The ‘pulling together’ impulse
I don’t usually have the urge to curate other people’s work. In fact I’m more likely to be found ‘hmnphing’ about the choices that real curators make in exhibitions or awards.
But around Christmas time – not quite in one fell swoop – I brought together two photobooks about place from very different time periods, and was overcome with an urge to compare, wonder at difference and whether connections existed. (A dictionary definition of curation is an ‘organising, pulling together or sifting through)
The first book to arrive was the highly praised Lago by Ron Jude, published by Mack in 2015. I don’t always respond to Jude’s work, but this spare piece of work about the California desert he grew up in, intrigues with photographs as clues to a landscape and how it might be perceived or remembered. One of the things I like about this book is that nothing is offered in the way of shaping words or introduction. Only at the end we get a quote from John Darnielle (of Mountain Goats fame) from Wolf In White Van, which points to the complexity of reconstruction and memory.
Presenting the photographs and letting them, and their sequence, do the work of story telling, is de rigueur. Jude amplifies this with images of strange objects in isolated in a desert landscape – a porn magazine, a Columbia record, a tyre and orange tree – looking as if they’ve dropped from outer space. These images are interspersed with parched, bleached trees, pictures of palms looking like heavy clubs and the occasional long landscape with marginal buildings. At the beginning and the end are images of water, either lyrical or rushing forward with dreamlike force. There’s little of the carefully seen lyric landscapes of large format photography, rather a disturbing ‘clump, clump’ imagery one might find in a rather bad dream.
So interpretation is left to the viewer, who is compelled to return to the work to try to sink into its meaning. Of course, it helps that online there’s interviews with Jude, reviews of the book, a publisher’s write up and you can easily Google ‘Lago’, which seems to translate as ‘lake’ or sometimes as ‘narrow inlet of sea’ or ‘a small pond of standing water’. In a sense, the shaping, which in an traditional style book might have been a frontispiece or essay, has merely moved online.
But I liked the uncompromising nature of the images, their sequence and the silence that surrounded them.
The second book was the republished classic Cape Light by Joel Meyerowitz. I’ve had a complicated relationship with this book. When it first appeared in the late 70s, we swooped on the library’s copy and a much younger version of me spent much time studying to long light-filled plains of sea and sky dotted with tiny objects and wondering about the portraits and interiors. But the young person decided on balance that the work was too romantic to buy for our fledgling collection.
Over the years, if I’ve occasionally felt the urge to revisit the images, I’ve gone back to the library copy – until the day I got it out and discovered someone had snipped out all the images of women…. When Aperture did a reissue recently, I needed to act.
They’ve kept the original spirit of the book (minus a few images). It starts as classic photobooks do with a long informative conversion between Meyerowitz and Bruce K MacDonald, so the reader is well prepared for viewing the images. From the conversation it seems that Meyerowitz sought and found an almost ecstatic melding of self and experience, which I think comes through in the images.
The photography favours the composed large format landscape, and subjects of marginal worldly significance, lit with beautiful shades of water-filled light, or sometimes thrillingly with mixed light sources like dusk, house light and lightning as in the wonderful Porch, Provincetown, 1977. The sequencing also classic; page after page of porch and bay in different hues, interspersed with rather good interiors and portraits, which, at times, seem to be least successful images. Over the years we’ve come a way in how books are sequenced.
But the book doesn’t compromise on its response to the beautiful and I’ve rather changed my view of this. There are still many books that cover the territory of the marginalised everyday world – that’s still going strong as subject matter – but much rarer to find a respected work that deals in beauty in such an overt way. That the book has survived for a reissue and its approach still seems dangerous, I think makes it the stronger, riskier work.
Strange how the wheel turns.