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Book Review: Hesitating Beauty

Hesitating Beauty. Photographs by Joshua Lutz.
Schilt Publishing, 2012.
Hesitating Beauty
Reviewed by George Slade

Hesitating Beauty
Photographs by Joshua Lutz.
Schilt Publishing, 2012. Hardbound. 96 pp., illustrated throughout, 6x9".


I seldom spend much time looking at endpapers. They are typically about as interesting as theater lobby carpets. But Claudia Christen's design for the spaces opening and closing Joshua Lutz's new book prompted a lot of thought. They show one very conventional photograph, of a smiling, young woman in a red floral-print dress holding a container overflowing with white flowering vine; this image, recalling a garden party or some other al fresco event, has all the hallmarks of early 1960s orthodoxy. However, on the endpapers it has been multiplied perhaps two dozen times, refracted and distorted in bug-eye fashion; the attractive dark-haired woman appears, at times, inexplicably headless, or with her feet, a dark cloud, or a building emerging from her neck.

Without overwhelming the remaining contents of the book, the endpapers advance the argument Lutz (and Christen, acknowledged co-editor as well as designer) have contrived in this fascinating portrait of mental disturbance within social normalcy, in the emerging suburban context that valued conformity and feared its betrayal. The design also calls the authenticity of images into account; was there a bug-eye filter one could use back in the day? Or is this a contemporary, Photoshop manipulation, a designer's trick, brought to bear on an archival fugitive?

Hesitating Beauty, by Joshua Lutz. Published by Schilt Publishing, 2012.

A teasing realness suffuses Hesitating Beauty. That auburn-beehived, much-multiplied figure of the endpapers looms as a central figure, starting with the formal portrait on the front cover. She is of unspecific but youthful age, in a fashionable dress with a pearly necklace—perhaps a college yearbook photo. Her lips partially open and eyes mostly closed, as though caught between expressions, or in some fleeting rapture. But why would anyone have kept this picture, with all its marks of failure, unless there was some foreknowledge of mania, some omen-filled sense that this attractive woman might betray the superficial promise of her looks?

Hesitating Beauty, by Joshua Lutz. Published by Schilt Publishing, 2012.
Hesitating Beauty, by Joshua Lutz. Published by Schilt Publishing, 2012.

One close-up image of a wrist encircled with medical labels—"FALL RISK," "Haldol"—reveals a name. Jinne Lutz, born May 24, 1947. So, a major clue; we could well be witnessing the photographer's mother in a descent from normalcy to something else, a state disconnected from the "real" world. The photographs, both pre-Joshua and post, support the alienation as well, for the most part—there are some visions, like those endpapers, which seem a little too good to be true. The sign of the demon, 666, on the back door of a crashed bus. Road signs devoid of information. Tree trunks with suspiciously anthropomorphic formations, coming alive as we stare. Nature comes alive for readers as it may have, in unsettling, inassimilable ways, for Jinne.

Hesitating Beauty, by Joshua Lutz. Published by Schilt Publishing, 2012.

Not unlike Christian Patterson's "factive" book (or is that "docu-fictional"?) Redheaded Peckerwood, Lutz's book draws us in with enough credibility to sustain belief, then spins us around with seeming tangents and time shifts by introducing contemporary beauties whose own psychological foundations may be no firmer than the mother-figure Jinne's. There is an unnervingly cinematic quality—Hitchcock, Buñuel, perhaps—and surprising punch to this modestly scaled publication. How sane are any of us? How close are we to the edge? Ultimately, how much can we trust what we see?—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He can be found on-line at http://rephotographica-slade.blogspot.com/

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