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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

Book Review The Sea Photographs by Barbara Bosworth Reviewed by Brian Arnold "The Sea is the third in a trilogy of books by Barbara Bosworth published by Radius Books in Santa Fe, and it is a collection of photographs made primarily along the coasts of New England, dating back to 1984, when Barbara moved to Boston to work at Mass Art..."

The Sea. By Barbara Bosworth.
The Sea
Photographs by Barbara Bosworth

Radius Books, Santa Fe, NM, 2022. 200 pp., 60 illustrations, 10¼x12¾".

The Sea is the third in a trilogy of books by Barbara Bosworth published by Radius Books in Santa Fe, and it is a collection of photographs made primarily along the coasts of New England, dating back to 1984, when Barbara moved to Boston to work at Mass Art. A native of rural Ohio, she was engrained with a deep connection to landscape, and saw interest in these waters for decades. The previous books in the series are The Meadow, a meditation on a small but iconic stretch of land outside of Boston, and The Heavens, a richly visualized investigation of night skies. Each of these books measures about 10 x 13 inches, are gorgeously designed — implementing creative and beautiful strategies for mixing text and image in the books — and feel like a unique piece of artwork in and of themselves. All of them are structured the same way, with large sections of photographs interlaced with short essays by Barbara and her longtime friend and collaborator Margot Anne Kelley.

The Sea is divided into four sections of photographs (an obvious reference to the seasons), with each of the sections richly illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs — masterfully handling both — which treat the water as a mirror that reflects our greatest beauty and our deepest longings. Such a deep-felt emotional connection to the landscape is something few photographers can fully articulate, but with each picture Barbara finds her heart within the contours of the water and its coasts. The texts are clearly distinguished by using a smaller, thinner paper, something that looks like a warm-toned, acid-free newsprint. Between these four sections of photographs are essays by Barbara and Margot, also including fragments from Virginia Woolf’s book The Waves and Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, and a piece by the award-winning landscape writer Barry Lopez. The Sea also contains 13 appendices, which include writing by Jem Southam (a clear kindred spirit), descriptions of early attempts to catalog and measure wind currents, Barbara’s weather journal (those who follow her weather Instagram will recognize the work, but personally I love seeing it on paper with pencil annotations), a “cabinet of curiosities,” a collection of sand she made by gluing small patches of it to paper, as well as watercolor paintings of coastal New England and other small collections about America’s shores. The combined effect of all these things feels like an immersive experience, blending deeply felt poetry with little tidbits of citizen science and vernacular expressions of the landscape.

The reproductions in this book are remarkable, and it helps to remind the reader that photographs are more than just images but are also objects. Anyone who has worked with color film knows that difficult exposure conditions can easily reveal some of the physical limitations of traditional photographic materials. And Paul Graham showed us that film grain can be broken down to individual colors. The scans and digital productions used to make The Sea fully embrace these characteristics of film, with no attempt to correct them. There are several pictures in which you can witness grainy flecks of color evolving across the page, each grain transitioning from midnight blue to deep burgundy. There are even pictures in which you can see agitation streaks on the film, imperfectly processed color negatives. Some might find this problematic, to me however, it makes her photographs appear more heartfelt, suggesting that the making of the picture is also an act of beauty, it’s not just about the final print.

Radius Books is clearly one of the most ambitious and innovative book publishers today. When you get a copy of The Sea, be sure to remove the dust jacket, at least once. The binding of the book is so simple and yet so lovely. So much of what makes this book successful is the design, beautifully understanding and articulating what makes Barbara’s work so special. Often with Radius, however, there is a sense that bigger is better, and I repeatedly find myself thirsting for them to use their incredible production skills to make a smaller, simpler book, something that just lets the pictures speak and doesn’t use so many design elements. In this book that hits me in the appendices, some of these feel like simply too much. I love many of the elements that they bring to the book, but every time I sit down with it I end up rushing through them to get to the end, even feeling like these distract from the rich visual complexity of her photographs.

I studied with Barbara while pursuing my MFA at the Massachusetts College of Art. When I was there, the careers of both Abe Morell and Laura McPhee took off. Abe’s camera obscura pictures from the 1990s (my personal favorites of all his work) resulted in several high-profile commissions — from the New York Times, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and he was asked to illustrate an edition of Alice in Wonderland. Laura was working with Virginia Beahan on No Ordinary Land and was just taking a year off teaching to photograph in India. Frank Gohlke was an icon in the city, teaching at both Harvard and Mass Art, and Nick Nixon was still at the height of his career, MoMA purchased a complete set of The Brown Sisters. Not much was happening with Barbara’s work at the time, indeed she was recovering from a personal trauma beyond words. She didn’t typically work with graduate students — that program was controlled by Laura and Abe — but my class successfully petitioned the department to have Barbara teach our photo seminar, and I’m glad we did. Being around all these star-studded careers mattered little to Barbara while she quietly suffered through her pain — making pictures was not about a career, but it was the perfect tool for healing from loss. Indeed, each spring Mass Art hosted a benefit auction in which graduate students, hand-selected undergraduates, alumni, and faculty were all invited to show. The school’s main gallery was divided into two main levels, the upper floor reserved for the star-studded faculty and alums, and the downstairs gallery was for students. All the years I was at Mass Art, Barbara’s pictures were relegated to the bottom floor with the students, while Abe, Laura, and Nick all showed upstairs with Sheila Pepe, William Wegman, Tony Oursler, and Doug Dubois. Barbara not only didn’t seem upset by this, in some ways seemed to take it as a point of pride; Barbara wanted to teach her students that none of us are anything but students, and the best photographers are the ones who can illustrate a lifetime of learning and curiosity. She was an incredible role model, constantly affirming that a true love for making pictures was enough, indeed reminding us that photography was one of the best tools available to us for helping us explore what it means to be human. I still find this truly inspiring, and to me Barbara represents incredible humility, affection, and strength; and I see all these sensibilities clearly at work in her pictures too.

If you take a listen to this recent interview with Barbara and Sasha Wolf, you will hear Barbara talk about her early influences as a photographer. Here Barbara talks about her career in humble terms, she says quite bluntly that she does not go looking for opportunities, but simply puts all her faith in making pictures. That in mind, Barbara has quietly put together a substantial and enviable career, one I admire so much more because it was never the goal. In 2005, Barbara published Trees: National Champions with MIT, and then nothing again until 2013 when she made her first book with Radius, Natural Histories. In the last 10 years, by my count Barbara has made 13 books, working with publishers as interesting and different as Datz, Radius, Dust Collective, and TIS. In 2015, she had a major retrospective of her work held at the Denver Art Museum. Looking over her books, collectively they reveal a deeply insightful and patient photographer, and an artist committed to exploring photographic narratives and the craft and artistry of bookmaking. In my time knowing her as a person and through her books, Barbara has fully convinced me that embracing the power of beauty is enough, that despite all our pain and disillusionment beauty does offer redemption.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.