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Instagram’s Oracle

Hilton Als, a longstanding staff writer for The New Yorker who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017, a gay Black man of age 62, is perhaps the most elegiac voice in an increasingly small world — that world belonging to those who don’t know just passingly consume art and literature but study it for signs of who we might be. A large man in stature with a soft, languid voice, even as his essays traverse the contemporary Als subverts the expectation to be contemporary. Instead, he often writes of what we’ve lost, reflecting on what feels like, as you read his work, watching the sun set on a past century of glittering, vital artistic output slowly growing dimmer. Why do the 2020s feel like a eulogy to originality and integrity? Of the late New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, Als wrote, “You wanted to aid Bill in his quest for exceptional surfaces, to be beautifully dressed and interesting for him, because of the deep pleasure it gave him to notice something he had never seen before.” And the month Joan Didion died, Als wrote of her early essay collections like “The White Album,” as “touchstones for me on how to avoid snark and skepticism—the easy tools of journalism—and try something harder: analysis informed by context, even if what you were analyzing was yourself.”

A prolific poster on Instagram, Als turns even low-res shots of his television screen into digital polaroids, snapshots of his viewing habits paired with his snapshot captions, their length varied and unexpected. Here he remembers lunches with actress Billie Allen, discusses the “badly cast” new season of “The Crown” on Netflix, or gives kudos to Sydney Sweeney on HBO's “Euphoria” for “facing what's rank in the character being played, their confusion over dashed hopes, misguided intentions, their own sour guile and bored cunning.” On Oscar night he lamented Kirsten Dunst’s loss for Best Supporting Actress, beat out by the showier ingénue-of-the-moment in the “West Side Story" remake, writing that it was a loss for the art of acting. “Not performing, acting, which is synonymous with breathing.”

Currently, on display at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum is his curated exhibition “Joan Didion: What She Means” which collects a staggering number of contributions from artists to tell the life story of the West Coast’s preeminent voice of New Journalism.

This month, Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y., hosted an online auction of the late writer’s estate titled “An American Icon: Property From the Collection of Joan Didion.” Most widely reported? A pair of Céline faux-tortoiseshell sunglasses. When pioneering designer Phoebe Philo still helmed the French brand, an ever-present eyewear campaign starred a photograph of Didion at 81 by German fine art photographer Juergen Teller — wispy silver bobbed hair, a stark black crewneck, pursed raspberry-colored lips, and an expression entirely obscured by thick, oversized frames, the lenses impenetrably dark. Didion’s pair sold at Stair's auction just weeks ago for a whopping $27,000. Perhaps Hilton Als knows where they might be.

Hilton Als will discuss Manhattan in the work of American photographer Diane Arbus on Dec. 8 at The Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass.

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