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.
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.”
Mark Strand, the late Poet Laureate for the Library of Congress, once wrote about the passionate feelings engendered by family photographs, noting that, in contrast, "When confronted with images of the world, we are rarely stung into revisions and reassessments of ourselves in relation to it.”
If that statement were even close to true, neither you nor I would be here right now. May I suggest that in fact Strand describes precisely the reason that you and I and our like-minded friends commune: because we are so often stung into revisions an reassessments of ourselves in relation to the world by photographs of that world.
"[The photographer's eye is] a dreaming eye: quick to seize the instant in which the fortuitous dance of forms reveals the essential truth, the ineffable thusness of the object. Only in such moments can the photographer be said to have conquered his medium, as the poet conquers language, to have tricked light and shade into telling the truth which is beyond themselves (and the photographer, too)," wrote Michael Gregory in Aperture in 1961.
In a song called "Miles From our Home," Cowboy Junkies make the same assertion for life and love.
"Personal and historical associations, irrational attachments and affections, to take their place as legitimate elements of the aesthetic experience,” wrote Dr. L.A. Reid in "A Study in Aesthetics." Last summer, the exhibition of Justine Kurland's project "Sincere Auto Care" gave me an opportunity to embrace some loaded, automobile-related personal associations and attachments, rational or not. And then an experience with the artist herself upped the ante.