Posts Tagged ‘Lena Herzog’

Lena Herzog on lost languages: “We are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.”

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Photographer Lena Herzog at work.

Our post a few days ago about lost languages evoked some interesting responses – one of them from photographer Lena HerzogLena has made an occasional appearance in the Book Haven, and I interviewed her for Music & Literature here. She was a guest panelist at the Another Look book event on Dostoevsky, and her Entitled Opinions interview got record traffic.  

As a result of our conversation, she offered us a guest essay on the origins of “Last Whispers/Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes, and a Falling Tree,” which was mentioned on the post several days ago. “I got addicted to these vanishing voices,” she writes:

At the age of six I decided to learn English so that I could understand a puzzle in a Sherlock Holmes story. I had to know how the detective had decoded a death threat to his client’s wife in The Adventure of the Dancing Men. The key to that puzzle was the recognition of the recurring definite article “the”—a mysterious notion to me then since articles do not exist in Russian. I grew up in the Urals, on the western border of Siberia, where very few people spoke foreign languages. I picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original in English, along with a dictionary and a grammar text book, and struggled through the entire book line by line. Later, also prompted by the desire to read literature in the original, I studied French and Spanish and, worked as a proof-reader at a printing press in Saint Petersburg, next to the compositors that were busily nestling letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into novels at a staggering speed, throwing proofs over to me like hot bread. So it made sense to me that when I went to Saint Petersburg University, the door plaque of my faculty read philology φιλολογία—including the original Greek, which means “love of the word.” However, all my plans to become a Russian novelist were upended by a complete linguistic dislocation to American English at age twenty, when I moved to the United States. The sense of personal language loss was concrete and overwhelming, alerting me to a far more universal and dire fate for most languages.

The idea for a project specifically on the mass extinction of languages came to me more than two decades ago. My old failed 2003 Guggenheim application was titled “Vanishing Cultures” and was at first, in part, a photographic project. I’d planned to take large-format portraits of the last speakers of various languages and place them in a room filled with their whispering voices. The concept of sounding vanished voices by broadcasting them as a muffled chorus was already central and clearly articulated in my description of the project back then.

I realized that indigenous communities give up their languages and switch to dominant ones under pressure from the forces of globalization. My next natural iteration of this idea involved shedding the images of the speakers and having only voices in a forest. When a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? This old philosophical trope, the basic epistemological exercise, seemed handy. What is our sense of the unobserved, unheard worlds? I have come to think of this old exercise as one in empathy: Does it matter that trees and universes collapse all around us? Somewhere, between our obliviousness to others and our own oblivion, rest the scales of some brutal justice.

The British Museum installation of “Last Whispers.”

My team and I began amassing a giant library of recordings of extinct and endangered languages on loan from international archives, working closely with many collections, linguists, and anthropologists in the field. Our main collaborator was the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, a project of SOAS University of London that is headed by Mandana Seyfeddinipur. When I went through their archives online, I realized there would be no point in just “stacking” languages back-to-back to form a single piece. Because these recordings were already public, generously so, it would have been possible to perform this kind of compilation just by clicking “next” on their website, and that would have been too obvious a gesture for the work I had in mind.

While working in my studio and darkroom, I created a setup that randomly played thousands of these recordings, one after another. I marked those that felt right for the oratorio I was planning and began narrowing down the library. The extraordinary researcher Theresa Schwartzman, in Los Angeles, and her counterpart in London, Eveling Villa, began reaching out to archives, linguists, and indigenous communities (when this was possible) to obtain rights and permissions for the recordings. Sometimes there was no community to reach. We went beyond the letter of the law, which held that the copyright resided with the linguists and the archives, and tried to reach those who claimed heritage to the language. Sometimes last speakers changed their minds, turning us down mid-composition and mid-film, and we had to redo the work from scratch. Each case had a story, most often a tragic one. We began to publish some of them on our website.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur and Lena Herzog

Every dialogue with a linguist, no matter how banal, brought insight. The professionals who travel and live among these last speakers are the unsung heroes in this story; they are the ones who collect, preserve, and help revitalize endangered languages. In my dealings with them, they were the advocates for the last speakers’ rights. One might think that they would number enough to form an army, but there are barely enough of them for a battalion. Most work alongside volunteers and language enthusiasts. And all of them, at least those that I have met, are on the side of indigenous peoples. To put it in espionage terms, linguists of endangered languages almost always “go native.” They are the ones who hear the trees falling in the forest. Our long list of credits names both the speakers and the linguists—meticulously.

The polyphonic global chorus that I heard had the makings of an astonishing oratorio, and to bring it into a public space beyond the form of the archive, I needed music and imagery that would reveal it in a condensed form. This form had to be invented organically; it had to come from the recordings, from the voices themselves.

Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini, who work fluidly in both sound design and composition, joined the team, and we began to shape the oratorio from our already-narrowed library. My concept was multilayered and concrete: it included the use of sounds of Russian bells, forest noises, wind, interpreted gravitational waves from outer space registered by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (a.k.a. “the Listening Ear”), and the specific parameters for the source library itself. In my first brainstorming session about the work, I wrote to Marco and Mark:

Lena Herzog’s team Marco Capalbo, Mark Mangini and British Museum curator David Sheldon during the installation

What is the balance of the piece? What holds it together?

The “founding idea” of making the work is based on the recordings of languages that had already vanished or are well on their way to extinction. The parameters within which the selection was made for the source library—I have defined. This is clearly a glue as the overall idea and basic building blocks. … Using cosmic sounds of the universe within the composition expands the arc. Gives us “eternal” time. … I really love the opening with the bell. The end will have to be a giant chorus that builds and builds and then abruptly vanishes—in an exhale.

Shifting from fragmentation to a lyrical cradling of the voices, then back to fragmentation, and ending with a finale of interwoven harmony and dissonance were key to the piece I was constructing with my team.

Listening to the sounds of the voices and the first sketches by Marco and Mark, the photographer Tomas van Houtryve and I mapped a precise choreography of drone footage. Animator Amanda Tasse and I decided to create a new topography for the world that would have no “real” geography. We collected NASA images of hurricanes, cut out their edges, and sewed them together, forming something like a digital quilt to cover the earth. I thought that the edges of these vortices textured the continents and islands well, lighting the globe like a strange marble.

There is lamentation and melancholy in the oratorio. How can it be otherwise? And yet it is not a requiem—it is an invocation of languages that have gone extinct and an incantation of those that are endangered. I myself got addicted to these vanishing voices. I listen to them all the time now. They remind me that despite the deafening noise of our own voices, we are floating on an ocean filled with the silence of others.

“Those who read books own the world.” Lost languages, an Algonquin Bible, the Herzogs, and more

Friday, March 30th, 2018

A stroll down the corridors of Cambridge’s treasure house.

I visited the Old Library at Jesus College, Cambridge, last week. Prof. Stephen Heath gave an enlightening show-and-tell of the library’s incunabula to me and my fellow pilgrims, John Dugdale Bradley and Michael Gioia (Stanford alums, both). He brought out  an astonishing succession of treasures, including Thomas Cranmer‘s Bible, with its triple columns for comparing the original language (Greek, on the pages I saw) to the Vulgate Latin and English.

“What would you like to see last?” he asked me. What could I say? I had no idea what wonders might be in the back rooms. “Surprise me,” I said.

Marvels tucked away in a corner of Cambridge

And so he did. He brought out another Bible, this one from America. It was a 1663 Bible translated phonetically by John Eliot. The Natick dialect of Algonquin had no written form until he gave it one. He inscribed the particular presentation copy under my fingers for his alma mater at Cambridge, Jesus College. Was the Eliot name a coincidence? I remember a prominent New England family that spawned another famous Eliot, also with one “l”. On the other hand, I also knew that spellings of surnames were very fluid even into the 19th century.

When I got back to California, I checked on John Eliot, the Puritan missionary. He is indeed distantly related to T.S. Eliot, from the same Brahmin family in Massachusetts. Both descended from Andrew Eliot, whose family came to America via Yeovil and East Coker, Somerset.

But the Algonquin Bible haunted me for another reason: I recently attended a private screening in San Francisco of photographer’s Lena Herzog‘s Last Whispers, about the mass extinction of languages. I meant to tell her about the Algonquin Bible on my return, but now this blogpost will have to do. Perhaps the Algonquin language, which still has more than three thousand speakers, owes something to Eliot’s efforts.

The coincidences continued: this week, a new friend, Paul Holdengräber of the New York Public Library, sent me the link for his interview several years ago with Lena’s husband, the unconventional filmmaker Werner Herzog. The Q&A, “Was the Twentieth Century a Mistake?”, touches on the same subject – lost languages. (His comments are unrelated to Lena’s project, although their interests on the matter converge.) So here’s a hefty and relevant excerpt from the conversation between the two men:

WH: But, Paul, before we go into other things, I would linger a little on the twentieth century. And one of the things that is quite evident and looks like a good thing in the twentieth century is the ecologists’ movement. It makes a lot of sense, the fundamental analysis is right. The fundamental attitude they have taken is also right, but we miss something completely out of the twentieth century, which is—

Lena Herzog: a lover of language

PH: Culture.

WH: What went wrong in the culture, yes. That is, we see embarrassments like whale huggers, I mean, you can’t get worse than that, or tree huggers, even, such bizarre behaviour. And people are concerned about the panda bear, and they are concerned about the well-being of salad leaves, but they have completely overlooked that while we are sitting here probably the last speaker of a language may die in these two hours. There are six thousand languages still left, but by 2050, only 15 percent of these languages will survive.

PH: So we are paying attention to the wrong things.

WH: No, to pay attention to ecological questions is not the wrong thing, but to overlook the immense value of human culture is. More than twenty years ago I met an Australian man in Port Augusta in an old-age home and he was named “the mute.” He was the very last speaker of his language, had nobody with whom he could speak and hence fell mute, fell silent. He had no one left, and of course he has died since then. And his language has disappeared, has not been recorded. It’s as if the last Spaniard had died and Spanish literature and culture, everything has vanished. And it vanishes very, very fast. It vanishes much faster than anything we are witnessing in terms of, let’s say, mammals dying out. Yes, we should be concerned about the snow leopard, and we should be concerned about whales, but why is it that nobody talks about cultures and languages and last speakers dying away? There’s a massive, colossal, and cataclysmic mistake that is happening right now and nobody sees it and nobody talks about it. So that’s why I find it enraging that people hug whales. Who hugs the last speaker of an Inuit language in Alaska? So it just makes me angry when I look back at the twentieth century, and I’m afraid it continues like that. And we have got into a meaningless consumer culture, we have lost dignity, we have lost all proportion.

“Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

PH: In terms of preserving culture, preserving language, we can think of this library, which has many millions of books underground, seven floors of books, and it goes under Bryant Park.

WH: Paradise.

PH: Paradise, as you called it, but when we were underground, you asked the librarian: “In the case of a holocaust, what would we do with the precious books?” And the librarian was rather anxious about that question. [laughter] No provisions had yet been made, and I don’t know if they’ve been made since your question. But I remember the librarian wondering how to answer it. And he said, “Well, in the case of a holocaust, maybe we will come here.” And you said, “Ah, people. It’s the books that matter!” Do you remember that?

WH: Yes, it sounds misleading in the context of the previous, but please continue. [laughter]

PH: Well, the books are the repository of our memories and our culture. So that these languages that are disappearing as we are talking now have a place where they’re archived, where they’re kept, even if the culture itself has become mute, it still can be studied.

WH: But most of the six thousand still-spoken languages are not recorded in written form. So then they disappear without a trace. That’s evident. But, yes, books, sure, we must preserve them and we must somehow be cautious and careful with them, because they carry our culture—and, of course, those who read books own the world, those who watch television lose it. So be careful and be cautious with the books.

Tom Eliot has formidable forebears.

PH: And what you do with your time.

WH: Yes, but we do have disagreements of what are the most precious ones that we would keep. Of course, you would go for James Joyce immediately, and I have my objections, because I think he’s—

PH: Who would you go for?

WH: Hölderlin. No, I mean James Joyce isn’t really bad, but—

PH: James Joyce is on a trajectory for you—

WH: Which went somewhere wrong—

PH: Somewhere wrong, starting with Petrarch and then going to someone such as Laurence Sterne.

WH:. Yes, Laurence Sterne is somehow a beginning in modern literature, where literature really became modern but also went on a detour and the result—

PH: A detour from what?


WH: Detour from what, yes—that’s not easy to say, a detour that leads let’s say to Finnegans Wake, where literature should not end up. It’s a cul de sac, in my opinion, and much of James Joyce is a cul de sac, per se. But at the same time that he was writing, there were also people like Kafka, for example, and Joseph Conrad. I have a feeling there is something hardcore, some essence of literature; and you have it in a long, long tradition and you find it in Joseph Conrad, you find it in Hemingway, the short stories, you find it in Bruce Chatwin, and you find it in Cormac McCarthy.

You can read the whole fascinating interview at the literary journal Brick here. But I can’t help but wonder about something else, related to hugging pandas and kissing whales. This may be the very first era in history where there has been so much sentimentality and affection for animals, and comparatively little for babies and children. (This vegetarian cat-lover pleads guilty, at least a bit.) Why is that? And what does that say for the future of the race?

Meanwhile, enjoy this Huron carol, in a language now extinct. Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary wrote this carol in Wendat (Wyandot) sometime before he was martyred in 1649 – fourteen years before Eliot’s Algonquin Bible.

Lena Herzog on photography: “It stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

“When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

Lena at work

Lena Herzog is a visual artist and photographer who develops thoughts and ideas as well as images. In his introduction to their conversation, Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison suggests that her camera follows Joseph Conrad’s aesthetic creed to “render the highest kind of justice to the visible world.” The interview is available on Entitled Opinions new channel over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, here.

Harrison and Herzog discuss the cultural transition to digital photography and Herzog’s penchant for a ghostly or alchemical – or even sacramental – approach to creating images. Herzog usually works with pre-digital cameras, where latent images are transformed into visible ones with emulsions in a darkroom.

The two discuss how many cultures have believed that photographs steal the soul. Have millions of digital images eroded meaning from places and people? Walter Benjamin said that photography is one of the most powerful instruments of desacralization of the world, so Harrison and Herzog discuss the over-familiarization of images of landscapes and objects, in an era when we live in oceans of images.

Herzog argues that the images capture the “inner state of being” of the photographer: “Five photographers are in a trench, they pop out, they take a picture if the same event, they pop back in. They come out with completely different images. Remember the picture of the naked girl at the napalm bombing during the Vietnam War? It’s Nick Ut’s very famous iconic image. On that bridge stood half a dozen photographers, including a photographer from the New York Times who was far more famous at the time. None of them produced images that stuck with us. They were shooting at the same time with the same group of Vietnamese running towards them. This is an extraordinary and fascinating aspect of photography.”

Listen to the whole interview here.

Potent Quotes

“About five billion people who have cellphones can produce fairly competent images. They’re okay, but okay is not enough.”

“The procedures that I work with go back to dawn of photography, but not for sentimental reasons. It’s just because they’re better. … The possibilities are enormous. When I see an image come through in my developer, it stuns me every time. It’s the stuff of magic.”

“We are three dimensional creatures. We don’t have the companionship and camaraderie with files, with zeroes and ones. Even when you see an image that is perfectly perfect, which is very high-resolution digital, there is something about it that doesn’t speak to us.”

“One of the reasons that I use all these complicated technologies and techniques and large-format cameras is because I want to take special care. It should not be offhand, it should not be careless how I photograph.”

“The mystical part of it is not only that mechanically I can reproduce the astonishing likeness of the world, but also mechanically I can reproduce how I feel, how I see the world. … It not only registers the event, but the photographer’s inner state of being.”

“When an object or a thing or a person is over-familiarized, something happens to it, something in our perception of it happens, and we lose the mystery, the expectations. For me, that’s why celebrities are absolutely uninteresting. Familiar to us, and yet they have become completely unfamiliar because there is a veil of familiarization that holds us back from true understanding. To look at it afresh, to pay attention to it carefully, is a task right now.”


An overlooked classic? Stanford makes the case for Dostoevsky’s The Double

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

An overlooked classic? Robert Harrison, Monika Greenleaf, and Lena Herzog debate.

On a bright spring day in May, a surprising number of people skipped the pleasant weather to discuss Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s dark and comic novella, The Double. It was all part of Stanford’s Another Look book club. An eloquent panel made the case that the 1846 novella is one of the renowned Russian author’s forgotten classics.

The Double portrays the disintegration of a neurotic government clerk into two distinct entities – one toadying and nervous; the other self-assured, exploitative, and aggressive. Vladimir Nabokov, not usually a fan of Dostoevsky, called The Double “the best thing he ever wrote” and “a perfect work of art.”

Another Look Director Robert Harrison

Russian photographer Lena Herzog joined us from Los Angeles. (Her husband Werner Herzog was an interlocutor for the Another Look event on J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. I interviewed her at that time for Music & Literature here.)

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He and Lena were joined by Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures. Monika was a panelist from our event on Joseph Conrad’s Shadow-Line, and some of you met Lena at our mega-event for The Peregrine.

David Schwartz was our photographer for the occasion, and captured Lena in elegant black-and-white, and the others in color. A surprise for the evening was the eminent author and psychiatrist Herant Katchadourian, author of Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (he’s Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry and Human Biology at Stanford University), spoke for a few minutes to give a psychiatric evaluation of the novella’s protagonist, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin.

The preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our times, Stanford’s Joseph Frank, said of the novella: “the internal split between self-image and truth, between what a person wishes to believe about himself and what he really is – constitutes Dostoevsky’s first grasp of a character type that became his hallmark as a writer.” The Double marks a turning point in the life of the author. While the book owes a debt to Nikolai Gogol, the younger author moves beyond social critique to the psychological drama that would become his trademark in the great novels that followed.

It’s sad that Joe Frank, who died in 2013, couldn’t join us for the discussion. Fortunately, his widow, the mathematician Marguerite Frank, did.

You can listen to the podcast that includes all the voices here, including some very lively questions from our audience. All photos by Another Look fan David Schwartz (the top one is the good Doctor Katchadourian). We are always grateful for David’s presence at our events, and his camera!



Is it “the best thing he ever wrote”? Nabokov thought so. Join us for Dostoevsky’s The Double on Monday, May 15!

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

He’s nervous. Very nervous. Be there.

Our spring “Another Look” event at Stanford will discuss Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s The Double: A Petersburg Poem. The 1846 novella portrays the disintegration of a neurotic government clerk into two distinct entities – one toadying and nervous; the other self-assured, exploitative, and aggressive. Vladimir Nabokov, not usually a fan of Dostoevsky, called The Double “the best thing he ever wrote” and “a perfect work of art.” And so Another Look champions The Double as an overlooked masterpiece from a familiar author. It is our final event of the season.

We’ll have a special guest for the event: Russian photographer Lena Herzog will be joining us from Los Angeles. Some of you met Lena at our event with Werner Herzog for J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. I interviewed her at that time for Music & Literature here. An excerpt, where she remembers moving to St. Petersburg as a teenager in 1986:

“Everybody wanted jeans, wanted to be a Westerner, but in the most superficial, shallow way. And yet it still was St. Petersburg. It still had walls and the canals that whispered with the voice of Dostoevsky. It still had culture and ideas and architecture. Saint Petersburg is such a beguiling city. … I loved to walk through the fog enveloping the cathedrals and canals, heart pounding, anticipating the gold-winged griffins on the Bank Bridge over the Griboyedov canal, which emerged from the fog as I walked past them.”

The discussion will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, May 15, at the Bechtel Conference Center. We recommend the Vintage Classic edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the discussion. The Stanford professor writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. He and Lena will be joined by Monika Greenleaf, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures. Many of you will remember Monika from our event on Joseph Conrad’s Shadow-Line, and some of you met Lena at our event with Werner Herzog for J.A. Baker‘s The Peregrine.

The preeminent Dostoevsky scholar of our times, Stanford’s Joseph Frank, said of the novella: “the internal split between self-image and truth, between what a person wishes to believe about himself and what he really is – constitutes Dostoevsky’s first grasp of a character type that became his hallmark as a writer.” The Double marks a turning point in the life of the author. While the book owes a debt to Nikolai Gogol, the younger author moves beyond social critique to the psychological drama that would become his trademark in the great novels that followed.





Photographer Lena Herzog: “I fall into breathing with the world…”

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Herself. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Russian American photographer Lena Herzog is a phenomenon – well beyond the books she has published and her international exhibitions. She’s witty, incisive, profound, and thoroughly original. You can read for yourself in my Q&A with her at the Music & Literature website – here

I caught her during a recent trip to San Francisco, while she was visiting on break for her tours with her newly published Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. Lena Herzog spent seven years tracking the evolution of a new kinetic species, intricate as insects but dwarfing its creator, a scientist-artist, in size as they roam the beaches of Holland. 

But this particular visit to the City wasn’t a solo visit: her husband Werner Herzog was in town for Stanford’s Another Look book club event, in which Herzog joined author Robert Pogue Harrison for an onstage conversation (we wrote about that here and here). Robert met the Herzogs a few years earlier, when he interviewed Lena for his Entitled Opinions radio show.

But I consider it a privilege to have had a short squished hour with Lena alone, before the Herzogs headed back to their Los Angeles home.

Here’s an excerpt:

strandbeestsHaven: So how do you capture a moment that is movement? With the Strandbeests, you’re trying to take a still photograph of something that is essentially motion, by definition.

Herzog: By definition, yes. That’s the whole point of it. One of my first two books was about dance—Flamenco: Dance Class in 2004. By the way, it was dedicated to a great Flamenco dancer Yaelisa of Spanish decent, the daughter of the great Flamenco singer Isa Mura. Yaelisa lives and works in the Bay Area. I had a similar challenge with her and her troupe, how do you photograph something that is all about motion? Or anything that’s alive, really? A dancer is not a breathing, living being in my photographs, but, I hope, you get a sense of her, of her dance. A photograph is not a calcification. For me, it’s capturing the spirit of something, a tree, a person, an object, a moment. At its best, a good shot is the opposite of clarification—it is a mystery.

I normally photograph at a regular speed, 125 fractions of one second. So it’s one second divided by 125 times. That’s the slice of the time I use to capture something. I click when I feel something—when my heart sinks for a brief moment. Everything that constitutes me, coalesces, dances with that moment.

flamencoThat connection is what matters, what makes me take a picture. That’s why, for example, I don’t use tripods. I have them, I just haven’t used them. I realized that even when I’m photographing a tree or a mummified human specimen in the Cabinet of Wonders I need to be one with my camera. The lost souls are not moving, but I am moving. My soul is moving. It’s breathing. It feels like I fall into breathing with the world. And then I click.

I need that last breath, that sense of becoming the thing I’m photographing—as if my soul jumped out of me and into that person. I need that brief second, that possession, and so that last breath is crucial. When I am responding to motion, to a dance or to Strandbeests, that’s what I’m reflecting—something that’s in me. It’s not technically photographing something and making sure the viewer understands this motion. It’s this after-image effect, the moment when your heart sank because you saw that. And it translates. It’s a mystical moment. I don’t know why it translates, but I know that it does.

Well, you can read the whole thing online here