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Photographers, Writers, and the American SceneReview - Photographers, Writers, and the American Scene
Visions of Passage
by James L. Enyeart
Arena Editions, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 1st 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 9)

Photographers, Writers, and the American Scene is a curious collection of photographs, short fiction and poems by a wide variety of fifty distinguished artists specifically invited to contribute their creations.  In his preface, Arthur Ollman calls it a symphony on the theme of American culture at the turning of the millennium.  The “composer” of this symphony is James Enyeart, director of the Center for Photographic Arts at the College of Santa Fe, and he provides a brief but somewhat helpful introduction to the book.  He says this project gives us an opportunity to redefine the term “documentary” but this is an overblown claim.  It’s hard to judge the success of the enterprise, but it’s reasonable clear that the photographs are far more successful than the written contributions, and as a whole, this collection has little coherence.  It’s far more interesting seen simply as a somewhat random anthology of excellent photographers commenting on American life.

Each photographer has a several pages, some more than others do.  Bruce Davidson shows various panoramic scenes in black and white; '"The New York Street," Las Vegas, 1997" unfolds on three pages, showing a bizarrely postmodern conjunction of buildings with throngs of tourists in the walkways.  Yet, the image surprisingly lacks a sense of ridicule or disgust, and instead suggests at most a wry smile at what passes for leisure at the end of the twentieth century.  Similarly, Marion Faller photographs the lengths Americans go in decorating their houses for holiday celebrations such as Christmas, Halloween, and Independence Day.  Her images are full of vibrant colors, but no people.  This may convey some sense of emptiness, but she is not poking fun at the people who have put so much effort into their creations.  William Christenberry finds great beauty in the slight decay of rural Alabama; 'Door and Wall, near Stewart, Alabama, 1999' show an old barn that was once painted a strong shade of turquoise, but now most of the paint has peeled off.  Sylvia Plachy shows people at odd or poignant moments, and Debbie Fleming Caffery has dark dramatic images of people, animals and things – a black and white picture of a well-used Holy Bible on a couch is especially powerful.  John Pfahl shows hills created by humans, made of toxic waste, trash, cans, and car parts.  Susan Meiselas shows women in New York City streets, going about their business, while Joan Myers creates large-scale black and white images of human creations in nature, such as 'Navajo Power Plant (Coal), Arizona, 1999.'  Shelby Lee Adams captures the humanity of people in rural Kentucky, with carefully posed black and white photographs.  Stephen Shore shows the news media reporting on events, highlighting the camera-people, the sound recorders, and the make-up artists, composing reality for the consumption of the public. 

It's hard to make any useful generalization about this collection of photographs, but it is a pleasure to browse through them.  They are thoughtful images, and they help the viewer reflect on the state of the USA.  One might even view them as important historical documents in the sense that they capture the nation at  the height of a period of economic prosperity, before fear of terrorism and a readiness to go to war became dominant.

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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