Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Vagabond by Gaylord Oscar Herron

When a photobook enthusiast thinks of Oklahoma, Larry Clark's Tulsa naturally springs to mind. His photographs of his amphetamine fuelled friends living fast and dying young are hard to ignore - especially for 1971 - but a lesser known book was published in Tulsa a few years later that follows thoughtfully in those footsteps of rebellious spirit. Vagabond by Gaylord Oscar Herron is an artist book in semi-autobiographical mode containing photographs, paintings, prose and drawings from another unsettled youth from the Midwest.

Framing the book around passages from Genesis 4: 1-16 and the story of Cain and Abel, Herron dedicates the book to Cain (and to Bill Rabon, another Tulsa artist). Herron seems torn between the roots of his family in Oklahoma and his desire, perhaps like Cain, to wander the earth. Much space is given to heartfelt love and respect for the older generations and traditions while balancing a need to see himself as separate, critical and different. This is a book that is partially about the growing divide between younger and older generations and how Herron's view of the stewardship of the world spurs his rebellion.

Mine is a generation of Cain...A restless generation of sleeping gypsies...Vagabonds of the spirit with an aged lion as a shield.
Mine is a generation lost in the land of Nod...Nuclear children who inherited Cain and who just now begin to wake from a dream.
Mine is a generation between the silent womanhood of Eve, and the woman who begins to understand she's been carrying Cain and his mark in her womb, delivering him painfully again and again, to a God-damning world created by men who thought they were doing the right thing.
Her anger reflects the enmity between her gift and what she's been given in return.
Mine is a generation between children seen and children loudly heard.
Their anger reflects as well the enmity between their gift and what they've been given in return.
Mine is a generation that disposed of God and replaced him with nuclear energy and the temptation to clone.
Mine is a generation of vagabonds, who just now begin to wake from the dream.
Mine is a generation poised on the threshold of losing the mark of Cain.

Interestingly, war figures into Herron's narrative but not the obvious conflict of Vietnam. Herron served as an MP in Korea in the early 1960's spending a lot of time on R&R in nearby Japan. As a boy, war shaped some of his early memories.

When I was three, I remember being called outside to see the soft Tulsa sky being sliced by an armada of growling prop planes.
East to West, ace-hole to elbow, like maddened locusts, they covered half the yard in menacing high-speed shadow; I watched bewildered.
"Where are they going?" I asked.
"To the war," said my mother...
"To Hirohito's house," said my father.

Herron weaves his personal history through disparate photographs of different formats and other media that challenge the traditional photobook. This book sits comfortably next to Clark's Tulsa and Teenage Lust and Danny Seymour's A Loud Song in that respect with their unabashedly playful designs mixing text and image. (At one point, the content of Vagabond is tenuously wed to Clark's Teenage Lust as Herron photographs in the same prison in McAlester, Oklahoma where Clark would later serve time the same year this book was published.) More than those other titles, Vagabond is not easily identifiable as a photobook with its covers depicting reproductions of Herron's paintings. The title and author credit appear only on the spine.

Published by Penumbra in 1975, Vagabond was printed by Sidney Rapoport in New York who was a well known printer who developed a process called Stonetone printing. His press was responsible for printing the 1969 edition of The Americans, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, the Diane Arbus monograph, Looking at Photographs and others.

For as much as I like the book Tulsa for its honest portrayal of a dangerous and marginal lifestyle, I equally like Herron's tone of a marginal character expressing acceptance of himself, his history and his place within a world where the familiar and strange sit in close relation.

Book Available Here (Vagabond)