Book Review The Home Front By Kenneth Graves Reviewed by Adam Bell As a formative moment in the lives of American Baby Boomers, the Vietnam-era has been endlessly paraded in popular visual culture for decades — hippies, Flower Power, rock concerts, protests, political scandals and assassinations. Given the well-trod visual record of the mid-60s to early-70s, it’s rare to find photographic work that offers a fresh and unique perspective of the turbulent era.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
The Home Front
Photographs by Kenneth Graves
Mack, London, England, 2015. 80 pp., 45 black and white illustrations, 9x6¾".
As a formative moment in the lives of American Baby Boomers, the Vietnam-era has been endlessly paraded in popular visual culture for decades — hippies, Flower Power, rock concerts, protests, political scandals and assassinations. Given the well-trod visual record of the mid-60s to early-70s, it’s rare to find photographic work that offers a fresh and unique perspective of the turbulent era. Focusing on city streets, public fairgrounds, and suburban cul-de-sacs, Kenneth Graves’ The Home Front offers a humorous and playful look at San Francisco during the war. Eschewing the expected, Graves reveals moments of absurdity, pointed sociological detail and whimsical formal delights. Brilliantly designed to resemble a dossier or report, the manila Swiss-bound book is an absurdist sociological missive — part Garry Winogrand and part Eugene Ionesco.
From the cover image of two men frozen and bewildered on an empty sidewalk to the closing image of a couple, whose heads are cut off by the kitchen cabinets, kissing over an empty array of dinner ware, Graves delights in the absurdities of the banal. Men and women are caught wearing silly costumes or contorted in odd poses. Legs jut inwards from outside the frame or up from behind beds, and heads peer in through windows or emerge from the foreground. While there is humor and oddity in the moments Graves captures, he steers clear of simple or mean-spirited visual puns. Instead, he is sympathetic observer who highlights our common frailty, solitude and anxieties. Continually directing our eye to poignant and absurd tableaux, Graves’ dynamic framing gives a sense that theatrics surround and circle us daily.
Yet beneath the absurdity, there is a lingering anxiety. Like Tod Papageorge’s American Sports, 1970: or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam, the book offers a pointed look at America society and the simmering political climate in the late 60s and early 70s. Although he enlisted in the Navy as a young man, Graves was no hippie and does not wear his politics on his sleeve. He would likely bristle at the moniker of a ‘concerned photographer,’ but his work exudes a subtle politics that both celebrates and critiques what he sees and captures. Over the course of Grave’s work from the mid-60s to 70s, the Vietnam War expanded into Cambodia and Laos. All the while, the American bodies kept coming home. Simmering below the surface, the war played out at home. Men in uniform stand silent and sullen, bearing the burden of their obligation both at home and abroad, while others simply carry on, raising their children or going to the county fair. In the opening image, we see Graves’ daughter or that of one of his peers standing in a corner and measuring herself with a ruler that bears Graves’ name. In another, a man leans back to watch a trapeze act in the distance. His balding head is thrust in our face. These moments of levity are balanced with more poignant ones like that of a legless man, likely a veteran, who peers into a military themed arcade game named Texas Ranger Gatling Gun. Gazing intently through the viewfinder, he shoots down his imaginary enemies again and again.
Measuring approximately 9x7 inches, the horizontal book is arranged with either two horizontal images a spread, one stacked on top of the other, or a single vertical extending across the gutter. Surprisingly, this unusual design works and allows for unique formal and contentual juxtapositions between the top and bottom images. The modest sized book also suits the material nicely and invites intimate viewing. Accompanying Graves’ images are two texts, a short, but sweet essay by Sandra Phillips from SFMoMA and a detailed timeline from 1963 to 1974, roughly the years covered in the book. Hidden under the front cover flap, the timeline outlines the turbulent events that defined the era from the Vietnam War and Watergate to Woodstock and Mohammed Ali’s victorious fight against George Foreman in Zaire, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.”
At a quick glance, Graves’ work resembles much of the work made in the late 60s and early 70s. Inspired in equal measure by Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, Graves took measure of his time and locale and reported back the visual news with wit and sardonic humor yet steered his own course. Conforming to neither the prevailing politics nor the aesthetic moods, Graves is far too idiosyncratic to be easily pigeonholed as an acolyte of better-known photographers of his time. In this understated but smartly sequenced and edited book, we’re reintroduced to a voice as humane as it is funny and biting. It reminds us that there’s always more to learn from an era we think we know well — all it requires is a unique voice to tell us. —Adam Bell
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer. His work has been widely exhibited, and his writing and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Afterimage, The Art Book Review, The Brooklyn Rail, fototazo, Foam Magazine, Lay Flat, photo-eye and Paper-Journal. His books include The Education of a Photographer and Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts. He is currently on staff and faculty at the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Art. (www.adambbell.com and blog.adambbell.com)
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