A couple months after our publication of John Gossage's A Dozen Failures, we talked with John about that title, some of his previous projects, and the history of photobooks running from Atget to Evans and Frank to Baltz and up to today. The conversation was edited into “A Walking Conversation with John Gossage,” for SPOT magazine, published by the Houston Center for Photography.
And that failures book he talks about? You can get your own copy here.
I’d always thought of the title of William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest as a sort of mischevious redundancy. Left to its own devices, a forest is a model of democracy, and it can hardly be otherwise. It takes human intervention in the form of monoculture to strip the diversity from the woods, making them more easily exploitable but less able to survive in a challenging environment on their own. In its recent and weighty Steidl expansion, Eggleston’s forest has suffered just such an intrusion. And to similarly ill effect.
My copy of Beauty in Photography is pretty heavily underlined throughout, and nowhere more than in the title essay. But with all the marks and margin notes I’ve made, there is only one instance of double underlining:
Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering without meaning.
There’s much to unpack in that short Q and A.
Books are fun. Music is fun. People are fun (lots). Pictures are fun. Lists are fun. This past year was fun, for the most part.
Here are a few things that gave me hope in 2015.
Somewhere around the end of last summer, I posted a photograph on Facebook. It was a rather unknown black and white photograph by the late Saul Leiter of his sister Deborah. It was made in 1947. I posted it after writer and lecturer Jörg Colberg had written a piece on his blog about the “gestures” of photography. “The age of innocence is long over in photography,” Colberg writes.“There have been way too many photographs made for anyone to be able to innocently take a picture anywhere.”
So when I posted the photograph of Deborah on Facebook, I wrote: “Let's pretend there still is some innocence to it. Let's pretend it can be somewhat pure, even though it probably never was – not even in 1947.”
I remember writing these words, from the play In the Park by Edgar Oliver, in my notebook immediately after I saw him perform the piece last summer:
Longing is the only magic of which we are capable
I remember how I felt when I heard the first few lines of Edgar’s play:
I am a hesitant man. It seems to me that I have spent my life half lost in some rapturous dream I dreamt as a child from which I have never awakened. Perhaps I don’t want to wake up. If I woke – I think I would find that I have failed to live. I think that I died as a child. Well – some part of me stopped. But some part of me kept going. I keep on wandering.
I remember when some part of me stopped. At least, I sort of remember.
Judy Fiskin says that Walker Evans succeeded where his FSA boss Roy Stryker failed "because Evans settled for art. Stryker succumbed to the false promise of photography, strove to represent literally the world’s profusion, and inevitably produced a body of work whose scope seems puny compared to its model." Evans worked in a "more condensed, allusive, and circular manner."
Flannery O'Connor calls it "distortion," and TS Eliot says that it's "pressure" that distinguishes art from experience, and creates a new thing in the world. And in fact, it's this artifice that, according to Michael Chabon, "makes explicit... the yearning... to analogize the world, and at the same time frankly emphasizes the limitations, the confines, of [our] ability to do so.”