Shut my eyes because the music is so loud. Shut my eyes so I can recall what I just saw; so I can believe my eyes. I know this world. I can reference it with shut eyes though the pictures elect different references.
Landscape of big dogs, big melons, big-car longings and dreams big as distant capitols.
This landscape, it teems with cast iron frying pans, pitcher beer, bait, guns, yard ornaments, buttons in a jar, rough-planed walls, hair in brushes, riverworms, spirit-catching bottle trees, drunken wrecks, dangerous infidelities, chemical plants, paper mills, gourds, eels, mirrors chipping silver nitrate, floors scored from moving furniture, etc., etc.
You can see this world with shut eyes like a zeppelin sailing slowly across a screen or a flat iron taking off from the cooking stove of its own accord.
This landscape, its inhabitants, hew to used things, worn things, handmade things. Hew to objects loved by the maker even if shot full of holes by the maker's hand via the maker's eye: a riddled wooden deer made by hand to be a target, to be shot full of holes. Follow the wooden curve of this world.
Follow the copper light of this eye. Most of the time she photographs humankind. Formally, with the conventional blackdrop; environmentally, where she finds them, work or home, having a vision in their kitchen or picking okra in the field line, doing time. A kid pictured holding something wild and alive he caught barehanded. Some will stick their arms into a submerged log; take home whatever takes hold. Handfishing, in Louisiana.
Most of the time she photographs lives unattributed, mixed in with artist friends and photo-willing kin; otherwise, the unattributed, known only to their own friends and kin. Otherwise photographed only for purposes of identification: driver's license, mug shot, open coffin. Some without a graduation or wedding picture to their credit. People get sidelined. Her photographs tell you: this is an occasion, their occasion. And the occasion adds significance. Most subjects will rise.
An aunt and uncle drove on hundred and fifty miles for the Old State House opening in Little Rock, and checked into the Camelot Hotel. Deborah Luster and I had a joint show, The Lost Roads Project for which I was the curator and the eponymous Luster the commissioned photographer. Aunt Mildred parked herself, arms akimbo, before one of the two dozen large-format prints on the wall: a thin country man sits lightly on a log, his tattooed arm stretched toward the head of his dog, the man's artificial ear resting on his knee. "I know that man," declared my aunt. "He put a new roof on my house. He and his crew showed up commode-hugging drunk. I told them to get down from that roof, and he popped that ear off." Adding flatly, "It kind of stopped me cold. He did a nice job though." The picture stops the noise. The camera leans into it as the man's torso inclines toward the nose of his dog. An affectionate, slightly conspiratorial expression follows from the lined face down the sinew of the arm through the tips of the dirt-trimmed nails toward the head of the hunt dog. Then, what's that, on his knee, there, is that a human ear? O my maimed and rocky Ozarks.
Whether the subjects are missing body parts or stuck in the hoosegow, the semblance of normalcy persists. The strange is a given, and the aberrant not uncommon. One is reminded of Octavio Paz's 'In Mexico surrealism runs in the streets;' that's how it goes in Deborah Luster's sights, in Arkansas and farther on down the road. by the time Louisiana bows up like a gator, surreal is an understatement; weird drips from the trees. The light's sultriness rubs off on the subfuse of flesh, foliage, clothing. Tobacco-stained light. Spare-rib theology. A ludic tendency participates in all but the most sobering images. And in the most sobering images, one has to shut one's own eyes because the music is so loud; so one can believe one's own eyes. There is, grant you, also, a trashy streak.
In Oaxaca, in October, a roving band of gringas armed with cameras, gringas of all ages, all sizes, approaching the medium from every known direction. What Luster came home with, retablos, a few samples and many mental pictures. Knowing outright one could not enter in and snap up another land's juju, much less jump into the rhythm of another's culture aim and fire the disinterested machine. but, adopt the technique, a made-up version thereof, and summon one's own soul, open twenty-four hours. She could do that. She found a local metal plant back in Monroe, someone to cut the pieces. And she began to practice. Tricky, unwieldy, frustrating stuff - the metal, the emulsion, the paint. Her subjects were her own spirit-movers, and they were often shot holding something that tied them to her, her to them, and to their common geography. She knows their story, or a made-up version thereof. In effect, for Luster, no historia no photo.
Every portrait could be titled you. The countenance directs the attention rather than the light source. Though here appears a glow. The light picks a face. There is no negligible face, no negligible place. Composition is maximally concentrated: a girl in baptism clothes holding a shell, an eyeful of fold within fold; backed by a profusion of canna lilies and clouds which amplifies her solitary glory. The lens is honed by emotional realism. Shoot for core temperature. The choices endless, and thus, the decisions. Look for parallelisms, not symmetry. Follow the curve which she seems to prefer to sharp lines and hard turns.
She offers no theory, adheres to none; none stick back. She studies compulsively and applies in the particular, what works then and there. Pitched toward the celebratory against any of its contraries, especially recrimination. At a point in time when students of the populous field neither shoot nor develop, she refuses to avert an eye. The faces are there like the comforting glow of a neighbor's television. But they are looking back at her, looking back at everyone out there, daring the viewer to see them now. How the viewer sees them is the viewer's business. Ideally, the interpretations spread.
The truth be told, not a one of us will quit the human figure, not the face nor the bulbs of the fingers. Even if we do not like a picture taken, we are nonetheless apt to rivet before our own image - if only to be assured of our presence, including its very finality. Most of the time she takes the subjects out of the old lose-lose situations or infrequent win-wins and puts them in their finer, inner selves, where we are all enthroned, in our growing skins. If opposition is inevitable, her eye weighs against what would anneal or coarsen us. These pictures commemorate our wild youth, our unyielding decrepitude, and eventual manumission. They bring their own references.
She came to the art late; so she came on strong - live, eat, sleep photography. Thatagirl. There was already lodged that deep down need for articulation striking at multiple aptitudes. An inflection, an orientation, an aesthetic, if you must. An acquisitive love for the ever-changing surface, for texture. She always had presence. Now she had experience, already fully knowing it was not a new world. This has been done, and that has been done; each and every one is implicated, etc., etc., etc. The instrument fit.
The sensibility is integrative, but the fractured age could not swallow that, so she learned to coordinate - what she sees, what she feels, what she thinks.
Just looking around the photographer's studio of silver prints, dianas, tintypes, and mordançages, one notices Luster is not exactly programmed to do the same thing over. There might be just enough time to learn all of it, all one hundred and fifty-plus years of it, and frame her own contingent views.
In this picture is a magician, a haunted, hieratic face (with a somewhat perturbing skin condition); a reflective ball balances on a blanket, this happens and that happens, and how does he do that? Where exactly in Arkansas does he come from? The trick he dubbed the Zombie. There is just enough light, and she snatches it. 'Chance favors the prepared observer' said the well-rewarded scientist.
With prisoners, obviously, it is not the terrible deed on display. The view may glimpse the damage, but also its limits. We are still one, freeman and natural lifer, sentenced without chance of parole, in natural light. We are on of a kind. The photographer comes to prison as though the road from her house to the penitentiary were her personal kismet. She said she thought she could live on that stretch of road, from St. Francisville to Angola, and photograph there for the rest of her live. The inmates queue up; no, they swarm the improvised studio as if she were bringing ice to Macondo. And in a forcefully hidden world, this is one prison where the media has nearly reached saturation level. But this is their portrait and they are given a copy of every pose that comes out. The hard-bodied men sit down on the concrete floor of The Walk swapping pictures like schoolboys. Just like schoolboys. The new volunteers crowd in to sign their consent forms. They collect themselves, standing or sitting, and they unequivocally command the view. They move without a trace of self-consciousness through a series of poses. Some are much too young, in the longtimers' phrase 'too young to have a face on them,' and some have had colostomies, bypasses and lost every other tooth in their head. The men see themselves only in stainless steel; for some it is a genuine jolt. "Damn," whispers, the impressive, moon-faced man handed his envelope of contact prints, "I done got old."
This is Deano, handsome as the sun, smoke coming out of his nose, nineteen, father of two, just released from Transylvania. His hometown, less than twenty minutes away from the prisons' front gate, is distinct for being the last town in the country to get rotary phones. Deano's brother slowly exits the convenience store to give directions to the house, a dollar bill pinned to the front of his t-shirt. Today is his birthday, and it's customary, folding money pinned to the clothing. Deano's house is barely standing, not anywhere near level. What's that gospel song, it's hard to stumble when you're on your knees. A nightclub finishes its burn across the street while a knot of skinny little kids run shrieking through the hydrant. Second club to burn in a week. A young guard from Transylvania ambles over from his house to Deano's to see his pictures. It's all one economy: guard, inmate, guard, inmate, guard. Four dollars an hour, four cents an hour. Even as it is, even as it was. The sultry light, the unremitting fecundity, the enstiflement.
Near Baton Rouge, beyond uglified miles of chemical plants and refineries known locally as Cancer Alley, the women prisoners wait their turn in front of the camera, filling the benches; stretched out on the floor of the breezeway, talking quietly and smoking hand-rolled tobacco. They share hand mirrors, combs, and even the stuffed animal with which they want to be photographed. A pink bunny is fondly passed down the waiting line.
The boy with the lizard is named Jeremy. He is so tuned to the outside, his parents retrieve him from the backyard on any given morning, asleep in his pajamas. The boy with the firestick, Prometheus; that is his given name. The girl with the locust shells in her hair, Lila; she is learning to play the bassoon. Claire's long, white feet are the subject of one picture and her knee of another. The boy with the catfish head, the boy with the eel, the girl with the petrified cat, friend and neighbors. The girl in the starched white dress at the edge of the cotton field; Mrs. Sol with a brace of flowers crushed to her chest. She is the grandmother of the magician, and is reputed to have been the last person to see Sonny Boy Williamson alive. His extra-long arm pulled her by the frantic wrist out of the drink. Then he returned to his rooms above the auto shop, and sometime in the next seventy-two hours the virtuoso harp player with the uncertain birthdate, expired. Everytime she start to loving, whoo!/ she bring eyesight to the blind he sang in 1951. Mrs. Sol appeals from what feels most real, the interior of experience. She shuts us up. The ears believe other people, goes the proverb; the eyes believe themselves.
In a society of simulacra, ceaseless, venal onslaught of images, along comes the portrait photographer, rolling her burden of clunky, costly equipment across the parking lot, century's terminus, looking for the right spot to hang her blackdrop - over the void. Colandered light: Miss Lily's childhood house, brush burning, deer target, morning glories, an aged basket maker south of Hope, covering his mouth with his papery hand. Busy about what Jonathan Williams deemed 'getting extra from ordinary.'
Even with props - a conch shell, a living eel, big jar of tadpoles, artificial ear - ther is a sudden obliviousness to the shutter that says, did you take it yet? A medium that stops time cold, can yet deliver an aspect of immediacy, if the eye is quick and the finger quicker. Perhaps the Frenchman is right, photography is not an art, it's a magic. As a magic, it should not be made tame. Nor should the disconsolate specter wearing a necklace of humming-birds, nor the inmate's fey, flirting face, nor the kid with the snake head impaled on a knife, thrust at the viewer's face - be made tame and thus, nullified by our presumptuous stare. Miss Cotton's lazy eye takes up the whole room. Her purse goes everywhere she goes. It is not a prop, it is an appendage.
Like bringing ice to Macondo, and then the whole thing catches on - anyone can make ice, anyone can make a picture. Camera work is not a line for the faint-hearted, the overrespectful or the jaded. Injunctions shunt between the visual questions and examples of the visual record at deafening levels: no one has the right, not many have the means, and there is nothing new under the unforgiving sun. The world, including this backwater neck of the world, is awash with images. The technology has dissolved the technicians' own requirement for skill and invention. Anything the solitary photographer can painstakingly elicit in the trail-and-error darkroom, and possibly never successfully repeat. Photoshop can very likely enable any hack to do better, again and again; so why is she holed up toning with Ceylonese tea... Well, in this particular case because the houseguest hails from Sri Lanka formerly known as Ceylon. That gorgeous little girl that starched white dress standing in front of that Christly and beatly cotton field never looked more awesome that when stepped in tea. But you won't see her in those tones unless you host a friend from Sri Lanka for which the occasion stimulates the one-time-only effort. Again, Jonathan Williams: raising the common to grace, getting extra out of ordinary.
Nor will the prisoners likely see themselves on metal plates - but only on photographic paper, as is permitted them - and might therefore never fully grasp that these portraits are intended as keepsakes, that they be not 'buked and scorned and forgotten, but cherished and remembered. Living men and living women in natural light. We are still one; one of a kind.
Are they not each and every single one fetching. Is it not in part, because the one behind the camera, traded her own private life, time, money, personality, and talent, and commitment for their confidence.
And are they not fused in this moment, the photographer and the photographed, and the rest of us, mere viewers, sidelined, bereft of their intimacy, yet helpless not to return their gaze with a kind of existential hunger. And what if it is our loneliness after all she wants us to dwell on here. Luster's is an intensely intimate view. The viewer will not be able to move all the way in on this scene, for the viewer was not there. And the removal can of itself be sorely stressing. But the allure is grounded in intimacy, and the triangle is finally necessary to complete the view.
Physical, sensuous, geographic, the map of back roads in the face. She travels in one directions, south, inevitable destination for the eye. One hundred and forty-four thousand miles on the six-year-old vehicle loaded with equipment, crapped up with food wrappers, empty diet cola cans; stocked with CDs prepared for the trip by her husband: The Forever Fabulous Chicken Hawks, Kenny Brown, a Fat Possum sampler, Lomax's Angola Prison Blues, Leadbelly, Marcia Ball; Sonny Boy stopping his players in the middle of their action to tell them, "I want you to put it down like it is supposed to be." That's what she's shooting for.