Book Review The Art of Ruin By Robert Stivers Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter A few years ago, I encountered a man outside of a darkroom. I was quietly sloshing away in the pitch-blackness illuminated by red light, using chemicals to fix the silver halides, developing, washing and fixing my image, and left the darkroom to see what had appeared, moving into the light like all silver gelatin printers do.
Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter
The Art of Ruin
Photographs by Robert Stivers
Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2015. 54 pp., 26 color illustrations, 16x20".
A few years ago, I encountered a man outside of a darkroom. I was quietly sloshing away in the pitch-blackness illuminated by red light, using chemicals to fix the silver halides, developing, washing and fixing my image, and left the darkroom to see what had appeared, moving into the light like all silver gelatin printers do. There stood Robert Stivers, gazing at a 16x20 inch toned image: a beautiful, close-up, warm-toned photograph of honeybees. He talked about how he would print it darker, lighter, or maybe color it with coffee or tea. He was inexact in his process, but the aesthetics of his photographs benefited from his freedom.
Robert Stivers’ prints are velvety, soft in focus and content. His books do not deviate far from the prints in size and print quality. His newest book The Art of Ruin was released this year by Twin Palms and it rivals his previous book Sestina in size, 16x20 inches and 11x14 inches, respectively. The size of this publication and the plates call for quiet and thoughtful observation.
Stivers’ book is grand in scale, but humble in content. The very detailed man’s hand on the cover beckons us to open it and Stivers’ narrative engages us through to the end. The sequencing of images in The Art of Ruin creates a relationship of form: the ball, followed by sunflower and then typewriter keys. The roundness burns into the mind, leaving a memory of shape in the eyes like the illusion created from staring at a shiny moon in the nighttime sky and then looking away. The slight pause as the page is turned often shows the previous page’s image on the left with the next spread’s image on the right. Images connect to other images and a page spread dialogues with the following page spread.
The photographer enters into the dark with blank paper, exposes the image and exits into the light to reveal moments, selected, or created. The photographer literally brings memories to light. The images in The Art of Ruin are beautiful to gaze upon, but I still feel a bit unnerved looking through the book. I am looking into his memories, peeking into his private most intimate moments, the stuff of dreams. They are the most quotidian of objects: a mirror, a shoe, a flute, a glove. Despite their utilitarian nature, they hide a history, objects as evidence of existence. Interspersed within the still lifes are portraits, the sitters unknown. In contrast to the objects, imaginably their possessions, they become the actors in a mythical tale of the everyday, told by Stivers’ photographs.
Stivers' created many of the works while recovering from illness and his appreciation for his surroundings is evident. The book is a tale, but take each image individually and they revel what we may take for granted everyday, each utilitarian object is admired in its oneness, its individuality and its form, nothing and everything happening all in a single photograph.—MELANIE MCWHORTER
Melanie McWhorter has managed photo-eye's Book Division for 16 years and is a regular contributor to the photo-eye Blog. She has been interviewed about photography in numerous print and online publications including PDN, The Picture Show and LayFlat, has judged the prestigious photography competitions Daylight Photo Awards and Fotografia: Fotofestival di Roma’s Book Prize, has reviewed portfolios at Fotografia, Photolucida, Review Santa Fe and PhotoNOLA, and taught and lectured at numerous venues.
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