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Verene's photographs of some of his relatives and their friends
evoke powerful emotions. He explains in his introduction that
he loves his family and admires their strengths, and many of his
pictures bring this out. But at the same time, these photographs
are disturbing in the unsparing vision they give of modern America.
One of the most powerful pictures is on the cover; it comes with
the accompanying text, "My cousin Candi's wedding with her
two favorite customers from her job at The Sirloin Stockade."
The young bride and groom sit at their celebratory meal in their
wedding clothes in a restaurant. Their friends, dressed in western
clothes including cowboy hats, stand behind them. On the wall
in the background is a large framed Stars and Stripes. Verene
has carefully chosen this image to represent the moment, but I
wonder why, since the picture wonderfully captures so much of
what makes America seem disgusting to the rest of the world. The
food is on polystyrene plates; next to Candi's champagne glass
is a paper cup with a red, white, and blue "Bud Dry"
logo on the side. The centerpiece of artificial flowers is augmented
by sad glittery ornaments and tiny table balloons. The groom's
multicolored bow tie is askew, but he looks healthy and handsome
compared to his bride. Candi has a crooked smile and crooked teeth;
too much rouge on her chubby cheeks, and her eyes seem unfocussed;
maybe Verene caught her at a bad moment, or maybe Candi has a
neurological deficit. It's hard to tell; it could be that her
face is paralyzed on one side, which would explain the crookedness.
Her friends seem to be a couple, and the one on the viewer's left
seems to be wearing lipstick, and is wearing a shirt with images
of bright red flowers, so I suppose that this is the wife, although
her squarish metal rimmed spectacles are a little masculine. The
skinny and frail man on the viewer's right is wearing large spectacles
that seem to have a pink tint in the lenses and that take up about
a third of his face with his eyes located just below the top of
the plastic frames; it is not a flattering effect. I know I would
not ask Chris Verene to be my wedding photographer, since I'd
be worried that he would make me look like a freak too.
But it's not just that the photographer has put them in a bad
light. It's the facts revealed by the photograph. The tuxedo suit
and wedding dress probably cost quite a lot, whether they were
bought or rented. The bride and groom must have paid to have had
their hair done, and someone must have paid a fair amount for
the meal. What's striking is that these people have taken such
trouble to look so awful, and they have chosen to have their wedding
feast at a place with polystyrene dinner wear and fake wood-effect
wallpaper. What were they thinking? Didn't they have any conception
of how it makes their lives look like crap?
Possibly they were enjoying themselves and they were not as judgmental
as I am. But they do not look like they were having much fun,
and it looks like they were trying to emulate the luxuries that
they see on TV and in advertising pull-outs in the Sunday newspaper.
It's not really to do with poverty; they could have spent the
same amount of money and had a very different sort of wedding.
Maybe it's a cultural thing: this is a white-trash wedding, and
here I am, a middle-class professor, poking fun at someone else's
life. I certainly don't understand "big hair," glittery
press-on fingernails, or velvet Elvis paintings, or at least,
I can't see why other people want them, since they just look ugly
or stupid to me. Maybe I should retreat to a relativism of taste,
and say that different things please different people. But I don't
want to give up my judgments, and what's more, I don't think that
Verene wants his viewers to simply say that it takes all sorts
to make up the world. It's pretty clear that Verene in some ways
shares my judgment of the sorry celebration at Candi's wedding.
The most direct evidence that Verene also is judgmental is his
inclusion of a few pages of his grandmother's unpublished autobiography,
and his statement that she is the most powerful influence on his
work. Eleanor Verene writes about her experience as a teacher,
how children today have no respect for their teachers, and how
terrible it is that there are gangs and violence in schools now.
In her view, the modern world is in a sorry state, and Verene's
images say the same thing, in a different way.
The other main reason for thinking that Verene is not able just
to join in with his relative's lives and celebrate them is the
pictures themselves. Despite his love for his family and their
friends, he makes several of them look like characters from an
early David Lynch work, Twin Peaks or
Verene has exhibited his work in galleries across the country,
and he is surely fluent in the language of modern iconography.
He knows exactly what he is doing in portraying these people as
he does, and he makes little effort to reduce the judgments that
the viewers of his pictures are likely to have; in fact, he seems
to try to heighten that effect. That's what makes his work some
of the most powerful social commentary and visual art I have seen
in recent years.
To be sure, many of his pictures portray their subjects in a sympathetic
light. There is a series of photographs of Verene's cousin Steve,
just after his wife had left him. In the first, Steve and one
of his little daughters sit in a fast food restaurant; the girl
looks sad, while Steve seems in a world of his own. Then Steve
no longer was able to see his girls, and in the next picture he
sits forlornly in a recliner chair at Christmas, with his Aunt
Doris. But a few pages on, Steve is alone, looking angrier and
weirder, especially in "Steve and the hubcaps," where
Steve his handling one of three red hubcaps hanging from ropes
on a child's swing in the back yard. It's not clear what he is
doing - maybe he has just spray painted them and left them to
hang to dry - but Steve looks like he is now a loner, wasting
his attention on his car or playing secret games with the red
metallic circles. Steve looks like a total loser. Whatever sympathy
the viewer had for him in the earlier photographs is now gone.
Verene has more sympathy for the young and the old. One series
features a neighbor boy Travis, whose mother can't look after
him. In one, "Meeting Mom's new boyfriend," Travis lies
on the carpet, while his mom and the boyfriend watch TV from opposite
ends of a large couch. The boyfriend, out of focus, wearing a
baseball cap and his left arm at an awkward angle behind him on
the couch, seems to want nothing to do with Travis. Travis looks
bored and unhappy.
Another of my favorite images is of Verene's friend Rozie and
her friend Don. "Rozie and Don were friends in the old Galesburg
Mental Research Hospital. Now they both live on their own."
In the photograph, Rozie, resplendent in an oversized Christmas
sweatshirt with a scarf on her head so low is almost covers her
eyes, is laughing. Don looks less happy. In the background are
buildings that look disused. Don wears on his jacket a button
saying "Target HEART Galesburg." My conclusion is that
Target may love the money it makes, but it is not doing anything
for Rozie and Don.
I could happily give my interpretation of every picture here,
but I've made my point. There's a tension in these images that
I love: there's no reason to doubt that Verene loves his family,
but he looks at their lives and the pictures he takes show that
he hates something in what he sees. He is not necessarily placing
any blame but his images speak for themselves. The United States
may be the richest most powerful country in the world, but many
of its citizens lead impoverished mangled lives. Capitalism and
freedom may be helping them in some ways, but they are still struggling
to get by, and they seem to be losing touch with something important.
Maybe it's a matter of values, community, or a sense of location.
Maybe they have become selfish, and so they hurt other people
without even noticing. Whatever the diagnosis of the problem,
many of Verene's photographs convey an overwhelming sense of emptiness
in the heartland of America. Yet at the same time, Verene's affection
and love for his friends and relatives also comes through in some
of his pictures, maybe despite, or more likely because of their
difficult circumstances and adoption of bizarre culture. It's
his ability to convey both a feeling of warmth for his subjects
and a sense of their alienation that makes him a great photographer.
Publisher's web page for Chris Verene.
© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks
on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.