Maira Kalman on Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt had to give up printing because of sciatica, which made it impossible for her to stand for a long time. I used to set up a makeshift darkroom by putting a lid on my bathtub.

Helen Levitt (1913-2009)

Halloween, 1939, Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt is one of my favorite photographers. Her images of children living their imaginative, spontaneous lives on the streets of New York City have always been a source of inspiration and wonder for me. "Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something," she said about the changes in her work in the 80's. She was also a film editor who worked for Buñuel and made her own documentary "In The Street," which was released in 1952. 


Digital vs. Analog

We can't agree on what kind of piano we should get. Julian, for practical reasons, prefers a digital piano. I, for wholly impractical and romantic reasons, want  an old-fashioned piano that would require special movers and regular tuning. 

Dream Home

This is Lily's dream house. It's in Derbyshire, England. We both have yearning for the countryside.


more Maira Kalman

I can't get enough of her work. The NYT columns are really fantastic, in a way so personal and revealing without being too much so.

Maira Kalman's Pursuit of Happiness

Maira Kalman's column in the NYT is a real treat. I love her work.


The art of Calligraphy

From the Mira calligraphiae monumenta of Rudolf II by master calligrapher Georg Bocksay, 1561-62.

The art of writing flourished in the 16th century as a result of the rise of printing, which freed writing from its main function, the preservation of knowledge. No longer required to be strictly the material representation of text, the art of calligraphy came into being as a means of self-expression. Renaissance humanist ideals also the encouraged the mastery of script as an essential accomplishment for an educated person. The spread of writing led to more variety in styles that reflect the personality of the writer.  Calligraphy was elevated to the status of fine art. Sadly this is almost a lost art today as most of us write on computers.


Magnolia stellata

And the magnolia blossoms are bursting open too.

Signs of Spring

Crocus, daffodils and snow drops in bloom at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden today.


In praise of Bon Iver

Music has always been a big part of my world. Certain songs are forever etched in my memory as proustian markers of different periods or events in my life.  Black Box's cover version of I've Got the Power encapsulates the summer of 1989, when downtown New York felt palpably exciting. All the people I knew were  artists, aspiring photographers, actors, musicians, writers and filmmakers, all of whom seemed to me impossibly beautiful, smart and fascinating. We spent our nights in clandestine clubs that moved locations each week, defying New York's antiquated cabaret laws that strictly forbids dancing in establishment without special permits. The insistent techno beat of the song seemed to match the tempo of the city, accentuated by the hazy humid heat of those summer days. The refrain, borrowed from Public Enemy, resonated with us who had nothing but youth and optimism on our side. A few years later, a little disempowered but still none the wiser, I started a new chapter in my life and finally moved into studio of my own in Little Italy. Night after night, I sat in my tiny empty apartment, contemplating my decision to pursue photography, with no other company than Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music KV477 blasting out of my boom box. I followed the stately notes as they swelled and faltered, feeling by turns encouraged and apprehensive. Those magnificent but somber notes filled me with the intimation that the future was not just a never ending stretch of time ahead, but a finite period with an inescapable end. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of music on earth, and it taught me so much about finding those moments of eloquence and sublimity in my life. 

This winter has been another time of soul searching and the music that accompanied me the last few months was Bon Iver's extraordinary debut album For Emma, Forever ago. Bon Iver's story has been told repeatedly as his success and popularity spread through the last months of 2008. At the onset of the winter, on the heel of a major illness and a breakup of his band, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) headed for his dad's remote cabin in the Wisconsin woods. By the time winter ended, Vernon had recorded a debut album that is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity and honesty. My favorite track is Flume, which moved me to tears when I first heard it. Vernon sometimes performs a spare acoustic version of this song, which feels so raw and intimate. Another version with the added backup of his band, available on MySpace Transmission, is slightly more polished and emotionally haunting. At one point, Vernon just literally bangs his arm on the piano, eliciting some discordant notes that sum up all the yearning in the song. As typical of all his songs, the lyrics, delivered in Vernon's falsetto, hint at but never fully reveal the pains of his journey.  The force of poetry in his entangled words is strangely moving. Flume begins with these words: 
I am my mother's only one
It's enough
I  wear my garment so it shows
Now you know

And it ends with these words:
I am my mother on the wall, with us all
I move in water, shore to shore;
Nothing's more

Only love is all maroon
Lapping lakes like leary loons
Leaving rope burns --
Reddish ruse

Only love is all maroon
Gluey feathers on a flume
Sky is womb and she's the moon

I find the imagery of "gluey feathers on a flume" so vivid and haunting. Perhaps I relate to the songs because they are stripped of any artifice. As Vernon said in an interview, "This record is the most honest thing I've ever done." Part of the appeal of the record is the way it resonates with the difficult, searching time in which we are living. "Records should be records of what's happening, records of events," Vernon claimed. When asked about his next record, Vernon responded, "I need to recreate everything and start fresh, and shed skin, and look under rocks and find new things. Because that's what I was doing. It was a hard search to make this record and to go through these things." That's the best definition for a creative act.



She's been asking me to put her hair up in a high ponytail everyday these last few weeks. It seems to be her hairstyle of choice at the moment. As her personal hairstylist, I am very pleased that she's chosen such a simple style. As her mother, I am happy that she has good taste.


Faded Ranunculus

I love the way the petals of ranunculus turn all papery as the flower fades.

A birthday present

I made a little present for Sophia, who turned 8 yesterday. It's the first thing I've made in a very long time. I used to make things constantly. My first major purchase as an adult was a sewing machine. I learned to knit when I was 8 and used to spend hours studying sweaters to figure out the stitches by myself. I have always made things, but somewhere along this past year, with all the upheavals of my life, I stopped making things. Some days I dream of just sitting down at the sewing machine in a room of my own to make beautiful things.

A Blind Man in his Garden in Alaska, July 1984

Photograph by Joel Sternfeld, from the American Prospects Series

I saw this photograph at MoMA a couple of weeks ago and have not been able to get it out of my head. I try to imagine what this man must have thought about his garden. Being  unable to visualize it, how did he approach the design of it? Or the blend of colors? all the things that I take for granted.

Dries van Noten's garden

Dries van Noten has a magnificent 60-acre garden in an estate outside the Belgian town of Lier. He has never allowed it to be photographed for any publication, but here's Cathy Horyn's description of it:

"Van Noten's house lies 30 minutes outside Antwerp... When he and Vangheluwe, who oversees production for the company, bought the place, in 1996, it was in a neglected state, with several wooden follies in near crumble and the colossal banks of wild rhododendon -- which are like land art in Belgium -- significantly blunted. Formerly the summer residence of an Antwerp family, the colonnaded stone house, now restored, sits in the middle of unbroken lawn, emphasizing its classical lines and otherworldly height. The interiors are all dark and cool and twilit, and Van Noten has brought something of his love of England to the decoration. He and Vangheluwe greet me on the front steps, where delphiniums are growing willy-nilly in the crevices.

We head into the garden, going along a woodland path until we arrive at a series of pernnial gardens hedged in by tall yews. The house is no longer in sight. In summer, Van Noten and Vangheluwe are in the garden before and after work, planting or plotting something. We go deeper, passing through a rose garden. Bees swoon above our heads in the branches of a wisteria tree. We cross a meadow, the air heavy with insect sounds and heat."

Sounds intriguing. 

Morning Light

7:30 AM

I love the way the light comes into the apartment at sunrise. It's going to be a beautiful day.


A lovely gift

I was interviewed by a young photographer for her blog. She asked me for a favorite quote, and I cited this sentence from Stephen Spender. Today I received this gift in the mail. What a lovely gesture.

Vegetable Garden at the White House

Michelle Obama is adding a vegetable garden at the White House. They will grow 55 varieties of vegetables. A carpenter will tend 2 beehives for honey. The beds will be fertilized with White House compost, crab meal from Chesapeake Bay, lime and green sand, and lady bugs and praying mantises will help control pests.

Garden People

Lady Birley at Charleston Manor, photographed by Valerie Finnis

I absolutely love this portrait.
Maira Kalman did a painted version.

Valerie Finnis & Garden People

Valerie Finnis, photographed by Howard Sooley in 2006

I woke up to find snowflakes dancing unexpectedly outside my windows so instead of heading off to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I delved into the wonderful book Garden People that Melissa had lent me. Valerie Finnis was a plantswoman and photographer who documented the garden world of England with her colorful portraits of plants and gardeners, including Vita Sackville-West, Lady Birley, and David Shackleton. She used the same Rolleiflex camera, a gift from the curator of Munich's botanic garden Willhelm Schacht, for 40 years.


A New Beginning

Edward Hopper's summer house in Truro
Photo by Chris Ramirez