Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I was thinking the other day about how when I was a young boy, say from 1975-1982 or so, and my understanding of the world was highly influenced by my circa 1962 atlas and other reference books that I am constantly referring to in these pages, how remote the entire continent of Asia seemed to be to me. China, Siberia, Japan and Korea struck me especially forcefully as being a long, long way from home, moreso even than the wilder, more tropical nations, which were so unlike what I was familiar with that they did not register to me at that age with any vividness as real places. With Russia and China one could deal with statistics and images that made a real impression. The temperature had once been -71 degrees in Verkhoyansk, a town I could imagine myself having been born in more readily than I could a jungle. Train rides between cities which appeared to be neighbors on the map were 22 hours (I don't think I took a trip longer than 4 hours until I was 16). When I was a little older I had pen pals in the Soviet Union and the letters would often take a month to be delivered each way. This was in the 1980s. The seasons and the landscape in Japan and China that the pictures showed resembled ours enough to be identifiable as a reasonable place for human habitation but, like Turkey and other lands of great human antiquity, the colors and texture of the earth and the rocks and the sky seemed older and careworn. One knew in looking at them that the places they depicted did not belong to one, a sensation that is peculiarly absent from pictures taken more recently. Also it was always the next day in Asia, all the countries on the other side of the world were always ahead of us in time, which used to bother me a great deal when I was about eight, though I didn't complain about it to anyone, for I had once made the mistake of commenting to one of my teachers who had lived for a time in Washington state (which was pretty remote itself in my mind at the time) that I would not want to live there because there was no history in the place (compared to Pennsylvania/Mid-Atlantic Region), and I was duly assigned to read a book about Chief Seattle, whom I have always confused with Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, though I believe both of those chiefs were reputed to love peace, and one I think loved learning. Though the history lesson was perhaps lost on me at the time, the deserved chastisement for making a foolish and ignorant statement has remained with me to this day.

In those days of course few people from the West ever went even to India and Japan compared to today, and about as many went into outer space every year as went to China and Siberia. One also of course almost never met people from these countries here before about 20 years ago. At least I didn't. I don't presume to speak for the cool smart people, who are always attuned to great changes and intellectual developments and make the appropriatement mental adjustments years before I realize what is happening. I am pretty sure I never met a person from India in the flesh before about 1990. The same with Russia. Consequently these parts of the world will always retain some sense for me of being faraway and exotic that would obviously be impossible for anybody growing up now to have in the same magnitude.
I'm not sure what point I am trying to make here. I was watching an excruciatingly slow-paced, quiet, somber, at times almost elegiac movie about Japanese teenagers called Linda, Linda, Linda which I could not stay awake long enough to finish and there was a scene in which some girls are sitting on a balcony of one of the upper floors of their high school which had a view of some distant green hills in a late afternoon sunlight that was evocative of a wet sky in which a rainbow would be seen, and I thought, "ah, that is my image of what Asia looks like from the photographs in my 1962 Time-Life atlas", an image that I had not had evoked in some time. Japan of course, as well as Russia, South Korea and several other countries in the region, are experiencing extremely low birth rates and consequent steep declines in the population of young people, which does seem to lead to real doubts about the direction and purpose of the society even among people who nominally favor such declines. The sense that something very serious is missing, or has been lost, of what I will call spiritual as opposed to economic or political value is an undercurrent in many of the productions coming out of nations that can feel themselves to be in rapid decline--though many Americans, including me, talk a great deal of decline, it has not permeated the arts and polite discourse yet to the degree that it seems to have in Japan or Italy, where it is increasingly the subject even when it is not the subject because it is unavoidable. How does this relate to my photographs and the images they evoke? It has to do with a sort of life that seems more or less organic and natural but at least recognizably human in some way conrasted with a life that comes to seem ever increasingly artificial, even down to its fun, its travelling and consumption and dancing, etc. But you all knew that years ago.

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