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

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.

This is not about books, exactly

I’ve written before about Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia/Market Town photos. They’re at the heart of an ambitious and very human project, one that never fails to remind me what’s possible through unassuming, honest art. So many of us see and admire the results of his work on our monitors, but Mortram remains involved in the lives of the people he documents. The most notable instance of this is perhaps his effort on behalf of David.

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His life was likely unremarkable before a bicycle accident robbed him of his sight in middle age:

“David had been very active. Walking, cycling. My memories of him were his always cycling past me as I would walk into town. The summer before last the bag he was wearing over his shoulder had come loose, entangled in the front wheel of his bicycle and he had been thrown over the handlebars, face-first to the road, breaking his upper jaw and neck in two places. ‘I was choking on the blood,’ he told me.

‘In the ambulance they got a bucket and it poured out of my mouth… so much blood! I could still see then… right up until I fell into a coma.’

David was taken to the hospital; bones mended, wounds healed, but the obstruction of a feeding and air tube in his mouth prevented his being able to alert nurses or doctors that his sight had vanished for almost a week after awaking from the coma.”

Among the many changes David faced in the aftermath of the accident was a sudden inability to read. He’d been “an avid collector of books” but was left sightless, with absolutely no light perception. Mortram documented him for two years, and finally hit on an idea to help with this phase of David’s life. He set out to raise funds for an audio scanner, which would allow David to place printed material on the scanner and hear it converted to speech. The sum was relatively modest by crowd-funding standards: 3200 dollars. He posted David’s story and the specifics of what was needed to Hope Mob, and within days, people had contributed the needed funds. Now the scanner has arrived:

I’ve not read much this week for various reasons. There are piles of books in every room, some in front of me, others inescapable even from my peripheral vision. And there it is, that luxury: I can see them whenever I finally free up some time to read. I’m sorry if I said that badly, or if it sounds hokey or obvious. It won’t after reading David’s story.

– John McIntyre

* Jim Mortram’s work is only possible thanks to donations from people who believe what he’s doing is important. I do believe it’s work worth supporting; I’ve helped out in the past in whatever small ways I could. There’s no question that the money you give will be used judiciously. If you want to donate, the best way is to send funds to james.mortram@gmail.com, via Paypal.

Japan’s Modern Divide

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In Yasunari Kawabata’s masterpiece Snow Country, Shimamura, a man of leisure and, after a fashion, a scholar, pursues a love of Occidental dance, ballet in particular. Kawabata ascribes an “air of unreality” to Shimamura’s enthusiasm, and notes that, “A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world.” The Getty Museum’s exhibition, and accompanying book, Japan’s Modern Divide : The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto*, has an air of unreality about it as well. This is not a criticism. It’s more an inescapable fact, forced on the viewer by the passage of time in Hamaya’s case and, in Yamamoto’s case, a design feature, given his surrealist leanings.

It’s fitting that Hiroshi Hamaya should have responded strongly to Snow Country, and that he sought out what was for him, initally, a very unfamiliar world: the remote provinces of Japan, where he first came into contact with traditional customs all but lost to his home city, Tokyo. Hamaya’s work looks today, in a number of meaningful ways, like not just another country to residents of the United States but another world. So much of his output depicts pre-World War II Japan, already a very old culture with distinct traditions and an unshakable sense of pride. Couple that with the transfigurations Japan underwent during and after the war, and Hamaya’s images belong thoroughly to the mists.

Much of Hamaya’s early work presents deliberately-framed tableaus of street life in Tokyo. It doesn’t appear that his intent was to frame these subjects dishonestly, as much as he romanticized their circumstances. This tendency is particularly evident in images like Dignified Looking Beggar, Ginza, Tokyo, 1936. The man in the photo does have striking, high cheekbones and an upright bearing. His belongings are bound neatly in a series of cloth bags and fastened together with twine. But Hamaya’s imputation of dignity skirts the facts on the ground. In an essay on Hamaya, Jonathan M. Reynolds notes that, “Although this was an era of economic hardship and intense political tensions, there are surprisingly few signs of conflict in Hamaya’s freelance work of the 1930s. Many of Hamaya’s photos were destined for glossy pictorial magazines in which there would have been no place for gritty, muckraking journalism.” The aesthetic dimension alone is the strength of this and others among Hamaya’s early work. Indeed Hamaya’s presentation is almost cinematic, isolating moments of calm and strength in what were no doubt otherwise very difficult lives.

His disaffection with the haste of city life and what he saw as the fragmenting, or outright abandonment of those traditions, led him to the far northern reaches of the country, to Niigata Prefecture. He was inspired, in part, by Yasunari Kawabata’s classic novel, Snow Country (Yukiguni), in which Shimamura, a scholar and man of leisure from Tokyo, spends part of each winter in a remote, snow-covered region. At one point, he’s told that the previous winter, “The roads weren’t open until May, a month later than usual. You know the shop up at the ski grounds? An avalanche went through the second floor of it.” Hamaya traveled to an area with similarly unforgiving geography which, coupled with the severity of its winter weather, kept much intact, relatively impervious to progress.

I’ve had to come into the mountains to want to talk to people again,” Shimamura remarks, early in Kawabata’s novel. This isn’t literally true of Hiroshi Hamaya, at least not as far as we know. His desire to take pictures is a sort of corollary, however, and he did have to come into the mountains to find subjects he wanted to shoot after his disillusionment with Tokyo, and the vagaries of urban life. His timing – Hamaya first visited a remote coastal area on an assignment in 1939 – was perhaps fortuitous. Kawabata had written two years earlier of houses “built in the style of the old regime. No doubt they were there when provincial lords passed down this country road.”

The result, surprisingly, reflects Kotaro Iizawa’s insight that despite the fact Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto “appear to be at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum,” there is common ground in their work. Certainly Hamaya’s studies of provincial life are meant as a strain of ethnography, but there are also images so artfully framed that, for all but the subjects depicted, there is a truly surreal quality. His 1956 photo, Children Singing in a Snow Cave, Niigata Prefecture, is shot from outside what appears to be a child-height doorway. The scene inside is lit by candles and features a teacher and a group of three girls and two boys, lit by candles. There’s no indication they’re aware of Hamaya, and the little tableau seems complete enough to be a world of its own.

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A similar sense accompanies the shot of a line of boys, trekking through snowbound terrain (New Year’s Visit with Jiz0, Niigata Prefecture, 1940), the first of whom carries a Jizo Bodhisattva on his back. Hamaya’s choice to frame them closely works in much the same way as Children Singing, in that it reduces the world to their immediate stark surroundings and the endurance of their faith. Yet a similar shot, one taken from a distance ([Children] Singing as They Go, Drive Away Birds, 1940) produces this unreality as well, with the purity of the snow, marked only by a series of footprints, against the background, which loses most all of its detail to distance and darkness. These aren’t the sum of Hamaya’s work – his portraits are also on offer, as are his later influential aerial landscapes. His photos of protests in postwar Japan still feel urgent, perhaps because some of the concerns don’t belong as firmly to the past as we might expect, given the passage of time.

Perhaps Kansuke Yamamoto was more purely an artist than Hamaya. There are glimmers of Man Ray in some images of Yamamoto’s (Stapled Flesh, for instance), but a naïve streak in others, as with the crude illustration of a birdcage laid over the sprawl of what appears to be a suburb in Reminiscence, from 1953.

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There’s an uncanny sense of control to Yamamoto’s work. This may seem obvious given how deliberate the process behind the creation of these images surely was, but something more is at work here. Perhaps I’m responding to the confidence apparent in Yamamoto’s images, these odd hybrid products like Floating City, where he depicts a city within a sphere, hovering above what looks like the platform of an aircraft carrier…in what might be a bare desert landscape? There’s something ominous about Those Who Do Not Return, in light of its 1954 composition, such a short time after the war, and its depiction of what appears to be a dark smudge of hills, in back of low houses, blotted with smudges that, oddly, suggest the smoke of explosions, beneath a series of sharp, plunging lines from the sky overhead. 1970’s Magnifying Glass, Rendezvous is no more than a blank background, a single, meandering line and a model of an airline jet, sans livery, but it’s successful in the way images of its type seldom are: its cryptic composition appears to hold answers, though to what, it’s hard to say. And though the answers refuse to show themselves, it’s hard not to keep searching for them. My natural affinity is with Hamaya, but Yamamoto is a wonderful counterpoint, occasional overlap aside.

The curators here also acknowledge the value of including exemplary images by other photographers of the period, both Japanese and European. the presentation is thorough while still acknowledging the dangers inherent in the urge to the comprehensive; we get a distinct flavor of each man’s work, in Yamamoto’s case, reaching beyond his photography to include his poetry, translated here by John Solt:

Legend of a Buddhist Temple

a birdcage without a bird and

from a garden without a birdcage with a bird

countless sparks rise up

like a Hindu saint’s apocalypse

along the line of the white Coliseum

shaking the even more grotesque Colossus

sending a sign of the night’s festival

the body writhes like a hummingbird

leaning a cheek on the fingers of a heathen

giving a fierce numbness

Japan’s Modern Divide is an exciting presentation of work from two significant Japanese photographers. And for those of us who won’t have access to the Getty itself before the show closes, the accompanying book is a remarkable consolation prize.

– John McIntyre

* I regret to say that I haven’t had a chance to see the exhibition itself. If you’re in LA, the exhibition runs until August 25. If you’re not, the book is an uncommonly rich document.

Electric Tears and All Their Portent: Jim Mortram on, and with, Tilney1

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Jim Mortram is an honorable man. Don’t read that in the “Brutus is an honorable man” sense. I mean it in every good way; his work has integrity, and if giving voice to the voiceless doesn’t sound like reinventing the wheel, ask yourself, what about that wheel was so faulty in the first place? In fact I make this observation of Mortram’s honor after the BBC covered his Small Town Intertia project several months ago in its News in Pictures column. The treatment was serious and respectful. Mortram’s project has merit, was the takeaway. It’s vital and honest and worthy of our attention. True on all counts, I thought, and gratifying that the project should get exposure to a wider audience. The mistake I made was reading the comment thread at the end of the article.

How we revel in our skepticism, our conviction that we see through some scheme and won’t be among those fooled. Of course, it is a beneficial posture at times. The failing is the inability or unwillingness to temper that initial gut reaction with a bit of research. Among the comments in response to the BBC story were a number observing that Mortram was exploiting his subjects in some nebulous way, or that the project is solely about photography. I won’t quote these sentiments in full. They’re not worthy of the work they purport to critique, and they’re based on a willfully selective reading of Mortram’s aims.

Now, whether or not Jim Mortram is honorable has no bearing on the quality of his photographic output. He might be churlish or calculating and still produce striking, beautifully framed images. But in this case, the facts beyond the pictures themselves should be taken into account. Jim Mortram invests great time and spirit in chronicling the lives of the people in this project. He doesn’t pop in for a single session, snap off a few shots and choose the best of the lot. These are ongoing relationships, and Mortram not only renders them visually, but narratively as well. Thus far, he has leveraged these relationships into a small-scale print sale, in which he offered high quality prints of work – images from outside the Market Town/Small Town Inertia series – at very low prices. The sale was put on in the service of replacing a broken camera. The sheer greed.

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Now he has gone a step further and chosen images from the series for a his first book, Electric Tears and All Their Portent, from Café Royal Books*. Funny thing about that: the book was available in a limited edition of 150 copies, and those copies cost 5 pounds apiece. He took his 25 copies, signed them, sold them and gave the 300 pounds in proceeds to MIND, a mental health charity. If Mortram is exploiting his subjects, he’s not very good at it. What’s more, this project focuses on a poet and artist who works under the name Tilney1, and the finished work, though it rests most heavily on Mortram’s photos, also includes several pieces of collage and illustration work by Tilney1. “His canvasses instantly reminded me of the American painter Basquiat,” Mortram writes, “Coded, abstract narratives, words and the branding of memories.” Yes, Tilney1 must surely be outraged by this sort of attention, and by the riches Mortram is piling up.

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The book itself is the result of an ongoing relationship between Mortram and Tilney1, who suffers from Schizotypal and Obsessive Compulsive disorders as a result of traumatic experiences. These disorders have triggered memory loops, which prevent him from functioning at the level he would like to and, to judge by his work, the level he is capable of in his clearer moments. The cover shot is a candid portrait of Tilney1, taking a drag from a cigarette and looking somewhere out of frame. Mortram lets his image fill the frame, reducing the background to a light-colored section of wall behind shoulders and head and a layer of shadow lower in the shot. There’s no sign of discomfort with the camera in Tilney1’s posture, no sense that he’s puffed up or posing. If anything, he looks thoughtful. The next image, a drawing of his concerned with a “nothingness bubble”, reinforces that impression. It’s fragmented and tantalizing, so much so that even if the viewer can’t instantly make the visual and verbal elements connect, there remains a sense that something here is worth exploring. None of Mortam’s photos here present his subject as inept or pitiable, nor are they a plea for understanding. This is something other, an assertion of dignity, a statement that this man and his work are worth noticing and understanding.

Another image, in which Tilney1 stands before a window, its curtains flooded with light and bows his head, is overlaid with his words: “After years of living in bed nearly 24” in large, block letters, and a series of rings, filled with his handwriting. It’s a genuine collaboration between the two men, and it appears to refer to the ten lost years during which Tilney1 was incorrectly medicated,overmedicated and sectioned.

Mortram shows himself once again to be a great observer. The word is overused, but his eye is sharp and his instincts are, as ever, unfailingly sound. He doesn’t attempt to stuff this small book with as many images as possible. The photos chosen span two pages apiece, edge to edge. In this they honor their subject and give his life and efforts a scale he’s perhaps unaccustomed to being afforded. Electric Tears and All Their Portent is a long overdue document for Mortram – I suspect he could have chased down a book offer far sooner, and on far more lucrative terms – and perhaps even moreso for Tilney1. And that, more than anything else, justifies Jim Mortram’s ongoing work.

– John McIntyre

* I’m including only images specifically of the book. Much, much more is available at smalltowninertia.co.uk, and in Mortram’s portfolio at jamortram.co.uk

Caught in the Driftless

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Caught in the Driftless

In southwestern Wisconsin there is an area roughly one hundred and sixty miles long and seventy miles wide with unique features. Its rugged terrain differs from the rest of the state. The last of the Pleistocene glaciers did not trample through this area, and the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt – called drift – are missing. Hence its name, the Driftless Region. Singularly unrefined, it endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.

– David Rhodes, Driftless

Purely by coincidence, the years 2007 and 2008 brought a pair of sympathetic and accomplished books inspired by the Driftless region. The photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier’s book Driftless: Photographs from Iowa came first, and was recognized with the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography from Duke University, and is available from Duke University Press. The following year brought the first book in more than thirty years from the novelist David Rhodes. Also entitled Driftless, it was awarded the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and is available from Milkweed Editions. Rhodes limits his description of the region to southwestern Wisconsin, though it technically runs through parts of southeastern Minnesota, northern Iowa and northwest Illinois. Taken separately, as they were originally intended, each book startles with the degree of particular detail it contains, a set of gifts to rich they practically cry out for repeated viewings or readings. Taken together, it’s easy and perhaps natural to imagine one further illuminating the other, for the snowbound subjects of Frazier’s photos to stand in, however briefly, for Grahm and Cora Shotwell in Rhodes’s Driftless, chasing through the snow in search of their missing children, or for Rhodes’s July Mongtomery to add texture to one of Frazier’s sunburnt farmers. The Amish family Frazier photographed from the back glass of a passing car, walking single-file along the edge of a dirt road, might easily be Eli Yoder’s large, solemn brood, living in defiance of the times in Rhodes’s fictional Words, Wisconsin.

Danny Wilcox Frazier, the photographer Robert Frank observes in his Foreword, “makes me think that this ‘BOY’ has never gone away from home. Years of working, walking, photographing, carefully making notes, names, places.” This is not to suggest that Frazier’s first book is a collection of portraits of local people, or a catalogue of local landmarks. A great many of the photos here are the product of a sharp eye, honed to respond at an instant, whether from an unobtrusive spot at the margins or the midst of the action. A series of images from Jumping Rock, “a notorious party spot along the Iowa River”, thrive on unexpected angles. Frazier shows us a naked man, shot close-up, at waist level, apparently running forward, and a two-page spread of a diver, taken from above, an instant before he enters the water, which reaches far out in front of him in broad, gentle waves. Another features a cocky-looking young man with a cigarette between his lips, passing a can of Budweiser to Frazier’s disembodied hand, reaching into the frame from behind the camera. They’re unglamorous images, in that the locale is far from exotic and many of the bodies featured appear to be a sickly pale shade, yet Frazier captures a vitality, an unselfconscious joy in those moments.

He features migrant workers as well, picking vegetables in one remarkable shot taken between the leaves of a plant, throwing a cantaloupe across the open field in another and standing at the edge of a large wagon, piled high with watermelons in a third. There are hunters and fishermen, a woman giving birth, Veterans marching on Memorial Day and scenes from an Amish wedding.

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Frazier knows the region, the texture of daily life there, and recognizes the poetry of small, particular moments, whether peaceful, violent, joyous, or one in an endless string of small challenges. Frazier’s Driftless is a remarkable document, a record of a region he knows intimately and loves, in all weathers and lights. He does so in black and white, and never with more than two images to a single page, a decision which respects the level of detail in Frazier’s work. In a number of cases, he opts to feature a single image as a two-page spread. It’s a daring choice – several of the images look almost grainy at that size – but a rewarding one, in that it heightens the intensity of Frazier’s photos. A number of pages appear almost wholly saturated in black, throwing the lighter portions of the shots into sharper relief and creating drama and tension which otherwise would have been lacking. Driftless is a fine and authoritative beginning to Frazier’s career as a photographer, and he has already proven it was no fluke with his recent work on Detroit.

David Rhodes, on the other hand, turned to the Driftless in the process of restarting a long-stalled career. This was no simple case of writer’s block, or a long period of discouragement after producing poorly-received work. Between 1972 and 1975, Rhodes wrote three acclaimed novels, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, Easter House, and Rock Island Line. He wasn’t yet thirty when the novelist John Gardner praised him, and his work was compared to Sherwood Anderson’s. His first wife was pregnant around that time as well. He was, it must be said simply, enjoying a great run of successes. But in 1977, a motorcycle accident changed the course of his life. He came away with a broken back, and was paralyzed from the waist down. His marriage suffered, and ultimately failed. Rhodes bears no ill will toward his ex-wife for the outcome, he told Catholic magazine: “She married me as a whole person. But after the accident I was literally a shell of myself, and she made the right decision, did the right thing in getting away from me.” Writing presented its own set of problems, an experience Rhodes has confronted and made sense of in the years since. “I think serious physical injuries necessarily involve a hornet’s nest of psychological problems,” he’s said, “and at least for me it was hard to begin again where I’d left off.” With Driftless, he undeniably found his way back.

The book works the slippery ground between novel and linked stories. It’s probably closer to a novel, since the individual “stories”, despite having titles, tend to work more as chapters than discrete narratives. In truth, labeling it in these terms is unimportant. It’s more revealing to say that Driftless is a warm and largehearted book. Rhodes succeeds in the quiet, masterly way of writers like Richard Ford, weaving a powerful spell from the most ordinary stuff. He is patient, he plays his cards in their own time. The view Rhodes offers of Words, Wisconsin is panoramic, encompassing everything from Grahm and Cora Shotwell’s many, bewildering hardships, to the spiritual progress of Pastor Winnie Smith and the unexpected love that comes to Olivia Brasso. Rhodes builds all these figures and their journeys organically, though he does also have a knack for keeping the reader off balance, as when he surveys the audience at American Milk’s annual meeting: “Mostly old and middle-aged adults, dressed as though they were expecting to meet Dolly Parton, sat in groups of ten and twelve around circular cloth-covered tables.” He also evokes the region’s weather in stark particulars: “During the night, temperatures plunged to minus twenty and the air turned outer-space sterile, without a trace of color or smell.” And he is exceptional in writing about the aftermath of loss, as here, when Jacob Helm looks at pictures of his late wife:

Through her picture, he acknowledged that his present experiences were no longer fully endowed. His goals no longer called to him so loudly, and the sequenced paths leading to them were not nearly as well lit. He once knew how to move through the forest of mornings, afternoons, and evenings, following the trail of his desires without hesitating or looking up, the field upon which his expectations unfurled as clear as an unbroken sky. Now, he shared no mystery with anyone and the adventure had become a job.

The outline of Angela’s ankle above a brown oxford reminded Jacob that time itself had passed differently six years ago. Each minute had contained the possibility that an invisible door would soon open and Unmediated Truth stare back at them. Fully exposed, the gates of perfect understanding would open and he and Angela would fold into each other with a surrendered whimper.

Rhodes also lingers with his old friend July Montgomery, who has been with him since Rock Island Line, though in Driftless we encounter him for perhaps the final time. Despite having just made his acquaintance, I can say with confidence that it’s a loss to literature. But with or without him, Rhodes offers much to the reader – cause for laughter, reason to pause and reflect. There is an oddly touching moment in the novel when someone suggests that Rusty Smith should put his ill, aged pit bull to sleep, and Rusty asks, in earnest, “What kind of way to die is that?” Later, Winnie Smith, the pastor of Words Friends of Jesus Church, admits that she loves the Greeks, pagans though they were, because, “They understood how full of wonder life is.” As a young writer, David Rhodes was compared to Sherwood Anderson. No doubt Anderson would be at home with the proceedings in Rhodes’s comeback effort. Indeed there is a definite echo of Winesburg at times. But Driftless is ultimately David Rhodes’s show, a book of earthy, human wonders. It is a gratifying return from a writer still young enough that not only have we not seen the last (a new novel, a follow-up to Driftless entitled Jewelweed, is out this month), we may even not have seen his best yet.

– John McIntyre