Episode 512 – Michael Lesy

Virtual Memories Show 512:
Michael Lesy

“The Wisconsin Death Trip was a holocaust without Jews. It was a shitstorm. And if you don’t acknowledge the shitstorm, you’re not entirely alive. Walker understood that.”

Photographic historian & writer Michael Lesy joins the show to celebrate his amazing new book, WALKER EVANS: LAST PHOTOGRAPHS & LIFE STORIES (Blast Books). We get into his friendship with Evans & their shared interest in Lyrical Documentary, why Evans’ last photos were dismissed by academics (even though they are, in fact, amazing), what he learned from writing a mini-biography of Evans for the book, how Evans returned to one of his first cameras — the Polaroid SX-70 — in his last year, and what Michael felt seeing his late wife among the final portraits Evans shot. We also get into Michael’s ~50-year career from Wisconsin Death Trip to now, how reading the Russians — especially Turgenev — turned him into a writer, how he feels about everyone taking pictures on their phones, and the importance of understanding photo history. Plus, we discuss how he taught Literary Journalism at my alma mater, Hampshire College, for ~30 years, the audition test he gave his students so they could write their way into his class, why students became much more frail over the decades, and a LOT more. Give it a listen! And go read Walker Evans: Last Photographs & Life Stories!

“If you can’t fall down the rabbit hole of a photograph, then you’re just a sterile academic, moving chess pieces around.”

“The difference between being looked at & being seen is the difference between wanting & needing. The way that you teach writing is to teach needing. But students are better acquainted with wanting.”

“Literary journalism is storytelling, but you pay attention to the truth.”

“I told my students they had to find a reader. And I told them, ‘A reader is not someone you sleep with. A reader is someone who has no stake in you, except they’re willing to listen to prose and tell you.'”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Michael Lesy is one of America’s leading photographic scholars. His books include Wisconsin Death Trip, Snapshots 1971-77, Murder City, Angel’s World, Long Time Coming: A Photographic Portrait of America, 1935-1943, and Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. In 2007, the United States Artists Foundation named Professor Lesy its first Simon Fellow, and in 2013 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Photography Studies. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is professor emeritus of literary journalism at Hampshire College.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Michael’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4 digital recorder & interface. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Michael by me; the other stuff is by Walker Evans, from the book. It’s on my instagram.

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