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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review Let the Sun Beheaded Be Photographs by Gregory Halpern Reviewed by Odette England In Let the Sun Beheaded Be, photographer Gregory Halpern focuses on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, a French overseas region with a complicated colonial history...

Let the Sun Beheaded Be. By Gregory Halpern.
Let the Sun Beheaded Be
Photographs by Gregory Halpern

Aperture, New York, 2020. In English. 112 pp., 8¼x12".

Language is systematized around the idea of difference. We use it to define what something is and what something is not. Dualities and binaries are implicit: this from that, us from them, you from me. We learn at an early age how to identify and describe differences between individuals and groups. What we don’t always learn are the implications of how we use and abuse words and pictures to state difference.

My daughter and I learn French. She brings home from school a list of opposing words to recite, divided into two columns. One of the pairings is ‘ami’ [friend] and étranger [stranger]. It is the same day that Gregory Halpern’s latest book, Let the Sun Beheaded Be, arrives at my door. The timing is étrange. Or should I say inquiétante? Mystérieuse?

For context: Halpern made the color photographs in Let the Sun Beheaded Be during several visits in the French archipelago of Guadeloupe. The title refers to a 1948 book Soleil cou coupé by Aimé Césaire, a collection of 72 French surrealist poems which speak to black diaspora and the Caribbean’s violent colonial past. Halpern, a white American photographer, is the stranger. “An interloper” he notes during a conversation with the photographer and writer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa published in the book. Wolukau-Wanambwa observes, “…you’re making photographs in a place that’s distant to you and relatively unknown to you”. This distance weighed on Halpern while making the work: “…a story I couldn’t tell was a story from the perspective of an insider. I worried whether that story would be more compelling than mine could ever be”.

Let the Sun Beheaded Be. By Gregory Halpern.

Immersing myself in Let the Sun Beheaded Be, I keep thinking about étranger, which comes from the Latin extraneus, meaning outside of but also foreign or strange. I identify a link with Albert Camus’ 1942 novel L’Étranger and consider the many complications and debates surrounding its translation from the French to English. There are four English translations, published between 1946 and 2012 – two are titled The Stranger and two The Other. Those words – ‘stranger’ and ‘other’ – have different meanings in different contexts. For social science purposes, there are even different classes of ‘strangers’ and ‘others’. It is the opening sentence of Camus’ novel that has generated the most controversy about what is lost in translation: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.” It could be, “Today, mother has died”, “Today, mother died”, “Mother died today” or a variant thereof.

The first line of any book sets its tone. It establishes the voice, it greets and acquaints you. It engrosses. The same is true of the first image of a photobook. For his book, Halpern chooses an interior scene. It looks like a domestic room. Taken using natural light, at a downward angle, it shows a tiled floor upon which are several packs of playing cards arranged in a grid. Twenty cards across, 16 cards down. There are 16 gaps where cards are missing, like an unfinished crossword puzzle. In the top right-hand corner of the room is a chair covered in fabric, showing a beach scene above which is a yellow banner with ‘Guadeloupe’ printed on it. Next to the chair are various objects, including dried leaf stalks in an empty plastic bottle and a rumpled La Poste bag. I spend a lot of time thinking about the cards and the French suits of centuries ago, in ranked order: spades and hearts, diamonds and clubs. As symbols that represent the struggle of opposing forces they become significant sub-characters in the book. Spades stand for labor, hearts for love, diamonds for light, clubs for violence, kings and queens Guadeloupe’s residents.

Halpern pays attention to subject matter in opposition. Inside and outside, beauty and decay, humans and beasts, shadows and light. Though untitled, his photographs overflow with potential for extrapolation. They are spacious. Halpern’s eye implies an unknowing from something known. I become alert to his unique ways of looking. He is not gazing or staring. His is not a quick glance. It is more than seeing, which is passive. There are more than 100 ways to say “look’ in English, yet none describes for me the physical and emotional sensitivities that Halpern adopts with his camera.

Let the Sun Beheaded Be. By Gregory Halpern.

There are clear themes and repeating motifs. Textures are abundant: stone, rocks, skin, shells, sand, asphalt, hair, and intestines. Many images show tools and objects for preparation (tables, knives, carts, ink, hands, gloves) and items being prepared (fish, goats, plaques, holes). There are images of memorials, formal and informal, woven throughout. Combined with the many portraits, they invite me to ponder body as site and as witness: the objectified icon immortalized for life versus the living body of flesh and bone.

There are smart photographs that reward the careful viewer, like the one of old concrete bleachers with rows marked A-C-D in the top right and a spray-painted B, dislocated from its home in the alphabet. The fragile nature of relationships is palpable. A close-up image of a lone figure facing the ocean feels as much about them as the little tear in the netted yellow tank top they wear. In another picture, an abandoned building is overtaken by the prodigious roots of a tree. Which is friend, which is stranger? Which is prop, and which is destabilizer? Does the building need the tree to ensure its survival or vice versa? It is a fitting allegory for infiltration and consumption, human versus nature, and the nature of taking sans autorisation.

Let the Sun Beheaded Be. By Gregory Halpern.

One photograph I return to over and again depicts a biracial couple embracing on a towel on the sand, sheltered by large rocks. Their faces are invisible to Halpern, standing a few feet away. It’s the crisscross of their arms and legs wound in tenderness that takes me to Nicholas Muellner’s writing in his chapter ‘Color Correction’ in Lacuna Park (SPBH Editions, 2019): “I hold you in a picture because you can never really hold someone else, though you can touch them. Love is a reaction to radical distance. It is a reaching across, a drawing in from the horizon, more than an act of capture”. It is relevant to Halpern’s position here as a stranger or outsider, photographing intimacy at arm’s length while being aware of distance and difference. It also connects to Halpern’s description of some of the conversations he had with the people of Guadeloupe as he made the work: “It’s always hard photographing people, though, even when you speak the same language. I tend to approach people in a sort of formal way – respectful, positive, honest, and direct about what I’m doing”.

It is only in reaching the final picture that I realize Let the Sun Beaded Be starts with an ending, and ends with a beginning. The last image – like the last line of a good novel – should anchor in a reader’s mind long after they close its cover. And here it does. We return to the tiled floor with the playing cards. This time, we see the hand of the person positioning the cards. The angle is lower, the lens closer, the cards fewer. It occurs to me that we all live to the rising and setting sun, depicted on the front and back cover of Halpern’s book. This returns me to Camus, for the sun and its unforgiving heat is a character all its own in L’Étranger. Throughout, Camus references the sun: sweat, glare, dazzling, burning, skin, oppressive, bearing down, shimmer, intense. “It was the same sun as on the day I buried Maman and, like then, my forehead especially was hurting me, all of the veins pulsating together beneath the skin.” Similarly, Halpern uses the extremities of light to picture Guadeloupe’s residents, their highs and lows, their bright spots and blind spots.

Time affects language. Our use of it evolves. Between the first and fourth translation of L’Entranger from the French to English is 66 years. In that time, the ways in which we describe and define our world has changed in small but meaningful ways. The same is just as true for the sun as it is for ourselves. Each day, the rising and setting points change slightly; each day who we are shifts and grows. As Halpern knows, the sun only rises due east and sets due west on two days of the year, the spring and fall equinoxes.

Halpern’s photographs paraphrase and interpret a place and its people at a moment. Just as language changes, so too will the ways in which we describe and define these images. As more voices gather around the many tales in Let the Sun Beheaded Be, so too will interpretations follow. His images show respect and empathy to those he asked to photograph, something noted by Clément Chéroux, Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in his excellent wide-ranging essay in the book.

My only wish list item for Let the Sun Beaded Be is the inclusion of text from a Guadeloupean, be they a novelist, historian, or one of the people Halpern met during his visits, to add to his perspective-taking and perspective-seeking.

All languages including photography have their idiosyncrasies. Each develops in the company of its culture and location. This is why some words, some phrases – and some of Halpern’s photographs – are lost in translation. It is a good thing; it gives them that little something, a quality that eludes description, or in the French “Je ne sais quoi”.

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Let the Sun Beheaded Be. By Gregory Halpern.
Let the Sun Beheaded Be. By Gregory Halpern.

Odette England is an artist and writer; an Assistant Professor and Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts; and a resident artist of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Program in New York. Her work has shown in more than 90 solo, two-person, and group exhibitions worldwide. England’s first edited volume Keeper of the Hearth was published by Schilt Publishing (2020), with a foreword by Charlotte Cotton. Radius Books will publish her second book Past Paper // Present Marks in collaboration with the artist Jennifer Garza-Cuen in spring 2021 including essays by Susan Bright, David Campany, and Nicholas Muellner.