Reading: Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer (part one)

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A couple of weeks ago Comics Journal message board user billym directed me towards the work of Ben Katchor. Katchor is the New York based artist behind the long running syndicated comic strip Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer.

Knipl lives in a city not unlike New York City. It looks and feels like New York City, but it’s certainly not the New York City that we might recognise. It is, as Michael Chabon explains in the introduction to the 1996 collected volume of Julius Knipl strips, a “crumbling, lunar cityscape” and…

…a world of rumpled suits, fireproof office blocks with the date of their erection engraved on the pediment, transom windows, and hare-brained if ingenious small businesses; a sleepless, hacking-cough, dyspeptic, masculine world the colour of the standing lining of a hat.

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

So the setting is a dreamlike interpretation of a familiar urban environment. In one (unusually) extended story, Knipl discovers a copy of a nightly newspaper called the The Evening Combinator, which publishes the dreams of the city’s sleeping citizens; one such story in the newspaper, for example, is entitled “Incest Party Resumes at Synagogue Laundromat”. Even in this dream like world, Katchor introduces another layer of dreams to remove us one step further from any actual city we might be thinking of.

As the title informs us, Knipl is a professional real estate photographer: a photographer of buildings that are about to be rented or sold. One imagines that this places him a lower down the pecking order than a wedding photographer.

The seeds of my dissertation project were sown a couple of years ago when I submitted my undergraduate dissertation on the subject of architecture and photography. At the time, I was particularly interested in the way that newly completed buildings were photographed for architectural journals and exhibitions. It was this lifeless representation of the building after completion and before occupation (as a pure, static piece of art) that inspired me to consider looking at the difference between comic book narratives and the presentation of architecture. Knipl, however, reminds me of a type of architectural photography that I had not considered: the images of buildings that are used to advertise them as commodities. Although we never see Knipl doing his job in the course of the comic strips, we can imagine him attaching a wide angled lens to his camera and contorting himself into the corner of a room to capture an image that depicts a space in its most spacious and illuminated form.

I would be interested to discover why Katchor chose Knipl’s profession, especially since we never see Knipl in action. I would suggest that it is because Knipl’s role in the strips is that of the detached observer – similar to that of his job. He is both a protagonist and an observer, and a recognisable figure (with his two camera bags, one in front of his slightly portly frame and one behind) who admits us into these strange personal encounters, justifies our presence and who involves us. Not only is he a casual observer, he represents us, the reader, bringing us right into the surreal urban landscape that he explores. With Knipl as our guide and alter-ego in this nameless city, we are even closer to the people and and places that Katchor depicts.

There is, as with almost all comic strips, an occupation of time and space in all of Katchor’s strips. But what is much more sophisticated is the inferred nostalgia of Knipl’s city, which Chabon discusses at length in the book’s introduction.

Katchor carefully devises a seemingly endless series of regrets in the heart of Juliuis Knipl for the things not only gone or rapidly disappearing, such as paper straws and television aerials, but also wholly imaginary: the Vitaloper, the Directory of the Alimentary Canal…

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

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The passage of time in Kathor’s comic strips is not expressed solely through the momentary changes from panel to panel, but by the subtle and underlying expression of emotion and regret with regard to the passing of time. What is fascinating about Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer is the almost tangible comprehension of time before the narrative in the comic strip began. The occasional appearance of dates and years on calendars in the comic strip remind us that this strip is contempoorary, but it often feels more like a nostalgic vision of New York City in the fifties or sixties than an imagined modern day world.

Did Knipl’s city ever really exist in reality? Or is it just imagined nostalgia? I’m not American, but along with Garrison Keillor’s weekly tales from northern Minnesota, Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer is one of the closest renditions that I have encountered to my romanticised vision of middle America. The streets are lined with independently managed retailers and diners, above which one room businesses occupy tall red brick tenaments. Starbucks, McDonalds and Maceys have yet to invade and destroy the characterful enterprises of this American city. For me, a highlight of any visit to the USA is a $3 breakfast special sitting at the zinc-topped bar of a diner, drinking endlessly refilled cups of weak-as-water black coffee. But what inspired this nostalgic streak in me?

…Katchor is more – far more – than a simple archaeologist of out-moded technologies and abandoned pastimes. In fact he often plays a kind of involuted Borgesian game with the entire notion of nostalgia itself, proving that one can feel nostalgia not only for times before one’s own but, surprisingly, for things that never existed.

Michael Chabon, Julis Knipl: Real Estate Photographer
New York City: Little, Brown and Company 1996, introduction

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  1. 1 Reading: Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer (part two) « “no words no action”

    […] and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. You can find the first part here… I’ve uploaded it very much as a finished piece of work in progress; that is to say I […]




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  • ABOUT THE PROJECT

    "no words no action" was an experiment in academic blogging. The blog recorded the progress of reading, research and investigations that lead to a Masters in Architecture dissertation at the University of Sheffield in autumn 2007. You can find out more about the author's interest in blogging here.

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