Michael Lesy was raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio and attended Columbia University, The University of Wisconsin and Rutgers University. He studied with William Appleman Williams at Wisconsin, Warren Sussman at Rutgers and was befriended by Walker Evans at Yale. Lesy is the author of the classic Wisconsin Death Trip, Dreamland, Real Life, The Forbidden Zone, Bearing Witness, Time Frames, Rescues, Visible Light and most recently, Long Time Coming. He is currently a professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.
Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943 draws on the Farm Security Administration’s Documentary Photography Project archive of more than 150,000 images, created by forty photographers including among others Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shan and Arthur Rothstein. Michael Lesy assembled four-hundred photographs (some not previously published) continuing his own revealing documentation of American history.
Robert Birnbaum: Is it possible for you to recreate what you were thinking when you wrote your dissertation? Had you intended publishing Wisconsin Death Trip as a book?
Michael Lesy: Sure. I wanted to make it a movie. But it cost too much to produce. So it was just a poor man’s way of making a movie in book form. But, I came on the photographs—I was in Wisconsin, I was in Madison. I had gone to Columbia and I missed the riots, barely. And so I was sitting reading the newspaper, the NY Times everyday, on the lake (Mendota) thinking, "What a boring place." And I had a book that the Museum of Modern Art had published called The Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski, and it had one picture in it from the Wisconsin Historical Society. I was really quite bored. I was there ostensibly to get a Ph.D. in European History. So I went in just to look at the picture and I met the guy who ran this photo collection. His name was Paul Vanderbilt and he was a twinkling magician. He had lots of pictures, and no one ever came in to see him.
RB: These were the 3000 of the 30,000 images that remained intact.
ML: Yeah that’s right. So I stayed and looked, and the first time I used the photographs I knew, this was thirty years ago when book publishing of photographs was just beginning. So you knew some things. You had seen some things, but mostly it was anecdotal. People talked to people. That’s how the history of photography was spread around. People told each other stories. And I had seen the pictures by August Sander, who decided he would photograph the whole human race. I immediately understood what Paul was showing me was the equivalent of the Sander stuff except it was in a small town. A small-town photographer but the same sort of faces that Sander did of the peasants. I think the German word is Die Bauer, the peasants, the country people. So the first time I ever used the images, I made slides for an underground film series that I was part of and showed the slides while we were changing reels…it was still film, so we had to change the reels.
RB: Was your idea of doing movies from these materials in the way that Ken Burns does movies now?
ML: I suppose. Before Ken Burns. At that time, the hottest piece of film equipment, which I believe, is now very common, was some sort of fluid-mounted optics that could pan across the face of a cigarette box as if it was panning across Mt Rushmore. I eventually got to the people who had that stuff. They were making things for the Smothers Brothers’ TV show. They’d splice together a one minute long, quick "Moment in American History"— as a kind of filler. Made of stills. These guys, interestingly enough, were a firm of guys who worked for Woody Allen. They edited for him and they’d make the "Movie about the Movie" for him, "Behind the scenes of the new Woody Allen…" They were Dutch Jews. Originally diamond cutters, ‘Schnitters’. I met these guys through a student of mine at Rutgers. That kid was an apprentice film editor. I pitched my idea to his bosses. By then I had the photographs. This was long after I had met Paul [Vanderbilt] and he had shown me the stuff. These editing guys were in New York. By then I was at Rutgers. I pitched the movie to them—and they turned me on to this guy, an African American, who actually made those thirty-second, jet propelled, TV versions of American history. But it just cost too much money. I didn’t have any, and I didn’t have any way to raise the capital. I had the images, and I had the impulse. I also had a little bit of experience making tiny little 8 mm and 16 mm movies with my buddies and then editing them. So, I did the best I could: I made a book that had film sequences in it.
RB: It was published at Pantheon. Was it a big thing to get it published?
ML: Andre [Schiffrin] was there. One of the film editors had kids who played with Andre’s kids. The film editor handed Andre my movie proposal. Plus: Andre knew Warren Sussman and Warren knew Andre. Warren was the guy I was studying with at Rutgers. Warren knew everything; Warren was like a walking library. Also, the agent I ended up with was Gerard McCauley. McCauley was William Appleman William’s agent. Williams was one of the great, Revisionist American Foreign Policy historians. He taught at Wisconsin. I’d ended up in William’s seminar there. Williams introduced me to McCauley. McCauley took me on as a client, thinking I was crazy …but, so what. That was the era. Andre took me on, in part, because I said the Death Trip would be the first of seven books. I’m sure Andre [also] thought I was nuts.
RB: In Warren Sussman’s introduction he refers to some "methodological confusions," which I think does foreshadow the uniqueness of this book…
ML: Warren was a very smart man.
RB: He also makes mention of Hippolyte Taine. He referred to Taine as a historian, but the history he is quoted from is his History of English Literature. Wouldn’t that, today, be the turf of English literature, not history?
ML: Yeah, sure. There were real confusions of boundaries during that moment in the writing of history. There were one or two 18th century guys that everyone admired. Guys like [Giambattista] Vico. Vico inspired Joyce. People would talk about Giodorno Bruno. They’d talk about crackpots like Immanuel Velikovsky—or comparative mythologists like Mircea Eliade. Geniuses like Erich Auerbach and Siegfried Giedion. People would talk about the kabbalist, Abram Abullafia. People would talk about Jung, or [Erik] Erikson, or [Robert] Lifton. People actually thought there was this new discipline called "Psycho History." I think people were trying to redefine what historical data were—how to pay homage to reality in ways that were not entirely linear.
RB: The first book you published which was to be the first of series was Wisconsin Death Trip. Looking back at it now, what is your sense of it besides the obvious, that it was the beginning?
ML: In terms of the topography, it’s obviously dated. The collages were inspired by Max Ernst and by Heartfield — all the surrealist stuff going on in France and all the political stuff going on Germany after the First War. To the extent that the collages intervene in the book: At that time they were meant to be sledgehammers. Because everyone felt at the time that the potential reader of any visual book was jaded and numbed by trash. Whatever was published then—Life and Look had just gone under—but it was a world of visual garbage. So, I tried to create sequences that would be interrupted by rather heavy-handed interventions to say, "Think and look again." I’m not sure if I would do that again. I also think, in general, the book failed because people are just, in spite of everything, left-brained. They read text—and the text overwhelms what they see. The text had one message—but it was meant to be combined with the messages of the images. The right-brained stuff. The right-brained stuff in the book is a very, very complex combination of things. Of course, there are funereal images, but there are images of…
RB: Horse genitalia.
ML: The stallion and the young man showing his muscles. Families and youth and marriage and happiness. And the intent was to hope that one could create through this complex layering of information or collage making a kind of soup bowl in which information would be mixed inside the brain of the viewer, and it would all be combined and sucked on and enjoyed. But it didn’t work that way. So people remembered the horror stories. And only remembered the horror stories in their reading. And the intent was something different. The text was to be a soundtrack. The ideal image was the Walker Evans/James Agee book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In that regard, the Wisconsin Death Trip was a complete failure.
RB: There was an HBO film made a few years ago.
ML: Yes, it just was released on DVD [October 2003]. James Marsh made it.
RB: I haven’t seen it. What is it like?
ML: James is an artist. He did fine.
RB: Is it what you would have done?
ML: No, but that doesn’t matter. The idea when you make art is to spawn other art. What you want is to turn other people on so they make their own stuff. And that’s what James made. James and I talked a lot. And I think we are still friends. I like him very much, and I think he likes me. He made what he made. I think he is an artist.
RB: Why would HBO even do such a project?
ML: I don’t know. People would come at me for years wanting to make a movie of it. And they were all fools or hapless or inept. And James had one of the things that is a really good thing in an art maker. He had stamina. He had persistence. It was a joint BBC and Cinemax project. It was a work based upon his own willfulness.
RB: I asked your contemporaneous view of what you published in 1973 and what you think of it now because in 1973 when I saw this book I didn’t understand it. It didn’t have the impact that it had when I saw it later and when I saw it recently.
ML: That means for whatever reason, the book has its own power. Beyond whatever I intended or made. I made it thinking to myself, "Well, boy I made that just in the nick of time. There are bound to be a dozen other people doing this stuff. A month from now or two months from now." I remember I was hired after the book came out, to teach for a year in American Studies at Yale. And I couldn’t wait to get out of there because I thought that there was a whole bunch of competitors breathing down my neck and they were about to scoop me on the next one. So I couldn’t wait to do the next one. My wife never forgave me. I could have stayed at Yale for the allotted seven years and had my passport stamped properly. But I thought that it was as obvious as you are sitting here today. It was just clear. It was just, nothing to it as far as I thought, at the time. So the fact that you can go back to the work of art and go back to the work of art and go back to the work of art means that I was doing something better than I ever imagined. [pause] I take full responsibility for the book, but at the same time I would never have imagined that thirty years on it would still be around.
RB: Where is it shelved in the bookstores?
ML: They could never figure that out. They never can. I come on books that I make all the time and there is no telling where they are going to stick them. It’s hard.
RB: In Mark Feeney’s piece on you in the Globe you said you were surprised that people weren’t making books like this.
ML: I am. But then again, you get a guy like [Ken] Burns. Burns is a teacher. He has a proper liberal agenda that he wants to teach. So —Burns is close to what I do. But, I have different methods and agendas. I am a teacher—but I think I’m a much more subversive teacher [than he is]. I much more inclined—much more interested in creating wonder and fear and amazement and confusion than to preach, "We should treat people justly." Burns is a much nicer man than I am.
RB: How do you know? How do you know what you evoke?
ML: I don’t really know. But that’s my intention. I hear from people. You said, "Shit, I thought the Death Trip was one thing, then I thought it was something else and now I think it’s something else." That’s the idea. If you are good at what you make, you create something that’s a puzzle that can be worked but that always leaves the person unsatisfied, leaves him wanting to work it again, to solve it better.
RB: Of your books there are only Dreamland and Long Time Coming that are in the mode of Wisconsin Death Trip.
ML: There’s Real Life, there’s Time Frames.
RB: I don’t know Time Frames.
ML: You ought to take a look. It’s about snapshots and their meaning as wakeful dreams. Visible Light was different…
RB: That was about four photographers.
ML: Yeah, it was biographies, but it tried to move back and forth between who they were and what they made. The inevitable enterprise…
RB: And then you did Rescues, that book about heroes, and that other one, called The Forbidden Zone.
ML: The Forbidden Zone was just prose; it’s about people who deal with death professionally.
RB: That makes me think of Thomas Lynch who is an undertaker and writer…So here we are about thirty years later and you have recently published Long Time Coming, a book of Farm Security Administration images from the government’s Great Depression documentary photography project. You could have done this book anytime. Why did you do this book now?
ML: I had an agenda. I wanted to take bites out of American history in a steady way. I wanted to talk about the United States, decade by decade by decade. I got to the Thirties, through Time Frames, which is about people who lived through the Depression and the Second World War and, in fact, into the Korean War through their family snapshots and through their own recollections. I was working my way towards a kind of decade-by-decade "photography of history." But the publishing climate affects such plans. Photo histories cost lots of money to make. And it’s not like they sell tens of thousands of copies right off the bat. To be the ‘author’ and the ‘editor’ of such books—it’s almost like working for nothing. Because publishers never pay me—or anyone else—enough to do the work required. So it’s like, “Would someone publish such a book? And if they would publish it, would they pay me enough for my time?” The answer is, "Barely." "Would they pay for the prints to be made?" Again, "Barely." To publish a book like Long Time Coming is a gradual, difficult, incremental project.
RB: Aren’t you assured of a certain part of the print run being purchased by libraries?
ML: If you look at library sales of these books it’s modest.
RB: So it has a print run of four or five thousand…
ML: Oh sure, the print run for Long Time Coming was a little over five thousand. It sold out the first print run. They did a second printing. It’s a sixty five-dollar book. I can tell you exactly how many libraries have bought this thing so far—and it’s not five thousand libraries. If you get into a decent library, you can consult on line databases. One database is something called WorldCat— short for "World Catalogue." You can type in any author’s name and WorldCat can tell you how many libraries own which copies of a particular book.
RB: I had commented on this book and Bronzeville on Identitytheory and it is clear to me that such books require an enlightened publisher.
ML: It’s weird. It’s very weird. I think this book will make money over time. Because it’s wonderfully well made and it will be around and it has some legs to it. It’s very, very strange about photographic archives. People—really, really, smart, subtle people—have been working as photographic archivists for generations now, keeping these archives, extending them. Making them more and more accessible. Acquiring other collections. All waiting for people to show up to say, "Damn, here it is!" And all they get is people looking for Woodrow Wilson after he had a stroke. So the treasure trove of this stuff has been amassed and is being amassed, waiting.
RB: In short order there was Long Time Coming and then Bronzeville. Have there been many books drawing on the FSA images?
ML: Of course, let your fingers do your walking for you. There is a wonderful book that one of the archivists did with two scholars— one was Alan Trachtenberg, called Documenting America . It’s about the whole collection. It’s a marvelous book. It’s a book of photos and essays and chapters about each of the photographers and the work that they did. And it’s a scholarly source book.
RB: I would expect there to be academic books, I was thinking more mainstream publishers.
ML: New Press did Bronzeville. That’s funny money, foundation money. Andre [Shiffrin] tries to run that as if it were a university press without it being a university press.
RB: When has the climate for publishing these kinds of book been better? Has it ever been really good?
ML: When the Death Trip was first published. That would be a mark of a really good publishing climate. Because that book—we realized that it would have some hardcover sales but that the market we wanted to go for was a paperback market. The paperback penetrated markets nationally and internationally, and that’s the indication of a kind of high water mark for visual books. It probably held for seven years that market. For whatever reason, in the case of Wisconsin Death Trip, it had its own life and momentum. So it became wired into a small of group of intellectuals and artists and perpetuated itself.
RB: It’s referred to as a "counter-cultural classic." In terms of your methodology, I share your puzzlement about why there aren’t more books like this, but I wonder what happened to the great enthusiasm for the wonders of hypertextuality as represented by CD-ROMS. For your kind of method it would be…
ML: Great, because it would be hypertext. But you cannot beat a book.
RB: No argument from me.
ML: You can’t. Whether you are devoted to it or I am devoted to it, the fact is—all the technology is loaded on the front end so that the user end is simple—no cords, no wires. It’s all been done before you bought it. And you don’t have to do anything except carry the thing with you. You don’t need technology to use the book.
RB: If your ambitions are to present a certain array of historical cultural information and images then while I am reading this text I might want to click and get a music sample and so on…
ML: Right, right, absolutely. It’s true in terms of the density of information and velocity of information and the quickness of retrieval and free association, which is what you want in a book—the ability to free associate and not be lost. That’s a problem even with hypertext. If you can free associate, you still can get lost. And with a book it’s not perfect, but for whatever reasons, which are not your concern or mine, CDs didn’t work. Yet. Something will happen, but it isn’t that.
RB: You are a professor of literary journalism.
ML: It’s a pretentious word.
RB: When I hear that phrase coming from fiction writers they look upon it as a discredited pursuit. Why is it pretentious and why is that your title?
ML: I don’t know. That’s what they bought. When they hired me to do it I didn’t even know what it was. But on the strength of two books I had made, Rescues, the one about heroes, and the book about the professionals that deal with death, they said, "You are a literary journalist." But it’s the New Yorker, it’s narrative non-fiction. That’s all it is. It’s storytelling. Factual.
RB: It’s minimally competent narrative non-fiction.
RB: What happens on the first day of class? What are the course titles?
ML: I teach a course in Biography and I teach a course in Autobiography and, of course, if you teach people who are in their twenties a course in autobiography, it’s like catnip.
RB: [laughs heartily] Okay.
ML: [chuckles] What I tell them is, "Look, I really do not care about you. What I care about is the worlds that you bear witness to. You are nothing more than a dog with a video camera strapped on its back. As you walk the streets looking for a place to mate or piss or eat, the camera is on and we will see the world because of you. And that’s really what is fascinating. You carry the camera and we enjoy the world." That takes a little bit of convincing, but it works. Then it’s very entertaining. Because they get themselves into some unusual situations. And the same with biography. Again, it’s reading and writing biography. So, let’s say for the Autobiography class I’d ask them to read the suddenly controversial book by Vivian Gornick called Fierce Attachments…
RB: Apparently it’s controversial because she has opened her mouth about her own methodology.
ML: Well, she says she has talked about it many times before. Anyway, I use Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, for the biography class. All non-fiction is driven by character or the creation of character and the deployment of characters. So what I teach is different ways to create character, to build character, to deploy character in scenes. And I insist that these be characters in scenes that have to talk. Because all these kids have been taught in their secondary school to write visually, "His skin was the color of a withered brown tobacco leaf, turned brittle in the autumn sun." Just awful stuff. And all you have to do is give someone some words and they come off the page. And give them some gestures and they come off the page. And you don’t have to write this clotted visual with all these adverbs and adjectival descriptors. So I teach them how to create and then deploy characters in scenes and—if they can do that biographically or autobiographically—then they can write narrative non-fiction. Because: If you hang out with people who, for example, smuggle Cuban cigars or sell trinkets at Ground Zero or just baby sit for their grandchildren—that’s great, that’s enough. It’s all really interesting. People’s lives. That’s all I teach.
RB: I was saying to myself that at least you don’t have an opening class speech where you tell them that…
ML: Oh I do.
RB: …as one professor of literature allegedly told his students that it would be necessary to kill one of their classmates.
ML: Yeah sure.
ML: You scare ’em?
ML: Sure. At Hampshire College—and this is probably true at a lot of schools like Hampshire—- these kids have been privileged. As a result, they have both very large and very frail egos. You and I both know that the world of publishing is brutal and shitty and unfair. The students think that all they have to do is really mean what they say and things will work out for them. That’s not true. It’s terrible and painful and sad. And it’s shitty. So the students sit there, thinking that they can be writers—and my job is to try to tell them that, in the end, it’s like a bar room fight. It’s who’s left standing. They don’t even suspect that. They think, of course, "I’ll be left standing." It’s so funny. They come with more experience than you would imagine kids in their twenties might have. But they are also very shy. So when you say to them, in a course, “I want you to go home or I want you to go to the neighboring town, and I want you to find something that really interests you, something that you have always been curious about. Bus drivers, maybe. Or, you have always been curious about taxi drivers or guys who work the first shift in a bakery or the night crew in a supermarket…. I want you to find someone and talk to them and then I want you to get their permission to write about them.” The response is that they get very uneasy. It turns out that, in spite of all their vacations and their, shall we say, ‘recreational experiences’, they are very timid. Very shy.
RB: Why do you think?
ML: I don’t know. Because they have had it their way.
RB: Because they haven’t had to reach out?
ML: It’s like you go to one school and go to another and camp is arranged for you and vacations are arranged for you. Your friends have interesting adventures and do naughty things. You think that’s life. For whatever reason, they both imagine themselves to be more able than they often are and more experienced than they really are. But it’s an interesting process of growing up. And that’s what this work at this level of education enables some of them to do. Which is to grow up and to bear witness and to understand that all the shit that they read and listen to on NPR or in The New Yorker or in The Atlantic has taken tremendous effort and tremendous work to make it just a good read. They don’t understand that. They think it’s like salted nuts at a bar. Right?
RB: Is your intention as a teacher to give your students a dose of reality?
RB: Also give them vocational training and guidance?
ML: Sure that’s part of it. It’ s a morally driven education. In the end they’re going to put themselves in what they understand to be in harm’s way, in order to learn something really interesting. And then to bring it back so that we can be better people. And know stuff that we would not have known if they hadn’t of taken whatever risk they define as risk to tell us what they have learned. That’s great. That’s a moral education.
RB: To take your "salted nuts at the bar " metaphor further, it’s your view that they don’t think they have to pay anything along the way as they do this work? No dues paying?
ML: They have no idea what the ‘dues’ are. You could say to them, "This is hard work. You are going to have to pay some dues. You are going to immerse yourselves." Those are just words for them. I could say to them, "Here’s the motto you need to live by: ‘A man must know how to hope and how to endure.’ That’s what the Count of Monte Cristo believed." And they are going to say, "Yeah, okay." But what do they know? They don’t know how to hope. They don’t know what hope is and they don’t know how or why "hope" is juxtaposed with "endure." They just say, "Okay."
RB: Do they take notes and write that down?
ML: Some of them do. So what! None of this really matters! It’s like that book Conversations with Don Juan where Carlos says to Don Juan, "Don Juan aren’t you scared that I am writing all of this down and then people will know your magic?" And Don Juan, who, of course, never existed, says to Carlos, "Who cares? It’s just a book." Just words.
RB: Let’s go back to Long Time Coming. It draws on archives that contain between 150,000 to 200,000 images, however that’s determined. Has it been catalogued?
ML: It is still being catalogued. Eventually people will say, "We got it." And they probably have said it already. But again, if you look at the Appendix to the book, I alluded to Documenting America. Beverly Brannon is a wonderful archivist and is one of the people who wrote that book. The Appendix has all those numbers and depending on how you sliced the bologna, [Roy] Stryker did this, but then before Stryker this happened. And after Stryker this happened…
RB: Does it include the ones that he X-ed out and punched holes in?
ML: Sure. He didn’t punch holes in all of them, believe me. The guy was an asshole at times—but not always. He got better. He got wise.
RB: He went to work at Standard Oil, after his long stint at FSA, to do the same sort of thing. Is there a Standard Oil photography collection?
ML: Yes, it’s at the University of Louisville. It’s quite wonderful.
RB: Has a book been made out of those photos?
ML: Yeah. Nick Lehmann, who is now at the Columbia Journalism School and before that at The New Yorker and before that at Texas Monthly did a book called Out of the Forties. It’s a wonderful collection. It’s all nicely bound and they have the negatives nicely preserved.
RB: Who shot those photos?
ML: Many the people who had worked for Stryker at the end of his time with the Feds got hired and some new people too. Very good photographers. The rationale was, "There’s a drop of oil in everything. So whatever oil touches we can photograph." Right?
RB: I have spent some time in Cuba and when I have taken photographs there I have felt that I could close my eyes and click the shutter and so many things made wonderful pictures. The FSA photographs are wonderful and interesting but how much talent did it take to make these photographs?
ML: Plenty. Jesus Christ! Spend some time with the archive and the number of hits compared with misses and near misses is substantial. There are a lot of near misses and a lot of banalities. Russell Lee was a photographer who was in love with banalities. He was known as a cataloguer. If you asked Russell to photograph how a Texas boot was made, Russell would do photograph the process from the beginning to the end. I guess such boot making is now a lost art. Russell’s pictures look like they are out of an encyclopedia or a manual. But those FSA photographers were not monkeys seated at typewriters. They had to wake up everyday and make some art. Every day. Every day.
RB: I remember looking at a Robert Capa book and saying to myself, "I could take that picture." And then, as I turned the pages, I realized that I couldn’t have taken so many of those splendid photos.
ML: I Just saw a movie called The Professional. It’s about a guy who is a professional killer and the young girl he befriends. It’s a magnificent, noble film. Because what he is able to do is he is able live a life of a noble knight. Singular, alone, spare and he is able to do things in a way—they are horrible things—but he does them with a kind of clarity and elegance that is impossible to do even once for most people without their hearts ripping out of their chests. And he does it all the time. He is a broken man and a solitary man and a heart broken man. But he is able to do this one thing that is a mortal thing and at great risk with great simplicity. And that is very hard to do. And the art of these FSA photographers was similar. They were able to do it every day. And not die. Oh, a lot of them suffered. Lots were broken people, a lot of drunks, a few crazies. But they did beautiful work. At their best, they did beautiful work.
RB: There is a Walker Evans photo of an Alabama coal miner. In the corner of the frame is part of a camera.
ML: Oh yeah, he is sitting next to a guy in the car. I don’t know who his traveling companion was. I came upon a couple thousand Walker Evans, that no one had captioned because Stryker didn’t like them.
ML: Or they weren’t good enough. And they weren’t good enough in many cases. But there might have been twenty or thirty that were just wonderful. Really true pieces of art. And that was one of them. I for the life of me I don’t know who he traveled with. I know a scholar like Trachtenberg could tell you in minute just by triangulating…
RB: I didn’t care so much who it was as why it was in the frame? I don’t know that he had great concerns about cropping.
ML: No, he didn’t. Walker cropped. Walker thought that photographers were dummies. He wanted to be a writer. He had a literary mind. He was a sly man, a cunning man—a bit of an outlaw type. He didn’t give a shit about method and propriety—except when he did. He was a very fastidious man. He always carried two cameras. He worried a lot and he never had enough money. But if you would tried to ask him questions about gray scales as if he were some sort of an Ansel Adams, he’d have thought you were a fool of a veterinarian asking questions about the bowel habits of some large farm animal. Who cares? Art is mind. Remember the cliche: "Guns don’t kill people, people kill people." "Cameras don’t take pictures, people take pictures." "Mr Thoreau tell me about your pencil? I understand that your family were pencil manufacturers and you wrote using a pencil. What kind of pencil was it?" [ML makes a chopping sound]
RB: What do you called yourself? Are you a historian? Writer? Photographer?
ML: That guy [Mark Feeney] who interviewed me for the Boston Globe. He asked the same question. I think that what I am—I think I have a polymorphously perverse imagination and so—I will use whatever I can to try to tell some version of the truth. Whatever that is. I really believe in the truth. I think it exists. There are words for the truth in many human languages. They all have words for the truth.
RB: That sounds like John Updike’s argument for the existence of God: that because there are so many attempts to argue for God, he must exist.
ML: So I say the best thing to do is to try not just to bear witness but to imitate the truth. Imitate in such a way that others can experience not just as you experienced it, but as ‘it’ might very well be. That is, of course, an impossible undertaking. Can’t be done. Any one who thinks it can be done: they are obviously dangerous fools. So, the process of ‘telling the truth’ is always a process of doing something that is always wrong. Always impossible. Which is something that is good to do. If you were to ask me why I want to do this shit, I couldn’t tell you.
RB: I am not about to ask you. My question about your self-description is about the real world. That is, in terms of getting things done, you are called upon to, in some way or other, represent yourself or sell yourself. Much like the issue of where your books are shelved in a bookstore.
ML: That’s been the story of my life. Good luck. "Are you this?" "Yeah, for now." It’s like, whether it was Marx or Engels or Rousseau, in the ideal state you are one thing in the morning and another thing in the afternoon and a third thing in the evening and they are all one. Robert Lifton wrote about that, The Protean Self. I think Proteus is the right word. I think being Proteus is admirable. I think shape shifter is a good word. I don’t know. To the extent I have an ability to use words, and to the extent I have the ability to use photographs, other peoples’ photographs, to talk about what passes for historical reality. So figure it out. I don’t know what that is. No one knows what that is. They could say, "You’re an intellectual." And that’s very good and the Europeans have used and defined the word ‘intellectual’ in a proper way for a long time that we haven’t— someone who loves ideas and uses ideas.
RB: That’s a discredited preoccupation in the US. How about being called a narrator?
ML: A narrator is a good word. Honestly, I wish I knew. It would make me happier. It would really have made me happier if I had been able to tell someone a long time ago what it was I was. But I don’t really know and to tell you the honest truth—and think I said this to Mark Feeney, "Half the people in the world think I am a complete fool and half the people think I walk on water and I never know which half I am talking to."
RB: What argument is presented that what you do is not important or meaningless or trivial? How would someone frame that?
ML: It is trivial. I mean, who cares? You could say that about any literary or artistic or intellectual enterprise. For instance, your enterprise—talking to five hundred people for a magazine and over a hundred for a website. That’s trivial. It’s all trivial.
RB: As specks of sand in the Universe?
ML: As specks of sand in the flow of American money and power. It’s trivial. Look at these people who you have never met and very few people have, who are these photo-archivists. They are like monks— women and men who amass vast archives of wonderment—and no one fucking rings the doorbell except to say, [in a shrill voice] "Do you happen to have a recipe for chocolate chip cookies?" Right?
RB: Or photos of Calvin Coolidge.
ML: Or whatever.
RB: Are we talking about contemporary standard and values or something more…
ML: Eternity. It’s right out of Borges. That’s why I included it ["Tlon,Ughar, Orrbis Tertius" from Borges’ Ficciones]. It’s like that Isaac Asimov Foundation Trilogy with Harry Selden who is a psycho-historian. He has it all made. [sighs deeply] Oh man! [Historian William Appleton] Williams was, by the way, a real fan of the Foundation trilogy.
RB: I was too, but I stopped reading those years ago.
ML: Dune is still a great book.
RB: That’s the last speculative fiction that I read. You have asserted your great belief in the book, what books are you working on next.
ML: I have at least three books that I am thinking about doing. It’s a matter of the practicality. I wanted to do a book…[long pause] I won’t say because it’s public. I have three different schemes.
RB: Along the lines of the photographic archive books?
ML: They are all photo books.
RB: I suspect that you know something about how to make pictures. How is it that you haven’t made or used your own pictures?
ML: It’s like, “Don’t give up your day job.” I am a good photographer. I don’t think that’s where I am going to leave it. I think being a good photographer is a manifestation of a good visual sense. That then serves me as someone who looks at other people’s pictures, as an editor, as a chooser. As someone who loves to look. My idea of a good job would be to be paid really well to sit on my ass all day to look at pictures. That’s why I do admire Stryker and why I really, really admire Paul Vanderbilt. Those guys loved to look. It’s like Chauncy Gardner [in the film Being There], "I like to look." Oh, yes.
RB: The Globe piece mentioned you have looked at close to six million images?
ML: Who knows? I think at the time when Feeney asked that I might have considered and added stuff up. Certainly when I was looking at pictures that turned into a book called Bearing Witness, I know I looked at about a million images in the Library of Congress and the National Archives and the Pentagon. I don’t really know and at a certain point the thing that I do would be a really entertaining episode of The Twilight Zone. Or a forty-second episode from the David Bowie film The Man Who Fell To Earth. [long pause] I understand why I am an odd person, but I don’t understand why there aren’t more odd people like me. We are a visually saturated culture.
RB: I think there are more people like you than you think. Perhaps the oddest thing about you is that your oddity has been combined with the perseverance and fortitude to move your projects forward. Where other odd people are lacking in that. Also, to look at your work someone might rightly say there is only going to be one book like that…
ML: Yeah, so why do it?
RB: So I don’t think you are alone. You mentioned Nicholas Lehman earlier. In a New Yorker piece on Michael Powell [the FCC chairman] he mentioned a conversation he had with his high-school aged son about American History, concluding that “the problem with American history we that there was too much of it.” Which I took to mean that we teach too much about the factual details about treaties and legislation and leave out the narrative juices.
ML: In the same way that you can assure me that I am not alone, I would say to you look at Undaunted Courage about Lewis and Clark or the David McCullough books. These are wonderful stories and people read them. The guy who runs C-Span reads them all the time. So these magnificent tales are available and are published and people buy them and unfortunately Nick’s son may not have had a chance, at the moment, to read them.
RB: So you are optimistic that US history is accessible and appreciated by our fellow citizens?
ML: Who knows? It’s like the people who listen to classical music and go to Tanglewood. Ten years from now it will probably be a cow pasture because no one will show up. And ten years from now all the people who read McCullough’s latest great book on the Adams family will all be buried, dead.
RB: Not to throw cold water on your good feelings here, but there is such a thing as an unread best seller. That book sold well over a million copies in hard cover. I don’t know that all those copies were read.
ML: That’s true. It’s like that guy who is confined to the wheel chair.
RB: Stephen Hawking?
ML: They bought the book but they probably couldn’t—people have said that about his books, "Oh man the guy can’t move and he can’t talk, but he is a goddamn genius. He’s a genius man. Here, I bought his book." Yeah, it’s a consumer product. I think the stuff; the really interesting stuff about American history is unprintable. All the stuff that is coming out now from the White House tape machines.
RB: Unprintable because corporate publishers aren’t going to print it?
ML: It’s so fucking dangerous. It’s not just some cliché like "These fuckers are all crazy; they’re all Dr Strangeloves; they’re all Nazi, drug infested, degenerates." That’s just a bedtime cliché. That’s just a dark, nightmare fairytale. A story told to scare grownup children. The reality is worse than that…
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing