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By Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
What attracts or repels us in others? How are we seen by those with different skin tones or disparate beliefs? Can America ever hope to unite polar opposites? During this political season, such questions have been swirling around my head, and in public and private conversations, so I was particularly drawn to the fascinating viewpoints offered by three photography books. The first is Oliver Wasow’s Friends Enemies and Strangers, which uses traditions in vernacular portraiture to explore how we choose to depict ourselves, the second is Gillian Laub’s Southern Rites, which documents the segregated proms held in the small southern town of Mount Vernon, Georgia, and the third is Larry Fink’s The Polarities, which seeks to find the commonalities amid contrasting regions and cultures.
In Friends Enemies and Strangers Oliver Wasow combines two bodies of work, “Portraits” of his friends, “Rogues” of his perceived enemies, and adds a peppering of found vernacular images of strangers from the early 20th century. He has an abiding interest in the artifice of the painted backdrops that were common in late 19th and early 20th century commercial portraiture, as well as a fascination with digital processing software to manipulate images. The book opens with a found black and white picture of a small African American boy wearing a white shorts, jacket and hat in front of a painted backdrop. It features a fence, and beyond there is a meadow and a distant mountain. The boy gazes up beyond the frame, one hand is a blur of movement, and the backdrop meets the floor where he stands wearing white socks and shoes. Intrigued, I wonder, is this a friend, enemy or stranger? The image has the patina of age, there is nothing menacing in his stance, so he appears to be a young stranger to the author.
Leafing though the book, I intuit the friends and enemies. Wasow presents several appropriated and digitally manipulated portraits of Donald Trump and Trump administration officials. By carefully enhancing unattractive traits such as blemishes and bloodshot eyes, he offers grotesque characterizations of the current crop of political elite. Ironically, it appears to have taken very little manipulation; those whose life work is impelled by malice and avarice unwittingly reveal it in their facial and body language. Despite that, something about them feels like a cheap shot. And indeed, Wasow admits that although he enjoyed exacting artistic revenge following the 2016 elections, he is not raising the level of political discourse. Nonetheless, such portraits follow a rich tradition of political satire that holds a mirror to the ugly underbelly of the American electorate. After all, our leaders reflect us.
Wasow loves photography but simultaneously distrusts it, questioning its veracity. Can a photographic portrait reveal something true about the sitter or does it merely reflect the photographer? Wasow dances around the answer, employing classic lighting techniques and variety of backdrops which are added in post-processing for his portraits of friends and family. They take on a painterly quality, in fact, one young woman looks to be the Mona Lisa reincarnated. In another, a contemporary teenager with purple hair carrying a rooster standing before painted stormy seascape creates an amusing dynamic between the subject, photographer and viewer. On the opposite page, a vernacular image of a young girl holding a snake adds to the interplay. The sequencing here is masterful. Wasow is mindful of palette and in several spreads, pairs contemporary figures together with found images to suggest the same sitter at different ages. Various counterpoints are offered as visual breaks, like the two pages filled with small, found prints of men wearing hats. By raising questions with both painterly and digital techniques, Wasow has created a compelling, if somewhat cynical, journey through the artifice of photographic portraiture.
The prom dress and tuxedo are symbols of an American rite of passage, a unifying ritual of teen life. That’s why SPIN magazine reacted to an incensed student who wrote that her small southern town was still holding segregated homecomings and proms in 2002 by sending photographer Gillian Laub to Mt. Vernon, Georgia. By the time Laub arrived, the young white woman who fought to integrate the proms because she wanted to attend one with her African American boyfriend, had graduated. Her younger sister, however, was a freshman with an African American boyfriend, and the proms remained segregated. Laub introduces us to that younger sister, Julie and her boyfriend Bubba in a striking portrait made in 2002. What follows in Laub’s Southern Rites are stories of small town friendships and betrayals, of passions and loves, of growing up and— alarmingly— a shocking murder as Laub returns to interview and photograph the teens and young adults on assignment for the New York Times Magazine six years later, and on subsequent visits that spanned twelve years.
The strength of Laub’s photographs is enhanced by accompanying stories that describe the joys and frustrations many of the students felt as they planned separate proms. Over and over, the narratives reveal childhood friendships disintegrating under the weight of the intractable problem of institutional racism. The White teens barely acknowledge the problem, though many know they will lose privileges such cars or an allowance if they are caught mingling with their African American counterparts. And for their part, the African American students struggle to raise funds for the Black proms, despite the fact that white dates of interracial couples are allowed to attend. It is all the more poignant that Laub’s images reveal deep similarities in how the girls dress, go to the beauty parlor and manicure their nails for this important rite of passage on the eve of adulthood.
After Laub’s 2003 story in SPIN, the segregated homecoming celebrations were stopped. Under the weight of scrutiny from her 2009 New York Times Magazine story, the proms were finally integrated and Laub returned to photograph in 2011. Now grown, many of the students are pictured again, and reflect on their time in high school, the murder of one of their friends, and the impact of Laub’s photographs. That young people continue to be judged by the color of their skin, instead of the content of their character in the 21st century is a daunting problem, but Laub offers a glimmer of hope in a portrait of Qu’an and Brooke on their way to the 2012 integrated prom. She quotes him, “it’s cool to be the first biracial couple. It means things are changing.”
In approaching Larry Fink’s book, The Polarities, I feared it would be angry and confrontational, yet of the three I present here, it is the most quiet, poetic and peaceful. This is not to say it is without tension, but it is a fluid journey from political rallies to the urbane, sophisticated denizens of the city, to bucolic backyards in the countryside, to the intimacies of home. The approach is classic: square format presented in black and white.
It opens with a short section called “Politics” where Fink’s ability to create patterns of light and gesture from chaotic scenes of protest bring the roiling anger of our contemporary political scene into sharp focus. He maintains a humor and a sense of empathy for those within the frame of his camera by emphasizing physical connection. In one picture, two people kiss, in another, a pattern of eyes meet the glance of a young woman draped in patriotic bunting pictured across the page. The next section, “Society” moves through the night in a metropolis. The glow of small screens illuminates faces and hands in restaurants, the crease in a pair of slacks reveal careful attention to detail of both Fink and his subject, and the whole sequence meanders through the dim lights of restaurants, jazz clubs and soirees.
The last two sections, “Country Life” and “Home” are more intimate. The pictures were made in back yards and private homes. And here, light emanates from electronic devices just as in the city, but this chapter reveres the simple pleasures of a feathered goose and the people who toil and work close to the land. “Home” is a study of light, texture, space and the comfort of a dog in your bed, which imbues the book with humanity and hope. Perhaps we can find common ground.The rhythm of this magnetic book evokes the immortal words and music of the Rolling Stones singing their moving homage to the “Salt-of-the-Earth.”
Let’s drink to the hard working people
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.
There is an exhibition of Larry Fink’s pictures called “Primal Empathy” currently on view at the Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts through March 10, 2019. He will be giving a talk there on December 12, 2018 at 6:30pm.
Photographs of the books by Suzanne Révy.
Friends Enemies and Strangers
2018 © Oliver Wasow
with texts by Rabih Alameddine and Matthew Weinstein
Published by Saint Lucy Books, Baltimore, MD
Photographs and Text 2015 © Gillian Laub
Published by Damiani, Bologna, Italy
2017 © Larry Fink
Curated by Laura Serani
Published by L’Artieri, Bentivoglio, BO, Italy