Book Review Gardening at Night By Cig Harvey Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter Some years ago I saw Nan Goldin speak to an audience of over 200 Italians in Rome. Near the beginning of the talk, she questioned the mostly non-native English speakers, “Do you believe photography is truth?” Not receiving much of a reply from the attentive, but bewildered watchers, she asked again, “Really… everyone believes that photography is truth?” Still no answer.
Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter
Gardening at Night
Photographs by Cig Harvey
Schilt Publishing, 2015. 144 pp., 6x8¼x¾".
Some years ago I saw Nan Goldin speak to an audience of over 200 Italians in Rome. Near the beginning of the talk, she questioned the mostly non-native English speakers, “Do you believe photography is truth?” Not receiving much of a reply from the attentive, but bewildered watchers, she asked again, “Really… everyone believes that photography is truth?” Still no answer. The lack of response was likely because of Goldin’s intimidating approach, the lack appropriate venue for debate or the mere language issue, but her challenge to the notion of photography as truth or, at the least, as an accurate representation of the moment contained within the frame has remained with me in my exploration of photography. Many theorists and academics have debated the photograph’s place as a factual document, and this lowly book review will not venture into the disputes about whether there is truth in photography, but I will recognize and admire its capacity to tell the story of one person’s life through a series of real and staged images. Cig Harvey has an uncanny ability to use photographs to create a sincere, romantic and down-to-earth visual autobiography. Her first monograph You Look at Me Like an Emergency and her more recent photobook Gardening at Night share her story and her truth.
Gardening at Night follows the story established in the first book, a story of a young, free-spirited woman who finds love with a man and later realizes the depth of devotion with the birth of her daughter, Scout. This new book, or chapter in Harvey’s life, begins with this text: “She was thirty years old and living in the city.” The girl in the city becomes the mother in the woods, displaced by her child as the center of the universe. The visual narrative is paced by Harvey’s words. The large, printed san serif typeface is interspersed with handwritten segments that draw emphasis to certain statements and create a pause for the eyes and heart. Harvey’s words focus on familial relationships with her husband, daughter and mother and visual representations of the joys and trials of life fill the pages: pomegranate seeds bleed across a wooden table while a child’s hand rests on the furniture’s edge; fresh cut lavender-colored ranunculus wrapped in brown paper lay on the floor; a small girl wrapped in a fuzzy pink jacket grasps a worn wooden horse outside on a snowy Maine winter’s day. The plates entice and lead with alluring reds, purples and pale white.
Harvey connects the images by color and themes. Her seasons change, not linearly, but with the complexity of life. Our lifetimes may be linear but we experience moments associated the with seasons throughout different stages of life: coldness in our youth and freshness in old age. The dusky blue endpapers displaying stars in the night sky open with the beginning date in the autumn, October 2010, and the book close with summer, July 2011. The bookended dates reinforce Harvey’s ability to see newness in all seasons, rejecting the idea life simply moves from the growth and rebirth of spring to deadness and restfulness of winter.
Cig Harvey’s photography and life are not compartmentalized. Her life is her work and her work is her life. The emotions evoked by her books are universal: We love, we fear, we experience loss, loneliness, and euphoria. Her story is very personal and specific, but her tale is one of authentic experience, offering emotions that resonate with all who are open the joyous and colorful Gardening at Night. Whether the photographs display momentary glances into her daily life or staged scenes, they tell the story of what, to Harvey, is real and true. —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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