Three Valleys continues

Brad and I and our terrific manager/guru McNair Evans are enjoying our last week of California sunshine. Not only do McNair and I wear the same shirt, we both brought Pema Chödrön books on the trip.

McNair mcnair2

Now that we’re well out of Silicon Valley, it’s been easier to experience a bit more spiritual tranquility. How can your heart not be filled when spending time with a Basque shepherd and a newborn lamb.


I still haven’t had time to read anything for my popsicle assignment. Hopefully I’ll be back on track in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, you can follow our Three Valleys journey on Tumblr. Please note that Brad and I are stockpiling a lot of material for the print edition of the LBM Dispatch. Buy yours here:

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52 Popsicles, Three Valleys and the Wisdom of No Escape

Yoga instructor. The Googleplex. Mountain View, California. 

My resolution for 2013 was to spend more time being attentive to the simple pleasures of experience. The 52 Popsicle assignment is a part of this, but there have been other experiments. Over the last month, the LBM team has had a fantastic Yoga instructor, Drake Powe, visit our studio on a weekly basis. I’ve tried to use some of Drake’s mindfulness exercises outside of class. But once I hit the road for Three Valleys, all of this progress came to a halt. Since landing in Silicon Valley a week ago, I’ve been too busy devouring the world to pay quiet attention to my own experience. And I certainly haven’t had time to read for pleasure.

So there is no way I can fulfill this week’s popsicle assignment. Nevertheless, while sitting here in my room at the Microtel Inn and Suites in Modesto, I did finally pull out the book that Drake recommended: The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chödrön. This is what I read on the first page:


When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying,

“If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.”

“If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.”

“If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.”

Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, “If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.”

“If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get on, my job would be just great.”

And “If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.”

But loving-kindness -maitri- toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. 

Reading this makes me wonder if I need to rethink this statement I made in an interview a few years ago:

I think photography is the most anti-Zen activity. It’s all about stopping time, possessing things, holding onto them. And you know, if my goal was to be a healthy person, photography would not be the thing. I have this joke about becoming a binoculographer: you go around and look at the world without photographing. That would be a spiritually healthy way of taking things in. But this wanting to possess it is not so healthy.

I’m still not sure that driving around in a minivan and drinking from my Bubba Keg is the best spiritual practice, but I can still work on mindfulness while doing this stuff:

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LBM Dispatch: Three Valleys


From February 12th through February 28th, Alec Soth and Brad Zellar will be in California, exploring the Valleys of Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death for the fourth edition of The LBM Dispatch. While each of these valleys has a distinct character, all of them loom large in the country’s history and mythology of success, failure, dreams, and futility. Continuing The Dispatch’s examination of community in the 21st-century United States, Three Valleys will examine the brave new worlds and pervasive virtuality of Silicon Valley, the Depression-era remnants of agricultural settlements and immigrant communities in the San Joaquin, and the other-worldly boom-and-bust landscapes of Death Valley, where the Manson Family holed up at the tail end of the 1960s.

Along the way Soth and Zellar will post a selection of pictures and stories on The LBM Dipatch Tumblr. You can support the project by pre-ordering your copy now:

Single copy of Three Valleys: $18
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United States subscription to Three Valleys, Michigan, Upstate: $36 + $2.50/issue shipping
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Popsicle #5: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Since making my 52 Popsicles New Year’s resolution, I’ve been staying away from the Crime/Mystery section at the airport bookstore. When I picked up Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award winning new novel, The Round House, I thought I was being perfectly highbrow.

But The Round House turns out to be a real potboiler. It tells the story of a 13-year-old Native American, Joe, who’s out to avenge his mother’s rapist. It’s both a coming-of-age story and a crime thriller. But like the best genre fiction, Erdrich embeds important issues into her narrative.

Through the character of Joe’s father, a tribal judge, Erdrich is able to chronicle the persistent injustice Native Americans have experienced since the earliest days of the non-Native legal system:

“Take Johnson v McIntosh. It’s 1823. The United States is forty-seven years old and the entire country is based on grabbing Indian land as quickly as possible in as many ways as can be humanly devised. Land speculation is the stock market of the times. Everybody’s in on it. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. As well as Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote the decision for this case and made his family’s fortune. The land madness is unmanageable by the nascent government.”

Reading this, I thought about what I’d recently seen in North Dakota. While photographing the oil boom, I stumbled across a Native American family on the Berthold Indian Reservation. While the children played in the prairie grasses, below the surface gigantic drill bits assaulted the earth for miles.


– Alec Soth

LBM + Charlie White + LA = Such Appetite


LBM is excited to announce the publication of Such Appetite by Charlie White with poems by Stephanie Ford.

We will be selling the book at the LA Art Book Fair this weekend (Feb 1-3) at MOCA in Los Angeles.

Charlie White will be signing copies of Such Appetite at at our booth (W05) at 2pm on Saturday, Feb. 2.

If you can’t join us in LA, you can view more images and purchase Such Appetite HERE. Priced at only $18 and limited to 1000 copies, we don’t expect it to be available for very long (the four other books in this series are all sold out).


Popsicle #4: The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

“He stopped beside a marsh with the car windows rolled down and listened to the trilling cacophony of hundreds of red-winged blackbirds, and on the other side of the road the more dulcet calls of meadowlarks. He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age ten for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.” From “The Land of Unlikeness” by Jim Harrison

PAR276678Jim Harrison, 2004 by Alec Soth

I’ve always been a dog person. I’m not anti-cat, but not pro either. On a recent trip shooting the Michigan Dispatch, I came home to find that my family had acquired Ollie at the Humane Society. My pride wounded, I met the beast with cold eyes. “This is my house, Cat.” (I refused to address him by the name I’d had no part in choosing).

But it was too late – Oliver had taken over my home. My wife and kids were smitten, of course, but it was my Labradoodle’s affection that stung. No longer interested in going to the studio, Misha spent her afternoons enthralled by her new master.

I’ve since wondered at the cat’s power to win over my family. It reminded me of the way women are so attracted to bad boys. But is it their ‘badness’ that charms, or their confidence?

Over the last couple of months of watching Oliver, I’ve come to admire his swagger. Unlike the desperate Lovadoodle, the cat is his own man, living in the moment. My greatest admiration for Oliver is his relentless curiosity and attunement to the environment. He’s aware of every open cabinet, every stray hair band.


I thought about Oliver while reading this week’s popsicle: The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison. The book is comprised of two novellas. The title story is about a 17-year-old boy that is obsessed with swimming. In the water, he’s himself. Men admire his brawn and women swoon over his tranquil confidence, but it’s all of no matter, he only wants to be in the water.

The story is entertaining enough, but I felt like I was reading a Penthouse letter in Field and Stream. I just couldn’t relate to the boy’s prowess. I much preferred the other novella in the book, “The Land of Unlikeness.” In this story, Clive, a 60-year-old Manhattan sophisticate returns to his childhood home in Michigan to care for his mother. An esteemed academic in the arts, we learn that Clive gave up painting when he was 40. “When I was a little girl painting never seemed to make you happy,” his estranged daughter says to him, “You were always worried about your gallery.”

After sleeping in his childhood bedroom for the first time in decades, something changes:

“Clive woke at dawn having lost his self-importance. He didn’t know where it had gone but it wasn’t in him anymore. His first thought was that the arts had gotten along without him for centuries and would continue to do so. In the night he had looked at the distorted moon though each small pane of beveled glass on the door out in the hall.  He had also seen a bird his mother called a bullbat or nightjar flying across the moon in search of night-borne insects. One had flown so close to his face the evening before on the patio he could hear the chuff sound of its wings. His thoughts were impacted by the idea that nothing looked like anything else, which gave a painter something to do through any number of lifetimes…He had every reason to believe that he had allowed language and thought to betray him, so it would be an immense relief to paint and abandon language and thought.”

Reading “The Land of Unlikeness” was a pleasure. In one scene, after reminiscing about a rendezvous in a ’47 Plymouth with his childhood crush, Clive talks her into recreating the scene for a painting (maybe Harrison should write Penthouse Letters). “The first farcical conclusion was that you shouldn’t try to paint with a hard-on,” he says, “Painting was relatively non-mental but not that nonmental.”

Clive’s transformation back to an artist might strike some as being a bit Hollywood, but I believed it. Listening to Ollie purr on my lap while reading my weekly assignment, I can’t dispute the possibility of old dogs learning new tricks.

Lebensmittel by Michael Schmidt reviewed by Vince Leo

“Ethical testimony is a revelation which is not a knowledge.” Emmanuel Levinas

schmidtLet’s begin with a little of what we know: We know that industrialized food production has eased hunger throughout the world, that it is decreasing the amount of arable land needed to feed the world’s population, that it has created an economic machine capable of providing animal protein to human beings who could only dream of eating meat a decade ago. We also know that it is depleting valuable aquifers, creating a pandemic of obesity and diabetes, and, through its corporate cultures, contributing to crop monocultures, privatized seed stock, global warming, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But all this is dwarfed by a single inescapable bit of knowledge: that rain or shine, alone or in groups, young or old, we have to eat or we will die.

Despite its 174 photographs, Lebensmittel (foodstuff) rarely provides visual evidence for the things we already know about industrial farming. Using a visceral approach that wrestles with each photographic subject on its own terms, Schmidt explores food production through a densely subjective exploration of photographic processes and techniques. The result is a body of work that encompasses a remarkable range of photographic gestures: from out-of-focus close-ups to razor sharp indoor flash, from violent cropping to uninterrupted landscapes, and then there is the mix of color, color-tinted, and black-and-white. The differing connotations of these techniques transforms each subject, shaping our response picture by picture: the almost gross metallic sheen of flash on fish heads, the bucolic extended tonal range of sunlight on a hillside orchard, the claustrophobia of out-of focus (and in-focus) close-ups of ingredient labels. In the process of trashing the received wisdom of a consistent formal approach to a single subject by a single photographer, Schmidt also manages to trash a unified response to industrial food production. Instead, we are faced with the prospect of endless formal invention and a stream of observations, meanings, and associations that creates equal amounts of certainty and confusion.

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The order of the photographs in Lebensmittel only intensifies these qualities. As with his camerawork, Schmidt has mounted a tour de force of sequential techniques only to frustrate any single structure of meaning. There are repeating images, near-repeating images, images that repeat at various places in the book, images on facing pages, and images facing blank pages. There are recurring shapes (a sprinkler stream, the curve of a farmer’s back) and recurring formal properties (rectangles into grids). Schmidt uses sequence to hammer home mechanization (two facing photographs of the same giant food processing machine) or to remind us that human beings remain an important part of the system (two facing pages of a woman picking onions). In place of a decipherable order (by food, by activity, by production process, etc), there is meandering digression that occasionally coalesces into a concrete relationship only to dissolve with the next photograph. Every time we think the sequence resolves into something we know, it changes direction, forcing us to change perspective. After a certain point, we stop expecting an answer.

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Consider the final sequence: a group of fish heads, a frame full of flowers, a container of apples, a hillside of trees, a curved spray of water, a grid covered by folded plastic, and a bent human back picking onions. Too much beauty to be a complete indictment; too much plastic to be anything but a by-product of spreadsheet capitalism. Ambiguous, unresolved, committed only to what he sees and how he sees it, Schmidt reveals a deeper and broader space of industrialization, a space that overlaps and encompasses both photography and farming. Think of it as a grid that extends from pixel to frame to book to shipping container to hectare, all governed by the same algorithms of control and efficiency. Within this field, Schmidt mounts his own representational resistance: His obsessively exploratory camerawork undermines the logic of the mono-culture with wild organic experimentation while his sequential diversions destroy the notion that efficiency is the cornerstone of every successful system. Lebensmittel is not so much a coherent political statement as it is a systematic destruction of the order of things beginning with the conventions of political documentary and ending with our own preconceptions of both photography and industrial farming. Unrelenting and unrepentant, Michael Schmidt forces us to abandon categorical knowledge as a way forward. What we are left with is a record of what it means to break the rules, the possibilities of an activity taken up against the grain, the fear that what we know about what we eat may not be enough to keep our bellies full.

– Vince Leo

Popsicle #3: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders

“He grabbed the kid by the coat, rolled him over, roughly sat him up. The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer. He had to get the kid warmed up. How to do it? Hug him, lie on top of him? That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle.”
From “Tenth of December” by George Saunders

While preparing last week’s assignment on Building Stories by Chris Ware, I learned about another book in a box, The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson. Published in 1969, the box consists of 27 pamphlets that can be read in any order (except for the ones marked ‘first’ and ‘last’).

The subject of this fragmentary memoir was instigated by Johnson’s trip to Nottingham as a sportswriter covering an inconsequential soccer match. The city brings back memories of an old friend who died of cancer and an old lover who left him. The unordered pamphlets function like memories bubbling up in the author’s consciousness during his weekend in Nottingham.

While the writing in The Unfortuantes is excellent, reading it after Building Stories was a letdown. Part of this is due to the absence of Ware’s gorgeous artistry, but something else nagged at me. I found myself irritated with the narrator of The Unfortunates.

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Johnson is a card carrying solipsist, and as such, wildly egocentric. When he first learns of his friend Tony’s cancer, for example, he complains that Tony and his wife didn’t attend the publication party of his new book: “I was annoyed, angry even, that he, and that both of them, should find any excuse for missing something so important, that its importance to me should not be shared by them.”

Johnson is adamant that art speak the truth. Though defining himself as a novelist, Johnson was opposed to fiction. “Telling stories is telling lies,” he famously wrote, “The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites.” Consequently, the pamphlets in The Unfortunates read less like a novel than like artful Facebook status updates from a depressed, self-absorbed acquaintance.

While reading The Unfortunates, I kept thinking about the George Saunders quote I mentioned in last week’s post:

I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another… The writer… can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit… The black box is meant to change us.

Having felt that nothing “undeniable and nontrivial” happened to me while reading The Unfortunates, nor having felt like I’d had a popsicle of pleasure, I figured I’d give Saunders’ writing a try. I thought it would be particularly interesting to read the title story in his new book, “Tenth of December,” since it deals with a man dying of cancer.

I ended up reading the story on my iPhone while putting my six-year old to sleep. As his breathing slowed, I felt my own pulse quicken. Saunders’ story about a cancer patient who encounters a pre-teen oddball while trying to kill himself reads like a potboiler. I couldn’t scroll down the screen fast enough. But this isn’t to say that the story felt melodramatic. As we watch these characters collide, we are also witness to their scattershot interior monologues. These voices felt just as honest as anything Johnson wrote in The Unfortunates.

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In an interview with the New Yorker about his “Tenth of December” story, Saunders explained what he was looking for with these voices:

Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.” That is, of course, an impossible task, the mind being so vast and prose being so inadequate. But it seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.

This seems very similar to what Johnson was looking for with his narration. While reading “Tenth of December,” I kept wondering what B.S. Johnson would have made of it. Had he read the story on November 13th of 1973, would he still have committed suicide?