My Julius Knipl Days

In the Suburbs

Julius Knipl is the creation of Ben Katchor, a brilliant, brilliantly strange cartoonist who explores the interdimensional, intertemporal space of New York City through his weekly comic strip, “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer”. When I was working at The Jewish Museum in New York, we were planning an exhibition on Katchor, which finally was launched last September–three months after I moved from NYC… Katchor and Knipl are the subjects of an incredible short film called “Pleasures of Urban Decay”, which explores the city through both Katchor’s and Knipl’s eyes. In the description of the film from its screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1999, we get this answer to the question “Who is Julius Knipl?”:

He is a real estate photographer. A middle-aged Jewish man in a Fedora hat, who perambulates through cavernous city streets. With time to spare between jobs, he observes the city’s idiosyncrasies and listens to the hopes and fears of its entrepreneurs and working people. Knipl’s profession, Katchor explains, is the pathetic marriage of two trendy and potentially powerful fields: real estate and photography.

I’m just winding up a short stint as a real estate photographer for our local paper (a very quirky temp agency placement). It’s fun work–I’ve only lived here for a few months, so I’m really getting to know the town, driving around taking pictures of houses that people are moving out of, learning the different neighborhoods, finding shortcuts. I get to spend a lot of me-time in my car, listening to tunes. But though I’m not quite middle-aged, and alas, don’t wear a fedora, I’ve been feeling very Knipl-esque in my perambulations. I’ve been carrying my own camera (for the paper I use one of theirs, an oldish, 1999 Nikon Coolpix 950, which i’ve noticed is super-fast, literally capturing the image virtually the instant I press the button–unlike my Fuji FinePix 2400Z, which can take up to 2 seconds after you press the button to register anything) around to capture some of the more Kniplish moments. Hence the image above, a sedate, suburban, somewhat-higher-than-middle-class neighborhood, apparently devoid of human life, with the sky quietly roiling towards a massive storm. (Actually, you can maybe just make out the kid walking towards me on the sidewalk to the right, dribbling a basketball, but even so there’s an incredible stillness that caught my attention as I drove by, and I had to stop and try to capture it.)

It’s strange work. Given how strongly we identify our homes with our families, our identities, our private spaces, the “closed doors” behind which we’ve sequestered our feedom), photographing houses seems almost like an intrusion, an invasion of personal space. At the same time, there’s a sort of outsiderness, an exclusion, to photographing stranger’s homes, especially homes in the process of abandonment to new occupants. Artistically, it’s strange, too–the pictures have to be good, but they are for the most part going to be reproduced as tiny, 1-inch, grainy, black-and-white smudges in the weekend Real Estate section. I do get to take the cover photo for the Real Estate section, which is somewhat more rewarding–I even get a byline! The funny thing is that I’m hardly a photographer–more of a “snapshotter”. (Which is unfortunately nothing like the sense in which Bukowski claimed he wasn’t an author, just a type-writer.)

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