Monday, January 19, 2015

A BOWL FULL OF NAILS Mixes fact & Fiction to tell the story of a fiery idealist, who flees 1960's Berkeley for a mountain refuge, where the political becomes the personal

BERKELEY, May 15, 1969--Riot police carrying shotguns killed one bystander and wounded several protesters. When interviewed at the hospital, one protester observed, "getting shot in the ass has certain strategic connotations. One, it suggests that you had pissed somebody off. Two, that you are running away from that somebody. And three, that somebody has got the guns and you don't." All of those things were true at People's Park on Bloody Thursday.

This is the factual event that begins the fictional odyssey of Gus Bessemer, antiwar activist in Charles Degelman's new novel BOWL FULL OF NAILS (Feb, Harvard Square Editions). Gus, who goes to People's Park to protest w/guerrilla theater, is stopped in his tracks by the "Blue Meanies," riot police with shotguns and live ammunition. The next morning, while his girlfriend, Kate, is tweezing birdshot pellets out of his butt, Gus realizes it may be time to leave town. The "Man" is sure to come after him. Then Kate confirms he's on the list of protesters to be incarcerated in a new jail. He's strangely proud to have made that list.

In this fiction no stranger than the facts, Gus, a kind of '60's everyman, has vowed to end the Vietnam war. He is furious about General Westmoreland's call for the " slaughter of teenagers,"and the authorities' constant references to "fighting the war at home." Gus is indignant that antiwar group are treated as a threat to national security. "They mean us, the mobilization, the Panthers, the mess of hell-no, free city outlaws," he begins, but is cut off, when Kate observes that he's full of useless rage, since the powers that be have battleships and guns. She adds that he only wants to get back at them. "They're not your father," she points out, and later, she serves him a bowl full of nails--her view of where the rancor leads.

Gus leaves Berkeley for a carpentry job in a small Colorado town that comes with a cabin. He figures on R&R in nature, working with his hands. With Kate's two dogs, his guitar and some tools, he hits the road, not a minute too soon. The FBI and local police came looking for Gus, ransacking Kate's house. When she tells him not to return, her kids were freaked out, he feels unmoored in a strange town. But he enters the local bar, seeking help for his suffering dogs--filled with the quills of defensive porcupines. Surprisingly, he finds help.  Before that, setting up the cabin, a friendly neighbor with a chain saw, cut up the wood he "liberated."

Hard-edged survivors of the winters, crazy and kind, welcome Gus with his eccentricities. When Hazel, the old lady who's his boss, entrusts him with her "commercial property," a broken down storefront, he hires a couple helpers to salvage wood for a new structure. Gus decides to just do the work and  keep to himself. There are cops in the next  town asking too many questions. There's lovely Jewel, who gives him more than drink and sympathy but his heart's with Kate, So the company of the dogs seems the ticket. And he develops a strange relationship with an irascible old miner, who may or may not be a ghost.  He does have some mysterious connection with Gus' deceased dad.

Then a hippie bus with a peace/love group arrives with Georgia, who's origins are as elusive as Gus' own. Later, gathering wood, he discovers a corpse, who Georgia identifies as from the Weather Underground. When police try to pin the murder on peaceful activists, who they say are burning power lines, he and Georgia, along with their town's one lawman, look for the facts. One disastrous night they find the town's "snitch" but the orders come from on high.

Discrediting the antiwar movement was a national priority. Here's info from Wikipedia about a program, which too few people know existed:
COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a series of covert, and at times illegal,[1][2] projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) aimed at surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations.[3] National Security Agency operation Project MINARET targeted the personal communications of leading civil rights leaders, Americans who criticized the Vietnam War, including Senators (e.g., Frank Church and Howard Baker), journalists, and athletes.[4][5]
The official COINTELPRO label took place between 1956 and 1971.[6][7] The FBI's stated motivation was "protecting national security, preventing violence, and maintaining the existing social and political order."[8]

A BOWL FULL OF NAILS is a very funny re-creation of a deadly serious time. While many people think the era is the way it’s been depicted by Hollywood; a lot of self-indulgent hippies doing too many drugs and having promiscuous sex. It was more than that. The antiwar movement grew out of the civil rights and economic justice movements of the mid-sixties. 

Largely campus-based around the burgeoning Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the antiwar movement can trace its roots as far back as the Ban the Bomb movement of the 1950s. SDS, at the core, made a decision in 1965 to shift focus from economic justice programs like JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) to the Vietnam War when the Johnson Administration began bombing the north and building up troop strength in-country. Over the next few years, the anti-war expanded to include labor unions, the black and Chicano liberation movements, religious groups, and the powerfully committed returning Vietnam vets.

The Vietnam Veterans Against the War, were influential in the grass roots antiwar movement. Rather than the myth of the spat upon veteran returning to no respect--and in fact there is not one case of that ever occurring--the truth is that veterans of many wars were active in the antiwar movement. For factual reading there's Jerry Lembcke's THE SPITTING IMAGE published by NYU Press. Lembcke, a vet, who became a professor, spent years tracking that myth.

The marches to end the war happened all over the country. Young people joined with older people, families and veterans. The generation of the 1960's at great personal cost, was the only one to join across class and race to end a war. This is Charles Degelman's second fiction about this too often discredited time. Gates of Eden, his other novel, looks at the fate of individuals, caught up in the upheavals of social and political change.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Group F.64 by Mary Street Alinder shows why the group that revolutionized American Photography was more than the sum of its famous parts.

GROUP F.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography

I was given the book Group F.64 (Bloomsbury 2014) as a holiday present and found it richly satisfying. Mary Street Alinder's thoughtful, well researched history of a pivotal group of West Coast photographers is respectful and slyly humorous. Here is the ever-charming Edward Weston, stilted but stalwart Ansel Adams, the acid-tongued and generous Imogen Cunningham, among the founding members of the iconic group that defined  modern photography. Strength of character and  artistic purpose evolved along with their iconic imagery.

Edward Weston, elder in years and, at first, skill, lived a frugal ethic of "straight" photography, allowing nature to reveal itself. Even his vegetables were animated and provocative with no artifice. Ansel Adams, who started as a  serious musician and amateur photographer, reversed that emphasis. He learned from Weston but applied "straight shooting" to capture the grandeur of nature.  Adams wrote influential articles, defining the new photography and challenged "pictorialists,"the dominant group of  photographers.
From a well-to-do family, Adams opened the first gallery in San Francisco to show the new photography.

But the lesser known Willard Van Dyke, who worked in a gas station, is credited with the name Group F 64, the initial manifestos, and getting the group shown in exhibitions at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and a gallery, in Oakland, he founded with photographer Mary Jeanette. Connie Kanaga, Brett Weston, Alma Levinson, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, were also part of the original group.  Interestingly, women were shown on an equal basis. Though some were in romantic relationships, like Sonya with Edward and Mary Jeanette with Willard, their work was judged on its merits. In fact, Dorothea Lange, who was earning her living as a commercial photographer, was not considered evolved enough, with an original purpose, though she was included in later exhibitions.

When Group F.64 was formed. the dominant  "Pictorialists" were not exploring the capabilities of the new medium. Instead, they sought to create effects equivalent to painting with fuzzy filters and collage. Printed on buff or gray textured paper, these photographers aimed for works of "art." They were contemptuous of the new photography, which wanted to use the medium to express real life on its own terms. Group F.64 used filters to enhance dense textures, rich tonal values, and sharp edged imagery, They celebrated the truth a photographer could express with a camera. Glossy white paper was the surface for their prints.

Mutual artistic objectives, shared techniques and the practical need to exhibit and sell their work, inspired Group F.64. Acceptance and respect was crucial, since they were mostly excluded by pictorialist aesthetic from exhibitions and galleries. Though as the Group gained in status and their ideology matured, subject matter and intentions increasingly diverged. Members, like Willard and Connie Kanaga, went East. Williard traded photography for film making. Ansel also made a pilgrimage east to New York, where he sought out the demi-god of modern photography, Edward Steichen. This was a major turning point.

Where Edward Weston refused to bow to Steichen's dominance and Imogen was completely ignored, Ansel became a protege. Eventually, Steichen and Adams achieved nothing less than the acceptance of photography as an art form, sealed in the creation of MOMA's photography department--the first in a major museum. Adams' work was also promoted by Steichen in exhibitions at his gallery, An American Place. It was the epitome of modern photography, unchallenged before Group F 64.

One of the delights of this book is the feeling you are dropping in on a group of friends. Here they are brainstorming philosophy, strategizing future shows and ways to earn money. You see them falling in or out of love.  You are at a party, where Weston, a womanizer, was said to dance the tango in drag.  There's Dorthea Lange, who shot ads for women's beauty products, stopping her car on a rainy, muddy road to shoot a woman who caught her eye--a migrant with her kids, hungry and tired. Here's Connie Kanaga, seconds away from injury or death, shooting a violent worker's strike. There is Ansel developing his Yosemite photos in his darkroom in his parents' house.

While knowledge of this group may be old news to art students, who knew about them as people?  Flaws--romantic fickleness, posturing, dogma--and strengths--pursuit of ecstatic visions and social justice--are just part of this inspiring story.  Instead of deifying individual "greatness," Group F.64 shows why the whole became more than the sum of its famous parts.