One best book
In this season of lists of the year’s best photo books whirling around like snowstorms, I thought I’d comment on just one photo book I acquired this year which has really grown on me. Being in New Zealand, choosing new books from overseas book teases or reviews is always a gamble. Last year I bought the much acclaimed Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson which faded in interest over the months (I haven’t yet quite identified why). This year I bought Hesitating Beauty by Joshua Lutz (Schilt Publishing) a mixed media narrative about how it might feel like inside the experience of growing up with a mentally ill mother.
One reason for choosing this book is that my work often engages with the results of social or cultural ideas or economic drivers (e.g. Bent, Old New World) but I’m always anxious about being too formal or too rational, so I look out for work that’s personal, storytelling and comes at things in an elliptical way.
The cover of Hesitating Beauty has a photograph of an attractive young woman on the cover (a debutant type image) with the title across her half closed eyes. Inside, the end papers feature another formal photograph of perhaps the same woman – perhaps a wedding or bridesmaid image – which is stained or the face obliterated throughout image repetitions. Clearly something is not right with this woman’s life.
Images of the mother play a critical part in anchoring this book of text, mixed with excerpts from letters, family photographs and photographs taken to symbolise parts of the story. The work starts with a brief piece from the photographer talking about his changing perceptions of the mother’s behavior: “That excitement was displaced by tremendous anger and panic, as thoughts that I too could end up like her began to take form.” Gradually he feels more empathy and compassion “as the possibility of losing myself receded and I opened up to her reality with the fear of contagion.” Looking back on the family archive “my role in shaping that story began to evolve from my memory of how it exists into an overwhelming need to change it.”
Next to this text is a picture of the woman as young and vibrant, then we turn the page to the same woman much older and puffy with a tag around her wrist. Through the book, which mixes images of hospital entrances with symbols such overwhelming rocks, strange trees or a snow-covered letterbox with the number 666, are the many faces of the mother – at times happy. confused, altered by image manipulation and sometimes just an arm circled by medical tags. Combined with the brief text extracts from letters, the photographer’s writing and the father’s view, the work becomes a narrative slowly dawns on the reader.
Of course the work may be a complete fiction, but there’s a knowledge of what it feels like to have a failable parent that’s creditable. I think it’s hard to do this sort of work successfully – to be brave enough to reveal your story without pulling punches, but restrained enough to fictionalize and make it relevant to other people. I’ve thought over the months that this little book does it remarkably well. The design by Claudia Christen emphasises an small intimate notebook feel which is exactly right for the work. Of course, I could be biased towards this type of work, having felt the anxiety of whether I would suffer my own mother’s final illnesses, and tried to deal with this in poetry. But that aside, I think Hesitating Beauty one of the books I’ve been most pleased to own this year.
Check it out on Photo-eye