A week has gone by since I last recounted an anecdote from my life, and what a week it has been! I turned twenty-three, on an unseasonably warm day in which I met Cathy, my mother’s friend and one of my adopted second-mothers, for lunch in Bryant Park, talked to Emily, who called me from Germany, received wonderful gifts from Sam, Liz, and Nick, and had the most marvelous of birthday dinners cooked for me by the incomparable Nick, who remains a culinary wonder, and the best friend I could ever ask for. Nora and Marcel wished me a Happy Birthday here, which, naturally, made my life, and I returned to life as usual, attending several Christmas parties over the weekend, helping the boys trim their gorgeous tree, and listening to Liza and Julia perform the best wassail iteration of a Ukrainian Christmas carol the world has ever seen. I am, as always and ever, in awe of my friends.
Today, however, has been a bit less festive. Stressed and behind on work and life, I am spending the day at home (no one was in my office today and my editor told me I may as well take today off), applying for jobs and making Boeuf Bourguignon, a dish inspired (once again) by my secret quest to become Julie Powell, and a manifestation of my current state of mind. Whenever I am under a lot of pressure, stressed, or otherwise need some sort of escape from my thoughts, I endeavor to recreate out of one of my favorite cookbooks a series of complex and time-consuming dishes. In the past, these have ranged from lamb chops and greek salad, Thanksgiving of Junior year, to potato-leek soup at the beginning of this fall, to a ten-layer Hungarian chocolate cream cake during a particularly stressful finals week Sophomore year (this one got fed to my Literary Theory class, so it’s stress-relieving properties were passed on!). Today it is French Beef Stew, a dish that has filled my apartment with an almost painfully delicious aroma for the past three hours, and which, in the rhythm of its careful construction, gave me a brief pause from the following thought:
Next Friday, December twenty-first, the day of the supposed Mayan Apocalypse, is my last day at the photography magazine I have worked at since arriving in New York nearly six months ago. Though I am applying to every job in editorial which I can find, the outlook is, for the moment, rather disheartening, and the prospect of returning from Christmas at home to a state of unemployment here is nothing short of terrifying. Though there have been times in the past few months when I have become frustrated with my job, tired of doing editorial scut-work, or else bored by the current task with which I was assigned, as a whole, I have loved my time there, loved walking down the High Line on my way to work, loved the banter of the design team in the kitchen at lunch, loved the cats that perch on my desk before I pester them and am scratched into submission. I look forward to a future that involves writing for which I can be paid, and editorial tasks which I can direct rather than simply complete. But I have been very lucky to get to do this right out of college, and have learned many skills which I will not soon forget.
When I first arrived in July, I felt rather like a fraud, an intern at a photography foundation who neither studied photography formally in school, nor owned a camera! The first day of work, when we were being shown around the office, someone introduced Weegee, one of the two cats who have become my best friends and worst enemies at work. “Oh Weegee, like a Weegie board!” I declared. And another intern turned to me and corrected, “no, Weegee, like the famous photographer.” I was clueless, new to this world, and, though my uncle is a professional photographer and I have always admired his work, had little emotional or educational connection to the medium at hand.
Now, I can proudly say, that is no longer the case. I have catalogued magazine issues devoted to Minor White, have worked at a silent auction in which I had to carry a Manuel Álvarez Bravo from the hall walls, through a crowd of black-tie-clad patrons, and into a room to be packaged, shaking all the time with the thought of dropping the five-thousand-dollar work. I have become utterly obsessed by Robert Mapplethorpe, haunted by Donna Ferrato’s portraits of abused women, and would give a lot to be able to see Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency played in slides on a dusty barroom wall, as they were in the East Village of the seventies. I now recognize names, can appreciate certain artistic nuances, and have learned, for whatever it is worth, to love a captured image nearly as much as swaths of paint on a canvas.
And once again, Marcel had something to say on this subject just as I was reaching a conclusion myself. The young man goes to visit Elstir, the famed painter of the text, whom I have been eagerly waiting for 1100 pages to meet, in his Balbec studio and, marveling at the prowess of the great artist, ruminates on the art of the photograph,
Although it is rightly said that there can be no progress, no discovery in art, but only in the sciences, and that each artist starting afresh on an individual effort cannot be either helped or hindered therein by the efforts of any other, it must none the less be acknowledged that, in so far as art brings to light certain laws, once an industry as popularized them, the art that was first in the field loses retrospectively a little of its originality Since Elstir began to paint, we have grown familiar with what are called “wonderful” photographs of scenery and towns. If we press for a definition of what their admirers mean by that epithet, we shall find that it is generally applied to some unusual image of a familiar object, an image different from those that we are accustomed to see, unusual and yet true to nature, and for that reason doubly striking because it surprises us, takes us out of our cocoon of habit, and at the same time brings us back to ourselves by recalling to us an earlier impression. (Within a Budding Grove 570)
Marcel goes on to reflect that, while they are now a medium outdated by the photograph, Elstir’s paintings still manage to illustrate perspective, conjure a specific vista or shade of light, just as powerfully as a shutter and lens. It is interesting that he should bring up this idea of one media eclipsing another, however, as I am working for a magazine, a print periodical seen as a dying vehicle, showcasing photographs, which many see as passé since the arrival of the digital camera and the mass proliferation of lesser images. Photography, some say, as Art Historians said about fine art after post-modernism, is dead. We are merely the observers of this decline and, in the age of Instagram and iPhone images, helping to accelerate it.
Well, I would like to say that, after working for an institution that devotes itself to the wholehearted pursuit of this “dying” art, after seeing images of abused women that raised awareness of domestic violence, images of polluted swamplands in Louisiana that drew attention to the oil hazards in the Gulf, after standing in front of an image of the Brooklyn Bridge at the time of its construction, workers suspended on the steel cables over the East River, I would like to say that photography is very much alive. Just as the paintings Marcel sought to preserve still line the walls of our museums and the interiors of our books, so do photographs lace the corners of our vision, transmit the images of loved ones or orange cats or elephants in Africa across timezones and linguistic barriers. Photography, that art I have grown to love, is not going anywhere. And I wish I could make Marcel see how very marvelous the things that came out of that art would be. He was, for once, trapped in time.
But for me, it is time, for now to move on to bigger, better, mostly just different things. Where will I be this time next month? Waiting tables while I try to freelance on the side? Working for a magazine or book publisher? Cooking my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while temping for the Lower Manhattan Development Coorporation? Only time will tell. And time, as Marcel so often reminds me, makes fools of us all. So rather than guess, rather than hitch my hopes to a passing star, I will braise tender chunks of beef in red wine, sit back, and write while the broth begins to simmer, awaiting that moment, that thing that will surprise me, take me out of my cocoon of habit, and ultimately bring me back to myself.