Social Media

Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review Knit Club Photographs by Carolyn Drake Reviewed by Odette England "The statistics for women behind the camera are grim. Fewer publications, fewer exhibitions, less gallery representation, lower auction prices, fewer museum acquisitions. And although Post Wolcott is one of the 120 photographers included in Andrea Nelson’s edited volume The New Woman Behind the Camera, there are thousands more like her that we should know about...."

Knit Club by Carolyn Drake.
Knit Club
Photographs by Carolyn Drake

TBW Books, USA, 2020. In English. 118 pp., 50 Color plates, 8x11".

As a kid, I wanted to be in a club as seen on TV. You know, with the wooden clubhouse built into the impossibly perfect deciduous tree and the handwritten club rules nailed to the door. A club mascot, usually a Labrador. Maybe a club motto or secret password. There were no such clubs in the farming community I grew up in. Just a farmers’ wives’ bible club with more cakes, pies, tea, biscuits; nary a bible in sight. Someone was always knitting though, or crocheting or breastfeeding while managing to chat with half a Band-Aid wrapper between her teeth because one of her kids had grazed their knees again.

Knit Club, the subject of Carolyn Drake’s fourth and latest photobook is a club of sorts: a group of female friends, mostly mothers, living in the small town of Water Valley, Mississippi, who meet regularly on a porch with beers in hand while their children rag and race. Can they knit? “Pretty much everyone knows how to knit” says Katherine Coulter, club member and Drake’s friend, who is quoted in the book. But do they knit? “Nobody knits,” Coulter admits. One of the many indicators to the reader, assume nothing about Knit Club.

Having moved to Water Valley a few years ago, Drake comes to join this club, and, through her camera and the generosity of female collaboration, allows us a look inside. The view, however, is as complex as it is playful.

It’s a photobook filled with intricate recurring signs, which females, and especially mothers, tend to be great at interpreting. Masks, compressed textures, statues, frames (picture frames, bed frames, window frames), tools for making, ways of looking and being looked at, and ways of hiding. Almost all of the images are set within sparse interiors or wooded areas. But a closer look reveals a tug of war between childhood and motherhood; overflowing with love while running on empty. This owes to how the book starts and ends.

The first photograph is of a woman sitting upright in a chair, in an empty room. We see her from the knees up; her semi-stiff posture and the upward tilt of her face indicate that she is posing for Drake’s camera. Her dark hair is pulled back, and her entire face is covered with a mask that looks like plaster over bandages. It is thickly and roughly applied; there are two long, hardened shards dripping from her jaw, and rogue splatters across her neck and t-shirt. It is the opposite of a restorative face mask; a sculpture casting process that creates a hollow replica. On the next page is a landscape of a gothic dollhouse, standing alone in a grass field. Notably, the first-floor windows are boarded up. Then comes Drake’s single-line dedication: For my mother.

The book ends in the reverse. First, a statement of fact: I am not a mother. We then return to the woman sitting upright in the chair. We are closer to her, and she is joined by a blonde-haired child who has buried their face into the woman’s shoulder. The woman is comforting the child with a steady, reassuring hand. The last image takes us inside the dollhouse. Books and a wine glass are strewn over the floor. The dramatic lighting focuses our attention on a carved wooden round table, atop sits an oversized basket of African violets. The inclusion of the violets is significant: they are one of the most popular house plants in America, long associated with mothers and motherhood. They are also a lasting symbol of friendship and loyalty.

I read on the publisher’s website that the book’s narrative structure borrows from William Faulkner’s 1930’s southern gothic novel As I Lay Dying, told by 15 different characters across almost 60 chapters. This is evident. Though Drake operates the camera, the images are ‘made’ by the Knit Club; they present their points of view, expressing their thoughts. Each image has its own interior monologue. Each is intimate in tone. Each reveals a language that only members of the Knit Club speak and understand. These are photographs of the everyday doldrums and dramas in which we perform our versions of the roles of femaleness, often to an invisible, unappreciative audience.

One image I keep returning to is of a woman’s bare back. She is lying face down on a bed. Her moles, freckles, and skin folds are conspicuous, as is the gold chain she wears and her painted-pink nails. Her right arm is stretched up across the back of her neck, having moved her curled hair away from her face. Between her shoulder blades is a tattoo in cursive: Should you need us.

I linger here because it feels like the unofficial Knit Club motto. A message to its insides, to potential new members, to other mothers and daughters everywhere. It also harks to one of the most memorable lines from the 1986 musical fantasy film Labyrinth, in which 16-year-old Sarah – aided by her toys which magically come to life – must embark on a quest to rescue her baby brother. The film is chiefly about the delicate time between childhood and adulthood when stuffed animals and dolls become redundant. In the final scene, Sarah is in her bedroom, packing away her playthings. Looking at herself in the dresser mirror, she sees two of her toys who remind her: "And remember, fair maiden, should you need us..."; "Yes, should you need us, for any reason at all...".

We need you, Knit Club. We need you, Carolyn Drake. For you show us that there are real places where females can be variants of ourselves regardless of family status; fanciful places; places that look like the fiction of home and motherhood. You cast light on objects that represent us and project us, oftentimes inaccurately, or at odds with how we feel under our feathers, inside our bodies. You expose times and places in which we are backed into corners, desperate to emerge from the shadows. To be seen for who rather than what; to be the tree rather than the stumps; to enjoy a full cup without it overflowing onto a floor we feel compelled to clean. To fly free and far from the homes we are taught to tend. To return knowing that no photograph can make us an insider and that we need not burden photography or ourselves with any such weight; it shows but a surface, at an angle, from one or more perspectives. And we are so much more than that.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

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.