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.
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.