PHOTOBOOK REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND WRITE-UPS
ALONG WITH THE LATEST PHOTO-EYE NEWS

Social Media

Book Review: Lead Kindly Light


Book Review Lead Kindly Light Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah Bryan Reviewed by Blake Andrews Scavenging has always been a close cousin of photography. Whereas other art forms can create new works from scratch, photography depends on pre-existing material. Straight photographers glean from the visual world. Studio photographers pull from manipulated subjects. Even photographers who don't create original exposures — who simply shuffle and re-appropriate — rely on existing images for their raw material.

Lead Kindly Light. Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah Bryan.
Dust-to-Digital, 2015.
 
Lead Kindly Light
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Lead Kindly Light: Pre-War Music and Photographs from the American South 
Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah Bryan
Dust-to-Digital, 2015. In English. 176 pp., 156 color illustrations. Two audio CDs., 6½x8½x½".


Scavenging has always been a close cousin of photography. Whereas other art forms can create new works from scratch, photography depends on pre-existing material. Straight photographers glean from the visual world. Studio photographers pull from manipulated subjects. Even photographers who don't create original exposures — who simply shuffle and re-appropriate — rely on existing images for their raw material.

In the recent decades this last category has seen a surge of interest. New material must be unearthed, and the rush is on to find and recontextualize existing photographs. To scavenge, in other words. The most accessible mother lode is the Internet. It supplies a steady cache of material, but much of the good stuff can't be found online. It's trapped in the physical ephemera of estate sales, warehouses, and unlabeled garage bins. It's up to amateur archivists to track it down, fueled by the scent of first discovery, a finders-keepers element, and a nostalgic yearning for sheer physicality.

Lead Kindly Light. Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah BryanDust-to-Digital, 2015.

Record collectors — the phrase milk crate stirs their blood — have been keyed into this world for decades. Mid-century collectors like John Fahey unearthed magnificent records through sheer grunt work, cold-calling on door after door in the South. In the photo world, his rough equivalent might be someone like Robert Jackson or Thomas Walther, digging through reams of old photographs to scavenge together world-class collections.

Lead Kindly Light. Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah BryanDust-to-Digital, 2015.

If photo collecting and record collecting share common traits, the recent book Lead, Kindly Light (the title taken from a 1833 hymn by John Henry Newman) is the first to solidify the link in a publication. Sarah Bryan and Peter Honig, a married couple from North Carolina, are each long time collectors. He collects records. She collects photographs. The book reproduces a selection from each, 159 photographs in a book with two CDs of 46 songs. The source material for both is the pre-War South and Appalachia.

"Everyone who appears in this collection — everyone singing or playing an instrument on the recordings, or working, dancing, or pretending to talk on the telephone in the pictures — was once alive," writes Sarah Bryan in the introduction, activating the book's channel to the past. "By transitory acts of making music into sound-gathering devices, and standing in front of light-gathering devices, they created objects that would survive them."

Lead Kindly Light. Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah BryanDust-to-Digital, 2015.

The book's unspoken implication is that one should view the photographs while listening to the music. I tried this and they go together quite well. I also tried browsing the book while listening to music from The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, The Platina, Nas, and the latest from Boogarins. All were a good match. Which is to say, I believe the photo-viewing part of the brain and the music-appreciating part of the brain are so distinct that just about any combination can mesh without too much gear-grinding. But I admit this is a preliminary hypothesis based on a highly selective data set. I haven't yet tried with, for example, Ron Jude's Lago and its accompanying CD. Or any of the soon-to-be published photobooks that I'm guessing will follow suit.

Lead Kindly Light. Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah BryanDust-to-Digital, 2015.

There's a theory — articulated by Christopher Rauschenberg among others — that every photograph will become more interesting in 50 years. And Lead, Kindly Light seems to affirm this. The photographs rivet the reader by revealing a strange past. They're interesting because they're exotic. But I can't help wondering if that's the only way they rivet. From perspective of technique or craftsmanship they don't show much creativity or inspiration. The best ones are the happy accidents, the light leaks, serendipitous folds and juxtapositions that can convert any photo to magic. But as pure captures they don't possess the gotcha moments of, say, Robert Jackson's collections. If they are more or less common snapshots, ironically that's what gives them energy, for an unvarnished glimpse can be more revealing than a polished one. Walker Evans built that aphorism into a career. That said, some of these would've perhaps been better left in the milk crate.

I think the same could be said about the musical selections, all of which come from a relatively narrow time period leading up and into the early years of The Great Depression. They are fascinating as rare artifacts and windows into a lost musical world. And in consideration of recent financial events, maybe there are lessons buried within. But after listing to a half hour of scratchy fiddle jigs, I'm not sure more will be very edifying. But that's me. I'm a child of the modern world, with the attention span of an ant. Sincere fans of old-time string bands will be more fully rewarded, but that may be a small demographic.

Lead Kindly Light. Edited by Peter Honig and Sarah BryanDust-to-Digital, 2015.

Despite the misgivings above, this is a very enjoyable collection, and one that's obviously a labor of love. The collections represented here were years in the making, and their reproductions are as close as possible to the originals. The production, layout, and annotation is fantastic, with white cloth cover, clever CD folds in front and back, and detailed musical captions. My only gripe about the layout is the occasional use of full-bleed spreads, which needlessly destroy the illusion of thumbing through old prints. They jolt the reader back into book-reading mode, making it hard to immerse in the pleasure of scavenging. But perhaps that feeling fails easy reproduction.—BLAKE ANDREWS

Purchase Book

BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

Read more book reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment