The Personal Archive

There are only 6 pages left in my journal. There used to be about 300 smooth, creamy, unlined pages in that leather-bound notebook given to me by good friend and classmate on the day of our college graduation. As I’m nearing the end of this collection of stories, I’ve begun to read over my thoughts on the events, travels, worries, stunted romances, people, achievements and losses that mark my life since September 2007. But in recollecting all that has happened since my senior year of college, I realized the process of piecing together my life is less simple than reading one journal. There’s another leather-bound notebook to be perused, a few word documents that acted as a diary while I was in the library working on papers, a series of digital photo albums, and blogs.

For most of the academic projects I undertake, personal and family papers are the core of my research. Thinking back on my work on Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), I spent hours rummaging through her tremendous archive of hand written notebooks and letters – correspondences scribbled on small bits of paper, filled to the corners with words so as not to be wasteful, years and years of personal finances diligently kept in ledgers, photographs and sketchbooks. Her published writings and her manuscripts — all there for me to handle and read. But the personal archive is changing. Should my personal papers one day end up in MoMA’s library, handwritten notebooks and printed photographs will be in the minority.

Today, while there are still journals to be filled with ink (and fill them I will), there are word documents, facebook albums, blogs and flickr. The personal archive is no longer purely a paper trail.

I wonder — does this means our archives have become more personal (think of how much more we can record thanks to technology)? There’s something about a handwritten page and a carefully selected photo that speaks more about an individual than a typed or airbrushed digital document. But then again, thanks to digital, we get to archive more of our life…

I pity the poor grad student who writes her dissertation about me.


Victorians are Always En Vogue

Portrait of William Walton, 1886

James Carroll Beckwith, "Portrait of William Walton," 1886.

If you happened upon today’s NY Times Thursday Style section, you may have noticed a front page spread on a Victorian revival in menswear. Partially spurred by Guy Ritchie’s re-envisioning of Sherlock Holmes, the 1800s inspired bowler hats, military coats, three-piece suits, and suspenders now en vogue seem an appropriate return to masculinity in a fashion world otherwise dominated by slightly effeminate hipsters. When we think of Victorians and fashion, corsets, bustles, and hatpins are what typically come to mind. What we forget is that the American male identity — the cowboy and the power-broker, the rugged frontiersman and the rough-edged urbanite — was effectively created in the years following the Civil War, in the Gilded Age. (Hello, J.P Morgan!)

I find an interesting irony in this revival in style. With last fall’s economic collapse, we witnessed the death of another Gilded Age. Wednesday’s Times featured articles on the post-meltdown retraction of philanthropic giving. Yet interior decorators and menswear designers have turned to the 1890s, an age marked by opulence, extravagance, and the birth of American philanthropy as we know it. What are designers trying to tell us? That things are looking up? Or have they found a sense of humour?

Whatever the case maybe, I’m quite happy to have this revival of old-school haberdashery. I don’t know about you other women out there, but these skinny jeans on anorexic men is just not my idea of sexy.

Now, what about the new Sherlock Holmes?

I once told three sharp women to “Leave Auntie Jane [Austen] Alone.”

Now I’m going ask Guy Ritchie to leave Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alone. I’m going to hold my tongue and not call Guy Ritchie one of the most overrated upstart directors of the last decade. I’m not going to call him a one-hit wonder (really, all he had was Lock, Stock… Snatch wasn’t up to snuff). But I will ask, does he really think turning history’s most beloved uber-sleuth into stuntman is a good idea? Does he really think Robert Downy, Jr. is the best man to embody a character marked by his “extraordinary powers” of deduction? Maybe Ritchie was thinking about Holmes as a cocaine addict when he was casting. Holmes is a dandy, not an action hero. He’s an intellectual who’s just a wee-bit feminine, and most importantly, he’s a social outsider, who as Watson tells us “loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul.” Somehow, Downy, Jr.., with his 8-pack, is just a little too cool for the Sherlock Holmes school… and don’t get me started on Jude Law as Dr. Watson.

Artwork of the Week for June 29, 2009

martin sharp explosion

Martin Sharp
Explosion (Jimi Hendrix); 1967

This week’s artwork is inspired by my recent viewing of HAIR and my general obsession with the visual culture of the 1960s (oh, and Jimi Hendrix).

1967 was the Summer of Love and California’s Bay Area was its epicenter. 100,000 hippies wore flowers in their hair and converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to find somebody to love, to practice political dissension, to trip on LSD and pass some joints, to groove out to folk singers and acid rockers alike. People realized Life was a multi-sensory experience. Psychedelia shaped the late 1960s visual world. Musicians were gods and music (enhanced by a few hallucinogens) was a conduit to higher planes of consciousness. By 1967, a counter-culture became the definitive culture.

Perhaps my favorite visual relics from the 1960s are concert posters. Ineffective as advertisements (seriously, you have to spend 10 minutes deciphering the lettering) but stunning as art works, they combined the sinuous curves of art nouveau with the bold colors and the ephemeral of psychedelic experiences. Martin Sharp, an Australian who made his way to the Euro hippie center of London, was an iconic designer and artist in the late 1960s (he did several album covers for Cream). Sharp’s “Explosion” captures the color, vision, feel, and sound of 1967. Hendrix was a phenomenon in his day — 20th century rock’s virtuoso — and 1967 was the year of his famous appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Sharp used a photo of Hendrix by Linda Eastman (later, Linda McCartney) as the base for his poster. To capture the raw emotion of his subject’s performance, he dissolves the image into bursts of electric colors. Sound becomes color and Jimi Hendrix becomes an experience.

How appropriate.

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