Pockets of Light

The travel guide I bought in Berlin had summed up Lisbon under the term sadness. “Get lost in the city of sweet sadness”, it said on the cover. A reference to an apparently famous Portuguese word, saudade, which stands for embracing unease with the general state of the world.

I got the allure. I didn’t need sadness in my life or was particularly keen on reveling in it; but finding a place with manifest melancholy nevertheless seemed an interesting prospect.

So there I was, trudging through the fog on a Lisbon morning, overexposing all my photos to punch out the colors. In place of saudade I noticed an intense sense of discovery: The fog slowly lifted and began revealing the city, a suddenly powerful sun bathing its patterned facades in a warm light.

Turns out that’s another thing Lisbon is famous for: Light. There’s probably some geographic explanation for it, the location at the edge of the European continent, the nearby Atlantic, the river cutting across the city. Maybe a combination of them all. On that January morning it made Lisbon seem removed from the rest of the world. A place with pockets of brilliant light, surrounded by a wall of fog.

Many years ago, I read an interview with Noah Lennox, the musician known as Panda Bear. In it, he spoke about how in Lisbon he had found his perfect place to be, invoking pastel-colored buildings, and those chaotic alley that somehow feed into his layered music. I couldn’t find the interview again, but in that moment I got it: Not just the fascination with Lisbon, but with finding a place that speaks to you—be it through sweet sadness, bright lights, or just the feeling it conjures.

“One thing I had already guessed: I would have to write always, not waiting for a better moment because that would simply never come. Writing was always difficult for me, even though I had begun with what is known as vocation. Vocation is different from talent. One can have vocation and not talent; one can be called and not know how to go.”
—Clarice Lispector

In the Colored World, There’s No Space for Dreams

This advertising clip for the Leica M Monochrom is both amazing and completely ridiculous:

It reminds me of how shunned color photography used to be, with Henri Cartier-Bresson reportedly telling William Eggleston, a trailblazer of color photography: “You know, William, color is bullshit.”

Of course it isn’t there is some incredibly evocative color photography, and I would argue some of the best doesn’t rely on accurate color reproduction to bring across it’s effect. The idea that color is bullshit is wrong, but the idea that black and white evokes a certain kind of fantasy that color doesn’t, nevertheless works.

It’s why I can’t get that clip out of my head.

Ten Podcast Faves of 2017

Radio hat, 1931.

For the first year in ages, I’m actually satisfied with how much I’ve read in 2017. But no matter how many pages I turned, audio remained my favorite way of delving into different worlds or seeing our own from a new perspective.

Coincidentally, 2017 saw a bunch of podcasts that were much longer, or much more dense than anything I can remember hearing in the past. Listening to them on trains, buses, or my endless lapses around Tempelhof airport was like having a book read out in my head. At the same time, I got to be outside—a perfect combination.

Here’s my annual list of favorite podcast episodes, the stuff that made me stop in my tracks or sometimes even giddy with excitement. Have a listen!

  1. S-Town — Chapter One
    Ostensibly about a murder case in rural Alabama, this seven-episode show quickly turns into an a character study that challenges how you’ll think about belonging and betrayal.

  2. Missing Richard Simmons – Where’s Richard?
    Beginning with one of the most compelling story openings I’ve ever heard, this podcast takes a topic you probably don’t care about and makes you care. It’s weird, wacky, voyeuristic, and I could not stop listening.

  3. Ways of Hearing – Time
    “My friends and I lived in an all analog world”, says musician Damon Krukowski at the beginning of this show. Then he goes on to explore how digitization has changed the way we listen—and how that has impacted everything from our sense of time to how we express love.

  4. Hurry Slowly – Craig Mod
    When writer Jocelyn K. Glei announced that she was recording a podcast about “pacing yourself”, I was already on board. Then she got one of my favorite writers on the shows and I listened gleefully. This episode is about many of the topics I’ve been thinking about lately—how to be productive, how not to be distracted, and how to be in the moment—and presents an unorthodox solution.

  5. Heavyweight – Jesse
    Season two of Jonathon Goldsteins excellent podcast featured this tale of a man who got hit by a car now wants to find the driver to say thanks.

  6. Reply All – Man of the People
    Imagine you’re a shady doctor at the beginning of the radio era. Wouldn’t it make sense to get a broadcasting license and tell the world about your magic cures?

  7. 99% Invisible – The Pool and the Stream
    Turns out that skating culture is linked to Finnish architecture of the 1930s.

  8. The Memory Palace – Temple
    In May, I went to New York City for a week. As luck would have it, Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace would do a live performance at the Met one of the days I was there. “Even though it’s sold out, I’m sure we can get in somehow,” my friend Pete remarked. Lo and behold, we did — and this was one of the stories performed that night, just a room away from the insanity of an Egyptian temple actually standing in a museum, thousands of years later.

  9. Deutschlandfunk – Der Tag
    2017 has been the year of news podcasts, with the New York Times’ The Daily blazing the trail. If you speak German, check out our state broadcaster’s one: Der Tag is on point, exceptionally well done, and nowhere near as stiff as the Deutschlandfunk broadcasts I remembered from years ago. (No recommended episode here, since it comes out every single day.)

  10. Available Light – Anterior Future
    …and for a bit of shameless self-promotion: My favorite episode of my own podcast, tracing the exceptional life of the photographer Tina Modotti.

Feeling reminiscent? Here are my favorites from 2016 and 2015.

Smitten

Sometimes you need to see a place in a new light.

When I woke up in Porto yesterday, peeked out the window from behind the curtains and saw the sun, it felt like I was seeing a brand-new city. Oh, I had been here before, once as a child and again seven years ago. I had liked it then, but somehow there hadn’t been much of a spark. This time felt different: Walking the streets of Portugal’s second city, I was smitten. By the way this place looked, this an old city coming forcefully into its own.

I was twisting my neck, looking at the historic façades, some crumbling, some restored, and I marveled at the elevation this place had: Hills from which to look down onto the river, winding alleys that went either up or down, that impossibly high bridge.

Having grown up in Northern Germany and having lived in the Netherlands, elevation is not something I’m used to, and I loved the sense of dimension it added to the city.

I felt excitement, not just about the place, but about being there and how it made me feel: It reminded me the same sense of possibility I felt when I moved to Berlin. Which has remained a lovely place to live, but the years of prosperity and renovation have sanded down its rough edges to a degree that some of the excitement evaporated. Or maybe it’s the years that have sanded down my excitement as well; either way, I was reminded to how I felt when I first came to Berlin and it was still very cheap, and charmingly dilapidated. I’m not talking ruin porn, but rather possibility, of which Porto, in that morning sunlight, seemed to have plenty.

I stood at a street corner, camera at the ready, as a cloud of smoke began wafting into the sunlight. It was smoke from one of the local chestnuts salesman, who was just firing up their mobile oven for another round of roasting. People passed through the frame, casting shadows onto the street that led steeply down to the river. I didn’t even take a picture. I just blinked, enjoyed the sunlight on my face, and took it all in.

Historical Distance

If you’ve ever been turned off by the photography part of my podcast about photography, give this episode a listen. It’s about not fitting in, being ahead of one’s time, and misjudging history.

Listen below or or read on for the transcript.

Read More

The Industrialists’ Dilemma

I could hardly agree more with this piece by Hanson O’Haver on The Outline: Not Every Article Needs a Picture. Go read it for yourself, it makes a lot of important points about internet publishing and how social networks have forced every last piece of text to come with an illustrative photo. As O’Haver pointedly remarks, adults don’t need pictures to help them read—and yet they’re everywhere.

The article struck a chord with me. Not only because prefer images to add value rather than just serve as thumbnails. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how work is presented online and how we can make it more compelling.

Because even though digital publishing has lots of advantages to print1, presentation isn’t yet one of them. Whereas good magazines use the blank page as a canvas, making the design serve the content, online publishers do the opposite: All content2 is shoved into relatively static templates.

Look at Medium: Although the platform has created a very nice reading environment, its strict formatting forces all writing into a generic shape. Sure, there are some slight customizations you can make (like adding a picture…) but the presentation is about as flexible as Henry Ford’s famous approach to car colors: “You can have any color as long as it’s black.”

I’m not the first to observe that “all websites look the same”, and I understand the reasons: Articles live in content management systems that have to output the articles in a predetermined form. Templates make sense to structure content. And the battle for attention on the web has led to huge amounts of content being produced and published every day. Even if large publishers wanted to, they wouldn’t be financially able to individually design each article. They’re like the early industrialist, producing at scale but without much variation in form.

On the flip side, this is a great opportunity for independent publishers to set themselves apart—we have a chance to publish articles on the web with the love and care usually reserved for printed pieces. We can individually design our articles, leave out images if we want to, and challenge the boring sameness on the web. The best part: It might give us some of the attention others are chasing with volumes of generic content. I believe that one compelling piece will always beat out lots of generic ones. And that’s a reason to be hopeful.


  1. It’s more accessible faster, easier, and can be updated after the fact 

  2. a term I truly dislike