Luc Sante speaks tonight about photography, reads tomorrow from work in progress

Luc Sante is the favorite writer of many writers. I'm super grateful to MOCAD and Cranbrook for bringing him to town, from upstate New York. I spoke with Sante a bit about his work here, with a playlist of what music makes the soundtrack for his different works here. Below, please find an outtake from the article, where Sante discusses how each of his main books came to exist in the first place.

Oh, and the bit at the end is him talking about how each of the works came to be titled.

LUC SANTE: Low Life had its origin in the mid-'80s when I was writing little light pieces for a now-defunct business  magazine called Manhattan Inc. They assigned me a story about the then-common phenomenon of manhole covers being blasted into the air by built-up steam. I thought that someone must have published a map of underground Manhattan (I was wrong), and when I consulted a library to look for such a thing I was bowled over by the books in the New York City history section. There were books about crime, the growth of the city, the Draft Riots (which I'd only dimly heard of), etc., and since I was already then obsessed with the sweeping demographic changes the city began undergoing in the '80s, I threw myself into reading about its past. When some months later a publisher asked me what I'd write a book about if someone were to give me a contract, I blurted out that I'd like to write a history of the slums. And so it came to pass.

Evidence happened when I was doing the picture research for Low Life. A clerk in the Municipal Archives suggested I might like to look at their NYPD files, and indeed I was astonished by them. So many amazing pictures, that raised so many questions, of all sorts! I knew I had to do a book, to get the pictures seen and to try and unravel some of their knots. The whole process, from initial idea to finished product, only took about eight months, something of a record for me.

I went to England in 1989 to interview J. G. Ballard, and while I was there it occurred to me that I could change my return ticket and visit Belgium, my native land, which I hadn't seen in fifteen years. I was weir dly nervous about it, but when I got there the place was like one giant Proust's cookie. In Verviers I discovered that I could make my way from the train station to my grandparents' old house—a distance of about a mile—without needing to consult a map, and they had moved out of that house in 1959, when I was 5. After Low Life I could write anything I wanted, and for all that my readers really wanted something else about New York, I decided to plunge into Belgium and my family, which were both compelling mysteries to me. The result, The Factory of Facts, is flawed—I made the rookie mistake of wanting to throw in absolutely everything I uncovered in my researches, and I wish I could take a scalpel to it—but it's far and away the most personal thing I've ever written, especially the last chapter, which is a kind of deflected self-portrait. Nobody including my closest friends has ever had anything to say about that chapter.

One day around 1980 I bought some real-photo postcards of the Mexican Revolution from a street vendor on Astor Place in New York—they were presumably among the effects of a dead man, thrown out on the street by a landlord. I'd never seen anything like them, and became obsessed with the phenomenon of the RPPC—postcards printed in the darkroom rather than a litho press, and generally intended for citizens of small towns to communicate with the wider world, rather than for tourists. I spent thirty years collecting them—in junk shops, by mail auctions, and on eBay. I initially intended a big, encyclopedic book on the subject, but someone else beat me to it—which was a relief by then—and I wound up writing an essay which was the first stage of my in-progress theory of vernacular photography, illustrating it with the very best of my pictures: Folk Photography.

The Other Paris was cooked up by my agent and my
publisher. I was delighted, of course. I'd been obsessed with the city since my first visit at age 8, through my student stint there in 1974 and a remarkable few weeks spent with a houseful of very wised-up anarchists in the northeast corner of the city in 1983. I already owned something like 100 books about the city in whole or in part. My first reaction, though, was that I supposed they wanted Low Life Paris. Like a jerk, I snickered at this. Then I forgot about it, and proceeded to waste years trying to write a general history of the city, despite the fact that such a thing is published a dozen times a year, and the examples I read mostly put me to sleep. It finally occurred to me that what I knew most about, was most interested in, and was most neglected by English-language writers was all the same thing: the history and culture of the working and "dangerous" classes. Low Life Paris, in other words. Once I had that concept I was off and running. I can only wonder why it took a five-year detour to get there.


There are two kinds of titles: those I thought up before I wrote a word, and those I scrambled desperately for after I'd finished. The latter group includes Low Life, which might have been hatched by my editor, Jonathan Galassi, or his then-assistant, Rick Moody. Also my new one, The Other Paris, which was the title given by Adam Sekuler, I believe, to a program of film clips I gave at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle a couple of years ago. I thought it was bland at first, but it grew on me.

Evidence just seemed obvious, since it's a collection of NYPD crime scene photos, and it wasn't until production was already underway that I learned of the amazing and groundbreaking book of the same name by Mike Mandel and the late Larry Sultan—if I'd known I would have tried something else. But then a year later Richard Avedon put out a book called Evidence, and there have been a passel of others since. The Factory of Facts I stole from the Soviet filmmaker Dziga  Vertov; it was the title of an unrealized project from the 1920s, the notes of which were published at some point in October magazine. Kill All Your Darlings was a phrase I first heard in college, and I wrote it down in my notebook because I thought it would make a good band name—I was always collecting names for potential bands. (Although in retrospect it might have sounded too much like Destroy All Monsters, speaking of Detroit.)

Folk Photography I'd also been hoarding for years before the book came out—but specifically for that project, which mutated many times over but retained the same title. My slow-cooking novel, that famous "book in progress which takes place in the early ‘80s in NYC," is to be called Declare Present Time Over, which is a slight alteration of a line by Brion Gysin, "proclaim present time over," one of his mantras in which the words constantly switch their order, although I didn't like the alliteration. I do like the way that title sums up both the utterly fuzzy and ungrounded hope of total revolution that existed around 1979 and the gradual feeling of everything coming to an end that started manifesting itself beginning around '82, with the first signs of the coming of money. I don't have a title for the Lou Reed book; it's very early days yet. Maybe I'll call it Lurid (a joke, or maybe a half-joke). 

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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