Octave of Prayer, pp. 32-33, 64-65. Photos by Richard Levy, Alan Dutton, Tony Soluri, Myron Collins, Barbara Morgan, Pierre Cordier.
“Photography has come closer to being a religion than anything most of us have ever had.” — Ralph Hattersley, p. 91. (The last words in the book.)
One of the more tantalizing bits of Aperture Anthology: The Minor White Years is an excerpt from Octave of Prayer, an exhibition connecting photography with the practice of prayer and meditation, which White organized and which was published as an issue of Aperture and as a standalone book. The Anthology only published a portion of the photos, at reduced size — and I was sufficiently intrigued/frustrated to order a used copy of Octave, which arrived a few days ago.
It’s not quite what I was expecting. The sequence moves in a rhythm between the abstract and straight, the metaphorical and the literal, the reverent and the totally satirical, the universally appealing and the hermetic. My first impression of this medley was that it was inconsistent, but that’s not right. Octave of Prayer is not an inconsistent collection of many works, but a unitary work in which no constituent portion is representative of the whole.
As for that whole, I have a hard time saying whether I think it succeeds or falls short. It certainly holds together on its own terms, which is one measure of success. But I’m not sure its terms are the best.
Part of the problem is with the text — of which there is quite a lot. It combines (a) a hash of New Age syncreticism dressed up as the systematic articulation of religious experience with (b) some interesting and relatively plausible observations on the ways in which photographers’ relationship to their medium sometimes takes on religious and meditative qualities, and (c) a pretty good elaboration of Minor White’s use of the concept of photograph as “equivalent,” which treats the photograph as a catalyst for the viewer’s experience (as opposed to focusing on the photograph as a representation of a subject or as a statement by the photographer).
If these three concerns were presented in an independent way — well, this would probably be one of the better essays to be saddled to a set of photographs. It’s easy to read around one weak area.
But the text is all a muddle, and it’s quite difficult to isolate the useful insights from the triumphant navelgazing. White takes as true any and all things that feel true to him, and then he tries to articulate a system based on them — which inevitably results in an arbitrary structure with neither a solid relationship to its intellectual and historical contexts, nor an iconoclastic break from them.
It also feels like something of a missed opportunity in terms of accessibility. The selections for the book represent a very broad taste, and White makes a point of Octave’s non-intellectual selection criterion of “radiance to the heart.” It is a diverse work that is striving in some respects to be a universal one — and yet neither the text nor the sequence makes much in the way of concessions to a reader who might not already be equipped to traffic in White’s artistic and religious obscurities. The result is a sequence that is wonderfully inclusive toward images, but really rather exclusive toward people.
There is an undeniable sincerity to what White is doing. However structurally unsound, and however opaque, it’s clearly born out of real experience and good intent. And the association of the practice of photography with the practice of contemplation is something that I think does warrant exploring. I would love to see it taken up again, in the same spirit as White, but with a more accessible and grounded approach, and perhaps more attention given to the quality of actual peoples’ experience and less to categorizing and generalizing kinds of experience.
Something I must bear in mind is that the kind of arbitrary cherrypicking of ideas and beliefs that White is engaging in doesn’t necessarily happen for no reason or because the picker lacks intellectual rigor.
And in the case of Minor White, a man defined by the strength of his religious impulse and his artistic vision, but for whom neither institutional art nor institutional religion were quite ready — the one because he was somewhat ahead of the game, the other because of his sexuality — there was really no choice but to make things up as he went along. Which he often pulled off to great effect; I just don’t think Octave of Prayer quite gets there.
But I have to remember that making one’s public thinking more transparent, more specific, more explicit, more legible, and more personal always comes with risks and costs, and those are not equal for everybody or constant through time. And obscurantism can sometimes be as much a symptom of the process by which one picks battles as much as it is a sign of elitism or myopia.
“Tree Line, Mollymook,” Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, from Tall Poppy Syndrome.
“Wall in the Grand Canyon,” Timothy O’Sullivan. Wheeler Survey, 1871.
To make Tall Poppy Syndrome, Amy Stein and Stacy Arezou Mehrfar “embarked on a month-long road trip around New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. They set out to meet everyday Australians and explore their reaction to this cultural phenomenon,” which they summarize as “a term used to describe a social phenomenon in Australia in which successful people (the ‘tall poppies’) get ‘cut down to size,’ criticized, resented, or ridiculed because their talents or achievements distinguish them from their peers.”
(For background, have a Wikipedia entry. I knew the historical metaphor by way of Livy, but I wasn’t familiar with the modern usage with its connotations of envy/resentment/leveling.)
I’m not sure what to make of the book as a document of Australian reactions. The portraits in the book are mostly either deadpan or distracted. The book reads to me more as an extended riff on visual themes of height, stature, and proportionality, and the camera’s ability to render subjects as typical or atypical.
My favorite images are the ones which invite comparisons between the height of human subjects and the land around them — a sort of reversal of the old-school survey-style photographs in which humans figures are conspicuously included for scale. In the photographic history of the American West, the human figure was a measure of the vastness of geography; in Tall Poppy Syndrome, trees and rocks demonstrate the diminutive stature of human figures, while roofs and walls fall above or below the tops of their heads, like a height chart tracking the growth of children — or maybe more like one of those “are you tall enough to ride this ride” markers. But the way that Stein and Mehrfar persistently play with perspective and composition does not provide a fixed measure; the net effect is a sense that the size of a person is a constant question coming from all directions.
They make repeated use of uniforms — whether company-issued garb for workers, safety gear for miners, team uniforms for athletes, or the functionally convergent design of surfers’ wetsuits. These photos, alongside those of cattle and of parking lot trees, students in a classroom, committee members at a table, seem to pose a question regarding the relationship of a subject to its type. The camera as a documentary tool has always tended either to enshrine the specificity of individuals, or to record the instance of representative anonymous types. Stein and Mehrfar’s photos seem carefully ambivalent in this regard, again, posing a question.
These questions push back against the photographers and against the viewers, because they are really not questions about the subjects, but about how we see them — about how photographers see them through a camera’s viewfinder, and about how readers see them through the pages of a book. In many ways, the medium of photography is a process of determining poppy height. I’m inclined to take Tall Poppy Syndrome as a reminder to do so with awareness and care.
1: America as Index
Glancing at a few posts from other folks about From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, it seems like it’s almost as obligatory for reviewers to talk about the book’s cover as it is for the essayists in the book to talk about Soth’s 8x10 view camera. It’s a fine and clever cover, to be sure, but I’m really much more taken with the book’s index. Not all photobooks have them — even ones that include extensive prose sections — and it’s always nice to see them. Indices are great because they’re a sign that someone on the other end of the book-making process remembered that books are for getting knowledge into peoples’ heads. The inclusion of an index respects a reader’s time and encourages repeated readings and extended use.
Of course, the index in From Here to There isn’t really an index. Or, rather, it is a fully functional index, but it’s also (mostly?) a joke about indices.
- “Zen, photography as anti-, 142.”
- “Soth, Alec, business cards of. 222.”
- “2007_10zl0006, 47, 197”
- “men, disconsolate, as theme.”
In addition to being amusing, this is representative of the book’s stylistic approach, which throughout is clever and charming, although also sometimes just a bit much.
But actually it’s the regular “list what’s in the book” aspect of the index that I find the most interesting. It demonstrates part of the problem I’ve been having in trying to write usefully about this book and about Soth: talking about Soth means talking about everything.
Well, not everything. But gosh, it’s a pretty healthy percentage. Here, take a look:
Of course, one could make a list of connections like this about any photographer or artist — any person at all, really. But the index is a fair representation of the actual content of this book, especially the four essays about Soth and the interview with him that form the majority of the text. A tremendous amount of time is spent using comparisons and relationships to try to pin Soth down, to define his context — and by way of his context, to define him. Frank, Evans, Weston, Winogrand, Bresson (I mean, really?), Dijkstra, Wall, Ruff, Meyerowitz, Avedon. Wim Wenders, Amy Lowell, Malvina Reynolds. It’s a little like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, except instead of feeling the ears, the trunk, and the tail, we’re trying to determine the elephant’s species by way of his bibliography. And much the same approach is taken to Soth’s diverse subject matter.
Maybe that’s the only sensible way to approach Soth, whose photographic process is list-centric, after all:
[In Niagara:] From an initial search for subjects relating to the notion of love, “the realities of the place” quickly changed his perspective and parameters. He initiated the practice of driving with lists taped to the steering wheel that enumerated things to seek out (“…high school yearbooks, Polaroids, men in pajamas…). He also began to look for souvenirs: love letters and objects collected from subjects that would become a kind of “emotional scaffolding for the project. (Engberg, p. 44)
Perhaps itemization is a principle theme of Soth’s work; maybe it is only appropriate to try to understand Soth in this way. Or maybe it is just that a body of work like Soth’s, dense in meaning and reference, but also enigmatic, even inscrutable, needs to be cross-referenced before it can be talked about.
And yet, I have the sense with some of the essays in this book, that by the time the author is done with with the due diligence of tallying up subjects and influences and cross-references, that they’ve run out of steam for actually talking about Soth’s work itself. Or that the framework they’ve built out of those references is so ponderous that to actually get it pointed in a direction and make it move is just unrealistic.
Even Britt Salvesen’s essay, which is my favorite of the bunch, seems to begin seven or eight times, is largely about other photographers, and closes with what reads like a second or third paragraph composed mainly of nested lists:
Beneath an affectless surface, Soth’s work contains an aspirational core. Taking up such themes as community, connection, and middle America — so laden with political assumptions as to be nearly abstract — Soth presents viable options for art and life. Perhaps these are not the inevitable options, nor the cleanest ones, but he subtly indicates that choosing them will temper other, darker American tendencies toward cynicism, alienation, metropolitanism, and obscurantism on the one hand, and fundamentalism, conservatism, essentialism, and exceptionalism on the other. A man of his time, he externalizes the dilemmas he faces as an artist, a father, and a citizen. His respect for individuality allows him to posit collective identity. Our need for Alec Soth’s America makes it real.
I think it’s an excellent essay. But I think it demonstrates that Soth’s work as a whole is so…involuted, and so intellectually rich, that it’s difficult to approach both thoroughly and deeply.
2: This Swiss Guy
One of the pleasant surprises for me in this book is that Soth managed to sell me somewhat on Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book that I’ve always had a hard time liking very much.
When I first saw Robert Frank, it wasn’t this transformational thing for me the way it is for everyone else. I came to admire him much later. But I think I’m doing very similar things to what he’s doing in a way that’s quite different from, say, Joel Sternfeld. And this is where I’m able to distinguish these things, because Sternfeld is actually more of a social documentarian. He really is interested in the social issues of the day, looking at them and thinking about changes.
I don’t think that’s what Robert Frank was about. I think he was this Swiss guy coming to America, driving around, feeling enchanted and lonely simultaneously, and it just so happens that he encounters America and aspects of it and documents some of that. And then the work is read as a commentary on America. But the work is so much more about the tortured soul of Robert Frank. And that becomes super evident in later work. (p. 145)
I think this is spot-on. While The Americans has obviously played an influential role in the context of documentary photography, and photography as political critique, I don’t find it all that impressive or persuasive if directly examined on those terms. But it’s pretty damn good as a photo essay about travel, recording an experience that is mostly composed of alienation and surface perceptions.
(And yes, I appreciate that alienation and surface perceptions define America as well as the experience of travel — and that the uneasy road trip is as archetypal an American experience as anything. But the book makes much more sense if you keep the “enchanted and lonely” Swiss guy at the front of your mind. The photographs carry the weight of his story better than they carry the weight of a scathing social document.)
Of course, by providing this reading of Frank, Soth is also positioning himself as well. He tends to get — well, whatever the laudatory equivalent is of “tarred with the same brush.” I’m not sure why this is — and I’m as guilty of anyone of doing it. Maybe it’s just the power of American chauvinism in action that photos made in America by and about lonely drivers cannot help being read as social documentary.
3: Find Ourselves in These Pictures
Among the many freewheeling comparisons and connections between Soth and other notable photographers of America that populate this book, this one by Salvesen is probably my favorite:
Although beauty and grace suffuse many of his pictures, others are tough and resistant: Soth makes no deliberate attempt to be easy and pleasing. In this he resembles the predecessors mentioned above. Evans’ neutral frontality was puzzling compared to Margaret Bourke-White’s more sentimental depictions; Frank was a dark and infuriating counterpart to Steichen’s 1955 humanist paean The Family of Man; Shore was a deadpan riposte to bicentennial fervor; and Avedon was an East Coast urban dismantler of Wild West mythology. Soth, in his turn, does not pretend to the comprehensive sweep of A Day in the Life of America. Evans, Frank, Shore, Avedon, and now Soth have submitted American identity to serious questioning while ultimately contributing to it, even enriching it. The viewer cannot escape the challenge posed by these artists: if we want to believe in America as a democracy, as a collective of free and equal individuals, we must either find ourselves in these pictures or admit ourselves outside them.(p. 105)
I tend to dislike accounts of the value of a body of photography based on its function in calling into question American mythology, self-confidence, etc. It’s just redundant, like a gripping photo essay revealing the conspiracy behind the myth of Santa Claus. Demythologization is not bad, but it is rarely interesting in itself, and if it’s treated as a priority in art (either by the artist or by curators or critics) it limits the scope of its relevance to audiences who partake in the mythology or who like to chuckle at the foolishness of those who do. (Also, in the case of the photographers who tend to crop up in this particular conversation, one has to ask: to what extent can American identity be “submitted to serious questioning” by all and only white men?)
But Salvesen’s “we must either find ourselves in these pictures or admit ourselves outside them,” does something different (or at least additional) for me. It focuses not on the relationship between the photographers and the idea of America, but on the relationship between viewers and subjects. And while I can be as jaded and bored as I like about national mythology, this problem all Americans face — the problem of living together with other Americans — is as real to me as it is to anyone, and it is a concrete problem which is actually amenable to photographic investigation.
It’s a particularly good way to approach Soth, whose work, while often as narrow and provocative and judgmental as that of any other photographer of America, is also consistently empathetic, and genuinely interested in people as such. (And not only for their iconic or representational utility.)
For example, consider this photograph:
And Soth’s explanation of it:
But, over and over again, you do see real misery. So then you’ve witnessed the fact that, with these people, something’s broken and that more often than not, there is a real hunger to engage with me. So, if I were to really leave my life, I would desperately miss it, and people. It’s a case of grass is always greener. It’s both being attracted to it, and then when you’re in it, a bit repelled.
And on the issue of the swastika — I asked him a lot about that, and it was so clearly a case of being completely naive. I didn’t want to exploit that as a major topic because I felt like the religious impulse of becoming a monk or something is not that different. It’s just a different shade of the same thing, which is this hunger to latch on to some sort of system. Because there’s always a belief system that’s connecting you to other people.
But you know what’s really interesting about him? You know the older guy who I said lives on millions of dollars of mountain? He was the guy I was going to visit. That young guy with the swastika was living on his property. The older guy is a total hippie. Not Nazi at all. I think he’s gay, and likes having the young guy around. The young guy is a bit lost in life, and he hates his parents, but it shows you — in both cases — how they’re not alone at all. (pp. 137-138)
I think this sympathetic, detailed, and somewhat all over the place approach to his subjects is part of what makes Soth so hard to summarize or to draw concise conclusions about. We expect a narrative to generalize, to organize, to abstract. Because if it doesn’t do those things, it can’t explain. And if it doesn’t explain, we can’t account for its accuracy. I think Soth’s photography explains less about America than any of the other photographers of America to whom he is compared. Which is not to say that he doesn’t provide a true and useful view of it. I’m almost tempted to say that the leaving out the explanation of America makes room in the photos for more actual America.
Although…still only so much of it. Soth’s America is a very white America — not exclusively so, of course, and I don’t necessarily count it as a defect. I’m more concerned with the quality with which he shows what he shows than I am with the demographics of it. And if we’re talking about Soth’s work in itself, it wouldn’t even occur to me as an issue. But if we’re looking at Soth as a name at the end the list, ” Evans, Frank, Shore, Avedon, and” in terms of a tradition of photographers presenting America with challenging mirror images of itself — well, that’s a tremendously white guy list. Which doesn’t say a damn thing about who has made important and challenging photographs of America, but it does say a lot about who America is willing to be challenged by.
4: The Loneliest Man in Missouri
Probably the best part of Alec Soth’s America is the booklet The Loneliest Man in Missouri, tucked into a little envelope on the back cover, like a circulation card in an old school library book.
(Note: Spoilers ahead. No, really. If you aren’t going to buy the book (which I do recommend), you can view the series here.)
While From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America includes some of Soth’s most recognizable work from a number of series, mostly beautiful and reproduced with care, the photos in Loneliest Man are almost all unremarkable in appearance. They would have little recognizable value outside the context of their sequence, which opens with a man urinating against the cement base of a pole, a distant bird in a blue sky, and the handwritten words, “I spent a few weeks driving around Missouri, looking for the loneliest man I could find.”
What follows are mostly photos of solitary men in cars, men walking to or from their cars, eating their lunches, and going to strip clubs. Stylistically, they resemble some of the worst sorts of street photography: voyeuristic without being provocative or informative, and in almost all cases without apparent redeeming aesthetic virtue.
Some photos are annotated with simple captions, and some narrate Soth’s process, like, “I followed this man from a strip club to the casino. He was wearing some sort of complicated medical device,” or, “I think his mustache was fake.” Some of the men’s faces are covered with colored stickers. In between photos of the men, there are photos of related scenes or objects, often from parking lots.
Then, a few pages from the end, Soth finds his “loneliest” man, Ed:
I met Ed at Miss Kitty’s, a strip club in East St. Louis. He goes there 3-5 times a week.
I took Ed to dinner at Ruby Tuesdays. He told me that the next day was his 45th birthday. But he had no plans to celebrate. His parents were dead — no friends but strippers.
For Ed’s birthday, Soth hired one of the strippers from the club to come to Ed’s house, where she sang happy birthday to Ed and Ed read her TS Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The text of the poem is reproduced, and the sequence concludes with a photograph of Ed’s birthday cake.
Loneliest Man in Missouri is invasive, creepy, ugly, and pretentious. It is also moving, contemplative, and genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. And wonderful. It divorces Soth’s fundamental concerns from the beauty and high technical standards that characterize, say, Niagara. And it somehow — I’m honestly not sure how — manages at the end to humanize the subjects without obfuscating the squirm-inducing nature of the premise or Soth’s approach to it.
It’s not a documentary work. It doesn’t document anything, it’s certainly not evidence of anything. It doesn’t explain or account for anything. It’s a self-portrait by proxy* of a lonely driver. And it’s awesome.
*We’ve talked about Charles and the men in Broken Manual, but in many ways I am closer to The Loneliest Man in Missouri than I am to these people. I live in Minneapolis, I drive a minivan. It was going to be The Loneliest Man in Minneapolis at one point, but then I thought, that’s too easy. And I wanted to go even more to the middle by going to Missouri, but there is definitely a self-portrait aspect to this whole thing. (p. 145)
In my previous post on Meatyard, I mentioned that Meatyard was acquainted with Thomas Merton, and how flabbergasted I was by that — and that a book had been published with Meatyard’s photographs of Merton, along with their correspondence. Well, almost as soon as I found out about that book, Father Louie, I ordered a copy. (It’s well and thoroughly out of print, but used copies aren’t un-findable.)
The book contains a preface by Barry Magid, an essay on Meatyard and Merton (“Tom and Gene”) by Guy Davenport, two short pieces of writing by Meatyard — “Photographing Thomas Merton: A Reminiscence” and “A Eulogy of Thomas Merton,” correspondence between Meatyard and Merton, and a brief but nicely nitty-gritty note from Meatyard’s son Christopher about the negatives, the prints, and a bit about Meatyard’s gear and technique. And, of course, the photographs.
The photographs are a bit tricky to describe. It’s hard to judge their quality, in particular. They’re an inclusive group of photographs, minimally edited and chronologically sequenced. That doesn’t make them better or worse as individual photos, but because of the way they were assembled, they together make up more a useful historical resource than a significant photographic statement. Which isn’t a ding against them or against the book — although I guess it is a ding against history that Meatyard and Merton didn’t have the time for more of these photos. (The two met in 1967; Merton died in 1968.)
Portraiture and Identity
The photos are, on the surface, totally unlike Meatyard’s best-known work — the portraits of masked children, anonymous (or universalized), blatantly surreal and artificial. To a viewer without any context for them, the Merton photos might appear to be casual snapshots of family and friends — a picnic, a dinner party, and so on. Perhaps the work of a talented but careless amateur student photographer, prone to “accidents” like motion blur and odd exposures and awkward poses.
But we do have context — text that helps to clarify how the photographs relate to Meatyard’s intentions and oeuvre, and to Merton’s personality. Maybe the most useful aspect to this is understanding the meaning of portraiture — and how these portraits relate both to traditional ideas of portraiture and to Meatyard’s other work.
From Magid’s preface:
Thomas Merton became Father Louis to the brethren of Our Lady of Gethsemani.
To the world…he remained Thomas Merton, best-selling author and spiritual guide to his and our generation. But Merton was acutely aware of the danger of being trapped by these personae, and already in The Seven Storey Mountain he refers to that Thomas Merton as “my double, my shadow, my enemy”….
Gene Meatyard’s photographs, with their use of chance, motion, and multiple exposures, mirror the ever-changing, ephemeral nature of the self, which we normally fool ourselves into imagining as fixed and stable. When we open a book of photographic portraits, we are used to looking for how the photographer has captured the essence of his subject in a given image.
These pictures don’t do that.
Rather than gratify what Merton called “the hunger of having a clear satisfying idea of who he is and what he is and where he stands,” they subvert the whole notion of Essence, or of a Self to be captured. (pp. 9-10)
From Davenport’s essay:
Gene was interested in what happens to the rest of the body when the face is masked. A mask, like an expression, changes the way we see feet and hands, stance and personality. These photographs are both satiric and comic; their insight, however, is deep. We are all masked by convention and pretense. Merton would have said that we are masked by illusion. He was, as Gene perceived, a man of costumes (masks for the whole person). His proper costume was a Cistercian robe, in which he looked like a figure out of El Greco or Zurbaran. He liked wearing this in the wrong place, a picnic, for instance, of which Gene made a set of photographs. This was one of Gene’s favorite modes: the candid shot of families and groups, a use of the camera as old as photography, but in Gene’s masterly hands a psychological sketchbook, and a comedy of manners. (pp. 29-30)
Gene liked to say that he photographed essence, not fact. Gene read Zukofsky before he photographed him; Zukofsky’s layered text turns up as double exposures in the portraits, as oblique tilts of the head, as blurred outlines. The “innocent eye” of Monet and Wallace Stevens was not for Gene: he needed to know all he could about his subjects. He did not, for example, know enough about Parker Tyler, who sat for him, and came out as a complacent southern gentleman on a sofa, and the photograph is neither Parker Tyler nor a Meatyard.
The first thing we notice about Gene’s portraits of Tom is the wild diversity. Here’s Tom playing drums, and Tom the monk, and Tom the tobacco farmer, and Tom the poet (holding Jonathan Williams’s thyrsus). Many were taken when tom could not have been aware that he was being photographed. Many are posed in a collaboration between artist and subject.
Gene had agreed with me that Tom could look eerily like Jean Genet—John Jennet, as Gene pronounced the name, with typical Meatyardian intrepedity. This was within the psychological game of belying appearances, one of Gene’s games. For Tom resembled the French outlaw and prose stylist only when he was in his farmer’s clothes; that is, in a mask for the body. (p. 32)
From Christopher Meatyard’s notes:
Merton wore his monk’s habit, and provided Meatyard with his first and best opportunity to photograph him so attired. The black and white elements of the habit represent diverse aspects of the Trappist heritage. The white robe is a reminder of the twelve apostles and of the Trappists’ dedication to the Virgin, and is worn in choir. The black scapular dates back to the time of St. Benedict, the sixty century, when it functioned as an apron for those involved in manual labor. The hood of the scapular was seldom used except in processions. The contrast of black and white corresponds to Merton’s own personal combination of two branches of theological discourse: the apophatic, referring to the unknowability of God, and the cataphatic, referring to the theology of “light,” “good,” “life.” The wide leather belt “girds up the loins” and thus represents a profession even on top of another belt looped through jeans). A fishing cap bearing a pair of crossed swordfish as insignia tops of Merton’s habit. (p. 89)
You may note the contradiction between Magid and Davenport regarding “essence” — it is doubtless a contradiction with real metaphysical weight, and I think it does bear interestingly on the question of how “Zen” Meatyard was or wasn’t. But that’s of decidedly secondary concern; the point is that these photographs are light years away from the portrait as a portrayal of a unitary and fixed inner self inherent to the subject. They show the subject as fluid, as masked — but more than that, as deploying different masks at different times, managing a changeable identity.
This makes them both like and unlike Meatyard’s more familiar portraits — in which he provides his subjects with masks from his rather epic collection. Merton is differently (though not less) masked, but the masks are his own. The staging is similar — a mix of home ground and abandoned structures. The style is a mix — some are very similar to Meatyard’s other work, and some are different — more intimate, and with a greater sense of movement. (In the sense of natural gesture, rather than motion blur as a specific technique — although that is also very much in play.) Because of how Merton relates to costume and to identity, he feels like an equal player in the portrait game. I find this tremendously appealing — I prefer portraits where the subject isn’t totally at the descriptive mercy of the photographer.
Meatyard on Meatyard
When he brought his photographs over to show, always mounted, he was modestly silent. We did the talking, not he. He talked only about others’ photographs. (p. 35)
As to how Meatyard thought about his photography — and what he meant by it — the text is rather more oblique. Meatyard did not generally talk about his work, and what he did say could be obscure. For example, in his correspondence with Merton, Meatyard references a series of photographs he made in which a boy is photographed at different points along a wall, wearing different masks. (Some of these photos were at the de Young, referred to with series title “Along I Walk” — unfortunately, I did not take a picture of them, and I cannot find examples online.) Regarding this series, he composed a poem:
However, However; However -- How rove wearer, wherever lovers rave, the prover of history's hysterical plover.
Now, I haven’t the faintest clue what that means, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share it. If you have any suggestions, please post them in the comments.
Photographs in Context
Maybe the book’s greatest service is to provide context on individual photos — situating them in a time and a place, and relating them to meanings and intentions. This is especially valuable when it comes to Meatyard, because his photographs so often seem to emanate by chance from some charming yet monstrous alternate reality.
Meatyard made nine images of Merton’s profile as he read from the manuscript that would become Cables to the Ace (pages 2, 16-19). Each explored a different relationship between the silhouette and the outlining illumination. Meatyard modified Merton’s location by degrees to draw attention to the juxtaposition of the horizontal frame of the window and the vertical support post of the porch outside. He illustrated Merton’s apophatic speech by aligning one black arm of the momentary crucifix with the speaker’s ebullient tongue. (p. 87)
It was at this December meeting that Levertov and Merton discussed the merits of self-immolation as a way of protesting the war in Vietnam. It is tempting to see a visual commentary on this conversation in the triple exposure with the overlapping visages of Levertov, Merton, and Berry: almost everyone of its overlapping forms refers to fire. Levertov is seated in front of an active fireplace. The vivid wood grain of the cedar alter over the hearth opening recalls flames. Another image of the later is superimposed in that of the gas heater. The horizontal exhaust of the heater intersects with the later candle. The candle snuff reflects a flamelike light. A second image of the later candle hovers under a thermometer, which lends together with an alter icon. (p. 93)
Although some of the juiciest context is actually provided for a photograph which does not exist:
We retired to an unused farmhouse and farmyard were I proceeded to make some photographs of Tom and Guy. Backgrounds are important to my photographs and I used many around that farm for constructions and single and double portraits. There was one junction of a row of large leafed plants, a gate going to nowhere and a plowed field that looked interesting. I asked Tom to walk along next to the plants while I worked the camera. As he was walking he asked how far to go and I said for him to keep going. He did — and disappeared from view in the ground glass. I looked up and he was lying on his face in the field with his hat on his head. He was participating. None of us realized that there was a nine-inch drop-off from grass to field. We all laughed until we could laugh no longer — a pratfall is contagious in its humor. (p. 41)
Merton asked, “How far?” and Gene answered, “Keep going.” Merton’s stride found the vertical and he fell facedown, his robes billowing and flashing all of him there was to see to those assembled, including at least two women. I suppose my father intended for Merton to hop that step so that he could suspend him softly, airborne, and momentarily relate the monk to the ephemeral windswept wire with its solitary clothespin that reached toward him from the top of the inexplicable gatepost frame. (Wires, cables, and power lines were an important formal element in all the photographs made that day.) In the next frame Merton is seen marching back toward the camera, grinning broadly. Although one of Gene’s passions was recording the interstice of gesture — and he would not have let this moment pass — in this case the frame is blank for the fall itself, the record discrete. Gene dated the photograph “fall” even though the picnic took place in the early summer. (p. 86)
Miscellaneous Fun Facts
- Meatyard did not use contact sheets. (p. 5)
- He generally printed 1/3 of his negatives; with Merton, he printed 1/2 (p. 5)
- Most negatives he only printed once or twice (p. 5)
- Meatyard once identified a man immediately on sight based on a photograph of the subject at age ten (p. 25)
- “Gene had no studio, never directed his subjects, and usually looked away, as if uninterested, before he triggered the shutter.” (p. 33)
- Meatyard regarded color photography as “just some chemicals in the emulsion, nothing to do with photography.” (p. 35)
- In some of his photographs, he introduced motion blur by mounting the camera on a tripod, then kicking the tripod. (p. 35)
- “Meatyard, it should be noted, never took any family snapshots or made casual records after 1955.” (p. 92)
- “Gene was fascinated with his own name, Meatyard, and was delighted when I pointed out that it is the Middle English meteyeard, or yardstick, cognate with the name Dreyfus. And that his first name is properly pronounced “Rafe.” He approved of Edward Muggeridge’s changing his name to Eadward Muybridge.” (p. 28)
From Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw:
why the present is a crutch of
bottles drowning a derelict past
confusions that ride the future on
and plywood boxes with cast iron wheels
impersonal and impervious to everything
hot and cold
knowing a special ignorance
wealth can buy and arrogance sustain
petrified abstractions and ambivalent
to human equations that temporize and
while money makes money iron
plaster crumbles and chromium
(Note: once again, sorry for the poor reproduction quality. I still don’t have a suitable book-photographing workflow worked out.)
Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was composed in the 60’s, but not published until 2001. It consists of photographs and verse on a jazz theme. DeCarava writes, “Everything a jazzman feels, sees, hears, everything he was and is becomes the source and object of his music. It is a music purchased with dues of hardship, suffering and pain, optimism and love.” His book has this aspect about it. It is an inclusive, intimate, and comprehensive exploration of life lived in the context of the time and place and society in which it was made.
It is a kind of phenomenological document on race and class in America. By “phenomenological document,” I mean it is a record of an experience. There must be a better way to put this, but so far I cannot think of one. The value of the photographs in The Sound I Saw is not in objective disclosure of facts, but it is also not in internal exploration, or in the artistic arrangement of documentary “style” photographs to serve an interior vision. These are photographs that, more than any others I can think of, approximate a shared experience of the human gaze.
The eye is not an isolated organ, and it is not a technical instrument. My eye gives me a view that is informed by my knowledge, my experience, my personality, my feelings. The typical Western mindset is to perceive this subjective aspect of experience, which is inextricable even at the base level of sensorium, as a weakness, or at least a potential vulnerability. This assumption is always problematic, but it is an absolute land mine when it comes to understanding issues like race and class, or any other area where society is split up along divisions of power which are also divisions of perceptibility.
So, for those who do not have their own direct experience of the kinds of scene DeCarava is photographing, it is important to approach these photographs in the correct way: not just as historical documents (although many of them are), and not just as artistic works (although all of them are), but also for their truth-disclosing function as regards the subjective experience of race and class, which is not to be confused with opinion or other epistemologically defused modes of communication. There is testimony here, and the reader should be reading for it.
So, that being said, what’s the book actually like? It consists of black and white photographs interspersed with verse. The verse is a single continuous poem (and possibly a continuous sentence) about 2,000 words in length, and it appears to the viewer in chunks and fragments. No fragment stands on its own. Each extends from the last and points to the next, while also relating to the photographs it frames, and so binding the whole book together.
Similarly, the photographs are tied one to the next by composition or content — the angles of a fire escape to the angles of a quartet’s instruments, one pair of clasped hands to another, gazes intersecting across the book’s gutter, gestures, reflections, patterns of light and dark. The images and the text keep time with each other, and together flow through the stage, the street, the hallway, the home, and spiral back and on again.
DeCarava’s arsenal of technique is diverse — style, angle of view, perspective, content — all are flexible and changeable. Soft focus and motion blur are used alongside crisp, perfect detail, each advancing a different visual strategy, each serving the same overall narrative. Strongly stylized and allusive images and utterly straight documentary views support each other seamlessly. The result is organic, contiguous, encompassing work and play, family life and the public space, high and low art, and above all, music and the landscape of race and class.
The Sound I Saw is the best example I have encountered of a photographic sequence. Most sequences fail at either establishing solid photo-to-photo connections, or at producing a satisfying unified work in the sequence as a whole. And text, when provided, usually either serves to cover some gap in the photos’ ability to depict and explain, or else establishes a tenuous bridge between the photographs and some theoretical justification for the sequence — which is more often than not absurd, patronizing, or pandering. The Sound I Saw avoids all these traps.
Part of the reason it is able to do so is that, as I mentioned, it presents to the viewer a record of experience. When looking at the photos that show work, and reading the text that describes work, one feels work — its cost in fatigue, the weight of its necessity, its exertion, its sweat. This experience of work is contiguous across manual labor and the work of musicians performing on stage. DeCarava pays the same kind and degree of attention to the laborer’s tool and the musician’s instrument. And sweat — in The Sound I Saw, sweat takes on a spiritual or religious dimension, almost like a communion:
to rest and drop the two shovels
must use back to back
and in his place of something
good enough to breathe bittersweet
and the drag gigs that never end
(DeCarava’s depictions of play are equally profound, but I think less singular. Many photographers have done an excellent job of recording children at play, adults caught up in dance, etc. It is less common to see work presented in a way that cuts past our tendency to objectify and to distance ourselves from our experiences of strain and pain.)
Corollary to work is an awareness of the class and racial context in which work takes place, which DeCarava conveys in images of subtle severity. The hand of a man glimpsed in the backseat of a car is minimal, indeed not far from the very edge of recognizability, but elegant and eloquent in the reality it expresses, of the distance between the rich and the rest of us. Equally eloquent are the pale faces of well-dressed men who avoid the camera’s gaze — and the photographer’s gaze, and all that implies.
These things are part of what builds the experience of race into the photographs themselves, and invites the viewer to share in the seeing and the being seen of being a black man in the 60’s. Which is very different from just providing a record of a race-related event or personage, but is no less a true document.
DeCarava’s depictions of the places in which people live and work are just as elegantly and profoundly made. It is difficult to strike a balance between clearly and directly portraying the ruinous situations in which poor people often live and respecting the reality and specificity and dignity of the lives they live. DeCarava does this better than pretty much anyone else. (cf. The Ruinpornomicon)
He also finds the balance between an honest record of the alienation, loathing, and oppression that come with a racist society, and the desire for a more equitable future (“…the hope / light hands in trains will be / hands / dark faces on buses just / faces…”) and also images of people in the present who come together across the color line. In accounting for race — especially race in the 60’s, although unfortunately it is not so different today — it is very easy to wind up with a partial narrative — one defined by anger and bitterness, or by hope. It is harder to simultaneously affirm the reality of both, which is what DeCarava does.
The Sound I Saw is a beautiful and moving and important book. It is a book that I think everyone in America should be expected to read. Certainly it is a book that should be much more prominent than it is within the discourse of documentary and street photography. I find it especially bothersome that we give so much attention to The Americans (a book that is, by comparison, a travelogue: a skimming of the surface of American life) when we could be talking about this instead.
It may not be in print (grr), but you may be able to find it on the remainder table of your local bookstore (grr), and you can certainly find it used online. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do so.
I’ve been wanting to do a post about Breakfast, Lunch, Tea for some time, even more so following some of the discussions that arose around literary and unliterary photography a few weeks ago.
Breakfast, Lunch, Tea is one of my favorite photobooks. I would say it was my favorite cookbook, but that would be slightly misleading, since I’ve never cooked from it. (When I cook, I tend to either stick to things I know, wing it, or ask someone.)
What engages my interest are Toby Glanville’s photographs. A lot of cookbook photography transforms food into glossy, sterile product, disconnected from its messy origins and uses. Glanville’s photographs do not do this. They represent the life cycle of Rose Bakery’s dishes, from products and suppliers to food preparation to the bakery’s counters and cases to patron’s plates. There are even representations of waste, which I think is somewhat unusual in this context — a flat of eggshells, a used teabag and dirty dishes, etc. — presented as representations of the meals they are remnants of.
The photographs are documentary in style. There is comparatively little in them which feels posed and arranged, and what does feel posed and arranged still seems very much in place and in the moment. The compositions feel simultaneously studied and offhand — a combination that fits well with the image of the bakery presented in the text. (This also cannot have been easy, considering the often cramped and visually hectic spaces in which Glanville was working.) From a strictly photographic standpoint, the approach almost always works in Breakfast, Lunch, Tea, although a few of the images have an off-kilter feel.
Of course, the photographs still (and necessarily) present an idealized image. I grew up around restaurants, and there’s quite a lot of seriously unromantic reality that goes into any establishment’s ability to routinely feed a large number of patrons. But this is a cookbook; conveying the unromantic aspects is not within its remit. So, the documentary style of Glanville’s photographs should be read as style; they are not documents. (This is not to say they may not be perfectly true depictions of Rose Bakery, of course.)
Because of this, it is better to resist the temptation to characterize these photographs as more real than the average food photograph. Not because they aren’t more real (I think they are), but because reality isn’t their purpose. What makes them better than food-as-product photos is that they appeal to the reader’s ability to understand context and to build a deeper appreciation based on context.
(Note: please pardon the low quality of my P&S photographs of the book. Rest assured that in real life, Glanville’s photographs as reproduced in the book are acceptably sharp, as is the text. I intend to figure out a better book-photographing or book-scanning system for future posts, but after the months-long adventure that was Ruinpornomicon, I have lost my taste for putting off posts.)
There were a couple of interesting posts in July from Susana Raab and Joerg Colberg on the question of images (i.e., the photograph as it exists independent of the medium in which it is shown) versus prints (i.e., the photograph as print, or whatever, in the specific physical form in which one sees it).
Both Raab and Colberg express some degree of ambivalence, with which I agree. And of course, some photographs are more medium-independent than others, and will have both the same degree of impact and the same kind of impact no matter the form in which you see them. (Typically, these are images which are dominated by subject matter with an obvious and powerful emotional connection.)
The situation is complicated as well by the fact that some photographs have their canonical form in book reproductions, because they were photographed for the purpose of being included in books.
This was a major lightbulb moment for me when reading Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s — when those photographs were printed, for the most part, the prints were strictly considered strictly an intermediate step in the book production process, sort of an interpositive, I guess.
And yet, it’s very hard to remember that fact when staring at a huge reproduction on a wall — and I have seen just that sort of display, with a barely noticed copy of Provoke or something under glass and a huge, technically fantastic, modern print of the same photograph up on the wall. A bit absurd, right?
And of course there are countless examples going the other way — of a photograph whose canonical form is a print, but which most people encounter by way of a crappy book reproduction. The situation is even more complex now, since we have to contend with scans and/or digitally recorded photographs being displayed online, versus their print versions, versus their book versions — and in many cases, there may be several of each category.
It’s not something I gave much thought to before I started making comparisons between versions; now it’s the one thing I always discuss when I’m talking or writing about a photograph which I happen to have seen in more than one medium.
I don’t want to get too hung up on fetishism over reproductions, and particularly over what is the “real” version of a photograph. While it’s not quite irrelevant, I do think it tends to sidetrack conversations, and it’s hardly ever the most important thing about a photograph. And if its the most important thing about a photograph, it’s probably a pretty bad sign. “Process just on it’s own lacks heart,” as Raab says.
There are cases where the difference really and truly matters. A case that is fresh on my mind is Nicholas Nixon’s photographs in New Topographics. I practically dismissed them out of hand when I saw them in book form — and aside from toning, those reproductions were quite faithful — but was forced to totally reconsider them when I saw them on a wall. It’s not a question of them being better or worse in quality; seeing them framed and on the wall (and cold-toned) made them mean something substantially different to me.
That’s the exception, of course. Most of the time, the difference between one version and another will influence the degree of my enjoyment, but not the nature of my understanding, of the photograph.
Still, I do think it’s important to talk about those differences whenever I am aware of them, not because they’re always important, but because most people don’t see most photographs in more than one form. Most people, even if they’re aware enough of the medium to understand that the version they’re seeing is not the only one, will not be able to accurately deduce what the nature and extent of the difference will be between the version they see and the versions they do not.
So, if I can provide people with some insight into the nature and extent of the difference, I do so. I suspect that in some cases, that may be the most important contribution I have to offer to a discussion — particularly when the person I’m talking to does not and may never have physical access to a print that I was lucky enough to see, or cannot afford to buy a photobook that I happen to own. (Please excuse me if that sounds condescending — I’m certainly no art mogul, and the Bay Area has nothing on New York when it comes to this sort of thing, but compared to folks in some parts of the world, I’m drowning in cultural riches when it comes to photography.)
I’m normally not particularly intrigued by the details of photobook construction. (By which I mean things like particular choices of paper or construction, particular low- or high-fidelity reproduction methods, bindings, etc., when selected with the intention of conditioning the way the viewer perceives the photographs.) I’m not deaf to them, if you’ll excuse the metaphorical synesthesia; however, I think getting hung up on the texture of a book’s paper is not necessarily conducive to thoroughly seeing and enjoying the photograph which is printed on it. Nor do I think the presence or absence of a white border or a caption is generally going to play an important role in determining how I interpret a scene.
This, however, is a strong exception to that rule. If this photograph was not presented in precisely this way — on a full-bleed black background, with just that one little spark crossing over the page boundary, with such stark contrast — it would lose almost all its interest. As it is, however, the effect is mysterious, and somehow both sad and playful.
“Martha and Anthony 2004” from Alec Soth’s Niagara
Each time I’ve turned the last page of Alec Soth’s Niagara I’ve been left feeling what I can best describe as contemplative. It sounds terribly cliché but that book makes me think about life – my life and life in general – and being human. I never see Niagara as being gloomy but that may be entirely despite the sequencing of its photos. You’ll see a couple of photos of motels, motel exteriors, motel interiors, scenes from Niagara, a portrait or two – quite possibly of a couple – and then Soth hits you with the falls.
We could go on a veritable metaphor safari with the photos of Niagara Falls. The river flows to the falls, unstoppably. It all falls down in the end. And I guess that’s how life is; we live it and then we die. Me being accepting of that may be why I don’t see Niagara as a gloomy work. It’s certainly tinged by melancholy but, for me, that’s about as far as it goes down that path.
What lies behind the pictures is more intense, as Soth describes in this interview with Roger Richards in The Digital Journalist:
“Before ever having been there I liked the place. I wanted to explore the scenes of love, and approach it with a kind of lyrical sensibility,” says Soth.
But what Soth found was much more than he had bargained for. “After the fifth trip, I was done,” he relates. “The Mississippi work was fun. But here I was having negative experiences. After the fifth trip it was hard to go back.”
Soth says that as the work progressed it became like a downward spiral, and became darker and darker in tone.
“There’s this one guy named David. He may not be in the book … his girl committed suicide. He had this collection of love letters … the letters were so raw.” Soth said the work was becoming too dark. He had wanted to maintain the sense of melancholy without it becoming so intense. But it was becoming harder to do.
The melancholy may never become too intense in Niagara but it is nonetheless an intense work. The sequencing of the photos, the manufactured romance of the motels and, perhaps most of all, the people in the portraits, again coupled with the landscapes of the falls. It all brings out feelings of emptiness, loss and futility. But I also find a hope of redemption in Niagara. Probably because of Soth’s portraits, which are never less than sympathetic. They show people I don’t imagine having much in common with, but in a way which makes me stop and look again. To transcend first impressions or even knee-jerk prejudices.
I picked the photo above because to me it illustrates as well as any one photo could what I write in this post. But I hope I also managed to illustrate thoroughly that Niagara isn’t a book of portraits anymore than it is a book of landscapes. If you haven’t done so already, please visit Niagara on Alec Soth’s website and look through the photos. It’s worth noting that although the selection of photos there is excellent the sequencing is not the same as in the book. Some photos from the book are also missing and some photos on the site are not in the book.
Browsing the photo book section in my local library, the one I thought I had exhausted, I found a copy of Gerry Johansson’s book Sverige (that’s “Sweden” in, well, Swedish). Each spread in this book has one small (about 9x9 cm), black and white photo. The only text denotes the town or locality where the photo is taken, there’s only one photo from each locality and they’re presented in alphabetical order.
Obviously, no photo in Sverige is able to describe more than the scene it depicts but the whole feels like a very interesting vision of Sweden. There are no people, few cars or (surprisingly, when I think about it) bicycles. Despite the relative lack of bicycles (they’re ubiquitous in Sweden) I feel familiar with the scenes in a lot of the photos, having now lived in Sweden for a year and a half.
Photographs like Johansson’s in Sverige often have a remarkable anonymous quality; they feel like they could have been taken anywhere. What’s interesting is how when presented together they represent something more specific. Admittedly I’m very curious what a Norwegian or a Dane would read from Sverige. For that matter I wonder what my own reaction, as an Icelander, would have been to that book before I moved to Sweden.