January 9th, 2015
Aperture Magazine Live at the National Arts Club: the Lit Issue
On Tuesday night at the National Arts Club in New York, Aperture magazine hosted three photographers who appear in the Winter 2014 “Lit.” issue of Aperture magazine—Gus Powell, Erica Baum, and Moyra Davey—as each gave a presentation on how photography harnesses the tools of language and literature in their own work. The “Lit.” issue itself was born out of a conversation with contributor David Campany about Flaubert’s influence on Walker Evans, which became Campany’s essay that appears in the magazine.
Similarly, Powell described his book The Lonely Ones, also featured in the issue, as a kind of cover album of the original 1942 book of drawings by William Steig. (The original impulse to photograph everyday scenes, too, came out of a kind of cover project of Frank O’Hara’s book Lunch Poems, as Powell experimented with photographs on his lunch break.) To him, its most compelling image was that of a ripped-up letter at a mailbox, subtitled, “Change of heart.” “Somehow, it completely gripped me,” Powell said. Like Steig, Powell said he wanted a “delivery system” that delayed the pathos or humor of an image for added effect, and so he added captions in the vein of Steig’s, but accentuated them with gatefold pages that revealed photographs underneath. “I miss you” describes a man stretching on a sunny boardwalk; “I do this on the side,” says a yellow school bus stranded in a tawny desert; “A change of heart” reveals a woman standing across the street from a mailbox.
Baum spoke about her Card Catalogue series of photographs, which zero in on the quiet, outdated modes of organizing libraries with typed or handwritten categories. Like Powell, she deploys ample humor in her work; a typewritten note on a folder in one photograph reads “Apparitions.” Of another series, Dog Ear, she explained how she composes poetic fragments out of page folds. “The material was jammed,” she said of her method, in which she reassembles the words of writers like Clarice Lispector. “It all feels like it’s talking about this process,” she added. In her Naked Eye series, she photographs the slices of images between the warped and painted pages of softcover books. “I’m trying to give you the feeling of a person in their own thoughts,” she said, noting, like Powell, how this series makes use of the delay or pause between seeing and understanding, a device perhaps more natural in literature than photography.
Davey, whose work appears on the “Lit.” issue cover, spoke of her series in which she photographed details of written materials from the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, her daughter Mary Shelley, and Mary Shelley’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and clustered together the close-ups of their letters and first editions, mailed and dotted with colored tape as in much of her work. In exhibition, she placed these alongside her own early photographs taken when she was the same age as the young Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont in the featured letters. That project, she explained, led to her series Subway Writers, images of people writing on the New York subway, who she saw on her way to the New York Public Library. A writer herself, Davey’s work often skirts the literary, revealing books, passages, and her own words as narration in her video work. One image, of a book she tore in half, she revealed to have actually been inspired by an editor: “They saw my cut-up books and said, ‘You have to photograph them.'”