Remembering Charles Bowden, 1945–2014
The December 1996 issue of Harper’s had just come out and within days, I received an unprecedented cluster of phone calls about one article. The anticensorship lawyer Burt Joseph and photographers Lynn Davis and Sally Mann each called to say that I had to read a devastating piece by a journalist named Charles Bowden. Bowden had focused on a group of young, unknown, Weegee-like Mexican photographers, risking their lives in Juárez to confront and combat corruption (including in the government and police forces), narcotraficantes, and the exploitation and murder of women. “It’s your kind of story,” the three of them said—and they were correct. Along with exceptional reporting on an issue most turned away from, it also placed front and center photography’s sometimes singular, searing ability to insist that attention must be paid.
Chuck was prescient, as always. It was years before Juárez as a place and as an issue would be covered regularly, before it would enter into the public eye, and he was remarkably courageous—physically, and in terms of his at-times unpopular convictions. And he was bilingual, understanding both words and images and how they may brush up against each other, sometimes realizing a power together that neither might have otherwise achieved alone.
His article resonated with urgency. I wanted to do a book with him and these photographers immediately, so I called him up. Fortunately, his number was listed in Tucson, Arizona, where the contributor’s bio indicated he lived. His signature sonorous voice at the other end of the line—deep, gravelly, yet kind of laid-back—said something along the lines of: “I was waiting for your kind to call.” He was wary at first. He knew of Aperture, but didn’t see this as a typical Aperture book. I reassured him we could do it fearlessly and with integrity, then sent him what turned out to be our ace in the hole: Eugene Richards’s Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (Aperture, 1994). This blew his mind. It convinced him that Aperture had the chops to make a book with him on Juárez.
Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future (Aperture, 1998) includes photographs by Javier Aguilar, Jaime Bailleres, Gabriel Cardona, Julián Cardona, Alfredo Carrillo, Raúl Lodoza, Jaime Murrieta, Miguel Perea, Margarita Reyes, Ernesto Rodríguez, Manuel Sáenz, Lucio Soria Espino, and Aurelio Suárez Núñez, as well as a preface by Noam Chomsky and an afterword by Eduardo Galeano. It happened because Patrick Lannan and the Lannan Foundation also had a vision and came in as an instant supporter and advocate. It is one of the more brutal and raw subjects I’ve ever worked on. It is also one of the books I’ve edited that matters most. Chuck’s honesty and passion as a mission-driven, willful, open-minded, and brilliant investigative journalist, combined with his free-spirited pleasure in defying givens, was an exhilarating provocation to take a stand, to make a difference. Along with this, his certainty that images and words could coexist with parity—that one did not have to illustrate or be subservient to the other—made him an extraordinary collaborator and ally. Juárez, at the time, was one of the few books Aperture had ever done where the images and the text carried equal weight, and together drove the narrative. It presented a great challenge to me and to its designer, Wendy Byrne. Chuck’s mind was constantly racing in so many directions, drawing on such a breadth of knowledge and experience, conversations always kept me on my toes—which was an incredible tonic. He was viscerally, uncompromisingly awake.
When, in 1999, Michael Hoffman, Yolanda Cuomo, and I were working on the reconceptualization and redesign of Aperture magazine, Chuck was my pen pal and coconspirator, having been a magazine editor himself with strong opinions. A few days after he saw the first issue of the “new” Aperture in 2000, an unsolicited, “rough promotional manifesto” for the reconceived magazine appeared in my inbox.
“The camera may lie, cheat, and steal,” he wrote, “but it never has to stay home. Let’s team the fresh eyes with the best writing and let them play like musicians in an after hours club. Let’s have harmony, dissonance. Let’s improvise. Let’s have no rules or schools or borders. Let’s take the white gloves off. Let’s be happy, let’s be riveted, let’s be sad, let’s be the ocean blue, and let’s be alive to what light and film can do to our souls.”
To say Chuck was prolific is the understatement of the centuries. He wrote tirelessly and relentlessly; there were always projects. But along with his books and magazine articles, he offered, with typical generosity, to lend a hand in getting the word out about Aperture’s new iteration. We were thrilled!
In the twelve years that I was the editor of Aperture, I commissioned eight articles by Chuck. Or really, I had a couple of ideas, and he had multiple. Woven through all of his pieces were sensuous considerations of time, life, death, love, and beauty, and the extraordinary wonder in being.
You can read two of these articles here. One, “The Other Life of Photographs”, I asked him to write for Aperture magazine’s fiftieth anniversary in 2002; the other, “The Lives of the Saints”, he sent to me in 2011 to have my way with.
When Yolanda Cuomo first met Chuck, she called him a cowboy: tall, in blue jeans, longish hair, rugged, sun-baked. A friend of his I knew called him “walking testosterone.” He was charismatic in that Sam Shepard sort of way, but not macho. And he was exceptionally kind, supportive, talkative, private, and the person you’d definitely want in your lifeboat. Conversations might engage ideas, ranging from the border to corruption to the death penalty, to humming- and other birds, a beloved tortoise, a cherished dog, Hoyt Axton, red wine, a new recipe, night-blooming cactus, long desert walks, and his dear friend and partner in crime, Edward Abbey.
Chuck was a dreamer, a visionary, a sensualist, a doer, a lover, an intense and luminous individual with an inimitable voice and an unrivaled social conscience. He had no patience for conformity, no interest in power except to effect change. He often wrote of an “is-ness”—a word that I’ve stolen several times. I took that to mean a kind of presentness and in-the-worldness that made everything vital and electric. And that was Chuck.
“Look,” said Chuck, “you have a gift, life is precious, and eventually you die. All you are going to have to show for it is your work, and whether you did a good job or not.”
Chuck Bowden died in his sleep on Saturday, August 30, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where he lived with his partner, Molly Molloy. He was sixty-nine. The loss of his voice, his presence, his originality, his mind, his heart, and his friendship is immeasurable. As a friend of his wrote of Chuck’s last moments, “I hope he heard the birds singing.”
—Melissa Harris, September 9, 2014