Most of the books that I have written about contain within their photographs an implied metaphor or meaning that provokes the viewer into different frames of mind. One of the pleasures in looking at work for me is to tease out these meanings that derive partly from the work and partly what my own history enables me to see in the work. There are other photographs that excite but with an innocence steeped in the purest pleasures of looking and examination of a subject clearly and interestingly described by an artist and camera. Larry E. McPherson’s The Cows published by Steidl is such a book that I enjoy for just these reasons.
In 1972, while early into a road trip, McPherson drove past a small herd of Guernsey cows near the
As McPherson mentions in his introduction titled City Boys; “…photography has the same power to catch what is at once strange and familiar.” For him, these photographs represent a celebration of “the pastoral experience of his youth” but do so aided by photography’s descriptive twisting of literal description. For that, McPherson is what is commonly referred to as a “photographer’s photographer.” In the best of these images we can see McPherson’s choice of where to stand and what to include in his frames informed by a person who has an understanding yet curiosity about constructing new and complex photographs of the “familiar.”
In the cover image, the world cooperated with McPherson to such a degree (from the cow’s posture to the position and slices of sunlight) it would have been very easy to make an image that failed to be more interesting than the subject itself. Instead, McPherson infuses simple gifts within his description that reveal themselves to those paying attention. A metal chain around the cow’s neck sets a highlighted outline of the curve its shoulder. His vantage point sets light against shadow and triangulates the frame with a tree to the right and a truck to the left. In another image with a comic undertone, three cows stare at another whose head seems to protrude from the wrong end of his body. (This image for me is the pastoral equivalent of one of Winogrand’s street corner observations).
In several of these photographs, it is the sleekness of line and the warmth of the light that draws the most attention from the viewer. McPherson, concentrating on the physicality of bodies, turns some of his subjects into heat-swollen bags spotted with flies where the pull of gravity defies movement. My experience with cows has always been one where they keep their distance but McPherson moves amongst his subjects as if he was one of the herd.
Shot on Kodachrome positive film the images translate into deep shadow areas and clear brilliantly rendered midtones and highlights. The book’s printing is exceptional in capturing the color characteristics and richness of that film while still holding the necessary detail.
This is a book that is physically large but short in length. With a large trim size of 12 by 15 inches, the photographs are reproduced at approximately 8.5 by 13 inches giving them a large presence on each page. With only 21 images in the sequence, our visit among these docile creatures is brief but by no means is the book skimpy.
McPherson begins his book with a quote by Albert Camus from L‘envers et ll‘endroit; “…a work of man is nothing else than this long journey to find again through the labyrinth of art the two or three simple and great images upon which, once, the heart first opened.” This was McPherson’s calling to the pasture and what he presents before us in this book. Anything more would have been superfluous and simply missed the point.