Saturday, October 4, 2008

The World from My Front Porch by Larry Towell



I am always amazed to learn of photographers who don't make photos of their home life along with whatever else they consider worthy subjects. Photography for them is something that is turned on and off and requires leaving either home or country to accomplish. There are photographers who are collectors of everything, and those who selectively work on specific projects and do not turn the camera elsewhere. I find this is a common attitude coming from students and most have trouble if asked to expose five rolls shot within their house or of their family -- they would happily make photos of strangers but wouldn't necessarily think to describe the person they say 'I love you' to everyday. The cliche 'Home is where the heart is' doesn't seem to play for many photographers -- home is where the lens cap stays on.

Just judging from the books of Larry Towell you might imagine that he is never home but off shooting in a warzone, or living with other families rather than his own. The World from My Front Porch belies that impression and brings a wealth of his personal photographs of family and home in a handsome new book just published by Chris Boot and the Archive of Modern Conflict.

The World from My Front Porch is more than a selection of images of home but a full-on family album with an extended history of the farm Towell and his family have lived on in Canada. Towell's farm sits on land once owned by land surveyor Samuel Smith in the early 1800s and this album is littered with photographs of objects that give a full presence of Smith's history. Photo album pages from Towell's ancestry run head-on into a section of his own work photographing his family.

In my opinion, Towell's best work is The Mennonites published by Phaidon in 1999. This work in Front Porch sits in close relation being more about the everyday observations than a news event. It is also a book about the outside influences that shape our lives. For Towell's family it is country living and the legacy of generations of families who worked the land and built what they needed instead of simply consuming. They seem to be more interested in communing with nature and being healthy stewards of the land around them.

As a book this is a remarkable accomplishment. Again I have to point out that Stuart Smith of Smith design is behind the look and feel. A puffy cover (with fabric corners and spine) and the heavy mate paper that has a nice texture for the historical pages are all fine choices.

Throughout the book Towell lends his writing, and for those who have not read his work, he is as good with the pen as he is with a camera. The back third is spent examining Towell's work done away from home by way of magazine spreads (presented as objects with a drop shadow), paper ephemera, and objects collected on his journeys, including tear gas canisters, a child's slingshot, and door handles from Palestinian homes destroyed by Israelis. Like the surveyor's chain in the beginning of the book that belonged to Samuel Smith, Towell assembles these artifacts that are both historical and meaningful, and beautiful in their own right.

Chris Boot proves to be one of the more interesting publishers of contemporary photobooks -- The World From My Front Porch is yet another shining example.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Jeff,

As always, you instantly reach the point - the so-called worthy projects vs the mundane, the banal.
Obviously, there is something much more attractive in that photography made close to the front porch. It oftens says so much more than the "serious" body of work. Better than that, it gives clues about the talent and the humanity of the photographer (as we talk about a Magnum guy, there are some names among his fellows who couldn't be considered seriously if we could have a look at their private photos...).

Having said that, and even though I am touched by Towell's vision on his family, I am still taken aback by the photographer's gesture. Sorry, but the man seems to count on his usual tricks, the same ones he uses on the fields. You know, the B&W, the depth of field and the layers of action, the decisive moment... Even when the frame seems uncertain, there is a mastery.
I must apologize for my poor English, but what I'm trying to express is my frustration in front of a work I would like to accept without reservations, a work that moves me but leads me nowhere further. The fact is just that the language Towell uses is too predictable, or too interchangeable to bring us to higher emotional peaks.

Kindest regards,
SL

a mind with no ceiling said...

I find the above comment very true. Style is often an under-discussed issue (although not on this blog) when sometimes the same boredom occurs with the "art photography" than with the overwhelming flow of pictures we receive daily.
If you speak with people less familiar with the medium they often have this B&W, wide-angle, frameful-of-action Magnum style in mind when they think about art photography -showing maybe that's it's become a standard- and to some it has lost some of its strength, also because it relies so heavily on the visual athletics of the photographer. Just a sign: it might be a publisher's choice but look how big his name is written on the cover compared to the title?

Stuart Alexander said...

To SL anonymous and 'a mind with...',

I understand your point about a lack of apparent difference in the 'style' of the pictures. But this never changes. Every period has its 'styles' that its practitioners struggle with. A photographer imposes his or her style by sheer obstinacy. Avedon was not the first nor the last photographer to shoot his subjects on seamless with a view camera, yet we usually can tell which portrait was made by Avedon.
Larry Towell sees his family and his world in a particular way and we have to try to understand why. Or not. If the 'style' seems interchangeable with Gilles Peress or Nikos Economopoulos or anyone else then we need to ask ourselves why, or not. If it does not 'speak' to you, that's fine, move on to the next.

To "a mind with...",

If someone is going to do a book about their family and their own world, I would expect their name to be the largest thing on the cover. I do not see how that could be indicative of any kind of 'style' I would find on the inside of the covers.

a mind with no ceiling said...

A precision on that title thing: I wasn't saying it would indicate a photographic style, just a potential infatuation of the author (but again, it's probably a publisher's choice to attract attention—fair enough).
I'm French so forgive my expression which is sometimes confusing.
Greg

Anonymous said...

@ Stuart,
Si tu es bien le Stuart Alexander que je connaissais dans le fin fond du XIVème, je découvre quelques-uns de tes posts sur ce blog. Il me semble que tu as pris de l'assurance depuis cette époque...
Content de savoir que tu vas mieux, mais un peu navré de te voir si autoritaire.
(Certaines choses se comprennent mieux avec du recul).
Philippe

Anonymous said...

To Philippe Anon,

Non, j'etais aussi con a cette epoque-la.
Apres tout, t'es Philippe qui?

Stuart Alexander said...

Sorry, that last note was me. In haste I forgot to add my name.

Anonymous said...

Je ne l'aurais pas dit comme ça, mais c'est vrai.

Stuart Alexander said...

Anonymous,
If you were a gentleman you would tell us who you are and communicate in the language of this site which is English.