BUZZING AT THE SILL

by Peter van Agtmael
Kehrer Verlag, 2016

 

Review by Leo Hsu

Issue 97

 

Peter van Agtmael’s new book Buzzing At The Sill is a tense, delirious portrait of America.  The pictures tell a story of a fractured country that’s gone off the rails, seen at arm’s length.  A run of unlikely moments thrums along relentlessly, full bleed, no captions, sometimes with grace but more often simmering with fear or uncertainty.  The flow is broken up only by van Agtmael’s occasional written commentary, which, like the pictures, acknowledges but does not console.  

Van Agtmael’s pictures resemble history paintings, his subjects inhabiting situations that are thick with portent or infused with emotion, but that demand explanation.   The photographs are beautiful, the colors vibrant and immediate, and the compositions clear, but they are also nervous with friction.   In one ominous image a swell group of men and women, some in hats, sunglasses at night, lie on the grass or sit at the side of the road.  The faces of some of the men, holding beer cans, are an eerie metallic blue, apparently a cast of light.  They regard the camera with disdain; behind them are sawhorses and flashing emergency lights on police cars.  In another picture a man stands on a ladder, his back to us, his hands taping plastic over a ceiling lamp, just as everything else in the room has been taped and covered over, everything brightly lit by strobe.  This picture says something about the impulse to protect and preserve the trappings of middle class life and it’s also about precariousness.  Like so many images in the book, these pictures feel allegorical, even as the lessons of these morality plays are opaque.

 

Brooklyn, New York.  2010. The Fourth of July, ©Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Brooklyn, New York.  2010. The Fourth of July, ©Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Subjected to this relentless stream, we must ask: Where is the Klansman, emerging from the forest, headed?  Why is the youth with a towel taped around his eyes, clothes wet, tied to a fence?  In Buzzing At The Sill van Agtmael embraces mystery and the surreal; as much as the road-tripping critique of America is informed by the work of Robert Frank, the book also follows Dianne Arbus in recognizing the strangeness of the ordinary, with its unsettling appearances of masks and bursts of emotional intensity.  In his earlier books, Second Tour Hope I Don’t Die and the celebrated Disco Night September 11, van Agtmael presented his work as photojournalism, with extensive captions alongside the images explaining the circumstances of what we are shown.  Moody and immersive, Buzzing At The Sill is a very different kind of journey, the lack of contextual information causing the reader to feel unmoored.

In a small booklet attached to the back cover, however, are full captions, notes by van Agtmael ranging in length from a simple description to paragraphs.  The party on the street was at the Kentucky Derby (“Their amusement at being photographed turned to skepticism and annoyance as my friend Christian began lightly mocking them”); the man on the ladder is his father protecting furnishings from dust before a bathroom renovation (“I took far fewer pictures than I’d hoped to of that wonderful scene as my mom strongly urged me to help out rather than photograph them doing all the work”).   The Klansman was photographed at an under-attended rally and cross burning.  The teenager zip-tied to the fence is van Agtmael’s cousin, tied there by the photographer and another cousin, while drunk and mourning the loss of an aunt.  Other images come from stories about Syrian refugees in the United States, the tragedies befalling murdered transgender teen Treasure and her family in Detroit, and a journey with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard following the path of Scandinavian settlement in North America.

The device of captioning thumbnails in the back of a photobook is not a new one, but in this case van Agtmael’s writing voice effectively reorients the entire book; Buzzing At The Sill reveals itself, effectively, as two books.  It is, on one hand, a single linear visual narrative, a critique of America.  But it is also a nonlinear visit with van Agtmael’s memories and reflections on his own experiences, with family and friends as well as from his assignments.  In sequence they are tethered to each other by the flow of mood, tone, and symbolism.  But with context, they cause the reader to attend to van Agtmael’s role as witness.  No story is an accident; of all of the possible subjects in America, this is why we see these.

Once we know the stories behind the pictures, we no longer can read the single linear narrative in quite the same way.  Instead, an even stronger sense that all of these stories are happening at once emerges, and with that, the realization, undeniable once recognized, that none of these stories is secondary to another.  With the captions, the reader can’t help but begin to stitch the stories back together, but they are now a patchwork, moving in and out of each other, overlapping.  We no longer experience the sequence as a seemingly endless flow of experience, but rather as revisitations of a dozen or so subjects (and a few loose outliers).  And we gain the sense that these are real lives that go on even when we are not looking.  It’s very powerful, the way that van Agtmael lets us have it both ways, as a stream of experience and in relation to an insistent documentary positioning.

Van Agtmael’s mysterious, visually arresting images communicate with feeling, while his photojournalistic diligence gives the work depth.  The creative multivocal structure of the book challenges the reader to work to interpret the photographs and the book.  In his writing, van Agtmael’s own ambivalences resonate with the uncertainties he finds about America.  The America he shows is angry but too tired or drunk to focus, broken with repeated misfortune, and seeking out any solace it can.  Ultimately it’s still a tragedy; van Agtmael knows that his subjects will never understand what it is to live the lives of the others in the book.

Disclosure: I included several works by van Agtmael in the show HomeFrontLine: Reflections on Ten Years of War Since 9/11, co-curated with Ellen Fleurov at Silver Eye Center for Photography in 2011.

 

New Orleans, Louisiana. 2012.  A Second Line Parade. A local African American tradition where brass bands – known as the first line - march in the streets and are joined by members of the public - called the “second liners.” The Second Line parades came about after the Civil War because insurance companies wouldn’t cover ex-slaves. So African Americans formed benevolent societies and clubs that helped members defray health costs.   The dues included a band for funerals and a public parade every year.  Over time, their popularity evolved, and now there are parades almost every Sunday in New Orleans.

New Orleans, Louisiana. 2012.  A Second Line Parade. A local African American tradition where brass bands – known as the first line - march in the streets and are joined by members of the public - called the “second liners.”

The Second Line parades came about after the Civil War because insurance companies wouldn’t cover ex-slaves. So African Americans formed benevolent societies and clubs that helped members defray health costs.  

The dues included a band for funerals and a public parade every year.  Over time, their popularity evolved, and now there are parades almost every Sunday in New Orleans.

 
Maryland. 2015. The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer.  After a few vague excuses, the 6 or 7 Klan members changed into their robes and began a show amongst themselves. One of the leaders started his speech. He shouted that there were ISIS training camps being created by the United Nations with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) whose fighters would then take American’s guns away.  This plan was allegedly hatched by Barack Obama (or Barry Soetoro as he was called by the Klan. Soetoro was the surname of Obama’s stepfather and that he was briefly called Barry Soetoro in elementary school in Indonesia has been used as evidence that Obama was not born in America).  After finishing, the hoarse-voiced Klan member burned the UN flag and stomped on it, to the tepid cheers from the small crowd.

Maryland. 2015. The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer. 

After a few vague excuses, the 6 or 7 Klan members changed into their robes and began a show amongst themselves.

One of the leaders started his speech. He shouted that there were ISIS training camps being created by the United Nations with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) whose fighters would then take American’s guns away. 

This plan was allegedly hatched by Barack Obama (or Barry Soetoro as he was called by the Klan. Soetoro was the surname of Obama’s stepfather and that he was briefly called Barry Soetoro in elementary school in Indonesia has been used as evidence that Obama was not born in America). 

After finishing, the hoarse-voiced Klan member burned the UN flag and stomped on it, to the tepid cheers from the small crowd.

 
Detroit, Michigan. 2012. Outside Lyniece Nelson’s house. The family was still in shock over Treasure’s death. One of her sisters said “I don’t know if Treasure is asleep, or up.  Because her pictures… every time I move around… they look like they are following me.  She woke mama up to tell her she was leaving, she left… and that’s it.”

Detroit, Michigan. 2012. Outside Lyniece Nelson’s house. The family was still in shock over Treasure’s death. One of her sisters said

“I don’t know if Treasure is asleep, or up.  Because her pictures… every time I move around… they look like they are following me.  She woke mama up to tell her she was leaving, she left… and that’s it.”

 
Pine Ridge, South Dakota. 2011.  While on a road trip with my friend Justin, we met a couple of guys and started chatting. They invited us to check out a spot where they had a rope swing, and on the way we picked up some beer.  Dusk was falling and it became a little party, we lit a fire while some of their younger cousins swung over a deep chasm, with just a thin rope around their waist to secure them to the tree.  As the beer ran out and the night began to get colder, they invited us back to their home.  Upon arrival, their sister (the matriarch of the family) smelled their breath and became furious.  She asked us what possessed us to give them beer.  She told us there was rampant alcoholism on the reservation, and declared we were just another in a long line of white men exploiting the Lakota.  We were filled with tremendous shame and apologized profusely. As she explained the history of the tribe she mellowed and invited us to spend the night.  We awoke in the morning to a beautiful dawn, and the youngest children tending to the horses.

Pine Ridge, South Dakota. 2011.  While on a road trip with my friend Justin, we met a couple of guys and started chatting.

They invited us to check out a spot where they had a rope swing, and on the way we picked up some beer. 

Dusk was falling and it became a little party, we lit a fire while some of their younger cousins swung over a deep chasm, with just a thin rope around their waist to secure them to the tree. 

As the beer ran out and the night began to get colder, they invited us back to their home. 

Upon arrival, their sister (the matriarch of the family) smelled their breath and became furious.  She asked us what possessed us to give them beer.  She told us there was rampant alcoholism on the reservation, and declared we were just another in a long line of white men exploiting the Lakota.  We were filled with tremendous shame and apologized profusely. As she explained the history of the tribe she mellowed and invited us to spend the night.  We awoke in the morning to a beautiful dawn, and the youngest children tending to the horses.

 

All images ©Peter van Agtmael/ Magnum Photos

Leo Hsu is based in Toronto and Pittsburgh.
Visit his website or contact Leo here.

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