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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Last weekend, I took a trip with my son and one of his friends, up the Dalton Highway.  I’ve been traveling this road, occasionally, for the last 18 years, and there are changes.  Some are for the better, as much of the gravel is now paved, and even those sections where the gravel remains are now treated to reduce the dust.  But there are other changes that are more disturbing, like the fires that have occured, mostly in 2004 and 2005, burning large sections of the forest next to the roads.  But this trip, I found a couple of photographs in the burns that seem to have a sense of grace…

Dalton Highway, May 2010

Yukon Flats Burn, Dalton Highway, May 2010

I sometimes feel it necessary to justify my affection for the work of Robert Adams (though fortunately this occurs less often than it used to), especially with other photographers.  But what can you really say about his work?  It defies easy description, but it rewards close attention.

Adam’s new book Gone?  Published by Steidel, released just a few weeks ago is a very fine volume, well sequenced, well printed, and full of the mystery of light on the land.

Robert Adams, Gone?, pg 106-107

The triptych of photographs above appear on page 106 and 107 of the book are one example of this.  The first image shows cottonwood trees overhanging a country road, on a perfect spring day.  On the right of the image is a picnic table beside the road, inviting travelers to stop and rest, while on the left, a small country church nestles in the trees.  There are two trucks in front of the church, so perhaps this is a Sunday morning, and people are worshiping inside. The next frame is of the same church on the same morning, along with two trees worthy of Atget, but now we can see that the two trucks are the only vehicles near the church, so maybe it isn’t a Sunday after all.  The third picture makes the scene clear:  three men on ladders are facing the outside of the church, which could use a coat of paint, scraping.  Noticeably absent from any of the pictures is a sign indicating the name of the church or the denomination, and there is no paved parking lot or even a power line going to the church.

Why are these men painting this church?  The only answer given here is this:  because someone cares.  It doesn’t matter if these men are members of the congregation, volunteering their Saturday to paint the church they have attended all their lives, or if the funds were donated by someone long gone to the city—the painters prove that someone believes enough that a white church in the sun matters.  Painting the church is an act of faith and love—as was the making of these photographs.

I sometimes find myself haunted by things I’ve seen, occasionally they are books, left slip away because I felt too poor or too cheap to buy them when I’ve held them in my hands. I still remember holding Petra by Emmet Gowin, Flowers and Trees by Lee Friedlander, and Mine Fields by Bill Burke, all books that have gone out of print and have become essentially unobtainable for someone with my budget, unless they get reprinted.

One book I held and read and remembered is Incognito, a Walker Evans book with an interview with Leslie George Katz with eight plates, a thin, tall book, elegantly printed, but (as I recall) priced at an outrageous $75 when it was released in 1995. I recall sitting in a bookstore somewhere and reading the entire interview, then the extended captions on the plates, and reluctantly putting the book back on the self, somewhat satisfied that I had devoured the book, but disappointed that such a fine book felt beyond my reach.

Peter Koster. Walker Evans

Then a few days ago, I saw a copy for sale on e-bay, advertised for more than the purchase price in 1995 but less than I expected, but I restrained my bidding finger and checked bookfinder, only to discover a copy for sale at a modest $95 from a bookseller, less than the copy on e-bay. It arrived in the mail today, in a big box with lots of padding, shrink wrapped, with an acetate cover, and several uncut pages.

The e-bay description reads, in part, “Aware of the immortal power of words, Walker Evans chose to leave a last will and testament, unmistakable in its clarity, in the form of an interview. He made sure that none of his intended clarity would be lost. This he achieved by choosing a close and trusted friend to collaborate in conducting several recorded conversations and editing them into a carefully articulated credo.” And reading the interview this evening, I had to agree—Walker Evans speaks clearly about the act of making photographs, the meaning of his work, and about “transcendence”, a word I’ve never understood except in the way he speaks of it, a faith in the act of making photographs, resulting in images of something close to magic. “…Eugene Atget … was a kind of a medium, really. He was like Blake. His work was like lightening through him. He could infuse the street with his own poetry, and I don’t think he even was aware of it or could articulate it…”