Laurie Toby Edison


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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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Autism: Two First-Person Articles

Debbie says:

Autistic Abby, a queer autistic 14-year-old, brings us detailed and informative post on access to speech, in which she describes ten different forms of having partial access to speech. Here’s a taste:

I have access to prompted speech, but not unprompted speech.

For example, if you ask me what book I am reading, I might be able to tell you it’s Bridge to Terabithia, and it’s good, but if I see you sitting across the room and want to tell you what I’m reading about I will not be able to initiate the conversation.

I have access to speech, but not the words I want to say.

“Make no because the thing is curtaining” I say, unable to do grammar entirely, hoping someone will turn off the light. When I looked for pictures of light in my brain, I found a picture of light filtering through curtains, and “make no” means “make not exist”. Communicative, but damn hard to understand.

A side note: it is cruel to make someone in this state use proper grammar or polite phrasing before you acknowledge what they have said.

I wish that last sentence was something that no one ever needed to say or write …

As far as I am aware, I don’t know anyone with limited speech capacity due to autism or spectrum-related conditions. Nonetheless, this article makes me think of a good friend who is a stroke survivor, an acquaintance with selective mutism, and a friend who was diagnosed in November with a brain tumor, all of whom struggle with different kinds of access to speech. As a very articulate person to whom words come easily, I found that Abby’s article helped me to understand a little of what limited access to speech is like from the inside.

Perhaps everyone who has read Abby’s piece has also seen Hope Whitmore’s “Are You Angry at Me? Dating as an Autistic Woman,” recently published at The Toast.

Through my early twenties I found that many guys would hone in on my “cute eccentricity,” my “beautiful weirdness,” and, yes, my “adorable awkwardness.” Autism didn’t come into it for them — I was not what people imagined when they heard the word. I didn’t rock in anxiety, I didn’t speak in a monotone, I laughed and danced and engaged with people, showing interest in their work and passions. Here the common misconceptions about autism were both my ally and my enemy: they allowed me to hide, and to embrace a status as “off-key yet normal,” but they also damaged me by giving fuel to the lie that I was just a bit odd, making it all the more difficult when it blew up in my face with someone yelling: “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Whitmore goes on to discuss the impact of sexism on recognition of autism: “Young men are believed when they say they are autistic; young women are not, and are instead encouraged to embrace the role of a lovely eccentric, decorative and quirky rather than ‘disordered.'”

This is a crucial point; geekiness and various sorts of social awkwardness are more acceptable (and more recognizable) in men than in women, and thus autism spectrum patterns in women can become not only easily dismissed but invisible. And if you are dating someone who does not believe your own description of your situation, nothing good can come of it.

Especially since autism is a condition that can impair communication, Abby and Whitmore are doing the rest of us–“neurotypical,” “on the spectrum,” or autistic, a great service.

Gordon Parks: Back From Fort Scott

Laurie says:

Gordon Parks: Back from Fort Scott is a remarkable exhibition of brilliant photographs that document the realities of life under racism and segregation in the 1950’s. Working in a very difficult place and time, Gordon Park‘s portraits are both aesthetically beautiful and give us a real sense of the people in the images. This is journalism and it is the work of a fine artist.

Husband and Wife, Sunday Morning CROP

It includes portraits of African-Americans and their families in their everyday lives; images that were invisible at the time and are still too rarely seen. Parks took the photo essay for Life Magazine and it was never published.

These quotes are from Randy Kennedy’s article ‘A Long Hungry Look’: Forgotten Gordon Parks Photos Document Segregation in the New York Times:

In 1950, Gordon Parks was the only African-American photographer working for Life magazine, a rising star who was gaining the power to call his own shots, and he proposed a cover story both highly political and deeply personal: to return to Fort Scott, Kan., the prairie town where he had grown up, to find his 11 classmates in a segregated middle school.

The magazine agreed, and in the spring Parks drove back into his hometown for the first time in 23 years, taking, as he wrote later, “a long hungry look” at the red brick school where he had been educated, a school still segregated in 1950. “None of us understood why the first years of our education were separated from those of the white; nor did we bother to ask,” Parks wrote. “The situation existed when we were born. We waded in normal at the tender age of 6 and swam out maladjusted and complexed nine years later.”

For reasons that remain unclear, Life never published those words or the powerful pictures Parks took of nine of his classmates, and their stories have remained in the time capsule of his archives for more than half a century. But an exhibition opening Jan. 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts here will at long last bring the work to light, at a time when racial unrest and de facto segregation in many American cities give it a new kind of relevance.

gordon parks old woman

“The story would have been the only Life cover in those years — other than one about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier — to show African-Americans, and I think it would have had a big impact,” said Karen E. Haas, the show’s curator. “I just really wanted to figure out what had happened to it and see what was there.”

Parks, raised in a poor tenant-farming family, became one of the most celebrated photographers of his generation, not only because of his images, which often held a harsh mirror up to American racism, but also because of his writing — his memoirs and the semi-autobiographical novel “The Learning Tree” — and his 1971 action movie, “Shaft,” which helped open new avenues for black actors and directors.

Ms. Haas has pieced together the unpublished Fort Scott article’s history through original prints held at the Gordon Parks Foundation, in Pleasantville, N.Y., and documents in the archive of Parks’s papers at Wichita State University in Kansas. And she ended up going much further than most curators might in search of her subject. In the fall, she and her husband, Greg Heins, a photographer and director of the museum’s photo studio, took to the road through the Midwest — in a kind of reverse Great Migration, from Chicago to Fort Scott — to find children and grandchildren of Parks’s classmates, using decades-old addresses from Parks’s notes. “It was an odd sort of vacation for the two of us, you might say,” Mr. Heins said.

In the end, at each address they visited, not a single home of the classmates Parks photographed was still standing, a sad testament, at least in part, to the fate of African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Columbus, Ohio, where the graduates had moved to find work and better lives. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, at least I know the house for the address I have in Fort Scott itself will still be there,’ ” Ms. Haas recalled in a recent interview at the museum. “And when I saw that it was gone, too, I literally cried.”

The lives of the classmates — six girls and five boys who graduated from the segregated Plaza School in 1927, in what was then a town of 10,000 people — present a miniature snapshot of African-American aspiration and struggle in the years before Brown v. Board of Education or the civil rights movement.

Parks found Emma Jane Wells in Kansas City, Mo., where she sold clothes door-to-door to supplement her husband’s salary at a paper-bag factory. Peter Thomason lived a few blocks away, working for the post office, one of the best jobs available to black men at the time. But others from the class led much more precarious lives. Parks tracked down Mazel Morgan on the South Side of Chicago, in a transient hotel with her husband, who Parks said robbed him at gunpoint after a photo session. Morgan’s middle-school yearbook description had been ebullient (“Tee hee, tee ho, tee hi, ha hum/Jolly, good-natured, full of fun”), but in 1950 she told Parks, “I’ve felt dead so long that I don’t figure suicide is worthwhile anymore.”
The most promising of the classmates, Donald Beatty, lived in an integrated neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where he had a highly desirable job as a supervisor at a state agency and where Parks’s pictures show him — very much in the vernacular of Life magazine’s Eisenhower-era domestic scenes — happy and secure with his wife and toddler son and a brand-new Buick. But notes made by a Life fact-checker just a year later, when the magazine planned once again to run Parks’s article, recorded a tragedy, blithely and with no explanation: “Aside from the death of their son, nothing much has happened to them.

gordon parks porch

The Times article says it is ‘unclear’ and the museum’s essay says that it is a ‘mystery’ why they were never published. Since it’s no accident that images of the people in these photographs are rarely seen and never seen at that time – it seems to me that there is no mystery at all.

The museum essay says:  “Once completed, Parks’ Fort Scott photo essay never appeared in Life. The reason for that remains a mystery, although the US entry into the Korean War that summer had a major impact on the content of its pages for some time. The magazine’s editors did try to resuscitate the story early in April of 1951 only to have it passed over by the news of President Truman’s firing of General Douglas MacArthur.

Since Life’s only cover with an African American during this entire period was of Jackie Robinson, it would have been a miracle for Life to have published it in those segregated pre-civil rights times. And in the present time of #Black Lives Matter it is still more true than not.

So, I’m grateful to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Gordon Parks Foundation for finally giving us the opportunity to see these photos, and to let us re-remember (or see for the first time) the realities of those times and people.

And there is a book, and I’m buying it.

Bess Myerson: Famous Woman You May Have Heard Of

Debbie says:

I was struck by the headline of Katie Halper’s essay on Bess Myerson at Feministing: “Bess Myerson: The only Jewish Miss America, pianist, politician you’ve never heard of”

I remember Bess Myerson because I was a compulsive game-show watcher, and she was a regular panelist on I’ve Got a Secret. I knew she had been Miss America, and I knew she later became a highly influential consumer watchdog and advocate, and that she ran for U.S. Senator. When I saw Halper’s article, Myerson’s face and voice came back to me instantly.


Until I started reading about her, I didn’t know she was the only Jewish Miss America, ever, let alone that she refused to take a “more attractive” name when urged to do so by pageant organizers. Or that she got fewer offers to be a sponsor, and some country clubs and hotels barred her during her celebration tour. I didn’t know she was a pianist, and somehow I missed the fact that she was involved in a major money/politics/sex scandal in the 1980s and–even though a jury acquitted her on all counts–dropped out of her public life as a consumer advocate after that.

According to various obituaries and biographies, she didn’t like being described as an early feminist, saying she just did what she had to to survive.

Whether or not she was a feminist, she was a world-changing woman.

Had Halper not heard of her just because people drop out of sight and memory quickly? Because Myerson’s 15 minutes (in her case, more than forty years) of fame are over? Because women’s history is still a backwater, easily ignored or forgotten? Because Myerson was discredited in her later years, and thus lost status as an important woman?

Probably, all of the above. But I can’t escape the lingering sense that a white man with comparable credentials would be better known now than Bess Myerson is … and I can’t escape the near-certainty that none of her male game-show panelist colleagues ever did as much good in the world offscreen as she did.

Cid Pearlman Performance Projects: Economies of Effort

My daughter Cid Pearlman has a major work opening in San Francisco in February. I’ve been watching her work for over 25 years and the combination of beautiful complex dance and thought in her work continues to knock me out.

“Economies of Effort: 1″ is an evening-length dance exploring the virtues of self-reliance and the creative impulse.


This interdisciplinary collaboration is the first installment in a planned triptych of performances by Pearlman on the theme of “economy.” Performed in the round, and featuring a set designed by visual artist Robbie Schoen that the dancers build each night as part of the choreography, “Economies of Effort: 1″ aims to generate questions about the differences between creating something with bodies (theoretically intangible) and building something that has a solid shape (with the illusion of permanence).

Bessie Award-winning composer Albert Mathias will create an original score for “Economies of Effort: 1″. Just as the dancers take an active part in constructing the set each night, so too will they operate the music on two turntables and a laptop. In a radical act of self-sufficiency and self-containment – of economy, if you will – the dancers control all of the technical aspects of the production from the set to the sound and lighting.
 dancer sitting on chair holding a drill

…Choreographed by Cid Pearlman, Economies of Effort: 1 opens Thursday, February 5, 2015 at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco, followed by performances at Motion Pacific in Santa Cruz and Pieter Performance Space in Los Angeles. This new work is created with and performed by Julia Daniel, Collette Kollewe, Claire Melbourne, Cynthia Strauss, and Chelsea Zamora.

“Economies of Effort: 2″
Created during a residency at Sõltumatu Tantsu Lava (Independent Dance Theater) in Tallinn, Estonia, the second installment in the triptych will feature four pairs of dancers – one couple, a mother and daughter, and two sets of close friends. Over the course of one month, I will work with each pair to create personal vocabularies tied to the subtle, often private, intricacies of their relationships. Each pair will map out a blueprint of a real or imagined space they share, on the floor of the theater. Then we will intercut the movement generated by the duets, swapping out who does what, overlaying the maps, and creating a more complicated polity that reflects on the complexity of relationships and the social economy of community. “Economy,” in this work, informs the process of making the dance as much as it does the content.

She’s doing a Kickstarter Campaign (Click on the link if you want to help.) for the final funding for the new works.

If you’re in the Bay Area and you’re coming to her show, I’ll be there Friday and Saturday night.

photos by Beau Saunders

The Wrong Kind of Fat Body

Laurie and Debbie say:

“I was doing research. No, really.” Amanda Czerniawski, assistant professor of sociology at Temple University, spent more than two years as a plus-sized model when she was researching her new book, Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling.
plus size model pads

Writing about Czerniawski’s book for TakePart, Jessica Dollin says:

The beauty trend du jour in the plus-size industry is a thin face and a curvy body. Typically, people with a thin face will also have a slim body, but society looks to these models to achieve something that’s biologically rare. “Sometimes it goes a little bit further, where they use padding to boost their bust or hip measurements,” Czerniawski said. “Some go and put on basically full-body padding to boost a whole size.”

At Refinery29, Ben Reininga is writing about the same subject from a different perspective, with a 12-slide set of visuals (each with quotes from working plus size models) to prove his point.

Sabina, the model in the photo above, says,

I would prefer us to not have to wear pads. When I was straight-sized, I wasn’t skinny enough, and now I’m plus-sized, and I’m not curvy enough. It would be nice to be like: I’m this model, and this is me. For society to know that curvy models don’t have the same sizes…you can be curvy and a size 12.

Here’s the infuriating part: the fashion industry claims that the very existence of plus size models proves their commitment to helping us all appreciate our bodies exactly as we are. And that’s a bare-faced, padded-assed lie.

Thin is still in; we all know that. A small minority of us have come to fat acceptance, and for most of us that means most days, most ways. Everyone else is still on the “you can never be too thin” bandwagon. So plus size models are, at best, a nod to a better world that doesn’t exist yet. But what we learn from Czerniawski, and Sabina, and the other women in the Refinery29 slideshow, is that to the extent that fat is in, the rules are very, well, confining.

Most “plus size models” range from size 6 (!) to size 12. Most plus size women range from size 16 up about as far as you can imagine. So the first thing missing from plus size models is size.

The second thing missing is variety. Part of Laurie’s aesthetic inspiration that became Women En Large was her discovery that there’s so much more variation in the way fat women’s bodies are shaped than in the way thin women’s bodies are shaped.

The fashion industry wants to erase that. After all, how can they keep each and every one of us feeling insufficient, unsuccessful and ugly if they show true diversity? And how much money would their interlocking interests in diet companies, weight loss surgeries, body sculpting, etc. lose if we actually liked ourselves as we are?

The fashion industry is never going to be a body acceptance ally; whenever its minions start claiming that it is, raise your alert level. The best allies in loving how your body looks–if that’s your goal–are your mirror and the people who love you.

ETA: Thanks to Lisa Hirsch for the link to the Ben Reininga article.

Body Impolitic’s 2014 Guide to Sane Holidays

Laurie and Debbie say:

This annual list is (mostly) for folks who celebrate the upcoming holidays, and are fortunate enough to have people and resources to celebrate with; if you don’t fit that group, skip to the bottom. If you do fit, then even if your family are your favorite people and you look forward all year to the holidays, you still may find useful hints here.

1 – You have a right to enjoy things in your own way.To the extent possible, do as much or as little holiday stuff as you want; it’s supposed to be a celebration, not an obligation.

2 – Spend time with people who know you’re awesome. If you must spend time with people who are toxic, remind yourself three times (out loud) in your last alone moments before seeing them that they are toxic. Then do something really nice for yourself the minute you are out of their presence. (If they are not just toxic but abusive, here’s some excellent advice.)

3 – Eat what you enjoy and don’t eat what you don’t enjoy. Desserts are not sinful, they’re just desserts, and relatives who push you to eat don’t get to tell you what to do. If you have a history of eating disorders, or currently struggle with them, this may help.

4 – Wear what you think you look terrific in; accept compliments and ignore digs about your clothes.

5 – Plan your responses to inevitable comments beforehand. Try not to spend energy on the digs, because they probably aren’t going to stop. For example, if you know that your sister is going to tell you, “for your own good,” how your hairstyle is unbecoming to you, be prepared to say, “I appreciate your concern. Excuse me, I really want to catch up with Uncle Harry.”

6 – If you think kids are fun, they can be a great escape from the adult follies. If kids drive you crazy, keep your distance when you can, and try to keep your patience otherwise: they didn’t overstimulate themselves with sugar and toys.

7 – If you have enough to give to someone who has less, do it. If you know someone who is having a crappy holiday, even if you are too, take a moment to do something for them that they will enjoy. In both cases, your generosity will help them and will probably also make you feel better.

8 – If you hate the holidays, or they make you sad, you’re not alone. Participate as little as possible. They’ll be over soon. If you’re wishing you had someone (someone particular or folks in general) to spend the holidays with, treat yourself with special care. If you’re a volunteering type, that can work, but so can staying at home and taking a bubble bath.

9 – Be effusive about every gift you get; then be discreetly rude about the awful ones later to your friends. If they’re really awful, throw them off a bridge in the middle of the night.

If you are looking for interesting reading, we like this Best Culture Writing of 2014 compilation, with lots of chewy, thoughtful essays on progressive topics.

If these aren’t your holidays, have a great Chinese meal and enjoy the movie!

We’ll be back in the beginning of the New Year.

My Photos in Transforming Community – Disability Exhibition

Laurie says:

I am very happy to have 2 photos in the Transforming Community: Disability, Diversity and Access exhibition at the Westbeth Gallery in New York City.

It takes place during the 2015 Women’s Caucus of the Arts National Conference, which explores access and difference in its many forms. It runs from February 7th to the 22nd.

Quote is from the WCA exhibition information:

Disability challenges all facets of art and its accessibility: experiencing art, art education, interacting with art(ists), and art making. What are new ways of seeing, hearing, experiencing, and witnessing artwork? In the past, disability has functioned as a metaphor to signify tragedy, injury, oppression, and lack. Disabled people in representation held the space of the plucky survivor, the trickster figure, and the liminal shadow. In more recent decades, different perspectives with different cultural frameworks are emerging in the broader community.

Kim Manri
Kim Manri was photographed in her studio. She is the director of Taihen, a famous Japanese disability dance and performance company. I photographed her a part of my Women of Japan Project.

How do artists find space, time and audiences for expressing artful differences, whether these differences be physical, cognitive, emotional or sensory? How do forms of difference encourage new connections, new conceptions of what it means to be alive, to be in community, to be alone, to be part of the wider world? How do different experiences of the world re-shape what art can mean? How do conceptions of race, gender, class, settler/native status, and sexuality become more powerfully expressed when combined with disability or vice versa? We welcome engagement on this topic under the widest possible umbrella.”

Edison_Sue H
Sue H was an activist on issues of Fat Liberation and disability when I photographed her for my book Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes.

The juror was Petra Kupers, a disability culture activist, a community performance artist, and a Professor at the University of Michigan, who has written illuminatingly on these issues.

This broad and nuanced conversation about disability is very important to me and to my work (the photographs span from 1994 to 2005), and exhibitions like this happen all too rarely. So I am especially glad that my work is part of it.

Four Sisters, Forty Years, Four Connected Lives

Laurie and Debbie say

We were both taken with this series of photographs by Nicholas Nixon. In 1975, he was visiting his wife’s family, and he asked her and her three sisters if they would pose for a photograph. The next year at a wedding, he asked them to pose again in the same order. And then they made it a yearly tradition.

Now, they have forty annual photographs of four women: Heather, Mimi, Bebe, and Laurie, the Brown sisters. Bebe is Nixon’s wife.


1987 Chatham

Susan Minot’s article provides the basic facts about the photographs. We recommend that you ignore her gender-essentialist, ageist simplifications and just look at the pictures.


2000 Eastham

Nixon chose to make these photographs about the women, and not about the photographer. The women almost certainly had a lot to do with that decision; these do not look like women you could easily manipulate. Everyone’s life gets written into our bodies and our faces as we age, and this is a rare opportunity to watch that being written, year on year. It’s no surprise that they each look more complex and interesting as they age, and the photos get even more satisfying.

The Brown sisters appear in these photographs as women with full, complex lives who take themselves seriously, women who are connected with their sisters, women who are comfortable enough with themselves to interact directly with the camera.


2011 Truro

Give yourself a present; take the time to look at them all.

Thanks to Lynn Kendall for the link.

Hard Work and Performance: Beauty Across the Decades

Debbie says:

This video from has had 16 million views, so chances are you’ve seen it:

To get the obvious out of the way, what the video calls “beauty” is a specifically Western high-fashion concept of beauty, probably researched in fashion magazines. The model (Nina Carduner) is white and thin and reasonably young. Her scrawny collarbones remain the same as everything above the neck changes.

Here’s why it’s worth writing about:

First, the premise: instead of just showing Carduner in the various decade “looks,” the video also shows how much work it takes to create the looks. Beauty is depicted as the result of effort, not on the part of the model (who would be working a lot more if she was really maintaining any one of those looks on a daily basis), but on the part of fast-moving, skilled stylists (Shyn Midili doing makeup and Juel Bergholm doing hair). They even put in the detail of Carduner disliking the 1980s hairspray. You can’t watch the video and come away thinking that beauty is “just something that happens.”

Second, the performance: I love the way Carduner inhabits the facial expressions and body language of the various decades, though a couple seem a little odd to me (what is she doing in the 1970s shot?). “Beauty” is not just looks but a style of actions; a quirk of the lip, a tilt of the head, a widening of the eyes. If you try to imagine Carduner’s 1920s face and 1980s gestures

Beauty is work, and the work of more than one person. And it is performative. And could easily have gone along with the simplistic mainstream concept of beauty, and made a video that left out both of those points.

Because they didn’t take the easy route, it’s worth watching.

Photomicrography: Beauty We Never See

Laurie says:

I’ve always loved photomicrography images. The best of them are exquisite images of an unseen world that surrounds us.

Nikon has a Small World contest every year for the best of these images.  Celebrating its 40th year, the contest invites photographers and scientists to submit images of all things visible under a microscope.

There are 100 amazing images on the site. The five below are an almost random choice.




Dr. Marco Dal Maschio
Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology
Munich, Germany
Subject Matter:
Sagittal brain slice showing cell nuclei (cyan) and Purkinje cells (red) expressing EGFP



José R. Almodóvar
University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Mayaguez Campus
Biology Department
Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, USA
Subject Matter:



Dr. Igor Robert Siwanowicz
Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)
Janelia Farm Research Campus
Ashburn, Virginia, USA
Subject Matter:
Appendages of a common brine shrimp



Dr. Margaret Oechsli
Nature, Interrupted
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Subject Matter:



Magdalena Turzańska
University of Wroclaw
Institute of Experimental Biology
 Wroclaw, Poland
Subject Matter:
Nowellia curvifolia (leafy liverwort) gametophyte


These are just a taste of the exhibition.  It’s worth taking some time to contemplate a kind of beauty that is rarely seen.

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