What I’m Reading: Photographer JA Mortram

For the 100th Good Reading Copy post, it’s time to look in a new direction. For three years now, the site has dealt with what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. That’s been rewarding, but it’s only half of the conversation I’d like to have. A few years back, Anita Brookner mentioned in an interview that Piers Paul Read’s novel The Misognyist was the book that had most impressed her in recent years. A couple of weeks ago, Helen Garner told me that Joan London’s novel The Golden Age was something special, and that she hoped people didn’t overlook it. So, I’m adding regular entries devoted to what certain makers, as Robert Phelps would’ve called them, ones I admire, are reading and why. That will include writers, but also photographers, musicians, people in publishing, chefs – anyone whose work has caught my eye and who has the time and inclination to share. Up first: the photographer JA Mortram.

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At the start of his very short story, “Harbor Town,” Yasunari Kawabata writes, “This harbor town is an interesting one.” He then offers a brief sketch of a man’s loneliness and a fleeting connection to geisha he finds there. Somehow he hasn’t taken hold in the world, hasn’t made the connections he’d have liked. What’s missing for him doesn’t trouble the world at large, though, and so there’s an added tang to his isolation. What Kawabata includes is striking, but what’s left off the page has an even more lasting pull. There’s no subsequent expansion on “Harbor Town.” It’s not part of a series of stories or a sketch for a novel, as we might read “Gleanings from Snow Country.” Great as he was, there’s a nagging question of what Kawabata knew of men like the one in “Harbor Town,” beyond their loneliness and poignant moments like the one in the story, what else he might’ve revealed by allowing a few more lines of dialogue, another turn or two onstage.

This is not a complaint that applies to the photographer JA Mortram. He’s said in the past that he’s committed to photographing people who don’t have a voice. More often than not, that means he makes an ongoing commitment to the people he photographs, not only engaging with them over the course of multiple sessions, but at times offering help with everyday matters as well. If that seems to suggest an investment beyond the visual aspects of his work, it’s because he does.

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  • Photo by JA Mortram

He told Darlene Hildebrandt of Digital Photography School that a significant part of what he’s doing is to “be nice, be attentive, give a damn, listen.” Indeed, the people Mortram is working with are his neighbors, and his work affords them the same dignity they’ve offered him by inviting him into their homes, into their lives.

When I asked what he’d been reading, he told me, “Lately it’s pretty much all been photography books,” and I knew that meant he’d been working madly – he’s as curious and engaged as anyone I know. He’s got good taste, too – ask him about Harry Crews. The upshot here is that a list of photography books that hold JA Mortram’s attention is a list of photography books that should be on your shelves. And so, from the man himself:

“Cool, a list of books, here we go, these are VITAL…

Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by Don McCullin

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Family Love by Darcy Padilla

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Written in the West by Wim Wenders

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Living with the by Enemy Donna Ferrato

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  • Photo by Donna Ferrato, http://www.donnaferrato.com/

One Second of Light by Giles Duley

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The Fat Baby Eugene Richards

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Photo by Eugene Richards, http://eugenerichards.com/the-fat-baby/

…these are all go to books for truth, morality, empathy and life. Wim Wenders I go to when I want to fill my heart with joy.”

Later this year, Bluecoat Press is publishing Small Town Inertia, a collection of photos from JA Mortram’s work. You can find much more of his work – photos, video and the stories of the people whose stories he’s telling, at the links below.

– John McIntyre

More by JA Mortram:

At Vimeo

At Smalltowninertia.co.uk

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JA Mortram on Instagram

Impact has fused us, made us mutual: On The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

The fortunate among us are friends with at least one couple who are wonderful to talk with individually and even better as a pair. Those of us more fortunate still are part of such a couple. All indications suggest Tom Lubbock and Marion Coutts were in the more fortunate camp.

Lubbock was the art critic for the UK Independent for thirteen years. After his death, his fond and admiring cohort at the Independent noted that he was, “admired by his peers and his subjects for his vast knowledge and unaffected insight into artists from Francis Bacon to Pieter Bruegel.” Coutts is first and foremost an artist. When Lubbock was diagnosed with a rare type brain tumor in 2008, they had been married seven years and were parents to a young son. Lubbock set out to record the course of his illness in a journal that was published in 2014 as Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.

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Lubbock’s journal is spare and knotty, all digressions, worries and questing for certainty. He tracks his condition physically and, more compelling, mentally. Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg,  is a perfect companion piece. She’s a maximalist by comparison, exploring the particulars of each event, the facets of her reaction to it and where it may lead in the future.

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On the occasion of Lubbock’s initial diagnosis, Coutts writes, “Impact has fused us, made us mutual.” In many respects, she is the ideal partner in this mutual arrangement, despite the recriminations she levels at herself in weak moments. Lubbock turned fifty the year of his diagnosis. The writer Roger Grenier observes that whatever our pursuits, “Death and frivolity condemn us to never finish.” The great Stoic Seneca also notes and disdains the frivolity Grenier mentions, but ultimately he’s convinced we’re each given given sufficient, perhaps even ample time to accomplish what we need to in life. A man of fifty, his wife and small child might understandably chafe at Seneca’s certainty when informed of his impending death. Neither Lubbock nor Coutts seem to dwell on the injustice of his losing out on a third of the average life span, though. They make serious preparations, and Coutts, feeling overwhelmed initially, writes, “I have many friends skilled in sympathy. Strategy is what I need.”

But first, there are idyllic days – unexpected, rude health for Tom,  afternoons out and trips abroad for the three of them. These are all part of a welcome reprieve. In time, though, his speech and language memory inevitably slip. As his struggles with vocabulary and speech intensify, Coutts writes, “He is estranged from himself,” and later, “What else is there apart from language? Let me list: touch, the great inter-cosmos of the eyes, running and jumping, sex, cooking, friendship, eating. There must be other things but I have come to a stop. It’s a short list. We will devise another language, and in it we will talk.” They try, if not to create a language apart, at least to manipulate the language he has remaining, to make it serve their needs. This proves challenging and often futile as well. “In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” This seems all the more distressing, given their shared love of art and engagement with it professionally, the central place it’s held in their life together.

The Iceberg is no cliffhanger. Coutts knows husband’s fate is proscribed. Despite encouraging test results and stretches of normalcy, she never forgets this fact. None of that’s to say the book lacks moments of drama or intense emotion. There’s the shock of the diagnosis, which is sudden and severe. Tom’s unreliable language control and sense of place make for tense moments when he’s out alone. She sends him out with an address card in his wallet and “a note saying he is having a focal fit the finder of him might helpfully contact me.” On a notable occasion, when he’s late arriving home, it turns out, “He doesn’t think of any of this and doesn’t use the card.” They fight in strained moments, and the inclusion of those scenes is a bit of candor the reader by then realizes is characteristic of Coutts, who never spares herself in apportioning blame. And the most crushing moment comes near the end, when she overhears Tom repeating her name to himself as if trying to memorize it, at a time when he’s permanently lost much of his vocabulary and facility with language.

“Tom never cared much about travel,” Coutts writes, but by the time he passes away, it’s hard to refuse the metaphor of traveling on at life’s end. The poet Gordon Osing, confronting age and the aftermath of throat cancer, writes,

How will it be, at the last moment?

It will smell of sunlight and other codes in the air

Arriving in somebody else’s land.

Whether that or some other fate awaited Lubbock, The Iceberg is a loving coda.

Sharing loss is a complicated matter, even among family members or dear friends. Somehow Marion Coutts shares her loss with the world at large in The Iceberg. I don’t know her personally, didn’t know Tom Lubbock, but the sense of loss feels shared in some small way. She takes us to the graveside service, where there are sombre, homely rites and a sense of her husband’s lasting presence in the lives of she and her child in the years to come. “And so are the living comforted,” Coutts concludes, but there are other sources of comfort, too. Surely for those among us dealing with loss, her book is destined to be one of them.

  • John McIntyre

On The Painter Rosemarie Beck at American Arts Quarterly

My essay on the American painter Rosemarie Beck is up at the American Arts Quarterly site.

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If you’re not familiar with Beck, this is a good starting point (as is the critic Martica Sawin’s Beck profile in the Spring-Summer 2005 number of Woman’s Art Journal).

http://www.nccsc.net/essays/rosemarie-becks-letters-young-painter-0

– John McIntyre

Photography, speak to us of our plight: Small Town Inertia: Diary Entries

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It’s often best to sit with a book you’re excited about before commenting on it. Enthusiasm has a place, but a hurried response runs the risk of missing nuances of the work in question. With something like JA Mortram’s Small Town Inertia: Diary Entries, a pause is in order to let the images do their work.

Mortram has made exemplary use of digital means in extending his work’s reach beyond the UK. He has also forged relationships with photographers around the world, both in the name of supportive give-and-take and discussion of technical and ethical matters. None of that diminishes the impact of or need for this book, which is a worthy addition to the photography line from Cafe Royal Books. At a time when digital images are available instantly most everywhere, these slim, softcover volumes still bring a thrill. They have a samizdat feel, a natural urgency that leaves me torn between clinging to my lone copy and pressing it on someone near to me.

The fact that several familiar images are part of this project is initially a mild surprise. That familiarity doesn’t diminish their power, however. In fact, their inclusion alongside a series of unfamiliar photos re-contextualizes them as part of Mortram’s larger project. The scope of his vision is on display here, in images that range from portrait to candid action shots. Fourteen of the sixteen photos run fully two pages in width, and the uses of that space are so naturally varied that the choice feels justified in each case. A portrait of a youngish man with his eyes closed and tears on his face is framed so tightly that the top of his head is cut out the shot. His ears are blurred, the focus is so shallow. It’s such an appropriate presentation that the viewer may not fully appreciate the daring involved. Other, domestic scenes are cluttered and busy, so that each viewing reveals the root or aftermath of another small drama.

The compositions here are matter-of-fact. I note this because Mortram isn’t the type of photographer who resorts to sensationalism. In a piece for the BBC, he notes that, “My job is to to be quiet, to listen and to see, without adding visual parlour tricks or giving a hard-sell to an audience potentially saturated by digitally enhanced emotions. I intend the images to be as honest as the people sharing their stories.”

Indeed there’s an intimacy here, albeit one more fully evident online, where he pairs these photos with the stories of the people in them. One of the most powerful of these stories is that of David, a man who lost his sight in adulthood. He lived with his mother, Eugene, whose health was deteriorating and who eventually passed away. Mortram dedicates Diary Entries to her, and to Stuart, who is featured on the cover in one of the subtlest and most striking portraits in the entire Small Town Inertia project. His expression in looking at the camera is steady. He smokes coolly, leaning forward on one forearm. It’s hard to be sure of the room’s dimensions. Several ornamental hangings on the wall behind him appear close together, and there’s a general sense of that the furnishings are a bit crowded, but none of this is allowed to compete with his presence. His eyes are bright, and though Mortram has noted that Stuart was “alone and somewhat isolated from the world around him, Stuart has taught me one lesson above all: to love the small, precious moments with those close to you. It’s the one element of life that can never be regretted.” The dedication and his appearance on the cover feel like fitting tributes.

Mortram’s work with Cafe Royal Books continues to grow in breadth and complexity. His first book, Electric Tears and All Their Portent, focused on Tilney1, a young, self-described “despair poet” who has struggled with memory loops, auditory hallucinations and other delusions. The book featured some of Tilney1’s own art and writings, and in the months since, Cafe Royal has produced an entire book of them, Red Neck Land. As for Diary Entries, it ends with words from the poet George Szirtes. “Photography, speak to us of our plight,” Szirtes writes. Photography obliges.

– John McIntyre

For more of Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia series, visit smalltowninertia.tumblr.com and smalltowninertia.co.uk.

Lynd Ward’s Six Novels in Woodcuts from Library of America

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Lynd Ward is widely viewed as a pioneer of the graphic novel. He also worked as an illustrator for works by other writers, but it’s his series six of novels-without-words from the 1930s which defines his career. The narratives are rendered in dark, powerful woodcuts, clearly influenced by German Expressionist art and cinema, thanks to his exposure to the technique during a stretch in Weimar Germany. Ward’s work is irresistible, dark and intense, epic in its reach and emotional tenor. The Library of America has collected those six novels, along with an excellent introductory essay from Art Siegelman and a selection of short writings by Ward, in a two volume box set, Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts.

The graphic novel has always left me cold. No doubt I’m looking at the wrong examples of the genre, or not taking the ones I do look at seriously enough. Somehow Ward breaks through that resistance, I suspect in large part because he eschews the verbal component altogether. Content aside – and the content here is glorious – these two volumes are a wonderful argument for the singular pleasure afforded by the paper-and-ink book. Spiegelman speaks to the appropriateness of this in his essay “Reading Pictures”, observing that,

Lynd Ward made books. He had an abiding reverence for the book as an object. He understood its anatomy, respected every aspect of its production, intimately knew its history, and loved its potential to engage with its audience. This is one of the reasons he commands our attention now, when the book as an object seems under siege.

The Library of America’s commitment here extends to featuring artwork on only the right-hand (recto) page of every two, a choice Spiegelman calls “the ideal form for this work.” The first volume collects Ward’s three early efforts, Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum and Wild Pilgrimage. Ward’s drawings have been, fairly, referred to as melodramatic, but in a sense this is a technical feature rather than an instance of heavy handedness. Ward essentially confronts the same limitations silent-film directors faced: the imperative of conveying narrative information by image alone. Ward goes a step further and eschews anything resembling the inter-titles used for exposition or dialogue in silent films. The heightened expressiveness of his drawings carries the narrative forward – indeed, without that very expressiveness, a narrative thread would be considerably more difficult to isolate. Spiegelman speaks to this issue in his remarks on Gods’ Man, noting “my struggle to decipher his narrative,” which “clarifies for me the secret locked in all wordless novels: the process of flipping pages back and forth, hunting for salient details and labeling them, shakes the words loose to yield meaning.”

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from God’s Man

Gods’ Man was Ward’s inauspiciously-timed debut: the book was released in the same week the stock market crashed, heralding the start of the Great Depression. It seems likely that the crash limited sales, but Gods’ Man still sold twenty-thousand copies in its first four years. Subtlety isn’t the order of the day in Ward’s first book, but Gods’ Man is all the more thrilling for it. The pact between the artist and the mysterious stranger who provides him with a magical brush is bluntly Faustian, and the images stark and dense with black. Spiegelman notes Ward’s missteps in Gods’ Man, his still-developing command of pictorial composition in particular, but the sheer force of the climactic moments here is enough to warrant repeat viewings.

Madman’s Drum is a swirling, sometimes puzzling follow-up, 118 plates dedicated to the ambition of not only carrying a sustained narrative through, but providing rich and nuanced backgrounds for a number of characters. The relative success of this venture will vary from viewer to viewer. Even Spiegelman professes some difficulty in decoding Ward’s implications on occasion. This is less troubling than it might seem. The compensations Ward offers in lieu of absolute narrative clarity are unavailable in the traditional novel. Somehow a finely wrought sentence in the service of a murky or underwritten narrative doesn’t offer the same jolt as a rich, puzzling visual.

 

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from Madman’s Drum

And, as we follow Ward’s evolution as a visual novelist, these issues of clarity grow less pressing. By the time of Vertigo, he has settled on a lighter, more open style, one which seems not to suggest the nearness of the world’s end. Spiegelman calls it “as emblematic as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, as ambitiously experimental as Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy, as apocalyptic as Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust.” Ward himself notes that, “During the thirties there were very few people, whether artists or not, who could remain uninvolved, either on a direct personal level or indirectly as human beings of conscience. Vertigo is Ward’s response to the weight of that era’s events. The title, Ward writes, “was meant to suggest that the illogic of what we saw happening all around us in the thirties was enough to set the mind spinning through space and the emotions hurtling from great hope to the depths of despair. Vertigo follows three characters – The Girl, The Elderly Gentleman, and The Boy – through the first six years of the Depression. Their separate stories naturally intertwine (it’s worth spending time with the images to see how, so I won’t give that away), but the book is plaintive and searching and deeply human.

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from Vertigo

Interest in Ward has understandably grown with the continued rise of the graphic novel. There’s a documentary from 217 Films, O Brother Man: The Art and Life of Lynd Ward. Those particularly drawn to Ward might be interested to learn that Rutgers University owns a complete set of woodblocks used in the making of Ward’s masterwork Vertigo. But whether you’re inclined to push further or not, his Six Novels in Woodcuts are a worthy addition to any library, one which, even opened idly, midstream, offers genuinely arresting moments each and every time.

 

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff

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Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff

Nowhere in his elegant biography of Thomas Hart Benton does Justin Wolff mention F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life. Neither does he indicate whether Benton agreed with Fitzgerald, though given his own fortunes, it seems likely the painter would concede that second acts are not guaranteed. Wolff doesn’t advocate for a Benton revival. He concedes early on that his attraction to Benton’s work was belated, and his responses – he found Benton’s work “entertaining” – fell short of the intensity generated by the works of artists he had admired longer. He does challenge regionalism as a useful category. Freeing Benton from the associations attached to that movement could open his work to a larger view, but on this count Wolff offers more of a lament than a call to action.

Benton’s father was a U.S. Senator from Missouri. His mother took on social pretensions while living in Washington. She imagined her son, the artist, would add a touch of sophistication to the family name. Benton tested their patience, his father’s especially, with his gradual progress toward a style which was identifiably his own. Wolff’s account of Benton’s early struggles, his trying on and casting off of the various fads of the day, is more engaging than it should be. His account of how Benton came to the theory and application of color in his work is deliberate and sophisticated. He also demonstrates that the various approaches Benton experimented with were so at odds with his character, which Wolff draws in fine detail, that whether one cares for Benton’s style or not, it feels authentic to him as a man by the time he arrives at it in the 1920s. Woolf fortifies this sense of Benton’s sensibility with details such as his “preparatory drawings on ordinary paper stained with his own tobacco spit.”

From today’s vantage point, it’s difficult to imagine Benton as a pre-eminent American artist, but that’s precisely the degree of esteem he held in the 1930s. He had already painted Boomtown in 1928, a work depicting the sudden excess of a 1920s Texas town during an oil boom. The work Wolff, asserts, is Benton’s true beginning because it was his earliest work which still sparks controversy. The painting was (and is) either fun “and Benton a heroic slayer of pretense,” or “fraudulent.” Wolff finally points out that the critic Karal Ann Marling sums the painting up as “neither absurd mythology nor unpretentious documentary; it’s a bit of both.” Other, larger projects followed, including the murals which made him famous, works like America Today and A Social History of the State of Missouri. They are alive with the densely muscled figures which were Benton’s trademark and his very particular sense of color, which seems always vital and mythic, somehow part of a different reality than the one around us, even when Benton portrays historic events.

During the same period Benton intensified his feud with the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, and made remarks about homosexuality which still undermine his reputation. As early as 1931, he claimed to have left a post at the Kansas City Art Institute because the school had become a “homosexual center.” He questioned the usefulness and necessity of museums and gallery owners, a peculiar stance for an artist. “Do you want to know what’s the matter with the art business in America?” he asked a group of reporters gathered for an April 1941 exhibition of his work. “It’s the third sex and the museums,” he opined, adding that museums were “run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists and a swing in his gait.” He would do away with museums entirely, he continued, a remark which fell in line with his belief that art should serve a practical function, that it should be embedded in daily life. But the hateful tenor of the commentary as a whole obscured any practical message he might have delivered.

His relationship with Jackson Pollock, which is often portrayed as fraught, gets a fair hearing from Wolff. He notes that Benton and his wife helped all of the Pollock brothers, and that Benton never really turned his back on his most famous pupil. He characterized Pollock as “an extraordinary natural colorist,” and declared “considerable satisfaction with Jack’s final success.“ Benton’s real quarrel, Wolff concludes, was with what he saw as the shortcomings of abstract forms rather than Pollock in particular. Wolff attributes Pollock’s destruction of early paintings he did in Benton’s style to a larger rejection of representational methods than a targeted attack on Benton’s individual sensibility. “The truth,” Wolff concludes, “is that they loved each other too much to let their divergent aesthetic philosophies ruin their mutual admiration.”

Wolff’s ambivalence toward Benton is apt. His analysis of the artist’s work is dispassionate but it shows tremendous clarity. Benton has admirable moments and traits, in spite of his querulousness and intractability. Wolff shows us the aged Benton at work on a mural for Harry Truman’s Presidential Library, toiling through “terrible bursitis in his back and shoulder, which required cortisone injections,” an expense of effort which left him so spent at day’s end that guards had to pick him up off the floor. The most intriguing question Wolff poses is what might have been if Benton had taken a path like Pollock’s, rather than what would have happened if Pollock had continued following his teacher’s lead. “Imagine, for example,” Wolff writes, “an abstract Benton painting; see the push and pull of his dynamic bumps and hollows, and see his vibrant, swirling colors and the anxious, tentative gestures he makes in the process of abandoning representational forms.” Instead we end with Benton heading to his studio to sign the last mural he painted, for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. He died before he could apply that final stroke, but it would not have altered his legacy, which was already firmly established, something even a work as fine as Wolff’s book is unlikely to change.  

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.