Interviewed by Voyage L.A.

I was interviewed again by Voyage LA, and this time took a different tack so I could provide different answers. As anyone who knows me knows, I repeat myself – yes, repeat myself – on occasion. Not so much this time. Here’s the link, or read the whole thing below.

Today we’d like to introduce you to Barry Schwartz.

Hi Barry, thanks for joining us today. We’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.

As a kid, I loved looking at the annuals of photo magazines, the occasional book like The Family of Man, which was everywhere, and of course Life magazine – the gold standard. My first camera was a bellows 35 MM Zeiss that was entirely mechanical, loud, and needed a light meter; it was not very good, but neither was I. I graduated at 16 to a used twin-lens YashicaMat and that was a revelation; I got more serious about making good photos because this camera would help me produce them.

I figured out early it was not the camera that mattered: it was my taste and ability to stay focused to get a good picture on location and then print it on paper. This has not changed, except for how photos are viewed, now, mostly, on screen. I still love to print, however!

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?

Working as a creative entrepreneur is never a straight, let alone, a smooth road. Until I turned pro after another career, I shot mostly for myself, and was published on occasion, but never thought I could make it professionally, so did not try; I just kept at it. I worked for myself as a contractor and kitchen designer, documenting my projects for my portfolio. Then I got carpal tunnel, and it was a natural transition to become an architectural photographer. My work had always included portraits and documentary work, and I chose to include it all on my website and in my printed portfolios. This hurts me with some architectural designers about who they hire to document their work, but it also gets me to work where a broad range of skills is important.

My taste and people skills were already in place and I even had some business chops, but learning basic digital processes was a big adjustment: being my own IT person, printer, and retoucher. I never thought I’d be that kind of gearhead, but work is work. Digital is just another tool – it does not change the fundamentals it takes to produce a good photo.

One of the great things about being a photographer is access to places and people you would not encounter otherwise; this is a continuing thrill (and not news to my colleagues!). I’ve been in fantastic buildings for pay, and in others where I just talked my way in. Being around people you’re being paid to photograph, or on a self-assignment has many pleasures, chief among them being being surprised by where you are and who you’re hanging around with – and that you get to capture part of the experience and haul it away with you on a camera.

Later, you get to experience it again in a different way in the privacy of your studio and present the results to people who were never there who get to see a bit of what you saw, and perhaps get a little of the same tingle you experienced on the spot. A nice part of the gig.

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?

My specialties are architecture, interiors, landscape architecture, hospitality, portraits, and documentary work.

Being able to work in different specialties – sometimes on the same project – is something I always look for. In one sense, each kind of specialty uses a different brain, but that’s not really it; I mean, you only have one brain, right? Anything that keeps you on your toes, thinking on your feet, and keeping an open mind, affects everything else you do, including different kinds of photography.

I write a bit – non-fiction – and teach more than a bit: professional practices for photographers at the college level, in workshops, including, since the pandemic, in webinars.

Do you have any advice for those just starting out?

I love teaching. I have a lot of contact with photographers at all levels, students, emerging professionals, and established professionals. I learned early that effective educators are always learning. Teaching is about being useful, and it’s a give-back.

I discovered not to take a student’s seriousness or capabilities or even their experience for granted. In my workshops and classes, there are always people who are more successful or experienced than I am, with deep knowledge based on practice in their area of photography. That being said, everyone has a different pain point or a reason why they are in a class or workshop: something in the profession they are puzzled about, intimidated by, or perhaps they want to move into a different specialty and need more grounding than they have. These folks understand that continuing to learn can help keep careers from bottoming out; I know this as well as anyone, and since teaching requires learning, it applies to me, as well. It’s only fair.

For emerging and younger photographers, being in the same spaces with professionals can make practices that seem abstract more real and attainable. Anyone who has gone to a talk given by someone they admire has experienced the same kind of thing.

Creative careers operate on pathways that may not be clearly defined, because being a creative person, by default, means that you spend a lot of time making it up as you go – hopefully at a professional level. One of the things I teach is this process is not only OK, but it’s also sort of required.

The easy stuff in teaching professional practices are the things that seem so intimidating to students at first: contracts, negotiating, pricing, marketing, and digital workflow. But these are learnable skills; the more important things in successfully working for yourself – or as an employee – are people skills, and learning how to produce good work reliably; this is a never-ending process. In the end, it’s about being nice, having flexibility, and open imagination, and, more than anything: it’s about the work. The late designer Milton Glaser had a sign above the entry door to his building: Art Is Work. That’s it.

Melvin Sokolsky: A Specific Palette

By Barry Schwartz

I wrote a feature profile of Melvin Sokolsky, who passed on August 29, twelve years ago for Photo Media Magazine. The piece was based on research, time spent socially, and a long interview I did with him at his house, sitting in his comfortable studio surrounded by printers, prints, and flat-file cabinets. Anyone who met Melvin could tell you he was a world-class talker, engaging, authoritative, funny, and with enough stories to fill a book. Following is the full text.

Melvin Sokolsky was 18 years old, on his way to look at a studio to share in New York. He was with his girlfriend — now his wife — Button. The door on the seventh floor was opened by “a balding, chubbyish man with a little tummy, and he had a very thick accent. And I was like a gymnast. I looked at him as a guy who doesn’t take care of himself. That was my mentality at that time. All sorts of criteria, of judgment, suspicion; I had it all.”

The man asked if he could photograph Sokolsky’s girlfriend. While he was setting up, Sokolsky wandered around the studio, where there were matted prints stacked against the wall. “I look through them and I’m blown away; they’re, like, fantastic photographs. So, like a kid, I say, ‘Are these your photographs?’ And I hear, in this accent, ‘Why would I have somebody else’s pictures in my studio?’ And I felt kind of embarrassed, and suddenly this balding, chubby man, I had great respect for. I said, ‘Wow, these are fantastic.’ And I said, ‘Tell me again what’s your name?’ ‘Martin Munkácsi.’ I didn’t even know who he was.”

Munkácsi — one of the early giants of photography, including fashion photography, with a career going back to the 1920s — told Sokolsky to come back the next day to see the picture of his girlfriend, a head shot taken with an 8×10 camera. When Sokolsky remarked on the large amount of white space in the image, Munkácsi “said to me, ‘Bring me that scissor.’ He took the scissor, and he cut it down to a 4×5. He says, ‘You like this better?’ And that was one of the great lessons I learned that took place with four scissor strokes.

“In two days I learned more in metaphors and examples than reading or listening to anybody else. Because I never worked for anybody, I always had this inner fear of saying to anybody, ‘I’m really uneducated about any of this stuff — I’m doing it all on instinct.’ Later I came to the point where I realized that doing it all on instinct was my best years.”

For the past half-century, Sokolsky’s instincts have helped turn him into one of the industry’s premier fashion, celebrity and advertising photographers. Since he began his career at Harper’s Bazaar in 1959, his signature style has been one of constant change.

Sokolsky’s use of gesture — poetic and balletic, based on how ordinary people behave — was radical in its time and is still evident in his present work. Many of his iconic images, often with models in couture fashions seeming to float in front of the lens, seem as fresh and modern today as they were groundbreaking in the 1960s. His use of continuous light and the wide range of his palette remain dramatic, subtle, emotional and always in support of gesture and the ideas that support the concept of the picture.

Now in his 70s, Sokolsky continues to produce startling imagery and has recently completed a lavish anthology of his greatest works, called “Archive,” which has a limited print run of just 1,000 copies, the first 300 of which contain an original archival print signed by the artist.

“I consider my photographs translations of my thinking into images that are formed by the sum of my experience,” he writes at the beginning of the book. “My ideas are usually inspirations that silently whisper to me in the most unexpected places and times. … In my world — and I make no claim to being a philosopher — ideas are the seeds that grow interesting photographs.”

Art-world inspiration

Growing up on New York City’s Lower East Side in a neighborhood of Russians, Poles and Italians, Sokolsky never followed the standard path of assisting established photographers, but he did receive some technical schooling, from a single book published in 1951. “The Art and Technique of Color Photography,” edited by the legendary art director Alexander Liberman, contained the work of 17 photographers, including Horst, Irving Penn, André Kertész and Cecil Beaton, along with technical details about the images, listing data on cameras, lenses, lighting and film.

Sokolsky began another kind of training at age 13, informal yet highly focused, based on countless visits to New York’s museums, devouring Bosch, Velázquez, the Surrealists, Balthus and Van Eyck — images to which he continues to refer. The history of photography was not left behind.

“I went back to daguerreotypes, back to everything,” he says. “I looked at everybody. I looked at salt prints; I was a voracious ‘need-to-knower.’ Each of those things produced an immediate visceral response of what I liked and what I didn’t like. I was highly opinionated, and that opinionating is what saved me.”

It is also what got him his breakthrough photo. He had begun dropping off his book for art director Ira Mazer at the top-flight ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Mazer told him his pictures were very good, but too “arty” for advertising. He told Sokolsky to keep trying, however, and finally, in 1959, when Sokolsky was 21, Mazer literally threw a fur coat at him across his office to use as a tryout for an ad for the coat’s manufacturer. This was the entirety of his direction — along with a promised $200 fee, succeed or fail — and a name credit if he succeeded. Sokolsky called up the Ford Agency, conveniently around the corner from his studio, suggesting he had the manufacturer’s account, and asked for Anne St. Marie, then one of the industry’s hottest models. She showed up the next day.

The resulting photo — taken with an 8×10 camera, every strand of hair in focus, no trace of “artiness” in sight — ran as a full-page ad in Harper’s Bazaar. A month later, Sokolsky’s phone rang, with another heavily accented voice at the other end, identifying himself as Henry Wolf, then the art director at Harper’s Bazaar. Believing it was his brother pulling a prank, Sokolsky hung up. “The phone rang again, and he says, ‘I think we were disconnected.’ And then I realized it was real, and I went up there.” After shooting two jobs, Wolf said to me, ‘You’re very strong. How would you like to be a permanent fixture here?,’ and I said I’d love it, and I was a Harper’s Bazaar photographer.”

Creativity reigns

Working as a magazine photographer led to great fame for Sokolsky. What was less well known, throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, was that he was also one of the busiest advertising photographers in the world. (Just as it is today, editorial did not pay as well as commercial work.) During this period he shot ads for Guerlain Perfume, Glenoit Fabrics, Mary Quant Cosmetics and Charles of the Ritz.

His New York studio on East 39th Street had a staff of 30, including his wife; a number of full-time carpenters; and an employee he induced to leave her job as assistant to Diana Vreeland, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar: actress/model Ali MacGraw, who worked for Sokolsky for six years starting in 1961, bringing with her a vast network of contacts and a willingness to take risks.

These being glory years for creatives, photographers were not just granted great freedom but were also expected to exercise it liberally. Early in his relationship with Henry Wolf, Sokolsky shot a portrait of an industrialist’s wife, very pretty, but at 38 “older than most of the women I had photographed for Harper’s Bazaar that were 20 years old with perfect skin.

“These were like magical, perfect girls.” Faced with the assignment, Sokolsky found that “when you had a couple of wrinkles and stuff, you had something to fight with. Well, I came up with a light for her, I took the picture, sent it over to Henry, and Henry looked at it and said, ‘If I want [Richard] Avedon, I know how to walk from here to 62nd Street.’ And I was hurt. He says, ‘I want your look, your lighting. I want your ideas, I don’t want my ideas.’ ”

Perhaps Sokolsky’s most famous pictures are the “Bubble” series from 1963, featuring Simone d’Aillencourt encased in a large Plexiglas bubble (designed and built by Sokolsky) suspended variously over the streets of Paris and above the river Seine. (The series grew out of a fascination with a Bosch painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” that he first saw 10 years before,) Sokolsky pitched the idea of the “Bubble” series as street reportage, showing pedestrians reacting to the invasion of an alien space bubble, but he encountered resistance from Nancy White, editor-in-chief of Harper’s. He also heard that Richard Avedon didn’t think the project would fly. Diana Vreeland, who was an ally, gave Sokolsky permission to shoot a test in the bubble from a bluff in New Jersey, overlooking New York City. The test was such a success that one of the bubble images, with d’Aillencourt wearing an orange flowing dress, made the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

The spirit and execution of those images, which put Sokolsky on the map, came from his basic way of working, which was that his pictures first begin life as an idea. “I felt — and I don’t know where it came from; nobody taught me this — I thought that the photograph that you took, you were responsible for every piece of it. I could close my eyes and kind of see the lighting, so I would move the light around until it looked close to what I had in my mind — I never was able to get it as good — and then when I let the girls go, there was a first level, a second level, a third level, a level past lunch, and then all of a sudden you were past the introductory parts, and you were even past the sexual parts, you were into discovery parts of yourselves and together, and so on. It was about living in the space. And when you live in that space, magic can happen, and if you don’t, it can’t happen.

“I was working day and night, seven days a week, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning, without stopping,” he recalls of the vibrant and free-wheeling 1960s era. “At that time, girls cost $12 an hour, $125 a day for Harper’s Bazaar.”

While the finances were certainly from another era, the biggest change Sokolsky has seen over the years is the loss of connection with his subjects.

“Usually, these days, a shoot takes place, you meet somebody, and before you get to know them, the shoot’s over, so you’ve really had no contact; there’s no anything,” he says. Years ago, he adds, “you hung out, you ate together, you came back, [saying] ‘let’s try it again, let’s do this.’ … You stopped thinking about each other. You actually explored, you actually lost your inhibition. You didn’t care what Melvin would think if you turned your ass to him. Since there was no judgment, there was a myriad of magic that was taking place.”

TV land beckons

That magic led another art director at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Bill Taubin, to suggest that Sokolsky consider directing commercials. “He said to me, ‘Can you make the still pictures you take come out to look like that on film?’ Because at that time, if you looked at commercial lighting, most of it was hard lighting with all kinds of cross-shadows. It was pretty ugly.”

That first commercial showed margarine melting through vegetables, including a split potato and a piece of broccoli. “You were following the margarine melting. I lit it the way I would light something, the way I liked it to look. It got into the Art Directors’ Show. It was a food commercial that won medals. So suddenly, I was the guy to come to for television commercials.”

Sokolsky moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, where over the course of the next couple of decades he won numerous awards, including 25 Clios — the Oscars of commercials. The one that made him an even bigger star as director-cameraman was a Contac ad featuring singing and dancing curly-haired blondes in the style of Busby Berkeley. He also made commercials for Volkswagen and DuPont, a sexy Ultra Brite toothpaste spot, an Atari ad featuring E.T. and ads for Dr. Pepper. (Remember “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper …”?)

All the while, he continued to shoot fashion and celebrities, as he still does. He co-designed a computerized zoom lens system that was used in the opening sequence in the film “The Godfather,” earning him a technical Oscar nomination. He also keeps busy with hands-on remodeling of his house and works on metal sculptures. On weekends for a time, he assisted a friend of his, a veterinary surgeon, during surgical procedures.

The digital wrench

It should be no surprise, then, to find that in 2000 Sokolsky embraced digital photography, seeing it as neither a panacea nor a curse. “What I’m interested in is creating my own palette. When Adobe called a bunch of people in and showed them Camera Raw, they said to me, ‘You don’t look happy with it. Don’t you want Velvia? You can do Velvia, you can do Provia.’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘What is it you want?’ I want Melvia. Because that’s really what you want. When you see a van Gogh painting, how do you know it’s a van Gogh painting? When you look at the thickness of the paint, and the stroke, and so on. It’s a palette that’s specific to a certain person. I want my palette to be specific. I don’t want it to look like what you can buy in the store.”

Sokolsky gets asked whether he would use Photoshop if he were to do the “Bubble” pictures today. He would not. Pointing at an image in the series that he calls “Du Taxi,” he says, “You take this picture. If I had a stepladder, I can step up five feet and look down on it, I could look up at it. In minutes I can do what would take you days and hours. Why would you want to do it in Photoshop? Yet when you grow up in a time when Photoshop is God, instead of knowing it’s a screwdriver or a wrench, you think it’s God. Well, Photoshop is just a wrench — a very good wrench.”

Proof of this concept is present in much of his recent work, which includes Photoshop-induced floods of water or a single model appearing several times in the same image. “The good part of the digital age is that now we have computers and tools that allow us to create our own emulsions. What I really mean is we can create our own palette.”

His work remains informed by techniques that predate Photoshop, such as his love of continuous lighting, and in 1967 he added banks of fluorescent tubes to his arsenal, beating the introduction of KinoFlos by at least 20 years.

An ‘Archive’ of riches

The culmination of Sokolsky’s work — so far — is his self-published and self-produced collector’s item book, “Archive.” An idea that had a “10-year rehearsal,” the book is a complete survey of his career. More than 470 pages long and exquisitely printed on archival paper using the most advanced technology available, it contains forewords by James Rosenquist, Ali MacGraw and Raphaëlle Stopin, along with essays by Sokolsky.

Together with Sara Siri, a graphic design student at Art Center in Pasadena, Sokolsky produced the book in three months of solid work. “This book is about photography; this book is not about type,” he says. It includes all of his iconic photos and presents some of his series, such as the “String” series, in their intended narrative order for the first time. The book is not cheap ($500), but the printing quality is, literally, as good as it gets, and it is less expensive than other, much shorter fine-art books of its type.

Sokolsky says about the book, as he says about his work: “Go for quality first, then set the price.”

He continues to shoot editorial work, recently photographing Anthony Hopkins and Andy Garcia for German Vogue. He has plans for another book — this one mostly type — on the ideas that fueled his career, and is developing several short films.

“If you’ve embarked on the trip of being free, and you are truly free, you’re not distracted by trying to prove anything,” he says. “The only distraction is discovery and exploration. So it allows you to explore. When you’re allowed to explore, and you’re not inhibited by anybody’s voice, anybody’s saying something, anybody doing something, you are free to try things. That instinct, that inspiration for that moment, is your best picture. I’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to live in that space.”

Barry Schwartz ( is an ex-journeyman carpenter and kitchen designer, currently still lugging around heavy bags as a commercial photographer. He is also a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Melvin Sokolsky

Home and Studio: Los Angeles ( Represented by the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. After moving his studio to Los Angeles in the 1970s, he found that his work — especially his commercial work — took him all over the world, so he eventually let the studio go. His present studio is in his home, and includes a custom-designed south-facing balcony with the ability to filter and block light.

Family Life: Lives with his wife, Button, married for many years. They have a son, Bing, a respected cinematographer whose credits include “NYPD Blue” and “Numbers.”

Preferred Equipment: Sokolsky’s equipment includes Apple computers and Canon DSLR cameras and lenses (he has used Canon equipment since 1961). He still occasionally shoots with a Deardorff 8×10. While he does most of his own Photoshop work, including compositing, he sometimes collaborates with retouchers.

Accolades: More than 25 Clio Awards and every major TV commercial award, including a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. Several of his TV commercials are part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Named an “Explorer of Light” by Canon USA in 1995.

Major Clients: More than 25 Clio Awards and every major TV commercial award, including a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. Several of his TV commercials are part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Named an “Explorer of Light” by Canon USA in 1995.
Hobbies: He’s “a pretty good cook.”

Against Professionalism

Majordomo restaurant, Los Angeles. Photo By Barry Schwartz

I’ve had two careers as a self-employed professional; now as a photographer and educator, previously as a journeyman carpenter, contractor, and kitchen designer. Early in each career I was told there were rules I must follow; other people suggested there are no rules. I was just smart enough to know either could be true; it was important to distinguish the signal from the noise.

I got more efficient at repairing my mistakes, learning from my mistakes, and ignoring my mistakes and just getting on with it. Feeling unsure is a standard-issue component of being a professional; it keeps one on one’s toes. Ignoring those feelings of insecurity can self-destructive, with the result that one starts looking for the rules.

Creative entrepreneurs occupy a peculiar status in the world of work, whether they went to school or invented their own career; supporting a career requires a basic foundation in marketing, contracts, achieving technical proficiency and a sense of one’s own aesthetic, but that’s about it as far as the rules go. We’re all in our own bubble, producing work. People skills helps.

Part of my practice is to take in lots of information about the things I’m interested in; I tell myself this behavior will somehow monetize itself, but the truth is I have no choice. Really, I just gotta. Here’s a few of those professional influences.

Six Spreads: Ralph Gibson Visits Sacred Land

By Bill Shapiro in blind, January 08, 2021

Ralph Gibson has been making photos like no one else for decades, and is an esteemed teacher as well. He has plenty to say, and it’s all worth hearing. Shapiro was Life Magazine’s last editor, and he has plenty to say, as well (check out his Instagram).

“…when he was assisting the great photographer Dorothea Lange in 1961, he received a lesson that he relies on to this day: Know your point of departure. That is, before going to shoot, have a sense, however vague, of what you’re trying to find. ‘It’s not a confining thing,’ he explains. ‘It’s liberating, because having something in mind leads to pictures; and could lead you to something even more interesting than what you were looking for. ‘This has been the backbone of my career,’ he says. ‘It brings the eye and emotions into clearer focus. I don’t touch my Leica without knowing my point of departure.’”

And the power of stories that are unshakably true

By Lin-Manuel Miranda in The Atlantic Magazine, December 2019

Miranda wrote the hit Broadway musical In The Heights, which earned him a Tony while still in his twenties. And Hamilton after that. But you’ve heard of him.

On writing In The Heights. “As we wrote about this Upper Manhattan community on the verge of change, we looked to our musical-theater forebears. In Cabaret, the upheaval facing the characters in Berlin is the rise of the Nazi Party. In Fiddler on the Roof, the town of Anatevka struggles to hold on to its traditions as the world changes around it, and the threat of pogroms looms. For our musical world, upheaval comes in the form of gentrification. This is obviously different from fascism and pogroms; it’s not even in the same moral universe. How you begin to dramatize something as subtle and multifaceted as gentrification poses some tricky questions. We threw our characters into the same dilemma faced by their real-life working-class counterparts: What do we do when we can’t afford to live in the place we’ve lived all our lives, especially when we are the ones who make the neighborhood special and attractive to others? Each of the characters confronts this question differently: One sacrifices the family business to ensure his child’s educational future. Another relocates to the less expensive Bronx. Our narrator decides to stay, despite the odds, taking on the responsibility of telling this neighborhood’s stories and carrying on its traditions.”

Elliott Erwitt: ‘Photography is pretty simple.
You just react to what you see’

By Nadja Sayeij in The Guardian, November 9, 2020

Erwitt, now well into his 90s and still working, is one of photography’s great stylists and documentary and advertising photographers. An actual, real and true living legend.

“He says remaining an amateur photographer is key to keeping his curiosity alert. It’s also just plain and simple work.

‘The fact that photography is international working, and people have to work,’ says Erwitt. ‘Most people have repetitive jobs; it doesn’t last very long before you get bored.’

But photography is different, he says. ‘It’s elective, you don’t have to spend much time doing stuff you don’t like, in the end,’ says Erwitt. ‘You are able to get up early in the morning and even have real choices.'”

How Ming Cho Lee Taught Me to See

By Susan Hilferty in American Theatre, November 4, 2020

Ming Cho Lee, who recently passed, was one of the great theatre designers of the last century, equally well known for his work an educator at the Yale School of Drama, where, among other things, he not only helped train legions of working designers, he helped change how design is taught in universities all over the U.S. and beyond.

“I can see his hand smoothing the yellow trace on top of my drawing, and I can hear his words guiding his pencil and my eyes as he helps refocus the design beneath. There are so many lessons from that image, even in the choice of materials. The yellow trace torn from a roll is humble, unlike an expensive piece of watercolor paper, which seems to question whether the mark you make is ‘worth’ it. The pencil is quotidian; it makes it easy to toss a sketch aside, tear off another piece of trace, and sketch new thoughts inspired by the first.

The most important lesson, however, was that the trace protected the original design. Ming did not draw on or over my drawing. He was protective. He meant to guide, not to force a change. Deep in his method of teaching was the inspiration that the design for a set is constantly unfolding and that the designer needs to be available to sketch quickly—in model or on a piece of paper—to allow the full idea to be revealed at the end of the process. Ming’s eyes had razor-sharp focus as he weighed scale, proportion, and value in what he was looking at, while also tightening up the point of view of this student designer. He helped me see.”


By Shaun Usher in Letters of Note, April 8, 2021

Usher has been producing books of letters for over twenty years, about an incredible range of subjects. He is a first-rate curator of great writing. And has a wonderful newsletter. This one is from the great artist Saul LeWitt.

“In 1960, pioneering American artists Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse met for the first time and instantly clicked, quickly forming a strong, deep bond that would last for ten years and result in countless inspirational discussions and rich exchanges of ideas. Indeed, they remained incredibly close friends until May of 1970, at which point Hesse, still only 34 years of age, sadly passed away after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. In 1965, half-way through their relationship, Eva found herself facing a creative block during a period of self-doubt, and told Sol of her frustrating predicament. A few weeks later, Sol replied with the work of art seen here—a wonderful, invaluable letter of advice, copies of which have since inspired artists the world over, and which now grace the walls of art studios in all corners of the globe.”

“…Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the ‘world’ and ‘ART’ alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are going. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can — shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything….”

‘To Get Things More Real’: An Interview with Ira Glass

By Claudia Dreifus in The New York Review, August 8, 2019

Ira Glass is best known for This American Life, and is himself a great interview. He knows how to describe his own processes.

Are sources who’ve been through psychotherapy better at interviews than those who have not?

I haven’t observed that, but I believe that is probably true. It doesn’t have to be psychotherapy, honestly—even if they’ve been through a decent twelve-step program where they’ve been forced to be introspective. We have to kill stories sometimes because the people are just not capable or in the habit of reflecting on what happened to them in a meaningful way.

Are you a workaholic?

Workaholic implies a problem. It’s more like I get in a little over my head. I’m not the greatest at managing my time. I’d like to work a little less.”

Keep it on The One

By Austin Kleon, September 8, 2019

Kleon is an author (Steal Like An Artist, among others) and has a terrific blog. Subscribe to his newsletter. Comes out on Fridays. You will be glad.

“Prince would get mad when people called his music magical: ‘Funk is the opposite of magic. Funk is about rules.’”

“Here’s Miles Davis at the end of his autobiography:

‘I have never felt this creative. I feel like the best if yet to come. Like Prince says when he’s talking about hitting the beat and getting to the music and the rhythm, I’m going to keep ‘getting up on the one,’ brother, I’m just going to try to keep my music getting up on the one, getting up on the one every day I play. Getting up on the one. Later.'”

The Dark Art of Pricing

By Jessica Hische

Hische is a wonderful type and graphic designer, and author; well known for giving back. Her advice is sterling; here it’s for designers, but it applies to any creative entrepreneur. Following is the footnote to this superb article:

“A footnote for the haters:

For whatever reason, whenever anyone writes an article like this—asking designers to raise the standards for themselves and others, calling out companies for unfair pay or empty promises—there are always a few anonymous contrarians that berate the author for preaching from an ivory tower, not understanding what the masses are actually going through. I have been lucky enough to have success in my career, and I want to use the knowledge I’ve gained to help others have success. Why anyone would complain when someone is advocating for better wages, I do not know, but it always happens.”

Knife Skills Are Bulls*it

By Mark Bittman on The Bittman Project, June 9, 2021

Bittman was for many years a food writer at the New York Times (The Minimalist), producing many videos at the paper and on television, and has written many books. His level of common sense about food, cooking, and their place in the culture is priceless; he is a man of the people in the very best sense. Cutting to the chase here, so to speak, is that it can be a mistake to emulate other professionals’ technique, because technique does not matter. What matters is the end result, and there is little connection between the two.

“Me chopping an onion is not a pretty sight. The crew on The Minimalist set used to try to shoot me doing it — ‘Teach people how it’s done’ — but I demurred. I’ve shown people how to chop an onion — how I chop an onion — but it’s not how you want to learn to chop an onion. And yet I get by.

I know how you’re supposed to chop an onion, but since no one ever threw a 25-pound box of onions at me and said, ‘Chop this, I need it fast,’ I never had to rush. Consequently, it takes me maybe 45 seconds, even a minute, to do one, and as I said it’s not pretty: A good chef can do it in 10 seconds, and it’s a thing of beauty.

So what?

Even Nigella Lawson has admitted to having no knife skills. When I talked to her for the podcast, she told me when she’s chopping for her TV show, ‘my director more or less has to put a hand over his eyes as he’s checking the monitor. Because he can’t bear it when he sees that … when I’ve got the camera just on my hands, it makes me so panicked that I can barely hold a knife, let alone chop… But it’s good for people to see bad chopping.'”

And how are all of you?

By Shawn Usher in Letters of Note, June 8, 2021.

Usher reproduced several letters and a telegraph cable from Dorothy Parker in this post. Here is his introduction, followed by one of his selections. There are more in his post.

“The great Dorothy Parker wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, was a much-loved book critic for The New Yorker, co-wrote two Academy Award-nominated screenplays, and was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. AND YET, despite it all, there does not exist a published collection of her many letters. Instead we must make do with the relatively few letters and snippets that pop up tantalisingly in books such as the excellent The Portable Dorothy Parker. See also: What Fresh Hell is This?, The Last Days of Dorothy Parker, and Alpine Giggle Week.

For such a book to be absent in the year of our Lord 2021 is nonsensical and an unsustainable state of affairs, and I’m this close to starting an online petition. In the meantime, however, here are some Flashes of brilliance.”

“Dear Mr. Thalberg,

Yours of March 6 received and its contents duly noted. In reply to your query as to my inability to attend the script meeting, I can only offer the explanation that I was too ****ing busy and vice versa.


Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker to Irving Thalberg, Mar 1935″