Be A (Re)Visitor

TAoN No. 83: On looking again (and again). Plus: A new Missing Word, and more.

Continued thanks for Ida-related check-ins! We are back in New Orleans with power and Internet. Things here aren’t “normal” quite yet — but were they ever? Anyway, I hope all is well and good where you are. And meanwhile I managed to write this! Here goes:

On a routine bike ride late last year, I was amused to notice this Christmas tree affixed to a telephone pole. I took a snapshot, without really thinking about it.

In the weeks and months that followed, I passed by this spot with some regularity. And I was even more amused to see that somebody was updating the tree — for Valentine’s, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s, etc. I didn’t always take a picture, but sometimes I did.

I was thinking about this not long ago while reading in Petapixel an essay by a photographer named Scott Reither, “Long Form Study: Why Photographers Should Repeatedly Revisit A Scene.” In it, he described photographing one particular stretch of beach, over and over, throughout his career.

Of course that landscape has changed over time, and of course he’s had moments when he felt he’d captured the same territory so many times there was nothing left to see.

But there was always something more to see — maybe because of a change in Reither’s life, rather than in the physical environment.

I’ve previously advocated observing (and perhaps photographing, although for my purposes that’s optional) the same thing or place over time. (Earlier, for example I wrote about Camilo José Vergara and his practice of taking “useless” photos that end up forming a unique record of a place.) Naturally, Reither’s emphasis is on what the practice of repeat viewing can do for one’s photo skills:

“The practice teaches a photographer how to form deeper relationships with the subject, and better understand how the primary subject interacts with secondary elements …

“Revisiting a subject also serves as valuable ‘practice.’ … Long-form study of a subject will inform the direction of your photography, help to narrow your vision, teach you to deepen your expression and make your communication more concise and clearer.”

Photography aside, I think this exercie or habit is good for one’s observational skills — and for engagement with the world. My snapshots of the Christmas tree are nothing special; the real payoff is just attending to ongoing change. And to jump-start that process, I’d suggest an approach that differs slightly from Reither’s (or Vergara’s).

The prompt: Take a look at your digital picture stash, and seek out two or three of the oldest shots of places or things that you could actually revisit. Now revisit them! Take a new picture, if you like. Commit to further visits in the future. See what’s different; see what happens.

This gets at the idea of revisiting a scene over time, but gives you a handy jump start: You don’t have to think up some spot to visit and wait a few years for the payoff, you can find some spot you’ve already visited and give it a fresh check-in right now. (Plus, it’s a good excuse to actually go through old photos — which we tend to just leave in digital piles, unappreciated and ignored.)

That said, this exercise still leaves open an unpredictable future, and in a way creates personal landmarks.

The morning after Ida blasted through New Orleans, I took a tentative ride through the neighborhood to see what was what. There were some telephone poles and trees down, roof and building damage here and there, a few generators cranking, various neighbors comparing notes.

And of course I swung by the Christmas tree. Picture below.

I’ll be revisiting that spot. Who knows what will happen next?

  • Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

This week’s missing word is from Vanshika Randev, from the comments:

That feeling of change that comes after an interaction with a stranger, where in that moment you felt intimately connected to them while soaking in the knowledge that you will, in all likelihood, never see them again.

I know this sensation. Do you?

Randev continues: “One time I was on a bus that took a different route, and a stranger from out of town asked me where the train station was. We ended up walking together, making conversation, discussing silly incidents from our recent lives. We ended with the classic nice to meet you, goodbye, get home safe —- but only after was I confronted by how personal and strange and heartwarming it all was. There should be a word — sonder, but getting a deeper glimpse into a stranger's life. and then becoming strangers again.”

Lovely. I bet you can think of examples from your life…

What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.

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Next week: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series now alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)

Programming Notes

  • In Thursday’s email for paid subscribers, some thoughts on “mission statements” and manifestos. (Plus a new installment of The Heard, the latest bit of subscriber-only TAoN entertainment. TAoNtertainment?)

  • And this weekend, an update for paid subscribers on how the whole paid-sub experiment is going, and what to expect next (including a call for your reactions and ideas).

In Other News

  • I’m late in saying this, but: I greatly enjoyed talking to Jann Freed, for her podcast Becoming A Sage. Check it out here or here. This got briefly lost in the Ida shuffle; apologies. Thanks so much Jann!

  • Luc Sante on Jim Jarsmusch collages.

  • Excellent WaPo piece on how a bit of info design we now take for granted — "the crawl" on cable news — can be traced to 9/11. I actually remember this happening — and even late night shows making jokes about it. Now it's "normal" — a perfect example of the never-ending efforts to win your attention.

  • Minus is a "finite" social network that allows you 100 posts, for life. Plus other constraints. Impractical but provocative info design — makes you think twice what you need to say. I've often thought there should be a limit on individual tweets (and IG posts and etc.). Via @kottke. (Related: here is my original Twitter account, now 14+ years old. Still needs no update.)

  • Dan Savage, who I really admire, has a best-of book out. From this interview, I learned that he owns Ann Landers’ desk. That’s hot.

  • The indignity of being observed. Compelling roundup by Austin Kleon. Semi-related: In my Evernote I have piled up 110 articles/etc. that I have tagged “persona.” Maybe someday that will all become something?

  • A post-hurricane sound shot from the neighborhood: nail guns in the distance. Roof repairs everywhere….

Okay that’s it!

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: Or use the comments!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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