“The universe tends towards maximum entropy, the condition of ultimate disorder from which there is no return. The eggs will all have scrambled, the sand castles blown down, the sun and the stars faded to uniformity.”
James Gleick, Time Travel

The Fourth Dimension

After a summer break, here’s the third episode of my podcast, Available Light. I produced it after thinking about Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, what it means for originality, and remembering a sentence I heard in an interview a while back.

You can listen below – or click “Read more” to continue to the transcript.

Read More

Strange and Familiar

The Romanian capital is just two hours away from Berlin, and it’s both strange and familiar: Bucharest’s center is a concrete jungle of Stalinist ambitions, with the city fanning out from the grand boulevard in curvy streets. There are crumbling walls and faded signs, but also specialty coffee places rivaling Berlin, charming restaurants, and colorfully decorated back alleys. The streets smell of dust, fumes, and freshly-baked apple pie.

Visiting a new city always turns into a character study. What is is like? What are its people like? I met a Romanian man on the train who asked how I liked the trip. “It’s fun”, I responded. “Really?”, he exclaimed, with wide eyes. Bucharest doesn’t have the greatest reputation, but it feels like a city on the upswing, positively brimming with change.

For me, photography has always been a way to make sense of a place. And Romania, where it was still warm and sunny, invited itself to taking pictures. My camera never left my hand, and I tried to get a common look into my photos: a bit grittier than usual, a bit more casual and bright.

We took a train up to the Transylvanian city Brasov, which was the polar opposite of Bucharest – it looks like an Austrian mountain town, and even has German signs all over the place. It felt weirdly colorful, and a bit as though the train had taken us back to central Europe.

I am not sure my photos do Romania any justice. I seek out the crumbling walls and random bits, probably because I don’t have them at home. Not all phone booths are broken. I didn’t see anyone with the haircut below. As Romania changes, those are the things poised to go away, no doubt making the man on the train lose some self-doubt about his country. And as much as that makes sense, it’ll make the place less strange and more familiar, aligning it with the length of the trip.

Obsessed with visual pleasure

In 1971, photographer Sheila Turner-Seed interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson. The transcript was long stored away in a time capsule, but was unearthed by her daughter in 2013. The New York Times Lens blog published it as a two-part series that I can’t recommend enough. Cartier-Bresson was a veritable quotation machine, seemingly putting out memorable sentences with every other answer. Here are some from Part 2 of the interview:

Freedom for me is a strict frame, and inside that frame are all the variations possible.”

“Photography as I conceive it, well, it’s a drawing — immediate sketch done with intuition and you can’t correct it. If you have to correct it, it’s the next picture. But life is very fluid. Well, sometimes the pictures disappear and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t tell the person, ‘Oh, please smile again. Do that gesture again.’ Life is once, forever.”

“The difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is a question of millimeters — small, small differences — but it’s essential. I didn’t think there is such a big difference between photographers. Very little difference. But it is that little difference that counts, maybe.”


No known copyright restrictions

One of the internet’s most wonderful places is tucked away in the menu of a fading social network. Flickr, the pioneering photo sharing site, hosts not just photos its users have uploaded, but also a treasure trove of historic photographs, illustrations, and visual artifacts.

By the National Library of Ireland

E. River


Started as a side-project in the mid-2000s, The Commons is Flickr’s ongoing partnerships with museums and libraries across the world, hosting an endless amount of their archival images. The plan was for the Flickr community to annotate those images, identify unknown places or people, and make that knowledge available to the world.

There were some early efforts to do that, but it appears that the attention of Flickr’s management has long turned elsewhere, rendering The Commons a curious, if wonderful relic of a bygone internet era.

A treasure trove of stunning photography and positively weird illustrations

Go ahead and visit that page, whose design has never been updated and looks like the Internet of 2006. Try to locate the tiny search box, enter something, and watch as it unearths some utterly random historic imagery.






You’ll quickly realize that this might be one of the most overlooked resources of the Internet, a treasure trove of stunning historic photography, illustrations, and positively weird artifacts. You can enter almost anything you want and chances are you’ll find a photo that surprises or delights you, something you have never seen or didn’t know existed.

The photography on the Commons is mostly black and white, a grainy and sometimes bitterly low-resolution affair. It stings when the image is particularly great, but it makes it feel even more like the digital equivalent of browsing through an antique book shop, flea market, or box in your grandparent’s attic.

But the best part is the copyright for these images has long expired, meaning that you can use them for just about anything. Some of these images no adorn the walls in my apartment, I use others over at The Idea List, or as an inspiration for writing. And maybe that’s why The Commons feels like such a relic: The internet isn’t really like it any more. That spirit of sharing, remixing and repurposing has become rare, the internet (in the words of Destroyer) “a tight and perfect digital palace”, meant to be consumed rather than interacted with.

And I can’t help but feel that it might be temporary, with Yahoo! now acquired and Flickr’s future all but certain. It will be a sad day when this corner of the internet gets closed down, the end of a chapter.


I just stumbled upon this sweeping 2007 review of Bolaño’s Savage Detectives by Daniel Zalewski of the New Yorker. It talks not just about the writer’s twisted and tragic life story, but also about his rejection of literary mainstream and his dislike for Magic Realism – only to introduce a new term that I couldn’t agree more with:

When “The Savage Detectives” was published, Ignacio Echevarría, Spain’s most prominent literary critic, praised it as “the kind of novel that Borges could have written.” He got it half right. Borges, whose longest work of fiction is fifteen pages, would likely have admired the way Bolaño’s novel emerges from a branching tree of stories. But what would he have made of the delirious road trip, the frenzied sex, the sloppy displays of male ego? Bolaño fills his canvas with messy Lawrencian emotions but places them within a coolly cerebral frame. It’s a style worthy of its own name: visceral modernism.