In January 2021, The New Yorker launched Tabula Rasa, a series of articles of undefined duration by the great John McPhee. As a preamble to the first installment, McPhee wrote:
I decided to describe saved-up, bypassed, intended pieces of writing as an old-man project, the purpose of which is never to end.
Listening to the third article on New Yorker’s website was an immense delight. It made us consider all the untold stories that make up a life, moments seen and felt that lay hidden within us. And the possibility of bringing them into view again, as a piece of writing or art. Like this from McPhee’s memory of his fishing trip with Lenox Dick, author of “Experience the World of Shad Fishing”.
And now, two years later, we’re on the McKenzie River with the professional guide George Recker, and we have had our lunch: the ten-inch trout we were catching this morning. George prepared them, and grilled them naked. Skinless. After beheading each one, he pinched it with his thumbs and forefingers at the pectoral fins and flipped it over-end with a powerful snap. The body popped out of the skin, looking less like a fish than a frankfurter.
Suddenly, we were ON that river, marveling at the split second in which Recker denuded a trout. McPhee’s spare, vivid description reminded me of the essential lesson legendary photographer and teacher Lisette Model taught her students, most notably Diane Arbus.
Here are Arbus’ words from a 1972 Aperture Monograph of her work*:
A photograph has to be specific. I remember a long time ago when I first began to photograph I thought, There are an awful lot of people in the world and it’s going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody’ll recognize it. It’ll be like what they used to call the common man or something.
It was my teacher Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be. You really have to face that thing. And there are certain evasions, certain nicenesses that I think you have to get out of.
Model herself was a master at seeing the peculiarities of average people in a way that portrayed them a utterly whole, honest, themselves. Like this bather at Coney Island that is the cover of the 1979 monograph published by Aperture:
Every really great piece of writing, art, ANYTHING we’ve experienced is that way because of the specific, unlike-anything-else-in-the-world combination of details that make it unique, moving, full of wonder and illumination.
What story wants to be told or remembered?
The John McPhee Reader is a good place to dive into a trove of his beautiful writing. You’ll find all of Tabula Rasa and other New Yorker stories by John McPhee here.
For more of Diane Arbus’ own words, here’s a pdf excerpted from the Aperture Monograph.