I/Eye: On Photography

On the appearance of Suginami – a second edition

Posted in Other Artists, Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on June 29, 2011

I wrote admiringly about James Luckett’s Suginami in a previous post on I/Eye.  Recently, I  received an email from him announcing the appearance of the second edition — with outtakes. For anyone who doesn’t know Luckett’s work: his consumptive.org was one of the first fine art photo blogs on the internet and is certainly among the longest-running — if not the longest-running.  (Joerg Colberg, for example, was inspired to start his Conscientious after following Luckett’s idiosyncratic online work.)

For those interested in what goes on behind the scenes — in an artist’s mind, Luckett’s work and writings about work have always been distinguished by a certain generosity. I could describe this as care, but it’s not really that others care less — it’s that there’s a qualitative difference: this artist is endowed with unusual verbal and analytic gifts. So, reading him, we’re in a position to learn certain things about the world that we’d never learn from an army of ambitious photo-bloggers.

Suginami is one of several notable assays of expressive form (the one most calculated to appeal to an audience interested specifically in photography) — and there are others published on consumptive.org whose tensile, poetic strength is even more sparingly conceived. Look at Like a Man, As a Man, for example; funny, elegant, ghastly, moving. It’s a miniature masterpiece, whose 16 masked protagonists are somehow capable of assimilating the existential outrage of Luckett’s high-school mentor in a series of searingly beautiful, comic ‘self’-portraits. (Were this ever to be published in book form, it would be on my ‘must have’ list.)

Or read Adjustments: an essay on the art of forensic print-making. It is also darkly fascinating, in a confessional mode; the artist learns to enhance for evidentiary purposes the photographic documentation of accident and misfortune. Only, it’s the kind of fascination that seizes you by the gorge and may leave you feeling a little faint. The thing is, Luckett rises to an extraordinary grace when he’s at his most macabre; then we see what’s so curiously moving about his art: its undercurrent of powerful, clear-eyed empathy. The images here are purely verbal: mere specters that haunt the text — the reader herself is spared the grim visuals. But I don’t doubt the intensity of the artist’s aesthetic commitment to rendering (in print) the severed and mutilated legs of a violinist who tried to save her 400-year-old Amati from certain destruction when the strap of its case became trapped in the doors of a commuter train.

The toll of the work described in Adjustments is crushing, and in other hands the piece might have amounted to nothing more than a confessional impetus: self-pitying or self-dramatizing. But the writer is too motivated by the problems he must solve and too compelled by the purpose at hand to insist that we view him as anything other than exceptionally diligent. It is this conscientiousness that Luckett concludes by scrutinizing: “People say to find a job you enjoy, to do something you love. I used to think this was because a person spends so much of their time at work. Now though, I think it might mean something else, that what you do for a living, in some inscrutable way, becomes you.” It is a straightforward enough utterance, yet by the time we reach it in the narrative, we are already accustomed to a certain distribution of weight — how what’s left unsaid in Luckett’s prose is, like dark matter, a clue to where the real mass lies.

Adjustments is about strategies — strategies of representation, of persuasion, of survival. It is about ways of coping with circumstances that arise not from choice, but from its opposite: a violent alteration of the status quo — an accident — or, more obliquely, the basic circumstance that affords or denies so much in our strategies for survival: the accident of our birth. Imagining the individual in relation to work is an interest that connects Luckett to artists as diversely eloquent as Lewis Hine, James Agee, Studs Terkel, Lee Friedlander, and Chauncey Hare. Yet where these have been expansive, Luckett seeks compression: his instinct for economy is that of a poet. Photography may be how this artist came to his idea of metier, but as with our other poets of the medium, I get the feeling that photography is for him, though an urgent business, not the end in itself.

'Memory' © James Luckett (reproduced with permission of the artist)

'Memory' © James Luckett (reproduced with permission of the artist)

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