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Book Review: The Tenuous Stem


Book Review The Tenuous Stem By Janet Russek Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson Sunlight, this is the thread that undeniably links the five sections — Fruits and Vegetables, Flowers, Pregnancy, Dolls, and Memory — of Russek’s The Tenuous Stem. For all the photographs in the collection Russek used the natural light of her home in New Mexico. It’s a tenuous connection.

The Tenuous Stem. By Janet Russek.
Radius Books, 2013.
 
The Tenuous Stem
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

The Tenuous Stem
Photographs by Janet Russek
$55.00
Radius Books, 2013. 176 pp., 100 duotone illustrations, 9x10".


Sunlight, this is the thread that undeniably links the five sections — Fruits and Vegetables, Flowers, Pregnancy, Dolls, and Memory — of Russek’s The Tenuous Stem. For all the photographs in the collection Russek used the natural light of her home in New Mexico. It’s a tenuous connection. In shading, light, and contrast these photos stand as sisters, but the linkage doesn’t extend to the subject matter of the five sections of her book.

I enjoyed the first two sections immensely, touched by their soft handling of nature and still life. Fruits and Vegetables is followed nicely by Flowers, but then the book takes a more and more noticeable departure from theme. The third section, Pregnancy, wants to find a place next to the previous two with its attention on the female form, but when Dolls is encountered a certain splintering occurs. We break from natural form and delve into the man-made and the movement from the flesh in Pregnancy to the flesh mimicked in Dolls is difficult to accept.

The Tenuous Stem. By Janet Russek. Radius Books, 2013.
The Tenuous Stem. By Janet Russek. Radius Books, 2013.

In Dolls we find, well, dolls and then in Memory we encounter a variety of miscellaneous objects: curtains, a shaving kit, a chess set etc. It is a difficult move to make gracefully, that is, the move from the luminous and almost always tasteful world of nature to the harder, more imitative world of the manmade. The compositions in the latter sections are every bit as admirable as the proceeding ones, but the separation is too much. The Tenuous Stem would have gained a good deal by being divided into two and possibly three collections (with Pregnancy standing alone).

The Tenuous Stem. By Janet Russek. Radius Books, 2013.

Another drawback to The Tenuous Stem is the inclusion of many quotations that represent various voices from Henry Miller to Eric Clapton. The drawback is that one wants these quotes to speak to the pictures that they accompany, but this isn’t achieved nor does it seem a concern. Their inclusion, and they appear throughout with seemingly no regularity or ordinance, feels unnecessary least future generations are looking for a reading (and listening) guide to the life of Janet Russek.

The Tenuous Stem. By Janet Russek. Radius Books, 2013.

Still, The Tenuous Stem has so much to admire. Judy Chicago’s brief essay Why Dolls, found in the back of the book, is a nice little piece. The production of the book is what one expects from Radius; the pages are high quality and glossy, leaving Russek’s photos radiant. Its assembly, the excellent dust jacket design, page layout, and additional texts, have been well selected and manufactured. Fruits and Vegetables and Flowers are two elegant series of photos and their power, their luminosity, doesn’t quickly dissolve. Standing alone the rest of Stem is good, but gets overshadowed by the elegance of nature‘s inherently tasteful forms.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON

CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is originally from Madison Wisconsin. He came to Santa Fe in 2002 and graduated from the College of Santa Fe majoring in English with an emphasis in poetry. He is a freelance writer and reporter.

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