Category Archives: Photography

If You Find a Rock – Peggy Christian

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If You Find a Rock is a magical, reflective meditation on the bits of quartz, granite and fossil you might find in your meanderings–and what they might signify. Peggy Christian’s prose and Barbara Hirsch Lember’s tinted photographs give the book a timeless air that makes it a classic–at least I think it should be a classic. Get acquainted with skipping rocks, mossy boulders, climbing rocks, chalk rocks, and wishing rocks and then wander outside and imagine a meaning for the rock you find.

The wishing rock has a stripe embedded all the way around that you trace as you make a wish. A walking rock is one you kick in front of you along the sidewalk home and a splashing rock is for pitching into a pool of water that will produce an explosion of gleaming drops. A worry rock is smooth enough to rub, like fingering worry beads, to soothe away cares.

The language of this book is spare and almost poetic. You could read it quietly with someone still small enough to wonder at found things like pebbles on a walk. And then you might take that walk and hunt for a big rock to scale or a tiny rock that just fits in your palm.  A rock to help you remember how to be in this physical world like a child, capable of discovering magic everywhere. 

If You Find a Rock   Peggy Christian | Harcourt   2000

The String Bean – Edmond Séchan

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I first encountered The String Bean (Le Haricot) as a film and loved it. The mostly black and white French movie by Edmond Séchan, who also created the text for the book, has music but no dialog. It is the story of an old Parisian seamstress who lives alone, many floors up a winding staircase in a dark, shabby building. She is wizened and bent but her spirit is full of color and life.

Each day, after she makes glittering, pearl-encrusted evening bags for sale to elegant shops and has her sparse and simple meal, she puts on her hat and goes out to the public gardens. Wandering the Tuileries—scenes that are in color–the old woman dreams of the lush gardens of her childhood. On the way home, she makes a stop to window-gaze at a florist’s, full of gorgeous blooms she could never afford. One day, she finds an old clay pot with a dead plant that someone has tossed in the trash. She takes the pot home.

Once she has removed the dead plant with her only fork, she carefully pokes a bean into the soil and waters it. Then she sets the pot on her window ledge where it will get the few rays of sun to reach her apartment every day. She tries to protect the seedling from predatory pigeons and neighbors shaking out dusty rugs; she stakes the new leaves so the stem will grow tall. But the pigeons are too many and the sun is too weak for her plant to survive. She pulls a chair out to the hall, where a patch of brighter sun from a skylight will fall on the plant, and sets the pot on the seat.

It isn’t enough. The bean plant wilts and grows pale. So she decides to clandestinely transfer it to a boxwood border surrounding the Tuileries flower gardens. She will lose her daily companion but the bean plant will get plenty of sun and water to flower and grow. What happens next is both heartbreaking and hopeful. The photographs and straightforward text of the book are evocative and powerful, just as the film is.

The tale is an allegory for life and hope that is deceptively simple. As a book, The String Bean could certainly be handed to a kid but the emotions and the underlying concepts are very big—it might take some guidance or some maturity for the story to be appreciated. I’m happy to have experienced both the film and the book. You might have to search for a copy of either but the hunt would be worth it.    

The String Bean   Edmond Séchan | Doubleday  1982

Minimum – John Pawson

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Minimum is a picture book for grown-ups. My version is the minimalist one, a small, square, grey linen-covered hardback with glossy pages. Nearly every page has a single black and white or color image. Some of the photographs are double spreads. Some pages are blank. The idea of the book is ‘just enough but no more.’ That is John Pawson’s philosophy as well.

Pawson is an architect famous for minimalist interiors like the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue and for buildings like the Novy Dvur contemplative monastery in the Czech Republic. His aesthetic is rich and extremely spare—a Pawson home has no clutter, no stuff, no tiny detail unattended to, from faucet shapes in the kitchen to custom sofas with shelves in the salon. The look is very appealing—and there are ceiling-to-floor, nearly invisible cabinets to hide what you can’t part with so my library will be safe when I win the lottery and hire him to design my NYC penthouse.

Minimum has minimal text so I didn’t read it as much as absorb it—visually. Pawson opens the book with an extended essay that defines “minimum” as “the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve it by subtraction.” He didn’t invent this concept but he works it in all his designs and the results are arresting and oddly peaceful. Pawson admires Zen, Thoreau, Mies van der Rohe, early Tadao Ando, design by Shiro Kuramata, Shaker furniture and Stonehenge. He plays with texture and light. Much of his design empties color but his whites and naturals are infinitely nuanced and never flat.

The photographs in the book range from a solitary standing stone against a storm-blackened sky in Orkney to a 1984 black and white image of a black and a white shaved head in profile by Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m guessing it is simpler to reflect on the images in the full size book—they are very small in this version and some of the black and white shots seem dark and muddy. But the point is made.

Reduce a thing to its essence and it invites imagination. Space is conducive to creativity. Focus is sharper when the fuzz of clutter is removed. Pawson doesn’t believe in austerity; he pares things down to reach illumination. “The excitement of empty space” trumps the “paraphernalia of everyday life” for him every time.

I want to believe that kind of simplicity is an achievable goal and that the elegance and power of stripped-down surroundings can emerge from the messy quotidian. Probably a life’s work. Minimum gives you good examples. Extraordinary discipline might just clear out your tchotchkes and allow your innate, unfettered genius to shine through.

Minimum  John Pawson | Phaedon Press Limited  2000