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photo-eye Book Reviews: Tooth for an Eye

Tooth for an Eye, Photographs by Deborah Luster.
Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2011.
Tooth for an Eye
Reviewed by George Slade
Deborah Luster Tooth for an Eye
Photographs by Deborah Luster.
Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2011. Hardbound. 64 pp., 30 duotone illustrations, 6-3/4x5-1/2".

The conceit Deborah Luster arrived at for the circular images in her Tooth for an Eye project serves several metaphoric ends. First, it formally distinguishes her imagery from Joel Sternfeld's 1996 book On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam, depicting places where homicides occurred. There are other site-specific, homicide-related projects of late as well, though none with Luster's powerful interweaving of person, place, and lethal circumstance.

Second, the black-and-white treatment resonates in the New Orleans environs where Luster has brought her 8 x 10-inch view camera. Vignettes, resulting from incomplete coverage of the large negative, further convey the ironic anachronism of this project, which is concerned with the very modern issue of rampant murder in a storied, ancient place along a bend in the Mississippi River. The darkening edges also suggest convexity, as though we were looking into a magnifying glass, perhaps, or a crystal ball. Past, present, and future swell out at us through these images.

Tooth for an Eye, by Deborah Luster. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2011.
 One other implication of the circular metaphor is even more intriguing. Bill Jay's 1981 essay "Images in the Eyes of the Dead" clues us in:
It was a commonly held belief throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century that the last image seen by the eyes of a dying person would be "fixed" on the retina for a considerable period of time. Therefore, if a murdered person's eyes could be reached without delay, the culprit could be identified from the retinal image.
Tooth for an Eye, by Deborah Luster. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2011.

Tooth for an Eye, by Deborah Luster. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2011.
 Consider Luster's chorography -- defined in the afterword as "a form of geography that describes the inherent attributes of a place" -- from this angle. Consider, especially, the last plate in the unpaginated book, labeled as entry number 01-26 in the Tooth for an Eye "disarchive" and reproduced in enlarged, negative form on the book's covers. Without doubt the retinal image impressed into a victim's eyes would be circular. The "Notes" for this image are terse and revelatory: "Face up. Multiple gunshot wounds." Thus, we can postulate that the birds and wires sectioning this circle were the last things victim Brian Christopher Smith saw as he died, facing up on Leonidas Street in Carrollton, just before 8 p.m. on a July evening. Following the 19th century notion, Luster's photographs extract the last visual contact these people had with the living world. Unfortunately, no culprit appears, other than monochrome traces of environment.

Do not buy this book, or attempt to read it, casually. Not only is it physically oversized (though not especially heavy, it nearly matches the 17 x 22 inch ledgers Luster presents in galleries), it is psychologically and emotionally massive.—George Slade

George Slade is the program manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, and the editor of the PRC’s magazine Loupe. He maintains an on-line presence at the PRC’s blog, here on photo-eye, and at re:photographica. Occasionally his writing even appears in print.