It’s been one of the great sadness’s of my life that in the past year, I let my subscription to Harper’s lapse (yes, I’ve enjoyed a privileged, and very lucky, existence). When it last came time to renew, the cost had gone up to over $50, which I’ve found is farther than I am willing to go, no matter how much I love the individual magazine and want to support print publishing in general. But today, I clicked on the subscribe link on the annoying popup that kept appearing while I was reading my free article for the month, and found I could renew for just over $30. Yippeee. I am, again, at peace with myself.
I think part of the reason I was so cheap as to let the subscription lapse was the exit of Editor Lewis Lapham and the resulting drop in interest I had for the Easy Chair column. After Lapham left, Easy Chair has been handled by a variety of eminent writers, all very talented, including Thomas Frank and Rebecca Sonit; but none of whom I found right for the job.
But today, I read Walter Kirn‘s latest go at it, “Atlas Aggregated,” and then his previous two, and hope he gets the gig on a permanent basis. “Atlas Aggregated” is about the website Literary Hub, which bills itself as the Rotten Tomatoes of literature.
In addition to the high quality of the writing, its fit in the Easy Chair, and the overall intent of the piece, there were a few quotes that related to some of my hobby-horses about photography. Namely, critiques, contests, and old-fashioned technical skills.
Kirn on critiquing:
“Book reviewing, as I conceived of it and strove to practice it, was chiefly descriptive, not evaluative, and what it described was not the book itself but my encounter with the book. It tried to make manifest the act of reading in something like the way that travel writing dramatizes journeys. It wasn’t scorekeeping. It wasn’t grading. It didn’t break down into 8’s and 8.5’s.”
Kirn on grading, which I apply to contests:
“The site has many worthy features… but the grading business undermines it all. Works of literature are among the most intricate and elusive of human artifacts, the crudest of which requires more creativity than twenty trillion acts of aggregation. A site created to celebrate them now aimed to reduce them to an alphabetic omega point.”
Kirn on skills:
“Still, the elites, or whatever remains of them — those rare and lonesome worthies of skill and courage — deserve some protection from us, the aggregate. Prestige, irreducible and absolute, has its uses, and the very highest is inducing people to do hard things, things that take a lot of time to learn and exceptional nerve to execute, like building a child a new ear and reattaching it in such a way that blood flows through it and it doesn’t die.”
Put into photo context, I think the descriptive, personal approach as opposed to evaluative is a good direction. And contests inevitably grade, ultimately saying that some photographers, or even one photographer, is objectively better than others. A photograph, or photo essay, as Kirn says about literature, is “among the most intricate and elusive of human artifacts.” And I do believe that technical skill is still important. Oh, I know there are plenty of photographs where it was totally unnecessary, but there are far, far more where the result would have been impossible without the skill, which came from long study and practice.