#65: Walking the bookend

#65: Walking the bookend

Watching Nomadland, Pre-Order 'Notes from the LIRR Walks,' Craig Mod on “Looking Closely," a Cool NYC History IG Feed, Sophie Crafts walks every block in Cambridge, plus more!

I watched Nomadland recently, and I thought it was brilliant. You don’t often see these types of movies about people later in life struggling with the blunt economic realities in the United States. It struck the right chord between melancholy and inspiration, which is a difficult balance.

As a forty-something in between jobs, and moving to a new (old) town, it got me thinking about how we bookend certain periods in our life. By the end of the movie, I started wondering (and guessing) how they would end the narrative. Which point along the road would they choose to end it?

We organize the chronology of our life around the big events: graduation, first job, falling in love, kids, moving to a new place, deaths, collective tragedies, career achievements, feeling infinity while standing a corner in Queens. These are the bookends we use as entry points into the memories about periods in our life.

During these final walks in New York City, I’ve been thinking about how the pandemic has precipitated so many abrupt endings all at once. It’s a huge bookend, and collectively we’re all realizing it might be the biggest collective event on the timeline. How do you deal with that, and create the new beginning? We don’t know. We’ll figure it out soon I guess! The early 21st century has made us all cultural and economic improvisers. This will get a serious test in the next couple of years.

I arrived in NYC during the great recession in 2009, and now I’m leaving at the end of the pandemic. I don’t know what those bookends mean, but over the last few weeks, they have helped me formulate how I want to weave together the ideas and photos from New York. The beginning might have been the ending and the ending the beginning.

One of the joys of consuming narrative art is going for the ride the artist takes you on, always knowing that there will be an ending. The artist has infinite possibilities for the ending, but they have to choose one. I think Nomadland director Chloé Zhao made a good choice in her ending. The final sequence of events felt appropriate for the story and character.

It’s a lot of pressure. People usually remember the ending! It can ruin a movie or a book or a show (Sopranos? Loved it). Or it can be the perfect bookend that makes you think about what happens in the future.

‘Notes from the LIRR Walks’ Pre-Order Available on Another Place Press

It’s been interesting learning about the zine publishing process with Iain Sarjeant of Another Place Press. Narrowing down the photos to the a short edit of this project wasn’t that difficult. I’ve lived with this set of photos for 5 years now, and have seen which photos have resonated with people through sharing on Instagram and getting feedback from friends. Plus, it’s really easy to toss out photos!

The process has me excited about these type of series as ‘chapters’ in a larger body of work. I feel that’s how I might go with the final version of the New York project. For now, I’m just excited, and honored, to have some photos in print.

You should check out the entire Field Notes series, including the two other zines being released with mine, one by my old friend Ben Roberts and the other by the talented Faustine Ferhmin.

You can order all of these great zines here!

“Looking Closely” After All These Years

7th Ave & West 32nd St., Manhattan, NY, March 4, 2021

Craig Mod has an excellent new essay on mindfulness and attention: “Because looking closely at dang near anything in this world of ours might very well be the key to it all.”

The point being: Looking closely is valuable at every scale. From looking closely at a sentence, a photograph, a building, a government. It scales and it cascades — one cognizant detail begets another and then another. Suddenly you’ve traveled very far from that first little: Huh.

I’d say that that huh is the foundational block of curiosity. To get good at the huh is to get good at both paying attention and nurturing compassion; if you don’t notice, you can’t give a shit. But the huh is only half the equation. You gotta go huh, alright — the “alright,” the follow-up, the openness to what comes next is where the cascade lives. It’s the sometimes-sardonic, sometimes-optimistic engine driving the next huh and so on and so forth.

Like most of us, our digital life keeps me distracted. I doomscroll daily and spend too much time reading useless information I find through Twitter. I have way too many tabs open, and generally my digital habits have probably been counter-productive for, oh maybe about 10 years.

But all of that changes when I’m out walking. It’s like a switch is flipped. I’m fully present and my attention focused on my immediate surroundings. I can get into flow mode relatively quickly, and the entire experience has always been meditative.

I would have never gotten to that point without photography. When you make a photograph, you have to fully focus on very specific visual elements, and at an exact moment. Sure, you can play with time and chance and all of that once you know the basics, but I’ve always been attracted to photographs that are careful observations. I rarely succeed at this myself, which is part of the lifelong game, but even if you fail, the act and the repetition train you to focus. The experience trains you to be attentive, in the moment, to look closely. Once you unlock that ability, it works almost like magic, truly.

I have found myself often stopping in my tracks on a walk to just spend a few minutes or moments observing everything around me on that street corner, at that particular time. The experience can be intense and emotional. Full sensory immersion connecting with your sense of time, and place, and fate.

I’ve spent a few nights roaming around Manhattan in the last couple of weeks. I wasn’t expecting my focus and attention would be there for these final walks, as I’ve always felt more connected to Queens, and parts of Brooklyn. But Queens feels like home, the place where I can comfortably explore, knowing I can just walk out my door.

As superficial as it might be, as I end my New York experience, I’m craving what has been idealized in our public imagination. The big city, the action, the energy, the crowds speed walking down the street. Of course, with the pandemic, much of that energy has disappeared, so my walks are filled with a strange nostalgia for the Manhattan of the ‘beforetimes’ even though it wasn’t always my favorite place to walk.

It’s strange how these bookends work on our mind.

“Keith Taillon walked every block in Manhattan”

On any given day his followers might discover an exposé on a tree in Madison Square Park that is older than the Revolutionary War, an account of the great blizzard of 1888, stories about indelible city characters and erstwhile landmarks, or retrospectives on profound cultural moments such as the 1959 arrival of the groundbreaking Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Guggenheim Museum and the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade almost a century ago.

Each post is a time capsule to a bygone era, complete with historical photos, maps, and newspaper clippings sourced from the New York Public Library and the New York Times, informational overlays, and deep journalistic captions. It’s a remarkable record of New York, retrofitted for digital consumption.

I feel this is the NYC history Instagram feed that I’ve been waiting for the last few years. And of course, the walking origin story will always hook me. I’m sure we’ll read more and more of these stories about people that found their true passions during their long pandemic walks.

Seriously, how do we not understand that human potential and creativity will erupt if we give people time to think and roam without the constant pressure to produce?

Sophie Crafts Is Walking Every Block in Cambridge

Crafts initially used Google Maps to track the streets she’s walked, but she soon realized it wasn’t the ideal tool. It’s great for navigating, but it’s not fantastic at actually marking up maps, and small phone screens can’t show the details of the whole city at once. She needed an image where she could easily see everywhere she’s been in real-time, and she figured out that a digital app can’t beat a physical map.

Another walking completionist project! One aspect I enjoy when reading about these projects is how the artist chooses archive the data from their walks. Crafts use of physical maps is a nice touch. I just like how they look! She’s also made her spreadsheet publicly viewable, which is always a strange viewing experience for me. It seems so personal! Like peering directly into an artists workspace (I’m sure there’s a project on this out there, send it to me?

One of my publishing projects is to create an archive of my walks on my website. Over time, I’m becoming more and more keen on the diaristic archival approach. One day, one walk, put it in the archive.

Read more about Sophie’s project on her blog.

Further Reading

I’m an photographer, writer and social media strategist moving from NYC to St. Cloud. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter