I Go to Paris Photo

It’s big. Really big.

I survived Paris Photo and left with a head full of questions.

Paris Photo is perhaps the most important fair for the photography world. More than 130 exhibitors show work on the main floor. These are the biggest cats in the jungle: Gagosian, Marlboro, and Magnum are among the illustrious hawking the work of the greats, the famous, and the soon-to-celebrated.

In a second section, more than 30 publishers have booths, and, again, these are the big names. For photography, anyway.

I arrived early. It was before the great wave of aficionados and boho hoi polloi swamped the hall. A club-like atmosphere hovered in the air. Old friends exchanged embraces. For many, it was the first time they’d seen in other in months, thanks to the restrictions of Covid-19. Bonhomie all around.

It was like being in a high-end restaurant — a sense of glamour and exclusivity washes over you, along with the happiness of being someplace special.

In other words, the scent of money was in the air. I felt the business of photography in my nerves in a way I never had. It’s a fair, a market. At its core, the scene at Paris Photo is another version of the open air market a few blocks away at La Motte Picquet where hawkers sell fish, cheese, scarves, and even postcards.

Armed with my trusty notebook and iPhone, I set out to make discoveries.

Photo by Paul Cupido

Three qualities stood out:

Narrative. Several photographers are making tableaux vivants, or movie stills from films that haven’t been made. Some of these are in series, others a single image. Many books use text to tell stories parallel to the images.

Photo by Kinsco Bede, an emerging talent

Anti-representation. Or, pushing the plain old photo into painterly territory. Distorting, collaging, bending and twisting the printing process, or putting paint on the photograph itself. 

Photo by Sergio Larrain – an old favorite

Variety. Despite what I’ve pointed out, I couldn’t discern any overarching tendencies. Any example you could cite would be undercut by another set of work.

Women. Pictures by female photographers were highlighted; you could even follow a preset “female path” through the exhibits. This is a useful and valuable idea. The excellent photographs by Deborah Turbeville, Zoë Ghertner, and Mona Schulzek — among others — were so strong they deserved as large an audience as possible.

One percent. This is an event for the global elite. The organizers made several attempts to open it up to those who can’t afford to buy, say, an Irving Penn photo. Still, how many people are ready to purchase a photobook? Starting $50 per copy, even the books have the feel of a luxury item, no matter what’s inside the pages.

The day wore on. I realized that relying on serendipity was foolish. More people kept pouring in. I was toast.

Next time, I’ll have a strategy and stick to it. I’ll spread out the fun over two or even three days, and be sure to read the critiques and reports that appear after the opening. Frankly, with so many photographers and so many exhibits, I need all the help I can get.

Let me tell you a dirty secret: Hardly any one spent more than 15 seconds in front of any photo. All that hard work, all that creativity, and, in some cases, physical danger to produce an inspired image merited less time than you’d spend on a kitty video on Instagram.

Of course, you hope that — later, in private — someone will linger over a photo for at least a minute or two. I’d like to believe that.

You wonder what the purpose of all this highly skilled image making is. In a world saturated with images, why add to the deluge? At what point does it all descend into visual noise? Yeah, I was one overwhelmed pup panting under the curved roof of Le Grand Palais Ephemere.

But aren’t we all? Nearly everyone I see stares at their smartphone whenever they can. In a short session on Instagram, I see more photos than Life magazine published in a year. How do we stop the restless, hungry, and bored eye?

Who dwells with a painting or photograph? How do we make images that matter, that stick in the mind, that make for an experience, esthetic or not?

These are questions that would take a career to respond to — assuming they can be answered at all.

Another Set of First Impressions: Paris

rainbow over les invalides paris by tim  roessler

I’ve  been lucky enough not only to visit Paris but also to return pretty often.

Each time I come here, I’m surprised by the same set of contrasts with my home town of Boulder. Even though I should know better and remember, I’m still dazzled. I’ll list them here.

Now, my Parisian friends would read this skeptically, present counter examples, and scoff, lightly but politely, but they’d scoff. Familiarity breeds knowledge as well as contempt. But first impressions bring a freshness with them that can fade over time.

So here’s what struck me this time, straight out of the gates of Charles de Gaulle airport.

Thin. Parisians are slender, slim, thin and fat free. As a group. Old men all look like The Rolling Stones, only with regular clothes. Women of a certain age weigh what they must have as blushing girls at high school. Sure, not all of them are whippet thin. But you don’t see the supersized bodies you see down at the local shopping mall. 

Warm. Couples are physically affectionate. Pairs walk arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand, or one arm draped over a shoulder. They lean languorously on each other, share private jokes. Back home, sure, you’ll see teenagers all over each other, hungry. But here, it’s an all-ages pastime, and there’s an easy sensuality and warmth. This includes same sex couples now.

Smoke. Cigarettes and cigarette smoke. Far fewer people smoke than even a few years ago. But far more smoke here than in my crunchy hometown. All ages, too — college-aged girls, crusty and creaky old guys, nervous middle-aged ladies in navy blue. 

Dress. People, generally, dress deliberately. You don’t see a lot of tailoring or suits. But it does look as if most people figured out how to look good, spent a few minutes before a mirror, and made an effort. You have high end ladies of a ferocious and strict elegance with large sunglasses, discreet pearls, Hermes scarves, wool skirts and so on. You also see your dandified dudes. 

On the other extreme, you see track suits here and there. Dammit. But then to balance these out: Miniskirts. Really short miniskirts.

Warm, part two. The women at the bakery hand you fresh baguettes still warm from the oven.

Scent. Olfactory feast. In Colorado, we live in a semi-arid climate. The air’s so dry, it doesn’t carry many fragrances. Some, yes, and the good ones include pine after rain, sage, earth, stone, and, if you’re close enough, Chanel 19. One of the stenches is weed. Or car exhaust.

But apart from those, it’s a fairly sterile, odorless place. Here, in Paris, you’re overwhelmed.

Yeast and sugar from bakeries. Cigars. Perfumes, nice ones from Hermes and Guerlain, linger on the air. Linden leaves, a leathery cologne, thyme, and, whew, a cheese store.

That’s all in one long city block.

Oh, and the whole body odor cliché? It’s November, so it’s unlikely. But in general, it’s exaggerated, especially lately.

Covid. Not so much. The rules here are the same as at home. You wear a mask indoors in shops and offices and on public transportation. You show your sanitary pass, or health passport, a QR code, and you can eat a meal without a mask or sip coffee outside, no problem. Tents for rapid testing have popped up outside of some pharmacies. You roll in, get the test and receive the results in 10 minutes. 

Juice. This is a tricky one, so hang in with me here. First, all people deserve freedom and dignity, and people should be able express themselves and their gender as they wish. But I have to say, Frenchmen seem more masculine and Frenchwomen much more feminine than in Boulder and Denver. In general. They have more … juice.

As the Russians say, the men seem like cats that can still catch mice. The women, too.

That’s enough for now. If you were to get off a flight and stroll around a few avenues and boulevards, you might have a completely different set of impressions.

And you should. Fly on over. Sniff the air, walk a little, and tell me what you think. We’ll both be richer for it.

Read: At Heaven’s Gate

photo of a copy of At Heaven’s Gate by tim roessler timothy roessler

At Heaven’s Gate by Robert Penn Warren is worthwhile hunk of American realism with extraordinary characters. It centers on a young woman’s quest for liberation as she tries to move out from under the domination of her wealthy and powerful father. Warren savages the materialism of the 1920s and the greed and corruption that inevitably accompany the lust for money and power. A second narrative is built in to the book. This first-person account of a backwoodsman’s journey from violence to redemption would make a fine novella on its own. 

This is the novel that Warren wrote just before All the King’s Men. I recently re-read that book and found every bit as masterful and brilliant as I did the first time. I wanted to see where that masterpiece had come from and get a sense of Warren’s development as a writer.

At Heaven’s Gate doesn’t hit the high mark of All the King’s Men, but it’s still a fine piece of work with some narrative twists and those amazing sentences that Warren rolls out. A few story elements are surprisingly melodramatic, but that said, many of the scenes remain indelible. Even with its flaws, this dark and scorching vision of a rotting America will haunt and harrow you.

Aftermath Interview

The Boulder Weekly’s managing editor, Caitlin Rockett, was kind enough to sit down with me and ask me questions about my photobook.

You can read the article here.

Caitlin is a gifted interviewer. She has an amazing ability to put you at ease immediately. How she shaped such a good piece out of my ramblings is a real testament to her skill as a writer.

I’m very grateful she met with me, and even more thankful for the resulting piece.

You can still order Aftermath from Blurb.

fallen

aspens by tim roessler timothy roessler

Happy Autumn. It’s the best season of the year. The Jews have it right: start the year now, and not in gloomy and dank January.

And the beginning of any season is the best part of the season, its youth. If I had my choice, the calendar would be: April, June, September, December — but with the months made longer. (Time is already speeding by; who needs to shorten the year?)

Aftermath: Available Now

photo by tim roessler timothy roessler of the parking lot of the King Soopers in Table Mesa

My photobook/zine, Aftermath, is available for ordering.

You can find it here

It’s about the moment after a mass shooting, in this case the slaughter in Boulder, Colorado. It gets around the clichés you’re all used to and tries to tell the truth slant as Emily Dickinson told us to.

I took all the photos within a 100-yard radius. Everything in that circle is within the range of the automatic weapon the shooter used to slaughter 10 people.

My hope is that by taking a sideways but granular view of this atrocity, we can see its dimensions — slant and new and ready to be faced, felt, and considered carefully.

Aftermath/100 Yards

photo by tim roessler of mother and baby

This is an image from my upcoming photobook/zine called Aftermath. It’s about what happens after a mass shooting.

I took the photos all within a 100 yard radius of the entrance to the King Soopers, where a shooter massacred 10 people. One hundred yards is the range of the AR-556 weapon that police say the accused killer used.

We often see mass shootings through a choreographed and fixed narrative. I have been working on telling the story of the March 22 slaughter in a way that’s “slant” — and so, I hope, making it new.

If you would like to order it, please let me know via tim @ tim roessler.com (put in the spaces) or hit me up in the comments section. It’s in production now and should be out by the end of September.

End of Summer

photo by tim roessler timothy roessler of an empty swimming pool

It feels strange, doesn’t it? The end of summer. The sun sets earlier, and a merciful cool sets in, but it is not the chill of autumn. Children troop by on their way to school bent over with those impossibly overloaded backpacks. Too soon. School should start in September. 

The summer’s almost over. This time has always been liminal. Waiting for the new school year: What will it be like? Will my teachers be nice? Will I meet a beautiful girl? The promises of May and June have either been fulfilled or cancelled or more likely been delivered with a twist of irony. You did have an affair, but she called it off when you didn’t expect it. You took that epic road trip, but the treasure you found wasn’t under the rainbow after all. 

I feel this season, this waiting more keenly now than ever. The vaccine offered the possibility of a return to life as we knew it. I remember the sensation of relief after the second shot: I’m free. The virus can’t get me, no sir. I’ve been double vaxxed.

And especially in June, we bathed in a hectic vitality. Everyone left home. We went out, and each individual seemed marvelous, worth of attention and curiosity. We used our outside voices, like a person going deaf.

HOW ARE YOU? COOL!! IT’S SO GREAT TO SEE YOOOUUUU!!!!

Strolling on Pearl Street Mall — the local pedestrian street in the center of town — was like a giant caress. Those new faces! And everyone so happy. They always seemed as interested and charmed by you as you were by them. It was like floating on a sea of dopamine.

That was June. Before the heat. Before the smoke from another summer of wild fires made Denver the most polluted city on the plant.

Before the Delta variant.

I guessed wrong. I thought another summer of love would explode, with a frenzied return to the fabled 1920s fueled by the rush to connect and the proximity to death. “Look, we have come through.”

It didn’t work out that way.

A surprisingly large number of my friends and family think that the vaccine itself is equivalent to the mark of Satan, as described in the Book of Revelation. Or, that wearing a mask indoors is like collaborating with the Sturmabteilung in 1938. How did that happen? I remember back in the day — oh, 2019 or so — when these people seemed practical and a little boring.

One guy told me his friends said the vaccine would turn you into a zombie. I guess he didn’t know that’s what television is for. Or that, actually, zombies are myth.

Another said the vaccine would kill your soul. I might’ve lost my soul in the late 1990s, or perhaps it was finally sucked out of me in a shopping mall when the background music played The Carpenters. I don’t know. But the last time I checked my theology and Plato, the soul is supposed to be a little more durable. If you believe in a soul, that is.

On the other hand, people returned to wearing masks inside of cars and outdoors on trails. So far, not even Dr. Fauci recommends this. Also: care doesn’t confer immortality. Both my parents were conscientious about taking precautions. They died. We all die. Masks aren’t voodoo charms.

I wash my hands thoroughly. Again. I leave the house with a mask. Again. In the midst of my own dismay, I remind myself of the 600,000 Americans who’ve died and the nastiness of long Covid, and then feel thankful I haven’t contracted the virus yet.

And I’m stuck Hamletizing. Again. Do I go or not? I miss watching movies and plays, and seeing live performers giving their all under stage lights in a ballet or in a band. I don’t care about shopping so much, and it’s quick: in out, done. But once again, you weigh the risks of being indoors for longer than, say 15 minutes. It’s not the worst burden, but it’s stale.

When I look around, I can tell the pandemic and the lockdowns have warped people. They’re wolfing down conspiracy theories or seething with rage at anti-vaxxers. All of us have grown awkward around each other. Only the Swedes seem to have factored in the social costs of lockdowns, but they didn’t manage the pandemic very well either.  Still, those costs are real and maybe permanent. How much more damage can we sustain?

In the welter of confusion and uncertainty, the season will end. Seasons are bigger than we are and don’t care about our feelings.  I’ll work hard to remain humane and as Stoic as possible in the face of things. No whiners, my dad said.

Perhaps that was toxic masculinity. I’m working on intoxicating masculinity these days, but that wouldn’t include whimpering or wailing. Not a good look.

Instead, I’m looking forward to crisp air, changing leaves, and even the coming winter. The fall sharpened by uncertainty and the undercurrent of dread. I’ll embrace that as best I can.

After all, what else can I do?

Review: Jewish Denver 1859-1940

Golda Meir, standing, when she lived in Denver.

I love albums of family photos. You can spend hours pouring over the images, seeing the changes time makes to the young girl or study the former elegance of men on Sundays.

Jewish Denver 1859-1940, by Jeanne E. Abrams, is a picture book with well researched captions. The Wild West in general and Colorado in particular aren’t really associated with Jews, yet they played a large role in the settling and development of the Rocky Mountains.  The first wave of Jews came mostly from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many scrappy families established businesses in the mining camps of Central City, Leadville, and Cripple Creek, along with Denver. 

They came largely because, however hard life in the mining camps or out the dusty plains was, the West offered promise and greater social mobility than any European country. Not to mention those pogroms back in the old country — nothing like watching a Cossack slice up grandpa to make you want to book a spot on the next boat out of Warsaw.

The range of faces in these antique photos are amazing — toughs, weisenheimers, machers, saints, scholars, mothers, fathers, and children. And it seems that nearly all of them did pretty well and then immediately set up charities as soon as they made an extra dollar.

Many of the businesses the Jewish immigrants started lasted well into my lifetime: Fashion Bar, Neusteters, the Robinson Dairy, and Samsonite luggage were all fixtures at the local shopping malls — all started by Jews in Colorado bootstrapping their way out of poverty.

Ruth Handler, inventor of the Barbie doll, stands center, in a nurse’s costume

Among the faces, two stand out: a darkly and surprisingly pretty Golda Meir as a young woman and Ruth Handler, the inventor of the Barbie Doll.

I’d like to have seen some note of the conflicts the Jewish community faced. Denver had a few pogroms of its own in the 1910s. The rise of the  Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was fueled by anti-Semitism. The Jewish community resisted  these evils bravely and in the end, victoriously.  Nor is there any mention of the role of Jews in the Denver underworld. And I remember well Green Gables Country Club, started when the Denver Country Club refused to allow Jews to become members.

Overall, this is the kind of book you might give to your grandma on her birthday. It’s a triumphalist narrative as it ought to be, sweet tempered and focused on the outsized impact of the Colorado Jews.

Jewish Denver isn’t an especially substantial book, but it’s worth a look if you like Colorado or Denver history. 

Or old family photos.

Aftermath 2: A modest proposal for gun patriots

image of a cross at King Soopers Table Mesa by Timothy Tim Roessler

A lot of arguments for and again gun control hit the media after the shootings in Boulder, Colorado. Advocates on both sides repeat the same set of polemics after every big slaughter. 

One caught me off guard, though. It goes like this: The deaths are sad, but that’s the price you pay for liberty. Freedom involves risk. Some people will suffer or die, but our right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the Constitution justifies that possibility. Victims of mass shootings, therefore, died for our freedoms.

Now, the guys making this argument are obviously still alive. Up until now, they can only laud the dead. You can’t really ask them or their loved ones to make the same sacrifice themselves, now, can you? It’s simply not practical to wander around shopping malls or churches or outside of dance clubs with a sign pinned on your back saying “Shoot Me! I support your Right to Bear Arms!! Kill Me Now!!!

But still, what enthusiasm! What commitment!!

Now I’m sure these guys want to do more. And show how much they really, really care. A donation to the National Rifle Association and a vote for gun rights advocates seems too petty for these patriots. It’s too damned easy, and they know it.

So I propose a program, funded out of gun sales, to help them truly show their commitment. And, because they say the Right to Bear Arms is a life or death issue, they should be eager to join. Put it on the line, I say!

Here’s how it’d work: Second Amendment gun patriots sign up for a lottery to enter the Freedom Cleanser and Comforter Squad (FCCS). This qualifies them for a chance at the glorious duty of caring for the dead and the grieving in the wake of a mass slaughter.

After the shooting, the agency holds a drawing. Then our Gun Patriot receives his summons. He arrives on the scene of the carnage— trailer park, grocery store, business office, dance club, church, plaza, wherever.

Once the forensic professionals have finished, he has the duty to clean up the bodies. Lift the blood and feces-stained corpses into the waiting ambulances.  Scrape the bits of bone and brain from the linoleum or concrete. Wipe the blood from the floor. There will be a lot of blood; the average human holds about five liters. 

A little advertised fact of violent death is that the victim’s bowels release. So our sturdy gun patriot will have to wipe up the shit and the piss as well, and ensure that the steps or the pews or the aisles are properly disinfected.

You might think this would be enough for a dedicated Second Amendment advocate, but I know he’ll want to do even more to help defend our freedom.

So he’ll be eager for the next job: comforting the families of the victims. He’ll go with a professional to help break the news to the mothers, the fathers, the sisters, the brothers, and perhaps the grandmothers and grandfathers. He will watch as they receive news that will shatter their lives and scar them with grief for the the rest of their lives.

Because it’s a little too easy just to bat out some platitudes about freedom and sacrifice on a keyboard. And I bet they know it, somewhere inside, and instead of repeating something about death they heard, they can now be in it, in the very heart of darkness and pain and grief.

It seems like the very least those stalwarts could do.