Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Why Look Forward When One Can Look Back?

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 3, 2009

2009.  An economic crisis that begins to cut very deep, violence in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia flexes its natural gas muscles, hatred in Europe.  The end of eight years of economic, environmental, civic, and martial wrecking under the Bush administration and four decades of conservative irresponsibility and divisiveness. A new American president positioned to change the ethos of the land.  A questioning of the racist and elitist underpinning of conservative political values and economic dogmas — in parts of the West at least.  Doubts as to consumerism, exurbia, and much-touted miracle  trends such as the “flat world” about which the likes of  columnist and author Thomas Friedman cranked out thick volumes.

A few years ago, on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org, I posted a New Year’s entry about Dutch-Jewish cabaret singer Louis Davids that contained a link to a humorous and touchingly dated newsreel musical clip he presented for New Years Day 1936.  In the clip, Davids sang an ode to a world stilled scarred by the Great Depression and in which Hitler flexed his muscles, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, the tax man hovered menacingly, forecasts of sun yielded rain, and aspirins cured hangovers.  For 2009, I offer (to the very many among you who understand Dutch, know history and have links to interwar Holland!) the very same song and (to all of you regardless of language or fields of interests or ethnic or social ties) its wishes for Well-Being and Blessedness in the year to come.

On Bubkes.Org, I also start the year by turning to the past, taking a few medium-format and 35mm black and white photos I shot more than a decade ago as starting points and as metaphors for considering recent economic and politic trends and their parallels with past events in obscure places.  I begin with a photo of an obscene mural in a Bulgarian housing estate and the lessons it offers for understanding economic crises, individual morality, and the history of western art, and continue with a photograph of a Turkish sidewalk weighing scale operator as an occasion to ask whether small enterprises and ordinary people will some day qualify for bail-outs or “pump-priming” infusions of capital.  The next pieces will consider face-lifts — architectural and politica — and gangsters, graveyard iconography and under-reporting by the New York Times

As to “pump-priming,” the collapse of four-decades of Republic economics and the Republican’s self-serving denigration of the New Deal and “socialism” has brought a resurgence of Keynesian thought and maybe even of Keynesian practice, which did its job well in America during the 1930s as an economic tonic, a symbol of action and unity, and, maybe, as the very last alternative to revolution.

Paul Krugman wrote these words about Keynesian thought and policy as a conclusion to What to Do: The Power of Ideas in the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the New York Review of Books:

As readers may have gathered, I believe not only that we’re living in a new era of depression economics, but also that John Maynard Keynes—the economist who made sense of the Great Depression—is now more relevant than ever. Keynes concluded his masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, with a famous disquisition on the importance of economic ideas: “Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”

We can argue about whether that’s always true, but in times like these, it definitely is. The quintessential economic sentence is supposed to be “There is no free lunch”; it says that there are limited resources, that to have more of one thing you must accept less of another, that there is no gain without pain. Depression economics, however, is the study of situations where there is a free lunch, if we can only figure out how to get our hands on it, because there are unemployed resources that could be put to work. The true scarcity in Keynes’s world—and ours—was therefore not of resources, or even of virtue, but of understanding.

We will not achieve the understanding we need, however, unless we are willing to think clearly about our problems and to follow those thoughts wherever they lead. Some people say that our economic problems are structural, with no quick cure available; but I believe that the only important structural obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.

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Posted in Bulgaria, Economy, Philosophy, Photography, Politics | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008

gatewaysofiamedium

A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

A Strategic Retreat Into Yesterday’s Imaginings of an Analogue Tomorrow

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 17, 2008

After a frustrating week of wrestling with generative and applianced digital technology — including T-Mobile’s inadequate tech-support and customer-care overlay on international Blackberry service and the foibles of a premium-priced, too-many-mega-pixel pocket camera plagued by miserable “noise” at high ISOs and near-comic barrel distortion at the wide end of its zoom range — I’ve found a mid-summer panacea for the disappointments of the digital age: Visions of an analogue tomorrow as once foreseen in the now-yellowed pages of Modern Mechanix Magazine.  Happy nostalgia for a better future!

Posted in History, Media, Photography, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

42nd and 5th: Architectural Photography, Global Cities, and Working Class New York

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 5, 2008

Last week, in this weblog post, photographer Brian Rose described our recent chance late-winter-afternoon meeting on the corner of 42nd St and 5th Ave. and our follow-up conversations some days later. Brian Rose is a superlative large-format photographer (click here for an overview of his work) with a unique understanding not only of buildings but of the natures of the cities they comprise and of the people who create them, use them, and imbue them with meaning. Our meeting was laden with coincidence. We are both die-hard “analogue” photographers. Brian has lived most of his adult life on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side — the place where I grew up and that shaped me indelibly — and we both spent years working and living in Netherlands. By chance, I had seen an exhibition of Brian’s work more than two decades ago at the Henry Street Settlement House and had also chanced upon his masterful photographs of the Essex County Courthouse, embodiments of the ways I’d but imagined portraying the interiors of Islamic monuments during the several periods of my life in which I have been involved in documenting the Ottoman architectural patrimony of southeast Europe (see numerous entries on Bubkes.Org).

Brian’s stunning day-end photograph featured in his blog post also comprises a coincidence. In it, Brian attempts to visually anchor the glass and steel corner store of a the international clothing retailer H&M into an iconic “signature” New York location, the corner of 42nd and 5th. His photograph combines end-of-day light, the delicacy of large-format negative film, and an impeccable composition placing the store between trees adjacent to the Public Library in the foreground and the towering spire of the Chrysler Building in the background. The task Brian confronts in his photograph is one that I have been trying to deal with conceptually as I try to locate the continuity of what had once made New York unique in the increasingly bland and seemingly cloned international shopping-mall-, tourism-, and chain-store-like nature of much of (Manhattan’s) retail sector and entertainment and night life.

As a starting point in tracing this uniqueness, I’ll begin with this quote from the introduction to Joshua B. Freeman’s “Working Class New York” (New York 2000) a penetrating examination of the unique ethos, economic history, and social and physical infrastructure of the City from the shaping of its one-time entrepot- and specialized-manufacturing-based economy in the 19th-century, through its creation of America’s only social-democratic society in the 20th, and through the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of the so-called financial and information economy from the 1980s on. This winter, Freeman’s book helped me begin to articulate a vision of New York that had been up until now beyond my reach, this despite my one-time education in “Urban Affairs” and my visceral, indelible knowledge of New York work and street life. At the outset of his book, Freeman eloquently anchors New York in the intangible, in the collective tone of its people:

“Endlessly frustrated by its difficulties and brutalities, try as I may I find it difficult to imagine living elsewhere. What keeps me in New York is neither the high culture of museums and concert halls nor the unrivaled opportunities for working, eating, and spending that New Yorkers revel in. Rather it is a sensibility that is distinctly working-class — generous; open-minded but skeptical; idealistic but deflating of pretension; bursting with energy and a commitment to doing.”

More on the interplay of New York’s people, economy, infrastructure, and unique sensibility — as well as on Freeman’s powerful book — in future entries.

Note: For the next several weeks I will be in Istanbul, Turkey. Because of the Turkish ban on WordPress.Com I might not be able to post to this site while there. I will certainly be posting to Bubkes.Org, so do look for new material there.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, Infrastructure, Photography, Work | Leave a Comment »

Hiatus — A few words and a few links re: articulation, organizational change, the GOP, the 1960s, mysterious and enticing doorways, the forgotten wooden mosques of the eastern Balkans, and a bodega in the Bronx

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2007

These weeks I have been a bit busy with work proposals and ongoing research projects. One of the results: Somewhat of a hiatus in substantive postings to HakPakSak. For the moment, however, the following links should each be worthy of at least a peek…

Re: my “core business” of articulation, communication, and change, look at this comment I posted some weeks ago on JP Rangaswami’s weblog Confused Of Calcutta and a worthy comment-on-the-comment as posted by Stephen Smoliar at his weblog Rehearsal Studio.

Re: Politics in America look at Bob Herbert‘s recent Ugly Side of the GOP. Now that the New York Times has opened up its former “premium” internet content to all readers, Hebert’s hard-hitting to-the-point columns can once again be read online free of charge.

Re: The 1960s and the reunion of two former philosophy students and friends, look at these kind words from North Carolina writer, thinker, and convinced Quaker Tom Brown.

Last, for a look into my parallel avocational worlds of photography, architectural history, and Balkan and Ottoman history, go to this new posting on my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org.

Oh yes … not to forget … Oh Word. My recent two-fold posting on Paul Lafargue’s manifesto The Right to Be Lazy and the photocopy shops of Istanbul gained mention on Rafi Kam’s hip-hop weblog Oh Word‘s Around the Horn links. I am a long-time fan of Rafi’s and Dallas Penns humorous and very insightful minimalist video Bronx Bodega (click here to watch it on YouTube). I’m a jazz fan, not a hip-hop fan — but I am born in the Bronx!

More to follow…

Posted in Architecture, Articulation, Bulgaria, Change, Links, Media, Photography, Work | 2 Comments »