I went out into my garden with your book early this morning. The sky was overcast, so the light overhead was about as perfect as it could get.
James Enyeart’s preface is excellent. I read every word and felt that you must have been immensely pleased to see his response to your life’s work.
Then I turned the page and was jolted by the beauty and power of the first image. Years before I met you, I got an early copy of Walker Evans and James Agee’s book, sat down and looked at those photos for the first time, and then when I turned the page and saw the title, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I was emotionally jolted, too. It’s the only thing I can compare the experience to.
The subtlety of colors in the first plate prepared me for the way you explore color throughout the book. I’m amazed. You’ve spent so much time in B/W that I had not realized how much control you have over color – this is a hallmark of a special vision and a sensitivity that announces itself right from the start. And the structural revelation of the solid central form and the laddered regularity of the fronds establishes a view of your nominal subject matter. But that subject matter is superseded quickly because the image invites a response to abstract form and color. And once you establish that, you introduce the possibility of a spiritual content that can be revealed only through your art. Of course I think of Minor White’s work when I say this, but his work never engaged me as much as this work does.
What amazes me is that once the page is turned, I felt as if I were on a journey – that the forms changed and the colors altered subtly everywhere I looked. There is mystery in many of the forms, such as number 4, which implies a torsion that is as much internal in the viewer as it is in the image itself. Then the shock of blood in number 5, stunning, beautiful, terrifying all at once. Yet the structural echoes of the first image bring it back under control. You develop that emotional content in number 6, and in a daring move you insist on the total centrality of the ascending horizontal, rendering the image almost an echo of a ribcage. You do something of the same thing in number 7, one of the most powerful in the book, and powerful in part because it is so simple, so upright in every sense. I resist anthropomorphizing this image, despite the sense that there is an invitation in its power; I want to stay with the visual image itself, not a simulacrum that would distract me from its color, form, and intensity.
Number 11 is a wild excursion into a world of color, but it implies a savage change in the biology of your subject, and that in turn implies a change it the world itself – it was always there, but you reveal it in this photograph. Further, this image sets the stage for later images, and that continues what I said previously, the sense of a journey from the beginning to the end of the book. Given what preceded it, number 13 is a sudden changeling, a world of softer and different colors, blues and violets and lavenders and god knows what other colors, all in one image. How do you do it? I know you don’t manipulate these images, but this one is miraculous. It’s followed by numbers 14-18, studies in the dark – not just dark, but THE dark, which you then provide relief from in the blaze of central light in number 19 – again, a journey. For me number 17 is one of the most astounding images I have ever seen. The original may be better, but this is superb. Light and color explore the brightness through to number 27, which is another of those miraculous amalgams of color and form that imply a kind of transcendence that could only be suggested by this photograph. Here is where the camera intervenes in a way that produces an emotional insight that cannot be achieved by “being there.” Were one to stand in front of your subject and try to see what this photograph “sees,” one would be baffled and confused. One would miss the subtlety of the print, one would miss the power of the framing itself, and one would miss the vision of the artist. One could go there to this object, but one would not see it.
The book ends with the colors of fall. Oddly, the colors of a Connecticut fall, which I invoke partly because of the tobacco-leaf tones evident in numbers 28-30. In the last image, you break the curtain between the viewer and the artist, revealing the magician behind the curtain, the eye that now sees “backward” through the lens. There is mystery there, too, but of a different order than the mystery I see in number 17.
The Book of Palms could be a Book of Psalms.
We want to thank you for the book and the gift of a print. That was a wonderful thing for you to do because it helped me see how brilliant the printing in your book is. The print is richer and more detailed, but no one could do a better job for this book than the Hemlock Printers. Bravo.
~ Lee and Joanna
July 26, 2011