How many people have I interviewed in my lifetime? Thousands? More like tens of thousands, surely. One of the conversations that most sticks with me is with artist and author of How To Do Nothing, Jenny Odell. We called her up to talk about travel, but really, being the deep thinker that she is, the conversation focused on what it means to be human and savor life. She offered a key travel tip that we can apply whether we’re home or away: Bring the same open perspective that you have on a trip to your daily experience. Be curious and observe.
“It just becomes very quickly evident that I will never really get to the bottom of things that I’m observing, and that is such a delightful feeling,” she told me.
Today after a heavy brunch (featuring the best french toast I’ve ever had — I think it’s made with bits of croissant?!), my friend Andrew and I took a walk through Veterans Park and then along a sidewalk. He looked up and said, “It’s a Cold War Museum.”
What? I looked to my left and saw the lettering on the wall: Wende Museum of the Cold War. I never noticed it before. It’s found inside a former National Guard Armory built in 1949 to defend against an attack by the Soviet Union. Admission is free.
How timely and kismet, on another devastating weekend of a nonsensical invasion of sovereign Ukraine by a Russian leader wanting to return to the past, that we stumbled upon a carefully curated collection highlighting the precariousness and paradoxes of that time.
We wandered in and explored the exhibitions (a current one is on Soviet Jews) and the outdoor sculpture garden, where the activity for kids was screen printing what appeared to be Cold War-era typefaces and designs, before checking out the work of Dutch photographer Martin Roemers, which was on display — photographs of the remnants and relics of the Cold War. This museum was just the right size and a carefully curated, thoughtful collection. I’m so grateful for my friend Andrew and our unplanned post-brunch walk, for I would have missed this neighborhood gem that I really must drive by numerous times a week, if not each day.
Me: I feel like that was probably a good photo.
Mr Coates: Well, we’ll find out in two months. Or whenever you actually get the film developed.
In a now annual tradition, Friend Harper gives me a disposable film camera (this time with flash!) that I use for about a month. Half the film is wasted with the camera swishing in my purse, since movement winds it and takes accidental snapshots.
Two things I really enjoy about this exercise: The unknown — without a digital screen, I have no idea how these photos are gonna turn out. And the wait — the passage of time between the time the image was snapped, and when it’s finally developed, can change the photo’s interpretation.
January feels like last week … and a lifetime ago. No filter, obviously:
The crackdown started, infamously, on June 4, 1989. But the movement had been swelling by this point, made so tragically clear as we revisit images from that time and remember.
“We know now that one side was arguing for restraint towards the demonstrators and for wider reforms, while hardliners pressed for a crackdown. It was almost unbelievable to witness the open massive challenge to the authority of the CCP. It went on for days, then weeks, numbers growing. But something had to give.”
Friend Harper gives a goody bag to his guests that stay over at his place in Chicago. In the canvas tote are cool things like Harper-branded stickers and … a black and white disposable film camera, which I managed to use until Harper came to LA last week and I could hand off the camera to him to develop.
I love the hard-won look of these. And the time capsule element – there’s something special about film because it gives you such a finite amount of photos you can take. I wasted a lot by just taking nonsense photos of things like takeout boxes, for fun, but I also found this exercise in limits (only 24 chances) and patience (had to handoff the film to be developed, and then wait) really lovely. Baby Luna looked hot, as usual.
Because I’ve spent most my career as a visual journalist, photographers are pretty much my favorite people. In television, I got to work with some of the best of them around and it made me sorta picky about shooters. So when it came time to get married, the only person I wanted to shoot our Amsterdam wedding (besides war photographer Damon Winter, of course) was Channing Johnson, my effortlessly talented, immensely humble photojournalist pal from college who I got to know during my senior year, when I harangued him into shooting stills for a terrible documentary I made. His work never disappoints.
Channing is a nostalgia-junkie like me, and we just like hanging out with one another, so when I told him we were going to be in Boston a couple of weeks ago he offered to join us at MIT and just shoot a few bump photos to mark this whole family-expansion experiment. What he got, of course, was way more than we expected and I’m so grateful.