The recent reissue of Larry Sultan’s brilliant Pictures from Home (Mack), substantially reworked and redesigned from the 1992 original, made me think about narrative and the photo book. Sultan’s photographs of his parents, suffused with affection and anxiety, are intercut with home-movie stills, snapshots, publicity photos, and texts from the point of view of everybody involved. It’s a revealing, richly detailed family portrait, a memoir with pictures – and a model of photographic storytelling. That model has changed radically in the years since Pictures from Home first appeared. As photographs have become more subjective, more allusive, narrative has splintered or dissolved, going off on tangents – moody, poetic, open-ended. In the wrong hands, this approach can be maddeningly self-indulgent. But a smart, sensitive photographer – Alec Soth, Justine Kurland, Katy Grannan, and, just recently, Sam Contis – knows how to balance substance and mystery, document and atmosphere. They’re not telling a story; they’re illuminating a life, a place, a world, and inviting us to experience it through their eyes.
Although she also presents plenty of scene-setting background, that’s what photographer Phyllis B. Dooney does in Gravity Is Stronger Here (Kehrer), a book with prose poems by Jardine Libaire instead of captions. Feeling rootless, Dooney, a self-described Connecticut Yankee, set off in search of America and ended up in Greenville, Mississippi, a Delta town on the skids. She might have kept on moving, but one night in a karaoke bar, she saw a boyish, magnetic 18 year old named Halea Brown rap to an Eminem song and was hooked. She photographed Brown, who calls herself $uperdike, and her extended family off and on for the next five years; Libaire incorporates their voices into her poems. In an introduction, Dooney writes that her position as a regular visitor gave her a certain freedom: “as an outsider, true, but more importantly as a vulnerable journeyer and inquisitive guest who gets to embrace the larger truth of just being mammals together.” The result is a book with a sure sense of place, full of casual beauty and startling intimacy. But a family with a history of neglect, abuse, and addiction can’t escape the cycle of what Dooney calls “hope and hopelessness” – a syndrome she suggests is the American Condition these days. The book’s title is partly explained by a quote that crops up in one of Libaire’s texts: describing the collapse from an overdose, one character says, “All of a sudden – there was so much gravity.” The colloquial vividness of the voices here is matched by the pictures, which seem at once tossed-off and flawless, whether the subject is a field of cotton, a pan full of crawfish, or two girls on a mattress, lit only by the sun through some broken blinds.
Jesús Monterde’s Nemini Parco (RM) gives the reader far less context and virtually no background information. The book, which opens and closes with full-bleed images of blazing fire (cue the brimstone), has no captions, no dates, and only a brief text at the end explaining that the title means “I forgive no one” – the words one can expect to hear when the Reaper stakes his claim. Death hovers throughout the book and Monterde confronts it with relish, hitting a series of intensely operatic notes but also sounding everyday alarms: a flight of bats, a slaughtered calf, a mangled limb, a cat chewing on a coil of animal innards. Apparently, the photographs were taken in rural Spain, at family farms, among the poor and faithful, and much of the drama here seems inspired by Goya, El Greco, and the bloodiest religious art. It’s italicized, relentless, and cathartic. Monterde isn’t looking for forgiveness; he’s fighting furiously for what’s left of life.