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By Elin Spring and Suzanne Révy
“Scrambled eggs, Oh you’ve got such lovely legs, Scrambled eggs. Oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” These lyrics were the first iteration of the Beatles song “Yesterday” written by Paul McCartney, who reports that the melody came to him fully formed in a dream. Great artists have always been big dreamers, regularly cross-fertilizing genres – songwriters with music and lyrics, photographers with images and poetry or prose. Strangely, photographic purists often have been disparaging of mixing media, regarding it as unprofessional to adulterate photographs with any other form of expression. Such insular elitism has been detonated by photographers like Duane Michals, a trailblazer whose pithy and poignant storytelling proved that the synthesis of visual and written ideas can be luminous and transcendent. We are happy to share an exciting resurgence of such imagination and eloquence in four recently published books: 27 Contexts by Mark Alice Durant, Blind Spot by Teju Cole, Slant Rhymes by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, and You an Orchestra, You a Bomb by Cig Harvey.
Just as songs can dredge up powerful visual memories, photographs often summon a flood of associations. Where we were, who we were with – fleeting and intense snippets flash into focus, truncated, dreamlike and florid with detail. In 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography, Mark Alice Durant mines pivotal photographs from his restless life as an artist, writer and teacher and joins them with lucid and endearing confessional prose. His thematic anecdotes, in roughly chronological order, transform deceivingly mundane experiences like a visit to the MoMA sculpture garden into keen photographic and life lessons that often pierce the heart. In pictures by turns tack-sharp or ethereal, made by and of Durant along with a cast of others, known and unknown, we feel the pulse of his youthful bravado and shame, the throb of teen lust and guilt, and the hope threaded with cynicism that accompanies maturity. In complete disservice to his wonderful storytelling and specific image pairings, here are a few highly abridged excerpts that hint at Durant’s unique narrative style and photographic breadth.
Reflecting on the Beatles’ haircuts, idolizing others and coming of age (Chapter 4, page 42):
I became aware of myself as an image, viewed from someone else’s perspective and I was full of shame. Be it God, parents, teachers or classmates, we eventually internalize the external gaze… We police our own behavior in anticipation of other people’s observational power and judgment. We become objects of our own surveillance. We mature.
Reflecting on the power of harrowing photographs and the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa (Chapter 7, pages 67-69):
The only photograph from that European summer that mattered to me was one I did not take…Our realization of the horrifying cruelty of other humans can rend our innocence irretrievably…For those who have lived relatively sheltered lives, this negative epiphany often comes in the form of imagery: atrocities from long ago or faraway lands…I tore the image from the paper and without knowing precisely why, I scratched a negative halo around the image with a piece of charcoal. I tucked it into my wallet where it remained, embedded for years, the creased folds becoming integral to an image of grief, precise and universal.
On “Finding Photographs” and immortality (Chapter 27, pages 274-275):
Every photograph is a failure – or, to be more generous, every photograph is incomplete. Even if unacknowledged, this incompleteness gnaws at us, prodding us to yearn…We intuitively understand that some things are beyond the limits of representation and that the photograph is but a hint of the fullness of life. And this, paradoxically, is what drives us to make more photographs… an existential stand in opposition to impermanence.
27 Contexts is a determined search for meaning, rewarding readers with witty and wise observations. Durant’s lush and engaging storytelling contextualizes a vast store of visual memories, not only reminding us “that history happens everywhere…a rich chronology of often minor events that can have unexpected consequences years later” but accentuating how completely our personal and collective histories are intertwined with photographs.
Teju Cole’s recently published book Blind Spot proves that words and pictures paired together can deepen our visual, literal and emotional perceptions. The format is elegantly terse, with a short written passage on the left and an image from his wide travels on the right of each two-page spread, and the picture’s location as title. The images are not of the iconic or well-known sites of each place, but are the ordinary details hidden in plain sight. Similarly, the writing feels like graceful threads connecting thoughts through history, art and personal anecdotes, illuminating the contradictory human impulses for compassion and brutality.
Cole’s pictures are deceptive. They appear to be simple compositions, but they are, in fact, complex and layered. He plays with space, illusion, texture and geometry. He creates subtle visual tension within each frame, which at times can mislead the viewer’s eye. One in particular, called Zürich, had me fooled at first glance. I thought it was a hotel room window with a view to a lake, but after more careful consideration, I see it is an image looking inward. An image of the lake seems to be affixed to an armoire… or is it a reflection?
Though the writing delves into human psychology, history and emotions, there are very few people in the images. When they appear, with one exception, we see no faces. One powerful image titled Lagos depicts a young man sleeping on a table in what looks to be a classroom. Green plastic chairs are arranged in a semicircle facing the table; there are two white chairs stacked between them and the sleeping figure. Was he putting the chairs away, when a he opted to take a nap? I don’t know, but the folds of his shirt lead to the white chairs, creating the illusion that the hard plastic of the chairs is somehow made of fabric, and the whole scene is bathed in beautiful light. The accompanying passage describes the story of Christ being lowered from the cross, draped in cloth. References to religion, violence, love and art in the written passages create a forceful narrative, in striking contrast to the subtle quality of the images. Certain written details reappear in later passages, and he closes with a different scan of a photograph that had appeared earlier in the book. The newer scan reveals a face that was obscured in shadow before. Cole writes, “darkness is not empty”, and this rich book is a deeply layered probe into the mosaic of the human condition.
Ideally, when two people join their lives romantically, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. So it is with the photographs of husband-wife team Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. In their new book Slant Rhymes, they celebrate thirty years as life partners in pairings of photographs that echo one another, be it compositionally, in palette, emotional tone or meaning. When the poet Emily Dickenson wrote, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”, she could not have dreamt of a more inventive and poetic visual response to her plea. The Webb’s book inspires the reader’s imagination to take flight.
Comparing the Webbs’ photographs is a joyful exercise, as visual and symbolic revelations continue to dawn with contemplation. Whether mysterious, playful or mournful, separate images can shift perspective when placed beside one another, revealing new interpretations. Often created in unrelated times and places, the photographic pairs also prompt appreciation of human and cultural connections, perhaps a subconscious gift of love from the Webbs, and even if unintentional, a welcome effect in our divisive political climate.
Traditionally, the Webbs’ photographic styles have contrasted with one another: Magnum photographer Alex’s direct journalistic punch versus Rebecca’s layered and ethereal imagery that reflects her origins as a poet. In the intimate introduction by Alex and in delicately interspersed poetry and lyrical prose by both, we can sense a true melding of spirits. Their images, too, bend to one another, in what the Webbs offer is “a kind of long, elliptical, unfinished love poem.”
Cig Harvey’s new book, You an Orchestra You a Bomb is a reverent autobiography of family and parental love. She opens with written vignettes of brief episodes from her past and, as if looking through a prism, describes a rainbow of colors in her memories from beige to blue to red. She closes the passage with the words of her daughter who declared she was “holding onto the blue” as she pressed her face against a recently painted blue wall. The images in the book rhythmically move from cool blues to warm reds with creamy whites and rich blacks in between. It is a personal journey through the spectrum.
The opening image is a cacophony of birds with all the colors that Harvey had described in the opening passage. In the lyrical account that follows, she describes a violent car accident that left her mute for several weeks and chronicles the following year of recovery, including descriptions of how she made several pictures that we see later in the book. At first, Harvey retreated to the woods where she felt safe, sharing an image of a small child wearing a red coat in a snowstorm. That leads to an image of red curtains punctuated by a small pale face peaking through. Thus, a negative moves into a positive from one page to the next. Then, we roll into a series of blue images: driving in the rain, swimming underwater and splashes.
And then, as if the prism turned, the images return red hues, and deeper in the book we see blue again… it starts to feel like a dream, and I don’t want it to end. Harvey uses the poetry of color to create this moving and poignant look at her life. The writing, like the pictures, becomes more abstract and surreal, yet it is remains grounded in the quotidian of her daily life. In one passage, she writes: “We find twenty-one four leaf clovers in the back garden. / All this time we’ve been living in our own enchanted wood. / We pick them and make a one-inch high bouquet bound with thread. / I pinch our little offering between thumb and forefinger and wonder about SO MUCH LUCK in such a tiny space.” So much luck in such a tiny space is the perfect description for this luminous gem of a book.
Each of these four diverse books sparks the imagination with a unique blend of photographs and words that harmonizes in a vivid, multi-sensory experience. Mark Alice Durant’s intimate, searching stories and images in 27 Contexts resound with personal associations as they conjure our powerful collective bond with photographs. In Blind Spot, Teju Coles’ searing histories paired with his muted international landscapes illuminate unseen intricate connections between us and the world. Photographs do most of the singing in the echoing images of Slant Rhymes, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb’s profoundly moving duet, soaring with poetic pairings and musings. Similarly autobiographical, Cig Harvey’s lyrical vignettes in You an Orchestra, You a Bomb are a penetrating, vibrant ode to familial love and longing. Each is an eloquent synthesis of visual and written language, each a testimony to personal passion and exceptional originality.
Elin Spring is Founder/Editor and Suzanne Révy is Contributing Writer to the online photography review magazine “What Will You Remember?” .
27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History of Photography
by Mark Alice Durant
Saint Lucy Books, 2017
by Teju Cole
Forward by Siri Hustvedt
Penguin/Random House, 2017
by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris-Webb
Published by La Fabrica, 2017
You an Orchestra you a Bomb
by Cig Harvey
Essay by Jacoba Urist
Essay by Vicki Goldberg
Schilt Publishing, 2017
Cig Harvey will be exhibiting her work at the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston from December 7th, 2017 through January 31st, 2018. An Opening Reception with the artist will be held on Saturday, December 9th, 2017 from 2:00 – 5:00pm.
Feature Image: “Goldfinch, St Petersburg, Russia, 2014” (Detail) by Cig Harvey (courtesy of the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston).