s an atmosphere that’s at times thorny but never truly scary, fun but not saccharine, communal-minded but not kumbaya. Infused with nature’s power that can turn surprisingly dark: storms, floods, a comet, encroaching winter personified by the menacing Groke. The way characters talk, interact, and respond to both crises and joys has a deeply human, non-cheesy essence without seeming to try too hard to do so.
So I was eagerly anticipating the new Moomins series, called Moominvalley, that began production last year in Finland. I backed their Indiegogo campaign and followed the progress of development. The production team seemed to be pledging proper allegiance to the guiding spirit of the original work, and Jansson’s niece was involved. I almost went up to NY to catch the US premiere at an animation festival.
But I had some concerns as well. My daughter and I are maybe too used to the original drawings and the character voices of the 90s series. The voices they were hiring for the English versions were exclusively British, which I worried could undermine the eccentric northern-ness of it all. The animation was computer-generated 3D, which looked lush and evocative but also a bit too perfect, much like, say, the Backyardigans with a softer color palette.
This week I received the entire season one as a perk for being a backer. Last night we gathered to give episode one a chance to be its own thing.
I’m sad to report it was a near-total failure. I don’t say that as a critic looking to be snarky. I say it as someone who desperately wanted to like it, even if it was different. We all went to bed in silence afterward, maybe it says everything that we didn’t want to say a word about it.
The main sin was a complete swing-and-miss at capturing Jansson’s spirit. I watched the familiar characters moving around and saying and doing things, and was utterly unmoved. The story/writing was weak, disjointed, and felt disconnected from the original material. Like a committee decided to write their own story that vaguely echoed Jansson’s. (There were also annoying small things, like why is Little My sitting on an open paint can?)
It wasn’t funny. It tried to be somewhat zany/madcap presumably to grab our attention.
The character voices were slightly different-sounding British accents that made no real effort to be a ‘character’, it was just the actors’ natural voices. The effect overall was to flatten out most of the personalities. Except for Little My, who resembled the Little My of the books but was overdone; a caricature and not a very endearing one, even for her ornery, mischievous self.
The vaunted new animation, which should have been a redeeming strength, was supposed to evoke Jansson’s painterly style and colors, and ramp up the paradise-quotient. Which it does, a bit. But within the first few moments, my daughter complained “it’s too perfect”.
Overall, my takeaway was: this is what happens when a team approach inadvertently dampens the singular vision of an artist, in favor of commercial viability. Or maybe that Jansson’s particular artistic sensibility was simply too long ago, fading into the past, and even a well-intentioned creative group trying to carry the torch couldn’t fully grasp - let alone reimagine successfully - the true nature of that vision. Or maybe I’m a curmudgeon, I hope not.
I mean, in short, to me it was shockingly off-base. I didn’t think they’d get it this wrong. Pretty but pastiche at best. I’m sure some people will like it, it’s harmless enough and looks nice in a modern way. Maybe the next episodes will get better*. Personally as a fan I couldn’t find one thing to truly resonate with. Maybe the originals are too precious to me and I can’t get around that. I feel bad for the production crew, I’m sure they did their best and were excited about it.
But wow, what an initial let-down at least. I asked my daughter (age 13) today for her reaction, she said she was actually ok with the voices, but overall “I was so disappointed, so sad that I don’t like it. I didn’t want to even keep watching it.”
*[UPDATE] We did decide to stick with it and it does get somewhat better after episode one. I still say that first episode is inexplicably poor, especially to kick off the series, and I stand by my critique. But after watching a couple more, things seem to be stabilizing a bit. Still uneven narratively, still way too British, still too Nickolodean-channel in the visuals. But after that abysmal start there’s been a noticeable uptick in the Tove Jansson influence. Some attempts to be true to the literary source material and characterizations but other times they’re making up chunks of the story out of whole cloth, or making fairly huge changes that seem kind of pointless (meaning that don’t make it better).
Seems they’re not sure how much to trust the original work, and how much to create something new that will please today’s viewers. Which is understandable. If you’re making it for existing fans who may be Tove Jansson purists, they might not be as interested in the writing team’s own creative detours. If you’re making it for those who are new to Moomins, I’m not sure how they would really ‘get’ any of it anyway.
My daughter and I admitted maybe we’re at least getting used to it. Not ready yet to say we like it, but we’re still watching.
Excited to be playing the Art Hop festival in Takoma Park this weekend. Letting art and music take over the downtown for a weekend is the way things should be, happy to be a part of it. On both Sat and Sun at noon I’ll be playing about an hour-long set in the little alley next to Mark’s Kitchen, right across from Republic and the farmers market strip.
Here's one list for starters, not perfect, there are others out there. Adjust or make your own checklist. No need to quibble too much about each action item, the basics are pretty clear.
Plenty of people are worried, but there are those who say that individual actions are pointless, delusional, that the level of change required has to come first from business and government.
BS. How will it ever come from the top? If it comes from the bottom first. Stop waiting for the perfect political leadership to save us, it will never come. If enough people think differently and are willing to act, to leap fervently into action, we've got a shot. It will take time to build but the top-down changes will follow.
It's especially required of us in the DC area to push a cultural shift, with our combo of knowledge, resources, and access to policy-makers who may live right down the street.
We are all both the problem and the solution. Each of us needs to own that and act, everyday, not just leave it for some other sucker. It’s like traffic: everyone wishes others would get off the road.
Everything we do supports the systems that are leading us rapidly down the wrong environmental path. We don't need to be perfect, and we can still have fun, noble, full lives and dreams - even as we strive to change everything. We do need to try harder, to understand better, multitask, think beyond ourselves more, and to keep at it. Not just in the short-term, but forever. Accept that the right to privileged lives of thoughtless abundance and carefree comfort and convenience is already revoked.
Tremendous work, the 1890s like you’ve never seen. Great instinct for both the moment and the whole frame, like if Cartier-Bresson had been around 40 years earlier. Also striking is the sense of place and mood. Like you’re there. But how was he shooting so quickly with the film limitations of the time?
Yes, we bought a Tesla. I won't try to become a car reviewer, but a few thoughts and initial impressions:
It's an incredible car, electric or otherwise. I feel like performance, design, engineering, tech are all astounding, unbelievable, better than anything I thought I would ever own in this lifetime. Fun and beautiful and sturdy-feeling. No cons except not cheap. Some 'asset management' was required to make it happen, which took some doing and even sacrifice.
More than anything, it feels like an investment in the future. Meaning getting onboard with where things are going and need to go, with the goal of helping to get there quicker. Nudging the market. It's amazing how quickly you pass gas stations and notice how crummy and archaic they seem.
I was actually somewhat of a naysayer. I was all for an EV in theory (both of us were), but worried about the car’s cost and the logistics of charging. Neither one of us wanted a fancy car for the sake of fancy. In fact the minimalism of much of the Tesla design approach suits us. For the purchase cost we found a way, in part because it became a matter of living our values. For the charging, charging cost, and range, now that I get how it all works I have zero concerns. Especially for a Tesla EV, since they have their own slick 'supercharger' stations all over the place, with many more on the way soon.
And yesterday as I was tooling around solo for a bit, I had the bizarre, surreal experience of blasting God Save the Queen (on the great sound system with its own unlimited streaming service):
"No future, no future" - a decades-ago fit of nihilism, as I simultaneously found myself in that future that wasn't supposed to happen, in a world already radically different from back then; wondering/worried about our own future, yet feeling just a little clearer on how we might get there after all; and gliding along in what it might look like. Time-travel.
Which do we passively consume for free w/ads? Which do we pay to curate?
[Last year’s 4th of July post is here]
One thing I’ve noticed myself doing lately in conversation is finding excuses to bring up how far back I can trace my ancestry in America.
On my father’s side (hey look, I’m doing it again!), the Crandalls go back to Elder John Crandall, who came over from England in the early-mid 1600s. He was apparently an associate of Roger Williams, who established the state of Rhode Island. John Crandall — same name as my father — was among a group of two dozen souls that settled Westerly, RI (amazingly his homestead still stands, not far from a Wal-Mart). He seems to have been at least somewhat of a dissident-minded pilgrim, which would have endeared him to Williams, who sounds like my kind of guy for his progressive attitudes on slavery, native Americans, and religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson was known to quote Williams. So I reckon that gives me only a few degrees of separation from the Founding Fathers.
On my mother’s side, our first ancestor was 7-year-old Hugh Fraser. In 1707, legend has it little Hugh was kidnapped off the street in Paisley, Scotland and shipped off to America as an indentured servant, ending up on a Maryland tobacco farm. Basically a trafficked child. As traumatic as it must have been, Hugh grew up to marry the owner’s daughter and take over the place. (I guess white privilege extends pretty far back as well, but that’s another discussion.)
The farm was on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, just across the water from where my mother lives now. The memorial for my mom’s companion Ed Becke, who passed away last year, was held in old St James Church, which existed during Hugh Fraser’s life 300 years ago. Maybe he heard of it, or went there at some point. Maybe I was sitting/standing/walking where he did the same. I find that incredible.
So there are two family links to pre-George Washington America. Not too shabby, as my father might have said.
I love thinking about history in ways that make it more personal and resonant.
Lincoln would often ride his horse from his summer cottage to the White House, passing quite close to where I now live. He surveyed the burial of Civil War soldiers in the cemetery I pass going to my daughter’s ballet lessons. Lincoln’s son Robert died a few years after my house was built — within the house’s ‘living memory’ if you will — which somehow brings Lincoln himself closer.
My parents were married by James Reeb, a Unitarian minister and civil rights activist who would later be murdered by white racist thugs in Selma in the early 1960s. Another reason I haven’t quite forgiven the South yet. His death sparked a national outcry that helped bring about the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson signed into law, it so happens, on the day of my birth. Reeb officiated the wedding at All Souls Church, where my parents first met, and where more recently we had my father’s memorial service.
So why bring all this up, aside from a kind of bragging? I certainly believe America belongs to those who arrived yesterday just as much as 400 years ago. Seeing photos of the kids coming across the Mexican border lately, and imagining their plight, made me think of Hugh Fraser. As our country seems more and more unhinged, perhaps it just helps me feel more anchored in where we came from. And since many on the right often lay claim to the legacy of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, maybe I as a progressive feel compelled to point out that distant history is mine too. And not even that distant. I can learn about Roger Williams and his brave, ethical, humanist stances and think, yeah, I’d associate with that guy too.
Enjoyed being interviewed the other day for a book project on the intersection of photography and spirituality. Took me back to advice I got many years ago from the great Viktor Kolar, “to take your work to a more spiritual level as an artist, you must first develop your sensibilities, then learn how to make them visual”. We talked about receptivity, attentiveness, letting go, channeling instead of contriving photos. All so much more important than gear or technical considerations.
The Waiting Room is in great company at Politics and Prose! Thanks to staff for putting it out front and center!
Wow, a blast from the past from my photographer friend Karel Cudlin. That’s me in booth 9. Karel and I had an exhibit together in Minsk on the afternoon of 9/11. At the opening the Czech cultural attaché was the first to tell me what was happening at home (some friends said they knew but didn’t want to ruin the opening so didn’t tell me). Later we went to a nearby restaurant TV to watch the towers fall, etc. It was hard to get English info, internet wasn’t great… Karel and I shared a flat, he would translate from German and Russian reports… this was later in the day at a call center, trying to reach home to check on family. I remember how kind and sympathetic Belarusians were about it.
A sudden absence.
You can certainly feel absence, but how to show it? All photographs are of the past. But some seem to remain in nearly real-time while others reflect what is already becoming dim, falling fast into the haze of memory.
My mother’s companion of many years, Ed Becke, died unexpectedly last week. At 90 he was still up and around every day in the little community by the Chesapeake Bay where he spent most of his life, just down the road from my mom’s house. Nearly every day for the last 14 years since they met, Ed would come over to see my mom, have coffee or a meal together, hang out, fix things, water the plants, cut the grass.
Then last Wednesday he didn’t show up on time. My mom called his grandson, who went over, broke down the door, and found him. Just like that. It started raining that day and didn’t stop for several days.
On Saturday, my mom and I went over to see the place and walk on the nearby beach. I don’t know why really. I can only imagine her memories and shock staring at the empty house.
He built an amazing treehouse in the 1960s. It has a bed, heat, and light. For a while he let a young homeless woman sleep in there. He had one old wooden boat named the Barbara Jane after his first daughter. He showed my mom how to drive that one. Another, called Wild Thing, he bought from Sears in 1941 when he was 18. Sometimes he would hop in one boat or the other and motor around the bend to my mom’s house in the next cove. He had a huge collection of shark’s teeth that would wash in from the bay.
He famously installed a Christmas tree on the swim platform 900 feet out from shore - and ran a cable under the water to power the lights - so a dying friend could see it from his bedroom window. It’s been a yearly institution ever since. I wonder who will keep it going.
Too many wonderful qualities and stories to name. I’ll just say he was a great guy, an old-school classic you could always depend on. And he took loving care of my mom, right to the end. I’ll miss him. We’ll all miss him.
I’m happy to have won 2nd place in FotoweekDC’s 2013 International Awards Competition, Contemporary Life category, for my recent work from Tallinn, Estonia.
The work itself was a long time coming - but a very short time in the making!
I’ve been shooting in Eastern Europe since 1998 for my project East, and I’d been considering how to put a bow on things. I thought about various countries’ transitions over the long term, and realized - where does it end? Does it end? When can a country finally stop being referred to as post-Soviet, post-communist, former Yugoslavia? What happens when Country 2.0 ‘arrives’? Ding, transition complete, please remove from microwave.
I decided Tallinn might be an example of what post-post-Soviet looked and felt like. Estonia moved early, quickly, and aggressively to get out from under the shadow of the Soviet era. Over the summer I was in Finland for a month-long residency, so at the very end of my stay I hopped on the short ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn.
I only had two days, which is absurdly short if your goal is even limited insight into a place. So I kept things as simple as possible, barely set foot in the beautiful old town, and worked only in the bustling new business districts. That seemed to be where I could at least capture an impressionistic sense of the new landscape, and explore the question of whether the past is actually fully past.
The first view at the ferry port was a bit ominous. In front of you looms the massive, moldering Linnahall event center from the Soviet days. The city has no idea how to get rid of it. You climb long steps to get up and over the squat mass of concrete and proceed across a vast weedy plaza, Tallinn’s modern office buildings on the horizon.
These pictures are simply fragmented impressions, which is all I really set out to capture. I wouldn’t try to pass too much judgment from such a short visit. Walking and biking around, I did find the city vibrant and interesting, even in the areas with some pleasantly ragged edges. It feels more dynamic than sleepy Vilnius and more self-confident than I remember Riga in the 90s. In a strange way it reminded me of a mini-Berlin, in the sense that you can feel how yes, the pieces somehow feel all in place, but perhaps only recently, and you’re aware of the gaps.
I’d love to spend more time there. I learned a lot from my kind and urbane hosts Aleksei and Katrin about not just the history but the current mentality of Estonians. Locals may have psychologically moved on since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and may even scoff at the question of whether they are still 'post-Soviet’. And young people have no memory of that time. But to me a bit of vapor lingers in the crevices. Not necessarily Soviet vapor. Just a sense of the long arc of history still playing out. Just across the Baltic, Helsinki is a Nordic urban wonder but feels a bit staid at times, like fully settled business. Tallinn is a more tumultuous organism, still mutating. Definitely post-post-Soviet, but not quite done yet.