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.